Self-Care

A light hike

Quite a year we’re having, hm? And just over a year since my last post. The lapse was unintentional, though not surprising. This has been the most tumultuous, stressful year I can recall.

As I began writing this, Little Bear (or T, I should say, now that babyhood is behind him) was passed out in exhaustion after his fourth stomach bug of the year. M and I were catching up on housework and wondering if 7:30 p.m. was too early to go to bed ourselves. Essentially, it was a fairly normal night for recent life.

We’re hardly new to adulthood, but so many challenges have coincided during the past year or so, we have reached a whole new level of mental, emotional, and even physical struggle. I realized I was starting to see self-care as a luxury, something to do after attending to my family, our home, our work, or even useless time wasting. I reject that now. I remind myself to prioritize efforts to keep the stress, frustration, and fatigue at tolerable levels. Here: some of the biggest hurdles and most helpful activities for me.

THE TRIALS

Little Batman

Parenting a threenager

If you’ve not heard the term, “threenager” refers to the fact that whoever coined the phrase “terrible twos” was just trolling parents. Two is a breeze. Three is parenting on Hard Mode. It is the grueling dress rehearsal for the teen years, and it is a constant struggle to stay centered and seek joy.

On the one hand, T’s increasing articulation, creativity, and physicality are a marvel to behold. He tells stories, loves to paint with watercolors, and climbs on everything. He can be delightfully insightful, funny, and sweet.

On the other hand, he is willful, heavily into independence, and often shockingly lacking in empathy. All of these are normal toddler traits, things he needs to adjust to on his own or by learning from our example. Reacting to them is a fantastic exercise in emotional growth, mindfulness, and resilience. But it is not easy. It would be difficult even if we were perfectly healthy and well-rested.

Sleep

We are not. Because my work schedule and M’s do not align, our family time most days is reduced to the dinner hour, and T reacts by trying to sleep in our bed at least once a night. I go to bed (but rarely sleep) after midnight, and I’m up with T just 6 or 7 hours later. Mornings are generally rough for all of us. This translates into diminished immune systems and fragile emotional control. Tempers flare more easily than they used to, and dealing with all of the other trials becomes more and more difficult. But for financial and mental reasons, it is important that I hold a job, too.

Work

When M was laid off, we agreed that we had to be ready to change, to keep our options as open as possible. He accepted an offered job in Oregon, so I quit my job in Massachusetts. I wasn’t worried about my future as a whole, and I was interested in the new avenues that might open. But I confess that, deep inside, I knew that I might be permanently leaving the career I’d been building, and I am still wrestling with that.

It may seem defeatist, but it is pragmatism that has me questioning whether I will ever be a librarian (let alone a rare books specialist) again. Though Portland doesn’t have a local library school churning out graduates, it also does not have New England’s density of repositories. Weeks go by before I see any posted job to which I could reasonably commute, let alone one that also fits my skills and goals. Even then, Portland is an Attraction. People want to move here or (if native) stay here. There are already plenty of qualified librarians on staff patiently waiting to move up the ranks. Hiring from within is the norm (so is using volunteers to accomplish much of the work). Breaking in from outside can be incredibly difficult, and sometimes I fear that it is impossible.

I am still exploring my options and generally enjoying the process. Right now, I am experimenting with the other side of the book world (i.e., selling), and it is fascinating. I will be happy continuing there, though I hope I can get a less punishing schedule soon. Really, the only big problem with my career at the moment is my lingering reluctance to leave the path I was on before. That reluctance creates uncertainty, and there is too much of that going around right now.

Current events

I have to refer to the endless, repellent United States election. I know I am not the only one feeling serious stress about this year’s surreal political situation. As I sit here typing, I feel physically cowed and slightly sick to my stomach. I am terrified of what our country could become and how people could be treated. I still feel occasional disbelief that we have come to this. But current events in general have been an onslaught.

The occupation of the Malheur reservation occurred a few months after we arrived. Despite being miles away, it produced a sense of uneasiness. We were new to Oregon and had no idea how the rest of the state would react. Would the armed anger spread? The relatively peaceful resolution was a relief. The recent verdict was not.

Brexit was a blow to this UK-ophile. It made it painfully obvious that not only is the UK not a viable dream home for our family, but the swelling tide of hatred, fear-mongering, and rejection of truth is depressingly global.

In my worst moments, I look at the world and feel utter despair. Where can you go? What is left? “What can men do against such reckless hate?” In these divisive times, what is honestly the point?

But I am not good at staying low. I’ve spent more time in the dumps this past year than during my life previously. But I float back up, even if now it takes an effort sometimes. That effort is worth it.

THE TREATMENTS

Giving in to Witcher 3

Meaningful distraction This has been more difficult than I’d like to admit. I am certainly prone to mindless Internet cruising, and it is remarkably easy to slip into when you’re exhausted, just want a minute to relax, and have a smartphone at hand. You would think that the luxury of being at home would make me dive into reading, crafts, and other hobbies. The desire is certainly there, but the discipline has been sorely lacking.

My favorite reads this autumn

Lately, though, that has been changing. I find myself reaching for my calligraphy pens, baking ingredients, or even the video game controller. Thanks to the Pacific Northwest climate, I am able to garden whenever I choose. At the very least, I can sit on the balcony and enjoy a cup of coffee and the sound of rain on the roof.

Autumn is red and green

Elevating sensory experiences is the small way that I currently explore mindfulness. I stop and do yoga or tai chi in the middle of the day, just to feel my body move. I spend a few minutes methodically making tea, watching the steam curl in the air, feeling it on my skin. I bury my face in my toddler’s mop of hair, nuzzle his (somehow always slightly sticky) cheek, let him clamber over me like I’m a jungle gym. Even shopping from the bulk bins at the grocery store has become an oddly soothing experience. Something about being closer to the beautiful reality of food, the possibility of what the components could become. Through handfuls of oats and azuki beans and flour, I reach for the reality that now seems warped, the possibilities that sometimes seem so distant.

Star Trek

The idea of possibility leads me, usually, to science fiction. In past times of political turmoil, I would find solace in that liberal stalwart, The West Wing. Not now. These days, I want true escapism, idealistic escapism. I want to be far from United States (or, frankly, most real world) politics. I want to think about the possibilities that could come with progress.

There is a line in, ironically, West Wing about raising the level of public debate in the country. With this election, we are down to debating whether the very foundations of democracy remain intact. Idealism is far away. We seem to just be hoping that most of us still belong to a common humanity. It is disheartening, disappointing, and not enough. I want to remember what we used to dream about, so I turn to Star Trek.

I never watched the Original Series, so I’m mainly talking about The Next Generation. Voyager was my childhood standby, but I find myself drawn now to Jean-Luc Picard and his crew. I marvel at their approach to the issues they encountered.

They prioritized diplomacy, curiosity, multiculturalism, and knowledge. They tackled problems with reason, thoughtful discussion, and careful experimentation (even when it made for boring TV). Sure, it had some notable flops (usually related to it being a TV show about advanced civilization in an industry that is often less than enlightened). But overall, I continue to be inspired by the vision of a future driven by exploration, diplomacy, and a firm acceptance of truth.

And on the lighter side, Worf always makes me laugh, and everything sounds better said by Patrick Stewart.

Choose kind

Watching words

I could write a whole series of posts about words. Words, their tone, the intention behind them, and their omission have been at the forefront of my mind. Following current events, moving to a new place and getting to know new people, accompanying a toddler through his early language acquisition: all of these have been major challenges and opportunities to think about how I use words and why. One big reason I haven’t posted on my blog is that I have been extremely hesitant about what (and whether) to say.

I have started myriad drafts. From current events to parenting, I started writing my reactions to many things (even those pseudo-Victorians). But I always hesitated, faltered, and wrote in my diary instead. I just couldn’t bring myself to add to (or detract from) any discourse.

That didn’t stop the words from coming. I delight in language, the way words fit together, the way they feel when you speak them, how they look on a page. So I kept scribbling or typing notes, collecting the words but corralling them. I finally signed up for NaNoWriMo just to give myself another place to put them. (Never mind that it’s eight days in, and I’ve written more words in this blog post than in my novel.)

Then there’s speech. Young T is at a critical juncture. He repeats the most horrifying slips made by me or M. He latches on to the worst lines in movies or TV shows or video games. He went through a phase where he called us “silly dumb” if we said something he thought was wrong. Of all the colorful and devastating insults slung into the conversation this year, a three-year-old’s sandbox taunt should provoke giggles. But you know what? It stung.

The words were mild. But the tone was, somehow, scornful. Whether he realized it or not, it conveyed disrespect. I have to assume he picked it up at daycare. M and I are not in the habit of insulting each other or our son. We worked very quickly to quash this development. We explained as best we could that words can hurt like fists, or more, since the damage can last far beyond what a bandage can heal. It took a few days, but that contemptuous tone left his voice and “silly dumb” faded away, replaced by “thank you” after almost everything.

I am proud of my son’s polite manners and increasing grasp of basic social courtesies. But I am after more than just preparing him to get through a dinner party. I am trying to cultivate in him a deep understanding of what these “word-actions” mean and how their impact can last. It sounds silly to emphasize manners when etiquette doesn’t even come up in the ongoing violent rhetoric. But I look at it as the beginning of the social contract.

My son interacts with a diverse group of little peers (which is pleasantly surprising in Portland). He doesn’t yet know that the differences between them are given meaning in some places and with some people. Before he becomes aware of that, I want him to have a concrete habit of approaching everyone with respect and civility. I want him to treat people as human beings, full stop, and choose words based on truth and compassion, not innuendo and stereotype. The thought of him using words to isolate, or manipulate, or bring harm to others makes me feel sick. The vicious power of language has been just overwhelming this year. I have to keep him clear.

Books about books shelfie

Practicality and productivity

When all else fails, when my head and heart hurt too much for reading or calligraphy or spinning stories, I reach for housework. We pick up the toys and put books back in order. I hand T the duster and sort the laundry and focus as best I can on the absolute basics. Scrub the plate. Rinse. Dry. Next.

Little by little, a sense of assurance grows. For the most part, I cannot control my son, my job prospects, or the bizarro state of the world right now. But I can damn well make sure the laundry is washed and folded and stored neatly in the drawer. That tiny bit of certainty helps keep me afloat on the wild river that is life these days.

These are the efforts that are (mostly) working for me in this year of trials. I hope that you are coping, too. What is bothering you? What is helping you through your troubles? I am always open to new ideas!

Miscellany: Sick Days

January has not been particularly kind to our little family. It seems like the baby and I have spent more time at home than at daycare/work. I have worked just a single full week since early November! A month or so ago, I found the part-time thing relaxing. Now I am nearly crawling the walls with impatience and a slight anxiety about how far behind I am at work.

Well, I’m mentally impatient, anyway. Physically, I’m struggling through a horrifying cold to which I succumbed as the baby went through pneumonia. Thankfully, a hospital stay and plenty of TLC have him on the mend. It was not easy to see such a little lad hooked up to an IV and getting chest x-rays. But he was a trooper and it was all for the best. Now I just hope the recovery days I’ve had helped me. I badly want us all to be well for awhile.

The various illnesses and ailments of the last few weeks have subdued my usual monkey mind somewhat. I would characterize my recent desires as almost pathetic longings for spring that isn’t here and athletic pursuits I cannot manage just now and fresh produce I don’t have the energy to fix up for meals. The things on my mind are a little less ambitious, a bit more dreamy than usual.

Understandably, I’ve been thinking about wellness. One of the first things I miss when I’m ill is physical activity. Before the latest bout of illness, I’d been trying to reconcile my desire to finally resume workouts with my desire for sleep. (I truly do not know how to squeeze them in without getting up even earlier.) Now, however, I’m thinking of restorative activities. I used to do yoga every day. The associated inversions, however, conflict with my current congested state. How about tai chi? It’s been a long time since I did that regularly, and I’d love to advance to sword style

I also want to get a massage. I’ve never had one before, and I always figured I’d go for acupuncture. I do want to try that sometime, but I’ve been craving something more physical to work out the winter and baby-carrying kinks. I need to do some research, though; there are so many types.

Having spent a lot of time in sweats this week, it occurs to me that I need to freshen that part of my wardrobe. So, skinny sweats? Classic fleece? Super wide leg? Or go big with cashmere leggings?

Since all the sickness started, I’ve been sleeping on the futon in Little Bear’s room, both to watch him and to try to keep M from falling ill. Consequently, I am starting to fantasize about our bed (in a safe-for-work way, I promise). We need a new comforter, lighter because M gets warm. And why not some new sheets? Next time I get sick (and I’m sure there will be a next time sooner than I’d like), I want to have a better nest.

On a more spiritual plane, I have wanted to get a jizō figure for my child since before I had a child to whom to give it. I wasn’t raised in a saint-focused religion, but I like the idea. In Western traditions, I suppose it’s a continuation of pagan patron gods. I like correspondences. I like the way Jizō is typically represented in Japanese statuary. It projects a more earthly calm than a typical Buddha figure. I chose this one to watch over LB.

My reading of choice for the recent run of days home has been the blog Manger by Mimi Thorisson. Sometimes her life seems impossibly lush and beautiful. The style is more colorful and rich than I usually gravitate toward. Yet somehow, I have devoured the entire run in a matter of days, noting recipes to try, immersing myself in the stories of French life and food memories. It reminds me of Béatrice Peltre’s La Tartine Gourmande in the lyrical descriptions of growing up French and foodie. Perhaps it’s because I haven’t had the energy to cook much lately that I want to hear so much about others doing so. On a more materialistic note, the gorgeous photos of her gorgeous kids make me wish American children’s clothing designers took it as seriously as those in France. I get tired of the cartoon pictures and silly sayings. I don’t need my baby to wear a suit, but there must be middle ground between that and a onesie that says “I only cry when ugly people hold me”.

Finally, I’ve started to allow myself to think about spring. Right now, this means gardening. I’m thinking very ambitiously, but I know I will be hard-pressed to manage more than a couple of pots on the patio. I have rosemary and parsley over-wintering in a sunny kitchen window. I’d like to add a few more potential staples. I have a thing for atypical varieties. So French breakfast or daikon radishes. A French variety of squash. Yellow or purple carrots. And plenty of leafy greens. I love salad, but I dislike dealing with the store-bought produce.

Okay. I’m feeling a bit better. The light is certainly visible at the end of the sickly tunnel, anyway. Little Bear is chipper and giggly, and I think I’ll be that way soon. Well, maybe not the giggly part. That’s not really my style.

The Dangerous Season

flame tree against blue sky

I had a moment the other day. It probably started with Facebook, as these things often do. I see a friend’s status trumpeting some amazing thing they’re doing in some amazing place. Or not! Sometimes it’s enough just to know that they’re living and working and running errands in some other place, some place I could only get to if several of my circumstances changed.

Anyway, whatever the spur, I felt a sudden, very pure moment of wishing I was alone. Not even just wishing I wasn’t a parent, but wishing I wasn’t married. It was a first, and it passed as quickly as it arrived, but it did leave an impression.

No matter how far removed I am from school, autumn, for me, remains a season of beginnings. I feel a deep, almost primal impulse to buy new things, start new projects, and even embark on Major Life Changes. Oddly enough, now that I have the dual ties of marriage and family, the big changes are even more tempting. Since those things are locked down, it makes the uncertainties I feel in other areas more acute. When the leaves start turning and sweaters are required, I start getting restless. I wonder what could be different.

Now that Little Bear is in our lives, almost every day brings a discussion of potential change, from the mundane (we should rearrange some kitchen cabinets) to the monumental (is the seriously high cost of daycare worth it when measured against my relatively low salary?). What this ambiguity means for a person like me, who lives more in the future, is that I am pretty constantly questioning. Sometimes I ponder my career, and I dream daily of living in the UK, but mostly I just look at tasks.

I have always loved an ambitious to-do list, even if I don’t accomplish much of it. Nowadays, that list is incredibly long, complicatedly hierarchical, and mostly mental. Just walking around the apartment triggers list-making. My mind applies an augmented reality-like layer of labels to almost everything at home: move that furniture, wrangle those cables, plant the crocuses, read that library book before it’s due, put away the laundry, buy more diapers in a few days. And running quietly in the corner of this imaginary interface is a little ticker of the very meager free time I have in which to accomplish any of these things.

So when I say that I had a moment the other day, I don’t mean that I wished to be without my matrimonial and familial bonds and all the benefits they bring. I just longed, for a moment, for that time when, instead of mulling over everything from overhauling my closet to upending my career, the only thing I had on my mind as the weather turned crisp was buying new colored pencils and tennis shoes.

Sigh.

Being an adult, amirite?

Miscellany

This week’s collection of preoccupations:

Games I can’t play for awhile (Sims 4, The Order: 1886).

Since I can’t play those (or Minecraft, or Skyrim, or most games requiring two hands), Sims 3.

The annoying way my student loan processing keeps bouncing between providers whether I like it or not. (Really, the system is broken. If I could do it all over again, I would seriously consider taking the apprenticeship route into a trade.)

Teaching Little Bear (eventually) how to argue. M, as the resident philosopher, is in charge of this. I first need to improve my ability to be wrong with good grace.

Finding an affordable alternative to custom engraved stationery. Right now, I’m thinking blank cards/envelopes and custom stamps.

After a peculiar late-pregnancy obsession with white nail polish, abruptly finding my perfect shade in Zoya’s Snow White. Now I just have to be patient until I have enough time to actually use it.

Etiquette. Maybe to an old-fashioned degree of formality, probably because I’ve been watching “Jeeves & Wooster” and reading a lot of Agatha Christie. I’m currently reading this book to indulge this interest. (Before anyone asks, yes, I have heard that “Downton Abbey” is a great show. No, I do not watch it.)

The new iPhone 5s. But since my current phone mostly works, and my current laptop works less and less, I’m keeping my eye on the ultimate costly goal.

Wisdom from Daddy

Desperate Housewife

Theo and sorting laundry

I like keeping house.

No, seriously, I do. You might not see it right away, as my laziness often trumps my willingness to take the time. But when I do get off the couch and pick up the duster, I get really into it. I like the routine of it, the pleasure that arrives when a surface goes from dusty to gleaming. I like taking care of my family’s environment. I collect cleaning supplies and tools like some women do beauty products. My library holds more than one tome on housekeeping, including an entire book devoted to laundry. I love the sense of satisfaction and calm that results from housework. I am really, really missing that right now.

I recently passed my six-week postpartum check. Exciting things like sex and exercise are back on the table, yet all I want to do is scrub the bathroom and unpack the rest of the boxes in the library. We moved when I was in the throes of second-trimester energy and upbeat attitude. We got about halfway unpacked before I started to flag. It didn’t help that I was also absorbed in moving locations at work. I hit a physical (and, let’s face it, mental) wall right as we cleared the nursery of boxes and started filling it with baby furniture. And that is where the unpacking has stayed. It is driving me crazy.

Happily, I’m starting to see opportunities where I couldn’t before. I’m (a bit) less exhausted, so when Little Bear dozes off, I jump up and wash a few dishes or fold some laundry. He is more easily amused by himself, so I’ve even managed to sneak off long enough to do some ironing and baking. M and I have made a pact to tackle one room, as completely as possible, each weekend. This will have the apartment as shipshape as I’d hoped by the time I return to work. That is a very good thing. The tidier my environment, the calmer my mind. And I assume I will need to jump off from as calm a point as possible as I adjust to leaving a three-month-old infant with strangers every day.

As a home-related aside, my cooking skills are taking a slight dive now that I’m out of practice. I used to handle much of the cooking most nights. Apart from a month or so in the second trimester, I’ve been too nauseated, too tired, and/or too busy to cook since last November. For me, that is a long stretch, and even when I couldn’t quite bear the thought of cooking, I missed it. However, I’ve been disappointed with most of my efforts since LB’s arrival. Either they did not quite turn out as I’d hoped or, more often, I’ve felt awkward and clumsy while putting them together. Oddly, this was not the case the other afternoon, when a fussy Bear wanted to be held. I’m not going to go into the right-or-wrongness of preparing dinner while cradling a baby in one arm. I am certain that plenty of well-intentioned souls would happily lambaste me for so doing, and I am equally certain that most of my fellow mothers have done something similar at some desperate point. I was both proud of my dexterity and resolved never to exercise it in that fashion again.

Anyway, the dinner turned out pretty well.

One-Hand Squash Lasagna

Yes, those are LB’s toes sneaking into frame.

One-Hand Squash Lasagna

This is a case of cook as I say, not as I cooked. My process involved a fair amount of (physically necessary) half-assery that would never be present in an actual recipe. Also, next time I will probably melt the mozzarella into the béchamel sauce to make the whole dish creamier.

[Disclaimer: I did set LB in his crib and endure his cries so I could use both hands to chop the sage and to finish the layering. It was just too much.]

  • extra-virgin olive oil, for the dish
  • 15 ounces part-skim ricotta cheese
  • 15 ounces canned pumpkin purée, or other squash purée
  • 10 ounces frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed dry
  • 1½ teaspoons ground nutmeg, or to taste
  • 2 tablespoons minced fresh sage
  • fine sea salt
  • freshly ground white pepper, for aesthetic purposes, or black pepper
  • 10 ounces shredded mozzarella cheese
  • 8 ounces grated Parmesan cheese
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic, or to taste
  • 2 cups low-fat milk
  • 18 no-boil lasagna noodles

Preheat the oven to 375°F. Oil a 9-by-13-inch baking dish and set it on a rimmed baking sheet to contain any sauce that may bubble over.

In a medium mixing bowl, stir the ricotta, pumpkin, spinach, nutmeg, most of the sage (reserve some to sprinkle on top), and salt and pepper to taste until blended. Set aside. Roughly mix the mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses in a small mixing bowl and set aside.

Melt the butter and oil in a 1-quart saucepan over medium-low heat. Turn the heat to low and whisk in the flour and garlic. Cook, whisking constantly, until the mixture turns tan. Add the milk a bit at a time, still whisking constantly. Cook until the consistency is nearly thick enough for your liking, then season lightly with salt and pepper and remove from the heat. As you assemble the lasagna, you may need to whisk sometimes to keep a skin from forming.

Ladle ½ cup of the sauce into the bottom of the baking dish. Lay 3 lasagna noodles on top and spread with ⅓ of the pumpkin-ricotta mixture. Lay another 3 noodles, then ladle in another ½ cup of sauce and sprinkle with ⅓ of the mixed cheeses. Repeat the noodles-pumpkin-noodles-sauce/cheese pattern twice more. Sprinkle the top layer of cheese with the remaining sage and salt and pepper as desired.

Bake for 30-40 minutes, until the cheese is golden and the sauce is bubbling. Let sit ten minutes, then serve.

Getting ahead: You can assemble the lasagna a day or two before baking and store, covered, in the fridge. Set it out about thirty minutes before baking to let it come somewhat toward room temperature. You may need to lengthen the baking time a bit. Also, I assume it freezes well after baking, or we’ve wasted half a giant lasagna.