The Steadfastness of Ink: A First-Timer’s Poetry Postcard Tale

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My grandpa was a chemist and spent much of his career testing ink’s staying power when paired with something like a soap wrapper or package of gum. When he died, we saved some of his technical books, thinking they might be worth something. Turns out, they were worth a lot but not in the form of cash from e-bay. I discovered the books on a trip to my parents’ house in early August, where my mom had them sitting out, trying to figure out what she was going to do with them after deciding it wasn’t really worth it to sell them. I was already ensconced in the fest at this point and was hungry for texts that I could use for collage or found poetry/erasure and so started flipping through the books. I was surprised at how much of what I read seemed like metaphor (“Is the friction between two bearing surfaces proportional to the pressure?”) and how much possibility I found in such unexpected sources.

“Unexpected” is a good word to describe much of what I experienced as a first-time participant. From reading other people’s debriefs of their experiences, I gather that it’s not only first-timers who find unexpected things along the way. I suspect that’s part of what keeps most folks coming back year after year (people’s desire to write about their experiences with the fest after it’s over is something I find lovely as well. After all that spontaneous poetry, it seems there’s a need to write something that’s thought-out and that tries to describe what it’s been like over the last month). I feel like people discover things during the fest. And what is poetry if not about discovery? What is art if not about discovery?

My interest in the fest began with linking to Paul Nelson’s essay in an e-mail from Rattle magazine—an e-mail I’m so glad I gave more than a passing glance. I get a lot of e-mail about poetry-related topics and pass many of them by. This one struck me and I knew I wanted to sign up, which I did and was immediately barraged with questions of self-doubt and logistics in equal measure: What if something happens and I can’t finish my cards and I let everyone on my list down? What if I don’t have enough ideas? What if everyone is a better poet than me? Do I sign the cards? Number them? Return address them? Poetry is always a vulnerable experience, but putting it there, unedited, on that card for anyone to see as it makes its way to its destination is terrifying at first. Then, incredibly freeing: Look at this postcard. I made it. Or bought it. I wrote this small poem on the spot and here it is right out in the open. Go ahead. Read it. No apologies.

Our family vacation was still in front of me when I signed up, and I was excited to look for cards at the stops along the way. There were some good finds, but I was disappointed at the selection in some places, which was limited to 3-D cards that I found less than inspiring. I was also taking photos on my phone with an eye toward views that I might make into postcards. After vacation, when I returned to work at the library, we were discarding some jackets from a selection of Japanese books, and I saw some inspiration for making my own cards. That led me to cut-out word collages and my daughter’s washi tape stash. That led me to the basement to hunt down old books I could cut up or use to make erasure poems. That led me to beautiful paper scraps and rubber stamps and ink I forgot I had. That led me to some old card catalog cards, and when some of the cards seemed to match up perfectly with images I had previously cut out, it was like magic. Citrus and devils were involved. The IKEA catalog made a contribution.

As soon as I signed up for the fest, I also joined the Facebook group and found a community of people so supportive, so open about their own experiences, and so glad to be part of this small piece of time making poems, that all my earlier insecurities were no longer important. If poetry is about discovery, it’s also about connection, and there’s something about knowing you’re doing this with a lot of other people all around the world that makes me say (at the risk of sounding overly dramatic) that this is one of the best things I’ve ever done. I learned a little bit about some strangers either from the cards I received or from bits and pieces on the Facebook group and was often able to use that for the poems I sent. One woman in my group likes birds and Paris. I featured some crows in the poem I sent her. I used the stamp from a card I got from New Zealand in a collage on the card I sent back to New Zealand. One woman had expressed her sadness at her mother’s death. She wasn’t in my group, but I had written a card with a poem about grief and decided to send it to her as a bonus card. In looking over the list of the entire group, I saw a name I knew from another poetry circle and sent a bonus card. I saw people from my home state and the state where I live now and sent some more bonus cards. I loved that most people included my name and signed it as though they knew me. Connections. Commonalities. Serendipity.

I found myself thinking about mail carriers the world over at this time of year. Do they read any poems and feel a connection? I hope so. I sure appreciated them taking and delivering all the cards. I looked forward to checking the mail each day and getting to experience a little of someone else’s part of the world.

As I was writing, more often than not, the poems related somehow to the image on the card. But not always. I didn’t want to put that limit on myself. I tried to keep to the spirit of the fest by writing directly to the card, but I did think about the level to which I could be completely spontaneous in the act. If you write, you’ve always got tid bits floating around your head or your notebooks, waiting for a place to call home. Hard to tell how much has already been formed before you get to the paper. Not much in life fits neatly, certainly not where poetry is concerned, so I stopped worrying about it and just enjoyed the process.

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Among the last cards I created this year were the ones using pictures and words from my grandpa’s old technical books. The ones about paint and ink and how you make it stick to the surface you want it to. Among the last things I did for the fest this year was to find some old postcards in an antique store (some from as early as 1913) to use for next year. The ones with writing on them were most interesting to me. Words on a card, connecting people all those years ago. Paper and ink. Maybe some cards from the fest will be found by some searcher of antique stores in the future. There they’ll sit. A created thing. A written thing. Indelible. Steadfast. Go ahead. Read it. No apologies.

The Steadfastness of Ink: A First-Timer’s Poetry Postcard Tale

Starting Middle School: Mom edition (the end of year one approaches)

There’s a chance I’m invisible. I’ve suspected it—like Officer Gloria Burgle in season three of Fargo, who can’t seem to trip an automatic door or make a hand dryer turn on in the restroom. I sometimes make comments that no one hears until someone else says them, leaving me to ask myself, “Am I even here? Didn’t I JUST say that?” Certainly with a teenager in the house, it can seem like that. I don’t actually mean to say that I feel unseen or unheard. I’m thinking about invisibility in multiple senses.

When Lydia first went to kindergarten, it struck me that for the first time, whole chunks of her life were unseen by me while she was there. I wished for invisibility as a superpower so I could spy on her at school. I still wish for it. Even though the goal is for her to eventually have her own life, the fact that she has one already can be disconcerting.

I underestimated the ways I would begin to feel invisible as my daughter got older. The ways that a well-placed “Mom, you wouldn’t understand” can make me simultaneously agree completely and also want to say, “Oh yeah? You wanna hear a couple stories?” As if the stories would reinforce myself, substantiate me, prove to her I am a real person who has been where she is. And then I say to myself, “Oh my God. I couldn’t tell her THAT story, could I? Should I? I probably shouldn’t. Maybe I should.”

I underestimated the ways my daughter herself would begin to disappear. When she walled herself off at the beginning of the year and would barely speak, it felt like misery. I wasn’t fully prepared for how much she would seem gone from us. She has been through periods of disappearing throughout the year but mostly she has reappeared.

I have to pull the ultimate party trick as the parent of a middle schooler: Be more visible than ever while making it seem like I’m invisible. Fade into the background while keeping an eye on everything. You can’t be invisible as the parent of a middle schooler, though; in fact, you have to be fully covered in a thick skin, or all that rejection and eye rolling is going to seem personal.

At her age, I know Lydia feels like all eyes are on her, like she’s somehow more visible than others, even though everyone else feels that way, too. I know there are plenty of times she wishes she were invisible when what she feels is like she’s on display.

Her being in middle school has made me think about a lot of things, remember a lot of things. To quote Bruce Springsteen in Glory Days, “…I hope when I get old I don’t sit around thinking about it but I probably will.” I don’t think it’s an accident that I can’t stop listening to 80s pop music (anytime Aaron and I start jamming to 80s music, we are nothing but uncool and cringe-worthy) and that over the summer I rewatched every 80s movie I had ever seen. Songs and scenes bringing on nostalgia like a smell. Something with enough substance that somewhere close to me I can feel both the good and the painful of those days. I’m back in the junior high cafeteria for my first dance, all nerves and insecurity. I’m in my room with my jam box and my Columbia House cassettes or my finger poised on “Record” so I could capture my favorite on Casey Kasem’s Top 40. I relive every sigh and swoon from those movies. As a young teen, I was hopelessly focused on the romance. The ecstasy of that Maverick and Charlie kiss in Top Gun. Daniel and Ali in Karate Kid. Blane and Andie in Pretty in Pink. Wanting that kiss for myself. With every crush, holding desperately to the idea of true love forever. With every crush, wishing for that kiss that would make me sure I wasn’t invisible, but seen. By a boy—at the time, the ultimate in being visible. What terrifies me as a parent is that I know that feeling of wanting so desperately to be seen that you make terrible choices.

Sometimes I sense in her the elements of rebellion mounting—insecurity, desiring the approval of others, comparison. Sense her gathering her supplies like the Jacobites readying themselves to beat the British (pardon my 18th century Scotland simile. I’m an Outlander super fan and have read all the books and recently binge watched all available seasons). Other times she wants nothing more than for ME to see her, watch YouTube with her, talk about her day, affirm over and over that I love her, that her hair looks great, her outfit just right. And, for a moment, no insult meant toward the Jacobites, I hope that any rebellion she’s plotting will fail as miserably as the Battle of Culloden. My problem is that I remember everything from being her age with perfect clarity and despite her thoughts to the contrary, I DO understand.

I understand to the point that it seems like an act of courage to send her to school every day. I can only trust in my invisible creator to love her more than I do. To get her through her own stuff. To help her find her way as she makes herself visible in this world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Starting Middle School: Mom edition (the end of year one approaches)

Starting Middle School: Social Media Edition

I’m sorry for the lack of grace that this post is going to exhibit. I’ll calm down eventually, but right now I’m mad. That said, I welcome any comments that will point out things I’m not thinking of and will correct me if I’m misinformed. Earlier today I confirmed my suspicion (through our monitoring software) that Lydia had set up an Instagram account against our explicit wishes. I am, of course, upset at the deception.  It also stresses me out that this is even a thing (I’m no Luddite, but can’t we just, like, pass some fancily folded notes and call it a day?). And, as much as I try (within reason) not to judge any parent on their decisions, because… parenting… if you have let your child have a social media account before age 13 (the age I believe most social media platforms “require” for an account), I’m mad at you, I think you’re part of the problem, and, yes, I’m judging the hell out of you right now. You’ve made it that much harder for the apparently small number of us who don’t think their child needs social media by age TWELVE and who think that maybe it’s better if we don’t teach our kid that it’s ok to LIE to get around the system. Lydia’s thoughts on why she set up the account (said through tears as she fled the room): ”You have no idea how much I hate school! I just felt left out!” NO CHILD SHOULD FEEL LEFT OUT BECAUSE THEY DON’T HAVE A SOCIAL MEDIA PRESENCE AT AGE TWELVE. IT’S FREAKING RIDICULOUS AND IT MAKES ME SO MAD I CAN HARDLY STAND IT! I understand that some of this stuff is the same as it ever was– just wrapped in a new package, but it’s so pervasive and impossible. Aaron and I will stand firm because we believe it’s best, but it won’t be easy.  Rant over, judging over. Sorry. God, middle school sucks.

Starting Middle School: Social Media Edition

Starting Middle School: the Aftermath Edition

Starting middle school: the aftermath edition: Lydia ended up the “locker hero” and was able to help several friends who couldn’t get theirs open. Unfortunately, most of my many questions were answered on repeat with “I don’t know” or “I don’t remember.” The day seemed to render her incapable of functioning in basic ways. In fact, if one didn’t know she’s twelve and had just finished a day at school, one might have thought she was a drunk—slurring her words, tripping over her own feet, overly emotional. I did hear a few positives, but tonight they were overwhelmed by her overwhelmedness. Sounds about right.

Starting Middle School: the Aftermath Edition

Starting Middle School: the Night Before Edition

Nerves are calmed after multiple tours of the schedule and unlocking the locker twice in a row, more than once; the backpack from last year is finally cleaned out (yes, we are slackers); outfits are planned; and I wax nostalgic by finding my 7th grade yearbook (“Mom! You had a *black and white* yearbook?! You’re only 40 something.”) and some classic paint-splattered shades, circa 1984.

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Starting Middle School: the Night Before Edition

Starting Middle School: the Probability of Friends Edition

In addition to making mostly unfruitful attempts at locker opening, Lydia and I spent Tuesday afternoon roaming the overly warm school—halls humming with stress and anticipation—as everyone went in search of their classrooms. On the things-to-worry-about-before-starting-middle-school scale, finding rooms pales in comparison to finding out if any of your friends are in your classes. Over the weekend, Lydia went so far as to ask her math-major dad to figure out the probability that she would have at least one friend in each class. Although the numbers he had to work with were sketchy at best, he was happy to oblige. I don’t know what answer he came up with, but the flurry of texts to various friends with pictures of schedules revealed that even if she’s lost and unable to open her locker, at least she will have friends in all of her classes. It’s a good thing, too, as she threatened that there was no way she could possibly go to school if she didn’t. #middleschool

Starting Middle School: the Probability of Friends Edition

Starting Middle School: the Fear Before

Fear of starting middle school has set in for Miss L., and I’m trying to offer what reassurance I can. She’s not having it and I’m probably unconvincing because I know what she’s headed for. I’m starting to think that a little appropriate honesty and bluntness might be a better way to go. “Look, basically, the next couple years are really gonna suck. Girls can be mean and petty. Boys are…boys. They’re probably thinking about your boobs (don’t take pictures of said boobs and send them to any boys!). Everyone is awkward in their bodies and in their heads. You’re twelve. You have no context for any of this. Your brain isn’t fully developed. No one knows what to do with themselves or anyone else. Everyone wants to fit it. Being the only one without a friend in class is your worst fear. Everyone feels the same way you do but no one can say that and wouldn’t know how to express it if they could. You may feel pressure to take extreme measures to fit in. If the extreme measures involve drugs, alcohol, sex, or anything illegal, please don’t. It can have life-altering consequences, such as death or babies. If you do, we love you and forgive you and will always be here to help you. Prayer can help even though you say it doesn’t work for you. Daddy and I can help you. Or your home church leaders. Let us help if you need to. You’ll start to get the hang of it and some of it will be a lot of fun. You might even make some new friends and some memories worth keeping, but some of it it’s still really gonna suck. Then it’s gonna start to get better. Don’t throw yourself at boys or text them constantly. Be the one who’s kind to others. And please don’t take pictures of your boobs.” #MiddleSchool #JesusHelpUs

Starting Middle School: the Fear Before

Messes and Interruptions: My Life as a Reluctant Mom

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I’m about to tell a lengthy and personal story about my journey as a mom. It’s a story at least twelve years in the making and one that will never be finished, but I want to tell what I know so far. As I’ve ramped up my writing recently, I’ve discovered that what I always hope to do with my words is resonate with someone. To describe an experience that someone else has probably had, too, and when they read what I’ve written, they say, “Ah, yes, that’s exactly the way I feel.” As a reader, I love it when that happens, so I hope some things here will resonate like that.

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This is not the story you usually hear. I’ve questioned whether even to tell this story (the one where I didn’t want a child). When there are so many women who are living the story that you hear more often (the one where they’re desperate to be where I am–mother of a healthy, thriving child), it seems unfair, even cruel, to tell it. The thought that my daughter would read it and somehow think that she didn’t always have every bit of my love has stopped me telling it. But we are who we are. Where we are. Somewhere in the middle of our own story. This is part of mine.

I played house with the best of them. Loved my dolls (and I had a lot of dolls over the years). Babysat when I was old enough (until I realized I hated it). When my mom and sister wanted to coo over a new baby in the neighborhood I never cared. Holding babies just made my arms tired. Plus vomit. And crying. I didn’t want to hold someone else’s baby and I didn’t want one of my own. I couldn’t have known completely the unending work that having a child would be, but somehow I held no illusions about the tremendous effort it would take and wanted nothing to do with it.

When we found out only one month into our marriage that I was in the ridiculously small percentage of women who get pregnant on the pill and that we were, in fact, pregnant, it would be a lie to say there was no joy, no excitement. The joy started like this: it was mid-July and my whole family (except my husband, who had to work) was gathered in Cincinnati at my grandpa’s house—even my uncle from Vermont and his family were there. I had confided my suspicions to my sister and she brought a spare pregnancy test (sisterly conspirings are something that Lydia, as an only child, won’t get to experience, but that’s another story). I was locked in the upstairs bathroom, plus-sign on-a-stick in hand, calling Aaron, who was doing something terribly mundane like grocery shopping. He was breathless and laughing when I told him, and whatever he had planned to do next, he ditched and went home, overwhelmed.

There was joy, excitement, amazement, anticipation, but there was also horror, dread, sorrow, grief. As I stood talking to my sister in the doorway of my grandpa’s den (no doubt propping myself there so I wouldn’t fall over from the shock), thoughts of that unending work and tremendous effort settled in the pit of my stomach. I pictured middle of the night feedings and diaper changes and felt a kind of sick that had nothing to do with pregnancy hormones. Once I got home, I went to the doctor and began all the things I was and wasn’t supposed to do (let it be said here that I wasn’t planning to become pregnant so ALL the things you are and aren’t supposed to do most assuredly were not in place). But I just couldn’t face it in those early days. I had quite literally just returned my wedding planning books to the library and the thought of checking out What to Expect When You’re Expecting was simply too much. Someone asked me if abortion was an option for me. It wasn’t. So I put away the thick folder from my doctor and didn’t check out any pregnancy books. I don’t remember when I felt ready to face these things but eventually I did.

There were dark times in my mind during the early months of my pregnancy. We took a delayed honeymoon because Aaron was starting classes the Monday after we got married (there is another storyline here about how God must have orchestrated this pregnancy because according to any standards we have, it couldn’t have been more poorly timed. Aaron was still in school. We had no money. We weren’t ready). We went to Cape Cod while I was about three months pregnant. One morning I woke up early and had to go to the bathroom. I discovered I was bleeding and I had a moment of panic because this wasn’t right. Then I had a moment of wishing I could just miscarry so things could go back to the way they were. Me and Aaron. Then I had a moment of utter guilt at what kind of person wishes for a miscarriage. I know women who have miscarried and I’m sorry for that pain and that I could have wished for something that causes that pain and so clearly wouldn’t make everything go back to the way it was if it happened. But we are where we are. In the middle of our own story. And that’s where I was at the time. Foolishly thinking I knew what was best.

My pregnancy itself was filled with many of the usual sorts of things and some maybe not so usual. I craved red meat but couldn’t look at chicken without gagging. I hated the smell of garlic. I didn’t have gestational diabetes but they thought I might, so I had to go through the three hour sugar water test. I had a horrific headache for almost my entire second trimester. I suffer from migraines and this was worse than any migraine I had ever had. To rule things out, I had an MRI; to attempt to treat it without narcotics, I had physical therapy. Nothing worked. I just had to wait it out.We had a scary appointment with a specialist after an ultrasound seemed to show something was wrong. It wasn’t. The ultrasound at my last appointment before my due date (March 26—Aaron’s mom’s birthday) showed that Lydia (known as “Flipper” for the duration of the pregnancy) had turned and was now breach. The doctor said I didn’t have a lot of extra amniotic fluid and she felt there was a good chance I would end up in emergency C-section if she tried to turn her, so we scheduled the C-section for March 17. We were married on June 17, which means she was born exactly nine months to the day that we were married.

I feel like God was spotting me one with the C-section. He knows how I love to plan and feel like I have control. He knew he had already sprung the pregnancy beyond all odds on me and was about to spring all kinds of other things to show me I shouldn’t plan too much and that I’m in control of very little. I guess he figured he could give me this one. And believe me, I was grateful. The planned amid the unplanned. I had the usual fears of labor and delivery, but I was working the reference desk at a public library branch at the time and had a recurring fear that my water would break while I was helping someone with their print job or showing them where the dog books are.

When we went for the C-section, they kept telling me how calm I was and how this would be good for motherhood. I wondered what other women in my spot do that would make the doctors say this to me. They were about to stick a NEEDLE in my spine. Calm seemed like a good idea. When they held Lydia up to me, I remember a tiny moment of quiet when I first saw her. A moment where it seemed like she was looking right at me. Then they took her away to do all the things they have to do and I’m sure the quiet was replaced by crying, although I don’t remember it. I wanted to breastfeed, but no one warns you that this might not be as easy as you think. When the lactation consultant classified my nipples as traumatized (arguably an understatement), I decided to give it up and felt nothing but relief. I put cabbage leaves on my boobs, got a nasty case of mastitis, and then that part was over. The rest of it had just begun.

When it comes to parenting, the physical demands alone are great, especially in the beginning, but it’s the weight of raising a decent human being that makes it that much more exhausting. It’s the constant having to decide what’s right in any given situation. Then second-guessing yourself and always wondering if you are, in fact, ruining their life. It’s shepherding them through the areas you find gray yourself and answering impossible questions. It’s living through the sloppy inconvenience of it all and doing the right thing for the long term when you’re desperately tired and just want the easy way out (i.e., I would LOVE to play a board game with you and do crafts and play outside instead of taking a nap while you play on the iPad for 3 hours.). I’m both comforted and terrified by these words in Proverbs 22:6 (NIV): “Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it.” All I have to do is teach her the way to go, but I have to teach her the way to go.

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Those of you who are parents know that a large part of parenting is interruptions. Right from the start your kids are interrupting your sleep, your freedom, your date nights, your sex life, your conversations, your plans to leave the house on time. Sometimes, as they get older, you even get interrupted from their interruptions. For instance, your child asks you to do something for them while you are fixing dinner. Say, get a doll’s dress on. Before you can wrangle a single arm into place, they ask you to watch them somersault or look at the picture they just made (maybe on the wall. With Sharpie. But hopefully not). In their kid oblivion they fail to realize that you can’t do what they just asked you to do while you’re doing something else they asked you to do before they asked you to do the other thing. Plus, they’re hungry and how can you get dinner ready when they keep interrupting?

Sometimes I let Lydia interrupt because whatever she has going at that moment is probably important than me cleaning the toilet. Other times I make her wait because it’s more important for her to know that what I’m doing is also important and I’m not always going to drop everything so she can have my attention RIGHT NOW. It’s gray, this parenting. Sometimes you do the one thing, sometimes the other. Then you worry that you’re not being consistent. I can only hope it’s giving her a sense of what life is really like. Sometimes it’s one thing, sometimes it’s the other. It depends.

If you’re a mom it’s safe to say it’s worse for you on the interruption front. I only have anecdotal evidence to support my claim, but I think even most dads would agree that they don’t experience interruptions in the same way moms do. Moms learn quickly that they can’t change clothes or go to the bathroom without an interruption. You can go in a room, close the door and lock it (always lock it because nothing as simple as a closed door is going to stop a kid from coming in), but there will still be a kid or kids lurking outside talking to you and asking for things. A mom can be in the bathroom (door locked. You did remember to lock it, didn’t you?) and Santa Claus himself could be in the kitchen with a glass of water and a present and that kid will come to the bathroom door to ask YOU for a glass of water. I’m not even exaggerating. You know it’s true because it’s happened in your family too.

What I’ve realized is that for me the interruptions started sooner and went deeper than the kinds of interruptions that would come later. My whole life was interrupted. At least what I thought was my whole life. Getting pregnant unexpectedly interrupted my marriage and my time with my husband. It interrupted my plan to not have kids. I went for a short walk by myself the first week Lydia was home from the hospital and experienced grief as I did. “I remember when Aaron and I walked this route, back when it was just me and him,” I thought, as though someone had died and I was recounting what it was like when they were still alive. Before all this happened and changed our life forever. Before, when all was right with the world. Before, when we didn’t have all this stress. Before. Before. Before. If only it were like it was before. I will freely admit that post-pregnancy hormones probably played a role in what I was feeling, but I also think that the loss I felt was real.

I think the loss I felt is what has led me to be fiercely protective of Aaron’s and my time and space together. I don’t believe the child is the center of the family anyway, but my feelings have perhaps allowed it to be easier for me to draw boundaries without feeling guilt over it.  For instance, Lydia has slept in her own room since she was four weeks old, and I can count on one hand the times she has slept in our bed. Actually, she only slept there once when she was very sick. The other times involved coming in when she was scared and after about ten minutes of flopping, she wised up and asked to go back to her own room because even in our king sized bed, ain’t nobody doin’ any kinda sleepin’ with three people in there. Co-sleepers, you go on with your bad selves. You do YOU, as they say. I don’t want my child in my bed.

I do want her in her bed. On time. People think getting the kids to bed is about making sure the kids get enough rest. Ok, it is about that. But for me it’s equally about making sure I have some time to myself before I have to go to bed. I look forward to bedtime like you wouldn’t believe. Most parents do. At one point I had to question whether I was spending my whole life just looking forward to bedtime and I think I was. I wasn’t enjoying anything along the way. It was all a chore. It’s gotten better, but it’s still hard for me, and a little more so these days because she stays up later. We enforce a pretty early bedtime, but she does stay up later than she used to, especially on weekends. I often find myself getting antsy and irritable the longer she’s awake. Largely because I’ve been interrupted all day and my time has been filled mostly doing things for her or with her and I’m done.

 I protect our bedroom in other ways besides just not letting Lydia sleep there. There are only pictures of Aaron and me in our room. No family pictures, no pictures of Lydia. No art that she’s made for us. I find other places for those things (kid art in the house is a separate struggle, but I’ll get to that later).  I don’t mean this to sound like our room is some kind of creepy shrine to our marriage, but, in a way, I guess it is. This is our space and it’s important to me that we have it. One place still as uninterrupted as it can be.

No matter how healthy a balance you have, there’s no changing the fact that when you have a child certain things you want to do have to be set aside. At least until bedtime. Maybe for years. Maybe forever. And maybe it will be better than you think. One of the teachers at our church asked this question one Sunday: Does freedom mean living a life of doing what you want without interruption? I believed for a long time that it did. I still struggle to keep that thought at bay, but sometimes the best things can come from interruptions. Interruptions can lead to something you didn’t expect. Something wonderful. Something more. Because here’s what kids also interrupt. They interrupt your selfishness. And your laziness. (I remember saying jokingly but in all seriousness early on in my pregnancy that the reason I didn’t want kids basically boiled down to the fact that I’m selfish and lazy). They interrupt the person you were and help make you into someone different. With any luck, into someone better.

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Something else you know right away as a parent is that along with the interruptions your kids bring, come the messes they bring. Right from the start. When you bring your newborn home your house is suddenly filled with diapers and breast pumps and spit cloths and diapers and bottles and drying racks for the bottles and warmers for the bottles and brushes to clean the bottles and diapers and thousands of onesies. Later, it’s thousands of crayons and stuffed animals, every rock they’ve ever loved, and enough plastic toys to fill several landfills (don’t get me started on children and environmental disaster. Between the disposable diapers and the junk toys from birthday parties alone…). It’s the obscene amount of school supplies (we are collecting backpacks, lunch bags, and pencil boxes as though such a collection might someday fetch a hefty sum at auction. To say nothing of water bottles). It’s the mess from the craft project or the mess from the school project. It’s the fact that even at age eleven, my daughter can’t eat a meal or snack without at least some of it on herself, the table, and/or the floor. Kids have a way of leaving a mess everywhere they go. A trail of socks and single shoes (where are the other ones?). If not a mess, a vague film of stickiness that seems to cling to them and everything they touch. Actually, I prefer a little dirt to the clutter and messes (that’s a relief, because who has time to clean? Or is it a relief? Since I barely clean, it means I’m not teaching Lydia to clean or be responsible for doing certain chores and it’s just one more way I’m ruining her life). It’s the drawings all over the fridge and the clay projects she wants displayed. I have to admit I have a hard time faking it on this. I really don’t want this stuff. I want a clean fridge surface and I want grown up art. I’ve probably crushed her spirit more than once when I clean off the fridge to start fresh. I can only handle the now-crinkled-with-water-stains pictures for so long.

 It’s the permanent marker on the chest my grandpa made me and on the desk in the office and on the dining room table. The paint stains and crayon marks all over the desk that was pristine when I used it as a single girl. The desk I hope to reclaim as mine one day. The one I gave over slowly, holding onto to it til the last. This is what I’ve done. Held on and held on until I had to let go. When the Sharpie stained the dining room table (the last holdout of surfaces to be damaged) and I got angry at Lydia, she said, “Mom, it’s just a table.” The truth is she’s right. It is just a table. But then the gray of parenting seeps in for me. It’s just a table, but it belonged to my great grandma. It’s the only dining room table we have and I want to take care of it. So I’m stuck between this place of wanting to be free to leave the nicks and dings of our fully lived life there, but I’m also charged with making sure she understands how to take care of what we have and not expect to “just get a new one.”

Maybe you’re asking why I let her color with Sharpie on the dining room table that belonged to my great grandma. It’s complicated. Like everything else in parenting. We’ve always lived in smallish apartments and there are only so many places to go. Even if we lived in a big place, I can’t be everywhere watching at all times. Sometimes kids color with Sharpie and forget to put a piece of paper underneath and it stains the table. That’s the way it goes. I can’t contain all the messes no matter how hard I try.

It’s difficult for me to put into words how much I have changed in this area. The me before Lydia literally could not go to bed with dirty dishes in the sink. Now, the dishes are Aaron’s job, and I leave them there. Overnight. Maybe even two if that’s how long it takes him to get to it (it usually doesn’t). We can barely walk in Lydia’s room most of the time with all the stuff she has all over. We do make her clean it. But not every day. Not even every week. Because I don’t want to go insane. I can’t contain all the messes no matter how hard I try. Am I ruining her for life? Will she live in squalor? As a hoarder? Maybe. Probably not.

Sometimes your kids will mess up the way you look at everything you’ve ever looked at and sometimes they’ll be dead on. We were eating Burritos on our Sharpie-stained dining room table and Lydia was getting hers all over. I probably gave her a look, though I really try not to these days, and she said, “Mom, messes mean you’re enjoying.” She’s right, you know. As my daughter slowly messes up every piece of furniture I’ve ever owned, this is, for me, giving up pieces of who I am, who I was. Before. When I made plans that didn’t include a daughter. It’s been hard for me to let these things go to her. They were mine, see, and I still want them. Want to hold onto them, keep them as they were. But I can’t contain the messes, no matter how hard I try. I can only hope that with every crayon mark that erodes the surface of my furniture, another little part of my need to clean and control and have it as it was before will be eroded as well. And my capacity for enjoying will increase.

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It’s not something that ever ends, being a mom, which is mostly what terrified me in the beginning (and still does)—the unendingness of it. After all, at forty-four, I still call my mom to ask how to cook something, tell her things I’m doing (the adult equivalent of “Mom, watch my somersault” or “Mom, look at the picture I made”). I probably interrupted something she was doing when I called. She still has boxes of my stuff messing up her attic. (I’ve promised to get the last of them this summer—2017) and a lot of it will probably end up as a mess in Lydia’s room since it’s mostly parts of my childhood suspended there in those boxes. Stickers that were saved but never made it to the sticker book pages. Leftover knick-knacks. I have a slight fear of being a grandparent myself someday (especially if Lydia decides to have, like, ten children). I’m afraid some of the same things that I’ve struggled with will still apply. That my tendency toward functionality and stoicism will get in the way of just being there. A lesser fear is that I won’t have any of Lydia’s leftover childhood treasures to give them like my mom has had for Lydia because I’ve been a fanatical clearer of clutter as she grows up, hardly able to wait to get my house back to some semblance of what it used to look like before toys and crayons. I’m also afraid of babysitting because I don’t really want to. I still don’t like holding babies.

I have had to come to terms with some things. I have had to come to terms with the kind of parent I’m not and be okay with it. I’m terrible at homework and birthday parties (I don’t even want to have birthday parties. The excess of sugar, gifts, and pounds of plastic toys doesn’t sit well with me. Birthdays, I love. I just don’t love that there is now an industry built around them and I contribute to it. When I was a kid, mom asked what we wanted for our birthday dinner and what flavor cake we wanted. She would fix both, they would give us a couple gifts and call it a good birthday. I wish I would have stuck to this and not caved to the pressure of The Birthday Party). I don’t do crafts or sew. Anytime Lydia wants to cook with me it ends up in a disaster of tears and something else for me to feel guilty about. I shouldn’t care about the mess. I shouldn’t care that I could do it faster without her. I should care that I’m teaching her how to do something. Should have the long view in mind over the short term inconvenience. But it just never works. I hate playing pretend and watching her play Minecraft. I have zero patience for being argued with while trying to explain something that she asked for help on but refuses to listen to what I’m saying. I have zero patience for groups of kids together acting crazy. In fact, I find kids generally annoying (kids are also amazing, so don’t think I’m a hater. I’m just more likely than I care to admit to someday be the crotchety old lady who wants them off her lawn. I hope that isn’t the case, but it could be). Despite the fact that they say it’s safer in the later years to make your house the gathering place, I don’t think I could handle it. I do like it when Lydia has a friend over (please don’t stop sending your kids over) because she’s occupied and leaving me in peace for a while, but I’ve realized that my introversion extends to her friends and I’m usually more than ready for them to go home when it’s time.

I’m not a PTA mom or the one who is volunteering for the school carnival. I’ll read in the classroom or volunteer in the library but you will never find me at family movie night or super fun day. Luckily, for the things I’m not, I’m blessed enough to have a husband who is. He’s the doer. The one who takes her places. The one who can patiently help her through her homework and loves nothing more than a school carnival. I’m not a gushy mom who thinks motherhood is all. I don’t relate to the mushy mom Facebook memes I see. Most of the time I don’t actually miss Lydia when she’s gone. Don’t have trouble saying goodbye for a week while she stays with my parents. There were times when I had to question whether it was even a good idea to have her gone because sometimes I would end up feeling like this is what my life was supposed to be like. This is what it would have been. Before. And I liked it. I ended up concluding that I need the refreshment it gives me and I relish the time when I don’t have to be all the mom things. When she’s gone, I don’t get interrupted and I don’t have to clean up messes. I don’t have to stress over meal preparation. Don’t get me wrong. I fall into the “you’ll eat what I fix or you’ll fix something yourself” category, but even so, there’s always a level of stress. You know there’s going to be a conflict. A complaint. Something you have deal with. I don’t know how to say some of the things I’m saying without sounding like an asshole, but don’t doubt for a second that I love my daughter beyond love. Beyond what I can find words for. Watching her become a person occasionally causes me to express it out loud to her and I’m met with, “Mom, duh, I am a person.” Yes, I think, but you’re not watching yourself become so in the same way I am.

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I’ve also come to terms with what kind of parent I am, and this is probably more important. I’m good at calm (the doctors predicted it when they put the needle in my spine); I don’t panic or overreact to things like injuries or lost toys. Bodies heal. Toys show up eventually (or not, but it’s no reason to panic since there are at least a dozen more where that one came from). I’m a detail person. In every sense. I’m good at remembering all the forms that need signed and when the money has to be turned in and when her project is due. Even though I never imagined having to do such things and I complain about it because there’s always SOMETHING. I’m good at slow. I’m good at keeping our life uncrazy. I’m a stop and smell the roses kind of person and I think Lydia is learning to be that way too. I’m good at pointing out the beautiful clouds as we drive to school or walk to the park. And one thing I’ve always done is take Lydia to the park. Since she was a baby we’ve lived within walking distance of several parks. This was a lifesaver in the early years when I was at home with her and didn’t know what else to do. We could always go to the park. Sometimes we even went in the middle of winter. Lydia still talks about the time we walked to the park in the deep snow and when we got there we piled it up at the bottom of the slide and took turns slicking our way down into it.

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If there’s one thing I know I’m good at and one thing that’s going to do her a lifetime of good, it’s reading. I’ve read to her since before she was born and we’re still going strong at age eleven. This has been one of the best things about our relationship. I come back to it often because on days when I feel like no parent in the history of parenting could be doing as bad a job as me, when our screaming match has reduced us both to tears, when I feel guilty because I wouldn’t dare talk to anyone else the way I just talked to her, when I know for positive I AM ruining her life, I think, “At least we have this.” This one good thing if there’s nothing else (which there is, of course. It only sometimes seems like there isn’t).

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Sometimes I worry about what Lydia may miss out on because she’s an only child. Aaron and I decided that we were okay with one and that having another child just for Lydia to have a sibling probably wasn’t the right reason in our case. I’m sure I could do it if I had to and hats off to those of you who do. The thought of two (or more) sets of lunches, two (or more) sets of homework, two (or more) sets of birthday parties, two (or more) sets of braces sets me on edge. I don’t even keep house plants because it’s something else to take care of. We don’t have furry pets because I’m allergic and we don’t have any other pets either because I don’t want to take care of anything else.

One of my favorite quotes that sums up all of motherhood to me comes from the book Pigs in Heaven by Barbara Kingsolver: “She’s wearing a pale pink T-shirt, Alice notes—a color Taylor used to make a point of hating. She always had to wear outspoken things, red, purple, orange, sometimes all at once. Alice realizes something at this moment: that [Taylor’s] genuinely a mother. She has changed in this way that motherhood changes you, so that you forget you ever had time for small things like despising the color pink”(p. 142, trade pbk.). I think this is a beautiful way of saying that all the things you once thought so important are either gone entirely once you have a child or they’re completely different.

I’ve hinted at God’s role in this story, but I’ve reached the point where I can’t tell any more of it without full-on God. This story is mine and the Lord’s and I can’t see it any other way. Maybe you do. That’s OK. Maybe the fact that I got pregnant while on the pill is just an accident. A simple misfiring of chemicals. It could be. In my experience God doesn’t do anything by accident, but regardless, what he has done with the whole thing is nothing less than miraculous and certainly not accidental.   

I eventually realized that my child was the only way God was going to get my attention (he had to interrupt me); the only way I would learn to live in daily, moment-by-moment dependence on him; the only way I would face the depth of my own selfishness and laziness and the depth of my need for him. I eventually realized that God’s plan went way beyond me and what I could understand. That Lydia would have her own impact on the world. That having a child put me in partnership with my husband in a whole new way. Eventually I realized these things and many others, but first I didn’t. First, I was a mess of jealousy, self-pity, and anger. Any time I saw a couple without kids, I was filled with envy. They were living the life I wanted. I regularly felt like I imagined someone would who had been able to walk and was suddenly paralyzed in a terrible accident. Then I felt guilty for comparing having a beautiful, healthy child to being paralyzed in a terrible accident. Nonetheless, I was angry and I blamed God and told him it wasn’t fair and asked him why he would do this to me. Every time something hard happened in taking care of Lydia (which, of course, was often because #parentingishard), my mind would circle into a torrent of thoughts: “I never asked for this,” “I don’t want to do this,” “See, I told you this was impossible,” “I hate this.” Because my anger was largely being taken out on my precious girl, who was probably about three at the time, I went to a counselor at our church and she told me two things:

1.)    Take joy in the Lord and then your joy in other things, including Lydia, will follow.

2.)    Repent of your plan.

Take joy in the Lord? Repent? A disgusting, religious word if ever there was one. One that’s both easy and hard. It just means I need to change my mind and agree with God that his plan is better than mine. Easy. But it means that I have to change my mind and agree with God. Hard. I don’t know exactly how long it took. A period of years. I say it as though I’ve arrived, which is untrue. This is something you do ongoing. But I did reach a place where the torrent of thoughts wouldn’t come as often and sometimes not at all. They still creep in now and then. Normally when I’m fighting with Lydia or when parenting is otherwise hard.

The process started with some questions God asked me. To be more precise, he first asked them of some other people, but make no mistake, he was asking them of me. In Genesis 4 God asks Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast?” In John 5 Jesus asks a paralyzed man, “Do you want to get well?” These verses were quoted in two teachings at our church, two weeks in a row. By the time the second week rolled around, I knew Jesus himself was asking me. Finally, I did want to be well and I felt like Jacob, who had wrestled with God and overcome. Jacob went away with a permanent limp, but God changed his name from Jacob to Israel, meaning one who has struggled with God and with humans and has overcome (Genesis 32:28, NIV). I knew God could change my name, too, so I set out to be changed from anger to joy. My favorite verse from this time is from Jeremiah 15:16, 19 (NIV): “When your words came, I ate them; they were my joy and my heart’s delight, for I bear your name, Lord God Almighty…’If you repent, I will restore you that you may serve me.’” Joy in the Lord’s own words because he is giving me his very name and a purpose beyond myself. Joy. Repentance.

I recently read a book by Melanie Dale because the title caught my eye and because I’m still working this thing through: It’s Not Fair: Learning to Love the Life You Didn’t Choose. She talks a bit about joy, saying, “Both in the waiting and in the enduring, you have to find joy. And for the enduring, especially, because there is no green pasture on the other side, only the joy to be dug up in your own garden” (pp. 122-123). She also says this, “People always talk about the difference between joy and happiness. I’ve decided the big difference is that joy hurts. Happiness is a wonderful feeling and joy is a daily dying to your original plans and scooping up God’s plans and not hating him for them” (p. 235). She quotes Larry Crabb’s book Shattered Dreams where he says, “Our shattered dreams are never random. They are always a piece in a larger puzzle, a chapter in a larger story. Pain is a tragedy. But it’s never only a tragedy. For the Christian, it’s always a necessary mile on the long journey to joy.” David wrote about it in the Psalms: “You make known to me the path of life, you fill me with joy in your presence” (Psalm 16:11, NIV). Nothing could describe what I’m trying to say more perfectly. Find joy in the Lord. Die to my plan.

I could probably add one more thing to the list of things I’m good at as a parent. Apologizing. Because sometimes I have to do it every day. I don’t apologize when I’m just being a parent and Lydia doesn’t like it, but when I’ve been a legitimate jerk, I go back to say I’m sorry. I hope that she learns from this to apologize herself when she’s in the wrong, but I also hope she learns how much we need Jesus every single day. I can’t go banking on the fact that I’m a basically good person, doing basically good things. I’m not a good person and I can’t do one good thing that meets God’s standard: perfection. What I can do is humble myself before the cross and tell him I need his forgiveness. It’s free for the asking. What I can do is take the mess of my life to Jesus, who interrupted human history to die for my mess and everyone else’s. It’s obscenely offensive to the pride, the cross. There’s nothing I can be or do that’s good enough. It’s also ridiculously freeing. There’s nothing I can be or do. Christ did it already. My favorite verse as I struggled through day after day of being angry and taking it out on Lydia was this one from Lamentations 3:21-23 (NIV): “Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning.” His forgiveness is once for all, but every morning I need his compassion again and he freely gives it. Joy. Repentance.

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This is a story that is changing as I write it. I feel like for the first time, I’m learning to enjoy my time with Lydia. Her baby book and our photographs and home movies show plenty of other moments of joy, but this is the first time that I feel fully aware of it. As her personality and sense of humor and knowledge of the world grow, there’s more freedom to our relationship. We still have stormy moments, but right now our relationship is mostly characterized by laughter. Dare I say joy? Inside jokes, bits of her day she chooses to tell me about. Here’s an anecdote of how I’ve experienced joy with Lydia (other than reading to her and laughing with her when she says something genuinely funny). Until fairly recently she had a dinnertime routine that went a long way toward making the dull task of meal preparation worth it. She would attempt to sneak up on me after we sat down at the table (usually with a feigned reason for needing to get up) and hug me. An ambush of gratitude, declaring each meal the best she’d ever had. She would often get Aaron in on it, with a not-so-secret signal, and they would both hug me. Talk about feeling appreciated for the dinner I just cooked! This went on almost nightly for at least a year (Aaron thinks it was much longer). Now (because #parentingishard), she suddenly doesn’t like many of the things she used to—or at least not when I want to fix them—so we’re lucky to find something she feels like eating at any given meal, much less a gratitude ambush.

I think about the years to come. I know there will be more stormy moments. Moments when her troubles become mine. Moments where I don’t know whole parts of her life (this thought first occurred to me when she went to kindergarten and I realized there were things happening while she was at school that I would never know about. She will have her own life. This is as it should be but no less strange for being so). I like to think that I’ll be uniquely equipped to get her through being a teenage girl. I was a teenage girl, after all. Maybe I’ll be able to help her navigate the horrors and joys and we’ll pass on to a new stage of relationship in the midst of it.

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Much of what I’m describing here is what every parent experiences. I don’t use the hashtag #parentingishard lightly. Parenting is hard. The hardest. But I’m not trying to say that because I didn’t ask for any of this, my life as a parent is harder than yours. I don’t want to sound lofty. Maybe you didn’t think that anyway, but I’m just trying to express that there has been an extra layer running in the background for me and I’ve had to work through it.

I’m not sure I would have chosen this life (or would choose it if I had a do-over), but I am sure that I would choose what God wants and that means I do choose this life. When God wants to tear something to pieces in me to bring beauty from broken, I won’t say I always go along easily as it’s being torn down and remade, but I know this: I would rather be a God-tattered, beautifully broken soul than anything else I could be. It’s authentic. Making me simultaneously more like the me God created me to be and more like Jesus. I can only give Lydia my best, which is my imperfect failing self, learning joy in the messes and interruptions, clinging to Christ with something akin to ferocity, refusing to be parted from him.

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Messes and Interruptions: My Life as a Reluctant Mom

Buying Fart Products for Christmas

I’m not sure why I’m thinking about previously purchased Christmas gifts right now, but I’m going with it anyway.

This past Christmas was the year to get fart themed gifts in our family. In the fall, a friend introduced me to the Perpetual Kid web site (a great place for gag gifts, incidentally), and there were several fart-themed items available. I was mostly shopping for my nine year old nephew because my sister assured me that he would never tire of bodily function humor. Even Lydia got in on it, though, with a bag of unicorn farts (some vaguely cotton candy-like substance in a bag with a unicorn on it).

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The gift for my nephew was Farts-in-a-Jar and it was supposed to make a fart sound when you open the lid, but, when he did, it was irritatingly silent (insert SBD joke here. Or maybe it’s a SAND joke–Silent And Not Deadly).When I asked if he wanted me to exchange it for one that worked or just give him the money, he wanted a new one (of course he did). This led to an interaction as absurd as the item itself, where I found myself corresponding in a professional manner with a customer service representative about a defective fart product. Despite the absurdity, it was actually one of the best customer service interactions I’ve had. They responded immediately to my e-mail, even over a holiday weekend and promptly refunded my money after giving me the sad news that they no longer carry this product (perhaps ours wasn’t the only one to be less flatulent than desired).  Happily, they have since re-instated it and I stole their picture for today’s post (along with the unicorn one).

Faulty fart products or not, exceptional customer goes a long way, so I won’t hesitate to shop with them again. In fact, maybe  I should get a jump on it and buy another can-o-farts while supplies last.

I have nothing deeper to say that somehow connects fart products to the meaning of life or anything like that. It’s just a short post about fart products and some great customer service. 🙂

 

 

 

 

Buying Fart Products for Christmas

The Time We Didn’t Have Bed Bugs, or, Why You Should Always Get a Second Opinion, or, Why You Should Always Trust Your Husband, or, How I Learned to be Thankful in all Situations

I’m writing this because I’ve reached a point beyond its happening where I can look back without horror (mostly)–and even with some humor–and be glad for what I learned. I’m writing it also as a public service announcement because as this was happening to us and we were telling people, no one had ever heard anything like it. It’s one of those stories that’s hard to believe unless it happens to you.  If the title isn’t enough of a spoiler, I’m going to jump right to the part where we have a happy ending that didn’t involve bed bugs, but everything we did before we found that out was done as though we did have bed bugs. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great that we didn’t have them. It’s just that it makes everything we went through doubly maddening. This is a bit of a long read, but if you hang in ’til the end, I think you’ll find it somewhat educational and (I hope) a little entertaining along the way.

During the first week of May, 2012, we discovered some little brown bugs in our apartment, almost exclusively in the master bedroom. It was early spring, so even though I hate bugs, I didn’t think much of it because there’s nothing unusual about bugs surfacing after a long winter. I’m not even sure what caused me to look any further into it, but I did and was horrified that what I was finding seemed to point to bed bugs. I killed the few that I found and for some reason I saved one in a baggie (pro tip: if you ever discover a suspicious bug, kill it good and dead but in a way that preserves it as best as possible. Many exterminating companies will charge you up to $50 for an inspection if they come and aren’t able to find any live bugs. If you have a sample, they will waive the fee. It can also come in handy if you need to submit a sample to a lab for testing, but that part comes later).

An exterminator came–the owner of the company himself. He did a complete inspection, found no live bugs and no evidence of infestation, but took one glance at our sample and gave us the bad news. At the time, we didn’t know how bad bad news is when someone tells you that you have bed bugs.  We innocently took the several sheets of paper he handed us and probably nodded absently when told us that most of the work would be on our part. We had no idea what we were in for. He said we would need a minimum of 3 days to prepare our place for treatment. I cried and panicked when I read the list in full after he had gone.

If I remember right, it took Aaron and I working together the better part of 5 days to get ready. Think moving, only without the excitement of a new place waiting at the end. And having to remove all the switch plates and outlet covers in every room for the powdered chemical that will be puffed into each one. And moving all the furniture to leave a 3-foot area in front of the baseboards for easy-access chemical spraying (assuming you do a chemical treatment and not a heat treatment, in which case you’ll spend more money and do even more prep). And before packing everything away, put everything that can go in the dryer, into the dryer, for at least 25 minutes on high (extreme heat seems to be the only thing that’s guaranteed to kill these bastards) and everything that can’t go in the dryer into a plastic tub or sealed bag with a chemical strip and leave it there for 2-3 weeks. This means that every day during that time you dress out of a tub or plastic bag. This means that you have to have enough tubs or bags to put virtually everything you own into one, which means you have to spend a ton of money buying them if you don’t have them (we didn’t).

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We had to take vacation days to prep and de-prep. And take a small loan from my mom and dad to afford the treatment itself and all the supplemental products you are convinced you must have because the bugs are coming for you, and you must protect yourself with special mattress covers and interceptor cups to go under the legs of the bed. You’ve had to argue with the landlord over whether they will pay for the treatment (they won’t). You’re vacuuming everything and then tossing the bag immediately into the outside trash and cleaning the inside of the vacuum and checking the roller for anything that might be a bed bug egg.  You’re obsessed with whether there might be bugs in here or in there or in this or in that and what if you missed one and it was pregnant? You feel the shame of a leper and just as contaminated. You don’t allow anyone into your house.

You’re losing sleep because the bugs are coming for you. You move your bed away from the wall and get rid of the dust ruffle/bed bug super highway. The bugs appeared to be limited to the master bedroom, so I decided I would sleep better if I was in the dining room, where we moved our table out of the way and set up an air mattress. As an extra safeguard, Aaron diligently surrounded the air mattress with some jury rigged double-sided tape—a system that involved twisting duct tape in a complex pattern (see the blurry photo below). The bugs were coming for me and I wasn’t taking chances. I don’t like the idea that there is a bug out there that can survive outrageous conditions and is going to come while I’m sleeping, inject me quickly with a numbing agent so I don’t feel it sucking my blood for 10 minutes, and then leave me with itchy bites (yes, I learned way more than I need to know about these hideous creatures while we were going through our ordeal).

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When you’ve gone through your prep and it’s finally the day of treatment, you feel some relief as the technicians arrive. You allow them to calm you and carry you through what they are going to do and answer your remaining questions (you’ve already been on the phone every day asking the poor office staff dozens of questions and you’re past the point of apologizing for it. They know. They’ve done this before). You leave your problem in what you hope are their capable hands. You go away for 4 hours and come back to the smell of chemicals but the knowledge that it’s over except for putting everything back (no small task but at least the worst is over and there are no bugs to come for you).

Until they come again the following spring, 2013. During the first week of May, just as before. I suppose it’s easy to look back and say that we should have asked questions at this point. But we didn’t. We had the opinion of an expert. He was the owner of a reputable exterminating company and had been in the business for years. He told us we had bed bugs and we believed him, bought all of his products, and paid him a lot of money to take care of our problem (they did give us a discount on our second treatment). When it happened again, I went into full prep mode—throwing things in the dryer, packing up tubs, and de-switch plating like a seasoned expert—before I even called the exterminator for an appointment.

The technician we had the second time around, though, didn’t give me the feeling of relative calm that the previous techs had. He accused us (rather rudely) of not being ready because a few things were still left unpacked (things that they had told me it was okay to leave unpacked). I was near tears as he called back and forth to the office to get the all clear to treat our place as we had it (“near tears” doesn’t fully describe my emotional state at that time. It was more like: I’m coming off year two, day five of bed bug treatment prep; I have had very little sleep and am under extreme stress, so this scrawny kid will damn well treat our place AS SCHEDULED or I will personally take him down!). I didn’t leave with the feeling of confidence that I’d had the previous year, but the treatment worked. We were bug free. Again.

Until 2014, the first week of May. At this point, we called in a different exterminating company so we could get another opinion because we didn’t understand how this could be happening at the same time every year. It seemed like something seasonal was going on. But we showed the new company the sample (I had a new sample and one from 2013), were told it’s definitely a bed bug, and we got ready to do it all for a third time. Until Aaron said to me, “What if it’s not a bed bug?” Even with everything that seemed out of place, I found myself questioning him. How could it be anything else? We’ve had two experts tell us it’s a bed bug. We’ve been treated two years in a row. Luckily, my librarian senses were tingling with Aaron’s question and I went into full research mode. I started with a simple Google search for “bed bug look alike.” A few things came up that definitely were not a match to what we had. Then I clicked on a link for “bat bug” and everything started falling into place.

It turns out there is a bug that looks EXACTLY like a bed bug to the naked eye. The only way you can tell these two apart is under a microscope. Something about one of them having longer hairs on their legs or something. I couldn’t be bothered with the science-y details at that point. All I knew is that we were onto something. I started calling the exterminating companies and they didn’t know anything about bat bugs. I looked up bed bug experts in Ohio. I found one at OSU. I called her. I e-mailed her. No response. I was desperate for information at this point. Finally I got someone on the phone who directed me to the C. Wayne Ellett Plant and Pest Diagnostic Clinic at OSU. The people there are the real heroes of this story and I still feel like I could kiss them. For the ridiculously small fee of $20 (by this time, I would have paid my weight in gold doubloons to get to the bottom of this), you can submit a sample to their lab and within a week they will let you know what you’re dealing with. Enter the precious samples I have been diligently collecting and saving for two years. I filled out their form, wrote a check, and packaged up our samples per their instructions.

Even though we now had a suspicion about what they were, the bugs were still coming for us (bat bugs will bite humans in the absence of a bat host and I had some bites–see another blurry photo below, which does a terrible job of showing the bites on top of my foot. I couldn’t be expected to take high quality photos during all this, could I?), so time was definitely a factor. I wasn’t about to put this precious cargo in the mail and risk our sample being lost or wait for it to be delivered.  The lab is close enough that I could drive there myself, which I did without hesitation, ferrying my package as though it were the Hope Diamond or the Ark of the Covenant and not a smashed bug barely a half centimeter long. I gave the package to an appropriately lab-coated employee and was assured I would have results within a week to 10 days.

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Within only a few days, we had an e-mail that still ranks among the best e-mails I’ve ever received. The message contained their official report, confirming that what we had were BAT bugs and not BED bugs! This meant a few things: 1.) We were not insane 2.) Treatment of these bugs is completely different than bed bugs and will require absolutely nothing of us and zero chemicals (yeah, we wish we had known this before we did bed bug treatments two years in a row. But…bygones). 3.) The landlords would have to pay for this treatment.

Armed with this information, we had our landlords contact an animal control company because if you have bat bugs it means you have (or have had) bats. The inspector came out and told us there was no evidence of bats. We continued to see a few bugs, so I made more calls and found a new animal control company (second opinions–always get one). Everything I had read said that if you have these bugs, there are bats somewhere. Sure enough, even though it was subtle, the second inspector found evidence of bats. It was a matter of waiting for fall and they could come seal everything over. (bats are protected and animal control has to wait until the babies are grown before closing up their roosting area). We saw no bugs in 2015 or 2016, but I still await the first week of May with some trepidation, hoping I don’t see that familiar little brown shape anywhere.

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During all of this I did manage to find some things to be thankful for. I had called out to our friends and family for prayer and some answers came one night as I sat on my air mattress island and took comfort in the only thing I could at the moment–God and his word. I was doing a Bible study with friends that asked you to make a list of 3 things you were thankful for about a situation that was causing you stress or anxiety. Not just general things you were thankful for. Things you were thankful for about that situation. I started the exercise with a few superficial things and ended up with a notebook page filled front and back. I started with things like, “I’m thankful these bugs don’t move fast or fly and you can squish them easily” and moved onto “I’m thankful that my house will be deep cleaned and organized when this is over. And that my husband is a heavy hitter when it comes to deep cleaning. When’s the last time the inside of your dresser was vacuumed and dusted with Pledge?” I even ended up thankful that God was using the whole thing to bring out various character issues, knowing that that realization could end up strengthening our marriage and family.

There’s no denying that going through this has changed the way I see things. I don’t like sitting in waiting rooms or any other public seating area. I can’t fully enjoy staying at hotels or going to movies and I take certain precautions if I do (for quite a while, we would leave a change of clothes in the basement if we were going to the movies so that when we got back we could go straight downstairs and put our things in the dryer on high just in case). It took me more than a year after the first treatment to return to a thrift store because back in 2012 I thought that might have been how we got our “bed bugs.” I finally did go back but now I make sure to come home and put everything in the dryer on high first. Then I wash it and dry it normally.

Even though what we had turned out not to be bed bugs, I learned how widespread they are and I certainly know how horrific it is to treat them, so I never want to get them for real. I hope you never get them either, but if you think you have them, I’m happy to act as consultant. Remember that even the experts don’t know everything. Sometimes when something doesn’t seem right, it’s not. You probably know more than you think. Be your own expert when you need to be. Find some things to be thankful for, learn what you can, help someone else if they face what you did.

 

 

The Time We Didn’t Have Bed Bugs, or, Why You Should Always Get a Second Opinion, or, Why You Should Always Trust Your Husband, or, How I Learned to be Thankful in all Situations