Saturday, March 29, 2014

What to Expect When You're No Longer Expecting

One problem, among others, with professionalizing parenthood is that all its full-time employees are bound, after eighteen or so years, for unemployment. Today we approach parenting as if it's yet another school subject in which we might earn an A, if we apply ourselves with seriousness of purpose. Doubtless this is because many of us have chosen parenting instead of that high-powered career we once assumed to be our destiny.

But parenthood is not a profession and never was. It is, at most, a condition in which we live for a protracted but finite period. And while we may speak of good parenting versus bad parenting, I don't think we can or should attempt to judge our performance as parents with ever finer metrics of success or failure. In parenting there are variables entirely out of our control: of course these variables are our children themselves, with their own temperaments and trajectories, their own wishes, fears, strengths, and limitations.

As I live through the final years of parenting, I begin to suspect that this generation of parents is wholly unprepared for what comes next. We are so caught up in the day-to-day of it all that we forget to wonder how we will fill the hours once our children are out of the house. And if we do consider those hours, it is with naïve eyes. We think we long for that time. Will we really? 

We also fail to set aside a thought or two for the adjustments our marital relationship will require when not buffered or buffeted by the demands of children. The cartoon depicting husband and wife staring at each other in shock and alarm after they've waved goodbye to their son in the parking lot of his college dormitory? "What now?" Not far off the mark, that cartoon.

Obviously our children do not cease being our children once they stop living with us. But tides will shift. To deny the fact would be foolish and might also set us up for emotional distress on a scale we hadn't thought to anticipate.

Remember those first few blurry weeks of parenthood? When the world seemed turned upside down and shaken once or twice for good measure? Why wouldn't we expect the climb out of full-time parenting to be just as jarring? 

Sunday, March 23, 2014

In the Third Month

Bare and spare trees tip towards the sun,
Soldiers standing at attention, well past
Ready to be counted. They clutch at stray
Crisped elderly leaves, tattered tickets
To this, the changing of the guard.

In the streets mothers unclench their grip
On squirmy progeny who spin and skip
Before casting furtive looks at grown-ups
Whose faces soften when stealing secret sips
Of such fine and misty raindrops and drips.

The man who serves me coffee
Wants to tell me all about his cold --
It's lingered for weeks now.
This from someone who prefers
To slide my drink down the counter,
To avoid the brush of hand on hand.
Impropriety's such a stubborn stain.

I know, I know, I murmur, as
He waits on my reply, It's been 
A bad winter, a long one. He nods.
This is what he'd hoped I'd say.
He blushes candy pink and blinks.
And I see -- his face another tree --
Angled, expectant, at anemic light.

Shh, it won't be long. March, they say,
Comes in one way, goes out another.
Sandwiched between: a minute, 
Perhaps a second, a sudden shift.
The trees, the mothers, and the man --
They've placed all faith in waiting.

The brittle sunshine soothes:
No, it really won't be long now.


Saturday, March 15, 2014

What Eight-Year-Olds Know

"We are so alike, Mrs. Piazza," the boy exclaimed, and I smiled at the thought of it. Nearly forty years younger than I am, raised in a rural, not urban, setting, an inveterate talker at the most inopportune times versus a little girl who scarce opened her mouth, so reserved was she, well. Hard to fathom, really, the similarities between me and this boy with big black hair, lanky body, and a tendency to share all the secrets without realizing that there are in fact secrets: this boy who dreams in the color of football.

But then he added, "Because we're both left-handed, used to live in Chicago, and prefer Choice #1 on the lunch menu!," and I thought, Well of course we're similar. How did I not see it before?

His child's criteria for similarity are so much more flexible and forgiving than my own. Let it be a lesson. According to an eight-year-old's standards, any two people in the world are similar, even if only because they both prefer chocolate ice cream to vanilla.

What we could accomplish as a community, a nation, and yes, a world, if we recognized every other person on the planet as being more similar to us than different. How we might effect the most significant change if we used an eight-year-old's eyes to see other people.

A thought on a Saturday in mid-March of 2014, a time when we have all the tools to improve the lot of every human being but seem to lack any sense of imperative: Find another person. Revel in your similarities, using my little friend's rubric. Help that person because he or she could be you, after all. Enjoy how it feels to suss out commonalities, not differences. Go from there.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

What Parenting Is, and What It's Not

I have this kid. He has a gift. Always has. He can do things with numbers that would dazzle you if you could follow him as he swings, lithe and carefree, from branch to branch, tree to tree. He is, I think, a math magician. I admit that I cannot understand his mathematical thinking most of the time, and I consider myself relatively skilled at math. He once told me that for him numbers have their own colors. Personalities, if you will. I nodded, acknowledging, but without the slightest comprehension of what it must be like to live in his world.

When he makes use of his gift, when he shares his insights with others, I am proud. Why wouldn't I be? But I do not deceive myself. His talents have nothing to do with my parenting. He was born that way. I may have provided him with an environment that hasn't discouraged his skills, but I will cop to no more on that front.

Do you want to know what makes me really proud of him? It's the way he has worked on the things that do not come so easily to him. No, I will go further: it's the way that we have worked on the things that do not come so easily to him. It's how he spent a Friday night at a hotel with his math team. It's how he didn't need to call us. It's how he wasn't even homesick. It's how he talked comfortably to strangers. It's how he didn't worry about his upcoming performance. It's how he got himself to sleep easily in an unfamiliar setting with none of the comforts or crutches of home. It's how he didn't lose anything -- didn't leave belongings at the hotel or on the van. 

So forgive me if today I am beaming. His team placed first in a state competition, and that is amazing, truly. My son's brains will take him far. But my smile is wide because my kid had a wonderful time away from us and did not suffer even a flutter or jolt of anxiety. If I take a moment to pat myself on the back on my child's behalf, it will be because when the first great opportunity arose, he embraced the world instead of shying away from it.  

Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Priest at the Cocktail Party

Sunlight filters down through the skylight and stripes the carpet. The color of the carpet is the place where lavender and gray tryst late at night. It is soft but thin against my baby fingers. If I press hard, I can feel the floor beneath. It is not a carpet that forgives falls. I have learned this truth through experience. I am crawling up the stairs to my bedroom. The slant of the light tells me that it is early afternoon. I am concentrating hard, placing hands and knees strategically. The carpet prickles the flesh at my kneecaps. I am neither content nor fretful. I am focused on my goal of making it to the top of the stairs.


This is my first memory. It is also the last memory I have that is not invested with emotional content, and for that it continues to reassure me forty-five years later. I am something of an emotional weather station. I can tell you the emotional temperature in a room, sure, but I can also gauge the emotional wind speed and barometric pressure. I am able to predict whether emotional fallout will arrive as rain, snow, ice, or that wintry mix of which we all despair. Being me is tiresome indeed.

One of my sons is incapable of predicting emotional weather. He believes himself not disadvantaged but advantaged by his inability to read another person's subtext. He swims through life as if it is the climate-controlled water of a swimming pool: no waves, currents, danger. Just make sure to use your arms and legs to propel you forward, and you will always get exactly where you want to be. Like the horses who drive carriages in New York City, my boy wears blinders that obscure all but the view forward. 

Sometimes I yearn to be him. I didn't ask to be the way I am, after all, to be able to sense who at the party is clutching at a painful secret, who is fantasizing about having a relationship with another person's spouse, or who is furious at the once and future best friend. I might choose to keep silent about what I see, but that's never enough. The other half of the story is that people, even strangers, gravitate towards me. They know. They share their stories, the unprettier the better. Afterwards they look relieved, the sky scrubbed clean and new after a storm.

But I am left alone, gulping down the dregs of my wine. It's no wonder that I hate parties, that I dread them as soon as I scan the invitation that heralds their arrival. I am the priest in the confessional, only I never once chose to open my door to you. You open my door to me, and try as I might cannot close it. It is your Pandora's box, and ends up mine, too.

So if you, elderly lady at the supermarket, are telling me about your long estrangement with your son who lives in Phoenix with his second wife and her four unruly children, and I happen to close my eyes briefly, do not mind. I am crawling up the stairs to my bedroom, one dimpled hand here, one chubby toddler knee there. I have somewhere to be, you see.