Thursday, August 18, 2016

After August

This is a violin, not a viola.
And this is not the sixth symphony.
But you get the idea.
A while back, our two oldest children left for college one week apart. 

Jarring, yes. And yet, I remember thinking, I'm not upset enough.  It reminded me of when I was child and wanted to cry at a funeral because everyone else was.

July rolled into August. Suitcases filled, rooms emptied of posters and books and CDs, and while I found myself looking longer and harder at my children, I was still not weepy. Nor was I second-hand weepy around the mothers who couldn't get through a discussion about the coming goodbye.

I was even a tiny bit more cheerful as September came into view.  No more details, no more shopping. No more saying, "Did you," at the start of every sentence.

One brilliant green and yellow morning, I listened to the last movement of Beethoven's sixth, a piece my violist-daughter and I adore, and one I'd watched her perform the previous summer. I thought about that lilt in the beginning, the part she really loved, and wondered, where did it actually begin? I went to her room to ask her, and got halfway. In a week, I would not be able to do this.

I still remember my face getting cold, and a feeling of being hollow. And did I cry hard enough to make my best friend come over in her pajamas? Yes, I did.

As new parents write of lost identity when babies come, veteran parents write often of disorientation when babies go. What of the next relationship we ask ourselves, when we aren't yet those people we will be for each other?

This canyon of "now," between "were" and "will be," is a thing that makes the prospect of separating a tiny bit like a death. And it's talked about that way, in terms of what is over for good. There is grief over truncated moments, regret over unrealized joys and sadness over endless "lasts." There is halting in the hallway, there are cold faces. There are thoughts of who will we be instead of us?

I have come to understand the answer to this, and it isn't something I would have understood at all had someone tried to explain it before August.

But it is this: my relationships with our four adult children, are more rewarding today than at any other time  because today, they demand more of me as a person than a parent.  

They are different people, but share a tolerant, kind view of the world. They require this of those they trust. More than once they have made me examine my heart and change it, close my mouth and open my mind, discuss hard truths, question wrong assumptions, update my views.

I've started more than one conversation with, "Help me change my attitude about something."

I've never found it this easy to laugh at myself.

Today, our daughter  lives 650 miles away from us in Cleveland. There, she directs a program which offers violin lessons to inner city children. Small children. Children who arrive tired and cranky and are more interested in my daughter's earrings than the piece upon which she must focus their little attention spans. 

She took me to tour the facility. When she left to take a call her boss resumed the tour, explaining the programs they offered and the value my daughter has brought to them. 

"We love her," said this man who has only known her as an adult, a kind, talented, professional woman. "She's a natural."

Later , we shopped for groceries and prepared dinner and talked in her kitchen about things we thought about, worried over, looked forward to, dreamed about. We had as much fun as two grown women can have when one is no longer – nor yet – dependent on the other. She is healthy and committed to intellectual, physical and spiritual balance.  Today, we are more alike than we aren't, despite the twenty-plus years between us.  We share a mother-daughter relationship, but have adult lives in common.

My August hallway question is long behind me but I have learned this: children leave, and they travel as far as they must to become their individuated selves. But then, whether they move down the street or text us from their living rooms across the country, they will come back not in need of answers or approval, but as people with experiences to share, in need of comparison, in need of commonality.

The fall is coming. Parents will miss their college freshmen perhaps more than they imagined. I say, let the memories come. And as you remember the times you'll always cherish, also remember the times you wouldn't revisit for anything.

Above all, be joyous about the certain possibility of times to come, when love will grow right along with you and connect you, long after August has come and gone.

This piece was originally published by in August of 2015.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Pet peeves are worse after you've spilled coffee on your face

Here is my pet, Gus, and here is his
peeved face.  It was a perfect storm for a graphic. 
I knew I would write a pet peeves post after I misjudged the fullness of my coffee cup last week and spilled it on my face. Oh, haha, I thought at first, look what I just did.
But then I dropped my toothbrush paste side down. And then I found a very old life insurance bill under many pounds of clutter in my giant purse. And then I forgot to bring my artfully organized and lengthy list to the supermarket. And then I parked too close to a curb and gave my tire a boo-boo, for the second time this year. 
It was one long-ass week of hold music and missed calls and things I forgot to write down, I'll tell you what. 
Usually, I look outward to feel better. But a perfect storm of poor attitude on my part and inconsiderate or clueless behavior on the part of others made me look inward instead, where I found this list of pet peeves already writing itself. 

Herewith, things that are easy to overlook unless you started the week googling "spatial awareness issues."
1. People who say "perfect storm," a serious and rare meterological event, to describe things that are just coincidental.

2. People who approach a door to enter a place while someone on the other side wishes to leave, and go first anyway.  I think some of us may not know that is has been the rule since God was a toddler to let people come out with their bags, before you go in with your nothing. Ditto elevators. Let them come out, and then go in. Them out, you in. 
3. It's not "could of," it's "could have." It's not "your being a jackass," It's "you're being a jackass." "Expecially" is still not a word, and neither is "irregardless" even though the dictionary finally gave up and said, "Okay, fine but we're putting informal next to it." If people lose it on Facebook, they should avoid undermining the credibility of their rant with errors like these. Maybe not, though. It's kind of funny when that happens. 
4. People who see that a lane will end a half a mile away,  race to the point where they merge and then huddle in wait for the driver they can cut off  to jump the line, which is five years long. In truth, they save little time as the already annoyed drivers in that line form a collective, massive attitude of "the hell you will." 
5. People who walk very slowly, two or three abreast, in the middle of anything, including aisles in supermarkets, parking lots, sidewalks and everywhere else. I wish I didn't feel as irrationally trapped as I do when I'm behind them and can't find a way to slip past on either side, but at least I'm nice enough to consider them clueless and not inconsiderate. 
6. People who are not clueless but inconsiderate. This includes smokers near doorways, right lane drivers who accelerate as you're attempting to merge, and people on airplanes who occupy their space and yours with too loud talk, too odorous food, too much perfume that smells like grapes. In general, people who know it might bother others but not as much as it will please them to have their way. 
7. People who half-shuck an ear of corn at a farm stand to inspect it, then reject it, then do the same thing to one ear after another until the bin is left full of half-stripped corn, which is off-putting for other customers, and probably mortifying for the corn.  
8. People who enter a parking space via the one in back of it to enter the space nose-first. People, (well,  I) tend to pull into spaces quickly, and I know if I'd collided with someone after giving my tire a boo-boo, I would have been worse than unpleased. 

That's it, it's only eight. After a week that nipped at my heels like an annoying dog after the coffee cup incident, I thought it would be longer. 
I must be on the mend, mood and fate-wise. 

Friday, August 5, 2016

While the spirit is a puppy

Here is the man I never married
and these are the kids I never had and 

I look nothing like that woman either.
When I was eight or nine, I went on regular trips to a local amusement park with some best friends. Inside the park's giant arcade, across from the rows of pinball machines were coin operated machines that produced things like fortunes and predictions, like the machine that sends Tom Hanks into adulthood overnight in the movie "Big." 
One of them, for a quarter, would show you your future spouse and children. The weird, grainy photos were all 1920s era and featured unsmiling, long suffering souls who looked like they'd been forced to pose for the picture or else. 
Usually, the men sported handlebar moustaches and suspenders and the women wore long skirts. Standing between them were always a gaggle of morose kids who stared flatly into the camera as if it had ruined their lives.   
Forget the roller coaster or round-up,  this was the attraction we hit first in our summer shorts and striped shirts, our overbites not yet corrected, our quarters gripped by fingers sticky with cotton candy. 
Photos in hand we'd huddle to view, and then argue with the results: 
"Mine looks like Curly from the Three Stooges."
"Mine's all dressed up but he's next to a tractor and a bale of hay"
"What'd you get?"
"Lemmee see yours."
And so on. 
Because young children worry about things like being kidnapped by spies, or attacked by bears, I wondered briefly what would happen if my future family were anything like this.  I remember thinking about that while walking barefoot to a store to buy candy because walking around town in bare feet wasn't horrifying yet. 
What would I do if he had a moustache? 
Eventually, my head was turned by a boy on the bus and I was able to advance to more serious things, like what if bear jumped out of the woods near the bus stop? 
There was horror in the world, both of the natural and manmade variety. There was a fire in France that killed 142 people. There were hurricanes and tornadoes and trains that ran over people.  For a while, everyone talked about Charles Manson. There were the flying monkeys in the Wizard of Oz.
My biggest problem however, was what would happen if my cat Mittens went out and never came home? 
What would I do without Mittens? 
Fifteen years ago, in the ghostly aftermath of 9/11, I watched our young kids watch us, watch their teachers, react. I worried that they would now begin to see the world as we adults did at that time – unpredictable, terrifying, a place that seemed impossible to control and where it would never again be possible, not really, to completely relax. 
But it struck me then and now, that to watch young children at play, particularly when they  don't feel watched, is to witness spirit as a puppy, in its most hapless and sprawling state, not yet curbed, still so infused with curiosity, imagination, and spontaneity, it can have the power to dwarf the hardest reality.    
For a while. 
I wish for us to make it last. To not over-inform. To not caution too much. 
I wish for us to know that despite incomprehensible changes in our adult worlds that fray the edges of our own spirit, we are still former children. For the sake of our current children, I wish for us to remember the days when we were more fascinated by what we didn't know, than fearful of it.   
Children did then, and children do now fill their minds with fantastic predicaments of their own making – of cats not coming home and  bears popping out of the woods and what kind of a husband that boy on the bus would make – all completely believable in the dark before sleep. But a child's spirit is a puppy, warm and irrepressible, a steadfast ally with the answer to everything and the power to show them a future worth dreaming about. 

To honor and shield that spirit as a puppy is one of the best things we parents can do to honor our child's time in life, and, the memory of the children we ourselves needed to be at such a time. 

Back when we worried about noises in the woods and marrying people who hadn't been around for several decades.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Marriage is not for babies

Here are some swans whose cygnets are
with a sitter right now so they
discuss feelings without examples.
A while back, I met my daughter for dinner in Boston. On the street outside, a late-twenties couple met and after a nice embrace and a kiss, entered the restaurant. They'd been apart. They never stopped talking. They never took their eyes off each other. They never stopped touching.

Anyone would know from the look of them that they were probably never not like this.

A couple of weeks later, in line at a cafe, I spotted a couple that we used to see socially back when we all had teenagers and socialized with anyone who didn't answer questions with "What are you talking about."

That's not really true.

Yes it is. 

They sat in a corner these two, oblivious to the surroundings. She talked seriously about something, and he listened actively. Anyone would know from the look of them that they have never not been like this.

Recently, an article written by Matthew Johnson, professor of psychology at Binghamton University appeared in the Washington Post called, "Why having children is bad for your marriage." 

I can only imagine how many people clicked on that link.

The assertions were as gloomy as you'd expect.

First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes relationship malaise and a "fixer" baby to help pull things together, in the baby carriage. Couples become less happy with each other and less happy in general.

Things further devolve, wrote Johnson, as communication gets patchy and fatigue makes us less interested in everything, including each other.  Our parent selves strangle the free and youthful spirit that drew us to each other and intimacy waits for later which doesn't come. The one who stays home feels isolated. The one who comes home feels insignificant, and so on.

The good news? When the kids leave, you're free to go. Reported Johnson, "...the successful launch of the children leads spouses to discover they have few shared interests and there’s nothing keeping them together."

And there you have it. Go ahead, have a baby. When you're done, just bite the head off your mate because you're finished.

For sure, I  have known couples whose over-parenting has changed them into people with only parenting in common. I've known others who viewed the empty nest with dread. And, of course, there are couples who never really had anything going in that was worth getting back. 

But there are swans, too. 

Our babies began arriving less than ten months after we married and didn't stop arriving until eight years later. I could have been the woman I spotted recently with a license plate that didn't read "3GIRLZ," or, "4BOYZ" but "4YNOTS."

We relocated six times in those first six years, with each of my consultant-husband's new assignments. We missed everyone, but we also liked that no one knew us as well as we knew each other while we were figuring stuff out. We didn't argue about who worked harder, we both did. 

At the core of things, we'd become, together, the most important people we'd ever been and shared the most important experience ever to grace our lives. It changed us forever. 

But challenges come and ours came later with a permanent move back home. Now my husband traveled while I managed the little ones and made new go-to mother-friends. Now, it was in late calls at night that we connected, too tired to comb through the details of a day, but not wanting to hang up. Now, it was only hours each week that we had to shore up that core of things where intuition lives and tells you what to blow off, what to say instead, how to gauge the climate, and how to tell tired from tired of .  

I needed to articulate this disorientation, this stone-in-my-shoe over the million, tiny things we now experienced apart, and the worry that we might next become people who knew each other less than others did. 

And here, in my opinion, is a point in any relationship that should be circled like an important date on the calendar. 

Here is where it's easy to mistake critical symptoms of transition for a bad mood, or phase, or "something hormonal" and blow it off, because you don't want to be needy even though you are for good reason.

Here is when many swans stop making those hearts with their necks  and start spending more time with their cygnets because the cygnets are easier to figure out.

Articulate I did, but because I am about feelings, and he is about observations, it probably went something like this:

Me:   I don't know, it's just a feeling. Something's different.
Him: Well, can you give me an example?
Me:   No, and why don't you have the same feeling?
Him: What feeling?

Me:   See?  

We gave our marriage its own room in the family house.

One didn't attempt a serious conversation while the other was helping a child find his shoes.  We hired sitters and made time for those feelings-without-examples conversations. In those early years, we ate dinner together after the kids were fed, a thing that wouldn't work for many in today's parenting culture, but which saved us later, when the babies became teenagers and we faced a whole other blog post of challenges to our core.

I don't think a troubled marriage is the certain result of having a baby, many marriages are troubled with or without children. 

But with a relationship at the core worth defending, and an understanding that marriage is not the most resilient of the relationships that form when babies come, but the most vulnerable one, I think the swan potential is higher. 

Maybe Dr. Johnson will visit a bigger pond next time, and ask to see them, the swans. 

Thursday, July 21, 2016

The giant man at life school

I don't know who this is,
but I don't think
she's  an optimist. 
The advice columnist Carolyn Hax recently explained to a writer why it is easier to be unhappy than optimistic.

"Optimism," said Ms. Hax, "demands that you greet new people and situations with an open mind, instead of just lumping them into some lazy category of Things You Already Know." 

There is no better place to witness people and situations you don't already know than the supermarket, or as I like to refer to it, life school.

Sooner or later, we all show up in this place of aisles that reflect our myriad needs, and stand in lines with our choices of how to meet them.  

There is this man I see there at least twice a month. He's a giant guy, several inches over six feet and not fat but, well, "stocky."  He looks like David Crosby does now. 

I notice him because I won't forget the first time I saw him.

It was during the summer last year and we were in Produce. The woman he was with was tiny, just over five feet tall. She wore enormous dark glasses that covered half her face, had a blond beehive hairstyle and was dressed in an expensive looking sheath dress and high-heeled strappy sandals. She looked like she'd just come from a cocktail party in 1965.

She trailed the big man in sullen silence, as if they'd left an unfinished argument in the car.   

As happens when you start with others in Produce, the giant man, his unhappy companion and I began to journey through the aisles together, from Deli, into Beverages and onto Spices and Salad Dressings. Very thoughtfully, he placed things in his cart while the woman said nothing.
She erupted in Nuts and Canned Vegetables.

"What the hell did you just say to me?" she hissed.

The man didn't say or do anything, and so, loudly, she repeated the question.

With his silence, she only became more agitated.

They reached the end of the aisle and were out in the open now, in the stretch that separates the registers from the ends of the aisles. 

"You don't talk to me like that!" she said. "You know what? You're the biggest asshole I know."

"And you are drunk," the giant man finally said.

The crowd stepped to the side as they approached, but then clustered in their wake, saying to each other, "Did you see that?" Cashiers gaped. Small children stopped slapping each other in line to watch.

"Oh, man," whispered an employee next to me, pen poised over his clipboard.

"I DON'T HAVE TO BE HERE!" the woman yelled, and wobbled toward the exit.

The giant man rolled up to a line next to mine. Something in the way his gaze traveled, settling on nothing, seemed practiced.  I tried not to look over; nobody wants to see their misery reflected in someone else's expression, but then he looked right at me.

It wasn't a look that said you don't know the half of it, or, I know, right? It was a look that said no big deal.

And then he looked away.

I saw them again about a month later as they left a local restaurant. He walked ahead, she stumbled after him, nipping at his heels.

If you were in your underthings, and the house caught fire, and you had to run outside as you were, because you had no time to grab a robe, you wouldn't care that neighbors saw you in your next to nothing, you'd be worried about what could be perishing inside, in the flames. 

To witness, and withhold judgment, ignore your assumptions – why would anyone put up with that? – like happiness, is harder to achieve sometimes, but worth it. It's something I've begun to do reflexively. Maybe because I've learned that I usually don't know the half of it, or just don't like being judged myself. 

Or maybe it's because we're hearing from so many from different walks who have felt so misunderstood for so long by those people who don't greet new people and situations with an open mind, and do  lump them into some lazy category of Things They Already Know.

Several times since that afternoon in Produce, I've seen that giant man on his own in the supermarket, strolling with his cart, looking at labels, calmly adding things, moving on.

Yesterday, I pulled into the parking lot and had to wait to park behind a big truck that had stopped in front of the door. From the rear view mirror hung a handicapped placard. The plate said "Veteran." I heard yelling.

"Don't you tell me to shut up!"

The giant man was in the front seat, and the 1965 woman was struggling to get into the passenger seat. 

He looked at me as I passed. I looked at him. Again, I glimpsed that veteran plate.

In my category of things I already know, this is an intolerable situation, a house on fire. But in the category of things the giant man already knows, this could be underthings, while more important things have not yet perished, or harder things have already happened.  

I don't know the half of it.

But at life school, is where I have learned how to keep the door to my mind from swinging shut, because those doors lock from the outside. Then, there you are, stuck with the other half.  

Note:  Other campuses of life school are conveniently located at the DMV or the ER, but they don't offer upbeat, overhead music from the seventies that will stay in your head for the rest of the day.


Saturday, July 9, 2016

We are all horrified

---From a shared Facebook post by Jim Hightower
Once, in my early high school career, I joined a group of kids who decided to skip school and hang around someone's house listening to John Lennon's White Album, which had swears in it. Two of the members of this group had terrible reputations.
But I wanted to see what it was like to be a badass. 
I squirmed with guilt the minute I knew my first class was underway and nothing felt better until 2:15 when I could go home and stop feeling stupid and disappointing. 
My mother found out of course, and asked me why I'd done it. I told her I didn't know why. Then, in veiled teen speak, I asked if she thought I was stupid and disappointing. 
I might as well have asked her if I was not actually a human, but a mountain lion. 
"No," she said, mystified by this. "Of course not. Why would you think that?" 
She didn't patch a few facts together and pretend to know what was going on with me. She just loved me and wanted to understand. And, so, she asked me to tell her what she didn't know.

Some time later, I told her how much I liked talking to her because she always "understood." Actually, she told me, she didn't always, because her life and experiences were nothing like mine. But she always listened. 
The honesty of that distinction has been on my mind lately, with respect to the "Black Lives Matter"movement and the "All Lives Matter" response that appears to frustrate everyone. If I get this even a little, both sides have a different take on the meaning. The "All Lives" people see the slogan as divisive, while it is meant by "Black Lives" to suggest greater inclusion, a desire to have one's fair share too. Not more. Just as much.
But what I hear above the din, over and over again is a response I understand better than any: don't explain what you haven't experienced.

Jim Hightower's post on misunderstanding which appeared several times in my newsfeed recently appeals to me for its elegant truth:  We can differ in history or culture and other characteristics of identity - race, gender, sexual orientation, country of origin - and still  honor each other on common ground: we are human beings who love other human beings. 

Our children, and parents, and spouses, our family and friends.  

And we don't want to lose them. 

It isn't the inability to relate to the lives and loves of others that widens the divide. It is the inability to admit that you don't know more about a thing than you do, and failing to ask for enlightenment. It is failing to locate and honor that common ground where we share more than we don't.

Especially now. 
Because, now we share Dallas.
We are all horrified.
We were all horrified by Sandy Hook, and Oklahoma City and Orlando. 

And 9/11, the first time in my memory when the country, united by massive trauma, turned to itself for comfort, then fell to either side of our common ground in the month or so after, when, just as we were hoisting flags and listening to Lee Greenwood, some politician blamed another for "letting this happen," and there we were, united and polarized in crisis.
Here we are again, united and polarized by crisis, this time with a black, blue and white conflict at its core.  
However we dissect cause and effect, we are all horrified by the taking of lives not lived, people not at fault. We have all been left under a cloud of apprehension, a feeling of dread – where will the next one be? How bad? Who will die when an officer interprets a civilian's show of fear for his life as a threat to his own? What video will go viral?
I'm losing heart. Like others, I fear growing less horrified, and I dread the next crisis that will crowd this common ground with broken-hearted people. All different in ways that matter less than those in which we are exactly the same.  
I'm going to start with that.
I'm going to ask, I'm going to listen, I'm going to read, and I'm going to keep showing up at the humanity party as a life that does not matter more than any other.

Even if I wish I could do more.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Don't let them take your heart

Don't let them take your heart

It happens quietly, and slowly 
the way the spirit fights for life
But the spirit is only so resilient

The heart must act.

Don't let them take your heart

The fear that fills us
The sadness that slows us
The anger that devours us
The dread that comes with the first glance at morning headlines
Don't learn to expect the worst
Don't become less surprised

Don't let them take your heart

Shore up your faith in the humanity which connects us
Keep the capacity to grieve, to cry for a stranger
Don't let your spirit lose its fight

Don't let them take your heart.

When it seems unsafe to be where you belong
When it seems everyone might be a killer in the making or a victim in waiting
Remember that fear only feels like information
And that far more evil has been stopped than perpetrated 

Don't let them take your heart.