The Things We’re Building

The Things We’re Building

It is a Tuesday night and the bedroom doors are finally closed. 

I press my hand to the small of my back and open my eyes to survey the damage. 

“It looks like a bomb went off in here.” I speak the words aloud, to no one. 

The pieces of our day are strewn about like debris from a storm. Books are all over the rug. Toy tractors, magnetic tiles, and colored pencils have been dumped into one massive pile under the dining room table. My desk is covered in papers. A glance into the kitchen reminds me that I have dinner plates to load into the dishwasher and lunch bags to unpack. I lift a green hoodie from the floor to shake off clumps of dog hair and my nose wrinkles in silent judgment of the woman who allows her house to get this messy. 

In defense of that woman, she’s just trying to stay afloat.

Since we started corn harvest in September, I’ve put the kids to bed by myself nearly every night. My mind feels as messy as our floors. Standards have slipped, resilience is low, and things around here have slowly devolved into Lord of the Flies territory. We all wept for the end of innocence last week when the baby pooped in the tub.

Kyle isn’t faring much better. While he’s dealt with late nights, broken equipment, and weary employees, I’ve dealt with isolation, endless food prep, and juggling kids and remote work. To say nothing of seven months of a worldwide pandemic and constant anxiety about the future. We’re both running on fumes. 

“Kitchen first,” I murmur, needing to break the chaos into manageable bits. I kneel down to wipe milk off the floor as the jackhammer sound of brakes fills the air. I lift my head to see yet another silage truck turn and rumble down the dirt road to the north of our house. The truck’s load of chopped corn will be dumped at the base of the massive pile Kyle’s been building since dawn. I think—not for the first time—that I would lose my mind if I had to drive a tractor up and down a pile of corn for 14 hours straight. How repetitive

Then again,” I cringe internally as I retrieve Henning’s fork and cup from the floor, “This is exactly what I did last night.”

Twenty minutes and a few more thoughts about futility later, the dishes are cleared, the countertops are wiped, and lunches are prepped for the next day. Onward. I pull my hair up into a messy knot and begin the nightly reset. I move from room to room methodically, gathering the wreckage of our day in my arms to set things right. Books go on the shelves, crayons back in their bins, pillows are fluffed and returned to the couch. After I wriggle under a chair to retrieve a small green tractor, I step back into the dining room. 

Even though the toys are put away, it’s a mess. At least to me. What used to be a relatively clean space pre-pandemic for dinner parties and weekend date nights is now a hybrid office/playroom. My narrow desk is shoved into a corner and the room is divided from the rest of the house by a barricade made up of a large plastic tub, an IKEA toy kitchen, and a wooden book bin. Anything to contain the kids. I’ve spent hours in this room since March, trying to write press releases while Daniel Tiger blared in the background, holding a baby on my lap during video meetings, and vacuuming kinetic sand off the floor. 

This room, this house has never been so lived in. Each day is a never-ending cycle of taking things out and putting them away. Meals and naps and so much screen time. In the past seven months, this place has been both a prison and a sanctuary. 

How can it all feel so claustrophobic when all I ever wanted was a full house? 

How can I be so battered by a life I prayed desperately to have? 

***

I once asked Kyle how he could do the same thing—drive a tractor back and forth, in this case—for hours, days, and weeks on end. “Don’t you just go crazy?” I said. He shrugged and said, “I’m building something. Every day I’m making progress and it feels good.” 

In his case, he’s building a pile of shredded corn stalks the length of a soccer field. Every hour he spends driving back and forth means our cows will have food for the next year. But it’s bigger than corn, I think. This philosophy guides his life—everything he does is in service to this business and a desire to keep moving forward.

Sometimes I wish my goals were that clear. I’m not always sure what I’m building while juggling work calls and the never-ending cycle of cooking breakfast, wiping noses, saying prayers, and picking up toys. My days are a winding road of repetitive tasks and trying to keep it together until bedtime, all while being floored by adoration for my aggravating little people. There isn’t a big payoff.

***

I drop the toy tractor into the basket and the noise startles me out of my reprieve. The post-bedtime silence feels almost eerie. Calm is what I desperately wanted all day—space to think a complete thought, answer a few emails, or take a step without a child or dog underfoot—but now that I’m here, the air is charged. It’s as if the lack of noise is just that: a lack. 

“I miss them,” I realize. This thought is immediately followed by, “You’re a crazy person,” but in spite of the dull ache in my head, I smile. 

My eyes rove the house again. Their energy still pulses through the air. Little handprints appear like evidence on every mirror, window, and low cupboard. A vase of purple and yellow wildflowers Anders picked for me sits on the counter. These scattered fragments tell the story of our life. A story of kids who build forts and have pillow fights and draw pictures for the fridge. A story of a mom who yells and fails and yet keeps on trying. 

I gather one last handful of broken crayons from the floor and straighten. 

I’m building something, and it feels good. 

Candles, Icebergs, and Fear

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It’s still dark outside. I pull the curtains tightly together in the kitchen before settling into my perch on a stool. My computer is open on the counter, a blank white document with a blinking cursor beckoning me.

I have so much I want to say about life right now, and yet I don’t know where to start. I feel so uncertain, insecure. I type a few words before standing up to get a cup of coffee. Maybe this will help, I think as I pour the hot liquid into the pink flowered mug with a “J” on it. When I add the milk to my cup, I watch how the white liquid slowly blooms and mixes with the brown before overtaking it.

I’m tired. My back aches. I slept fitfully again last night, dreaming of infection rates and to-do lists and an economic crash. I don’t think I’ve slept well since life turned upside down two weeks ago. Schools, churches, and businesses are all closed. I’m working remotely with three little people underfoot. After a couple of days of sleeping in, I realized that I needed to get up before the kids. My alarm going off at 5:30 felt normal, and I needed normal.

The candle next to the baby monitor flickers. Henning moans and turns over but is still asleep. Thank goodness. I’m not ready yet. The wax on the candle is getting low from spending so many pre-dawn mornings with me. I vaguely wonder if I’ll be able to get another one. Are there shortages of candles? Are there so many people trying to be soothed and find zen that there are empty shelves where all the candles used to be?

I push several crayons away from my elbow and smile–our house has never been this “lived in.” I’m grateful that the days are starting to feel a tiny bit easier, just by nature of exposure and practice. There was a time I couldn’t fathom having my kids home with me for a week. Now, this is our reality. There are no other options. There is no end in sight. And we are surviving.

But I shift uncomfortably on my stool as I wonder how many times I’ll yell today. How many times my patience will snap like a twig. I’ve been so angry lately. Short fused. Easily indignant. I blaze over the most mundane offenses and raise my voice more times per day than I care to count.

Will my kids remember how angry I was during this time?

Or will they realize that I was just afraid?

I read once that anger is a secondary emotion. It usually masks something else, something more raw, hidden, and vulnerable. Anger is just a tip of the iceberg. On the surface, my anger these days is a blazing fire. When I am angry, I feel powerful and wild, like I control the flames. It is intoxicating and it is false. Underneath the fire is a tender underbelly of my deep fear and grief. Sometimes the fear feels like smoke in my lungs, filling me up until I can’t breathe. I grieve for the way our life has changed. I grieve for the families and lives torn apart. I grieve for what’s lost.

I exhale fury. I inhale my shame.

***

Earlier this week the big kids and I made birthday cards to mail to my mom. Our dining room table–or what used to be a dining room table–is Art Central these days: covered in kraft paper, crayons, and sheets of stickers. Anders and Ellis worked intently on their projects while Henning rifled through a basket of board books on the floor. I smiled at the momentary calm, but the expression didn’t reach my eyes.

Anders reached for a red marker. “Do you hope we can stay home forever, Ellis?” He added curly hair to the figure he was drawing.

“Yes,” she nodded seriously before sticking another dinosaur sticker on her card.

“I just love it here,” Anders murmured, more to himself than anyone else.

My head jerked up. I wanted to say, “You do!?” but instead, I closed my eyes and let the shiver of gratitude roll up my back. He will be ok. They will be ok. I lifted my afternoon cup of coffee to my lips. The liquid had lost its heat, but I opened my throat and chugged every fortifying dreg. 

We will be ok.