Thursday, May 12, 2011

Country Mouse/City Mouse

Here we are in the city. We have a small front and a back balcony, two bedrooms on the second floor of a small apartment building, a sidewalk with no end visible in either direction and a modest shared back courtyard that’s primarily for obese junk-fed city squirrels, urban birds who nest in third-floor eaves and dog-owners following behind their companions with disposal bags.

When we moved to our home in rural North Carolina three years ago, we had grand plans for self-sustenance. We set up a makeshift greenhouse and grew our own veggies from heirloom seeds – often picked and crunched right off the vine by our toddlers. We built a coop from salvaged materials and populated it with a few buff orpington and barred rock hens who supplied us with lovely eggs. We lived in our kitchen – something I’ve come to believe is almost a redundant claim.

But as much as we loved everything about our home, we were never completely self-contained. It was a personal thing, a personality thing – we’re very social people. So we would drive to our closest city several times a week for dinner or drinks with friends; for playdates at parks; for live music.

Gradually, we seemed to be making our small country footprint more of a carbon drain than a green living dream. And we began to wonder: Are we country mice or city mice?

Now in Richmond’s thick museum district, I’m walking much more than I did in all the time we lived on our one acre 20 minutes into North Carolina country, where busy country roads without sidewalks made it impossible to even walk the short distance to the grocery store with young children.

Every city block is an explorative adventure – hidden bars, bodegas, florists, bike shops, sidewalls peppered with curious graffiti. The light posts are pierced and littered with fresh flyers and old ones on their way back to becoming pulp. Parks and playgrounds creak to be discovered. Artistic events happen close enough to leave the car at home.

Gardening has definitely become a challenge in minimalism. Our 25’ x 40’ plot has been condensed to a cluster of hanging tomatoes and a handful of peppers in planters. As we figure out what works, we’ll add an herb garden and a barrel of salad greens and attempt to trellis vining vegetables.

We can’t legally keep chickens in the city, and don’t have the space even if we could, but we’re lending our voices to the petition for our city neighbors at CHICKUNZ who do.

I’m still undecided on the country vs. city mouse issue…why does it have to be one or the other?

Thursday, April 14, 2011


This is something I wrote in September as the reality of losing our lives in North Carolina began to balloon.

The photo of Siri and Bella happily exhausted after play on our red comforter at the duplex is in storage. So is the folder packed with growth milestones and tiny hospital footprints and leftover shower invitations. Our tiny Buddy Christ action figure. My still muddy wedding dress. The envelopes containing the girls first cut locks of white blonde hair.

I walk the quiet hallway, surrounded by freshly painted off-white walls and bright white trim. Chuckle because Chris can’t help but be tickled every time we use that word: trim.

Our shampoos and toothbrushes are neatly hidden in caddies on bedroom closet shelf. All the other closets in our home are empty, except for a handful of toys, the girls’ play kitchen in their closet.

Our life is transitory.

We are mid-move from this cobbled North Carolina beach town, the only home our children have ever known, back to Richmond, a question, a city that lives mainly in our best memories of it and the people we love who call it home.

No job or freshly-cut keys await us at the end of the caravan. – Just a maybe, a small confidence.

This is my eulogy to Wilmington, to the life we worked so hard to build here. To the tiny loggerhead turtles Chris and I watched boil from the Wrightsville sand and trickle to the ocean at dusk.

To the dog park we built with a few committed people. To the tropical storm tussled pines and delicate altheas at the house where we believed might not fuck up parenting any more than the next hopeful couple. To Tess. To the one bedroom garage apartment whose stairs I climbed each day as my belly swelled to make my steps heavier and my balance more precarious. To pork tenderloin on the grill and the bacon-egg-and-cheese bagels Chris had waiting for me after so many overnight shifts. To the quilt that Chris’s grandma pieced – the one we spread out on the living room floor and peppered with bright, musical objects, coaxing our tiny twins to lift their heads, strengthen their arms, and roll their baby bodies over. To our patio garden with the lemon cucumbers that snaked down the backyard banister.
To that day Chris and I floated out beyond the breakers in the most perfect stillness. To stars raining over the south end. To all the women who helped me become a mother and keep myself. To Sunday coffee and vomit with Christa. To wine walks with Katy. To breastfeeding among the tall cool pines at Hugh Macrae. To giving Herbie a place to stretch his toes. To desodding our garden plot by flashlight. To our repurposed chicken coop. To cooking and conversation at our bar. To Siri and her soccer ball. To many beers at many fires with a handful of true friends.

It’s a eulogy because I feel the painful tug of the people I love in this place on my soul. This time is past. And the next has not become yet.

When I think of Richmond, I think of Belle Island on our bikes in the rain, and of Bella and Siri chasing bubbles in the James. I know we left for a reason, but that we’re going back for so many others. It will be a different place than the one we left, or we are other people than those who drove away, as are those we left behind.

I don’t yet know how this will be. We hope to sell this house, in a poor market, at a dismal time. I plan to give my employer adequate notice, and trust for her understanding when I leave. The self-imposed hush is distressing. If we must leave under foreclosure, without positive job reference, we will figure it out, as we always have.

Into the car our rag-tag crew: three sweet dogs, three anxious cats, two excited little girls, my best friend and me, and the car door will latch with a thud.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Modeling Beauty

My daughters are two-and-a-half. They are gloriously comfortable in their little bodies. Damian has just learned how to take off her clothes and pull-up all by herself (Yay! Potty-training is closer to reality!), so now she "wants to be a naked baby" nearly every waking moment. And of course, what one sister does, the other mimics.

Baby pudge, tan lines, marker stains, sticky fingers, smeared faces, dirt in their hair - they are fundamentally radiant, and they are confident.

I don't know when my own self-consciousness activated. I remember strangers and family comparing me to my own sister in my hearing. Even my father once told me of my sister, "She has a classic beauty, but you are beautiful." He may as well have called me "special." Then again, he also might have shown both my sister and me how beautiful our own mother was rather than chiding her to be ever thinner and more attentive.

Then there were the girls at school who developed earlier than I, the boys who made fun of my nose, my flat chest and my freckles, the endless, mindless celebrity critique in the media and, more importantly, at home. This actress had gained a few pounds. That one looked better in an earlier movie. Another could stand to change her hair, or her nose, or her height. The constant negative commentary directed at people who made their livings being beautiful built a mountain of self-doubt in a mostly ordinary girl.

It took years for me to become comfortable in my own body, my own face. Then I carried and birthed my own daughters. My body is changed. But, rather than seeing it as alien because it doesn't match mainstream magazine covers, I choose to grow comfortable with it again, to see it as a natural evolution. I want to live with my stretchmarks and soft skin as vainly as I did my tight belly and perky 34-Bs, now proud of what I am capable. And I want my daughters to see this - not me hiding in one-piece swimsuits with skirts or conservative pjs. I want them to know that real women don't look 16 forever.

I won't discuss comparative size or physical beauty with my daughters or around them. Everyone we know and love is beautiful to us as they are. For my toddlers, I creatively edit or avoid stories that speak of girls as pretty or graceful. Who says these hereditary crap shoots are the quintessential traits of a woman? What about bluntness and intelligence and courage?

Funnily, it's my daughters who are showing me how to be the woman I want to model for them. Baby pudge, freckles, breasts that have known their purpose and rarely-brushed hair. When I am at the beach with my girls I'm not worried anymore about whether my belly is sticking out too far, or my shoulders are sagging, or my hair is askew, or my swimsuit is up my butt with 2 lbs. of sand. Instead, they have taught me the joy of abandoning self-criticism in favor of jumping waves, watching fish, running after seagulls and sitting in wet sand digging for shells and clams.

My daughters have taught me that when we engage our surroundings, we aren't looking, and we don't care who is. That's a beautiful place to be.

- for Shape of a Mother

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

You think this cup-o-noodles is still good?

"I brought home a bucket of praying mantises from work - they hatched," Chris tells me over dinner last night. "Once they hatch, they start eating each other, so right now it's like insect thunderdome in the car console."

In my mind, I pictured hundreds of full-grown praying mantises biting each other's heads off, blood-spurting from headless bodies with twitching ciliated appendages, and a few flag-bearing survivors scaling mounds of buggy corpses.

About a month ago, we let loose a fleet of ladybugs in the gardens and trees. The mantises are our second wave of natural pest deterrence.

We forgot to release them last night, so this morning, I feared that our car interior would resemble a biblical plague. As Chris left for work he explained that as soon as I opened the lid, the mantids would cover my hand, but that they wouldn't bite, and I just needed to gently shake and guide them to freedom throughout the garden.

After breakfast and coffee, the girls and I headed out to see our squirmy surprise. We found the newly hatched mantis nymphs in a half-pint cardboard container. Not nearly as 'B'-movie as I'd imagined, each was about a quarter-inch long, nearly translucent brown, with tiny supplicant forelimbs. And contrary to Chris's warning, they huddled in the tiny bit of wood shavings and nectar with which they'd been packed.

The girls and I walked throughout the vegetable garden, coaxing the baby mantises onto pepper, squash, bean and berry plants with our fingers. A lid-full landed on our black-eyed susans.

We've avoided dousing our earth with chemical irritants, but it doesn't escape me that we've nevertheless completely upended the ecological balance of our property.

Someone call an intervention if I start communicating by rubbing my forearms together.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Chris and I are learning how to make cheese. We've started with soft cheeses - mozzarella, ricotta, panir - hoping to work our way up to the hard ones with wax shells, colorful aging patterns and healthy aromas.

It's a fun way to spend an evening, talking and bumping into one another in the kitchen. Part science experiment, part Oregon Trail. In fact, the only way it could be better, in my opinion, is if it was bacon - without the messy pig slaughter bit.

Two gallons and a quart of milk yields about two pounds of mozzarella and two pounds of ricotta. The mozzarella from one batch topped a dozen medium-large pizzas for the girls' birthday party and the few days following. And it's incredibly creamy and flavorful - but that could just be the satisfaction of making it myself.

For supplies and recipes, go to New England Cheesemaking Supply Company.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Permissive Parenting

My daughter Runa is running in circles nearly as wide as her smile, bright red chiffon scarf streaming above her head, leaving a wake of giggles around the dozen other seated parents and obedient children. I have called for her to come and sing with mommy, but my own laugh belies my weak resolve to reel her back into my lap.

Runa, her twin sister Damian and I are trying out a nationally syndicated music class that is subsidized by a community church. Their best friend Jonah and his mother Katy have come for the fun as well.

"Runa, come here, let's stomp our feet together," I tempt. The instructor looks sideways at me as she collects scarves and tiny sandpapered percussion blocks from the other children. Not a single actual musical instrument is ever produced during this one-hour session.

A goodbye song is sung, so exciting that I forget it as soon as the last note falls. I stop to thank the teacher and inquire about tuition and scheduling. She effectively kills my interest in a second try by commenting on how unfair it was to paying parents for me to allow my children to dance.

"What does she expect? It's a music class for 1-3 year olds! We should be letting them explore music with real instruments - be free spirits. They'll have to sit still and stand in lines plenty when they go to school," Katy rants to me later.

I couldn't agree more.

We have to tell our children 'no' for so many legitimate safety reasons: no hitting, no running into the street, no climbing on precarious furniture, no playing with electrical sockets.

Why squelch their joy of exploration - especially in the arts?

Katy and I try different music class several days later. The instructor is surprised by our attendance - no one told her she would have visitors this morning - but she smiles and welcomes us to a large rug in the corner of a spacious dance studio. She learns each child's name and incorporates it in a song, stepping everyone up the musical scale with the help of a xylophone. The children get to bang on drums, shake tambourines, run, sing and dance to relatively familiar folk songs. No one is chastised for having fun; we sign up for the next 12-week session.

My girls will be two in January. I don't get to sleep late anymore. Rarely do I have the attention span to complete a book without colorful illustrations or rhyme. But then, all parents accept some minor tradeoffs. What I get in return is the opportunity to show the world to these fearless, inquisitive little people, and to say 'no' as rarely as I can.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The last of it

Beauty in the dregs. I'm feeling this year folding up on me. It's a humming sadness, like what you feel when you have to retire a favorite pair of shoes or close the door to an empty apartment with the keys on the kitchen counter inside. It's the last of it - the last pops of color on my firecracker plant, the molding husks of the girls' first jack-o-lanterns on their way to the compost heap, a spring tipula well past his season taking advantage of a tattered banana leaf, and a few ambitious peppers found clinging to a naked plant in our tiny abandoned garden.