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Archive for September, 2009

Not quite there

My friend Robyn who reluctantly moved to Brooklyn eight years ago and has come to like it (right, Robyn?) suggested to me that I’m not a true urbanite if I still shop for groceries in the suburbs.  That’ s sort of an ironic thing for her to say to me because the whole time she’s been reluctantly living in Brooklyn, Eric and I have been loving urban life more and more and always trying to convince Robyn to love it as much as we did.  But it is true that we have always lived in easier places in some ways.  Food acquisition has always been my biggest city-living conundrum.  I’m just so used to Trader Joe’s and I love Costco.   Even here in North Jersey where I’d pretty much rather eat tacks than try to drive to the next town I found out pretty quick how to get to those two stores.  Last night Eric found our “local” Whole Foods and I dragged all the kids there first thing this morning and then hit up the Target next door.  Target!  I hadn’t been to one in about four months.

It was interesting, actually, to visit Target after a long break.  I found it pretty bland and uninteresting.  I didn’t want to browse anything.  I efficiently made it through my shopping list:  shirt for Joseph, socks for William, diapers all around, and got out of there.  Whole Foods was another story.  I began to feel as if there are many parallel food worlds.  There is one where an entire aisle is dedicated to Coke and Doritos and the baking aisle contains only chocolate made by Hershey’s.  Then there is our neighborhood where it’s like the international foods aisle greatly expanded, plus the Hershey’s chocolate but way overpriced.  Then there is the world where there is no chocolate on offer containing less than 60% cocoa and the sodas are made from hibiscus and evaporated cane juice.  Snobby as it sounds I have mainly inhabited that third world and it was really good to be back there today.  And this Whole Foods was huge.  Amazing.  I probably would have spent hours there–and a lot more money–if I hadn’t had all the kids with me.  But I didn’t even realize the best part about going there until I got home.  I’d picked up a free copy of Edible New Jersey at the checkout and just now paged through it.  The articles didn’t really grab me but the ads!  Farmer’s Markets!  Food Co-ops!  CSAs!

See, food acquisition shouldn’t be a big problem for urbanites.  In fact, at the height of our time in DC we were acquiring almost all of our food from co-ops and a local produce delivery service.  But it took a long time to find all those things–or for the right combination of people to meet each other and start it up.  But when you live within walking distance of 50,00 people (or more–or even a little less) it is not hard to find enough people who want local farm food to make it worth some farmer’s while to deliver to you.  And once you’ve got that it doesn’t take long for it to explode into a co-op large enough to entirely sustain a single farmer.  We saw this happen first hand in DC where we got fifteen families together and got an Amish farmer to truck stuff in for us each week.  Within one year he was so busy that he helped two of his neighbor famers begin off-shoot co-ops.

It’s a beautiful model, isn’t it?  Feels so anti-capitalist and all.  But what to do if you’re new to the area?  Or if you’re a farm just getting into the co-op model?  Where are you going to find like-minded people who want good food?  Whole Foods.  I’ve never really shopped regularly at Whole Foods (which Eric calls Whole Paycheck) because I’ve always had similar, cheaper options.  But this morning I wanted two things:  bulk foods, and something comforting and familiar.  I got both and also a whole slew of co-op ads.  Off to do some research . . .

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Kids at Mass

It happens almost every morning.  We walk as a family to our beautiful old church for the morning Mass.  My almost five-year old races around back in his wheelchair to use the ramp and Eric accompanies him.  Maragaret (I’m three and everything in my life must be ritualized) insists on entering by the front door and we each have our own section of the front steps to use.  She shows me how strong she is by heaving open the heavy front door and then the door separating the narthex from the church.  We enter the silent, prayerful church and as Margaret sweetly begins her trot up to the very front pew an ear-piercing shriek of delight shatters the silence.  The shriek comes from my baby.

Most days I walk Margaret up to the front pew where she rejoins her father and brother, drop off the back carrier and return to the back of the church where I will quietly pace behind the last pew or, more usually, retreat to the narthex and listen to Mass through the speaker system.  On a really good day I remain in our front pew but by the time I’m heading up for Communion my shirt is covered in drool and spit-up, the collar is stretched out, my sodden scapular is hanging outside my shirt and my little boy’s bald head is covered in lipstick marks.

When this routine began a month or so ago I was tempted to despair.  But I’ve been through this before.  Twice before.  This time is a little different.  For one thing, I’m grateful for the seven or so months when I was able to remain in the pew most of the time.  William’s laid-back temperament has been a blessing.  With Margaret we went almost two straight years without ever sitting through an entire Mass.  On the other hand, the two older kids do better if Dad remains in the pew and Mom takes the baby so this time around it’s always me who is hightailing it out the back.

I also feel confident knowing that the very small, very aged daily Mass crowd at our new parish think our kids are little angels sent from heaven to bless their days.  They are kissed and caressed every day (I’m not kidding) and have lots of prayers and rosaries coming their way.  The two priests at this church are also very supportive of our Mass attendance.  This hasn’t always been the case.  We’ve been glared at by fellow Mass-goers in the past.  My husband (three years ago today, actually, on the day of Margaret’s birth) was threatened with bodily harm if he continued to bring Joseph to Mass.  The pastor there–our pastor–didn’t want to “take sides.”  That same pastor many months later published a bulletin announcement–two weeks in a row–asking parents of small children to please participate in Mass from the (unheated) narthex.  At another church I was once asked to leave the foyer with my noisy daughter and we were once asked from the pulpit, during a homily, to leave Mass.   When we didn’t leave that priest angrily confronted my husband after Mass asking, “Why do you bother coming?”

Why, indeed?  I confess I’ve asked myself that more than once.  During the season when I would typically be the one in back holding my daughter who on one occasion was screaming so loudly that a police officer left Mass to see if I needed medical help and look in at my husband only to see that he had to keep up an almost constant sotto voce chatter with my son to keep him from going berserk with boredom it was very hard to keep at it.  And then I would find that I was too-narrowly defining prayer.  There is some ideal, I suppose, in kneeling at Mass, head bowed, rapt in silence and meditation.  But how much more powerful is the prayer of the mother or father standing as a witness to the culture of life, enduring sometimes outright persecution, straining to create some interior silence in which to embrace the cross–all the while quite literally embracing his or her vocation–hoping for a few crumbs of grace from the table of the Lord.

Fortunately the Lord offers us more than crumbs and Eric and I know that without that regular infusion of grace we would never make it anywhere–never mind daily Mass.  And at Mass, as in all things, it is so hard to gauge when a child has turned the corner.  One day I expect I will realize that I haven’t had to take William out of the church for some time.  And it is hard to believe now that the same girl who blesses herself with holy water, runs up the aisle, genuflects and sits more or less attentively for thirty minutes every day is the same one who subjected us to daily tantrums for months on end.  And that introspective boy sitting in his chair on the aisle?  The one who sometimes acts a bit spastic at the most reverent points of the liturgy?  Who knows what grace is entering his young heart and forming his character.  I expect the Lord will bless Eric and I with many all-too-silent years of prayer.  For now we bring our children in hope.

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I can be taught . . .

When I was little I was told I was good at certain things.  Most children are, I suppose.  I was a good reader.  I was a good writer.  I was a good flute player.  In my very small-town existence I was often in the position of being the “best” at one of these things or at something else.  Since I didn’t work hard at much of anything and often wound up the “best” I think I had a general sense that some people were just really good at certain things.  There were a few areas where I clearly did not excel:  I couldn’t play team sports very well.  I couldn’t do handcrafts like knitting or crochet very well.  It’s not that I really worked at these things and finally had to concede that they weren’t my thing.  Rather, I tried them briefly, failed miserably and quit for some external reason.  No one suggested to me that I could be good at sports or handcrafts.  Years after the fact I remembered a single comment made to my by my seventh-grade English teacher, “Susan,” she said, “Your writing has really improved this year.”  Huh?  What on earth could she mean.  I had gotten As in her class the entire year.  I’d always gotten As in English and I always would.  I was the best at English in my entire class.  I thought “improvement” was something discussed with the kids who managed to get their grades from Fs to Cs.

This situation persisted until I entered college.  I had a list of things I was good at and a list of things I wasn’t with the great preponderance on the former group which contained all the “important” things anyway.  College was one long confusing slog for me.  I majored in music because I’d been the best in high school.  I’d never practiced and didn’t know how to practice.  I had almost no real innate musical ability but my high school music teacher (a wonderful, wonderful man who kept me sane, just for the record) almost never called me out for this.  I was the best–what was he going to do?  I got a 4.0 in every class except my music classes but stubbornly stuck with it because “music” was on my “can do and can do well” list.

I did eventually almost change my major and broaden my college experience a little but the whole thing left me really confused.  I graduated, dabbled in graduate school, got married and started my family.  At a job I held for a few years I often had the opportunity to do a little writing for an alumni publication.  I was always encouraged to write and never felt up for it.  I couldn’t really understand my reluctance because writing was certainly on the “can do and can do well” list.  Heck, I’d even “improved”–whatever that means–in seventh grade.  I was reading something by Flannery O’Connor one day about the craft of writing and it struck me–for the first time–the craft of writing.  Writing was a craft.  It needed to be worked at.  You could learn to do it–or at least learn to do it better.  I’m ashamed to admit that this was a startling revelation for me.  So startling, in fact, that I failed to transpose this knowledge to any other area of my life.

But probably around the same time–I’d been married a couple years by then and had one, if not two, children–I became utterly fed up with the state of my home.  It was always messy and we were in perpetual panic/recovery mode.  Why could a basically competent person like me not keep her home presentable?  Just before throwing in the towel and adding “housekeeping” to my “can’t do so well” list I realized that home making  and house keeping were skills.  They could be taught.  Honestly, I think I can credit the blogosphere with this revelation.  I discovered this huge community of women really working at their homes and realized I could do that too.  Progress has been slow but considering that I now have more children, more things to do, and a bigger home and have not actually gotten worse in this regard I’m going to call myself “improved.”

Slowly, slowly I’m beginning to see that I can learn to do things.  I don’t need to just consider myself as a finished project blessed in some areas and lacking in others.  There are natural talents, to be sure.  And I’ve got some.  It’s not as hard for me to learn some things as others.  But I could learn most things.

Eric has a friend coming over this evening and while they chat after dinner I plan to hunker down in the corner and eavesdrop while I crack open my knitting book and the box of new yarn that arrived today.

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walking freely

Eric has been in the habit of late-night walks for years.  He won’t go to bed without saying a full rosary and if ten o’clock rolls around and he’s feeling sleepy he often chooses to pray while walking.  When he first started to resort to this tactic on a regular basis  (which is to say, sometime after our first child was born) we lived in the heart of Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.  It’s a lovely, wealthy, safe neighborhood that makes it onto those “Top Ten Places to Live” lists.   Living in that neighborhood–and, indeed, Eric’s solitary late-night walks–fueled a great deal of our urban interest.  I never worried about Eric’s solo outings.  Our street was well-lit and he wandered freely.  But we both agreed that only he could do this safely.  We were living in a dorm, working as residence directors at that time and every semester we gave safety talks.  We always told the students that if they were coming home after dark to stick to well-lit, well-traveled streets.  We always had to admit, regretfully, that women needing to walk at night had best ask a male classmate to act as escort.  We had few problems given the circumstances but, even so, two women were attacked during our three-year term (both were fine).  I almost never walked alone after dark even in our “safe” neighborhood.

After that apartment we moved to the very edge of the same neighborhood.  There were murders not too far away, there were drug dealers six feet from my bay window.  There were regular muggings at intersections I frequented.  Though I did walk in this neighborhood during the day (alone and with the kids) I was never at ease.  At night I was nervous going from my car to our front door.  Eric did sometimes go for nighttime walks and I was always nervous for him and asked for a precise return time.

All last year we lived in St. Paul, MN.  We chose perhaps the most mixed-use walkable neighborhood we could find apart from downtown itself.  The crime rate in St. Paul is nothing compared to DC but in this neighborhood I also felt a bit on edge walking alone during the day.  I felt nervous if Eric went out at night and I was uneasy, again, going from my street parking to my front door.

Now we live in Newark, NJ and I think nothing of running errands by myself, on foot, after dark.  I let my children play outside unsupervised.  Eric goes for walks alone late at night and I don’t worry at all–sometimes I even leave our front door wide open until he returns.

As I was making my way to the grocery store the other night I was reflecting on all this.  How is it that I feel perfectly safe in Newark, of all places, but felt uneasy in St. Paul Minnesota?  It occurred to me that darkness is not the issue.  Use is the issue.

Our first neighborhood was sort of mixed.  You could go five to six blocks and hit a busy commercial area that was busy well into the evening.  Immediately around our apartment the non-residential units were only in use during the day.  By day the neighborhood was bustling.  If I were walking home from a restaurant at night I felt less safe the closer I got to home.

Our second neighborhood was cut off from the “nice” area of The Hill by a wide, blighted commercial corridor (in the process of a fantastic revival).  Our street was such a busy vehicle route that drug dealers ran a drive-thru right outside our window.  The number of vacant properties made it just statistically much less likely that a neighbor would be out with you–at any time of day.

St. Paul, on the surface, looked like the “safest” neighborhood.  Cute houses, neat yards, nice people, etc.  But all those yards meant that it took much longer to walk up to the commercial boulevard and the time in-between was eerily quiet.  Since we weren’t living cheek-by-jowl with our neighbors I didn’t know them.  Which meant I didn’t know them.   My brother-in-law who went to high school 1.5 blocks from us (and whose students gave us the 30 minutes of daily foot traffic we saw on our sidewalks) suggested once that there was just as much drug traffic in our new ‘hood as our old but we just couldn’t tell.  The police reports were short but regularly told of muggings, shootings, robberies, etc. within a couple blocks of us, often in broad daylight.  I would bet that the per-capita crime rate of that neighborhood was similar to that of parts of DC.

Then there is Newark.  Now, to be fair, we live in the Ironbound which is completely different from the rest of the city.  I’m not going to write about any other neighborhoods because I don’t know them.  Our current neighborhood probably looks to outsiders like it should be the least safe–very dense, very hodge-podge, lots of litter (why is that?) but it is the safest place we’ve lived yet.  I can walk alone at night because there are people out–lots of people–at all hours of the day.  Our street connects two very busy thoroughfares and dumps into a park at one end.  Even though our block is long pedestrians use it to connect the two streets or to visit the bar halfway down the block.  As I walk up to our main drag I pass people running errands or going out.  There is essentially no zoning in this neighborhood so almost every block–and certainly every corner–has commercial use.

I can leave my door open in the evenings when Eric isn’t here because our neighbors across the street sit on their patio talking until late.  I can let my kids play outside while I work in the kitchen because I know the neighbor kid’s mom is watching from her porch, too.  And the lady across the street is hanging her laundry.  And the guy two doors down will be coming by in a minute and will stop to chat as always.

Running errands at night is safe because all the streets on my route are in heavy use.  The darkness doesn’t affect it.  By way of counter-example, I would not cut through the park after dark because no one uses it after dark.

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kids and their relationships

It’s gift-giving season around here again.  Margaret’s birthday is this month, Joseph’s is next and then people start asking us about Christmas which turns into a two-week gift-opening party by the time we’ve made the rounds of all the families.  So I’m giving a lot of mental energy to questions of toy usage and popularity, toy footprints (carbon and otherwise), educational needs, developmental needs.  All that good stuff.  And since we very rarely buy anything for the children ourselves I have to figure out how to couch all this for the people who are going to ask what the kids want and for all the people who won’t ask but really need some strong hints.

In the midst of all this I realized that I place a high value on toys and activities that keep my children busy on their own for long stretches of time.  Tinker Toys, for example.  We have a gazillion Tinker Toys.  We got Joseph a set, someone else got him an even bigger set and then a great-uncle gave him a really, really big vintage set.  Tinker Toys drive me up the wall.  There are a million little parts–the vintage set is especially little and especially million.  They get stuck in every corner and cushion of our house.  They are a choking hazard (see above about that vintage set).  But the kids love them.  Love them.  They will play for a really long time with Tinker Toys.  Both of them.  Together.  Without fighting.  So Tinker Toys have remained–multiplied even–in my home.

In this new house we have a “yard.”  I’m the only mom I know who is super-excited about her 100% concrete yard.  Actually I’m currently the only mom I know with a 100% concrete yard.  The kids play out there for hours.  There is a little boy  next door who comes down to play when he’s not at school.  If he’s there the kids are entertained for even longer stretches of time.  I’ve been brainstorming gift ideas for things that could be used outside.

Then we have a dollhouse–our big gift to the kids last year.  It’s really more for Margaret but Joseph thought it was cool-enough that we gave it to both of them.  Margaret has a few dolls and a little furniture for it and I have it on good authority that those dolls will finally be getting some beds here in a couple weeks.  Margaret does play with it–almost every day, actually.  But it doesn’t get the same hours-long use that other things do.  If I went in there and played with her I think she’d keep at it longer.  She makes up stories but she wants to tell them to somebody.

We have a few board games that I keep locked in a cupboard.  Partly I just don’t want the little pieces scattered all over the house but I also would rather keep Candy Land available on my terms alone.

I am keeping my children at home rather than sending them to school for many reasons but the biggest reason is because of their relationships.  Charlotte Mason said that children are educated by their intimacies and I want my children to be intimate first and foremost with each other and second with me.  I want them to interact with the world, of course.  We wouldn’t have moved to this intensely urban neighborhood if we didn’t feel strongly about engaging the world.  But maybe I should give some thought to my current parenting MO wherein I introduce toys that keep the silently occupied for long stretches and send them outside for hours each day to play with the neighbor boy.

I’m not questioning the creative potential of Tinker Toys or doubting the benefits of playing outside but I am questioning my underlying attitude as a parent.  I wonder if my kids would do well to have healthy doses of family-wide epic doll house adventures and Candy Land tournaments.


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This is our house

My house is an unqualified disaster right now.  Incidentally, I’m blogging instead of cleaning because the after-nap time (that is, after my nap but while the kids are still snoozing) is my coffee-and-journal time which is completely necessary for my mental well-being.  I’ve been trying to figure out how to fit blogging into my day without further neglecting my kids and I just decided that blogging counts as journaling.  So there.

Unqualified disaster.  We’ve lived here for about six weeks, maybe seven.  I can say that the unpacking is done only because writing “unpack” on a to-do list no longer seems to describe a task.  But there are a few boxes here and there.  Like two in the middle of my kitchen that contain things I probably need on a daily basis.  And a few in the front room/play room that contain things I’d rather the kids didn’t play with but which do not have a home here.  And then there are the three large boxes delivered by UPS for various reasons in the last few days.  Those sorts of boxes collect upstairs and are then used to “sort” the detritus littering the surfaces of our home.  There is just stuff lying around everywhere.  I look at it, wanting to pick up, and I realize that it doesn’t go anywhere.  Some of it went in a closet at our last house but we don’t really  have any closets here.  Some of it didn’t go anywhere in the last house either.

There are some organizational issues contributing to the clutter.  We don’t have useful towel bars in our bathroom so the bathroom always looks messy.  And mess begets mess.  The kitchen is nice but very crowded.  I think once it is actually clean and free of boxes I’ll be able to deal with it and I’ll love it.  But right now a lot of real estate is being consumed by a high chair that my son doesn’t even like.  Not sure if we should keep it kicking around–or keep kicking it around.  That’s a decision I just don’t feel equipped to make right now.

We haven’t hung all our pictures so we have, on the one hand, a few expanses of white wall and, on the other hand, several fragile frames lying around the house adding to the clutter.  We might want to frame a few languishing prints we love or finally invest in a nice print of an artist we love but we haven’t really decided.  We haven’t even talked about deciding.  So nothing gets hung.

As I climbed the stairs last night to put my baby to bed I took in the view half way up:  a promising play room for the kids buried in disorganization that stresses them out.  A potentially cozy living room strewn with debris.  I knew that the kitchen behind me was piled with dirty dishes from our day and that the floor was littered with the zillion little toys we’d use to try to keep William happy in his high chair during dinner.  And I suddenly realized that I was looking at my house.

It’s not mine in the sense that we own it.  We’re still renting.  But we’re not on vacation somewhere.  We’re not crashing somewhere until we find a new place to live.  We’re not living with the knowledge that we’re moving for a new job in just a few months.   This is where we live and I need to deal with it.  We plan to rent here until we buy which will not be for a few years and, even then, we may well buy this house.  We may never move again.

I really can’t wrap my  head around that and the accumulated stress of living in a constant state of transition for years is gradually falling away and I honestly feel a little lost without it.

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My wallet is missing

And I think it is an interesting commentary on my life right now that I’m not really stressed out about that.

We went away last weekend for a whirlwind tour of old friends in DC.  In about 24 hours we managed seven different stops and a couple dozen people.  On the way home Sunday I realized that I didn’t know where my wallet was.  But our car was a total disaster so I didn’t worry about it.  I figured it was in there somewhere.  Eric had the car at work and I just didn’t really find the time to get out to the car in the evening and hunt for my wallet.  A friend called after a couple of days.   The wallet had been found by the woman who had hosted us but she needed our address.  And I still did nothing.

I didn’t need to drive anywhere.  I do a good deal of my shopping online where my credit card information is stored.  Our neighborhood is a pretty cash-based economy and I could get cash from my husband.  My driver’s license needs to be replaced this month anyway.  My insurance card is no longer valid.  Just a few months ago the loss of my wallet would have been a somewhat paralyzing problem.

It’s on its way back to me.  My friend retrieved it from our weekend hostess and put it in the mail to me.  I think she was much more concerned than I was!

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