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



Friday, May 8, 2015

I Grow Old, I Grow Young

I amble through the supermarket. I am singing something or other; the song is not and never was the point. I am not singing loudly, but others might see my mouth moving and my feet tapping a beat. I run right into a coworker; this is that kind of town. "I was singing," I shrug, by way of explanation, and I grin. I do not elaborate, and she doesn't press me.

As I scoop the cats' poop early one morning, I find myself talking to myself. I am not surprised. I talk to myself quite frequently. I am asking a question borrowed, with liberal editing, from Shakespeare: "Yet who would have thought the cat to have had so much poop in him?"

I sing in the shower. Of course I do! I've been doing that for years.

I slow my car and pull over to the shoulder, where I flash my hazards. The sun is setting in spectacular fashion, and I want to take a picture. So I do. Maybe drivers speeding past me wonder what it is that I am doing. But more likely than not they don't even notice me. I am past the age where I believe that everything, or anything, is about me.

I goof around at lunch with the children in my classroom. "Mrs. Piazza!," they giggle. "You act like a kid sometimes!"

I take that as a compliment.

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

I was a child who was old before her years. A conformist, I did what everyone expected of me, and I did what I grew to expect of myself.

But to sustain that level of obedience to authority, one's own or others', is wearying.

It took me forty-some years on this earth to shed the top layer of worry that cast a shadow longer than any shadow my physical self might have cast.

So when people ask, "How does it feel to be nearing fifty?," I am puzzled. Am I supposed to feel the sting of mortality? Because I don't. I feel younger than ever. I use no cream on my face, see no doctors who might tuck me in here and lift me up there, take no vitamins, submit to no exercise regimen. Still, somehow, everything is funny, everything is wonderful, everything brings me to tears of joy.

I imagine it just gets better and better from here. I can't wait to find out.


Monday, April 27, 2015

E = mc^2

I keep dreaming that I can fly. But the dreams, all of them, take place inside. Eager to soar I float up, only to bump against the ceiling. I zip from wall to wall as I seek an open window, a vent, anything that might allow me egress. I grow increasingly frantic. I am suffocating.

Is it better not to be able to fly than to possess the ability but be constrained by circumstance from using it?

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

I am mesmerized by the apocalyptic footage of the oil-slicked birds that make their home in the Gulf region, birds that flap and flap and flap their wings, so much effort, all to no avail. Are they puzzled to find that they are suddenly failing to do something they've been doing since they were hatchlings?

Are they sad? (I am sad. And angry.) Will these birds persist, day after day after day, in their efforts to fly, or will they give up one day, decide enough is enough?

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

When Twelve was three years old, he stopped napping during the day. Swiftly I instituted quiet time: one hour in which he'd stay in his room and play with his toys or look at his books. That hour was less for him than it was for me. At least I knew my limits.

Quiet time lasted for nearly a year, until one Saturday when, heavily pregnant with Eight, I was half-reading, half-napping and heard a noise. I glanced up and startled to see the face of my preschooler peeking around the doorway. Twelve looked like he'd swallowed the canary and the cat, too. He'd never until that moment realized that he could simply open the door to his room and walk out.

I'm not sure that Einstein could have felt any more pleased with himself when he worked out the equation for the equivalence of mass and energy than my son did that afternoon.

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

Today my friend and I were having lunch at a restaurant. We'd taken window seats so that we could look at the passers-by. We were talking about an eye doctor in town whose patients routinely wait for ninety minutes before being called in for their appointments.

And then the eye doctor himself walked past our window. It was as if our dialogue alone had substantiated him. Energy, to mass.

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

Eight has been reading a book about Einstein's life. He tells me that in German, 'Einstein' means 'one stone.' And, in the same breath, he reports that Einstein was deeply concerned about the moral implications of the technology made possible by scientific knowledge.

I nod. I know this. I think of Oppenheimer, and the bomb.

"Mommy!," Eight cries urgently. "It's like the oil spilling into the Gulf, isn't it? Einstein would have been very sad about that, right?"

"Yes, baby," I murmur. "He would have been horrified, I think."

Now it is Eight's turn to nod; he does so with a solemnity that brings me perilously close to tears.

I remember my recurring dream, and I wonder when all the windows disappeared, and how it could be possible that no one noticed when they did.

written in 2010

Thursday, April 16, 2015

After

Since my mother died it's been six years, years that feel at once like minutes and like decades. She died in April. I remember the day well, and I remember writing this on the day after.


I did everything I could think to do before opening that door. Went to the bathroom, washed my face, patted it dry, checked for stray hairs. When I ran out of trivial and time-wasting tasks I stood in the hallway and gulped air before finally turning the knob.

The room was unchanged from the day before. A picture window with a showily pretty blossoming tree filling its frame. A clock on the wall. A hospital bed. Four framed pictures on the nightstand: her three grandchildren, and one of me at thirteen with my grandmother. A TV sat on the bureau that contained no clothes. The TV had never been turned on.

She wasn't cold, but neither was she warm. And she was beautiful. I hadn't expected that, and it was a comfort. Her face, free of anger, sadness, reproach, and pain, for the first time in so long, looked not much older than my own. I took her hand in mine. Her fingers had already curled under.

And then I was crying loud and ugly bursts of tears. I sobbed for the awfulness of the last year and a half. I sobbed because I had never found a way to make it better for her, for me, for my brother. I sobbed because of all the people I have ever known, my mother was the brightest, and could have been the best.

She was all potential, unrealized potential.

I sobbed for who she might have been. For the person I found once in a long while, but only in my dreams.

My mother was the smartest, most talented person I have ever known. Had she been psychologically healthier, she might have moved mountains.

As I cried I found myself repeating, "I'm sorry." Not for anything I did or didn't do, but because there were so many obstacles in her way, because she was miserable so much of the time, because we only have the one life, I believe, and my mother, though she was seventy-two when she died yesterday, never really learned how to live hers.

And that makes me sadder than any of the rest of it.

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

When my tears relented, I tried to uncurl her fingers, but they wouldn't budge. I pulled the sheet up over her shoulders as I do for my children each night when I check on them just before I go to bed.

People I love? I don't want them to be cold.

I shut the door in order to grant her privacy that she is past needing. Habits that preserve and defend life are curiously strong.

And, eyes dry and aching, I drove away from her and to my brother's house, where my own life was waiting for me to grab it by the reins and show it the way.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Digest This - April 12, 2015

Be moved, inspired, laugh, get angry. I share whatever makes me sit up and take note.

Hillary Clinton has her work cut out for her as she defines herself in relation to President Obama. This New York Times article dissects candidate Clinton's looming challenge: how to position herself. Does she want to seem an Obama supporter or detractor? Can she play both sides and still come across as coherent and persuasive?

I am an unabashed fan of the television show Mad Men. In fact, I have spent too much of this weekend watching Seasons One and Two for the second time, which I recommend doing, by the way. I have caught so many nuances that I missed the first time around. I have never read a more complete analysis of Mad Men's female characters than this essay, written by Linda Lowen.

When I was in graduate school, I taught a few undergraduate courses (Statistics and Introduction to Psychology) for a pittance. Slave labor, we grad students used to mutter, only half joking. So I was saddened but unsurprised to read Carmen Maria Machado's wonderfully written "O Adjunct! My Adjunct!" about the plight of adjunct teachers at universities.

I follow astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson on Twitter. He is witty and charming, and he has something to say about most everything. His advice to a first grader is spot on, and instructive for today's parents too often intent on protecting and reining in their children.

Did you find these links worthwhile? Let me know!