Sunday, January 17, 2010

A Canopy of Trees

If I could name anywhere on earth as my “happy place”, I mean the happy place of my childhood, it would be that acre and a half on Ravine Road where we lived in the buses and Dad built the house. When I think of that place, I see the dogwoods in bloom along the drive and the stand of pines where Lauri and I used to climb up, up, up, and even from tree to tree, getting sticky with sap and poked in the face by needles and twigs all the way. I see the honeysuckle growing along the neighbor’s fence and the lilacs hanging down in pastel clusters.

I see the tulip poplar like a friend standing tall and straight in the bend of the gravel driveway, dropping its flowers in summer, and the wineberries that we would eat one by one as we passed by. And I see the ravine descending down, down, down, a slope to my own enchanted world, where "lunch" could be served on a huge, flat tree stump and violets grew along the bank of a trickle of water we called a stream. I see moss and leaves and a steep climb out of the ravine to the road. I see a canopy of trees.

And standing there looking back from the road, I see through the trees a house built in the flat place cut out of a hill, a single-wide trailer parked on the hill above it, and two mismatched buses on the hill below. I see a massive army tent full of wood and saws and piles of sawdust. I see a man with a full brown beard balancing on a high beam, swinging a heavy hammer. I see a woman with a baby boy, and two girls playing in the dirt, running up the hill, sucking honeysuckle, “fishing” in the stream, doing everything together, constant companions not by any choice but by the fact of their existence, the other half of each other.

I've always been a writer. I brought my first poem out to my mother in the kitchen of the mobile home there on the hill: “Life. I wander haw in the world I aver got to have life. Life. Life. Life. It is grate to have life. It is terrible to have hell.” As far as existential musings go, it wasn't bad for a five-year-old. My dad says when he read it, his heart hurt a little with the feeling that life would not always be easy for me, because I think so much about things. It's true; I do.

I haven't had any great suffering. The things I've suffered are all on the level of my first loss: ordinary wrenchings of the heart, like the loss of a place I had, a place perched on the side of a ravine and covered with trees, not just a place I loved, but the place that made me know I was loved, where the sound of hammers falling and saws whining could soothe me to sleep, where the smell of sawdust was the fragrance of belovedness.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Buses

I think the only place to start is with the buses. It just says so much. We lived in the buses the summer after I finished kindergarten. Dad parked two buses side by side and cut a hole out so we could pass between them. The yellow bus was the living room/kitchen and the blue bus was the bedroom/bathroom. Off the back, outside the emergency exits, Dad built a porch where he set up a table for meals and a curtain-enclosed stall for showers. I remember during every meal the ever-present bees buzzing around us.

For the shower, Dad had befriended the neighbor up the hill from us, who had allowed him to tap into his water supply. A series of hoses ran down the hill from the back of this neighbor's house to a 50-gallon drum on top of the buses. This was really ingenious as I think about it. The water must have heated up in the summer sun enough to provide a warm, albeit quick, shower. I never remember Mom in the shower; maybe she washed up at a friend's house once or twice a week. Mom bathed Lauri and I one at a time in a little round blue plastic tub with water she heated in the microwave. Dad might have been the only one to shower on the porch. The shower curtain hung on a wire half-circle, and Dad would pull it around him, the ends each touching a bus. Once, a lady from church who stopped by, probably out of charity as I think about it now, got quite a show. I'm sure Dad didn't realize she was there when he got in the shower, but it was a case of faulty construction. From inside the yellow bus, she could see him showering through the rear window.

In the bedroom bus, Mom and Dad slept on a mattress on the floor. My older sister Lauri and I had bunk beds, which were old doors my dad had covered with blue shag carpet. I seem to remember Lauri was scared of falling out of bed, so that's why I got the top bunk, which I loved. Paul was just a baby, so I'm sure he slept in a box or a drawer somewhere. In the mobile home we moved into that fall - when it started to get cold - he slept on top of the dresser.

The bathroom was right where it had always been in that bus, a tiny room by the rear exit, with a port-a-potty. I distinctly remember a sign above the toilet paper, printed neatly in my mother's hand: "Eight squares apiece." I think that had something to do with the capabilities of the tank, maybe a tendency to clog or how often it had to be emptied. (Now that I've watched my own young children use giant wads of toilet paper, I can see why she might have been worried about clogging.) But surely we used double-ply. Otherwise, it seems like a scanty allotment.

You're probably wondering the reason for our unique accommodations. Well, we weren't just camping. My father's ingenuity only began with the buses. What he was really about was just up the hill. He was working on building a house literally with his own two hands and with mostly "found" materials: glass from an old greenhouse, fieldstone a farmer gave him for digging it out of his field, oak trees my dad cut down himself and helped to plane at a friend's mill. The oak was for the beams. The fieldstone was for the fireplace - three stories high. The glass was made into windows that covered the front of the house. All the floors were pine. I remember when he sealed the downstairs floor with polyurethane, he suspended the piano from the ceiling to get it off the floor. When he sealed the stairs and we were waiting for them to dry, to get upstairs we climbed a ladder and then crawled across a plank. That was one thing my mother complained about, and overall I can't say she really complained that much, considering the unconventional nature of her life with my father. She protested all the way, but she did climb that ladder and crawl across the plank. At the time, she was eight months pregnant with my sister Susan.

As kids, we all thought mom was kind of a party pooper. She wasn't cheerful as she scrubbed panes of greenhouse glass with a bucket of hot water on the kitchen table in our mobile home (after feeding, bathing, and putting to bed three kids in a single-wide.) She seriously fussed when she had to crawl across that plank. And when she knocked herself out when we were leaving for church because she didn't duck coming out of the emergency exit of the bus, she was actually angry, maybe even livid. Looking back now as a wife and mother myself, I don't know how she did it, especially considering that as I am writing this, those are the only three examples I can come up with of her bad attitude. It makes me want to cry. It's sweet to think of her going wherever my dad took her, doing whatever crazy-sounding thing he came up with for them to do, maybe objecting at first but always giving in in the end.

Of course, Dad's plans might have sounded crazy, but for him they were more or less realistic, though they didn't always reach completion in exactly the time frame that was at first agreed upon. The house was supposed to take six months; it took five years. Still, he finished it, and pretty much single-handedly, with a little help from friends on things like pouring the foundation, erecting the beams, nailing the shingles. Someone else would have been crazy to try. Most people wouldn't have even thought to. My dad, as I used to say, "could do anything, just like Jesus." Mom was always quick to correct me and say "almost anything." Like, for example, Dad couldn't save my soul, I guess she was thinking. Maybe she was also thinking about one or two other things he couldn't do. Wives have that vantage point. (Mom, though, was usually too busy thinking about all the things she herself couldn't do, like keep herself from sometimes getting angry or keep her kids happy at all times.)

I think Mom just had a very sensitive conscience; she didn't want us making an idol of our Dad. I don't know if we made an idol of him, but he was definitely our hero. Life with him was a fabulous adventure. Time taken out of working on the house to stand on the ledge of the driveway and throw a weighted rope over and over until he hooked it over the branch of a tree twenty feet up so that he could make us a swing - and not just a swing, a thrill ride - was time well spent in his opinion. A house without a rope swing, after all, wouldn't be much of a house.

Of course, he wanted that rope swing as much if not more than we did, partly because he'd gotten it into his head, and he couldn't get it out of his head until he'd solved how to do it and accomplished it. I just know he lay in bed at night working it all out in his mind - inventing - and then what fun to get up in the morning and try. Nothing could stop him. He was single-minded. But it wasn't just the problem-solving, which has always been his main hobby in life, it was the dream he had and wanted to invite us into. He was creating a place that lived inside his heart and head, a place for his family to experience a thrill ride, even before we knew what one was. And I must say, we certainly did.

Friday, January 1, 2010


20 weeks into my third pregnancy, and already 20 pounds in the hole. That doesn't bode well. I have Thanksgiving and Christmas to thank, but also this constant ravenous feeling. I don't know if I'm really hungry or not. But an hour after eating, I'm already thinking about what I'll eat next. I think about eating all day long. I wake up feeling grateful that ah! I get to eat again! I definitely overdid it over the holidays. I ate past the feeling of being full at pretty much every meal every day for two weeks total. I'd say Thanksgiving and Christmas chalked up five pounds apiece that I might not have otherwise gained.

I've always loved eating junk food while watching The Biggest Loser, because it's so comforting to think I'll never be that fat, even if every night for the rest of my life I eat two servings of Chocolate Trinity ice cream after I put the kids to bed. I know I'm not what anyone would call fat right now, but it's this feeling of being out of control, this fear that I may never see 138 again, or at least not for a very long time. And I just don't like what I see when I look at my ass. Ugh. I usually don't like to use that word, but right now it is definitely an ass.

Was it like this with my other pregnancies? Did I gain this much this fast? I'll have to ask my midwife to check my chart. Tonight I tried to remember where I might have written down that information, because I really really really wanted a bowl of Chocolate Trinity ice cream, and if I knew that I've been here before and came out of it just fine, I would enjoy eating it so much more. I couldn't find it in my old journals. Actually, I gave up before I even opened one. I just looked at them all lined up on the shelf and, where before I would have been able to find the exact spot in less than thirty minutes, I knew that I could not kid myself into thinking my brain is currently operating at that level. (Case in point: on Sunday, Grace and Emma had the most killer cute little outfits to wear to church. I got them at Old Navy: white fluffy sweaters over pink ruffled tutus and furry tassled boots. But five minutes after setting aside Emma's sweater so she could eat breakfast, I couldn't find it. We were half an hour late because of looking for it and still not finding it, and I was trying not to be in a terrible mood, because really dressing them up like that was solely for my own benefit. Later I discovered that I had put Emma's sweater on her older sister. Grace's sweater was still in her dresser drawer.)

The other reason I gave up on the journals was that it wasn't worth five post-bedtime minutes, let alone thirty. I just had to enjoy my ice cream in spite of it. I enjoyed a bowl and a half. Some might call it two. Of course, I use a teacup, not an actual bowl. It is amazing, though, how much ice cream you can squeeze into a teacup.

What's even more amazing is that I'm writing about my weight right now. This isn't how I meant to start my blog. My blog is supposed to be soul-searching and inspiring. It's supposed to be about being an artist while in the middle of raising young children, about letting all parts of me live, even if it's just by not suppressing my longing for artistic expression, even when I'm not actually getting to do it very much.

Also, though, I have a story I've been wanting to tell, for almost a decade. Of course, it hasn't been ripe until recently, and now that I'm pregnant with it, I'm also quite literally pregnant, with my third child in four years (which I'm magnificently excited about, more so even than with both of my first pregnancies, probably because now I'm not quite so afraid.) Needless to say, I don't really have the time right now to sit down and write a book. So that's what this blog is for, to get the story out, and maybe through the process of blogging it, I can get it into some kind of organized form that I'll be happy with. And this really goes along with the theme of being a mother and artist simultaneously; it's an enactment of it. Some mothers seem to do this easily. They are mothers, but they're still themselves, creating things, selling things on etsy, blogging, even working outside the home. But I've always had the idea, probably because I had an extremely dedicated mother who gave up everything including some of her own God-given rights to be the best mother she could possibly be to us, that once you're a mother, you stop being anything else, for the sake of your children. I think I've taken it a little far. So, this blog can also be my therapy.

Now, to the story. I will give you a taste of it right now. I know what it's about. I just don't fully know how to go about telling it. Hopefully, I'll discover how as I tell it. It's about how I went from being hungry for love to being nurtured by love. It's about how I came out of a bad depression. But mostly it's just about me. No good way to sum it up, so I might as well just tell it.