Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood

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I have a predilection for things that stack. Stacks of mail, stacks of paper in an inbox, stacks of The New Yorker waiting (and waiting) to be read, stacks of chocolate chip cookies, or pancakes with melty butter and warm maple syrup. Coins, pizza boxes, cards, boards, firewood. Best of all are The Stacks, where you can make out behind old carrels covered in pen graffiti or get lost in The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. The word stack is so versatile; it is used in the jargon of air traffic control, temper, and odds. A stack can also describe a section of computer memory that is stored by the principle of last in, first out -- a good rule to live by, especially when squeezing a double stroller into the elevator at Barnes & Noble.

My very favorite stackables are books and blocks. Books stack better than blocks and are more attractive in an elegant, seductive way. Yet blocks make neat, cheerful towers that excite me almost as much. I like the traditional cubes with engraved alphabet letters and stamped images; but the sets of wooden, brightly-colored, solid, three-dimensional shapes are better. Whereas a stack of blocks is a highly engaging sight (I even like the smell), a stack of books is not only visually appealing, but viscerally, hungrily alluring. I am convinced part of this yearning is that I no longer have the time I once had for reading and writing.

As a child and teenager, I frequently disappeared to my room or to the backyard picnic table for long blocks of uninterrupted reading time. A running joke between my siblings and me revolves around this. One of them might remember an event or funny story from childhood, and my response would be, "Where was I? I don't remember that!" Then they would say, "Oh. . . you were reading somewhere."

One possibility for my fascination with all things stackable is that I lack time and I lack organization, but I never stop trying to recover both. I think if I can just get things stacked up -- in some semblance of order -- my days will be that much more manageable. As a stay-at-home mom, I get deep satisfaction from uncluttered surfaces, although I rarely see one these days. I could feel serene in a playroom with toys sorted correctly into their proper bins; Legos in one, Megabloks in another, PopOnz in a third. Or with a living room carpet I did not have to excavate in order to vacuum. At the very least, I want a food pantry in which I open the door and bags of pretzel sticks and rice cakes do not slide out into the recycle bin.

My meager attempts at organization are fleeting, like the short dreams that burst into my allotted three to five hours of sleep between late night potty-training-induced bed sheet and pajama changes, lion-like snoring from my husband, and random cries in the night from a sleeping baby. With an almost three-year-old and an infant, I reside in a topsy-turvy swirl of adrenaline-pumping, tear-inducing chaos and repetitive, mind-numbing boredom. Like the Titanic between 11:45 pm and 2:00 in the morning of April 15, 1912, I have been hit and I am listing; but I refuse to believe I am going down. So I plow on through the long days of baby and toddlerhood, addressing each mini-emergency with a solid resolve and duty: a leaking diarrhea diaper in the middle of Target; my fussy, distracting toddler during an otherwise placid story time at the library; skinned knees on the way out of the grocery store while I'm loaded down with a baby carrier, twelve reusable bags, and a gigantic blue plastic shopping cart shaped like a race car.

There is always a yearning for order somewhere within me. And solitude.

I fantasize about an oceanfront house with floor-to-ceiling windows and sheer white curtains lazily billowing in the breeze. Besides the kitchen with its big, country-style table and warm, slightly warped hardwood floors, there are two other rooms not counting the bathroom. One is a bedroom with a king-size bed made up in cream and white tufted chenille, no phone, no TV, and maybe a laptop on the white-painted nightstand. The other is a library/sitting room with big comfortable chairs, a small coffee table, and built-in bookshelves filled with hard covers, trade paperbacks, mass markets, art books, cookbooks, some already read, and others to-be-read. Although I love my family, I live alone in my fantasy house.

My reality house, on the other hand, is 1,500 square feet of stuff. In one room alone, there are precarious stacks of children's books, tumbles of huge Legos on the floor, and mountains of clean towels yet to be folded. A Pack-n-Play in the corner, stuffed with six-to-nine-month footie pajamas and onesies, washcloths, and burp cloths, doubles as a dresser and changing table. There are baskets of soft, pastel baby toys and bins of wooden train tracks and Matchbox cars. The computer desk is a tangle of memory-recording technological hardware, baby books, sheets of happy-face stickers, and baby gift thank-you notes. Since my life does not reflect the clutter-free, open spaces of my mental retreat, the only manifestation in which my orderliness rears its bookish head is in my lists.

I am a list maker and a list reader. (What is a list if not a stack of words?) I love to check off utilitarian accomplishments:

To Do

mop kitchen floor
change crib sheets
throw out old lemons
2T clothes in storage bin
buy stamps, mail anniversary card
do Quicken
make well-check-up appt.

Errands To Run

library--pay fines!
natural food store
eyebrow wax

Places To Go

sit at train crossing and wait for an Amtrak or CSX freight train to barrel by to satisfy three-year-old's obsession

I write lists to give myself a mental jolt out of the daily routine: things I might like to do someday (join a weight-loss program, buy and wear non-maternity clothes), vacations to take (any beach, Scotland, Spain, my bed) and magazines I subscribe to. Give me a list of names -- a graduation program, a preschool roster -- and I will read the whole thing, savoring the sound and personality of each name. But what really gets me going is the simultaneously revered and abhorred book list.

Along with the clutter on the aforementioned desk is a purple Trapper Keeper folder with a guide to musical eras on one inside flap and an English/metric conversion chart on the other. The folder is crammed with newspaper clippings of book lists sent to me by my mother over the years, book lists written for me on napkins at diners over coffee, photocopied bibliographies, and printouts from websites. It is an anthropological record of my life before kids. The contents of this folder represent hundreds of pockets of downtime I no longer get. Yet reading is my sanity in a sometimes adorably disarming, sometimes alarming life of pacifiers and rubber-tipped spoons. And lists are my goals and guidelines. They provide me with an intellectual structure I can lay over my loose and progressively changing routine of diaper changes, Little Gym visits, lunch on Zoo Pals, and naptimes.

Leafing through the folder, you would see the typical lists most bookworms are familiar with, i.e. The Modern Library's 100 Best Novels and Nonfiction, The Hungry Mind Review's 100 Best Fiction and Nonfiction of the 20th Century, Feminista's 100 Best Works by Women Writers. These are the ranked lists people either love or hate. Always subjective, some of them have the feel of those middle school lists ranking classmates' popularity. (Titled columns: cool, semi-nerd, nerd. Circa 1986, I peer over the shoulder of the girl at the desk in front of me and see that I have made the semi-nerd column.) Whether released by a respected publication or the cheerleader clique certainly not everyone agrees with the higher-ups who compile these types of lists.

Stapled, paper-clipped, and dog-eared onto these not-so-definitive book lists are more lists. These are the ones that have resulted from my haphazard and fickle bursts of interest (read: passion! excitement! rise from the mundane!) in one topic or another over the years, with a significant increase since I have become a stay-at-home mom. I have lists of books about opera, classical music, nature writing, 18th and 19th century slave rebellions and conspiracies, scientific discoveries, natural history, genealogy, geology, and life in Colonial America. I am an autodidact in a classroom of one. During the day, I am the only one in the house who can read and who does not cry when told that an ice cream cone is not an acceptable breakfast, and no, neither is a Tofutti Cutie. I need my books for company.

Hidden deeper in my purple folder are those lists given to me or inspired by schools I have attended. Pieces of ripped syllabi with the reading list section intact from classes I took are tucked among reading lists for students of other universities that I will never attend. And there is my Union High School Suggested Reading List for 11th graders, rev. 5/90. One day, I may cross off every title.

One last controversial class of book lists stuffs my folder, causing it to strain and crack at the edges. The prize winners. Again, I do not hold the belief that the prize winners are to be upheld as the best of the best, lording over everyone else who was overlooked for these one-book-per-year awards. But I admit that I am fascinated with the Newberys, the Caldecotts, the PEN/Faulkners, the Hugos and Nebulas. And, although I read widely and would never ignore a book just because it doesn't appear on a list, I have a mini-goal. My newest scholar-of-one project is to read all of the Pulitzer Prize winners for Fiction and the Novel from earliest (1918) to most recent. On a rainy summer afternoon, with both cribs occupied upstairs, a mountain of dirty clothes spilling through the laundry room doorway, and a sink full of sippy cups and bowls of dried-out tricolor pasta shapes, I'll be among the disheveled couch cushions, reading a book.

Erin Levens Cundiff lives in Central Virginia with her husband, four-year-old son and two-year-old daughter. This is her first publication.

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