Time's determined march

Leaves are changing color and falling, but the high temperatures and humidity persist. My habanero plant is flowering again; it is confused. Summer and fall are duking it out in the final battle for seasonal primacy.

I step from my bath, dripping and thoughtful. Epsom salts and heat help my achy back, the scar on which hasn’t faded over the years as much as I’d have liked. I am prone to all manner of irregular freckles and moles; some need to be removed, while others are simply physical manifestations of my idiosyncrasies and can stay and remind me of such. 

I study my face and its newer wrinkles, my belly and hips. My eyes look tired. Things everywhere are both taut and soft, as aging bodies are wont. Thinner here, fuller there.

It occurs to me that the seasons aren’t the only things fighting for supremacy.

I used to know everyone in the school pick-up line. But during the past two years, waves of new families have reached the shore, and now, I sometimes feel slightly meek and anonymous. Friendships are being forged, over children and similarities I may never know. 

I haven’t felt that way in a long time, and I’m not sure if I like it or don’t.  

My big boy will graduate this year and move to the older campus. I think I like that but nostalgia grabs my heart and makes me unsure. I glean comfort from the fact that even if I’m then just part of the crowd, my younger one will tether me to the special place for a couple years more.

A friend writes with disbelief, “I can’t believe you volunteer at school so often.” I reply, “I love it because not only can I give back but also I can see my children as their best selves.” I had never thought about that before and am again struck by the power of writing without thinking, of responding without editing myself immediately and repeatedly.

There is a lesson there.

I awoke this morning as might a furious storm, swirling and messy and vexed. My agitation could have been for so many reasons, or none at all. I cried, and cooked. I talked to a dearest friend and kept cooking. I poured my soul into my friend and my food. And, later, into my boys.

They were both darling and not, thankful and spoiled, perfect and ugly. My mind told me to run, my heart urged me to stay. Both were right. I am no longer interested in the not-rare arguments about, for example, how much of a body one will willingly bathe. But I am inordinately grateful to be the one asked for advice and trusted with deep secrets.

Finally, the pregnant skies have opened, releasing their watery savings with an unapologetic gush. The parched earth yawns, gratefully lapping up what is shared. Mud splatters, newly sown seeds are unmoored. Wild animals take cover, my domesticated ones snooze obliviously, comfortable and secure on blankets and in beds.

Time marches inexorably on, battling towards the future and against the past. I see it in the seasons, and on my body. In the wave of new faces and the six years that have flown by, a blip in a vast sea, since my family joined the school community we hold so dear. In my dog’s gray whiskers, and in my husband’s too. In the rain that pours down and my sons as they mature.

In the belief in tomorrow and the fresh start it holds.

Of moons and nerves, of good moments and dark ones

This evening just before 8pm, my ragtag crew piled into the car and headed to a point higher than the plot on which our house stands. Jack's class is studying China, and in anticipation of tomorrow's celebration of today's Moon Festival, he is to have observed the moon and his reactions to it throughout the past week.

Wednesday night was successful (just look at that photo Tom took!), Thursday was vetoed because of an overtired meltdown, Friday and Saturday nights were too cloudy to view anything, and although tonight is still overcast, the clouds were moving on the wings of a hasty wind. We figured we could glimpse something if we got to an elevated space free of trees.

Once at the triangular patch of grass at the intersection of Nebraska and Van Ness, we tumbled out of the car, plastic telescope and clipboard in hand. Tom was the only one not wearing pajamas. Jack was dressed in long-sleeve and pants orange-and white-striped skeleton jammies, with the shirt tucked in dramatically; I had on a matching set covered in hydrangea blossoms; and Oliver was, unsurprisingly, wearing a mismatched pair that included an inside-out shirt and bare feet. 

I'm certain we looked incredibly bizarre. But sitting in the grass as a cool breeze gusted, we glimpsed the gorgeous moon for a brief time and felt happy.

It was a blessedly tranquil moment during a weekend which has had quite a few highs but also some real lows. Perhaps all families with young children live their weekends on such a roller coaster. Some may be better suited or able to handle mayhem, cacophony and filibuster-scale chatter.

I, myself, wish we could disembark on occasion instead of being strapped in to the front seats on Friday at 5pm and forced to climb, loop and fall until Sunday after dark. I'm tired of being so enervated by simply experiencing a weekend.

That word connotes such leisure and relaxation. Weekend suggests catching up on sleep and togetherness, lazy afternoons and all-day pajamas if you like. 

We've got the togetherness and all-day pajama parts down pat, but leisure? Relaxation? Sleep? Time for individual pursuits? I don't know what the hell you mean. 

Even the peaceful lulls ask something: that a movie be turned on or that we adults put our own desires to bed or that we be waiting to pounce (and able to immediately relax) when the stars align and the kids play without calling to us for longer than fifteen minutes.

Do you know that by 9:30 this morning, after I'd made beignets and hung out, I'd listened to Jack try to engage me in conversation about the periodic table for upwards of ninety minutes? People, I wasn't capable of managing that in college (I'm not joking; I was a ghastly chemistry student), much less on a Sunday morning. I'm also not super interested, as I feel confident that I know as much about carbon and iridium as I'd like. 

So, I armed him with two dictionaries and a wikipedia page, and asked/pled/demanded that he study by himself while I did some work for class. Suffice it to say that did not work, and I felt both defeated and angry. Pissed. Because a brain can only take in so many insistent requests for needs other than its own before starting to fritz out. 

Ol, meanwhile, had taken every toy out of every bin and tried on and then discarded every costume. Tom and I were tripping over plastic tools and MagnaTiles and Lego men and toothpicks and acorns and books. And the house looked like it threw up in itself. And I just could not take all of that input. I can't. 

By the time we reached the little patch of grass where we stationed our observatory tonight, it was roughly 13 hours after our day began. Jack, armed with two shiny new reference books, was still talking about the periodic table, and Oliver had just eaten half the noodles off my plate even though Tom took them out to dinner earlier. 

I was happy in that grass, but getting there felt Herculean. It's hard to balance all the various energies needed to parent well, maintain a marriage, stay connected to friends and self and keep your heart open enough that despite fatigue and frustration, you're at the ready to appreciate the golden moments in which lovely memories are made. 

It doesn't feel possible sometimes. The moon hides, the grass is scratchy, you never knew what ytterbium was in the first place. 

Benedict, great article on parenthood and (many) thoughts on it

After watching the final episode of this season's Sherlock last night (how three episodes constitutes a "season" is beyond me. And no, I don't much care that each is 90 minutes; I still wish for more because I'm borderline obsessed), I was fully set to write a fan club tribute about Benedict Cumberbatch today. Seriously, though it pains me to say this because such a teen crush at my age is slightly embarrassing, I could be his club president. He is SO talented and sexy. I haven't "felt this strongly" about a celebrity stranger since Jani Lane, lead singer of Warrant, circa 1989. I taped a cut out, glossy magazine photo of him on my childhood wall and slept next to him for years. Truth be told, his looks were terribly 1980s and didn't come through the era well at all. Additionally, he died of alcohol poisoning back in 2004. I believe my adoration of Benedict* shows how significantly my taste has evolved. See pictorial comparison below for proof. Jani Lane

Em crush of 1989 - 1993, give or take ↖

Benedict Cumberbatch

Em crush, present day ↑

Yet I woke up on the hormonal migraine, grumptastic side of the bed this morning and really have never recovered, not least because cold rain prompted a two-hour school start delay. This winter and the generally hyperbolic, overwrought, hand-wringing responses to it in my area (D.C.) have led me to wonder if all peoples purported to live north of Boston are really a lie being foisted upon us all. I mean if we cannot handle cold rain, how could anyone live in more severe climes?? Surely no one in Buffalo! Saskatchewan! Siberia! could possibly remain alive in temperatures that near the terrifying zero mark.

Are snow plows and warm parkas and salt and heated interiors really such pitiful counterspells to cold precipitation? I grew up in Louisiana for god's sakes, and I feel perfectly confident driving on chilled roads. Has a plague of winter anxiety swept over us like an amnesiac ether? Snow, sleet and cold aren't new, for the love. People have handled these climatic challenges for millennia. I mean seriously, hasn't the postal service taken enormous pride**, for decades!, in their determination to deliver mail despite rain, snow, heat and gloom of night?

All this to say that my ode on Benedict just didn't flow this morning. An ode on a crush must come from a happy place, not a dour, sour one.

As such, change of subject.

Do you read New York Magazine? I've been a subscriber for years; the mag is excellent journalism, a weekly crossword and highbrow gossip at their best. I can hardly think of a better evening than a freshly delivered NY Mag, pen and glass of wine by my side. Yes, I do my crosswords in pen, and I am extraordinarily protective of them too; ask T or J. They tried to participate the other night before I'd even had a thorough once-over, and I nearly locked the 'zine in Fort Knox to keep them away. If I get stumped, only then might I seek consultation.


Two weeks ago, the cover article was "The Problem with Teenagers is Their Parents" by Jennifer Senior, one of my favorite journalists. She has recently published a book entitled, All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, which I look forward to reading. Additionally, she will be presenting it tomorrow night, 7pm, at DC's own Politics & Prose bookstore; I intend to go, but damnit, you just never know.

Anyway, I found the article totally absorbing and thought-provoking despite the absence of teens in my house. The primary thesis is that while teenage adolescence really rocks some kids' worlds, for the most part, it's the parents who struggle and are beset by anxiety, not their teens:

"Is it possible that adolescence has a bigger impact on adults than it does on kids?"

The arguments made, by Senior and a number of experts whom she interviewed, include the perhaps unsurprising notion that as kids need less from their parents, their parents feel hurt, displaced and somewhat lost; the "who am I" question forced upon adults as the kids who've been the centers of their worlds pull away and mature. As the parents (mostly moms) wrestle with these feelings, they try to hold on even more tightly. It's not hard to see how attempts at growing up and out in dissonant concert with attempts to cling and remain important could yield fraught relationships.

Another point clearly presented is that adolescence might be rougher on parents because their child's burgeoning independence illumines the absence of other things -a job, interests, hobbies- in one or both of the parents' lives, "exposing what's fulfilling about it and what is not." Though raising younger children can also make people question how to parent and in what manner (staying at home, seeking help, continuing to work full time, etc), Senior suggests that teenagers force us to think of these issues in different, intensely acute ways.

This might by why so many parents struggle mightily with empty-nest syndrome when their children head off to college. When their foci are gone, it makes sense to me that parents would then reflect on the years spent raising them, considering what was sacrificed to do so, weighing whether or not the things given up or delayed were worth it, thinking "What now?" Surely many parents feel satisfied but as surely there are others who feel bereft at the time in their own lives they've lost, or at least the parts of their own identities they neglected to tend.

It seemed to me that my mother had a very difficult time adjusting after my sister and I left. I remember her once calling me at college, in tears in the milk aisle, bawling because, since my sister didn't drink milk, she no longer needed to purchase gallons. I remember wishing I could hug her through the phone. Once my sister left, Mom did return to graduate school, get a masters degree and teach, but she also still feels that life is only at its best when we are all together. While I love how much she loves us and our nuclear family, I do admit to hoping that I don't feel as she does. That I do, rather, feel the way I think I will which is that I did my job well, I loved it, but I'm damn thrilled to be in my renaissance. To have time to deeply explore and live in a way that I simply can't right now. To welcome my children home, always and happily, but not pine for them and their regular presence in my house.

Though I can't know now, it feels that I will definitely not miss some of the more inane elements of child-rearing. I can already say with near certainty that when I no longer have to encourage and manage excellent tooth brushing, clean bums and eating with utensils, I will be thrilled. I suspect that when I don't have to try so damn hard to simply be a person (as distinct from Mom), to maintain my identity and interests in stolen, nonlinear moments chock full of interruptions, I will feel less scattered; I believe there will be a deep happiness there.

This is not to say that I'm not happy now, but my experience of motherhood is that it sits on the fulcrum of fulfillment and desperation. That has been unexpected and is a hard place to perch, day after day, year after year. Every day brings new demands to improvise, teach, support, struggle, fail, feel terribly confused and utterly alone. Simultaneously, every day brings the joy of your child learning something new; the pride in watching him shake hands and say thank you, just like you've taught and reminded him so many times before; the unfiltered, no holds barred hugs and kisses that will, at some point, become things of the past.

I know that I will weep for those moments in the future, as I swim in the nostalgia of memory. But I also hope that the efforts I've made and continue to make to be a woman, friend, wife and individual will sustain me in deep and happy ways when my children are grown. The thought of feeling utterly unmoored at that time is terrifying and serves as a terrific motivation to keep current with myself, to make time for me, my marriage, my friends and my interests. Does this mean that at times I make a choice to value those things more than my kids? In a way, it does. They are always primary in my thoughts, yet I believe the adage, "a happy mom is a happy home," is truer than its platitudinous phrasing sounds.

To me it means not only that if I'm happy I have more happy energy to share but also that I am modeling for my boys all that a mother/woman can be, deserves to be, should be respected for being. If my sons marry, have kids and are not the primary parent, they should know that if their partner (woman or man) takes on that role, it is not to the exclusion of his/her self. It is in addition to. So I feel I need to model that. To show that even though I am here, always and intensely, I am also more than that. I have needs, limits, desires, and interests in addition to and well beyond them.

What I get tangled up in sometimes is the difference between who I was before kids and who I am now. Then, I was well-educated, well-traveled, social, happy and dying to be a wife and mom. Because I hadn't found a career about which I was truly passionate, I looked to marriage and motherhood both because I wanted those things but also because I thought they would be the answer. That because they would need what I wanted to give, they would be the source of peace and satisfaction for which I'd long searched.

Once I had Jack, however, I started to become my truest self, a self that is still well-educated, well-traveled (though now slightly less so, damnit), social (though with less energy), happy and dying to also explore the passions I didn't know I had. The timing feels shitty at times, and negotiating the two poles is rather a conundrum. But without my sons, would I be this woman? I think not and so I am indebted and grateful and thrilled. But it's not easy.

To bring it back to Senior's article, I guess I would again say that I hope my experience as the mom of adolescents is different than the women she interviewed and the many out there like them. No judgment there, just hope. I see myself as mother as a way-station of the most serious sort. I was gifted with incredible, unformed beings, and it is my privilege and most serious duty to raise them well, thoughtfully and with every ounce of love and strength and energy I have. But it doesn't stop there. No, my privilege includes sending them out into the world, to make it a better place, to touch others' lives the way they have mine, to make their own mark on this world. Because of that perspective, I feel it would be a disservice to them, my husband and myself if I didn't keep anything for me, didn't tend to myself along the way. I don't want to have worked this hard for that long to then feel bewildered by or unexcited about the time left before me.

Food for thought, friends.

*Puritanical thinkers out there, rest assured that my husband knows of and is comfortable with my damn celebrity crush. **"Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds." is inscribed on the wall of a NYC post office and is often invoked with pride. That said, the postal service has no official creed or motto.