Junk Drawer Brain

drawer5When Frank went back to school this morning (in the snow, after 12 days at home), he said, “Stay away from my Legos.” He isn’t worried I will spend my day playing with his stash of plastic blocks; he’s afraid they’re going to disappear. It has happened before: the boys go back to school several weeks before I go back to teaching, so I start throwing things away. I scour closets for the shoes no one wears. I clear out cabinets and toy bins. I empty the freezer, the linen closet, and the 17 junk drawers in the kitchen. And it has happened: my children’s toys become causalities in my war on stuff. drawer7

January seems like the right time of year to start fresh, to clean the proverbial slate. It is a popular idea this time of year: Pinterest boasts 560 “decluttering” pins. Real Simple and lifeHacker offer checklists and expert advice. Even Lance Armstrong’s website LiveStrong makes the wild claim that getting rid of clutter will make us healthier, saving “time, money, and emotional stress.” Psychologists say that getting rid of our extra stuff has tangible benefits; clutter causes us to feel anxious, frustrated, and guilty. We will feel more productive, creative, and relaxed if we can keep our junk under control. Not to mention the obvious source of immediate gratification. New Year’s resolutions take some serious commitment, but purging is impulsive, fast, and instantly rewarding. drawer6

The experts are probably right. Most of us feel better in tidy spaces. Most of us have too much stuff. Most of us could stand to be more organized. But let’s be honest about the motivations. Purging our life of garbage may feel good, but it’s hard work that looks a bit like a small rodent on one of those exercise wheels – round and round and round. It’s a never ending chore. Those of us who are good at it are likely just feeding a maniacal need for control and order. We’re also lucky – the DIY world has made us into a bunch of organizing heroes.

drawer4I am almost too good at getting rid of things. I have thrown away key pieces of electronic equipment and federal tax documents. I nearly trashed my husband’s service medals and he is still upset about the mix tapes he found in the dumpster. But I married a keeper (sometimes less affectionately called a ‘hoarder’). Cody is organized – his elementary school report cards are alphabetized and filed – but he keeps everything “just in case.” I’m not sure which case might call for all of the unidentified keys in the bowl by the back door, but we are ready. drawer3

We have managed to train each other a bit. Cody’s favorite thing to save is wood. He’s built (a huge) chicken coop and two compost bins from the wood he’s salvaged, so I’ve learned to walk around the piles of lumber in the garage. And last week he let me take a few of his fifty thousand t-shirts to the Salvage Army. I will make off with the rest when he is at work tomorrow.

drawer 1I like to remind myself about the experts and the benefits of decluttering. It makes me feel less crazy. But the truth is at this time of year I feel a bit desperate to take control of something, to make visual progress. After the chaos and stress of the holidays, the world is slowing around me. The ground is frozen and the trees are bare. It is cold and quiet and the longest and darkest part of the year is just abating. Emptying drawers and closets feels like a reasonable coping strategy. Besides, I will never be able to give up on coffee. Or chocolate. Or beer.

~ S

The Intolerable List

sheridan fallIt’s hunting season in Wyoming. The days are bright and warm, the evenings chilly, sometimes even frosty. Animals are beginning to move down the mountain, away from the cold air and early snow, into the eager sites of camouflaged men and women. I tolerate hunting season. My husband has always hunted, my father hunted, my sons are learning to hunt. We fill our freezer with pronghorn, elk, and deer meat every fall and we eat lean, grass fed dinners all year long. Hunting is part of our culture, something I accept and would likely defend. But I don’t participate and I’ve made the rookie mistake of anthropomorphizing countless furry targets.

My boys are all out after big game this weekend, so I’ve had plenty of time to think about how I will make another week’s attempt at flawless parenting. I’ve sorted through backpacks, smoothed out crumpled homework assignments, and washed 13 loads of laundry. I’ve planned the week’s meals and copied the week’s football games on to the family calendar. The routine is comforting. I have successfully created the illusion of control. I’ve got this.

Then I remember that I’d rather have my kiddos home playing kickball or riding their bikes than out shooting wild animals. I’m a bit stuck (And I hit this parenting wall often). Strangely, I think it’s about tolerance – when do I let my kids deal with yet another part of the world on their own? When do I turn them lose to decide what they believe, to decide how they will negotiate the sticky differences in people and culture? When do I tell them that not everybody thinks they should get to gun down their own steaks?

I’ve often told myself that I’m raising tolerant children. They’ve got a politically liberal mom and traditionally minded, conservative father. We’ve traveled and talked openly about the world, about human rights, and culture and our family’s (wildly differing) faiths. We complain about politics and take them to the polls with us. But when it comes right down to it, there are many things I just cannot tolerate and I feel desperate to make sure they won’t either.

I am intolerant of conversations that are anti-science or anti-intellectual; I refuse to acknowledge that marriage equality and LGBT rights are anything but top human rights priorities; I no longer have the patience to debate the legality of abortion or the reality of global climate change; do not argue with me about the necessity of vaccinations or fluoride in our water. The moon landing is real. Antidepressants work. Not all Muslims are evil.

My intolerable list is embarrassing, not because the list is full of trivial matters that shouldn’t occupy brain space, but simply because the list exists at all. The very concept that there are ideas that I cannot stand to be around indicates that I suck at tolerance.

Or does it? Maybe it’s just about choosing my battles. Most people do not change their minds about religion or fluoride. Maybe I should just keep quiet (Yeah, right. I can hear my Cody’s snicker now). Or maybe it’s about education –about the need to expose my children to more differences; maybe I need to seek understanding instead of seeking to be understood.pronghorn

Frank and Luca came home from their pronghorn hunt with a dead animal and new camouflaged snow boots. I took one look at the Realtree™ boots, rolled my eyes, and tossed them in the mudroom in hopes that the boys would lose track of them in the pile of winter gear. Cody went back in and organized all of the boots, lining up my plain black boots next to the new camo. “Lighten up,” he said. I glared and said something rude.

The bottom line is I want to be a person who has the toughest conversations. I value all of my friendships – even with those who vehemently disagree with me. I do not want to live in a world where we all agree (talk about boring). Some of the most satisfying conversations begin with opposition and end with nodding. I don’t want my boys to miss out on those brilliant moments. So maybe my intolerable list isn’t completely useless. At least I am aware of my biggest biases; the first step is admission.

Home Alone

frank creek School starts this week. My boys have new skinny jeans and overpriced t-shirts for their first day. We delivered their school supplies during last week’s open house and we are already spending afternoons running between football practice and the dinner table. They feign disgust at going back, but they’re at least a little psyched to see their friends and show off their new haircuts. It is time: ten year old boys are not meant to stay home all day with their mothers.

Our summer was largely unscheduled. My boys did not attend summer camp or take swimming lessons. They played some tennis and made a few short trips to Colorado, but most days were long, slow versions of a cut-rate sit-com: squabbling punctuated by adventure and surprisingly manageable chaos. At least twice a day somebody claimed to be bored.

Unscheduled days at home would have been impossible a year ago. The boys needed pretty much constant direction and supervision (not to mention squabble intervention!), but this summer they started to spend some time at home alone. I only leave them for an hour or so, and in the age of cell phones I’m never really out of reach. The boys usually watch T.V. or play the Wii, but they’ve also surprised me by reading while I’m at the gym. An hour to workout or meet a friend for coffee feels like freedom – for all of us.canoe and boys

Once they’d mastered hanging out at home solo, I started sending them on errands on their bikes. They run to the grocery down the hill for milk and bread. Frank picked up his new soccer cleats at the Sports Stop down on Main Street. I encouraged them to bike to the ice cream stand at the city park. As long as they stuck together and let me know where they were going, they had their run of town. The boys don’t always love being on their own, but when I overheard them bragging to their friends, I knew I wasn’t the only one happy with the new arrangement.

luca bikeSo it surprised me that my new habit of running out while the kids sit like slugs on the couch scared some of my peers. My closest friends nod and validate my parenting – either out of agreement or loyalty (I’m good with either option). But some other acquaintances seem surprised, even shocked at my willingness to leave my boys unattended. They have expressed the usual concerns: accidents, fires, kidnappings. “Don’t you worry?” they mutter. One woman even said, “Are you sure that’s legal?”

It seems that those concerns are too often the norm. In July, a South Carolina mother was arrested for letting her nine-year old daughter play at the park alone. The girl had a cellphone and it was broad daylight, but the local police determined that the child was in danger and she was placed in the custody of child protective services. Debra Harrell’s case is complicated by class and race and culture, but public reaction was revelatory: the parents of America must contend with a culture of fear.

We fear that our kids might be kidnapped (extremely rare – kids are more likely to have a heart attack). We fear that they won’t be smart enough or athletic enough. We worry that they will be too dependent on us or too wrapped up in the virtual world. We are afraid to trust our gut instincts and our intuition.   But the biggest fear is also the silliest: we fear the judgment of other parents. Who will leer down her nose at us? Who will disapprove of our kids, of us by extension? Who will turn her back on us?

This fear has become so central to parenting that we fail to recognize the real dangers in our children’s lives: grandiose expectations, bad food, concussions, a lack of comprehensive sex education, their tendency to text while moving, our tendency to forget about unconditional love. These are dangers we can do something about. We can examine our expectations, talk about food and sex, and model good behavior. We can give our kids practice – send them out on their own to experience natural consequences while making sure they have a soft place to land. It is a scary prospect. But I’m convinced it is what I signed up for; my job is to help them leave.

My boys will come home on the bus this afternoon. They will expect a snack and help with their homework.   I will ask them about school and they will shrug and mumble something odd. We will rush out the door to football practice and eat dinner at 8:30. I’m glad they still need my help navigating their daily lives – I dread the day they don’t need me anymore.  I know it is around the corner.first day of school 2014