Tuesday, August 18, 2015

That Time When Anything Might Have Happened

When I was very young, young enough to be entranced by Sesame Street, I was riveted by a baker, a white-coated man in a tall, poofy baker's hat, who would descend some steps while carrying one (1!), two (2!), three (3!), four (4!), or more cakes, pies, or other sweets and end up falling in a spectacular and messy way. Every time. Still, I imagined that on the particular Tuesday or Friday when I happened to be watching Sesame Street, he might finally manage to make it all the way down the stairs, elaborate cake intact. It seemed to me likely enough that it could happen differently and work out better for the hapless baker. It's why, years later, this is the bit from Sesame Street that I have carried with me. 


Adults lose this, the capacity for magical thinking, which is the province most exclusively of the uneducated mind, the mind of the noble savage, as 18th century writers and thinkers spun it. Magical thinking is why childhood is at once so wonderful and so fraught: anything might happen. One's father might come back from the remote, untamed land of divorce. One's mother might stop yelling and start parenting. Images might leap off the pages of books and into one's bedroom, fictional characters might come to life to be arranged like one's dolls. Puff the Magic Dragon might not end up abandoned by his once young friend who outgrows childish things. The Giving Tree might get back more than it ever gave.


A friend of mine just moved to San Francisco. Living in a Victorian house with multiple apartments, one per floor, she had decided that getting used to her upstairs neighbor's heavy footfalls might be the price one paid for living in a world-class city. But the other day the neighbors seemed uncommonly loud, and she began to wonder what the hell they were doing. Dancing? Moving furniture?

Later she realized that her neighbors had been up to nothing nefarious or celebratory; instead, she had been experiencing an earthquake.I expect that she will file this experience into her new normal. She will do what an adult does, make sense of the event, when it recurs, by drawing upon her reason.


Childhood's ways of seeing are so privileged, and so distant to adults. Once that door is shut, it remains so, and only mental illness or extraordinary circumstance can pry it open.

Today is my mother's seventy-ninth birthday. (Can it still be said to be a birthday of a person who is no longer alive to celebrate it? I don't know. I do know that I would like to see her, or at least to call her, to wish her a lovely birthday, to find out what her plans are for the day, and to tell her about my summer of change and growth and perhaps even solicit her support as I face a doctor's appointment today.)

No longer a child I cannot muster the creative capacity to imagine her at seventy-nine, voice graveled with age. I cannot quite manage to play our putative conversation in my head; what's more I cannot snap my fingers and convert her into someone who would be able to offer support of another person, especially on her own birthday, which for her would be cause for sadness much more than for its opposite.

And that exotic land my father traveled to? Now I know it was only Washington, DC, just as I am certain that the Sesame Street baker will never escape the loss of his magnificent desserts, and his dignity.

But I am also certain that his treats could never have tasted as transcendent as they looked.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Their Bodies, Themselves

Eight looks down at his legs, made pale and shimmery by the bath water. He frowns. “See my legs, here?” he asks. And he points to his thighs, squeezes a bit of flesh. “I do see them,” I say.

“They are fat,” he pronounces, certain as a policeman who stands, arms crossed, at your car door and waits while you rummage through your things for your license.

I protest. “They are not. At the doctor’s you’re always in the fiftieth percentile for weight — just where you should be.”

Eight looks up at me. Wet, he seems far younger than eight years old. I see traces of a boy in a bath seat, a boy chortling as he swipes at the bubbles in the water. But when I flash to his eyes, I see a sorrow all grown up. He doesn’t believe me.

Now he’s patting his stomach. “What’s a six-pack, exactly?” he demands. “And how can I get one?”


I was eight, too, when I first started worrying about my thighs. I was spending a couple of weeks with my father and his wife. It was summer, shorts weather. One day my father chuckled a little, and remarked, apropos of nothing, “Wherever did you get those thighs, Sarah Bear? They certainly didn’t come from your mother.”

Ouch. For the rest of the summer I studied my thighs whenever I was sitting. My father, I decided, had been correct. My thighs were like tree trunks, thick and solid, and completely out of proportion to my stick-like lower legs.

Back at home I told my mother that my thighs were too big. She scoffed, told me that they were perfect, that I was perfect. But I looked at her rail-thin legs, and I wondered. Her words fell flat against the evidence before me.


When I bore first one boy child, and then another, I mourned the girl child I would never have. But I was comforted by the fact that there were certain parenting challenges I’d never have to face — among them girl-on-girl cattiness and body image issues.

The last few months have given the lie to my beliefs about gendered behavior in childhood.

And now I mourn anew to find that all children lose faith, somewhere along the line and through some provocation or other, in the beauty of the human form. These legs of ours, they take us places, show us the world. They enable us, and ask so little in return. They are an incredible gift.

When I looked down at Eight’s legs in the bath, I saw him running, biking, playing soccer. I saw grace and wonder there.

Why couldn’t he?

written in 2010

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

The Word 'Settling' Is a Most Wonderful Contronym

I have spent too little time alone. I dove straight into a serious relationship in college, which lasted through college and beyond it by three years. Four months after a messy, awful end to that relationship, I met my husband. And here we are, just after our twentieth wedding anniversary.

Although the psychological reasons for my choosing as I did make sense, I don't recommend my course. Living alone, being alone, at least for a time, is important. How better to learn that you are your most reliable and steadfast companion? How better to discover that you are strong and whole?


Oh do I ever adore my husband and children. But when we are out and about, it is more and more seeming as if there are two units: the three males, and I. On vacation, every choice that's made to accommodate all four of us is a compromise. Nothing wrong with that, you say. And there isn't, except that in the compromising we risk missing the thing that might have changed our lives.


When I started blogging, some of you might remember, I was slouching towards forty. Now I am slouching towards fifty. My forties were about laying bare my past in order to overcome it. I am freer now, to say what I mean and to be the self I always was, underneath a shell formed and deformed by sadness, anger, and fear.

What I am seeing now is that my fifties are going to be about saying yes to those experiences and people that enrich me. They are going to be about me, not in the trite and narcissistic seventies sense, but in the sense that I have this one life, and I am going to use it wisely.

I will go to the beach and dig my toes into wet sand. I will race into the cold Atlantic and shiver with shocked exhilaration. I will travel, oh yes I will travel. I will not mind others seeing me in a bathing suit, no matter what the state of my body. I will try new foods. I will not return to my hotel room after dinner. I will stay out as late as I want. I will spend as long as I want at museums, bookstores, libraries, parks.

And I will do some or all of these things alone, if need be, not even slightly disappointed to do so. I like my own company, and I have earned it.

I will talk to strangers, those friends I have not yet met.


At a restaurant in a different city my family and I spy a man wearing a t-shirt with the logo of the university at which my husband is a professor. Joking, my husband turns to me, says, "Go see if we know him, Sarah." "OK," I agree, as if he hadn't been joking, and I start to rise out of my chair. "No!" my teens cry in tandem, united in this, if nothing else. "You can't, Mom," they plead. "That would be so embarrassing." My husband smirks. I look from one to another of these faces I love, and I choose to defer, this time, to the thought of their pain. 

Later, as we leave the restaurant, my older son leans into me and offers his thanks, adding, "You know why."

I smile. I am happy to spare embarrassment. But my smile lasts longer than one would expect, and if you were to look closely, you would see a secret playing across my face:

It will not be long before I am talking to all the strangers. No, not long now.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Saving My Mother, Saving Myself

On the Friday morning before she suffered a stroke, a catastrophic one that would not kill her straight off but lead to nine months of agony, her own and our entire family's, before grace finally arrived to slow and then stop the beating of her heart -- on that Friday morning in September, my mother and I argued.

It was an argument ostensibly about my upcoming vacation. On the phone with me she'd wondered why I never invited her on my trips with my husband and children. "Well," I hesitated, wanting to be diplomatic, "it would be odd for my husband, no? To have his mother-in-law along on his vacation?"

"I don't know," she snapped. "Your grandmother always came with us on our vacations."

"Right, Mom," I sighed. "But that was different, wasn't it? That was you, Mum [my grandmother], Daniel [my brother], and I. There was no husband, no father."

"I guess," she sulked, and said nothing further, except, "I have to go now."



My mother, married for all of five minutes, never learned much about the accommodations husbands and wives must make for each other. She never learned much about marriage in general, and she certainly did not learn about the ways, often tricky, sometimes downright unpleasant, that a marriage is sustained over the long haul.

But my mother's and my disagreement hadn't been about marriage, or vacations, and I knew it. She was really telling me that she was lonely and depressed. I also knew that. But I had never been able to help her climb out of her sadness, much as I'd tried. She would come to visit me and end up angry about something insignificant, finally insisting that she needed to go home -- immediately and with no regard for anyone else's schedule. Or I would go to visit her and end up spending all my time alone, because she found it excruciating to socialize, even with me, her daughter. Or perhaps I should amend that: her depression found it excruciating to socialize.

She refused to consider therapy, psychosocial or even pharmacological. "Those pills will cloud my brain, Sarah," she'd say. Unspoken but understood was that my mother's brain, it was exceptional. I countered by asking her what good such an exceptional brain was doing her while she lay in bed sleeping seventeen hours out of every twenty-four.

No, I did not say that. But I thought it, and I did argue strenuously in support of antidepressants.

She never did take them.


For quite a few years after she died, I replayed our final pre-stroke conversation, willing it to end differently, better. Because sometime during the weekend after our argument, she had a stroke, and no one knew it until Monday morning when her housekeeper showed up. Had I not been so frustrated by our telephone conversation, I would have called her on Saturday, and again on Sunday, and not hearing an answer I might have grown concerned and asked my brother to check on her.

Instead, I remember feeling just so tired of fighting with her. I remember deciding to take the weekend off from her long-standing unhappiness and my futile cheerleading efforts.

It was the wrong weekend to take off, although only with hindsight could I know it.


Things happened as they happened. If I did feel sorrow about how everything unfolded, about my role in it, I do not now.

I spent my entire life - yes, even including my childhood - up until 2009 trying to keep my mother alive. Today I choose to believe that without me, she would not have lived nearly as long as she did.

It's a reframing that benefits me, as it should. Because it is the truth, and as it's wont to do, it has set me free. I have won a victory: I did not save my mother, but I have saved myself.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

This Man, My Son

"Mom," he rushes in, breathless, "Will you tear my problem set out of the notebook?" Puzzled, I look up from my reading. "And I need to do this for you why?" He grins, rueful. "You do it better than I do," he says. "When I tear it, it's never a straight edge."

"OK," I laugh, "But I won't be able to do this for you when you're in college."

"Got it," he returns. "That, and the laundry, and making sure I eat right..."

As I pull the pages - there are so many! - I see that he has already surpassed my level in chemistry. His handwriting is compact and neat. Each answer is circled. 

This isn't the way it used to be. His homework in elementary school was disastrously messy. Even the paper on which it was written was bent or curled, sometimes ripped, if in fact he had remembered to do the homework in the first place.

But then not much is the way it used to be.


In the car we are talking about clever ways to get away with things. I can't remember why. But in the course of chatting I yelp, remembering. "Hey! You know what you would love? There's a Roald Dahl story about a woman who --"

"The lamb," he interrupts.

"Yes!" I confirm. I am taken aback. How did he manage to pick up where I left off? "You read that story, about the woman who kills her husband, whacks the back of his head with a frozen leg of lamb, and then cooks and serves it to the police when they arrive to investigate?"

"Yep, one of my favorites," he says.

"Huh," I reply, and fall silent, thinking about how, of all the stories, he and I found this one, and responded to it in kind.


He has become so tender with our cats. Is this because he knows that he will miss them?


I keep making the mistake of suggesting colleges for him to explore. Invariably these are colleges I would like, or would have liked. He looks tolerantly at me, head cocked, answers my ideas with statements like, "But I don't much care how strong the writing program is," or "Yeah, I'm not sure that a close-knit community is what I'm after."

When did he become so wise, and so diplomatic?


I marvel at the person who stands before me - a nearly full-grown adult, a near man. I wonder how that happened, even as I know exactly how it happened. I ponder the chinks in his armor, so unrecognizable to me -- well, they are his chinks, not mine. I have to remind myself over and over of this, and even then I'm surprised. Often, maybe always, these days: surprised.

I finish extracting his latest problem set from the notebook. I tidy the stack of papers and staple it. I hand the packet to him. We roll eyes at each other, acknowledging how silly it is that I am doing this for him.

"Thanks, Mom," he smiles. "You're so good at it, you know." And then he winks at me and heads off to his class, and to his future.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

The Long View

We are meandering through the university's arboretum. He shares some work concerns; we discuss these for a time before falling silent. I watch a toddler running, her diaper widening her stance so that her gait is comically graceless. The sight of her persevering over her Pampers prompts me to revisit how much I miss raising little children, which subtly morphs into a discussion of ways we'd be better, or at least different, parents today, were a stork to drop an infant on our front stoop (and no doubt about it, it would have to be a stork). More tired, for sure, we agree, but also more flexible and relaxed. Less covetous of 'me time,' I muse. I credit my husband for refraining to remind me of just how often we've covered this same terrain, for after eighteen years of marriage, we both do our fair share of repeating ourselves. We've come to expect a certain amount of repetition. It's the least of our spousal gripes, of which there has accrued a lengthy if trivial list, surprising to no one.

We inspect the variety of annuals and perennials, make mental lists of those we might wish to plant in our garden. The Latin and Greek names are pleasing to voice: heliotrope and viburnum, lucifer and vinca, lobelia and calendula, coleus and globe amaranth, larkspur and lantana, salvia and alyssum. We walk past older couples and do not feel out of place. We are neither young nor old, which bestows an invisibility that is comfortable, and not even slightly sad. We pass a fountain. I hop up on its rim, and a cool spray mists my lower legs. Young children are running around the fountain. I make way for them to scoot by me. I'm in no hurry.

At one end of the arboretum is an atrium where students and alums marry. It gives way onto a spectacular vista of a lush farm-dotted valley backed by softly rounded hills. We would have liked this spot for our wedding, I say. He nods. We always did agree on things like views and flowers. The easy companionability, that was harder won.

I think, as I have before, that we will weather the shift out of active parenting. I require less and less to sustain me as I age. I expect this to be true for him as well: a partner with whom to walk a pretty path, to share the day's news, to plant seedlings and watch them grow. We do not mind relinquishing our claim on the things that quicken the heart, risk and passion among them, though we are still gladdened to stumble on them every so often. A little goes a long way, don't they say?

What we know is that what we have is enough, not the settling kind of enough but something expansive, even panoramic: that view of the valley, hills, and sky that frames the young couples marrying at the arboretum, the one that says, It's all here. Paradoxical, perhaps, but these days 'enough' seems more than enough.

written in 2013

Monday, July 13, 2015

Listen, Hear

Suddenly I have so much to say to you. But it's never the right time anymore. Maybe it's that the time that remains feels ill-suited to deep conversation. There's so much planning and scheduling to do, so many decisions to make, from trivialities like senior photos and yearbook ads to what really matters: Where will you be (happiest) for the four years after high school is over?

So I have taken to emphasizing what I do say. On the way out the door to bike to campus for your summer class, you tell me that you aced the first quiz. "I'm proud of you!" I exclaim. You nod, and continue zipping up your backpack. "No," I say. You glance up, puzzled. "I want you to hear me: I am proud of you." What I mean is not that I'm proud of you because you did well on a test. I mean that I am proud of who you are now and who you are becoming. I think you understand, because you give me a half-smile and answer, "I know."

Every moment that passes, every exchange between us, feels exponentially more important than the one that came before. Is that because I sense that increasingly you are here in body but elsewhere in spirit? You have looked ahead, and you are liking what you see. I'm pleased for you. Your father and I, we joke a lot lately, ask you, "Aren't you going to miss us?" whenever something happens - it's usually at dinner - that has happened often enough to become family lore. We are established as a foursome - your father and I, you and your brother - and we react individually, in pairs, and as a group in well-worn ways, ways we can all predict but somehow cannot change, which makes it funny, really.

Once this summer in the car I asked you the question not as a joke but because I needed to know the real answer, which of course is not the real answer but only the one you imagine to be real. I am not naïve - what you think now is not necessarily what you will think when you are living it. But it's the best we have, short of a crystal ball. You replied, "No. I don't think I'll miss you very much." And then, conscious of hurting my feelings, you hedged. "That doesn't mean I'll be glad to go, just that I'm ready, and excited about being independent." I loved you for adding that part, but I would have been fine if you hadn't. I haven't forgotten that our main job as parents is to raise you to leave us, to raise you to be fully prepared to leave us. I'd much rather you not miss us at all than that you miss us too much.

They say that by the time you go off to college I will be ready to see you go, that you will behave so as to make our separating easier. So far I have not seen any evidence of that - you have not tested us much, but I suppose there's still time for that. Your father and I, we will miss you very much. When we ask about your missing us, we are really telling you that we will miss you, that we are already missing you. I think you understand that. You understand more than you let on.

There seems all the distance in the world between now and the day college acceptances will arrive in the mail, but in reality there are eight or nine months before things are settled one way or another. This is not an easy time for any of us. Even your brother is coming to terms with losing you. The other day when you were on campus, he asked when you'd be back, and when I told him that it would be hours yet he was disappointed. He wanted to hang out with you. I am not making this up.

I hadn't counted on how much I want to shout out to these schools who will be judging you how wonderful you are. How curious, how motivated, how interested in life, in history, in politics, in culture, in all of it. This makes you unsure about what you'll want to major in, and you think that's a negative. I disagree. Any college worth going to will respect that you want to take courses in so many disciplines. College was always supposed to be about figuring out which passion of yours separates itself from the others, wheat from chaff. If that's changed since I was at university, I don't want to hear about it.

A few years ago I expected to be more relaxed about your future than I've become. I figured that whatever school ended up wanting you would be by definition the right school. So many wonderful schools out there. But as decision time draws nearer, I find myself crazily protective of you and your spirit. I want to snap my fingers and have the world see how terrific you are, except that your personality, your uniqueness, is now more and more your job to convey - not mine. I am learning so much from you.

And I am proud of you. Did I mention that?

I love you.