Thoughts on pride and independence

I am in my favorite spot in the library. Ruthie is purring next to me. I have a cold and just woke from a nap. There was a marvelously intense rainstorm last night. Today is hot, steamy, sunny, and blue. Periodically I look at a framed black and white Neal Preston photograph I just hung. It is Freddie Mercury in sweats and a crown, leaning against a door jamb, one Converse-clad foot crossed over the other, a lit cigarette down by his side. He has a gentle, hint of a smile on his mustachioed face. It was 1977. I smile back at him. I love Freddie because even when it was hard, he stayed true to himself, and he was great because of it. There is a profound lesson in that.

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I hung him in here because I spend so much time in this room. It is peaceful, there are no screens. I always have a puzzle going, my books and countless treasures surround me. My students and I meet and work in here. Windows and natural light are all around. I enjoy watching the birds eat from the feeder I hung in a crepe myrtle. I enjoy watching my cats watching the birds, their feline jaws clacking and moving with instinct and desire, guttural sounds of hunger emanating from their cores. Recently, a zealous squirrel removed the feeder from the branch; I suppose he became impatient by having to hang upside down to access the food, so he tossed it to the ground below. You have to hand it to squirrels; they’re crafty.

On the way to the airport last Thursday, I was overcome with anxiety, and it sucked. Not because the boys were leaving, but because my tank had been empty for a week already (weeks?), and yet I had a hefty few days with them ahead. To get to camp, we fly to Portland, Maine, rent a car, drive 90 minutes to Belgrade, and then do everything possible to pass the time until we can actually move to camp the next afternoon. None of it is a big deal, but Tom couldn’t come with us, and though the boys were immensely excited, they were also nervous about saying goodbye and being homesick.

As we unloaded and said goodbye to Tom, an incredibly terrific woman who taught both boys in 4th grade and who I am lucky to call a friend, walked up. She was heading to Portland too, to visit her brother. Could we head to the gate together? Her presence and company seemed like a gift from some guardian angel. I did not mention my anxiety but appreciated the way having her near felt like a balm. You never know what someone else is holding; kindness and love count for a lot.

It is beautiful in Maine, endlessly serene. Before driving to Belgrade, we hugged our teacher friend goodbye and went to the boys’ favorite comic store, Casablanca, in Portland. While they were looking, I walked over to Bard for a coffee. It, too, felt like a gift. We wandered around trying to decide on a spot for lunch, and I considered that I could live in Portland were it not for the winters. Bookstores, great food, antiques, a slower pace, the water. As it was PRIDE month, celebrations of LGBTQ were everywhere, including a large rainbow flag flying just below the Stars & Stripes at City Hall. Another gift, for what is greater than to love and be loved for who you are. To be able to be and celebrate that openly and proudly. The world still has a long way to go- in more than 70 countries, homosexuality is still against the law. But 50 years after Stonewall, things are better here, and I am thankful. Let’s hope such progress holds (and continues).

We spent the night in a rented house with friends from camp, a lovely spot with a dock on Great Pond. The boys swam and played for hours, burning seemingly endless energy before we forced them inside to change for dinner. I was thankful to be with these wonderful families, people we just met last year but who are already treasured friends. I shared of my difficult morning; they understood completely, shared ways they felt the same, didn’t judge.

All our boys wanted to make the first boat from the mainland to camp on Friday, so we made it happen. As Jack and Oliver lugged their gear up the island’s dock, I followed with my small bag, smiling at their independence and legs that are starting to look more man than child. I listened with deep happiness as counselors from last year called out to them with joy: “Grossi brothers! You’re back!” And the boys beamed, and so did I. I moved them in and helped them pick spots for their hammocks, visited the wood shop and dining hall, the common rooms and the boat launches, happy for the total absence of screens and electricity, for open-sided tents and the water lapping at the shores and the loons. I am so enormously grateful that they get this time off the grid and away from everything, including the hideously awful military tanks our idiot in chief has brought in for the 4th. I am also grateful for this time for me and for Tom, time to reset, rest, and figure out how to harness what we all learn about independence and self-care this summer and maintain it when they get home.

After our goodbyes which were far less teary and hard than last year, I drove back to Portland, treated myself to a delicious dinner and beer, wrote each boy a letter, and turned out my lights at 8:45. Bliss. I spent next morning at Longfellow Books, communing with an amazing Maine Coon named Buddy in a map shop, enjoying the student and faculty art show at MECA (fell in love with Lewis Rossignol’s work and bought some), and then flew home to a quiet evening with Tom.

I have been reading and working in the yard. One of my best friends was in town, and I was lucky to see her twice this week. I have been keeping myself as informed as I can stomach about the horrific, inhuman situation at our southern border, a situation for which I primarily blame trump and his GOP enablers. Reports by DHS inspectors who visited five facilities in the Rio Grande Valley show that:

children had few spare clothes and no laundry facilities. Many migrants were given only wet wipes to clean themselves and bologna sandwiches to eat, causing constipation and other health problems, according to the report. Children at two of the five facilities in the area were not given hot meals until inspectors arrived. Overcrowding was so severe that when the agency’s internal inspectors visited some of the facilities, migrants banged on cells and pressed notes to windows begging for help. At one facility, some single adults were held in standing-room-only conditions for a week, and at another, some single adults were held more than a month in overcrowded cells. Some migrants were forced to drink from toilets as they were given no fresh water.

Tomorrow is Independence Day, our country’s celebration of declaring itself free from monarchical British rule. In the Declaration, our founding fathers wrote:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness… That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes…But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. — Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.

Don’t we care about these words anymore (taking into full account of course the fact that at its writing, the Declaration’s authors did not consider people of color or women to be equal)? Substitute trump and the GOP for Form of Government, Governments, Despotism/such Government, and King of Great Britain, and you have present-day America, a country built on magnificent democratic ideals that are in such peril right now under the tyranny of a deeply immoral man. To those Americans who can celebrate tomorrow but also be ok with forcing desperate people to separate from their children, soil themselves, starve, and drink from toilets, you are hypocritical and cruel beyond what I can imagine. If you are cool with our president yukking it up in the DMZ with Dictator Kim and diverting funds from National Parks to turn the 4th into a militaristic celebration of trump rather than America, you are the antithesis of patriots. You are traitors to the ideals of liberty and welcome. You spit on the racist, brutal history so many of us are trying to reckon with and move past. You dishonor all who have fought for greater rights and acceptance and safety on these shores, all who have died for that here and abroad. I feel so little pride in America right now.

Tomorrow is also Jack’s thirteenth birthday, and I will choose to focus on celebrating him from afar and briefly hearing his voice when he calls from the mainland during rest hour. I will think of the beautiful soul he is rather than the hideous tanks and gross incompetence and evil of trump and his followers. I will hope that one day our country is deserving of my children, our children, the people who look to America as a beacon of hope and a better life (as did, PS, all of your and my ancestors; they were ALL immigrants unless you are Native American).

Reentry: a mom leaves, returns, and restructures family life


In mama parlance, the week following any child-free getaway is known as reentry. Every time I go away, I receive a flurry of friendly check-ins in the days after my return: "How's reentry going?" "How are the kids behaving?" "You ok?" I also send these notes to my girlfriends following their no-kids travel.

Sometimes sweet, at other times, reentry sucks.

When I first glimpse the boys after any multi-day separation, I find myself death-gripping them in loving embraces and also looking over them with some remove: do they look older? more tan? have longer hair? any missing teeth? It's funny how a relatively short time can look as if much more time has passed.

Return strategically

What looks long often feels very short, and before you know it, you are For this reason, I urge you to return home from your vacation after the kids are asleep and, for a bonus, when they will go to camp or school the next day.

This realization was thrust upon me last Sunday because it takes most of a day to get to the east coast from its western counterpart. I left California at 9am pacific time and walked into my home at 9:30pm eastern. I was tired and felt grimy. I needed food. Because of all of that and because I was still hanging on to the peaceful zen I'd acquired en vacances, I was fully aware, pretty much immediately, that I was grateful the timing had worked the way it had. 

I could settle back in, cuddle with T and Nutmeg (both fairly quiet), get some sleep and then wake with the boys, rested and ready for the reunion. Rested 6am hugs and squeals and the inevitable sock in the face by some flailing little boy limb is definitely something I can do; it is preferable to hugs, squeals and the inevitable sock when also dirty, tired, and strung out from air travel and fellow passengers.

Consider that a return might be an opportunity for a dynamic shift?

That first morning, I hugged and nuzzled and packed lunches and kissed my bigger/taller/tanner/longer-haired/teeth intact children goodbye as they left with T and headed to camp.

And then I exhaled and looked cheerfully upon the eight hours of solitude ahead. 

A carpenter arrived to do some work, I unpacked and did laundry, caught up on emails, grocery shopped and showered, all the while musing about what felt so good about being away and on my own besides the relative novelty of it.

  • I engaged with interesting, funny, inspiring not-related-to-me people for a week straight.
  • I had alone time when I needed it and stimulation and new opportunity when I needed that.
  • I learned stuff, used my brain, thought deeply.
  • I slept more than seven hours each night.
  • I took time to read and exercise and also to sit and do nothing. I felt no guilt associated with any of that.
  • I didn't do anything I didn't want to do.

On the one hand, all of that seems like Vacation 101--or, Seeing Best Friends and Attending a Neat Conference 101--but on the other hand, it doesn't seem like a laundry list of Xanadu pipe dreams (the Olivia Newton-John Xanadu, y'all, not Kublai Khan's). 

In other words, it seems like the sort of living that daily life could more closely approximate.

I sat with this a-ha wonderment all day. In the garden, in the shower, while buying toilet paper, and while transferring darks from the washer to the dryer. And I became determined, hellfire determined, to point our family dynamic (or my dynamic within the family?) toward the vacation-at-home north star.

I picked the boys up at 4:45, overjoyed to see their happy, dirty faces. They're at Calleva right now and are outside all day- fishing, kayaking, rapid swimming, rock climbing, pony riding, shooting bows and arrows, traversing ropes courses, and working at the farm. They come home filthy. Filthy!

Their ankles are ringed with dirt, toe cracks stuffed with nature's detritus, faces painted with a blend of river water, sweat, and muck. Their lunch boxes, oh lord, y'all should see and smell their lunch boxes. And I think of all that is just the sort of thing kids should do and be during the summers. I love it!

We headed to 2 Amys to resume our after-Calleva tradition of Monday dinner there.

Avoid overcompensating

Often after I return from time away, I overcompensate. I "make up" for leaving, and within a day I'm exhausted. 

Not this time. I walked slowly, I did not rush. I did not answer every question shot at me, nor did I look at every line drawn in real time. I was present and engaged but I kept some for me, not least by refusing to look out the restaurant window when they went outside, pretended to be dogs by crawling on the ground, and lifted a leg in faux-pee. I cannot encourage that, y’all.

On Tuesday, J was talking a mile a minute while simultaneously asking me to engage in 85 ways, and look and respond and see. I could feel my heart quicken under the onslaught, but instead of freaking out as the tidal wave approached, I took a deep breath and with love in my voice and eyes said, "Sweetie, I'm not going to interact like this. I'm not going to be on, on, on all the time."

He said, "Ok, Mom. Right!" because this is not the first time I've said all of that but it might be the first time he could hear how much I meant it. The tidal wave petered out.

He (more calmly) told me about camp and I told him how great my trip was, how good for me it was, what I learned and what I enjoyed. He quietly built something in Minecraft, and Ol expanded the Lego base he's been working on for two months. 

For the second day in a row, I didn't even consider going upstairs to ensure that they bathed. I said, "Sweeties, go on up and shower, and then we can have dinner and start our movie."

Wednesday and Thursday, same song third and fourth verses. I taught a class and registered for a multi-month writing class I've eyed for a while now. I worked in the garden and got a mammogram (tip to all who've not yet entered this stage of life: Don't, under any circumstance when you're in the vise-grip, look down. You do NOT need to see your breasts in that state of being.) When the boys are home, I give them a lot but I keep some for me.

Leave and Let Everyone Shine

My week away (a must for all parents who can fly the coop for a bit) and my determination to hold on to a good amount of that way of living has been wonderful for me but also, I think, for the kids. Tom is a great dad but he does not consider doing, and never has, some of the things I do in terms of parent-child interactions. There's a lot to be learned from that.

He also likes to do some things that I really don’t, like taking the kids swimming for two hours and painstakingly building light saber hilts from wood and PVC.

Since I’ve been back, I’ve let him keep the reins he took hold of while I was gone. I mean, if I don’t let someone else help drive, how can I fault them for not doing so? He has gotten up with the kids every morning, done breakfast, made coffee, and driven the boys to camp. Jack jumped on the bandwagon two days ago and packed his and Oliver’s lunches on his own accord. Excuse me, did someone steal my child and replace him with an engaged-in-household affairs doppelganger? I accept!

The thing is, T feels good when he knows he’s helping me. As well, it is meaningful for him to be equally involved when he’s home because of how the kids respond. They establish their own relationships on their own terms, not on mine.

When Jack steps up and receives truthful, thrilled praise, he beams, learns a lot about giving back and helping, and is inclined to do more.   

As I did by virtue of leaving (and let me say that a week may sound long, but it really reset everything in the best way), I also need to step back when I’m here. I need to ensnare my Take Care of Everyone in the World compulsion and toss away about 30% of it because not only does it take agency away from others but also it’s just too much to shoulder.

When the dynamic has shifted, don’t turn back!

There have been moments this week in which I or the kids have reverted into patterns I really don't want any of us to return to. Fortunately, because I am still rested and zen and they are at camp from 8am - 4:40pm (these are really good hours, y'all), I've had the reserve to both realize what's happening and alter course, back toward the vacation-at-home north star.

Quantity of time spent together really isn't as important as the quality of it. Equally true is that each of us must honor and make time for all of the facets of our lives that make our souls sing. When we starve a few, the whole is weakened.

I came back from my week away as a happier, more fulfilled mother and Tom and the boys were thriving. Here's to this being our new normal!