40

Avery counts the deep lines etched across my forehead. “One… Two… Three… Four.” Then she asks, “How many do I have, mama?” I tell her there are none but she doesn’t believe me. She climbs a stool to look into the mirror. “Zero,” she says; surprised and faintly disappointed.

This is what 40 looks like.

Forty hid far enough over the hill that I never gave it much thought until I turned thirty and the inevitability dawned on me. Looking for a fuller picture, I started asking 40-year-old people, “What are you excited about in the decade to come?”

“Gaining weight,” they said. “Losing hair from where it should be and growing hair from places where it shouldn’t be.”

What’s so great about 40? For starters, I know who I am, what I do, where I live, and who I love. I’m calmer and more confident. I have courage enough to admit what I don’t know. I forgive more and react less. I choose people who show up in my life over those who don’t.

When I look back on my 20s, I wish I’d been easier going and kept a lighter mind. For a while, fear of never finding love and family juiced the sweetness out of life and left me sucking a dry lime. Even when I got what I wanted; I found that I didn’t end up wanting what I got. Sure, I had some fun. But I lacked the perspective to understand how good life was; so it almost didn’t count.

The runes offered the same advice often enough that I started to pay attention: Be receptive, they said. If free will made me miserable, then maybe receptivity could bring something like happiness. So at twenty-eight I decided to do it: I would pursue nothing in favor of radical acceptance. For a few years, it worked. Aside from one bad night on the floor of a south-bound train out of Mumbai, it went very well.

Life is a game of Twister; not darts. Once I calibrated to this way of thinking the pieces started to come together. As my 30s ticked by (where did that decade go?), a lot of the things I lost sleep over in my 20s came to fruition. Partner. Home. Kids. The spinning brain cogs clicked and some of life’s overwhelming number of possible paths melted away. Anxiety dissipated. I gave up movement – temporarily at least – for a wild and terrible stillness.

A note of warning: When you open to the will of the universe, expect the unexpected.

At 40, I feel grown up. I’ve finally started to refer to myself as woman, rather than girl. I know when to hold ’em and when to fold ‘em. I’ve lost my thin tolerance for pop music. I’m quicker to drop grudges. If absolutely necessary, I can drink coffee black. Other than that, I’m the same person I was at twenty-eight.

Forty is where it is at. I’m ready settle in to the quiet landscape of my body; to stop living every day like an emergency; to recognize the miracle held in every pale, tangerine sunrise.

I miss the strength, infatuations, collagen, and wide-eyed aspirations of my 20s, but I wouldn’t go back and do those years again. Unless I could go back to my 20-something body and keep my 40-something mind. Then, I would definitely go back. That would be awesome.

*

When my friend T turned 40 she took a new job. Right away she knew it wasn’t for her, and she quit within the week. “At 40 I don’t have very many fucks left to give,” she said, “and I’m careful who I give them to.” We reveled knowing that at another time she would’ve stayed in that job for a year. Or years.

Mother. Adventurer. Artist. Healer. Advocate. I love who I am, and I have stopped hoping to become someone else. The best part of being 40 is a surprising sense of the unknown. Family restricts my freedom; but with my need for belonging saturated I can finally relax and wonder, what could the rest of my life be about?

The universe is full of solar systems a galaxies light years away. Everything matters, and nothing matters. Because what are we made of, but star dust?

*

The first age spots appeared on the backs of my hands this year, and I’ve been preaching the virtues of sunscreen to my daughter. It’s probably too late for me, but who knows? If I start wearing it now, maybe I’ll look great at fifty.

The same friends who turned 40 when I was 30 turned 50 this year. So I ask again: “What are you excited about in the decade to come?”

“Gaining weight,” they say. “Losing hair from where it should be and growing hair from places where it shouldn’t be.”

One of those 50-year-old friends is a photographer. I recently caught him taking pictures of a beautiful old tractor that sits gathering rust and lichen in a field near my home. He’s lived here twenty years, and I’m sure he has a thousand pictures of the thing. Yet the evening light was nice. I couldn’t resist calling out: “Haven’t gotten around to capturing that one yet?”

Tractor, September 2018
Tractor, September 2021

He shrugged in response. Maybe returning to whatever we love over and over again is as good a way to mark the passing of years as any.

What am I excited about in the coming decade? Play. Laughter. Movement. Delight. I exist well enough in this world of straight lines; but I would like to meet a version of myself with more my oil in my hips. I want to inhale deeply, and exhale fully, without thinking about it. I figure I might as well start being young now, before it’s too late.

***

Avery’s universe

First self portrait

Photography has been a great way to connect Avery with the baby brothers and offer her a special “big sister” role at the same time. Here, for her 4th birthday, I share some favorite photos of hers that I keep in a folder called “Avery’s Universe.”

A good place to use a phone

Through these pictures I see what my daughter notices about our family. I learn more about who she is and about who we are. Best of all, these photos reflects the totality of her love; a sense of what else would I photograph?

Baby brothers
A study in brothers 1

As a photographer, a kid has this advantage: I reach for the camera when everyone is copasetic and I have a free arm. I hand Avery the camera when everything is hectic and I am hoping to occupy her. In this, she captures the speed of our life more accurately than I ever will.

A study in brothers 2
A study in brothers 3

I like her portraits. I feel drawn to them the way I am drawn into any still frame of art that captures a thing in motion; a living, breathing being in transition from one moment to the next.

A study in brothers 4

I appreciate the honesty of her lens. There is no secret working of camera angles to hide an undesirable mess or the bags under my eyes. Everything is shown as is. Life looks that way. Why wouldn’t it be in the picture?

The sun
This happened once

Casual moments, sticky surfaces, propensity for all objects to land on the floor. From a child these recorded realities come naturally; her pictures are accurate without being insulting.

Mamadada
DIY haircuts 2020

Yes, I delete ten pictures for every one I keep. But also, she is starting to ask for the camera when she sees pretty light. We are adding art words to her vocabulary: Design. Palette. Frame. Subject. Shade.

A study in brothers 5
A study in brothers 6

These pictures feel special for so many reasons, including the gaps where I use my imagination to fill in the time that passes between pictures. Flipping back through these images, I watch my sons emerge from neonates to older babies with spunk and personality. And I watch my daughter shake off the remnants of babyhood and become a strong, confident, capable kid.

A study in brothers 7
A study in brothers 8

One last special thing: Mama gets to be in these pictures. Avery is the only person who documents this chapter of my life. When she photographs me holding a baby – smiling at him or playing with him – there is no end to my pleasure. She catches me in the middle of my work and tells me that the job I am doing is good enough.

*

Still snowing

April now. Fat, white flakes swirl, cluster, and gather on the window pane. They coat the car, the driveway, every surface. I’m less than happy about it. I’m less than happy about a lot of things right now.

Forgive me this post. Emotion demands that we go in before we can get through. Feel it; don’t think it. When depression knocks I hate to open that door. Like a homeless cousin, I’m afraid that if I invite depression in it will stay for a long time… but I don’t want it hanging around outside of my door either. I want to be a person who talks about hard things. I am trying to get unstuck.

I’ve been asking people why we feel so down. No end in sight. Boredom. Isolation. Loneliness. Nothing to look forward to. We’ve been living with COVID-19 for a year. You’d think we’d be used to it. Vaccinations are happening; we might start to feel a measure of safety and normalcy. Yet all I have is questions. Can I go inside of stores and restaurants now? Are you going? Will all this new activity come down on my kids? Have you been vaccinated? Can I ask that?

So much has happened since the new year and also so little. Avery is going to bed more easily. The brothers have ten teeth between them. Sleep is precious. I have gone from regretfully ignoring my old dog to unabashedly ignoring my old dog.

Over spring break I traveled out of Alaska; it was my first trip in a long while. For two weeks I enjoyed sunshine, flowers, and family. Avery’s behavior was awesome and it was a nice little vacation from my problems. But now, I’m back.

Back to the stress of waiting. For Avery to outgrow tantrums. For our family to figure out peaceable conflict resolution. Back to another friend long-hauling with Covid. Another friend with cancer and a go-fund-me site. (Why is this the way we fund healthcare in this country?!) No produce in this town. I put some alfalfa seeds in water to sprout on the window ledge. How long will that take?

One of the things I have learned on this becoming-a-better-person journey called parenthood is that chaos is short-lived. When the house blows up with voices, crying, agitation, food on every surface, etc. I don’t panic. Fifteen minutes, I think. It will all be over in 15 minutes. I can buy myself a little time without freaking out but that is my limit. My boundary. My max. If chaos exceeds the time allowed, I crash.

When Covid started, I gave it a year.

March was a marker, but of what? We can no longer look over our shoulder and see where we came from, but visibility ahead is also poor. The horizon holds no promise of resolution.

Even when the threat of this illness has past there will be the social reckoning. So many difficult conversations are left unresolved. Mask-wearing and social distancing added visible fuel to an already mile high fire. We can’t take back what we know.

So, we wait. Even as everything has changed, and with evidence to the contrary, we trust that spring still follows winter.

***

What we pay attention to grows

Give me back my sock!

Give that sock back! Give it back nooooooeeeewwwwww! She is laughing, running around the bedroom, tossing this purple and black striped sock into the air. Is this why mama it’s always the last one dressed and out of the house?

Um, yes.

Chase, laugh, repeat. Just days ago I would’ve grabbed said sock and made sure we moved on in a timely fashion. But I have a new goal: Make Avery giggle every day and keep it going.

The figurative Puritan farm wife in me has never allowed for enough joy but my new goal is helping. Also this week: Airplane rides. Grandpa walks. Special Time and the The Don’t Do It game. I discover that I know a surprising number of silly songs about horses. Tickle chase in a grassy field substitutes for the workout I never seem to get.

Why would I ever shut this down?

*

Last week was rough. “Don’t wake the brothers,” I said as Avery climbed into the car after school.

Avery and I have been in a terrible cycle. She’s been aggressive towards the babies, seeking attention through negative behaviors, and generally wound up for months. If you say, One more time and I’ll... she’ll get right on that.

Ruptures within our family are never about one incident. Major conflicts fall on top of years of broken sleep and “normal” household chaos (this morning I found play dough smashed into the rug and half-eaten tomatoes in my daughter’s bed). Even if I maintain through offenses A, B, and C, there is no way I will make it through to X, Y, and Z. I have been mad, yelling, slinging consequences, and even spanking.

Already we suffered a string of conflicts this morning. If the babies stay asleep then Avery and I will get some desperately needed one-on-one time before her nap; but I am hoping for the impossible…

“Hi Eirik!” She yells into his face. Two little blue eyes blink open.

With three car seats across the back of my SUV, car time offers Avery unsupervised access to the babies that I find impossible to avoid. Eirik gets the worst of it. At times she has pressed a thumb into his fontanelle until he cried or finger-popped the side of his mouth and made him bleed.

“Hi Eirik!” she yells again, this time poking at his mouth. As she reaches for him now, I go ballistic.

*

I am a good parent; meaning I am committed to the process. Communicate well. Lead by example. Each of us takes responsibility for our role in a conflict. Focus on the beauty. I hold this vision for the long road and offer myself forgiveness in all the moments.

Every now and then I stumble upon a hard topic to write, which also means that I have to do it. This is that topic. Conflict within our family. My child’s overwhelming behavior. Trying to be on the same page as my spouse. The role I play in all of this. It might take a few posts.

At times, Avery’s love for the brothers recalls the curly-haired Animaniacs character Elmyra who gathers the animals into her arms, saying, “I will kiss you and love you and squeeze you all up!”

Parenting is insane and whoever says it gets easier is a filthy rotten liar. The twins get a lot of press, but what makes our family functional or fraught is Avery’s behavior. I wont divulge too much lest I shut down reproduction for the human race, but this list is a pretty good summary:

Avery isn’t a toddler anymore; but Preschooler = Toddler with more brain and muscle. Since I’m the one who’s talking people worry about me but that’s not the point. Please, pray for us all.

*

It’s sad what a big kid loses when she gains a sibling (or two). She had mama entirely to herself for three years and must now compete for my attention (aka take turns).

I remind myself that I am the guardian of Avery’s sense of security, and she expects me to model what reasonable interactions look like. I want to harness her “creatiful” energy for the greater good and find a way forward where I am not mad all the time.

Avery demanded the full hippie swim-up bar until she was two-and-a-half. Watching two babies tethered to my boobs is too much for her to take. If I don’t want a baby at each breast and a jealous kid wrapped around my neck then I nurse in my bedroom.

While I hide behind a locked door, Avery finds outlets for her angst: Sewing needles scattered across the floor. A stick of butter nibbled at the corners. A spool of thread woven through the house like a mad spider’s web. Furniture covered in maxi pads. Wet washcloths wrapped in toilet paper and carefully placed in the freezer. Framed art askew. Electrical fixtures swinging.

Isolating her from her family isn’t what I want to do. It’s bad enough that the other four of us, plus the dog, sleep together in one bedroom while she sleeps alone. (We tried rooming the dog in with her but he couldn’t take the pressure.)

I have an idea. Next time I nurse on the couch and ask, “Want to play hide and seek?” Without waiting for me to finish, she runs away to hide. I count long and slowly then I go find my girl.

My sense of safety is renewed but it’s a bit like tossing a steak for a troublesome dog. There must be a better way.

Time to use a lifeline. My friend E has the same constellation of children only she is a year ahead. She recently spent a long weekend with friends who have preschool-aged only-children and was amazed at how much attention those kids got. “We have to remember our daughters are still really little,” she says.

Knowing what not to do does not help a parent to know what to do. Thankfully, my desperate late-night Google searches yield new ideas at ahaparenting.com.

The blog is written by Laura Markham, author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids. She talks about fresh ways to be in relationship with children that shift parenting away from consequences and towards fun. In all the margins, I see my daughter.

She writes: Laughter relieves stress as much as a tantrum, and it’s so much more enjoyable for everyone. Laughing not only reduces fear and anxiety; it also releases bonding hormones like oxytocin so every time you laugh with your child, you’re building trust and connection.

Peaceful Parenting has three parts:

1. The parent commits to regulating his or her own emotions.

2. The parent prioritizes strength in the parent-child connection, the relationship, which is the reason children cooperate.

3. The parent loves the child unconditionally. No withdrawal of love around undesirable behaviors. No rewards or consequences to manipulate the child into doing your will. Only loving guidance and opportunity for everyone to learn how to manage big emotions together.

All of this takes a lot of effort. But as one playful dad, V, once told me: “I find I have to put in the effort one way or another.”

*

Kids (and grown-ups) act out when they have big feelings they can’t put into words and don’t know how to express. When our needs for attention and power (two big needs behind undesirable behaviors) go unmet we get whiny, controlling, aggressive, and territorial.

At first I couldn’t imagine a world without consequences. Do the crime, do the time, right? But then I realized that punishment doesn’t really accomplish anything helpful. Remember the last time someone yelled at you. Did it increase your respect? Bolster your relationship? Make you want to please them? Improve your behavior in the future? Nope. Me neither.

From a kid’s perspective, there is no need for discipline; only for connection, listening, and stress relief. Kids need insightful adults who imagine what’s going on inside of them. They need us to understand their intentions, believe in them, forgive them, expect the best from them. That’s the adult I want to be.

*

For the first time in a long while, I see positive change in my child’s behavior and it isn’t because I found some magic wand to wave over her. I started with the only behavior I can change: Mine.

In doing away with consequences, I committed to figuring out what my daughter is trying to tell me. The message was obvious: Avery needs to know she hasn’t lost me.

I’ve been slow to understand all the forms separation anxiety takes. That’s why we’ve struggled so much at bedtime. That’s why time outs make her behavior worse. Avery has a case of the mamas and she’s willing to drag a brother around by his arm if it means I’ll come running. She wants to be with me, glued to me, no matter my mood. This is also why she continues to think I hung the moon and stars even on my yelling days.

*

I am having fewer yelling days. I’ve been reading, thinking, talking about my intentions, screwing up, apologizing, seeking accountability in my friends and support in my husband, doing it all again.

Photo by H. Landers

After several months of hard work, I rarely use punishment and consequences anymore. When I am proactive; when I cuddle my daughter and make sure not to leave her on the back burner, the behaviors disappear (okay not completely) on their own. When they surface, at least I know where they are coming from.

What fills the void? Singing of show tunes and whispering of silly things in each others ears. Saying yes when other adults make excuses. Rip-roaring, out-of-control, rolling-on-the-floor giggle fits that allow me to see more of my daughter’s beautiful spirit and my own.

What we pay attention to grows.

***

Culinary Adventures

I like to cook; but I love to be fed. Somehow this dichotomy served me well in my first two decades of adulthood. But then it was 2020 and I found myself cast as the mother in a family of five. My under-confidence in the kitchen exacerbated our dinner stress, and I figured, as long as I am responsible for feeding all of these hungry people forever, I might as well learn. Time to take my meatballs out of my apron pocket.

I’m not a bad cook. I can make something robust, filling, and even tasty; but I am slow and my repertoire is limited. I only cook when I have unlimited time and that occurs under one condition: When pigs fly.

A big problem is that I start making dinner without an end goal. Seriously. I have no idea what these ingredients might combine to become. My only objective is to use up the vegetables before they liquify in the bottom of the refrigerator. I chop and sauté, add things from cans, and voila! A soup is born.

If I make anything other than soup, I screw up the details. I start with polenta, but turn the whole steaming potful into a baked cornmeal pizza crust. Toppings shift out of beans and cheese and into pesto and olives. Or leftover brown rice sneaks its way into Thai dishes. I am forever mixing and matching Asian sauces. Every meal is as much a surprise to me as to anyone else. Nothing ever tastes quite right.

“You are crossing cultures,” my husband complains.

This from a guy who puts ranch dressing on tacos. “How come when you do it, it’s fusion cooking, but when I do it it’s a mistake?” I ask.

“Because when I do it,” he says, “it’s delicious.”

Fine.

I surround myself with good cooks; which is not entirely coincidental. My husband must have been a five-star chef in a past life. He is a wealth of culinary insight, and for no obvious reason.

One afternoon, M stops home for lunch and I proudly serve him a turkey-havarti melt with avocado and homemade pesto. His response: “Any chance of a little tomato?”

M always knows what he wants. The flip-side is he doesn’t receive mediocre food well. He does not even receive good food well if it could be improved upon. For ten years I have avoided conflict with my husband by not bothering to feed him.

I slice the tomato, muttering not-so-under-my-breath. I’m fishing for an apology. He opens his mouth, and I look up. He says, “Do we have any red onion?”

I would hate him for this, except the sandwiches turn out so special.

Food presses me to answer questions of desire that I have long avoided: What do I crave? What might fulfill me? What do people eat, anyway?

My home cooking started the way all of my best learning does: By circling in from a seemingly unrelated point, taking my sweet time, and enjoying myself along the way.

Several months in, I had little to show for my efforts except better breakfast foods and baked goods that I was already pretty good at making. I spent hours in the kitchen, and still there was nothing to eat. One night, all I had to show for myself was peanut sauce, roasted veggies, and rice. “Is this dinner?” Avery asked. Um, yes?

Feeding children is tricky. I prepare dinner under the guise of feeding them but let’s be honest: They want yogurt and toast. And tacos. I could throw a taco at them every night and nobody would complain.

Best that I please myself whenever possible. I find myself doing crazy things; like I’ll be inspired by a vegan recipe but then I’ll add dairy and meat or make it gluten-free. Good stuff happens this way but it isn’t efficient. Fake parmesan and vegan butter, while interesting, are not exactly necessary.

Also, I do have to feed the children. I did a couple of experiments with meatless meats that didn’t go over well. Avery refused to eat the first one, and that should have been my sign. On the second foray she said, “Mama, if it doesn’t look like meat, and it doesn’t taste like meat, it isn’t meat.”

Learning any skill necessitates a certain willingness to fail. I experiment with new recipes when M is out of town so that my inner midwestern farm-wife doesn’t fret about pleasing him. But Avery let’s me know if I miss the mark.

Avery has her father’s pallet. She will eat whatever I make as long as it is delicious. Also, she needs presentation. I can have all of the elements of a meal ready to go; but if it falls apart into a pile of crying babies at the last minute and looks like pig slop she goes on hunger strike.

I want to make wholesome, healthy, delicious food. Sounds simple. But who cooks this way? Where are my people? Also, how do I create delightful meals without a lot of planning and fuss? If mung bean sprouts and ripe avocados grew out of my ears I would be much better at this.

Time to get goal-oriented. Every weekend I jot a quick list of things to make throughout the week and endeavor to do one creative thing in the kitchen every day. I visit the library and check out all the cookbooks. I bookmark everything that looks good, then become so overwhelmed that I go back and shove everything through the slot.

Later, I try again. Mercifully, an epiphany brings relief: Food is themed. Ethnicities. Seasons. Colors. Certain things go together, and certain things don’t. With a little research I also pick up a new recipe app that allows me to organize recipes this way and it gives me the feeling that life will go on. This is where I’m at, people.

Here are some profiles I am playing with:

Southeast Asian: Red curry paste, mung bean sprouts, cilantro, peanuts.

Mediterranean: Parsley, basil, thyme, tomato, olives, lemon, balsamic vinegar, olive oil, mozzarella, parmesan.

Mexican: Black beans, tomato, corn, chili powder, cumin, avocado, lime, red onion, cilantro.

Japanese: Soy sauce, miso, ginger, sesame, green onion, rice wine vinegar, seaweed.

Themes keeps me on task. I get a lot of mileage out of making sure I can name a dish, and clarify its ethnic origins before I start cooking. It’s also possible that thematic thinking affects my shopping more than my cooking. I don’t need to know what’s for dinner when I put in an order; but if I buy green onions then I also need ginger and miso. If I’m craving sun-dried tomatoes it’s worth picking up some feta. You’re welcome.

Getting interested in food, leaning in, has turned cooking from a source of stress into a source of pleasure. If I accomplished nothing except that I change 100 diapers and a day I feel sort of, meh. If I change 100 diapers, and make ratatouille, I feel awesome.

Eventually, I found a few sources that check all the boxes for me. Favorite cookbooks include Nourish by Cara Rosenbloom and Nettie Cronish and the Run Fast, Eat Slow series by Shalane Flanagan and Elyse Kopecky. Angela Liddon of Oh She Glows is a vegan genius and few things taste so good as vegetarian dishes by Cookie and Kate.

Cooking has also improved my diet more than restricting food ever did. The more I prepare inspiring vegetables, and seek protein in beans and seeds, the more I crave those foods.

My time in the kitchen is shifting out of responsibility and into play. I get to have a little adventure, protected there behind a gate. When the babies toddle over they always leave with a snack. If anyone cries then everyone gets a cookie. I want them to enjoy time with mom in the kitchen, too.

Let’s begin.

****

The dinner breath

I’m a little short on adventure these days, though nursing hungry twins can be scary after midnight. Release the Kraken!

Evenings are also full of adrenaline. It is 4 PM. The house is a disaster, and every child is crying. I am making dinner but also I am ready to spring. The muscles of my back, neck, and jaw are coiled.

I am not entirely opposed to adrenaline. I love to ski, hike, and bike; but in those sports you can always stop and re-assess. Evenings with my family are more like running whitewater.

Something about being tired, and having a dinner-making responsibility to see through, makes the madness in my home unbearable. In a past life, the highest use of late afternoon was to fix a quiet cup of tea for some toes up time. Now, as my children hover and swarm, I feel like, Why are you still talking to me?

On the exterior I am calm. Inside, my brain turns to soup. I open the refrigerator door and forget why I opened it. Nausea sweeps through me. What is this? Oh. That’s panic. Cold, hard panic. Then I remember, green beans, and move on.

*

To freak-out is the body’s natural reaction to threat. It goes by many names… Come un-glued. Flip your lid. Lose one’s shit. The brain short-circuits, making the prefrontal cortex and all of its propensity for language and rational thought temporarily unavailable. The only problem is, wild children do not constitute an emergency.

I was never one for whitewater. In my early 20s a boyfriend wanted to learn so we spent some time at the pool and then took our kayaks to the river. In the course of a week, I swam a class II rapid, tipped on an eddy-line (and feared I would drown), and watched him washing-machine down a class IV rapid. That was enough for me.

People say we can only control ourselves. What the hell? Living in chaos, at times, renders me emotionally hijacked. I am anything but in control. Fight or flight isn’t a pleasant state to hang around in; I would gladly drop my reaction if I could. How do I make it stop?

While it is happening, I’m convinced that a nice little adult temper tantrum will restore order – for tonight and all the evenings to come. But freaking out never solved anything. Tomorrow night we will be right back here where we started. Same bat time. Same bat channel.

I want to be a calm mom. If I can pull this off, maybe my kids will look back on childhood with rose-colored glasses. Right now, I commit to figuring this out. I will learn to recover from stressful moments without to upsetting anyone.

Maybe all I need is to reframe the situation. I wonder if I could shift this daily experience out of anxiety attack and into adrenaline rush. When someone in our family is up against something difficult, we say, try again or ask for help. My husband loves whitewater. So I ask:

“You know that time, between 4 and 6 PM, when everyone has needs, and I am tired, and I need to make dinner, and it is so hard?”

“Yeah,” he says.

“It’s sort of feels like running the rapids on a river; like there’s no possibility of eddying out or making things any calmer. I just have to get through it.”

“Mmhmm.”

“Why do you like that feeling?”

“It’s a little scary,” he says. “But it’s exciting too. The danger gives you a rush.”

“Is there anything you like about whitewater kayaking that might help me get through that time of day?” I ask.

“No,” he says. “I don’t think so.”

Breathe. Take a breath. This is what people say. Before you go under, I think. But one breath does nothing. I need like an hour of breathing to feel like myself again.

I’ve been working towards self-regulation for my entire adult life. Allegedly there exists a teeny tiny gap between emotion and the impulse to act. All one has to do is locate it, separate the two, and let the emotion rise and fall within the body without doing anything crazy.

You don’t have to do anything.

After decades of scanning I still don’t see that space. Anger, stress, fear, or scarcity sends me straight into whatever in-voluntarily smack-down spectacle my body orchestrates to reign in control. At the first hint of a hairline I promise to throw in a pry bar like a javelin.

Keep your head down, I tell myself. Ignore the chaos. Keep going. Ride the wave.

When you’re in a hole, and the water keeps coming, there isn’t time to think. Yet, keep paddling, and the hole will eventually spit you back out. My brain flat-lines for ten to fifteen minutes, tops. All I have to do is resist the urge to lash out for this teeny tiny slice of time. The emergency will resolve and my brain will come back online by itself.

I am motivated. Never before was every day so fraught with land mines and the stakes so precious. Maybe with compulsory daily practice I can get a combat roll down before the brothers move on to solids.

For fifteen years, I have been aware of my breath, the experience of life in my body, and the compulsory generation of thoughts. I can observe thoughts, but in a triggered state I end up bending to their whims.

In the big picture, mindfulness helps me to stay calm. But it has never helped me snap back to stasis in the heat of a moment. It occurs to me, that fight or flight is a physiological response, and if there is a way in, then there must be a way out.

With a little research I learn that the return to rest and digest status is a function of the Vagal nerve. This “wandering” nerve starts at the brainstem and meanders all the way to the gut; which is why intuition is sometimes described as a “gut” instinct. I am pleased to learn and is also sometimes called the Vagas nerve.

Goodbye reality; hello Vagas.

Want to hack your way out of fight or flight? There are quite a few ways to stimulate the Vagal nerve: Story-telling. Singing. Journaling. Belly-breathing. Splashing cold water on your face. Pressure points. Bearing down.

You mean, that I can calm down just by pretending to fart? Yes. Maybe.

Ready. Set. Vagas.

Vagal nerve strength can be measured by tracking the heartbeat. Under stress, the heart holds a constant rhythm. As a person returns from a triggered state to calm, there is more variability in the timing between heartbeats. The skill of returning quickly from a triggered state back to center is a function of vagal tone, but it also goes by another name: Resilience.

I think a lot about building resilience in myself, my children, and our family. Realizing that two separate goals just met and married in a neon chapel strikes me as very, very cool.

Vagas is the answer no matter the question.

Resilience is not a measure of grit-your-teeth endurance or the depth of your stuffed emotions. Rather, it is a measure of one’s willingness to look what is real in the eye, see it for what it is, and to do what is needed, for as long as is necessary.

Highly resilient people are no better at holding back floodwaters from bursting through the dam than anyone else; their forte is to accept the disaster, pick up the pieces quickly, and begin again.

For my part, resilience means generating less anger; valuing relationships over control; noticing the experience others are having even when I am at my whit’s end. It is stopping, before I freak out, to ask, Is this worth giving up my calm?

The finish-line for me each evening is something our family calls, the dinner breath. My husband and I made up this ritual on our second date and have kept with it ever since. We join hands with our daughter, the babies in their highchairs, and anyone brave enough to venture over for dinner at our place. We sit in stillness long enough to take one intentional inhale and exhale. We wait as the vibration of gratitude travels around the table and passes through each one of us. We are together, and that is enough.

I hope dinner time will become just another time. A regular meal. No big deal. Becoming resilient to the chaos of children gives me hope that I will make it to the table. That there will come a moment, with everyone in front of a hot meal, where nothing crazy has happened. When I sit and take hands, I finally relax. I have conquered the rapids.

You can’t buy happiness, but you can go to Vagas and that’s kind of the same thing.

***

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Deluge

Early December brought a downpour to Southeast Alaska that the National Weather Service described as a 1-in-200 year event. Twelve communities were affected in all. Haines suffered the most extreme damages with 6.62 inches of rain in a 24-hour period. There were landslides, sinkholes, roads washed out, loss of nine homes, dozens of people displaced, and two fatalities.

The rest of our communities hardly make news. It’s rain, after all. Y’all are used to that, right?

I’ve never experienced anything like it. On the second day, flooding begins. Gustavus gets almost 4 inches of rain; just under the 24-hour record set in October of 1994. Eleven inches fall in the City of Pelican in 48 hours. Eleven. Southern California is lucky to get that much rain in a year.

For these two communities, last month was the rainiest December on record and second only to October of 1978 for the rainiest month of all time.

My neighborhood loses power in the late morning. Someone from the utility company stops by all of our homes to explain that a transformer is underwater. They are waiting to see what additional flooding the high tide will bring. “Hopefully power will be back on tomorrow,” he says.

I love a good power outage. When I was a kid we lost power to wind storms all the time. Mom would get the kitchen glowing with kerosene lanterns and warm us with the blue flames of our gas-powered stove. It felt very pioneer. We ate cereal and listened to AM radio. Gusts to 60 mph. French toast sticks for school lunch. We suited up into snow pants and jackets and went to the bus stop. No big deal.

Fast-forward thirty years and I feel dramatically under prepared. My husband is in Juneau. I have a range top and a wood stove, but no heater and no oven. Without the booster I can’t text or make calls. We have water in the reserve tank but it will run out soon.

First things first. I make a batch of play-dough and dig through the Christmas decorations to find two LED candles and enough AAA batteries to power them.

I place one of the candles on Avery’s nightstand as I tuck her in at naptime. “This is your candle,” I say. “Keep it with you until the sun comes up tomorrow.”

During her nap I prepare for nightfall. I mix a quick soup, put out oil and popcorn, place an empty bucket under the downspout, scoot living room furniture aside to create a sleepover scene, prep the laptop and DVD, and gather thematic books.

Avery wakes up and walks out in her light shoes click, click, click. Pink and purple fireworks with every step. She is carrying her candle. “Mama?” she asks. “It’s 6 p.m.?”

She wants to know if it’s time for the episodes she watches in the evening while I put the brothers to bed. “Not yet,” I say, and we read Dinosaurs before dark by faux candlelight.

My ability to slap a silly solution on a somewhat serious situation is my strength as well as my weakness. Maybe I should dig deeper, plan harder, think bigger; but that’s not where my brain goes. If the kids are safe and happy, if I can manage to make this into another one of our adventures, then that’s good enough for me.

It’s time to drive into cell-signal land and call daddy. I load the kids into our old truck and brave the flooded driveway.

Photo by S. Neilson

I dial my husband from the library parking lot. For a few minutes everyone is copacetic but then Toren starts in with his metal-on-metal scream. My husband is irritated. “Why don’t you call me back when everyone is settled?” he asks.

I get out of the truck to tell him how it really is. That making this phone call took a journey. That all I’ve got to get us through the night is popcorn and light shoes.

Covid-19 makes this strange storm even stranger. At another time people would be visiting, playing games, and waiting together for the weather to clear. But for the millionth time this year, there is nowhere to go. So we go home.

All of us are dealing with multiple stressors: People have too much work or too little work; too much time or too little time; anxiety or boredom; friends or family. We have nothing left to give, but keep giving anyway. We get out of bed in the morning, get along with others, pay the bills, get some sleep, and do it all again tomorrow. It’s not our best work but it will have to do. We forgive ourselves. We call it giving ourselves grace.

This endless rain at the end of an endlessly rainy year taxes whatever stamina remains. I wonder what kind of resiliency I have left. Six p.m. finally comes. With Avery plugged in and the brothers asleep, I sit down to eat soup and reevaluate. A generator, I think. Tomorrow I will find a generator.

Just then, a neighbor rolls up with venison steak, fun lights, and a generator. Turns out my husband made a few calls of his own, and Covid-19 doesn’t stop everyone.

Photo by S. Neilson

Sometimes we have what we need; other times we don’t. Maybe resilience lives in the community collective: A place where even when people are tired, someone has the energy to make a difference, knows what to give, has the right thing to give, and the truck to get it there.

*

The evening begins anew. We eat and play. I run the generator for a bit of light and comfort before turning in. “You might hear me up in the night,” I tell Avery. “I’m adding wood to the fire. Call Coo-ee! and I’ll come tuck you again.”

The pounding rain keeps me awake. I remember another time, far from this life, when I pretended the wind rattling my metal roof was the Southeast rain and let it lull me to sleep. This is not that rain. For the first time, I wonder what constitutes a monsoon.

Daylight makes everything better. I pack everyone up and drive to a friend’s home where I sit on a couch, drink tea, and feel normal. People joke about their new lake-front property. The power comes back on.

But the rain continues. After three days the volume drops to a normal sort of torrential angle-rain that continues through days four and five. On day six my friend H texts me: How is it still raining?

After a week, the sun comes back out. My husband flys home. We cut a Christmas tree. I ignore the wet things haunting my crawlspace. M spends three days evicting voles from our garage.

The New Year offers an opportunity to exhale and celebrate all that we have come through. With the last full moon of 2020, I spend a quiet moment letting the past year go and making room for the year to come.

Resilience sometimes shows up as a reserve: A full tank of gas. Love handles. Money in the bank. Good health. People who pick up when you call. A shiny new degree. An adequate resume. A reliable vehicle. The padding we hold onto for tough times.

But rather than a fullness, resilience might be a space. A capacity for looking ahead to a challenge and wondering, How might this change me for the better? In lean times a reserve can be exhausted. But a space can grow and deepen forever.

I talked with a friend in Haines today who parents an almost 2-year-old from before sun-up to long after sun-down. He is also remodeling a kitchen, emotionally supporting his partner who is a pandemic-era medical professional, repairing his home after national disaster-level flooding, and with each day addressing that relentless question, What’s for dinner?

“It feels like a little too much,” he says.

Yet I know this man to be highly resilient. Even under stress, he loves. He knows his gifts and gives of them generously. He cultivates an attitude of gratitude. Kindness is a prerequisite. Play is a priority. He lives by values, rather than resolutions.

Resiliency requires imagination. It says we must not expect life to behave predictably and we must not despair when everything crumbles. There is always a new chapter waiting; another chance to rise from the ashes. What is the point of living as less than we are?

On the brink of a new tomorrow, resilience is resisting the urge to rush back to the safety of everything you’ve ever known. It is singing our sorrows with lifted voices; even if we can’t carry a tune. It is the courage to look out over the edge, and fly.

Twins: 5 months

The brothers have entered my favorite phase of babyhood where they are no longer luggage but are still immobile. They have personalities but they don’t yet have behaviors = Pretty fun.

“Where was I before I was your kid,” Avery asks.

“In the sky,” I say, “waiting to be born. I was waiting for you to come.”

“And the brothers?”

“They were in the sky too,” I answer. “Only I didn’t know it. Are you happy that we got them?”

“Yes!” she says. “Toren is the best baby in the world!” Eirik should not be offended as both babies are unequivocally Toren.

I have this feeling too: Our babies are the best babies in the world. The anxiety I felt when I found out I was having twins has melted into this bliss of being the mother of a large family I never knew I wanted. I get to have three.

*

My experiences of parenting these children are so different. Avery’s love is oxygen; I can’t imagine life without it. The brothers are as gifts. Eirik is the baby I wanted; Toren is the baby I never could have imagined.

Eirik

I don’t mean to compare my boys and find them lacking; I only mean to learn a little more about what each one is by noticing what he isn’t; like noticing the ways in which a wren is not a chick-a-dee.

Eirik is an old friend. He pauses while nursing to look up at me and his smile cuts straight through my heart. When I’m sad I can hold him and feel better. He is round and scwunchy and my only hope of a south paw in the pack. He initiates giggle fits with Avery. There is nothing complicated about his love. His hands are so wide that I have counted to make sure he doesn’t have six fingers. He will either grow into a strawberry-blonde version of Clark Kent or a big guy with a comb over. Possibly both with enough time.

Toren is both sweetness and drive. With the way he gets a baby chair bouncing I wonder why it isn’t yet an Olympic sport. He has already gained three pounds on Eirik to become the larger of the two. His legs are like tree trunks and I couldn’t be more proud. (Who da big brother!?) The first thing he taught me is this: If you want to be cuter all you need is a little fat and a better mood. Eat the pie; lighten up.

Toren

Being the mom of infants again is made simpler by knowing that it gets harder with time and not easier. As this blog emerged with Avery’s mobility, I have no written record her infancy. I’ve enjoyed having another chance to catch these early days.

At five months, Eirik still accepts swaddling for sleep; Toren is done. Eirik nestles in like a teddy bear when I carry him so I can smell the back of his head. Toren rides straight and tall like a miniature prince. Eirik indicates his desire to nurse with a subtle lift-of-head and a penguin flap of the arms; Toren gets loud. Eirik nuzzles and sips; Toren yanks at my nipple and pumps his feet against the wall to maximize flow.

Everything changes so fast. Even as I write these words, I wonder, is that still true? We are always free to reinvent ourselves.

*

These boys have traded roles from how I understood them at birth. Toren was insecure as a newborn: He cried a lot and I was uncertain about how to handle him. Maybe it was his time in NICU; or my hesitation about having twins. Maybe he didn’t feel welcome. Maybe he is less trusting by nature.

I felt that I would have to earn his love, but how? In a home swimming with babies, how could I compete for one child’s affection? I wore him a lot and hoped for the best.

But Toren wasn’t asking me to meet unrealistic expectations. He just wanted to know that he would be safe and loved in his new family; which happens to be my specialty. When I realized he only needed me to be myself, worry lifted from my bones. Fear not, little child. You will be mothered.

Our problems ended. Eirik struggles to sleep but this baby drifts off silently; snuggling down under his giraffe blankie with his matching pacifier. I love you too, ‘lil buddy.

*

There’s the love

“I miss you mama,” she says.

“I miss you too, Avery.” I return the gesture but I don’t quite understand. Unless she’s at school, my girl and I are together in every waking moment.

Since the brothers came along, people have been asking: How is Avery? Sigh. She is still a high-energy three-and-a-half who does very well with direct adult interaction. How about being semi-ignored except to make sure she’s on target? Less well.

All of the advice I received on how to support Avery as we welcome new babies into our family was the same: love, love, love. Make time for her. Make sure she knows mama still cares. I have; but it’s not the same.

We lost co-sleeping but we cuddle every morning until Toren calls for a diaper change. We read in bed before nap and bed time; unless Eirik starts to cry. “I’ll be back as soon as I can,” I tell her.

Parents opt in for second (and third) babies so that our first learns to share an adult and loses the impression that she is the only show in town. We thought having siblings would help our daughter grow into a more awesome person. Being that this was the plan doesn’t make it easy.

I am coming to understand, without understanding why, that beneath her antics is an extreme love for me. In intense moments, I’ve learned to ask: What does she want? Where’s the love?

“I miss you, mama,” she says. “I miss you too, Avery.” * Avery stayed home from school for the past two weeks because of Covid concerns, and has gone almost entirely ferrel. I’m hoping her teachers reign her back in. On Monday, Avery finds me in the bathroom where the brothers and I do our morning yoga. “Hi, mama! Hi brothers! It’s biiiggggg sister!” We move to the kitchen. Eirik is rubbing his eyes so I put him down for a nap in his carseat (#StrategicMommery). I still have to make her lunch feed the dog find a mask think outerwear change my pants load everyone into the car. Avery just has to eat and get dressed. Usually she can handle that, but not today. It’s time to go. “Avery!” Next for you is socks! Go get them!” I say this and return to the PB&J I am crafting. She returns a few minutes later completely naked.

“Where are your clothes?” I ask.

She looks at me straight-faced and says, “I couldn’t get my bracelet off.”

Indeed, she is wearing a bracelet.

*

Avery is smart. She recently did the zipper on her sweatshirt and announced: “I don’t need adults anymore!” She loves books – from Winnie the Pooh and Trucks Go to the Magic Treehouse series and graphic novels. She often rocks side-ponytails because they work with her DIY haircuts. She can do somersaults and fireman poles but struggles with basic human functions: Fall asleep. Eat with a fork. Keep food within a 2′ radius of your plate. Sit in a chair without falling out of it.

My girl doesn’t take orders so I work around them. Please go get dressed. What do you want for breakfast? I make requests and ask questions. I model exact language and respectful communication. I try not to break down like David Seville:

Avery? Avery!! AVERYYYY!!!!!

On Tuesday she still doesn’t want to get dressed. I say: “When I am ready the brothers and I will load up and wait for you in the car. But it doesn’t come to this. Somehow we get where we need to be.

On Wednesday, I do it. You are not the one who is late for school, say the books. Make it her problem. I’m fussing with the Bluetooth and trying to enjoy myself. I expect Avery to run out of the house at any minute. She does not.

This is why I avoid power struggles with my girl: She always wins.

After eight minutes I find her inside sitting in what remains of a house plant. She is wearing pants but is still topless. “My shirt was inside out,” she explains.

Consequences fly. Minnie mouse lunchbox? Gone. Sleeping bag and sleeping pad? Gone. It is my stacking of library books into a dramatic pile that stops her in her tracks.

“You return my library books?” she asks. “Without my books, I can’t reeeeead!”

“Get dressed,” I say. “I’m going to take books until you get dressed.”

*

Writing this post holds some shame for me, but so it goes. When I became a parent I did not become a perfect person.

All of us struggle through raising kids. Maybe I’ll imagine that parenting provides us each with a similar level of struggle. Even as this is not true, we might feel similarly maxed out, and in this we are together.

I am trying to shift from shame, pain, and blame punishment (physical or emotional) to inquiry. I ask questions and try to figure out what’s going on. Infuriating behaviors are a form of communication: She has so much to explain.

*

I’ve strategized and on Thursday morning I’m ready. “I made a biiiigggg breakfast,” I tell her. “When you are dressed please come out of your room and eat with me. I will leave the door half open.

She comes out, still in her foxy nightgown.

I returned her to the room, and repeat my clever line. “This time I will have to shut the door, but it won’t be locked,” I say. “When you are dressed, come out and we will eat breakfast. I hope you come soon, because I’m hungry and ready to see you.”

Again, she comes out in her nightgown.

“Avery, what is going on?”

“Mama, I feel sick,” she says.

“Okay,” I say. Clearly, she isn’t.

She beckons for my ear: “Sometimes,” she whispers, “when people are sick… they don’t… go… to… schooooool.”

“You are going to school,” I say, but gently.

No tears come but her voice breaks. “Mama,” she says “I don’t want to go to school. I just want to stay home with you and the brothers.

There’s the love.

“My girl,” I say. “You have to go to school (so I don’t lose my ever-loving mind), but the brothers and I will miss you very much. Know what? We could put some gummies in your lunch. You know what else? Today is Thursday and it’s almost the weekend….”

All the while I am walking her back to her room. “Avery, I have to lock this door. Call me Coo-ee! when you are dressed and I will come get you to eat breakfast.”

A minute passes:

Coo-ee! Mama! I am dressed!”

*

Thrill of the wild

Last weekend Avery and I (and the brothers in their cart) walked to a beach not far from our house to look for animal tracks.

This beach is part of a wildlife corridor that connects disparate sections of Glacier Bay National Park. Animals use this land, and sometimes my driveway, as part of their route across the forelands.

It is a perfect environment for teaching natural history. We find coyote, wolf, brown bear, and moose prints. Once Avery can identify all of them I play a trick. I find the tire track from the chariot and I ask, “What kind of track is this?”

“Baby snake?” she asks.

Well, almost all of them.

*

Alaska: The Last Frontier. The last place where a parent might worry more about their child’s exposure to brown bears than to creepers, gang violence, and guns. I’m proud, but petrified.

Avery walks next to the bear tracks and I calmly take pictures. The only time I’ve ever had trouble with a bear was while fishing. Still, I make sure these footprints lead away from where we are playing, and take the safety off of the can of bear spray in my pocket.

I don’t want fear to ruin our fun. More people in the United States are crushed by vending machines every year than are attacked by bears. There are, however, a lot more bears out here than vending machines.

Where we live it’s sort of uncool to be afraid of bears, but I am. I think back to time off I had in past summers when I canceled planned kayaking trips because I had no one to go with. It’s a shame. Every day that I am out feels precious now.

On the way back I start a game: “Hey Avery… How do we get back to our house? Can you find the way we came?”

My usually independent and brave little girl crumbles. “We are lost!” she cries. “We will never find our way home!”

I pull her close. “Aves,” I say. “Mama knows the way. Your mama is an excellent route finder, and we are not lost. I’m playing a game so that I can teach you to be safe out here. You’re just a little kid now, but you can learn. And when you are a big kid, you can come out here with your friends.”

I can hardly believe my own ears. She can? At what age? And with whom? Will I really let her do that?

Of course I will.

Fear can keep us safe but it can also prevent us from getting outside. If I know anything about my kid then she will grow into a teen who needs a little danger. There are only so many opportunities for adventure and I’d rather not instill too much fear of the wilds in her.

At the end of our driveway, you can turn right and head out to a wild and remote stretch of Alaska’s coast. A kid with a pair of boots can muck up and down a number of sloughs and across tidal flats. A few years later, that kid might get in a kayak and paddle a short distance to watch deer or wolves on an adjacent island. Maybe she hikes in a bit from there to discover a one-thousand-year-old Sitka Spruce; or paddles around to the back of that island to explore a reef covered in anemones and sea stars.

Avery will also have the choice, at the end of our driveway, to turn left. Around the same age, on foot or by bicycle, she will head into our small town. There she will find a school, post office, cafe, grocery store, gas station, and opportunities for a different sort of trouble and adventure. It could be a metaphor, but it’s not.

So I take her to the beach.

Today she discovers mildly-colored goose feathers (not poisonous, she tells me) and baby strawberry plants growing from burgeoning soil. She finds chunks of driftwood left from trees plowed down three-hundred years ago by the oncoming glaciers of the Little Ice Age and loads them into our cart. Without explanation, she intuits that they are special.

When the time comes for my girl to head out into the world on her own, she will go. I do not expect her to be one who waits. Already, she watches the big kids who arrive at school and walk up to the door on their own.

“Me go by myself?” she asks, eagerly unfastening her carseat buckles.

“No,” I say. “Mama’s not ready.”

*

I was lucky enough as a teen to have friends who took me to the wild places. We could ran through passes and over peaks. We belly-slid on the mudflats and did a lot of high-risk sledding. We snuck out once and picked blueberries by headlamp.

Our mischief also took us into town: We found streets that reflected our names and stole the signs. We toilet papered a covered bridge that led into a new subdivision with cookie-cutter houses. We borrowed a paddle boat from a lake house and played on the water until 2 am. We used road construction equipment to rerout traffic past a friend’s house. Twice we were chased by cops but they didn’t catch us.

As Avery grows, I hope she knows the thrill of the wild. I hope she recognizes fear for what it is; learns when to trust it and when to ignore it. I want her comfortable and clear-headed so that she makes it home again. I hope she experiences everything.

Please let her turn right.

*