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.”
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Happy Birthday A! We have successfully run the toddler gauntlet, from ages 12 to 36 months, where I had no idea what I was doing! Congratulations to us!
A and I have been back together for a few months now – time I wouldn’t have had but for Covid-19. I’m surprised at how much she has grown since last summer and how much learning slipped by without my noticing despite evenings and weekends together.
What kind of things? She has the sweetest new spray of freckles across her nose. Christopher Robin is her hero. She knows all the words to Old MacDonald and sings it while riding on the tractor. She loves to play baby animals; which translates into games of fetch in the back yard and her saying, “I love you, mama salmon,” whenever she’s in the kiddie pool. She invites us parents on trips “up north to see the polar bears” and made me a paper pilot’s license so I could fly us there.
Her language skills have blown up since March; though correct use of pronouns still eludes her. New vocabulary includes “moss”, “twig”, “chic-a-dee-dee-dee”, DVD-dee-dee”, “cool”, and “butt-crack.” I claim full responsibility for all of it. You win some; you lose some.
This little girl’s spatial-mechanical awareness puts me to shame. She knows where we are when we drive around the city as well as I do (Going to the airport, mama? To the library? The doctor?) She may already know how traffic patterns flow at intersections and how to differentiate right from left.
She has taken to calling me by my first name. “Heidi?” she asked on a recent romp around the yard. “How does water get into our house?” I take her over to the cistern and she begs me to check the level. When I tell her dad usually does that job she retrieves the dip stick from wherever it’s kept and shows me how. Then she moves on to questions about electricity and plumbing (“Where does my poop go?”). Finally, she asks me to explain the internet. Mama doesn’t know, child.
A is an excellent adventurer. There are no rules in our family about getting wet or muddy; only that your being cold cannot ruin the fun or cause us to turn around early (at least not very often).
I will forever remember this summer as the one where A wore a bike helmet and little else. Three weeks ago she tried a balance bike and declared it defective. “No pedals on this thing?” she asked. “Just use your feet?￼” Now she’s glued to it; seeking ramps and making hairpin turns. She drags it, barefoot, into the backyard where she can try downhill￼s.
She is my treasure, and I tell her so on a daily basis. On a recent foray we wander down a “short” path I have not been on for quite some time. I brought no phone (no reception), water, or provisions save for a granola bar and a fruit leather tucked inside of my bra strap (reason #286 why stretchy pants need pockets!)
Low-slung alders criss-cross the path; bent by last winter’s heavy snowfall from left to right across the lines of straighter, darker trees. We duck under, climb over, and go around singing, “going on a bear hunt” all the while. A swings from their branches and rides them like horses; a satisfying reminder of my childhood.
At the end of the trail a kingfisher calls Kick-kick-a-kee! and dives into the river. We sit on a bench and eat our snack. My daughter discovers, and falls in love with, her first tire swing (Higher higher!). Finally, we turn and head for home.
Hours have passed. By time the truck comes into view, my child is buck naked, dehydrated, hungry, scratched and mosquito-bitten. She still doesn’t want to leave. “Thanks for the great adventure, A,” I say. “I had fun with you today.”
“Thanks, Heidi,” she says. “You’re my treasure too.”
Trying to be an on-top-of-it person, I had the nerve to respond to an email yesterday. In the two minutes I gave it, baby A snatched a pen and scribbled all over a white chair for the second time this week. The first time it happened, I was wiping up food she’d thrown on the floor as a diversion.
This combines well with the fact that I recently diagnosed my 12-year-old dog with depression. I can’t say I don’t understand it: Two years ago I went from his best friend to the person who hurls food at him twice daily and otherwise yells at him to Go outside! Come inside! Stop eating the baby’s food! Get over here and eat the baby’s food! Yeah, I pretty much yelled at him for the past two years while I cared for my late-larval-stage human.
The dog is now on a strict regimen of no being-yelled-at, having his head patted each time I walk by, kibble set lovingly before him, and one full-body hug daily. It seems to be working.
In helping my dog I realized that the only way to avoid such scenarios is to be infinitely available to my family forever. I made it until 5 p.m., but as soon as my husband came home I ran screaming out of the house.
The scribbled chair, the doggie depression, all of my failings come down to one issue: I need some time for myself. People do. That need doesn’t disappear when one becomes a mother.
It’s like I tell my husband – If you are doing something autonomous that makes sense, then I am not.
“Doing anything for our selves feels like selfishness,” says my friend T, “but it is actually more like self-preservation.”
My main scarcities are two-fold: 1) professional opportunity and 2) “wellness,” which includes sleep, nutritious food, yoga, and outdoor adventure. A person needs to go for a walk once in a while without also extolling the virtues of mittens. Maybe if I just get up at 5:30 in the morning…
Writing is my proxy for professional effort. It is something I do during every nap time whether it lasts 15 minutes or three hours. It is something I can do while solo parenting or following my husband around as he commutes between towns. It is something I can do even though A does not yet tolerate child care. Without this time, my day is reduced to wiping things.
I squish writing into the interstitial spaces of the day, which is why I have pulled over to work on this post at the side of the road at the edge of cell phone service. Baby A sits in her carseat in the back. ‘Wheels on the bus’ plays on the car stereo on repeat. I will stay here until she bellows.
Here is the one benefit of parenting as it applies to any art form: When the spare time you have asymptotically approaches zero, everything superfluous is stripped away and what you have left is exactly enough time for the one thing you most need.
I need time away from parenting – to work, be creative, and exercise – for my sense of self worth, but also because it makes me a better parent. When I get it I am kinder and more patient with my child, and I have more fun with her throughout the day. And yes, the husband and dog benefit as well.
Well, another writing day achieves lift off. Now all I have to do is find someone to jump my car 🙄.
If the toenails, fingernails, and bangs get cut in the same day there is only one explanation: Someone important is coming over.
I like things to look good for you. I like them to look good for myself too; but without the flood of anxious energy that comes when guests are expected, we rarely get beyond this:
Hey, at least the socks match.
Sock-matching usually falls into a category I call “shit I do for the eyes of other parents.” This phenomenon ensures that I’m not only caring for my child, but that I look like I’m caring for my child. And we all know that’s what being a Good Mom is all about.
Outside of parenting, it is normal to limit or avoid pointless work. When it comes to kids though, we repeatedly put hats and mittens back on, pick up toys from the floor, and scrub hardened goo off the high chair even though the child is bound to eat again. Also, there are bibs.
“What’s the point of bibs?” I ask my friend S. “I just take off baby A’s clothing when she eats. Skin is washable.”
“Kids should take off anything clean when they enter the house,” says S, pretending to hang an item on a hook. “Keep the good clothes for going out.”
S has kids older than mine, and she says there is lots of shit she does for the eyes of other parents. Her son asks why he can’t keep wearing the same shirt to school day after day, even though it doesn’t stink or anything.
Hard to explain to yourself, much less your kid, how a parent’s love can be measured by outfit changes.
When I get around to ordering myself a T-shirt with my kid’s face on it, the word’s will say, “I’m with coo-coo.”
Two nights ago we bribed A into eating dinner by telling her that if she took a bite then daddy would bounce his legs on the yoga ball in a silly way. Last night she only ate if she could moonwalk while she chewed. Tonight I let her eat while we watched Monkey Planet on BBC.
Catching up on some old issues of The Sun, I recentlyread an interview of Jennifer Senior on modern parenting. This passage caught my attention:
“When children are small, their prefrontal cortexes are barely developed. The prefrontal cortex regulates impulses and is in charge of planning. So, as the parent of a toddler, you’re interacting with a small creature who has no self-control, can’t imagine a future, and lives in the permanent present.”
The article goes on to explain how you’ll often disappoint your young Buddha as the adult world has places to go and people to see and you are expected to be on time. I’m not worried about any of that. I’m thinking:
This explains why A works a spoon through cottage cheese like she is trying to solve it, rather than eat it.
We have all attended enough yoga classes, watched enough Oprah, or read enough Eckhart Tolle in this decade to know that the present moment is a good place to be.
The Buddha said, “Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.” Certainly, being present is the main thing I know about how to live happily and be a good parent.
But I have not been doing a good job of this lately.
A is having fun and I am not because I am operating under the expectation that I will accomplish something adult with my day – something saner, more appreciated, and with better pay. But most likely, I wont, and so I feel unhappy.
For example, I am good at the work of parenting (a lot of my time is spent preparing food and cleaning up) but I do not play with my daughter as often as I could.
I don’t play because I don’t recognize what A is doing as play. She opens drawers to fish for objects. She flicks light switches on and off. She tears things off shelves. She asks for snacks and then throws them on the floor. She pulls the dog’s tail. She grabs whatever she can reach off of the counter.
I never wanted to be that parent constantly saying no! And don’t do that! And stop stop stop! But baby A spends a lot of the day doing the wrong thing.￼ It is also true that these naughty behaviors are her trying to get my attention. For better or worse, the good times come when I do almost nothing except watch her unfold.
The same spontaneous, daring, curious qualities that makeraising this child difficult are the same things that make it fun. The other day a box store’s background music caught her fancy so she threw up her arms and started pulsing like Katy Perry. One moment you’re pushing a cart and looking for a shower caddy and the next moment you’re raising the roof. Thats my baby.
Why does her present moment look like so much fun while mine feels like such a struggle? Why am I feeling bonkers while she is on a spiritual quest? Oh, right. We are both on a spiritual quest.
Some of my chore-ing needs to be done. Actually it all needs to get done, and with our slow progress there is good reason for me to keep working. But in part my busy-ness is about my wanting to finish something today – even if it is just a pile of dishes.
The unwritten part of presence, is that it involves a lot of not doing what I want to do. Or what I thought I was going to do. And it is very often uncomfortable. Nothing pushes a person toward spiritual growth so extremely as adversity.
As long as I’m trapped in a permanent present, I might as well have a little more of what she’s having.
Tonight we are ready for bed a little early so I pull out these wind-up cars. You know the type – roll them back and forth a few times and they’ll race forward under their own power. I am doing this because I don’t want to fight a not-quite-tired kid to sleep. I run them; A retrieves them. Back and forth, back and forth.
But then the purple pick-up really takes off. It zips across the kitchen and runs smack into the wall on the other side of the house. I laugh out loud. A hoots and claps her hands.
For a moment I am not responsible-mommy-ing anymore: I am up past bedtime and having fun.
I started this blog in early 2018 when my daughter was already eight months old. Lately I’ve been trying to write a little bit about who she and I were together in those first blissed-out, mama-fog, fourth trimester months before she went mobile and my happy stay-home parenthood got served up with a daily side of bonkers.
I thought I remembered it all – the first smiles, the endless nursing, the sweetness of getting to know M as a father – until today when I met my new niece Baby S (!). It’s hard for me to remember that Baby A was ever so tiny and helpless.
The best part about holding S is remembering that a baby’s nature is that of a fierce pink glow with skin. She can’t focus her eyes all of the time (a girl gets tired), but she loves like nobody’s business. Babies are such awesome little battery packs.
Sifting through my sparse notes from the early days with A, I find this line – Her need to love and be loved does not shame her. No matter what anyone else says, this is the best part of being a parent. You’re just rambling along through your own life, trying to do your best and often falling short, then bam, there’s a new precious human to remind you, and everyone in a two-relationships-removed radius, that each of us in our original state is an embodiment of love.
If I dig deep, I can remember being love. I sit on my mom’s lap, snuggled to her chest in a calm, warm moment. Her skin is so soft. There are no pinging text messages to interrupt us, nobody is taking our picture, she is not scrolling through social media or wishing to be. It is just me and my mom with her fleshy arms wrapped tight around me.
Mom would never break that spell so I must have done it. And that’s ok–little minds should not know that love is rare and fleeting. Kids should be free to bounce toward whatever catches their fancy, assuming that love is always just a few steps and an upward glance away.
Lately I have been consumed with a fear that I am disappearing – that my need for work, stimulation, and relief will never rise to the priority slot of our family’s needs; at least not in a satisfying way. Millions of mothers over countless generations have lost their I: Nobody else is going to remember my dreams if I don’t. Somedays are not ‘mama days’ but I am not going anywhere. My need for a public voice is too strong to let my passions quietly wither into a cool undertone of defensive anger. There must be a better way.
I remember all of the different forms of love that came after my mom. I think back to early experiences of romantic love, when I was near to someone and consumed, wanting the moment never to end. But no other person has ever been so willing to stay there, locked in, as she was. At some point, I became the one who was unable to just be.
I lie nursing my daughter and wishing for precious time. Like pain, love is intense, and these thoughts pretend to serve me by pulling me away. Held inside of my being, love is safe, but shared love is vulnerable. Love is ephemeral and busyness is a constant. We learn to go with the sure bet.
As much as I hate to admit it, the root of my desire to write, meditate, eat chocolate, or do something else is my need to love warped into a new form like a shirt put on backwards: Love isn’t waiting to be created when we get back to doing something real–love is there all along. We only need to remember how to give and receive it.
Over and over with baby A I remind myself of where I am, that the full force of my love is appropriate and matters here, that her turning away is still a long way off.
I allow myself to stay and bask in her steady, pulsing presence. She gives me everything she has, asking only that I do the same. I put in the effort and glow my pink light back to her. My darling, I have nowhere else to be.
My daughter is a little corvid. She shows off (Leo her rising sign). She persists with puzzles (This buckle is mine!) She is social and quick to make friends. As of this week she can scale her crib, open the bedroom door, and toddle out to her slack-jawed mother when she’s supposed to be napping.
But this post is about learning language.
Today our precocious toddler turns 1.5. My husband and I counted up 25 things baby A can say or sign. The volume of language she has picked up surprised us almost as much as realizing that she’s already outgrown the shoes that were too big in August.
In the morning, when baby A wakes up and head-butts me in the face, it is still dark but the first word out of her mouth (so I thought) is “outside,” meaning she’s ready to go. This was cute, and fulfilling of my Nature Baby fantasy, until I realized she is saying “other side,” meaning my left breast is out of milk and she wants to switch to the right.
I want nature to be so built into her understanding of the world that she won’t remember learning about it. For this reason, and because things get coo-coo if we’re in the house too long, we are outside twice each day.
Outside is a good place for new encounters: The more stuff we do, the more words she learns. A hands me a pebble and cocks her arm back (throw mom! = 26). I give it an emphatic toss. She squeals ‘good job!’ = 27. She hands me another pebble, which I throw. She says, “Wow!” (28).
Since my generation still needs a ‘good job!’ for completing basic bodily functions, I’ve tried to avoid giving our daughter a lot of positive reinforcement. I like to think my smile and shining eyes are enough for her, and that she’ll gain inner metrics by which to measure her merit, rather than looking to others for an atta-boy. In case I’m wrong, she has her dad’s loving praise.
Which means baby A already gives me more positive reinforcement than I give her. This can’t be good.
I have held back from teaching baby A the standard animal sounds – ruff, meow, pin, tweet, moo – in favor beginning her education as an artist. I introduce her to real animals, and she makes up sounds for them.
While endless board books teach the virtues of the cow, few have anything to say about wild animals. Right now baby A considers every mammal from muskox to moose to be a dog – “Ta-do,” she says. Thankfully she just picked up on birds (ie. the chicken), which are decidedly not dogs.
I’ve started to teach her the corvids.
A murder of crows, gathered into a winter flock, patrols the beach. “Crow,” I say, snapping my hand under my chin like a beak.
“Da-doe!” Says baby A.
She may not have a lot of words, but she makes such good use of her small arsenal that I’m beginning to think I could communicate in any language if only I knew how to say mama, dada, two, shoe, eye, apple sauce, and pizza.
We hear a raven beat its wings twice as it lands in an elderberry tree. “Caw!” it says. “Bird,” I say, snapping my hand under my chin like a beak. “Raven.”
“Da-doe!” she says, pointing upward. Da-doe has become the word A uses for basketball hoops, ceiling fans, and very tall people. It’s general, but I’ll take it.
Corvids are language learners too. If you hear something outside and you don’t know what it could be, chances are it’s a raven. Ravens mimic many sounds in the forest – from dripping water to a croaking toad. They also can be taught to repeat words.
Baby A insists on her own way of doing things. She’s just a as likely to make up language and teach me as I am to teach a word or sign to her. Now that she has a “word” for bird she may or may not pick up the sign, but I’ll keep trying.
Baby A also impresses me with moments of mimicry. Though I don’t quite give her credit for these, I have inconsistently heard her say ‘bean,’ ‘diaper,’ ‘stick,’ baby,’ and ‘tomato.’
We watch as magpies fly like gliders over a meadow. Their wings come to their sides and they dip and flare out and they glide. Dip, glide dip, glide dip all the way down to the ground. These birds are new arrivals that migrate down river corridors from interior Alaska in late September to over-winter with us on the coast.
Magpie,” I say.
In the evening we talk about the birds we saw. “Da-doe!” She says, pointing outside. “Bird,” I say, snapping my hand under my chin like a beak.
“Da-doe!” She agrees. Then, placing the back of her hand on her forehead, she wiggles her fingers.
On Monday I climbed Mt Juneau with an old dog and a baby on my back. It was important that I do this, here’s why: For 11.5 years I have lived in Alaskan places where there was little to no hiking. Also, there were no stoplights in these towns, so invite me on your road trips please, but don’t expect me to drive.
Trails are a strangely urban phenomenon; a town has to have a lot of people around to generate demand and afford them. So, tiny Alaska = no trails = very little time in the high alpine. I’m not in great shape.
Even in Juneau (tons of trails), it’s hard to raise a nature baby. Looking at microfeatures, through the eyes of a 3 foot human, there is very little flat ground unless it’s covered in gravel, aka choking hazards. A steep hike might take you up a 30 degree slope, but even a flattish trail is usually narrow with that type of edge. Babies must be carried, almost all of the time.
This brings me to Mt Juneau, basically the steepest place in town. The push was motivated by this image: At the top, a wide, rolling, expanse of tundra would greet my tired body. I would lie in the shade behind a rock outcrop admiring the heathers, while baby A toddled safely around on the tundra. Talus dog would swim in a nearby snowmelt pond just far enough away not to attract the baby.
At the top, I thought, I could finally put her down and let her walk. It would feel so good, and it would be so much fun, that I wouldn’t want to leave. We would do the whole ridgeline – once my favorite hike in Juneau – casually spending the day in the high alpine, skipping down the ridge hand-in-hand-in-paw.
The hike up was hard, but I loved it. It smelled like dirt and ferns, and there were lots of hot switchbacks. Did I mention it was 75 degrees F this day? It took three hours up, twice as long as I’d anticipated, but no matter – the day was ours. That my climb was a quest for flat, baby-proof ground was not entirely conscious.
I saw two mountain goats and a tiny least weasel, who I found because I stopped for one of my many breaks near its hidy hole. “Too close!” It chirped. “Too close!”
We had a great day. The summit, however, was no place for a toddler. The ululating ground was covered in shale broken into jagged, spear top-like points. The ridge looked like a knife edge, and some of it was still snow covered. Thanks for nothing 20-something-super-fit-bad-memory-brain.
I took off baby A’s sweat-drenched clothes (my sweat) and fed and changed her while Talus lay in a lingering patch of snow. Then I ate everything I’d brought for the long ridge day: two sandwiches, cashews, protein bar, fig bars. If I let go of A for an instant she would roll down slope (micro-slope) or find some broken glass. Neat. Then I realized I had no energy for the trek down, and started down.
I couldn’t help but think about how many things in life do not turn out how I thought they would be.
Take parenting: Before I had A, I imagined her immobile babyhood lasting until she could cut hearts out of construction paper. I pictured her eating homemade veggie-based baby foods and sleeping soundly, in a crib, possibly in her own room down the hall.
Instead, I have a one-year-old, sprouting teeth rapid fire and growing as tall as the cowparsnip under a midnight sun, who sleeps in my bed. Last night she kicked me in the face twice. My child’s main food groups are cottage cheese and avocado, and she otherwise takes veggies only in those ready-made squeeze pouches. The more time I spend preparing baby foods the more she hates them.
Back at Mt Juneau, Talus struggled from the top. He was tired, hot, sore, and before long dramatically bleeding from two places. It made me want to cry that I brought him up there. I’m retiring him from climbing mountains. The first climb for A turned out to be the last for Talus.
Then I developed a cold sweat with vertigo and nausea and other fun symptoms of heat exhaustion. I thought about asking for help, there were lots of people passing by, but I couldn’t think of what to say – “I’m struggling.” “I don’t feel well.” I had to walk down, one way or another, so what was the point in making a fuss? They were all so supportive like, “Yeah! Great job mama!” And, “You’re so awesome!” That’s what I would have said to me too.
The only saving grace was that baby A was awesome. I told her all the way down how she was helping her mom, and when we got home I let her taste my chocolate ice cream.
So, there’s the dreaming and then there’s the doing. They’re different. The dreaming keeps us going, moving on toward new ambitions and adventures, making sure that we don’t get too comfortable or stagnate. The doing puts money where our mouth is, makes sure we walk our talk, prevents us from drowning in a life of unrealized dreams.
But the dreaming is quite often more fun than the doing.
This idea got me through doing life in the sub-Arctic and countless days where hammocks and palm trees turned into hot bus rides down nauseating mountainsides.
The late, great Fred Bull called this Type II fun. It isn’t actually fun while you’re in it, but when it’s all over you’re glad you were there, and glad it didn’t happen any other way. Because if we don’t press right up against that edge where struggle brings pain, then what’s the point of being alive? Try harder, feel deeper, and do more, even if it’s not always exactly fun, and life will be full of riches. Just don’t sunburn the baby.
Something has clicked with my kid. I can’t quite say “sit down and eat your broccoli,” but I can say, “if you want more avocado, sit down.” It works as long as I have something tasty. This is huge.
She’s learning. A few more weeks into our super-cool new bedtime deal and she knows the routine. Clearly this was always the goal, but to see her crawl for the bathtub or get pumped about brushing her six beautiful teeth thrills me. This I can work with.
She has stopped eating her books and has started to look at them. I can ask her to pick one out. She has favorites.
One favorite is Baby talk. It’s just babies doing things she knows: Where are baby’s toes? So big! All gone… A loves to look at those babies. Her eyes light up, as if thinking, I can do that! She laughs and laughs.
She plays along with Paul and Judy in Pat the bunny. This book is so archaic, and the friend who gifted it so cool, that I thought it was supposed to be ironic. Nope. Baby A can pat the bunny, smell the flowers, and feel daddy’s scratchy face.
At the end of story time when I sing to her, she snuggles in close and calm to enjoy the last soft minutes with mama. Tonight bedtime was tears-free. It’s weird, I’m starting to relate to her.