Susan's Blog

Tuesday, April 4, 2006

Scratching the Surface

Is there anything worse than worrying about your child’s safety and wellbeing? I don’t think so. Tonight I am getting Nat out of the shower, trying to shepherd Ben in, when I notice red streaks across Nat’s left shoulder, onto his chest, in the configuration of a hand. Cold claws in my stomach, twist of dread, then, “Nat! What is this?”

“Yes,” he says, which is how he answers any question. “Mommy will go away.”
“No, Nat, I want to know what is this? How did this happen?”
He can’t answer these kinds of open-ended questions. He thinks I know the answer, and says, “Yes.” And then, “Mommy go away.”
I study the welts and want to cry. He knows this. He looks alarmed. He thinks he’s in trouble. He can’t stand my histrionics. But I want to pull him to me and make those ugly marks go away. I can no more pull him to me than I can make him talk to me. It would be inappropriate, (he is naked, holding a towel) and he would not like it: he has already told me twice to leave him alone.

Where did these marks come from? Did someone do this to him, or did he do it to himself? He is not beyond self-injurious behavior. He used to bite his arm all the time; thank God he almost never does that now. So why the scratches? No incident reports in the notebook, no phone call about today.

Sometimes I wonder about his bus drivers. Would they hurt him? But then, would he go smiling into the bus if they did?

In fact, he smiles so much these days, I have to figure the most obvious: he did it to himself. Ned takes a look at it. He looks at me, and shrugs. Dry skin, maybe? I sigh, and relief starts to crackle through me, as I realize this is probably the cause. “Okay, Nat, do you want some lotion on it?”

“Yes,” he says and eagerly goes into the bathroom with me, watching, enthralled as I smeared Aquifor on his skin. I rub the gloppy ointment in, hoping to soothe whatever it is and whatever caused it, choked by my inadequacy, and all of the pent-up love I feel for this child of mine that I can never quite express to him.

Monday, April 3, 2006


When I was a little girl, we had “extras.” An Extra was something that was kind of a bonus, that didn’t count, but that someone wanted to give to you anyway. It could have been an extra birthday present but one that they were not quite sure of for some reason; perhaps it was something they had found, rather than bought, or something that they knew might not be exactly right but the impulse to give it was stronger than its potential to displease. They are little splurges that you could not help getting, but they are not the main attraction. Yet they might end up being the most memorable gift of the day.

I kept the tradition going, not even consciously, when I gave Max the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue for his birthday, along with several other wrapped presents (tee shirts, books, and I-Tunes gift cards). The Swimsuit Issue was a joke; Max had been asked to write an essay about sports, and he hates sports. This was to inspire him, to show him that even sports has a positive side. (He took the magazine with bright red cheeks and a huge grin and I never saw it since; and believe me, Ned has asked to see it many, many times.)

I also gave Ben an Extra on his birthday, a tiny Maggie Simpson doll, because I know Ben thinks Maggie is really cute. Anything that brings out the soft side in Benj is something to be pursued, so I handed him the figurine loosely wrapped and called it an “extra,” so that he would not be insulted about being given a doll for his birthday.

Lately I have found that extras are not only found on the top of a pile of birthday presents. It is quite possible that there are people in ones life who are also Extras. In fact, maybe all people one loves are Extras, in that we kind of stumble upon them and may or may not be swept away by what they offer. But as we love them longer, they become more like Givens. But even they are not Given, when you think about it. Parents of some sort are a Given, but parents may run off, parents disconnect from you, and of course, they eventually die. But in general, in my mind, family is kind of the Given, the central gift (mom, dad, siblings; then, when you are older, spouse and children) and friends are the Extras.

Or is it the other way around? I was raised to think the former, but as I get older, I want friends who are Givens. And for my spouse to be Extra. But Ned feels to me like the all-time Given, but I also understand the very real fact that husbands and wives fall out of love and leave each other. And, frankly, things are far more exciting when I suddenly view Ned as an Other/Extra, in relief, lifted out of the daily routine surroundings. I find when he talks about work, when he really gets into describing something he is thinking about, I feel myself move back and see him clearly as a man in the world. I see him how others see him (and it is a huge turn-on). It is then that he is like an Extra, rather than a Given.

Children move in an out of Extra status. When they are first born, they are Extras. They are a wonder to behold, something you can’t quite believe you actuallly have. Then, as you get used to them, they are (or seem) more Given. You feel you can take them for granted. When we first brought Nat home from the hospital, we drove at a speed of 20 miles per hour. Ned said, “I can’t imagine ever going fast again.” Nat was that much of a precious bundle.

Now, of course, we speed and drive crappy like everyone else, with our kids in the car. It is not because we love them less. But they become more Givens, more just a part of life, a part of us. But every now and then, when I focus on one of them, I really connect with them and feel how special they are. As my boys grow up and become more “real people,” strangers, even, I see them as Extras more frequently, these people in my life whom I don’t always know that well.

I am plagued by this model. There are very few friends who for me are Givens. I can’t help but see some people as more tenuous, more special, less predictable, than my family. Is that the best way to approach friendship? Shouldn’t we be able to take friends for granted a little bit, too, like family? Shouldn’t family members be viewed as Extras more often? Do I have this all backwards? The Libra in me would like a better balance: to be able to lift my family into Extra status more often, and for friends to feel more like Givens. I have one friend in particular, who feels more and more like an Extra, even though he tells me he is a Given. I don’t understand my discomfort in this situation, and I would like to.

But maybe that is the nature of things. Maybe that is what friends really are; they are little extra gifts that you get, that you sometimes don’t even recognize as such at first. You can’t really predict how great they are going to turn out when you first come upon them, and you don’t know how long they are going to work for you (or you for them). It is a source of excitement but also of anxiety.

As I write this, I find I would like a new model.

Sunday, April 2, 2006

It Sho Was a Happy Day

Why are there happy days and horrible days? Why are some people happy and others, not? What are the ingredients to happiness?

Maybe it starts with what you believe happiness is. To me, happiness is both short- and long-term. Short-term happiness is being immersed in the moment, giving in to the pleasure around you, feeling anxiety-free, speaking freely the thoughts that bubble up and connecting with the people you’re with.
But long-term happiness is also a giving-in, or perhaps more of a giving up, a letting-go. Long-term happiness is about contentment with most of what your life is, what I used to scoff at as “settling for mediocrity” when I was younger and (even more) demanding. Before I had Nat, I believed that all happiness was about the total sensory overload I described above, a connected intensity with those around me that never broke. I used to demand that of all my relationships, and of course not that many survived, or they had to change. I had to change. My experience with Nat was one thing that taught me that obvious intense sensory connection is not necessary to everyone’s happiness. Happiness can be a total being unto oneself as well. I also think that surroundings and mood have an impact on one’s happiness. I tend to be happier in warmer weather (although I have had a stunningly happy winter this year, probably because of being so involved with the book tour and newfound success). Yesterday was a warm, beautiful day, almost a summer’s day, with a changeable sky that went from light blue to purply gray at times, and burst open with showers, and cleared just as quickly. We could all be outside without even thinking about it, without considering coats, or socks. So sometimes happiness is small, close-at-hand, simple and straightforward.

But there was something else, I think, that signalled to me, to us, that this was going to be a day of sweeping happiness. Maybe it was because we all feared rain but it stayed away until much later. So the happiness was feeling like we’d all gotten away with something. Maybe it was because all there was to do was jump in the moonbounce and entertain little kids and their parents, so it was about being free from work.

It was also about the five of us jumping together, all of us children for a while, having pure physical fun. It was a day for drinking wine outdoors and eating all the birthday cake you possibly could. A huge bee got inside the slide and everytime I tried to kill it with my shoe, I would fall down the slide. One kid at the birthday got a nosebleed, another had the wind knocked out of him going down the slide. Another kid drank like three juiceboxes in a row. Little boy bodies were lumped together, head over heels, little dirty feet in faces. The sun blared, the moonbounce listed. I jumped so hard I heard it pop beneath my feet, which made us all laugh. Everyone was sweaty and yelling, including me. But it was bigger than that, I know it was, and I can’t grab onto it. It was a day of profoundly sweet sensory overload (for me) and at the same time, of serene peace (for all of us). At any rate, as Mammie said in Gone With the Wind when Bonnie Blue Butler was born, “It sho is [was] a happy day.”

Saturday, April 1, 2006

Whan That Aprill

I want to post this not because I’m a pretentious a****** (I admit, it’s a possibility), but because I truly always think about Chaucer’s Prologue to the Canterbury Tales this time of year. This is because when I was a freshman in college, I took a class where the prof made us memorize this Prologue and he exhorted us to recite it every spring! So I still do!

Professor Ogden taught us that, as strange and foreign as the Middle English appears at first, if you read it aloud and pronounce every letter in the word, you get a sense of what each word is and you can feel what each line means, even if you don’t understand it word for word. It is really pretty simple, a description of April’s showers, and how they satisfy each vine, creating a flower; and the sweet breath of the wind, the new plants, and how Aries is halfway run; and the best line: how birds sleep with open eyes this time of year because their hearts are so full.

Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the ram his halve cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(so priketh hem nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages…

We won’t be going on any pilgramages today; it is Benji’s party. We have rented a moonbounce and are expecting nine eight-year-olds. The large, rubbery crayon-castle right now lies in a wavy mass in the middle of our yellowish-white yard, not yet inflated to its carnival-like proportions. It was raining a little, (a shoure soote), but the sun has just come out, suffusing the bare branches with a pink light. It all still looks asleep and wintry, but because I know it is now Aprill, I can feel the life beating just below the surfaces. If you look close, you can see green buds starting to unfurl and splashes of crocus color here and there, and even a hint of new green spreading over the grass.

The photo in this post is of my backdoor garden, in June (the absolute BEST month). I created this garden several Mays ago when I lost the Town Meeting Member election. I called it my “I Hate Town Meeting” garden, and filled it with roses – tea roses that are peach, pink, white, and yellow — and rose campion. God hands you lemons, you make lemonade. God helps you lose an election, you make a garden, and count your blessings.

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