A. has been knocking off projects with the speed of the roadrunners I see darting through the desert — he’s made three pieces of furniture in the past few months. He made a bench — that could be used in a mudroom someday — to organize the toys in what we call the “front room.” We still need to sew a cushion for the top — and lucky for us, a Jo-Ann Fabric opened in our desert town at the end of August. He made an Amish-style bookshelf — meaning he didn’t use any nails or glue, just rustic joints — for the boys. And, his most recent project: A modern desk with metal legs (my favorite). I just love peeking into CM’s room (which will eventually be both boys’ room) and seeing that almost everything in there — including the bunkbed — was handmade by their papa in his tiny workshop in the garage. Oh, and our neighbor gave us his miter saw two weeks ago because he sees A. working late into the evening: “You’ll get more use out of it than I do,” he says.
A few days before I pick up my next batch of pottery, I have that burst of excitement I used to feel as a kid the night before Christmas. I push the feeling away so that it doesn’t consume me, but I really love seeing how the glazed pieces transform into usable dishes. They shrink so much that they’re often unrecognizable — I have to check the bottom for my initials to be sure they’re mine.
Earlier this year, I was feeling out of sorts and frustrated on the wheel because I had a newborn and was getting zero sleep and I felt like I forgot how to throw. I couldn’t make a mug, and I felt so frustrated, I wanted to crush the wet clay and slop it into the recycle bucket. This session, I finally felt better. In general, I feel more like myself: I’m getting (a little more) sleep; I’m editing confidently; I have my body back (mostly). I’m still tired — but it feels good to be (almost) back.
A. and I have fallen into a new rhythm where — if we don’t have other evening plans like pottery — we sit on our front patio after the sun sets and after the boys are asleep and look up at the sky. We turn off all of the lights in the house and we sit in the quiet — often with wine in hand — lying back in lounge chairs and gazing up. On average, we’ll see about seven or eight shooting stars. (One long streak about a month ago moved us both to our feet and we shouted, just like watching a game-winning goal in the last minute of a soccer match.)
Years ago, I bought a constellation book in hopes of one day cracking it and trying to identify them. A few weeks ago, I finally (finally!) sat and studied the book and the sky from my warm driveway, craning my neck up and down, up and down.Then A. did the same earlier this week, staying up till 1:30 a.m. (“I couldn’t help myself,” he said.) He also watched Cosmos on FX; I still need to.
Now when we look up, we can easily identify the Big and Little Dippers, Dragon, Cassiopeia, Cepheus and the Big Square. This week, we found Swan together — our heads bent together over the book lit by a flashlight. We turned the light on, turned it off, looked up and let our eyes adjust.
Some of my favorite memories are of staring at the stars in places where I could see the Milky Way — while camping in the Andes in Peru and on a beach on Chumbe Island in Tanzania.
Now I can see it from my front patio. And we’re an hour from Death Valley, where we plan to camp in January and identify different constellations than what we can see now.
The universe is amazing — and I can’t begin to understand it. But I do plan to continue to look up until I’m old and gray. It’s both mind-boggling and comforting to me to think about the generations before me seeing the same pictures as I see now. I hope to pass that appreciation on to my boys.
A few weeks ago, A. and I had a rare dinner alone in Ridgecrest. OK, so it wasn’t alone, CP was with us, but he was still only nursing and would sit in his carseat, watchfully and quietly. We ate at Charlie’s, a bar restaurant with very little ambience — five or six TVs with sports programs, a pool table, high ceilings, cushy chairs on wheels and older patrons. One entire wall was a mirror, and we sat next to it.
An elderly couple came in and sat down across from us. And the woman kept looking over and smiling at CP, who A. was holding up on the table on his wobbly legs, his feet turned inward, his eyes focused on his image in the mirror. I finally smiled back at the woman, and she asked, “How old?” She was in her 70s at least, with curly gray hair and round glasses. Her husband had a hearing aide.
A. wheeled his chair over to their table, with CP on his lap, and they both lit up. It turns out, they were from Albuquerque, N.M., where we think we’d like to move next. And they have several grandchildren.
“Do you have a CD player in your car?” the woman asked us.
Confused, I said yes.
“Our daughter is a children’s singer,” she says. “She sings lullabies that will put your baby to sleep.”
They were on their way to Yosemite, so they were staying in the hotel where the restaurant is.
“Go get some of them,” the woman said to her husband, kindly.
He nodded, and a bit later, he returned with four wrapped albums and an article about their daughter, Susie Tallman, published in the Albuquerque Magazine.
We put the CDs in the diaper bag and thanked them.
On the way home, I popped one in the player, and the first song — Six Little Ducks — was catchy.
Since, we’ve been listening to them — a song here, a song there. The lullabies do not put CP to sleep, as the woman guaranteed they would (in fact, I don’t care for them), but we have found a few songs that move us to our feet, including Five Little Speckled Frogs. The song has gone into our regular rotation, along with songs by the Laurie Berkner Band, Raffi, Elizabeth Mitchell and another new discovery: Johnny Bregar.
Now, every once in a while, CM (who will be three in December) will ask: “Can we listen to Five Speckled Fwogs?”
We turn on our stereo in the living room and act out the song — pretending to sit on a log and shovel delicious flies in our mouths. The joy on CM’s face makes me smile — it’s ridiculously cute. And every time we do it, I think of that couple, who are so proud of their daughter. And I can’t help but think that maybe we’ll see them again, someday.
I’ve been on Facebook since 2006. Eight years. In that time, I went on several international trips — Peru, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Cost Rica, Tanzania, Iceland. I ran my second marathon. I landed a dream job. I fell in love, had a baby, got married, quit my job, moved cross-country and had another baby.
And through all of this, I can’t recall Facebook ever making me feel bad. Until this summer.
There have been several articles about how Facebook makes people feel lonely or envious. This happens when people, I think, see photos of something they want — but either don’t have or can’t get. When a friend was trying to get pregnant, and ultimately went through in-vitro, she couldn’t stand seeing photos of babies on Facebook.
What got to me this summer was seeing photos of people laughing with their friends, and amazing summer-time scenes.
Summer in Ridgecrest is harsh. It’s too hot to spend much time outside during the day. (I get my fresh air at dusk after the boys are asleep).
What’s more, I started working in the mornings, and I’m in front of a computer from 8-12, the time I used to socialize. So not only am I far away from dear friends who live all over the country, but I’ve also been feeling even more isolated in a quiet place.
When I feel bad, I tackle it. What will get me back on track to feeling great? Exercise? A trip to see friends? Stop working? For starters, I deleted Facebook off of my phone. Now, I look at it seldom. So seldom that Facebook has started sending me messages — “Hey, E., look at what you’re missing!”
The site, to me, is the strangest beast. It makes me feel (kind of) connected to former colleagues. It opens the door to reconnect with long-lost friends. Sometimes, I crowd source for good reads or travel suggestions. But overall, the insincerity of it and the boastfulness of it and the well, faux social connection, makes me question its benefit. And really, it’s a complete time suck in a time when it feels like every moment is precious. I’d much rather read for a 1/2 hour than scroll through photos of people doing awesome things in beautiful places and longing to be where they are, instead of appreciating where I am. Because where I am is pretty damn great.
So, for now, I’m staying off of it. I’m spending time with the littles, like this one, who just turned six months old. And I’m truly the happier for it.
So, here’s another thing that has happened to me since moving to the desert almost two years ago: I have a strong desire to live chemical-free — even beyond eating organic fruits and vegetables.
I used to get a pedicure every four-six weeks (from the time I was 27). It’s been almost a year since my last pedicure.
I used to use Windex to clean our stove. Now I use water.
I used to wash my dishes with Dawn. Now I use Seventh Generation.
I used to buy whatever brand of sunscreen that seemed to go on easily. Now I consult this website.
I used to wear mascara and lipstick every day. Now I do only on special occasions.
I used to wear whatever deodorant smelled good. Now I use this.
I think I might be a little insecure about my new trend, because I found myself joking about it to my best friend S., who I saw in L.A. two weekends ago. She looked happy and refreshed, having driven cross-country from D.C., camping all along the way. She wore her curly hair natural (she always used to blow it dry) and it looked beautiful.
“I bought a hippy stick,” I said.
“How sad that toxic-free is considered hippy,” she said.
I don’t even know if it is, but if living chemical-free is branded “hippy” — to deride it — I perpetuated the brand. Which is ridiculous.
From now on, I intend to embrace my choices. It may not make any difference in the world, but it feels good and right. Natural.
It’s the dead of summer. Our swamp cooler went out yesterday, and I watched the thermometer tick up — 80 degrees in the house, hm. 85. 87. A drip of sweat on my back. Oh yes, time to call property management. CP was in his crib, crying, his hair matted to his head. I took him for a loop around the town with the car air conditioning blasting. A. opened the swamp cooler, and saw that the water pump wasn’t working. “Look,” he said, when I returned. “It’s really simple.”
The heating and cooling people didn’t call. A. drove to Home Depot and replaced the pump himself. “Twenty-eight dollars,” he said. “And the receipt flew out the window.”
We went on vacation to Michigan and North Carolina over the 4th and came back to the desert more exhausted than when we left. CP cried on the flights. CM had a few epic meltdowns. Schedules altered. A flight cancelled. Our car shined a warning light before we drove into Death Valley (false alarm). You know the drill. Travel, as much as I love it and seeing family, is draining.
At almost five months, CP is waking twice a night minimum. I’m running on empty.
We’ve been talking a lot about our next move when we leave the desert. It’s all up in the air, but even though it’s a year away, it increases our anxieties. Eventually we’ll end up back in the D.C. area.
“Let’s get a farm house,” I say. “Deep in Virginia.”
“Let’s build a tiny house,” A. says. I think he means it. “I don’t want a two-hour commute.”
D.C. friends came to visit last week. They’re journalists — one for National Geographic, the other for the Washington Post — and they have two girls who are the same ages as CM and CP. They rented a van for three weeks with a pull-down bed and a kitchen to tour around California. We made sweet potato and black bean tacos with an avocado pepita dip and the kids ran in the sprinklers.
“I’m really digging your life,” she said.
“We’re happy,” I said. “For now.”
It was cloudy today, which put A. in a funk. It’s sunny 350 days of the year.
“I need a project,” he said.
We drove to Cottonwood Meadows this morning. The signs said it was bear country. We walked about 100 yards on the dusty trail before CM wanted to hang out on a log (“This used to be a tree, mama”). He didn’t want to hike anymore.
So I wandered. And I found a tree with a hole in the trunk, covered in dried sap. And I snapped dozens of photos. Same square of the tree, different exposures, different angles. How each of us see the world. Some with golden hues, some black; some with smooth lines, some with dead bark.
When I returned to the log, it started to drizzle. CP was ready for his nap. CM had sand in his shoes. Two crying babies. Two parents, shaking their heads. Ready for the next laugh, sun and a bit of inspiration.
My rhythm in the last week and a half has changed, and my mind is strained. I’m forgetting things, mis-speaking and generally feeling like I’m losing it. Especially when my 2 1/2 year old says: “Mama, you mean dishwasher, not washing machine.”
I started part-time work again for NPR from my kitchen table in the desert. Every week-day morning. I’m doing what I did for four years (and change), but it was two years ago. (Here is a glimpse of my fancy office.)
And I’m currently not getting much sleep. CP still wakes two-three times a night, and CM moved into his homemade bunk-bed — and new bedroom — Sunday. He’s thrilled, but has been getting up in the middle of the night searching for me: “Mama? Mama?”
So it feels hard. Really hard.
A. asked me what I thought would give once I started working again. Here’s what I’ve noticed so far: baking (probably better there isn’t a stash of cookies and muffins in the house anyway), phone calls with friends and family (they were few and far between anyway), exercise (though this is a priority, so the past two mornings I got up at 6 a.m. to run), blogging (rectifying that now) and playdates.
But those are just activities.
What I forgot was how much energy it takes to think. How, if my mind is focused on editing, I forget to return a library book. (We currently owe 50 cents.) How I couldn’t remember today if I’d signed CM out when I picked him up from school. How I forgot to put my wedding ring back on after pottery on Sunday. And I took both sets of car keys with me to the studio, leaving A. stranded with both boys when our swamp cooler stopped working in 110 degree weather. Yeah, that happened.
I didn’t suspect my mind would give.
At the end of the day, I collapse into bed because that kind of thinking — editing and writing headlines — saps me. It requires conditioning, like anything else, and I’m out of shape.
But I know I’m lucky to work part-time from home. It’s ideal, really. And the work is getting easier each day. My friend and co-worker said it’s like riding a bike, and it is. I am thrilled to be working again for an organization (and people) I love, and A. and I agree that I couldn’t say “no” (and I didn’t want to). I’m settling into a new rhythm, and I know — I know — I’ll get there. But man, I hope I get more sleep soon.
So there I was Sunday evening in the woods near Mammoth Lake, my 2 1/2 year old near our car, my 3 month old sleeping in his car seat next to our tent, my eyes locked with a big black bear’s.
We were ready to camp for a third consecutive night on the route home from a camping/climbing adventure near South Lake Tahoe.
Earlier that day, we got a flat at the ghost town in Bodie, Calif. (My theory is the Wild West bandit/drunk ghosts were angry because they heard me say I don’t believe in ghosts. So they popped our tire.) A. put on a spare while I nursed and we hatched a plan. It was after 5 p.m., so we decided to drive near the closest town — Mammoth — camp and then get a new tire in the morning.
We turned onto a side road off of the Mammoth scenic route. “Think we can camp here?” A. asked. We looked around. Seemed OK. “It’s so gorgeous,” A. said. “I wonder why no one else is out here.”
We set up our tent on a bed of pine needles and laid out the sleeping bags. We sat in our camping chairs and ate tortillas with peanut butter, grapes and Hershey’s chocolate. We spotted a small bear in the distance that wasn’t interested in us. We brushed our teeth. CM and I were at the car to put on PJs, and A. had moved our bear canister with everything I could think of: my deodorant, our baby wipes, sunscreen.
And then I saw a big blur moving through the trees.
It was camouflaged.
A. and I yelled a few times, but the noise didn’t phase the bear. It stared at us, its ears standing up. I pretended to charge it. It took a few steps backward, but then cocked its head and took a few steps forward. I picked up a stick and yelled loudly and ran toward that m’f’ing bear — wild and crazy — before it turned and fled, kicking up pine needles as it ran. My heart was pounding and A. said he’d seen lots of bears in the wild, but that was the most nervous he’s been. And then: “If I was a bear, I would have been afraid of you, too.”
We had already spent two nights at a beautiful campsite about a half hour from South Lake Tahoe: Fire! S’mores! Privacy! Stars! Trees!
A. went trad climbing on Saturday, while I wandered Tahoe with another mom and her two kids. We ate breakfast burritos at the funky Keys Cafe, went on a mini hike at the Taylor Creek Visitor Center where we gawked at trout and blew dandelions and then we dipped our feet in the ice-cold water at Pope Beach.
We were happy and didn’t need another night sleeping on the ground. So, after a short discussion, we decided it was wise to pack up and drive home the three hours on a spare. We can put everything that smells like food in the bear canister, except for me and CP. I’m not a shrinky dink. And this nursing mom didn’t want a bear sniffing around our tent for milk in the middle of the night. [Shudder.]
As we got on 395 in the last minutes of soft evening sun, we laughed together as the boys slept in the backseat. “Are we wimps?” “Yeah, we’re wimps. But it’s the right call.”
A year ago I wrote about how I was desperately tired of our collection of toddler books. And I needed recommendations. Several of you came through with awesome suggestions (like “Giraffes Can’t Dance” and “Little Blue Truck”) — some of you even sent us books (thank you!) — and now I can’t imagine running out of book ideas.
Also, I love the library and have misgivings for calling it shabby. I’ve since decided that shabby is charming. The librarians are kind (is that a given?) and are smitten with CM. It’s now open on Fridays. And the online system — where I can literally “order” any book I want — is amazing.
Anyway, for those of you seeking book recommendations because your little ones often demand you read a book over and over and over again and you don’t want to read the same books over and over and over again and the thought of going through the same books with baby no. 2 is torture, here are some more suggestions. What we love about these books are the creativity, the illustrations and the rhythm and rhyme (some of them you can almost sing).
- “Kiss Good Night” by Amy Hest
- “Bear Says Thanks,” “Bear’s New Friend” (and others in the series) by Karma Wilson
- “Barnyard Song” by Rhonda Gowler Greene and Robert M. Bender
- “Ladybug Girl and the Big Snow” (and others in the series) by Jackie Davis and David Soman
- “And Then It’s Spring” by Julie Folgiano
- “The Pencil” by Allan Ahlberg
- “The Penguin Cha-Cha” by Kristi Valient
- “To Market To Market” by Anne Miranda and Janet Stevens
- “The Kissing Hand” by Audrey Penn
- “Duck on a Bike” by David Shannon
- “Penguin and Pinecone” by Salina Yoon
Also, a friend told me that Dolly Parton has a foundation called Imagination Library that will send your little ones books every month (depending on where you live). I never knew Dolly Parton was so cool.