Art and the Sensitive Kid

Over a month ago our family visited a sculpture park. We explored dozens of big sculptures, many of them fun, enchanting, climbable.

Among them was A Place to grow Old by Carly Greene.

I barely remember looking at it. I do remember a feeling of desolation around it. We didn’t go inside; we peered in between the charred, frayed bandages that make up its sides. August asked what it was called (because we’d been reading the placards with the titles of each sculpture) and I told her, and then we moved on.

Tonight as I sang her our usual sweet bedtime song, August started to cry, and to talk: Mama, I keep thinking about the place to grow old. I could barely understand her through the big sobs she was holding back. It took me a long time to figure out what she was talking about, this four year old. The sculpture. I can’t stop thinking about it, and it just makes me so sad, and it feels like there’s something coming from it to me that’s making me grow old. I even think about it at school, and I need something to make me feel better.

Such pure sadness from the inside of this little girl. And what to say? She was right—spooky, genius-level right: it was a sad piece of art, built to produce the exact kind of sob I was hearing come up from her. And she saw it like it was meant to be seen, felt it. And remembered it to herself for a month. And then could articulate that much of it. I need something to make me feel better. My astonishing child.

What should I have said? What could I say? I hugged her. I told her that she saw that sculpture just how the artist wanted people to see it. That she was feeling what the artist wanted people to feel, looking at what she made.

August sobbed more: Why would somebody want to make people feel sad? Oof. Maybe the artist was feeling sad like that, and wanted other people to see how she felt. Maybe she knew everybody feels sad sometimes, and wanted to show them she does too.

I didn’t want to say, think about sunshine and puppies, dear. But I wanted to offer her a way out of it. Can you think of another piece of art that makes you feel a different way? She couldn’t. She asked me to keep singing, and I did, and now she’s asleep.

I remember this, from childhood. Sensing a large and scary sadness in the world. Something like an ocean of dark. Something about the pinpoint of my very small self. Not having a name for it, and knowing nobody could help me with it. I’m in awe of my girl for trying to talk about it with me. I’m shaky with the treasure of her trust. What could I have done with it? Will she keep trying?


Sight Unseen

A and I spent January and February in a state of decision. Think of a bag of sugar left in the damp basement too many months, how the crystals fuse into one big brick. And then how dropping it hard once on the concrete floor will knock it all loose and pourable again.

A was offered a job in another city. A good job. A faraway city. A job with more or less double the salary he makes now. A city in the mountains. A city with a strange political scene.

I’ve said before that where we live is not where we intended to end up forever. And this was a good chance—maybe the best chance we’ll have—to move on.

Looking back, the decision seems quick, but inside it felt long. We treated the choice like an athletic event or the SATs, reminding each other to get enough sleep in order to be in top condition. Still, sleep was hard, and we skipped lunches and dinners and then ate huge cheesy enchiladas at weird times like 9 a.m. and 11 at night.

We (all four of us) became obsessed with the adorable dad and kids’ Everything Counts  video, and I searched for omens in my weeks-long earworm. Everything counts. What counts? Money, or friends? Knowing where the best loaf of bread is, or looking up at the sunrise over a ridgeline? The asparagus patch and the friends you’ve come to love slowly over years, or the college fund and the ability to fix the roof? From a contract, there’s no turning back. Everything, everything, everything everything.

A and I were both shocked at our visceral inclination to stay. It’s almost impossible to talk about without bringing up roots, transplanting, the most hackneyed of metaphors for home and for leaving. There’s hardly a way to tell you about it without mentioning those tiny hairlike roots that rip right in the soil, whose breaking sound is magnified through the little drum of the earth.

We set times to talk and times not to talk about it, times to make ourselves take breaks from thinking about it. We talked about what we know we would have done five years ago, and whether our five-years-ago selves deserved some loyalty. What we might have done two years ago. What we might do ten years from now, if given this same opportunity.

On the phone, I pressed my mother for her perspective and she said, in the voice that is supposed to conceal preference but does not, “Money isn’t just money—it’s opportunity.”

For days after that conversation, I’d feel my deep heart-want for staying, and then I’d think of the crappy sweater I was wearing. How in fifteen years I’d still be wearing the same crappy sweater, which would become shabbier and shabbier along with my face, hair, and body, and our roof, and our awful lawn, and the back door of our house, which won’t stay closed unless you slam it so hard all the neighbors hear it and jars of rice and beans rattle on the shelves.

But then the thought of starting again in a new place. The thought of the months and years we’d lose to loneliness and making something new work. The sense that when certain kinds of love and friendship are in place, a kind of progress I can’t name is made. Not to do with the siding or the shoes. To do with building what is really richest.

And then I’d think: Come on. You are deluding yourself, you fucking spiritualist. Money isn’t just money.

We were on the verge of booking a trip to visit the city to make a final decision; I’d never been there, never seen it, and how could I say no to an opportunity I hadn’t even looked at?

But we’d have paid for our own tickets, and as we waded into the logistics of the trip—engaging the grandparents for an intense weekend’s babysitting; the expense and time and separation—we both became grumpier and grumpier. In the middle of hashing out airline schedules I stomped into the kitchen to breathe and make a cup of tea, and the teabag was the kind with a little fortune printed on the paper hanging label. It said, Wherever you go, go with your whole heart.

We are staying here. We did not even go to visit.

It’s not easy to explain this to friends. The teabag did not make the decision. But I would miss you. Who is it ok to say that to? It is true of more people than you might think. It’s true of acquaintances and of old, deep friends, and of many in between. And yet it’s a creepy thing to say to someone. We are not supposed to be reasons for each other’s location, for the turning points in each other’s careers, are we?

But we are. Not any one person. But everyone. Together, like a rope.

I think of the asparagus in the back yard, the plant that takes three years to establish itself well enough to be harvested and used. We are like that, our family, all four of us, I think. We don’t come to know and love people quickly. Which is to say not that we are deficient, but that these things—when we reach them—are precious.

There is violence in moving away from a place. There is value in staying still, in deepening. Something is accomplished in just a day of living. In making memories of the same places, the same streets, the same corners. These things are as valuable as dollars, mother.

This will be our home. There are tiny blue fireworks in my heart when I think about it, still.

New Words For It

You dear people. Toni Morrison says motherhood frees a person from baggage and vanity. And you? Let me read your words back to you:

If anything, it felt like having kids stripped me of everything about myself that I liked. I truly felt like my life as I knew it was over.

Personally, having my first baby broke my life into a bunch of little pieces, and it took me about a year to get it put back together again in a way that made me feel happy and whole.

…liberating? Um, no. Hahaha!

Is this why I love you? Or is this why you’re here? Or both?

The funny thing is, I also love (real life love) some people whose hearts bustle with throngs of sugar coated angels when they hear Toni Morrison say motherhood is “the most liberating thing that happened to me.”

The difference between us taunts me.

For a long time I embraced the role of relentless parenting curmudgeon, sneering at all rosy statements and issuing ominous warnings to prospective parents. Which was rotten of me, in a way, and obviously sometimes rude.

I felt (and still feel) a responsibility to counter the ever-present oversweet image of this whole enterprise. Even in a time when bad mother is the new good mother and complaining is supposedly hip among moms … it still seems impossible to utter the word baby without filling the air with flowers and tinkling chimes. Even the hip complaining has a hyperbolic, humorous slant, so that, like Ann Lamott’s Operating Instructions, I can hear it more easily as an account of one quirky person’s madness than as the harder, truer thing I wish we could all speak and hear about more freely.

I’ve been trying for the past year to write more poems that touch the hardest parts of my years of parenting babies. Poems are the best way to do this, because  this is an area where ordinary language fails us. I don’t think someone contemplating parenthood can hear stripped me of everything about myself that I liked, not really. I think that the moment you set down the word baby or mother or milk, you have poured honey and glitter over every single other word on that page, and on adjoining pages.


After all of my months as curmudgeon and writer trying to speak through the glitter and honey and flowers and chimes and be able to tell what it really was like for me. (And you! Some of you. And many others.) After holding that at the center for so long … and after soothing myself over the loss of what I’d hoped would be a purely happy and gorgeous time by basically declaring my crushing experience to be universal … I am watching two new families—people I trust and love—care for their first babies, and you know what it looks like?

It looks like sugar and windchimes and singing angels.

And I don’t think this is just because of the weird looking glass that life throws up between parents of infants and everybody else. I know people keep their pain private (I did), and I know other lives look better without being so.* But I don’t think that is what’s happening here. The curmudgeon would say These friends are just in denial! When they tell you everything’s great it’s just because they haven’t yet lost the battle with the inevitable creeping despair at how their whole beautiful old life is ruined!

But I’m no longer the curmudgeon. I believe them. The curmudgeon truth in my heart is still there, but it is shifting to one side to make room for a twin truth (still a puny, malnourished twin, but growing). The beautiful new parents I know are soaking up every glorious minute. Their babies are wonderful. They cannot imagine it any other way. They are so glad they chose this path. It takes all of the generosity and largeness of spirit I can summon to say those things with sincerity, without sarcasm or bitterness, but now I say them, even as those twins keep thrashing at each other inside my heart.

The difference between us haunts me. But at least now I’m ready to see that it is a difference, not a lie. Loving them and believing them, I keep wondering why, and I start to imagine a language where the word why doesn’t exist.



* That Miranda July movie, The Future, where in a moment of self-pity she looks through the apartment window at her neighbor, a stranger, brushing her hair and sighs, That woman really has it together? That’s me, all the time.


Last week, via Facebook and a stunning 1981 Lego ad, I had the pleasure of introducing a friend to Blue Milk. The friend, a mom of two young daughters, thanked me for the link, said there are a lot of things on that site that I’ve been wanting to read. Then she posted to her own Facebook page this passage from Toni Morrison, which is item #6 on from Blue Milk’s About Feminist Mothers page:

There was something so valuable about what happened when one became a mother. For me it was the most liberating thing that ever happened to me….Liberating because the demands that children make are not the demands of a normal ‘other.’ The children’s demands on me were things that nobody ever asked me to do. To be a good manager. To have a sense of humor. To deliver something that somebody could use. And they were not interested in all the things that other people were interested in, like what I was wearing or if I were sensual…. Somehow all of the baggage that I had accumulated as a person about what was valuable just fell away. I could not only be me -– whatever that was -– but somebody actually needed me to be that. . . . If you listen to [your children], somehow you are able to free yourself from baggage and vanity and all sorts of things, and deliver a better self, one that you like. The person that was in me that I liked best was the one my children seemed to want.

And then half a dozen female friends posted swoony comments full of gratitude and affirmation of the truth of these words.

And I …

don’t get it. Do you? I suspect that you do, since my friend V and a flock of her mom friends seem to see in it the crystal-clear reflection of their own experience. But I don’t get it. Transformed by the demands of my children into a person I like better? Freed from baggage and vanity? Maybe I am lucky and was free from these things already. Maybe I’m so far from conventionally pretty or visibly sensual that I have skipped the part of life’s muddle that that entails. Maybe I am so weak that even the magic of motherhood couldn’t free me from the thrall of vanity and poor priorities. Maybe my early experience of motherhood was so marred by the complicated mix of depression and loneliness and failure that this transformation was impossible. Whatever the reason, I know that this change did not happen to me.

And. And. The change that Toni Morrison is talking about seems suspiciously like the promises about motherhood that are hanging in the air everywhere anyway, the promises that I think of as false. That motherhood is our nature. That we will find our real selves here. That being mothers makes us better people.

I do appreciate the both/and of Blue Milk’s list. The Toni Morrison passage conveys a sense of magic that tangles with the harder truths in a way that seems both complicated and right.

But it is a magic that I do not feel.

I chew on all this, and I sit in the circle with other moms who are weepy and lovey just at the prospect of a newborn, and who say to each other “soak up as much of this wonderful time as you can,” and it brings to mind my teenaged affair with the clunkiest poem I’ve ever loved.

I wish you could meet my children: they are brilliant, beautiful, hilarious characters, and wonderful people to be in a family with. There is no question about my love for them. I will write this every time now, especially now that May can read. I love them. Each of them is incomparable. There is no question about that.

But why should I feel so different from the rest of you about what it is to be their mother? At one time, I would have asked this out of self-pity, a kind of what the fuck is wrong with me cry. Now I ask it with deep, detached curiosity. Why does it seem like Toni Morrison, my friend V, and a half dozen of her closest friends, and probably all of you, too, are talking, when you talk about being a mother, about a whole different thing than I have ever felt? Or am I reading her wrong? Or … what?

I sense that understanding this would unknot something important.

Even Longer Ago

Someone I once knew and loved well died today—a loss far enough away that I can’t accept condolences, but close enough that I feel the fracture lines in each of my bones. My mom forwarded me a one-line email with the subject line Fwd:FWD:Very Sad News.

That is very sad
, I emailed back. I didn’t know this was coming.

How frustratingly ignorantly human I am. Didn’t know this was coming.

He had leukemia. He was in his sixties. He was the dad of the first boy whose sweaty hand I held in a movie theater, the dad of the boy whose embrace in my dreams even today represents complete belonging. He was the husband of the woman who nursed me through my first spiritual crisis at fifteen with stacks of Buechner and Forrester Church and Spong, and who married A and me nine years ago.

He—his name was Paul—he was part of this family close enough to be my own, the friends you have as a teenager if you’re lucky: people who were as good for me as my own relatives were, but from whom I was far enough to love without reserve, without regard for cool.

He was funny. He made puns. He loved baseball, not that I know much about that. We ran together in the woods, me as a near-anorexic teenager and him, I guess, in his forties. I remember never feeling anything but strong and funny with him, and that was rare for me.

Later in high school, I dated a rather boring kid, someone whose utter lack of  adventure or creativity I must have found soothing at the time. This boring guy’s mother frequently made hopeful comments about our eventual happy marriage and the inevitable grandchildren—which I always found disturbing, even when I was really into the guy (I was 17!). Paul took the role of bizarrely chivalrous tribal father. “If you married him, I’d kill you. No, I’d kill him.”

Obviously, those words make him sound like a little bit of an ass, and, indeed, assdom was the sin he was most often accused of. But there’s a reason for that. Fierce, moment by moment affection will sometimes make you look like an ass. He turned his fierce affection on me during the years I most needed to feel love other than the required love of family. He was the same way in his marriage, and with his sons—one my age, one older, and one so young I still think of him as a round cheeked baby with dear, curly eyelashes, though he’s now a young man himself. Fierce affection. I picture Paul with his arm around the son my age, the kind of sloppy, athletic squeeze they’d give one another. How they’d hang on each other—a teenaged boy and his dad!—and how they folded me in.

I hadn’t seen him since 1998. I wrote to him a year ago, a couple of months after he got sick, and his wife wrote back to tell me my note made them laugh. That was the last I heard.


For twenty one years I have run in Sauconys—thick and cushiony and with hard white orthotics to prevent the overpronation that was diagnosed way back when as the cause of a bad case of shinsplints.

The new shoes are the new Sauconys, pink nylon with white foam soles, lighter than a pair of wool socks. I wear the shoes sockless. Through them, I can feel the texture of the ground. The book—the breathless Outdoor magazine-style page turner of a sham of a pseudo-anthropological book—says your feet get stronger the longer you run without shoes, that you ultimately avoid injury. The videos online of runners who have run barefoot all their lives show the ball of the foot kissing down to the ground in slow motion, then the cushioning grip-down of the toe and heel.

I can’t tell if I’m doing it right. Are those my heels I’m landing on? Toes? Land on the ball of my foot? Like this? This? After a block, I’m aerobically wiped out and can hear my heels clicking down first (hear, not feel, yet) just as they’re not supposed to. This new way takes new muscles, and to do it right I have to be at a real run, not the heel-dragging shuffle I’d become used to, scuffing along through the brown leaves with my ipod on.

I find myself in the most false conversations. Even with A. He calls to ask how my run was. “Pretty good,” I answer, automatically. I am halfway into the unthinking next sentence (“I, uhh, it was…”) before I realize I am carrying out an empty routine. “Actually it wasn’t pretty good. My lungs felt like ass and I had no idea if I was doing it right, and I only went three blocks.” Much better.

But then there are the moms at the park and the moms at Spanish class pickup and the friends at the Halloween parade, and whoever’s in the kitchen at work when I wander in to microwave my leftover pizza. How are you? Pretty good. Good. What’s new? Not much. I rocket back out of the conversation’s orbit before (if) I ever realize I haven’t really been saying anything. What’s to say at day care pickup, in the checkout line, even over coffee with a friend?

If words are metal, this chatter hammers them into foil. Talk too much and you never know when you might accidentally throw an anvil at someone. And then keep on talking.


And then last night I read Rollo May, in The Courage to Create:

The word courage comes from the same stem as the French word coeur, meaning “heart.” Thus just as one’s heart, by pumping blood to one’s arms, legs, and brain enables all the other physical organs to function, so courage makes possible all the psychological virtues. Without courage other values wither away into mere facsimiles of virtue.


I propose a new form of courage of the body: the use of the body not for the development of musclemen, but for the cultivation of sensitivity. This will mean the development of the capacity to listen with the body. It will be, as Nietszche remarked, a learning to think with the body. It will be a valuing of the body as the means of empathy with others, as expression of the self as a thing of beauty and as a rich source of pleasure.

Well, then, Rollo May. I will not leave my pewter box outside the green metal door of my office as planned. I will hold it in my lap under the conference table. It will warm my hands.

My eldest has a rubber bracelet of the Lance Armstrong type. She chose it out of the toy basket at the dentist, woozy with nitrous after undergoing the filling of a cavity in her molar. COURAGE, it says. Last week she asks me from the backseat, “What is courage?”

“Being brave,” I tell her.

“What’s being brave?”

“It’s doing something even though you’re scared to do it.”

Minutes later, from the backseat, “What’s being brave, again?”

I give examples. The first day of kindergarten. The first time you tried the monkey bars. Going to the dentist. To each of these, she replies, “But I wasn’t afraid then.”

Maybe we invent brave. Maybe there is only ever afraid or not afraid.

And who is Rollo May, anyway? Only a man like all the rest. Where do we get off writing slim books about how to live? And by we I mean they, those who have? He. At least he was in his sixties by the time he wrote this. A man in his thirties or forties acting so wise, I don’t think I’d countenance anymore. Still, he loses points with me by not placing a footnote in that “listen with the body” paragraph. Footnote: Women have been doing this for ages and ages. It was their idea; I’m just writing it down with the voice of masculine authority.

I am 37 and realizing that asking wondering questions has become a habit, now no less inauthentic than reflexive credulity. I am 37 and experiencing the first glimmer of irrelevance, in the form of wise friends nearby having babies and living in all their complexity the weeks and months that still seem so close to me but are so many years past now that I am letting go the hope of deciphering them. I am 37 (oh dear, I think I am 37, maybe it’s 38), and people my age are giving advice. I am a year older than Natalie Goldberg was when she wrote Writing Down the Bones. It’s time to start the habit of stating. It’s time to let the habit of questions wane.