photo by heather mildenstein
I wrote this post a couple of years ago. But the reminder was needed this week. Here’s to being seen. (Hey, I see you.)
It is nearly eleven o’clock at night and Viola’s cries creep out from under her door, tumble across the hall, and bounce in the kitchen from the unwashed pan to the blinds that need dusting out into the living room and onto my lap. Riley tells me to stay put as he goes to see what is wrong. And I do. Because I am tired. And I know she will cry again in a few hours. And right now, I need to pick up everything and place it on my husband’s square shoulders. I need to disappear, just for a moment. So, I brush the sound of her need off my skirt like so many specks of clinging dust and try to think about something else.
It isn’t working.
I have been so worried about my darling girls.
Viola is at that magic age, the one where the only real concern is whether she is eating and sleeping enough. While the answers to those questions change day to day, lately there have been more noes than yeses. Maybe she is teething? A virus? Riley, put your hand on her head, does she feel warm? And then she is up at 2am and 3am and not sleeping past 6:30, because my goodness, where would be the fun in that? But between the too short naps and too long cries, I can pick her up and make her smile. Because I am all she knows and right now, all she knows is enough.
I don’t know that I am enough for Margaret anymore. My goodness, that sounds a bit dramatic. Meg, you say, that is perhaps a premature pronouncement to make about a three year old. But it is true. She has feelings bigger than my capacity to soothe, fears more complicated than she can articulate and an occasional stubbornness that I can only engage if I am willing to stand till the ragged, tantrum filled end. I don’t mind the tantrums. They are fierce but few and I can handle myself just fine, thank you. No, I feel the most helpless when she collapses, when the light leaves her eyes and all that is left is panic without discernible meaning. The times when I can see the anxiety climb up her arms and into her ears until it all spills out in hiccups and screams and MOMMY’S! It doesn’t happen every day, but sometimes I think the lines that connect one breakdown to another are becoming shorter. When it does happen, I hold her close and play with her hair and speak quietly, oh honey, everything is alright. And then, because it calms her down I turn on a movie and give her SHINY BLANKIE and walk away until she comes back to me, all big smiles and bouncing questions.
I think the breakdowns come when she is tired. Or when she is hungry. Maybe they happen because she is a creature of routine. Or because she is bored. Perhaps she reacts poorly to processed foods. There is always the chance that she needs more iron…or less.
I am not sure of anything, except for all the things I am unsure of.
Last night after a mixed meeting with her preschool teachers, (She is a very bright girl! Sometimes she is a little upset.) I came home and cried to Riley. I don’t mind that she gets overwhelmed and breaks for a moment. We all do. And at three she doesn’t know that it is more socially acceptable to eat your anxiety away (chocolate, anyone?) rather than scream it away. (Between you and me, I think the screaming might be the healthier coping mechanism of the two.) No, what I hate is that I don’t know how to help her navigate around this obstacle. I want Zuzu and all the people around her to see exactly who she is. I can see her. She is kindness and giving and warmth and humor and intelligence and strength and dance out in the open with her eyes closed. She is whimsy and steel. I don’t want fear or hysteria to cloud her vision. I am her mother. I am supposed to guide her. I don’t want to change her, I just want to help her. But, I don’t know how to keep my ignorance – how do I help her? What does she need? – from muddying the waters.
I went to bed last night heavy with doubt. Because if I can’t do this now how will I do this when she is 14? And maybe this is because I am not doing my job well enough. If only we read more, painted more, crafted more. A better mother would know what she needed. A better mother would know. Pressed against the wall, a continent away from Riley, he asked if I was alright. I nodded yes, and closed my eyes. The tears squeezed out hot against the cold night and the phrase repeated itself as I fell asleep – A better mother would know.
Riley and I fought this morning. I am not sure how it began, but I know just when it got going. He said I am too hard on myself more days than not – that I spill so many wasted thoughts on not being a good enough woman, writer, wife, mother. I told him that he had no right to tell me how I should feel. My goodness, I cried, what do you know about inadequacy and guilt? He isn’t in these four walls all day with two people hungry for more than cheerios. He leaves and I stay and try to be the things I want to be, should be, while wiping the crumbs off my clothes. Can’t he see all the magic I leave out of so many days with the girls I have been given as daughters? Can’t he feel the weight of the stories that go thought and unwritten again and again until they are forgotten? Does he think I want to be the woman that is too tired for dancing when he gets home after a long day of work? How, I asked angry and misunderstood, how am I supposed to get through this part of my life feeling anything but less than what I wish to be? Do you have any idea what you are talking about? Riley slammed out the door to steam it out in the drive way while I stewed in the shower.
When he came back in Margaret was eating cereal on the couch and I had nearly finished my makeup in the bathroom. A small comfort, as I prefer to be presentable when ugly crying. We kissed and he held me, sorry for the things we said and perhaps for a few that we didn’t.
He left for work and we survived the day.
Viola has stopped crying and in the rounded silence I have some clarity. Riley wasn’t telling me how to feel, he wasn’t negating my experience, or saying he could do it better. He was saying he can see me. And the woman he sees can do this. She can wake up with a baby who will not sleep. She can break through the wall built by a three year old’s tears. She can write whatever she damn well pleases. She can be the wife she knows her husband deserves. She can dance even when she is too tired to keep standing.
I don’t always know the woman Riley sees. But every once in a while, when he is looking at me, I see her reflected in his eyes. And right now, that glimpse is just enough to get me through one more day, every day.
I’ve felt out of control lately.
Like time and life and decisions and past and present have joined together to make of me what they may while I sit and wonder what new conglomeration of circumstance sits around the next corner. The unknowable has pinned in me into place and made me afraid. It’s been a small feeling, big hurting kind of thing. When I find myself in that darkness (I have before and will again), I always turn to the stars. Sometimes I burn along with them on long lonely car rides, sometimes I write under the direction of their light. Last night, I re-gained an understanding of their nature and the universe they make bright.
Earth is a little new sphere sitting in an big old place. There are billions of stars in our galaxy and as they live, each one holds multiple planets – worlds – with the weight of their immense gravity. When the stars die, new ones are born and new worlds are pulled into place. Our galaxy is just one small part of an ever expanding universe. And our universe is just one tiny piece of a currently unknowable whole. The theory now is that our universe – so big we can’t see or comprehend it beyond 13.8 billion light years – is just one of many. That we are in fact part of a multiverse. That all those stars, moving worlds, galaxies and dark matter are held in a tiny bubble in an “infinite ocean of other universes”, each one encapsulated in a tiny bubble of its own.
I knew all this, but it helped to immerse myself in the known and the unknown outside of myself. Sometimes I think my world – the one I’m building in our four walls with kitchen table dinners and prayer and sweat and laughter and tears – is anchored to something too big to feel the reverberations of my heart. In the moments when my eyes are shut against the stars, I wonder how I can move forward against mechanisms that have turned since before our first parents knew their names.
But then I open my understanding to the light. The relative smallness of everything from sky to sun to cosmos helps me to understand the bigness of my existence. If we are in a bubble bouncing against other bubbles that hold entire universes, then my world in four walls is just as grand and important and large as the earth it is planted on. The successes, heartaches, wars over emotion and reason and triumphs of spirit and peace are just as relatively important as the battles and understandings of spirit that have taken place since man and woman first breathed deeply of the air around them.
The realization strikes and I breathe deeply like it is the first time I’ve tasted the air around me. Our apparent diminutiveness does not accurately measure the largeness of our existence.
I may not always be in control, but my life is important and I am the steward of the world I live in. Somehow, blessedly, that knowledge of smallness upon smallness has given me the courage to venture past the space where the gravity of life and situation would hold me.
And I am able once more to rejoice in the known and unknown.
Tourists looking down into the grand canyon in 1947. We’ve always been fascinated by the places time carved out before us.
It was still cool outside. The kind of spring day that gives you a summer sun wrapped with winter’s last chilled breath. On our way home from California, the radio was low and the girls slept in the backseat. Riley held my hand and I stared ahead. The window framed the Utah desert – a painting that’s faded in the sun. I’ve made that drive a hundred times since I was a little girl. I know the high and low places, the breaks in the road, the emptied gas stations and broken down cafes. I could trace it out for you in the desert sand. Familiarity doesn’t always mean certainty, of course.
There’s a canyon. A few miles long and a few hundred feet tall. It curves and shadows and slows and rolls. I’m always afraid when we drive through there. It is too fast, or too slow. Too twisted or too sloped. Riley always teases while I suck the breath through my teeth and clench my eyes as the car speeds past rock that has stood since before our hopes were born. It isn’t just the speed or the car. I feel small there. Mortal. One of millions that will pass by those stones without asking what they’ve seen. I used to think they felt my silence, but now I’ve begun to think I am the one being ignored. That canyon holds time I’ll never touch and as we curve through it to return to our home and chores and worries, I sometimes wonder what we’ve left behind.
The drive that day wasn’t so different. Going into the canyon felt the same. An intake of air and then fast talking to act like I wasn’t afraid. Riley smiled knowingly and so I put my words away and looked out the window.
A car and then yellow lines and then a tree and a stream and then briefly, so briefly my heart recorded it before my eyes – a father and daughter on the side of the road, looking over the red clay expanse. She held a camera and he held her shoulders. A guide to the art of vision and focus. And for just an instant, amid those sentinels that hold time, I could feel the weight of my father’s hands on my shoulders. His words of encouragement as I chose the focus and filter for my world. The beauty of the moments I had once, the ones that exist somewhere in the places I’ve lived through till they’re worn with the breathing and leaving. I was a girl that still had a dad and a heart that beat without the patchwork of hope and faith and sanctified sorrow. Another moment and then the scene was gone, hidden by our progress and the jutting earth.
The road flattened and the horizon grew. The canyon fell behind us. I cried as it I felt it collapse on the time it held and the person I used to be.
Riley looked over at me, his eyes still knowing and I remembered his hand on mine. I squeezed it once and then wiped away the wetness from my face.
“Ready to get home?”
And we drove on.
Riley and I had been married for a couple of years when we got into a big fight about cookbooks. It went something like this:
Driving home after a long day, it had been quiet for an hour and then Riley spoke up,
Riley: You are always looking at cookbooks. You know that? Always buying them and reading them. But then you never make anything out of them. Ever. Do you know how annoying that is? It’s such a waste.
Me: What the hell? You are mad that I enjoy reading cookbooks? What kind of person gets upset about that?
Riley: You spend hours looking at those things. And you never do anything about it.
Me: Well. We’re broke. We don’t have enough money for most of the ingredients. And looking at all the recipes is a kind of escape. It calms me down. It makes me happy. I can’t believe you are angry that I have a little hobby that makes me happy.
Riley: Too broke to make ANYTHING? You’re buying ingredients for something every time you go to the grocery store. It’s not like we don’t spend money on food. Why not try all those recipes you’ve been looking at for once? Megan, I am not angry that you look at cookbooks. I am frustrated that you never do anything with what you find inside of them.
Me: Are we still talking about recipes here? Or is there something else going on?
Riley: No, I guess this isn’t really about those cookbooks.
He looked at me once and then re-focused on the road. I got quiet. He wasn’t actually talking about cooking. He didn’t really care that we ate the same five things ever week. With a fall of my heart, I knew what he was trying to say. For years, I had been talking about maybe writing or maybe this or maybe that. Maybe. Someday. Perhaps. A few days before I had cried because I hadn’t begun to do all the things I always thought I would do. He’d held my hand and told me to get started. Instead, I calmed down and went to sleep. The next morning, I’d forgotten what that ache felt like and moved on. I was skimming through my existence in the same way that I’d been skimming through those cookbooks. Flipping the pages of my own life – looking at the possible ingredients and shutting the book before I’d given anything a chance. I was without direction, without confidence and without courage. I’d forgotten how to become a participant in my own life.
I’d lost the savor.
The next day I pulled just one cookbook down from the shelf and opened it to the beginning. We had dinner from it the next night and the next and the next. I learned the beauty of french peasant food on a budget and the art of deglazing. I burned the hell out of a roast chicken and made the perfect pot de creme. I found myself within the constraints of creation – the measurements and cooking times and chemical reactions.The act of cooking was a gift to myself that also provided sustenance for those I love. And, blessedly, I learned that some nights it was alright to let the kitchen fires stay cooled. There was no shame in a little (or a lot) of domino’s pizza, chicken nuggets or paper wrapped burgers.
As I cooked my way through that book, I applied the lessons I learned in the kitchen to my writing. I don’t need a lot to create much. Sometimes intended masterpieces come out smelling liked charred trash can. There are constraints to my creation – limited time, limited talent and unlimited family. Those are not obstacles to be gotten over, they are a structure to be built upon. The act of writing is for myself but it has given additional happiness and purpose to our home, sustenance for those I love. And, blessedly, I learned that some nights it is alright to let my fires cool – to collapse in front of the tv or into a book or the sleep that promises to give me the next day.
I still sit in front of piles of cookbooks – flipping from glossy page to page. I still dream of far off spices and those unattainable (for me) perfectly light rolls. I still run my fingers across the possibilities for my life. And sometimes I still get overwhelmed. But now, when I am at my best, I remember to stop perusing and start cooking.
Life tastes just a little better now.
I’m on The Steve Harvey Show today talking sex. Check your local listings for viewing information!
Riley and I had invested in a couple of years of marriage, a mortgage and a baby when I realized our marriage was drifting somewhere between platonic love and relative indifference. The baby was asleep and I was washing dishes when my wandering mind wandered to a point that shocked me. I realized that husband of mine and I hadn’t touched each other in over week. I am not talking about “touching each other, wink, wink, nudge nudge”. I am saying we hadn’t held hands, tousled hair, leaned against one another in sleep in our big old bed. The thing that shocked my baby tired mind even more was the fact that with the not touching we were also talking to each other less, laughing less, building this life of ours side by side less. I saw that man every day and I still found myself missing him.
There were so many good and bad reasons that created the circumstances that led to the need for that kitchen sink revelation. We were both working full time. Our first baby was only nine months old. Riley was finishing up a degree in economics and math. I was struggling to find writing time in the hours after my demanding retail management job. Nine months after giving birth, I still didn’t feel like myself. Adjusting to a new role and new body had taken the wind out of my proverbial sails. (And the perkiness out of my literal breasts.) We were tired. We were broke. We were just making it through the day.
But that afternoon, as I cried over the man I missed, I decided that none of those reasons mattered as much as my marriage. I decided it was time to get to work. At the time, everyone was giving up refined sugar and processed foods for predetermined amounts of time. It was trendy to go 30 days without something. Well, why not decide to have sex for thirty days? An introduction of something into our lives rather than a deduction? Heaven knows, it had to be more fun that living without sweets for a whole month. When Riley got home, I issued the 30 Day Challenge over a dinner of bacon, eggs and burnt toast. It went something like this,
“Hey. If you want…you know…we could just have sex every day for the next month.” Really smooth. His eyes got wide. “Ummmm. Hell, yes.” I’ve never seen a boy finish a meal so quickly. He was ready to, you know, get to work.
Ladies, I’m not going to lie. In those initial weeks it WAS work. Challenge was exactly the right word. This had nothing to do with Riley. I just had months, years of bad thinking and bad habits to undo. I had to get over wanting to lose “ten more pounds.” I had to work towards the understanding that I deserved great sex just as much (if not more) as the man in the relationship. I had to reunite my physical and emotional selves. I had to re-learn how to accept and rejoice in the fact that physical expression was one of the ways that Riley expressed his love for and faith in me. I realized all over again, the importance of accepting and returning that expression. I had to remember that sex is really, really fun. And perhaps most importantly, we both had to learn the art of finding time for one another. Whatever the day held we HAD to connect. Sometimes that meant early morning sex and other times it meant after midnight “let’s get it on”. Sometimes we had twenty minutes and sometimes we had two hours – the point wasn’t necessarily the time, the point was to make the time count.
It took about two weeks to get back in the, ahem, groove of things. By the time the third week rolled around, I was pretty happy to be rolling myself…if you know what I mean. I was craving our time together – both the physical and spiritual intimacy that we were learning to carve out of our crazy days. We made out on the couch, made love on the bed…and car…and kitchen table, and held hands while we watched movies. When Riley got home from work, I’d run to him and he’d kiss my forehead. While I wrote he brought me a coke on ice and brushed the hair from my face. Our thirty day sex challenge energized every aspect of intimacy of our lives. In the moments before and after sex we’d hold each other and talk about our worries and hopes and small and big moments. We talked more during the day, too. More texts, more calls to and from work. We started building and dreaming together again. I found my desire to serve him again and he found his to serve me. After months, maybe even years, of working near each other, we were now working FOR each other. And yeah, those butterflies? The ones that so many of us think we’ve left in our youth? Those came back.
A few friends who knew about our crazy 30 day idea asked what I hoped to get out of it. Over lunch one day, I finally found the right words,
“The heart of our marriage was in cardiac arrest. This is the bolt it needed to start beating again.”
When the 30 days ended, we kept having sex, although every day is sometimes more of a goal than a reality. What do we do every day now? Every single day we find time to be intimate with one another. We find a way to truly see one another and be seen. Sometimes that means making out, sometimes that means deep discussions or hand holding while watching bad TV. Sometimes it means all three. How often do we have sex? Five times a week tends to be our normal. That doesn’t mean it has to be yours. I can say that we wouldn’t be in this place – this soul filling place – without the sex.
The rules of the 30 Day Sex Challenge are pretty simple.
1. Only start this challenge with a good man who you love. Losers, abusers and chauvinists don’t deserve this OR YOU.
2. Both partners in the challenge need to understand that the act of meeting each others needs to happen inside and outside the bedroom. This isn’t just about the sex. It’s about working to fulfill each other physically, spiritually and mentally. The sex is the physical manifestation. Talk to each other to figure out your personal goals for the rest of your intimate life. For example: Riley and I consciously worked toward a better work/family life balance while we undertook the challenge. By the end of the 30 days, that striving had become a good habit just as much as the sex had.
3. Yeah, you have to have sex every day for thirty days. BUT, in extenuating circumstances, prolonged make outs can be substituted for the real thing. That’ll probably lead to sex, anyways.
4. Practice makes perfect. Don’t worry if you guys aren’t the Don Juan of married sex-ing. Just have sex. Read a few books. Give a few pointers. Laugh at yourselves. And have fun. Sex is just as funny as it is steamy. Don’t take everything so seriously.
5. And this one I wish I could shout from the rooftops. You need to take a part of every day to decide you deserve the marriage you’ve always wanted. You get to be loved and seen and your husband gets to have that, too. Your marriage is worth the work, because you are worth the work.
6. You can eat all the sugar and un-whole foods you want.
Joining in on the challenge? Email me your stories! The good, the funny, the in-between. I’m going to be featuring them during our October 30 Days of Sex month long celebration. I can feature them with your name or anonymously, just let me know! One lucky submitter of sexiness will win a one night get-away (with hotel and romantic dinner covered by moi) with the love of her life. More details next week. Until then, post and follow along with #30daysexchallenge!