Monday, June 29, 2015

Breathe

There is a grown-up party downstairs. I am little. These adults — their tinkling laughs, their clinking glasses, their swells of convivial sound — tell me just how small I am. I need my mother right now, but she is one of Them, these party-goers. She doesn’t smell like herself. She doesn’t look like herself. Her face is different somehow: brighter, more colorful. But need her I do, so I sit in a small tight ball on the top stair as I try to work up the nerve to wade into a sea of painted, raucous tall people. I need my mother because I can’t breathe. No, that’s not right. I can breathe, but my breath is coming ragged and short. Breathing is automatic until it isn’t, and at the divide there is a moment when it seems to be wholly dependent on one’s own self, and how is one to breathe in, breathe out over and over and over again, a hundred times in a minute or two? I am frantic. It all seems overwhelming, even impossible. And I tip over into a state of anguish: I will simply forget to breathe, and that will be the end of me, crumpled up on the top stair with my thumb in my mouth, still wearing my cotton candy pink blanket sleeper with its rubber feet.

I determine that I can’t stand this for one more second. Fear begets nerve. I run down the stairs and rush headlong into my mother’s legs. I am sobbing, my face surely red, surely wet with snot and tears. My mother looks surprised, but to her credit crouches down and runs her hand through my tangled hair. “What’s wrong?,” she croons, in a full-throated, lush vodka voice.

I realize that I should have broken into this party long ago. I love my mother’s voice like this.
I stammer out the story of my fear, and she explains to me that people’s breath comes fast and funny when they’ve been running, or when they’re excited, or nervous, and that it means nothing, nothing at all.
I am relieved.
When I am in the hospital after birthing my first child, I will suffer a hormone-induced panic attack, and I will flash back to being five or six years old and waiting, afraid, on the stairs, while the grown-ups partied, carefree and loose.
++++++++++++++
Lately my breath is coming fast and funny. I am worried all the time. This feels sensible, actually. The upcoming election, the girl shot by the Taliban, the nanny stabbing her young charges in the bathtub, the storm that’s supposed to hit this week and leave us without power, the trial on Monday for which I will serve as juror and sit in judgment of another human being, the polar bears that have to swim longer and longer to find a bit of ice on which to rest, the garbage spilling out the tops of our landfills, the pesticides and carcinogens… Well. It’s a toxic world, but it’s also the only world we’ve got.
++++++++++++++
I will celebrate a birthday on Friday. When people ask me how old I will be on my birthday, I answer with a joke: “Forty-five, still alive.” Like most jokes, it’s not really a joke at all.
I’m trying. I am, but it’s hard. I’m trying to forget how to breathe so that I can remember how to breathe.
written in 2012

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The College Circuit

She was seventy-seven years old when she insisted on taking me to visit a college. I don't remember whether I thought I might be embarrassed by having my grandmother accompany me instead of the usual father-and-mother, or in my case, the less traditional but still within-bounds single parent. I'd guess not, because my socially awkward mother was often embarrassing, as on the day I started college and she drove onto the main quad, no cars allowed, and parked in front of a handful of my future dormmates, gawking, pointing.

My grandmother was elegant and couth and marvelous, but seventy-seven years old is not young. I feared the walk up the hill to Swarthmore's admissions office might do her in, but she was as stubborn as they come, and at my concern she waved me off. "I'm fine," she gasped, not fine at all.

I had a good interview at Swarthmore, so good in fact that the admissions director wrote me a personal note afterwards. Or maybe that's just the way of small colleges, however the interview proceeds. I ended up at a far bigger school than Swarthmore. Still, my grandmother was pleased that she'd taken me on that tour, even if I had not ended up attending, or even applying. The place had struck me as too quiet, too serious, even for me, and that's saying something.

On the train ride back to New York from Pennsylvania, she put a hand on my knee and told me how much she loved me. I bit my lip against sudden tears before returning the sentiment. I'd only that day become aware of her as an elderly person, fragile, mortal.

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

Last night Seventeen gave me and his father a list of tentative college choices that he'd culled from a book. On the list were eight schools, among which was... Swarthmore. Seventeen was unaware that I had included Swarthmore in my own lists, written thirty-one years ago and long since tossed away.

On Friday he'll visit Swarthmore and Haverford with his father. When they climb that steep slope to the admissions office at Swarthmore, I will imagine my grandmother smiling, winking, and reassuring me, "Full circle, Sarah, full circle." That vision, in a time of vast change, is comforting, and I note with surprise that seventeen years absent (yes, she died when my firstborn was just starting to walk), my grandmother is somehow very, very present.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

To the High School Graduates I Know and Love, and Maybe Also to Those I Don't

I have known some of you since you were one and two years old. You I played with and read to when your mother threw out her back; you were one of my son's best friends, although neither one of you remembers that now. You used to take my kid's pencils and throw them in the little well formed in the center of four individual desks clustered together. My son seemed upset by this, so I asked your teacher for guidance. "Oh," she smiled knowingly, "she likes him, that's all. And he likes her."

When you see a child through to adulthood, you can't help but flash on these moments that add up to a person. Impishness, solemnity, athleticism, grace, curiosity, wittiness: the germs of these are in the young child. And then when you look at the eighteen-year-old with such a grown-up face who stands before you in cap and gown, you startle, because that face is a mask of a truth:

We none of us - at forty, sixty, or eighty - feel like the grown-ups we resemble.

And that is good. Because if we still feel like children, we are more likely to take risks, to wonder, to leap, to try new cuisines, to stretch and grow and learn.

That's another truth: we do not stop learning. This graduation may feel like closure to some of you, an end point towards which you've been directing your course. I prefer the word "commencement." This is a beginning, not an end. It is the beginning of a time when the responsibility for learning lies with you. You will seek out what to learn, and how to learn it. That notion, I hope, is empowering. Don't be frightened of the responsibility. You will discover that self-directed learning is the most satisfying kind of learning, and the deepest kind, too.

Other kinds of decisions will lie with you, too: social and emotional ones. No one is promised happiness in a life. It takes some work to get to happiness. If you are in a bad relationship - whether platonic or romantic - don't waste too much time trying to repair what can't be repaired. Make the lonelier but braver decision to leave and find something better. Yes, there will be times in your twenties when the pain of cleaving a bond you thought unbreakable feels like it will destroy you.

It won't. And each time you separate and find yourself again and anew, you will grow stronger, and know better who you are and what you want and need. Until one day you will come upon a person who loves you for exactly who you are, instead of who you once were, or who you might be if you were to be a little quieter or a little louder or a little more graceful or a little less predictable ...

No. The person who loves even your flaws, your scars and stubborn spots, that's the person you want.

Go now, and remember the joy that is written on each and every one of your faces. This is what life can be at its finest, but you will experience joy in small moments, too, if you take time to look for it: the elegant arc of a tree branch over the sidewalk as you pass underneath, the winking of fireflies in the summer, the bleeding together of lake and sky at dusk, the smell of the air after rain has washed the streets, the elderly couple holding gnarled hands after fifty years of marriage.

Now go, and in the words of Andy Dufresne, Shawshank prisoner no more, get busy living.









Monday, June 1, 2015

Sick

It's always at 3am, isn't it? Does anything good ever happen at 3am? Your child stands by your bedside, glassy-eyed, unnaturally rosy, and, if he is old enough, thrusts a thermometer in the vicinity of your face and declares that he is hot, so hot, too hot.

And of course he's not telling a lie. His temperature is soaring. It's in the range that causes your adrenaline to kick in, fast and furious. You offer him medicine, and something to drink. You make sure he uses the bathroom. And then you spoon with him in his narrow bed. You will the heat radiating off of him to transfer itself to your cool skin, skin that has been around the block a few times. You place your hand firmly on his racing heart as if you can coax it through sheer pressure to slow itself down.

You wait, wide awake now, for the medicine to take hold, but it doesn't. You lie there and imagine being the child who lives in this room. You think, Would I be happy here, born into this family, would I feel safe and cozy in this room?

It is a long time before the dampness of a breaking fever wets the pillow, longer still before your own heart understands that for tonight at least, you have seen your child safely through the heat and into more recognizable, comforting temperatures.

Sleep, possible only as dawn snatches up the final few pieces of this night, eludes you. You are never more mindful than right now of the precariousness, the essential fragility of this beautiful house of cards that is your family. In the daytime you will fall into your usual patterns, taking for granted the bounty that is yours, but at 3am what you know is that it takes only one domino to topple a thousand.


written in 2007

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Nobody Has Such Small Hands

In a cheap Italian restaurant — red and white checkered vinyl tablecloths, sawdust on the floor, Parmesan in a shaker — he watched as she twirled her hair, a habit of hers he found endearing, though later he’d find it infuriating. They were newly in love, which should explain everything. 
“I don’t like the rain,” she announced, her head turned towards the window. “It’s… Tragic. Rain is tragic.”
“Really?,” he asked, through a forkful of spaghetti. “I think rain is romantic. Freeing. Remember Gene Kelly dancing? You’ve seen that movie?”
Twirl, twirl. She ignored his question. She hadn’t seen the movie. “I don’t like getting wet,” she sniffed. But she’d forgotten herself. He looked wounded, or was it that he seemed disappointed in her? She hedged. “I don’t mind it when it drizzles. A fine, misty rain is good for the skin.” Where had she heard that? On TV?
He brightened. “Exactly,” he agreed. “I wasn’t referring to a downpour. A fine, misty rain… That’s what I like, too.”
They exchanged satisfied smiles. So this is how it would go, then. It wasn’t terribly hard to meet in the middle. Simultaneously they reached for the forlorn heel of bread in the wicker basket the waiter had placed just so between them. “You take it,” he offered, feeling charitable, and mature. And she did; she was hungry. Chewing contentedly, she managed to stop short of marveling at how companionable the evening had been.
We know how to compromise, he thought, and in his youth and inexperience he took this as a propitious sign.


written in April of 2011

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Hello, Goodbye

We see them 180 days per year. Some we see for two years in a row, if they happen to be looping from first to second grade that year. To say that we know them well after that kind of exposure is understatement. We know which foods they crave and which they won't touch, which authors and genres they seek out and which they don't, what they like in a friend and what they don't.

We know what and who they think they want to be when they grow up. We know how they feel about their little brother or older sister. We know their favorite color, the state of their teeth (one loose, one VERY loose, and one that was lost just last night because an intrepid dad pulled it out), and how likely they are to squirm in their seats.

We know when they are getting sick or feeling sad or angry. We know when they're having an 'off' day for no particular reason that we or they can discern (although the usual culprit is lack of sleep). We know who will call out instead of raising his or her hand, and who will sneak a paper into the 'finished basket' that is not quite, or far from, finished. We know who will ask to use the bathroom when it is time for writing, and why. We know all the pencil sharpening styles: the quick jab that does nothing (because the pencil was already sharp enough), or the long unnecessary push because the student is either daydreaming or stalling.

We know how they keep their desks (tidy, messy, or worthy of the show Hoarders), what types of toys they prefer to play with during indoor recess, who is feeling left out, and who is having a growth spurt (physical, mental, or social).

**************

Imagine, then, how hard it is to say goodbye to them each June. When we see them in the halls the next year or in the years after that, they grow increasingly distant, not because they are being rude, but because they have changed so much that the people they were in first or second grade are not really there anymore.

Sometimes I see fifth graders who were in our classroom, and I think, But wait! Whatever happened to your sick cat? Do you still want to be a doctor?

Instead I smile, and if they aren't with friends they will smile back and acknowledge me with a wave or a greeting. When occasionally they do venture back into our classroom they never fail to comment on how peculiarly small everything looks - the vantage point of a ten-year-old so different from that of a six-year-old.

And this is how it should be - they grow up! They move on!

But I'd be lying if I didn't tell you that each June brings with it nineteen or twenty small heartaches. When they leave on the last day of school, their excitement about summer eclipses any kind of meaningful leavetaking we might have, and this, again, is how it should be.

Yet: The truth is that they are readier to move up to another grade than we are ready to see them go, which means, when you get right down to it, that we love them.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

The View From Forty-Two

Mommy!,
My son exclaimed
Just the other day.
You look like
A tree!
, and
He chortled, then,
At the offense:
This green shirt,
Those brown pants.

I was delighted.
When I am old
I hope the boy,
Grown to man, sees
Value
In weathered skin
Like bark,
In hair so white
It might cap
Even rogue waves,
In ropy-veined legs
Working overtime,
Bulging, and blushing,
With dedicated effort.

And all that day
I felt strong.
Rooted.
Proud, to provide
Shade, and a moment
Or two to contemplate
For a wanderer
Who might weep, grateful,
To find me sturdy,
To find me
Still.

written in 2010