This banjo is sitting in the corner of my living room. For the first few weeks it was here, it sat inside its case because I wanted to make sure my head and heart were clear when I finally opened it up.  It belonged to my dad, and even though he died nearly six years ago, his wife only recently began packing up his things and figuring out what to do with them. She knew I wanted the banjo, but she couldn’t find it in any of the places she expected it to be and then one day, as she lie on her bedroom floor fishing underneath the bed for a roll of Christmas wrap, her fingers bumped up against the black faux-leather case.

I brought it home, having only unzipped the case once or twice to peek inside and marvel at its pristine condition (although I shouldn’t have, my dad was a Marine in every sense and took impeccable care of his things).  When I finally sat down in the living room to take it out all the way – Bubba off on a business trip and the girls away at school for the day, weak February sunshine filtering through the leaded glass windows – time stopped.  I don’t remember hearing anything from inside or outside the house; no dogs barking or airplanes soaring by, no hum of the refrigerator or the dryer. Of course, that is impossible, but I felt weighty and deliberate as I gently lifted it out by the neck and the body, careful not to smear fingerprints on the shiny chrome or twang one of the strings and break the spell.  Nestled beneath the banjo itself was a songbook and instructional manual by Pete Seeger and I nearly cried out when I saw it. Dad was a huge folk music fan. We grew up listening to the Kingston Trio and The Mamas and the Papas and Dad, while he couldn’t read a note of music, could hear a song once or twice and pick it out on the banjo or the guitar or the piano.  I don’t recall how often it happened, but I have fond memories of sitting cross-legged in the living room in a small circle with my sister and brothers while Dad taught us “Froggie Went-A-Courtin'” and “Greensleeves” and we had sing-a-longs.  I remember his long freckled fingers with the ridged nails and knobby knuckles picking and bending the strings in perfect time as our little troupe swayed back and forth singing with great gusto.

Laying the banjo across the couch cushions, I picked up the songbook and flipped through, hoping for some handwritten evidence of Dad somewhere within. His distinctive scrawl, always in pencil, shaped by the tremor in his hands, didn’t show up anywhere.  I was deflated.  I think I was looking for some message from beyond.

In the months since that day, I have walked by the banjo many times as it sits propped up in a box in the corner, neglected. I would love to learn how to play and have often thought about picking up that instruction book to give it a shot, but I’m both afraid and intrigued by what the music would do to me, what doors it might open if I do, indeed, figure out how to strum that banjo to play the folk songs of my childhood.  Occasionally as I walk past, I can smell the scent of cherry tobacco that came from Dad’s pipe and I am suddenly in the middle of that living room with the green shag carpet and the gold velour couch and swivel chair, Dad leaning back with the newspaper and the pipe smoke wafting gently to the flecked ceiling. My thoughts drift to the brother we lost during that time and I quickly shut the door of my mind.

Last Friday, Bubba and I took the girls out for dinner to a place in our neighborhood we’ve never been before. As we sat and waited to order, I became aware of the music playing and my heart swelled.  Throughout our fantastic meal, an entire Jim Croce album played, each song in the order I remember: Time in a Bottle, Operator (That’s Not the Way it Feels), Rapid Roy (The Stock Car Boy), Bad Bad Leroy Brown, You Don’t Mess Around With Jim, One Less Set of Footsteps, I’ll Have to Say I Love You in a Song.  The girls kept getting annoyed with me, alternately because I was singing along with the songs and because I got lost in my reverie and dropped the thread of our conversation.  I know they don’t understand the pull of this music for me and the melancholy memories, but it was such a lovely warm feeling to be surrounded by Dad, laughing at the absurdity and playfulness of some of the lyrics as well as the innocence and sweetness.

Even though Dad was not a musician by trade, nor would he ever have considered that a possible career, one of his purest joys was music and it was often the one thing that we could all agree on.  The soundtrack to our summer road trips featured folk artists as well as popular music from The Doobie Brothers and The Little River Band (Dad was not a Beatles fan at all). More often than not, we would pop in an 8-track, roll all the windows down and sing together in what we thought was perfect harmony. And it turns out, it was.

I consider myself to be a pretty compassionate person. I try hard to not react too strongly to anything without giving myself time to let intense emotions pass, and I work hard to put myself in the shoes of other people.  If I hear myself making some judgment about another human being, I can often stop myself in my tracks and try to identify what it is that I’m feeling, what might be driving that need to distance myself or put someone in a box.

Unfortunately, my compassion sometimes has limits and what I’ve recently discovered is that they lie pretty close to home.  There are a few people in my life that I tend to treat much differently than others and that realization stings.  For years, my dad was one of those people, but somehow I was able to move past that and develop a bottomless sense of understanding and love for him. (I wrote a little about the beginning of this process here.)

What I came to understand this morning, as I thought about the folks I have trouble having compassion for, is that they all have something pretty profound in common.  They are all people for whom I have felt responsible at one time or another, very, very responsible.  It occurred to me (well, actually, hit me in the chest like a punching bag) that my inability to have a pure sense of compassion for them was more likely the result of me not being able to have compassion for myself. Because on some level, I feel as though many of the things they have done that I have trouble with came about because of me, that I am somehow to blame for the way they are, and by distancing myself from these aspects of them, I am really distancing myself from the things I don’t like about what I may have done to them (or prevented them from becoming).

You see, for me, not being able to relate to another person enough to have empathy for them is a direct result of my walling off in order to protect myself.  If I can look at someone and judge that they are “Wrong” or that they “deserve” what is happening to them, I am basically telling myself that what they are going through is nothing I will ever have to deal with. I am using my intellect to craft some imaginary world in which I get to be in control of all circumstances and contingencies and determining that this Other Person’s life is so different from my own that I will never have diabetes or a child in prison or a husband who leaves me for another woman.  I am not that person.

But in this case, my ultimate fear is that I may have created “that person,” perhaps by not saying enough or by saying too much, by not saying the right things or doing the right things or simply by not being who I Ought To Have Been at some pivotal moment.  And of course, none of this means that I don’t dearly, deeply love each of these individuals because they are some of the most beloved people in my life. And, it turns out, I am not actually struggling with having compassion for them at all. I am simply struggling with the idea that they are individuals that don’t belong to me in any way, shape, or form. Once I can begin to see them as human beings whose actions and beliefs are their own, whose lives do not reflect on my self-worth, I will be free to offer them as much compassion as I do anyone else. And then the work can begin wherein I turn it back on to myself.

While I was working on a new essay for Demeter Press, I took a quick break and found this. It’s long, but worth the time it takes to read it. I found myself nodding my head over and over again as the author lamented the new “culture of shut up” that has permeated social media.  A bit of a twist on my “sea of unknowing,” but more pop-culture friendly for certain.

The essay I’m working on is for an upcoming anthology on Mothers and Food and as I sat down to take my first stab at it in the unseasonable sunshine in the backyard, I was on fire.  Chronicling my years as a child of the PopTart Generation (my name for the 1970s era of “better living through chemistry”) to my early years as a mother trying to do right by my babies when it came to food, and through our gluten allergy diagnoses, I am writing about the challenges of raising healthy children when you don’t know what information is real.  So many of the things I thought I knew about food have been proven wrong – processed foods aren’t healthy, fertilizers do more harm than good, GMOs are horrifically frightening, rice isn’t a healthy alternative to wheat if you’re gluten intolerant thanks to the arsenic levels, alternative grains aren’t always the best, and on and on….  The whole essay now weighs in at 2500 words and it is decidedly defeatist, so I’ll have to work on finding a way to lighten it up and find the silver lining somewhere.  That said, I do often feel a little undone by the latest food news as it comes my way because it seems to create more work for me as I plan meals and shop and cook for my family.  I come from a Ukrainian great-grandmother who loved nothing more than cooking for friends and family and I inherited her inability to cook for anything less than an army.  I absolutely feel like cooking for others is a way to show them I love them and at our dinner table, the more, the merrier. But I struggle with the fact that eating is hard work these days. And don’t tell me to plant a garden in my backyard because I most certainly did NOT inherit that ability from my Gram.  I’ll go out and support the farmer’s markets, thankyouverymuch, but only if they grow organic produce.

I don’t compartmentalize. Anything. Ever. I’ve heard it said that women don’t, or at least that men do it better and more often. I don’t know if that’s true or not.  In my personal experience, I have observed that Bubba seems to be very adept at putting aside certain things that may be difficult emotionally so that he can go on with his work day and revisit them later.  I don’t know if that means he simply doesn’t think about those things at work, or if it’s easier to think about them later when his emotions have died down or if he’s even self-aware enough to ask those questions and answer them. He has told me that when he’s at work, he isn’t worried about the house or the dog’s cancer or the kids or me. He trusts that we are all just fine – he has to, or he wouldn’t be able to function.

A friend told me once that she believes that the reason fathers have an easier time shutting off their “father” persona at work than mothers is because they were never physically attached to their children via an umbilical cord.  I remember thinking at the time that I hoped one day someone would do a study of adoptive mothers to see if there was any truth in that supposition.  It is certainly true for me that I am never not a mother, that at any given time no matter what I am doing I am aware of my children somewhere making their way in the world, that I am always ready to answer a phone call from the school or a friend’s mother in case one of my girls needs me.

But that could be because I don’t compartmentalize.  My life is like a watercolor painting on some coarse, linen-like canvas, where any stroke of color you put down is likely to bleed in several directions to blend with what is already there.  Every conversation I have with a close friend is held up to the light and examined within the context of what I already know. Every time I have a fight with one of the kids or discover someone’s massive screw-up, I question my entire parenting philosophy and make Bubba crazy with my self-investigation.

It wasn’t always like this.  As a kid, I was an expert at keeping things separate.  What happened at home stayed at home. I didn’t talk to anyone at school about the things that went on behind the front door of our house and, frankly, I didn’t think about it at school, either.  Upon walking out the door into the world, I simply became someone else, someone confident and competent, someone who didn’t have a personal life beyond school and sports and my job waiting tables.  I didn’t allow myself to think about anything but what I was doing in that skin and even when I got home, I tried desperately to inhabit that other person’s body.  Needless to say, my worlds eventually collided. I cracked the compartment wide open and began letting light in and the things stuffed inside all tumbled out and left footprints all over everything else in their haste.  Somehow, after years of talking and writing and thinking and figuring out who I am, I have managed to integrate all of my selves: daughter, mother, wife, sister, friend, writer. I don’t know how to go back and, frankly, I don’t want to, but it does mean that when something painful happens, I am likely to ruminate on it for a while as it slowly spreads out into places I can’t predict, changing the landscape of me. That also means that when I’m feeling particularly happy and optimistic, I have a different perspective on everything. Occasionally, I am able to step back and take a look at this multilayered, crazy textured work of art and see how rich and amazing it is with the overlapping bits of dark and light and feel a deep gratitude for this life.  Occasionally, I am prompted to reach out and stroke a particularly awful piece of memory to see if it has maintained its power to sting after many many years even as I marvel at the way it mingles with its beautiful surroundings.  Honestly, I think it is this knowledge that keeps me moving forward when I am skewered through with pain, the belief that it will thin out and become part of something wonderful in the end.

It is a glorious, sunny day here in the Pacific Northwest, the crocuses and daffodils are showing their gorgeous faces all over the neighborhood, and the dog had a much-needed bath yesterday for the first time in nearly nine months, so I’m feeling great! Plus, it’s Friday and we have a terrific weekend of great meals, catching up with friends, and lacrosse up ahead.

This salad is one of my favorite things these days. Often, I’ll find a recipe that I like and, over time, as I make it, I’ll add a few things or change a few things or tweak something. Not so with this salad. It is absolutely perfect as it stands. I keep shredded kale and brussels sprouts in the fridge along with a container of the dressing just so I can toss a bowl together at any moment. I’ve been known to have it for breakfast when I’m feeling starved and unimaginative.

These cookies are my new go-to snack or quick breakfast option for the girls. I have been trying to find more grain-free recipes, given our gluten-free life and the problems with eating too much corn or rice, and these hit the spot. I do often add a handful of mini chocolate chips to them (because, duh, why wouldn’t you) and I’ve played with different dried fruits. I love the tart dried apricots from Trader Joe’s (blenheim style) and the tart Montmorency cherries that add a bit of zing. Shauna Ahern is one of my heroes, given her thoughtful approach to cooking gluten free so I was delighted to find these on her website. They do take a bit of planning and a well-stocked grocery store, but the chewy, nutty texture is so worth it for this tasty, healthy snack.

This drink is so great! During cold season, I warmed mugs of it up and gave it to the girls and it soothed their sore throats almost instantly.  One morning when I woke up with heartburn and stomach upset (thanks to dinner in a new neighborhood restaurant that was still working out their gluten free options – whoops), I drank some over ice mixed with fizzy water and it helped settle my stomach.  It is relatively inexpensive, non-GMO, and tasty.  The last time I saw it on sale, I bought six bottles to keep in the basement.

On Wednesday, Bubba and I will celebrate twenty years of marriage. Twenty. And, no, I’m not old enough to have been married that long, and neither is he, but we somehow managed to jump the space-time continuum and make it so, anyway.

The past year has been one of the best years of my marriage, for certain, and as much as it pains me to say so, I think it’s because it has been one of the most challenging years of my parenting life. Not despite,     because.

The first six years we were married, we worked full-time, Monday through Friday jobs and spent our weekends eating out with friends, going to the movies, taking urban hikes and sleeping late. We spoiled our cats, traveled domestically and internationally and drove his parents crazy as we remained childless.  One day, all of a sudden, I wanted to be a mom. I never had before and, in fact, had been quite vocal about my desire to never raise children. (Turns out Bubba never really believed that bluster, but he wisely kept his mouth shut and didn’t challenge me or tell me how much he wanted kids.)

So one day, I woke up and said to him, in a hushed, rather quavery sort of voice, “I think I want to have a baby.” I couldn’t look him in the eye. I whispered it to him as his head lie nestled into his pillow, so close that if he had turned to look at me, my nose would certainly have lodged itself in his ear. He kept very still and said, “Cool. Me too.”

So here we are fourteen years later with one teenage daughter and another one on the cusp of teenagerhood.  In those years Bubba and I have grown together and apart, shifted the responsibilities of the household and our lives to accommodate each other and our girls as much as possible without blowing completely to pieces, and at times it has felt fragile. We don’t fight, but we have disagreed on some vital issues from time to time and on at least one occasion I insisted we go see a counselor in order to find common ground.  I have never stopped loving him, but there were times when I wasn’t particularly convinced that I could see forward to a time where I would ever be madly in love with him again. Part of that was due to simple fatigue (especially in the early infant and toddler years), other times I felt resentment when I saw his life as dynamic and mine as stagnant, and through certain periods it has been due to an absolute inability to see anything beyond the absolute frenzy of activity filling up day after day after week after month ahead.

But today, two days before we celebrate twenty years of marriage (and nearly twenty-four together), I find myself completely, madly, head-over-heels for this man. And I’m certain it is because of the turmoil and challenges we have faced with our girls in the past year. They are growing up, asserting themselves, doing their level best to find holes in our armor through which to poke sharp objects. They are doing everything they are supposed to be doing at this stage of their lives – testing limits and pushing back and exploiting loopholes and screaming, “INDEPENDENCE OR DEATH!” and it is hard. It hurts your feelings. It makes you question everything you thought you knew. It is ego-bruising, teeth-grinding, upside-down-in-a-hurricane, soul-defeating hard. There are bright spots in all of it, don’t get me wrong, but they mostly feel like opportunities to fill your canteen in anticipation of the next onslaught.  Bubba and I are flying blind here, not ever having found a manual for how to parent two such completely different children making their way through this life full of technology and stimulation and choices and emotion.

But we’re doing it together. And even when he is traveling for work, gone for days on end, he never fails to call or text us to check in. He never minimizes the challenges and he always reminds me that I’m a good mom. He lets me know that he is struggling, too, and he works really hard to stay engaged, asking the details of the last basketball game or pop quiz. He just returned from a week-long trip to Mexico with Eve and the rest of her classmates (14-year old girls, all) as a chaperone – a hot, exhausting, Spanish immersion trip where he was pleased as punch to get to know Eve’s friends. He is my rock, but just as importantly, he lets me know that I am his. On any given day, we might spend half an hour texting each other to talk about every subject from the most mundane to the most painful, it’s all on the table, and it’s all important.  This period of parenting has reminded me that what we have is a partnership built on mutual respect and trust. That Bubba remains vulnerable and honest about his own challenges while simultaneously supporting and affirming my strengths is huge. The fact that he can acknowledge my weaknesses without accusing or demeaning and step in to shore things up where necessary is just as amazing.

I remember thinking that after six years of marriage, I knew Bubba inside and out. I remember thinking that there was nothing that would surprise me about him. And then one day, when Eve was a toddler, he used a washable marker to draw this crazy face on the top of her foot. I had never seen him draw anything before and it was really good. I was surprised. Over the years, I have been surprised again and again as I watch him parent our girls with careful patience, humor, creativity, and so much love that my heart bursts wide open. I know now that twenty years is only the tip of the iceberg. There is so much more to know and love about this man. And I am so lucky to have found him.