Disbelief, Suspended

Disbelief, Suspended

images-4By Kelly Garriott Waite

Evenings, just prior to giving each of the three door handles (one front, two back) a final twist and firm tug, to reassure myself that the deadbolts were engaged, I would unplug the coffee pot. As I slipped into bed, my mind would flash with what ifs and are you sures, images of fires and robbers swirling around my head. In order to relieve my brain, I would repeat this procedure, tiptoeing down the stairs so as not to disturb my parents who’d since gone to their room to read and, for my father, to smoke the night’s last cigarette. I’d hear the click as Dad flipped open his silver lighter, hear him thumb the spark wheel against flint. I’d get a hint of butane and know from the faintest sound of burning the precise instant when the end of Dad’s cigarette caught.

Sometimes – not often, for I had learned to be silent – Dad called out after he snapped the lighter shut and inhaled deeply. What was I doing out of bed? I would claim I needed a glass of water, in the kitchen going through the motions of turning on the faucet, the running water blanketing the sound of my checking the back doors one more (quietly twisting, quietly tugging – already I knew that there was something unacceptable about my behavior) before giving the coffee pot plug a glance. Often this wasn’t enough. I would have to pass a hand directly in front of the outlet: Perhaps there was an invisible connection between plug and socket that my eyes had not seen.

After, I would sneak into the den and grab my father’s overflowing ashtray, take it to the kitchen, and turn the faucet on again, watching the cigarettes bob in the rising water. Just before heading up the stairs, I’d give the front door another check, just in case.

Back in bed, I hoped to fall asleep quickly so that my mind wouldn’t force me downstairs before breakfast. If I did have to rise again, my checking turned violent: I would yank each of the door handles and wave the plug before my eyes. Sometimes I would run my thumb against the prongs, stab them against my hand. Here was visual, tangible proof that the coffee pot was unplugged, although sometimes even that wasn’t enough to make me believe.

Growing up, I was uncertain about religion: My mother was Catholic, my father a lapsed Protestant. My sisters and I were raised with a foot in each tradition, a situation that left me divided and confused. But I did learn to pray. At night, I’d repeat Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, an awful prayer – die before I wake? – probably taught to me by well-meaning Sunday School teachers. I prayed as well that the house wouldn’t burn; that the robbers wouldn’t come; that my mind would detach itself from its ever-present worrying. Then I would blink up at the dark ceiling, thinking about the endless black wave I imagined eternity to be.


Shortly after my brother’s birth, my mother nearly died. For days after she’d returned home, somewhat slimmer and with a squalling infant on her arm, Mom complained of a neck ache. The slightest breeze sent her into spasms of pain. She spent hours in our living room, resting her head upon the green card table normally reserved for bridge night. My sisters and I learned to tiptoe. We learned to whisper. We learned how to help care for an infant. I remember watching The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams on television, holding a bottle to my brother’s mouth. As I lifted him to my shoulder to pat his tiny back, my mother turned her head to look at me: You’re going to make a good mother someday.

In the evening of the day that my mother nearly died, my father gathered my sisters and me around him on the couch in the family room while my brother slept blissfully unaware in his bassinet. We almost lost her today. My father swiped at his eyes. It was – and is – the only time I can recall seeing him cry.


Before I turned twelve, I’d convinced myself I had breast cancer, mistaking normally-developing tissue for a lump. I stole the Better Homes & Gardens Family Medical Guide from the den’s bookshelves, reading, under Concerns of Women, about my surgical options. Later, I flipped through my sister’s biology textbook. It showed a breast in the late stages of cancer. For years, I believed I was ill, but I told no one, of course, imagining my slow demise, the horrible disfigurement of my breast eaten away by cancer, and the goodbye note I would write and clutch in my dying hands: I knew it all along. I consoled myself, thanks to Billy Joel, that if I must die young, at least I knew that I was good and so would go to heaven. For years I carried around the fear of breast cancer until it suddenly dawned on me that if I had had the disease, it would have killed me by now.

Every other week, Dad would drop my sisters and me off at the Hilltop Christian Church where we attended Sunday school and then church on our own. I remember newsprint paper and broken crayons. I remember the teacher’s cheeks tinged with pink when she got to the seventh commandment. That’s for adults, she said.

On alternate Sundays, my sisters and I attended St. Joseph Catholic Church with our mother. This, of course, was not church. It was Mass. And the priest (not the minister, nor the pastor) didn’t give a sermon. That long mind-wandering period during which a man stood rambling at the front of the church was called a homily. I remember cushioned kneelers covered in red vinyl. I remember missals with thin yellowed pages. I remember incense and holy water and colorful light slanting through stained glass windows, tinting my legs blue and red, yellow and orang.


After deciding our house was too small for the six of us, my parents bought forty acres of land. We cut down trees and hauled brush. We stacked logs and peed behind the tool shed while our house was being built. We celebrated small victories with takeout chicken dinners, sitting on the plywood floor of the future kitchen of our future home. We worked the land. We made a farm.

We planted a massive garden, too much food for our family to consume: peas, carrots, zucchini and green beans. My mother learned to make strawberry jam, her daughters stirring the pot with a long-handled wooden spoon, hoping to avoid the inevitable splatters. We baled hay. We rode horses. We kept cows and pigs and chickens, whose shit-littered eggs we stole from beneath their warm white breasts every morning.

We walked in the woods, easily jumping across Silver Creek to explore the junk pile, until the beavers moved in, dammed the creek, and made a home of their own.

For a time, my sisters and I exclusively attended a local Disciples of Christ church, my mother having fallen away from the faith of her birth. But after a time, we, too, divorced ourselves from religion. Work and nature had become our altar.


Obsessions don’t just disappear. They metastasize. As soon as my cancer worry was under control, a new fixation began to torment me: Before getting out of bed, I promised myself I wouldn’t overeat that day. But I always did, had already imagined, while still beneath the covers, what I would eat first. A breakfast of sugared cereal, topped with creamy Jif peanut butter and Half and Half, eaten, of course, in secrecy, was immediately followed by a snack: More peanut butter, smeared so thickly on a piece of toast that I could see the imprint of my two front teeth where I’d bitten. I would eat without tasting: A dozen Pop-Tarts, whose empty boxes I would hide until I could safely get rid of the evidence; candy bars from the video store where I worked – I ate so many in a day that I lost track and would stuff the cash register with a handful of singles and hope it was enough; the ten-pound block of Nestlé chocolate my mother kept in the pantry for baking, from which I would hack away hunks with an orange-handled ice pick. After cramming myself with thousands of calories, I was full of shame.

I tracked my food intake, the day’s list always beginning with promise: Puffed Wheat with milk, plum, tea, glasses water, 4. Then cookies, 2 appeared on my list, which suddenly came to an abrupt end. A squiggle appeared across the leftover portion of the day’s page, accompanied by the damning word: binge.

I tracked my measurements, tracked my exercises: jogged 10 minutes with weights on trampoline; 100 jumping jacks; 107 jump rope (not straight). I promised myself a subscription to Shape Magazine, even Glamour if I could reach 125 pounds. I regularly wrote in my journal that I would be totally happy if I were thin, yet happiness eluded me.

I discovered that with Chocolate Ex-Lax, I could eat as much as I wanted and lose weight. I discovered that cigarettes could curb my appetite. I started cooking gourmet dinners for my family and internally criticized them for so openly enjoying food.

Food became my religion. Shame my constant companion.


After eight years of farming, my sisters and I gradually lost interest. We sought boyfriends. Independence. Cars. Whenever I drove home from work, or school, or shopping, I’d have to double back to where I’d just been, so certain was I that I’d run someone over. As the miles passed beneath my tires, I’d check the rear view mirror, picturing body parts strewn about, people standing in the street, hands pressed to cheeks, round mouths around horrible screams. A mile would pass. Two. Five. Even ten. My mind, in this mode, was ungrounded, like a bratty toddler having one hell of a temper tantrum, wailing and kicking the ground, demanding that it got its way. Eventually, I would give in to it, turning around in someone’s driveway, my mind circling as I scanned the road for signs of trauma that I knew I’d never find. Through the windshield, I resentfully watched pedestrians going about their business, jogging, shopping, eating ice cream cones. How could they behave so normally when inside I was falling to pieces?

I kept silent about my driving obsession. There was no easy way to bring it up: Sorry I’m late. I thought I ran somebody over. And there wasn’t a lump. There was no fever. There was, in short, nothing tangible to offer up as proof. Having nothing to poke or prod, nothing to press down upon, I certainly could not be ill.

Eventually, I learned to reason my way out of this driving issue, in the same way I’d reasoned my way out of my cancer fear: I forced myself to drive further…further…further, my mind screaming all the while: Stop!Turnthecararound!Danger! My hands shook. My eyes watered as ten miles stretched to fifteen, then twenty. But then, my stomach would fill with the heavy knowing that the irrational side of my mind was about to take over. I was frustrated and angry and so sick of myself and my stupid life.

Yet I learned to fight back, telling myself that I had not heard a thump or a scream, that I had not felt a lump beneath my tires. I promised myself that I would watch the evening news and if there had been a report of a hit and run, I would surrender myself to the authorities.


Before marrying, I told my future husband I would convert to Catholicism. Religion was important to him. I was kind of half-Catholic anyway, I reasoned, even if I hadn’t been to church in years. I wanted our future children to have one faith. I wanted us to attend church as a family.

At the Easter Vigil, after months of Tuesday night lessons, I was baptized and confirmed and received the Holy Eucharist for the first time, according to the Catholic Church, although my mother had baptized me at home and I’d taken the bread and wine regularly with the Protestants.

My husband and I bought an eighty-year-old house for seventy-nine thousand dollars. Three tiny bedrooms upstairs. One small bathroom. A living room with a hole in the floor and a hideous brown fireplace. There was a dining room with a built-in bench and fabric wall paper. A kitchen with bright yellow tiles, easily dislodged by an incautious tread.


After the birth of my eldest, I thought I had schizophrenia. While my colicky newborn screamed every day from 3 until 6, I put her in her stroller and wheeled her endlessly around the dining room table or sat on the built-in bench, holding her close, praying that she would stop screaming, just for a moment. One day, a clear voice whispered to me: Kill her.

I hadn’t heard of postpartum depression, still wasn’t clear on how to handle my obsessions. I told no one but my husband. I thought that if I sought professional help, my daughter would be taken away from me forever. But I should have remembered the intrusive thoughts I’d had for years.

Sometimes a voice would tell me to drive up on the sidewalk into a crowd of people. I’d grip the steering wheel tightly, press on the brakes, fight the voice inside my head. Sometimes I’d look at a complete stranger, just a sideways glance, and a thought would fill my head: He deserves to go to hell. It didn’t matter if the person was man or woman, child or adult, black or white. My mind chose random targets to mentally condemn. I was a horrible person. I was a sinner. I deserved go to go hell. No they deserved to go to hell. No, I…Back and forth, my rational mind would argue with its irrational partner until my brain felt as if it would explode. But to have such thoughts about my child…I promised myself I’d commit suicide before I harmed my daughter.

I didn’t know the Catholic Church’s stance on this action, killing oneself to avoid harming another. I didn’t care. I would gladly burn in hell to save this infant.


Before my daughters — by now we had two — could get up from their morning naps, I would sweep the floors of the entire house, afraid, if I didn’t, that the girls would get lead poisoning. When I ended in the kitchen, thinking about a cup of coffee and a few moments of reading, I’d tell myself I’d missed a spot and would have to head back upstairs to restart the process. Again and again, while my children slept, I swept those floors, hating myself, hating my brain, wishing for once in my Goddamn life to be a normal human being.

I used to throw away entire meals, so convinced was I that I’d somehow contaminated it with shards of glass or a splash of bleach.

I used to take my daughters’ temperatures. Every. Single. Night.

My husband and I enrolled our daughters in Catholic school at the very church I had attended with my mother and sisters. I continued to wrestle with my new set of beliefs. I confess I have sometimes wondered whether the words of a prophet were actually spoken by a madman, if an angel’s visitation was actually a hallucination.


After we tucked her into bed, my older daughter slipped into the bathroom to wipe down the toilet seat with a tissue. If she didn’t, she knew that a mean man would come through her bedroom window. Every night, she would rid her room of pointy objects and frightening books. She would call down the stairs: Will I be all right? Will anything bad happen? Are the doors locked?

My daughter dealt with her obsessions by constantly seeking reassurances. I gave her what she wanted: A mean man isn’t coming. You’re not having a heart attack.

For a while she was content with this response. Then the obsessions began demanding more. After each reassurance, she sought proof: How do you know?

I just do, I told her. It’s like faith. My own faith was on shaky ground. But still, I told her this. I offered her faith to give her some sort of hope when life felt hopeless.


Before she was in kindergarten, my younger daughter began confessing things: I stuck my middle finger up, which she immediately chased with, Well, I might have. I’m not sure. Later, she developed a strange noise, a high-pitched snort, which she would deploy with regularity. A tic of sorts, my husband and I figured.

Eventually the tic disappeared. My daughter stopped making her confessions. My husband and I concluded that she’d outgrown whatever it was that had been troubling her. We didn’t then know she’d learned to be silent, too.

Because I didn’t tell my daughters I suffered from mental disorders. I told myself that my obsessive behaviors stemmed from growing up in an alcoholic home; that the girls were too young to understand; that if I kept silent, if I didn’t name it, mental illness would bypass them. I told myself, too, I was a bad mother. Sometimes–often–I still do.

Faith and OCD. Both powerful. Both mysteries, one of the brain, the other of the soul.


Obsessions are a set of rules for behavior, different for each person: for me, checking the coffee pot, for one daughter, wiping down the toilet, for the other, making confessions. These rules represent an attempt to gain control over our uncontrollable, uncertain world. Christianity, I’d been taught, also has rules which, if we follow, increase our chances of getting to heaven. Life doesn’t actually end when we die.

But reaching that security requires two different paths. The best way for me to work through obsessions was to learn to apply my rational brain to them. I had to look for proof, or lack thereof: Had I heard a thump? No. A scream? No. Had my tires lifted off the ground? No. Only then could I conclude that I’d probably not run anyone over. Faith, however, required suspension of rational brain: I couldn’t see Jesus in the disk cradled in my palm, didn’t see a flash from the sky as He came down from heaven, but I had to accept that He was there. It was a mystery. There could be no proof.

Obsessions and faith and rationality and mystery and those damned intrusive thoughts that grip the brain. Perhaps, like faith, obsessions require a person to go beyond mere rationalizing. Perhaps both faith and OCD require a person to accept the unknowns, without reassurances; without certainties. Will the house catch on fire? Probably not, but a definite possibility. Does God exist? I can offer no proof. And yet, there is always hope.

Now, when I leave Starbucks where I’ve been writing, I have to return to my table to see if I’ve left anything behind: my computer, my notes, the cell phone I know is in the pocket of my jeans. Clearly, I have not exorcized my obsessions. But their grip has lessened somewhat: I don’t unplug the coffee pot before heading to bed. I no longer drive around the block to see if I’ve run someone over.

I used to hope to become the person I was before obsessions crowded my brain. But I am not certain she ever existed. Perhaps I have always been the person I have, for so many years, tried to escape. Perhaps I have always been the after person. And that’s OK. I have learned to accept the mystery that is my brain. I am learning not to be silent about my history of mental illness. Ever so slowly, I am learning how to speak.

Author’s Note: Six weeks ago my father was diagnosed with cancer. He died this morning. My dad passed on to me his love of hard work. Half of my faith. My respect for nature. He gave me his obsessions, too. The funny thing is, we never talked about it. He suffered in silence. I suffered in silence. Isn’t it time we all started talking?

Kelly Garriott Waite’s work has appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, the Globe and Mail, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and elsewhere. She is currently writing about her search for the stories of both her great-grandfather, who immigrated from Russian-owned Poland, as well as the forgotten owner of her historical Ohio home, an English immigrant who married into a Native American family.

Close Encounters with Kindermusik

Close Encounters with Kindermusik

By Elisabeth De Vos

fall2007_devosI am teetering on the edge of the Abyss of Maternal Guilt. My extroverted, twenty-one-month-old daughter is repeating her daily litany: “Grammy. Grammy come soon? Want Grammy come see Mari. Jenni. Jenni come soon? Want Jenni come see Mari.” Her list includes all our family and friends, the ones she hears me talking to via speakerphone while she scribbles on recycled paper with beeswax crayons—but who she sees only on rare visits.

Her social isolation is the result of various realities my husband Steve and I must deal with, including, but not limited to, living a continent away from most of our extended family and a minimum of forty-five minutes away from that precious resource, friends with same-age offspring.

However, distant relatives and relative distance don’t matter when your daughter is using the W word: want. I am her mother. Since her conception, the sole purpose of my existence has been to meet her needs. Mari wants social interaction. Mari is not getting it. Therefore, I must remedy this situation or plunge into maternal guilt.

I am cowering at the brink of the blackness when I have an idea. There is, a mere five blocks from our home, a small strip mall containing a natural pet-care store we used to frequent. I remember sitting in the car while Steve loaded our trunk with forty-pound bags of chemical-free dog chow made from people-quality ingredients and watching moms with young children in tow entering and exiting an adjacent business. Equally significant, those moms were removing their shoes upon arrival. And the name of the place frequented by these shoe-removing moms was Kindermusik.

This memory lights up in my mind, a beacon of hope at the edge of the abyss. A Kindermusik class would provide social interaction for Mari. It would enable us to meet friends with same-age offspring who live nearby. It would give me a chance to work on taking my daughter in the car without her dad accompanying us to serve as Toucher of All Things Unclean, including the steering wheel.

Later that day, I balance my daughter on my hip with one hand while manipulating my computer’s mouse with the other. There it is—Kindermusik International’s website. Mari’s tolerance for being in my office (where, despite the reassuring presence of my medical-grade air purifier, I won’t let her touch anything because of the flame-retardant-contaminated dust emitted from my laptop) is very short. I have just enough time to glance over the website and get the phone number for the school in our neighborhood before her patience expires.

But I am elated. It appears, from my brief perusal, that Kindermusik originated in the 1960s in Germany. This bodes well. The 1960s produced my husband, me, and the values that we adhere to. Germany, we’ve learned since becoming parents, seems to be about the only country producing toys, clothing, educational philosophies, and floor finishes that are consistent with those values.

We are eco-conscious global citizens. Reducing, reusing, and recycling, television-less, back-to-basics and back-to-nature eco-conscious global citizens who try, through our personal and purchasing choices, to bring about what Steve has dubbed The Organic Future: a world where people live in harmony with nature and each other. Hence, our enthusiasm for all-natural pet food, air purification, and European enlightenment.

All of this, of course, puts us on the distant left shore of mainstream America and its raging torrent of trendy consumer products and programs, including kiddie enrichment curriculum. So despite Kindermusik’s pedigree, despite the fact that encouraging words like “joyful,” “natural” and “multicultural” leapt out at me from the website, I harbor some doubt as to whether it will be right for our child. Because in addition to those happy-hippie words, there were an awful lot of little trademark symbols. Whisking Mari out of my office and into the bathroom where I can wash any toxic dust off my hands, I decide I’m not going to let those â„¢s rain on my idealism parade. Not yet.

I call the Kindermusik in our neighborhood. I have some questions, and am hopeful that the answers will confirm that yes, my daughter soon will be basking in joyful, natural social interaction set to a multicultural music soundtrack. The owner is pleasant. She is helpful. I learn that we are welcome to attend a free trial class prior to registering for the next term.

I ask her about the shoe removal. Oh yes, she assures me, they do their best to keep the carpet clean for the kids. Green light. Is it vacuumed regularly? Indeed, she answers. And it’s new, as well. Oops, yellow light.

How new? Installed last spring, which is now three seasons back. I sigh, relieved. The owner is confused by my reaction, so I explain that strong chemical odors can trigger migraines for me, but the carpet should have finished the worst of its off-gassing by now. (I forego the opportunity to enlighten her about the evils of conventional wall-to-wall, knowing from long experience that she’ll be far more sympathetic to my moderate chemical sensitivities than to my extreme environmental sensibilities.) Green light again.

On to the issue of germs. I am again relieved when she readily launches into a description of their infection-control measures: instruments wiped off between classes, instruments that get inserted into mouths (whether intended for that purpose or not) set aside for special cleaning, “gallons” of hand sanitizer available at all times and parents encouraged to use it, as well as free disinfectant wipes. Green light, even though her sanitizer and disinfectants are probably not environmentally friendly.

What about the ceiling, I ask. This one stumps her. I explain that I am familiar with the pet-care store next door, and that the strip mall her school inhabits is obviously older and has a textured “popcorn” ceiling, which can contain asbestos. Does she disturb that ceiling? Does she, like the pet-care place that only my husband enters, hang decorations from it? She sounds perplexed, but assures me the ceiling is left alone.

And the paint? Is it in good condition? Yes, and bright red. Green light, green light.

I get off the phone. The Abyss of Maternal Guilt is receding into the distance as my daughter and I zoom toward the Musical Garden of Extrovert Delights. The natural, joyful, multicultural garden. The environmental-contaminant-tracking-shoes-free, undisturbed-popcorn-ceilinged, disinfected-instrument garden.

*   *   *

I am more than just an ultra-progressive mom. I am also a mom who has Obsessive-Compulsive (OCD). Where other people see some parking-lot grime on a pair of shoes, I see petrochemical toxins leaching toward my child. Where other people see an old textured ceiling, I see asbestos particles showering into the air she breathes. Where other people see a stranger’s hand picking up a Kindermusik instrument, I see a threat of incurable disease. All of this makes me an ultra-protective mom. The kind of mom that calls Kindermusik schools with queries that don’t appear on their website’s FAQ list.

Being ultra-progressive and having OCD means that I continually struggle to sort out which of my concerns stem from my values and which from my illness. Most people, members of my family included, tend to assume that I am ultra-progressive because of my OCD, and that without it, I’d drift happily back toward the middle of the road. What they don’t understand is that I have passionately held beliefs and I have a mental illness that causes obsessive fears around those same beliefs. In other words, I am obsessed with environmental hazards because I care deeply about environmental health, and not the other way around.

But there’s another catch: OCD has been called a “disease of doubt” because it involves a malfunction in the part of the brain that generates the sense of being certain. So when I make decisions, I can never be sure whether I am honoring my values or caving in to my sickness. This is a critical fact which very few people comprehend. OCD is not about whether you have germs on your hands; it’s about an inability to generate the internal sense of certainty that your hands are “clean.” Normal brains do this so automatically and effectively that their owners are not even aware it happens. When it doesn’t happen, you notice. You notice that you have OCD.

I first noticed symptoms of this disorder when I was nine. I started seeking help at age twenty. The medical community didn’t figure out that OCD is a neurological disease and not a Freudian complex until I was almost thirty. The three different psychiatrists I went to apparently never heard the news. I didn’t get valid information about or treatment for my problem (which I ultimately found on the Internet and in bookstores) until I’d given up on the counseling and medical professionals. By then my condition had been complicated by pregnancy and childbirth, an experience so psychiatrically profound it can induce OCD in those previously unaffected.

OCD causes intense, often unbearable, anxiety. So does being a mom. Especially being an ultra-progressive mom in suburban America. Which means that when I’m not fearing that my child’s body is being assaulted by mutated microbes and toxic residues, I worry that her soul is being assaulted by mutated dinosaurs and talking sea sponges.

My mother knows about my values and about my OCD. She is still coming to terms with both of them. Since I am a mother myself, and I suffer from a genetically based disorder, I can understand how painful it must be for my own mom that I have this problem.

Her reaction to my values is a little harder to comprehend. Mom is a recovering starving artist and former hippie who has embraced her newfound middle-class, mainstream status with a convert’s zeal. Sure, she’s still a vegetarian with eclectic interests, but it’s become obvious, as I’ve taken her former beliefs to their idealistic extreme, that she’s disappointed I adhere to the very values she raised me with. Go figure.

I call my mother and tell her about Kindermusik. She is enthused. Since my daughter was a year old and I e-mailed digital clips of her bobbing to music by African pop star Angelique Kidjo, Mom has urged me to get Mari into a musical program. And since Mom came to visit months after my daughter’s birth and witnessed me in full-blown postpartum OCD paranoia, she has worried about the extent to which Mari will actually get to leave the house. I caution Mom that I have to check Kindermusik out, that there are still issues, but that it looks like a green light.

When I do get a chance to peruse the Kindermusik website more thoroughly, the light turns back to yellow. First, the requirements for being a “licensed Kindermusik educator” basically boil down to being able to carry a tune and promising you’ll make every parent buy the At Home materials kit. And second, Kindermusik has launched a new endeavor, home parties that offer “everything musical for a child’s world.” This trademarked service is a member of the Direct Selling Association.

Now not sure what to think, I call the ultimate authority on all things kid: my sister Debi—licensed mental health counselor, assistant professor of child psychology, certified play therapist, mother of six-year-old twins who are both gifted and special needs, coupon and two-for-one goddess, thrower of super-deluxe double birthday parties on shoestring budget, baker of Easter bunny cakes, maker of rainbow-unicorn Halloween costumes, and all-around glue-gun maniac. That sister.

She’s the one I call with questions ranging from “My eighteen-month-old is yanking at her hair. Is this developmentally appropriate or the early signs of trichotillomania?” to “How can I create a pink tail for a kitty cat costume in ten minutes without a glue gun?” If Debi doesn’t know about it, then it’s not worth knowing. She is my guide to the world of childhood beyond the Organic Now.

“I am confused. Is Kindermusik a legitimate music education curriculum or a mass-marketing scheme?” I ask.

“Yes,” she answers. Ah, that clarifies everything.

In her expert opinion, the curriculum is good, but only as good (and as free of purchasing pressure) as the Kindermusik educator. I tell her the local franchise (ugh!) has two certified music therapists on staff. She deems this a green light. I tell her of Mari’s recitation of wants, of my hopes for a Musical Garden of Contaminant-Free Extrovert Delights. “Go,” she responds.

And so, emboldened by finding myself on a route where all lights have turned green, I boldly advance toward the Garden: I send my husband, Toucher of All Things Unclean, to perform reconnaissance. Steve returns with a brochure for the upcoming semester and a report that although the facility appeared to be well maintained, there was no clearly delineated shoes-off area. We decide that the best course of action is for me to attend a Kindermusik class without Mari to determine if it is acceptable from the standpoint of our values and tolerable from the standpoint of my OCD.

*   *   *

A week later, on an icy January morning, I hurry across the parking lot of the strip mall and approach the Kindermusik franchise. From long-practiced resourcefulness, I have a paper napkin in my pocket that I discreetly use to open the front door without contaminating my hands.

It is as Steve described: a smallish rectangular space with the far end partitioned off. It is carpeted. The carpet extends to the front door, and while there are shoes and backpacks lined up along the walls, there is nothing to indicate where shoes may and may not go.

I have arrived, as planned, during the fifteen-minute interval between classes. I am observing, as planned, the shoe rituals of arriving and departing Kindermusik attendees. Moms holding babies are putting on shoes and jackets, picking up diaper bags and backpacks. One mom gets ready to go, then remembers she needs to ask Nancy, the owner/teacher, something ….

I have lived with this disorder long enough to know the truth of Murphy’s Law. The forgetful mom strides across the carpeted expanse, to the very center of the space, with her shoes on. Red light. Moms (and dads) leave. New moms (and a dad and a grandma) arrive. A little boy runs over to greet the teacher without remembering to remove his shoes. Sigh.

I begin contemplating what decontamination measures will be necessary should I decide to bring Mari to Kindermusik despite the badly organized and poorly executed efforts at carpet cleanliness. Perhaps we could take the first class of the morning, or perhaps I can keep her on my lap so her clothes don’t touch the floor.

I introduce myself to Nancy, then take a seat against the wall, outside of the circle of parents and toddlers that has formed in the center of the space. The class begins its “greeting song.” I let my gaze wander around the room, to the plastic bins of instruments and supplies on shelves along one wall; the partitions in the back, with products for sale (sigh) on more shelves behind them; the dozen or so glittery silver snowflakes hanging by thumbtacks from the popcorn ceiling.

Holiday decorations. Suspended from the popcorn ceiling. The same popcorn ceiling, which, I was assured, does not get decorated.

I have been in treatment for this disorder long enough to not panic when I witness the true state of the Kindermusik ceiling, but I eye Nancy with newfound suspicion. Still, I have come this far. I have already sat down on the contaminated carpet. I have already breathed the contaminated air. I might as well stay and find out what Kindermusik is about because I know from the website that this is not the only franchise in my area.

What happens next: Singing of songs with accompanying gestures. Playing of simple instruments (pairs of wood sticks, bell shakers) in time to recorded Kindermusik music. Prancing around in circle while swishing squares of synthetic chiffon embroidered with Kindermusik logo, also in time to Kindermusik music. Starting and stopping on cue. Listening to recorded sounds. Reciting of rhyme with accompanying gestures. Performance of circle dance (parent-child pairs weaving in and out of circle, each in turn). Telling of “story” to toddlers seated on custom throw blanket woven with Kindermusik logo.

Also what happens next: Little girl sucks on bell shaker. Nancy promptly intervenes, explaining bell could hurt her mouth, but does not set aside the shaker for special cleaning. Bell goes back in basket, along with every other germ-infested instrument.

The “story” that’s told involves a ring binder containing pages that alternate between drawings of doors and pictures of kids in the class. Kids “knock” on door, then turn page to see who’s there. Cute—until page turn reveals Big Bird. And Cookie Monster. And Tigger. Could have been worse, could have been Barney and SpongeBob, but still evokes ultra-progressive mom’s nightmare of daughter innocently opening door to find consumerized kiddie culture lurking behind it.

Finally, singing of goodbye song accompanied by zither. Parents and children join hands for circle dance. Not enough gallons of hand sanitizer and free disinfectant wipes in the world to cope with Mari holding some adult stranger’s hand.

Class ends. Nancy announces brightly she has stamps. Confused, I think: stickers. But no, Nancy has a rubber stamp and an inkpad and she is stamping the children. She is creating blue snowflake imprints on their hands. Their cheeks. Their tummies. My horrified gaze flits from stamped snowflakes to snowflaked ceiling. Stamp ink is non-toxic and washes off, Nancy assures a parent. I do not bother to inform her that “non-toxic” is actually a designation given to substances that aren’t fatal when ingested unless more than a pint is consumed.

Class is over, and Nancy wants to touch base, find out if I’ll be enrolling my child. I am still reeling from the OCD gauntlet I’ve just run, but I try to disentangle my invasive, irrational thoughts from my authentic beliefs and feelings. I tell Nancy honestly that I have a much better understanding of what Kindermusik is all about, but I’m not sure how my daughter would respond. I explain that we frequently listen to world music at home, and that my daughter might not enjoy the toddler-oriented Kindermusik themes, as right now she’s requesting we play a lot of French Caribbean zouk. Nancy stares at me blankly, then offers that the next semester’s theme is “Fiddle-dee-dee,” which features lots of … fiddle.

*   *   *

As I drive home, park our hybrid-engine vehicle, change out of my contaminated pants and socks, and repeatedly wash my hands, I wrestle with two questions: Is Kindermusik the right place for Mari? And if I answer “no,” is it because of its lack of depth and diversity, or the dirty shoes and holiday decorations?

I go to the kitchen to prepare my daughter’s organic vegetarian lunch. As I steam couscous and grate cheese, I worry that Mari will miss out by not attending Kindermusik. What if she won’t achieve her potential? What if the lack of developmentally appropriate, group musical education will cause her to fall short?

But humans have been making music a long time. A really long time. And 99.999 percent of that time, they didn’t have franchised classes available to them, but they somehow managed to pass on the knowledge and joy of vocal and instrumental self-expression to their offspring. Maybe instead of spending hundreds of dollars for weekly sessions at the strip mall, I should put that money toward a week-long trip to some primitive place where my child can experience music closer to its source, where she can hear percussion instruments the way they’ve been played for millennia. Thoughts of unsafe drinking water, exotic diseases, and political instability quickly deter me from this idea.

Left to her own devices, Mari already imitates the vocal stylings of Ladysmith Black Mambazo. She insists we play the soca hit “Ice Cream” over and over. The first time I put on the Beatles, she started doing a waltz step, then dipped into a deep plié, swooping her arms upward in perfect coordination with her legs. She doesn’t really need us to pay for three minutes of swishing a nylon scarf in order to develop rhythm when she has yards of real silk (low-impact dyed, of course) and all of the Putumayo World Playground CDs available each day.

But what she doesn’t have is a room full of toddlers. If I take her to Kindermusik, she will get to participate in group activities with her peers. But after witnessing for the first time a franchised enrichment class, I worry that she will also get the subtle message that she’s not doing it “right” when the Kindermusik educator sings “Time to dance” and she thinks it means fly across the floor to the age-inappropriate music of Prince, inventing footwork as she goes. Or worse, she will get discouraged when she points imperiously at the boombox and commands, “Want different!” after being confronted with Kindermusik’s scientifically validated, emotionally tame melodies.

I might be able to fight my way past my obsessions if Kindermusik were really a joyful garden of multicultural delights, and I might be able to compromise on my values if it was truly germ- and dirt-free. But the double whammy of middle-of-the-road commercialism and aging strip-mall contamination is too much for me. I feel disappointed in our culture and ashamed of myself.

I also feel doubt as my mind starts its endless loop of “what ifs”: What if I’m exaggerating my objections to avoid the anxiety of my disorder? Or what if I’m stigmatizing myself for having a mental illness by not honoring my authentic responses to Kindermusik? But what if I’m using the mediocrity of the program as an excuse for not overcoming my obsessions? And what if I’m never able to find toddler activities that appear both safe and of value?

I need a normal brain to sort this out, and Steve has one. He listens patiently to my report on Kindermusik, laughing with me at the OCD ironies of the experience, and nodding as I talk about my other perceptions, then stopping me when I get on my self-doubt anxiety-go-round.

His response cuts to the heart of the matter: What we need is social interaction for our daughter. If that’s all we’re going to get out of Kindermusik, we might as well just take Mari to a bona fide playgroup and maximize our toddler-face-time-payoff for all the decorated-ceiling and mass-marketing exposure.

*   *   *

The next morning arrives bright, cold and guilt-free. Last week, Mari and I scheduled a precious playdate at our home. For this day, at least, I know my child’s voracious social appetite will be satiated, and maybe tomorrow I can commence my quest for ongoing sustenance.

While the toddlers amuse themselves with sustainably harvested wood toys and North African soukous plays in the background, I tell my friend with same-age offspring that I need to get Mari more peer contact. She responds that after having spent the better part of the last two years in the Void of Maternal Isolation, she would be happy to drive forty-five minutes each way for a Wednesday get-together at our organic oasis.

Green light.

Elisabeth De Vos is the author of a science fiction novel and several short stories, as well as an essay included in the Smart Pop anthology series.

Brain, Child (Fall 2007)