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.