How to Make People Feel Bad at Christmas: Yuppie-Hipster Style

Out here in the West we have Sunset magazine, the naturalesque style and culture mag where gardening is bespoke and children are vintage fashion accessories. If you’re from, say, Alabama, you might read Sunset and think everyone west of Kansas has a mini Airstream trailer with a pop-up porch lined with flowering vines. (I’m looking at you, Cousin Thad. This post is your education in how we find our Christmas trees here in the wild, ironically flannel-clad West.)

My friend Marisa gets Sunset. Perhaps it’s a relic of her childless days? Last year’s Christmas edition made her irrationally angry. This, it turns out, was a gift to all of us, as you shall see.

Marisa and her wife have two kids ages 6 and 2. They’re exhausted, and they know there’s no “perfect day at the tree farm.”  But there it was on the cover, part of “The West’s New Holiday Traditions.” Marisa annotated the article to save the rest of us from internally combusting. Let’s join her now…SunsetMag

 

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Ahhhhhhhhhhhh the holidays. Thank you Sunset, for keeping our already unrealistic expectations in check. People have real sh*t to feel bad about, but now they also have Yuppie-Hipster Christmas Tree Excursions to add to the list.

Stay tuned for our next edition of How to Make People Feel Bad at Christmas when we light up your life with condescending Christian lawn signs.

 

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Letter from a Young Widow to her Husband

This is the letter that Adriane wrote to her husband Sam two weeks after he died. Adriane and Sam have two sons in elementary school. Adriane is a teacher, and Sam worked in tech.

Americans are not good about talking about death. We try not to be around death, and we rarely know how to react it. Death, like other events in the shocking and terrible category, is something we distance ourselves from as if getting in too close might mean it could happen to us. We also don’t know what to say.

Sam died of a sudden cardiac event, most likely ventricular fibrillation–basically an electrical issue of the heart that stops the heart from pumping blood correctly. It could not have been prevented.

I heard Adriane read this letter at Sam’s memorial. When I wrote to ask her if I could share the letter, she said, “I still believe that life is beautiful–even with all its sorrow–and that Sam would want me to keep living and doing all the things. And so we will–and even though we’ll be really mad and sad sometimes that he’s not here, we won’t let his death color the rest of our lives. We cannot. I know it would make Sam mad, in fact, if I just gave up and lived a pinched, closed off version of life. He’d hate that, actually.”

In reading Adriane’s letter, it’s helpful to know that Sam started a tech company in Portland with two friends, and that Adriane and Sam’s boys–born close together–were babies during the start-up phase. It’s also helpful to know that Adriane and Sam have been very involved in working for positive, progressive change in Portland, and that they live near the giant brick chimney at Chapman Elementary School, where the swifts gather every fall–creating an aviary cyclone as they all funnel down into the chimney for the night.

September 10, 2017

Dear Sam,

It’s been two weeks since we last talked. There are lots of things I’d like to tell you. The swifts have started their nightly dance, swooping down the chimney each evening; I watch them out our window. Solly has a locker at school and Abe just finished a great book that he couldn’t put down. Baby Hannah waves and says hello. The leaves on the cherry tree are turning; fall is right around the corner.

I miss you. I wait for you to ride past the kitchen window on your bike, returning home from a long day. I think maybe I’ll bump into you in the kitchen, smiling and eager to offer us your latest açaí bowl creation. When you’re not there, I’m certain I’ll find you working upstairs at your desk, or maybe standing in our closet putting away your laundry. It seems impossible to me that you are gone. That I won’t see your sweet face again. Or run my hands through your soft hair.

People have been saying so many nice things about you. There have been articles and posts and photos shared. These are wonderful stories and it makes me happy to think of all the things you did during your time here. You were genuinely curious and open to learning and helping. You told me many times over the years that our partnership was essential in helping you pursue these passions. Because you knew you could depend on me to keep our family humming and support you emotionally, you could go out in the world and do this work. I hope that is true, and I think it is. Marriage is full of compromises, and we made these for each other because we loved each other and believed in each other. Our choices were made with intention but they weren’t always easy; I made more space within myself than I sometimes wanted, in order to protect and care for your dreams. I knew that if I was going to marry you, there was no way to quell this passion or redirect it; you had big ideas. During those times when I felt like you were overcommitted and I was overburdened and lonely for your presence, I took deep breaths and believed the sacrifices were worthwhile because I knew you could lead us all in a better direction. You do these things for only certain people.

Your work took you to all corners of the earth. A friend recently wrote that I was your lighthouse when you were far from home and I think this is right but you were also mine. No matter where you were in the world, I felt safe and protected, because you were in it. It didn’t matter if you were an ocean away, the thought of you, the thought of Sam, was my safe harbor from whatever life threw at me. I cannot tell you how many times, when I faced a challenge or felt uncertain, I told myself Sam will help me, I’ll be okay because I have Sam. It’s scary now because that lighthouse has burned out. I’m out at sea without a landmark in site. It is stormy and dark. It was not supposed to be this way. You were taken too soon.

Though I am sad and angry and mourn the time we didn’t get to share, I keep getting pulled back to a place of gratitude. It would be greedy to overlook the fact, that though far too short, the time we did have together was simply amazing. It was not perfect, we had our differences and periods of disillusionment, we argued like every couple and sometimes felt distant, but at the end of the day we always came back to each other and fought for each other. In the wedding toast that you wrote [recently], you were going to give some advice on marriage. You wrote, “There are times where your relationship is in a perfect state of equilibrium, where you are wholly happy with your partner. But I guarantee you that you will also endure traumatic, painful periods, where the connection you feel seems distant. Sometimes just one of you will experience this disequilibrium; sometimes the other; the WORST is when you both have it at the same time. At those difficult moments try your best to remember that it’s just a temporary disequilibrium phase and your relationship will soon emerge stronger and happier on the other side.”

Sam, when I look back on our last year together, I am comforted by the fact that our relationship was squarely rooted in an epic phase of equilibrium. We packed so many things into that last year; a dual 40th birthday celebration on a perfect summer evening; a New Year’s party for the ages (really it was way too crowded but we were surrounded by so many friends, it was so much fun); I watched you find your groove as a basketball coach to Abe and Solly, an experience you fully enjoyed; we hiked miles of the Costa Rican cloud forest spotting quetzals, sloths, capuchin monkeys; we heard U2 play the entire Joshua Tree album from start to finish; this summer we went to New York and you finally got to see your beloved Hamilton; you took me to Boston and we went to Fenway. Our last trip together was to see the eclipse. You were adamant (as you were about pretty much everything), that it would be worth the extra work and hassle of finding a spot within the line of totality. That clear morning, our last Monday together, the four of us watched as the moon’s shadow completely darkened the sun. It was amazing and it was totally worth it. You made sure we did these things and saw these things; it was as though you knew you were running out of time. That me and Abie and Solly would need these memories to sustain us when we no longer had you physically here with us. We can summon these moments–and I have already done so many times–even if we can’t touch you or talk to you. Though grief leaves me jagged and raw at the edges, I am full of gratitude, even as I’m full of so much pain, for the life we built together. You gave me so many gifts and these do not die with you.

The last book I gave you on your birthday and that you recently finished was Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. It seems strange to me now, even a little bit eerie since it’s a story about the grief Abraham Lincoln experiences after his son Willy dies. It’s a story about ghosts. You loved this book and paused several times to share your reflections with me as you read it. I’ve been pulled to it recently, wanting to cling to the thoughts and words that resonated with you during your last days. I found this quote and it made me think of you, and of life, and the way you chose to live it, and the way you would want us to move through our grief and eventually rise above it:

“His mind was freshly inclined to sorrow; toward the fact that the world was full of sorrow; that all were suffering; that whatever way one took in the world one must try to remember that all were suffering (non content [discontented], all wronged, neglected, overlooked, misunderstood), and therefore one must do what one could to lighten the load of those with whom one came into contact; that his current state of sorrow was not uniquely his, not at all, but rather, its like had been felt, would yet be felt, by scores of others in all times, in every time, and must not be prolonged or exaggerated, because in this state, he could be of no help to anyone, and given that his position in the world situated him to be either of great help or great harm, it would not do to stay low, if he could help it…. All were in sorrow, or had been, or soon would be. It was the nature of things. Though on the surface it seemed every person was different, this was not true. At the core of each lay suffering; our eventual end; the many losses we must experience on the way to the end. We must try to see one another in this way. As suffering limited beings–perennially outmatched by circumstance, inadequately endowed with compensatory graces. His sympathy extended to all in this instant, blundering in its strict logic, across all divides.”

During one of our last conversations, I had changed my mind about wanting to speak in front of hundreds of people at [the upcoming family] wedding (ironic given where I stand today). We had a funny idea about me jumping in the middle of your toast and giving my own advice… about marrying a Blackman. I was trying to back out at the last minute, “Never mind, Sam. I don’t think I can do it. You go ahead,” I said. You turned to me, with your big grin and told me, “You can do it, baby. You’ll be great!”

So now, as I lie awake in the middle of the night and the weight of your absence bears down on me and I think, “How can I do this? How do I go on without you?” I try and remember your words, “You can do it, baby. You’ll be great.” I wish like hell that I didn’t have to do it without you, Sam, but I will do my best. I promise to read every day, take our Sunday family walk, ride public transit, throw the frisbee at the park, and cook oatmeal. Your voice will always guide me as I parent Abe and Solly; I will honor all of the ways you wanted to raise them and prepare them for their own life journey. I won’t always make the choice you would want and I’m going to make so many mistakes, but I will live the best way I know how. I am certain that all of us who love you and believed in your dreams, will carry the torch that you’ve passed to us. Your whole existence was a call to action and your death adds an exclamation point.

I love you, Sam. I hope someday we’ll meet again.

 

 

But I Can Imagine Life Without Her

There’s this thing we do with unexpected blessings. We say, “Now, I bet you just can’t imagine life without her!”

But I can imagine life without her.

In that life I’m a more robust partner to my spouse. He doesn’t have to watch out to save me from despair. I don’t have to be relentlessly vigilant against the resentment that builds between partners as logistics take the place of deeper connections. In that life I can be left alone at home with the kids. Instead, we have a family rule that I can’t be left alone with the baby, or the baby and Boy Woww—the two youngest—because I’m likely to be lying on the floor catatonic when my husband returns, having tried to make dinner but instead been destroyed by whining, tugging at my clothing, screaming, and gnashing of teeth.

There’s a dark side to maternal mental health that we wash over with things like “But they just grow up so fast and in the blink of an eye they’re gone,” and, “Life just wouldn’t be the same without them.”

And we put things into extremes: either you’re a selfish mother who aborts a baby, or you are stalwart and your life is better for your gentleness and morality.

None of it is true.

Or maybe all of it is true. I’m increasingly holding two opposite beliefs and reckoning with the fact that both are true.

I would be the selfish mother to abort a fourth baby. It would destroy me, but I would do it to save myself, my marriage, and my family. Things I consider to be sacred. But at the same time, I chose life with this baby, and I wouldn’t wish her away even for a hillside full of horses and a kitchen overflowing with bacon and ginger.

I want her. She took my heart of stone and cracked it open. She was made in God’s image and her life is precious.

Being a mother defines who I am. I feel a deep sadness imagining a life with my spouse without children. But that doesn’t mean that motherhood hasn’t almost broken me.

We make hard decisions. We make mistakes. We try to survive. We have to stop pitting one group of women against another, when it’s all true. Given the right circumstances, we are always the other whom me judge.

When Does Postpartum Depression End…

…and depression begin?

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That’s a great question I’ve been wondering and also getting asked.

In the grand scheme of things it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that you can back slowly away from the cliff and start living more like yourself again.

I really thought I had fall bagged. Summer played an endless set of danceable pop right up until the day school started.

None of the kids were in school or camps or daycare for the summer, so we plowed that money into getting nanny coverage for 40 hours a week. I worked two days a week, and planned adventures with the kids for the rest.

We went everywhere.

The Columbia River Gorge, Hood River, the Wilson River, the Zigzag River, the Kilchis River, Tillamook, Pacific City, Lincoln City, Depot Bay, Dufur, Grass Valley, Neskowin, Astoria, Rainier, Mt. Angel, Seattle, Lopez Island, Sauvie Island.

But the baby.

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She’s the reason we need nanny help. The boys are two years apart: 8 and 6. I like being out with them. They can do short hikes, they can camp, they love being outside. They can speak in sentences and ask for things they need. They can be near water without throwing themselves into the current, they can see roads and not run into traffic, they can be in port-o-potties and not touch everything.

But the baby.

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Toddlers are cute, and this toddler is off-the-charts.

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But cuteness doesn’t help me get a good night’s sleep in a tent, and cuteness does not give me 30 minutes to sit and enjoy the beauty of the place I’m in.

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So one day a week, or two, the baby and a nanny came along with us. And the Fairy Pig loved to be out, roaming farther afield than our neighborhood park.

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But the other days the boys and I had this corner of northwest Oregon all to ourselves.

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We may not have seen you over the summer. And that’s because when I’m out with the boys, I like it to be just us.

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It’s simpler. My brain can focus on the logistics of just three people.

I like it when it’s the three of us. I feel like a good parent.

When we were at the Tillamook Forest Center eating breakfast on their suspension bridge this summer, K-Pants said, “I think we’re the luckiest kids in the world.”

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Boy Woww said the same thing when he was jumping in the waves at Sunset Beach.

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Those are the moments I live for, when I feel like I’m giving them more than just manners; I’m showing them the beautiful things in the world and making them want more.

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I want more.

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For me, life is a series of explorations anchored by home.

I thought that summer had charged up my internal battery to at least 50%, plenty to make it through fall. And then we would tackle winter with skis and snowshoes.

But the first week of school the Columbia River Gorge was burning and the smoke created a beautiful, lung-burning haze that filtered the light into an ethereal thickness but left me with headaches and house-bound. (See photos by my friend Tamara here.)

A lot of Oregon burned this summer. In Portland, we didn’t pay much attention until our hair became flecked with ash and our most beloved hiking trails were mostly destroyed. By some kids with fireworks. But that’s their cross to carry now.

Then Boy Woww got strep throat, and we settled into the mundane non-routine of school and sickness and sports. We wait for the rain, and we wait for charred-out roads to reopen. And surely we’ll wait for them to reopen again, when downpours bring mudslides to unmoored hillsides.

That’s how I feel. Like I’m calculating if there are enough roots left to hold the hillside in place. The ground is sliding.

So is it depression or postpartum depression?

I figured postpartum depression ended at two, when, by all reports, your hormones and brain go back to the way they were before you were pregnant. This summer was a solid touchpoint for that.

It was glorious.

But here I am. And there I was, sitting in my therapist’s office, feeling the most fragile I have in recent memory.

She reminded me that before I got pregnant with the baby, I was evening out and excited about where our family was going and the freedom we were starting to feel from growing out of the baby and toddler phase. We talked about the fact that my hopelessness comes when I’m alone with the baby, or when I feel like the demands of parenting small people are going to steal the last of my adult mind.

My friend Anne stayed with us for a few weeks at the end of summer, and it was a joy. One reason was that Anne balanced everything. Team Rational Brain had a third team member to even out the score against Team We Don’t Like What You Made for Dinner.

If it were just me and my husband and the boys, I really believe I would be faring much, much better. You never know. But indicators point that direction.

It’s pasta night. Team We Don’t Like What You Made for Dinner complains about flecks of green things in the sauce and not liking the sausage. They bring in their star player, the Fairy Pig, and she throws the pasta on the floor, spills her water, and then climbs onto the table lunging for another plate. When Anne was here, we could bring in our star player and she would open a jar of olives and pour a glass of wine. I even think, in overtime, we could have won.

But the balance is off again. My brain is off again.

The smoke is gone and I’m starting to exercise more. I’m figuring out the routine of my new work schedule. I’m going to sleep earlier. I’m going to acupuncture. I’m taking Epsom salt baths. I’m starting antidepressants.

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We’re still calling it postpartum depression because my symptoms tend to clear up like rain clouds when the baby things fall away. But in the end, it doesn’t really matter. It only matters that I can get well and stay well.

 

Pride

A beautiful Pride Month is waning. I didn’t think I’d get to do much this year, but two small things are sticking with me.

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Have you heard it? “From WNYC Studios, this is Nancy…” I freakin’ love this podcast. It’s new. You should binge. The Orlando episode for Pride Month, “Everything Changed,” is particularly poignant and Tobin and Kathy talk with an Evangelical preacher in Orlando. Find it here.

Trans/Portraits

Trans/Portraits

I realized a couple of years ago that if one of my kids were gay, nothing in my world would really change. They would simply be gay. But if one of them were trans, I would have a tough time. I got really fixated on “What if my child changed names and I needed to call them a new name, different from the beloved one we gave them?” and “What if we looked back on childhood photos and they all felt tainted by things we did lovingly, but were all wrong-gendered, or wrongly interpreted, or just plain wrong?” I felt sad. And overhwhelmed.

Honestly, I don’t know many trans people as friends, and not hearing authentic stories and experiences pushes things into a place of ideology and speculation rather than authenticity and understanding. The roadmap I invented in my head was riddled with barbed wire.

So the library kindly intervened and I came upon Trans/Portraits by Jackson Wright Shultz as I was headed to the kids’ section with the boys. I love it. Snapshots of all kinds of gender nonconforming lives–different ages, races, genders, sexualities. I love hearing stories. And these stories are worth hearing.

Find it at your library or buy it at my local, independent bookseller, here. 🙂

The Pants Is 8

This guy turned 8 this month with characteristic passion and intensity.

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The waters are rough.

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But worth sailing.

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On his birthday he said to me,

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“For two years it was only me.”

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“Do you wish you were an only child?” I asked.

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“Of course no,” he said.

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And that made me happy. Summer awaits.

 

And We All Fall Down

 

I checked in with K-Pants recently, about the love thing. You might remember that last year he was feeling like there wasn’t enough love for him.

We’ve had a lot of discussions about what kinds of things feel like love, and how I can make sure to show him love in a way that soaks in. I like to be intentional and specific with K-Pants, because what seems like a few hungry hours without food to me, is scurvy to him.

With K-Pants I think, Maybe if I fill an underground well full of love, then when storms rip branches from the trees above, we’ll still have that cool, protected reservoir for our relationship to drink from.

So…

I volunteer in his classroom. I walk him to school. Sometimes I meet him for lunch. I take him on adventures—to ride horses and climb K-Pants-sized mountains—because that’s where I shine, and that’s where he shines.

And a few weeks ago I checked in with him. I said, “K-Pants. Remember the love problem? Where you weren’t feeling enough love. How is that now?” “Good,” he said. “What about me getting mad?” I asked. “You don’t get mad anymore,” he said.

That’s not true.

I get mad on a regular basis. Some days I yell. But thinking about it, I yell less frequently and less like a wild banshee.

But then right after this, I ruined it. I’m not sure exactly what made me crack. I think it was weeks of afternoon exhaustion. Parenting K-Pants after school is a tension-filled dance.

  • Me: How was school? Did you do any Pokémon trades on the bus?
  • K-Pants: (aggravated) Why are you asking me that?
  • Boy Woww: Did you get a new Aloha Pokémon?
  • K-Pants: I’m not telling you, and you can’t see it.
  • Me: I think you’re hungry. There are a bunch of snacks in the bag back there.
  • K-Pants: I’m not hungry. And I don’t like these snacks.
  • Boy Woww: I made an artwork at school.
  • K-Pants: That’s so weird. It’s so totally weird.
  • Me: Let’s ignore K-Pants. He’s grumpy.
  • Boy Woww: [crying]

Even if you’re patient, watching one member of the family try to destroy the rest by sucking out the joy and the kindness leaves you ragged and overwhelmed. And you start to think maybe this kid is malicious.

I know he doesn’t want to be, but his habits are powerful, and his habits are destroying us. Really our habits—our collective interactions—are destroying us.

Later that night I screamed at him. And he said, “I HATE YOU!” And I said, “I DON’T CARE IF YOU HATE ME. I CARE IF YOU ARE RESPECTFUL AND KIND.” And he went downstairs. And then he yelled up, “I’M HUNGRY!” And I yelled, “THEN MAKE SOMETHING FOR YOURSELF!” And then I made him help me unpack the groceries (because after school I had taken Boy Woww to speech therapy, then K-Pants to baseball, then did the grocery shopping during practice, then arrived back to cheer him on during the scrimmage, then had K-Pants ask me for a fancy baseball backpack like the other kids have [answer: no]).

Then we went home, where I yelled at him like a crazy banshee. It had been building up for weeks, cracking the seams of the pressure cooker.

Then Boy Woww, the middle child, came upstairs and said, “Mom, what can I do to help?” It made me feel even worse, because he’s living into his role as the quiet peacemaker. And K-Pants is living into his role as the difficult one. And together we’re in this entangled Groundhog’s Day mess.

All this to say that this is how, on a beautiful Mother’s Day afternoon, when blue sky seemed to be momentarily winning the battle with the rain clouds, I found myself sitting in the car outside our parent coach’s house as K-Pants met with her. He loves her. We’ve just started this process.

Soon she’s going to be coming to our house to observe. Before that my husband and I will talk with her via Skype a few times, and do the homework she assigns, and try out new strategies (or try to be consistent with strategies we’ve tried in the past).

I really like the fact that we’re working on this problem as a whole family, because it’s not just a K-Pants problem. Our whole family seizes and constricts in predictable and not always productive ways when K-Pants melts down.

We’re all exhausted from it, and we’re looking for a change. Wish us luck.