Friday, May 22, 2015

Long Spring Days

I remember when I was in high school it seemed like on the very first day of summer vacation I'd invariably get woken up by lawnmowers outside the window and I would be so angry. I'm sure they didn't start until like 8:30 or maybe even 9 and to me that seemed outrageous, to get yanked out of bed at that time. We lived in a condo so we had no control over what happened to the yard or when. Well we did have a tiny little mulch-covered garden with a rhododendron bush and lily of the valley and a few other bushes I loved, the names of which I don't remember. There is a lilac bush in the church yard near us here in New York and all through the early part of April we watched for signs of life and then when it finally bloomed we went wild with happiness, "pulling over" to enjoy it on the way home. Then it got to be one day that it still looked the same but the smell was nearly gone. And long after I would have stopped pulling over to take it in Petra begged to so we still leaned over over the dying dried up flowers and took these deep breaths for days. 

Here it is not even 7:30 in the morning and I've been up for over two hours and the sound of a lawnmower out there is so comforting. The smell of fresh cut grass, intoxicating. Finally, a perfect spring day. I can't complain or I should say I shouldn't complain, because it's been a nice spring, but on some of these cold days things have felt off. We try to go to the playground most afternoons and I swear sometimes because it's in the shade and windy there it's been freezing. Plus they have the water on. Wally used to get wet on cold days and remember he didn't notice or care. Petra is tough, but she feels things Wally never did at that age. Like the cold. Blisters on her feet bother her so I have to remember to put socks in crocs. She gets hungry and expects to eat at regular intervals. Wally was like a marine toddler. Cold, wet, no supplies, no sleep; totally fine.  

Okay, so do I feel like I have time now? It's a question, but I don't hear my voice raised at the end. It's more like the flat affect of an annoyed friend who knows your answer is going to be "No." Sometimes you get so used to running that even when you are permitted to stop, you can't stop. God, that seems so obvious, and yet it's something I learn again and again, something I've seen myself performing this past week. The minute you could take a breath, instead you focus on the next hurdle to jump. Hurdle-jumping. I've talked about that so many times on this blog, but at least now I can catch myself when I realize that's what I'm doing. I sent off my final paper last Thursday at noon, so I've had a full week now to "relax." I still have the Poets Out Loud Graduate Assistant job this week and I need to attend to the Jazz at Lincoln Center work I've neglected. I also have another small book for HarperCollins due at the end of June. So there are plenty things I need to get done, but it's not a race now, not a panic. I don't have to take notes on Sir Thomas Malory for a seminar that night while in line at Whole Foods with Petra screaming away in the stroller (cold, hot, tired, hungry?).

No longer racing, so I checked my instinct this morning to race off. Instead of packing up and zooming Petra off to daycare as soon as it opens (8:30) so I could get up to Fordham, I sat with her for a half hour and read books or mostly the same book over and over No David by David Shannon. I wanted to read a lot of spring happy things are growing seeds and gardening books but she wanted to see David reaching for the cookie jar he wasn't supposed to have. 

And now she wants to walk instead of go in the carrier so it takes forever just to get to the subway. She's loose on the subway so I have to entertain her the whole time to keep her from sitting on the floor or licking the pole. People around me must think I am totally frantic with my high speed itsy bitsy spiders head shoulders knees and toes where is thumbkin I'm a little teapot singing and gestures but if there's even a second pause she'll find something else to do. 

After I dropped her off I walked up to Washington Square park where there were a bunch of college kids in graduation gowns getting their pictures taken in front of the fountain. I thought back to Wally's "graduation" from Gramercy two years ago. The one that (in my opinion, ridiculously) took place at NYU. I looked down at a bunch of weeds growing up in the mulch on the side of the walkway and I expected to feel a sense of panic or despair—two years? That was already two years ago?—But I didn't. That feels like at least two years ago. So much has happened. So much has changed. So many minutes I felt like things were unraveling and couldn't all possibly be contained in the space of one day, but somehow they were. 

With all the craziness of tagging Alex's hand and running up to the Bronx, the late nights, the absurdly early mornings, I am relieved that Wally still felt things were pretty calm and routine. I heard him talking to a school friend the other day who recounted that she "has something every day" and is "never ever free" after school. He said "We are free four days" and he was counting his half-hour violin lesson with Alex on Tuesdays, family dinner on Friday, and visiting relatives Sunday as his three busy days. It feels like a fight sometimes to keep it that way, and more and more it seems he is the only first grader who, aside from birthday parties and visiting family or friends, mostly free. And maybe his disappointing resume will turn into a liability. I just can't imagine not letting your kid experience what it's like to jave time when they're lucky enough to have it. 

After I finished my coursework last week, I went to Providence for my cousin Will's graduation from college. I felt bad racing off to do that, after all the chaotic weekends of the past few months. But it was so peaceful there in Providence, and Alex was great about "helping out." (More on that later! How is it helping out to take care of your own kids?!)

Here's Will last weekend, with my parents.  

I wish I could find a picture of Will the five-year-old boy at my college graduation. But here's a picture of us just over a year later on the porch of the great old Casino near the cottage. 

That picture was from early fall, a birthday party for our grandmother Eleanor. It was just a month or so after I'd left my childhood bedroom with my two duffle bags and moved to New York. 

Earlier that spring I had been working at some kind of environmental cleanup place in a restored mill in West Concord. My parents let me borrow the car most days, and my mom packed my lunch. (I was 23! That is outrageous. No wonder I never learned to cook, or do most functional adult things.) This was pre-cell phones. We had email, but not readily accessible away from a desktop computer. During my lunch break I'd sit outside on a picnic bench near the river that used to run the old mill and listen to Built to Spill, Keep it Like a Secret. So many great songs on that album, but "Broken Chairs" really sticks out as imprinted from that time. I just couldn't stop listening to the 8 minutes and 23 seconds of that song, with its "long spring days and the speech of crows / Who themselves are mirrors of apprehensions in the fallen sun." After I was done eating I remembering listening to the song again and again, with nothing else happening, no calls, no texts, no errands, not driving, not hanging out with someone else, not writing a letter, not working. Just listening to the song that's not even long by Built to Spill standards.

So, to answer, yes I do have time, now, and I've already had lots of it. And if you see me acting like I don't, remind me. And put some music on. And let's just listen.

Friday, May 15, 2015

A social experiment

"With the exception of the imperial offspring of the Ming dynasty and the dauphins of pre-Revolutionary France, contemporary American kids may represent the most indulged young people in the history of the world. It’s not just that they’ve been given unprecedented amounts of stuff—clothes, toys, cameras, skis, computers, televisions, cell phones, PlayStations, iPods. (The market for Burberry Baby and other forms of kiddie “couture” has reportedly been growing by ten per cent a year.) They’ve also been granted unprecedented authority. “Parents want their kids’ approval, a reversal of the past ideal of children striving for their parents’ approval,” Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell, both professors of psychology, have written. In many middle-class families, children have one, two, sometimes three adults at their beck and call. This is a social experiment on a grand scale..."

Spoiled Rotten  by Elizabeth Kolbert - from the July 2012 New Yorker but still worth a read.

Friday, May 8, 2015


“All too common is the picture of the tired business man who retires in gloomy silence behind his evening newspaper, and demands complete isolation from the family life around him.” (Reading Aloud by Wayland Maxfield Parrish, 1941)

Friday, May 1, 2015

You are here

You are here.

Last week as I walked Wally to the bus Wednesday morning I remembered it was Earth Day and thought--oh no!--I didn't do anything like even plant a bean sprout thing in a cup or water or collect acorns. Wally said we could make some kind of crazy mud dessert with pudding and Oreos and gummy worms it sounded fun maybe--for him--but I pictured myself scrambling through CVS and Gristedes to pick up the stuff--when? After work/before the bus? Arriving out of breath to pick him up, laden down with stuff I bought for Earth Day - seems a bit counterintuitive or at least counterproductive. No no. Not buying stuff for Earth Day and not making some goppy awful dessert that I'll likely end up eating by myself. I didn't want to make Wally feel bad for the idea, but quickly substituted the idea of going to work on the garden straight after school instead. 

Dropped off Wally. Home then down to Soho to drop Petra. Up to work at Lincoln Center. Then racing back to meet Wally off the bus and by then it was raining so we went straight home. I had a school event I had to leave for in a couple hours and Alex would be home soon with Petra so Wally, which meant Wally and I only had a little bit of time to do a project before Petra would come in and wreck it.

I brought some paper and crayons into the kitchen and put the kettle on and thought--okay, while Wally's drawing I can figure out a real Earth Day project. I'll dig through various activity books and magazines so we can build a sun-catcher out of recycled plastic bottles at least read some springtime poems but I caught myself just in time racing down the hall to being my frantic foraging. Instead I forced myself to sit down at the table with Wally in the cozy kitchen and draw a bad picture of the earth and the moon and he did the same (his was better than mine and even had a key). It was quiet in the dark kitchen with the rain outside and the sound of the water heating up and the crayons on the page and I felt so very much there and not not there (racing, frantic, rummaging in the other room). I accepted the perfect as the enemy of the good. I didn't even get up to put earth day songs on the radio. I just stayed. At. The. Table. There for the little time we had. Then we hung the pictures on the door -- Wally's still young enough to be excited by just that alone -- pictures that his Dad will see when he gets home from work. How many years longer will that be a minor thrill for him? Maybe one if we're lucky. 

I saw this, too, and I've tried to accept its challenge for years (remember Tim Kreider with "The Busy Trap" from 2012?) with varying degrees of success. I find myself sometimes or often forgetting that I am firmly in the "Busyness we control" category, and growing almost irritated when I do. I find myself saying about classmates of mine: "They have no idea how hard it is to squeeze in all my coursework in the evenings! They can hunker down in the library all Saturday and Sunday!" Or about the other parents on the playground: "They have no idea how hard it is! Tonight they're going to put their kids to bed and watch Game of Thrones drinking wine while I have to write a paper about an obscure 16th-century play I can barely read! Ludicrous, I know. And I quickly remind myself that I chose this lifestyle which is--I think objectively?--really a bit over-the-top busy. I chose to take Thoreau's challenge to examine my life and I have found it life-affirming and life-changing and exhausting and great. 

Very little steps for me, trying to climb out of that busy trap. You can do a lot, pack a lot in, without being one of those frantic crazy busy people whose answer to everyone's "How are you?" has something to do with how overwhelming life is as if you didn't choose to be whelmed (submerged;'s actually a word, even without the "over"). Forget coloring tongue depressors green and cutting out construction paper flowers. I envy other mothers those impressive projects sometimes. But for me, right now, that would be a distraction. I have to know where I am and try as hard as I can to be there.