My Little Missionary or Life On Fire, Footnoted

OK, two weeks of this under my belt, and I have to say I love the way blogs “manage” your writing. Labelling, sorting and archiving posts sorta legitimizes the whole process, doesn’t it? I don’t have “thoughts” — I have Thoughts. Ditto regarding the way I can link and footnote. When I was working on my first novel (that’s the unpublished one in a box in my attic if you were wondering, thanks for asking!) I sometimes found myself making weird tree diagrams with stacks of real cut-and-pasted manuscript pages, trying to figure out what went where (you only have to resort to this if you’re ambitious enough, or stupid enough, to try to create a novel from six points of view). If only I’d written it in blog form! I could have easily linked portions of the narrative, like this:

In her Friend V (she of the fire-n-brimstone grandma), Elder Girleen found her first theologically-inclined buddy. Last year in preschool, Elder Girleen and V discovered that they both knew the words to “Jesus Loves You” (taught to Elder Girleen by her grandmother, not on my watch), which they then with great relish taught the whole preschool class. Causing so much consternation that the teacher felt obligated to put the following into her weekly newsletter for parents:

“Some of you have asked why I am teaching your children the words to religious songs. Some of the children have enjoyed teaching songs they know to other children in the class. Learning religious songs is not part of the instruction at XXXX Preschool.”

Just so we’ve all got our separation of church and state straight.

Three Little Words, Revisited

An astute reader reports that she’s run across the new sanitized Wheels on the Bus (with “the mommies on the bus say ‘I love you'” replacing “the mommies on the bus say ‘ssh, ssh, ssh'”) elsewhere, as well as a sanitized version of “Rock-a-bye Baby”–instead of “down will come baby, cradle and all” they sing the last line as “mommy/daddy will catch it, baby and all.”

Oh, the years of therapy the Girleens will need — not only were they sung the wrong versions of these two songs, but also “Hush Little Baby” complete with lines about horses and carts falling down.

OK, I have now parsed out The Wheels on the Bus as much, as not more, as the author of last Sunday’s Modern Love column.

It’s all either Grist for the Mill — or I need to get a life.

Life, On Fire

Last night, over dinner, Elder Girleen presented us with the following example of deductive reasoning:

“V– said that her grandmother said that if you say bad words you will live in fire.” Pause. “When I was three I said bad words and I don’t live in fire.” Pause. “Live in fire. I don’t know what that means.” Pause. “I think V– was confused. I think what her grandmother said was that if you say bad words you will be FIRED.”

This is what happens when dinner conversation for the past month has revolved (in code, we thought) around corporate layoffs.

Three Little Words

I tend to read the “Modern Love” column in every Sunday’s New York Times the way one slows going past a car crash: with equal parts disgust with myself and prurient interest. It’s never one’s better self who taps the brakes driving past someone else’s tragedy; it’s certainly not my better self that immediately after scanning the Book Review (I admit, there are vestiges enough of my writer self left that I still read the Book Review first) immediately flips to the Modern Love column in the Style section.

No offense to any of the writers published there (I’d certainly be one if I could), but I had no idea that navel-gazing could be elevated to such an extraordinarily high art within the pages of a daily newspaper. In a blog, yes. But in the New York Times?Does the world (or New York, or those small portions of the country that actually read the New York Times) _really_ need to know what it’s like to… be a egg donor… an abused woman… at the losing end of a bad breakup… or, as was the case this past Sunday, what it’s like to be a mother who doesn’t particularly like to say “I love you” to her two-and-a-half-year-old?

(Don’t get her wrong… it’s not that she doesn’t actually _love_ her child; she just doesn’t care to say it much, a realization that dawns on her after she hears a woman sing the following verse of The Wheels on the Bus — “The mommies on the bus say ‘I love you,’ ‘I love you,’ ‘I love you…’ — to her stroller-strapped offspring.

First things first. I’ve NEVER heard this verse of the Wheels on the Bus. And I’ve been singing the Wheels on the Bus, a song I was lucky enough to never even have heard of until I had children, until I’m blue in the face for the past five years, particularly at Mommy and Me Swimming classes, a scam foisted upon well-meaning middle-class parents who, being led to believe that you can actually teach a toddler something that resembles swimming, pay good money to stand waist-high in a swimming pool singing the Wheels on the Bus and This is the Way We Splash Our Hands while their child, and every other in a two-mile radius, screams its head off. I mean, how stupid do we think children actually are? The Wheels on the Bus is no way interesting enough to distract anyone from the fact that they’re being dunked in water, which, in case you didn’t realize it, Mom, you can drown in.

All that aside, there are a couple of ways one could react to this essay:

1. When the song The Wheels of the Bus leads you to start parsing out your relationship with your kids, it’s time to reevaluate your life

2. Maybe this was published in the Times so that all of the rest of us parents — whether bad, run-of-the-mill or stellar — can feel good about something. We may forget to pick up our kids at school, may exchange store-bought cookies for homemade ones when it’s our turn to bring snack to preschool (provided one’s preschool allows cookies), may buy our kids Barbie outfits at Target so that we will have five minutes to stand in the dressing room to try on t-shirts that make us look pregnant (having, as we move through our child-bearing years, travelled the ignominious road from wearing Exhilaration! to Mossimo to Cherokee Woman) without having to contend with a child who is either screaming or trying to squirm under the dressing room stall door into the adjoining stall where a 65 year old woman who does not like children is trying on brassieres. We may do all that, but at least we are ok about telling our children that we love them.

Of course, like every other parent, this woman makes herself feel better about her disinterest in saying those three little words by making the whole act of doing so seem vaguely suspect, as if it were akin to

1. Letting your child watch too much t.v.
2. taking them to MacDonald’s
3. Bribing them with sugar

What a pretty pass things have come to. The other day I was in the check-out line in the grocery store and against my better judgement picked up Real Simple’s Family issue. Did you know that letting your child eat something that’s dropped on the floor gives you two stars in a one to five scale of bad parenting? Likewise, sending your child off to school without a scarf or mittens? Don’t even ask how many stars neglecting to make them brush their teeth one single night can give you.

Forgive me, for I have sinned. My youngest daughter trolls around on the dining room floor after dinner occasionally popping that morning’s dropped cereal into her mouth. My children are congenitally incapable of wearing mittens, and more power to you if you can get them crammed on their recalcitrant hands. Sometimes when the Husband has been away on business for four nights running, we … forget… to brush our teeth.

I guess the title of this post should really be: I Just …Don’t… Want… to …Know.

If I were Smarter…

I guess if I were smarter, I would’ve started this blog five years ago — and hooked whatever hypothetical readers there might be out there (as of now there aren’t any, since I’m afraid to “unveil” this to friends, much less the world) with the easily-packaged narrative arc of motherhood: the pregnancy; the baby; the sleepless nights; the long haul from childlessness to parenthood; the slow, incremental realization that when, Before Children (B.C.), people (like your mother-in-law) said “boy, your life is going to change,” what they really meant was: “have fun being broken down by the boot camp of parenthood. The screaming drill sargeant, the face shoved in the mud, the complete subjegation of your will in the service of something larger than yourself — all true.”

Or probably if I were REALLY smart, I would’ve started this blog even earlier, while working some mind-numbing job, from which I would’ve then gotten fired because of time spent blogging, a la dooce.com. Oh, the publicity! I would’ve been set for life.

But on the other hand— if I were really smart, maybe I wouldn’t start a blog at all. We all know you should never say anything online that you wouldn’t want the entire world to hear, a caveat that, disregarding the damage following that advice would do to all the hundred million blogs this one keeps company with, makes me realize that I have never said or written anything I want the whole world to hear, not even my grocery list. I mean, think about the whole world: my mother-in-law, previous boyfriends, George Bush, potential employers, people who might one day publish the book I should be writing instead of this blog, the old lady who lives next door, the director of my daughter’s preschool, the C.I.A. Talk about stifling creativity! This may be why much of the writing one finds online more resembles the sort of automatic writing channelled by a medium from dead souls than it does any kind of art. Nothing squelches art like the idea that it has to undergo the scrutiny of the whole world.

All it takes is toggling from one button to another: and then this blog will go from being ether to being something that anyone, including actual strangers or the F.B.I., can read (Is there a file out there somewhere labelled Subversive Mothers? Would it be all that bad if I actually ended up on it, especially since, so far, I haven’t had anything particularly subversive to say?)

I’m not sure if this dilemma is unique to Blogworld, or hits on something about writing in general. You either make the leap and reveal something about yourself, or you don’t.

And you know, I can’t have it both ways. I can’t both fret that no one in the world will ever read this AND simultaneously worry that having written it will someday come back to bite me on the ass. The two are mutally exclusive.

White Noise

Suddenly I have become the parent of a child old enough to attend school. Real school. Where they wear backpacks and have a dress code (all those lovely sundresses bought this summer — not ok). Real school, where the library is called the media center ( —Did you have a media center when you went to school, Mama? — No, it was just called the library then. We didn’t have media!) Real school, which I now realize was not what came before this. Real school — my child is out of my purview for seven hours. She eats lunch in the cafeteria, for God’s sake, and I have no idea if a vegetable has passed between her lips at lunchtime since August 13, the day school started. And there’s not a whole heck of a lot I can do about it: all I can do is hope she’ll make good choices.

Which actually, now that I think about it, is about all I’ll be able to do about anything, from now on. Hope my kids make good choices, and that I’ve given them decent tools to do so. That’s my job — the rest is up to them and whatever higher power you choose to give credit to.

The enormity of this state of affairs has left a number of my colleagues seriously discomforted. (“Colleagues” as in motherhood has become temporarily, or not, at least one of the jobs they hold; “colleagues,” because most of the conversations I have with them resemble the water-cooler trivialities you exchange at work).

Me, even though I have a younger child still at home, I feel free. Or maybe not free, but free-er. Also anxious. This could be my chance to have a couple of adult thoughts long enough for them to actually run their course, without being interrupted by someone under four feet tall who has a question, a need, a desire to watch television, is hungry, thirsty, wants me to wipe their nose, their bottom, wants to tell me what they want to do, what they don’t want to do, what they did, what they didn’t do, or maybe just wants to illustrate their complete and utter control over me by laying their head in their sister’s lap so that said sister will pull her hair and I, the Mother, will then say, in the tone of voice used by mothers for millenia: if you don’t want her to pull your hair, don’t put your head in her lap!

What if, when all that white noise goes away, there’s nothing left? What if those adult thoughts aren’t really worth much? What if…

This is the reason people have more children. Or keep their kids out of preschool longer than most. Yeah, once I mourned the loss of my sense of self but now I’m not so sure — outside of the ugly but comfortable Keen shoes, the bermuda shorts, the dated haircut, in short, outside of being a mom — who that self really is.

Joining the Throng

I don’t know if there’s a timetable somewhere for midlife crises but 42 seems a pretty good age to embark on one. At thirty-one I was jetting around the country to promote a book (although the fact that I was doing this at my own expense and had to take a plane because I lived in another country slightly dilutes the freewheeling and successful image this conjures up). Now I’m forty-two and the only thing I’ve done in the past year or so that can be classified as “writing” is to waste the previous year waxing eloquent in emails sent to the other members of the board of my oldest daughter’s preschool about a variety of subjects that mattered not a whit to a single sane soul in the universe. Because these women also often found themselves deeply concerned about subjects that mattered not a whit to a single soul in the universe, occasionally one would be nice enough to profess admiration for my writing ability, but other than that I think it would be safe to say that my writing career, my avocation, my calling — whatever you want to call it — is pretty much dead in the water. Since it was hardly seaworthy at the best of times (can you say “literary fiction” and “midlist author”?) this is a pretty fucking sad state of affairs.

Perfect reason to embark on a midlife crisis, right? Running out to put a bright red sports car on the Amex has not been a viable means of getting through this period of my life; nor is taking up skydiving. So lately I’ve been asking myself: What would be the 21st century, cutting-edge way to indulge a midlife crisis? (In other words: is there a cool way of being so uncool as to question what the fuck you’re doing with your life?)

The answer of course — is to start a blog. If the cyberworld were an actual physical space, blogs would be the cockroaches that live beneath its floorboards and behind the drywall. There are millions of them. Each one has links to three more just like it. The obvious conclusion to be drawn from the number of blogs in the world is that nobody in America is doing any “work” — we’re all just punching clocks, literal, metaphysical or spiritual, so we can sit down and vomit out our hearts out to our computers.

Or put another way: Blogging is the new knitting! Some of us make lovely cashmere sweaters, others of us, unidentifiable lumps of overly-handled dingy yarn.

So why add my voice to this unholy clamor? We’ll pass over the naive greed that for about .73 seconds made me entertain the idea that writing a blog might actually be a way to make money from writing. (This turns out not to be the case, of course.)

When my oldest daughter was born, I found myself unable to surgically amputate my writer-self from the Mommy I had become, a state of affairs that did absolutely nothing for me but lead me down the primrose path of postpartum depression. In fact, sad refugee from academia that I was, I found myself unable to keep from examining the world in which I found myself as a potential narrative.

How do women write about motherhood? How do they talk about it?

The conclusion I came up with then, and could probably call my manifesto now (except that all you have to do is Google “mother” and “manifesto” to see how overused that concept is) is this:

We all behave as if the choice about how to talk about motherhood is easy, lies either in sentimentality or its inverse, some wry jocularity. I have to believe that the truth is more complicated than that, that it resides elsewhere, spreads and deepens, shifts and shimmers; watery enough to both sustain and drown.

I suppose I’m adding my voice to the calaphony because it still seems laudable, to wade through the bog of motherhood in search of that watery elusive truth. To figure out a way to talk truly about this messy business of mothering, called women’s work for so many millennia.

Besides, I spend most of my life with the under-six set. With who else can I share my observations about the deeper meanings of My Pretty Pony, Dear Reader, but you?