dear photograph(s)

In my upstairs hallway, underneath a skylight, a large frame hangs on the wall next to our bedroom door.  It’s one of those display pieces you’ll find in a framing shop, demonstrating what they’re capable of: the multiple rectangular cutouts in the matting contain photos, a theater ticket, several playbill clippings and even a pink baby onesie.

It’s a shrine to one of the greatest moments in my life.

Six weeks shy of her birth day, Natalie protrudes from my midsection like a beach ball in one of the photos.  It was snapped on an old cell phone, illegally smuggled onto the stage at Carnegie Hall. There are dozens, hundreds of us on stage, but in this shot, the only ones of us in focus are Natalie, in utero, and me, beaming brighter than the house lights. We were about to make our Carnegie Hall debut, together with the rest of the onstage army, sharing blood and adrenaline and oxygen and joy with a sold out house as we performed Mahler’s Second (and, the following day, his Eighth) Symphony.

Our Carnegie Hall Debut

Our Carnegie Hall debut, October 20, 2010

(The pink onesie in the frame reads “Got Mahler?” and bears the autographs of everyone who led us that week: our beloved Norman Scribner, august chormeister Simon Halsey, and maestro Valery Gergiev, who famously conducted us all with a toothpick. The ticket was &’s. The playbills spell my name correctly.)

Mahler 8, Carnegie Hall

Mahler 8, Carnegie Hall, October 21, 2010

There’s nothing like good Mahler done right, all in, full tilt.  The Second will always be my favorite; my aforementioned greatest moment consisted of Natalie and me nailing the B-flat, together, at the crescendo of the Resurrection chorus. But the Eighth has been much on my mind in recent weeks as we mustered a fresh army to perform it, in Philadelphia, in a four-concert series celebrating the centennial of the piece’s North American premiere.  Singing with the Philadelphia Orchestra, commonly acknowledged as one of the best in the world, is a rare treat. Singing Mahler 8 with the orchestra that introduced the piece to this country, exactly one hundred years ago this week, in the city (and next door to the historic venue) where it happened? That is the stuff of legend.

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As a purely musical matter, we’ve improved since 2010.  The Mariinsky was no slouch, but the Philadelphia Orchestra commits to this piece to a degree that you won’t often see in life. This is how you make art. You go all in. Maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin gets this, and gives the audience, the performers, and the piece everything he’s got. The Philadelphia Orchestra has graduated from its 1916 venue, the still-extant Academy of Music, to a sparkling new concert hall a block away, and these performances have been blowing the doors off the place.  Good Mahler done right overwhelms. And it has.

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But for me, something is missing this time. Not musically — God, not musically. We are owning this and it is glorious and I’m so fortunate to be part of something unique that is happening now, for the only time, and never will again.

But this time, in the middle of the onstage army, surrounded by hundreds caught up in the Symphony of a Thousand, I’m singing alone.

From Philadelphia I connect with Natalie, and now Genevieve with her, once a day or so on Facetime. They’re home, with their daddy, going to school and having playdates and modeling their clothing choices and showing me how they’ve cleaned their breakfast plates. & is solo-parenting all this week. I’m staying in a hotel, subdued by the constraints of Lent, eating little and drinking nothing stronger than tea, working to stay focused and keep that pencil just as sharp as I can. It’s huge, to do a gig like this. It’s wonderful, and magical, and I would not trade it; yet there’s no one here inside me to stream the experience in real time. My body is now untenanted, vacant of any souls save my own. My daughters — freestanding souls now — and I must settle for a download, for asynchrony, a thing stored up and saved before it can be shared.

There is tremendous joy to be found in Great Moments, in snapshots and freeze-frames, which will always be salient peaks in the landscape of memory. But a different, perhaps greater joy persists in the flow state — the rivers in the landscape — where you are pure purpose, one with your work, and living in the moment, which ceases to be a measure of time passing.  Flow is the elusive source of all-nighters, revelations out of time. It is essential to making art. It’s what we sing about in Mahler 8. Fons vivus, ignis, caritas.  And it’s what I shared with Natalie, the last time we performed Mahler 8, together.

The symphony finishes on a different theme: not flow, but das Ewigweibliche, the eternal feminine.  A singer brings every previous performance of a work along to a concert, every time the work is performed afresh: and this is my missing piece. Last Mahler 8, my daughter and I stood together, concentric, in the heart of the goddess. This time, I’m . . . what? Disjunct, attenuated, an absent workaholic mom? True, I’m on stage, not at the office. But to the five-year-old smooching my pixellated face on the iPad, is there much difference?

Natalie — Genevieve — I sing for you. Flesh no longer connects us, but blood still does, and the silver thread that spans the ether between my heart and yours.  Das Ewigweibliche does not end when a woman gives birth. Mommy is still here and I will still take you along with me to the flow state whenever I can. Hang on tight. You’ll see. And maybe some day you’ll feel something like déjà vu when you discover it for yourself.

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The Novice’s Guide to Carmina Burana

It sounds foreign and fancy and intimidating, doesn’t it? Carmina Burana. Like some artsy, condescending classical piece that snobs enjoy and you wouldn’t.

First things first: don’t worry. This is not a snobby piece. It is not fancy and it is certainly not intimidating. In fact, you already know it. You will instantly recognize its major themes from car commercials, TV shows and silly movies from your childhood. And the rest of the piece is no less accessible. Carmina Burana is made up of catchy, goofy folk songs about parties and getting drunk and hooking up. Every single one of them is hummable. And at least one of them will be the one you totally love.

With that in mind, I’ve slung together a crib sheet (and drinking game) to enhance your enjoyment of the piece. Read along as you listen, or if you’ll be attending our concert this weekend, print this out and bring it with you. (But only drink when, and where, the Kennedy Center says it’s OK.)

INTRO: FORTUNA IMPERATRIX MUNDI

WHAT IT IS: Two songs. You know the first one by heart already. The second combines a men’s chant with something like a punchy work song.
LOUDNESS SCALE: 9 of 10. The first movement (which is repeated at the end) is some of the most famously loud music written for chorus.
WHAT I TELL MY FOUR-YEAR-OLD: “This is a song about luck and how everyone wants to be lucky. But people have bad luck and that makes them sad.” The second movement, the chant/work song, is “the story of a king who lost everything when his luck turned bad. He had a crown made of flowers and a head full of hair, but now he lost the crown and his hair all fell out.”
TAKE A DRINK WHEN: you hear the men chanting like medieval monks, only faster and more profane.

PART I, act 1: PRIMO VERE

WHAT IT IS: Three songs about springtime. A calm and quiet one, followed by a gorgeous baritone solo, then a dance that foreshadows the maypole dancing in the next part.
LOUDNESS SCALE: It gets up to maybe a 6, in the last movement.
WHAT I TELL MY FOUR-YEAR-OLD: “All the flowers are blooming and everyone’s faces are happy and nobody’s sad any more because it’s springtime!”
DRINK WHEN: The baritone sings “Sum praesentialiter, absens in remota” — because you’ve had one of those spring-fueled crushes, you have been that guy or remember him, and at that moment, it was good.

PART I, act 2: UF DEM ANGER

WHAT IT IS: A spring festival outside a cute little town. There are maypole dances. And bushes to go behind. Young girls try on makeup. Boys strut. Everyone flirts. Everything is in flower.
LOUDNESS SCALE: 7 or 8. By the end of the dances, everyone happy-shouts.
WHAT I TELL MY FOUR-YEAR-OLD: “Everyone is dancing around a maypole and weaving their …ribbons together. And the flowers are still blooming. Do you hear how they’re dancing again? Now the girls are putting on their fancies and the boys are pretending to be princes. How fast can they dance?”
DRINK WHEN: (1) You first hear something that isn’t Latin. We ain’t in the monastery any more, kids.  (2) You hear the sound of a horse galloping away, played by the timpani.

PART II: IN TABERNA

WHAT IT IS: Dudes at a bar. Four songs, sung by and about dudes at a bar.
LOUDNESS SCALE: 8, at its high points.
WHAT I TELL MY FOUR-YEAR-OLD: “This is just a bunch of boys doing boy things. There aren’t any girls here. Do you want to hear this part? I didn’t think so.” [She has yet to hear this part.]
DRINK WHEN: (1) The tenor pretending to be a dying swan hits a note that makes you need a drink. (2) The chorus tells you to. Again and again.

PART III: COUR D’AMOURS

WHAT IT IS: Scenes from the drunken hookups that follow after the maypole dances and the pub crawl. There may or may not be an actual orgy. There is definitely a …high point. (Spoiler alert: the soprano soloist gets it.)
LOUDNESS SCALE: 8 to 9. The scenes do get … animated.
WHAT I TELL MY FOUR-YEAR-OLD: [We skip the opening movements, because they bore her and we don’t need to go there.] “The boys and the girls are having a race. They’re saying veni-veni-venias, which means c’mere, c’mere, come race with us! Who do you think is winning now? How about now? Now the girl is saying ‘I can’t make up my mind,’ but then she does make up her mind, and she decides to be happy, and now everyone is having a big dance party!”
WHAT MY TWO-YEAR-OLD TELLS ME: “I want veni-venias, Mommy. I want veni-veni-venias.”
DRINK WHEN: You have totally lied to your kids about what is going on in these scenes. And now your four-year-old can sing the catcalls (“Pulchra tibi facies, oculorum acies”) and the in flagrante delicto part (“Oh, oh, oh, totus floreo”) with the innocence of…a four-year-old. Who thinks she’s just singing about flowers and people who are pretty.

CONCLUSION: BLANZIFLOR ET HELENA, FORTUNA IMPERATRIX MUNDI

WHAT IT IS: A song about two legendary beauties/goddesses, sung in the style of a Catholic litany — but these are not the virgins you’re looking for. Followed by a repeat of the opening movement, the one you know by heart.
LOUDNESS SCALE: 10 of 10. The invocation of the goddesses’ names is the loudest movement in the entire piece. I can’t even tell you how loud this gets.
WHAT I TELL MY FOUR-YEAR-OLD: “This is a song about the two most beautiful women in the world — Snow White, and Helen of Troy. And then there’s another song about how important it is not to have bad luck. See, we’d rather be lucky than good.”
DRINK WHEN: The chorus couldn’t possibly get any louder. Then drink again when it does.

Pandora’s box

Norman Scribner died.

I was not prepared for the effect this would have on me.  I sang in CASW under Norman’s baton from 2009 to 2012, a mere rounding error compared to the decades of service put in by some of my sectionmates. I have mourned grandparents, stepsiblings, classmates and colleagues I knew longer, and life went on.

But when Norman died, the spectrum lost several colors. Norman was brilliant; this you know if you’ve ever sung with him, performed one of his compositions, attended one of his concerts, or spent more than a few minutes with the guy. He radiated energy at that special wavelength unique to geniuses. When Norman touched music, you were in the presence of something greater than an ordinary person.

In hindsight, now fogged over by the lapse of a decade and a half since his demise, I can say that the same was true of my late father. Dad was no musician, but his was a complex and magnificent personality: white-hot brilliant and equally fierce in his affections and his mentorship, even while marbled with unresolved anger and grudges he’d never let go. But death blunted his complexity, and nobody commemorated anything bitter at his funeral. Rather, his axes to grind became a curiosity in death, a facet of his personality that made his survivors chuckle and remember him even more warmly: He had bad service in a menswear store once and told the guy, You have lost my business. I will never come back here. And he didn’t!!

Norman, on the other hand, was Shaker-simple in the direct and unmitigated joy he drew from, and gave back to, every person and every day of his life. At least that was our experience as his singers. Someone somewhere must have a story of Norman’s complexity, his multifaceted personality, the passions that must surely have included bitterness, frustration, and rage. But I don’t have that story, and neither does anyone I know. To us, Norman was quasi-angelic, a force of unalloyed goodness in the world.

We lost him late in March, and it took our collective breath away. The chorus, in the midst of preparing The Bells for an April performance with the NSO, set aside scarce rehearsal time to stand up and remember Norman one by one, and then to rehearse the pieces we’d sing at his funeral, things we’d sung with him before: the Bernstein Chichester Psalms, Rachmaninoff Vespers, Brahms Requiem, St. Matthew Passion. I was amazed at how hard it hurt, singing something like Богородице Дево for Norman and without Norman.

Every time I meet up again with grief, I learn something new about it.  It is a hydra with hundreds and thousands of heads, and tentacles, connected, pervasive. Losing Dad was such an unnavigable, insurmountable shock that I couldn’t even discern the boundaries of my grief. It was bigger than everything, and more obscure, and every time I tried to hit it head on I’d slide right off it.  I have experimented with the mourning rituals of multiple religions, always looking for a way to make peace with the Dad-shaped hole his premature departure tore in the fabric of life and earth.  To this day, nearly fifteen years later, I’m not sure I’ve reached the end of the process.

Losing Norman is both easier and harder.  I only knew a small slice of him, for a short time, through a particular lens that filtered out everything but his amazing musical powers.  Our relationship was simple. He was my maestro; I was one of dozens of sopranos he led. He was brilliant, and I loved to sing with him, and he gave me performance opportunities that will never be equaled.  His death took from me, and from many, a pure and uncomplicated Good Thing. But he was not my father, nor even the only genius with whom I have been privileged to sing.  Losing him is a human-sized armload of grief, which may be why I am hugging it with all my might.

Genevieve is two years old

The span of days between a baby’s first birthday and her second contains a universe.
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Last January, freshly one year old, Genevieve was self-evidently still a baby. Her cheeks and chins and thighs were plump with delicious chub, her toddler gait unsteady, her language an inconsistent mess of syllables and grunts. She was not quick to smile, but once you got her giggling, there was no music like the sound of her laughter.

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And then things started to evolve. Evie’s baby double chin disappeared. Her mouth filled with teeth. The chub-ruffles on her wrists and the wrinkles on the soles of her feet smoothed out. Her hair grew thicker, and longer, until I could pull it up into a pigtail on top of her head.

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And then she started to talk. For a long time she had one word, “el-la,” which variously could mean “elephant,” “gorilla,” or a person named Ella.  Then her sister became “Natchie,” the cat “Mokshie,” and, one by one, other nouns appeared. “Milky” was a favorite, “mommy milky” in particular. An elephant became an “ella-chint.” The very hungry caterpillar, a “holler-pillar.”

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Evie’s speech came later than Natalie’s, and with more effort, which made it that much dearer to me. Winnie the Pooh was “Pinny da Poo.” A peacock, a “key cop.”  I don’t recall her elder sister ever exhibiting any of the standard speech impediments of toddlerhood, but Genevieve developed (and still has) the cutest one I’ve heard.  A kitty cat is a “killy tat,” the potty is the “polly,” and water is “wallet.” I’ll miss that last one the most.

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She grew hair enough for two separate pigtails, and she also grew phrases: “Need hewp?” “Dis one!” “Evie turn!” (And repeated requests for her favorite song, “Meemee Happy!”) Of our autographed copy of Llama Llama Red Pajama, Evie gleefully declared every time we read it: “She sign it!” The villain in the movie How to Train Your Dragon 2, a creature named Drago Bloodfist, became “Jubba Wumppits.” And when Evie nursed — which, oh by the way, is still happening; even ten days apart from me did not convince her to quit — she would unlatch from one breast, whisper “Udder side!”, re-latch onto the other, and not even be aware that she’d made a pun.

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She is generally a serious kid. That’s not to say that she isn’t a happy kid; she lives deeply, with great gusto, and I have no doubt that she enjoys her life immensely. But she’s not all smiles and sunshine like her sister was. More often she’s curious, or perplexed, or simply deep in thought.

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She’ll ask you a question in her inimitable toddler monotone, then repeat it. “What dat, mommy? What dat, mommy? What dat, mommy?” and, if unsatisfied with your answer, will simply ask again. “What dat, mommy?”

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Give her an object for her focus, though, and she’s instantly immersed. She is a problem solver, my Evie, in love with shape sorters and jigsaw puzzles and toys with moving parts. Her play is physical, not pretend; just watch what Evie does when Natalie attempts to have a tea party with her.

10694436_10152335390447543_5349852518887289034_oI joke: Natalie will negotiate strategic arms treaties. Genevieve will build the bomb. And less in jest, but equally heartfelt: Natalie is champagne bubbles. Genevieve is single malt scotch.

1519446_10152360085792543_1413501334413054310_o (1)But she’s still a little girl with a pair of blonde pigtails flapping in the breeze.

Those pigtails.

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Those pigtails.
10668958_10152436041667543_8370175811876314934_oI am addicted to her pigtails.

10363448_10152154941942543_8821810718443803014_oI am addicted to the giggles that come bursting out of her on the playground.

10544376_10100368929055040_187029744663037269_nFor a serious kid, she sure does laugh heartily when she’s having fun.

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For Halloween, Natalie decided that Daddy was going to be a king and Mommy a queen. We held our breath, dreading the inevitable “and I’ll be the princess!”, but it did not come. Instead Noodles elected to be a knight in shining armor, and her sister, naturally, would be the dragon she’d slay with her foam sword.

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Happy to oblige, Genevieve embraced dragonhood wholeheartedly. She insisted on wearing her costume several times after Halloween, until we hid it. To this day, at random moments, she will volunteer this information unprompted. “I a dragon! A dragon!”

(She’ll also tell you “I go pumpkin patch!” This too was true.)
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As her birthday approached, I decided it was time to take a great cultural leap forward. So with great fanfare at our family Christmas dinner in New Jersey (several weeks before Christmas), Genevieve got her first taste of bagna cauda.

Or she would have, had she been willing to taste it.
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For her actual birthday, her desires were simple and few.

“Evie, what do you want for your birthday?”

“Cupcake!”

“I will make you cupcakes. But is there anything you want for your birthday?”

Pink cupcake!!”

I had my marching orders.

10848642_10152549398317543_4593900949136010349_o (1)We didn’t have a separate party-with-friends for Evie this year. Our time to coast on her Christmas birthday, to get by with a family celebration in the early afternoon after the Christmas presents have all been opened, is limited, but we will treasure it while we can. Soon enough she’ll want something more in honor of her birthday than a few pink cupcakes. Until then, we won’t push.
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My Christmas baby, my remarkable, unbelievable Genevieve Amelia. Your arrival blew my mind, and every day since then, you’ve kept it up.
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What an amazing kid you are. So fervent, so potent, so fully committed to your joys and rages and fears and fascinations. At age two you are an authentic introvert; you bury your face in my neck and cling to my shoulder for the first half hour of any interaction with a new acquaintance. But once you open up, you engage with your customary intensity, and now that person too knows that you were a dragon and went to the pumpkin patch and that Ella tried to bite you and that no, your name is not Stinky Cheese, it’s Jenna-beeb.
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I love everything about you, my magnificent youngest child. And you’re still only two.

Natalie is four years old

This kid.
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She’s four. She’s a complete and fully-articulated person, with habits and hobbies, favorites and dislikes, a slapstick sense of humor and an ever-present twinkle in her eye. After a process that seemed to take a geological age, she is completely potty-trained and will do her business entirely unaccompanied and unassisted. She is just above the fiftieth percentile for weight and just below it for height, screams bloody murder when she gets a shot (but will stop if you sing “Let It Go” in her ear), loves fish tanks and stickers and her ladybug galoshes, and hahaha, remember when the visit to the doctor was where we learned how she was doing on her milestones?

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Because her birthday fell on a Tuesday this year, and based on the spotty availability of various relatives, Natalie lucked into four separate birthday parties this year. (“Her sweet sixteen is going to take all month,” someone groaned.) She blew out her first round of candles on the Thanksgiving pumpkin pie, which we shared with Uncle Pete, Aunt Aimee, and Aunt Kat, briefly in town on a break from grad school in Texas. She shared a chocolate cake (topped with a white chocolate Millennium Falcon) with Aunt Jean and Uncle Patrick. She brought cupcakes, topped with chocolate Darth Vaders, in to daycare on her actual birthday. And yesterday she had the massive three-ring-circus house party, packing our house with light-saber-wielding friends, a giant Death Star cake (which took four days to bake!), and even Darth Vader Himself.
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(Natalie frowned at the archvillain, immediately recognized her father, and piped up “Daddy, when is the real person dressed as Darth Vader going to come?”)

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She can be a serious kid. She isn’t sounding out words yet, but knows the whole alphabet, can sort-of-write her name (last attempt: “TAN”), and, most importantly, loves books. She gaily accompanies her father and sister on weekly family excursions to the public library, returns home with a bag of books too heavy for her to lift, consumes them all as bedtime stories and then demands that the same stories be recounted to her, again and again, as we drive downtown to daycare or back home for dinner.

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She can be a girly girl. While we’ve done our best to keep the princess-industrial complex out of our home, Natalie still likes to dress up in fancy sparkly lacy things, even if all we’re doing is making chocolate chip cookies together. (She loves to “make cookies,” which in Natalie-speak means “eat cookie dough.”)

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But she’s not all girl all the time, either. We were so proud when, for Halloween, she preferred a knight costume to a princess gown. And even when her sister insisted “No, Evie pincess!”, Natalie nonetheless stuck to her theme: Daddy was the king, Mommy was the queen, Natalie was the knight on horseback and Genevieve was the dragon she fought. (In retrospect this was a more successful plan than we could have anticipated. Natalie has mostly forgotten about Halloween, but Evie will remind us on a near-daily basis that she was a dragon.)

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And she can be a goof. She loves to have funny-noise-making contests (and now has gotten her sister into the game), crack silly jokes, and roar like a lion or Godzilla on demand. We tell her repeatedly that bravery, cleverness and empathy are her best attributes, but I love her ready guffaw, her zest for life, the ease with which she laughs and makes us laugh. Four years after her cannonball birth, low-impact infancy, and generally smooth early childhood, we’re still waiting for the other shoe to drop. Natalie continues to be a ray of sunshine, an even-keeled, happy-go-lucky kid who rolls with the punches and stays on her game. While age three brought more tantrums than the previous three years combined, this still, on an absolute scale, did not amount to much in the way of domestic unrest. Someday she may yet cloud over, go sullen, hit adolescence and stop being so much fun to be with. But it hasn’t happened yet.

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541561_10153356942649896_2099266429606429840_nHer best friends at age four are Phoebe and Gabby. Both are alums of our daycare, which Natalie still attends, and each has a younger sibling roughly Evie’s age. Phoebe is a ball of energy, a microphone-grabbing rock star. Gabby is quieter and thoughtful, and attends ballet class with Natalie, where watching the pair of them tiptoe and spin and giggle together is worth the price of admission. Their play is imaginative rather than physical: on one play date, the girls took turns playing “Night Night” — tucking each other into bed, singing a lullaby and kissing each other good night.

1973353_10152463076392543_826601204525783876_oShe is not an unduly high-energy kid; she does not run us ragged. But that could be because her high-energy dad is an absolute master of entertaining preschoolers. He’s constantly taking the girls to the park/zoo/library/supermarket and, as he puts it, “running them down.” Both Natalie and her sister are excellent sleepers, almost certainly due to Daddy’s mighty efforts to guarantee that they go to bed tired every night.

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I’m not holding my breath for Natalie to be a star athlete (an unlikely outcome in any event, given her parentage). She progressed nicely at swimming this summer, and continues to do so in ballet; but she isn’t yet drawing figurative pictures, eschews utensils in favor of eating with her fingers, and seems to be just a tick or two behind most four-year-olds in general motor skills. I was more concerned about this before she potty-trained. Now I just hope that she either grows into gracefulness, or else follows in my footsteps and cultivates other beloved talents that do not involve physical movement. I’m about to turn 40 and I’m still a clumsy sloth, which I guess is proof that one can succeed marvelously in life without ever overcoming the motor delays of one’s youth. But hopefully her luck will be better. It’s probably fun to dance.

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At any rate, in my value system, it's more important that she love her life than that she derive pleasure from any particular activity. I know I'd love it if she grew up to be a singer, but if instead she realizes that she really loves to dance/do gymnastics/play soccer/bike long distance/cagefight, that's what matters: that she loves it. Right now it's a joy to spend anytime with her, as she loves pretty much everything, pretty much all of the time. (Star Wars and How To Train Your Dragon are both favorite movies and favorite worlds in which to plant improvisational stories/fantasy play.) Even in her worst moods she'll still crack a smile if I whisper in her ear, "Guess what? …I love you."

I am so grateful for all that she has been, and all that she becomes, every day. I love you, my Noodles, my superhero big girl. Happy birthday.
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nailing the dismount

I may have just breastfed my youngest daughter for the last time.

& and I are headed to Dulles Airport later today to catch the overseas red-eye. We will be celebrating our fifth wedding anniversary (!) and our mutual fortieth birthdays (!!) with a magnificent trip to Rome and Florence, where we will get to see family, explore ruins, wander through museums, ingest carbs in outrageous quantity, and hopefully return home with at least one new leather bag. What we will not be doing on this trip is bringing the kids along.

We’ll be gone for ten days. That’s the longest I’ve ever been away from my children.

Natalie’s nearly four; Evie’s nearly two. They’ll be fine. They’re in the capable hands of their Nana and Bubba, who for part of our trip will actually be staying here in our house with the girls (the better to avoid the rush-hour traffic around daycare). On weekends they’ll repair to their house in the suburbs, where the girls will walk the twin dachshunds and play in the playhouse and have all the fun to which they’re accustomed. Their lives will go on more or less as usual; they may miss us, but probably not much.

Me, I’m not so sure. I suspect that once we get to Italy, the giddiness of disappearing obstacles will set in. The ability to eat, sleep, and transport myself at will, in whatever manner I choose, will be lovely. But at the moment, I am trying to fit my head around the fact that — after twenty-one and a half months — Genevieve and I, myself and my miniature, are going to wean cold turkey. Today is the day that we flip the switch and transform, just like that, from mother and baby to parent and child.

Madonna and Child

If you had told me that I would be breastfeeding my child within three months of her second birthday, that she would unlatch and announce “All gone!” and then, after switching sides, unlatch again and say “All gone this side!” with a grin, I would probably have shuddered at the thought. Breastfeeding beyond infancy was one of those eerily politicized features of the Motherhood Cult, a belief system I found alien, if not outright antithetical, to my worldview.

Plus, I barely made any milk. Ever. At my best I could pump maybe a bottle a day for Genevieve. And once she started eating regular people food, I watched my already-meager supply dwindle to almost nothing.

And yet she still nursed.

“Mommy milky?” she’d ask brightly when I came into her room in the morning. (Or, less heartwarmingly, at the top of her lungs at 2:30 am: MOMMY MILKY AGAIN! MOMMY MILKY AGAIN!) I don’t know what, if anything, she was getting when she nursed. But somehow I managed to sate her, and she kept asking for it again, day after day, despite all indications that the well was running dry. (It wouldn’t be my first time before a judge who decided to ignore clear and convincing evidence.)

This morning, Evie unlatched from the left side, smiled, and requested, “Watch Mary Poppins?” When I countered that we had already returned that movie to the library, she latched on to the right side, allowed me to install her second pigtail, and, after a few minutes, popped off with an even bigger smile. “Mommy milky all gone.”

Now it is. Now it really is. I’m going to get on a plane in eight hours and won’t see my baby girl again until October 19, by which point even the longest-surviving outliers among my exhausted mammaries will have given up the ghost. And even if I could manage to muster a drop or two, by then she will probably have given up asking.

She’ll have forgotten already.

And that’s how it’s supposed to work, right? Kids aren’t supposed to remember nursing. (I sure don’t. Natalie doesn’t either.)

All of this is natural and normal and the proper order of things. And this should be a nice soft landing for both of us. Right?

But then I will no longer have a baby.
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In truth, I haven’t had one for awhile. If you looked at Genevieve you’d never guess that this hardy toddler, this mighty, speedy, spirited little girl with her apple cheeks and pigtails and mouthful of teeth, was still pulling mommy-milk from the source on a daily basis. Once I can admit to myself what is obvious to everyone else (talk about ignoring clear and convincing evidence!), we will both move smoothly into the next phase. She’s no longer a baby, she’s a big kid. And I’ve equally outgrown my madonna-phase. Onward! To Italy! And childhood!

And bedtime stories. And lullabies. Even if they still refer to her as baby.

Genevieve is one year old

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My Christmas baby has now experienced her first Christmas.

(This was a subject of some debate. If you’re born on Christmas, when is your first Christmas actually — the day you’re born, or your first birthday? Genevieve’s daddy offered my favorite answer, which is that your first Christmas is the one where Santa comes for you. Last year, by the time Evie emerged, Santa had come and gone without noting her existence. This year she had her own stocking and a pile of presents addressed to her. Ergo, first Christmas. We’re calling it.)
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I feel badly that we’ve kind of halfassed the “birthday” part of Evie’s Christmas birthday. I baked her a brown butter cake, put the girls to bed on Christmas Eve, and promptly realized that I could produce neither filling nor frosting for this cake without the noisy kitchen implements waking my sleeping angels. So I filled the cake with raspberry-apricot jam from the fridge and coated it with cinnamon-dark chocolate ganache, a hack involving Baker’s chocolate, light cream, and the microwave. Fortunately, at age one Genevieve is not a particularly discerning customer; she almost certainly would not have cared (or even noticed) if her birthday cake had come from the freezer, or the grocery store for that matter. In years to come we aspire to throw actual birthday parties for Genevieve with a target date of January 3, which conveniently happens to be St. Genevieve’s Day. But this year she’ll be content with a homespun birthday cake and her immediate family on Christmas, because she’s one.

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Of note: the white satin birthday dress was Natalie’s first, but Evie got her own crown, not to be confused with the (similar, but distinct) birthday crown that Natalie wears. Also like her big sister, Evie now has one large candle that will sit astride her various birthday cakes and be re-lit each successive year. Natalie’s recurrent birthday candle is a ladybug. Evie’s is an elephant that I have carried with me, unlit, for several decades. The thought of a child of mine — one of a plurality of children, no less — adopting this elephant as a perennial birthday candle was the farthest thing from my mind when I purchased him in Harvard Square in 1996. But he had other plans. Now he belongs to my second daughter, and I was delighted to light him at last.

A quick developmental update, the last in a series (unless I somehow get better at blogging about my children once they outgrow infancy): Genevieve is 29 1/2 inches tall and weighs 21 lbs 6 oz, at or near the 75th percentile on both counts. The long-awaited canine teeth have yet to emerge, despite several rounds of fussy drooling and sleep disruptions; she’s still at eight teeth. Fortunately that’s all she needs to eat anything we’re having, or to gnaw on the protruding spout of her sippy cup (we furloughed the botbots several weeks ago, and will retire them for good as soon as we can get around to packing them away). She drinks cow’s milk, loves green beans and mac’n’cheese, and daintily ate her birthday cake without getting a speck of ganache on the white dress. (Contrast this to fig newtons, a favorite artistic medium which I now know never again to give to Genevieve in the car.)

She runs circles around the other babies in the infants room at daycare, and will soon be graduating to the toddlers room. Evie has taken so thoroughly to walking that she’s basically given up crawling, except in the evenings and mornings, when she’s too sleepy to balance upright. But once the kid wakes up properly, she is a perpetual motion machine, tearing down the path of life on two feet, so very, very ready to run.

My mother says that babies at their first birthday are either very verbal or very mobile. At this point in her life Natalie had multiple recognizable words but had yet to walk unassisted. Genevieve is the other side of that coin: she is quieter, willing if not excited to repeat sounds you make, vaguely aware that things have names…and a powerhouse of gross motor skills. Don’t turn around or she’ll be in the other room before you know it, reaching into the toilet or the fireplace or grasping at low-hanging ornaments on the Christmas tree. I took my eyes off her for thirty seconds while folding laundry and in that time, she had toddled out of the laundry room and silently hauled herself halfway up the basement stairs. She’ll scale entire staircases undaunted if you let her. Evie lives in a universe full of things to reach and grab and chew on and climb. For Natalie the world was, and is, a thing to observe, a cloud of dancing sounds and words and rhymes and songs. For Genevieve it’s a place of textures, objects, things to navigate and manipulate to her own ends. Watch, she’ll grow up to be an engineer.

20131216_185831Before my eyes she is growing up. We’re still breastfeeding, and she’ll still wake up in the middle of the night sometimes (she has done so for the past two nights, breaking her weeks-long streak of full nights’ rest). But it is unmistakably clear that my baby is no longer a baby. She is herself, her daredevil, thrill-seeking, mighty self. She will drink life to the lees. And I will toast her as she does.

a cupful of sand

See this?
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This is the last can of infant formula Genevieve will ever consume.

Let’s be frank: I’ve never mastered breastfeeding. No matter what I did to make more milk, I never made enough. This has meant that, since day three of her life, Genevieve has consumed formula to survive. And I’ve never forgotten it. There was no escaping the constant, needling evidence of my inadequacy at lactation: the omnipresent red can on our kitchen counter, the screwtop cylinders of white powder in my purse, the need to have a bottle at the ready as soon as Evie nursed me dry. Every time my baby drank formula, I was reminded that it, and not I, was keeping her alive.

On the other hand, I’ve succeeded beyond my wildest dreams at breastfeeding Genevieve. She’s almost a year old and we’re still going. Yes, she had formula early and often, but then something amazing happened: she kept nursing anyway. We didn’t quit when she moved to her own room, started on solids, slept through the night, cut teeth, forsook bottles for sippy cups, or even learned to walk. To this day, in what may be the last remaining vestige of Genevieve’s infancy, we still nurse at least twice daily. And now she will never taste formula again.

[Let us pause and indulge in a brief, exultant victory-rage. Farewell, formula, and to hell with you! You have been exhausted and supplanted, and it is we who endure! Thanks again for ensuring my child’s survival, and don’t let the doorknob hit you on the way out. We’ll be blowing goodbye kisses from the nursery glider.]

We’ve made it. With Genevieve, I have fulfilled (finally) my ancient (pre-Natalie) goal to breastfeed for a year. (A year! We’ve breastfed for a year!!) I’m surprised at how much this actually matters to me, after I’d already made my peace with failure, even come to take it for granted. I mean, how is it possible that we’ve nursed this long, when I sucked at it and Evie had alternative sustenance on demand? And yet we have done it. In this I take no small measure of pride.

But I’d be lying if I didn’t confess an equal measure of fear of the unknown. I cannot predict how long we will continue to nurse. I have no idea how to wean an actual sentient being, someone who is already able to point to things and say “Dat!” and may soon be requesting breastmilk by name. (Right now I call it “mommy milk” but may soon need to resort to the baby-talk euphemisms common among extended breastfeeders, “mimi” or “nunu” or suchlike.) I never intended to become one of those attachment-parenting types who still breastfeed their preschoolers. But what if it happens? We could theoretically keep doing this for a long, long time. I don’t know how to stop it. And at this point, I’m not ready to try.

I’m not ready to lose that moment when you’re in a dark room lit only by a nightlight, rocking your baby, smelling her hair and listening to her breathe. Of course, breastfeeding is not an essential component of this moment (I actually prefer it once she’s drifted off to sleep and is no longer latched on). But Genevieve is outgrowing so much, so quickly, that maintaining this connection to her babyhood is a gift to myself that I’m not ready to give up. I’m not ready to wean myself from being the mother of an infant. I rock her, and through the wall I hear & reading stories to Natalie. Soon enough Evie will be a child who gets bedtime stories. For the moment, at least, she’s still a baby who nurses to sleep, and for as long as this treasure is still mine, I see no reason to squander a moment of it.

Happy THIRD birthday, Natalie!

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Our magnificent, magnificent daughter.

I wish we’d blogged more about Natalie this year. It was work enough to keep to the monthly posting schedule with Genevieve, to pull out the green onesie and take the teddy bear picture every time the twenty-fifth rolled around, even when Evie seemed to be unlocking major achievements on a biweekly basis. But Noodles’ developmental milestones had become subtler, less temporal, and without a recurring appointment to sit down and take note of them, I let things pass. At some point my brilliant firstborn picked up verb tenses, contractions, subject-verb agreement, negation, and irregular plurals, but (slacker mom) I don’t recall when any of those happened. A year ago she would point to any writing and squeal “ABCD!” and I’d be delighted that she recognized it as writing. Now, she knows the alphabet and numbers, and will identify DC Metrobuses for fun as we sit in traffic. “That’s a D6, Mommy!” or “That’s a three-seven!” At some point she moved from point A to point B, but I could not tell you when that transition actually took place.

That we have any record at all of Natalie’s verbal precocity is due to the magical microblogging capacity of social media, where we did, fortunately, manage to keep up. Here follows the Compendium of Tweets/Status Updates Wherein Two-Year-Old Natalie Amazes Her Parents:

January 8:
Best part of the potty training process: when & emerges from the loo and Natalie immediately congratulates him. “Good job, Daddy!”

January 12:
Natalie woke up this morning telling us “I talk to Uncle Patrick.” He’s her godfather in San Francisco, and apparently appears in her dreams.

February 6:
Natalie: The good Moshe! The good Moss-sha!
Mommy: ??
Natalie: [repeats several times]
And then I get it. My two-year-old is telling me that today in school, they learned about THURGOOD MARSHALL.
(Love our daycare!!)

February 9:
Daddy: We’re going to have some waffles!
Natalie: With syrup! SURREPTITIOUS!!
Daddy: I think that was Natalie’s first pun.

February 16: Natalie announced “I’m not a baby!” and insisted on going down for her nap — for the very first time — in her Big Girl Bed.

February 22:
Daycare teacher: Surprise, Natalie, it’s your daddy!
Natalie: He’s not a surprise, he’s a LIBRARIAN!
Daddy: (convulsed with laughter)
Natalie: (Long thoughtful pause) He’s not the President.

March 13:
Daddy: Natalie, if you have two more bites of chicken you can have a fig newton.
Natalie (haggling): THREE more bites.
Daddy: OK, three more bites.
Natalie (sensing weakness): FOUR more bites!

April 28:
Natalie: I need my fuckin spoon.
Daddy: (AGHAST)
Mommy: Sure, Natalie, you can have your fork and spoon.

May 7:
Daddy: Natalie, are you ready to eat some hot dog octopuses?
Natalie: Octopi.

May 19, at the Cathedral after Evie’s christening: “Genevieve has baptism in her hair.”

June 9:
Natalie: (pushing her stroller out of the playroom) I’m leaving, bye bye!
Mommy: Where are you going?
Natalie: To the Kennedy Center.

June 19, driving home:
Mommy: Natalie, you look so much like your daddy.
Natalie: I don’t look like my daddy!
Mommy: Why do you think you don’t?
Natalie: Because I have a lot of hair!

June 26, unprompted: “Did you have fun at work today, Mommy?”

July 15, while floating in the tub: “THERE’S NO GRAVITY IN THE BATH!”

July 17: “A storm is coming. I hope the thunder isn’t loud like the fireworks. I had to cover my ears!”

July 19:
Natalie: My ankle hurts.
Daddy: You know what helps with hurting ankles? French fries!
Natalie: (nods sagely and applies French fries topically to her ankle.)

August 9:
Natalie: I can be a doctor or a nurse.
Mommy: That’s right, Natalie, you can be anything you want.
Natalie: Mommy, do you want to be a nurse?
Mommy: No, sweety, I already have a job. You know what I do, right?
Natalie: Yeah.
Mommy: What’s Mommy’s job?
Natalie: Go to the library and read books.

August 13: “Mommy, may I please have something to wipe my hands with?”

August 23, at the park, watching an older kid in a spiderman shirt go swarming up a climbing net:
Natalie: I’m going to climb that.
Daddy: I’m afraid that’s too big for you. HE can climb it because he’s Spiderman.
Natalie: I’m going to be SPIDER BIG GIRL because I’m going to eat ALL MY VEGETABLES!

September 6, playing with the iPod:
Natalie: It says I should have mac and cheese for dinner!
Daddy: What does it say Mommy should have for dinner?
Natalie: Hot sauce.

September 8:
Daddy: *sneezes*
Natalie: Kerplash you!

September 24, driving home along Canal Road:
Natalie: I want to go to college.
Mommy: You can go to college anywhere you want. Look, there’s Georgetown. That’s a college right near our house.
Natalie: I want to go to college by my house.
Mommy: You can go to Georgetown if you work hard and get good grades.
Natalie: Miss Heather does good braids!

November 14:
Natalie: Look daddy, the full moon!
Daddy: Well, it’s not quite full. It’s waxing. That means it’s getting bigger and bigger.
Natalie: Oh. (long pause) Daddy, I’m waxing!

And just this morning, chasing the cat into the large train-shaped tent which was her major birthday present: “Watch out, Moxie, here comes Evie’s big sister!” (Evie was not even in the room at the time.)

Some of her verbalizations definitely come from daycare. “Listen to my words!” she’ll order, or snap “No THANK you, Evie!” when her sister invades her personal space. More recently, as she’s shown an increasing interest in her father’s old favorite TV shows, Natalie has picked up some expressions that clearly originated with a scriptwriter. “Hey guys!” she’ll call out to get our attention. “Let’s get out of here!” she’ll suggest without rancor. And her enunciation has evolved to crystal clarity, although she can still dial up the pouty-toddler mushmouth diction when she’s sulky or under coercion. She knows when and how to Ask Nicely, but she finds more phonological ground to explore in the word “please” than I’d ever realized was there. “Puh-lllll…lay!”

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Sometimes it can verge on frustrating, when Natalie is not equally advanced in other efforts, but can still speak so eloquently about them. I’ll park her on the potty and tell her to do one thing, and that thing is not talking, and yet she will talk, tell you stories, start to sing a song or recite a rhyme or play some other game when you just want the kid to pee already. At age three Natalie is probably about 75% potty trained, not far enough behind the curve for us to worry. After all, this is the same kid who threatened to miscarry, moved late in utero, arrived at 40w5d, and spent much of her infancy well behind the bell curve in physical development. I have no doubt that she will figure this out on her own timeframe, as she has with every other major physical milestone, and that it won’t be so far off the norm as to alarm anyone.

We remain as close to a princess-free household as possible, although I long ago gave up my resistance to trademarked characters. Natalie loves the Muppets, Dora the Explorer, Curious George, and Thomas the Tank Engine. Her affection for talking trains has given her father and grandfather no end of delight, with the three of them constantly in search of an excuse to visit the B&O train museum in Baltimore again. Natalie has created, and recounted to us, implausibly involved stories about an imaginary train called “The General” (based on this actual train) who, variously, hangs out with Thomas and Friends, pulls a coach full of Natalie’s daycare friends (complete with potty), and pulls Santa’s sleigh when the reindeer crap out. We’ve identified the locomotive in the movie “The Polar Express” as the General, much to Natalie’s delight. And she was over the moon when her third birthday party featured Thomas in all his grinning tank-engine glory, from pinata to pink strawberry cake to play tent to Pin the Smokestack on Thomas:

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In a crowd of two- and three-year-olds, Natalie is in her glory, collaborating on games and Sharing Nicely and otherwise doing things that move daycare teachers to give her stickers. She loves her friends. They love her back. And we could not be prouder parents of our magnificent goofball, our articulate wonder, our brilliant, brilliant big girl. Oh, how we love you, Natalie Eleanor. How we love you.

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