Chasing Fear with Magic, for Now

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My daughter woke me at night because she had a stomachache. I knew what that meant.

I placed a bucket at her bedside. I gave her a glass of water. She leaned back into her pillow.

“Mom, I think that made it worse,” she croaked.

Suddenly, and comically to my surprise, out of her mouth burst the awful surge, sputtering like a water pump priming air from its pipes.

Following the indignity of vomiting, things once shrouded in doubt became perfectly clear.

“The tooth fairy is definitely not coming tonight, mom,” she said sadly, leaning over the bucket, retching.

I was crushed. I had watched that stony little tooth dangling from her gum line for days, and I still forgot to play the fairy. Despite her nauseated misery, she had checked her pillow before waking me, just to be sure.

My daughter has lost six teeth and my son just one, but the tooth fairy has never showed up on time. I scramble to avoid my children’s disappointment each morning after a tooth is lost, wondering aloud if they ought to look harder, perhaps after breakfast. My forgetfulness hadn’t mattered much before—my daughter still wanted to believe.

I think I understand why.

I recently took her to a specialist in town to try and get a handle on her childhood fears, of which there are many. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t missing anything potentially destructive.

“What kinds of things are you afraid of?” the woman asked my daughter, who sat curled up in a chair, resting her lips on her knees.

I listened to my eight year-old girl casually rattle off a list of some twenty-five worries—everything from the house burning down to her family not loving her. She even used the word tsunami. Each of these fears seemed as familiar to her as the menagerie of stuffed animals circling her bed. Some were also familiar to me. My throat swelled with a voiceless moan as I reached for her hand.

Even now, it takes effort for me to shut down unlikely, irrational thoughts. I have a lot of practice, of course—thirty-something years of playing Whack-a-Mole with a fretful imagination makes for a quick hand.

As a girl, I believed in tooth fairy magic long after I knew it wasn’t rational. That the tooth fairy was real meant that other kinds of magic could be real, which eased my escape from what were often vivid worries.

The girls’ bathroom across the hall from my third-grade class smelled like rust and the walls were always damp with old building sweat. When I started overthinking a social interaction, say, or a math concept I didn’t yet understand, I retreated to that bathroom. There, I pretended I could push a button on the side of the stall, so that whatever I wanted would appear out of an imaginary trap door. I usually requested ice cream cones, though once I asked for a mechanical puppy to replace one that I’d ruined in the mud.

Mine were wishes without staged outcomes, but they kept me tethered, helping me regain control over my emotions.

I have a friend who gags at the thought of telling her kids there’s such thing as the tooth fairy. I’m a progressive parent myself most of the time—my six-year old would be glad to tell you exactly how babies are made over a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, as long as you promise not to laugh at the part where the seed comes “shooting out like a rocket” (his addition).

But leaving open the possibility of magic gives my daughter some control over her creative well, and distraction when she needs it. I have watched her settle her completely bonkers, totally unruly fear of spiders by supposing that her two-year old brother is her magical protector.

When she no longer needs that strategy, she’ll let me know.

After my daughter threw up and finally fell back asleep, I walked downstairs through my quiet, darkened house and sat at my desk. It wasn’t morning yet. I scratched out a hand-written note and paired it with a five-dollar bill, rolling the two into a tight column the size of a Q-tip. I tied the tiny parcel with a hot-pink ribbon and returned to my daughter’s room, where I slipped it under her pillow.

In the morning, she wandered weakly into our room and snuggled up between my husband and me. She raised her cupped hand into the air between us and lifted her fingers, smiling at her prize. She untied the ribbon and gasped.

“I’ve always wanted a five-dollar bill!”

I know I’m letting her wonder just a little longer, but to me, that’s reason enough.

Practice Makes Better

Practice of any kind—writing, teaching, or exercising—can be so mentally excruciating for me that at times, I feel I simply cannot.

I’m much better at being lazy. I’d grab a bottle of wine and treat a glob of taleggio like a salt lick until my face is sweating rather than go to bed early just so I can wake up for a pre-dawn training run. I’d skip a night I’ve set aside for writing to watch a show about lusty vampires instead—all you’d have to do is ask.

But the effects of my self-indulgence, delightful as they are, are only temporary.

When I discover my daughter holed up in her room making potions out of stickers, feathers, beads, and glitter, I see a bit of myself in there. Rather than practicing the piano or completing the subtraction problems that I have to double check for her by counting on my fingers, she’s holding steady with something effortless.

So it’s become part of my job to push her gently through the gloomy I-cannot-will-nots that, like me, she chants in surround sound when setting off to try something new.

This winter, she asked me to take her ice skating. It was only her third time.

We’d been holding hands for nearly an hour, circling the ice in our rental skates. The pair I’d chosen was so ill fitting that the skates clamped down on my big toes like the jaws of two rabid dogs. I was in agony, but my daughter didn’t want to quit. Not exactly, anyway.

Instead, she channeled that old, lazy, sandbagging inner man that I’m pretty familiar with myself:

“I’m horrible. I’ll never be able to. I can’t DO THIS! I’m…I’m…I’m…” she trailed off, her sweet lips warped like the mouth of Elvis.

“You’re doing it,” I said, giddy.

She laughed.

Then she crashed into the wall.

“I’m terr-i-ble,” she moaned.

Some part of me felt triumphant, but my patience was waning.

Then, like a sign from god, over the loudspeaker came a buzzer signal so loud that my daughter nearly jumped over the wall in fright.

“Blood on the ice,” a man nearby explained.

Someone had gotten a nosebleed.

My daughter was still clinging to the wall like a child-sized batch of flubber, so I peeled her off and skated toward the bleachers.

We watched as a surly young woman in a pink crochet hat trudged onto the rink and scraped the soiled ice with a garden hoe, muttering expletives. She stomped off and reappeared on top of a Zamboni machine.

“ZAMBONI!!” I squealed, and my daughter looked at me skeptically.

“Just wait,” I promised her.

We watched the Zamboni wetting the ice, its rubber flap trolling around the rink, filling in the tracks and divots, smoothing the surface, its guttural Om soothing us back into balance. My daughter turned to me.

“It’s making perfect ovals,” she said in the same breathy monotone she normally reserves for phrases like, “whipped cream” or “chocolate frosting.”

“Told you,” I smiled.

I figured she’d had her fill of the rink, so I suggested we ditch our skates and head out to dinner. But she yanked on my sleeve and wobbled back onto the ice before anyone said it was okay.

“Come on, Mom!” she yelled over her shoulder, as though I’d been doing the wrong thing for all of time.

My daughter is nothing if not determined and gutsy.

I followed her onto the ice and she motioned for me to go ahead.

“I’ll skate to you,” she said, finally smiling. And she did, again and again.

Woe is a Winter Long Gone? Nope.

I’m all about winter—I like tossing snowballs down my kids’ pants when they’re being fresh, or driving around with six inches of snow on the roof of my car and watching it fly off in the rearview mirror because it’s kind of cool and I’ve seen so many other idiots do it.

Yes, please.

But right about now, I’m ready to cry uncle.

It’s not the snow—I grew up in a swamp that is still slowly sinking toward the earth’s core, so I’m thrilled to see so much of the white stuff here up north.

It’s the nasty stuff that’s really starting to get me down.

We’ve had three rounds of the stomach bug this year, with the threat of a new illness always lurking. I feel like hanging mop buckets around everyone’s necks because it would make the clean up so much easier. Three stomach bugs in one year equals six wake-up calls alerting me to yet another bedfull of barf.

I hate bedfulls of barf. Even my kids have conjured up their own rating scale.

“Mom! Q had a medium-sized barf!” my daughter shouted into my room at 3am, like the family weather girl reporting live, her breaking news disrupting the dazzling dream I was having about leading a bunch of elephants into a cheese warehouse.

A medium-sized barf is nothing to wave off with a groggy hand—that mess does not just come out in the wash like you wish it would. I’ve gotten way too good at blocking my gag reflex while rehearsing the dialogue for my next how-to YouTube video: it’s a tutorial for a homemade backyard bird feeder, for which there are just two steps—shake the contents of your kid’s stomach out into the bushes and go back to bed. This is the real reason why we need an ice scraper around the house, November through June.

Aside from the birds, we also support a whole rabble of rodents out there—squirrels, chipmunks, bunnies, you name it—I’ve seen them bopping around my yard in the dead of winter, fully nourished by quesadillas, Grape Nuts, and a few other things my six year-old boy eats before hurling it all into his duvet.

I’ve never cared much for squirrels, but after this winter, I’ve found a new respect for these opportunistic critters—what with their habit of tunneling out crude little center-hall colonials underneath four feet of snow in my yard and surviving on bits of spew. They’re kind of like those relatives who happily slurp up other people’s leftovers or moldy cheese—
“WHAT?! This is perfectly fine!”

Soon, the snow will stop falling, the rodents will head back to their leafy homes in the bushes, and we’ll have ourselves a proper archaeological site on the lawn out back.

The dreaded stomach bug is good for something, you see.

We’ll take a magnifying glass out there and identify all the chipmunk toilet chambers we stepped over all winter while pegging each other with balled-up ice bombs. Don’t get me wrong—I’m no hardcore homeschooler chick—but playing Ranger Rick is the way to go when it stays light past dinner and my kids turn into mud-hopping sunbursts of energy.

We’ll just have to remember to get out there before my dog bolts around the yard, gorging on all the perfectly piled dung nuggets. If that happens, he’ll amble back inside and take a gassy nap, reminding me to open all the windows and let in the new season.

Either way, by the time spring finally arrives, I think we win.

The Traveler Munchies

The morning I left to visit my sister, I was busy packing, stashing my kids with various neighbors, and scribbling notes for my husband that he would have preferred to find in a neatly typed email.

I had five errands to run in town before I met up with my taxi driver, who insisted I provide him with an actual address instead of meeting him “down by the river” as I had originally proposed.

Even while traveling—contained and portable—I was kind of a mess. Put a giant sock over Pig Pen and you’ve still got dust.

At the airport, I ditched my suitcase at the counter, flashed my driver’s license at a couple of bored TSA attendants, and charged the nearest snack kiosk—a distraction from the tattered act of collecting myself.

On the plane, I pulled out my bag of chocolate pretzels and tore off the top. The strip in my hand didn’t break the seal as promised. Instead, the pretzels remained enclosed in their hermetic pouch, which, when prodded with my fingernail, my bootstrap buckle, and finally my earring post, only heckled at me to try again.

The plastic crinkled between my damp fingertips, giving me away to an airplane full of seasoned travelers, of which I was obviously no longer one.

They’ll give you plain pretzels in a minute, I told myself.

But for all the flights I’d taken with my three children, swallowing my own spit or skipping the bathroom, this time—I thought—I should really have the chocolate.

After flipping the bird toward social propriety, I turned the bag upside down and tore it open with my teeth like a jungle cat, flinging pretzels at the lady with the sable collar sitting two seats away.

Without my kids in tow, I really had no excuse.

The truth is, in the same way that I prefer shopping online to confronting salespeople, to whom I always confess my weaknesses within thirty seconds, I’m happier traveling by car with my kids than I am alone on an airplane.

Last weekend, I drove to Vermont with the kids and the dog. While I jammed a bucket brimming with toys into the car, the kids buckled themselves in and stuffed all the snacks I’d carefully prepared down the hatch. By the time we hit the highway, they were squawking at me from the back seat like baby birds. I reached into my reserve and tossed pita chips behind my head, one by one.

In this way, the kids polished off kettlecorn, peanut butter sandwiches, apples, bananas, blueberries, and Nutella snack packs in three hours.

Anything less would have been met with calls for my resignation.

In addition to a swath of nasty little finger streaks, which are better suited for the stall of a public restroom than they are for my leather seats, the Nutella snack packs got me this:

“Mom, you are seriously the BEST EVER!”

It wasn’t embarrassing at all.

Still, I’m grateful that next week, when we’re driving back up north with my husband, who eats ten pounds of trail mix a week and is still as lean as a fox, things are going to be slightly different.

My partner is mine for a reason.

He’ll pack the car according to his spreadsheet formula. He’ll take out the trash, close the garage door, and charge the iPad to 100%. He’ll remember everyone’s ski poles.

Me? I’ll relax in the front seat, catching up on emails until I get carsick and reach for the salted peanuts. That, my friends, is a vacation.

Stepping Back

When our first snow fell last month, I knew it had been ages since I’d filled a plastic bag with frozen dog turds—those palm-sized anal asteroids that I dig from the flattened, cratered grass with my fingernails. I watched anyway as my kids scrambled outside to make an igloo in two centimeters of snow.

Maybe they’ll avoid the poop patch, I thought, yawning on the couch.

My kids had never looked more like children—tossing themselves around the snowy yard like rag dolls, happily eating the icicles out of their hair as if they’d been granted dessert.

Twelve minutes later, I heard a dink-dink-dink on the patio door. I looked up from my computer. My son held a frozen oak branch over his head like a scythe. My daughter stood behind him, throwing her hips from side to side and bending her elbows like Barbie. She jeered at her own reflection, a robotic parody of all the things I don’t yet want her to know about her body and the word sexy.

Then, together they screeched, “Mom!! We’re covered in dog poop!” and wiggled their soiled backsides at me through the glass.

Thankfully, the Germans make these things called “washing machines” that can handle the mess my kids make when I let them fend for themselves.

When my kids reappeared in the basement, I was waiting, directing them to deposit their outerwear into the washer, stat. My daughter’s underclothes were soaked from a snowball my son had stuffed down her jacket. I took her upstairs to change.

She sat on her bed, ramming her heels into the rug while I rifled through her drawers. She looked down, pulled the flesh from her lean thighs, and let it fall back.

“I’m fat,” she said softly.

I opened my mouth but my throat tightened helplessly.

How did this happen?

I couldn’t overcompensate any lack of supervision with shrill edict or heavy hand here. I wondered angrily which of her school friends had started crooning I’m fat first.

I knelt in front of her and held out a clean pair of pants. She poked her damp feet delicately through the leg holes.

Then, her declaration shifted into a question.

“What is fat?” she continued. “Are you fat?”

“Well,” I said tentatively, “no.”

I told her I was strong. I told her I liked myself the way I am. I did not need to tell her how many years it took me to say those words with confidence.

My little girl, whose body looks so much like mine, legs bent at the knees like crowbars and all, is not actually me.

I could have gone on, but my dog walked into the room and let off a cloud of intestinal smog so oppressive that my shirtless daughter leapt up, pinched her nose, and ran around the room, her body tracing neurotic coils in the air. She yelped vulgar, childish insults at the dog that were wholly accurate.

What she really meant was, let it go, Mom.

Sometimes I teach my kids, sometimes I let them learn, and sometimes I draw a loopy, wandering line in the snow, dallying around until a difficult moment has passed. Occasionally, I interject all kinds of nonsense into the fray in spite of myself. I’m not always getting it just right. But I do know that stepping back is often the best way I can be helpful to my kids. If they unravel and fall into a poop patch anyway, it’ll be okay—they can wash it out and start again.