Watcher of the Skies

I’m at the Hudson Street library. They have the most fantastic playroom here where Wally is pretty self-sufficient now and I can actually kind of write a sentence every now and then. The librarian just told me I have The Idle Parent overdue (kind of fitting). I came across it by chance at the green library a few weeks ago and have been holding on to it to read again. It is quite possibly the single best book on childrearing I’ve ever gotten my hands on. The main message is to arrange your life so you can spend as much time with your kids as possible but to also leave them to their own devices much of the time, staying in the background, modeling happy behavior and creating an atmosphere of music and merriment. You should be nearby, enjoying life together, but not on call to meet their every need the second they make you aware of it. They need lots of time on their own or with other kids, away from store-bought toys and structured activities. Sort of a common theme these days, but the idea that lots of inventiveness and fun comes out of boredom. You have to give kids a chance to be bored so they can learn to be creative, or they’ll grow up needing constant input and drive you nuts with their demands. (The author, a rather industrious brit named Tom Hodgkinson, is also a big advocate of drinking while parenting. “Tipsy parents have happier kids” or some such. I’ll get the exact quote when I get home later and dig up that overdue book.)

I was telling the librarian how much I liked the book and he just kind of gave me a blank look. I said, "You know how everything is so structured these days with all these classes for 2-year-olds?" Meanwhile I was thinking "Isn’t great that here in the library the kids can just play and read a page or two of a book every now and then and figure out how to take turns on the slide?" He looked anxious. I found out why a few minutes later. Of course it could also be that he shudders at the thought of caregivers who sit idly by while kids color in encyclopedias and drop half-eaten lollipops into the DVD returns bin.

After I put down our backpacks Wally ran off to the fire trucks and I headed to the nature section. Just as I started to sink into that great wild Cortez-staring-at-the-Pacific* moment of being about to pour over all those wonderful books, I sensed too much activity behind me. The heavy calm air of the library was being disrupted, the barometric pressure starting to drop. Nannies and babies came streaming in tripping over rattles and sippy cups. It was the laptime brigade. Chairs were being pulled in every direction, slowly at first then with the New York frenzy of demand far exceeding a supply. A dark foreboding came over me: any minute now we’d all be touching our heads, shoulders, knees and toes an ungodly number of times.

I was right--it was a massive storytime takeover. At 3 Wally was the oldest kid in the room and there was of course no way I could get him to sit with the other participants, especially when he came in expecting to play freely. My stomach sort of dropped when the librarian started going around asking everyone’s name. Each nanny cheerfully bounced the baby in question and said, “Jacqueline” or “Taylor” or “Cole” then everyone would chime back “Hi, Cole” back in a big sing-songy voice sure to terrify the little creature who could not have expected a roomful of 60+ strangers to greet him in unison like he was at an AA meeting.

By the time the librarian got to Wally he had dashed off across the room to the play kitchen, so all was well. No question asked; no answer given. But I had to ask myself what I was even afraid of. That someone would say, “You're too old. This is for 0-18 months. Get out of here and take your choking hazard 3+ toys and snacks with you”? Or just the feeling that he is delayed so it’s almost like this is better suited for him than something for preschoolers would be? He did join in for bits and pieces of various songs. Mommies on the bus saying “Shush, shush, shush.” He gets a huge kick out of that line. "You can say “shush” all you want," I imagine him laughing deviously to himself. "No one is ever gonna hear you."

Lately I’ve noticed that Wally is often one of the oldest kids wherever we go in the morning. Plus most of the other kids are accompanied by a nanny. It is Manhattan after all. How can people afford to stay home? Although if you're paying a full-time nanny under the table and getting paid over--and the issue is only financial--couldn't you just trade places? If you wanted to, I mean. Can you afford to have a nanny if you can't afford to stay home? I don't know. Maybe. I hope this doesn't sound rude. Manhattan isn't really a mom's scene, especially for "school age" kids. I guess even in New York, even when my dad wore my yellow pajama bottoms to play pool at Westside Tavern and no one batted an eye, these days Wally and I make an odd pair. Once recently I felt so left out at the playground. It just seemed like everyone knew each other as part of some toddling playgroup and it's not like I care, usually, but it was getting to me. The mingling and the new people and the place-lessness, like you can't find anywhere to stand, or you have way too many knees and toes. Like you just started a new job and it's someone random sales guy's going-away party and anywhere you're standing is the wrong place. Plus you know that everyone who talks  to you is looking around for someone more important. At that moment in the playground I was so tired from the whole scene that I just lay down on my back finally and looked up at the sky. Wally lay down beside me. It struck me as bizarre and amazing that the sky is always there for you (except on these endlessly cloudy days). That you can always just lie on your back and look up at it and it's always so peaceful and reassuring. But the weird thing too is that you're not really looking at anything, are you?

At the library this morning an entire preschool showed up on a field trip partway through the story time, and then Wally blended right in. But it shouldn’t have mattered. He was having fun, oldest or youngest or in between, who cares? Why is there such a sadness for me about a kid being “too old for that” or trying to squeeze himself into a costume from last year or into a playhouse meant for babies? I still haven’t gotten over hearing one five-year-old say to another at a Carroll Garden playground last fall, “Why are you playing with that? (A light-up dollhouse type thing.) That’s for a 2-year-old.” I guess it just hits a nerve for someone who always wanted to stop time, starting when I was the same age as those kids. I still feel a bit bruised when the universe reminds me on a daily basis “You’re not a kid anymore.” Why can’t I be?

A little while later Wally came running over from the slide nearly in tears. His new thing is to “go together” but not every kid wants to do that. A girl told him no and pushed him away. Crestfallen is such a funny word, but that's what he was. He looked at me and said, simply, “I wanna go home.” That's a recent thing, too. Getting his feelings hurt and wanting to go home. I guess it makes sense, to seek shelter and protection. We found a traffic jam puzzle, though, and he was fine, happily "redirected". Last year at this time a disagreement would have led straight into a meltdown. Or make that a pindown (of the other kid). What's weird is Wally wouldn't have related enough to care about getting his feelings hurt. And certainly would never have come running over to me for any reason. 

Feeling so bad that you want to go home is a natural reaction, but a bit extreme. Wally could really use some of those extra sensory inhibitors on the inside. The same kid who requests others to "bonk him on the head again" tears up when someone tells him to "get away". "Sticks and stones"** is such a dumb expression. It'd be nice if it were true, if we could all be like Eleanor Roosevelt withholding consent from feeling inferior, but it sure goes against nature for some of us. For Wally now it's almost the complete opposite. 

The rain let up on the way home. Still it felt great to be back inside. Cozy and warm on such a dark day. Wally likes to ask now, "This is our house?"  and answer himself, "Yes, this is our house." Funny that he can go home, but in a way I feel like I can't. We all want to run home when we get pushed off the slide, but after a certain point, of course, you can't. Thomas Wolfe. What is the rest of that line? It is about going back home to your family, your childhood, your "dreams of glory and of fame".*** That's what we can't go back to. But the desire to do so still feels like it's at the root of something I need to do. 

My dad sometimes mentions this brilliant doctor at the V.A. who went back to retire in a little town in Texas. Texas, can you believe it? Texas? No one ever goes there on purpose, do they? (No matter how great Austin might be.) But that's where the guy was from and even if he made it in the medical capital of the world, one day he had to go back. To that little one-horse town with one bookstore in West Texas. Scarily, one bookstore may not be a defining feature of a small-town much longer. With even Barnes & Noble stores closing shop, Borders going under and the New York Public Library facing a $40 million cut, where will those of us go who grew up with libraries as temples, who want to be in silent stacks on that peak in Darien, who can sometimes only do it when first looking into Chapman's Homer, only move forward by looking into the past, only think more clearly and live more purposefully when we follow my mother's laconic injunction when I'm not getting exactly where I need to be: "Read more." She's a librarian too, she was the librarian in our elementary school. She loses herself in books, literally, like an addict. She's always having to hold herself back from reading more. (Though lately I think she does check email pretty often, and even Facebook. The urgency of now catches up to everyone.)  

I can still hear her reading Blueberries for Sal or George and Martha, to us at home or to a class in school, holding the book facing out so we could all see the pictures. The pictures didn't blink, didn't move or light up. In the class, we couldn't even see them all that well. It was the storyteller's voice that carried the story, like it had for thousands of years, like it did 6,000 years ago along the banks of the Euphrates when storytellers dreamed they saw animals in the night sky. 

A mom's voice so instantly conjures up childhood. Hearing it feels like going home; how could it be otherwise? It's the first voice you ever hear (unless it's blocked out by prenatal music piped in to "facilitate bonding in the womb"). If you're lucky, when you hear it you'll know you're safe at home with your cloth and wire mother, the one who will read you stories, take you out after dinner to show you fields of fireflies, and guide you to a place where you can one day feel safe enough to leave her. It's a big job, being that cloth and wire mother. It's too bad it's so much of a business these days; it doesn't seem like we are learning a whole lot from current trends in parenting. We'd be better off looking into the past. That doesn't mean, of course, that we can go back there. Yet a crazy mythical nightmare hallucinating Arkansas hope of return keeps me thinking I will. And hurtling me back into that receding future. 

*John Keats, On First Looking into Chapman's Homer [also post title, Darien ref.]

**Idiom: "Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me"

***Thomas Wolfe, You Can't Go Home Again  "You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood, back home to romantic love, back home to a young man's dreams of glory and of fame...back home to the ivory tower, back home to places in the country, to the cottage in Bermuda, away from all the strife and conflict of the world, back home to the father you have lost and have been looking for, back home to someone who can help you, save you, ease the burden for you, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time -- back home to the escapes of Time and Memory." 

Allen Ginsberg, Howl "who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy among the scholars of war"

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby "the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us"


  1. I think the fact that Wally had his feelings hurt is about the best news I've heard all week. Morgan still has not. He has not gotten to that stage. I think that's fantastic progress!

    As for feeling out of place as a mom, it could be worse. You could be a dad! Josh says every day one of the mom's of one of Jesse's friends says goodbye to Jesse on the way out of school and then just looks at Josh as if to say "ack, don't rape me." 13 years at home and he still feels out of place.

  2. I'm sorry I cannot stop laughing over "ack, don't rape me". HILARIOUS. And Josh of all people because he has such a gentle presence but you're right--a stay-at-home-dad is really unheard of, especially one with four kids who changed his last name to yours (he did, right? or is that just part of the AB folklore?)

    As for feelings hurt--you are so kind to say that. It is major progress. It's amazing that there is all this capacity for connection there that was hidden for so long. Still when he's overstimulated or at the mercy of his sensory-seeking impulses it's like he almost can't access it. But you're right, it's huge progress.

    I started out tho to say I'm sorry I'm still laughing about Josh as potential rapist because it's not meant to obscure the sadness about Morgan not getting his feelings hurt. Can't believe I still haven't met him. Maybe next Thanksgiving if you guys drop by again? (Btw, Lenore Skenazy would love the Josh anecdote. She recently reported on a daycare which outlawed men changing diapers for that reason.)

  3. see, that is so ridiculous! Plus, where would I be if Josh did not change diapers??? In a house with a bunch of smelly kids, that's where.

    Yes, he did change his name :) The women at the bank were not really sure how to process that one. "You can't do that," they said. "What would you do if a woman got married and changed her name," said Josh, which lead to finding the right form to change the name on our joint account. Oy.

    Morgan is a bull in a china shop - we don't bring him to confined places - haha.

  4. Reading this conjured up memories of the McTowne library, your mother's story time, and having a secret hide away/home in her office. It made me want to go home! So true what you say that the older we get there is no such escape from reality and hurt security in a mother's embrace anymore. We are supposed to take on that role. However, I find the irony to be that when our own child is hurt or teased, it is as if someone tears out your own heart, throws it on the playground dirt and stomps it to pieces. The pain is much worse than anything I recall experiencing as a kid myself. And yet, until last year Remi (at 4) wasn't even aware of the teasing. That first incident where he realized kids were excluding him and name calling killed me. He slowly plodded over to me with tears in his eyes and told me that he wanted to "go home". On the walk to the car he told me that they were calling him "potato head" and running away from him. Many such playground drama has followed. Why are kids so mean? I hope to give him that security of home and build his strength and character while I have the chance...while he still considers me home. Home school here we come!

  5. Where ARE all the older kids in NYC? I wonder that all the time. Even on the weekends, if we go to the playground, often E & L are the oldest ones there. What are all the other kids doing???

    This is a beautiful post, Rach -- about Wally, about motherhood, about trying to stop time. Keep writing!


  6. Rhonda that is a riot about the name-change form at the bank. "You can't do that." !! It must be extremely rare. I can't think of anyone else ever doing it. I thought it was enlightened of jon and alex to allow offspring to take mother's last name. Josh really makes them look like neanderthals. (Then again A and I aren't married, so I guess that'd be even stranger.)

    Roo and Moo: I was in tears reading your comment. That was a secret hideaway in my mom's office. Didn't we always have girl scout cookies (thin mints, specifically) stashed there? I like how you said "We're supposed to take on that role". There is something empowering about it, almost like when you're in a spooky situation with a child you feel safer because you are the adult and need to be calm, versus being alone and feeling like a lost kid. I've noticed that at least. More importantly tho, that is a brilliant point, the irony of feeling more hurt when your child is hurt, although you then describe it as "someone tearing out your own heart" even though you don't remember your own heart hurting that much for its own sake. I'm really curious about that -- if we are just forgetting that pain of being hurt, teased, left out, or if as a child you have some resilience to it that you don't have when witnessing your own child. Maybe it's a more extreme version of how awkward it can be to watch a family member give a speech. You feel almost more awkward and nervous for them than you'd feel for yourself. God I just feel awful thinking about Remi being called a potato head, and kids running away from him. That is just the worst feeling in the world, to try to play with someone and have him/her (and a group no less) run off. Do you know the book "You Can't Say You Can't Play" Vivian Gussin Paley? Haven't read it myself but it's on my list. Wonder if it's be informative for home schooling. BTW I think it is so fantastic that you're doing that. Would love to hear more. Maybe you'll start one of those homeschooling blogs.

    D - God, I shudder to think where those "older" kids are (inside, glued to TV and computer screens, I hope no). I remember the day a few weeks ago when E said "I'm the oldest one here" at the river playground. I detected a bit of sadness there, but, and this goes back to the post, I wondered how much of that was just me projecting. Anyway, it didn't matter one iota. They had such a fun time and to top it off we found that magic blue teardrop there! But anyway, where ARE the older kids in NYC is really an important question. Maybe we can dream that they are running on their own in prospect park. Tomorrow, btw is take your children to the park and leave them there day.
    Thank you for what you said about the post. It means a lot.

  7. As a mother of both older (6 and 4) AND younger (2) kids, I can tell you where the older ones are: during the schoolyear, waaaaaaaaaay overscheduled and in the summer, also waaaaaaaaay overscheduled. It's a tough tide to fight against in New York City, this current trend of parents to have their children so programmed by the age of 3 that there is no time to just be and play and be bored (although I certainly do understand the need to get away from one's children at time), but one that is well worth the fight. And there are other parents who think so, too, although they may sometimes be harder to find.

  8. "The mingling and the new people and the placelessness, like you can't find anywhere to stand, or you have way too many knees and toes. Like you just started a new job and it's someone random sales guy's going-away party and anywhere you're standing is the wrong place." Please put this in the novel. Yes.

    Oh no, and this! "the sky is always there for you (except on these endlessly cloudy days). That you can always just lie on your back and look up at it and it's always so peaceful and reassuring. But the weird thing too is that you're not really looking at anything, are you?" Ah, can you believe that today, the same day I read this post, I laid down in the park and looked up at the sky and for a full five minutes and thought, "when was the last time I have done this?" and couldn't say. And tried my damnedest not to check the phone (cursed and evil implement). And thought, I never just look up at the trees. What has gone so terribly wrong.

    On that note, you must see "The City Dark," new doc by Ian Cheney. Heavy stuff.

    PS: Reading your blog is like finding out that the inside of my mind is plastered all over the internet. Nah, not that gory or cheesy but just trying to convey the gravity of the situation.


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