With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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Raising three children is like fording a swift, waist-high stream whose stones are covered with moss: it’s possible, but move heron-slow and measure each step, or you’ll topple and end up who knows how far downstream.
I thought as much this morning in bed during a rare reflective moment as the snow-lit predawn seeped between the curtains. I faded back into sleep with vague hopes of extending my metaphor and woke shortly thereafter to a distinct pounding sound. Was it my brain begging for hydration in response to last night’s vodka, or one of my children inventing another way to wake me? I opened my eyes.
“Daddy,” asked three-year-old Molly, “do you want to see my jumping jacks?”
“Of course I do,” I said, my eyelids shutting again.
“No, you have to open your eyes!”
“What if I go back to sleep and dream about your jumping jacks?”
“Silly,” she said, then proceeded to peel open my eyelids with her small, cold fingertips and produce four of the most exuberant jumping jacks in the history of calisthenics. “Now can I have some Cheerios?”
Already at the kitchen table sat Luca, age six, with his half-eaten cereal, the once-saturated Os drying to the sides of the bowl. In his left hand he held a spoon, and in his right a green marker that hovered over a piece of paper already adorned with figures.
I asked what he was drawing.
“This is an elephant with a tiger on his back, and there’s Molly, and that’s a spider about to get stepped on by the elephant.”
I noticed that all the characters in the drawing were smiling except the spider, which seemed resigned to its fate.
I slid a bowl of cereal in front of Molly, who stared intently at her brother’s creation. “That’s too bad for the spider,” I said. “I thought they were your favorite insect.”
“No? Why not?”
“Just not. I like green leafhoppers better.”
Just not. How is it kids can detach from an idea so effortlessly? “Yesterday’s clarity is today’s stupidity,” wrote the thirteenth-century Zen monk Ikkyū. “The universe has dark and light. Entrust oneself to change.”
While making a cream-cheese-and-jelly sandwich for Luca’s lunch, heating water for tea, praising Molly’s crayon drawing, and going into the dark nursery to fetch seven-month-old Lily, who had decided she was ready — really ready — for her morning feeding, I practiced my anti-Zen Zen, a discipline adhered to not in silent temples but amid the chaos of raising children. I’d coined the phrase “anti-Zen Zen” the previous week while shaving my whiskers with one hand and rocking Lily’s bassinet with the other. (Interested parties will be eager to learn that the sound of one hand shaving and one hand rocking a bassinet is the sound of a baby not crying.)
I walked Lily into the bright kitchen, where she sneezed a few times — a welcome diversion from her ear-scorching screams of hunger — and I began to prep a bowl of rice cereal and puréed prunes. Just then Mary came through the front door, her face flushed from a run in the January cold. We kissed briefly, and I smelled the windy pines and drifts of snow she’d run beneath and alongside. She walked Lily back to the nursery to feed her, and I sensed a chance to take my first deep breath of the day, but Luca wanted to know if he had violin lessons after school (yes) and what my favorite species of shark was (whale shark; I pictured one drifting unimpeded through the depths), and Molly wanted to wear her princess dress (no, not the blue one that I found in the costume bin but the pink one that was in the basement drying because she had spilled ketchup on it the night before).
I poured hot water over the green tea leaves in my mug and went to the window, where I noticed a plastic toy arrow suction-cupped to the glass, the sky beyond it beginning to turn blue. Shot by a sure-handed six-year-old, my makeshift compass needle pointed: Out, into the new day.
Lately I’ve been trying to accept the “hecticity” (a word I invented because, frankly, it sounds more hectic than hecticness) of our mornings, to stop fighting the inevitable juice spills and missing socks. Is it frustrating to discover that Molly has filled her white sweater’s pockets with once-frozen-and-now-melting blackberries? Of course, but I’m hoping to be less frustrated with my frustration. The larger problem is not that the sweater’s pockets are now turning an oddly beautiful purple but that I somehow expected to get her off to preschool without a hitch.
With three children, life’s turns from bliss to emergency, from grace to suffering, are sharper, the drop-offs more sheer. Over the holidays we were traveling, American nuclear family that we are, through the Denver International Airport security maze (it can’t justly be called a “line”), garnering alternating looks of pity and disgust as Mary and I lugged our four carry-on suitcases (who’s got an extra hundred bucks to pay for checked bags during the holidays?), carried the baby in the carrier, and tugged on Luca, who tugged back. The sheer comedy of the task at hand drove Mary to imagine that we were participants in a new reality television show called Traveling with Children. We had reached the final level — flying during the holiday season — and our degree of difficulty was extremely high, as we were accompanied by two kids under the age of seven and an infant. If we were able to negotiate security without leaving a clothing item behind, we would earn ten bonus points. Points would be deducted if one of us yelled at a child, or if money was spent on needless junk food even though our backpacks were filled with healthy, homemade snacks.
Walking past the Cinnabon, I told the kids to plug their noses.
The whole imaginary bit was an elaborate (and effective) coping mechanism among myriad such mechanisms, a momentary stay against reality. Of course, a deeper relationship with reality is what we ultimately seek, but sometimes reality must be escaped briefly before it can be fully appreciated. Mary usually flees via an hour-long run at some point during the day. I like a thirty-minute cross-country-ski sprint. And, as a rule, if I have changed my seventh diaper of the day, I immediately head for the bottle of Smirnoff at the back of the freezer, regardless of the hour. Show me where it hurts, says the cold, clear Russian nurse, and I try not to whimper when I answer, Everywhere.
Though Lily’s nearly seven months old, we haven’t registered a “triple” yet — all three children in tears at once. We were in danger of one this morning in the minivan, when Lily was crying because she loathes her car seat and Molly was crying because she hates to hear Lily cry. Luca, however, merely pulled his coat hood over his ears. “You want me to pinch you so you can start crying too?” I joked, and I saw him crack a smile in the rearview mirror as I backed down the driveway I hadn’t shoveled in two months.
The other day I asked a friend and mother of three grown boys if she had experienced many triples. Not a one, she said, but she had watched as her three boys and their father vomited projectile-style, all four heads hung over the bathtub, due to a violent case of food poisoning. “You could call that a ‘grand slam,’ ” she said.
Doubtless. Equally doubtless, being a parent requires a level of tolerance for the everyday grotesque. Gross is often the operative word in a household with more than one recently or un-potty-trained child. The gag reflex will be repeatedly tested, as the reader’s may be shortly when I detail the experience of drying off after a hot shower with a towel Molly had used to wipe her bottom. How could I get angry with her? She had attempted to clean up after herself and returned the towel to the rung. Does such a demeaning experience bring one closer to sainthood? the formerly clean person wonders while turning the shower back on.
“My dying teacher could not wipe himself,” wrote Ikkyū. “Unlike you disciples / who use bamboo, I cleaned his ass with my bare hands.” The old monk, who also called himself “Crazy Cloud,” might strike one as a bit irreverent, but he is simply stating the rules of engagement, the terms of true endearment. Last fall my friend’s bird dog had pups, and whenever the proud mother returned to the truck after a hunt in the fields, she’d be beset by seven hungry puppy mouths leaping for her teats. I took a picture of the scene with my cellphone and sent it to Mary, who was home taking care of the children, more than likely nursing Lily while reading a book to Molly and helping Luca construct some elaborate Lego vehicle. “Funny,” she responded in a text message, “and true.”
In reality her and my daily existence has become strangely monastic. We wake in the dark and feed the baby, waiting for the thump of the big kids’ feet on the hardwood. We make oats and serve cereal and juice and drink our beloved tea. We dress the children and read a story or two before school, if there’s time. We sweep the floors and dream of weekends in Baja, or anywhere with warm wind and sun. We do the dishes, pondering why milk-saturated Cheerios smell like cat food. We do the laundry (well, OK, Mary does), pondering why apple juice on fabric smells so much like urine. We go to work and teach other parents’ children how to read and write. We wipe noses, clearing the orifices of yellow ooze and crusted green pebbles. We make dinner. We sweep the floors again. We bathe our kiddos, brush their teeth, read a book or two, and sing two lullabies. (Luca wants “Fishing a Stream I Once Fished as a Kid,” and Molly wants “Wagon Wheel.”)
What’s befuddling is that I can’t figure out whether our days are passing at warp speed or at a geologic pace. If I could gain some distance on them, they would probably resemble a large Western river in runoff: so brimming at the banks that the casual observer might think the water is moving leisurely over stones, but soon a cottonwood trunk or fence post comes hurtling past, and the current’s true velocity becomes evident.
Though I can rarely stand outside of it long enough to attain a decent vantage, the current carrying Mary and me right now feels more powerful than anything else I’ve ever experienced. It feels bigger, grander, more vibrant, more desperate. It feels, as Molly would say, “huge-normous.”
I read with deep enjoyment Chris Dombrowski’s essay “My Anti-Zen Zen” [August 2011], especially the part about dreading the day all three of his kids will be crying at once. I don’t have three kids, but I have two very strong-willed twin boys. They had trouble learning to breastfeed, so I would pump my milk and put it in bottles. I remember one night at 2 AM, pumping both sides while rocking the babies in their car seats, one with each foot, all three of us crying.
My boys are fourteen now. They are taller than I am, with deep voices and muscular limbs. The other day I was goofing around with them and tried to pick them up and rock them and play some of our old toddler games. We were soon helpless with laughter, holding our sides, tears streaming down our faces.
I take that joyous image and try to send it back in time, like a bright postcard of hope, to my fourteen-year-younger self, sitting in the dark and weeping. Don’t you think we can do that, be our own guardian angels and comforters? I like to think so.