My Solar Noon

The sun has climbed the hill, the day is on the  
downward slope
Between the morning and the afternoon, stand I here
with my soul, and lift it up.
My soul is heavy with sunshine, and steeped with 
strength.
The sunbeams have filled me like a honeycomb,
It is the moment of fulness,
And the top of the morning.
-D.H. Lawrence

*****

It was never the right time to write in my 30s. I was busy with my three small children, busy with a dissertation that took me over a decade to finish, busy worrying about all the other incompletes in my life—photo albums, dishes, baby books, laundry. All the while, I mourned the loss of my prime writing years; the years when my kids were profoundly shaping and molding who I was, while I was shaping them.

I wanted to verbally film those backlit moments, to capture the prophetic words of my three year old, to translate the saturated contentedness that coursed through my veins as I nursed my babies, thinking of nothing, doing nothing except watching the afternoon sunlight flicker in patterns on the bedroom ceiling.  And then, to keep filming as the shadows appear:  to capture the moment I step out of the mamma-baby bubble, heartsick as I sense the membrane seal behind me.  To keep recording as my children, too, poke their way out of the bubble, no longer babies but not quite the next thing.

It was heart-breaking, soul-crushing work, and I needed writing.

I craved a place to massage my guilt for all the hands-over-my-face screams, the lapses in patience that culminated in an unkind comment, the time spent washing dishes rather than playing doggie inside the pop-up tent.  I needed a repository for all the tears, both theirs and mine.

And I did write, very incisively and very privately.  But as I wrote for myself and for my future grown children, I felt that I was missing the opportunity to communicate. After all, it was a fertile time, a time for germination, the time when I had special access to something larger through my connection with my small children. And I felt that I was missing the chance to use that connection to some greater end.

But I have since made a few important discoveries. The first is that there is no greater end to that connection than living it. Those fertile, germinating years needed my presence, not my analysis.

And second, I realized that once your children have opened something up in you, that space can never be closed. That porthole remains open if you let it.

Finally, I’ve realized that the agony, the awe, the guilt, the exasperation, the contentedness, the wonder, the complete giving yourself over to something, also remains. The terrain is different now, but the hike is still alternately exhilarating and exhausting, and the view is still breathtaking, and terrifying.

I’ve also discovered that this phase of my life, this mid-life, needs my writing more than any other time. Because, unless you are taking an average of the extremes, there is nothing middle-ish about it. I am overwhelmed by a sense of grief for things ending, and by nervous excitement for new beginnings.

This is my solar noon.  Solar noon, when the sun is at its highest elevation in the sky, the pinnacle of life. I can either choose to be blinded by the brilliance of the noon-day sun, or to toss my head back and soak it in.

Solar noon is not about measuring time. It is not linearly defined. It is about recognizing the cycle of experiences.  It’s about reaching a time in your life when you have done all the things you set out to do when you were twenty, and then pause long enough to make out that tiny voice in the back of your mind, whispering, now what?

This blog is a reflection on all those things I set out to do, and did, and a contemplation of what comes next.  It is about letting go of trying to protect myself from the sun.  It is about my solar noon.

Making Soup

minestrone

 

My babies didn’t just breastfeed, they devoured me whole. My firstborn was a nursing tyrant. He demanded to be fed in impossible places at impossible times, like the crowded subway at rush hour. When his gangly toddler legs outgrew the span of my lap, he simply overflowed into the adjacent seat, kicking the passenger next to me with his brown Velcro sneakers. My second child was an efficient eater, a no-nonsense kind of guy. Thanks to my robust supply of milk, his growth curve shot off the charts soon after birth and kept climbing. My daughter, my last baby, visited the milk bar every hour all night long, for what seemed like an eternity. She drained me. And yet, the week before her second birthday, when she finally accepted a bottle of warm milk in place of her morning feeding, I cried. I had fed my children with my own body on and off for nine years, and when my very last baby was weaned, I had to look outside myself to nourish them.

Back then, my mom friends coveted my ample supply of milk. I was lucky—I had no painful pumping sessions andno need to supplement my babies’ feedings with formula.  But there was one downside to being blessed with bountiful breastmilk: the unbidden let-down that threatened to ruin my favorite shirts, cut errands short, and stop date nights—or worse, work events—dead in their tracks.

My husband’s first holiday party at his new job was one of those nights. I fought the urge to sink into the red cushions of the rocker as I nursed my three-month old baby to sleep. I watched for the telltale flutter of his eyelids, listened for his breath to slow, then eased him into his crib and sprinted across the hallway to struggle into my one pair of unsnagged pantyhose. As I hiked up the too-tight waistband, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. My round cotton nursing pads protruded like headlights from under my black dress. No matter how carefully I smoothed the edges, they refused to submit. I cursed under my breath and crept down the stairs to greet the sitter, who waved away my litany of instructions with a wooden spoon. “Go have fun!” she chided, shooing me out the door. I kissed my three-year-old boy and fled. The nursing clock was ticking.

My husband paged through the department directory as I drove, reciting names out loud. I shivered with nerves. Even though we had just moved to this medium-sized Midwestern town from New York, I felt like a country bumpkin on my first trip to the big city. It was hard enough to be new; even harder to be new and sleep-deprived. Adult conversations felt clumsyto me these days, as if I were trying to unwrap a fragile gift with oven mitts on.

Having successfully navigated the throng of people in the buffet line, my husband and I sat down at a table next to a couple about our age. The woman wore perfect red lipstick and a tailored emerald dress, the neckline plunging just low enough to reveal a flash of cleavage. I glanced down at my own chest burdenedwith its clumsy nursing bra and disc-shaped diapers, and leaned forward on my elbows, pretending to inspect my stuffed mushrooms. When my husband didn’t introduce me right away, I assumed he had forgotten her name despite his efforts in the car. I extended my hand. “Hi, I’m Lisa,” I said.

She was an anesthesiologist; her husband worked at a tech company in town. They had recently moved from Philly. They had a three-year-old son like we had. We traded information about preschools, compared notes on the terrible threes, and then chewed our last bits of food in silence. Then came the dreaded question: “So, Lisa, what do you do?”

The spotlight of her attention reduced me to a schoolgirl, silly and small. I reached for a two-dimensional version of myself, an image she could pin up on the bulletin board of her mind. “Right now I’m working on my doctorate,” I heard myself say, as if reciting a line. “But it’s slow going, with the kids,” I added with a sigh. I felt my husband’s eyes on me and shrunk further into myself, feeling like I had somehow been caught in a lie.

It wasn’t a lie. But it wasn’t the whole truth either. Staying home with the kids is what I chose to do, what I loved to do. But rather than claiming motherhood as the center of my life, I had presented it an inconvenience. Why was I reluctant to say what I meant to this fellow mother? Was I afraid she wouldn’t understand my longing to stay home? Or was I afraid she understood it just fine, but had pushed through her own maternal instincts to forge a different path? A path I could have taken?

Just then, I felt a hot rush of breast milk seep through the cotton pads under my bra and looked down to see quarter-sized dots materialize on the black polyester fabric of my dress. I squeezed my upper arms tight against my chest and excused myself from the lady in green. We thanked our hostess, mumbled something about needing to get home for the sitter, and grabbed our coats.

Safely in the car, I slumped into the front seat and fished the damp cotton pads out of my dress. I flung them onto the floor where they mingled with plastic Starbucks cups and half-empty baggies of Cheerios. “It was time to go anyway,” my husband offered, squeezing my shoulder. But he had only been only halfway through his glass of wine and carefully-memorized list of names when we had made our emergency exit.

I scrolled through my phone to find the sitter’s number—she would be surprised to see us home so soon. As I stared at the blur of numbers through my brewing tears, I queried my husband about our dinner-mate. She was new, he said, but seemed nice. An excellent doctor, good with patients. My imagination filled in the gaps. The image of her perfectly fitting dress, sexy neckline, and disarming confidence burned itself into my mind as the symbol of everything I could have been. But as we pulled into our driveway, the shimmering mirage dissolved into the urgency of motherhood. I ran up the stairs to my baby’s crib, picked up his sweet bundled body, and carried him to the rocker, where we both found relief.

Three years later, my daughter was born, and I was still working on my dissertation. I was “finishing it up” as I liked to say, when people asked what I did.But mostly, I was a mom. I made Playdough ice cream with my three-year-old, built Lego ships with my six-year-old, nursed and snuggled my baby. I read piles of books to them, made mud soup with them in the back yard, fed them. Drop by drop, I nourished my children with a pure and potent love. And they fed me in return. Even as I gave my family all I had, the intimacy and immediacy of those early years filled me up.

By the time my baby went off to kindergarten, my dissertation was long done—defended and deposited—and yet, I still found myself leaning back on it like a crutch. “I just finished it,” I would say, my excuse for why I was still at home, even though my kids were no longer at home with me.

But even if I couldn’t speak my truth, I was intent on living it. I gave myself permission to ease back in to the world rather than launching myself at it headlong. Going back to work was a slow unfurling of myself, a gradual release of flavors into my life. I began coaxing skills that had gone missing for decades back into my life, like teaching Italian. And I re-fashioned old talents to suit new purposes, like writing. I even sprinkled some brand-new elements into the mix, like teaching yoga, and was always on the lookout for new ways to expand my repertoire.

But creating my own recipe wasn’t always easy. Inevitably, one aspect of my life would swell with importance and threaten to upset the balance, requiring me to recalibrate my formula. Other times, I felt spread too thin. When the lesson fell flat, when the writing didn’t come, when I forgot to bring school snack or was late to pick up the kids, I remembered the woman in green. Her monolithic accomplishments dwarfed my quaint smattering of passions, and I felt myself shrink under her imagined shadow. I loved all the things I did, and yet I felt plagued by my inability to answer that one simple question she had asked me nearly a decade earlier: “Lisa, what do you do?”

As I chopped vegetables for dinner one night recently, I found myself coming back to that question. What do you do? After all these years, my elevator speech still eluded me. I needed a tidy three-word answer that would sum me up satisfactorily to a well-meaning stranger. After all, I thought, a calling should be an easily-defined, quantifiable thing, that one thing you do best. Not a list of ingredients. With each slice of a carrot Iventured a response: I teach Italian. Yes. In that answer, there was something sturdy, something people could sink their teeth into. But this answer felt lopsided. I teach yoga, I mused, as I chopped the kale and tomatoes: something wholesome, a nod to the spiritual side of me. But still incomplete. As I minced the onion and garlic, I dared to speak aloud the words that scared and thrilled me most: I’m a writer. Yet even those three words fell flat. The essence of what I did was somehow simpler and more complex than the sequential listing of my doings.

I looked at the pile of vegetables for my soup, all clumped together on the cutting board, no single ingredient more glamorous than the other. Soup has no starlet, I thought. Each individual cast member does its part, but ultimately depends on a base for support—a broth, a cream—a stage on which to showcase its talent. I loved the variety, the complexity of soup, but without a base, I realized, there is no soup. Just bits and pieces knocking together.

I slid the onion, garlic, and carrots into the pot in front of me, and a waft of warm comfort met my nose. I relaxed, savoring that initial leap into soup-making, the sautéeing of the mirepoix,that colorful harbinger of flavors to come. I added the broth, tossed in the kale and tomatoes, some beans, and brought it all to a boil, then to a simmer. I relished the anticipation of warmth inside my belly. I covered the pot and waited.

But my waiting is never empty. In the hour between first boil and final simmer were the moments that ground me amidst the whirlwind of my endeavors: I helped my fifteen-year-old tighten up the introduction to his Freshman English essay, I sipped chamomile tea with my middle-schooler, giving him space to expound on the antics of teenage boys—who got sent to the office, who has a crush on whom. I stroked my third-grade daughter’s hair as she sat on my lap and unraveled the day’s drama at school. In these moments, I realized, lurked the missing piece, the unspoken truth that unlocks the meaning to what I do. I am a mother. I may do many things—things that shift and change according to the season—but I am wholly and completely a mother.

I may never be the kind of working mom that does one big thing outside of motherhood, but I’ve realized that I do have a tidy, three-word response to the question what do you do? It’s an answer I can live with, an answer I can grow into. It’s an answer that says exactly what I mean, without betraying a single fact or nuance: I make soup.

I savor the process of making soup—the stirring and simmering, the continual balancing of different ingredients that calls upon intuition as much as experience—but above all, I love the “aha” moment that arrives when my recipe is exactly right. I vary the seasonal ingredients, play with the spices and the cooking time, but my base remains constant. My family is what holds it all together. My soup is more than a collection of ingredients, more than the sum of its parts. It is my masterpiece, and making soup is what I do best.

This essay first appeared in Mothers Always Write: https://mothersalwayswrite.com/making-soup/

 

 

 

 

Artifacts

I fell in love with Italy when I was barely two decades old.  I spent a semester abroad cocooned within the walls of Siena, a Medieval city whose richness seeped into spaces in my life I hadn’t known existed. Life there felt concentrated, packed with flavor, just like the sun-kissed produce and mouth-watering ragù.  I could feel centuries beneath my fingertips as I ran my hand over the smooth marble façade of the black and white striped Duomo. In the tinny ring of church bells I could hear the potency of tradition, as the chimes announced the hour for mundane tasks that had been undertaken at the same time, in the same way, for half a millennium.  The flapping of laundry on sunny terraces, the clattering of plates in windows set high above the narrow cobblestone streets, the clacking of a grandmother’s heels as she walked back from the market with her bag of juicy apricots—all these sounds composed the soundtrack to a life I desperately wanted to call my own. Like any first love, Italy could do no wrong, and I was heartsick to leave her when the time came. I vowed to return.

And I did, many times, and for long enough to earn the Masters in Italian that would set me up as an Italian teacher for several years. But that was a lifetime ago. It belonged to the part of my life before kids, to a world of shiny firsts.

Now, I was returning to Italy once again, this time with my family, to celebrate my twentieth wedding anniversary.  Our three children were finally old enough to navigate the hot, crowded, cobblestone streets on their own two feet, without strollers or sippy-cups or pull-ups; with nothing but the promise of a mid-day gelato (or two) to keep them going.  This was a triumphant moment, and I wanted to be prepared.

I decided to hire a native Italian speaker to help me brush up on my Italian.  After all, it had been years since I had regularly rolled my rsand stretched my mouth to accommodate the spatial demands of so many vowels.

I met with an Italian woman named Maria at her “language school,” which consisted of a single room housed in the ground floor of a nondescript office building.  Unlike her blandly-furnished office, Maria was intense.  Her large, dark eyes, outsized smile, and constantly tapping feet betrayed a nervous energy that rubbed up against my effort to remain calm.  She opened a notebook, clicked her pen, and chirped: “Tell me something about yourself, Lisa!”

She nodded enthusiastically as I unraveled my rusty Italian, all the while jotting down notes in the margins of her wide-ruled page.  After five minutes of rapid-fire questioning, Maria, as disarming as she was charming, threw down her notebook and offered me a job.

“Lisa, you don’t need conversazione, you need to teach, for me!”  she exclaimed in Italian. It was not a suggestion, but a demand.

It had been fifteen years since I had taught Italian—before my doctorate, before children.  Just six months earlier, I had finally thrown out a half dozen file boxes filled with Italian textbooks and lesson plans that had been quietly molding in my attic.  We were moving, and I was trying to discard anything that didn’t “spark joy.”

As flattered as I was by Maria’s belief in me, I demurred.  Teaching Italian would feel like going backwards. Even so, I left that meeting with a lightness in my step, as if a dormant part of me had been nudged back to life.

The following week, Maria continued to prod me about teaching:  Lisa, why aren’t you using your italiano?  Perché?  We need to put your skills to work! Maria had determined that I needed a mentor (I didn’t), and decided that she was the perfect person for the job (she wasn’t).

I explained to Maria that I had expanded my horizons beyond Italian in order to pursue my doctorate in Linguistics.  Having intimate knowledge of a single language had whet my appetite, I told her, but I had demanded more.  I wanted a glimpse of the wizard behind the curtain, a peek at the structure that underlies all languages.

I didn’t admit to Maria that in the end, Linguistics had also fallen short of leading me to a deeper, more satisfying truth.  Like Dante’s Virgil, Italian and Linguistics could only take me so far.  It was my children who would become my enlightened guides, my best teachers, to whom I would dedicate the dissertation that was a decade in the making. It was because of them, not in spite of them, that I had been able to finish my doctorate.

I had earned my PhD five years ago, almost to the day, I told Maria.  Her eyes widened at the news.

“Lisa!” she blurted out in a voice ripe with Romanesque theatrics, “A PhD!  But I don’t understand—why have you abandoned your degree?  Why would you throw it away—toss it out, just like garbage?”  Perché lo butti via?  In true Italian style, she flung her arms overhead in a dramatic imitation of me tossing out my degree.

I felt my cheeks burn, as if she had set my degree on fire and flung it directly in my face.

I hadn’t given up on Linguistics.  I had left the door to a Linguistics career purposely—if tentatively—ajar these past five years.  But with one brash utterance, Maria had slammed that door shut.  I tried in vain to answer her question, but I couldn’t hear my own thoughts over the deafening sound of that closing door.

How could I explain to Maria that my passion was not confined to any one thing, but rather defined by a way of being? All my life I had yearned to connect the spiritual to the earthly, the ethereal to the mundane.  Whether it was transforming an abstract line of thought into verse, translating Italian into English, or transposing theoretical syntax onto the spoken word, forging this connection is what had always driven me.   And that, despite all the time I had spent in my head, my longing to bring the intangible down to earth had found its purest outlet outside of books, outside of the Ivory Tower of academia, in my role as a mother.

From the moment I nursed my first baby, I knew this. Connecting the tiny human in my arms to something bigger than me, through me, felt nothing short of electrifying.  And as my children grew, so did that feeling.  When I rested my forehead against my toddler’s soft brow, I could feel a current of energy between us, as real and solid as bones beneath our skin.  And as I explained the workings of the world to my ever-curious preschooler, I felt the words rush in from somewhere beyond me, from a place of truth that I had experienced before only in the solitude of writing.  Even now as I shepherded my confident grade-schooler and my capable teen through the transition from little kid to big kid, from big kid to young adult, I remained a conduit between them and the world just beyond their grasp.  Being a mother and writing about mothering had opened up a porthole to the divine, and I knew that my calling was to keep that porthole open.

I didn’t say any of this to Maria, because she was also a mother—a mother with a PhD that languished—and in her unsolicited advice I could hear the echoes of her own regrets.  But my candor would not have made any difference.  Maria had already decided what my story was.  While I was fumbling with the past subjunctive, I could see Maria’s eyes focusing on a subtext that wasn’t there. Maria was busy painting the shadow side of my story, the underbelly of my life.  Aha! Here is a mother who has sunk herself completely into her children for a decade, and is scared to leave the security of their affection, she told herself. To Maria, I was the worst kind of traitor.

On the surface, I bristled at Maria’s presumptions, but somewhere deep down, I recognized her perception of me.  The version of my life that Maria was sketching in her mind was the one I sometimes told myself late at night as I lie awake in bed, or in the silence of a weekday afternoon when the kids were in school.

Perché lo butti via, Lisa?

Maria had demanded to know why I had opted for so much less than I was capable of, and I wasn’t sure I had an answer for her.

***

When the timer on my phone released me from Maria’s grasp, I politely thanked her and sprinted to my car in the rain.  I sat behind the steering wheel, paralyzed, letting the windows steam up as I tried to make sense of what had just happened.  How had I allowed a stranger to take control of my narrative?

It was true that I had always put my family first, without apology and without regret, I thought.  But there was more to the story.  I had felt it bubbling up from my subconscious when I was in Maria’s office, tugging on my sleeve like an impatient toddler.  I kept trying to ignore it, to free myself from its insistent little fingers.

What that tiny voice kept saying was that I had demanded more of myself than Maria and the world had, not less.  For years, I had tricked myself into thinking that capability was the same thing as a calling.  Since performing well had been good enough for the world, I assumed it was good enough for me.  And for a while, it was. In my quest to bridge the abstract and the concrete, Italian and Linguistics had landed me pretty close to the target.  But once I had hit the bulls-eye, I was no longer content to remain on the periphery. Being a mother, being a writer—those hit the mark.  In stepping away from Italian and Linguistics, I was walking towards the center of my life.

And yet, here came that old temptation again, in the guise of Maria—the temptation to inch myself back off the limb towards solid ground.  She had given such good arguments for why I should do a measurable something rather than risk a potential nothing; arguments I had heard from countless well-intentioned people in my life—my professors, my colleagues, my friends, my parents—even, or maybe especially—myself.

Maria’s rhetoric had jolted me.  But in the end, it was up to me to decide how to channel her intrusive energy. Would her electrifying words repel me forever from my former flame, or ignite the spark of new beginnings in me? I wasn’t sure yet.  I needed to the feel Italian soil underneath my feet again to know for certain.  Maybe, just maybe, the answer was well-enveloped in the rolling hills of Tuscany, waiting to be discovered.

***

We had just climbed the 400 steps to the top of the Torre del Mangia in Siena and my black dress clung to me in the mid-day heat. My heart still pounding, I drew my kids over to the ledge and showed them all of Siena stretching out below us—the horseshoe-shaped Piazza del Campo that in a few short days would be transformed into a racetrack for the famed Palio—the Duomo, the staggered red rooftops, and in the distance, right on the edge of town near Porta Romana, my old apartment.   Turning my eyes away from the dizzying expanse of tiles, I focused on that piazza, that giant playground of red brick whose various corners defined my existence for a brief, but infinite moment in time.

I sighed, satisfied.  I had been nervous to come back to Siena, worried that the city would have lost its hold on me.  But despite the proliferation of selfie sticks, the strange heft of the Euro in my pocket, and the transformation of my favorite discoteque into a touristy wine bar, the essential magic of Siena still reached me.  It felt good to be back.

My mind drifted for a moment, caught on the idea of return.  You can never really go back, I thought—back to a place you love, back to work—at least not to how it was and how you were. You can only go forward, honoring and building on memories of the past, the way the Romans built their churches on top of pagan temples.  The past was sacred ground, but in many cases its beauty survived only because someone understood how to transform it into something new.

As I took in the beauty of that Medieval city, I realized that I would teach Italian again. Not for Maria, and not because she had shamed me into it. I would teach Italian because I still found something true in it.  Maria had thrust her spade into the rocky ground of my psyche, and it had felt violent, and cruel.  But her probing had uncovered artifacts from my life that made me want to dig deeper. At the bottom, I had discovered the cornerstone of a magnificent structure.  This monolith no longer held up my world, but I had fashioned it with my own two hands.

It was still beautiful, and it was worth preserving.

___

A version of this essay was originally published in Mothers Always Write:  https://mothersalwayswrite.com/artifacts/

 

The Power of No

I often marvel at parents who put forth the energy to do it all—the ones who faithfully attend Futsal practice every Friday evening, even though they would much rather be at home drinking a glass of wine, and then turn around and whisk their kids away to a ski race three hours away.  Soccer cleats off, long underwear on.  They would rather be chilling out at home at the end of a long week, but instead they are being the dutiful, responsible parent, and shuttling the kids to their weekend commitments.  Sigh.  What a selfless mom, we think.  What an involved dad.  Society values that parent, loves that parent.  These parents are doing what it takes to help their kids succeed, even if it means putting their own desires on the shelf.

Maybe.  But as hard as it is to muster up the energy to pack two kids up for two different sporting events, drag a bored toddler around with you to like an unravelled yo-yo, and scrap your weekend plans in order to sit on a frigid Midwestern garbage hill for an entire day (or on the bleachers of a soccer complex, baseball field, or highly chlorinated pool–you fill in the blank), I would argue that it is still easier than enduring the self-doubt, second guessing, and fear of missing out that comes with deciding to sit something out.

As parents, we need to start saying “no.”  We cringe at the thought of that, just like we sneered at Nancy Reagan’s anti-drug campaign back in the 80’s.  It’s goofy and simplistic, and couldn’t possibly be effective. But really, I think we cringe because saying “no” is so damn hard. Saying “yes” is so much sexier, so much shinier, so much more laudable and acceptable.   It requires a mountain of fortitude and will power to hold back, to sit still, to risk the label of laziness.  So instead, we say “yes,” but retain a shadow of reluctance.  The resulting picture is that of a selfless parent who knows all this running around is insane and grumbles about it in self-deprecating tones, but nonetheless soldiers on for the good of the kids.

But is it really for the good of the kids? Are we doing our kids any favors by filling up their iCals with overlapping swaths of color, every day of the week?  Does it not make us as parents anxious to always be in a rush?  Our kids are no different.  Don’t we need a break at the end of the week?  Don’t we all need to sleep in sometimes, to immerse ourselves in something without a looming end-point that seeps into the edges of our minds?  Our kids are no different–except that they need more of that unpunctuated time, more space to roam around their world, unshackled from the clock.  We all know it deep down.  I think a part of us dies every time we have to drag our kids away from something creative, something expressive, something joyful, something they love doing, in order to take them to a practice or a lesson.  An even larger part of us dies when our kids no longer do those creative, expressive things, because they have forgotten how.  Because a part of them has died.  We are training our kids to be anxious and hurried, and they are rapidly forgetting that it could be any other way.

So, does that mean we as parents should we just let our children roam wild and blob out and never learn to play a team sport or acquire a new skill?  Probably not.  After all, part of emerging personhood is discovering one’s talents and passions, and challenging oneself to learn hard things and to practice even when it’s not fun, in order to taste the fruit of accomplishment.  But this process can be slow, and measured, and intentional.  And it is our responsibility to help our kids navigate the pitfalls of becoming overcommitted and develop a sense of discernment. We need to help them understand that life only holds so much, and that adding one thing to the mix necessarily means subtracting something else.  And we need to help them figure out for themselves which things are worth adding, and which ones come with a hefty price.  And which aspects of life should never be allowed to be subtracted.

We try to hold all these doors open for our children, lest one of them proves to be the grand entrance to a charmed and successful life.  We need to stop, not only for them, but also for us.  In stretching ourselves from sinew to sinew in order to prop open doors for our kids, we are literally spreading ourselves too thin.  Keeping so many doors open at once forces us to unwittingly close other more subtle, but no less valuable doors, like intentionality, discernment, focus, presence, and, perhaps most importantly, joy.  In the process of keeping all these doors ajar for our kids (or perhaps, if we’re honest, for ourselves), we are allowing our lives to slowly escape through their openings, in drips and dribbles, until all we have left is things—the very things that we thought would to serve us so well, but end up being our masters.

It’s time to say “no.”  Together.  Because saying “no” is as hard as it is simplistic.  Peer pressure is just as robust in adulthood as it is in the teen years, and has a devilish way of disguising itself.   We may have gotten proficient at saying “no” to illegal drugs and self-destructive behavior, but we have yet to learn how to decline the constant allure of opportunity.  It’s time to stop saying “yes” to every little thing, and in the shadow of “no,” regain some of the bigger things in life.

 

 

Home At Last

1130 Waban kids running

As I sit here on our screened porch, gazing out over our gently sloping front yard, I realize that I am home.  For months, I have been occupied with the business of moving—of unpacking boxes, overseeing renovations and repairs, and furnishing this new house.  I have been so busy making this house feel like a home, that I haven’t had time to be present in the spaces I have created.  I haven’t had time to reflect.

But now, I find myself home alone, and idle, for the first time in a very long while.  This is the first day that all that kids are back in school.  The rush of house-party preparations is over.  And I am writing something other than lists for the first time since February. I realize, with awe and relief, that we did it.  Not only did we move, we made a new home for our family.  It has been a grand adventure.

Moving was both harder than I thought, and easier.  Leading up to the move, I found myself lingering in the kids’ rooms when they weren’t home, allowing every memory to wash over me.  I stood in every corner of their rooms and remembered, and said goodbye to each moment, each invisible piece of furniture, until my heart broke.

I lifted the side of the nonexistent crib and patted the back of a child who was no longer there, too old to be at home during the day anymore, let alone asleep in a crib.  I allowed my body to sway back and forth in the spot where the red rocking chair used to be, humming the lullabies that once put my babies to sleep.  I lay down on the boys’ bed in the middle of the day and imagined their warm bodies snuggled up next to me.

All of this was hard, and necessary.

I gazed out the window at the yard, and saw a shadow of my daughter singing to herself on the swing, and the boys sword-fighting with sticks. I sat at the kitchen table with the morning light streaming in, soaking in the years of breakfasts with sticky honey, spilled milk, and kids’ music playing.  I stood by the fireplace and felt the warmth and glow of the fire on Halloween, winter weekends, the Solstice.

I felt the weight of all those memories crushing me.

It was harder than I imagined.

And then the moving trucks arrived.   While the de-cluttering along the way had felt satisfying, the final emptying out of the house, although physically and mentally draining, felt somehow anticlimactic.  Surprisingly easier than I thought.

I had already said my goodbyes.

But the house was not done with me yet.  Before every showing, I came back to wipe away the dust, vacuum, pull some weeds, and to gently nudge the house back to life.  During those lonely moments, I would find myself leaning against the walls and sighing, loving that old house so much, and feeling confused—like running into an old boyfriend and feeling a tug at the heart, despite being happily in love with someone new.

And yet, the house had already started to smell different, with new carpet in the basement and fresh paint—it no longer bore the imprint of my kids’ bodies or my cooking or our presence.  And that made it easier.

When the offers to purchase got messy and confusing, the universe seemed stubbornly silent.  I wanted to run back to my first house and undo everything.  I had not envisioned this particular angst of moving, and it felt heavy and ugly and wrong.   But we trusted our gut.  When we finally met the new family who would live in our house with their two kids and two birds and a fish, we knew we had made the right decision.

And now, here we are.  Home.  Kids frolicking and wrestling on our front lawn is home.  Waking up to see my daughter’s golden hair reflecting the morning sun is home.  Our furnace leaking and flooding our basement is home, and the dog barfing on the kitchen floor is home.  Life has spread to every corner of the house, from our children, our family, our friends.  We have brought our hearts with us into this new space, and it is more than fine.  It is home.

To winter, with love

You faceless season,
you monotonous wind.
You blasphemous dance of the
sparse, still-clinging leaves,
so unlike the jaunty swagger of spring.

You leaden sky,
you humorless melody of
scraping and scratching and silence.
You blank stare, you dispassionate witness
to my sadness.

You vary yourself just enough
to prick at my hope,
just enough to keep me
awake in this misery
but not quite enough to pluck me from it.

You anonymous and unamused
Winter
how I yearn to tear apart your white world
from edge to frayed edge
until you bleed bright reds and purples and greens.

And yet, I beg you to stay.
To keep me incubated just a little while longer.
To keep the lid of change tightly screwed down
for just a few more tentative
heartbeats.