Betty Duffy

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Later, for now.

I'm going on a blogging sabbatical for a few weeks. Back mid-July probably.

If you like, flip through the archives. Perhaps you'd like to read about my past vacations. Hehe.

Or, just look at that cute picture of my parents up there.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Making Connections in the Modern World, or not.

When I get bored or lonely, I usually flip on the computer and do a little angling for human interaction, digital though it may be. I can usually drop a comment here or there and feel as though I've corresponded in some sense with another grown-up, even though there's lag between responses. Sometimes, I must admit, I lag for a day or two if the computer doesn't appeal to me for one reason or another.

This morning it didn't appeal to me. Either there wasn't enough activity in the hive when I visited, or what activity there was didn't grab me, and besides I needed to know that life was taking place somewhere, real life, where people walk around outdoors doing useful or mutually interactive things.

I took the kids for a walk. They were on bikes, I pushed the stroller, and we went to a nearby park, where we met a toddler named Dexter, who, bless his heart, couldn't help summoning reference to the cable-TV serial killer of the same name. Hopefully the show will be long forgotten by the time he comes of age. My toddler was exhibiting predatory behaviors of his own. He wanted to touch Dexter for some reason, and so little Dexter of the impish smile and reddish hair, ran away pursued by Paulito, blond and bearish, arms outstretched.

A woman whom Dexter called "Mamaw" arrived shortly from her car, bearing a pack of Kools and a Big Gulp. She wore short shorts and flip-flops, was exceptionally thin, and might have been younger than I, if not for the wrinkles around her lips and eyes. She gave me a bad mommy look for letting my toddler harass her charge, even though it was soft harassment, interspersed with giggles and chase.

She took Dexter over to look at the dam on the river, freeing me to acknowledge that my other children were hogging the disk swings and making them tick-tock at an outrageously high and fast pace. I noticed as well, a Mexican dad, sitting in the shade, urging his son to ask for his turn on the swings.

When I called my kids off, they got back on their bikes and started zooming through the middle of the play area, which I feared would be another calamity when some small child wandered into their path, so I put the kibosh on that too, and we all had done with the park within about ten minutes of our arrival.

We began the walk home, cutting through the fairgrounds, as noon heat was upon us, and it looked like some kind of chariot race was going on. Everywhere pencil legged racehorses thumped the ground with their hooves, and Amish men in their periwinkle shirts and suspenders brushed their sweat away.

On the fence line Mennonite girls with size twelve bottoms (I know one when I see one), propped bare feet up on the lowest fence rail and leaned in towards the track, drinking gatorade, pulling loose wisps of hair off their temples and into clip-clasp barrettes. Their dresses were bright shades of fuchsia and tangerine.

Several yards to their left stood a girl from a different sect apparently, as she wore a long-sleeved brown dress, tied with a wraparound sash, no buttons, heavy black tights and shoes, and a black bonnet. She eyed the brightly dressed girls, as they hiked their hemlines up an inch or two complaining of the heat.

And several yards to their right, I stood in a t-shirt and black lycra exer-shorts (Gross), eyeing all the girls with envy.

Several months ago I picked up a blue calico pilgrim dress at Goodwill that somebody probably wore for reenactments, although, hand-sewn with pin-tucks on the bodice and hem, and puffed sleeves, I suppose it might have been someone's real dress. I've always loved costumes, dressing up, ball gowns, granny girdles and swimsuits.

A friend was telling me recently about a show on TLC called, "My Strange Addiction" in which a person couldn't leave the house without his head-to-toe costume. More than once, I've seen someone walking around town in a face mask, or a giant foam cowboy hat and thought they were probably mentally ill, or something. But in truth, if I thought I could get away with it, I wouldn't mind dressing in costume most days. I'm going to wear that blue dress.

The kids were thirsty; I was too, so we started to head home. I'd done what I could for the day to make real-life connections in the modern world, and met with short-shorts Mamaw, long-skirted teenagers, and a Mexican dad. None of them wanted to be my friend, though I hadn't pushed too hard in any direction. But I do wonder where all the mothers have gone.

On a related note:

Monday, June 20, 2011

Listening in

Sis: "Mom! (The Five-year-old) just flipped me off!"

Me: "No, he didn't. He doesn't know how to do that."

Sis: "He did! He put up his middle finger at me."

Me: "Even if he did make that motion with his hands, he doesn't know what it means."

Sis: "Yes he does! I told him every bad word in the world!"

Five-year-old: "I love you mom. You're a spray of love!" (kiss).

Boy 1: "Why are you picking your nose?"

Boy 2: "It's on my morning checklist."

Birthday Boy: "Get your butt out of the Birthday Boy's face!"

Nine: "Why won't you let me wear my muscle shirt to church?"

Me: "Because muscle shirts are for exercise only. And sleeping."

Nine: "Some people wear them for looking awesome all the time, and I'm one of them."

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Beautiful Days in Life

(title by my daughter--whose book of the same name was illustrated with many hearts and flowers)

9 a.m.
My daughter fixing herself a glass of ice water, has discovered a critical element of her femaleness, that a glass in hand makes everything more endurable. I'm a hot beverage person; she likes hers cold. And here she is, slowly easing into the morning, ice a-clinking, looking at a book before she can wake up and deal with the boys. I so relate. Meanwhile, I'm pretty sure they're out there finding some high place to pee off of.

12 p.m.
Something about the rain, gorgeous rain, but rain, no less has put us in an agitated mood. We are staying at my parents' to take care of the animals while they are out of town, and my husband is in Chicago, brutal travel lately, and I can't put my finger on the issue, if there is only one issue, that's making everyone so harebrained. Every direction is a false start.

Lunch stinks--and this happens whether home or away--because I can't muster enough enthusiasm for lunch--ever--breakfast, yes, dinner, sometimes--but lunch, no. Nothing good to eat that I don't have to cook, except chips (kids think this is a win), but even paired with peanut butter and jelly, it doesn't feel like a meal. So I keep grazing. Mosey to the kitchen, check the pantry one more time--maybe I have overlooked some leftover Easter candy.

I remember one of the neighbors being over here and talking about how his daughter-in-law threw a bunch of yew clippings into the field where the cows ate it. And by the end of the day they'd lost eight cows. They just fell over dead. Yew is poisonous to eat.

The guy said, "That's a weird feeling; one minute the cows are walking around right in front of you, and the next minute they're all dead." A weird feeling. Yes.

Last night, before my parents left town to go see my new nephew, three heifers were to have given birth. One had a healthy little calf that now follows close behind her in the field in the most adorable way.

Another had a calf with a twisted spine that had to be put down. Bereft heifer now complains mournfully to the full moon. She tried to steal the healthy calf from its mother, fought rather aggressively for it, until she was put in the isolation corridor.

A third heifer labored from morning to night and couldn't deliver. Vet came and said the calf was already dead inside, but could not remove it from the mother despite shoulder length gloves and a chain around the calf's neck. Bovine C-sections are rare and risky, requiring a specialty vet (up at Purdue), and this heifer was already feverish and suffering, so she, also, was put down.

Three cows dead in one night. I let my oldest stay up for it, but the rest of the kids were put to bed.

And this morning, dead heifer, still swollen with pregnancy, was lifted out of the barn, and sent away in a truck to the glue factory.

A little ambivalent about farm life.

One of my boys has been reading a series of books that he likes, and now speaks in the manner of the hero in his book: "My drawings are the kind of drawings that when you look at them, you think, that ought to be the cover for a horror book."

…Is that so?

"Naturally, I'm the first one finished eating. So much food. So little time."

Most of the bookish comments have something to do with the development of his own heroic identity, which causes concern that he may grow up and become a blogger. Though, on the flip side, he seems temporarily liberated from his identity as the manipulated little brother.

4 p.m.
House ransacked. Still no Easter Candy in the pantry. Nor wine.

9 p.m.
Hedging on Wendell Berry's assertion that there are few problems that cannot be solved by a walk in the woods, I thought I'd take the kids for a short jaunt. Dusky, humid, good smells everywhere, honeysuckle, most notably. And then one of my boys ran ahead, and kept going, certain we would catch up to him, but I had a toddler and several other reluctant movers, and there was no way we'd make it that far, plus I had on the wrong shoes. But he couldn't hear me when I tried to call him back, and there was no other option but to trudge on. Every good thing I try to do ends up going awry somehow.

My feet will no longer fit in my shoes, they're so blistered. Tomorrow will hurt. But I'm not going anywhere.

Kids still awake. Light outside for another hour. Blast.

11:30 P.m.
My parents' mail is much more interesting than mine. Wall Street Journal, llbean catalog, a tidy portion of bills and requests, Atlantic Monthly (when did they start getting this?). I flip through, reading "How to Land Your Kid In Therapy" by Lori Gottlieb--another article about helicopter parenting, and too much concern for a child's self-esteem.

Interesting. Though she keeps using the word "morph" and it becomes distracting, because I read another article recently quoting Hilary Clinton saying something was going to "morph into" something else. Seems like I, too, used "morph" recently. And morph, is not a certified verb, except in computer animation--which none of us were talking about.

11:36 p.m.
"…because we tend to have fewer kids than past generations did, each becomes more precious," says the article. Really? I keep reading quotes like this here and there, and the more I read the assertion, the more absurd it sounds to me.

A child is more precious because it's rare? A family with lots of kids may have less time and money to spend on each one, but it doesn't make them less precious.

Also, the assertion that people used to have more kids because they needed help on their farms--absurd. Pa Kettle says to Ma, "Looks like ten years from now we're going to need some help with that cotton. Let's get busy on it." Or people used to have more kids because they expected half of them to die--absurd.

I'm pretty sure people used to have more kids because they didn't use birth control.

12:07 am
The dog keeps farting. I'm going to bed.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Hunger and Thirst

I used to clean house for one of my college professors who had floor to ceiling bookshelves in almost every room. Most days when I cleaned, no one was home, and I would pick a CD out of his music collection to play while I dusted or folded laundry. I remember standing on a chair to dust in some high place when the Borodin Quartet, playing Shostakovich Piano Quintet in G Minor, reached its climax in the first movement.

The piece was a revelation to me, and I thought to myself that someday, somewhere, I had to go to wherever it was that that music lived. I'd never heard such exultation in pain, such thirstiness, such suffering and salve combined into one. I've always been susceptible to other people's angels and demons in music, and the combination of both in Shostakovich convinced me that those notes held the secret to life.

Several months ago, in anticipation of my husband and mine's anniversary, I got to thinking again about going where the music is, or at least, about "going" as salve to suffering--having some place to look forward to going as a means of making it through the day in which I lived--and I bought concert tickets, not to Shostakovich, but to Iron and Wine, which is a folk-rock band that my husband and I both love.

I always know I'm in trouble when anticipation of some future event is the best part of my day, but sometimes I ignore the warning signs because anticipation is bewitching and fun, and allows me to occupy the mostly unscripted hours of my life with thoughts of taking a longer shower using exfoliators and a fresh razor, of picking out clothes and getting dressed, asking my husband to point to my right foot or my left to indicate the shoe of his choice. And these luxuriant preparations would be only a first course to dining out, to walking around a town on a hot summer night, to visiting the cavernously dark and cozy interior of a club where well-dressed people have intimate conversations over drinks while waiting for good music to begin.

My anticipation reached its zenith Friday night as the concert date had finally arrived. And I felt this urgency about it--that somehow it wouldn't happen the way I anticipated it, that childcare for the kids would fall through, or my husband would have to work late, and that any obstacle would mean the life or death of our marriage, or more accurately, the life or death of me--since anticipation had been my sustenance now for a number of weeks.

The feast of my anticipation couldn't begin with the dawn as I had hoped, but it happened. The dressing occurred with slightly less luxuriation than it had happened in my fantasy, but my husband and I both readied ourselves in time for a good dinner before the concert, and some walking around, and some standing in the dark but not quite cozy club. And the music was quite good. Not dancing music--more like the repetitive bending of one knee while I slapped my thigh. And then there was the parade at midnight to our car, where crowds on the sidewalk had thickened to a current of bare shoulders and thighs, people bending over trash cans, and a few people standing on the corner handing out tracts that said, "Who is Jesus?"

And in the morning, driving to pick up my kids, I was thinking about a time in my life, when I might have anticipated such an evening every Friday night, where even that would not have been enough. My anticipation had been slaked but I was still thirsty.

It had been a lie--this story I've told myself over the past weeks that the one thing I need is a night out on the town. And driving through cornfields to reach my children, it seemed the most absurd thing I could ever have allowed myself to believe.

My husband knew the truth. When he has spent the week working "out there," and sometimes staying in very nice hotels, and eating good food, and playing golf with people whom he doesn't care for, because it's part of business, I don't believe him when he says he doesn't really enjoy it. I get agitated sometimes that he comes home on the weekend and wants to stay at home rather than going out again--taking us out (we who have been "stuck" at home). He wants to work on the house, or the yard, or relax with the kids running around here--and all I can think is "more of the same?" How much more of the same can I take?

But after a night out on the town, more than ever, "I hunger and thirst for true righteousness." I will not tolerate another lie: the soft thrill of a trip to the store, the cup of black coffee that pulls me out of bed each morning, any of the myriad objects and interests I deem to consume that likewise consume me--and yet never satisfy. I hunger and thirst for true righteousness: my children and their goodness, loving my husband, a family that helps one another. I hunger and thirst for communion with Christ, for the Eucharist, for the way the Holy Spirit whispers the truth in the bending of tall grass.

And yet to enjoy that for which I thirst, there is always a burden to carry, the burden of self-crucifixion. Sometimes, when I become aware that my eyes are in the habit of opening inwardly rather than outwardly, I have to teach myself all over again how to see. At first it burns to use my eyes, not just for getting around, but for acknowledging the realities of life as I live it, because life as I imagine it can overpower all of my senses.

It is a discipline to accept frustrations as well as gifts and perks; the suffering and the salve, the pain and exultation that blew me away in Shostakovich, and that I appreciate in Iron and Wine as well. It occurs to me now that the music is not some expression of an impassioned and idealized place in time, someplace that I can go, but rather the expression of having lived, truly lived, an entire life.

Unless we keep our hearts thus unfettered, how can we come to the Lord? Nothing apart from God can satisfy the human heart which is truly in search of him.--Saint Anthony of Padua

Friday, June 10, 2011

Life After CPS


A mother's heart, like every force of nature, is full of contradiction. She feels an urge both to nurture and to neglect. She wants involvement. She wants reprieve. She draws her children close; she locks them out. No mother is perfect all of the time. And there is no ideal scenario in which to raise kids.

Am I a good parent or a bad one? Most likely, I am both. The case workers who visited my house were very polite. They assured me that they have many calls like this every week, and they are required by law to investigate every one, but that I would have nothing to worry about after they submitted their report. In days, they confirmed that our case was closed, and a couple weeks later, I received a very nice report in the mail detailing the results of their investigation. There it was in writing, if I needed it--I was a good enough parent.

And yet…and yet…the top of the paper says "Investigation into allegations of abuse or neglect." Every couple of years or so, usually after taxes, I'm going through my desk and I come across it again. I pull it out and read it, and those words, "abuse or neglect," rip me up inside all over again.

If you take a student who makes A-pluses in every subject and throw her suddenly and unexpectedly into detention, her perspective of herself changes completely. She was a success; now she is a failure. She knows, theoretically, that there are people who spend every day in detention, who eventually flunk out. But just being there, and being associated with them, is a branding.

For awhile I thought that being investigated by CPS was the worst thing that could happen to me. I held myself back from making friends in our new community because I believed that everyone knew that we were the new family in town that couldn't keep track of its kids. I felt like I was being watched all the time.

There is not a negative comment you could make about the way I parent that I have not already thought about myself. You spoke to your kids that way? Abuser! You'd rather read your own book than Hop on Pop? Neglector!

But I could also see that my little fall, was also somehow a blessing, because it shattered my pride and fear, which are the particular sins of the hover mother. She believes that she can be both mother and savior to her children. But I was not their savior; I was an obstacle between my kids and people who loved them. It would be ok for me to accept help when offered.

My father-in-law often says that parenthood is the most important job in the world, and yet it's entrusted to amateurs. True, just as all important relationships are the territory of amateurs: wifehood, daughterhood, daughter-in-law-hood. I pray that the people I alienated through the years of my helicopter parenting do not remember the sins of my youth.

I would also attest that having a CPS investigation is not worse than a child losing its life due to remaining in truly abusive situations. My sister-in-law is a Foster Parent who has kids in her home that have been removed from their parents not once, not twice, but six and seven times, which seems incredibly generous to me.

I love my children. I meet their needs. I do not beat them. I strive to keep them safe in all situations. I don't use drugs. And if those statements are false--someone probably should intervene.

Being a mother and being a Christian, both require a constant battle against fear. If I have to cultivate a little willful ignorance about the troubles of the world in order to be thankful for the goodness of God's creation, rather than fearful of it, I might just do it. That doesn't mean I'm going to be stupid about it.

The way a child approaches the outdoors is often a mother story before it becomes the story of a childhood. How badly does Mom need a break? Is she a working mother? Is she a depressed mother? Is she a mother who will walk around the yard, turning over rocks with a toddler naming things for him? Does she leave the green canvas of a mown backyard blank, or does she fill it with swing sets and trampolines and play-scapes?

I would say that any negative experiences I had with nature as a child were better than no experiences with nature, that even though I wasn't a naturally outdoorsy child, it didn't prohibit me from appreciating the outdoors as an adult.

My ultimate connection with nature occurred when I recognized how dearly my own parents held it. They took us camping on vacations. At some point after the loss of our vacant lot next door, my dad let a pretty large portion of our backyard go wild. He planted one or two trees, then quit mowing and allowed the area to return to its natural state. And eventually my parents bought land with a woods, and started hobby farming.

I'm lucky to have several places where my children can play and be very safe. Our own yard (once they are past the dangerous toddler years), nearby parks (with supervision), and the homes of our families and friends where they can roam pretty freely.

But free range childhood, as several commenters have noted, is often circumstantial. It probably can't happen the way Esolen and Louv describe it for most kids these days, because of their particular circumstances. And where kids do play freely and safely for many hours outdoors without supervision, I'll wager, it often goes unreported.

That day I sent my children outside, and they kept coming back in--I stood there for a minute behind the locked door realizing that their rebellion had become their chosen activity for the day, that I needed to make nature just a bit more attractive to them at that moment. So I opened the door, and told them they were welcome to come inside and do my chores, and I would go out and play.

I exited the house, and lo, they followed me.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

On Hover Mothers

Part 1
Part 2

Now that I am a parent, I have become aware of the specific pitfalls of applying an adult consciousness to child's play. If screen time has been the root cause of a recent decrease in unstructured outdoor play, it's parental screen time rather than childhood screen time that carries heaviest blame.

While one used to hear the occasional horror story about kids falling out of trees, or drowning in swimming pools, or about the occasional wiener flasher on a rural road, TV and mass communication have opened parents' eyes to exceptional terrors that can befall our children.

Amber Alerts expand our awareness of missing children from a relatively small local radius, to a national one, increasing in our minds, the incidence of missing children. Nightly news reports the local and global body counts. Crime shows and movies can plant previously unheard of fears in a mother's mind. No parent wants to send their children off to play in a woods where creepy men may rendezvous on their lunch hours, or where tweakers carrying automatic weapons guard their portable meth-labs.

Pornography is not just the elephant in the closet in many homes (where any users are likely a known entity), it's also the elephant charging around the playground. Mothers, aware of pornography's widespread use, and the often youngish appearance of its subjects, suspect any man on or around the playground of having ulterior motives, that as soon as mom turns her head, some porn-nurtured perv will pull up in a window-less rape vehicle and spirit her children away to auction them off to some third-world monarch. (Though on a brighter note, since pornography is more likely to be stashed online these days, the screen-deprived unsupervised child is much less likely to run into someone's stacks of Playboys than they were twenty years ago.)

When we moved to our current house, we came from a neighborhood where I used to lock myself and my children inside for our safety. My children were younger then, and I had fewer of them, but I was most certainly a hover mother. I remember giving my in-laws (who had raised five children of their own) a list of guidelines for the handful of times I let them watch the kids. I did flashcards before my babies could walk. I sprinkled wheat bran on every meal. I stood at the playground and pushed the swings. I followed toddlers up and down the ramps onto the jungle gym. I schooled my husband on attachment parenting. Looking back on journals from those early years, I was very proud of the way I mothered, but I was also mostly miserable.

Hover Mothers tend to burn out, and after four kids, I dreamed of an environment where less might be required of me. I wanted to bring down my internal level of alert.

We immediately fell in love with our new house, its three bedrooms and five acres surrounded by cornfields and with a park across the street. We knew the interior space was small, but we believed that our children would be outside most of the time, so it wouldn't be an issue. Almost immediately after our move, however, I discovered that I had only traded one set of dangers for another.

Days after our move, my daughter, who was two at the time, escaped from the house and wandered out to the street. I was nursing a baby to bed; my husband was bathing the boys. Both of us thought the other knew where she was. And neither of us knew she could open the door. A woman passing brought her back, and we thanked her, relieved that the worst had not happened. I felt glad that we had chosen a nice community where people look out for one another.

The following Monday, I received a knock on the door, and I felt a little frisson of excitement that perhaps another neighbor was coming to welcome us. It was, however, Child Protective Services. I had to let them into my house, view my children, and examine my housekeeping, then answer their inquiry as to what happened. There was a weakness in our new-found fortress that we had no way of foreseeing or preventing.

After the home visit, our case was unsubstantiated, but no one had ever questioned my parenting up to that point. I had never questioned my parenting up to that point. I thought I was a great mom, the best mom. But the bottom line is that I wanted reprieve from the continuous state of alert, and as soon as I thought I had it, my child fell into harm's way.

I felt a little depressed after that. Would I spend the rest of my life in a continuous state of alert? Would even sleep become a taboo? Sometimes I didn't know what was worse, that my child had been in danger, or that everything I thought our family, and I especially, did well, was brought to question. And what kind of a parent would I have to become in order to keep everyone safe, while also not allowing myself to drop into a state of psychosis?

sorry, this keeps getting longer... to be continued...

Monday, June 6, 2011

Speaking of Nostalgia...


I tend to think that as recently (?) as thirty years ago, the golden era of young children wandering willy-nilly around the neighborhood in continuous, outdoor, unstructured playtime was already gone. Or maybe it was just gone for me. Maybe the chemistry was off among the children in our neighborhood. Or maybe I was an annoying child who couldn't keep friends.

I don't know what my brothers were doing in those days--one was enough younger on one side and the other, enough older on the other, so as to have little to do with me. And my sister was reading, all day, every day, which I'm sure my parents deemed worthy and quiet enough to allow in superfluity (actually, any of the three of them might have been out enjoying nature, just not in my memory).

There were grace periods when friends were brought in from other neighborhoods, or when we went to visit other families. Then we played hide and seek in the dark, and kick the can, while the parents did whatever it was that parents did. Also, when my boundaries expanded with age and experience, new outdoor opportunities opened up. My pre-teen years were full of adventure with my favored friends, as we could bike several miles to one another's houses, or meet up at a local park. And on vacation, I was allowed to go by myself into the woods, and sit with my journal and write stories of alienation, which was heavenly.

Occasionally, my mom would get together with her girlfriends and all the children would be thrown into a hazy wasteland of benevolent neglect. I was eleven when I started babysitting, so my parents also probably assumed that I was old enough to be left alone for short periods of time. But I was not old enough, at eleven, to drive a car, which is exactly what my cousin and I started doing when our moms went to play racquetball.

The moms pulled out of the driveway in one station wagon, and not ten minutes later, my cousin and I pulled out of the driveway in another to drive to Osco, and buy bulk candy, which her ex-babysitter, an Osco cashier, sold to us with a wink for a penny a pound.

Our little interlude of underage driving lasted for some time, until I tried it once by myself in my own driveway and backed into a tree, then pulled forward into the foundation of the garage. I managed to center the car in the driveway and vacate the scene of the accident, which caused a major row between my parents when Dad thought that Mom had wrecked the car and didn't tell him about it. I was eventually found out, and disciplined.

In any case, driving with my cousin was one of my most enlightening and enlarging adventures in unstructured playtime. And I believe the success of that experience in my memory was one hundred percent related to putting ourselves in danger.

Kids love danger. Tottering on the edge of death, facing our mortality, we feel more alive than any other time. Hence people pay lots of money to jump out of airplanes, and off bridges, and to ride roller coasters. My kids don't want to play in a shed, they want to play ON the shed. They don't want to hop placidly on a trampoline, they want to pull the sucker under a tree, and jump from high branches onto a super-elastic springboard. While I do think there's such a thing as a more naturally cautious child, I'm not directly related to any.

I want to say that kids just need clear limits and boundaries for their protection, which is true, but anytime you outlaw death in their activities, they give them up completely. Or shall we say, kids tend to throw the baby out with the bathwater. No threat of death on the swing? No, thank you.

Nor can a parent outlaw death in nature itself. It's beautiful and wonderful, but death is always close by in nature: coyotes frozen cold in a corn field, mosquitos slapped on one's arm, cows, pigs, chickens and goats led to slaughter, roadkill, food chains, and a rhino beetle stuck on the round backside of its exoskeleton, flailing its legs on the pavement.

to be continued (again)

Remember the days of yore when children frolicked in nature all day? (Actually, I sort of don't)

My husband ordered a Pawley's Island Hammock, wide as it is long, then told the kids who were already swarming it, top and bottom like little anthropoids, that only one person could be on it at a time. Our last hammock met its doom after twenty or so productive years on my parents' screened in porch, within a year of becoming ours, when the kids ganged up on it, two and three at a time to try and bounce each other off. Was it time that did the damage, or stress, the hammock's own resistance to any activity that is not rest?

In any case, we've spoiled their fun again, like we did with the trampoline (another hand-me-down from friends). Once they'd ripped up the netting and cushions around the edges, it seemed more prudent to remove the incompetent protections rather than give the kids false confidence in them. But once again, we had to enforce a one child policy, which effectively drained them of any interest in the trampoline at all. What fun is danger if it can't be shared?

There's been lots of reading in our family lately about the necessity of unstructured playtime outdoors. My dad ordered Anthony Esolen's book, "Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child" and read us excerpts about how kids should be sent out early and often to engage their imaginations in the landscape and the luxury of endless hours outdoors. My husband and I, also, have been passing back and forth, Richard Louv's "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder." Again, the concept of children whiling away the hours outdoors.

I say, well and good. But there are obstacles at times to its working out exactly how you want it to. I was talking to my cousin recently about her upcoming move out of the burbs to a small acreage, about how she's looking forward to living without the scrutiny of neighbors, so she can "get those mo-fos (sic) a trampoline and lock them out of the house."

I'm share her vision, and we already have the benefit of both trampoline and distant neighbors. But this morning, a wonderfully mild, overcast and comfortable summer day, I sent the mo-fos out, and they spent the rest of the morning trying to get back inside.

"There's nothing to do."

"I'm hungry."

"I'm bored."

After giving them a few suggestions like, dig a hole, make a tree house, ride your bike, jump, swing, get a book and read it in the shade--I turned the lock and they all began to panic. They ran around the house to the front door. They banged on windows. The five-year-old began screaming so loudly, I worried that my neighbor--who is eighty years old, deaf, and four acres away--might judge me.

I don't let my kids get on the computer at all, or play video games, or watch much TV, a DVD every now and then, so it's not like they get too much screen time and need to reacclimatize themselves to self-structured playtime. Their favorite pastimes are legos and trading cards, writing in journals, reading books, and following me around aimlessly, asking for food. Are these books purporting a natural affinity towards nature during childhood just hearty nostalgia for ages past?

Did I ever as a child, enjoy being hot, itchy and bored? Not for one minute. As a grown-up, I've encouraged myself to spend more time in nature, but only rarely is it a blissful wonderland, where I lie around shivering at the majesty of it all. There's beauty to be had, sure, but it's often difficult to access without running into mosquitos, ticks, Poison Ivy, Stinging Nettles, intense heat or cold, and myriad other dangers and discomforts.

My parents didn't move to the farm until my siblings and I were all safely ensconced in our own marriages, so if I was outside as a kid, I was on the porch reading, or on my bike, doing banana seat stunts in attempts to lure some other kids out to play with me. Only rarely did neighbor kids cross the invisible lines between our backyards, possibly because one of our neighbors had a pool to which it was notoriously difficult to obtain entry. More than once I was yelled at by a spazzy-haired woman who only gave notice of her existence if you crossed into her yard.

There was a window of time when I was young enough that I didn't bore easily or feel the discomforts of nature, but I was old enough to ride my bike up and down the street visiting what was left of the neighborhood's vacant lots. My sister and I made some trails through a vacant lot next door, which was subsequently razed to build a brick ranch house with black shutters, for a yuppy couple with two Cocker Spaniels. It sounds trite to say that that was the end of that, as though the loss of one little acre of woods would spoil the love of nature in a child, but somehow, it did.

Still, I was getting sent outside quite a bit to fend for my own entertainment. I remember taking my little make-up purse out to the end of my driveway, sitting there on the asphalt putting on lipstick until two older neighborhood girls, Abra and Natalie, walked up and asked if I wanted a make-over. It was just what I was hoping for, and I closed my eyes and unwittingly let them do my face up like a clown. When I came inside and saw the final effect, it somehow sealed my distaste for any further neighborhood affiliations. There was nothing out there for me.

to be continued...

Sunday, June 5, 2011

I'm happy I'm not a pig-breeder

so I don't have to go shopping for these.

(Though, for what it's worth, I'd put my money on Economizer.)

Wednesday, June 1, 2011


The drive to my parents' house includes a country road that pretends to have two lanes, but is really only wide enough for one car. It's a terribly tempting road on which to speed because of all the short hills that, when you accelerate just so, send your guts up to your ears.

So, I was speeding on those blind hills this afternoon, when I crested a hill, guts a-flying, and came face to face with a twenty-foot wide farm implement. You always know it's a possibility on this road. You've seen the white wooden crosses on the edge of the wheat fields.

He pulled into the ditch; I clung to the pavement.

Actually, this is a lie, and I don't know why I'm telling it. I crested the hill and saw the implement about two-hundred meters away, but there was plenty of time to brake and pull to the side. Suppressing my urge to intensify the might-have-beens, I slowed down and passed the tractor with it's neophyte driver, a boy with just the hint of whiskers, and thought about why it is that I love coming back to my parents' so much, because of these death threat roads, and too-young boys driving tractors, the sage colored wheat, and yellow mustard flowers, derelict barns and the rusty bush hog in front of someone's mobile home, burr-headed kids wrestling on a trampoline, and us, pummeling the headwind, onward towards…sanctuary.

It's the thought of both work and rest, or rather, the kind of rest that good work makes possible that draws me here. Most of my work at home is psychologically or emotionally exhausting, but I relish bodily exhaustion lately, some new personal fad that will surely pass.

My boys were to help put up some hay at 25 cents a bale, their little mercenary radar beeping out their prospects before work had even commenced. And the little kids want to be where the money is too, counting bales thrown onto the trailer with hashmarks on a notepad from the air-conditioned cab of the pick-up truck.

With everyone thus occupied for the last few hours of daylight, I was half-tempted to slink away from the crowd, and what? Use my time? Read a book? Write? I could have at least sat in the cab with the kids and flipped through the pages of a magazine, but there was some little whisper in my conscience about complete emotional participation in what was becoming a full-family endeavor. Plus, I felt a strong draw to get my hands on a baling hook, drive it into one of those hay bales, and sling it somewhere, anywhere, spin it over my head and shoot it off to Mars.

I waited for the boys' faces to turn red, their soaking hair to make black spikes on their foreheads. They complained of itchy arms and blisters, though they weren't ready to throw in the towel. Money is that powerful. We'd picked up all the bales in the lower field, and it was time to load it on the elevator when I saw my window of opportunity. Dad stood in the loft waiting to receive and stack the bales, the boys took turns loading the elevator, but they were so done.

The job required fresh hands, which made me pause to consider whether it also required fresh clothes, because I was still in a t-shirt and a denim skirt, and while I like the idea of actually WEARING my clothes out, rather than pandering to them, and removing them at the first glimpse of labor or soil, I could see that the job would entail burn-up-the-deodorant sweating. So I made the necessary wardrobe change, put on the elbow length gloves, grabbed a baling hook and headed up to the loft.

Here, one lingers again on the edge of doom, the rail-less ledge, the rickety chain-link elevator like an antique roller coaster, just inches away and threatening to take off a finger, or swipe out at your shoe-lace and pull you over and down fifteen feet to the dirt floor of the barn (The swirly man above on my masthead comes from this very elevator: use at risk of having your body contorted like a pipe-cleaner, hands-flayed in alarm!).

And here I was, leaning, hooking, swinging, sweating to the chink, chink, and the metal drone of the tractor motor. Can you tell it was everything I had hoped it would be? That the sweet cologne of decaying grass shot through my arms, legs, back, neck, and haunch, a shiver of hope for the future? There, below on the trailer, lolly-gagging on incumbent bales, my boys calculated their stacks of coin and the let sweat drip down their cheeks, hinting someday to be men. There in the cab of the truck, my youngers reckoned the winners of today's labors.

There was another field to bring in after this one. But we had all cemented our rhythm by this time, so it only took an hour. By the time we finished, the sun was nothing but blush and affirmation as my mom and I walked down the gravel lane to get the mail. My daughter chased us, barefooted on a bicycle, and the two-year-old rode on my shoulders.

It always surprises me that benedictions result from the simplest choices: to choose self, or to share oneself? To exit the theater, or to stay in? I could have spent the evening thumbing through the glossy pages of the latest Country Living. My mom would have kept an eye on the kids.

Inside, the boys had showered and were scooping up bowls of ice-cream. I ran the little ones through the bath and got them popsicles so they would sit on the porch while we said the Rosary. My husband called to report that he was coming home early from Jacksonville, and then we lay still in the dark to defy the heat.