Close enough.

Two months ago I had my third and final baby. Two days ago another white supremacist took the lives of 17 more of someone else’s babies.

I haven’t written since January, last year. I didn’t expect to write again anytime soon. But I’ve been getting an itch lately. Why, I couldn’t say, since I have no time to spare and on the surface it seems nothing has changed. Our lives are all encompassing when we are in them, even when they seem small against the enormity of the world. But it doesn’t seem right to neglect the small tales of daily life because there are such big stories that must be reckoned with. And, as I suspect those who dedicate themselves to cultivating life know well, the day to day is sometimes all that is left, and what all our striving and struggling is aimed at improving, anyway.

Many of the seedlings won’t make it, but enough will. Probably.

This winter we endured a cold spell the likes of which I’ve never experienced. My designed-for-the-South duck pen partly collapsed under the epic snow. My hens were so traumatized they stopped laying for 3 weeks. The land-lease proposal I spent six months working on to try and eke out an acre of farmable land in a nearby power cut failed and the dreams for expanded small scale homesteading that went with it are done. We are coming up on two weeks of the most serious crud our kids have ever had. No one is sleeping.

What holds me together when the daily struggles feel big is working outside in the fresh air, getting my hands dirty and sweating. I don’t care if it’s freezing or raining outside; I don’t care if it’s mundane. But this winter the newborn wasn’t into below-zero yard work excursions. Even on days when it was supposed to be mild I would watch the day rot away while I made iterative rounds of food for two growing boys, tried to keep myself fed, nursed every ten seconds…all while feeling the pull of the outdoors like an itch I just couldn’t scratch. If I was lucky I’d escape to feed the ducks and hens before it got dark at the ridiculously early hour of 5 o’clock, an hour and a half before my spouse got home and 3 minutes before the kids fell asleep or killed each other. Or both. Even now that it’s warming up, there is always so much laundry, so much chaos, so much to do.

And of course the planet is burning in every possible sense of the word. Our state and federal leaders are grinning from the sidelines after jumping out of the smoking wreck of our government that they just sent over a cliff.

And yet…

The fall burn pile kills pests and gives the soil nutrients it needs for next year.

A few weeks ago I was wearing the baby and pushing the 3 year old on the swing while he and the 7 year old screamed competitive awfulness at each other. I felt my mind winging away to the place it goes when I cannot take one more second of them and I know I’m about to say things I’ll regret…and I noticed that the stems of the elderberry bush beside the swings looked a bit swollen.

Elderberry. Unkillable harbinger of spring.

The days are getting longer. Sometimes, if a million stars align, I can sneak out when my husband gets home and pull two weeds in the garden or pick up a stick or two. The cold spell, which coincided with the new baby, forced my eldest children to figure out how to play together in a way they haven’t bothered to in the past. Our community is mostly folks of retirement age, but when we bundled everyone up to visit the sledding hill after the Big Snow (it literally took the entire morning), we ran into most of our neighbors–including folks in their seventies–heading out to sled. I watched the sun sparkle as my kids threw handfuls of snow into the air; watched my husband snuggle my 3 year old as he cackled with glee speeding down the sledding hill; laughed with my neighbors as they tried to get a peek at the new baby under eight layers of clothing and a baby carrier; and realized what an amazing place this is. My community.

Since decisions require consensus here, my land-lease proposal involved visiting with most of the households in our community. We’ve lived here for five years but I hadn’t made the time for that kind of visiting before. In between talking about my proposal I learned the history of my community and the stories of all these folks, most of whom have been here for nearly four decades. My proposal failed, but I have a bunch of friends I didn’t have before and my daily experience in the neighborhood has become richer and more substantive.

After an onion crop failure last year, I decided to plant half the crop in perennial yellow potato onions, a Southern staple that can be harvested and replanted, year after year.

Just like government regulation can spur an industry to come up with creative solutions (cheap Japanese MRI, anyone?), scarce time has made me more efficient than I could have imagined. Somehow, I’ve been able to do more and more in my garden as my life gets wilder and fuller.

I can’t come up with anything good to say about the duck pen collapsing; that was just gut wrenching after everything I put into it. Some things are just that way.

But in the middle of the Plague of 2018, there was one day when the kids weren’t in such distress that I was needed every second…and I went out in the yard and planted my spring seeds. Because, believe it or not, it is planting time…and if you don’t plant, you can’t harvest, no matter what else might happen in between.

Everything may look dead. It’s not.

Even though it’s not spring yet, it’s close enough.

Hardy kiwi, biding her time.

Last fall’s carrots look dead after the cold spell. They aren’t. Today my 3 year old learned to look below the surface, even when it looks like there isn’t much there.

When I thought I’d harvested all the beans, there are always a few I can’t see until everything else has died.


Seed starting in silicone A cheap, reusable, Earth-friendly alternative

It’s January in the South, which means time to start seeds. I’m already behind on starting many of my cold season spring seedlings, but I’m less overwhelmed than last year after a successful experiment using silicone molds to start my fall seeds.

After all the work was done last spring–the peat pots purchased, soaked, and seeded, the saved black plastic cell packs carefully sterilized after last season, the broken ones sadly discarded with a sigh and an apology to the planet–I had my yearly bout of frustration and fist waving. THERE MUST BE A BETTER WAY!

And no, it can’t be a better way that requires me making them by hand out of newspaper.

I have replaced a lot of the plastic in my kitchen with silicone over the years, so I wondered if anyone made silicone seed starting containers–that would be genius! No, no one does. I wondered whether I could buy some of the DIY kit and make my own using the traditional black plastic cell packs as molds? That seemed like a lot of work. After ruminating for a while it occurred to me that I could just buy silicone molds at the thrift store and punch holes in the bottom.

How could anyone have discarded this fabulous gem? Their loss!

I tested it this fall with my onion and shallot starts, with tremendous success. The silicone is warmer and and softer than the black plastic cell packs. Write the variety right on it with a Sharpie–it comes off with alcohol or repeated washing. They take up no space, are easy to handle when transplanting, and best of all can be sterilized in the dishwasher.

This fancier 2″ ice cube tray was harder to cut holes in and can’t be cut apart into individual cells. In this case, the cheaper options are perfect.

Ready for seeds and labeling

Happy planting <3

Justice and Unity Speech December 3, 2016 Moore Square, Raleigh NC

The Greensboro Massacre took place on November 3rd, 1979 when members of the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party opened fire on a crowd of protesters in broad daylight in the Black neighborhood of Morningside Homes in Greensboro, North Carolina, killing five members of the Communist Workers Party and wounding ten more. Sandy Smith, César Cauce, Michael Nathan, Jim Waller, and Bill Sampson. They were Black, white, and Latino, from elite and working class backgrounds, from the South and the North. They were spouses and parents. My parents were also survivors.

The Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which worked tirelessly reviewing documents and collecting testimony for two years, concluded that while the white supremacists planned and carried out the attack, the violence likely could have been avoided if the police had not left just beforehand, allowing the perpetrators to kill with impunity. The klan were given time to pack up their guns and leave before the police returned to arrest the wounded and grieving.

In the years that followed, all white juries acquitted the klansmen in both state and federal criminal trials, despite four different sources of video footage and the klansmen’s own unrepentant testimony. The survivors were charged with inciting a riot and black-listed. My mother was a public health pediatrician working with poor children and their families in Orange County. Jesse Helms went after her personally, trying to get her fired.

But he failed. He failed because her community of patients fought for her. The mamas whose babies she cared for circulated a petition, defending her and her commitment to their children.

The Communist Workers Party was far from perfect, but they showed up. They did the work. They lived in committed community. They listened to what poor and working people had to say. They respected their lives and culture, even when it was not shared. They worked with urban and rural poor; Black and Brown and white. They did multiracial organizing in the South where other progressive organizations would not because they either had to fight the Klan or work with people who were likely in the Klan. The November 3rd protest itself was meant to be the kickoff to a day of workshops about how the ruling class used the klan to divide working people in the South.

This is the legacy of Greensboro that I want everyone here to have crystal clear. Because it is the answer to why these particular organizers were targeted and how we will persevere despite what seem like overwhelming odds, today. These organizers were dangerous because they challenged white supremacy–not with their incendiary rhetoric, but despite it. They challenged white supremacy in the work they did every day in the factories and the mills and their communities and in the alternative vision of the South they strove for.

White supremacy is the fabric of daily life, everywhere. It has been a quiet truth for many; easily ignored or misinterpreted most of the time. For Black and Brown Americans, for immigrants, and for Native people around the world it has been a loud and inescapable reality since the first European colonists needed a veneer of religious legitimacy for their thieving greed.

We are at an inflection point in history in which millions of people who had not been deeply aware of the persistence of white supremacy have awakened to that reality. For many it began with the killing of Trayvon Martin and the realization that state terror against people of color is the status quo, rather than a few bad apples.

We mourn and rage as Native people are brutalized at Standing Rock and our leaders do nothing. We watch our public schools crumbling from the weight of attempted resegregation and lack of funds caused by tax cuts to the wealthy. We watch our country fall further and further behind on helping working families care for their young children without losing their livelihoods. Climate change has reached a tipping point and, as always, the most vulnerable communities suffer the most. The list of challenges is staggering and racism runs through it all.

So we struggle to understand how a society could become aware of all this tremendous injustice and respond by electing Trump. We are watching this nightmare of a presidency unfold, many of us experiencing real fear for the first time.

But this is not the first such historical moment. A similar moment occurred when the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War brought American injustice and hypocrisy into the light and millions of Americans became politicized for the first time. The reactionary push back against desegregation and the assassinations of the sixties brought home the reality of white supremacy and the vulnerability of our democracy.

That experience propelled people from all over the country to organize for justice and equality. Those who died in Greensboro were inexperienced until they began to do the work, and learned. For the past 37 years the survivors have continued doing both the political work and the community building work that is necessary to sustain a movement for justice. Thousands of people who came of age in the sixties made that commitment and continue to show up and do the work, every day.

What these organizers dedicated their lives to was a vision of the future for poor and working people in the South that offered an alternative to what 300 years of white supremacy has given us: racial and economic inequality, nepotism and backwardness in our institutions, and a toxic and brutal history of personal violence that has wounded our families and prevented Southerners from embracing so much that we share.

They thought they were just trying to overthrow capitalism, little did they know 🙂

The promise of what the South can be is what we are fighting for today. It is what the organizations that brought us together here and so many others have been striving for for decades. This is easier than the last time; we do not have to start new organizations from scratch. We do not lack experienced leadership. We have historical lessons that we can and must learn from. The struggle for justice and unity demands deep listening, humility, and more than anything a commitment to show up and do the work. There is room for everyone in this fight. That is how we defeat the klan. That is how we win.

What Is To Be Done? vigilant love, overcoming the paralysis of white guilt, and preparing for the long fight

For the past week my social media spaces have been overflowing with disbelief and shock, followed by fear and confusion, and now something like glazed, depressed paralysis, emotional exhaustion, and hopelessness. Friends of color seem to be retreating from social media as the waves of hate crimes spread–reported in personal detail by local observers as well as in news articles from across the country. White liberals are overdosing on tales of hate and bickering among themselves about whether or not wearing safety pins is useful.

Everyone wants to “do” something, but what is to be done? Even in my neck of the woods–a vibrant, diverse community on a blue island in North Carolina where many already lead lives of “doing,” we are struggling.

We must do what we should have been doing all along; what needed doing yesterday and will continue to be needed for the rest of our lives in this deeply imperfect, yet magnificent country:

First, figure out who your base of personal support is and tap into it, immediately. Family, close friends, community of parents, colleagues, faith community, neighbors. If you feel isolated, hook into local or national groups that are lovingly fighting for justice. I know many who are finding solace and support at pantsuit nation or by tapping into local organizations with an online presence that can help sustain them. In my state, Reverend Barber’s NAACP is increasingly where I look for loving, powerful leadership on social justice.

My parents survived a time when they were hunted and persecuted for working for justice, but coming out of the sixties they had severed ties with their families and were adrift in communities of their own making; rich in passion but short on loving acceptance. The sense that the atrocities of the present demanded everything they had to give and more, every day, for as long as it took, eventually wrung them dry. No one can survive a state of permanent crisis and the children of those movements have seen first hand the cost of giving everything. There was not enough left for spouses; not enough left for children; and not enough left to come home to when the individual battles were won or lost.

When fighting for justice in America, the individual battles will mostly be lost, so y’all need to understand that this has always been–and will always be–the long fight. There are times to give everything, and I hope we can tell when that time comes, but in Trump’s America building love and kindness in our proximate communities will nourish our struggle and weaken the sway of hate, at the same time.

Second, get over your guilt. This is mostly a message for my white sisters and brothers out there, but the reality is nearly all of us have internalized this in some way. Getting over guilt is not the same as accepting the status quo of injustice and violent privilege as acceptable, nor is it about tolerating complacency. But guilt is debilitating and utterly useless. There can be no absolution for the guilt of unearned privilege. Since whatever privilege you have was not asked for, no one can cleanse you of it. It is especially important that we not look to friends who do not share that unearned privilege to dull its shine.

Step away from your device and do something that to you feels deeply useful, after careful reflection and consultation with people you trust in your own community. Part of the burden of privilege is fumbling through trying to be an agent for change despite it. You will stumble. You will probably embarrass yourself and discover you are not as aware as you thought you were. You will realize that your mistakes actually hurt someone else–quite possibly someone who had already been hurt a lot. You will feel shame that you are not better. This is where guilt usually kicks in and that’s when action and function stop.

Instead, look at yourself hard. Love your imperfect self enough to recognize that your life is worth occupying with pride, that the movements you care about deserve your imperfect effort, and don’t make the same mistake twice. Apologize when apologies are useful, otherwise dust yourself off and keep working. Women especially have had guilt and the need to be liked drilled into us; it’s a losing battle so let it go.

Now, to work.

Third, listen actively to those with less privilege and those most at risk. Really listen, with as little defensiveness and as much humility and love as possible to the people in your life and in your community. Seek out the places where they are already active and tune in, rather than asking them to do more communicating for your benefit. Chances are if you aren’t hearing anything it’s not that they aren’t speaking.

Fourth, identify the organizations and individuals in your community who are most vulnerable. Make time for them. Find resources for them. Maybe you will take care of your neighbor’s children so they can meet with an immigration lawyer. Maybe you will pick up the Afghan refugee mother walking on the highway with three kids and figure out why she’s there and where she needs to go. Maybe you will see protestors screaming hatred outside a Planned Parenthood while frightened, vulnerable women try to get health care and you will go inside, hug the front desk staff, and write them a check for $100. Maybe you will start challenging racism and sexism at work. Maybe you will sit down with your kids and make cards for the immigrant families in your neighborhood to let them know you are there for them. Maybe you will join the NAACP and start going to Moral Mondays. Maybe you will make sure that you have your kids’ back 110% to stand up to hate at school, which seems to be the frontline of this battle right now. Learn the real history of the place you live, your neighborhood, and the places you travel. Talk about the history of struggle with your kids so they understand how we came to be where we are.

If you are privileged, you can use that privilege to speak to others who will listen to you. It’s not fair, but it’s there. If you are white, if you are cis, if you are straight, if you are male, if you are well off…you look like most of our legislators. You put on a suit and get yourself to the legislature and make some appointments.

My mother tithed 10% of her income for years to social justice organizations. She is my inspiration daily. She shows up in the big ways and the small. She retired early despite taking a major hit in retirement so that she could give time to my babies and to her real work–the support and nourishment of social justice movements around the country.

We live in a community of “doers.” They bring out the best in us in terms of our ongoing commitment to social justice. We already gave money and time, where we felt we could. I’m a non-conflict averse extrovert so having difficult conversations about difficult topics is a contribution I’ve long been able to make as a straight, white ally. But guilt creeps in about my physical presence at places where I want to show solidarity but have felt my children’s needs got in the way. My own childhood experience makes the balance hard. I know what political fear and too much external activism looks likes for children, because that was my life. I don’t want my kids to be afraid the way that I was. I want them to know that I, at least, will be rock solid. But now is when the ante is getting upped.

Here’s my commitment right now: we will renew our membership to the NAACP (why did we let it lapse?) and instead of giving at the holidays we will give every month, and more than before. We will do better kin-keeping with our most vulnerable friends, who we often lose touch with because their daily lives don’t touch ours as often. I will get it together to make sure that every Thursday I have a lunch made so that when we drive by the homeless man who is always on our way to class, we have something to offer besides a smile. We will increase our monthly support for, which does some of the best work I’ve seen and gets intersectionality. We will continue to support #BlackLivesMatter and will find more public ways of committing ourselves. We will participate in the Monday afternoon community building group our neighbor has started in response to the election outcome, which will focus on concrete service projects and protest our kids can be involved in. I will take my students to the Moral March on Raleigh this February to close out our quarter focused on social movements.

I will support my 6 year old son’s decision to wear a safety pin everyday on his shirt. I didn’t know what it was, read up on it, worried it was not useful or even worse than useless, and then decided that this was a case where I had to pay attention to what was actually happening in front of me. This child came home and said “This pin means that if someone isn’t safe we will bring them home and take care of them.” We sat down and talked about what it meant to wear that–that it was no light commitment. That wearing it meant that if he ever saw someone being bullied or hurt or treated poorly because of something about them like their sex, race, who they loved, or where they were from, what their body looked like, that he was committing to defend them. That he would speak up if it was something someone else said privately to him. That he would ask for help from a grown up if he couldn’t handle it. But that he would not be silent. We’ve talked about a lot of this before, but until he put on his safety pin, we had not talked about it in this way. It was the right time.

I will try my best to confront the Ku Klux Klan peacefully when they march somewhere in my state on December 3rd. I have protested them in person before and it feels especially important for white allies to show up with a strong, peaceful presence and not let them march unanswered. The violence in Annaheim has made me think I will not take chances bringing my children, but if I can find a way to separate myself from those looking for a fight and stand up for love and against white supremacy, I will be there.

I will take a step back from social media and focus on the real people in my real life, lest we go deaf from the hopeless wailing bouncing around this echo chamber.

Finally, commit to hope. When you have children, there really is no other option, anyway. They are here and we will fight for them to have a place to live that is worth having. That fight will be big and small. It will ebb and flow. There are no enemies except fear and what our legacies of hate and injustice have allowed to flourish. All people can change. I’ve seen white supremacist murderers change. I’ve seen a klansmen’s daughter put her life and livelihood on the line for Civil Rights and workers’ rights in the South. I’ve seen the tiny, incremental changes brought by never letting our kids see us let injustice go unchallenged.

I see the ferocious refusal of people of color to die quietly in America and it is a raw hope in the future that demands my participation. This country was built on slavery and the intentional division of indentured white immigrants, enslaved Africans, and Native people. The struggles of the oppressed have brought every good thing we have and that’s a legacy we can be proud of and hopeful about.

This is a time of great darkness, but I remind myself that when I’ve thought the worst of people I have been wrong far more often than when I’ve thought the best of them. Look inward, get your loved ones safe in the shelter of your hopeful light. Then turn outward and do the work, with love and hope.

I’ll see you there.

A Bench by the Road in Charleston

For several weeks I’ve been trying to write what was meant to be a useful post for anti-racist parents wanting to have a non-white-supremacist visit to Charleston–something we put some effort into trying to do when we visited this past Labor Day weekend. After Freddie Gray. After Sandra Bland. After Korryn Gaines, Alton Sterling, and Philando Castile. After my whole life as the child of Civil Rights organizers for whom truth and reconciliation mattered; for whom historical memory was key to social justice.

Before today. Before Tyre King. Before Terence Crutcher. They shot him while his hands were raised, like his father taught him a generation before, because we’ve been systematically hunting down Black men for centuries. Before Keith Scott. It was a positive and hopeful trip, but I don’t feel positive and hopeful. Writing it feels more important than before, but also more conflicted.

Before this trip, I’d never visited South Carolina, even though it was right next door. My family supported the NAACP boycott of the state, so it was off my vacation radar most of my adult life. After Ms. Byuarim-Newsome blew the minds of the entire country with her incredible act of civil disobedience, removing the Confederate flag from the statehouse, the gauntlet was thrown. I’ll never forget how overwhelmed and awed I felt as I explained to my kids what she was doing.

photo credit: Democracy Now

photo credit: Democracy Now

When we were looking for a long weekend trip this year, I tried to think of some places that were in driving range and that I’d never visited. The boycott is over, and I knew nothing about Charleston.

We wanted to have fun (and we did!), but how could we shape an anti-racist experience for our family in a place so loaded with painful history? And in a state so unwilling to take responsibility for the legacies of slavery and violent white supremacy? Charleston was the wealthiest city in the South at its heyday and was the main point of entry for slaves for many years. Information like this is readily available, but tips on how to craft an anti-racist visit were harder to come by.

When Google fails, I call my mother. Usually, it would have been faster to call her first. “Oh! So many amazing people from Charleston…Denmark Vesey, the Grimké Sisters, Septima Clark. You know Septima Clark was at Highlander when…” She told me more than I could remember, so I spent a few days reading. I actually remembered the Grimké Sisters because they were on this awesome feminist card game we had when I was a kid. Turns out you can actually do Grimké Sisters tours now because of Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings.

photo credit:

photo credit:

A friend who had spent a lot of time in Charleston told me it had been a hard place for her. It was beautiful, but that beauty was built with blood money. The contemporary social legacy of that history still intensely colored her experience. The indulgence by monied whites in a tourist experience that celebrated without truth-telling depressed her. That’s the Charleston I was ready for. And yes, I could see that Charleston, but our experience was more complex than that…and somewhat more hopeful.

Our oldest child is a physically active six year old who isn’t interested in hearing grown ups talk, so we knew that we would need to mostly have our history in our heads and be ready for pithy explanations that didn’t break the stride of what we were doing, or we’d lose his interest fast.

The first time I ever talked with him about white supremacy was after Dylan Roof assassinated 9 black parishioners in Charleston at Mother Emanuel in 2015. He was five and I was crying in the public library parking lot after hearing the news on the radio. He wanted to know why someone would shoot people they didn’t know for no reason. I didn’t say mental illness or unemployment or drugs or even racism. I said white supremacy.

I talked about the crippling fear of loss of privilege, and also about how sick society is when you build it on so gross an institution as slavery; how that oppression infects all relationships in society. Owners to slaves, free people to indentured servants, men to women, Europeans to native people, parents to children. There are no relationships that come out unmarked, for both the oppressors and the oppressed. Because there has been no process of truth and reconciliation, no reparations, and no honest society-wide conversation about the legacy of slavery, these wounds have simply festered. Without justice, there can be no peace.

Because we had discussed the shootings (in words a five year old could understand), he had some context for our visit to Emanuel AME Church–the oldest AME church in the south, founded in 1816. We stopped to read the marker, to see the flowers and memorial. We talked about how whites had originally half-heartedly supported the network of Charleston AME churches because it eased the conflicts that arose within their own congregations of how to integrate (subjugate, cope with) the enormous community of black worshipers. How quickly they realized that any situation that gave enslaved and free black people the chance to gather, build community, communicate, and support each other was tremendously dangerous. They placed curfews on church activities; they began to worry that Sunday school was being used as a cover to teach slaves to read. And they were right.

Photo credit: Post and Courier

Photo credit: Post and Courier

I looked at the big bright walls of Mother Emanuel and imagined what a hopeful place it would have been–though the current building was not where Denmark Vesey preached, before he was hanged (after a hasty secret trial where he was not allowed to confront his accusers nor hear the testimony against him). The original building was burned to the ground and the congregation met in secret until the end of the Civil War. We told our son about how Vesey had been born into slavery and bought his freedom. About how he had not been able to buy his family because their owner wouldn’t sell them. About how the Haitian Revolution and the stories brought by the slaves accompanying fleeing white elites had inspired the uprising Vesey planned and was hanged for.

By chance we came across a street performance by a group of guys–almost all Black men–called Straight Outta Charleston. The ultimate showmen, they were deliciously irreverent and managed to work a mostly white tourist crowd–making them slightly self conscious and uncomfortable and fork over their cash happily, all at the same time. “Don’t be scared, we’re only going to hurt you a little bit!” Something inside me cackled with glee as they got a bunch of white bystanders to kneel with their faces mashed into the ground to wait for this…


We drove to Fort Moultrie, where I was prepared for what commentators had described as a small exhibit on slavery that could easily be missed. But in fact there were images of slaves and discussions of slavery woven into the main exhibit that could not be ignored and were powerfully worded–unabashedly laying the blame for Charleston’s success on its exploitation of slaves.





The slavery exhibit was hard to miss and, more importantly, no one was passing it by. I watched all the white patrons who entered turn down that corridor. The exhibit is well done, with original documents, powerful and truthful representations of the middle passage, and the story of a particular family through to modern times and their visit to the region of West Africa where their ancestors had been kidnapped. It was better than I expected, though it’s true I came in with low expectations. Our kids were not at a place where we could engage them with much of anything indoors as the tunnels and passageways of the fort beckoned. But we watched older kids taking time with the full exhibit.

In 1989 Toni Morrison spoke of the lack of historical commemoration of the Black experience in America:

“There is no place you or I can go, to think about or not think about, to summon the presences of, or recollect the absences of slaves . . . There is no suitable memorial, or plaque, or wreath, or wall, or park, or skyscraper lobby. There’s no 300-foot tower, there’s no small bench by the road. There is not even a tree scored, an initial that I can visit or you can visit in Charleston or Savannah or New York or Providence or better still on the banks of the Mississippi. And because such a place doesn’t exist . . . the book had to” (The World, 1989).

In 2006 the Bench by the Road project was launched and the Sullivan’s Island bench was placed in 2008. It is a chilling spot to contemplate the hundreds of thousands of kidnapped, tortured, and enslaved people carried to this place from across the Atlantic ocean. It is off the beaten track and utterly unadvertised. It’s directly between the parking lot and the water at Fort Moultrie and should not be missed.


img_20160903_191612323My kids were very taken with the horse drawn carriage tours, but we didn’t do one for a number of reasons. Since we walked around so much, we were still able to eavesdrop on much of the commentary. Some of them explicitly and progressively discussed slavery and race, which surprised me.

We did not visit any plantations because my sense was they were all still owned by the old white families–which might not be accurate–and I didn’t want to give them my money. While places like Drayton Hall advertise exhibits on slavery, reviewers on Trip Advisor say there’s no substantive discussion of slavery. As an aspiring homesteader, I watched the entryways pass by wistfully, but without a shred of regret. Maybe someday one will be run by and for the people whose blood, sweat, and tears created them. The drive down Highway 61 (Ashley River Road) is lovely and worthwhile, regardless.

We did not visit the Old Slave Mart because we missed its somewhat limited opening hours. But we had planned to go. I was uncomfortable about what a shopping destination it appeared to be, but the written text telling the history is supposed to be well done. We were not sure whether it would have been appropriate for our little kids, but were going to do it anyway. Instead we stopped at the entrance and talked about it from outside.

The Night Market, at the Charleston City Market, was a neat experience. The crowd was diverse and laid back. We gave our son a few dollars and helped him budget and check prices throughout the place. We learned a great deal and talked with lots of different people. The building itself is interesting, as the Market Hall at the front has a huge marker on it for the Daughters of the Confederacy. We were there at night and the kids were playing on the stairs while we waited for the trolley bus. Originally the impressive building was used as a Masonic temple, and became the home of the Charleston Confederate Museum in 1899. I can envision the complexity of booting an organization that’s controlled the space for that long, and how much more complicated that is than some other forms of historical justice (new monuments, new markers), but it still made me angry.

The “trolley bus” is a must. The DASH trolley opened in 2011 and is a free circulator through downtown. It’s paid for by the City, the SC Ports Authority, and the Charleston Convention and Visitors Bureau (businesses), not by CARTA. This is a more progressive financing profile that has been done for a number of downtown circulators. From the hour we spent riding around with the kids, it seems heavily used by local working class folks in the city center, as much as by tourists, which was great. When we were waiting for it once, we asked a local vendor whether it would take us near a part of town we wanted to visit and he said “no, in the rich residential neighborhoods they fought tooth and nail to keep it from coming through, so it stops just before.” Made me like it even more. There are old trolley booths on the inside of the cars and the kids had a blast.


The City of Charleston was governed by Joseph P. Riley from 1975 to 2016. While he’s best known for his long term protagonism of efforts to redevelop downtown Charleston, he also led a five day protest march from Charleston to Columbia to protest the flying of the Confederate flag in 2000. His legacy project–and we cannot wait to go back to visit it–is the International African American Museum on Gadsden’s Wharf, which will open in the fall of 2019. Hopefully the incredible excitement and momentum around yesterday’s opening of the African American History Museum on the DC Mall will be contagious. It gives me chills just thinking about how much it could change the tourist experience in Charleston. The site is where 40% of the enslaved people taken to the US were brought ashore.

The story of historical justice and the commemoration of the Black experience seems to generally be one of catching up and crowding out the racist propaganda, rather than getting it removed. Every once in a while a flag or monument comes down, but far more common is that spaces are carved out for truth telling, alongside these. There’s great debate about remove vs. rewrite and I find myself on the side of telling the truth about the racist monuments rather than taking them down, but generally that doesn’t happen either. Modifying them in any way has proven politically challenging in the extreme.

The Jonathan Jasper Wright historical marker was right beside our hotel.

The Jonathan Jasper Wright historical marker was right beside our hotel.

What is unexcusable in Charleston, though, is that the premier commemorative landscape at the Battery at White Point park has several Confederate monuments and even a huge gaping hole at a spot where several paths come together, which would be perfect for an enormous monument to the struggle for Black freedom, and yet there is nothing. It would be easy to visit that place and think not a thing about slavery.

The perfect spot, at the crossroads. The matching spot on the other side of the gazebo has a monument in it.

The perfect spot, at the crossroads. The matching spot on the other side of the gazebo has a monument in it.

Our visit to Charles Towne Landing ended the trip on a better note. It was a far more interesting place than I expected it to be. The park is the site of the original Charleston from 1670-1680, before it was moved to its current location. There is an early African American cemetery at the site, with signage that takes full responsibility for the fact that the park builders in 1970 destroyed it in their ignorance of what its contents meant. The artifacts and sites of the Native people from the area are marked and treated as central to the story. The expertise of the enslaved African farmers who made the experimental agriculture projects possible–as well as the eventually successful rice culture–is truthfully recounted. There are also exhibits about the role of women in the community, celebrating particular figures like Henrietta de Beaulieu Dering Johnston–whom I had never heard of.

Charleston is beautiful and bustling with much more than white apologists for the Confederacy, hoping wistfully for a return to an era of white dominance. Black tourists visit in large numbers, as well as increasing numbers of visitors of all backgrounds with a more critical approach to the city’s history. Under progressive leadership, the city’s tourist infrastructure reflects this reality. There is inescapable ugliness, and a delicate balance clearly struck with the old South Carolina elite that still controls so much of the economy. The Battery is a place to visit to illustrate how much remains to be done. When the International African American Museum opens, the city landscape will be strikingly altered for the better. We had an incredible trip; our kids learned much more about history and current struggles for justice than on any other trip we’ve taken, and the truth wasn’t buried as far below the surface as we expected.

Summer’s Passing An (only slightly bitter) ode to the southern garden

Every year is different, but the momentous shifts always resonate in the same way. There has not been a day that quite felt cool yet, but the sun hangs lower in the sky. In our home–designed to suck in the winter rays–the shift is not subtle. The tulip poplar leaves have started to fall; a few places that are usually shaded now see dappled sunlight.

The anticipation of my favorite time of year builds every day. I can almost smell it–though not quite yet.

Past are the exhausting weeks of late July when you resent planting such a big garden because every spare moment is spent frenetically processing the harvest and the heat and mosquitoes make it miserable to be outside. There’s no time to enjoy anything because all your hard work will have been in vain if you let it rot in the field because you didn’t make time to put it up.


The people who write garden books do not live in the South. If you leave your beans to dry on the vine, you get sprouted beans. Though Weston A. Price would pat me on the back, I can’t save these for next year’s crop.

Past are the ugly weeks of early August when everything is diseased and you want to move to Maine. The weeks where you almost pull out the tomatoes because half of them are blighted, but you don’t because you have a vague memory that there comes a point where some of them overcome adversity and make something else worth eating. The weeks where nothing is fun because it really is too early to do any fall garden preparation of any kind, so you can’t even pretend like it’s time to move on.

We are nearing the end of the long, wretched couple of months when doing garden tasks actually requires having childcare or just hoping the kids don’t kill each other because no one will even contemplate coming outside with you. You’ve also uncovered various nests of baby copperheads among your vegetables and the fire ants are everywhere, so you don’t really want them to join you, anyway.

Radical acceptance is not just for parenting. There came a point when you realized that you clearly planted your garden just so the bugs would be well nourished. They eat different things each year, and you mourn and try not to count the hours you spent getting the crop established.


It’s okay, you can have the beans. You are really lovely and there are a lot of beans.

Well, I was excited about my sour gherkins and have gotten almost none because of you. But I think you are eating them instead of my squash, so...

Well, I was excited about my sour gherkins and have gotten almost none because of you. But I think you are eating them instead of my squash, so…

Tasty fennel.

Tasty fennel.

No, really, go right ahead.

No, really, go right ahead.

Tomato horn worm being eaten from the inside out by parasitic wasps. Justice. Is. Served.

Tomato horn worm being eaten from the inside out by parasitic wasps. Justice. Is. Served.

Eating all my parsley. Butterflies are great. Butterflies are great. Butterflies are great.

Eating all my parsley. Butterflies are great. Butterflies are great. Butterflies are great.

The history of the Great Plains.

The history of the Great Plains.

It has taken a decade to become proficient in the garden. My expectations and time horizon for doing and learning have stretched with each season that passes. In the early years I was likely to be more upset when things went “wrong.” I still cried when the birds ate my entire sorghum crop this year, but I’ve learned to start enough experimental crops that something is likely to go right.

Being a scientist means that I don’t like taking other people’s word for things, so I often try to grow crops that everyone says can’t be grown here or attempt what seems an ingenious solution to a problem, only to realize there’s a damn good reason people don’t do it that way. But there are also successes, and I take note of the failures and move on. My soil gets better every year. The garden gets bigger with less effort each year as I become a better steward of the earth I work with.

They say don't plant moldy ginger or turmeric roots. Well, some of it was moldy so I planted it separately to study performance. In the foreground you see the handful of survivors in the moldy plot; in the background are the healthy roots. Don't plant moldy roots.

They say don’t plant moldy ginger or turmeric roots. Well, some of it was moldy so I planted it separately to study performance. In the foreground you see the handful of survivors in the moldy plot; in the background are the healthy roots. Don’t plant moldy roots.

This lone chard plant was still going strong when the rest bit it. I left it in. Turns out it made an excellent trap crop for the bugs that might otherwise be feasting on my new tender seedlings.

This lone chard plant was still going strong when the rest bit it. I left it in. Turns out it made an excellent trap crop for the bugs that might otherwise be feasting on my new tender seedlings.

My bean trellis turned into an arbor and starved my entire pepper crop.

My bean trellis turned into an arbor and starved my entire pepper crop, but it turned out to be the perfect place to start late summer lettuce for the fall.

All my fig fruit was killed by a late frost, but now they are trying again. Fingers crossed!

All my fig fruit was killed by a late frost, but now they are trying again. Fingers crossed!

At some point this summer I stopped worrying and started bringing the camera to the garden. It’s early September. The plants that are going to survive have made up their minds to do so. Much of the fall garden is planted and this year the seedlings are actually thriving. Arugula, radishes, tatsoi, collards, carrots, parsley, dill, fennel, kale, and lettuce are raising their tender heads.

Orb weaver eating a grasshopper. I've not harvested near this spot for weeks so this lovely won't be disturbed.

Orb weaver eating a grasshopper. I’ve not harvested near this spot for weeks so this lovely won’t be disturbed.

Butterfly weed going to seed.

Butterfly weed going to seed.

Sickly ladybug

Sickly ladybug

I have fallen in love with beans. These Cherokee Trail of Tear beans make my heart sing.

I have fallen in love with beans. These Cherokee Trail of Tear beans make my heart sing.

Hello baby tree frog!

Hello baby tree frog!

Camouflaged dragonfly resting

Camouflaged dragonfly resting

The Common Wealth Seminole Waltham F5 cross is going strong despite squash bug pressure.

The Common Wealth Seminole Waltham F5 cross is going strong despite squash bug pressure.

Mini pumpkins! Ancient seed I planted with no expectations, and the only thing that survived besides the winter squash.

Mini pumpkins! Ancient seed I planted with no expectations, and the only thing that survived besides the winter squash.

I still suit up in my loose long sleeves and pants tucked into my socks before heading out. I still end up with ant bites in odd places. But this morning it was 67 degrees and the winter squash and pumpkins are screaming autumn. So much of the spring is spent planning for summer, but it’s the least pleasant time to actually be in the garden.

Goodbye summer, thank you for all the fresh food you gave us. We’ll remember you all through the fall as we enjoy the tomatoes sauce, pesto, pickled cucumbers, and gallons of beans I’ve put up these past few months.

But to be perfectly honest, I’m not the slightest bit sad to see you go.

Brother Love and the fabulous impotence of parenting siblings

Parenting, by nature, is a lesson in radical acceptance and humility. But there is something about the nature of sibling relationships that brings a new level of impotence to my days.

Sure, sometimes it’s trying to understand how their ability to ignore you and push your buttons seems to increase exponentially with the number of children. They feed off each other’s insanity and you simply try not to get caught in the crossfire.

But sometimes it’s a breathtakingly profound and beautiful kind of impotence. When the six year old whispers to you at bedtime that you are the person who makes him feel safest and most special, but that his brother is who he loves most in the world. He’s worried it will hurt your feelings, but it takes no effort to smile. You try not to cry and tell him that’s the whole point. His brother is who he’ll have beside him long after you are gone.

Or when you drop off your older child at class and the toddler screams his brother’s name until he is hoarse and hiccoughing. He cries for what seems like forever and you can’t fix it because you aren’t his brother. But after a bagel and some thrift store sunglasses, he finally falls asleep in the car. When he wakes up his brother is home and he runs into the house on his chubby toddler legs, screeching his brother’s name with uninhibited glee.


In the time it took to write this they have brawled and made peace again. They are unified in their indignant rage that I won’t let the big one dump a box of blocks on the small one’s head, which they both think is a wonderful idea.

It used to be that if I heard the baby upset, his brother had knocked him down or taken something from him. Now a newly minted two year old, it’s usually his own inability to keep agreements and respect gently set boundaries that causes him to scream. Or simply the failure of his budding fine motor skills. Usually the proximate cause of distress is the destruction of a block creation; an undignified attempt to “help.”

Tonight my six year old looks at me, eyes wide and tearful, and says “I feel like he doesn’t care that he hurt my feelings.” He feels indignant but is so clearly searching for an alternate interpretation because he doesn’t want to think poorly of his brother. I explain about his sibling’s unformed prefrontal cortex–his lack of rational brain power and inability to control his impulses. How it will come. I point out all the ways his little brother shows that he cares, even when he knows he’s done wrong. My son soaks it in, nodding.

Even when the toddler cannot control his impulses, he expresses deep empathy for his brother. After having done something outrageously awful he crawls into his brother’s lap and wraps his little arms around him and puckers his lips up for the elusive kiss (they are only rarely offered and never consented to, if requested). Without fail his older sibling looks down into his eyes, caresses his face or returns the embrace, with the tears of rage still fresh on his cheeks.

I’ve never seen love as big and un-ashamed and overwhelming as what they share. It almost hurts to look at.

It might seem crazy, but this is why I had children. I didn’t have them for me, I had them for this. So I could watch them be better to each other than I’ve ever been to anyone. It washes away all the fights and yelling and obstinate refusals to cooperate and we are left with this gorgeous thing.

I mean, last night we were left with me cursing at them both while on the verge of tears because they couldn’t stop horsing around in the bed…but tonight it’s this gorgeous thing 😉



Puerto Vallarta a vacation by the skin of our teeth

When the mama from Mexico City in the golf cart beside me started grilling me about how much it was costing us to stay here, I became very self conscious. The place is a 5 diamond hotel, the kind of place we never go even when we have the points for it because generally you just can’t enjoy any of the fanciness at a place like that with kids. Uber fancy hotels are also culturally not where I find the people I most like spending time with, generally speaking. But what do I know? I’ve never stayed anywhere this fancy before.

So when I told her it was free except for the cost of our food, her eyes bulged and I felt like an asshole. A friend had lucked into the time share swap of the century, I explained. After inheriting a not-so-fancy time share, they somehow found a 4k square foot, 3 bedroom suite at the Vidanta Grand Luxxe on an online swap. Then they were upgraded to a 4 bedroom after calling to confirm the details of the reservation the day before arriving.

The place was bigger than both our houses combined, plus a lot. I had trouble imagining what it would actually be like. Would my toddler get lost trying to find our bedroom?

And we were just going on a last minute whim because we could use points and our Southwest companion passes to travel for free. The lady couldn’t quite imagine it, and kept asking me how much our tickets would have cost had we spent actual money on them. In the off season, these kinds of resorts usually offer deals in the home country, which actually makes it much more interesting to be there if you are hoping for some modicum of cultural exchange while staying at one of these gated bourgtastic ridiculousnesses.

My spouse had no vacation time so he would be working remotely all week, but being on my own with kids all day is a variation on a theme. We’ve decided that traveling is an important part of our lives and our kids’ education so when the opportunity arises, I overcome my nesting urges and all my normal parent worries about all the things that can go wrong and try to make it happen. This one was a no brainer.


Our family of two adults, a 6yo, and a 2yo stayed with another parent and his two small kids in one of these unbelievable Vidanta Grand Luxxe Residence suites for a week in August, 2016. We then spent two days and nights at the Casamagna Marriott in town before heading home.

Once again I find myself in the position of saying–only more so this time–that I cannot imagine the circumstances under which paying anything close to full price cash to go here would be worthwhile. That’s not because it’s not everything a person could want in a super elite fancy resort, it’s just that I probably won’t ever be able to reconcile myself with the idea of being a super elite fancy resort type of person.

BUT! If you have the chance to swap a reasonably priced time share, or go with a friend to Vidanta for a few days, I’d say go for it.

Everything is beautiful at Vidanta, even nursing an acrobatic toddler with poor latch.

Everything is beautiful at Vidanta, even nursing an acrobatic toddler with poor latch.

My only overall knock on this place is that it is enormous. Walking most places with small kids just isn’t an option. It doesn’t matter because there are super fun golf carts and by day 3 you will be going down to explain that no, you don’t need to get anywhere, can you just ride on the back of their cart while the shuttle makes its rounds because your two year old has been screaming “Ride Cart!” over and over since 5am? They will smile and drive extra fast around the curves just to make your kid happy. But you will also gain 10 lbs because you had no idea the 800 times you walked up the stairs in your own house or to your car on a normal day actually contributed significantly to your fitness level.

super shuttle

super shuttle

One of the cart drivers told me there is a tunnel that runs under the whole Grand Luxxe complex for deliveries and staff. I asked if they made them walk, he laughed and said no, they got to ride the carts too. But we did find that room service took forever because things were so far apart. It only took us one day of breakfast coming 45 minutes after calling to start planning ahead. Four hungry kids under 6 are no f**king joke.

We had not a single food disappointment for 7 days with 4 kids. The food is priced very reasonably for a fancy pants place, we think in an effort to get people to not leave the resort and just do everything there. There’s a pretty good grocery store and pharmacy in the shopping center (called The Plaza), so we bought fresh vegetables and fruit, bread to go with the PB and J we brought from home so no one would die (good peanut butter outside the USA is always a crap shoot). Portions are big and everything was fresh and good quality. When my big kid got an earache I was able to get white vinegar and rubbing alcohol and a syringe that I pulled the tip off of to squirt homemade swimmer’s ear preventative into his ear. The concierge desk will get you anything you need from a bigger pharmacy if they don’t have it.

We tried out all the pools, which is saying a lot since there are like 397 of them (okay, just 15). All the pools (even the adults only pool that we took all the kids to one evening to play with the other kids we found there) are awesome for kids. They have these funky shelves–eight or nine feet of a few inches of water, probably for drunk people to set their glasses down on but also awesome for babies. Every pool is different, but the kids loved them all and there were safe and fun spots for each age. It wasn’t over my tall 6 year old’s head anywhere, which made it much easier for the grown ups to relax and enjoy ourselves. We really liked the rooftop pool at our building.


Residence rooftop

Mayan Palace pools

Mayan Palace

Also fabulous are the buckets of 5 beers for the price of 4. Our kids got the fancy faux glass beer cups and played games with the ice for an hour.

The water feels sort of like a bath by the late afternoon. I know I said I only had one complaint. I lied. It’s weird to swim in bath water. But this place is so ridiculous I’m sure if they could speed climate change up by cooling the pool water in the afternoon, they would, so I’m guessing it’s a worldwide tropical-pool-in-summer issue.

There’s a kid’s club, which, like the food, was not expensive. $8 for four hours of free babysitting for kids over 5, even cheaper per hour if you sign up for the whole day. My kid who won’t do things without me went with his friend for a morning. Not only did he not say goodbye when I dropped him off, he didn’t want to come home when we picked them up. They did disco dancing, made aprons, and went swimming. He told me I was a deficient mother for not packing him sunscreen (I did, he just didn’t find it because he has nascent male pattern can’t-find-s**t syndrome) or his rashguard top (I actually did forget that, but he had a t-shirt on so why did he need another one?).

We did get lost in the apartment. We tried to come up with creative things to do with the extra room at night after the kids were asleep in our bed. We enjoyed the turndown service with chocolates. The kids loved the splash pool on our porch (the porch that’s bigger than my house). The views were awesome. Even the fact that they are building a new monstrosity right next to this one was great since all the toddler wants to do is watch “Big Diggers!” all day long. We got some exercise walking from the kitchen to the bathroom and bedroom every time we forgot something while the two non-working adults tried to get all 4 kids out of the apartment every morning. Nothing got broken. There’s a washer and dryer. The bathroom was also bigger than my kitchen.

By the time we said goodbye to our friends and headed off the Casamagna Marriott we were dazed and suffering from resort exhaustion.

Casamagna is more my speed in terms of size–the beach is right there by the pool and rooms, the views are amazing, and if you want to go do things in town you are much closer (though while we were there an entire group of people were kidnapped from a fancy restaurant in town, supposedly all narco-traficantes but it helps you understand the attraction of a place like Vidanta where you have to go through 5 miles of wilderness preserve and a polite checkpoint to get in). The room was cute and functional.


from our window at Casamagna

The service was meh (asked 3 times in 3 different ways for someone to come up and unlock the mini-fridge so that we could store our fresh produce and no one ever showed up). The main restaurants have lackluster ambience, likely because they are designed for the breakfast buffet and folks don’t eat there much otherwise. The only onsite restaurant we’d recommend is the poolside one, which was awesome. The kids’ menu is the same at every restaurant and is composed of really icky food. Not that my kids didn’t loooooooove the velveeta and noodles mac and cheese and the bizarre open faced american grilled cheese. But when after two days your two year old is asking for broccoli, something is wrong.

Our kids got a cold the day we left Vidanta so we only made one foray into town. Cab prices are fixed and you confirm at the hotel before leaving, but any real cab can be trusted. We walked out to the Los Muertos pier and down the boardwalk, stopping for breakfast at La Palapa on the beach, which was super kid friendly and delightfully good.

Puerto Vallarta, as one cabbie explained it to me, has no other industry besides tourism and has not for as long as anyone can remember. It has a pretty interesting history, with even some pirate fantasy back in the 17th and 18th centuries. In the 19th century it served as a port to support the mining industry in Guadalajara. For the entire post-war period it’s been a tourist destination for gringos and development has exploded–much driven by seasonal foreign residents–since the 1990s. What this means in practice is that every single thing you encounter there is designed to support tourism. Choosing to visit this particular place means choosing to be somewhere known as a great party spot. There are lots of prostitutes and plenty of street hagglers, though we never felt unsafe in the slightest. Most irritating were us–all the drunk foreigners. We loved talking to our cab drivers and the resort workers, but didn’t have the same kind of meaningful interactions with other visitors that we often do when we travel.

But for this East Coast gal, mountains right by the sea will never get old.


Being a super-woman is never enough

There are days when you give everything you have and it’s nowhere near enough for anyone. And it’s okay, in the long run. You tell yourself a true tale about how healthy it is for all of us to have moments when we know we are loved tremendously and yet cannot come first, for good reasons. These are the very best life lessons, as long as they don’t last forever. And yet they feel like shit.

This too, is alright. Feeling horrible after doing your very best is 90% of mothering, as far as I can tell. Okay, maybe not 90%. But it was a shockingly new feeling for me as a competent childless adult, and has become utterly quotidian.

It’s those days when you have a sleeping toddler chewing on your nipple and your six year old comes downstairs quietly to tell you he’s not feeling well (after just spending the whole morning with his bed-ridden grandmother and infant cousin, who have now all been exposed to whatever summer crud he was incubating).

His big eyes are bright and he energetically tells you how strange it is to be freezing cold in his thick Harry Potter robe when it’s nearly 80 degrees, with much hand waving. And the fever just goes up and up over the course of the night. By 1:30am his fever nightmares awaken him and your spouse spends the rest of the night with him downstairs on the couch because you have a teething piranha on top of you.

You wake up with the baby at 6:45 am (well, you also woke up at 3:30, 4:30, and 5:30…and of course several times before midnight) and feel kind of guilty for your spouse who never came back to bed but at the same time know that you would sleep all day if permitted. But you aren’t. So you get up and tell the distraught toddler where his sibling and father are, because it is a Big Deal that they aren’t where they were supposed to be when he woke up.

The fever breaks and then comes back with a vengeance. Your spouse showers and leaves for work. You watch him walking to the car like one of the poor souls on the Titanic as the last life boat cuts loose.

And it turns out that the newly minted two year old deals with distress and anxiety by hitting. He loves his big brother to pieces and doesn’t know what to do when his wild and boisterous super brother–by some evil magic–turns into a sad, vulnerable, miserable small child. So he runs up to him as he lies pathetically on the couch–eyes closed, breathing shallowly–and slaps him in the face as hard as he can. And then leans over and kisses him on the mouth. Every time you turn around.


brother love on a normal day

It’s not like you are doing your nails, but people need feeding, your sick baby needs a wet wash cloth on his forehead, you HAVE to drink some coffee. But you feel your heart being ripped out every time you turn your back for a second and realize your 2 year old is savaging his sick sibling. You acknowledge his feelings and talk about how hitting hurts, you sooth his brothers’ tears, you try to distract the toddler with activities and food. Nothing works. Your sick kid is too sick to be alone, he needs you, but having you means having his brother–who at the moment is an evil gremlin hell-bent on destroying everything good and decent in the world.

You tenderly lift all 60 pounds of your first born and carry him up the stairs and put him to bed. Sick babies are light as a feather. Unfortunately, taking him away from his brother means taking him away from you and that is so not okay right now. Cooing at him through the monitor is not enough by half. You are at home full time with these two kids every day and you’ve never felt so incompetent.

Your partner has only been gone two hours when you call and ask him to come home. You feel like a failure because how can it possibly take two parents to take care of one sick kid? He has to keep working but at least he can be a warm body in the room so that when your sad boy wakes from his delirium every 30 minutes, he doesn’t wake up scared and alone.

The icing on the cake is when you hear the distressed clucking of the hens that means the fucking black snake (that you know you are supposed to love because it eats rodents and probably the baby copperheads that almost killed your children, but you can’t because it eats your eggs everyday and you are just pouring greenbacks down its throat) is in the nesting box. You sling the sleepy toddler you just woke up from his nipple-chewing nap across your hip and stomp out to the chicken yard, snatching up one of your son’s many homemade swords on the way.

Yes, you literally battle a fucking 5 foot black snake in shorts and flip flops with a big wooden sword and a baby on your hip and it hisses at you and rattles it’s tail like a rattlesnake and eats the egg you just shoved out of its mouth anyway, all while staring at you with total sass.

You stomp back inside, throw the baby at his grandfather (really it takes three adults to care for a sick kid), put on more appropriate clothing and head back to the fray. You trap the snake and it escapes. You shake it from its hiding place and accidentally drop a pallet on its neck, which makes you feel like a horrible human being. You run for the shovel to finish the job so you will at least feel like a decent person, but it’s gone by the time you get back.

You spend an hour literally shuttling back and forth between the toddler destroying the house and reading to the sick kid. At 5pm you leave your toddler screaming to attend a school meeting. You only stay for an hour. But it doesn’t matter; it was too long. When you get home your husband looks like he’s been dragged behind a truck for several miles and the sick kid has a glazed semiconscious expression that tells you he should have been asleep hours ago. Probably before you left. The toddler is very happy. He wants to be held while you pee because he loves you so much.

You put the sick kid to bed. You finally eat dinner. You nurse the toddler. You start writing. You accidentally delete what you wrote even though it perfectly expressed your complex emotional state. You don’t cry, you just start over.

Because this is it. You have had way worse days. Your worst days are better than so many women’s everydays. It’s all worth telling. It’s all real.

The snake got the egg, again. But my little baby boy saw me fight a big fucking snake with a big fucking sword and if that’s not a win for feminism, I don’t know what is.

None of my beloveds got what they needed from me today and they all felt the loss. But they know they are loved and they know that today is one of the days that happens.


“Don’t use sledge-hammer mechanics!”

I am slowly trying to curate and migrate my writing here from the couple of different personal blogs I’ve kept over the years. There was a blog I kept to chronicle our travels when my eldest was a baby and my dissertation field research took us to live in Brazil and Spain for a few years. Many of those posts were more stream-of-consciousness journaling, and yesterday I came across this piece. We had just moved to São Paulo for six weeks and finally gotten settled after having housing arrangements fall through upon arrival:

I have had a significant amount of guilt about how the babe spent about 3 days in 2nd place, competing with our personal housing crisis for attention. It didn’t help that he fell in our hotel room and got a big bump on his forehead to remind me that we weren’t doing right by him. This has resulted in me trying extra hard to be patient and to remember to not force him onto my schedule when I don’t have to. That, in turn, has resulted in several half hour long episodes perched precariously on the edge of a bar stool scooched up as close to the closed apartment door as possible with boo on my lap while he learns to put the key in the lock and take it out again. He is remarkably good at it and has just had a couple of challenging stumbling blocks. One is that he sometimes starts out with the key upside down and on a bad day, helping him turn it right side up results in violent “mommy stop messing with my stuff” hand flapping and yelling.

The other is that he gets very frustrated that the key will not come out unless it is straight up and down in the lock. This one has been hard for him to learn. But I find that when I start out without an agenda, it’s a truly amazing experience. I watch him learn, and he IS learning. He carefully puts the key in the lock, sometimes trying several times, sometimes getting it in a little bit and then wiggling it for a while until it goes all the way. Then he turns it left and right and pulls. Nothing happens. When he seems frustrated I just explain that it has to be straight up and down to come out, and show him. Sometimes when he gets it, he’s really excited. Other times he just takes it in stride and begins again.

I’m not totally sure why, but every time it makes me think about my dad. My dad, who was unwilling to produce female offspring who didn’t know how to use basic household tools. One of the lessons I remember him gently giving me over and over again was about not forcing things. He always said “my dad always told me ‘Don’t use sledge hammer mechanics’.” His father taught him wood working and how to fix things and they would spend the summers doing repairs on their house. It has been one of the best lessons for just surviving around the house. When you get frustrated with a jar that won’t open or something that seems too difficult, make sure you have the right tool for the job and then don’t force it. You will almost always get better results if you stop, take a deep breath, and continue slowly and methodically with the proper instrument.

In retrospect, I find it amusing that this advice came from a guy who regularly did ridiculous things like chop off the end of our picnic table when he needed a piece of wood for something, instead of taking the time to find what he needed. We had a great family story (that he always denied) from when I was about 5 and we were having a picnic in the back yard. We saw a fly and he said “now don’t just go swatting around or you’ll miss it and make a mess.” Then he got the swatter and waited until it was sitting on the edge of the cream corn to thwack it, sending bits of sticky corn flying in all directions. The fly buzzed off happily.

But it was still good advice. So when my little guy flaps his hands wildly, yanking the key and grunting in frustration, he quiets down as soon as I bring my hand up to turn the key into position before slowly and gently pulling it out. I tell him, “don’t use sledge hammer mechanics angel,” and think of my dad.

When I re-read this post I can see hints of the parents we would become. The satisfaction of backing off and watching a child learn without my intervention. I am so much better now about leaving them alone and not trying to “fix” what they haven’t yet mastered.

I can also see so clearly the circumstances that led me to choose to be home with my kids after finishing my degree. These trips were the first time that we had no childcare help from family, while both trying to work full time. It was the toughest time of our lives as a family.

My initial reaction was to roll my eyes at myself for feeling guilty that our son had taken a back seat to the saga of finding housing, which had been an immediate and pressing need. But the unstated context was that to get my research done–which was time and place sensitive and necessary for my degree–I needed him to take a backseat nearly all the time. He was 13 months old and an only child. He didn’t like that and didn’t cooperate. Because we were moving around every few weeks to different cities, we weren’t able to make childcare arrangements. It’s why we started screens so much earlier than I had wanted. Neither my husband nor I got more than the bare minimum of work done, not to mention sleep or time with each other.

I felt guilty because it was three days of being second place…after months of being in second place, with all my instincts raging that this was the opposite of what we all wanted and needed as a family. This was when I decided I would finish my PhD (because the big sacrifices had already been made), but then I was done. When I finished, we restructured our life and housing to be more frugal so we could afford to lose my already meager graduate stipend.

I no longer stress about the times I need to put my kids second in order to deal with a crisis because they come first most of the time. I know it’s not so simple for many parents, nor what all families need or want. But it was what worked for us and it’s surreal to look back on this time of uncertainty when we had no idea what to do. I want to give myself a squeeze and say “don’t worry, you are going to figure this out.”

I also laugh at the notion of our human tendency to preach when we struggle to practice. Not using sledge hammer mechanics is not just good advice for home repair, but for raising kids, too. I fail often, but it’s still great advice. My kids work so much better when I don’t try to force them 🙂