Vacation, (not) All I Ever Wanted

So as it turns out, Maya is afraid of the ocean, with its roar and unpredictability and all the many bubbles she kept pointing out.

I should have expected this, because earlier this year she went through a several-month phase of being terrified of the bath. Yet, like a sneak-up-on-you kind of wave, I really didn’t see this one coming. There was no frolicking with joy at water’s edge. Instead, she was so unnerved by the shifting horizon that she panicked even if I made attempts to swim alone, obviously fearing I would disappear in the churn.


Sometime along the time when we were checking into the small pediatrician’s office in Milton, Delaware, just as surprised to be there as they had been to get our 8 a.m. call about Maya’s 101-degree fever and cough, the hopes we’d been nurturing about a real vacation (with a toddler) suddenly turned into the bracing ice-cold reality of a splash of Atlantic saltwater.

It was just an ill-timed virus, and she’s already feeling better. I do have a few hold-out memories of good eats, and of Maya playing happily, if with a wary eye, in all that sand. She looks pleased enough in the picture, right?

And last evening, after we were back, she drew long lines on a large piece of paper and pronounced them “way-aves.” They made a big impression, obviously.

If you find yourself on the Delaware shore, I would particularly recommend the homemade dark chocolate-enrobed frozen key lime pie on-a-stick (a stick!) from Maureen’s (to the left just before the boardwalk) in Bethany Beach. And I had 10 incredible fresh-battered, never-frozen succulent scallops, among some other less memorable but still delicious seafood.

Also, we saw dolphins cavorting just off shore. Twice. So, there’s all that, plus some fresh air and sunshine and getting out of town for a while. We may not have gotten what(ever it is) we want, but we did get a little, after all, of what we need.

Mulberry, Mulberry, Mulberry

Despite my occasional urge to dump cancer-causing upholstery, I’m not angry all — or even most — of the time.

As one of my favorite poets, Robert Hass, writes:

There are moments when the body is as numinous

as words, days that are the good flesh continuing.

Such tenderness, those afternoons and evenings,

saying blackberry, blackberry, blackberry.

— Meditation at Lagunitas

For myself, I’ve been meditating on the mulberries. Every summer, just as the honeysuckle thickens the air, the mulberries pop out of the trees. And mostly onto the ground, if my own neighborhood is any indication.

They like to have their feet wet, so look out for them near streams. You often can tell mulberry trees, with their many spindly arms, by the black splotches coloring the pavement like a monochromatic Jackson Pollack.

Mulberries have a wonderful sweet-tart flavor and are brainlessly easy to pick. In Pakistan, where a friend lived once, young boys would scale and shake the trees so that the fruit would shower down on sheets, which makes a lot of sense. When ripe, if you bend a branch to pick the berries, you’re likely to get bopped by falling fruit. Watch out, they stain! And they paint fingers — and the edges of Maya’s mouth — a bright pink.

In many parts of the world, they are a much-anticipated delicacy, around for only a brief whisper of time as spring moves on to summer. They are an ingredient fundamental to Chinese medicine, among other uses.

Mulberries are beginning to be studied in the West for their health-promoting properties. They are known in India, according to my mother-in-law, as a good food for diabetics, because they increase blood circulation. (But be aware that they are contra-indicated for those with kidney or liver problems.) Still, we seemed to be the only ones harvesting them (right into our mouths) at our local park.

And they’re delicious. Look around and see if you can find a tree, as the chances are good that they are overloaded right this minute with gorgeous, delicious fruit. They’re a little taste of the good stuff…

Mulberries are lovely with plain yogurt and ribbons of fresh mint. I’ve never done any baking with them, because they rarely make it home in any real amount. (If you do get some to refrigerate, one tip is to wait to wash them until right before eating — they are so tender that any water hastens spoilage.)

If anyone has recipes they’ve tried and like, please do post a link!

Blessing the boats

I’ve been distracted this week by the sudden death of a dear friend’s husband, whose passing leaves behind a 6-month-old son. It’s such a tragic injustice, and my heart is grieving and distressed for my friend and her family.

At the funeral today, I was struck by this line from the prayers:

All of us go down to the dust, yet even at the grave, we make our song: Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.

I thought, what’s the song I would make to defy death, and to lift it up?

Then I had the answer. This lovely little Lucille Clifton elegy kept running through my mind during the remembrances, and I wanted to post it in his honor:

blessing the boats

may the tide
that is entering even now
the lip of our understanding
carry you out
beyond the face of fear
may you kiss
the wind then turn from it
certain that it will
love your back    may you
open your eyes to water
water waving forever
and may you in your innocence
sail through this to that

When my grandfather died, I was at his bedside in the hospital with my sister, brother and cousins. It had a dramatic effect on me, watching his mystery-laden transition, feeling the compression of time as life became something else, beyond all of us standing there, doing nothing, losing him forever.

At such times, I tend to take refuge in poetry rather than religion, although today I did envy those who appeared to be comforted by their faith that even tragedies like this one have reasons.

As for Ms. Clifton, with whom I shared a writing group for an all-too brief time, for me death and water are joined. Please indulge my attempt, here, to emulate her with my own song of defiance:

                          Saint John, New Brunswick

       In the painting of sunset on the river

I float in the dabbed-on canoe,

      motionless among green fermatas of lily pads,

stilled and jointed bones of reeds,

      glassed-in mirror of river and sky.

My grandfather’s sudden rigidity at death is not

in the painting, although it also frames

     an unnatural pause.

Below the canoe as it waits for a breath,

     this river is the only thing that moves.

Happy Easter

Maya looking perplexed about, and a bit disdainful of, the whole Easter Egg hunt proposition:

Marking time: A love letter to our girl at 18 months

Maya wakes up in the morning, puts her face far, far too close to mine, and says, with breathless optimism, “Hi.” Now 18 months, she focuses with such intensity on the task at hand — whisking vegetables around a small pot in her kitchen, mumbly “reading” to herself, or sorting finger puppets one-by-one.

She knows “animal,” “turtle,” and, oddly, “newt.” “Wha-what?” she asks, all day long, pointing at everything.

Naturally good-natured (unilke both her parents!), cloudy weather in the form of sudden squalls sometimes appears, but usually dissipates. She has never met a stranger and welcomes surprised people to “her” street or store like a small, impertinent ambassador, waving at them with the enviable certainty they are there to visit her. She can walk, and, lately, almost run, and pull her small legs through the space between her arms to make it down the slide alone.

On the average day, she is mostly willing to follow basic instructions: putting items in her room, tracking down her shoes from the heap, and valiantly attempting to feed herself soup with a “shpoon.”

She has a stubborn streak as wide as the one in her father mother maternal grandmother, to match the intensity of her intentions, which are sometimes nothing short of mastery. At 13 months, we watched her cross a doorway with a small step in it some 30 times, until she could do it without a look of concentration. She consumes her favorite books (last week, the tongue-punishing “Fox in Socks;” this week, the predictably comforting “Everywhere Babies”) a dozen times a day, until they are worn out and have revealed all their merry singsong secrets. She loves music and stomps her feet and twirls with pleasure, plundering her basket of instruments and banging the claves on every nearby surface to hear the differences in sound.

The sounds she makes are changing all too fast, so swiftly it takes my breath away. New words come daily, and a loud insistence on doing things herself, without even my protective arm. Her only phrase? “No way.”

Blink! The baby is gone, long gone, and we stand here, just watching her, and waiting for the little girl.

So, blogging…

Credit: Darren Higgins

When the New York Times ran a picture of my daughter Maya last week under a snarky headline, it changed something for me. I’ve been a public interest advocate for 12 years for a range of important causes, but this was about my family, and felt, well, personal.

Ok, so it took me a while to get the “personal is political” thing. The comments picked up on the river of condescension flowing through the article (which used words like “paranoid” and was led by a large image of a toddler smiling through a glass bubblehead in a “hazmat onesie,” whatever that is).

Some folks suggested I was mentally ill for trying to protect Maya from the sea of toxic chemicals now commonly found in all of our bodies. Many confused germs (not so bad, really) with toxics (bad, really). And others just wanted to sneer at the overprotective helicopter moms in the article, you know, the ones who stay up late making their own deodorant out of spit and eco-sealing wax.

I replied to some of their startling insights on Fark and other places where the piece was picked up, trying to take back some of my dignity. After all, I gave the reporter a lot of the references and other material for the story, but I was the one with the ridiculous (but gorgeous, btw) Amish bassinet and the only dad in the article had “done the research” and was skeptical about the risks. (Thanks, Mary Brune, for correcting his ignorance on the science, pointing out the other signs of sexism in the piece and being ticked off right along with me.)

Frankly, I’m used to being called far worse names. But this was different. It cut right to my sense of fairness.

Like all parents, I’m just trying to use what I know to protect my family from harm. Like some parents, I have time to do the research on what might be safe, and what is not. And like not too many parents, I’ve had a front row seat for the past 12 years on the spectacle of bought-and-paid-for federal agencies, and weak and backwards looking laws (most of which haven’t been updated since the 1970s). I’ve also had some run-ins with the phalanxes of corporate lobbyists that swarm Washington, always with your health and safety in mind. Sometimes we win, but mostly, they do.

Even with all that, I still make mistakes, and find out that something in my home is truly awful for us. Mostly after the fact.

In short, the system’s rigged. And parents who try to do something to change things are not neurotic: they are trying to make the world better. Safer. Healthier. For their children and all the ones who come after them.

I hope to take my sense of outrage, and instead of making deodorant, make this. Lists of items I found that I like. Little bits and bobs of decent ideas about how to make it work. Shout-outs to good companies and developments. A lifeline to the parents and other people who know I’m not crazy to dream about, and when I can to try to make, a better world.

Hope you’ll join me.