The Involuntary Vow of Silence

My days are in no way silent. I have never done a silent retreat. When I go on my mama retreats I find myself chattering to myself all weekend, narrating my actions like I do day in and day out when I’m shadowed by a little tribe of children. It’s a habit I can’t shake, and one I think of when I encounter monastic rules of silence occasionally in novels.

So, it was a big change when, recently, I got the first case of full blown laryngitis I can remember, right on the heels of my first bout of mastitis.

I didn’t see it coming, hadn’t realized I’d even caught the kids’ cold until the mastitis misery lifted, and by then, there was no saving my voice.

Homeschooling, as it turns out, is mostly talking, at least the way I do it, but we were already behind from the colds and mastitis so we limped along. It turned out Pip, now in fourth grade, can do almost all his work independently, but that second-grade Scout can do basically none of hers. It turns out lots of Ambleside Online books can be found on LibriVox or Scribd or YouTube, but very few of Mater Amabilis’s books. So John did a bit and the internet did a bit and some of it just got rolled over till later.

The more important lessons of my involuntary silence for me came outside of school hours, though. When I can’t speak, I listen more to my kids. I enjoy their conversation more when I can’t hustle them along or shape the conversation.

I have to go with the flow a lot more. So much of managing and adjusting to life with four kids has been me raising my voice and delegating, coaching and guiding us all through the grocery store aisles, or unloading the groceries. But when my coach voice failed me, mostly the kids rose to the occasion, even without my minute management.

Being rendered voiceless, more than anything, reminded me of those long mornings with just a couple small kids, when in my exhaustion I’d convince the kids to play doctor, so I could lie limp and sneak-sleeping on the floor of their bedroom as they flitted around me with their plastic stethoscopes, their faux-concerned voices. There was nowhere to go; we were just together, passing the time in each other’s company. As one murmured to the other, as the other inspected my wounded knee and dropped it with a professional cluck of disapproval, I’d doze off.

Nearly a decade ago, it was just me in the winter light of our silent New England apartment, staring in to the inscrutable blue eyes of our firstborn. Now, improbably, I am surrounded by a murmuration of starlings, a murmuration of my own making, the happy chatter and endless complaints of these little people God has called into the world. It is overwhelming and it is beautiful, both. It took being silent to remember that.

Running: Better than Grass-filled Jellybeans

(If you’re here from my piece on anosmia at Scary Mommy, welcome! I’m glad you’re here.)

A thing you know about me if you know me IRL, but may not if we haven’t met, is that for the past eleven years I’ve owned a dog named Bonnie, who is, according to our best guesses — and the sure-if-that’s-what-you-want people at the pound — a border collie mix.

Bonnie, approximately 77 dog years ago. Leave your breed guesses in the comment box.

Many years and three babies ago, when Bonnie was young, she and I would go running together. (If J and I were dogs, he would be a border collie like Bonnie, and I would be something sedate, like a basset hound.) I do not like running and so for the first three quarters of the run I would plod along while Bonnie dragged desperately, and then she’d lag and meander the last quarter.

When lockdown started, I buckled down with running and got more regular. I found myself with more anxiety to manage, so I was going to need to put in more time in my extra-narrow Brooks Ghosts. Because Bonnie is now approximately 129 in dog years, I ran alone, and these little runs became my lonely communes with the pre-dawn — not exactly fun, but something that made my day better once I was in sipping tea and warming up.

But then deep winter came to our valley, and SOMEONE got restless — no, not Bonnie. I don’t know if it’s a boy/girl thing or a Katherine/J thing, but my girls’ behavior doesn’t nosedive with a decrease in exercise, but my boy’s sure does. In December we’d settled back into pretty complete isolation as local numbers climbed, and so I wasn’t able to kick Pip out with friends anymore and for some unknown reason, he wasn’t keen to go wander our suburban yard by himself in sub-freezing temperatures.

And so he started joining me on runs.

Peregrine in his trail-running Saucony Peregrines

It was so completely and utterly like running with my border collie all those years ago — straining to race ahead at the beginning, with a smattering of good natured trash talk, followed by whining and trailing in the last quarter. (On our first run, he actually claimed that it was possible for your kneecaps to fall off and that he’d seen it happen in a cyclocross race.)

But with important differences: no constant pausing (ok, only for really irresistible ice puddles), no leash aggression, and with a breathless constant stream of mostly one-sided conversation.

Before Pippin started running with me, I would not have claimed I was in need of any more time with my children. It’s the middle of a pandemic and I homeschool, so they have been with me approximately 98% of the last year.

It is a family joke that I hate running and am given to snorting in derision when someone wishes me a good run. But then the other day, Pippin added to the recorded list of interests I keep for his homeschool report “runing with Mama.” And I was so flattered I brought it up, wheezily, on our next run.

“It’s a little bit fun, isn’t it, Mama?” he prodded.

Grudgingly, I admitted that it was better with him, at least.

“Better than lots of things!” he encouraged. “Better than jellybeans. Filled with grass!”

And it is, dear reader. I don’t love running, but I don’t hate it anymore, and it is better with this tiny companion, not so tiny anymore, full of ideas and fun, excited for a frosty sunrise run with his mom, even if she goes entirely too slow.

The most improbable alliance: running buddies

Practicing Hospitality in a Corona Summer, Part 2

[Catch up on Part 1 here!]

It occurs to me, too, that as I stress about when and how and if to invite people back into my home, I should be honing my hospitality skills toward the people already shored up here with me: my husband and kids.

LEGOs are giving us life

I don’t think it’s bragging to say I was very good at this quarantine with the kids the first few weeks and months. We had good systems in place already (like quiet time) and had already made choices that lent themselves well to quarantine (like homeschooling). I was (and am) sad not to be pregnant, but because my pregnancies are so….violent, it certainly made the job of caring for the kids without outside reinforcements much easier. We’ve been blessed, and family life when we are each other’s all in all has been much, much easier than I expected.

But fatigue is real, let me tell you. I’ve missed many hours of mother’s helper time, at least a handful of date nights, the several weeks of free co-op childcare I earned by teaching art all fall, and several grandparent visits. It is easy to spend days at a time constantly advocating for why I need a break, why everyone just needs to leave me alone, why I am a victim.

Sal and her socially-distanced berries

But my kids (and maybe yours, too) are really so easy. The things they delight in are usually so small. Going to socially distanced blueberry picking. Trying a new trail. Reading aloud in a quiet spot in the park. Heck, a little TV so I do get that alone time. Here, the only real difficulty is in choosing activities I can be nice about — there’s the rub. It is always better, I’ve learned very painfully and slowly, to be unambitious and kind than bent on enriching at the cost of warmth. Especially in this time of anxiety, if I can’t, say, manage that level of crowd without getting twitchy and short-tempered, it’s probably better that we do something else. In the early days, I kept thinking of that movie Life is Beautiful, in which a loving father serves as a sort of host or guide to his wife and young son, creating a lovelier world for them amongst the horrors of the Holocaust. My task is smaller; surely I can do it, if I keep focus.

All they want is gummy snack picnics tbh

What’s more, if I let it, school can be a time in which I intentionally remind these kids of mine over and over that I love them. I can cuddle Scout for her reading lesson, find fun toy boxes for Roo, stay patient and engaged in Pippin’s narrations. For the most part, the structure of our short school day has been sanity-saving, and so when we finished in early June, we took a week off and started the new year. But if I’m not careful, distractions sneak in. I go to set up Pip’s Duolingo lesson and suddenly I’m swept away on my Instagram feed. Someone’s trying to share something exciting she just learned and I’m thinking about when to fit in the laundry. Our school day is really, on paper, so short — it’s not too much to ask for me to give it my all, just as I require them to do.

When we were getting married, J’s church required us to attend premarital counseling. And one of my takeaways was this advice: At the very least, be as polite to your spouse as you’d be to a stranger.

More sweaty snuggling when I would rather not

Translation: When all else fails, be hospitable. The counselor knew what I, a 21-year-old bride-to-be did not: You will not always feel this radiant, effortless, selfless love toward your husband, and in the moments you don’t, politeness and disciplined kindness will carry you. This applies, of course, to your children, too. While I’m preoccupied with thinking through the justifications of my duty to the world in corona-times, I’ve got someone tugging on my skirt who doesn’t have the luxury of badgering her friend or teacher or neighbor instead, because she’s quarantined, too. And she needs a little kindness extended, too, a moment welcomed into my arms and my mind. She’s already, always, welcome in my heart, but my actions are what will remind her of that, over and over, for as long as this lasts and beyond.

Candlemas, Kinship and Firstborn Sons

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I’m not entirely sure when I met my sister-in-law(-in-law).* But I think it was at the Evensong nights that sprung up about ten years ago. I had no idea of her future importance in my life, of course. She was just a college friend to both my new husband and his little brother.

And now she is someone I will see, in all likelihood, every Christmas for the rest of my life. She is aunt to all my children, and godmother to one. And last month, she gave me my very first nephew.Read More »

Three vs One

I remember the moment. I was walking down our New England driveway with my friend Trish, who had five children compared to my one toddler. And she said, quite casually, “Sometimes I think having one kid was hardest. You’re just alone all day and you feel like you’re talking to yourself. Once there’s more, they’re never all going through crises at once. Maybe one is going through a really difficult phase, but another is just learning how to read or asking really interesting questions. One doesn’t nap, but one does. And you have someone to talk to all day.”Read More »

Super Special Girl Time™

Once a week, Pippin has a music class in the evening, to which J takes him because I am a musical dunce. At first, this weekly event devastated Scout. Why can’t she have a music class, too? (Well, because she is three, for starters.)

So we tried to give it a spin. Ah yes, we said. Your brother is going to a music class, but you, my tiny friend, you get Super Special Girl Time.™ You and your sister get special time with Mama. (It has not occurred to her yet that 98% of her week is time with Mama.)Read More »

Small Animals: Parenting in the Age of Fear

 

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This is not a very death-defying photo, but most of the real hijinks happen, almost by definition, out of my line of sight.

(NB: This is one I listened to as an audiobook so I couldn’t mark it up or copy down passages quickly enough. So quotations here were either hunted down online or are from excerpts and interviews that jive with the book.)

This fall as I slowly set out on running again after a long pregnancy/physical therapy hiatus, I listened avidly to Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of FearI found the book by turns mesmerizing, validating, challenging. In an NPR interview this summer, author Kim Brooks argues:

“We read, in the news or on social media, about children who have been kidnapped, raped and killed, about children forgotten for hours in broiling cars. We do not think about the statistical probabilities or compare the likelihood of such events with far more present dangers, like increasing rates of childhood diabetes or depression. Statistically speaking, according to the writer Warwick Cairns, you would have to leave a child alone in a public place for 750,000 years before he would be snatched by a stranger. Statistically speaking, a child is far more likely to be killed in a car on the way to a store than waiting in one that is parked. But we have decided such reasoning is beside the point.”

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Dorothy Day’s Little Way of Motherhood

So, last month I finished On Pilgrimagethe first book I’ve read by Dorothy Day. If you’ve read it, you know it’s a weird experience — like if I printed out a year’s worth of blog posts, interspersed them with my diary entries, stapled it together, and called it a book. But only if I was as insanely interesting as Day, even at her most scattered.

One page struck me especially. We have a new tradition of mother’s blessings here, where we gather to pray for and encourage a friend as her pregnancy comes to its end, and maybe that’s why this passage struck me particularly.

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