The Lingering Earworms of Motherhood

Photo by Vlad Bagacian on Pexels.com

A friend of mine recently asked on Facebook, “What’s the longest you’ve ever had a song stuck in your head?”

Sister, my brain has been leasing out space to Baby Beluga for nearly a quarter century, ever since my now 27-year-old fell in love with it and wanted to hear it several times every day, often insisting we both sing along. The song isn’t there non-stop, but it has consistently popped in to say hello at least once a week for all these years. Raffi has some catchy tunes, I’ll give him that. At this point, I assume that if I reach a stage in aging where my memory loses information like my own address or the names of my children, I’ll still have a “little white whale on the go” to think about.

Also, I read the book Madeline aloud so many times that I can to this day recite *several pages* of it from memory. I could really use that headspace for things like staying current with technology changes or keeping track of my to-do list, but nope — “an old house in Paris covered in vines” it is. And let’s not even get into “One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish.”

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t dislike these songs and stories. In fact, I adore Madeline. But I don’t know what use they are to me now, echoing around in my mind, so irrelevant to my current life. Unless…I could analyze them to figure what I can do in my own writing to make it so memorable? Or… if I become a grandmother some day?

Mostly, I take it as a sign that my brain has a mind of its own that’s not entirely within my control, and that it was shaped in some permanent way by the experience of motherhood. Thoughts come and go as they want. You might even say “Waves roll in and the waves roll out.” Maybe I shouldn’t overanalyze and just accept it as the rhythm of my internal life. After all, there are worse things that could be going on in my head…

“You are the dancing queen.”

Oh lord.

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Candy for the Teens

Photo by Kristina Paukshtite on Pexels.com

I gave candy to my 15-year-old next door neighbor last night and also his friend. No, they weren’t wearing costumes. I did not mind. They joked that they were dressed as normal people, which constituted disguises for them. I laughed. They weren’t the only teens to come to our door. As the evening wore on, the ages of our candy seekers inched upward.

I’ve heard a number of folks state that teens shouldn’t trick-or-treat, and if they do they should dazzle you with their creativity. I’m sure everyone’s dying to know what I think about this, so I’ll share. Do you know what teenagers could be getting up to that’s so much worse than trick-or-treating? A lot.

We live in a society where kids are pushed to grow up fast. High school students are under pressure to excel at everything, to pack that resume so they can have a shot at the American dream. Some are stepping into the role of adults in households with dysfunctional parents, perhaps working at night to help pay the grocery bills, maybe taking care of younger siblings. Previous generations have messed up the planet they’re inheriting. Drugs are everywhere (except in Halloween treats — that’s a debunked urban legend.) Conflicting messages and expectations are everywhere. It’s not easy being teen.

But it’s too easy, as an adult, to react with fear based on the worst news stories or rumors we’ve heard. Too easy to make assumptions that adolescents are necessarily bent on mischief. In my observation, it’s really not the case the vast majority of the time.

And if any teen wants to hold onto an altogether wholesome vestige of their childhood for one more Halloween, I’m there for it. Come to my house. I’ll give you candy.

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Trick or Treat

For several years when my two kids were young, we’d gather a whole group of their friends on Halloween and take them door to door together. The hubs and I took turn about chaperoning the ghouls and staying home to pass out treats. Afterward, the whole group of kids, along with some of their parents, would hang out at our house to play games, negotiate candy swaps, and enjoy the full rush of the sugar buzz. We and the families in our circle weren’t ones to give allow junk food on the regular, so this was real debauchery for our kids — a day when food rules went out the window.

The absence of children in my household doesn’t mean I’ve grown any less fond of Halloween. I love that we have a day where it’s acceptable to dress in costumes and eat candy. Pumpkin carving is often the one single craft project I do all year. I enjoy strolling around my neighborhood taking in the creativity with which my community decorates. It’s fun to be a little scared in a safe way. Trick-or-treating is my favorite part. In fact, I might have overreacted when I heard a radio spot for an organized downtown activity touted as “a safe alternative to trick-or-treating.” I might have yelled something about propaganda designed to draw families to retail outlets instead of homes.

I still indulge whole heartedly in passing out treats at the front door while oohing and aahing over superheroes and ghosts and knights. We generally had pretty high numbers of kids coming by keeping me entertained until about three or four years ago. The count started tapering off as the children on our block grew up and flew the nest. Then the neighbors around us stopped participating, leaving their houses dark and uninviting. Then the pandemic hit and we really bottomed out.

But I decided to level up this year to try to lure the trick-or-treaters back. Though our family jack-o-lantern game is strong, we haven’t usually done much else in the way of decorating. And this year, we won’t even have carved pumpkins because the squirrels ate them. However, I fashioned a ghost to hang from a tree in our yard, as well as a few big, fake spiders. And then there’s this treasure I found:

That’s visible from the street. Wish me luck!

Happy Halloween!

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Pumpkin Spice Pest Season

We have pumpkin woes at my house.

Earlier in the year, we realized a volunteer pumpkin vine had sprouted in our back yard. It spread and spread and flowered and flowered. I envisioned a bumper crop of orange gourds, going so far as to fantasize about homemade pies and homegrown jack-o-lanterns. What we got was one lonely little pumpkin that topped out about 6 inches in diameter. Nevertheless, I’ve conducted near-daily wellness checks on it, still taking joy in this unexpected, if modest, prize. I was only waiting for it to ripen before picking it.

Our home sits on a half-acre lot, so our yard is sizable. And in that big expanse, somehow a group of cucumber beetles knew to show up for the one single thing they could eat — our single solitary wee pumpkin.

Yellow beetle with black spots, eating a gourd.
Spotted cucumber beetle

Oh no, you don’t! We’ve already lost enough to the neighborhood deer herd. I wasn’t about to let this new pest win. I brushed the insects from the poor beleaguered thing (I’ve bonded with it, okay?) and brought it safely inside.

Small green (with a little orange) pumpkin on a countertop.
Wee little pumpkin

I’m not sure what I plan to do with it, other than let it sit in the dining room and look autumnal, but at least I have it.

As for jack-o-lanterns, the spouse and I picked up some nice big carving pumpkins from the grocery store, planning to cut our spooky designs two or three days before Halloween.

If only it weren’t for the hungry squirrels…

Large orange pumpkin with a large gnawed area

So it goes.

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Nostalgia For Babies

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I adore the people my adult children have grown to be. I appreciate not being constantly “on” and having more choice about how to structure my time. Though retirement is still several years down the road, I’ll tell you what my dream is for those years. I figure I’ll have time for more volunteer work, and the gig I want is to be the person who sits in a rocking chair at the hospital, holding and rocking the preemie newborns. At times I do miss the closeness of young children in my arms. I guess I’ve felt this way before because I just ran across a poem I wrote around the time my youngest graduated from high school.

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Time Stole My Babies

My babies have been kidnapped
a little at a time
removed straight from my arms
by time itself.
In return I’ve received
adults who give me
reading suggestions and tell me jokes,
who hold my heart as much
but who do not fold up
into the space of me
as did the babies who are gone.
There’s no ransom
I can pay to unempty
my lap.

~~

With Forethought of Grief: Coping With Anxiety Through Nature and Poetry

Tall evergreen trees in the foreground. Mountains visible in the distance through a clearing. Blue sky.
Photo from my recent visit to the Pacific Northwest

Here’s how good I am at hosting anxiety. I will let a worry trigger a stress reaction — dry mouth, tight throat, racing heart. And in the middle of this, I’ll take it up a notch by fretting about whether I’m using my life’s allotment of heartbeats through these panic attacks. How many days did that episode just subtract from my lifespan? Unsurprisingly, this line of thought does nothing to allay my symptoms.

Two things that do help me cope, though, are nature and poetry. A hike in the woods is the best medicine ever, but not something always available to me. However, even paying attention to a wildflower valiantly blossoming through a crack in the sidewalk can help still my mind, reset my internal rhythm.

Poetry has been a constant touchstone throughout my life, a supportive companion for any feeling, mood or circumstance. “The Peace of Wild Things” by Wendell Berry is one I turn to often. The words in it that really anchor me are “…wild things / who do not tax their lives with forethought / of grief…”

Maybe this poem will help you, too, in some way.

The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free

-Wendell Berry

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Seeing My Kid in His Chosen Stomping Grounds

The hubs, my younger son, and I just returned from the longest trip we’ve taken since 2011, a week spent visiting my firstborn in his adopted hometown of Bellingham, Washington. It was my first ever visit to the state, and every turn I made presented an opportunity for a postcard-quality photo. I understand now why he loves it so much and will probably never leave the Pacific Northwest.

Person's hand holding a colorful seashell
Showing me a colorful shell.

He was eager to share with us his delight in the natural wonders of the area. Like so many folks in these difficult years, my two kids have both had their struggles, leading me at times to lie awake at night questioning every parenting decision I’ve ever made. But seeing my grown-up son in absolute child-like bliss while investigating tide pools and telling me everything he knew about the life forms in them helped me resolve some of those angsty feelings. Here was solid evidence that we did some things right raising our kids.

Though we always had enough to meet our needs, we didn’t always have a ton of money for extras. I didn’t sign the offspring up for a lot of organized activities with associated fees. But my husband and I are big believers in outdoor play and exploration. Family vacations were often camping trips to state parks, where we hiked and did cave tours and listened to park rangers give presentations about area wildlife. Our kids never went to summer camp, but we spent a lot of time taking them to parks and places with rocks and creeks, where they could investigate and learn organically. When many of their teen peers took a rather pricey science trip to the Grand Tetons, we acquired the needed maps and supplies to go orienteering locally as a family. Firstborn, especially, always took a keen interest in any member of the animal kingdom, from tiny to huge.

My heart grew three sizes during our trip, seeing the child inside the man. The same things still bring him joy. His finances are a bit ragged currently, but he has heaven in the form of a rocky beach a thirty minute walk from his house. “Imagine, for you this is a fabulous vacation, but I have this available as part of my daily life,” he said.

The only “nightlife” activity we did during our visit was a midnight visit to a beach where we could wade out and see bioluminescent plankton, a magical experience. We didn’t sign up for any tours and kept shopping mostly to food. The one real touristy day we spent was a trip down to Seattle for the Van Gogh Immersive Experience (amazing!) and a quick visit to Pike Place (collectively our purchases amounted to a sheet of stickers — lol.) For the most part, we spent the family time much as we did in the old days, climbing around on rocks, splashing in the water, exploring nature. It was good medicine.

I Say Hi to My House Plants Now

Christmas Cactus
Christmas cactus I received from a friend who was moving. In six months, it should have flowers.

For much of my life, I joked that I have a brown thumb, that my house is where green things come to die. But something’s changed in the past few years. I’ve started keeping house plants alive. A while ago, I decided to try the experiment of talking to them to see if it would help them do more than cling to the last vestiges of life and actually begin thriving.

I believed it was hokum, even as I started doing it. But it turns out my three indoor specimens of indoor potted vegetation have perked up, greened up, and look truly healthy. It’s not because I say good morning to them every day. It’s because putting this practice into my daily routine reminds me to open the curtains to give them sunlight, along with checking the soil to see if they need water.

When I pass by one of my plants and ask “How ya doing today?” they don’t know it means I care. My utterances don’t provide the self esteem needed for mental and physical health, as it they would for humans. But making a point of interacting with my plants does cause me to notice if any leaves are turning brown and need pinched off, to think about how long it’s been since I put plant food spikes in the dirt.

The words I’m saying don’t matter. Or do they? I’m convinced my plants would have responded in the same way had I said nothing to them at all. But would I have responded to them in the same way? Become as nurturing? Noticed their needs? Speaking to them reminds me they are indeed living things that need attention and care. Maybe this is a tiny example of how we change the world by changing ourselves.

I just told the Christmas cactus on my desk that I’m posting its photo on the internet. Since it didn’t object, I’m going to go ahead and click that “publish” button.

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Redirecting My Toddler Brain

Monarch caterpillar on a green milkweed plant.
See it there in the middle? It’s going to be a monarch some day.

I have a brain that doesn’t like to stop. It’s like a toddler at a playground, running from one structure to another, never wanting to rest because there’s so much to explore. I’ve been experiencing a fair amount of stress in my life lately, sending my mind into a frenzy of anxiety. Instead of fun and joyful discovery, my mind has been peering into all the dark nooks and crannies to see what terrible things might be lurking there. World and national news doesn’t help. I’ve had lots of sleepless nights, bad dreams when I do sleep, and an often racing heart, with none of my usual measures really working for me.

It took a while, but I managed to get set up with a counselor. During one visit I mentioned the tricks I use on myself to keep from doomscrolling the internet. But as I spilled out my worries for the present and future, he said, “Sounds like you’re doomscrolling your mind instead.”

I expected him to give me tips for how to stop or at least slow down my mind. But he told me that might not be my best approach. “Your ability to think so much and imagine possibilities is a super power,” he told me. “Instead of trying to stop your thoughts, you need to teach your brain to imagine the positive possibilities and notice the things that are going right more often.”

Huh.

I went home, thought it over, and realized he was telling me to treat my brain like a toddler. Anyone who has raised one of those small humans knows that saying “don’t” is usually futile. Instead of saying “Don’t climb on the refrigerator,” you offer an alternate activity. “Let’s play with toy cars on the floor.” Redirect, redirect, redirect. I have lots of practice at this. I understand it.

The photo above, the milkweed with a monarch caterpillar, is something I told my mind to notice going right. I first planted milkweed two years ago, hoping to attract and nurture monarch butterflies. I have seen a couple of adults flitting about before, but this is the first actual caterpillar I’ve seen. I’m so excited. It’s working exactly how I hoped it would. My brain would like to dwell on my various failures, but hey, let’s look at the ecology project that’s succeeding instead.

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Mother’s Day: State Your Wishes Edition

A funny thing happened partway through my motherhood journey. One day I realized I was more likely to get what I wanted if I stated it out loud instead of expecting anyone to read my mind. I’m not saying I’ve ever been guaranteed to get what I wanted, but I have become a big believer in clear, specific communication. Saying something along the lines of “just surprise me” is asking for trouble.

I don’t generally care for a big hullabaloo on Mother’s Day. Mostly, I’d like not to cook and to have some time to relax. I’m very clear that I have no desire to be in a crush of people waiting in line somewhere for brunch or dinner. Even pre-pandemic, the crowds were too much for me.

I guess I forgot to tell my employer the wish to relax part because they scheduled me to work this afternoon. However, I was very specific with my husband that I would like donuts from the new bakery that opened a few blocks from our house recently. So here’s my celebration before I head out to be of service to others:

Assorted donuts in a box.
Just what I asked for! I’m not eating them all. The box was for the household.

Happy Mother’s Day to all who play a mothering role in someone’s life. Remember, you’re occasionally allowed to speak up and say out loud what you want.

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