growing a family o' weeds

curious campbell

We have a small vegetable garden outside our back door. It’s modest, but it’s hardy, and these early summer days filled with sunshine and rain are exactly the right mix of elements to grow that garden. The plants are growing fast, strong and hard. I think that if I could just sit and stare at it, if I could focus my eyes long enough hard enough, try not to blink, I’m sure that I would actually see the green stalks moving, stretching to the sky.

This is exactly how I feel about my kids.

The thing is: I do this. With both the garden and the kids. I stare at them long and hard.

I see Grant’s muscular legs flex as he runs, his calf muscles moving in response to the hill in front of him. I see the coordination of how he cradles that lacrosse ball in his stick, a concept foreign to him only months ago. I see Renee bravely step into the deepest parts of the creek, my breath catching until I realize that she is standing, still, on her own two feet. I see her enter into worlds of imagination and create stories and vignettes of magic and mystery – how she invites us in, even. I see Griffin, always climbing, running, jumping, imitating every move of his brother and sister. I see how impetuous he can be to protect his own opinions and sense of self. I see how his body stretches longer in his bed every night when I tuck him in.

But even in staring at their beings and doings, trying to memorize every feature, every funny thing said, every milestone, every mark of time, I can’t hold it all. I am witness to the miracle of this growth – this incremental, daily work of becoming more fully who they are. Surely, this is magic.

My One Word for this year is “learn.” It’s my attempt to see how I can more fully become who I am. It’s been a difficult one for me to spin beautiful and poignant thoughts through, and what I’m seeing is this: because the learning, and therefore growing, that I perceive in the kids is so obvious and so dramatic, mine looks almost nonexistent. It seems as though the learning and growing slows, decreasing exponentially, as the years go on. If I’m looking at the kids and wondering about the miracle of their growth, then I’m similarly doing the same to myself. Only I need to look at myself with a finer magnifying glass.

Maybe it would be different if I had set particular goals for myself: learn to knit a sweater. Learn to cook Indian food. Learn to speak French. Learn to drive stick shift. But these specifics don’t suit me, and one of the very reasons why I choose words to hang my year on and not resolutions. Those specifics, however, do lend themselves nicely to checklists and are easy to assess, easy to see. But the learning inside myself is more abstract.

Kindergarten wraps up this week. Today, Grant will step off of that school bus into summer and when he returns to school in September it will be as a first grader. It’s a time for looking back and seeing the growth, measuring and comparing. Here I witness how far he has come. It is a wonder to behold the growing – how much! How fast! How long and strong and hard!

At this point, midway through the calendar year, taking stock of Grant’s journey and growth through Kindergarten, I am wondering about myself. How has this word, “learn,” been part of my year?

Here’s what I come up with: in order to learn, I need to be curious. This is motivation to find out more. Without a desire to understand the world more deeply there simply is no room to learn.   It is hard, sometimes, to be curious. It’s hard to even want to know more. It’s a push just to get through that super-basic surface level of knowing.

But If I push myself through that initial membrane, if I can jelly my brain enough to be curious, then this learning can be wildly fun. I read somewhere that in order to learn something, one must unlearn it first, and though I’m not sure if that makes sense in all applications, I certainly feel that it is relevant in my growth this year. Before I can even make strides towards growth, I need to abandon my preconceived notions, whether about myself, or some other outside subject. Learning is sometimes like free-falling.

About a month ago, our family was invited to a neighborhood party. Here’s the thing – we’re not really part of the neighborhood. Our house backs up to this neighborhood, separated by a pretty intense hill with some dense brush. But there was a harmless incident with new “neighbors” and their dogs, and we were handed the invitation. We were pretty interested to go and see what life is like for the folks on the other side of the hill, but I was a little uneasy, too. Until then our only interactions with neighbors had been slightly less than pleasant. Our backyard shares a boundary line with the folks straight behind us, and while it was not a malignant relationship, it had been terse.

We tromped up through the woods to the party, carrying a tray of Rice Krispy treats and watching for poison ivy. We were only steps behind our terse neighbors as they entered the party, too. It was inevitable that we were going to have to make small talk with them.

I tell you all of this to say that I had this idea that Bill and Teresa were crotchety old folks. What I knew of them was that they defended their yard like a fortress, and lit up their back deck with colored Christmas lights all year long. But what I learned once I let my curiosity takeover is that they are lonely empty-nesters who work really hard. They are broken-hearted over some tough stuff with their sons, and they love their small, yippy dogs with their whole compassionate hearts. Bill is knowledgeable about the moon and stars, and sometimes walks the street late at night to get a better view. Teresa can’t wait to spend a month with her grand-kids who live too far away.

Maybe I should strive to be a bit like Curious George. You know, that mischievous little monkey and his friend with the yellow hat. Here’s what I love about George: he is, of course, curious. His curiosity often leads to mischief, to misunderstanding, or to a mess. But his curiosity also leads to adventure, exploration and learning. He never creates problems on purpose, he is never hurtful or mean – simply curious. He always sets things straight in the end, and in the process usually winds up changing others’ perceptions, too. See, there is always learning.

I got to know my neighbors that day. I was curious. I asked questions. I unlearned, and then learned again. Now I know that when the next meteor shower comes our way, we’ll head up the hill to take a look at the sky through Bill’s telescope.

My learning and my growing may happen more slowly, less dramatically as it does for the kids. It may be less celebrated, less obvious. How I’m learning seems to be just as important as what I’m learning. In order to be fully curious, to allow myself to follow down that rabbit hole, I need margins of time and energy. By asking myself to pay attention to how and why and when I learn this year, I’m taking note of these milestones. I’m becoming more fully myself. I’m etching it into the molding on the doorway, right next to the kids, and writing the dates in. Maybe, if you stare at me long enough, you just might see me grow.


in memory

“I was wondering if everybody could be remembered. Like, if we got organized, and assigned a certain number of corpses to each living person, would there be enough living people to remember all the dead people?”
“And are there?”
“Sure, anyone can name fourteen dead people. But we’re disorganized mourners, so a lot of people end up remembering Shakespeare, and no one ends up remembering the person he wrote Sonnet Fifty-five about.” – The Fault in Our Stars

By the time we were gathering at the church, the rain that had begun as a sprinkle was now causing a scene. A pile of wet umbrellas gathered in the entryway. The hearse had arrived. Grampie was escorted to the front. After a few hushed moments, Aunt Re bravely stood up at the front of the church and told stories of her mother’s life. Some were merely the facts of her life: grew up in this neighborhood, she went to that high school, married in this year. But facts soon morphed into stories. She told of Grammie’s quirks – the things that made her endearing – and the qualities of character that infused her life with love, the love that we each held in our hearts. Beautifully told, it was a portrait seen through a daughter’s eyes and shared tenderly at the end of it all. These memories give flesh and bones, the shape of a life in love and beauty, to these facts that are life, and death, too.

But even with all of Aunt Re’s perceptive sharing – for the memory of the stories, and the feeling of warm intimacy – even with all of that, it is only one snapshot of her life. It can’t all be wrapped up in a series of funny stories, or a list of traits as if from a personality quiz. Call it the highlight reel. Keen and sensitive, it still falls short of all that was Grammie’s life.

What makes a life, anyway? Is remembrance the mirror to the experience of living?

Maybe what I’m getting at here is legacy. Maybe in our remembering, in our telling of stories, we find a way to confront the finality of death in this life, to insert an ellipses where there is a period.

Is it the recipes that are preserved, cooked with the same ingredients and the same techniques? Is it the hand-knit blankets, the wooden chest that was hammered with love, these things passed down through the ages? Is it the stories that are recounted with fondness, all throughout life, but especially at the end? Is it the things we remember – the way an eye twinkles, the way a mouth curls, the inside jokes that make us smile?

Maybe memories are like pebbles picked up from a creek bed that you can roll over in your hand, smooth in your palm. You can reach your hand into your pocket, and rub that stone, and find yourself back at the creek. Sure, it’s not the same as digging your fingers through the wet gravel, letting the current slide through your fingers in search of that perfect stone. But that’s what a memory is: experiencing it again, though through a different lens – one of retrospect, one of time and distance, and just like that stone gets worn down, more clean with each stroke, so too does a story from memory get rounded out.

And then what happens when the memories fade? When the sound of her laugh is harder and harder to recall? When slowly, gradually no one knows that story of the struggle, the adventure, the triumph? What happens when there is no more remembering?

This same week, our spunky nine year old cousin had a terrible playground accident. After a severe concussion, she now has very limited memory. She came home to a house that she can’t remember, with horses that she doesn’t know, to be taken care of by a brother and mother that she doesn’t remember. Who is she now? What happens to her stories? Do they cease to be true? What happens to those relationships, to each slice of history? Do the memories make the person? Or the other way around?

Back at home that evening after the funeral, Grant picked his head up from his coloring and asked “How could Daddy carry that casket? It was so big and heavy.” He continued with his picture, picking out another marker and intently outlining a cloud. I thought of his question, and I thought of my answer. As a pallbearer Mark’s job was, of course, to carry the casket to and from the hearse, but he didn’t do it alone. The six pallbearers together shared the weight, gingerly taking the wet stairs taking care not to slip. After the service, they leaned awkwardly over the railing on the way back down, lifting the casket high. And in the pouring rain, they soaked their backs, rain sliding down their faces disguising the tears they shed as the brought Grammie’s body to her final resting place. I thought of how the weight was distributed, shifted around as needed. And I thought of how, now, in grieving, and living, we carry each other’s burdens. We share this weight of sadness. How can any one person carry death alone? They can’t.

We carry the memories, too, the same as we carry the grief. We carry them for each other, with each other. We tell the stories back to each other when we may have forgotten. Sometime all it takes is a familiar stanza and the thread of a story that had once been dropped can be picked back up again. My sister and I have a funny habit of remembering together something that happened only moments earlier. “Remember when you tripped over the chair on the lawn?” she’ll say after we have barely pulled ourselves together from laughing so hard. But just as likely we spend time remembering things of long ago, too: “Remember that colossal kayaking trip? The one when it rained the whole time?”

Our lives are living memories, stories in the making, and in the sharing.

This is a sacred job – to be a story keeper, a memory holder.


making, and breaking, the marriage bed

It seems like a lifetime ago. Do you remember, Mark? There is so much in our life now that feels so settled, so concrete and inelastic, but there was a time early in our marriage when we were explorers. We tried things. We moved. We moved a lot, actually. We moved every year for the first five years of our life together. Maybe it was no different than most kids in their early 20s but something about being married, about having boxes full of gifts from a registry and sharing the same last name made us seem less young, more certain. And we were certain, about one thing at least – we were certain about each other. But I didn’t like being tied down in other ways, still don’t, and we wandered when we could.

When we bought this house, the house that we still live in eight years later, we both knew our days of wandering were, if not over, at the very least scaling way back. Maybe we didn’t say it out loud, we probably didn’t, but there was a sense of promise in this house, and glimpse into a future that including babies and bills. There was a time when this house didn’t seem so small.

We became good at packing, precise in our sorting and generous with our belongings. There was no room for excess, and every year there was a ritual purge. We moved around on the backs of our friends, quite literally. Promised a pizza and a beer, they would show up to move boxes and lift heavy furniture, helping in the Tetris-like puzzle of packing trucks and station wagons with the stuff that fills our life.

We decided that the upstairs of this cape cod was just right for our “master bedroom.” Moving day came, and shuffled along with predictability. I am good at nothing if not telling people what to do, and I kept a post in the dining room pointing friends towards the bathroom or family room as needed. A couple of guys came lofting towards the stairs with our mattress in the hands. It was a tight squeeze to get it up through the narrow stair well, and then up and over the banister onto the floor of the upstairs room, but they did it. The guys headed back out to grab the box spring and I propped the mattress up against the wall to make room. The box spring made it halfway up the stairs before it came to a harsh stop. It would not fit. It could not fit. No amount of turning would make it work. We couldn’t Tetris our way out of this jam. Our simple queen sized bed could not make it into our bedroom. They pulled the box spring back down and flopped it on the dining room floor. As they headed out to get the next load of stuff, Mark and I were left to figure out what to do next.

We had options. We could use one of the two rooms downstairs as our bedroom. Or we could forgo the box spring. This wasn’t a dire situation, merely a glitch in the plan. It took some creative thinking, some problem solving and a lot of second guessing. But here’s what we did: we took that box spring, that foundation made of wood and springs and a thin veil of fabric, and we sawed it straight down the middle. Halved in this way, it now easily folded in on itself, and cleared the narrow stairs, the low ceiling and the banister without a problem. Putting it back down on the floor, the springs naturally want to piece it back together, and with the added weight of the mattress on top, you would never know the difference.

You still can’t tell the difference. Mark and I still sleep on this very same bed, even these years later. I had almost forgotten entirely this story, except we swapped bedrooms a little more than four years ago with Grant, when we were getting ready for Renee. It came time to move our bed down. The mattress went first, revealing the fractured box spring underneath.

We celebrate 12 years of marriage this weekend, Mark and I do. Some of these stories of our younger years seem a life time ago. And they were – not just one, but three of them. My breath catches a little at this mark in time, my throat lumps a bit. It’s a good time to look back and tell our stories again. If 11 years left me feeling confident and strong with more than a decade under our belt, somehow 12 has me feeling shaky – not because of us, but because of the world around us. There has been crumbling all around us, pieces of relationships breaking off and falling like debris. I’m feeling the weight of it all pressing in on us.

We’ve been a little off balance, lately. I’ve heard that the saguaro cacti that grow out west shoot out their arms, growing them in response to any unbalance within and without, in an effort to stay standing. Maybe that’s what we’re working on now, growing out to grow up, finding a way to keep reaching up and stay erect.

Yes, there is weight pressing in on us. And I could be that cactus, stretching out another limb to keep myself from falling down. But I think we’re different from those cacti – because the weight I’m feeling presses me to you, Mark. Instead of growing my own limbs in counter balance, I’m leaning into you. We are buttressing each other, resisting those outward forces. This weight won’t knock us down. It only makes us stand stronger, together. That cactus, he’s one lonely guy.

Sometimes I think we are not unlike this bed of ours. Broken in half, compromised in unseen ways, but made stronger, more perfect for each other because of it. Without that rigidity, we can fold in to each other, our edges lining up. How did we know what to sever, what to leave alone? Is it all a lucky guess?

We had to show the kids the bed. After hearing the story, they didn’t believe us, couldn’t imagine how we could just cut the bed in half. I peeled layers of sheets and blankets off, tilted the mattress up and out of the way, to reveal the broken box spring. Their eyes were big in surprise, and then the laughter came. Mommy and Daddy cut the bed apart!

Turns out this is just the thing the pros teach. One lazy Saturday afternoon all five of us squeezed in on the couch watching “This Old House,” or more precisely, “Ask This Old House,” the second half of the show where the pros tackle viewer questions. Someone had written in with a situation nearly exactly the same as our predicament from years earlier. And you know what they did? They cut the box spring straight down the middle. Turns out it was the exact right thing to do. It was not a lucky guess.

bed 3

You and me, Mark, we’re making this marriage bed. This one, here, with the cut straight down the middle. And that headboard? Yep, you built that for us. This bed is the plae of family dance parties and marathon jumping sessions. This bed is nothing if not part of the daily mystery of our marriage and our family.

Last night, we both paused above the bed, enamored of the two bodies already sleeping there. One quick blast of thunder was all it took, and Grant and Renee needed some place to feel safe. We tucked them in, one next to the other, and left them to find their own peace. Later, we scooped them up, carried them back to their beds, to make room for us. I carried Renee high on my body, her legs still curled into a tuck, and her moist breath of sleep on my neck. I then took her place in our bed, and pulling the covers in close, I stretched my legs down. Somehow, our feet still find each other in the warmth of those covers, in the bed we’ve made even by cutting it apart.

Happy anniversary, Mark. Here’s to another 12.

climbing trees

The kids have discovered this holly tree that stands guard at the corner of our yard leaning haphazardly over the swing set. It was at one time part of a pair, but its match was cut down a few years ago, both to make room for the swing set and to open up some sunlight into this patch of yard and house. The holly tree is nothing special, and indeed is quite lopsided. It was the less healthy of the two trees, but it had better placement, so we left it alone. At one time we thought maybe all it needed was to be shaded less by its braggy, taller older sister, but years later it still uneven and a bit awkward, as though one big push for the kids might just knock it to the ground.

This may be why I’m a bit wary of this recent discovery. The trees branches are sparse around the base on one side, allowing for a bit of a gateway into this hidden world under the shade of the rest of the branches as they wrap their way up and around the trunk. My memories of similar forts seem not that long ago under arching branches in the backyard of my childhood, so this was not the part that worried me. It was once they were in this hideaway that the kids noticed that the arms of the tree were low to the ground and close together, an invitation to climb.

1-2014-06-02 11.17.50

My kids are not inexperienced climbers. There is another tree, a stronger, sturdier tree, on the other side of the yard. The kids know how to muscle themselves up into the crooks of its branches, nestling in, following the way of the birds. That tree, though, is much closer to the road than I like them playing on their own, and is quite separate from the rest of our play area. This holly tree, instead, fits like an extension of the swing set, a jungle gym of Mother Nature’s providing. At first, I was fine with their ambitious climbing, watching as they tested out the strength of their own legs, the length of their bravery. Then a branch cracked. There is a scene in Winnie-the-Pooh when Pooh bear, ever on the hunt for honey, is climbing up a tree chasing after the bees that live there. But his branch breaks and he bump-de-bump-de-dumps on down the tree hitting every third branch or so. Being a stuffed bear, he is no worse for the wear. This, however, is how I envisioned Renee’s topple from her perch on the branch that snapped. Tough girl that she is, and being only a few feet off the ground, she popped herself back up, only pausing a moment to take inventory of her war wounds before leaning into the tree to hoist herself back up again.

“Look, mom!”

“Mama, look at me!”

“Do you see me? Look how high I am!”

You know how it is, because your kids do it, too, no doubt. They want to be seen. They are eager to show me how high they climb, how strong they are, how brave. They want me to affirm them, share in their victory. And I do. And that’s when I see how high they really are, now. Grinning ear to ear, standing precariously above my head on those same, rickety, thin branches of this gnarly developed holly tree that snapped only moments before. I holler one last, “Great job! Look at you go!” into the thick green, and I turn my back and walk away. I walk away.

I walk away because I don’t want my fear, my sense of caution, to interfere with their sense of accomplishment. Renee was, after all, the one who fell and here she is, still climbing. She knows the risk. Grant, too, bounced on a lower branch, goofing around, only to hear the crack of the branch breaking from the trunk, landing only inches lower on solid ground with a thud.

They keep climbing. Higher than I thought they could, higher than I thought they would want to. They keep reaching for the next rickety branch, posting against the trunk, tiptoes stretched and pressing off of lower branches. It only takes moments for Griffin, only two years old, not yet even two and a half, to watch his brother and sister and simply follow suit.

Sometimes I think being a mother, a good one, is covering my face with my hands and watching through the tiny slits covering my eyes. Sometimes I think there is no other way.

I feel this tension, sometimes, most times, of holding tight and letting go. There is a strong pull to be present, too see each moment, to witness it and hold it.   But sometimes what needs to happen most is for me to not be so present, so staunchly standing guard. Sometimes, I need to have blurry vision, back out of the picture a bit, and give over the kids’ minds and bodies to live their own life, be their own kind of witness.

Watching, now, I want to pluck Griffin from that tree, tell him that he is too little. My mind is racing with all sorts of scenarios, almost all of them involving broken bones (my dad is an orthopedic surgeon, and these exact scenarios are his bread and butter, after all). Lucky for us all, Griffin is fast, faster than my mind or my mouth, and before I can decide what to do, he is five feet in the air already, having cleared at least a dozen branches. Grant shouts out to me, makes sure that I can see this: “Mom! Look at Griffin! He’s climbing the tree!”

All on his own, this two year old has watched, and learned, and tried it for himself. He has no grown up propping him up, placing his hands at a good grip. There are no arms under him, spotting him for that fall that may never happen. He is strong, and he is brave, and he is climbing a tree, fearlessly, perhaps recklessly, but all by himself.

Half of me wants to shout his praise, high five him (once he’s safely on the ground) and kiss him full on the mouth. The other half of me wants to vomit.

Because I try to be that good mom, I know that what I’m supposed to do here. I will be his biggest cheerleader, no matter how scared I am for him. I will let him reach for the next branch. I will hold my breath, say a prayer, and walk away if I need to.

A moment later, his feet can’t quite make the step and he slips off of the lower branch. He untwists his body a bit to wiggle out from under a pinching branch, then hangs for a moment, his two-year old lithe body suspended from a branch. He could be hanging from a trapeze for as absurd as he looks. I watch a flash of insecurity cross his face, but it only lasts a second. He’s strong, and though it takes him a moment to realize it, his grasp is tight. He sizes up his options before letting go of one hand, taking hold of a lower branch with it, and dropping safely to the ground.

“Griffin! You are so strong. And so brave!” Grant, too, always the older brother, is Griffin’s cheerleader. In that instant, Griffin goes from being a baby in his brother’s eyes to being his equal. Later Grant tells me: “Mom, now Griffin is just like us.”

The kids are all back on the ground with only a few new blisters and scratches as a reminder of their adventures. No broken bones today. But that doesn’t mean that there won’t be any in the future. Maybe the hard work of good mothering is being present through the worry and straight into the raw moments of hurt. I may not be able to protect them from that broken arm, a failing grade or a crushed heart, but I will certainly be the one to drive them to the hospital with a bag of ice and a hug. Always a hug. I will hurt, too, because my child hurts. Maybe motherhood is an exercise in opposites. I’m learning that the worry and the brave, the pain and the beauty, the holding tight and letting go, aren’t competing energies in a force field, but more like a circle of a yin-yang, swirling in and around each other, each beautiful against the stark contrast of the other.

Griffin, like his brother and sister, can and will climb that tree, higher than I consider safe, and on branches that are too rickety. And I will watch, from a distance, with my hands over my eyes when I need to, but always with enough space for me to see them.

“Look, mom! Can you see me? Look how high I am!”

Yes, I see you. I see you.

For Better or Worse

This month Mark and I will celebrate 12 years of marriage.  And this summer marks 18 years of our being together (what?! I can’t possibly be that old!) Ours is a story that is long and deep and most importantly still being written, every single day.  He is my most favorite person on this planet, yes.  Writing about marriage is hard: it’s hard to tell it like it is, nuanced and edgy.  It’s easy to be syrupy sweet, to come across braggadocios like we have everything figured out.  Or the flip side is to lament about how hard it is, add up complaints or resentments.  But the truth is neither of these things, is it?  Like most of life, it is more colorful than that, more difficult and more beautiful.  And that can be hard to write.

Briana Meade is a writer friend of mine who is attempting to do just that.  In her series “For Better or Worse” she’s asking folks to write about love and marriage.  It is a beautiful series, illustrating the many shapes and forms that love takes in a marriage.  Today, I’m over there sharing about what Briana has dubbed “The Middle Years.”  If you’ve been around this blog for a while, it may be a familiar story, but I”d love for you to jump over to Briana’s blog anyway and check out some other folks’ stories about love and marriage.

Here’s a little to get you started:

It’s 5:00am. He’s made the coffee and brushed his teeth. I am only sleep walking, eyes closed to tend to the Littlest, only five months old, before his cries rally the rest of the house.

It’s one of his favorite parts of the day, Mark tells me. I pick my head up, make bleary eye-contact, completely surprised by this admission.

There is not much he can surprise me with anymore. Not for as long and as wide and as deep as we’ve been each other’s.

Keep on reading, over at Briana’s blog. 

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