Feel the Peace!!!

October weekend at the beach. Our first family excursion in months. The first weekend my husband hasn’t been working, us tagging off with the kids, connecting by text. We pack one hundred and eighty-seven things and drive two hours with two small children on wet, winding highways. It’s worth it.

The ocean reminds me of something I didn’t know I forgot. Or, it tries to remind me. My frazzled mom brain doesn’t hear the eternal so well these days. Given a free hour without kids my mind keeps whirling in circles, a thought tornado. Even sitting down, I feel like I’m still in the endless stop and go motion of motherhood. But here I stop and listen to the waves. I gaze at the horizon. What am I looking for? I don’t know. I never know. But I’m content to search.

We read in a library book that sand was once giant rocks. How lucky we got here this weekend and not ten thousand years ago! When the kids fall down, they laugh. We draw a map in the sand with driftwood. Our X marks a hole filled with mussel shells, someone’s home, deserted, but still lined with rainbows.

In the cabin, my husband teaches our son to build a fire with one match. My daughter and I cozy up with a grocery sack of library books and I forget all the techniques for enhancing her language development. My husband and I have face to face conversations with the kids. With each other. I admire him from afar, who is this incredible man? We grill oysters and steak and corn on the cob. We eat bacon for breakfast and hot dogs for lunch–let the nitrates fall where they may. The first night we sleep for thirteen hours.

It wasn’t about letting go of our worries, we didn’t even pack them. We were out of cell phone range and we were also out of pink and yellow Post-it note reminder range. I felt a glimpse of what I might be like without the constant woodpecker-pecking of my to-do list.

Coming home, I volunteer to drive while my husband spins a yarn about robot superheroes that lasts through the coast range. More rains, more slick roads, more S-curves. I creep like Granny Gingham, two-door coupes riding my tail. I’m sure that the drivers are single. It’s too soon, but the tension creeps back. My shoulders hunch up near my ears. I feel the tension in my jaw that the dentist says is wearing down my teeth “slightly more than you would expect”. I wonder if I will always be this way. I wonder if I will ever feel peaceful for more than seven minutes. I think of my father and his troubled, restless spirit. I think of my aunt the nun, a lifetime of prayer and meditation, once hospitalized for nervous tension.

Just in time, I come out of the mountains and turn left onto the highway out of Grand Ronde. The S-curves are over, the wide lanes are luxurious with asphalt. The sports cars who’d been tailing me turn the opposite direction, toward the casino. Nothing but smooth straightaway. Golden lines leading onward. It feels easy again, like it did on the beach. The roar of the ocean replaced by the roar of my new Michelins on pavement and it seems like they could be the same: the eternal mystery of the ocean and the humdrum of my Costco tires – that these things could connect. The eternal could follow us home. We could bring these feelings. Of course we could. I smiled like I’d smiled gazing at the horizon. It felt good. It felt like floating. Sailing.

The state trooper is very nice. “Is there any legal reason you’re going over the speed limit?” No sir.

“Did you realize you were speeding?” No sir.

“Got kids in the car?” Yes.

“They strapped in properly?” Yes.

All my abilities are now in question. He asks me to roll down the back windows so he can see them. I don’t want to do it. I want to leave them out of it. But I’ve already done it, made them part of this.

The kids don’t start crying until he walks away. Back to his car with my license and registration, to see if I have a record, if I’ve broken other rules in the past, or if it’s just today that I showed a complete lack of judgement.

“Noooo. Noooo,” cries my three year old. “This is not fun,” pronounces my five year old. “I do not like this vacation.” Wait wait wait wait wait wait. Not the vacation. The vacation was great. It’s in the bank. It’s part of your emotional makeup going forward, upon which you will build a solid lasting relationship with your world and its people. I played hide and seek ten times. We had fun. The quality of the vacation is no longer in play. It’s a done deal. It was fun! It was peaceful! It was peaceful, I tell you! Feel the peace!!!

I cram the $260 ticket in the side pocket of the driver door. “I just wish you hadn’t gone so fast,” my son says. Gazing at fields of mud. Mushy straw. Molding squash. The robot superhero story has been tabled. My husband is explaining how we technically could have gotten three tickets since I was in a safety corridor and mommy didn’t have her current insurance card. It could have been worse. Or mommy could have gone so fast she lost control of the car and killed us all. This last part is in my head.

“Are we going to have to pay money?” my son says. My three year old continues a one-note whine, like one string of a violin. “A little bit, yeah,” I say, thinking of how far $260 would have gone at the grocery store. My daughter needs a raincoat. My son needs rainboots. I had $200 set aside for their Christmas fund. The Christmas fund will now be going to Polk County Circuit Court. Like a gambling addict who loses the Christmas fund to video poker.

By Newberg my son has to pee. Now. We rush into a gas mart. I hold his hand as he wiggle-sashays down the chip aisle to the restroom. A lady my age has just gone in, glancing at us as the door closes. It shuts. It opens right up again. She tells us to go ahead. Really. She has little ones too. Please go ahead.

“Wasn’t that nice of her?” We’re back in the car and I’m telling my husband and daughter the story of the nice lady. How lucky we are to meet such nice people. The world is full of them. Nice people going to work and doing their jobs. Thank you, people. Expensive people.

Time will tell: did I bless my children with three days of family fun? Or was it all ruined when their mommy got in trouble with the state trooper? I screwed up and it’s out of my hands. All I can do is try to remember both: the contentment and the embarrassment. I will remember that you have to be a safe driver, crazy as it sounds, even when you’re happy. The opposite of anxiety is not carelessness. It’s embarrassing to think that for all that I do to keep my children safe, today I, all by myself, put them in harm’s way. Maybe too much silver lining, but I’m grateful for that trooper. The ticket hurts, that’s a lot of money for a reminder. But not every reminder can fit on a pink and yellow post-it note. To do: slow down. In as many ways as I can.

Seventeen Bottles of Water, Seventeen Shelf-Stable Cookies

I don’t raise my hand. I can’t do it. I am not the person for this job. I can’t, I can’t, I can’t, I can’t, I can’t.

Someone else volunteers for the emergency preparedness subcommittee. It’s a meeting of the board of directors at my children’s preschool. The topic is earthquakes.

“Don’t go there” is a tired phrase. But, as the director of the school gently, gently implies, for all the steps we follow and plans we map out on posterboard, this 1957 building is not earthquake-proof.

Who do the children call out for first when they’re trapped under a pile of rubble? Do they remember they’re at school and call for Teacher Mary? What if Teacher Mary has a head wound? Or are they so scared they instinctively call the name they’ve shouted so many times before, after nightmares, bee stings, or when they can’t find the playdough pizza cutter. The one who fixes. I have to believe with all my heart that I would hear them.

I love my children’s teachers. I respect them and remember constantly that they know more about child development than I ever will. But if someone needs to dig through a pile of bricks, I will do it better. I will do it faster. If an alienated teen is coming down the halls with a machine gun, I will get to my children and hide them in a heating duct and pluck out the teen’s eyeballs with my thumbs. Maybe it’s massive denial, too much G.I. Jane, but there has to be some trade-off for mothers. For all this fear and worry: the ability to lift a station wagon.

There are many reasons I would be terrible on the emergency preparedness subcommittee. On a bad day, I would cry through the entire meeting. On another day I would be suggesting trainings in walking through fire. When I dropped my children off for school, I would bring two backpacks per child. One would go in their cubbies as usual. Sweatshirt. Extra underwear. The other backpack I would duct tape to their bodies: “Okay, hon, remember how to put the oxygen mask on? Just like we practiced.”

Portland is filled with schools just like this one, built generations ago. On the ballots, we people of Portland have asked ourselves: Do we need schools that won’t fall down? With our ballots, we have told ourselves: no. We’re good. Pass the organic tangerines.

I don’t know how everyone else feels as they drive home from the meeting. Standing around after we adjourned, there was a lot of dark humor. “Funny joke” as my daughter would say. They were funny jokes. I laughed. And it seemed like after each joke there was a tiny collective shake of the head, like, what are ya gonna do?

This is where your anxiety is your friend. Anxiety is there for a real and helpful reason. Embrace it. Roll in it. Cozy up. Get a battery-powered radio and some water purification tablets. And, if your stomach is stronger than mine, join an emergency preparedness subcommittee.


Gas Half Empty

I’m driving down 39th Avenue, four lanes of urban haze. The kids are tired and thirsty. I need to pee. It’s Friday afternoon and I am already exhausted by the sixteen things I’ve committed to getting done this weekend.

When the gas light comes on.

“Shoot.” “What’s wrong, Mommy?” “Nothing, honey. We’re just a little low on gas.” “I’ll fill it up!” My son holds out his finger and makes a jjjhhhuuuzzz sound. “Thanks, hon,” I call to the back seat.

My husband will drive for miles with the gas light on. He has faith in his tank. For me, the gas light is a beady red eye staring at me, asking me what I’m planning to do with two little kids when I run out of gas, when the car sputters to a stop in the intersection of 39th and Powell. What will I do with them while I’m pushing the car out of the street into the parking lot of the Supercuts? Or, since someone has to steer, I guess I’ll have to wait until someone stops to help. Or call Triple A. But that takes half an hour. And what do I do with the kids while we’re moving the car? Are they safer inside the car in their car seats, or should they be away from traffic? If so, where do I put them? Do I set them on the bench of the bus stop and growl, “Hold hands and don’t move.” Do I usher them inside the Supercuts and look for that nice Mormon gal who cut their hair a couple times and see if your kids could possibly hang out in the waiting area for two minutes while you take care of some car trouble. And what are the odds the kids are not, upon hearing this, going to cling to your legs and cry?

What about the gas? How do I get us all to the gas station? I can carry my daughter, slip my bag over my shoulder, and still hold my son’s hand. What about coming back with the gas container? I could carry it with the other hand but then I can’t hold my son’s hand. Because we’ve trained him so well, he won’t cross a street without holding a hand and this isn’t the day he’s going to start. Maybe he could hold my purse strap? Hold onto my pant leg? Hold onto the gas can? And by the way, I don’t have a gas can. Am I supposed to bring my own? Does the gas station loan you one?

By now, I will really have to pee and the kids will too. They will hate the gas station bathroom. I will hate it too but pretend it’s nice. No, they won’t sit there. No, they can’t wait until we get home. No, says my daughter in three octaves. Come on, I will say and my son will cry and ask why I’m being so crabby. They will go after I bribe them with chocolate cake and I cringe the whole time thinking of the germs getting on their tiny bodies. I tell myself they will have a hot soapy bath the minute we get home. And while they play I can bake the chocolate cake.

“Where are we going?” my son asks as I pull into the filling station. “The park!” shouts my daughter. “Just getting a little gas,” I say. I don’t know how much gas was left, but there was enough to go a hundred yards. I can stop the questions now. They are answered as I hand my debit card to the attendant, as she fills the tank and hands it back. So easy, this exchange. So, so easy.