Saturday, May 13, 2017

A Day By Any Other Name

Late last Thursday afternoon I drove to campus to help my son pack up his room, which proved dusty and hot work that took longer than we'd expected. It was seven o'clock before we remembered dinner. We decided to eat at a dining commons, his favorite. I detected a note of institutional pride in his step as we walked to the building, and once we'd arrived he gave me a tour of the varied culinary offerings, so many more than were available when I was in college thirty years ago. We sat and ate, and he reviewed his freshman year for me. It was a good year, full of social and emotional growth obvious even in the way he interacted with me over dinner.

As we finished up eating I half-closed my eyes and imagined myself a student at his university. I wonder sometimes whether I am alone in doing this. I am always inserting myself into strangers' lives, trying them on for size, not because I am dissatisfied with my own, although of course there are small dissatisfactions, but because I am so curious about the lived experiences of other people.

My son is much more able to be alone than I was at his age, much more comfortable in his own skin. In college I was not settled unless I was surrounded by people, who must have been acting for me as some sort of validation of my social worth. I was reminded of this as I looked around the dining hall and saw quite a few students alone, seemingly content to be so. I voiced this observation to my son, who told me that sure, he dined alone now and then, if he could not find a friend to join him. "Do you bring a book, or your phone, when that happens?" I asked. He looked puzzled. "No," he replied. "Why would I?" Indeed.


How did we get here? How am I old enough to have a child turning twenty years old in October? How will I be fifty years old one month later?

(We got here in the usual way, one foot, then the other. So many single moments, most forgettable, make up a life.)


Do you know what about my older son makes me the most proud? It is that he is political. He spies moral wrongs—so many just now that it makes one's head spin. He articulates them, and he believes in fighting them.


Reintegrating a college student into his old household poses certain challenges. I don't want to treat him like a child. But neither is he yet an adult, not quite, although he believes himself one. It is far too easy to fall into old, familiar patterns, and when he and his brother interact, I will not lie, they might as well be ten years old and six years old, as if the intervening decade had never passed. They are not at their best when they are with each other.

Despite the brotherly sniping, I am grateful to have our family, all four of us, under one roof. It will not last, I know, and that is precisely why it feels so sweet, on this day before Mother's Day.

Mother's Day: a holiday I nearly hate, between my ambivalence about my own mother (whose inability to mother is explainable and tragic but still felt by me as a loss, or more properly a hole), her now eight-year absence from my life and from life in general, and my belief that forced gratitude for a thing not only is not real but also actively pushes away what is real.

Still, I happen to be a mother writing about her children on the day before Mother's Day, a mother grateful to have her family, all four, under one roof, which I suppose makes today as much my own Mother's Day as the officially sanctioned one may be. If nothing else, the best lawn mower in our family has arrived home to take over that chore, gift enough, gift enough.

If Mother's Day is meaningful to you, I wish you a wonderful, chore-free day with the people you love. And if it isn't, know that I understand.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Giraffe


The giraffe moves languidly. She is never in a hurry. Life is reduced to little more than its essentials: procuring food, eating it, drinking water, sleeping. This is not a bad thing, to those of us whose to-do lists look ridiculous when scrutinized. (But who besides the giraffe has room in the day for scrutiny?)


There is time to find a patch of sunlight and find bliss in the warmth it generates. If there isn't, make time.


There may be a calf — all evidence suggests it — but it will arrive in due course. Nature has a way of working itself out.


Every now and then, why not break into a run? Kick up the dust a bit?


Eating is pleasurable indeed. Chewing the cud is only slightly less pleasurable.


When times are difficult, watching giraffes is mesmerizing precisely because they neither know nor care about the state of the union. They persist. Children managed to be born in concentration camps, despite everything.


Giraffes never look bored because they are never bored.


There is a sameness to physical and emotional intimacy across species that is both reassuring and liberating.


Giraffe calves stand within an hour of their birth and run within a day. This is an inspiring timetable.


Mothers instinctively know how to mother. Mothering well may consist of shedding all of the layers that bury instinct.


Nursing on demand is a no-no in the giraffe world.


Humans could touch noses with greater regularity and be happier for it.


This (all of it) was never only about giraffes, but then you knew that.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Little Boxes

There is something interesting happening at my house. Lately my teenagers are making pronouncements about our, their parents', personalities. What's more, these pronouncements are eerily accurate. We'll be cleaning up after dinner, and one teen will start talking about the way I like to do things, or about a habit of their father's that they find quirky: generally amusing, but now and then annoying (as most human foibles are amusing up to the point at which they become annoying).

Not much of a revelation, this? I beg to differ. Not only do the boys' forays into personality assessment mean that they are looking outward, not something younger teens do, but that they are able to take stock of their childhoods, to take the long view of their lives with us. It won't be long now before they tell their therapists all the ways that we failed them.

(Note: Neither son is in therapy. YET.)

The humanizing of one's parents is so important. I myself came to it very late, too late, because with a depressed parent I could not separate and test boundaries the way kids need to do. So I am glad that my own children are taking a different, more traveled, road.

The other day I found myself able to laugh at myself in front of my children and refer to something I do as "crazy." Everyone else laughed, too.

I cannot overstate how important these developments are. They allow my children to understand that we love them imperfectly, to be sure, but also in the best way that we know how. That people have idiosyncratic peculiarities and weaknesses, but that does not (or should not) diminish our care and concern for them, and theirs for us. That while there may be no perfect, there is good enough. And 'good enough' is both good and enough.


I recently learned aboout a dynamic (not a salacious or even an uncommon one) within the family of a close friend of mine, and it surprised, even shocked, me. It went against what I thought I knew about the personalities of the relevant players. I mused to my husband, "You really never do know what goes on in other people's houses." And he replied, "I've never once thought I know what goes on in other people's houses."

In their newfound comprehension of their parents' inner workings, my children would not be surprised by this conversation and what it suggests about me and their father, I think, and that makes me smile. I smile because there is only a small step from understanding us to understanding themselves within the context of our family, a larger but manageable step to understanding themselves as they are outside of our family, and a final step, the essential one: understanding other people.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

The Necessary Conditions For a Resistance

I am lucky enough to have a number of online friends. They are no less real to me, and no less important to me, for being online. In many cases I have never encountered their physical selves, but still I feel as if I know their hearts and minds as well as my own.

A few years ago I flew to Canada to stay with one such friend. Madness, suggested a few of my local friends. Dangerous, judged some members of my family. My mother had just died after an excruciating period of dying, and I was in no mood to listen to cautionary tales. If anything, I was ready to be seduced by risk.

When my friend greeted me at the airport, I quite literally fell into her arms, and felt more at home in the world than I had in months. Her sweet young daughter won me over in short order and effectively sealed the deal.


So when yesterday an online friend wrote a cryptic note that contained apologies to specific people in his life, I, like many others, grew frantic. Within an hour this man's network had mobilized to make sure that he was found safe and well. And in the end he was that: safe and well. Oh, it is for him to speak to his state of mind, not for me, but if there was a crisis, it seems reasonable to suggest that it was averted.

How beautiful, to watch so many good people do good. I am certain that he feels the beauty in everyone's love, because I know him, despite our never having met.

And of course it is also beautiful to have my friend come back to us, if in fact he was ever in danger of leaving.


This is the good I need to remember when I wake up, before I turn to the day's news, before I remember who is the President of the United States. Without the good I don't think I could keep trying to resist. Without it I might grow as weary as I believe the Trump administration expects I will.

Without the second graders who make me laugh daily, my hope might turn brittle and crack. Without, for example, one of them referring to a friend's great sense of 'hummer.' Without their ever-present laughter and lightness.

What I have, and what you have, I am sure, is worth everything (worth honoring, worth preserving). Once we remember that, resisting all the wrongs seems natural. Essential. And ever so easy.


Monday, January 16, 2017

It Dares Not Speak Its Name

I cast about for the clock on the nightstand. 1:38am. My heart wants to jump out of my chest. This would make sense if I were coming out of a nightmare, but lately my dreams have been stubbornly inaccessible. Experience has me tear off the blankets, and then, there it is: first the heat that runs through me from my toes to my head, followed shortly by its opposite, a chill. It's maybe thirty minutes before I can get back to sleep, not so long, really, except for the fact that I am awakened again in similar fashion three times before dawn.

When doctor discuss menopause (but they don't! - there is surprisingly scant information on and off the internet about menopause), they always mention the mood swings. I read about mood swings and nod, irritated, because if nothing else, having one's sleep chronically disrupted does no favors to mood.

Menopause is a lonely experience. For one thing, its symptoms serve each and every time to remind you that you are old enough to be going through menopause, and not just old enough, but also objectively old. The symptoms themselves are unpleasant - here I'll add thinning hair to the lot - and unlike in pregnancy there is no positive outcome to counterbalance the discomfort. There will be no baby for my trouble. There will be only the certainty that I am done with all that.

And although I may have believed for years that I am done with all that, menopause has a finality that belief lacks.


I wonder why as a culture we seem so embarrassed by the idea of menopause. Is it really something that needs to be discussed in whispers, and only by women? Why is information so hard to come by? Why is there not more research into its symptomatology and its course?

This I do know: The way we skirt around menopause makes it an even lonelier experience than it already is.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017


In the beginning there was a leaf, red, orange, or yellow. Or perhaps it was red, orange, and yellow. Why not? And the leaf fluttered across one pane of the brilliant September sky. In this roundabout way it descended. Doing its dreamy dance it reached a patch of grass. When it arrived and settled on the grass, the light had already been divided from the darkness, and we may say that the leaf fell into the light. But it could have been otherwise and made no difference.

In the beginning there was a child who contained all the world’s joy. That’s not a paradox, though it may seem like one. This child had climbed onto a leaf pile and was busy inhaling its earthy, burned scent when the leaf in question landed near his foot.

In the beginning there was a mother who was taking a bath and had slid underwater. The water fanned her long hair Medusa-like. She was listening to her heart, its reliable beat. When she came up from under the water she heard her son chortling through the open window. She stepped out of the bath, and soon enough September’s breeze blew her dry.

In the beginning there was a father who was raking all of the leaves, all of them, yes, even our leaf. He was, however, noncommittally raking, having realized that as fast as he worked his son managed to undo the work. So he may have had a rake in hand, and he may have gathered some leaves into a pile or two, but really he was watching his son, whose enthusiasm was contagious, and he was smiling.

In the beginning there were these four: leaf, child, mother, father. They were doing exactly what they were supposed to be doing, but not because it was their destiny. They were meant to be what they were doing only because they were doing what they were doing. Do you see? They were dancing towards the earth, they were playing in leaf piles, they were raking and not-raking, and they were listening to the steady beat of a heart, and because they were doing all those things, it was their destiny to be doing all those things.

And it was so. And it was good.

written in 2012

Thursday, December 29, 2016

What My Heart Knows

My heart seems to know a good many things that my head does not. My heart knows that when a ninety-three-year-old woman announces to a crowd waiting to be seated for breakfast that it is her birthday, you touch her on the shoulder and wish her a happy birthday, and you do it in a strong and enthusiastic voice. After all her hearing is not what it used to be. Your head might observe that your teenagers are cringing, embarrassed, in the corner, but what does your heart care?

Your heart and mine know that each death of a musician or actor in 2016 hurts because another piece of your childhood is crumbling underneath you, leaving you standing on a precipice that feels both unsafe and unsound. Your head acknowledges that you do not know the first thing about these people who have died, and what you do feel about them now (just as you did before) is mere projection, but what does your heart care?


When my grandmothers were very old, both expounded on the same theme: it is not much fun, life, without your peers, peers who never needed an explanation of the particulars that made you you because they lived many of the same particulars. I got it, even then, in my twenties, young still.

Yesterday one of my sons tried to convince me that writing thank-you notes is obsolete. (He had already written them, as requested. In this, then, he was not trying to weasel out of an onerous task.) He argued that writing thank-you notes is a chore invented by etiquette experts like Emily Post. He used the internet to support his claim.

(Yes, my children are clever in ways I am not, and yes, they do not share my particulars.)

My head knows that thank-you notes may be outdated, but my heart insists that having my children write them continues to teach them how to express, or even how to feel, gratitude. Gratitude for one thing has a way of turning into gratitude for everything.


My head knows that you cannot will yourself to die, but my heart knows that yesterday Debbie Reynolds did will herself to die just so that she could be with her daughter, Carrie Fisher, once again.

My heart knows it because one of my grandmothers did the very same thing. Lying in a hospital bed while recovering from a ruptured appendix, and only two days from being released, my grandmother said her goodbyes to us all. "This makes no sense," we puzzled. But I had heard her when in recent months she'd talked about life not being fun anymore, and I wondered.

"I am sorry that I won't ever know Kate," she told me in a fierce voice that demanded silence in response. Kate was the name of my future daughter, a name I'd chosen years before. Kate didn't end up being Kate. She ended up a he, and his name would be Jack. But my grandmother's message wasn't dimmed by the inaccuracy of its specifics. It was as pointed, as clear, as could be.

She died of a stroke the next day. My head did not understand how someone pronounced well enough to go home in twenty-four hours could die.

But my heart? It wasn't at all surprised.


Back to the teens I mortified by wishing a stranger a happy birthday, to the teen who believes thank-you notes to be obsolete, but really to all the teens, because mine are no different from anyone else's:

Try thinking with your heart. You will find it rewarding in ways you cannot yet imagine. Practice a little each day, and by the time you are my age, most of the best thinking you do will not be with those quite capable heads of yours.