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.

Simple Living versus Excess (or How Not to be Insufferable)

iceonbattenkill
Ice Formations on the Battenkill

It’s dang cold in Vermont. Last week’s record-breaking warm temperatures were but a tease: we woke up to 2° this morning. Still, I managed to run with Scout on Friday after work in frigid air with a bitter wind in my face (his ears were all aflap). On a positive note, I captured the moment he discovered a pair of geese at close range on my iPhone. But this weather has left me grumpy once more: Vermont winter, you win. I quit. I’m finished pushing through pain in awful weather. I’ll just sit here and drum my fingers ’til you’re done—you let me know, please.

scoutdiscoversgeese

Meanwhile, gentle reader, humor me for a moment with a few separate but related thoughts.

Recently a bloggy friend published this beautiful post about excess that is so spot-on in so many ways, but she especially nailed the whiny, wealthy twenty-somethings HGTV manages to dredge up for their reality shows: I’ve thunk those very same thoughts on many occasions.

I hesitate to diss HGTV for several reasons, among them it’s headquartered in my erstwhile home city of Knoxville, and also I have some dear friends who’ve created fine programming for that network through the decades. In more recent years I’ve found the program lineup wanting, but that’s just my opinion: you could turn on the telly in HGTV’s early years and if you hated what was on, there was probably something better coming on next. Maybe the wide array of enriching offerings I remember are still there but broadcast at odd hours when I can’t watch, I don’t know. I updated the tired old exterior of our small vacation cottage in North Carolina borrowing ideas from one episode of Curb Appeal and another show whose name escapes me about historic architecture. If Walls Could Talk was a favorite. And remember the show with that nutty white-haired guy who traveled the country in search of the most bizarre homes? That was worth the hour you’d never get back.

Now HGTV leaves us with only binge-watching options: an entire evening of Flip or Flop. Or Fixer Upper (which Handsome Chef Boyfriend and I happen to like). Or Property Brothers. Or Love it or List it. Plus, they’re all reruns: HCB and I estimate we’ve seen some episodes of Fixer Upper as many as five times (this is what happens when we’re impossibly tired at the end of a work day and lack the wherewithal to even pick up the remote to change the channel). You have to wait until NINE p.m. for a new episode, and that’s bedtime for two people who are up each day by five.

Anyway the point is, how much granite and stainless steel does one really need (or want) in a kitchen? And who are these entitled young people with budgets often in excess of $1 million? And why do they lack an imagination? HCB chided me on that last bit and said, c’mon: I didn’t have any imagination at that age, either. Cut ’em some slack.

After my friend published her post I enjoyed reading all the responses to it on social media, where people recounted stories of their childhood homes, where siblings shared rooms, and entire families shared a single bathroom. (My international readers are rolling their eyes.) I confess we have a single bathroom in our little Vermont rental and it’s not enough with a teenagery occupant, even if she’s a part-time resident. But I do agree with the overall point: a vanity with a single sink is not gonna kill anybody.

Was life just simpler when we were kids? Or did we learn to do without because an “all-in” budget of $1 million was unheard of in the ’50s and ’60s? I grew up in a modest suburban home my mom kept scrubbed to a fare-thee-well, decorated tastefully with inherited furniture, some of our own, and a few meaningful pieces of artwork. My brother and I wanted for nothing, were never handed everything we wanted (but some things), and life was pretty good in general. There was time in the day to go to school, to go to ballet class after school, thence home for homework (with ample time to complete assignments), and to sit at the table and eat supper. Maybe even for some telly afterwards.

But later on my insufferable college freshman self had the audacity to experiment with newly acquired ‘tude once when I was home on a break. My mom had asked me to do without some thing I decided I needed in my dorm room, and I said, “No…I can’t handle it.” Meaning, I can’t live without this thing. She squared her shoulders and spat, “You WILL handle it.” And that was that, my former self restored.

My brother and I turned out okay, as they say.

By the time I stepped into parenting shoes, though, the landscape had changed dramatically, expectations for success felt supersized along with everything else, and the sheer volume of homework my young child brought home outweighed anything I ever recall being asked to do until my prep school years. And the damaging pop culture influences I tried to shoo away from our threshold still somehow found us the moment we backed out of our driveway: my ex and I had the Cell Phone Argument with him in the fifth grade, gave into it in the sixth. Many of his young colleagues had cell phones even sooner. Is this needful condition—for cell phones, or for double vanities in starter homes—the consequence of decades of American prosperity followed by complacency and unrealistic expectations? I don’t know.

I spent a fair amount of time last week at work researching and writing about travel to Cuba for one of our clients. I’ve never been there but desperately want to go, especially now. If ever there were a nation of people who’ve had to make do with limited resources, surely it is Cuba, the colorful island encapsulated in 1959, a place where art is part and parcel of the national identity, even vernacular art, and where ephemeral beauty matters. When I had the Subi’s oil changed last week I mentioned the cars in Cuba to my mechanic: you know the ones, the American classics Cubans have kept running of necessity for decades after the Revolution. Best mechanics in the world, Cubans, he quipped: those guys can take an outboard motor and drop it in a car and it’ll go.

I’m guessing multiple bathrooms is a condition unheard of in most Cuban homes. Just about every piece of travel writing I unearthed in my research last week revealed the same bit of wisdom about going there: do it now, before it’s too late. Too late for what? Too late for immersion in Cuba’s unique culture and simple, beautiful (if impoverished) lifestyle, before there’s a Starbucks on every corner, that’s what. Don’t get me wrong: the Cuban people deserve better circumstances than what they’ve suffered for decades, nay centuries. I hope they have stainless steel appliances and granite countertops and two-sink vanities for days if that’s what they want.

But maybe revisiting want is a worthwhile exercise, if only on occasion: maybe simplicity after all is a thing of beauty that saves us from being insufferable.

Art installation outside 21C Hotel in downtown Louisville, Kentucky, paying homage to Cubans who died during migration attempts during the 1980s
Art installation outside 21C Hotel in downtown Louisville, Kentucky, paying homage to Cubans who died during the migration attempts of the 1980s

Battle Cry of the Middle-Aged Bullied

The Bully List
The Bully List

How much bully-induced rage does it take to finally push a person over the precipice?

Schoolyard bullies have enjoyed too much press for the last twenty or so years: there is nothing new under the sun to report about that, except possibly its lightning fast delivery through time and space thanks in no small part to sophisticated electronics and the ‘net. I don’t have a thing to add to that conversation.

But I might have something to say about this phenomenon dressed in its grown-up clothing—you could call it passive aggression, but make no mistake: what I’m talking about is bullying. This mom blogger did it way more justice in her 2010 post-gone-viral than I can hope to here. I understand her, even if my own child’s circumstances were a tad different, because I witnessed the kind of grown-up pushing and shoving she describes too many times during my parenting years. Its more benign version occurred every single day in the guise of compulsive parent volunteers who not only “selflessly” signed up to serve on every school committee or volunteer at every event, but also made sure the rest of the world (read: the parents who did not sign up) knew all about it. Call it magnanimity and self-sacrifice if you will, but it is needful superiority, plain and simple, practically oozing from the pores of parents who knew they were better than you because they stepped up to the plate more often.

I can think of distinctly more sinister examples of grown-up bullying, like a particular weekday morning in 2004 when I dropped my challenging child in the fourth grade classroom at the pressure-cooker private school he attended at the time. It was the worst school year to date—his, and by extension ours—and proved to be his worst ever school year when everything was said and done, as measured by how bloodied my family’s collective noses were at the end of it. For the umpteenth time I stood there just outside the classroom talking to my kid’s teacher, probably about his latest infraction, and probably also scheduling still another round of meetings with school admins and outside professionals in the eternal and exhausting attempt to give this kid a fighting chance for a normal existence at school. These efforts were futile for a multitude of reasons, but I lacked the wisdom to recognize this truth at that moment because of my own relative youth and inexperience. And hope springs eternal, after all.

But mainly I persisted for this: when your compromised kid has faced all kinds of challenges since preschool—some you already know about, others you’ll learn about later—it is your responsibility as his parent to advocate for him. The “system” never will, whether it’s a public or private one, and that is a fact. That much I knew at least, and that alone was reason enough to stand there and talk to this difficult, tough as nails woman about my difficult child. I probably had not gotten much sleep the night before, the shower still awaited me back at home, and also the coffee pot: I am sure I looked like Ish Kabbible, as my mom would say. In short, my general deportment did not give me much credibility.

Then I heard the unmistakable clackety-clack-clack of heels on the deck outside the classroom, recognized the silhouette of Professional Mom in her pencil skirt and suit jacket who also needed to bend the teacher’s ear about something or other to do with her wunderkind: the kid who had skipped a grade and landed here in the same classroom with my kid who had already repeated a grade. She was in a hurry, because, Professional Mom.

She glanced condescendingly at me and without missing a beat interrupted my sentence and started an impromptu meeting of her own. What’s more, the teacher allowed it to happen (see self-advocacy above). I struggled the rest of the day to find an appropriate lightning rod for my anger. Ish Kabibble stepped aside for Pencil Skirt on that morning in 2004. She could not possibly have known the monumental undertaking it was to convince my anxious kid to get up, get dressed and to eat at least a little something—especially important because the meds he needed to simply get through the academic day with a modicum of focus and calm had the unfortunate side effect of killing his appetite for the duration—and to get him out the door for our half-hour commute to school. It was a complicated ritual we practiced five mornings a week.

I think I know why women, especially Southern ones, are accused of gathering bitchiness in middle age: it’s got nothing to do with hormones (okay, maybe some) but more to do with politesse and tolerating grown up bullying, sometimes for decades, to the point of exploding. I get it now.

It could be worse than sounding off to superior parents in your kid’s fourth grade classroom: the beauty pageant scene in Little Miss Sunshine, for example. You know the one, where the pageant director with an acorn up her ass has her comeuppance at the end, where the parents finally reveal the truth about beauty pageants on the stage in support of their distinctly un-pageant like child.

When you’re a kid who bullies other kids, adults and sometimes institutions dole out the consequences. But adults who bully other adults, or their kids, suffer more “organic” consequences, if you like. I’m less likely to put up with women in pencil skirts and high heels these days, or aggressive fuel truck drivers on icy Vermont roads, or really anybody who is wont to push me around: the way I see it, I’ve done my time in those trenches. Call me bitchy if you want, and I’ll wear that moniker with pride.

My kid is still struggling to find his way, no thanks to some of his school experiences that should have been so much better. He did not turn out to be any of the nefarious characters as predicted by “professionals” at various times during his childhood—cruel to animals, a sexual deviant, a violent ne’er do well—not even close: the ignorant folk who made those calls got him so, so wrong. Quite the contrary, my “problem” kid as a young man is well spoken, loved and admired by his peers, and more often than not will make you pee yourself laughing with his comedic timing. He has a long road to travel yet towards being “whole,” for lack of a better word, continuing to wrestle with depression and anxiety that may have been there all along but certainly were not helped by some of the adults in his life who should have known better, people quick to marginalize others, who assumed they or their children were better or more deserving than we, or who assumed whatever misinformed thing they may have assumed about us—these are the same people about whom that mom blogger opined nearly a decade ago, who are more than happy to judge you for your apparent failure as a parent. They deserve to be called out for bad behavior, then and now.

I’ll never understand the “no regrets” ethos to which many folks so stubbornly cleave. I have regrets upon regrets, a multitude of tapes I’d like to rewind. (That morning outside the fourth grade classroom comes to mind.) I did finally blow my lid the day we were given the boot from that school, with enough pent-up frustration by then I could have spewed a much bigger volcano of rancor than what ultimately spilled out, and I’d be plenty justified. But there were some beautiful teachers on that campus, and are still, who did care about my kid and helped him learn: to those people I owe a great debt.

And as for my parenting skills, go ahead and judge: That fourth-grade teacher happened to drive through the line at a fast-food eatery where my kid was working the cash window a few years back. She did not recognize him after so many years, but he recognized her right away. He engaged her in friendly conversation, pointed out his beloved car in the parking lot, and invited her to sit down over lunch with him some time.

Bee in My Bonnet

Coffee Table Inspiration
Coffee Table Inspiration

It happens the first week in every January, and here it is again, right on schedule: I must have lettuce. Lots of it and all kinds, and other crunchy greens, and an embarrassment of colorful, raw vegetables. It’s not about cleansing or weight loss, but instead is the natural consequence of a month of indulgences now catching up with me: Enough already! screams my gut every January.

The other annual event happening right on schedule is the tireless search for inspiration. It’s all around me I’m sure, smacking me upside the head like a two-by-four, and still it eludes me at the moment. (By the way, I am weary of photographing the snowy landscape and it’s only January; I know.)

Just before my senior year in high school my mom and I duked it out over the 12th grade curriculum offerings. Take Home Ec, she urged: you’ll need it.

Exqueeze me, but what about AP American History, which meets in the same time slot? Don’t you want me to be, you know, smart and well prepared for the rigors of academia for the next four or more years?

Trust me, she said: Home. Ec.

In the end I took history but later wondered whether that was the right choice. For one thing, the teacher was a burned out ex-Army sergeant-turned-coach, now nearing retirement and completely indifferent about commuting anything to a roomful of pimply charges. (You might say he lacked inspiration.) Somebody in the history department at Memphis State University—now the University of Memphis—Xeroxed their class plans and exams and handed them over to the coach, who merely passed them on to us, so he admitted out loud and without shame: our parents’ tax dollars at work. I don’t remember a single important moment in that silly class, and by the end of the year felt ill-prepared to earn any credit at all towards my freshman year of college, at least not in history.

But for another thing, later on in my parenting life I found myself in the company of people with skills, people who could make things with their hands, who could actually sew, and take in waistlines and let out hems, and create all kinds of things from gorgeous textiles; I could do none of that. Instead I was the unfortunate mom who would never make the Best Halloween Costume Ever from scratch, or sew a shepherd outfit for the Christmas pageant, or design imaginative summer art projects for vacation Bible school, or even hem a pair of pants except in the most crude, amateurish way. (And by the way, please don’t look to me for help with your American history homework, child.)

I wondered out loud whether I should have taken my mom’s advice after all. Nah, somebody else said: you’d only bake cookies and sew a stupid pillow case in that class.

Okay, well I happen to know my way around in the kitchen because it interested me and I took it upon myself to learn when I was in my twenties. And I’ve never felt inspired to sew a pillow case, ever. So maybe AP history was the least terrible choice, anyway.

If I can’t always make things myself, I’m still privileged to know so many people who can, people who throw pottery and paint and sculpt and hook rugs from scratch and create imaginative television and outdoor art installations and design store windows and edit magazines and write poetry and take exquisite photographs and work in multimedia and make beautiful calligraphy and cheese and design buildings and interiors; people who act and sing and dance and choreograph and expertly play the guitar and the banjo and the mandolin and the clarinet and the drums and the piano and all manner of other instruments; and don’t forget people who transform the culinary arts into high art: they are all inspiring, a multitude of dots along a creative continuum. I can’t imagine life without the company of these people, even if some of them are far, far away; wonder who among them took Home Ec.

Writing does not always feel like creative work to me, nor did complete immersion in classical ballet always feel like art to me, but pushing through a slump always seems important. On bad writing days I imagine myself wadding and throwing papers across the room right and left were I not using a virtual platform, on better days I pretend I’m Evelyn Waugh, putting down the words and pushing them a bit, as he described his own work.

Today, though, there is no Waugh in me. There is a little dip, a hiccup, call it a lack of inspiration. The problem could be winter in Vermont, on which I blame nearly everything. Today I give you my average best (now, there’s an oxymoron), and hope this bee in my bonnet will soon find its way out, spilling vibrant colors from my fingertips and onto the canvas; I know the colors are there somewhere.

‘Til then there is laundry to fold and furniture to dust and a dog to walk and Basmati rice to boil, which will make the house smell divine at least; I can do all these things despite my Home Ec deficiency. And you never know—I might be inspired.

 

Mike Birbiglia, Life’s Interruptions, et al.: A True Story

Interruption: March 1, 1993
Interruption: March 1, 1993

In a recent interview comedian-writer-actor-director Mike Birbiglia spoke of becoming a new dad on the heels of a work project, how he timed things in a way he thought he could stay in control, and then—like all brand new babies do—his infant daughter completely upended his best-laid plans while she successfully upstaged him. He’s a funny guy. The bond between mother and child is like no other, of course, and he artfully described it as the beautiful thing it is. And then added he was just kind of there, this third wheel whose main job was to go get coffee.

He described this life-changing event as an interruption. That’s a perfect word to remind you you’re not in control, even with the best-laid plans.

I can trump his interruption story. My own child was handed to me in a grocery store parking lot a few moments after my (now ex-) husband and I had decided it would not happen at all, with about a half-hour’s notice. It’s the truth—you can’t make up this stuff, as they say. We had been trying to adopt for a while through conventional channels, and then were put in touch with a local woman whose life had taken some unexpected turns—interruptions, if you will—that now made it impossible for her to parent a new baby. The connection was through a friend of a friend, more or less, an employee of one of my husband’s clients who was trying to help in this crazy eleventh-hour search for adoptive parents. It is the kind of thing that never happens—a healthy infant landing in your lap—but happened to us in a Kroger parking lot in Knoxville, Tennessee.

The day before that our priest had visited the infant’s beautiful young mother in her hospital room at her request. And the day before that we had visited her, less than 24 hours after our son was born. I sat in the rocking chair by her bed and gently rocked the tiny newborn—hers and ours—as he slept, unaware of the events unfolding around him, while the young woman spoke softly to us. She gave us some phone numbers before we left; hospital staff said the child could not be discharged directly to us, even though we had made an agreement with his mother.

The next day we called her room to finalize our plans only to find she and the child had checked out and were gone. The first number she gave us had been disconnected. We dialed the second number—the mother’s sister and her husband’s; they were not up to speed on the situation and declined to speak with us. We assumed there had been a change of heart and this beautiful boy had slipped through our fingers.

And then hours later on that cold Monday in March our phone rang, an edgy male voice urging us to meet him in a nearby parking lot so we could finally take our new baby home. The whole thing felt sketchy. We had been warned about this man, the baby’s dad, how he might attempt to extort money to support his drug and alcohol habits. While we drove our attorney advised us by phone of the legality of what we were doing (it was legal) but cautioned us about offering any kind of assistance to this man or the baby’s mama (pick up child in parking lot, okay, offer money in exchange for child, not okay). We’ll sort it out later, she told us; you can pay the portion of her hospital bills not covered by insurance, for counseling if she wants it, and offer some temporary living assistance to her. That’s it.

It was the longest 20-minute car ride ever.

The couple was waiting for us as promised, the first thing to go right all day. The exchange was tearful, emotionally charged, really terrible and joyous all at once. The baby’s daddy cradled him for a moment against his idling car’s steering wheel, delivering some unknown message to him while his mother quietly wept in the front seat. We stood between the two cars and watched.

In the end the infant child’s father never asked anything of us except to be good parents to his son.

It was the most loving and selfless action the young couple could have taken, people around us would say later—it was meant to be. But that sentiment, well intentioned as it is, diminishes this monumental thing, the surrendering of a human child, to a silly T-shirt slogan. I could never begin to understand this mother’s agony—nobody who had not lived it themselves could (many years later we would learn a family member near and dear to us in fact had lived it). But standing in that parking lot and bearing witness to what was happening, I felt it now on her behalf like a sucker punch to the gut.

And in the midst of this huge life-changing moment a wisp of strange humor: tucked away in the corner of the grocery store strip mall was a popular eatery, a cafeteria frequented by octogenarians going to and from their starchy 5 o’clock suppers with canes and walkers in tow, now observing an affluent young couple in a Volvo being handed a baby by another young couple in a borrowed clunker. Moments later the pair would peel out of the parking lot throwing up a plume of white smoke in their wake, the whole world’s attention (canes, walkers, and all) now diverted to them. The scene had all the makings of a grotesque cartoon.

Meanwhile the infant continued to sleep. In fact, he slept quietly on the ride home and for a long time afterwards before he finally had something to say.

Home, where our house was in disarray after the busy weekend, dishes piled high in the kitchen sink, dog hair from three inquisitive Siberian Huskies everywhere, an unmade bed, laundry in the basement. And now a new baby.

That’s some kind of interruption. I settled into the beauty of motherhood and my husband brought me coffee.

There have been many more interruptions in the intervening years, and there is also this: if you think your life will begin in earnest after you regain control in the wake of an interruption, not only are you dead wrong, you’ll miss living your life. My life with my new infant will truly begin when the house is spotless (wrong). My life will resume only when this ungodly and untimely retina disease finally goes into remission (wrong). My life ended with my marriage (really wrong). In the face of losing my job and financial security, my life can never mean anything except panic and hard labor from now on (probably wrong).

It’s tough to wrap your head around when you’re a control freak as I am but it’s the truth: navigating the interruptions—that’s life. I wish Mike Birbiglia and his new family a lifetime of beautiful interruptions.

2015
2015

Emotional Habits: Putting Sadness in a Box

Kitchen Table

In her book The Creative Habit renowned choreographer Twyla Tharp writes about her work process. She starts a new box for each new project; anything that serves as inspiration goes into the box, along with every other object that has some meaningful connection to the work. When the project ends she puts a lid on the box and off it goes to storage. Then she gets out a new box and starts another project.

I find that methodology so appealing in so many ways.

And while an emotion is not exactly a project in creativity, like a piece of choreography or a Broadway score, I’ve wondered whether you could take them—especially the difficult ones around an episode or event in your life—put them in a box, and after you’ve eviscerated them, processed them, and feel “finished,” put a lid on the emotional box and schlep it off to storage.

I knew there would be sadness in the wake of losing my family and my home nearly four years ago; what I did not anticipate were the waves of sadness that would continue to wash over me for years after my marriage ended, pangs of grief, maybe, that still catch me off guard when I least expect it. I don’t miss the unhappy marriage, but I mourn for the things that were important and yet were somehow deemed disposable.

Lately the sadness has centered around the house where my son grew up, where a handful of beloved family dogs lived and died, a house that was nearly lost to foreclosure, saved in the nick of time by an auction where a calculating buyer snapped it up for a fraction of its true worth. The white auctioneer’s tent on the front lawn was replaced only a day or two later by a big yellow Penkse truck stuffed with what could fit into the small rental awaiting me a thousand miles away in Vermont, a fraction of the sum total of my belongings. I had exactly two days to evacuate the house I loved and had every reason to believe I’d live in until I died.

If you wanted to orchestrate a fiscal and domestic disaster of epic proportions you could not score it better than the cacophonic sypmhony that unfolded on a particular corner in Knoxville, Tennessee in 2011. The location of our beautiful home already invited a fishbowl-like existence; it was not unusual for people to stop and photograph our prominent corner because of the centuries-old trees and beautiful Tudor Revival house itself—a house we were lucky to call home for about sixteen years, but whose care and upkeep grew to be too much in the face of a slow economy and a series of very bad decisions.

When everybody in a town and neighborhood already fond of gossip caught wind of the drama being played out on that corner, life in the fishbowl grew worse, at least it felt worse to me. As the house and grounds fell into neglect I became embarrassed and angry. I don’t miss those final days one bit.

But what catches in my throat when I least expect it are the detailed memories of the bones of the house during moments when I felt my life was in complete synch with it. And being a student of historic structures to begin with, I appreciated and knew every square inch of it, from the loose finial with the protruding nail at the bottom of the steps, to the 1920s stucco on the walls that would draw blood from your knuckles if you miscalculated their whereabouts with an overloaded laundry basket in your arms. Or the basement “stairs to nowhere,” as we called them, formerly a service entrance that had been capped over at some point during a courtyard renovation. Or the panel in the basement stairwell behind which a servant’s call bell was once stuck somewhat comically in “on” mode while we scrambled to undo the paneling and switch it off.

breakfast

I knew the damage on a living room floor vent that happened when our 140-pound Shiloh playfully slammed onto the sofa, sending it skidding across the slippery hardwood floor and into the wall. Just above that vent was window hardware left behind by the previous family, jury-rigged with a nutcracker in the top left corner; you could see it if you were looking for it, like finding Waldo in the familiar children’s books.

Next to that was one of two front doors (when you live in an ell-shaped house on the corner that is what happens), the main one that welcomed trick-or-treaters every year. And just on the other side of the door was a small built-in telephone cubby from the earliest days of the house, arched at the top, with a beautiful hardwood shelf for the phone. Underneath it was another stucco-ed hole for a very small phone book.

Teddy Blue

I know exactly the sound of the heating and cooling system cycling off and on, my son’s voice on the answering machine recorded when he was in kindergarten, the way the sun streamed through his west-facing bedroom window revealing every single cobweb and speck of dust that needed cleaning. If you sat in just the right spot in his sunny yellow room you could see the slate-roofed dormers from the adjacent section of the ell outside his window, and the copper gutters and flashing, transporting you to some Old World locale. It was the backdrop for all our read-alouds, the perfect evocative setting for Harry Potter.

I cursed under my breath every time I closed the door to the tiny bathroom just off the kitchen and observed where my child had carefully, over years, encouraged the toile wallpaper to peel as it rounded a tricky corner. With some success I had used white glue to repair it. And it was that same bathroom where he left the water running one morning at age three after he finished brushing his teeth, then turned around and stumbled over his own feet, taking a spill onto an unforgiving terra cotta tile step in the foyer, ripping the skin on his cheek right away from the bone; a day that began innocently with an anticipated play date resolved with plastic surgery to repair his face later that afternoon.

And it was that same unforgiving surface that every single dog who lived in our family loved so much in the heat of summer, because the stones remained cool to the touch. I can still see them—any one of them—sprawled on the wide stones in front of the open front door, the sun streaming in through the glass of the storm door on ribs rising and falling to the cadence of contented breathing, but instantly at the ready to announce every passerby or errant squirrel.

I knew every single lovely original casement window in that house, I could tell you which ones opened easily, which had to be cajoled (a bath towel and the palm of the hand is what it took). Some still had their crank apparatus—there were two old metal cranks floating around, one was bent—but the upstairs windows were all missing theirs because it made them easier to open. The massive old window sills were deep enough to display homeless casseroles and candles and all manner of other things. Later we replaced the old windows with their more efficient modern cousins, which I admit were also lovely and missing the annoying gloppy layers of decades of paint that burdened their forebears. No longer could you feel the winter blasting through them, but they emphatically lacked character, and they ate up those incredible oversized sills.

winter window

I know about the fire that happened long ago in the master bedroom, strangely, in one of the two window seats in the small dormers on either side of the fireplace. It had long been painted over, but if you lifted the bench to reveal the storage under it you could see the charring on its underside.

I also know a nine-year-old child died from tuberculosis in an upstairs bedroom in that house. And that one of two sisters who subsequently grew up there died in a drug-related incident in Atlanta. And that the eldest child of the family who sold it to us also struggled with addiction. And that the three families who ever lived in the house—including ours—had adopted children. So much sadness, and still so much hope.

I remember just about every single detail of that house. I will never go inside it again in my life, ever. I’m okay with that, I think. I hope the new people are giving a beautiful home everything it deserves. They have no idea of the stories that unfolded there.

I just wish I could make the lid fit more tightly on the box.

poolside

Howdy, 2016. I already miss you, 2015.

New Year’s Eve 2015, a street corner in Saratoga Springs, NY.

Saratoga Intersection

My boy Bentley and his friend Billy have been with us for a week, headed back to their respective homes in Tennessee at an obscene hour tomorrow morning. We’ve had a great time together. I am always amazed how you can blink and it’s gone: eight days, just like that. I tried to arrange at least one Fun Thing for them each day they were here. Road warriors, those two: a thousand miles in two days to get here, and then run-outs near and far pretty much every day, to Londonderry, Manchester, and Bennington, and also Cambridge and Saratoga, NY. In short order they both figured out the singular truth about life in rural Vermont (Bentley already knew it): the correct answer to the question, Where is <fill in the blank>? is always, far, far away. Or maybe more appropriately: in a galaxy far, far away. Yep, we saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens in one of the teeny local theatres a couple of days ago; the two of them have already hatched plans to see it in 3D when they return home.

Some things never change, to wit:

Lil Britain Holiday

At any given moment during the past week the two of them could be observed with one of several electronic devices that followed them here. It cracks me up to observe them sitting in such close proximity whilst texting each other. Or me. At first blush, it’s ridiculous. But the conversation most likely includes things people nearby (including the patrons at our favorite fish and chips joint in downtown Bennington) may not want to hear anyway.

Saratoga was about as far afield as we ventured during our week together. In the process of searching for parking in a very crowded downtown on New Year’s Eve I came across this for the first time:

Saratoga Springs

Hathorn Spring Historic Marker

It smelled strongly of sulphur and looked like something out of a Harry Potter tome, one of our favorites, the boy’s and mine. Not so sure about the purported “digestive curative” properties. We much preferred these, at the Boca Burger around the corner and down the street:

Boca Burger

I am still getting used to the idea that it is okay to buy my kid a cocktail—something decidedly more potent than butter beer. Yes, he looks fifteen. He is many years older and quite “legal,” although the waiter took some convincing. When he was finally satisfied the boy is more than 21 he quipped, Whatever you’re doing, keep on doing it. (We’ll never tell.)

I’ve loved having my son glued to me for eight glorious days. Little boy smell was once replaced by middle school smell, thence adventure boarding school smell (requiring windows rolled down on trips home, even in winter), heavy smoker smell (an especially bad chapter for a much-too-young kid), and now a heavily perfumed smell <cough cough>, preferable to all the rest. He is downstairs snoozing, ready for the road tomorrow, a long haul home, part of which he’ll drive alone. I miss him and he is still here. I will be weepy when he is gone. And I will lament the things that are still not right, and I will worry about the future. I’ll probably chew my nails.

Sometimes it is hard to let go of the past, even when parts of it were truly terrible. There is still so much uncertainty and turmoil.

So, 2016, what’s it gonna be? Will you be pleasant and affable, or a royal pain in the ass? Will you cozy up and offer a warming glass of something nourishing, or a bitter drink that promised much but lost its fizz? Fair weather friend or a keeper of promises? Better be good.

So long, 2015: you played nice, mainly. And godspeed, dear Bentley. I love you more than you’ll ever know.~Mum

Christmas 2016

A Fire in the Belly

InesAbbyCeliaDansent-softglow

Three tired Knoxville Ballet School monkeys after a <successful> video audition for American Ballet Theatre’s Young Dancer Summer Workshop in 2012

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The same three monkeys at ABT in NYC later that summer, with their idol, one Catherine Hurlin

Last week during a discussion at a writers’ workshop I attended over in Cambridge, NY, I listened with great interest to a teacher lamenting a new generation of children whose parents are more than happy to complain to school administrators when they feel their young child’s genius is questioned by a teacher. Those are my words, not hers, but that was the gist, I think. The problem, she continued, is reaching a new pitch: last year she had been called into the principal’s office an impossible number of times to defend herself in the face of her cheeky parent critics. Nor had her comments to children been sharp or unfair. Her classroom demeanor had remained unchanged through decades, but she noted parenting attitudes emphatically had not.

So this seasoned professional decided she’d had enough.

That is a tragedy.

My mind wandered to a short video of Catherine Hurlin, a student at the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at American Ballet Theatre; the video was made four or five years ago, in studio 9 on ABT’s 4th floor—the very classroom where I undertook my own teacher training at ABT. In the video Catherine explains earnestly to the camera that school principal Franco De Vita could make you cry. She also nods to his humor, to which I can attest firsthand. We see her young self discussing her life at the school, alternating with moments from Franco’s studio company class into which she had been invited on occasion. This is a huge honor for a younger dancer.

I do not know of many scenarios where criticism is offered more intensely than in the ballet classroom. Not only that, once you’ve crossed the threshold from recreational study to pre-professional work (which happens for many kids by age thirteen or fourteen—Catherine was not much older than that in the video), you are about as vulnerable and exposed as it is possible to be.

Those who do not really, really want it will fall by the wayside quickly. There are too many others who do, and are more than happy to step up to the plate and take it.

Academia is different, of course. But if we are content to hand out honors like candy, how is that serving a population of children who do not deserve special recognition? The world will be less forgiving.

Earlier today I saw this thoughtful piece written by a friend who is a professional musician and music teacher. In it she opines about various aspects of feedback I completely understand. There are effective and ineffective ways to offer criticism to a young student. Being unduly harsh does not serve anybody, either.

Franco himself was pretty tough on me the first time he came to my school in Knoxville to look at my kids. After a full day of ballet exams, per the ABT/JKO rules, Franco met with me behind closed doors to critique my teaching. The kids had worked hard to prepare for their exams, but in the end I was accountable, of course. I put my head down and listened, took careful notes, silently kicked myself for some missteps I made in spite of knowing better, but realized I had so much still to learn about teaching classical ballet to a new generation of children. Franco was tired that day; he had a head cold and I imagine was possibly jetlagged. He was in no mood to suffer fools gladly, and I certainly had no intention of being a fool. I shut up and listened.

In the end, my kids did okay on their exams. A few received high marks, most were average, and a couple squeaked by. We had much work to do.

At the beginning of the next term I took my page of Franco notes into the classroom with me and kept them on the console next to my class planner. Every single class I built from that point forward reflected the wisdom he imparted to me on that Saturday in April.

All of us—my students and myself—worked so, so hard the next year; there were even a few tears, and a couple of kids threw in the towel. But when Franco visited again the following spring he was met with a very different looking bunch of young dancers.

With only a couple of exceptions, they blew the tops off their exams.

What if Franco had handed out honors like candy the first time around? How would we—my students and I—have benefitted from that?

The tenor of the ballet classroom has changed quite a bit since I was a young student in the 60s and 70s, mainly for the better: teaching methods have improved, dancer health is a much higher priority where it once was not. But even the ballet world suffers some from the “precious child” syndrome of academia, to wit: you can’t touch a kid in class, not even to make a teeny but important adjustment, for fear of legal action, or the threat of it anyway. I know about this firsthand—it was ultimately why I also left the classroom, ruled as it was at that moment by a very powerful nine-year-old kid. What a shame for all involved.

Anybody who has a real desire—a fire in the belly—to achieve anything, needs desperately to hear the truth from a loving, impassioned teacher or mentor. Undeserved accolades will ultimately extinguish the flame.

Here is the video of Catherine. Oh, and if you’d like to see what ultimately happened to her, you’ll have to go here. Thank you, Franco De Vita.