Monthly Archives: November 2020

Golden joinery

The kids started making felt animals last spring, when their school was shut down and they were home with me all day. It was a pretty wonderful project during that time, since each creation required patience, focus, fine motor skills, reading and following graphical directions, personalization, and interpersonal interaction. The results weren’t immediately delivered, as they had to wait through two wash cycles and a dryer cycle to see the finished product, and sometimes what they ended up with didn’t resemble the vision they’d anticipated; frequently they were either disappointed or pleasantly surprised by the way their animals turned out, which is all good practice for life. Usually some stitchery was required to repair or reinforce portions of the wool that hadn’t felted together, so the kids learned how to thread a needle and sew. It was all very back-to-basics, old school homeschool stuff–de rigueur for that phase of pandemic living, and we spent many hours engaged this way. The smell of wet wool will probably always put me back on that hardwood floor surrounded by three kids bent over their individual cookie sheets, aiming spray bottles at foam felting forms.

The other night, Liam asked me to bring up the sewing supplies so he could work on a bear who needed a tummy tuck. I was tired and had zero interest in sitting on his carpet helping him knot thread at that moment while there were dishes to do and floors to sweep and places to exist where children were not within sight, but I hadn’t given him much attention that day, so I helped him with the knot and watched him sew while I drank a glass of wine (yes, the carpet is white and the wine was red, but don’t worry–the greatest atrocity that carpet has been subjected to is slime. Let me know if you need tips for removing slime from carpet, by the way).

After he’d made about three extra-long stitches, leaving at least an inch of thread visible with each one, I said, “That’s a great way to sew if you want to see the stitches. If you don’t want to see the thread, you might want to make your stitches smaller or use the other kind of stitch I showed you.” He said, “I do want to see the stitches. I want to remember this when I look at him.” I was stunned for a moment, appreciating the beautiful sentiment, wondering exactly why he wanted the visual reminder that this bear had been sewn. Was it a reminder of his own handiwork using a needle and thread? Was it a reminder that, when things come apart at the seams, like our lives had last spring, we have the power to put them back together as best we can while exercising agency over the process of reassembly? Was it a reminder that there is implicit imperfection in all things, or that those who wear their scars proudly are showcasing healing rather than wounds? Was it a reminder that there is value added to anything that has been repaired because it mattered enough to someone to do the repairing? Does my child understand the principles of wabi-sabi? Was he actually engaged in creating a kind of kintsugi? Does he know that’s one of my favorite art forms? Can I take any credit at all for his incredibly sophisticated perspective here?

I asked him what he wanted to remember when he looks at the stitches, and I should have known what he’d say. It’s just that he’s so very different from me, and I sometimes forget that the driving force within this child is his heart, which takes up so much space in his existence that it eclipses everything else sometimes. He said, “I want to remember being here with you while I’m doing this.”

Liam is a child of heart where I have always been a child of the mind, and I’m often struck by how we go through life guided by such discrete and disparate dominating forces. Sometimes it’s hard for a person stuck in her head to parent a child who inhabits his heart so completely. It’s a challenge to shift the paradigm from a habit of thought to the impulse of love. This is why, when I said to him a few days later, “I don’t think you’d ever do something unkind on purpose,” and his response was, “You don’t know how much I appreciate that,” I thought: maybe not. But I’m trying. We are all works in progress. May our cracks be filled with gold to highlight, not to hide, the ways we reassemble ourselves, over and over and over again, and to help us remember them.

The force is strong with this one

It had been a long day, and we were in the throes of bedtime when Summerly came into our room where I was rifling through a laundry basket and said, “I feel like I want to do a favor for you.” Well, this was new. Not that she’s an unhelpful person, but vocalizing her desire to do something unspecified for me out of kindness was pretty unprecedented. I said, “Thank you! I’d love that! I’ll think about a favor I’d appreciate,” and kept clawing through the laundry (WHERE is that black uniform shirt she wants to wear?!). About ten seconds later, Summerly came back into our room to declare, “I left my bag from the dentist in the car, but I really want to use my new toothpaste!” I told her she could bring the bag in tomorrow after school, or I’d bring it in later that night if I went to check the mail. She said, “I’d really like to use my new toothpaste tonight!” Well, the kid had had an awesome day. She’d been uncomplaining at the dentist that morning and fun to have around on our apple-picking excursion, acting impressively at the end of our time at the orchard when she could easily have made a fuss in a situation involving disappointment, which other kids weren’t weathering so well in the moment. When we got home, she asked if she could go upstairs and clean up her room, at which point she also made her bed (this kid’s room is typically a disaster zone). She’d been cooperative and patient throughout the entire evening, too, and wasn’t presenting her desire for the toothpaste in an unpleasant or entitled way at all. She was already ready to brush her teeth without having been asked while her brothers were decidedly NOT READY, which is the case practically every night. This was all on the heels of the day before, which had been VERY tough for her, culminating in a screaming fit that lasted at least thirty minutes. I wanted to reward her for turning things around and showing particular aplomb at the orchard. And the kid was excited about toothpaste, for god’s sake.

I knew it would probably take her longer to figure out how to unlock my car and actually locate the bag (this child has trouble following simple, explicit, repeated instructions to find things), so because Brian was attending to Arlo and Liam actually appeared to finally be putting on his pajamas, I said I’d go get the bag from my car. “Oh, no, Mommy; it’s ok!” she said. “I’ll get it for you! See? I’m doing you a favor!”

Well played, young daughter. Well played.

I have a beef with Crayola

The concept of synesthesia was introduced to me in high school by my brilliant AP English teacher during our reading of The Great Gatsby. The example was “yellow cocktail music”, and I’ll never forget the revelatory moment of reading those words and understanding them completely. I could hear that music: full of dulcimer, zither, handbell, triangle, glockenspiel, piano glissando: all yellow. I think everyone is synesthetic in different ways and to different degrees, but in that moment I recognized something I’d known about myself for as long as I could remember, and now I had a word for it! A beautiful Greek word, no less, with a prefix meaning “together” and a root meaning “perception”. It felt like a piece to a puzzle I didn’t know was missing had fit itself snugly into place; a breath I didn’t know I’d been holding finally exhaled.

Beginning when I was a kid, it felt clear that the days of the week were color coded by virtue of their names in conjunction with where within the seven-day period they fell. Monday was green (the week was new), Tuesday yellow, Wednesday blue, Thursday violet (the twilight of the week), Friday red. Some of these associations were more pronounced than others; Tuesday was bright as a lemon in the sunshine, Thursday wore a saturated purple mantle, and Friday flew a flag of vibrant crimson, while Monday and Wednesday were only somewhat green and mildly blue. This certainty on my part didn’t manifest in any real way other than the fact that I could see and feel the colors as synonymous with the names of the days. Strangely, Saturday and Sunday were both a kind of cloudy white, perhaps because they felt like punctuation days to me, or negative space, or possibly because they were less predictable and couldn’t conform to any kind of pattern. In my mind, the days of the week are still clothed in these colored capes.

Sounds have colors, too, and flavors shape. Sweetness is round like a cherry, salt paints acute angles on the tongue, and heat (like cayenne or wasabi) draws an exclamation mark of flavor. These things seem obvious and unremarkable; just like we we see a banana and know what it tastes like, what texture it possesses; we smell a steak on a charcoal grill and can instantly conjure its image in our minds; we hear thunder and think: rain. It’s all a neurological associative process, an interconnectedness within our unconscious that acts on our consciousness to help us identify and process sensory existence. Why do our mouths water when we smell cookies in the oven or bolognese bubbling on the stovetop? Why do certain songs make us think of certain people or places or moments in life? How can the fragrance of a particular perfume, sniffed by surprise, bring tears of nostalgia to our eyes?

The answer is the same every time: because our brains are all hotbeds of chemical interactions that affect our perceptive abilities in incredible ways. Just as naturally as the word “pineapple” conjures an image of that bouffant fruit with prickly scabs of scaly skin, so, to me, Thursday is a velvet violet and resonates a solid C sharp.

The reason I mention all of this is because of Crayola. Specifically, the Crayola face coverings my kids wear to school every day. I bought each kid a set of the “Maskpacks”, which include five differently-colored masks for each day of the school week. Early on in this “school during pandemic” game, I let the kids each choose which color they wanted to wear each day, but after a few days realized that was an unsustainable system for me from an organizational perspective. I decided that they’d all need to wear the same color and that each day would be assigned a color. However. The colors are ALL WRONG. There is no green. There is no red. Instead there are persimmon-level orange and turquoise, of all things. To make matters worse, the blue is too dark and the yellow is really almost chartreuse–like an unripe Bartlett pear. Oh, calamity!

I thought about temporarily giving teal to Monday and orange to Friday, but that just didn’t feel right, so I let the kids decide which color mask they’d assign to which day. We ended up with a Monday through Friday rotation of purple, teal, chartreuse, orange, and, blue. Although this goes against the very grain of my sensibilities, I’ve learned to live with seeing these incongruously-colored banners strapped to my kids’ faces every day. It’s just another example of this strange era requiring us to adjust in ways that we never imagined. Whoever wrote the meme that says “if 2020 were a drink, it would be vodka in a water bottle” really nailed it. I don’t know when it will happen, but some day, when I can put these Maskpacks in a memory box and do things like hug my parents again, our days will be ready to resemble themselves again. And I know their proper colors will be waiting.

Uncommon sense

One Sunday last month, we went to a local farm and winery for an hour of pumpkin-decorating and Halloween storytelling led by our beloved former school librarian who, in characteristic fashion, was dressed as Joy from the movie “Inside Out” (fortunately, she already had the perfectly purple hair for the part). Kids, most wearing costumes, rubber boots, and raincoats, gathered at picnic tables spaced out under a capacious, canopied sailcloth tent. It was a soggy, foggy morning, certainly the coldest outdoor experience my kids have had since early spring, and despite being dressed in terrycloth-lined windproof slickers, they nonetheless complained about the chill. We’d bought them hot apple ciders in hopes of warming them from the inside out, but the cups had gone basically untouched, the contents being dubbed “too hot” (shocker).

My pod mom friend, Ellen, and I were standing by the table while the kids painted their pumpkins, after which came the clarion call for snacks. We’d prepared for this, of course (she with stainless steel containers of individually portioned home-baked blueberry bread and I with a bag full of processed snacks fresh from Costco, most containing nuts or processed in a facility that handles nuts; our school is entirely nut-free, so any chance I get to ignore labels when packing snacks is such a liberating experience that I can almost hear angels playing trumpets while I’m reaching past the sun butter for Cracker Jack and Luna Bars). We told them to sanitize and that they had to stay at the table if they were going to take off their masks to eat (which, really, is the only way). Summerly, eight and a third years old, came back from sanitizing, saying that her hands were freezing cold, so I suggested that she hold her drink. The cups of cider had cooled down but were still warm, so it seemed like an easy fix. Isn’t it nice when there’s a readily accessible, tried and true method to counteract discomfort just sitting there in front of you? “Hold your drink,” I said helpfully, delighting in the sensibility and simplicity of that idea. Two palms curled around a warm paper cup wrapped in a corrugated insulation sleeve…what an iconic cold-weather method for warming one’s hands! And it felt like a win for me because here was a way to help her help herself without my having to move or DO anything! Maybe some day in the future when her hands are cold, she’ll reach for a warm cup herself and think of her mother, that beacon of reason who taught her this and so many other useful things, and that thought will warm the cockles of her heart.

The child nodded, ostensibly understanding the implicit logic behind this idea, and then Ellen and I, honest to god, watched her pick up her cup with one hand, pour warm apple cider into her other hand, which she’d cleverly cupped for this purpose, and proceed to rub her hands together. “Good idea, Mommy,” she said. “That really helps!”

If anyone was wondering about Summerly’s literal thinking skills, I think she’s got some.

Redemption song

For several years, part of the back-to-school paperwork was a questionnaire entitled “Getting to Know Your Student”, and one of the questions was “What are three words to describe your child?”. Besides being reductive and potentially subjective, this question is just HARD to answer. One year I tried to liven things up by being funny (well, I thought I was; the teachers weren’t so sure…see images below), but most years we just chose three adjectives essential to each child’s personality. The first word we chose for Liam, every single time, was “sensitive”. When he was very small, songs like “Rockabye Baby” and “You Are My Sunshine” made him sad, and as a first-time parent who hadn’t worked through a lot of my own emotional issues, my reaction was to either avoid exposing him to them or to alter them to ensure a happy ending. I changed the end of “Rockabye Baby” to this: “And down will come cradle, baby and all / but baby was fine; his fall wasn’t far; / he slept the whole time ‘neath the moon and the stars.” I added a stanza to “You Are My Sunshine”, too, to wipe away the tears borne of waking up from a dream to face reality. I know, right?! This mistake is so egregious I’m calling it an infrared flag. But what’s even worse is what I did to “Humpty Dumpty”.

As a child with pronounced anxiety and “worst-case scenario as a knee-jerk reaction” syndrome, Liam was really troubled by the Humpty Dumpty ditty. I was trying to teach him that when things broke, we could try to fix them, and I was always gluing or repairing broken toys in an effort to show him the possibility and value of reparation. Similarly, I thought I could resurrect the nursery rhyme situation by appending this couplet: “But Mommy and Daddy got out the glue / And then Humpty Dumpty was fixed: good as new!” Looking back, I want to sit down with myself and have a serious conversation. What was I thinking? I was telling my kid that if all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t fix a broken egg, DON’T WORRY! Your parents will run to the rescue and solve all the problems for you! Your mommy and daddy are here to protect you from the world! We will shield you from pain, from sadness, from disappointment, from brokenness! We will carry you like an egg in the palms of our hands and keep you far from precipitous walls so there’s no chance you could fall and break! We will enshroud you in a force field of invincibility so that you shall never befall a situation that might make you feel anything but happiness and hope! I seriously had no idea that I was writing a much more damaging narrative than the preexisting nursery rhyme. All I had to do was talk it through with him, explore the situation and let him feel about it, rather than whip out a band-aid and wave away the discomfort. Sometimes sad things happen. Sometimes tragedy strikes for no comprehensible reason. Sometimes the universe deals good people a hand of really awful cards. Sometimes eggs just fall off walls. Reality is hard. The end.

However, I’ll offer two alternate additions to “Humpty Dumpty” in place of my dysfunctional one from years ago because a happy ending is something you make; it’s not something that happens to you.

“He called out for help in a fragmented breath:
‘Someone, come quickly! This can’t be my death!’
A family therapist happening by
called “Whoa” to her horse upon hearing his cry.
She handed to Humpty a fresh tube of glue,
said, ‘Here is a tool so that YOU can fix YOU!”


“It was so very sad, but when they’d all gone away,
the weather became very hot on that day
and Humpty was cooked! Right there on the ground!
The hungry townspeople–do you know what they found?
A feast of a fellow overflowing their cup:
their breakfast was Humpty: perfect sunny-side up!”

Final thought: Is Humpty Dumpty a child of Mother Goose? Did she lay him as an egg? If so, things just got more complicated.

P.S. Everyone should read the book After the Fall by Dan Santat. His idea gives the story wings.

Speaker of our house

If you look closely, you’ll see that Arlo is holding a seashell he decorated with marker up to his ear. Right before I took this photo, he said, “Guys, be quiet! I’m talking to the ocean on my shell phone!”

Once upon a time, we used to listen to the sound of the ocean. We could hold a conch shell to an ear and imagine the sound of waves in the white noise produced by that little echo chamber, a closed system of whorls. Then Arlo was born, and he started talking. Since then, not even the ocean has been able to get a word in edgewise.

Working title: “The Starving Artist”

Bedtime has been even more of a struggle recently, particularly with getting Arlo, five and one-third years old, to prepare for reading and then settle down enough to fall asleep. Getting him to take off his clothing, go to the bathroom, and put on clean clothes (by choice, he sleeps in the outfit he’ll wear the next day, and I’m completely fine with this because it saves time in the morning AND laundry *win-win*). I’ve been trying different methods to help him through this process, and one night I said I’d tell him a story while he got ready if he worked steadily until he was ready to brush teeth. The idea came to me spontaneously, so I had neither plot line nor characters in mind, but I started with “Once upon a time, there was a spider” as a hook because my child truly loves bugs and spiders, especially spiders. (He wants a tarantula pet for Christmas. Send help.)

“Once upon a time, there was a spider. She was a young spider and had just discovered her ability to make webs, which she found to be a delightful pastime. She scouted for a while and found a perfect spot between two branches of a sturdy tree for her to practice weaving. She worked all day to perfect her web–tightening here, strengthening there, adjusting left and right, until she’d spun the most intricate, elaborate, magnificent web she could imagine. Very happy with her work, she settled herself in the middle of it, tucked all eight of her tired legs up under her, and took a nap. A few minutes later, she awoke to find her web being jostled roughly back and forth. She felt like she was on a trampoline!” (Every other sentence or so I had to pause to give Arlo reminders, so this story was by no means uninterrupted.) “Well, she looked around to see what had caused this motion in her web and was surprised to see a praying mantis lodged in the lacework. She hurried over to him, and he greeted her with a smile. ‘Well, hello, there!’ he said. ‘Isn’t this a mighty fine canopy we’re sitting on? I mean, it’s just a beautiful piece of art! I wonder who wove this incredible creation!’ The spider cocked her head at him and said, ‘Oh, well, thank you! I wove this web myself.’ The praying mantis clapped his hands over his mandibles. ‘You don’t say! YOU are the artist behind this creation?! My, I am impressed. I can tell you put a lot of energy into making this! Might I also compliment you on those strong, nimble legs of yours? And you have so MANY of them! Why, you just look so different from me, different from anything I’ve ever seen, and I think that’s just exquisite! What are you, do you mind my asking?’

“Well, the spider had never encountered such a genteel fellow, and she was touched by his friendly kindness. She replied, ‘Aren’t you generous! I’m a spider. Have you never seen a spider before?’ The praying mantis clasped his front legs, wiggled his antennae, and said, ‘I most certainly have not, but you are remarkable indeed! I am very glad to have met you and seen this amazing thing you call a web. What do you do with this web? Or is it simply a decoration?’ The spider shifted uneasily. ‘This web is for catching insects,’ she responded. ‘Oh,’ said the praying mantis, ‘isn’t that wonderful! A work of art that attracts attention in a most unique way! And it really works, because I am an insect! Why is your target audience the insect world, might I ask?’ The spider wrung at least half of her hands. ‘Well, it’s because…it’s because spiders eat insects. We catch our meals in our webs,’ she said sadly. ‘Oh my goodness,’ was the mantis’s reply. ‘It’s even more magical an invention than I thought! It’s not just a bit of art that attracts an audience; it also puts food on the artist’s table! Well, I never. I can’t believe I was able to meet something as miraculous as a spider during my lifetime. What a special day this is!’

“The spider was thoroughly dumbfounded. After about a minute, she went over to the praying mantis, who was still admiring the web and remarking on its many virtues, and began unmaking the threads in which he was entangled, extricating his legs. ‘You know,’ she said, as she was finishing up, ‘I’m not really very hungry today. I don’t need a snack as big as you are, anyway. Why don’t you come back and visit sometime?’ The praying mantis tipped an imaginary hat and said, ‘Why, thank you! I’ve had such a nice visit, and I’d like that very much. I’ll be back on Sunday!’ and he flew off. The spider went back to finish her nap.”

To be clear, this story took three nights to finish, and when it was finally over, Arlo said, “And then what?” I said, “Then an aphid came to visit. I’ll tell you the next part tomorrow.” But Arlo kept on. “Yeah! And the aphid was really nice too, so she didn’t eat him either! And all the bugs are nice, so she lets them all go!” At this point, I felt pretty accomplished. He’d gotten ready for bed more quickly, and I’d told him a story about the benefits of kindness, appreciating diversity, praising hard work, and the value of art. And then it happened. He looked at me, concerned, and asked, “But then what will the spider eat?”

Oh. Right. It didn’t take a deep-dive Google search to verify that your garden-variety spider’s sole source of sustenance is, indeed, a single ingredient: insect. What on earth had I just done? Had I told a story celebrating martyrdom the same way The Giving Tree, a book I despise, does so egregiously? Or did I just invent an arachnid with an eating disorder? Maybe she will only eat mosquitos. But mosquitos aren’t THAT bad; I mean, they’re trying to live the only way they know how, and just because humans don’t like them doesn’t mean I should sanction mosquito genocide or countenance entomological racism of any kind. Maybe just the baddest baddies would be her victims. But how dastardly would an insect have to be for her to quench her hunger? I mean, it would take some pretty epic evildoings to enforce a death sentence on a bug, and even then why should the poor, beneficent spider be fed only on unsavory characters? I don’t think I want to tell a story to my kids about an insect mafioso’s life of crime and subsequent execution anyway.

Oh, dear. If this is what happens when I improvise a new bedtime strategy, I’ll never go off-script again.


The other day, I decided to record the number of times Arlo used the word “Mommy” as a noun in direct address. I did this for the ninety-minute period following school pickup, making a tally every time I heard him say it, but I’m pretty sure I missed a few. This is the piece of paper I used, and the number of tallies is thirteen sets of five. Arlo said “Mommy” at least 65 times in an hour and a half. Thank you and good night.

Out of the limelight

Summerly’s bed is pushed up against a wall directly beneath a bank of windows spanning its entire length, from pillows to footboard. We always used to close her curtains to prevent sunlight from keeping her awake or rousing her too early, but in the fall she started wanting to sleep with the curtains open so she could see the stars. On the night of Halloween, however, that Blue Moon was so big and bright and shining directly through her window that she opted to close her curtains to sleep, asking me as I drew them against the lunar glare, “Can it hurt your eyes to look at the moon?”

I explained that the moon doesn’t produce any light of its own, that the brightness we see is merely a reflection of sunlight that bounces off its surface, making it visible to us, and that because the moon isn’t the actual source of the light, it’s not bright enough to hurt our eyes like the sun. It was late, so I pretty much left the explanation at that for the moment, but as I blew her a kiss, wished her happy dreams, and closed the door, I had a thought that I’m surprised hadn’t occurred to me before then.

In this country, at least, we generally associate the sun with the masculine and the moon with the feminine. We’re taught about the Greek god of the sun, Helios, and goddess of the moon, Selene. We have the Latin words for sun (sol, solis, masculine) and moon (luna, lunae, feminine), and plenty of derivative English vocabulary. We have the association of the lunar cycle with menstruation. The English words “sun” and “son” are homophones, which I realize is a coincidence, but it’s still something. Recently I read the myth of Chang’e, the Chinese goddess of the moon, to the kids so they could put into context the storyline of the movie “Over the Moon”. In some cultures, there are different associations regarding celestial bodies and gender, but I’d be surprised if many people living in this country would ascribe masculinity to the moon or femininity to the sun. Think about Jupiter, too: it’s named for the god of the sky, and its moons are named for his lovers, which were almost exclusively female. All of his conquests, revolving around him, caught in his gravitational grip.

Meanwhile our moon produces no light of its own, borrowing its glow from a more powerful body, one with the most gravity of all, and can only show Earth its luminescent full face about a dozen times a year, the rest of the time only sparing us crescent or gibbous glimpses, gifts of partial exposure to the sun. The rest of the time the moon is veiled in visual obscurity, its image only accessible to the naked eye by virtue of how much the sun affords light unto it. The moon can only claim secondary energy; it owes its outline to the sun.

Is claiming masculinity for the sun and bestowing femininity upon the moon an intentional overture on behalf of a patriarchy so ancient and entrenched that it embeds in our language, our folklore, manifesting itself in ways both egregious and so subtle that we don’t even think to notice? Is this a symptom of a societal disease root-bound in a mass of money and power, a sun so strong it juggles the entire solar system in ceaseless circles around it and bequeaths budgeted light on loan, only in controlled allowances?

No, my child, the light of the moon won’t hurt your eyes. It’s harmless because the light isn’t its own; that power is only a reflection. It’s just putting a shine on. But the moon is a ball of rock, and we need not associate ourselves with far-flung inanimate matter, capable neither of creating nor supporting life, which are skills that we happen to be biologically programmed to favor. There’s a whole lot of power there, maybe the most power there is, and it comes from within. That light is ours because we generate it in and of ourselves. We don’t need to see ourselves as illuminated by anything other than the light we create and emanate. Look at the moon, baby, and remember: that’s one beautiful ball of rock. But we are women. We are radiant. And we will not be eclipsed.