Wednesday, September 29, 2010


cyrus has been channeling some sort of animal lately.  he gets this sinister look in his brown eyes and his hair seems to hang down over his face in a more menacing way.  his plump fingers curl in to claws and he bares his small square teeth as he wrinkles up his face in a growl.  it simply charming, really, the way he is small and adorable- but the thing is- if you aren't careful he can do damage.

he doesn't quite know when to stop.  i've noticed that the boys sometimes go too far with their rough-housing, and cy is no exception.  he'll bite you, he'll scratch you and believe that's all part of the game.  seren, for his part, usually encourages this; he is now in the position of having more power (and more responsibility which is the bummer of being a big bro, i suppose) and enjoys the dance of tangling to the point of too far.

even without the stripes, moms do a lot of ref'in.  it's hard to know when to break it up, when to watch and laugh, when to let them hurt each other.  consistency has never been a strong suit for me.  and it is fun to watch them circle each other, nearly miss crashing heads, roll up in the blankets...and the smiles could light up carlsbad caverns.

so what does this have to do with rodents?

well, i have a similar indecision about them too.  i don't love them, per say, but i don't really want to lay out toxic poison for them and anything that eats them- i always was fond of cats and raptor birds.  at the same time i don't want them too close to me.  like in my house- that's too close.

years back a very run down house around the corner was purchased and renovated.  turns out it was infested- i love that word- infested with rats.  well, those long tailed mammals looked for housing elsewhere.  they liked the neighborhood though: horses, gardens, bird feeders- a never ending supply of food, so they didn't move too far.  some of them decided they liked our place.  we had some encounters- like when i walked into the laundry room to find one of them crawling down the wall- and then she stopped looked at me in a shy, surprised way -paused- and then scurried away.  me frozen with shock the whole time.

but what finally got me what the matrix attack launched at me one cold, windy night.  of course, it involves the garbage which was full and in the kitchen.  i had to take it outside, around the corner of the house where there is no light.  as i opened the front door to leave i had the feeling this would be a bad idea.  the problem with that feeling is that you never know if it's real unless you test it- so i headed out.  i do remember telling ben that if i wasn't back in 30 seconds to come and get me.

as i rounded the corner, wearing fips flops and pajamas, i immediately noticed the lid to the garbage can was missing the clip.  months before we had begun locking down the garbage cans so rodent could not get in.  as i stared at the clipless lid the bad feeling got worse.  but i couldn't walk back inside with the stinky garbage and admit being defeated by the rodent i thought was in the garbage.

here's what i came up with.  since the lids were hinged i figured i could just flip open the lid and toss in the bag and be done with it.  my anxiety had me amped up a bit though because i put too much oomph into my bag toss- it caught the lid and i swore loudly as the garbage can quickly toppled over backwards into shrubs.  i was way past my 30 seconds by now.  honestly, at that point i was ready to be the damsel in distress.  sorry, ani.

in my flip flops, i cautiously stepped about the black grass to get sure footing as i fumbled in the dark to retrieve the garbage bag.   then i had to hoist up the garbage can-  i cringed when i touched the metal handle on the front  and braced my foot against the bottom of the bin to heave it upright again.  the wind swirled and kicked around me- anyone watching me could have felt this was the climatic point even without any music. 

as the garbage can was pulled vertically- the lid still open- a rat jumped out of the can.  it's legs were splayed out in a "run for your life" kind of moment- but to me it was a menacing stance.  i only saw it for the briefest of moments as the moonlight, really, caught it in midair and then it dropped into the darkness at my feet.  that's when i screamed and ran.

in the kitchen, ben was sitting in the same place.  he didn't grumble much when he had to go out and finish my task.  i know the rat took off and was long gone.  i get that they are more scared of me.  but my body can't seem to act in a way around them that reflects this common sense. 

shortly after this we bought the snap traps.  when they raised the house the rodents left for other places.  perhaps our neighbor's barn.  but every now and then when i go under our house.  i get this feeling like something has gone suddenly still near me.  and i never wear flip flops when taking out the trash.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

up your nose

every mom has their own personal fears about what their kids will or will not do in their lives.  get arrested, graduate college, change their underwear at least once a week.  i am no different.  one of mine is that i will wind up in the emergency room with my screaming child as a chilly doctor tries to fish out  something small and slippery out of my dear boy's plugged nose.  odd, perhaps.  i attribute this to two main stories i heard around the time i was college. 

one is from my friend- who i will call "jem" cause she IS truly, truly, truly outrageous- whose daughter shoved a rock up her nose.  the little girl, who i will call holly- short for hologram in keeping with the cartoon theme and also cause she is ever changing and alluring like a hologram- was young, maybe 2?  certainly not old enough to understand what was happening.  what i remember is when jem told me how she had to hold down holly while the doctors fished the small stone out of her nostril i shuddered because it encapsulated the essential bitch of parenting: sometimes you have to hurt your kids in ways they don't understand to keep them safe. 

and holly must have just been completely pissed off about the whole thing too.  toddlers try so hard to make sense of this crazy world.  one minute you are at the park noticing the smooth surfaces of these small little worlds you are walking on- the way they crunch under your square feet- and then you are in a bright building with too much white and stinging smells and your mom- YOUR MOM!- who you love and loves you and painted your room blue with white clouds is holding you down while some guy with big eyes shoves something up your nose!  he pulls out the rock you put there to save for later and takes it away.  punk ass adults.  (i think holly still thinks this of adults sometimes).

not long after i heard this one from a professor in my sp ed program.  he explained to us all, as he stood in front of us in his stretch wrangler jeans about a student he had taught years ago.  the young man was non-verbal, maybe somewhere on the autism spectrum- and had several strange behaviors.  this means the folks who could talk weren't quite sure what to say about some of the things he did.  for example, at random moments the young man would vigorously rub his nose with the palm of his hand.  this was described by professionals as "self stimulation" which meant that this was something this man did cause there was so much he couldn't do.

my professor tried several interventions to get this man to stop this.  they did all sorts of behavior modification: here's a candy for not doing it, here's scolding for doing it, here's praise, here's time-out.  they even painted his hand with gross smelling stuff.  nothing worked.

this young man had a doctor's appointment and the talking people decided to do a cat scan of his brain to understand him better.  and viola!  there was a paperclip, quite rusted, up his nose.  once they removed it the young man never did the obvious "i've got something up my nose" hand-rubbing thing again.  turns out he was clearly communicating what he was experiencing but no one was smart enough to notice. might know where this is going....the other night cyrus starts picking his nose.  i notice some snot, help him blow it, do all the good-mama things and then forget about it.  he persists.  i think "maybe there is something up there" and get dad to get a flash light and look up his nose.  not because i am lazy but because i was laying in bed with stones stuck in my kidneys- although i didn't know that at the time.  dad comments there is some green snot up there and we call it good.

that night when cy wakes me up to nurse he complains again about it- in my daze this hardly registers- but i did wipe his nose with the sheet and he settled down.  again in the morning cyrus mentions his nose, so i send him to his dad.  as ben sits with his coffee at the table he instructs cyrus to "blow!" as he shuts the unoffending nostril.  cyrus wrinkles his face and snorts like a rhino.  there is a sharp sound of something hard bouncing off the wood floor as cyrus propels out the small, round pellet that was lodged in the hole in his nose.  and then he delightfully goes back to playing.

sitting on the couch in stunned silence i thought two things amidst the general feeling of guilt that washed over me- first, i was thankful that i had not seen it the night before.  no doubt, having a parenting fear turn real coupled with my own compromised health- i would have freaked out a bit.  it could have gotten so ugly- me yelling at seren for bringing his pellets in the house, and at ben for buying the stupid pellet gun for seren in the first place as i tried to dislodge the plastic from cy's nose.  me ranting on and on about pellets, and guns, and not knowing when to stop.

i know i am a good person- but i am not always a nice one. 

and then imagine going to the emergency room with a toddler who has a pellet up their nose!  i mean, a rock? sure.  kids play with rocks and that's considered a sign of good parenting.  you take your kids to the park = good mama.  when your 2 year old has a gun pellet up his nose it implies that he was playing with ammo. which, apparently he was.  maybe a call to CPS is in order.  ammo up nose = bad mama.

second, i hadn't really listened very well to my kid's attempt to convey to me that something was different about his nose.  he was persistent with his finger up there and his look of wonder.  the way he laid so still and patiently while i tried to pluck out the boogie i thought was the irritant.  really, his actions were not so different than the young man.  i wonder when that kid had started rubbing his nose- how old he was when the paperclip made it's way up there?  good thing pellets don't rust.

now that the nose is clear, i feel like i dodged a bullet- or maybe a pellet.  one of my parenting fears came true: small child shoves small thing up nose.  and i survived it.  i learned from it.   of course, i wasn't really aware of it until it was all over.  sometimes those are the best lessons.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010


deb was a regular at max's place from the first day i volunteered as a college student at western. she had down syndrome.  she was african-american.  she was overweight.  she was a lesbian.  she had more personality than most rooms full of people.

she had no eye-brows or eye-lashes, but had a puff of a soft afro on her round head.  i always thought she looked like a turtle a little bit.  what i loved most about her was her voice.  she spoke in a deep raspy, sassy growl.  her laugh was throaty- like something you'd expect from a blues singer who smoked filterless cigarettes.  she could talk some serious shit too.

part of the beauty of max's place- a rec center in bellingham for folks with developmental disabilities- was that it was my job to hang out with the members.  i'd sit and chat with deb.  she wasn't much for doing crafts or playing games.  but she was a great story teller.  the way she'd crack herself up, throw her head back and laugh- it's the stuff.

what i gathered from her about her life was hard to hear.  she was put up for adoption at birth but spent her life being moved from foster care to group homes.  she told me about the time she locked a staff person at a group home in the closet.  she told me about the time she ran away from home- just walked onto a train- because she was tired of putting up with the family who wasn't doing such a good job of taking care of her.    

deb was a person to me- with a rich history and a warm heart- and not just a mix of interesting minority labels, but i know for some people it was a challenge not to be shocked by deb and her life.  especially her choice of rental movies which she wasn't shy about sharing either.  

deb looked cute from a distance and if you buy into the stereotype of people with down syndrome, i'm sure she seemed harmless, charming even.  most of our volunteers were young, white girls who went to schools with special rooms where all the labeled-kids were kept away from the other folks- thankfully this practice has changed a bit.  they were nervous being at the center.  no doubt they'd already been approached by the most bold of the bunch and felt uncomfortable having so much attention.  they were looking for a safe place to be, so they'd sit down and try to talk to deb.  she would just shine them on like she didn't care a lick for anything they had to say or offer.  she'd grunt when they tried to talk to her.  she'd roll her eyes.  sometimes she'd just get up and walk away.

to me, the point of having volunteers come to the center was about having them experience a person as a person- and not as a label.  this is important for all of us as humans sharing a planet- and especially so for someone wanting to become a special education teacher, which was the plan for most of our volunteers.  and i figured that the first step to changing how society treats a group of people is to change how one person treats another person.  i'd head over to deb's table at some point and get deb chatting about whatever was going on in the world or in her life.  usually her weekend involved spending time with her girlfriend which deb referred to as "my sugah."  at first the volunteers thought she meant her girlfriend, like a friend who is a girl.  but through the course of the conversation it would become very clear that this was deb's partner.  as the light turned on- oh wait!  people with developmental disabilities have relationships!?  have sex?!  are lesbians?!!- you could sometimes see people squirm with their own discomfort.  they'd look at me for confirmation or salvation.  like i'd just smile, shake my head and say "oh no, deb's not gay- she's just playing with you. everyone here is happily celibate!"

sexuality is a tough topic.  sexuality of people with developmental disabilities- yeah, that's even more complicated.

deb was gay and she didn't hide this essential part of her life from people.  by all accounts it would make sense to expect deb, perhaps one of the most vulnerable people in our society in some ways- dependent on social services and care-givers to help her survive, to be the one person who would try to conform a bit.   some will say that deb didn't know social norms enough to be expected to follow them.  like the social norm that you don't talk to strangers about your personal love life if you are gay.

i say that deb's knowledge of who she was overrode her feelings of obligation to the comfort of someone else.  for that, she inspired me.  she still does.  she knew that parts of life might make others squirm, but that wasn't enough of a reason to ignore her love, her sugah, who she just bought a soda for from the vending machine in the corner.   if it made them squirm, so what?

squirming with our own prejudice is a point we all have to get to in order to get past it and to see each other as fellow humans and more.  like my tea bag once said, "if you cannot see god in all, you cannot see god at all."

we are all divine.  act accordingly.

Thursday, September 2, 2010


my first year teaching was at a rural middle school in skagit county.  i taught special education, resource room, which means that my students were mostly normal kids failed by the public school system.  my students would spend some portion of the day with me, but most of their day was spent in the general education classrooms.  part of my job was to work with these teachers to help modify or adapt the lessons and assignments so my students could learn and, hopefully in the process, feel good about themselves.  some teachers were better to work with than others.

one teacher, keith, a big bear of a guy was loved by all the kids because he was loud and boisterous.   his classroom packed full of odd art pieces from around the world.  he was driven to be a good teacher.  a failing student frustrated him and he'd work tirelessly to help them do better.  he had a natural curiosity about people of all ages and what made them tick.  more than once keith would strike up a conversation with me about me being a passivist.  he didn't quite believe it was possible for someone to be this way.  he'd come up with scenarios for me- what if someone was attacking my family?- to try to see just how far i would go to avoid violence.  he wasn't entirely convinced that i didn't need a gun in my daily life.

one day i hitched a ride with keith back into town in his small pick up truck.  he apologized for the clutter as he scooped up papers and such.  our eyes both landed on the floor of the truck littered with bullets.  he seemed sheepish about it, wanted to know if i was ok with having bullets swirl around my birkenstocks as we drove north.  i didn't mind.  i was perplexed.

bullets and guns mean something totally different to me than most folks in rural areas.  i associate guns with gang activity, robberies, self-defense.  i grew up in southern california and witnessed violence with guns involved too close.  i'm thankful i never actually saw anyone get shot.  i know very little about them even now- but i have a healthy fear of them and their ability to take life.  lots of folks around here associate guns with hunting for food, as does my husband and his family.  having a good hunter in your family earned you respect- gave you the opportunity to feed your neighbors.  the same tool used in very different ways.

turns out keith's association with guns was entirely different than either of those.  he told me his story as we drove up old pioneer highway.  keith comes from a long line of military men.  for generations the men in his family were career military folk, so there was little doubt that keith would join the services.  he looked forward to this.  during boot camp he was noticed for his sharp-shooting abilities.  he told me it was the first time he ever felt really good at something.  he was pulled from boot camp and given special training.  he was 19.

i won't show my ignorance by attempting to remember details about the particular south american uprising that keith was sent into.  i think it was Guatemala.  in any case, he was sent in with a special task force.  his pride swelled.  once there, he quickly realized that he was a hired assassin.  his skills were used to take out people that our government deemed dangerous.  slowly the reality of what he was doing dawned on him.  he said that he had always believed in the honor of the military and was proud of his country.  it was a shocking blow to realize what he had been made to do.

he served his time and upset his family by leaving the military to become a teacher.  he said some of his family wouldn't speak to him.  not long after he became a teacher he had a student from Guatemala.  her father had been assassinated.  keith believed that he had been the one that killed her father.   i sat there in stunned silence as he struggled with his strong memories and the emotions that pushed their way out into his eyes. 

he said that it was hard for him to deal with what he had done.  he felt like he had been tricked and used.  but he also was still proud of the shooting skill he had.  he explained that he went to the firing range to kind of take back control of his gift, of his curse.  it was a way of healing to learn that he could fire a gun without hurting anyone.  that he could fire his gun without being told what or who the target was.   he was a man with deep hurt healing himself with the very thing that had caused him so much grief. 

the courage of that still strikes me.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

old woman walking

This was first published in the Skagit Valley Food Co-op's newsletter, The Natural Enquirer.

Somehow the universe had managed to give me a chunk of time when my toddler was napping, the sun was out and I had some interest in attempting garden work.  The project at hand was the drawn out process of clearing out the old worm bin of the castings.  Something that seems so simple- as gardening often tricks me into thinking- and yet I usually lack some essential tool or knowledge to complete the task.  On this particular day everything seemed to click and all systems were go.

The shovel was not hiding in tall grass but was propped up and eager to dump clumps of brown richness into the five gallon bucket conveniently located in the garden shed.  Last year I had linked together several lengths of hose to be able to water our tiny kitchen garden, but that had all been coiled away during winter.  We have one water spigot at the front of our house which is a good sixty paces from where I wanted to dump my mixture of worm earth and water.

Speaking of our house.  It sits far closer to the road than it should.  This is mostly due to the long narrow nature of our shy half acre plot.  Last summer we raised our house and most likely you drove by it, slowed down, and gazed at our project.  Our house beamed in all the attention.  It was so easy to over look before.  I think that’s why it is so close to the road in the first place.

On this particular day the traffic was especially heavy due to some blooming bulbs these parts push up now and again.  Since our yard still has that construction zone look to it folks tended to slow down a bit and ponder.  And since it was nice our the neighbors were also out working on their fabulous gardens.  Spandex clad bikers, the pedaling variety, whirled past often too. So I had an audience to my task.

As I filled the bucket with water I squatted next to it and enjoyed the sun on my stretching back.  It felt like I was shedding a thin layer of dusty winter frost.  It creaked.  I groaned.  I remember thinking, “this is way better than doing yoga to that video.”  And I challenged myself to stay squatting while the bucket filled.  It took awhile.  The people may have noted this as they surveyed our gravel driveway with small ponds of mud.

When the bucket was full it was heavy and awkward.  If I carried it in my right hand I had to counter balance in a way that caused my spine to protest.  My right arm and shoulder were not in the mood to take the load either.  My body is often twisted by toting the almost-two tot.  I now know that the bucket probably weighed close to forty-two pounds- heavier than the boy.  And the boy clings to me and doesn’t slosh muddy worm water on me.

So I carried the bucket behind me with both hands on the handle.   Doing this made me forgo my normally slouching posture and to gently bend my knees.  I had filled the bucket pretty darn full and so now if I moved too quickly it splashed my backside with filth.  Good garden filth, but not something you want to wear.  If I walked very slowly, I mean very, very slowly, the water didn’t jump out at me.  So that’s what I did.

As I slowly moved toward the garden plot, every step felt intentional and well placed.  The weight of the water pulled me down to the earth.  At first I felt very foolish walking like this.  Glancing at the road, I noticed the passengers noticing me then moving their mouths in such a way that the driver and any other passengers turned their eyes towards me.  I reminded myself of various photos and video clips I have seen of people, usually women older than I am now, bringing precious water to precious plants.  I think my large colorful straw hat added to this association.

The ground is not level or uniform in most of our yard these days.  There is slippery gravel, hidden boulders, clusters of broken twigs and dried up leaves, pokey-ouchy thistles and lots of dandelions- all randomly dispersed amidst spurts of green grass.  As I navigated my way toward the square chunk of ground, I developed a very slow rhythm with my step and breath.  I would exhale as I extended my leg and inhale as I shifted the balance of the bucket forward.  Looking down at the vibrant green grass the furry buttons of dandelion blossoms created a maze to maneuver.  I stepped more carefully now, challenging myself not to step on their wide faces.  This task was taking a bit longer than I was expecting.

At this point my mind began to race a bit.  I had so much to do while he slept!  Not to mention the things people were probably thinking as they watched me.  I found myself coming up with excuses I could give to folks if they happened to question my peculiar pace and purpose.  So if I ran into someone at the Co-op and they remarked with raised eyebrow, “saw you in your yard the other day” I could offer a reasonable explanation Maybe I was looking for something I dropped in the grass?  Perhaps there was an interesting insect or animal? 

I realized then that there is a large span of time in our lives when we are supposed to move at a brisk, focused pace.  As children we dawdle and wander- following flying bugs simply for the fascination or we create elaborate walking games to keep our mother’s backs healthy.  We backtrack when we notice something new.  Our little magpies inside are drawn to the shiny curious bits of life and we treasure them.  But then we start to get ushered along a bit more.  We are told what deserves our attention, what needs it more than other things.  Maybe we start school and have bells ringing to remind us not to meander too much.  We become more efficient at managing time or vice-versa.

I used to meander a lot.  When hiking with friends I’d stop so often to take in the changing views and small sprouting moss beds I would eventually get left behind.  They’d wait at the top with tapping toes.  When did getting things done become more important than experiencing all the senses of a moment fully?  Somewhere between college and motherhood I’d gotten a wee bit crazed with Accomplishment.

I thought of my grandma then who I saw only a handful of times in my life- almost every visit at her rural Ohio home in the middle of ninety-nine acres of creek and corn.  Her name was Dorothy and she always smelled like fresh soap. Her hugs were cushy warm goodness. Her kitchen garden was probably the first I ever saw.  I still can see her bent over her tomato plants, inspecting each leaf carefully.  Her hands were already starting to crinkle from arthritis and her glasses were thick yellowing plastic.  It was tender the way she touched them the fuzzy nubs of green fruit.  Then she plucked strange bugs off of the stem and crushed them with her crooked thumb with the same nonchalant attitude that she flicked ticks off the dogs on the concrete porch to let my cousin squash them with a hammer.  No nonsense, that was her.

The last time I saw her I drove from here to there.  She didn’t remember me exactly but my aunt prompted her by introducing me as “Billy’s Girl” and then she seemed to know who I was, or who I used to be. We sat on the porch and she looked at the old photos I had found in a trunk in the hall. She knew everyone there, even girls who had crushes on my dad during high school.  I think she knew that there was a lot she didn’t know anymore and that didn’t  seem to bother her either. 

I turned my attention back to my old woman walking, wrapping the task around me like it was the most important thing I could be doing right now simply because I was doing it.  I found the textures and hues of the lawn, even the thistles, entrancing like a good book.  How many times did I walk on this and not pay much attention to it other than to add it to the list of things I needed to do something to?  As I walked I felt the way I imagine I could feel as an old woman who has lived long enough to feel and respect her body’s limitations as a way to pay tribute to all it had done for her, and others, in her life.  My aging body afforded me the right to slow down and not worry so much about checking off chores in a blur at the end of an exhausting day.  The day just glowed then like the hot sun hitting a clean sheet on a clothes line.  Fresh and bright- instantly everything was golden.

As I finally reached the cusp of my plot and dumped brown water onto the bumpy earth the simple act filled with me a sense of contentment that rarely settles on me much.  (Not to mention the extended length of time the task took left me a bit tired which always helps one feel like they’ve done something worthwhile.) I looked up as the neighbor’s rooster crowed and then walked to the fence to watch the chickens.  I still had several more trips to make before my task would be done, but those chickens were golden too.  They stepped so gracefully with a quiet determination.  The rooster had long black feathers that trailed behind him like a wedding veil.  The gals paraded about toward whatever drew their fancy with their feathers shimmering.  They scratched at grass and pecked at pebbles.

It’s hard to know what a chicken is thinking but they seemed so peacefully happy to be plucking and clucking through a sunny Skagit spot with not much to show for their effort at the end of day except a few slight changes to their landscape that no one much noticed.   Me too.