I caught myself feeling a sharp pang of jealousy yesterday – at a young woman getting off of a bus.
She was alone. Intent on her errand, her destination. Independently. No children to bring along to the store with her, none to drop off at daycare before work, no enormous shopping cart filled with diapers and milk to maneuver through the snow to her car, and especially, especially, no whining, crying, or interruptions. She had earphones in her ears, a small fashionable purse on her shoulder, and a purpose in her stride as she stepped off the bus, head up. She wasn’t looking for and counting heads, holding mittened hands, or speaking a constant stream of instructions, reminders and chastisement. She was quiet. Calm. Happy. She was on her way to somewhere, or someone. Alone.
I told myself that she might be off to do a dull and underpaid shift at a dead-end job, with an empty apartment the only thing waiting at the end of it, wishing for all the world for the lovely family and home and life that I have.
It didn’t help. I was overwhelmingly, shockingly, endlessly jealous. Oh, to have a day to myself! To be able to pop in to a store, to meander, to browse! Oh, to not have a baby on my back, or a diaper bag on my shoulder, or a pattering of questions and lecturing on nuclear bombs and jetpacks to tune out! Oh, to read world politics, and think about them, and then discuss them! Oh, to feel like I have any expertise, or just plain interests, of my own!
Oh, to not have to cook dinner again.
Oh, to not be constantly aware of the clock, measuring the next naptime, the next load of laundry, the defrosting chicken, the school day.
Oh, to miss my family. To have a break, and to be happy to come back to them.
Oh, to not be jealous of a random stranger getting off a bus at the local Walmart.
And then, my daughter does something irresistibly cute. Babbling, making friends of strangers at the coffee shop, crawling to my outstretched arms. And I feel so guilty for wanting to miss even a single moment of this fleeting time.
And yet, then we’re taking beloved stuffed animals away from my son in a bid to improve increasingly disruptive behavior at school, and Dearest and I spend a daily hour tearing our hair out wondering what is wrong with our son, with us, with the school system. Wondering if there’s anything at all we can do to help our impulsive, inattentive, expressive, bright little boy who seems to only be getting harder with time. Never knowing what, or when, the next battle will be.
Oh, to not have to come home to crying, or to have crying come home to me.
To just get on a bus. And off again, somewhere else. Nowhere special. Alone. For an afternoon. With dinner warm and waiting, unmade by me, happy children, an unstressed spouse, a clean house without a single laundry basket in the livingroom. Oh, to just look out the window. And dream.
I pushed the stroller on, past the bus, through the snow, towards home. I stroked my daughter’s darling, sleeping head, shrugged my shoulders and stretched my legs, and decided on chicken parmesean for dinner.
So, we went to Toronto for the weekend.
Partly to celebrate our umpteenth anniversary, partly to practice traveling with a baby again (prior to our upcoming trip to Iqaluit for Christmas, where pharmacies and Tim Hortons’ are not just around the corner), and partly to get Bonhomme up the CN Tower.
We’ve come back aged.
How is it that our 6-and-a-half-year-old was at least 3 times harder than our 8-month-old? With the baby, we had disrupted naps to contend with, strange hotel sounds at night, a playpen that barely got slept in, hunting for solid foods that she could eat, hours stuck in a car seat, poopy bums, soaked bibs and constant overstimulation. And yet, she was easy. Our angel child. Happy to go with the flow, smiling at every stranger she met, ready for anything. With the big kid, everything was a battle. He’d argue over whether or not he needed to blow his nose.
Bonhomme couldn’t, and can’t, listen to a single instruction or thoughtfully worded request without questioning it, complaining about it, redefining it, arguing about it, whining about it, interrupting AND then either forgetting or ignoring to actually do it. Like going potty before leaving the hotel room. Washing his hands after going potty. Washing his face after getting half his meal all over it. Putting his socks on. Picking up his towel. Not letting go of the stroller. Not getting into an elevator without a parent. Holding hands on unfamiliar streets. Telling us he had to go potty when we were in the car BEFORE it became an emergency. Using his quiet voice in restaurants. When playing in the pool, he had to dictate, and then control every aspect of his complicated little game – plain old tag would never do. Everything was to be discussed, denied, explained, described, by Bonhomme. Out. Loud.
Stopping to get a small snack to tide us over until dinnertime was a scene. Tossing a ball about was a disaster. Waiting for ANYTHING was torture.
With Hibou, everything is simple. With Bonhomme, nothing is.
I am becoming resigned to simply waiting until age 6 is over. Maximizing our son’s time spent with other people, activities outside of home, away from we parents – since we have somehow, mysteriously, become The Enemy. Nasty, boring, endlessly repetitive Enforcers Of Doom.
This morning, chatting with Grampa about his weekend, Bonhomme excitedly described how the wind almost pushed him over at the almost top of the CN Tower, and then gleefully explained that he hadn’t gone higher to do the Edge Walk harnessed like a rock climber hundreds of meters above the ground because his dad was too scared.
Was it worth it? Will he remember the whining, and the yelling, and the crying? Or playing with gravity at the Science Center? The nagging, or the endless watersliding at the hotel? Will he remember the dozens of train tracks and the skyscrapers, or just that his little sister chewed on his stuffed penguin?
As I puzzle over why I feel not just exhausted and disappointed, but saddened by our adventurous weekend, I realize that it’s that my daughter makes me feel so competent, and my son makes me feel so incompetent, and I fear that it will always be so.
We’ve proven that we can travel with a baby just fine. It’s the big kids you have to watch out for – and each other, when your kids have eaten, and eaten, and eaten away at you. When we are not our best selves as parents, we are most definitely not our best selves as spouses.
This is why we celebrate anniversaries (although preferably without the children along). Not to acknowledge where we are, but to acknowledge where we’ve come from. Years and years of living life together.
We’ll remember the whining. And the cost. And the traffic, and the emergency potty breaks, and the poor sleep. But I’ll also remember my first cup of hot, strong coffee at the breakfast buffet, and the sight of Hibou bonelessly passed out on the bed as we pack later that morning, and both Dearest and I nauseated as both kids sprawled on their stomachs looking down through the glass floor of the CN Tower. This is certainly one anniversary we won’t forget. One more reason to toast “We did it!”.
Today, the morning after the anniversary trip, home, sitting in a cozy chair sipping tea and listening to CBC Radio while the rest of my family is either napping, at school or at work, I can appreciate this. I can appreciate the years that have come and gone, and the years that await. Like Hibou, who cooed in delight in rediscovering HER toys, and HER high chair, and HER change table and kitchen floor and crib, I too can most appreciate the presence of familiarity, of home, from its absence. Memories are always better when you’re not in the midst of making them.
I’m left with a small bit of hard-earned wisdom from this grueling weekend: when going on a road trip, like it or not, the whining comes with you.
It’s ethereal, mesmerizing, uplifting, soul-searching. A prayer, a plea, a homage – it’s pain and pleasure and very, very human.
I went hunting for Leonard Cohen’s original, and came across an interview he gave where he talks about depression, and its impact on his music. He said something that struck me: “Suffering doesn’t produce good work – good work is produced in spite of suffering, as a response, as a victory over suffering.”
A victory over suffering.
As I sing to Hibou, to teach her, to please her, to distract her, to soothe her, sometimes just to overpower her penetrating complaints, I think about this. About how we must celebrate. We MUST celebrate. We must acknowledge victory over suffering, we must capture and rejoice in the beauty, the awe of life. Because it’s too hard not to. Life is too hard when we don’t.
Cohen is right – it’s a cold, a lonely, a broken hallelujah. But it’s still a hallelujah. When we praise, no matter what, no matter how, it’s still praising. It’s still acknowledging, celebrating – even when we’re on our knees and begging, face covered in tears and pressed against the floor.
Anyone who’s been there – wet, cold, huddled, terrified, alone – if you’ve been there, then you know that there is always an after. An after when it gets better. An after when we can get up, when we can sing, when we can celebrate. When we can produce good work.
They’re both human, you see. The broken moments, and the whole.
A good friend of mine is discovering what it is to see the middle of the night with a new baby. To see night after night, sore and tired and lonely. My husband is struggling with seeing the middle of the day with a busy but boring job, chores and whining and more work to come home to. To see day after day, frustrated and angry and overwhelmed.
And I – I am grateful. I am grateful, in as many moments as I can notice, of how I’ve been there. And now I’m not. I may be again, but now, now I’m not.
I’ll sing a different Hallelujah in a few days, my annual Messiah practice and community concert coming up. It’s so very different, such a different form of praise – yet, to me, the same. It reaches the same place within, where the dark and the light are one and the same.
“I did my best, it wasn’t much. I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch. I told the truth; I didn’t come to fool you. And even though it all went wrong, I’ll stand before the Lord of Song with nothing on my tongue but hallelujah.”
We all pass that way, or this, somehow. Some of us less, some of us more. Some of us celebrating just a little harder, a little louder than others, recognizing the victory for what it is. All of us trying our best. Some of us singing hallelujah.
A storm of white.
Too orderly for raucous gulls -
Oh, but there are thousands!
Wave upon wave,
Threads sewn on the sky.
Tangled skein on the grass.
So big, even from my distant car window.
A sight I’d seen only in picture books.
They are bringing the snow I will drive through this afternoon,
The first of the season.
Flying South, winging in cold.
Like my baby’s first tiny handprint later,
Home safe in the driveway,
Her first touch of snow.
I too shiver in wonder.
Some days, everything is the same. Over and over, I have my coffee, I take my shower, and I go about my day. The same day. The errands change, the outings, the meals – but it’s all the same.
And then, a baby niece is born. A dear friend’s loved one is killed by militants on the other side of the ocean. Leaves and snowflakes fall, and my son outgrows more clothes. Grampa’s cancer spreads. A second precious baby girl is born to another dear friend, and none of it, none of this give and take makes any sense at all.
The beauty, and the horrors of the world come calling, and I can hide from neither.
I wrap my hands around a steaming cup, and wrap my heart over the hurts. One family grows and another shrinks and I cry for both.
Every day is the same, and so very different, at once. The school buses come, the rooks fly streaming by, and the wide stretching sky covers us all.
Slender birch neck. Clear
sky above, a scarf of leaves
below. Cold fingers.
Warm colours, muffled
sounds. Outside is slowing down.
“If you like chocolate ice cream, jump in the pool!”
I can hear the lifeguard’s enthusiastic voice shouting over the other half-dozen swimming classes, in the stuffy din of the public pool. I look up from my sudoku to see three classmates happily splashing into the water, and Bonhomme standing steadfastedly on the side.
The three little fishes bellyflop their way onto the ledge and out of the pool, standing dripping on the side in a line, ready to jump in again.
“If you like strawberry ice cream, jump in the pool!”
Three big yummy splashes. One determined boy still standing tall.
“If you like vanilla cake all covered in icing and rainbow sprinkles, JUMP in the pool!”
“If you like warm flaky apple pie, jump IN the POOL!”
The lifeguard’s voice is getting shriller. And louder. Still, three big splashes and one intent, standing, boy. She goes over to the side to chat.
“What’s the matter Bonhomme, don’t you like dessert?”
“I do! I love dessert! You just haven’t asked whether anyone likes strawberry whipped cream cake! Or lemon meringue pie! If you’d said chocolate-mint-grasshopper gelato, I would so totally jump in. Oh yeah, I love gelato. Mmmm. And hazelnut-chocolate butter cream cake, I’d eat that. Yeah, and my mom’s blueberry-strawberry pie, or her sweet potato pie, or Toblerone chocolate, or a KitKat. Or really, any kind of dark chocolate, especially the mint kind. But definitely strawberry whipped cake, that’s my favorite. Yah. Can you call that, so I can jump in with everybody, please? Strawberry whipped cream cake, that’s what it’s called. Or vanilla cake with fresh strawberries and whipped cream on top, you could say that too. Can we have that?”
She stands there, up to her waist in water, and listens patiently to the entire explanation. The other three kids stand dripping, looking around, watching all the other classes splashing about, bouncing on their toes and waiting for the next dessert to get called so that they can jump in the water. Any kind of cookie would do for them. Rice Krispies squares. Candy. But, not my son. He’s not going to be taken in on subversively learning swimming skills and gaining comfort in the water, no. He’s looking for specifics. He won’t compromise his Foodie principles, not even in swimming class.
“If you like strawberry vanilla cake with whipped cream icing, JUMP IN THE POOL!”
Four happy, enthusiastic, large wet splashes.
One relieved lifeguard.
And one slightly embarrassed, mostly bemused, very resigned mom.
A baby, an afternoon, and a beach. Out at the edge of the jetty, past the bay with the lifeguards and volleyball and ducks. The water stretches out in front of me, glittering with white sails, white wings, white waves. And above, every colour of sky.
I feed Hibou with one hand and write with the other, feeling Britannia Beach’s pebbles under all of my toes. My shoulders glow in the sunshine, and I listen with my whole body.
I have been starving for this sound.
Waves, and wind, and wings. Gulls and children, each with happy shrieks.
The city disappears. I feel like I am inside a secret, with only lapping, crashing water, the singing wind, and an overwhelming view.
Hibou falls asleep for a moment or two, lulled by the white noise of the surf. But the excitement of a gull landing is too much, and she is up, staring.
Utter peace, for the cost of the gas to get here.
A windsurfer launches out, total grace, gone in an instant of white wake.
Geese are a dotted black line, punctuating the clouds.
A pair of ducks peer at us hopefully as they waddle past, close enough to see the texture of their beaks. Hibou peers wondrously back.
The sky stretches, and stretches, and yawns.
There isn’t more perfection in all the wide world.
So, in the interest of sharing, and of committing, and of seeing just how long this will take, I’ve decided to bring you along on the journey.
It began with this:
Which led me to this sketch:
And then this stencil just leapt into my cart, begging to be part of it all somehow:
Next will come transferring the sketch to my fabric, which I’ll share with you once I get there.
I’m excited, because this exploration of technique may be what I’ve been somewhat waiting for – in walking that line that I’m walking these days, between painting and sewing. I’ve struggled with the more traditional aspects of quilting, since precision and me, well, we’ve never gotten along very well. And I miss that blank canvas feeling. An expanse of white fabric, a black marker, and me – that’s more my thing.
And so begins my art quilt blog-along.
I’ve not been writing much.
This has pained me.
The desire is there, and oh so many sentences in my head, or scribbled in my notebook, or saved in draft posts. But I have so many half-finished blog posts now, that I’ve just about stopped trying.
Hibou is the Great And Powerful Unpredictable Napper. Great in that she naps – her brother barely did at all. Powerful in that any length of nap results in a bright, cheery baby that is ready to go, go, go! But the naps range from fifteen minutes to three hours, and there just isn’t any telling which it will be, or if there will be one at all. As with so many other parents of young children, my routine revolves almost exclusively around creating the perfect conditions for sleep.
And so, not so much with the finished blog posts.
When Bonhomme was little (in so much as he was ever little, The Baby Giant), it was painting that got stifled. The style of painting that I do, while fast and furious, requires no interruptions for an hour or two. I work in wet on wet, with fast-drying acrylics. At least, I used to. And with babies, or children of any age, an interruption-free period of time is a myth, a memory. A joke. Painting was the only artistic outlet I had developed at that time, and having it jarringly, suddenly, taken completely away was a shock I have yet to get over. My depression at the time was due to a great many factors, but losing my art was both a significant contributor, as well as resulting in the loss of a key tool for managing my condition. when I lost my art, I lost my sense of self.
It took me years to redefine myself.
There was a moment, a lightning bolt of awareness, in which I realized myself as a mother. I was in a bookstore, with Bonhomme toddling about, and I asked to see some books about the moon – since that was one of his first words, and a very special bond we shared (since we looked for the moon together whenever we were out and about, no matter the time of day). The store staff showed me some very predictable books, many of which we already had, but then a couple of unexpected ones were put in the pile. And Bonhomme promptly chose the very first book that he ever chose for himself, about a boy, and a star, and no moons at all. And I realized that this was what made me a mother. Listening. Being curious. Advocating. Creating the opportunity for children to make their own choices. And going with the flow once those choices – theirs, not mine – are made.
I had such a hard time becoming that mother. The pregnancy had been grueling, with many of my physical choices taken away from me, and far too many weeks on bedrest. The delivery ended up being the farthest thing from what I had wanted, and the many months of recovery from the various emergency procedures limited my body, and mind, even more. And then my inability to feed my son from my body was just crushing to me – it took me months to realize that mothering is more than just breasts, and quite frankly, I’m still not completely over it.
But slowly, I did define what the term mother meant for me. And, with time, I also redefined what being an artist meant to me. I branched out. I tried new things. I’ve always been crafty, with beading and knitting and such, but it never felt like what painting felt like – a sense of awe and wonder that I could create such pure and unique beauty. I wanted that back. Writing began to fill that void. With words, I realized that I could come close. I could create something powerful, something that resonates with others, something important. And even more importantly, it helped with my mood and anxiety too. I changed my need to paint, to a need to be creative, a little bit every day, in any way at all that was available to me. And more and more, that meant writing.
And then, Bonhomme growing older and making more space in my life for art (but not uninterrupted easel time – no), I decided to try my hand at quilting. First, I bought a book. Then, I bought some cotton. Then, I went on Kijiji and found myself a used sewing machine. Then, with the leftover equipment from when I used to paint silk scarves (pre-motherhood), I stretched out the cotton on my old frames with some elastics and safety pins, and splashed some silk-painting paint on. Oh, the glorious feel of the brushstrokes! I ironed, and washed, and ironed that painted cotton, and made my first terrifying cuts. And then, I swore, and swore, and swore at my used sewing machine. And sat myself down with a needle and thread and sewed by hand. Nothing was going to stop me. I was going to make a quilt, by golly, by gee, fifteen stolen minutes at a time.
But the lure of the paintbrush called. And I painted more cotton. And then I got the kids to paint some cotton. And then I bought some fabric paints. And fabric markers. And fabric pastels. And fabric paint spray bottles. And the kids were painting and drawing on and colouring that fabric far more than I was, and I realized that that was even more glorious than holding the brush myself. I wasn’t just making art – I was making artists.
Christmas came along, and with it, a new sewing machine. And I started to turn those piles of painted cotton pieces into things. Stuffed toys. Pillows. Wall hangings. Quilts. I still haven’t finished my first quilt, the one I started just for me. It is at the bottom of the Unfinished Objects Chest. For now. I will get back to it someday, and finish it, and glory in it once it’s done and keeping me warm. But until then, I glory in the quilts I have finished – for Bonhomme, for my cousins’ babies, for Hibou, for my nieces. And I’m excited about the quilts I’m finishing, for all the kids who helped make them with me.
It turns out that sewing is something I can do interrupted. Whether I get five minutes, or three hours, whether I’m sitting in front of the sewing machine or in front of the TV, whether I’m painting or ironing or cutting or sketching – it all counts. And it’s all awesome.
And so, while I haven’t been writing, I have been sewing. Fabric baby books. Baby quilts. Baby teethers, and toys, and gifts. And I have been painting – not at the easel, no, but it’s just that my canvas has changed.
Today, I wear a very special charm bracelet almost every day. On it is a star. It reminds me of the day I realized I was a mom, when my first child was about a year old. It reminds me that it is what we do that matters. It reminds me to keep exploring, to keep trying, to never give up just because something old doesn’t work anymore. Being able to paint isn’t what makes me an artist. Choosing to create, no matter the circumstances, does.
Writing may get stifled. Painting may. Or the ability to breastfeed, or to walk. But I, I do not. I do not get stifled.
And if I am very, very lucky, I will help raise some unstifled children, who, if I am luckier still, will take this very hard-earned epiphany entirely for granted.
Fifteen-plus years after selling my first painting, now that I’m not making paintings anymore, I’ve finally become an artist.