* yes, there should be FIVE sets of boots but Allen ignored my advice to get adequate rain gear...

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Autumn in Late April

It's been sunny and breezy, if not precisely warm the last couple of days.  So, being the good Irish housewife I'm becoming, I have been spending quite a bit of time at the clothesline.  Every time I go out, I am struck afresh by how much it feels like a mid-Atlantic autumn.

Late April in Dublin reminds me of nothing quite so much as football weather.  It's that crisp feel of those late September night games.  Those evenings when you begin to eye the boys, trying to decide which one might be coaxed out of his jacket.  Somehow that sweater that seemed so more than adequate, really, at 3, is obviously lacking at 7.  In Ireland, it's always that 7:00 chill.  It's that undercurrent of cool that seems to herald more on the way even though you know it's nearly May, for pity's sake.  It's the subliminal message to put up your stores and start a fire.  I keep expecting to smell woodsmoke and hear the distant cadence of the percussion warm-up.  It's not exactly cold.  It doesn't quite cross the line.  But, the sun can never quite keep up with the cool of the air and the persistent effort of the sea winds.  The delight of visiting with Sol makes brief forays enjoyable; your cheeks will be rosy; you will offer the clouds a pleasant moment of contemplation.  But, as you approach 10 or maybe 15 minutes, you will vaguely wish you had gloves and burrow your hands slightly deeper into your pockets.  You will think longingly of warm cups of tea.  You will wonder when, exactly, might you expect to feel Warm.  I keep being slightly startled by the way the days continue to get longer.

There is nothing of the experience of a spring I am used to.  It seems that in the US, there is more of an up and down nature to things.  While there might be some days like those I described, they are quickly interspersed with the days that herald the warmth of a somewhat southern summer.  There is the smell of wet earth, freshly turned; hay just starting to peek out it's green; the early daffodils and tulips and hyacinths with a wild hair are unabashedly offering their come hither blooms.  While the late afternoon might call for a jacket, if not a coat, there is almost always the glory of the mid-afternoon when you set the children loose on the pre-school playground at noon, packing lunches and disrupting naps with wild abandon.  There are baby ducks to feed and the promise of warm to come whispering through the cool breezes.  You mind turns to the promise of watermelon and cherries and you hastily shove away thoughts of sprinklers and fireworks as too much, too soon... just enjoy the glory of the spring.

Of course, it does make sense.  My friends report highs in the low 70s (f) for today.  Dublin won't see that until July and then it will be called High Summer and be cause for swimming in the sea to escape the glorious heat.  The plants bloom in a stately manner, none stepping on the toes of another.  The hydrangea are only now conducting feasibility studies to decide if they might want to add on foliage.  The lilacs are starting to bud.  The daffodils have been in their glory for months and are only now giving way to the pansies. The Irish spring will last through next October so it must pace itself.

Yes, if you come to Ireland, be sure to pack an extra cardigan and maybe a Letterman jacket if you can scrounge one.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Raising Cheerful Eyes

Because there are Princess parties.  Because there are "girl colors and boy colors."  Because I'll be watching that paean to innocuous television, the Food Network, and suddenly find myself discussing calories and diets and why some people decide to eat chemicals instead of food.  And, finally, because we find ourselves weeping over an ad telling us we're "more beautiful than we think" at the same time they are telling us that we should be suffering from some major armpit insecurity.

The thing is that I struggle.  I know I want Megan to be confident in herself.  I know that I don't want her to spend lots of energy worrying about her looks.  I know that focusing on what a body does rather than what it looks like helps and I know that bodies of all shapes and sizes can do some really awesome stuff.  I know I need to watch how I talk about myself in front of her.  I know I need to focus on "healthy" rather than a magic number.

But, still...  It's fun to wear a twirly skirt.  Sometimes you do just want to look "pretty."  A good hair day really can make you happy.  And, it's something of a teenage rite of passage to make it a mission to reduce at least 1 boy to a slavering mess and that's fun, too.

Somewhere deep inside is a little voice saying that if I mess this up Megan will change her name to Mystic Starfall,  claim her pole, and starve herself to "beautiful."

I knew that there was something about the ad that bugged me and I couldn't put a finger on it until Suzannah posted about it.  The thing is that it's still all about conventional beauty standards.  Yes, others might think we're more beautiful than we do but it's still all about the length of your nose and the height of your cheekbones and I'm not sure any of that adds up to "real beauty."  I thought about what ad I would have wanted to see and I think I would like to hear how blind children describe their mothers.  But, that's not the world most of us live in and it's not what will help me figure out how to raise Megan.

There is a reality that we are visual creatures.  We are tactile creatures.  Most discouragingly, some of this "beautiful" and "pretty" stuff is hardwired into our genes to help us find mates.

Long ago and far away and once upon a time, I got a Master's degree in Special Education.  I spent a great deal of time learning about behavior- how to shape it, change it, the source of it, and, most pertinent to this discussion, what to do about behaviors you can't just make go away because they are fulfilling some sort of vital need.  For those behaviors, you have to find a replacement behavior that fills that need in a more appropriate way.  I sort of think the beauty thing is one that won't go away.  

I need to find some replacement behaviors...

I can change my lexicon.

Megan can learn to create a smoky eye but consider if it frames a kind one.  She can decide if she wants pink lips or red ones to form a friendly smile.  She can pluck her eyebrows into any shape she wants but I'm likely to still classify them as inquisitive.  And, no, I'm not sure that would work for a sketch artist but I do think it will work for her and I'm more worried about raising a little girl than creating a mug shot.

I can pass along an attitude toward the bit and bobs that defines them as the fripperies they are.  Just like I enjoy my daffodils in the kitchen and the scent of cookies baking in the oven, I can enjoy a color on my nails or the momentary decadence of swiping on some "pretty" in the school parking lot.  We can face, head on, the fact that sometimes everyone needs some protective coloring and stop trying to put lipstick on a pig.

Words are a powerful thing and a mother's words hold a special magic.

Yesterday, I complimented Megan on her cheerful eyes.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Pretty, Funny, Happy, Real

round button chicken
Apparently, when we don't have house guests and no one is actively throwing up or variations thereof and we aren't gallivanting about the countryside, I have no idea what to do with myself other than write blogposts... Enjoy!  ;-)


There is this wonderful thing at the grocery store where you can get a bunch of daffodils (or daffodiddles, ala Charlie) for about 1.25 Euros.  You buy them at that stage where they look like nothing quite so much as rather odd asparagus and then the magic happens.  The children have the most fun coming down every morning to see how they have changed.  We have all sorts of discussions about how some are different colors, the stamens, how they turned the paper yellow, how they have to drink the water and some speculation about what they might get up to while we're asleep.  I sort of want to try an experiment where we add some food coloring to the water to see what happens but I'm hesitant to mess with my "pretty."  Oh, woe, for my children lack a sacrificial mother!


Earlier this week we had spring.  I'm unclear if it will return or if we'll be back to late winter until we hit summer for 3 days sometime between June and August (finger's crossed that it will fall on a weekend!) In a clear indicator of my assimilation, as soon as I read the weather report calling for highs of 15-16 (around 60' F) and brisk-fresh breezes, I thought "I must get the sheets into the washer!"  And, of course, once we hit a balmy 13 (55' F), I chased the children outside to frolic and threw open the windows.  I'm thinking the transition to 90' F with 80% humidity which is the joy of a southern american summer will be a touch rocky...

Happily, there is perhaps no better place for a little boy than Ireland in (the proverbial) spring...  SO MANY PUDDLES!!!!

And, of course, we all had to examine the HUGE snail!  Luckily, it's hanging out in one of Mommy's flower pots so it should be around for a while.  And, to think I claimed I wasn't sacrificial!


So, this little girl, who was once regularly mistaken for a boy because she wanted nothing more than to exclusively wear her brother's hand-me-downs has finally arrived at the princess stage.  We had sidestepped it, mostly by completely ignoring the existence of princesses.  This is slightly easier in the US.  Once you come to Europe, even if you leapfrog all of the Disney business you still have actual princesses wandering about at every historic landmark (as well as actual knights, kings, princes, queens, and castles which I now firmly understand are NOT the same as palaces).  While I don't see anything inherently wrong with wanting to pretend to be a princess (I certainly have my moments of wishing to be whisked away...) I did hope we could sidestep some of the more insipid elements.  So, I told her she had to be the princess of something and offered up the choice of literature or engineering.  She initially went with engineering for obvious reasons.  At bathtime that evening, Allen came upon her carefully counting.  When he asked her what she was doing she said "I'm figuring out how many rolls of toilet paper we would have if we cut them all in half."  You know, as you do...

But, I've been fairly certain that Megan will be our flashlight reader.  Her first word was "apple" but her  second was "book."  And, she is currently working her way through Little Bear with great determination even though it is a smidge too hard for her to the extent that I have to hound her about brushing her teeth, etc.  So, I asked her if she really wanted to be Princess of Engineering or if she perhaps would rather be Princess of Literature.  Once she found out that Literature is another word for books, she quickly changed her mind and has been periodically skipping about announcing "Princess of Books, Princess of Books, I'm the Princess of Books."  I think this is a princess phase I can get behind.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Of shoes and ships and sealing wax*

I told an Irish friend today that I never felt illiterate before I moved to Ireland...

I am constantly struck by the role of language in Irish culture.  Spoken language is caressed, played with, teased, spoken trippingly, stretched and re-examined in a mobius love affair.  Words are cajoled into song and rhythm and meter.  Phrases are plucked so as to hum through the haze of a conversation but are also honed to the sharpest of tips.  An Irishman worth the name can somehow make you laugh and cry all at the same moment, perhaps at yourself but even more probably at him.  The Irish are that kid at the back of the room that always had that perfect comment at the perfect moment; they are the ones that don't have the most muscles but do have the very best word.  The Irish are a bully's worst nightmare.

No matter where I go I am asked if I read this or that and, generally, I haven't.  I read.  I did take a reasonable number of literature classes with a fairly good level of vigor and even threw in a humanities elective here and there.  I can't hold a candle to the Irish.  I'm not sure any product of the US school system save an English major could possibly compare.  They've read the Russians, the Romantics, the Victorians; they've barreled through Beouwulf and meandered through rather incomprehensible moderns with stopovers in all manner of more pedestrian fiction.  Of course, they've read ALL of the great Irish authors.  Yeats and Wilde and Joyce quotes are a common currency used as shorthand whenever the moment possibly allows.  And, not only have they read them but they'd like to discuss them.  Bookstores not only still exist but they actually sell BOOKS rather than the oceans of mugs and bookmarks and stuffed animals you'll find in that rare breed, the American brick and mortar bookstore.  There are used bookstores, large bookstores, little bookstores you can get lost in and bookstores where someone will put a book in your hand and tell you how you simply MUST read it.  I see mothers at school pick up holding veritable tomes.  Most telling, even their engineers are well read.

You won't find the pablum we feed American children's imaginations within the Irish schools.  There are witches and giants.  There are monsters and magic.  There are good fairies and evil fairies and things to wrestle through and with and triumph over.  Megan was doing a phonics sheet the other day and asked if something was a gnome or an elf.  When was the last time you encountered a gnome in a US children's story?

One of the most striking differences to me about the Irish early childhood curriculum is how very focused it is on literacy.  The children spend roughly the first 3 years of their schooling learning not all that much in terms of math.  When US children are making 100th day of school everything and have manipulatives coming out their ears, Irish children are still wrestling with the number 10.  There is an argument to be made for both strategies but mostly, it crystallizes the idea that the US is a culture that was (at least once) based on building and engineering, and, more recently, out mathing the Russians.  The Irish culture predates the space race by millenea and written language by a bit less.  Their culture didn't survive by building the best bombs; they survived by telling the best stories.

*before it drives you crazy...  The Walrus and The Carpenter by Lewis Carroll who I think must have had a bit more than a drop of Irish in his soul

Monday, April 22, 2013

The Essential Self

Sorry.  I am again veering wildly away from the stated purpose of this blog.  In fact, I'm heading rather in the opposite direction.  What happens when the only non-original MacKenzie doesn't go adventuring.  The thing is that I have an awful lot of time to just think while we're in Ireland.  The children are old enough and social enough that they all enjoy time with friends at school.  So, I have a few mornings, most weeks, when I'm alone (something once inconceivable).  I also spend rather a lot of time walking hither and yon.  So, a lot of time for quiet meditation while I walk and clean and scrub and gather.  This of course, leaves the twin questions of why, exactly, the steps are such a disaster (a: I seriously feel a piece of my soul die every time I try to vacuum those steps with the highly unenthusiastic canister vac/satan's minion) and why I manage to post so infrequently (a: you just can't force genius, obvs- I joke!)
Charlie 20 months
I also have rather a lot of time for reading and not a ton of social outlets so I wind up reading rather a lot of blogs.  I noticed something of a trend the last couple of weeks.  Jenny and Stephanie both talk about how difficult it is to figure out a sense of identity within the confines of mothering very young children (after a fashion).  I distinctly remember that struggle and I'm only now really figuring out what it was all about and how I managed to resolve it.  I'm not sure it would help anyone else but perhaps...

It comes down to the "busy" thing.  For a long while we are identified relative to other people.  We are our parent's children and our spouse's wives.  We are a member of this team, that band, this high school, or that college.  We work within this organization.  Over time we might be identified by slightly more individual choices, traits or strengths.  We go to that church; we teach this subject; we bake this cookie; we are terrible at miniature golf.
Megan 1 week
When you become a mother, you are suddenly shifted to the place of identifier.  Suddenly, someone is identified relative to you.  Consciously or unconsciously, this is really stressful.  You are suddenly confronted with a need to identify yourself that allows you to be the nucleus of the equation.  Yes, it is sort of enough to simply be identified as "mommy" but that's still pretty broad.

Things get really sticky if you quit your job although I get the general impression that this is an issue for everyone who makes the transition to mother.

You have abruptly lost a fair number of identifiers you had gotten pretty comfortable with.  You no longer have a job title or company; your figure is completely different (you can be happy with it but it will never be the same.  Seriously, step away from the watermelon diet); you are far too sleepy and preoccupied to do any of those hobbies and such that acted as ancillary identifiers.  In short, you have no idea who you are.
Megan 2 years
This isn't an issue for a while (see aforementioned sleep deprivation).  Then comes the "busy" stage.  Instead of soul searching (and, really, I can't blame myself- I was sooo impossibly tired), you again fall upon the external.  You will be a champion housekeeper- people will marvel at your clean floors.  You enroll your children in toddler art and music and baby gym.  You will join EVERYTHING.  You will volunteer.  You will have THE happiest baby on the block.  You will be a martyr.  You will co-opt an identity if it kills you.  You are no longer simply "mommy."  You are That Mom- the one who manages to do it all and still looks fabulous.  And then you finally notice that this doesn't seem to be the point.  You have plenty of self identifiers but you aren't so much comfortable in that soul deep way.
Noah 1 week
I read an interesting blog post.  The where now completely escapes me and I don't think is accurate in all cases but held a very true bit.  The basic idea was that no one is quite as zen as a mother of more than about 6 children.  This is a mother who has given over.  A mother of 6 has a very keen understanding of the BIG stuff v. everything else.  This is a mother who has internalized the very true mantra of "to everything there is a season."  This is a mother who no longer has to manufacture "busy" but instead is vitally needed as the anchor, centered and intentional who knows how to not be lost in the wild rumpus of life- lots of life.

I am highly unlikely to have 6 children.  Allen has quite strong opinions on the matter.  I have a bit more in the way of options for self identity than that mother of 6.  I could re-busy.  My children could happily swirl about the mother who is identified by the external.  But, I'd rather grow.
Megan 1 week
The thing about being a stay at home mom (at least in my experience) which no one ever mentions is that it forces you to figure out

who you are

When you are dropped into the middle of a foreign country with nothing but time you have no option but to abandon the busy.  I think I would have gotten to the same point eventually but Ireland really accelerated the process.  So, let me share with you, the stay at home mom trying to figure why you are so very busy but still feel so very lost, the busy will never identify you.

  Let go of the busy.  

It's scary but you can do it and you will be stronger for it.  Then you have the delightful option to do because you want to not because you simply must.  Life with littles is loud and hectic and this will take time but it will come and in that moment you have while you're rocking the baby or patting the restless toddler or stirring the mac-n-cheese, think about not what you would rather be doing but instead what you are.  Listen to that small, quiet voice of your soul.  You might not like all the answers but at least you'll know where things stand; strengthen what you like and try to soften what you don't.

I don't have a job title; I'm not a perfect housekeeper; my children are quirky; I bake a mean cookie but that really doesn't serve as complete self identity.  Instead...
Noah 2 months
I am strong willed.  I am compassionate.  I am impatient.  I excel at creating a home but will always be a "good enough" housekeeper.  I will overcome most any adversity and I can adapt but I am aware there is always a price.  I strive to be a light rather than an abyss.  I will always have a squishy tummy.  I would rather have a friendly face than a pretty one.  I stand for something because I have learned that to not is to lose yourself but I struggle with confrontation.  I do not fit in a box.  I am rarely what is expected.

Friday, April 19, 2013


I've been struggling over how to write about our experience with Paris.  I approach anything I put out in the electronic yonder as something that can come back to bite you.  I know myself.  I will mess up the "to" line in an email.  I know facebook wants us to all be openly connected all the time.  I know that someday my children will google me.  I try to be mindful.  I also know that I am but a tourist.  We may be staying in Ireland longer than the average visitor but European cultures span millennia.  I can talk about contrasts and similarities between the cultures but I'm kidding myself if I think I really have a complete picture.  We spent 3 days in Disneyland Paris and less than 48 hours in Paris proper.  And, I got the strong impression that Parisians are distinct from the rest of the French.  So, you'll have to filter my perceptions through the knowledge that my experience was brief but vivid.

The architecture really was just as stunning as I expected and this was what I got to see while wandering the sidewalks, somewhat lost, in the rain, in temperatures just above freezing with 3 rather worn out and hungry children and everyone had some degree of a cold, cough and fever.  But, you looked around and it was worth it.  You saw beauty.  You saw hopes  You saw dreams.  You saw ideals carved from the stones of the human earth placed into the heavens.

The food really was quite good and we were eating from vending carts, Metro sandwich shops, and hotel breakfast bars.  You could tell that someone cared about what you experienced when you ate that ham and cheese sandwich.  Someone actually took a moment to see if the lettuce was crisp and if the ham was marbled.  The children are pretty sure that heaven is a crepe maker who uses a generous hand with the nutella.  I was shocked by the amount of french you can apparently pick up through the immersive experience of having all of your food products bear labels in english, spanish, and french.  Thanks, NAFTA!

The people were where I hit my stumbling block.  Some people in Paris were just as rude as you have heard.  But, most people weren't.  This is true pretty much everywhere you might go but the distinction was that there wasn't much in the way of middle ground.  People were either really just horrid or were perfectly pleasant.  I can see how this wouldn't be all that much of an issue if you were traveling as an adult or even if you were with older children.  But, we were traveling with young children.

The Parisians were actually quite pleasant and friendly to the children pretty much uniformly but as their mother, I was their buffer.  I got the nasty looks if they stumbled and blocked the sidewalk.  I got the curses when they spread out too far in the crosswalk.  I got the sighs as they spent too long examining the miniature Eifel towers.  I got the talking to when Megan was struggling with her coat (I was helping Noah with his at that moment). I got the repeated chastisement when Noah's stuffed animal dragged (I was carrying dinner at the time).  Allen didn't figure into the equation.  It was all on me.

In addition there was a general attitude that could best be summed up as "look out for number 1."  I can see how this would have easily developed.  You base a culture on beauty (with a heavy leaning toward external rather than internal), throw in the social contract, give a twist of secular humanism, see your country continually decimated in various wars, watch your population plummet and your culture therefore suffer some serious hits, and then, as a capper, have a good hunk of your children experience Nazi occupation.  I can see how you would easily wind up with a culture where the only one you could really count on was yourself.  I can even see how this would extend to the phenomenal level of social programs offered by the French government.  If you can't count on anyone else to help you, you would want a guarantee of government assistance and if it benefits someone else, so be it.  That's a happy accident.  The greater effect on the economy or budget isn't really your concern.  You need to take care of you.  It sort of spreads out in ripples until you get to "France looks out for France."

When we interacted with people through their jobs, they were all friendly, kind, and generally quite competent.  There was something of a key difference between other places, though, especially in Ireland.  While you sometimes do get the impression that this person is simply doing their job and doing it well, you will often get the impression that there is also an element of this person just generally likes interacting with the masses.  There is something motivating them beyond $12.50/hr.  In Paris (and even more so in Disneyland), I got the distinct impression that it was all about the money.  They will school you in how service with a smile is done but only because that is what they are paid for and also, because they are Parisian and obviously better than pretty much everyone.  After all, if you are the only one looking out for you, you better be pretty damn competent.

Looking out for yourself extended to things like waiting in line.  People casually and confidently wandering into the frontish of the line was pretty much how it was done.  Fastpasses useful only during your designated time slot were completely incomprehensible.  If you had a pass, you should be able to immediately board your chosen ride.  Mothers were expected to be extremely assertive about assuring their children the best seats, best snack, best view, generally just the best.    This was when I seriously had to buffer.  I was expected to be constantly on guard so my angels didn't suddenly wind up behind a group of 25 (ask me how I know!).  I was expected to wiggle and worm my way up to a reasonable spot near the stage.  I was expected to dart through craziness to get the children their breakfast cereal.  I was expected to throw a few elbows to get my children safely across the street.  I didn't even try for getting them "the best," I was too busy trying to just keep the wolves at bay.

Paris wasn't my favorite place.  It had a lot to do with not liking what I became after about 12 hours of exposure.  I did step up.  I did get assertive.  I did throw elbows and get in profanity laced shouting matches and, by golly, I did wish I had gotten me some acrylics.  It's sort of comforting to know that somewhere, deep inside, under the chocolate chip cookie recipes, breastfeeding experience, children's book knowledge and perfect for cuddles on the couch squishy belly there is mama grizzly but I don't really want to visit with her on a regular basis.