Thanksgiving 2017

We are currently in the middle of renovations on our new house and aren’t living there yet. As of this writing this is what my kitchen looks like.

Kitchen a mess
Image Description: A kitchen cluttered with renovation debris and drywall dust 

Countertops are covered in sawdust, there are trim pieces and a table saw in my living room and bag chairs in the family room. We need to set up Wi-Fi and cable, and do not have any toilets upstairs. Our kitchen table, sofa and entertainment center are still in a storage unit.

We are less than a week from Thanksgiving and my ridiculousness has insisted that I still want to host Thanksgiving. It’s been our thing for years and years. Since graduating from college my husband and I have hosted a Thanksgiving dinner every year. We made pasta and turkey for just the two of us in Tennessee, and the next year there my brother-in-law came and visited. We’ve had my mother- and father-in-law over in Texas when our oldest was just three weeks old (though I did very little cooking that year). The ten years we’ve been back in Illinois we have added in my brothers and significant others, my parents, friends that became family and aunts and uncles and cousins. Like, it’s a whole thing. I have a collection of recipes and timetables and serving platters and autumn leaf-colored plates and a stuffed turkey and gold and brown tablecloths and a Tiffany-style pumpkin lamp. Like, it is on. This is happening.

My mom has teased me that this really isn’t necessary. My husband stared at me with wide eyes this morning, one of the few times in our twenty-one years together that he has admitted we probably have bitten off more than we can chew. My youngest was sad that every year we decorate a cardboard box that we then fill for the food pantry and that we might not get to this year-I told him we have a million moving boxes and I just grabbed some construction paper from Target. I’ve got Hawaiian rolls in my pantry, a pound and a half a pecans in the freezer, cranberries in the fridge.

My deviled egg plate, immersion blender and portable cupcake holder are out of storage. The big ass square stuffing bowl is ready.

Square Bowl
Image Description: Large white serving dishes on a windowsill overlooking trees

This may be the most ill-advised Thanksgiving we have ever held. But, this is one of the ways I show my gratitude for some of the people I love, and who have been there through this whirlwind process.

Let’s go.

Thanksgiving Table
Image Description: A table set for Thanksgiving with red and orange plates, a vase of autumnal flowers, gourds and leaves. This is last year’s set up

Moving

We decided last spring that it was time to start looking for a new house.

Scratch that “we”. My husband has been ready for a long time. Every other time we’ve moved -from Illinois, to Tennessee, to Texas, to Illinois- we had to do it quickly. A transfer with a few weeks notice, a three day hunt for a new place and about a month to say goodbye and hello and forward all our mail and set up a new phone number. Each time we knew that we would be staying just a few years, that the company would pay for the move and buy our old house if we needed them to.

Our last move was done this way (we saw about twenty different houses over two days with headcolds) when we moved back to Illinois with our one year old baby. In fact, his first birthday was when we closed on it. It was the absolute best option at the time, even with a fence that blocked off any and all access to the back yard. It felt airy and roomy. Light spilled in the way it had in our house in Texas, which was not an easy feat as the money we paid near Houston stretched a lot further than it did in the Chicago suburbs, making windows and space a bit of a luxury. We had three bedrooms which worked at the time-one baby+one home office+one master suite. It gave my husband space to renovate without being a complete renovation. We knocked down the fence and had this view-

Outside View
Image Description: a patio furniture set with a green yard and hedges in the distance

-for the next ten years. It was my favorite.

Then it got small for us. The house sat on a slab, and we never had a basement or a crawlspace. The shed that had been on the property had been…odd. It had blocked our view and had been illegally wired with electricity and air conditioning for the previous owners’ pet dogs, and it really needed to come down. We had little storage to begin with and we added another kid. Both boys fit in one room when they were preschoolers and kindergartners, but as they got bigger, as my oldest got to be almost as tall as me and his clothes literally busted out of the changing table we had converted into a dresser, the whole place felt tighter and tighter. My youngest plays piano and my aunt’s neighbor couldn’t find someone to buy his upright but wanted it to have a good home. We had to turn down a free piano because all the space we had was already spoken for.

I had resisted the idea that we needed somewhere new for a about six years of the last ten. I argued that we were accumulating things too thoughtlessly and discretion would buy us more space. I argued that I never wanted my kids to become spoiled, that it was important to me that they be grateful for what they already had. I argued that a bigger house just meant more to clean, or that it meant I had to pretend to be fancier than I was, or that we would be tempting fate and might drown in debt that I couldn’t help pay down because I was sick.

Because I was sick.

That was the real reason. The house had become my world for the last seven or so years that my health had started to decline. Whenever I was too sick to move, I could still see the backyard through our sliding glass door. The house was always there for me when venturing in the outside world was not possible, when I had been in too much pain to risk going out in the cold, when I was exhausted to the point of vomiting after being up half the night with babies or low blood sugar, when new medications made me too dizzy to drive-home was there for me. When my husband traveled for work and the boys were in bed and insomnia had a hold on me, the house held me and helped me feel safe. I didn’t want to lose that. But it had also become a cage, a place I had become afraid of leaving because I didn’t trust in my own ability to navigate the world while sick. Here I could hide how bad I felt, or nurse myself back to health. It was refuge and prison cell after so many years sick within its walls.

The house had also become a metaphor for how I felt about my broken body. I knew its limitations as intimately as I knew my own and every time my husband would complain that the roofline was not particularly attractive, that the electricity was tricky, that the rooms were small or the spaces limited I would feel stung. I felt embarrassed and angry for the house that he could only see its shortcomings and not the wonderful things it already held. I felt defensive, like I was fighting for my own worth, fighting against being discarded myself. I fought for him to appreciate the love and care he had put into decorating it, the creativity it held, the memories the boys made there, the memories I made as a young mother that no one else will remember because they were too young. I fought for the yard and the view and the windows and the landscaping we planted together. I fought for it like I was fighting to keep myself important.

I realized over time that yes, the house was a good house that would serve another family well; that I wasn’t being replaced with something newer, fancier or less trouble; that I had let myself become confined by its walls and that there wasn’t anymore room for me to grow or breathe or become something bigger than I had been for the last few years. It was time to look for a new place.

A place with room for each of us to be more, for my husband who was feeling stifled by the lack of new projects to be creative with our home again, room for the boys to be independent and to move without bumping into walls with their bigger bodies, room for hobbies and interests and collections. Room and space to dance and cook and sing. Room to hold onto things that are important to us. Room to expand beyond where we were. Room to feel free instead of constrained.

I finally knew it was time, but still had to be dragged through the process of it all kicking and screaming, afraid of what I was losing, not really able to visualize what I would gain. When you go for years losing, voluntarily letting go of something that had been so important to you is incredibly hard. Well, it was for me, and I assume it is for other people.

Moving Boxes
Image Description: Moving boxes and miscellaneous stuff stacked high in a garage.

 

This time, for the first time in our lives, we had time to really look. We had time to decide. We looked at houses from the beginning of May all the way through August and decided we wouldn’t settle for something that was close enough, as we had had to before. We finally found a place, after looking at every listed house in town for an entire summer, just on the other side of the pond where we had been living. After fretting about the boys moving schools, it is looking like they won’t have to. After grieving over missing our neighbors, they are literally just a five minute walk away. We haven’t closed on the house yet, but I am cheered that we didn’t even lose the view I came to love so much-we’ll just be seeing it from a different angle.

But we will have more space to grow.

It pains me to say it, but my husband was right. The process was hard and painful in a lot of ways-our boys have never (really) lived anywhere else and were doubtful they would survive the move, I had to confront the ways I had let being sick limit me, we had to ask all our family to help move most of our things into storage since we were still looking for the right place as our place sold more quickly than we thought it would. But it has been necessary. And worth all the trouble.

International Women’s Day and Day Without a Woman

devalue

Today is International Women’s Day. This particular March 8th is also, in the United States, Day Without a Woman – a general strike to highlight the importance of women and how their contributions of both paid and unpaid labor are grossly underappreciated. I have been spending all of this week leading up to today trying to figure out how best to honor both.

The easiest way to support the day and the strike is to wear red, a show of solidarity with women fighting for equal rights, opportunities and recognition. Done. I’m wearing red, my two kids are wearing red. Easy.

red shirt

The next is slightly harder. As women purchase 70-80 percent of items and services for sale, women are asked to refrain from purchasing anything today, to demonstrate how much our purchasing power is worth. Another way to do that is to purchase exclusively from women-owned companies. I will be purchasing an item to support the wonderful online site The Establishment, a bastion of intersectional feminism and support for writers (they pay every writer for every story they publish-which is unusual and welcome in the world of online publishing). I won’t be buying lunch, or dinner, or groceries, or clothes, or books, or my kids’ haircuts or an oil change for the car today.

The last is the most difficult. Women are called upon to strike from all paid and unpaid labor today. Except for the once-a-month tutoring gig I do get paid for, all my labor is unpaid right now. I am a published writer who last got paid for an essay in 2007, and a stay-at-home mom. When my husband is not traveling for work, we already share household chores and child-raising tasks equitably. He doesn’t need a reminder of what I do, and I feel appreciated. And if I refrain from writing, I lose the opportunity to advocate for recognition of the work that women do. So I won’t be taking time away from unpaid labor.

I also never thought of it this way before, but I have women in my employ. I am a chronically ill person who functions most weeks as a single mother would, taking care of everything while my husband travels for work. We have a service come and clean our house every two weeks to help. Vacuuming, washing floors, dusting high shelves, scrubbing toilets: I can technically still do all these things. However, the pain and energy cost of doing these chores (my fibromyalgia tends to flare) leaves me bankrupt for days sometimes, unable to do other things that need doing. I am so grateful to have the three women who do this work for me. Wednesdays happen to be the days they come. I appreciate what they provide for me so much, and know I am a more productive person if I let this work still happen. If they do strike today, I am completely supportive and understanding. If they do not, I will try to make sure to tell them how much I appreciate the work they do.

But, most of all, what I want to do today is explain just how many women make my world possible. I have lived in the world of women for a decade, a world of stay-at-home moms, retail workers, grade school teachers, pediatricians, nurses and volunteers.

I will start with school. From the early intervention services that my youngest had at age two, to the fourth-grade teacher my oldest has now, almost every single educator my kids have had have been women. Since preschool my oldest has been taught by at least thirty teachers and four teacher’s aides, and only three of them have been men. Since early intervention my youngest has had four speech therapists, and at least twenty-four teachers and teacher’s aides, I think one of whom has been a man. We have a male principal, but the vast majority of workers at the school, from the school secretaries to the lunch moms to the volunteers who organize fundraisers and room parties, are women.  Grade school workers are notoriously underpaid and in a capitalist society being underpaid means being underappreciated. I love our school.

I went to work out today. Seven out of the nine receptionists I see regularly are women. When I peek in on classes, I have yet to see a male instructor. Most of the trainers are women. All of the instructors for early childhood classes at my park district are women.

I thought about spending time at our library. I have seen two male librarians over the course of nine years.

Where we get our boys hair cut, eight out of the nine hairdressers I see regularly are women.

Grocery stores, at least half the employees are women. Fast food and slower paced restaurants seem to be the same, at about 50%. So is our local post office.

Clothing and shoe stores? Almost 100% women.

Our local food pantry and community services administrators? 80% women.

Emergency room at our local hospital? The boys and I have only ever seen two male nurse versus about twenty female nurses. We’ve seen two male doctors versus at least ten female doctors.

The pediatrician’s office? All the nurses are women. Half the doctors are as well.

We would visit my mother when she worked at the offices for our local church. A full half of the support staff the offices, and roughly 90 percent of the teachers for both year-round parochial school and CCD were women. And these are just the paid positions. Mothers often volunteer to help even more. In fact that’s how my mother got her foot in the door for this job in the first place.

Most of the women I know, whether they work outside the home or not, do vast amounts of unpaid and unappreciated labor. I once had a conversation with other moms who were completely shocked that my husband did the grocery shopping for our household. I was told that to expect their husbands to do this task was completely unthinkable. Working women still do more household and child-rearing chores then working men. Stay-at-home mothers are still looked down on as if they aren’t contributing.

Most caregivers for disabled people and the elderly are women, both paid professionals and unpaid family members.

On top of all this, is the emotional labor that I have seen women do for free. The labor of keeping relationships healthy, families emotionally whole, communities functioning and working together.

The contributions women make to this country, to the world, are staggering.

The last other thing I am going to try to do today is to spend time not only thinking about how much would be lost without women doing the too-often invisible work of the world, but how much would be lost without their voices too. I have set my playlist to all the music I own either written or sung by women. I am reading I Am Malala for the first time.

women's voices

 

This is how I will spend today.

Tiny Bites

big bowl pomegranate

The bowl of little red jewels caught the light, the reward for nearly a half an hour of preparation. Pomegranates require patience. Once scored you can peel back the tough outer layer and begin to use your hands as claws pulling sections apart. Submerging the whole fruit under water, you can delicately loosen the gems from their white pith moorings and let them sink gently to the bottom of the bowl. Some will fall easily without bursting. Some will require finesse, like wiggling a baby tooth loose from pink-red gums. Some arils will split under too much pressure or when they catch the edge of your nail, but there are thousands upon thousands left to pick from. Like fish eggs, we assume so many are created because inevitably so many will be lost along the way. The whole lot is drained though a fine mesh, and the work continues picking out the blemished and the burst, rescuing the ones that need the last bits of white scraped off their bottoms. Then they are ready to eat.

I worried about this Thanksgiving. My body is dysfunctional in that way that means specialist doctors with extensive waitlists, daily confusion as to what healthy can look like for me, the possibility that something is very wrong or that no one will really know what the problem is. Until the cause of that dysfunction is uncovered, most of the canon of holiday food is actively dangerous to me if I lose my inhibitions and eat too much. Candied sweet potatoes and stuffing, mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce, cocktails and pecan pie are only safe for me in .01 parts per million, like arsenic. Turkey and green beans are acceptable. I worried about how empty and sparse my plate would look. That that emptiness might feel so much like sadness, or grief.

I worried that all the time it takes to make all these things, the hours and hours of peeling and mashing and sautéing would feel like masochism. Like deprivation. Like resentment of the people I love for being able to enjoy these things when I couldn’t. I worried that my love of cooking was purely selfish and greedy, that I was able to indulge my gluttony by it, but didn’t enjoy serving other people no matter how much I care for them.

Worse yet, I worried that my family would be able to see the sadness and selfishness flash across my face. The twin commandments I placed on myself, to be truthful and to be loving, were going to be compromised either one way or another. I didn’t want to lie, nor did I want to pout in envy, and I was quite convinced that at least one would be unavoidable.

As I worked through the process of freeing the pomegranate arils with my oldest son, as I shopped and cooked and cooked and cooked, I was happily surprised that I didn’t feel unhappy at all. The work was as satisfying as it had always been. I felt happy to make, and make, and make without hope of more than a mouthful of each treat. Without the expectation of tangible reward. And I was absolutely relieved to find out that I could be content that my loved ones could have something I couldn’t. The frustration I anticipated in myself dissolved before it materialized.

I had a beautifully happy Thanksgiving, where I got to find out that I still love cooking, I still love my friends and family more than my gluttony, I still can enjoy life with just a taste of this or that, I can be more than my self-pity.

Persephone, the goddess of springtime, spends part of each year as the Queen of the Underworld. We have one month of winter for each pomegranate seed she ate while in the keep of Hades, her kidnapper. As I allowed myself just a few arils out of the thousands we harvested for Thanksgiving, I let the juice burst into my mouth one by one. I was happy with my few, and thought ruefully that four months of winter was more than enough. Too many pomegranate seeds and spring might never come again. But the temptation to have at least a few is too much to pass up altogether, especially when winter, in all its coziness and closeness, is pretty wonderful.

4 pomegranates

Houswifery and Rage Against the Machine

housewifery

I have tried to like housework.

I really have. I have quotes scribbled into my notebooks about the Zen nature of caring for the objects that serve you well. One reminds me that caring for pots and pans we use or combing our tangled hair, is an act of self-care and should be done carefully. Another is a conversation on how to reach enlightenment, where the student asks the teacher how to do so, and the teacher replies, “Chop wood, carry water”. The student then asks what one does after enlightenment and the teacher replies, “Chop wood, carry water.” The act of cleaning, scrubbing, folding and putting away can be meditative.

I have more quotes scattered around the house and Pinterest boards about how women authors balanced housekeeping and writing. (This is not a question many male authors have had put to them, nor have many commented on it spontaneously) Agatha Christie found herself plotting novels while doing dishes. I think about the episode of Big Bang Theory where Sheldon takes a menial job to free his brain for a creative breakthrough.

I own books called The Hoarder in You, Love the Home You Have, and The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.

I have bribed myself with clothing, and lunches out of the house, and new books to try to goad myself into the domestic duties are mine to tackle.

My husband is a neat and tidy person, an equal partner in shopping and cleaning and childcare when he is home. But four out of seven days he is not, and the entirety of our house’s functionality rests on me.

The only way I have found to prod myself to do the right thing, when all these other things fail, is The Housekeeping Playlist.

The Playlist is raucous.

I yell along to it instead of singing.

Head-banging and fists pumping in the air might be involved.

And it consists almost entirely of Rage Against the Machine songs.

People of the Sun. Bulls on Parade. Renegades of Funk. Guerilla Radio. Testify.

Sleep Now in the Fire.

Once I get a good dose of “F*ck the system” out of my system I am ready to tackle dirty dishes and wiping down stainless steel appliances. Maybe it’s my way of announcing to myself that it’s okay that I feel pissy and whiny and don’t want to be stuck doing this. Maybe it’s the deep down irony of yelling at the patriarchy and then looking like a stereotypical housewife perpetuating the system. Maybe it’s a way for me to remember that me not wanting to clean is a ridiculously small and petty thing, compared to what bigger injustices are going on in the world. Or maybe I just need a beat and some passion in my day.

We watched American Hustle last year, and there is a scene where Jennifer Lawrence is smashing around the house to “Live and Let Die”, yellow rubber gloves on, vacuum nearby and ready to go. I yelled out, “That’s me!” as my husband started laughing his ass off gasping, “That’s you.”

I really tried to like housework. I did. Once in a while, you’ll still see me staring off contemplatively while I wipe down a counter. Or peacefully sweeping up. Or on my hands and knees humming while I scrub like Cinderella. But, if it looks like I’m having some sort of seizure through the kitchen window, the playlist is most likely why. And the house might just end up spotless.

I Overdid It

Overdid it

I overdid it.

I was suddenly gifted six hours a day where child-care wasn’t my primary objective. For the first time in nearly nine years, I was responsible for the well-being and care of my offspring for only eight hours of the fourteen they are awake each day.

Or, as someone else might reference it, both my kids are in full-day school.

I absolutely did not want to squander this opportunity to do everything, everything, I have been meaning to get done for the last nine years. And apparently I thought that all should be accomplished within the first three weeks of the very first school year that this free time has appeared.

Goals, dreams, accomplishments: I would soon have them all within my grasp!

  • Showering every day-Check.
  • Exercising every day-Check.
  • Writing every day-Check.
  • Taking care of e-mails and phone calls in a timely manner-Check
  • Putting things away so that our house looked less like a clutter-bomb exploded-Check
  • Making a healthy breakfast, lunch and dinner-Check.

They were good goals, attainable goals. But then I got greedy for more: more polish, more perfection, more poise. I have all this time now, don’t I? Shouldn’t I be capable of all these things and more? What, with all this free time and what-not. So I began adding to the to-do list, the accomplishments I needed to have under my belt by pick-up time.

  • Showering every day AND drying my hair AND shaving my legs AND moisturizing AND putting on make-up AND putting on a flattering outfit.
  • Exercising every day-but in order to count it has to be new and challenging and has to keep my muscles guessing and be intense and must lead towards the goal of becoming ATHLETIC.
  • Writing every day. Writing blog pieces and long pieces and cover letters and author biographies. Submitting to as many publications as I could. Researching and reading the archives of every respectable magazine I can get my hands on.
  • Taking care of e-mails and phone calls that both include current issues and issues one, two, three months out.
  • Putting things away, scrubbing all the floors, dusting every room, washing all the sheets and the pillows, going through the closets, cleaning out the car.
  • Making healthy breakfast, lunches and dinners, snacks and treats AND making the outrageous claim that I would try to make sure we never had fast food on a soccer night (which, by the way, is four out of five weekdays).

I bought blush for the first time since my wedding eleven years ago. I doubled my exercise sessions and tripled the steps I take in a day. I decided I should make the one free weekday afternoon I have with the boys a cookie-baking day, just because my youngest loves baking and we never do it and WHY NOT, I’VE GOT ALL THIS TIME TO MYSELF NOW!

And I am burned-out.

I forgot that I still take care of the boys at least eight other hours a day. I forgot that my husband still travels for work almost every week. I forgot that I have multiple chronic illnesses (hypothyroidism, fibromyalgia and hypoglycemia) that I have to carefully manage. I forgot that I was human. That I might have a bad night’s sleep, or a disappointing setback, or a moment where my body has just given up on me, or a minor argument, or even a just a pimple.

I seemed to think that this extra time to myself was a magic wand. If I coupled it with diligence and effort and not being afraid of planning and experimenting and rolling up my sleeves, I would be unstoppable.

Yep. Except for writing this, today I am pretty well and fully stopped. It’s a high pain day, and my hands and feet are cramped and curled up on themselves unless I push them flat. My head is pounding and my shoulders won’t un-hunch. My body likes to remind me when I’m being a bit foolish and unrealistic.

My body likes to tell me when I am being too hard on myself.

So, I’m going to try to find a few of those six hours today to rest, and regroup, and take a deep breath. Why not? I have all this time to myself now.

Standing Still-A Free-Write Response

Literary Mama had a free-writing prompt today asking, “Consider how you make space and time for stillness.  How do you slow down?” I decided to free write today, to answer that question for myself.

pizza

Home-made pizza is what makes me slow down. It is a ridiculously slow process for something I can get other people to bring to me, hot and ready, for a really nominal fee. I live in such a busy suburb of Chicago I can even get deep dish pizza delivered within the half hour. But scheduling in homemade pizza as a dinner is my way of saying to myself, “We are not bound by deadlines today, we are not going to try to make, eat and clean up from dinner in thirty minutes so we can rush off to do God knows what else that seems more important than just relaxing.” It takes time to knead the dough, to let it rise, to roll it out, to get everyone’s apron on and off, to let everyone put their own toppings on, to take pictures of the pizzas before they cook (always) to clean up the four cookie sheets and one glass bowl we need to use, to wipe down the flour-covered counter and floor and to let the piping hot pizzas cool off enough to eat. We eat on a blanket in front of the TV. It is a signal. We do not need to rush every moment of our lives. We have a luxury of time we either don’t admit we have over fears of looking too privileged, or don’t use because we fear we’ll be the only ones. This is a signal that the world doesn’t need to swirl around us, that pausing and taking unnecessary time together is necessary.