Live Your Life: A Mother’s Reflection

A Mother’s Life

Live your life, live your life, live your life.—Maurice Sendak

It’s Mother’s Day, a Hallmark-y holiday. Flowers will be dispensed, brunches eaten, and everywhere priests will stand at the pulpit and spin out sermons on the importance of mothers for the umpteenth time; they’ll repeat them next month but insert the word “fathers.”

I had a call from my twenty-something man-child early, early this morning—a video chat, because that’s how it’s done these days. He couldn’t sleep last night, he said. He is carless at the moment, and so he had spent hours looking at ads on craigslist. He was so tired he could lick the walls, he told me, but still could not fall asleep this morning. I said I had no idea what that expression means and we both giggled. And anyway, he went on, if I fall asleep now I’ll be wide awake at ten tonight. It’s no good. I just need to go find food.

Off you go, then, I told him.

Happy mother’s day—I love you, he said.

We’ll probably chat a couple more times before the day is over, unless he sleeps it away.

We are thick as thieves in spite of some mountains and valleys between us. He has figured out with impressive exactitude the instant I’m likely to pull into the driveway on weekdays—it’s almost like he can sense it somehow, even when my schedule is a little off. The phone on the passenger seat next to me lights up and chirps its familiar chirp, the one that says Hey-from-a-thousand-miles, pick up already.

And we are thick as thieves now in spite of the uncertain landscape five years ago, when I lived alone for a final difficult year in our big, old, Tudor Revival-style house in Knoxville, the house where he grew up, and where our family was coming unglued before our eyes. When the new world order emerged at the start of that year, I explained to my then-teenager he needed to go and live with his dad in a neighborhood just down the road, for so many complicated reasons: I tried to make them clear. It was late, I was tucked into bed (still on my side of it, the other side only recently empty); he was sitting cross-legged at the foot of it practically on my feet, like he might have done when he was five. We had a hard conversation.

During those long, empty nights the Blackberry sometimes chirped on my nightstand and often at odd hours. It was never bad news, just a heads up at an inappropriate moment: hey mom, I’m coming over to the house to get <thing>. <Person> is with me, but he’ll wait in the car so the dog won’t freak out.

Soon the car—his late grandparents’ Caddy that was his for the time being—would idle in the driveway just below the master bedroom window, and not long after I’d smell the stink, the secondhand tobacco smoke he now carried around with him on his clothing and person, and hear the death-rattle cough in a kid too young to sound so old. No telling where he had been nor where he was going in the late-night or pre-dawn hours. There was so much profound sadness wrapped up in these occasions I can still feel it now. (And I will forever associate the Blackberry ringtone with it.)

A few years earlier there was still a palpable tether between us. MOM! came crackling from a high-again low-again adolescent male voice, often followed by Where is my—, more a demand than a question.

And before that: Mommy! I need—, always delivered with a sense of urgency. I could not have imagined a time would come when I’d simply have to give in to worry and grief about the life choices this child was making; I could feel my bones beginning to age.

A day many years earlier found me sitting comfortably cross-legged on the floor with a toddler in my lap, in a playroom loft that would delight any child—a long, narrow, cocoon-like room with sloping cornmeal yellow walls meeting its flat ceiling, walls that follow the contours of the steeply pitched roof on the other side of it, a room warmed by the radiant heat in the slate roof tiles, a Hobbit-like space proportioned and cheerfully outfitted for a little person. The toddler surveys the raised highway we’ve built from an exquisite wood block set my Uncle Stan sent us, Matchbox cars in mid-commute, a few highway tragedies piled below it, while across town some cars are parked in front of the ice cream parlor, blissfully unaware of the carnage.

Our minuscule village is awash in the dappled sunlight filtering through tall trees just outside the big window on the gable end of the house. The toddler has a pacifier in his mouth—a “binky,” which he’s sucking furiously—loudly—deep in thought with furrowed brow, clutching a second binky in his tiny toddler hand which is lifted to rub against the tip of his nose. It is an endearing habit he will retain for a long time. If one of three big dogs happens to saunter through the room and upset the highway, the toddler will bellow gleefully at the calamity.

Meanwhile he tumbles out of my lap to improve some bit of highway infrastructure, muttering an observation through the binky still held tightly in his teeth in language sometimes only I can understand. Standing in the checkout line of a big box retailer a cheeky old woman will soon lecture me about allowing the little boy on my hip to suck on one of those things, they’re terrible for teeth, she should know, her husband’s a dentist. For once words will not escape me: I’ll square my shoulders and quip, Well you and he should be thankful for ignorant moms like me who send generations of business your way.

My child is clean-scrubbed; I’ve plunked him into a soapy bath for a half-hour of calming water play after his sticky, spinach-y lunch, which he was wearing on his face and in his hair a little earlier. Freshly dressed in a stretchy cotton outfit that smells of Dreft, he’ll sit in my lap again while I rock him in the sunny yellow bedroom three steps down from the Matchbox highway loft. Town improvements must wait until we’ve gone exploring with the Wild Things, supplying words for wordless pages—howling at the moon, swinging through the trees, tromping through the woods. There might be a nap set to sweet Celtic lullabies, but I know this child: he will fight sleep and probably win.

The irony of this does not escape me after our earlier conversation today. I was not “finished” with this young man when I left Tennessee for good. But I was also weary—nay, exhausted—and ineffective as a parent near the end: there were not enough restorative naps, for him or for me, to fix our big problems. I was powerless to put him in the tub, or to wash the stale cigarette smoke out of his skin and hair, or scrub the filth under his nails: he had to do it for himself, or not.

Parenting never ends. And sometimes I think I’ve been most effective as a long-distance mom: being available only at the end of an electronic device is a game changer, after all, and underscores the reality that I’m more than a door mat, or a lunch fixer, a changer of diapers, or a supplier of spare change, even though I have been all of those things and continue to be some of them. For too long these things defined most of me while I allowed what remained of me to languish. The day I opened the doors of my small ballet school in Knoxville a wise friend observed, Not a moment too soon. But really, that day actually came several years too late—putting my life on the back burner helped nobody.

The only piece of advice I ever give any new mom is simply this: being a good parent to your child is profoundly important, but never more important than being a good steward to yourself. We finally do what we can for our children, and sometimes that has to be enough.

Robert Frost House: Rainy Vermont Summer Saturday

Robert Frost House
Robert Frost House, Shaftsbury, Vermont

Yesterday perfectly illustrated what people must mean when they say there’s a “damp chill” in the air—July in Vermont can feel distinctly like October elsewhere, when rain has elbowed its way in and made itself at home right on top of you for a few days. (Shorts? What was I thinking—hand me my sweater.)

It was not that way at all on a June morning in 1922 when Robert Frost tiptoed downstairs in his Vermont cottage so as not to disturb his sleeping family, sat at the dining table and whipped out Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening—very quickly by his own account, nor was there much fiddling with it before it was done, so he said. He’d meant to work on something bigger when this small poem whose meaning would torment students and scholars alike for most of a century spilled out of his pen instead. He would go on to insist there was no metaphor for death in the poem, as so many believed, at least that was not his conscious intent.

Frost’s Vermont cottage sits almost in the middle of Route 7A in Shaftsbury, undoubtedly less pinched before the highway was widened; now it’s a house museum with seasonal hours. I pass it twice daily most days. Every single time it calls out, hey, why in the world have you not stopped by these here woods? Yesterday was the day.

Poetry eludes me, mostly. In college I feigned interest while professors opined about a couplet, but took copious notes, tried hard, and still missed the point. And when the question was finally put to us, What is the poet saying here? hands shooting up all around the room, I sunk lower in my desk thinking, I got nothing—pretty words, though.

So I am deficient in this awful way, a romantic’s nightmare. But I grew to love two poems Frost wrote—Stopping by Woods after I became a parent and obtained a beautifully illustrated copy meant for children and which I read many, many times to my child when he was young. And After Apple-Picking, for its association with a beloved high school English teacher who so beautifully explained the word hoary, and whose reading of the poem made me want to drop what I was doing and go to New England.

So at long last I’ve arrived here, decades hence, and finally visited Robert Frost’s house in the ‘hood. The thrill in it for me was less about the poet and more about the house itself: I’ll always be a student of historic structures, and the opportunity to get right up next to one and photograph it is nothing less than delectable.

As measured even by forgiving standards, the museum itself is a disappointment. Photography inside is forbidden (I would love to record some of the very early building details that remain), and only the first floor is on exhibit. But the house has undergone so many modifications in its 257 years it’s hard to see it as it once must have been, to say nothing of how it looked when the Frost family lived there (only a few pieces of furniture remain). The self-guided brochure promises “the exhibits will make you feel as if you met Frost.”

They do not. What you get instead is a boatload of memorabilia, news stories, photographs, and some bizarre old-style museum wall displays meant to encapsulate a moment in the writer’s life. In fairness, there is a lovely hallway homage to J. J. Lankes, whose familiar woodcut illustrations appear in two volumes of Frost poetry. Elsewhere there are copious missed opportunities. It’s waiting for a visionary with deep pockets, I think, to do it justice. But ‘til then it’s a fitting way to spend a rainy hour.

Robert Frost House South Facing Gable
South-Facing Gable
Robert Frost House South Facing Living Room
South-Facing Living Room
Robert Frost House Front Door
Front Door, Route 7A
Robert Frost House Rear Window
Second Floor Rear Window
Robert Frost House Rear Door
Rear Porch Door
Robert Frost House Foundation Detail
Foundation Detail
Robert Frost House Stone Detail
Stone Detail 1
Robert Frost House Stone Detail 2
Stone Detail 2
Robert Frost House Meadow and Wood
Meadow and Wood
Robert Frost Barn
Robert Frost Barn
Robert Frost House Barn Detail 1
Barn Detail 1
Robert Frost House Barn Detail 2
Barn Detail 2
Robert Frost House Barn Detail 3
Barn Detail 3
Robert Frost House Barn Detail 4
Barn Detail 4
Robert Frost House Barn Detail 5
Barn Detail 5
Robert Frost House Barn Gable End
Barn Gable End
Robert Frost House Meadow and Wood 2
Meadow and Wood 2

After Apple-Picking, by Robert Frost

My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree 

Toward heaven still, 

And there’s a barrel that I didn’t fill 

Beside it, and there may be two or three 

Apples I didn’t pick upon some bough. 

But I am done with apple-picking now. 

Essence of winter sleep is on the night, 

The scent of apples: I am drowsing off. 

I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight 

I got from looking through a pane of glass 

I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough 

And held against the world of hoary grass. 

It melted, and I let it fall and break. 

But I was well 

Upon my way to sleep before it fell, 

And I could tell 

What form my dreaming was about to take. 

Magnified apples appear and disappear, 

Stem end and blossom end, 

And every fleck of russet showing clear. 

My instep arch not only keeps the ache, 

It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round. 

I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend. 

And I keep hearing from the cellar bin 

The rumbling sound 

Of load on load of apples coming in. 

For I have had too much 

Of apple-picking: I am overtired 

Of the great harvest I myself desired. 

There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch, 

Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall. 

For all 

That struck the earth, 

No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble, 

Went surely to the cider-apple heap 

As of no worth. 

One can see what will trouble 

This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is. 

Were he not gone, 

The woodchuck could say whether it’s like his 

Long sleep, as I describe its coming on, 

Or just some human sleep.

Robert Frost House Rear

Finding My Best Self


Rosh Hashanah–the Jewish New Year–began at sundown today. I am not Jewish, nor do I observe the Jewish New Year, at least not as an official adherent of the faith. But every single year I re-read this beautiful children’s story, Gershon’s Monster, on Rosh Hashanah. It is a universal story of redemption, and anyway this particular book is so gorgeous cover to cover and the story so appealing, one needs no excuses to open its pages. I believe it is my favorite piece of children’s literature ever, and that is really saying something. I love children’s books and have a great excuse to use them in my professional life, as I have said before.

I first learned about this story on public radio, listening to Scott Simon read it aloud along with Daniel Pinkwater–a reading so delightful I dropped what I was doing to listen. I immediately found a copy of the book, with gorgeous watercolors by Jon Muth. If I were a painter, I think I would want to paint exactly in this soft, evocative style that is still real.


Gershon is a badly behaved man, but worse still does not care about his treatment of others. (In other words, he is someone you know.) He sweeps his misdeeds to the basement and once a year puts them in a huge bag–especially huge, it turns out, because his behavior is especially intolerable–and drags the bag down to empty into the sea. The problem is that he makes no effort to be truly sorry about his misdeeds. He simply gathers them up and disposes of them. When he and his wife decide they want children Gershon consults a Rabbi, who warns him away from parenting. Gershon presses the Rabbi who finally gives him a charm for his wife to wear for a year, after which time he prophesies she will bear twins.


But the Rabbi also hints that something tragic will befall the children when they are five years old. After Gershon urges the Rabbi to reveal details of the tragedy, he at last concedes it will occur on the day Gershon puts both his socks on the same foot. Gershon is ecstatic for this bit of forewarning, but the Rabbi dismisses him, saying it will make no difference–Gershon will go on with his life as always, behaving badly and being inconsiderate of people around him.


And of course, this is exactly what comes to pass. Gershon and his wife have twins–a boy and a girl. One morning Gershon awakens disoriented by the summer heat and (you guessed it) puts both socks on the same foot. The children have gone to play by the sea as they do every day, and Gershon rushes after them in a blind panic. He finds them confronting a horrible sea monster whose scales are inscribed with every awful thing Gershon has done in his life, just at the moment the monster is about to snap up the children.


At last Gershon is truly, humbly repentant and beseeches the monster to take him–and not his children. The monster, along with Gershon’s lifetime of transgressions, vaporizes, and Gershon is a changed man. It’s the way you wish every scenario of this sort would end, isn’t it?

IMG_20140924_205355 (1)

Every time I read this I think of the people I know who are like Gershon. And then a nanosecond later I think about the times in my life I have behaved like him. But there is always hope for redemption before it is too late, isn’t there?

At the very end of this book there is a page-long description about the retelling of this story and its place in the Hasidic movement. There is also an explanation of the tradition of “casting one’s sins into the sea,” metaphorically, at the beginning of the New Year. And then there are instructions, as the author says, for erasing our mistakes and returning to our “true moral nature:”

  1. Admit that we have done wrong.
  2. Feel remorse.
  3. Resolve in our hearts never to act this way again.
  4. Make every effort to right the wrong we have done.
  5. Apologize and ask forgiveness from those we have wronged.
  6. Make every effort to relieve whatever pain or distress we might have caused others.

Then, he tells us, we will have returned to our best selves.

Happy New Year.


Gershon’s Monster: A Story for the Jewish New Year, Retold by Eric A. Kimmel and Illustrated by Jon J. Muth, 2000, Scholastic Press, New York



Time Turner

Hermione’s immense workload finally seemed to be getting to her. Every night, without fail, Hermione was to be seen in a corner of the common room, several tables spread with books, Arithmancy charts, rune dictionaries, diagrams of Muggles lifting heavy objects, and file upon file of extensive notes; she barely spoke to anybody and snapped when she was interrupted.–J.K. Rowling

timte turner 2

Yes, I am a Harry Potter dork. Those brilliant tomes came into existence at precisely the right moment during my years parenting a boy whose age was roughly equal to Harry’s in the series’ inaugural volume. We read the books aloud, listened to them again in the car, and of course OF COURSE saw the movies the nanosecond they hit the theatres. Then we bought the DVDs.

If you are not immersed in Harry Potter-dom, then you are deficient, friend, and that is all there is to it. Better start correcting this gaping hole in your existence, STAT.

That shiny thingummie up there is a time turner. It makes its first appearance in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, seemingly allowing Harry’s bosom buddy and schoolmate Hermione Granger to be two places at once. She did what any reasonable over-achieving young witch would do and used it to double up on her course load at school. Clever girl.

As you might guess, this did not work so well for her over the long haul. (But the time turner itself proved very useful indeed before everything was said and done.)

I can imagine Ms. Rowling wishing she had a time turner when she was writing all that amazing fiction. And I could use one about now.

This last year–June to June specifically–I have acclimated to working two jobs. Probably the biggest challenge in this arrangement is shifting gears mentally, because the two jobs share exactly no attributes. I have a pretty good work ethic and the rest of it I can handle, at least I think. I am okay with busy-ness and find whining about it wearisome, especially when I am the whiner. Being busy is a good problem to have; it’s idleness you have to worry about. (And anyway, I always think people who are truly, genuinely busy do not have time to complain about it.)

Still, my mom would advise getting enough sleep above all else.

Now on the threshold of job number three, I am thinking about that wisdom. I am already adjusting to an earlier waking time. The last time I did this I fell ill and stayed that way for a long time, mainly because I did not compensate for it at bedtime. I am not keen to do that again, of course. But circumstances demand a plan.  (And a time turner.)

Here is a recent epiphany:  I think I am pretty resilient and resourceful. I did not truly believe this about myself a year ago. I know this inevitably means a certain amount of discomfort on the horizon. I still have my eye on the prize.

I leave you with an image of work from this past weekend, when I had the luxury of keeping my head in one place at one time for an entire day.


On Being Steadfast and Astonishing

IMG_20140318_115637Franco De Vita (American Ballet Theatre JKO School Principal) once quipped that he loves teaching thirteen-year-olds simply because he enjoys that particular age; the context for his remark was a discussion around one kid in particular who happened to be thirteen at the time and who is clearly destined for ballet greatness.  I was picking his brain about that child and the conversation soon expanded to include generalities about young adolescent sensibilities, what makes them malleable and likeable as they stand on an important threshold:  children still, but who see the potential for their adult selves already coming into focus.  And for youngsters who are seriously contemplating professional work in the arts world, that focus is essential and even urgent.

Pre Primary 2014
My Pre-Primaries

I get that–the idea that there is a place along a child’s developmental continuum that appeals more than another.  For me it is the four-year-old child, something I’ve discovered about myself only in the last calendar year of teaching.  This is not to say I can’t reach kids who are in another place on their journey to being grownups, nor that I do not enjoy teaching them.  I emphatically do. And I often surprise myself, because almost without exception, even on my worst days–when I want to crawl under the covers and be left alone by the world–I find myself completely immersed in the act of teaching.  A 90-minute class suddenly has five minutes remaining, with still so much to be done.  (Always.)

Four.  It’s a nice, even number.  I remember being four and liking that condition.  Not quite ready for big kid school, still enjoying early childhood pleasures and indulgences, but poised to cross an important threshold.  Not unlike a thirtreen-year-old.  And four-year-olds are intellectually honest; they will let you know whether you are feeding them tripe (why would anybody want to do that?).  My four-year-olds possess the same sense of wonderment as their still-toddler and infant siblings and cohorts, but also a worldliness that a three-year-old does not.

The classical ballet curriculum we use where I teach is literature-based in the Pre-Primary Levels.  I confess that I love children’s literature, and significantly, I love reading it aloud.  I like using facial expressions, and animated vocalizations, and dialect when it is called for:  it is more like theatre for me than only reading words printed on a page.  This probably goes a long ways towards explaining why my own child (now grown) was unwilling to let go of bedtime stories until well into middle school, by which time we were of course reading pretty dense literature–out loud, together, energetically and enthusiastically, every night.

I also confess I was unwilling to discard pretty much any book ever purchased for my own child during his nineteen years under my roof. When it was time to move a thousand miles for the big mid-century reboot I had so many difficult decisions and choices to make, but the formidable process of sifting through no fewer than about nine gigantic Rubbermaid tubs of all those books–and stacks and stacks of others on top of them–consumed hours, then days, and finally weeks, as I leafed through beautiful illustrations and fonts, and remembered how we read certain passages, and my child’s reaction to them.  I pulled a few cherished tomes to pack and left the rest to their unknown fate.

Last weekend when I was planning the next few weeks of curricula for the Pre-Primaries I grabbed The Steadfast Tin Soldier from my shelves.  I had not opened its pages in a while.  I try to choose literature with language that suggests movement, and stories that translate themselves into pantomime, and onomatopoeia that will serve as exercises in musicality. All quietly laying the foundation for an ancient, contrived, intellectual, and physical art form.  So much to pack into forty-five short minutes. The Steadfast Tin Soldier has it in spades.  But with only about five minutes of precious classroom time given over to actually reading, I am usually lobbed with plaintive objections when I bookmark our place each week.

Something magical happened during my reading in class this Monday. The words leapt off the page as if they were meant for this day, this moment, these children, our purpose.  I paused after I finished this delicious passage in the book:


We did not belabor the word astonishing, but I gave it dramatic emphasis, and paused for a moment.  Four-year-olds.  And somehow they seemed to understand.

We stopped a few sentences beyond that point, just after the steadfast tin soldier meets the ballerina in the soft muslin dress, who appears also to have only one leg–because the other is “hidden” behind her in a beautiful arabesque (this evolved into an exercise–we were beautiful ballerinas whose legs were hidden–proprioceptive work dressed in fancy clothing).  Naturally the soldier is drawn to her like a moth to a flame. When I closed the book, a great hue and cry went up from a particular child:  OH GOD! she wailed.  (There was that worldiness.)

Are you sad we had to stop?  Yes, she insisted, crestfallen.

I was, too.

Class went on.  We were one-legged soldiers.  We hopped and saluted. We shouted the words higgelty piggelty–which described the wrapping paper strewn around the box of tin soldiers–to music with different time signatures, and exploded in giggles when the music grew too fast for the words to form correctly on our lips.  We laid down more layers of the hard work that forms us.

Next week we will come back and do it again.  Because ballet school, and work, and art, and life–anything that matters–requires steadfastness of us all.  Even when we are four, and especially if we want to be astonishing.