January 12, 2015

Top shelf

Last week, I decided to clean my home office, tossing out papers and filing important stuff away in a desperate attempt get the top of my desk clear for the start of the new semester. This ambitious project was hampered by the fact that I could barely get to my desk because so many books were piled on the floor. I really don’t know where all those books came from: the piles grow like stalagmites in a dark cave. But the piles were so high they’d begun to topple over, and I realized that the time had come. I needed to organize my bookshelves and weed out the ones I no longer used.

Pulling books down, sorting them into piles, stopping to read pages — it was all great fun. Soon the living room floor was piled with so many books it looked like I was opening a store. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any to part with. When it comes to books, I'm the worst sort of pack rat. I keep them even after I lose the covers.

Then I stumbled onto some parenting books I'd bought at a feminist bookstore. I carried them into the living room and looked across at With-a-Why and Boy-in-Black, who were sitting on the couch with their laptops, immersed in discussion about the computer strategy game Starcraft.

Me: Am I done raising kids?
Boy-in-Black: What?
Me: I mean, you kids turned out great. I guess I don’t need these parenting books any more.
Boy-in-Black: What was your build order?
Me: (in surprise) You talking to me?
Boy-in-Black (grinning): Yeah.
Me: (looking at the titles of the books) Well, I wanted my sons to be feminists.
Boy-in-Black: Anyone who says they aren’t a feminist is an asshole. Unless maybe they don’t know what the word means. Like they think it means hating men or something. But if you get that it means that everyone should have equal rights and opportunities, well, who would ever say they weren’t?

He turned back to his little brother, and they resumed talking about Starcraft. I swept the parenting books into a bag: my work was done.

January 05, 2015

Getting outside

Over the last three weeks, I've spent most of my time at home. The house has been filled with family and food, which means I've had little reason to leave it. Every night as my husband and I go to bed, we say good night to the gang of young people downstairs: usually one group gathered at the kitchen table, playing a board game, and another group in by the fire, with books or laptops. My kids and extras are mostly either teachers or students, and we take winter break very seriously. I love hanging out at home when everyone is there, just eating and talking.

But when I talked to my friend Signing Woman the other day, she said, "You need to get outside." She was right. I'd stopped taking daily walks in my own woods when hunting season started. So I pulled on my boots, Signing Woman arrived with her dog, and we drove a few miles to the canal, where we've walked many times before.

The cold, fresh air felt great after so much time indoors. We had the towpath to ourselves as we walked along the canal, the dog Breeze running ahead to find squirrels. Falling snow coated tree limbs and bushes and most of the ice, although some dark open water remained near the muskrat home that Signing Woman pointed out to me. She's a naturalist (as well as an interpreter for the hearing impaired) so she kept pointing to tracks in the fresh snow and coming up with theories as to what animals had just run through.

We walked and walked on the endless towpath. The frozen canal, which really does go on for miles and miles, made me think of Hans Brinker (does anyone watch that movie or read that book anymore?). We used to skate on the canal when I was a teenager, but this year the ice is far too thin. We talked as we walked along, of course, often so deep in conversation that we didn't notice how hard it was snowing and at other times interrupting ourselves with exclamations about how beautiful the winter was.

January walk along the canal

December 28, 2014

Waterfall walk with Biker Boy

For the last couple of weeks, my home has been filled with family and friends. But there’s one person I hadn’t yet seen over the holidays — Little Biker Boy. This morning, I drove out to the town where he lives so we could spend some time together.

Biker Boy is not little any more, although he still does love to ride a bicycle. He’s taller than me now, and in a dark hoodie and shorts (yes, shorts even in the winter!), he looks like the teenager he is. But despite his height and facial hair, he is still the same affectionate, good-natured kid. After I picked him up, we ate pizza at a local pizza place, as is our tradition. Then we drove to the nearest park, a place with rock cliffs and a waterfall surging with snowmelt, to take a walk.

It’s been almost two years since Biker Boy moved in with his adoptive parents, and it’s just incredible to see what a difference a loving, stable home can make. We talked about school and girls and snowmobiles and video games, and the whole conversation was wonderfully normal and low-key. All the anger that used to simmer below the surface has dissipated, leaving just all the good characteristics that were there all along.

We walked along a trail that gave us a good view of the waterfall. Biker Boy took my phone and began snapping pictures, and then he started teasing me by saying he was going to climb over the fence. “I should KNOW better than to take a teenage boy anywhere near a waterfall,” I said to him. “My sons always did the same thing.”

“I’m so much like your kids,” he said, dropping back to walk next to me, pretending to push me off the path.

“You are,” I said. “I’ve always told you that.”

December 24, 2014

Christmas Eve, this time with robots

Building the robots

We're ready for Christmas. The tree is decorated. Family members have arrived, the younger ones bringing sleeping bags since we don't have enough beds for all. The refrigerator is so filled that I've resorted to stacking food on a table in our conveniently cold garage. We'll be using all four burners on the stove, plus several crockpots on the counter. I've carried in enough firewood to keep the fire going. Twenty-six family members will gather at my house for Christmas Eve, and most of us will be here again for Christmas dinner.

Traditionally, we each buy only one gift. It was With-a-Why's turn to be Secret Santa this year. He declared himself the King of the North, and he matched up family members, sending us each an email telling us who to buy for. Great secrecy surrounds the Secret Santa gift exchange, and I haven't guessed yet who has me. Most of us wrap our gifts quite simply, sometimes even just stapling together the store bag, but it's a tradition for Boy-in-Black to wrap his gift in the most ridiculous way possible, using every empty box piled in the garage and every bit of leftover wrapping paper. His project this year was an eight-foot robot that is taller than the Christmas tree. His name is GMO, and he's standing in the corner, ready to greet family members as they arrive.

Ready for Christmas

November 26, 2014

On the Eve of Thanksgiving

Snow for Thanksgiving

The snow came this afternoon — fluffy wet snow that stuck to branches and tree trunks and eyelashes, covering my woods with a relentless beauty that was impossible to ignore. It’s winter here, the day before Thanksgiving, just two weeks since my sister’s funeral. I’ve been eating hot soup all day, lentil soup made with rice that a close friend dropped off yesterday. “I know that soup is your comfort food,” she said.

Tonight, we are gathered inside by the fire. With-a-Why, Boy-in-Black, and my husband are on the couch, watching something on With-a-Why’s laptop. My daughter is at the table, drinking tea and grading papers. Shy Smile sits next to her, laptop open. Sailor Boy is stretched out in the chair by the fire. The house has been full of family every weekend this semester, as we’ve coped with first my sister’s illness and then her death.

My son Shaggy Hair Boy and his fiancĂ© Smiley Girl spent today driving. They left when it was still dark to drive to Big Midwestern City to spend the holiday with Drama Niece – and her boyfriend, who is still so new to the family that he doesn’t yet have pseudonym. I am happy that Drama Niece, who has flown here twice in the last month, won’t be alone for the holiday. When I get the text that they’ve arrived safely, I call my Mom to tell her the news and I hear her call out to my father. He’s been busy getting out the extra folding chairs while she bakes pies for tomorrow’s dinner.

My brother and sister-in-law will arrive in the morning. They usually aren’t here for Thanksgiving, but they’re changing up the tradition this year. My out-of-town sisters won’t be here: we’ll see them at Christmas. Blond Brother-in-law will come, of course, and he’ll carve the turkey, like he always does. We’ll see his three daughters, of course. Blonde Niece will sit by Boy-in-Black, Red-haired Niece will bring her boyfriend and possibly her dog, and Schoolteacher Niece will come with her husband and her six-month-old baby, who has red hair and chubby legs and the cutest smile.

When I talked to my mother earlier, we went over the plans for Thanksgiving dinner — who was coming this year, how many chairs she needed — and we talked about plans for Christmas Eve and for Christmas dinner too. We always do that, counting up family members, making sure we know where everyone is and who is eating where and how much food we need. We didn’t have to say aloud what we were both feeling because we both knew. So we talked about whether or not we should have peas in addition to green beans, and I told her that we had to include green peas because Boy-in-Black and Red-haired Niece both love them, and once we’d adjusted the menu to suit every family member who will come tomorrow, I put my phone back in my pocket and walked outside in the snow to see what sympathy cards the mailbox held today.

November 16, 2014

My oldest sister

Blonde Sister has always lived within ten miles of me. Just two years older, she is part of every childhood memory I have.

On the first day of kindergarten, Blonde Sister walked me to my classroom and delivered me, scared and shy, to the teacher. The summer after eighth grade, she went with me to my first dance. The night before I began high school, she drew me a map of the school and said, “So long as you remember where the auditorium is, you can’t get lost.” Almost everything I've ever done, she did first, and that has made my life so much easier.

One of my earliest memories involves an Easter egg hunt at a neighbor’s house down the road. The older kids were running around, finding eggs. I kept chasing after them and looking in the same spots, which was not at all effective. I said to Blonde Sister, in despair, “I can’t find an egg.” She was five years old at the time. She took a bright green egg from her basket, walked a few feet, and set it on a wooden railing. I ran over, grabbed it happily, and then ran to brag to everyone that I’d found an egg.

We fought sometimes as kids because that's what kids do. The year she turned ten years old, she would say smugly “I’m double figures,” just because it made us younger siblings mad. And when she played Monopoly, she just HAD to put hotels on those light blue properties. Every. Single. Time. When we played the game Twenty Questions around the campfire and the rest of us were methodically asking questions to narrow down the search, she’d shout out things like, “Is it the Statue of Liberty?” in hopes of winning the game with one guess.

Blonde Sister was an eternal optimist. On our vacations at camp, we’d all be standing around gloomily on a dark rainy day, and she’d point across the river and say, “I see a patch of blue sky coming this way.” She was very artistic – whether we were painting the picture windows for Christmas or making travel kits for our annual trip to visit my grandmother and Aunt Seashell – her colorful drawings made my stick figures look a bit pathetic. I still have the colorful mural she painted for my daughter when she was a baby.

For many years, I saw my sister every day. I’d drop my kids off at her house on my way to work and I’ll pick them up on my way home. That’s why my four kids were so close to her. She helped raise them. In the summer, she’d call and say, “Let’s do a Kid Switch.” I’d drop Shaggy Hair Boy at her house to play with Blonde Niece, and take her older two daughters home to play with my kids. The seven kids, mine and hers, have always seemed more like siblings than cousins: they still hang out together, all the time.

My oldest sister was a private person who never liked the spotlight. Three months ago, when she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer, I respected her privacy, as well as the privacy of her husband and three daughters, and I didn’t write anything about her struggles on this blog. I didn't write about her weeks in the hospital or what it must be like for my parents, who are in their 80s, to see their oldest child so ill.

Blonde Sister died last Sunday. She was 55.

I still can’t believe she’s gone. I keep wanting to pick up the phone to call her. All week, the family has been gathering at my house, to talk and grieve and eat food, and I keep expecting her to walk through the door. I am still in shock. It’s taken me a week to write this blog post. Writing is what makes things real to me. And this is something I don’t want to be real.

Hiding behind the newspaper

This photo of Blonde Sister taken in the early years of my blog. She and my son Shaggy Hair Boy were joking about how I never show faces on my blog, so they were hiding behind the newspaper and saying, "Go ahead! Take a photo for the blog!"

October 28, 2014

Naked as a tree trunk


“You get to pick your own pseudonym,” I tell women who pose naked for me. Or, at least, I try to remember that. Sometimes I’ve already flown home from a conference, photos in my camera, before I remember that rule. And sometimes it’s too late. Quilt Artist, for example, had appeared on my blog as Quilt Artist long before she ever posed for me. The pseudonym isn’t very original — but then again, she’s the only quilt artist in my circle of friends — so at least I always remember her name. 

The day I took Soulbent’s photo, the sun had disappeared behind the clouds, and the air was chilly, but she willingly stripped off her clothes anyway. “With this light, you will mostly be a silhouette,” I said.

She looked around thoughtfully, and then pointed to a tree that near the lake edge. “I’ll pose with the tree.” She walked carefully through the leaves and twigs, then stood with her barefeet on the smooth trunk of the bent tree trunk, moving her body to be in harmony with the other trunks, becoming part of the scene of water, tree, sky, and mountain.

When we rejoined the rest of our friends, who were sitting inside the warm lodge, we plunged immediately into a discussion of body image. Soulbent has lived in other parts of the world, and she thinks the American phenomenon of the push-up bra is a bit bizarre. “I’ve lived in cultures where women are more comfortable with the natural shape of the breast,” she said. “They don’t feel the need to push their breasts up like that.”

“Cleavage doesn’t exist in nature,” chimed in another woman. “It’s created by restrictive garments.”

“So often with the fashion industry, the female body is just a hanger for clothing,” said Soulbent. “The body becomes just another commodity.”

 “And in this culture, the naked body is almost always sexualized,” I said. “That drives me crazy."

While we were talking, my friend gave some thought to her pseudonym. She explained that in Sufi practices, you use names to call on qualities you want. That makes sense to me: I imagine that is how names like Faith and Joy came into being. So, since she is a woman who tries to live and breathe and act from her soul, from the essence of her being, she chose the pseudonym Soulbent.

 Read more about the history of the naked blogging project and check out the gallery of photos.