Imagine a mother absorbed with the message of her time: Work hard, make lots of money, raise capable children, have nutritious family meals, maintain deep friendships, be emotionally available, contribute to your community, do everything. Don’t worry. Be happy.
Now give her a job among ruthless millionaires at Microsoft, but make it clear that no matter how hard she tries she will never be one. Add in three childrenand marry her to Anthony, a kind, cheerful man who could not be less ambitious (at one point she compares him to a sloth) and you get Margot Page. Paradise Imperfect is her story.
A story written with humor, insight and irony throughout, Margot has no problem confronting her demons. Here she is at the end of yet another ten-hour workday in Seattle, chewing her nails at a red light:
So far today, I:
· had procured zero items for Hannah’s middle-school auction—just as I had yesterday, and the day before that,
· had forgotten to pack a snack for Harry to eat between school and practice, and
· was right on track for making Ivy the last child at daycare to be picked up. Bad-mother hat trick!
Later that evening, she and Anthony walk the kids a few blocks to the home of one of the millionaires for an evening that does a big crazy dance on every one of her exposed insecurities. Fabulously expensive art, furniture, electronics. A sweet stay-at-home mom whose offhand comments about her own privileged life provoke a frustration in Margot that’s so bitter you can taste it.
That’s the night that ends with Margot trying to soothe herself to sleep by making a list of what she’ll definitely get done tomorrow. She fails. She is un-soothed. She is, instead, wide awake and suddenly sure what needs to happen next: they should all go spend a year in Costa Rica, in a town they once visited for a week. She shakes Anthony awake and poses the plan. Here is the entirety of his part of the conversation:
Then he goes back to sleep. (He may just be the drollest husband in literature.)
No matter where they go, though, he isn’t going to deliver what she wants from him. He can’t change her, and he doesn’t see any need to change himself. She wants to be in charge of every plan? Okay. She wants to cram every second of all their lives with her personal version of success, purpose and meaning? Go for it.
And yet it works—the marriage, the family, the year in a foreign country. It’s Anthony, in his charming, dissociated way, who underlines the metaphor. From Costa Rica, Margot is on a chat window with him, using a broken keyboard with no space bar. He’s away on a quick trip to Seattle. At one point, looking at her jammed-together words on his screen, he kindly makes her an offer:
Here are some extra spaces.You seem to be out again.
That’s it exactly. Spaces. She’s been so desperately out of spaces for so long. Here she is in the rainforest:
Standing at our laundry line, I could see past the guava tree, over the foothills and down, down, to the thin blue band of the Gulf . . . I walked back and forth. I remembered to look at the sky.
Costa Rica turns out to be about space. Margot is airing out her life in this book; she’s lifting up each scene—beautiful or troubling—in its turn and holding it still for our appraisal.
She wrote Paradise Imperfect with ten years’ distance between today and Costa Rica, which means we get a pleasantly detached view of things that were definitely not pleasant in the moment. The children are now mostly grown and happy. The job has not consumed her. The mid-thirties woman we get to know has become a mid-forties woman it’s easy to like, and this sharing of her loopy, loving year on the side of a mountain in the rainforest is a gift.
Those gritty, witty lyrics, dealing harsh truths that I never quite lived but knew I wanted to know about. As a teenager, I listened and I loved the dark worlds he painted. But later—I am not even kidding about this—Lou Reed was the heart of my parenting soundtrack, my melodious Dr. Spock. Because in addition to songs about edgy experiences that I never had and never would, Reed wrote, so eloquently, to the world I do live in. In my pantheon of Reed favorites, two in particular have been going through my head since we all got Sunday’s sad news.
* * *
My children, like pretty much everyone’s in this particular 21st-century parenting culture, are quite gifted.
Gifted children get enriched to within an inch of their lives in my world, and while I can mostly recognize this is bullshit, I am also easily seduced. A mama starts to worry that if her children aren’t virtuosos at a potpourri of sports, stringed instruments, and world languages, they will end up all kinds of fail.
But Lou Reed always called me on it. Whenever I found myself about to sign some small person up for something ridiculous, be it baby French or a couple of paychecks’ worth of SAT prep, the bossy and unsubtle lyrics of Reed’s “Teach the Gifted Children” smacked me to my senses:
Teach the gifted children, Lou told me, and then he listed exactly what those children need to know: Teach them to have mercy.Teach them about sunsets … about anger … about mystery … about forgiveness …
Dude. It’s so much easier just to sign them up for Math Club and soccer camp.
That path of those other lessons is not nearly as well-marked, and comes with very little college-admissions upside.
Lou Reed knew what kind of gifted mattered most, and the characters that populated the underbelly-world he mostly sang about were not that. My children, irrespective of how they might fare on any test, have been gifted with love and support, with the assumption that they’ll be fed when they’re hungry, and stay warm and dry when winter comes.
Teach them about mercy, he sang, and for children born into lives of education and enrichment and power, what more important subject could we possibly teach? Baby Mozart, surely, is secondary.
* * *
Reed’s chronicling of the world’s darkness has long been hailed from all corners. But in my own small corner, it was his ability to mix light into all the dark that spoke most powerfully. “What’s Good” is a catchy little number, a hilarious catechism of the ridiculous:
What good is seeing-eye chocolate?
What good’s a computerized nose?
Reed wrote “What’s Good” after watching two close friends die in the same year, and he moves his lyrics quickly from goofy-absurd to horror-absurd:
What good is cancer in April?
Again and again he asks the question—What’s good?—but his song keeps not answering and it starts to peter out until you think maybe there won’t be an answer. But at last, gathering strength, the backup singers start to chant: Life’s good. Reed speaks, rather than sings, the wonderful, terrible truth in the song’s last line:
Life’s good. But not fair at all.
Life is absurd-funny and absurd-horrible. Deeply unfair, and deeply good. It’s hard to hold both those truths, so Lou Reed wrote us a song to help.
I added “What’s Good” to a hundred playlists, hoping to inoculate my children against that awful, inevitable moment when they must learn about horror and pain. When the great unfairness strikes, I prayed for them, let this live in their bones, so deep they don’t know whence it came: Life’s good.
What better way to put a truth in our bones than to sing it there, with Lou Reed?
Youngest was ten when she, too, lost one of her closest friends to cancer. Acute myelogenous leukemia doesn’t fuck around, and when this sweet boy went from healthy to gone within a week, all we could do was hold our girl tightly as grief howled through her too-young self. She hurled her shaking body into us—her daddy, sister, brother and me—and we made it to the couch. She lay across all our laps at once and we wrapped ourselves around every trembling bit of her, murmuring.
“I know it, baby. I know. It is the worst possible thing, and it is not fair.”We listened to “What’s Good” over and over, that winter.
“Life’s like Sanskrit read to a pony,” Uncle Lou sang, and we understood that he wasn’t being glib. He simply knew that sometimes, there is no sense to be made.
That spring, Youngest approached me, a little shy: “I’m starting to think maybe…” she stared at her foot in its pink sock. Pink had been her buddy’s favorite color, and she’d barely taken off the socks they’d passed out at his funeral. “I’m starting to think some tiny good things have maybe come from the huge, awful thing. Does that make me a terrible person, thinking that?”
“Not at all, sweetie. That’s life. What kinds of things?”
“Like, from the beginning of fifth grade, boys and girls couldn’t play together or people would tease and make kissy noises. But now, everyone just plays with everyone, and is nice to each other. It’s like we all know what matters. I think … I think it’s good…”
She left it there.
Thank you, Lou Reed. Not just for your brilliant raising up of streets and grit and darkness. As I try to teach my gifted children, try to teach them what’s good, I thank you also for your glimpses of light, and for singing me into the motherhood I want to live out.
The latest installment ofDear Drudgery, a series in which we tell parenting tedium what’s what.
This is a story about why I find myself in a bar most Tuesday evenings, often wearing penguin pajamas.(The penguins themselves are wearing scarves and pompom hats, very stylish.) I was driven to this ritual the usual way: Chili glops on the kitchen counters.
* * *
Some years ago, I floated downstairs on a Saturday morning, heart swelling with a fantasy of breakfasty togetherness. The work week was behind me, and this morning I would orchestrate a cozy domestic tableau: a pajama-clad family smiling around homemade yumminess. Anthony, bless him, had cleaned the kitchen last night. I was about to mess it up again, in the name of Motherly Love.
My fantasy cracked when I walked into the kitchen and stuck to the floor. It shattered completely when I saw the counters, still sporting the crumbly, saucey reminders of last night’s chili and cornbread. DAMMIT.
To be fair, pots had been scrubbed and the trash taken out. But I was smacking right up against our most reliable drudgery trap: Anthony just doesn’t see some things. And I do.
You can’t make someone notice that which he does not notice. So as prime notice-er, I faced a familiar choice: I could gently point out the problem: “THIS ISN’T WHAT IT MEANS TO CLEAN THE KITCHEN!”
Or I could finish the cleaning myself, doing last night’s work before whistling up a delectable breakfast.
I felt my golden-glow morning slip-sliding toward resentment. Those options suck.
Then . . . waitasec. What were the essential elements of my fantasy? Surely the parts about being cozy in our pj’s and enjoying each other mattered more than my star turn as Donna Reed. Could I salvage what mattered most, without needing to develop a Glop Strategy?
I threw on a sweatshirt and scrawled a note: “Gone to Fargonian. Saw no reason to get dressed. Come!”
Anti-drudge strategy #1: Flee the scene of the drudgery.
* * *
On that Saturday and for two years following, our family dribbled by ones and twos, as we woke up, into the tiny café just three blocks from our house. Each week, Heidi, the café’s owner, would ask “Strawberry crÃªpe?” and Youngest, whose pj’s still had feet, would answer “YES, PLEASE!”
Heidi gave extra whipped cream and never asked the kids to pay. She knew Anthony and I would be along eventually and our family would loll on her couch, licking our plates and reading old National Geographics.
That first morning had just been about ditching the nobody-wins options of the drudge dynamic. (And by the time we got home, all the juice was out of my frustration—I mentioned the chili-n-crumbs to Anthony, he cleaned it, and that was that.). But it turned out our new ritual had a whole ‘NOTHER drudgery antidote built inside it: other people. We’re not always our best selves around strangers (see: The Entire Internet), or even around the people we love best. But toss some nice neighbors into the mix?
Anti-drudge strategy #2: Community.
Community isn’t just a small-town phenom—we live smack in the center of a metro area of three and a half million people. It’s whether you bother. Bother to go to the same little place every week, tell the person behind the counter your name and ask hers. It’s whether you talk to her a bit, ask how the morning is going, and how her son is liking Kindergarten. Friendships make the world merry. And good feelings quash the drudgey ones—that’s just scientific fact.
Yes, yes, community, nice. But where is the Tuesday-night drinking?
* * *
Our Saturday goodness came crashing down when Heidi closed her restaurant. (Turned out my panacea was her drudgery. Who’da thunk?) A bar—a BAR—moved into the space, and our cozy family refuge was replaced by hipsters and noise and all like that.
It’s possible I sulked for a few months.
“I’m not a bar person.”
But by now Eldest was babysitting age, and I was starting to learn about flexing a little.
Two years before, I’d given up my homecooked fantasy but kept its key components:
* Dress for comfort, and
* Together time.
We’d added, by happy accident,
Now, we’d transition from café to The Bottleneck. (The hipsters wouldn’t mind—didn’t their species maintain a staunchly pro-pajama stance?) Liquor laws meant we’d have to redefine together, but Anthony and I were due for some moments without the chilluns.
Anti-drudge strategy #3: be flexible.
We learned that the bartender’s name was Tyler.
We call it Pajama Night. In place of kidlets, we invite all the grownups we know. Friends within walking distance often come, but sometimes it’s just the two of us. Pajamas are optional, but the greeting is required:
“Happy Pajama Night!”
“Happy Pajama Night to you!”
We are cheery and making fun of ourselves and dead serious about this. The battle against drudgery that started as a way to keep my life in order without killing anyone has expanded, as all good philosophies must. It’s about finding territory where there’s no work for me to do (or to notice has not been done), and being with people we love. It’s about flexing my requirements, knowing that if I keep focus on what’s truly important, I can scoop up more joy—and leave disappointment behind.
Not everyone has a neighborhood café or a neighborhood bar (or pajamas.) These things are not the point. The point is: What is the essence of what I need, to love my life a little better? Does it have to be an exact thing, or is there a similar option that maybe is easier, and close at hand?
* * *
Anthony’s still in his clothes from work but I changed into hoodie + penguin bottoms shortly after dinner. Peter, our new bartender, calls “Happy Pajama Night!” as we open the door. My sister will show up soon, straight from class. Beth might be here later in her bathrobe and slippers, because Beth doesn’t do things by halves. We long for the reappearance of Bill’s robot pajamas, but wardrobe doesn’t matter. It matters that we’ve made it here, again, to enjoy the blessing that is friends.
Without my asking, Peter brings a Pajama Night drink invented just for me—the Pink Margot II. I am in a bar in my pajamas and many of the people know my name. I don’t have any idea what’s in this drink, but I know it is both bitter and sweet, which works.
It’s a little maudlin at my house these days. Through a combination of natural attrition and a distressingly adventurous Youngest, our nest is prematurely (if temporarily) empty. I’ve been wandering through bedrooms and sighing a lot, remembering the times I said “I AM SO TIRED OF THIS” instead of “Sweetie, come here. Tell me.” It’s going to be a long-ass haul to December.
In one room, left bittersweetly messy, I am dwelling on all the times I got it wrong when my eye falls on a coupon. It’s taped high on the wall, safe from the chaos below:
One of the tragedies of working full time was that my evenings were all about tasks. Weekends, of course, were errands-and-sports. Eventually I realized that, to get several hours in a row that were PURE FUN, I was going to have to steal them.
Everyone knows that stolen time is sprinkled with pixie dust, all activities more magical when you’re supposed to be doing something else. Tom Sawyer had more fun playing hooky than he ever did on a Saturday afternoon.
But casting myself as both Tom and Aunt Sally would be tricky; it’s a far more gifted parent than I who can manage the message: “Cutting school with me is special fun, but try this with your little friends and INCUR MY WRATH. School matters!”
But I wanted to playyyyyyy.
And so homeschool day was born. Each kid got a single coupon a year.
I didn’t always know what precipitated the triumphant cashing in of a coupon – time for a break? a good weather forecast? – and I didn’t pry. I just took the coupon and started planning. And because our kids have been blessed with many of the best schoolteachers on the planet—thank you, thank you, thank you—we always had cheerful school-side partners in crime. (Ditching work was harder, but, you know, whatever.)
Now, if I were actually homeschooling, I’d have needed things like a long-term plan and possibly some training. But really, how much damage could I do? Tomorrow, my darling would be back safe with the professionals. (NB to actual homeschooling parents: Wow. Go you.) Having absolutely no responsibility to anything made my prep work giant fun.
I made Highly Official trappings. A printed schedule, with class periods and color coding. Very legit. Such hullaballoo is hardly necessary, but I found it upped the fun AND kept me feeling good about the messaging—this was different school, not skipping school.
And because I am hip to all the big-league educational trends, my homeschool always sported an INTEGRATED CURRICULUM. When Eldest, third grade, slapped down her coupon one dreary November evening, my subsequent lesson plan was as Thanksgiving as a smiling, bulletin-board turkey.
Four days later at 8:30 sharp, first period, we headed to the kitchen for Mathematics (she loved when I called it “Mathematics”). Our task was to quadruple all the recipes for Thanksgiving dinner BECAUSE OBVIOUSLY, LEFTOVERS ARE THE WHOLE POINT. We got out actual ingredients when necessary, and the lightbulb that went on when Eldest measured 3/4 cup butter four times—”Hey! That’s three cups!”—was barely dimmed by the surrounding white haze. (Flour is not the best choice for teaching fractions. Well, now I know.)
For Literature & History (double period, 1-2:40), I read aloud from The Witch of Blackbird Pond, because it is vaguely Pilgrim-y. Plus, it has that chapter where the Tory governor cancels Thanksgiving, even though long-suffering Mercy has already made the pies.
And so on.
In Homeschool Day, we found that sweet spot where what my child likes anyway (school in pajamas!) hit what I really wanted to share with them (books from my childhood!).
One year, we revolved Middlest’s day around his favorite part of regular school: P.E. We jogged a mile to our favorite park, then talked about why exercise makes us sweat. Flopped on the grass that was today our classroom, we read Jackie and Me, a fictionalized look at the man who broke baseball’s color barrier, and then we calculated batting averages.
The quasi-formality I drummed up each Homeschool Day resulted in a kind of role play, Student and Teacher. This broke some of the unpleasant habits we fell into as Parent/Offspring. I’m sorry to admit that I was reliably more patient as Math Teacher than when I was monitoring math homework.
The kids stepped up their game, too. When Mom chirps on a weekend morning, “Guys! Let’s go to the museum!” it’s just a groan. But when your homeschool schedule reads:
1 pm: Field trip, The Frye
Well, that’s a whole other thing.
And when we went to the Frye Art Museum (a free collection of manageable size, and close to home), I had Eldest pick her favorite picture (ART CLASS!), then create backstory for it in the form of a poem or a fairy tale (WRITING!). While she scribbled in her notebook beneath a painting twice her size, I wandered the museum and created a kind of scavenger hunt:
Identify art that. . .
…makes you feel scared
…makes you feel hopeful
…makes you feel sleepy
Afterward, we tried to pin down what the artist had done to elicit those feelings. Bonus: Her “scary” picture had a battle scene on it, so we went ahead and learned what the fighting had been about. (HISTORY!)
We got a lot of mileage out of the museum. Then we went to its café and ate a lot of cake. (LUNCH!)
My kids are too old to want homeschool days, now. (Not to mention NOT EVEN PRESENT. So unacceptable.) But a relic on the wall above a crash scene of rejected clothing brings back those stolen moments: in the museum, at the park, in a cloud of flour. I wasn’t only drudgey. There were times I got it right.
Ah, lecturing. The joy of knowing things that the children do not, and telling them all about it. How lucky you are that I understand so much, is the subtext of every parental lecture. And that I am willing to share my wisdom with you.
We have talked some in this series about nagging, but lecturing is nagging all growed up. Nagging lives for the moment: Clear your dish. Get your backpack off the couch. Lecturing takes the long view. It’s not just this dish, this minute. Lecturing understands that the left-behind dinner dish is merely a fleeting symptom of a deep character flaw—our children’s selfishness, thoughtlessness, and senses of entitlement are problematic, and so we must lecture them out.
“Pick up your backpack,” is a nag; the lecture is more like: “The world is not just about you, sweet cheeks. It’s time you realize what it means to be part of a family.”
Because we’re not just creating a tidy living room; we’re creating people. In procreating, we have taken it upon ourselves to send children out into the world, and I don’t want mine to get out there and be assholes. This is a reasonable fear! Perfectly adorable children grow up to monopolize conversations, be sarcastic to the elderly, and talk loudly on their cell phones on public transportation. And so I lecture, for a better world.
My parental lecture series has many installments. Your Life is Cake and You Should Appreciate It, is a biggie, as is It’s Actually Pretty Easy To Be Helpful, So Why Not? My most artful lecture, Why You Should Share, is one I stole from a friend several years ago. This beauty is pithy, concise, and in just a few short sentences manages to turn standard childhood pettiness into a life-threatening character flaw:
“Sweetie, I can see you don’t feel like sharing the toy with your sister. And I understand—it’s yours! But remember this: That girl is the closest genetic match you have on this planet and one day, you might need a kidney. When that day comes, your sister might not feel like sharing.”
By definition, my lecture topics are rarely pleasant. This makes lecturing a prime candidate for funnification.
I share this truth with you now:
The very most absolute fun thing you can do with lectures is to outsource them.
Here’s how it works.
You take a standard lecture, and you give it a name. And then you open it up.
At our house, the This is Dinner speech as delivered by me went roughly like this:
“Guys, this is dinner, and I’m just making the one. If you don’t like this dinner, that’s fine, but I don’t need to hear about that – you’re welcome to cheerfully make yourself something else. If you don’t finish your dinner? Also okay. But when you come back hungry in a couple of hours, don’t expect snacks until you’ve eaten some growing food.”
One night when Eldest was frowning at her asparagus and gearing up for god-knows-what, I turned to Middlest. “Think you could give the This is Dinner speech tonight?”
COULD HE EVER. Standing up, Middlest made his eight-year-old windpipe go very deep. “This” he intoned, “is Dinner.” He embellished. He listed myriad alternative dinner options available in the kitchen. He made sure we took this very, very seriously.
And we were off. From that moment, I could always say “What lecture do you think I’m about to give right now? Think you could do it?”
“Oh! Oh! I want to! Let me!”
When we lived in Costa Rica, the biggest linguistic milestone of the year came the evening that Youngest gave the This is Dinner speech in Spanish:
“Esta es la cena. . .” she began in her five-year-old lisp, standing on her chair to get everyone’s attention. “Mama he hacerlo. . .”
Do the kids think it’s kinda dumb? Of course. Do they do it anyway, and is it better than having to do it myself? OH YOU BET. And here is a point, a very important one so probably I will harp on it for a while because, you know, it’s what I do: Standing up against drudgery is not actually about whether the kids are having fun. Here in the 21st-century U.S. of A., parenting is already hyperskewed toward ensuring these children are living marvelous, fun, enriched lives every minute of every day. My anti-Drudge campaign? That’s about ME having a good time.
Bottom line? Each of my kids still has to share/pick up their stuff/not be bratty about having to share a bedroom—whether I’ve written a limerick about it, made them pick a task out of a jug, or just become slightly unhinged. It’s the journey, darlings, I say to them. And I want to enjoy it, even the tedious parts. Do I want the kids to enjoy the journey, too? Oh, so much. But believe me: When I’m having more fun, all of us are.
All three of my kids babysit, now. Not long ago, Eldest came home, tired but glowing, from a long summer day with the three adorable girls she takes care of. “I taught them a speech,” she told me. “We called it ‘This is snack.'”
The latest installment of Dear Drudgery, a series in which we tell parenting tedium what’s what. The story so far: I was a fun-loving young sprite and then there were three children and also being married can be hard, and for a while I kind of lost the plot. Then I made a Commitment to Fun, and now my life is daisies and nothing ever is the matter! it helped.
I’ve noticed that bad things don’t have to actually happen for them to bleed the color from my day—just the threat is enough. Layoffs are rumored at work. The Newsroom might get canceled. Eldest seems likely to forget that colleges aren’t just going to invite her—she’s going to have to apply.
In such times, even if the present moment is quite sparkly, my anxiety about what’s coming dulls it a bit. The palette of my day gets less vibrant, more queasy. Bad things make themselves felt, whether they manifest or not.
I started to wonder, in my ongoing battle against drudgery: Could the converse be true?
That is, did we actually have to have the fun in order to get the emotional brightener? Or could I just kind of. . .threaten it?
The concept had already worked on a small scale: When I added freebies to the Jug of Endurable Tasks, the mere possibility of scoring one brightened the entire enterprise.
Naturally, because I am the very specific product of a very specific culture, I knew it was time to supersize.
I called them Backpacks of Possibility.
I went to the thrift store and got five backpacks, one for each of us. (Including a Hello, Kitty. Excellent.) I filled these with essentials for a short, spontaneous getaway: toothbrush, nonperishable snack, reading material, swimsuit, change of clothes. To reduce the possibility of ransacking, I bought the clothes in secret and smuggled them into the packs.
(This kind of thing, by the way? This kind of let’s-ditch-everything-and-do-a-whole-different-plan? Makes my husband HIGHLY UNCOMFORTABLE. But I was starting to learn that what makes one person nervous can be another person’s key to survival, and that just has to be okay.)
I hung the packs on the wall in the hallway as decoratively as I could. To complete the display, I found half a sheet of posterboard and drew a wheeled thing that looked, if your squinted, almost like our car, a smiling yellow sunshine, and many happyface symbols. (I AM VERY ARTY AS YOU CAN SEE.) Around the art I wrote:
Backpacks of Possibility: Because you never know when you’ll get the chance to carpe some serious diem.
I lectured the family in my Philosophy of Possibility: You might be drudging it up right now, but who knows what might happen?Soccer practice could get canceled, Dad’s willing to miss his class at the Y, the weather is fantastic…
The notion that we could, all five, pull away spontaneously for an overnight was laughable; if we held out for that, we were doomed. So all of us was not a requirement. But two or three? Maybe Eldest ends up free on a Friday night, and Into the Woods is being performed at some community theatre a hundred miles away. Let’s go, before we can think of a reason not to!
Our little getaways-from-everydays wouldn’t be fancy. The wardrobe was, by definition, limited. As for motels, the cheaper, the better. (Any bed I don’t have to make is generally a bed I am willing to sleep in.)
The day after I hung the backpacks, I got home from work to start in on my standard dinner/homework/chores/please-don’t-superglue-your-sister-to-things routine. I passed through the hallway and suddenly: Possibility. Where yesterday, there had only been wall!
I don’t know how everyone else felt, passing all that potential goodness as we conducted the responsibilities of our days. But for me, Backpacks of Possibility brought zing to the palette of my everyday everythings.
That feels good, I thought. I like it.
It was several weeks before we first used the backpacks. Middlest and I, to Tacoma of all places, to investigate the beluga whale they had in the zoo. Youngest had a picture book with a beluga in it, and Middlest asked “Are these for real?” So the two of us loaded our backpacks into the car and went to see for ourselves.
This post is less practical. Consider it optional background reading.
If someone came ambling down the Internet presuming to tell me how to be more fun, I’d want to kick her in the face. (Hey! That is not a very fun thing to do!) So. If I’m going to commit this act of breathtaking hypocrisy—and it appears that I am—it feels appropriate to provide my qualifications.
But, um, oops. I’ve performed no analyses, measured no heart rates. I’m no funner than you are, most likely. BUT I OBVIOUSLY HAVE SOMETHING GOING FOR ME, BECAUSE I JUST USED THE WORD “FUNNER” AND NOBODY DIED. So, you know. Respect.
What I have is a story.
Once I had a really shitty year. So, so shitty. I had three small kids in a messy yellow house, a gaggle of ambitious colleagues, and a very kind, but very silent, husband.
At home, life was a jumble of clutter and carpools and diapers and homework. Every single day, there was more to do than I could ever get done. (No matter how many times we made dinner, the children needed to eat again, the very next day! They really had no shame about it.) And while Husband’s silence wasn’t malicious—I’m married to one of the most amiable humans ever spawned—it simply didn’t occur to him to speak to me. Our extended non-conversation made me lonely, and not always cheerful.
During this period, way too many of my sentences started “Oh for god’s sake. . .” and ended with exclamation points. (Not the fun kind).
That was home. At the office, I built software alongside energetic, wanna-be-millionaire dudes. (In certain pockets of high tech, and I was in one of them, it was pretty much always dudes back then. It’s evened out.) While I was scurrying to produce quality work and get the hell out before daycare closed (I had no millionaire aspirations, which turned out to be SO LUCKY), the guys never seemed to be in a hurry—they took lots of breaks, then worked late. It was no secret how they pulled this off: To a dude, they were either completely unencumbered, or they had wives at home to wipe the snot and manage the details.
One rock-bottom day, as a band of merry teammates held their daily frat party foosball game down the hall, I closed my office door and let the tears leak out. Sure you can play games all afternoon, I seethed, phlegmily. You have all that fucking wind beneath your wings.
(In full-on self-pity mode, I can turn the sweetest of sentiments into an exercise in profanity. I am the master.)
Husband didn’t get it, which was of course part of the problem, and the kids were too little to understand. Plus, it’s not the children’s job to understand their mama’s shitty year. It’s their job to keep growing. It takes a lot of focus to learn to use your words, especially when biting makes a much more honest statement. Keeping it together is the parent’s job.
So at work I was leaking and seething; at home, there was yelling and guilt-tripping. Keeping-it-togetherwise, I was not—to steal vocabulary from my day job—meeting expectations.
The day I overreacted to foosball, I knew for sure: This woman, scrambling through life trying not to slap anyone, is not me. I can flee, or I can find a way to inject more fun and lightness into this whole enterprise. But if I keep feeling like this, I will lose myself completely and I will surely die.
Fleeing would be embarrassing, and dying seemed likely to scar the children. So I went with funnification; it was the only option left.
(Note: I’m not saying one has to end up that close to the edge in order to un-drudge. In fact, I recommend strongly against it. And of course, true, clinical depression can’t be decided away. But I was not clinically depressed; I was what your mental-health professionals refer to as “kinda bitchy, really.”)
I had a friend in a similar place. We whined at each other regularly, “But I used to be so fun. What happened?” One day we decided: We would no longer let the tasks of survival be the whole story. We would Commit to Fun.
We wanted to stop acting like life was such a freaking chore all the time. To very consciously create little zones of joy and air and light amid all the daily tasks, pockets in which tiny green shoots of fun and freedom could survive. The next day I set out to find or make a million sunlit spaces, where before I’d thought there was only room for Getting Things Done.
I began to feel like myself again, and life was vastly better inside the yellow house.
And that is the creation story of my assault on drudgery and my commitment to fun. It comprises the entirety of my qualifications to speak on the subject:
1. Once I lost myself in drudgedom, and I didn’t like it.
2. I found simple gimmicks to make our days more fun, and
3. Life was more joyful, then.
Of course, every so often I still get lost, and have to remember to drag myself back. You have to keep working the program. Truth be told, we have the makin’s, again, for another no-good era at my house. But I’m older and a little wiser, and I’ve gotten out of this hole before.
Not this time, Drudgery, I shake my finger at it, because I am so bossy. I win, again.
Enough with the navel gaze. Next time, back to the gimmicks—we’ll pick up with Backpacks of Possibility.
(P.S. I keep my face in Seattle, in case you would like to try to kick it.)
I was waging a straight-up assault on the relentless non-funnitude of my life’s necessary tasks, and I named the next institution Ten Minutes of Cleaning.
Cleaning is yuck, sure, but drudgery is not just a matter of the work itself. Drudgery is time-worn ruts and the same damn thing over and over. Drudgery is waking up knowing that today’s dishes will get just as dirty as yesterday’s, and that tomorrow they’ll need washing yet again, world without end.
Although it wouldn’t affect the dirtiness of the dishes, Ten Minutes would lower my drudge factor, I figured, because it would at least be a togetherness thing. Beyond that, I thought no conscious think about magic, education, or the power of the unexpected. But that’s just because I’m shortsighted.
In its most basic form, Ten Minutes of Cleaning looked like this:
1. Shortly after dinner, each of us drew a slip of paper from the Jug of Endurable Tasks (which I had populated easily on a quick, note-jotting wander through the house).
2. After the drawing, if necessary, we held a brief training period (Eldest: “What’s a baseboard?”)
3. We set the timer. For a focused ten minutes, we worked the tasks we had pulled.
4. The timer made its timer sound. Cleaning halted.
I figured we’d give it a try. Then, a few nights in, it was clear to me that Ten Minutes of Cleaning wasn’t just working. It was working like a freaking charm.
I have thoughts.
First, cleaning a house that teems with children and life is a never-ending task, and Ten Minutes rendered that infinite finite. “Done” had no relationship to whether the house was clean (it wasn’t). By definition, cleaning was done when the timer went off. If you’d fished out an easy task—Windex the handprints on the banister*—well, score! But even if the Jug had handed you a monster—Clean the fridge—no one was expecting you to finish. Just make that little dent. Zip! Ten Minutes left no time for paralysis, for dread.
That timer also ushered in my favorite part of the whole operation:
Me: Time’s up! Stop cleaning!
Child: I only need another minute! Please!
Me: Rules are rules. Stop cleaning I say! Stop it at once!
Ten Minutes also taught us that, for such an itty-bitty snatch of time, ANYTHING is actually endurable.
That cooler we picked cherries into last July, then abandoned on the back porch? And now we’re so afraid of what’s going on in there that we pretend the cooler does not exist, even though we keep tripping over it? Yes, that. Chop chop. It’s just ten minutes.
Our new practice let me introduce a world of housekeeping skills, bit by tiny bit.The constant struggle just to keep their beds findable meant my kids were rarely exposed to weird, occasional tasks, like discarding the decade-old cleansers and shriveled sponges that bred beneath the bathroom sink. Now, the tasks I used to tackle late at night (or on a rare, empty-house Saturday, or not at all) were open season for anyone: That thing under the stove burner, catching all the drips? It comes out. Let me show you how we clean it. . .
Is it imperfect? Yes. Jobs get done incompletely and not to my occasionally pathological standards. But I’m okay with it because ten minutes after we start, my house is still about fifty minutes (ten minutes times five people) cleaner than when we began. Yes, sometimes the living room remains piled in toys and backpacks while its baseboards and furnace vents are deeply clean; I do not recognize this as problematic.
And let’s talk about fairness. Yes, Middlest, you’ll get more done than your little sister does even though she makes more messes, but it’s just ten minutes. In fact, today, how about if you don’t choose anything from the Jug? Just help Youngest with whatever she picks. That way, she’ll get better.
I had an inkling of the Fun possibility inherent in Ten Minutes when I first created the jug. (Full disclosure: We actually started with a saucepan. It worked okay.) Still, I didn’t tell anyone I was adding a few non-cleaning tasks, because I didn’t know yet if it would be brilliant.
But hopes were exceeded the moment Eldest arched a skeptical brow, shoved her hand into the ceramic pitcher, and pulled out a task I had included just for her:
“Wait,” a sunrise was happening all over her face. “This says ten minutes of READING! Are you SERIOUS?!” She fled for her book, hooting.
Expecting, at best, a Windexing task, Eldest had instead pulled out a gift. Unearned and unasked for, and ten minutes long.
From then on, whenever we reached for the Jug, there could be magic. And there could be magic is the mortal enemy of drudgery. Once we adopt the possibility of unexpected gifts as a world view, life is never so drudgey, ever again.
The year I Committed to Fun, I wanted us to live into the truth that sure, there’s a whole lot of stuff we have to do to keep our lives running … but inside it, something excellent could happen. Maybe you have to make it happen, but the magic is out there. The dishes will still get dirty, so: Let’s not let the dishes be the whole story.
* Hint: All children love tasks where there’s spraying.
“Really? ‘Cause it seems like I do. Just once, I’d like to see you people hang up your backpacks without me having to THROW A TEMPER TANTRUM!”
Sometimes, I come a tiny bit unraveled.
Sometimes, the responsibilities that come with the charming children and the stressy job and just existing on the planet, really, become too much. The drudgey form my life has taken sends me into something of a spin.
A few years ago was my nadir. I scarcely recognized the pinched, exhausted woman staring hollowly back at me above the bathroom sink.
I moved through each day beseeching everyone I encountered to understand that I was not, actually, the careworn hag before them: I am so damn fun on the inside, I mentally assured coworkers, PTA parents, the checkout guy at Safeway. You people have no idea.
When you find yourself explaining, even internally, that the person you’re being is not the person you are, it’s possible that something is amiss.
As I hit drudge bottom, I knew I wanted to be more fun, to have more fun. But the thought of adding fun activities to my schedule got me exhausted all over again. I needed more outward manifestations of my inner fun person, but where would I find the time?
I stewed for a while.
At last, I announced my solution in the minivan. “I have critical information for you people,” I said, as we headed out for a Saturday of epic birthday-shopping, practice-attending, errand-running proportion. “I’ve made a commitment, and I want to say it out loud so that you can hold me to it.”
My pause here was perhaps overly dramatic. “I am committed to fun.”
While Eldest and Youngest processed this information, Middlest piped up from the way back. “So, like, you’re only going to do fun stuff?” He pitched another M&M in the air and tried to catch it in his mouth. For Middlest, manifesting his inner fun person had never been much of an issue. “What about going to work, and driving us places?”
“Exactly,” I said. “I can’t drop the things I do already, so this won’t be easy. That’s why I have to be committed.”
My family seemed game. Also, a little disbelieving and not so interested. No matter. The drudgery was my problem. I’d take it from here.
Eleanor Roosevelt, righteous badass and mother of six, was being her supergenius self when she said “No one can make you feel inferior without your permission.” And you know what? Ditto drudge. I’d let myself get all drudgey, and I could revoke my pass. I was committed to finding fun all over the place. Given my dearth of disposable time, the first step would be to fun-ify necessary tasks.
I like a challenge, so for my starter funification I took on the piece of my world that made me the craziest: nagging. I knew I couldn’t eliminate it; our whole house would implode. But could nagging be hauled out of the drudge zone? Could I make nagging … fun?
I poked around in my brain, and realized that I had let a lot of things that brought me joy fall to the wayside. That way lies drudgehood, I was convinced. So: What used to please me that I’d let slip away?
Travel, poetry, loud music in a car with no roof. Flowers everywhere, staying out late. Hmm.
When I began composing in the genre we would christen Hassle Poetry, my primary medium was haiku. I found it freeing that my commitment was to fun, not literary excellence.
I taped my first effort to our twelve-year-old’s bedroom door:
My darling daughter,
Teeth cannot straighten themselves.
Call Doc Shapiro.
Sometimes I would add a little vocab lesson, just because I could:
Something one, now split in two
Where’s the other sock?
(Lovelies, please: Put all your laundry in the hamper)
I taped my poems to math books and wrote them in toothpaste on the bathroom mirror. They were certainly no less effective than standard nagging, sometimes more so, and the whole operation made me grin.
Kids come into our lives and move into the center, which is exactly where I wanted mine. But there’s lots of room in there. I’d just forgotten is all. Hassle poetry was my first foray into joyfully, goofily, tucking other things I love back in the center of my mothering. As time went on, my offerings would get bigger.
The year we lived in Costa Rica, our kids’ school had a year-round calendar. Hannah, Harry, and Ivy got a month off at Christmas and one in June; the rest of the year, school ran in six-week sessions with a week’s break between. This worked out brilliantly for traveling purposes, getting us down the mountain and out to explore Central America at regular intervals.
We’d been in Monteverde six weeks and a day when, in early September, the kids, their dad, and I headed out of Costa Rica for a week of intensive Spanish in Nicaragua. My criteria for selection had been “the least expensive school in Nicaragua that we can reach by bus in a day.”
By then, we’d lived in Monteverde just long enough to get a blast of what many Ticos—a friendly, non-pejorative term for Costa Ricans—feel toward Nicaragua and its people: disdain at best, hatred at worst. Ticos we knew seemed to feel that Nicaragua, with its poverty and its dictators and its poverty and its lack of infrastructure and its poverty, poverty, poverty, was an embarrassment to all of Central America. They wished Nicaragua would get its shit together. They wished Nicaragua would educate its citizens, brush its collective teeth, and stop being so poor all the time. They despised the Nicaraguan immigrants who sneaked across the border to steal the crappiest Costa Rican jobs, use Costa Rican social services, and molest Costa Rican women.
The kids’ Spanish tutor in Monteverde, provided by the school to help them until they were fluent enough to get by, scolded anyone she caught lazily dropping the terminal s from words:“No somos Nica!”
Ticos say “Nica” the way Arizonans say “wetback.”
We’d come from Seattle, where two full-time jobs plus three full-time kids had equaled a joyful yet frenetic life. My husband Anthony and I wanted to slow it down. Plus, there were things we wanted our kids to know that our current life wasn’t going to teach. Everything from “happiness is attainable without Select Soccer” to Spanish. A few months back we had quit our jobs, crossed our trembling fingers, and jumped. The money part wasn’t easy but it was surprisingly doable. Cost-of-living differences worked in our favor, and we were able to rent out our house for more than our mortgage payment. If we could keep our expenses to that difference, we’d come out of the year even (jobless, yes, but even). And here we were.
Going into the year, I’d wanted us to learn, learn, learn. Our vacations would be fun, natch, but also educational; we’d use these one-week stints to learn the history, current events, and culture of Central America. We’d see what needed changing in the world, and we’d be on fire to start. Possibly, we’d have Central America fixed right up by the end of the year. Nicaragua seemed like the perfect kickoff.
And so, against the advice of our new Tico friends, we went.
We left Monteverde at dawn. A rickety public bus bounced us down the rocky mountain road, dropping us at a small, unlabeled bus stop along the Pan-American Highway. We waited there for the air-conditioned, higher-end coach that would take us across the border at Penas Blancas. With the help of a boy about ten years old, we negotiated the border process and changed our Costa Rican colones for Nicaraguan Cordobas. As soon as our bus got under way, it was clear we were somewhere else. Nicaragua seemed hotter. Dogs ate garbage at the side of the road. Back among the trees, we could see houses constructed of tarps and scraps of tin.
Ivy had climbed on to Anthony’s lap. “Look! Doggies! They’re so cute! I want to pet them!” she said. Anthony looked at me, but I didn’t know what to say, either. The dogs looked exactly the way I’d always imagined the rabid dog that Atticus shoots, just a little to the left of right between the eyes.
“Sorry, Sweetie,” Anthony told Ivy. “But the bus doesn’t stop for another little while.”
We arrived in Masaya, in Southern Nicaragua, in the late afternoon. From there a taxi took us to the school. Harry had just enough Spanish to tell the taxista where we wanted to go.
The main school building turned out to be a large wooden house that overlooked La Laguna de Apoyo, a creepily warm, pondish kind of thing.. A concrete outbuilding would house our family for the week, bunkbeds in a bunker about twelve feet square. Given that the North American school year had just started, the school was virtually empty, and our family would be the major voting bloc. For the first two days we shared breakfast with another couple, who were replaced toward the end of the week with three backpackers.
Each morning, we practiced Spanish with individual tutors for four hours—although for Ivy, at five, “tutoring” was mostly learning perro and gato and getting piggyback rides around the grounds. In the afternoons, we went on school-sponsored excursions to see artisans and living conditions in the surrounding area. (The school either shared my vision for how rich tourists should experience Nicaragua, or they got a cut of whatever we spent.) After field trips, we swam in the awkward lake, or visited the sprawling mercado in the nearby town of Masaya. I had an uncomfortable moment when I encountered Danilo, my teacher in the morning, selling Chiclets outside the market in the afternoon.
On the first day’s field trip, we watched a twelve-year-old girl make a basket out of dried palm fronds in twenty-two minutes. She sat on a stool in the family’s living room, an area bound by corrugated roofing lashed between trees to form walls. I hated to think how long it had taken to gather the fronds—the surrounding area was largely denuded, most trees having been sacrificed to cooking fires. I watched Hannah watching; our eldest was exactly this girl’s age. If the girl noticed Hannah at all, I couldn’t see it. She finished her basket, set it aside, and picked up more fronds. Her brother was toddler sized, but he didn’t toddle; he sat quietly at her feet, scratching in the dirt with his hand. A fellow student snapped his picture. The boy seemed used to it. Ivy, who never met a small child she didn’t want to play with and generally treat like a doll, moved behind me.
That afternoon in the mercado, we saw we could buy a palm-frond basket for less than a dollar.
In the evening, an almost-cool came on the breeze, and for half an hour we were almost-comfortable. We lay in hammocks and marveled at the bats, swooping black shadows against the darkening sky. We cheered them for eating the mosquitoes.
But then the breeze was done. At bedtime, the five of us tossed and turned stickily in our sweltering bedroom. We stayed on top of the sheets. We tried to think about popsicles, and the chill of Lake Washington, even in August—and not about the spiders and geckos that would, if we snapped it on, scurry out of our flashlight’s beam.
Ivy whimpered all night, her eczema inflamed by the heat. Anyone thinking about what we’d seen that day didn’t want to discuss it, although Hannah alluded to it, once.
“At least this will end,” she spoke in the crawly darkness. “For us.”
In the morning, Ivy told me she’d dreamt about feeding people.
After the week of intensive language training, educational field trips, and the awareness of sweat pooling in our bodily creases twenty-three and a half hours a day, we taxied to Masaya and caught a bus to Nicaragua’s tourist gem, the colonial town of Granada. Not to be confused with Grenada, the tiny island off the coast of Venezuela that the U.S. “conquered” in the eighties, this Granada is the oldest European settlement in Nicaragua, established in 1524; it seems to have been conquered about twice a week during the Somoza/Sandinista troubles of the 1970s and ’80s. It is, even after those years of war, a beautiful town. The face Granada shows tourists is so darling you almost forget how hot you are. Granada is famous for meticulously restored Baroque and Renaissance buildings. Narrow, pre-automobile streets meander toward a central plaza filled with fountains and flowers.
As we got off the bus, Hannah said, “It’s like the rest of Nicaragua, but not.”
By the time we got there, the kids were so overheated, so exhausted, and their minds were so blown, we couldn’t bring ourselves to keep exploring. So instead of hauling them—or ourselves—through the Sandinistas’ network of underground tunnels, or learning about Francisco Cordoba, the Spanish conqueror who founded Granada and then later got his name on the currency, Anthony and I surrendered.
We gave up on history and architecture. We led no thoughtful, age-appropriate discussions about privilege and power and how we could justify our lives in the face of all we’d seen. Instead, we hung out at our hostel, a converted Colonial beauty with fountains and courtyards and air conditioning, and played in the pool. The kids shrieked and splashed. We dripped our merry way across the charming courtyard to the blissful cool of our two (!) rooms and watched (missing one quotation here) “La Vida de Jerry Seinfeld,” a weekend-long marathon hosted by the Nicaraguan equivalent of Nick at Nite.
It wasn’t bad parenting, though. For every episode they watched, Harry and Hannah had to write down three Spanish phrases they learned from the episode. (Estos bocadillos me hacen sed! = “These pretzels are making me thirsty!”)
There were bats in Granada, too, and as they began their mosquito-eating swoops, the only movement on our walls were the flickering shadows of Jerry and Elaine, George and Kramer. We lay between cool, smooth sheets. It was bliss, yes; but we were no longer ignorant.
Wherever we went that year, people were forever asking me about our motivations for moving to Central America. When you get the same question over and over, you tend to develop talking points. One of my favorite talking points was that I wanted to eliminate some of the lectures. Lectures are the absolute worst part of parenting. But if you don’t find ways to get the important messages across, you’re sunk and your children become awful.
Hang up your backpack. Manners matter. Here’s why we share.
My parental lecture series had many installments. In moving to Central America, I hoped to dodge a few, living them out instead of yammering on. First up: You guys have no idea how lucky we are.
Nicaragua did the trick.
Nicaragua was an onslaught. The troubling images and the huge questions were so numerous and so upsetting that my weak, defensive brain ended up blending them into a single desperate muddle. So much so that the only question I could muster was How was it that everyone we met there was so clean?
I never did figure this out. By no means did we get a complete view of the country, but the parts we did see were a living, groaning, sweating, Alan Alda-narrated PBS special on poverty. No running water, unless you count the rivulets through the living rooms when the rains came hard. Kitchens were outside firepits or cookstoves, and everything we saw seemed to be coated in children, chickens, dogs, garbage, and flies. Yet our teachers sparkled when they arrived at school each morning, their jeans dark blue and pressed (never shorts, no matter how thick, how hot, the air), hair still a little damp, shoes perfect and dust-free.
Back home in Seattle, our family was armed with two showers, a washer/dryer, and unlimited hot water. Our paved streets and sidewalks meant most of our dirt lived in the garden, parks, and the occasional sports uniform/detergent commercial. Nonetheless, at least one of our Seattle clan was as likely as not to start the day with a crunchy spot on some bit of hair or clothing.
But when we were taken to peer into classrooms at the elementary school near La Laguna, not a single white shirt had a smudge, although their owners had as likely as not walked a kilometer or two on unpaved roads to get here.
In English I have a decent variety of words at my disposal, but I still couldn’t form any of them into a tactful execution of my terrible question: How do you manage stay so clean when your country is so hot and so dirty, your house has no floor, and there are dogs everywhere?
In Spanish, I mostly smiled, nodded, and tried to tip very, very well. But by the end of the week, my tutor Danilo and I had covered enough topics in the course of our sessions that I thought I could broach the subject.
As I asked him about it, I shook my head and gave a slight laugh at how trashy many of the tourists, including my family, looked. I wanted Danilo to know that I had the sense to be embarrassed.
He spoke slowly, as always, so I could pick up the Spanish.
“When being clean is the way you can show your dignity … when being clean is how you show that you are worth something,” Danilo told me, “you pay attention to be clean.”
That made sense to me. I and mine, we had a lot of ways. My children never questioned their innate worth, and nor did anybody else—we didn’t need to worry about crunchy spots.
The desperate muddle of Nicaragua reminded me of what I already knew, what we all know: As a country, and even in recession, America is ridiculously wealthy. And Northwesterners are, by and large, ridiculously wealthy even for Americans. And while Seattle does know poverty, my family did not. If Harry needed new cleats, we bought them. We lived less than a mile from a library, but I’d buy books for Ivy four at a time for the convenience of not tracking due dates.
But our incredible wealth rarely resonated down to my bones. Lord, pretty much everyone we knew had a nicer house than ours. Friends went to Italy and the Galapagos and on safaris for their vacations; our family went mostly to the Oregon coast. Our lack of an island retreat or a yurt in the Methow valley set us apart among our closest friends.
Seattle, of course, had been packed with the so-legendary-they’ve-become-tiresome-even-though-many-of-them-are-lovely-people-high-tech jillionaires. Our family lived, quite literally, in their shadow—on the bottom slope of the hill that many of them live atop. We schooled, soccered, played, and worked with perfectly normal people who had amazing resources. If you hang in our circles in Seattle, having a very reasonable amount of money can feel downright poor.
The unreality of our situation had been driven home to me a few years back. Through the tireless work of many parents (many of them the at-home wives who spent Microsoft millions), the sweet little public school in our neighborhood had recently become attractive to the many high-high-high-end families in the area.
One spring day, Hannah was invited to play with a new classmate. In our ancient but entirely serviceable Toyota Previa, I drove her up one of the curvy, leafy streets whose homes overlook Lake Washington. Stunning Colonials and Victorians mixed with glassy ultramoderns, but even the diverse architecture came in just one size: Efuckingnormous. Azaleas and rhododendrons bloomed among Japanese maples in the artfully artless front gardens. Hundred-year-old oaks presided in the expansive parking strips. It was the kind of neighborhood you want to drive to just to take a walk. Birds chirped. Joggers were toned and tanned, and they wore fabrics that wick moisture.
Hannah had reached the age when I could drop her off rather than doing the whole mom-chat inside. I double-checked the address and drove into the circular driveway.
I leaned over and kissed Hannah on the head. Such a big girl, all of a sudden. “Have a great time, sweetie. I’ll pick you up at six. Be sure to help pick up.” I ducked down to see out the passenger window so I could wave a quick hi/thanks at whomever answered the door.
Hannah didn’t move. “Okay, but which one?”
“Which one do they live in?”
“Honey, it’s right in front of you. You’re sitting ten feet from the front door.”
Hannah’s voice took on the edge that meant she was being very, very patient with me. “Yes, but which apartment do they live in? I need to know the number, to push the buzzer!”
I explained that just Maddie’s family lived in this house. Hannah looked up and down the street.
“In all of these? No apartments? Every single house on this street has just one family?”
It’s one thing when your kids are surprised by that kind of wealth. More insidious, for me, was when mine started taking it in stride. Hannah was embarrassed by her mistake that day and would never make it again.
When your children think they come from a needy family because two of them have to share a bedroom, it makes you think a minute. At least, it did me. I’d been proud of the way we’d been able to live; still, in our neighborhood we mostly wore cotton T-shirts to go jogging.
I might feel middle class in the States, and even in our new home in Monteverde, where our growing community of friends included many who lived beautifully but hadn’t worked for years—expats one and all. But I could not avoid the truth in Nicaragua. Nicaragua launched a full-on truth assault until I couldn’t take it anymore. I hid away with my kids, from the flies and the dogs and the sadness and the air that you have to do the breaststroke through. Eating pretzels and watching Jerry Seinfeld reruns in an air-conditioned room, I hid from the truth of the poverty in which too many people live. And I hid from the truth of my own, unimaginable wealth.
I think that most of us who never go hungry (unless it’s on purpose) do know how fortunate we are. But I forget. Why do I keep having to remember and re-remember this thing I know I know? On the sweaty bus ride back from Nicaragua, I swear to God, I caught myself whining because we wouldn’t be able to afford to get to Ecuador at Christmas.
I’m confused by issues of having and not having and I’m not sure what to do. I know I want to raise conscious kids. Our Seattle was a dream world, where wealth was assumed and want was nonexistent. I would see it as a failure on my part to not expose us all to a bigger reality. But I want my children to be aware of suffering, not inured to it. What a terrible backfire it would be to raise children who have seen so much poverty that they think it’s unavoidable and unaddressable.
I’m pretty sure even Jesus had some class issues. On the one hand, He was clearly very big on feeding the poor, clothing the naked, and so on. On the other, there’s that one disturbing story, when Judas got so snotty about Mary Magdalene—that slut!—anointing Jesus with oil. Judas thought the oil should have been sold, and the money given to the poor. Jesus defended the extravagance, saying “The poor will always be with us.” I’ve always thought that was a fairly dickish statement on His part.
But I understood it better, in Nicaragua. Being anointed in oil was the Jesus version of an air-conditioned hostel.
So I don’t feel bad about letting my kids laugh at the television that whole weekend. They had seen a lot, and they couldn’t fix any of it. They’d lived the lecture.
What we saw in Nicaragua will percolate and distill, and become part of who we are. I want us to have the will and the energy for baby steps, and then bigger steps. Sometimes we’ll give deeply, and sometimes we’ll give ourselves a break. That one weekend, I surrendered my plan to learn and grow and be educated citizens of the planet, every damn minute of the trip. I shut up, and we all ate pretzels.
Author’s Note: Publishing this piece terrifies me. Is it nothing but a big fat rationalization? Sometimes I think the best thing I can do for the world is to grow loving, caring people who will enter and transform it. And sometimes I think anything short of giving all we have is a crock. And sometimes I think—this should come as no surprise—What’s for snack? I settle at last in a place that’s very centrist. Between hedonism and abstention, between fruitless navel-gazing and militant benevolence; that’s where I live, and where I want to raise my kids. With gratitude, humility and things that go crunch. There is nothing more perfect to me than a line in the Wendell Berry poem “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.” Be joyful/though you have considered all the facts. Yes. Exactly. I start there. I move outward.