Friday, May 6, 2016

Ocean Blue

"Ocean blue," he said, with a note of hesitation. Was it because he couldn't quite remember what she had told him, or because he was imagining, as he spoke, the color ocean blue might be?

I swallowed, and felt foolish, as I do so often lately, to discover the thick rise of tears.

Tomorrow he will attend his first and last prom. He will take a girl wearing ocean blue. I think that I would have liked to have a daughter so that we might together find a dress that recalled the ocean. But then the ocean can be so many shades of blue. Perhaps the dress is iridescent, not one blue nor another but all the blues at once.

+++++++++++++++++++++

Today he carried home a little package containing his cap and gown. We hung it up. I calculated: a month and a handful of days until he wears it.

And yesterday. Yesterday he was a little boy drawing a boat, a boat trailed by an improbably large anchor and an active smokestack. That drawing he composed in crayon. It is framed simply, in lucite, and lives on a bathroom wall. I see it every day, and yet: how long has it been since I really looked at it?

As I study it now, I see that the boat rests somewhat awkwardly on, not in, the ocean. Its hull teeters on top of the water. Oh, but the artist was all of four years old, his imagination not yet constrained by the laws of physics.

The water, though, that water. There is no doubt. What else could it be but ocean blue?


Sunday, April 3, 2016

All The Months Have 28 Days

When I planned for this, well
This wasn't what I planned for.
It was that, or maybe even
Something else entirely.

However oddly it's come out,
The dailiness of life prevails.
Funny, for such seeming triviality
To rule a life, if always kindly.

Hundreds of months gone by
Marked by little more than
The tearing of a page, and coffee.
Absent pomp, if not circumstance.

The dry, colorless grass
Becomes a green so bright
It stains everything in sight.
It's very nearly gaudy.

Can it really be spring again?
(What of last year, what to say?)
I grow tired of the very thing
That is supposed to wake me up.

Let me then go away, far.
Where the faces are bold.
Like Picassos, noses
Where ears should go.

Let me brush by the strange
And embrace it, heedless 
Of germs, bombs, and warfare.
Let me go there. Let me go.

Monday, March 7, 2016

What Comes After All That Parenting

Parenting older children is a quiet endeavor, one that allows for far less sharing. There are no more cute stories. There is much more silence, silence between me and you, silence between my children and me. (The thick kind of silence you can hear.) Much more waiting. Hard swallowing at the inevitable disappointments. As children venture out and away from the safety net of home, they face all kinds of opportunities. Among this larger group of opportunities are bound to be opportunities for hurt and rejection.

My task these days is not to shield my children from experience but to sit back and do nothing as they make choices that I do not question (even as I do). I am here if, not when, they need a soft landing, or an odd moment in their day to regroup.

Parenting teens, oh, it requires patience, and forbearance, but mostly, I think, humor. As when older teen went off to college interviews this winter, and we suggested gems like, "Don't order a cinnamon roll, or you'll have to answer questions with your mouth full and crumbs spilling out of your mouth!"

"Turns out," grinned the teen, afterwards, "that what food I ordered was the least of it. Instead, I might have remembered the answer to the question, 'Why our university?' with information from the correct university."

Oops.

But this, I think, is the crux of parenting older kids. It is impossible to know how to guide them, when we make up so little of the experience that is shaping them. And that is best, because we should not be guiding them. They can guide themselves, or conceal it more or less artfully when they get off track.

We parents used to be the interviewers. We used to know not only the questions we would ask but the answers we sought. Now we do not know the questions, the answers, or even the interviewers themselves. That is as it should be.

"The funny thing is," our teen continued after revealing his interview gaffe, "I think I managed to work my way around to a good answer to that question, even after my confusion. And that may have ended up being my best interview." Then he shrugged. "It's out of my hands now, anyway."

As it is out of our hands. As you, our eighteen-year-old (but also two-year-old, six-year-old, ten-year-old, and fourteen-year-old), are out of our hands. Still, we'll be here, loving you, worrying about all the wrong things, for the rest of your life. It's what we do.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Cream Hill Lake, 1975

I was seven years old, and it was late August. Each summer my family spent July and August in northwest Connecticut, a place dense with foliage and riddled with mosquitoes. I had the bites to prove it. They'd taken over my arms and legs, these fresh swollen pink mounds interspersed with still-healing bites scabbed over, and new skin seeking just the tiniest bit of purchase against my furious scratching.

For weeks I'd watched the tawny, golden-haired older boys race around the clubhouse, their unconcerned footfalls shaking the floors of the rickety wooden building where we got dressed and undressed in narrow, dank stalls, and where above us the non-swimmers played rowdy and hotly contested games of ping-pong.

But I was a swimmer, even though the lake was so cold that it hurt down to the bone each day when I'd finally waded in enough to dunk my head in the water, even though the lake was choked with moss and alarmingly spongy underfoot. Even though. I was a little fish, had been swimming for at least a few years, but the rules at the club were that kids seven and under had to stay, roped in by buoys, in a shallow area shaped like a crescent and far too skinny in the middle. I hated it there. Every now and then my legs, when not brushing against slimy tendrils of lakeweed, would hit a warm patch. I'd sigh, and out of the corner of my eye I'd catch Mrs. Willoughby's youngest boy behind me in the act of peeing underwater, his face turned to the sun and made beatific by release.

As early July became late July, and finally August, I gazed with increasing hostility and envy at the impossibly long-limbed boys and girls who were allowed to swim to first raft, a glorious place sanctified by my fierce desire for it.  A robin's egg blue slide sat at the far end of the raft, and, it being a different era from today's safety-conscious one, there were no restrictions on how a kid might make his way down it. Head first, feet first, on belly or back, it was all fair game. The only rule, if it could be called a rule, was that the bigger the splash the slider made on hitting the water, the worthier the trip.

I don't think I've ever since felt so acutely the pain of being a younger sibling, as my brother was among the happy crowd of first-raft kids good-naturedly jockeying for position in line, so eager to take a ride down the slide kept brilliantly shiny by near constant contact with dripping wet swimsuits. I made a decision that was entirely out of character for me: I was going to swim to first raft, rules be damned. I was not yet an elegant swimmer (that would come later, reinforced by my gymnastics training), but I was strong, stronger than the adults guessed. They were always taken aback by how tiny I was. I'd been born premature, and I hadn't yet caught up to my peers in height or weight (that, too, would come later).

I looked around to make sure the teen lifeguard, his hair white blonde and so long it met his shoulders, wasn't watching. He never was watching. He was busy socializing with the long-haired girls in their halter-top string bikinis, and who could blame him? So I began to swim. Vigorously, steadily, intently. I'd made it three-quarters of the way before I was spotted by my mother. I hesitated, looked back at the shore, and found her hands waving about crazily in the air. Her mouth gaped open, frighteningly wide, but I couldn't hear her words. No matter. She looked mad, and mad. Both senses of mad fit her equally that afternoon. Understand this: My mother was not especially concerned for my well-being. Instead she was furious because my “indiscretion” had interrupted her ongoing flirtation with a genial, balding fellow named John, one of the only eligible men at the club that summer.

My mother’s indignant squawks served to rouse the lifeguard from his blissed-out stupor. In a flash this lanky, sun-kissed teen was in the water and at my side. He lifted me out of the lake and carted me like a football to shallower water. In his clutches I was rigid with fury -- and humiliation, too, as nearly every pair of eyes at the club was now focused on this scene. Never one for scenes, I kept thinking, If you had let me finish what I started, we'd all just be going about our business right now.

I would have made it to first raft. And had I slid gleefully off the slide and back into the familiar dark green stew we called a lake, I would have been able to preserve the truth of my own strength and confidence, a smooth stone in my pocket that I could have caressed at will as I encountered the unforgiving social terrain of the upcoming years.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

This January Afternoon

Walking past my fourteen-year-old's door, I freeze, surprised. He has just laughed while Skyping with a friend. That laugh sounds like no laugh I have ever heard from him. These children of mine, they become closer and closer to strangers. Loving strangers, to be sure, but strangers nonetheless.

As it should be.

I just finished reading a book*, a memoir written by a young neurosurgeon who died, far too young, of lung cancer. I've always been drawn to stories about death and dying, not because I am morbid, but because I imagine that life at its end gets stripped down pretty well to the bone, and when that happens, useful truths emerge.

From the memoir I learned that disaster means "bad star": a truth, a kind of lovely one suggesting that one's fate is determined by something as remote and unknowable as a star. There is comfort in that. Nothing is personal; no one is to blame. David Bowie is mortal, just like the rest of us. Well, why shouldn't he be?

The winter light tells all. I find beauty in how it exposes the fine lines on my face, or the places in the hardwood floor that have gone grey over time. Winter is the most honest season.

I want -- oh, no, not today, not on this January afternoon.

I want for nothing.


*Paul Kalanithi's When Breath Becomes Air




Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The Ghosts of Christmas Past

When your male children grow old enough, it becomes apparent that they do not understand you. The fact of their gender finally trumps the connection - intense, near reverent - forged in utero. Oh, but they are fond of you, and take care with you, as if you might break. (You might.) They show affection even as they cock their heads to one side, uncomprehending. What they do when they are alone, you imagine, is shrug and allow thin plumes of exasperation to rise up - but never in front of you. You are honored, and will continue to be so honored, simply by having substantiated them. They will not forget that you conveyed them here, even if they forget everything else.

++++++++++++++

At Christmas I carry my ghosts, my mother on one side, my grandmothers on the other. From my ordinary family life I am removed, preoccupied with the comfort and care of these people who are not able to be there. I do all that is expected of me, but if you were to take my photograph during the holidays you'd find me pale and blurry, not quite present. I do not think that my sons or husband notice my half-absence. That is for the best.

++++++++++++++

I seek out video footage of the city I lived in for the length of my childhood as if I might find myself in it. As if in a crowd of people walking up Madison Avenue I might spy my mother, Audrey Hepburn lookalike, walking with a little blonde slip of a thing fighting to keep the pace. (Children had to accommodate their parents then. Parents did not accommodate their children.) Perhaps my grandmother would have joined us, her red lipstick vivid, her hair done up in a chignon. Elegantly dressed but never dismayed by a child's grubby fingers tugging at her sleeve.

Sometimes I wonder how we go on. I mean this not in a trivial way - of course we go on, one foot in front of the other, all that. More how we lose these people so important that they might well be appendages and then still manage to be fine, better than fine, even, for more years than the years we spent with them.

I do it by imagining that I have lived not one but two lives. There was a life then, there is a life now, and there is only the faintest overlap between the two. The overlap is greatest at Christmas. 

++++++++++++++

With ferocity I love my children, even if they don't know half of me or the people who made me. Love is elastic and manages to cover over the gaps and crevices pretty well, I think. When my children look at me across the Christmas table this year, they will find neither my mother nor my grandmothers. But somehow I am certain that those three women will peek around me to see these grown/almost grown boys, and love not the descendants they imagined they'd have but the descendants slouching in their chairs, refusing most of this food -- love them and me as we are, all these years later.


Sunday, December 13, 2015

On Tangible and Intangible Rewards

There is a first grader in our classroom who is struggling a bit with learning how to read. The other day I noticed that when we played a board game during indoor recess, this child seemed motivated by collecting the chips that accompanied the game - red, yellow, blue, and green plastic counters. I wondered whether using those same chips would encourage more perseverance in sounding out words during reading times. And lo, it worked!

I came home from work happy at a small but real success, and relayed to my teen how chips had worked to encourage reading stamina.

"Wait," he said. "Potato chips? THAT IS AWESOME."

We all have our reinforcers.

++++++++++++++

I myself am struggling to lose weight. I've noticed that when I finish my work day my first instinct has been to go to Starbucks to treat myself. But because I am trying to move beyond food and drink as reward, I have been making a list of other, less tangible rewards I can offer myself - a phone conversation with an old friend, a walk, getting a few chores done. I don't have to tell you that this kind of reframing is not easy, but I think it may be especially challenging for a person who as a child was offered treat after treat after treat.

When your parent has an eating disorder, as mine did, she is likely thinking about food obsessively. She may deny herself the food but bestow it (often in excess) on her children. My favorite foods were always in the refrigerator. One might have found three or four varieties of cookies - all gourmet - and as many kinds of ice cream in my childhood home. Of course my friends loved it. I took it for granted and did not eat at all healthfully, which did not impact my health even slightly as I was tiny, a gymnast who practiced a good twelve hours per week.

No longer am I a gymnast. No longer am I skinny.

Old habits are the hardest to break, aren't they? Especially ones formed in childhood, I think. My mother did not offer love easily or often, but she did offer food, and food is a form of love, yes? Even if it is not homemade food, and even if the providing has more to do with mental illness than with mental health.

++++++++++++++

I remember particularly these Valentine's Day cookies that came from a Manhattan gourmet food shop called Word of Mouth. They were heart-shaped Linzer Tortes with raspberry filling and lemon curd icing, and yes, they were divine. Every February my mother ordered my brother and me our own boxes of twenty-four of these cookies. Twenty-four huge cookies for each of us!

++++++++++++++

I am not a child and have not been one for longer than the entirety of my childhood. Colorful counters are not rewarding to me, if they ever were. Word of Mouth closed many years ago. The reward I must seek, I think, is the anticipation of a long life in which I remain healthy and mentally sharp. Yet how hard is it to work toward something that is a good twenty to thirty years in my future, should all go well before then?

Starbucks and I, we've had to break up. Still, other people have worked through far greater struggles than mine. I believe that I can do this, and surely belief is an important prerequisite of success.

Onward. Food may be love, but love, it does not have to be food.

The learning, it never stops.