A Few Words on Worry

Last night, as Terry and I were walking around the block in the dark, calling Lady’s name, I was thinking about this blog. I was wondering how the story might end, and how I would write about it.

It was a gorgeous night. The sky was clear. The moon will be full by tomorrow; it felt as though it was full last night. A gibbous moon: more than half, but less than full, and growing. Such a specific word.

There are probably other words to describe the evening. I wonder what the word would be for my husband’s outward calm as he walked into the road to examine a pile of leaves, in case it was a hurt animal, or the particular kind of imagination that leaves you trying out phrases like, “We lost your cat.” This is different from the kind of worry you feel when your adult child is struggling with things they don’t want to name–at least not in front of you. Different still from when they broke curfew and didn’t answer their phone, or came home crying because no one played with them at recess. Then there were those nights, barely an adult yourself, when you crept out of bed and placed one hand on your newborn to make sure she was still breathing.

My daughter is travelling alone in Cambodia, where the language barrier is considerable and internet is spotty. There is no way to rest my hand on her while she sleeps. There really ought to be a word for this as well.

When linguists write about northern tribes who have fifty–even one hundred–words for snow and ice, the translations are beautiful: fine snow; fallen snow; soft, deep fallen snow on the ground. Of course, these are necessary for survival, but they are also words of love. Why, then, is there only one word–one phrase–for a mother’s worry? And what of the father? There’s another word we need: the concern I see in my husband’s eyes that he does not want to show.

Over time, there are temporary thaws in the arctic, but there is no turning off what we feel for our children. My guess is that even when parenting goes horribly wrong, this overpowering, hard-wired instinct–or the need to push against it–lurks somewhere at the core.

Of course, the reason we resist–even demonize–mother’s worry is that we are all afraid. Fear is a constant companion, basic as the need to secure air and food. Fear has kept humans alive through eons of forces stacked against them. The voices in our head warning us not to follow our friends over the quarry’s edge into the water or climb too high in that tree are as all-encompassing as snow and ice in Grise Fiord, Canada. Mothers make an easy scapegoat. Overwhelmingly in charge of helping children navigate their prolonged infancy, childhood, and adolescence (unlike Lady, already breaking curfew at three), a mother’s long list of instructions likely outweigh any other influence post-birth. But the truth is, our fears come pre-installed, just as we know how to root for our mother’s breast before opening our eyes.

I hope my children learn to embrace their fears as their own, even as they conquer them, even as they accept their mother’s worry as a constant that cannot be turned off. I hope they learn this is worry born of love, not any lack of confidence in their abilities. Maybe they will find new words. I don’t know what these words will be, but I already know hundreds of translations by heart: hand placed on newborn’s back; tendril of a question; fingers brushing child’s hair away from his forehead; the silence that fills the house when waiting for a call.

It was one a.m. when Lady came home last night. Her meow at the door was carefree. It could have been three in the afternoon, or dusk, when she usually comes home. She asked for food, then settled in for a nap, the concern we’d had for her all night entirely unnoticed. There ought to be a word for that.

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Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

We live in a quiet neighborhood. Most days, we could hear groups of children playing blocks away, if groups of children still did that kind of thing.

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People in my neighborhood worry about their yards and walk around the lake. We swap ladders and occasional garden tomatoes…but in general, we keep to ourselves.

Along comes Lady–as likely to chase a limping chipmunk past your feet as she is to flop on her back and wriggle until you pet her belly.

Luckily, our closest neighbors are cat owners and have been losing battles to bunnies and chipmunks for years. They greet Lady by name and watch out for her when dogs or toms are around. Our neighbors further out aren’t so sure.

Lady’s range is about one block in every direction. We know this because of the calls. We’ve received calls from people who had her in their arms, and calls from people who tied her up, and one alarming voicemail from two elderly women with Lady caterwauling in the background–She scratched my friend. (Everything has turned out okay.)

I’m surprised by how much control people think I have over this Queen of the Suburban Jungle. It’s not like I google a daily route and tell her which animals are fair game before 20150704_102507 (2)sliding the screen door open. It reminds me of school conferences and dreaded phone calls home–the pressure to make sure our children were perfect, and the judgement when they proved to be inevitably, humanly, beautifully flawed. The nature/nurture debate has been squarely settled over coffees and in classrooms across the country. It’s always the parent’s fault.

At first, my apologies for Lady embraced her entire history: We tried to keep her indoors, but she was raised as an outdoor cat…. Then I tried explaining why outdoor cats don’t stay in their yards. Clearly, I’m expected to answer for all of Lady’s sins. No one gives me credit for her cute wriggles-for-rubs routine.

The bird lovers are the angriest. Their yards are filled with feeders and oranges and special plants pressed up against picture windows. After an anonymous but vague I-love-animals-but threat was left on our machine, we added a bell to her collar.

One call was from a woman so concerned about Lady’s safety that we had to come pick her up. Her real goal was to scold us in person. In addition to harassing the birds, Lady was making her dogs bark. We’re not fond of bait and switch tactics in our house, so forgive us for smiling, now, every time those dogs launch into their chorus.

The other day, just after 6 am, a young man drove Lady home in his pick-up. He introduced himself as Jake and said Lady had been on Pine Street. I was still in my pajamas. I know Jake from Pine Street didn’t notice or care that I broke the code and sold out parents everywhere, but I still feel guilty about my short, that-explains-everything answer:

“Yeah. She’s my son’s cat.”

Just for fun…

Mending Wall, by Robert Frost

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors’.
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me~
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

My Semi-Feral Children, Part II: Caitlin (or how Trouble came to visit in the first place)

Caitlin

Caitlin in South Africa.

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Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

Last Friday, Terry and I dropped Caitlin at O’Hare with a one-way ticket in her hand and a three-month itinerary that will take her through Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Malaysia. As I write, it’s after midnight in Hanoi–and 97 degrees! By the time you read this, she will probably be kayaking in Ha Long Bay. Wow.

As a toddler, Caitlin was good at getting what she wanted on her own by climbing out of cribs, up chairs, onto cars…. At fourteen months, I found her on top of a baby gate that blocked a flight of stairs down to a concrete basement floor. She was balancing on her belly and rocking back and forth like one of those silly red drinking birds, trusting momentum was her friend. I grabbed her and rushed her to her crib–shutting the door behind me for good measure–then sunk to the kitchen floor and cried. When I was done, I knew the only rational thing to do was make sure she got damn good at climbing. I’ve been holding my breath ever since.

In High School, she participated in the practically-mandatory exchange program to Wales (my “big” school trip was Milwaukee!). She also paid her own way to visit a friend in France. Caitlin Having Fun in Cape TownIn college, a Peace Studies program took her to South Africa, where–reportedly for fun–she went shark cage diving (she took this picture) and jumped off a bridge!

On our much tamer annual trek to Spring Green, I have waited patiently on the wraparound porch of Global View and watched generations of swallows teach their little ones to fly as Caitlin wandered 20150621_112706-1 through the shop, running her fingers over every Balinese carving and Batik print owner Marion Nelson has collected.

It shouldn’t surprise me Caitlin would someday fly to the other side of the world. Yet, here I am, holding my breath again, waiting for her to come home and take Trouble back to their lives with the Casa community, only thirty minutes away.

Motherhood itself took me by surprise. I approached it somewhat reluctantly–careful to tuck my identity into other spaces, other titles–at least, I thought that’s what I was doing. The truth is, raising Liam and Caitlin has been the most humbling and profoundly rewarding experience of my life.

The thing about being a parent no one ever tells you is that every step is a good-bye. If you’re not putting your children on a plane to Hanoi or helping them fit their saxophone into the trunk of a car, you’re dropping them off at a dorm, or realizing–too late–that you’ve already said goodbye to them climbing onto your lap or asking for a song at bedtime.

I remember camping with them one night at Yellowstone years ago. All four of us were in the same tent, side by side under a nylon dome. I was the last to fall asleep and listened to them drop off, one by one. Sometimes, I close my eyes and think of that night–the cadence of their breathing almost but not quite matching–and try to tell myself they are never really far away.

Caitlin in Japan

Safe on the ground in Japan, en route to Hanoi.

My Semi-Feral Children, Part I: Liam (or, how Lady came to visit in the first place)

Holy Sheboygan, Playing Loud (2)Someone asked me recently how I raised Liam to be so creative, as if I had something to do with it–as if I had designed preschool activities or dinnertime conversations that led to Liam being…Liam. But when your fifth-grader comes home with an instrument he’s never touched before (in this case, a bassoon), puts it together and jumps into Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” you know you have nothing to do with your children’s gifts. The best thing to do is to stay out of their way.

Not that it was easy!

Liam doesn’t think outside the box, he lives outside the box–and loudly! As a child, he would tie a scarf around his neck, climb up on the arm of the couch, and declare himself Opera Man. In school, he worked best while singing or standing beside his desk, moving to whatever music was playing in his head. This didn’t always go over well.

“Tour starts todaaaay!!!”

In the early grades, we considered it a good year when the inevitable call from the teacher took two weeks. His famously cross third-grade teacher was concerned he had developmental problems because he had written a wonderful story about time-travelling cowboys in space who somehow ended up saving the day by skiing down a mountain. She slapped it onto a desk in front of Terry and I and said “This doesn’t even make sense”

Then, in the summer of his fifth-grade year, he wrote a symphony for twenty-one instruments in three movements and everyone went, “oooohhh.”

I’m not particularly fond of labels, but unlocking Liam’s ability to compose music with a simple computer game we gave him for Christmas changed his entire school experience–and therefore his life. Parent-teacher conferences weren’t brutal anymore. He had advocates to help deal with other famously cross teachers. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if every quirk of every child (and every adult) were treated as a gift?

Long story short, when my son isn’t back-packing through Bulgaria or Washington State, living in community in upstate New York, or bouncing from farm to farm to soak up sustainable farming, woodworking, building greenhouses, planting orchards, or managing volunteers, he is living on a bus as part of Holy Sheboygan! who just announced they’re playing Summerfest! (Shameless plug here, or go straight to their latest album, Three!)

Unless, of course, he is touring and performing solo:

You can follow Liam’s solo work here, or catch his latest album here.

Meanwhile, Terry and I believe we are much too quiet for Lady. As a kitten, she grew up surrounded by rehearsals and performances and sprawling “family” meals: a real-life wild rumpus. When Holy Sheboygan! played a special house concert here recently, she tried to climb into the bass in the middle of their set!

But she is here for now, waiting for Liam and Sarah to move back into a cat-friendly apartment and a life lived out loud.

Staying put: for Liam–and Lady–that will be a new adventure!