NORMAL: ACT I, SCENE I:
I don’t play the part of “normal mom” very well, nor do I play it very often. Saoirse and Ula have been trained to sleep in, to afford me as many quiet pre-dawn silent work hours as possible. If they step into my office before 7:30 in the morning, they are met with a snarling beast. I expect them to make their own breakfasts. I refuse to drive them to ballet class or music lessons. “When you are older and can drive yourself,” I tell them, “if that same fire still burns inside of you, then you will quickly make up for my neglect with your talent and dedication.”
But once a year, I dig out my Trac phone and charge it up. We pretend we are normal Americans. For one week in July, I take sole possession of our car, when Saoirse and Ula are each allowed to attend one week of a summer camp, where they can experience some of the things our farm life doesn’t typically allow. I cancel my morning writing sessions, ignore the farm as much as possible, and keep a calendar and clock in front of my nose at all times. Then, so they can feel like real children on real schedules, I walk upstairs with my biggest steel bowl and bang on it with a wooden spoon at 6am while singing Irving Berlin’s Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning until they drag their weary bodies out of bed. Our sunrise calm is supplanted by timed hysteria, “We leave in 24 minutes and 31 seconds! Move! Move!” I shout. Coordinating with my mother over the cell phone as my back-up driver, we race over the back roads of the county, and as a result of careful calculations, I deliver my children to their respective camps. On time. This year, Saoirse went to spend a week practicing 19th century homesteading skills at The Farmers Museum. Ula, who has been dreaming of the stage for years now, chose a local theater camp, where the children would put on a puppet production of Anansi and the Strange Moss Covered Rock.
Monday, everything went fine. I learned last year that deviled eggs and hog’s headcheese were inhibitors to peer social interactions at lunch time. This year, I agreed to a week of toxic gluten-free sandwich bread from the grocery store, slathered with almond butter and homemade jam. Apparently, that helped to smooth the social path. At the end of the day, both girls were smiling. I patted myself on the back. Good normal mom. Only four days to go.
NORMAL: ACT I, SCENE 2:
On Tuesday, camp was still fine for Saoirse. But when I retrieved Ula, the musical director met me at the sign-out sheet. “So we were wondering if Ula would be willing to play the part of Anansi,” she whispered quietly. “She has such good stage presence…”
From what I could tell, Ula was one of the youngest children in the group. My “normal mom” heart thumped with pride. “No problem!” I said. We agreed that the director would email me a copy of the script, and we’d be in touch over the week so I could help Ula practice at home. On the way back, we stopped at the gas station (an almost-daily occurrence during normal parenting week). There, we met our friend Matt. I rolled down the window to let Ula announce with joy her starring role. “We’ll be at the show!” Matt called before pulling away. When we got home, I sent an email to our neighbors, parents of Ula’s best friend Katharine. Could they come see her? Another note went to her Aunt Erin and Uncle Matthew over in Cobleskill. And another one to Saoirse and Ula’s dear friend Sarah and her family. Friday night, 6pm, they were all told. I dutifully printed off the script, and brought the rehearsal CD into the kitchen. Once the supper dishes were cleared, Ula and I practiced. She loved every minute of it, and threw her body and soul into rehearsing her solo. At 11pm I put the script down and refused to let her continue. “You MUST sleep!” I ordered her.
NORMAL: ACT I, SCENE 3:
On Wednesday, the director emailed me a list of songs and lines that Ula was having trouble with. It was disturbingly long. That evening, Alicia, my friend who is a mother of five, managed to shed 3 of her five children with her husband, and came over for a girls’ night. Propping herself up on a stool in the kitchen, she poured herself a glass of wine, took a sip, savored the flavor, then drank in the reality that she had only two children to care for that night. She smiled at me like a cat toying with a mouse as I pulled the silk from the ears of sweet corn, and, panic stricken, kept my eyes on the clock as I tried to figure out when I was supposed to find the time to review Ula’s part with her before the next morning.
“Bet you’re wishing she didn’t get the part of Anansi,” she grinned. She was right. At this point, I was wishing Ula could play the moss covered rock.
“I’m out of my league,” I confessed. “I don’t know how we’re going to get through this. She’s too young to learn all this stuff. The show is in two days!”
“Yup,” she gave me a knowing nod, “it’s a little extra work for the kid. A LOT of extra work for the mom.”
To his credit, Bob was actually the one left to do the rehearsing that time.
On Thursday, Bob brought Ula home from camp in the farm truck. Her eyes were wide with fear. “How’d it go?” I asked.
“I got stuff wrong,” she said quietly. “I almost cried in front of everyone.” That night, we couldn’t practice her part. I could only sit with her while she wept. How were we going to get through this? What do other normal parents do?
Ula and I left early on Friday, and I put the rehearsal CD on the car stereo. “Why aren’t you singing?” I asked as she gazed at me through the rear-view mirror.
“I want you to sing it with me.”
“But the show is tonight! You need to be able to do it on your own!”
“Please? Will you just do it with me?”
I skipped to the part where she had the most difficult lines. “I’ll say the part of the bush deer,” I told her. “You say your Anansi lines.”
We practiced, but she never raised her voice above a whisper. As we neared the site of the camp, I pulled off the road at a nearby park. Maybe it is just too much time being normal. Maybe she’s had too much indoor time, I guessed, maybe she just needs to relax in nature. We walked down to the Fox Creek and sat on some rocks, watching as the morning sun sparkled on the swiftly moving water.
“You can do this,” I told her. “You’ll be great.” She didn’t answer. We stood up to go and she slipped her hand inside mine.
“Will you stay with me today?”
Yes, I was trying to be a normal mom. But I didn’t want to be a helicopter parent. “You don’t actually need me there, sweetie,” I assured her. “Have fun with the other kids.”
“I do need you. Please? I will just feel better if you’re there.”
And so I stayed. I hid in the back of the dark theater and watched. She couldn’t deliver any of her lines. At the first break, she ran to find me. Taking me by the hand, she brought me up to the front, where I was nearly in the spotlight. “I need you here,” she said. I obeyed.
But the day didn’t go much better. It was four hours before the show, and the prompter had to feed her every line. And she was so frightened, my brave and brazen child suddenly couldn’t raise her voice above a whisper. Normal moms would have done a better job rehearsing with their children, I chided to myself. A good mom wouldn’t have let her daughter get in over her head. But here we were. Over our heads. And there was nothing to be done about it. The rehearsal ended and all the children ran outside to play. I was helping to clean up when the director spoke.
“Well, your being here may have helped,” she began, awkwardly.
“I was sorry to intrude on your day,” I began, “Ula was just so frightened.”
“Well, I’m sorry too,” she pushed a strand of hair behind her ear. “She acts so mature, we just didn’t realize how young she was.”
“Maybe it will all change tonight,” I offered weakly. “Ula has always wanted to perform. Maybe she just needs to feel what it is like to have an audience.”
“Well,” she was trying not to be too negative, I could tell, “things usually go better than I expect.”
She must not be expecting much, I thought to myself.
NORMAL: ACT II, SCENE I
Ula and I got in the car to leave. I turned the ignition, and the rehearsal CD began to play. “Please, Mom, I can’t,” tears were coming down her face.
“But you’ve got to know it for tonight!”
“Can I please not go tonight?”
I wanted to give in, but if I did, then I knew it would only be harder for her when she faced her next challenge.
She stared out the window and half-heartedly mouthed the words as we drove.
She was feeling like a failure. But in truth, I had failed her. I should have had her rehearse more. But she’s just a kid, I told myself. She needed to play, too. I should have known she was too young for the part. Only a stupid mom would push her child into something that she wasn’t ready for, I thought. A good mom would have put the breaks on, before it was too late.
Every year, this one week of camp, where I see other families on-the-run, where I watch other mothers with their children, where I fill my gas tank three or more times in five days, brings us to the brink. All the driving. All the scheduling and coordinating. All the packed lunches. And now, all the rehearsing we should have done. I try to understand how other people do it. Once a year, I try to play down our homeschooled radical homemaking, family farming lifestyle and help my kids fit in. But here we were, three and a half hours before a play, and my kid, owing to my ineptitude as a “normal” mother, was going to ruin the show for everyone. To hell with it, I decided. I turned off the CD. Time to do things my own way.
I swung the car over to the side of the road, and back down to the park along the creek.
“What are we doing, Mom?”
“Magic,” I answered. “We’re doing magic.” Dumbo’s feather, Dumbo’s feather, I kept repeating to myself. Dumbo thought he couldn’t fly, until the crow gave him his magic feather. Ula unbuckled her carseat while I frantically ran around opening all the doors, digging under seats and scrounging through the trunk, finding anything I could to make magic for my seven-year-old. Intention is what matters, I told myself. Belief, and intention. I found a lollipop in the glove box from our last trip to the bank. I found a container of salt in my lunch bag. I dug out my secret stash – half of an organic, fair trade dark chocolate bar. As I searched, I wracked through the rolodex of deities in my brain. Christian God? No, too hierarchical. Virgin Mary? No, too unfamiliar. Zeus? No, too much thunder and drama. Fairies? No, too prone to play tricks. I thought about the time of year. My Aunt Kimmie is Wiccan. On my desk is a hand-written letter she mailed me once, where she wrote out the Eight Spoked Wheel of the Year, outlining all the festival days. We were at the end of July. Just this morning I had picked that letter off the top of my desk clutter, and I remembered: Lughnasadh, the Celtic Fire Festival…the beginning of the harvest…a time to honor the God Lugh, the Celtic Diety of many skills. Many skills? That works, I decided.
I grabbed Ula by the hand and led her down to the creek bank. I handed her the chocolate bar. “Here! Break this up! Throw it into the creek!”
“But Mommy! This is your favorite chocolate!”
“Rituals require sacrifice,” I assured her. With glee, she broke up the bits of chocolate and tossed it across the flowing water. I joined her in the dispersal. “We offer this gift for the God Lugh!” I called out.
“We offer this gift,” she repeated, “for the God… Lou?” She turned to me. “Who’s Lou?”
Confidence mattered more than than anything else. “Lugh is the Irish God of Many Skills,” I spoke with as much authority as I could muster. “You need many skills tonight, and, lucky for us, this is the time of his festival, so he’s extra strong right now.”
“We offer this gift to the God…. Lugh,” she went along.
“Now stand still!” I told her. “It’s time to make you a protective circle!” A few boys were fishing a little ways down stream.
“Mommy? Are those boys watching us?”
“What are they thinking?”
“I don’t care what they think. We need magic. Let’s go.”
Ula closed her eyes and stood solemnly still. I opened my vial of salt and made a circle around her. “I make this circle of salt so that you may feel protected and safe,” I said.
“But Mommy? I can’t stay in this circle all night. We have a play.”
Stop being so damned pragmatic, I thought. I was making a fool of myself, but it was the only thing I could do. “The circle is symbolic,” I invented my answer, “the protection will follow you, even when you step out of it.” The answer seemed to suffice. She closed her eyes and let me proceed. “And on this day, we pray to the God Lugh,” I continued.
She kept her eyes closed., “I pray to the God Lugh,” she was on board.
“And we ask for his gifts this night,” I went on.
“And we ask for his gifts,” she repeated.
Shouldn’t there at least be three things? I thought to myself? Her eyes were still closed.
“For joy!” I added.
“For joy!” She repeated with the fullest voice I’d heard thus far.
“Now Ula,” I instructed her. “Step outside your circle, and know that its protection follows you.” Cautiously, she stepped outside and looked at me. Normal moms would be going over lines and rehearsing songs, I thought. Maybe later.
“I want you to think,” I proceeded, “think about each of your fears. And I want you to pick up one stone for each fear. Call it out, then throw it away into the water.”
She stared down, then carefully selected two stones. Looking out over the widest part of Fox Creek, she wound her arm behind her, then bellowed out “FEAR OF FAILURE!” and pitched it as far as she could.
“That fear is now washed away,” I said quietly.
She wound up with the second stone. “EMBARRASSMENT!” And she threw.
My eyes were filled with tears. “Your embarrassment is washed away,” I spoke through stilted sobs. I handed her the bits of crumbled up lemon lollipop. “Now give him this,” I instructed.
“Isn’t lollipop littering?”
She watched the water a little longer. I looked around at the ground in search of something to give her in a medicine bundle. Someone had dropped three fishing lure beads. “Here,” I called her attention to them. “Hold these in your hand until we can get home and find you a medicine bag.
“They are gifts from Lugh to remind you that he’s helping you tonight.”
“Mommy, it looks like litter.”
“But there are three? See? This one is for courage,” she held her palm open to receive it. “And this one is for imagination, and this one,” I dropped the last into her hand. “Is for joy. So you will have fun tonight.” I spoke with conviction, but my mama’s heart was rattled with fear on her behalf. “Time to go,” I pointed her in the direction of the car, and she skuttled off. Before following, I turned back to the creek. “Please,” I whispered. I didn’t care if she sang beautifully. I didn’t care if she forgot her lines. “Just let her feel happy and fulfilled,” I asked. And there was nothing more I could do.
NORMAL: ACT II, SCENE II
I was pacing about outside the theater when Bob came in. I shook my head when he gazed at me with questioning eyes. “It doesn’t look good,” I muttered, with Ula safely out of earshot with the cast.
“Crap,” he muttered.
“I think she needs to see familiar faces,” I thought aloud. Bethany, another friend who is a professional singer whose daughter was in the cast floated up to me. “Why are you looking so nervous?” she asked, cool and calm in the face of the performance. “Ula’s ready to throw up,” I said. “And therefore, so am I.”
She hugged me. “It’s a rite of passage,” she said. “This is a big night for her.”
Just then, Ula’s best friend Katharine came dancing in the door. “Shannon! Shannon!” She jumped up, trying to make her little body seen amidst the sea of grown-ups. “We’re here for Ula!” Behind her were her mom and dad, smiling broadly.
“She’s scared,” I said, “Do you think we can fill the front row so she can see friendly faces?”
“We’re on it,” said Katharine’s mom. We nosed and nudged our way to the front of the line, then charged into the theater, grabbing the front row for ourselves. A few minutes later, in came Grammie and Pop Pop. And then her Aunt Erin, Uncle Matt, and her cousins, Evie and Tick. Following them was Matt from the gas station, along with his wife, Nancy. Then in came Sarah and her Dad. I peered around the dark room. It was filled with the faces of people who love my little girl.
The lights came up. Children came out singing with their puppets of monkeys, lions, elephants, rhinoceroses, zebras. Then the stage fell quiet. All the children looked to the back corner and waited. And there she came, around the corner. Around her neck I could see the yarn that held her hidden medicine bundle. Her eyes searched the audience and found mine. We locked gazes, and she smiled broadly, then began creeping like Anansi the Spider, across the stage.
And then it was time for her solo.
And she froze.
The prompter fed her the first line.
And the second line.
She chimed in a bit on the third line. Then a bit more on the fourth line.
She sang the next verse by herself, then pretended to fall asleep, just as she was supposed to do, according to the script. And the audience (nearly half of which was her friends and family by this point) burst into applause.
And I watched her body tremble in response. She looked up from her slumber in surprise and shock. That was real applause! For her!
And that was it. She was Anansi the spider. Sure, she forgot lines. She forgot where she was supposed to be on the stage. She needed quite a few reminders from the prompter. A few times, she crossed her legs and grabbed herself, as though maybe she needed to pee. But the tears poured down my eyes every second of that 25 minute production. Not because she was making mistakes…but because she was loving every minute of it. And the applause never stopped coming for her.
NORMAL: ACT II, SCENE III
Bethany was correct. It was a rite of passage. Ula couldn’t stop smiling when the play was done. She was covered with hugs, decorated with flowers, showered with kisses. But just before those lights came up for that play, she had her darkest hour. And by forcing herself to confront that darkest hour, she was now basking in light.
But it wasn’t just Ula’s first time going through this. It was my first time through as a parent. I don’t suppose praying to Celtic Gods and sprinkling lollipops and chocolate into creeks counts as normal coping mechanisms, but I consider it a gift of the gods that brought all Ula’s friends and family to surround her during that dark hour. I consider it a gift of the gods that they filled the room with smiles and applause, sending her the courage and joy that she needed to face her fears. But ultimately, it was Ula’s victory. And we were all there to share it with her.
“She came through!” The director sang out as we cleaned up after the show. “You were right! She just needed to feel that audience!” She turned to Ula. “How was that?” She asked.
“Piece of cake,” Ula waved her hand in dismissal. “Mommy? Can we sign up for theater camp next week, too?”
“Forget it!” One week in the life of normal is enough for me.