My senior year in college I had a lot going on. I was teaching aerobics, working curtain for the senior dance recital, finishing core credits in math and sociology, and writing a 20-page paper (all in french) about the theatricality of the Marquis De Sade (don't ask.) But one day I was sitting at my desk looking at my color-coded schedule (I used a custom excel spreadsheet back then because MS office was so bad) and I noticed I had an opening two evenings a week. What was I going to DO with all that free time? Tuesdays and Thursdays CANNOT be empty! The hours loomed in front of me like a swirling black hole of unbooked dread.
I know! I said. I'll try out for a musical!
And that's how I landed a chorus role in my last play ever, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.
The lasting impact of this production is that sometimes when I go downstairs in the morning to make coffee a line pops into my head. "If I can't take / my coffee break / something within me DIES."
Cutting libretto. Sondheim it wasn't.
I was thinking of this production today as I poured my coffee, pumped my breastmilk, and simultaneously planned my day as much as I can. What are we doing today? What's on the schedule? Will I get to exercise? Will I take the kids for an outing so they don't fight? What are they eating for lunch? For dinner? What am I eating to stay under 1800 calories? Did I say we would do ice cream today? Do I need to make allotments in my eating plan for ice cream?
The same part of me that says "coffee coffee coffee coffee AAAAAAAAH!" (to steal a line from the show) is the part of me that says, "No unplanned time, there must be NO UNPLANNED TIME." I have thought this is the way I cope with motherhood and the demands of housework, but I realize now it goes deeper than that. Scheduling myself so that I can't pause to reflect. This is the way I cope with life.
Life sometimes provokes emotions that are unpleasant. Loss, shame, fear of future loss or shame, and failure. It's easier not to deal with these things. It's easier to run to the next thing, to think "Quick, what am I going to eat?" instead of thinking, "Why do I feel this way? What is happening?"
What IS happening? That seems to be the perpetual question. My inner child is a stary-eyed Cupie doll, stupid, clueless, wondering what everyone else knows that I don't. What's going on guys? What are we supposed to be doing? Did I miss the orientation on EVERYTHING?
This little person feels helpless against the swirling black question mark future. Quick, schedule things on top of that. Things that scream: I KNOW what is going on! I have MADE the timetable!
But in a moment of caffeinated lucidity, I am giving myself a reality check. None of us know the future. None of us is prepared for the hurts that might come our way. Nor the surprising heart-stopping joys, neither. I can deal with that reality through failed attempts at control. Or I can approach it humbly, through fear and trembling, in some way that invites the devine, something akin to awe.
I'm not quite sure how to do it. Maybe... drink tea?
Yesterday I went for a long run, 9.5 miles. It was lovely. Unfortunately it was raining in the morning, so my schedule got pushed back. I walked the dog with the baby under an umbrella while the boys ate breakfast. Then I read to them for a while I waited for Elijah to hit his next feeding. A pleasant morning, but I left at 9am and didn't get back till 11. My first meal bar two cups of coffee was at noon after I had already nursed twice and pumped. Despite eating 2900 calories in the afternoon to make up for the deficit, I was out of milk by evening. Elijah had his words bedtime EVER, he would touch neither the breast nor the bottle, and he fell asleep crying in bed with me rubbing his back.
Then he slept for seven hours.
He woke up at 4am and drank a lot. Then I pumped the rest which was 16.5 oz. I don't know if it was milk or teething or tiredness which caused his episode. I don't know if I should eat a shake on Saturday mornings or if I should scrap the workouts all together. I feel like running makes me a better mother, but what if it makes me the worst mother in the world?
In a previous life I had wanted to be a professional athlete, but somewhere in my brain I knew I was never suited for it. I mean, i could do the big moments, the competitions. I could pull myself together under pressure. I am all about game day.
It was the rest of the life I didn't feel I could hack. Waking up every morning obsessed with the meals and the workouts. Carefully tailoring my time at the gym so it's just the right amount of push with the least possibility of injury. I have a terrible fear of injury - wrecking all I've worked for in one stupid moment. And then there are the times not training, the family birthdays where you can't eat cake because your body is an economic product.
No, I said, My body is ME! It will never be a product for someone else!
Ha ha ha.
In pregnancy and early motherhood my body is a different kind of product. Now I'm a nutritional product for the benefit of someone else. One step in the human calorie supply chain. Nursing is beautiful in its shining moments: he's hungry and then the milk lets down and he quiets, satisfied. If he gently drifts to sleep it's like sticking a difficult dismount.
But then there's the day to day training, calories in calories out. Am I eating too much? Too little? Am I preventing injury? (in this case Mastitis.) Is there any part of ME that exists outside of my body and its role and performance? Is it worth it, the careful curation of this body for an endurance event that will never be televised?
Yes. And since I am the only one running I am the only winner. I take home all the prizes. Gold, silver, and bronze.
When I was in high school I took a class called LIFE SKILLS which didn't teach me any actual skills used in life. Instead it pounded into my head one single steller piece of advice, advice that promised to protect me from all probable crisis or calamity.
If you're having sex, ALWAYS USE A CONDOM.
This entered my brain as gospel and I pitied the poor fools, UNSKILLED in LIFE, who had thrown away their futures on illness or babies. So tragically ignorant! I, on the other hand, passed the LIFE SKILLS final exam. I think by promising to always use a condom.
Actual sex, I assumed, would be a test with easy answers.
Fast forward fifteen years, the better part of them married. If my children ask me about sex now the first thing I'll say is "Well....."
If you want to have sex and conceive a child then great! Your married and it's moral and God blesses your love with a spark of life!
If you want to have sex and NOT get pregnant, then I dunno. It's complicated.
Because the truth about birth control is it's made out of trade-offs. Hormones make you sick. Lesser hormones don't work. Or the hormones that work aren't kosher once you're breastfeeding, and breastfeeding maybe works on its own but maybe not. You have a friend, okay TWO friends who got really really blessed that way, and of course it worked out because their children are the best of friends, but still and all if you want to lean towards the control end of birth control and less towards the birth end it's maybe a good idea to do something stronger.
Turns out condoms are not as exciting in person as they were in theory when sex was mysterious and naturally shrouded in something opaque.
Plus spermicide might be a neurotoxin. Which means you definitely shouldn't put it in a dish and shove it up your whoo-ha.
There are other options that are painful for just one member of the couple. Whether pregnancy and childbirth are painful for just one member of a couple remains debatable.
My brain is so tired of running in circles I asked Dan in all seriousness, "Do married woman even have a right to enjoy sex? Do we have a right to control our own fertility? Or am I just expecting too much?"
He gave me a look like, "Who are you??? And what happened to the hussy I married?"
This morning I woke up and looked at sleeping Elijah, the perfect sleeping angel with the softest skin, and I thought: Every sex act should be copulative. Anything else is heresy.
Then I got into the shower and within ten seconds there was a knock at the door.
"Mama?" said Harvey, "Can I come in the shower with you?"
Good God, I thought. The sex is so short and the angels stick around for oh so very much longer.
I saw a mother of three at the doctor's office today. 2, 4, and 6 or something thereabouts. They were all very good, and not acting up, but herding them through reception was still a major undertaking. I thought: Oh God, my life is going to get HARDER. The little one is going to one day start WALKING.
The rational part of my brain says: Wise mothers shut it down for a season. You can always have it taken out. Don't be ruled by fictitious scruples or baseless emotions.
But the part of my brain that drank too much coffee before my appointment and interprets physical pain as a moral failing being punished, that part sat on the grass after I got the IUD implanted and cried, "I am killing all my future babies!"
I wish I had better life skills.
I wish I had the skills to make tough choices and own them. To really take agency over my own life. To defend my decisions without a hint of doubt. I wish I had skills to separate reason and emotion. The only thing I can say is "Well....."
Over a year ago—July 22, 2013, in fact—we were still camping in Bar Harbor. After a fun family day I left Leah and the boys and headed out with Rascal and our then-childless friends for a hike up Dorr Mountain.
We started at Sieur de Monts spring and ranger station and headed up the steeper east side of the mountain (alas, our trail map is lost—temporarily misplaced?—so I can't give proper trail names). One of the fun things about hiking Dorr is that it rises right above the shore and the town of Bar Harbor, so there's a great view the whole way up.
It was a hot day, and we were in full sun the whole way up. Whenever we paused Rascal worked hard to find the coolest spot he could.
We were delighted to make it to the summit, but for one thing: it was still too early for lunch!
As we paused and enjoyed the view and some water and snacks, we couldn't help but notice the crowds on the top of Cadillac Mountain, just across the saddle from Dorr. For those of you not familiar with Acadia, Cadillac is the highest peak in the park (at 1,528 feet, truly the Cadillac of mountains!), and there's an auto road up to the top. I'd never climbed it before, doubting the satisfaction of walking up all that way just to find a parking lot and a crowd of people in flip-flops, but since we had a little bit of extra time we thought we could give it a shot. The way was steep but short, and before long we were standing on the highest point within 25 miles of the Atlantic coast of the United States (really, look it up). And it was crowded.
Actually, I'm not even sure we made it to the summit proper; it was hard to tell where it was exactly and we weren't about to walk across the parking lot to check if it was over on the other side. Probably not, right? I figured it was close enough and posed for a picture.
I'm currently using a cropped version of this shot for the photo on my work Google+ account, but this full version, complete with delightful lounger, reveals the true reality of the scene.
Still and all, it was fun to be so high up, and since the mountaintop is large and gently rounded we were able to find a pretty secluded spot for lunch. And we enjoyed all the more being able to head back the way we came and leave the crowds mostly behind for scenes like the following, taken on the trail down the gorge between Cadillac and Dorr.
Further down the trail we saw a deer and fawn in a clearing, but I failed to get a good photograph. Deer are common enough here in Bedford, but it felt like something special to see one out in the real woods! Then before we knew it we were back among the crowds around the ranger station and on our way back to camp.
While we were gone so long—well into the middle of the afternoon—the boys had been having fun with Leah, and they were capping their adventurous day with a swim it the lovely heated campground pool (which it seems I haven't ever managed to take a picture of). I was just too late to swim with them, but I did get to hang out on the playground to watch Harvey being brave.
Also Zion being cute.
We played some bocce ball while Becca and Andrew worked on dinner—and it was truly a masterpiece of campground cuisine, a chicken pot pie cooked in the campfire. Just look at that Pillsbury crescent on top!
For the adults nothing could top the pie, but Harvey and Zion were even more excited by the after dinner surprise of glow-sticks supplied by our friends.
Yes, he may not look super-excited there, but that's because he was also collapsing from fatigue. He loved the glow-stick, and even though he's seen one or two other ones since then he still talks about that one at camp. Of course, these day's it's pretty much all camp talk all the time around here, as we get ready to take off on 2014's journey in a couple days. I'm excited too: thus this post here. And I need to finish all of last year's story before we can get started on this year's!
I lost my digital camera somewhere, somewhere in the house. This is maddening, not least because I already spend several hours a day cleaning the house, and now I have to do additional cleaning, moving dressers and beds to see if it fell behind something. The thing about cleaning to find something is you never know when you're going to be done. Because, obviously, duh, you're done when you find it. I know there are mothers in Gaza who are wondering whether all their children will live through the night, and it seems silly for me to cry over a digital camera that lost INSIDE THE HOUSE, but yesterday Elijah sucked on a pacifier for the first time and it was so stinking cute, the first of my babies to ever take a pacifier, and I couldn't record the moment because I couldn't find my camera. At the end of the day I broke down in sobs because I felt like his babyhood is slipping away with no way to record it, and I cried on Dan's shoulder, "I just wanted to take a picture, because he looked so much like a baby, and WE'RE NOT HAVING ANY MORE BABIES!!!!!"
I haven't got my period yet, but put a metal device all up in my uterus and I'll totally act like I have my period.
This week has been very emotional for me. It could just be the cramping bringing on odd associations; it could be that I'm adjusting to this new reality, coming to terms with the fact that being on birth control means that we won't get pregnant unless we really want to, and maybe that means that we won't get pregnant again ever. This would be totally rational. Three kids is enough and all that fits into this house at the moment. Plus I'm tired of being fat and tired. Tell that to my emotions who are not rational and groping for a constant influx of digital photographs as if they're some kind of security blanket.
Insert horribly adorable picture of Elijah here to break up the blog post. I would if I had my camera!
There are plenty of wrong reasons to get pregnant. I could get pregnant because I fear entering into a different life stage that I might fail. I could get pregnant because I don't want to go back into the workforce and I want to have a continuing excuse. I could get pregnant because I have some self identity tied up in raising young babies, and I don't know who I am without an ergo on, or I don't want people to look at my body and think anything other than "that is the result of children." I could get pregnant again because my relationships are failing and I want someone (briefly) to unfailingly love me. I could get pregnant again because PINK TUTUS, I want a shot at pink tutus and burdening a female child with our culture's boat-load of oppressive gender stereotypes.
What would my hair plus Dan's hair look like if it were long??? We'll never know...
These are all wrong reasons to get pregnant. There is only one good reason: If everyone in the family feels like our family isn't complete. If there is a hole in our family, if there is a person-shaped hole in all our hearts, if we all decide that we want it all over again, the time-suck and the sickness and the sharing of parents in favor of sharing our lives with another person, then yes I will do it all over again. Otherwise this IUD is good for 10 years and my fertility probably isn't.
If I birthed my babies ten years in the future I'd have the frequency-emitting tracking tags on our things. In the future parents won't wonder "Where is the camera?" or "Where is the lovey?" The iPhone will send out a pulse and tell us. It will be magical. But unfortunately, I can't live in the future. As I am learning this week, for so many reasons, I CAN NOT LIVE IN THE FUTURE.
A moment from the week.
I crossed a new threshold in my parenting yesterday. I was out walking the dog and carrying Elijah. He started getting fussy to go to sleep but he didn't want to nurse. I pulled his new pacifier out of my pocket, noticed it was covered in lint, and without thinking stuck it in my own mouth to suck off the offending debris. I've done a lot of things in the past five years, but this was the first time I swallowed lint to clean off a kids' toy.
I don't imagine it will be the last.
Neither of my first two children used a pacifier. There is some vague anti-dummy prejudice in hippy-land, maybe because pacies are associated with scheduled feedings, or perhaps just because they're plastic and they make kids look vacant. Perhaps I was even proud once to have kids who didn't NEED dummies. If so, it was a fake bitchy kind of pride. Because there have been moments in my parenting of all my babies when I've tried putting EVERYTHING in their mouthes to find ANYTHING stop the crying. It's just that last week when it was Elijah's teething turn, he was the only one who instead of saying "Pleh pleh" to the pacie took it in his mouth and said, "Yes, yes! A thousand times yes! Where have you BEEN all my life, sucking without food???"
And in retrospect, there's no reason to be proud of a child who nurses for comfort until he vomits (Harvey) or whose teeth are already bucking forward from the constant pressure of a thumb (Zion). Elijah has the unique distinction among my children of being way ahead in gross motor skills and behind in fine motor, which means he can't reliably get his fingers in his mouth and hates the sensation of his belly overfilled. A child who self-regulates calorie consumption? Now that's something to be proud of! Bring on the dummy!
When he first showed interest in such sucking it was with a pacifier we've had in the fridge for the past 5 years. Unfortunately Elijah's lack of coordination meant I had to hold it in his mouth for an hour while he calmed down. That same night I called Dan who was at Mrs. Katie's house for bible study. "Ask Katie if she has an extra one of those pacifiers attached to animals!" I said in a voicemail, and then in a text, and then on the phone when he called me back wondering what the emergency was. "For the Love of God, I need a pacifier that's easier to hold! Two days Amazon Prime is TOO LONG TO WAIT!!!"
Thankfully Mrs. Katie is a veteran of wubs, and Elijah was soon the proud owner of an adorable monkey. (Katie and Tim and Nathan, I cannot say thank you enough. You saved my week with a feverish, teething, car-riding baby.)
I post this photo that shows that even when he's being held all attachment parented or whatever, nursing on-demand and blah-dee-blah, still Elijah wants that wub. Shouldn't that be enough? Shouldn't we just give our children what they want?
I am ashamed that I feel the need to write this post to justify my choices, as if I want a public exemption from hippy policy in the case of the pacifier. Of course this is ridiculous. If my concept of a perfect baby-hood or childhood doesn't include things that are uniquely necessary to my children, then my concept is useless and destructive. I'm thinking about you, legos. And you too, iPad. I hope I'll be brave enough to parent my children based on what they need, rather than what I think looks good in a blog post or a facebook photograph. Elijah, get on with your pacie-sucking self. I love whatever makes you happy.
Harvey and Zion, this is me giving you more grace regarding the legos on the floor. And MAYBE the iPad, we'll see.
Camping this year was not an unmitigated success. I started off the trip by backing out of the driveway into our neighbor's car, denting the door and breaking a window. But our car was fine, so we were on our way! As pictured above the new van was delightfully cozy, though we were a little bit sad that we had decided not to bring Rascal with us to Maine: there would have been lots more room for him than there had been in the Suburu the last couple years. But needs must, and the boys settled in to their comfy setup as we made stops to drop Rascal off at his vacation spot (thanks Cindy!), pick up bagels, and get some new books from the library. Then it was time to hit the highway!
With Leah driving (I wasn't to be trusted after crashing in the first 15 seconds) I was free to enjoy the sights and take pictures out the window—for example the Fore River in Portland, as seen above. I could also text with our friends who were also on the way up, and crawl around the back of the van as needed getting the boys the food and entertainment they demanded. All three of them were great for the first two or three hours, and when Lijah started getting bored we were happy to stop in Yarmouth, where we found a pleasant little coffee shop to hang out in for half an hour.
One reason Harvey and Zion were such easy travelers was that they were watching The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe on the iPad, which was rubber-banded to the back of Lijah's seat. As we left the highway to head up Rt 1 I tried to draw their attention to the increasingly lovely scenery, but without much luck. I enjoyed it, though! They were happy enough to hop out of the car at our next stop, Payson Park in Warren.
Besides the playground, there's also a river (Oyster River, maybe?), and the boys and I enjoyed playing along its banks and throwing sticks and rocks. Unlike in past years we didn't mean to do any swimming there, but Zion did fall in enough to necessitate a complete change of clothes.
Next stop was the beach in Lincolnville, pictured previously. Though it had been hot back home when we left, and still pretty warm all the way up to Camden, north of Camden was noticeably cooler. Leah and the boys got their swimsuits on, but there wasn't a whole lot of actual swimming done. Still, they had fun playing in the little waves while I hung out with Lijah.
And even beyond the water there was lots of fun to be had. Harvey collected snail shells and Zion really enjoyed playing in the sand.
All three boys were wearing Maine-themed shirts (we love being tourists!) and Harvey, in his Burt Dow tee, was delighted to pose by the Burt Dow-esque dory at the back of the beach.
We could have stayed lots longer, but I wanted to be sure we could get to the campground in time to set up the tent and make dinner for our friends, so we headed out. We didn't quite make it all the way there without another stop, but a dirt parking lot for baby-nursing and firewood-buying isn't really picture-worthy (though I did take one, just in case). When we did reach our site, the boys were a great help unloading the car and finding twigs to start the fire. Then they could relax and enjoy things.
Our supper of chilli, rice and cornbread was tasty, and toasting marshmallows was just the thing to make us all feel like we were really doing this camping thing right!
Harvey and I woke up early after our first night in the tent. He did some reading while I cleaned and organized; our late arrival meant that I left things in a pretty chaotic state when we went to bed. As other folks started to wake up the kids played together, and our friend Taya did a wonderful job of keeping Lijah happy.
Our friends wanted to stay in camp to cook breakfast over their new propane stove, but we persuaded them they had to give the Cafe a try. Ominously, Zion fell asleep in the car on the way there; and when he woke up he was not happy.
Harvey had been sick with a high fever a couple days before we left, and it was clear that Zion had come down with the same thing. Luckily he has a fantastic Mama, who took great loving care of him, even though doing so kept her from being able to eat any breakfast herself (but don't worry, she did have four cups of coffee). We figured Zion would do as well being pushed around in the stroller as anywhere else, so we decided on a little post-breakfast walk around town and harbor. Harvey embraced the touristy nature of Bar Harbor.
After a long bathroom stop and the purchase of some overpriced batteries to keep my picture-taking habit going, we took to the shore path. The big kids were happy to get off the crowded sidewalks.
Everybody wanted to get as close to the water as possible, mostly to throw rocks, but also to take pictures.
Zion recovered a little bit, and even ate a little bit of his take-out oatmeal, but he wasn't healthy enough to really enjoy the seaside (I tried to get him to reprise some previous rock pictures, but he wasn't having it).
Our friends were eager to visit Sand Beach, one of the two most popular locations in Acadia National Park (along with the top of Cadillac) and one that we hadn't visited for years. With Zion not up for hiking we thought that sounded fine (it's also something that we can only do without Rascal along; no dogs allowed on the beach) so we bought our park pass and headed out that way. Unfortunately, so did everyone else on the island, so we had to park quite a ways away; and the rocky path beside the road wasn't exactly conducive to maneuvering a three-wheeled stroller. But we made it!
We found we didn't have cell phone service down in the cove, and we didn't find our friends, so we settled in to enjoy ourselves until the fates should bring our two parties together again. As its name suggests, Sand Beach is famous for being one of the very few sandy spots to swim north of Portland, so of course the Archibalds—contrary as we are—found a shady spot on the rocks to set up. Sick Zion needed to sleep and soon so did baby Lijah; Mama was just along for the ride.
Harvey and I enjoyed playing in the medium-sized waves (I stole all the good wave-playing from Leah), and he only got knocked down a couple times. As the tide went out the rocks and tidepools were beautiful in the clear water, but Harvey was less interested in them than he was in the excitement of the open beach.
Eventually our friends, delayed by wrong turns, bathroom stops, and naps, made it to the beach, and thanks to the near-constant vigilance I was keeping on the stairs down from the parking lot I spotted them on the way in. The dads and oldest children played some more in the waves, then Harvey and Taya settled in for some focused digging.
Too soon we had to head out—on a longer vacation Sand Beach would definitely be a great place to spend a whole day. I was so tired I skipped the bumpy path and took the stroller on the road itself; the cars just had to go around.
We got back to the campsite at dinner time and started a fire. Harvey and Taya were once again great helpers.
In the past we've had a little competition about what we can cook on the campfire, with each couple trying to brings something a little more special; last year we saw campfire pizza, chicken pot pie, and pineapple upside-down cake (also something boring that we made). The friends who came up with us this year didn't know about that, but their hot dogs and baked beans were as tasty after our beach day as anything else could have been, and wonderfully abundant. Plus the leftover chili let me make one of my three hot dogs a chili cheese dog!
Then more smores provided a perfect ending to the meal. Well, perfect to everyone but Zion: after sleeping on the beach, in the car, and in the tent, he woke up feeling considerably better and looking for a hot dog, mere moments after the last one had been eaten. Happily he allowed himself to be consoled with marshmallows and chocolate-chip cookies. That's just what you need when you're getting over an illness, right? And it worked, because he slept fine that night, too!
On a busy Saturday afternoon a week ago I took all three boys with me to run some errands. That was my first mistake. A one-hour trip quickly turned into three hours (Homegoods now has a TOYS AISLE), and by the end it was way too close to dinner time. I promised my children all kinds of comfort foods (noodles! chicken nuggets!) as I raced through my last errand, depositing a check in the ATM. They were both screaming that THEY wanted to put the check into the machine, and in my rush to get out of the shopping plaza I left my bank card behind. The ATM machine ate it, and I had to cancel that number and have a new card shipped. The result was I had a little enforced holiday from spending. I couldn't purchase anything online or with cash for 7 days.
Which, you know, should not be a big deal.
I had my SNAP card for groceries. There wasn't anything I thought I NEEDED immediately. I figured our pioneer ancestors went months without visiting a store. Surely I could go a week without a disposable coffee or anything from Amazon.
On Tuesday we got new baby chicks. I felt extra pioneer-ish.
Then on Thursday morning the chicks' brooder light burned out. "Oh my God!" I screamed as I walked into the kitchen and noticed the absence of red light, "Help help help, the baby chicks are getting cold!!!" I tend to overreact a LITTLE BIT, but still we needed to get a replacement bulb.
We looked at Ace Hardware dot com and saw that they probably had one at the store down the street.
"Okay," I said to Dan, "how much cash can we scrounge in this house?"
From our wallets and the change jar we amassed $11. That was enough for the bulb we saw online. I zipped off with Lijah to Ace Hardware.
There was only one red heat lamp in the store. It cost $13.50
For the sake of our baby chicks I threw myself on the cashier's mercy.
"I lost my bank card. This is all the cash I have. We have baby chicks in a brooder at home, and their heat lamp just burned out. Can you just... make this cost eleven dollars?"
She looked at me. She looked at her computer screen. She looked at the line of people forming behind me.
She opened the till and took my quarters. "Because I love chickens," she said.
Apparently grace (in the order of magnitude of $2.50) still exists at Ace Hardware Bedford.
The next day I was out doing my grocery shopping at Whole Foods. I had my SNAP card, so I could buy up to my balance of actual food, but no non-food items or prepared food. Unbeknownst to me, Whole Foods was running a one-day-promotion on rotisserie chicken. Two whole cooked chickens for $10. The prepared-food section was stocked accordingly, with hot chickens piled to the sky.
Man, did I want a cooked chicken all of a sudden. It was almost lunch time too... But prepared food requires cash, so I would have to go home to a vegetarian lunch.
I ran into my friend Christie who is the goddess of one-day sales. "How many chickens are you buying?" she asked. "I'm on my way to an appointment but I had to stop and get the deal."
I agreed that it was a FANTASTIC sale but that I didn't have a bank card, and I explained about the ATM, and the limited scope of SNAP benefits, and I threw my yelling kids into the story to make me look like less of a white trash idiot. Or more, I don't know.
"Oh shut up, I'll buy you two chickens," Christie said. "Do you want teriyaki or barbecue?"
On my way to my car I reflected on the wellspring of human generosity I hadn't even noticed until I lost my bank card. Then I laughed that both these stories are about chickens, albeit in various stages of alive-ness. Maybe it's not me, maybe it's the chickens. Maybe our societal love for chickens, both alive and deliciously roasted, trumps currency.
Or maybe it is about me, about my ability to accept grace. Maybe I have to lose something to realize I'm deserving of human kindess regardless of my inability to pay.
A replacement bank card arrived in the mail late yesterday. Back to hard-headed self-reliance.
I don't want to write about this right now because I'm not in a particularly complain-y mood. But I don't want to let it go. I feel like it's important. The most stressful day of the year came and went last week. The day I reapply for our SNAP benefits. It needn't be so horribly panic-inducing. Maybe if we keep talking about it, someday it won't be.
Every August I know it will arrive but I'm not exactly sure when. I have been saving up my paperwork in an easily-accessible yellow folder: pay stubs and tax bills and social security cards. I am as prepared as any person living at the poverty line can expected to be prepared. Yet the day the envelope arrives in the mail I immediately feel my stomach lurch as I launch into fight-or-flight.
"Your SNAP benefits are set to expire October 10th" the letter says.
"Your recertification paperwork must be completed by September 11th."
"In order to have enough time for our office to process your paperwork, you need to complete these forms and return the requested documents by August 27th."
It is August 22nd when I get this letter. It's a Friday. Mail processing within the DTA office takes at least two days. It is my responsibility to ensure my paperwork is in my caseworker's hands by the date she requests it.
All this means that if I get the paperwork to the post office by 8am on Saturday morning there MIGHT be a CHANCE it gets in on time.
More likely they'll send me a letter they're canceling my case. Last year they printed that letter before I even got the initial questionnaire in the mail.
I tell Dan he is in charge of the children and dinner. I tell him I'm not eating until I get this done. I haul up in the bedroom checking off boxes and making copies of documents. Good thing I have all the forms at the ready. Good thing we have a copy machine in house. Good thing we have a computer and an internet connection and a credit card so I can print a priority shipping label and give myself a fighting chance at meeting their criteria.
Of course, they could cancel my case anyway. I've been doing this for five years now, and that wouldn't surprise me. I've come to expect that after I do my secretarial best I still need to spend several hours on the phone advocating for me and my family.
I have wrote about it before and I don't want to waste my energy writing about it again. Here's me quoting me circa 2013:
To effectively deal with the DTA, or any government agency for that matter, you need skills only possessed by a few members of the human race who are advanced in both intelligence and maturity. You need a patient non-attachment; the realization that your government doesn't care about you personally and the self-confidence to accept that. You need the organizational skills of an executive secretary to save every piece of paper you receive all year and file it in a place that's easily retrievable. You need envelopes and stamps at the ready. It helps if you have a copy machine, printer, scanner, and internet access too. Is this what we expect of people who make under $20,000 a year?
We can look at this problem in two ways. One, we can say it's a gift horse and don't look in it's mouth. People like me should take the kind charity our society extends and not complain about the process we go through to get it. Whether that process be invasive or discriminating or stigmatizing or all of the above... don't utter a word that might smack of ingratitude.
Or two, we could say that an adequate food supply is the basic right of all members of our society. We could say that this is the least we can do to make up for the massive economic, social and environmental catastrophes foisted on our citizenry by business and government. In this light, we should do our best to ensure that this safety net, promised within the law, is actually accessible to those it's designed to help.
I have a friend living below the poverty line who didn't get SNAP benefits renewed because she had to go to her job instead of filing the paperwork in time. Another friend I know couldn't figure out how to prove he DIDN'T have a bank account. These are people with college degrees. I can't begin to imagine the countless others who don't feel confident even approaching the bureaucratic machine for reasons of language or education. It takes a certain mix of confidence and desperation to enter the machine and throw oneself on its grindstone. And another skill set altogether to actually come out the other end with flour.
I am not angry, I just want to face the facts together.
The fact is we live in a country where food benefits are provided and protected under law, and yet the procedures for providing those benefits subtly try to kick the poor off the roles every 6 months. These are the people with the least capacity to stand up for their rights. Mentally handicapped. Working poor. Mothers of small children. They deserve better. I deserve better. We as a society deserves better.
A moment from the week.
After months of productive prep-work and couter-productive passive agression, Zion finally decided he was ready to use the potty this week. Or more to the point, he was ready to reap the heaping pile of rewards we had layered one atop the other if he'd just pee, nay just sit, nay just TRY to go near the potty. Here he is yesterday sitting beneath his sticker chart (which earns him a visit to Chuck E Cheese), eating M&Ms (which he got just for sitting down), doing the deed that's about to earn him a "Jake and the Neverland Pirates Musical Bucky Pirate Ship," a plastic abomination that he saw at Target while we were shopping for camping gear and that I promised him could be his if he would just pee in the potty. I've promised him a lot of prizes over the past three months, but the pirate ship was the one his little brain held onto, the one that finally got him to say "I want to pee in the potty and then you order my pirate ship." Mama's no-disney, no-tv-tie-in, no-plastic-toys rules be damned.
Unfortunately, I now learn that the item in question is no longer sold at Target. I am waiting to see if I win an ebay auction for a used one before I fork over thirty five bucks for it new on Amazon. He's pooped in the potty three times so far, but still that's a rather steep cost per turd.
This great leap forward comes at a time when all my children seem to ge growing in bravery. Harvey tried a bike without training wheels for the second time today. He also let me cut his hair with the electric clippers for the first time. (The key was to pretend he was TinTin and I was a foreign barber, and say "Mr. TinTin" in a funny accent) Now his haircuts take half as long and he looks like a real big boy.
Elijah grows bigger every day. At nearly 6 months he's fitting into 12-month onesies. Until August he was way ahead in gross motor skills, even starting to inch forward on his stomach, but a month of near-constant illness set him back. Still, he did have one major change in the past month - he's able to prop himself up in the exercauser for a few minutes at a time. Since he can't hold himself up sitting yet, it's super fun to watch him lean forward in the saucer and play with some toys.
He reminds me of Zion who loooooved that thing.
And here's Harvey who never had an exercauser, but had to make do with a bjorn baby sitter and ikea play gym in front of it. With a constant input of personal attention, somehow he managed.
Dragging up these old images makes me reflect on my babies and how they just keep getting bigger. I don't want to say "They grow up so fast," I don't even believe that. Between those baby pictures and the current ones I remember A LOT of days I wished could have passed by quicker. No, it's that I look at Harvey and Zion in those pictures and I think, "I hardly knew you then!" I see the wry smile in Zion, the wild eyes in Harvey, and I think, "That was you, but not all the way you. I had no idea." Then I look at Elijah and I think: "Who are you, little man?"
But maybe that's unfair. Right now Elijah is a baby and I love baby him 100%. I love Zion 100% as a 3-year-old and Harvey 100% as a 5-year old even though I'm sure they'll change many times before they leave my care. Each of them holds a future that's full of surprises. Some surprises will amaze me and make me exclaim "I hardly knew!" Some may be plastic and even, gulp, Disney themed. I can only pray that I'll keep pace with the changes, to trust the process, and to trust my kids enough next time that I buy the stupid toy when it's actually on sale.