In the evenings I drive in circles. Figure eights, more likely, if you were to follow my car from above. I trace the pattern from dance class to play rehearsal, from fencing practice to piano lessons. Dropping off and picking up; dropping off and picking up.
It's never more than five minutes in any direction in two compact towns: ours and the one next door. My daughters are teenagers, old enough that the paths we travel are either well-worn (dance, piano) or affiliated with school (fencing), so we don't need to go far. But once the sun goes down, early on these cold winter nights, it's time to roll.
When I'm working from home and there's no time squeeze, I don't mind it. In fact, lately, I enjoy it. Our gaslit streets are dark, but I don't need to give any thought to directions. My headlights are like two flashlights with which I search out my children, to nestle them in beside me and gather them home.
It's not as messy and hectic as it used to be, with a minivan and car seats and snacks strewn everywhere, me constantly having to reach back to receive a toy or a sticky empty package, or to hand back a tissue or a sippy cup. No one fights about putting on shoes or getting strapped in. These days my girls are sleek and silent, gazing at their phones, or else they want to to talk, about school or music or life, and it's a pleasure to have one of them next to me, no longer relegated to the backseat, to watch their profiles and listen to their voices, these people I adore and spend less time with now that they are closer to grown.
But I like the driving alone, too, either listening to music or just to the silence. I find the familiar routes deeply satisfying. I don't even mind sitting in parking lots. I sit and breathe and wait. I think about how this phase has a few years left in it, and once they are off at school or in their own apartments somewhere, I will look back and remember these cozy, quiet times when I got to steal them back from the world for a few moments in the dark.
I appreciate the unadorned. I always have: plain M&Ms, original Oreos, chocolate with no nuts, pizza with one topping, two at most. I like simple clothes in dark, solid colors; shape is more important to me than pattern or appliqué. I'm very clear on what I like and what I don't like, and usually what I like errs on the side of unfussy.
You would think I'd like the simplicity of the cold. The trees are certainly unadorned. So are the flower beds. The sky is generally clear and stark. Everything unnecessary is eliminated. Everything and everyone moves inside. But winter makes me feel mostly sad. It's always felt like wasted time, my whole life. I'm trying not to waste it anymore.
Years with 8 in them have always been hard for me. Well, 8 was fine, as far as I can recall. But 18 -- off to college, a breakup with my first boyfriend. Then 28: were we getting married, or not? At 38, there was a rupture with a good friend over my own weakness and selfishness. By itself, 48 hasn't been awful, but the last five years or so have brought a lot of turmoil and contraction. I'm ready for expansion now.
My favorite number is 9. I've always associated it with the color purple, also my favorite. So, 2019. I'll turn 49 in July. It holds promise.
I found an article about letting go. I've been reading it at least once a day, and I will continue to until I feel it in my bones. It says: "The most precious, important thing that you have in your life is your energy." And: "The foremost important thing you can do...is to protect your energy more fiercely than anything else. Make your life a safe haven in which only people that can care and listen and connect are allowed." Also: "Stop showing up for people who are indifferent about your presence. Stop prioritizing people who make you an option."
A dear friend posted about how, last year at this time, she wrote on strips of paper the things she wanted more of in her life, and then she burned the paper. I have some "wish paper" that was given to me as a gift, years ago. It sits on my puja table with other amulets and baubles that mean something to me. I think I will use it to write the names of things to let go of, instead, and burn that.
I'm standing on a threshold, one I've sidled up to many times in the last few years and always backed away from. Now I'm feeling like I'm going to cross, pass through.
I've been good at reopening wounds. Picking at the scabs. Now I'm letting them form, tending to them so that the injuries beneath can start to heal.
It's strange to feel sad and hopeful together. Well, not so strange. It's a bittersweet feeling, one I often feel at dusk, and it's not entirely without pleasure. But it's a little bit scary, too.
The article says: "Wait in the darkness, for just a little bit."
The solstice is on its way, and then winter. I will use this one well.
In a little over a week, I will have two teenage daughters. Something about the younger one turning 13 feels very strange, and slightly scary. So does the fact that she rolls her eyes at me now, and I can tell when she's disappointed by the way I say or do something. Until not all that long ago, she was just openly adoring of me. Oh, well.
But it is, it's a strange new world with these young women. I feel them moving away from me. I write about this all the time because I think about it all the time. It's a sea change, and it's one that's supposed to happen, and it's been happening, and there's nothing to do but let it happen. But there's pain that comes with it.
I'm getting better at feeling negative things and just letting them be. I'm starting to see that we never just arrive a place where everything is great and happy and good and just right. Those things exist along the way, they happen every day, but along with them comes bad and worse and fucking awful, and it's all interwoven, and we just need to move through it as gracefully as we can.
It's good, or "good," or the way things are supposed to happen, or maybe not "supposed to" but simply how they do, that children get older and they start to have more of a sense of themselves in the world, and the outside world and the people in it (their friends) become more important, and their focus turns to that. They still need and love us but they want us to be their touchstone, not the center of their universe. They are currently the center of their own universe; that's what adolescence is, and this is how we grow, how we become adults.
I can remember being a teenage girl. I don't remember thinking all that much about my mother's state of mind, about her emotional life. We have a different, more distant relationship than I do with my girls, and I always felt she couldn't handle my emotions; that created a wall between us that doesn't exist in my house. But I see my daughters seeing me differently, seeing my faults and my missteps in a way they didn't used to. It's not that they judge me harshly; they are just aware of me in a different way. And that's also okay, the way it's supposed to be. But I'm wistful, too.
Those days when they hung off my neck or my arms, when all they wanted to do was be touching me. There were moments I relished but plenty more when I just wanted my space, my own body back. We still have our moments of cuddling and our walks hand-in-hand, but it's usually me who reaches out. Now I sometimes feel a stab of completely selfish pain when they'd rather hang out with their friends than with me. That's not to say they don't also sometimes text me things like "Mama, I'll spend all day with you tomorrow!" when they can tell I'm sad. Then I text back, "No worries, have fun," because I'm not trying to emotionally exhort them. (Am I?)
It's not so many years until they will be gone. I think about that a lot. Instead I should think about the fact that they are here, and how lucky am I that the care and raising of them was granted to me.
It's just strange, it's weird, being a mother, being a woman, being a human. Moving through these different seasons governed by different moods and emotions and priorities and definitions of what's good, what's right, what's supposed to be. And trying to match that with how each season makes us feel, and not feel guilty about that, about any of it, but just let it be how it will be.
I can't stop taking pictures of the sky.
For the past seven years I've been running, and it gets me outside in every season. When I get to South Mountain Reservation or Orange Reservoir (above), my two favorite places to run, I evaluate the clouds, their patterns and colors. I search out the sun. I stop for a moment to watch the movement, because the sky seems permanent, set, but it's constantly in motion.
There's something about its bigness and always-thereness. All you have to do, anywhere you are, is look up, and there it is, like the old friend who effortlessly catches you when you trip over yourself. Whether it's radiantly blue and clear or green and black with cloud, whether there are cotton balls or waves of white. Whether it's red or pink or purple or gray or blue or navy or black, there it is, and every single day it's brand new.
When I run, I lean slightly forward and gaze down. I try to remember to stay in the moment, stay in this step, not worry about what's behind or ahead. Like yoga, it's a way to move myself into the present. But I'm also in my head, in my thoughts and fears and worries, in love and in pain, alive and full, lonely and suffocated, all the things that make up a life. So to look up, to raise my eyes and tilt my head back, to let my heart move upward toward the vastness, it feels like a gorgeous respite every time.
So I take pictures. Not just on runs. Out in my front yard and through windows. From the train platform and the Target parking lot. In the city, where the sky is reflected in the glass of the buildings, and over the river where it hovers like a dream.
I stop during walks home at dusk, and I look up and try to make a frame of branches around the blue. I capture little skies that I can carry around with me, tiny reminders of the dazzle.
(I wrote this in November 2013, but I like to post it every year.)
This month used to just be the time between Halloween and Thanksgiving. I don’t know how much I ever really noticed it. Gone are the warm, vivid days of early fall; the leaves are almost all off the trees, and the wind turns colder. Before, I guess, I didn’t think there was much to see or feel about it. It was a trudge toward my favorite holiday, that day of gratitude and good food, after which it would just get cold and dark and miserable for at least three months.
Perhaps it was growing up in Chicago that made me hate the cold so much. Of course I enjoyed being out in the snow as a kid; I can remember making huge forts during some of the blizzards of my childhood. But as I got older I mostly just hurried myself from inside to inside, getting through the bitter, icy outdoors as quickly as I could. Huddling under a layer of blankets so heavy in my cold, dark bedroom that I almost couldn’t breathe. Biding my time until it got warm again and I could emerge.
Then, in November of 2003, I had a baby. It was November 5, to be exact. The day before she was born, it was warm enough that I could walk to the nail salon in my Brooklyn neighborhood in flip-flops for my last pedicure before motherhood, the leaves on the sidewalk crunching around my bare toes. A few days later, when we took her home, it was cold enough to see your breath, and I worried that the heaters in our apartment building had not yet kicked on, that she’d freeze to death.
Two years later I had another baby, this time in late November, on the 23rd—the day before Thanksgiving. She was born in Hawaii, where it was, of course, hot and sunny; her first beach day was when she was only a few days old. Then we swaddled her in blankets and got back on the plane, went home to the cold, where I could see the skeletal branches of the tree outside my bedroom window while I nursed my new daughter.
Becoming a mother made me notice the passage of time in a new way. Those early days were measured in minutes and hours, and going outside into the fresh, brisk air was a relief after being cocooned inside with a newborn, or—worse—a newborn and a toddler.
The month of things curling into themselves, moving back toward the earth to sleep, became for me the time when new life began. I took my first daughter out for long walks in her stroller, in Prospect Park; no longer did I barricade myself inside for the duration. I not only went outside; I stayed outside, for hours. I looked around me. The bare branches of the trees were sharp and angular against the sky; the leaves still clinging to them were lovely in their starkness. I noticed how the sunlight was whiter and clearer—purer—and how the breath moved more easily through my lungs. In late afternoon, the early twilight felt thrilling and heartbreaking. It often brought tears to my eyes (sometimes it still does).
November became a sacred space for me.
This year my older daughter turned 10; my younger one is almost 8. Each year I honor this month as the time I came alive to the cold seasons and saw them for what they are—a beautiful, contemplative time when the earth takes its rest.
I also honor this month as the time I became a mother, which taught me to see everything differently.
I was driving just now, listening to the music of a band I get to go see next week, admiring the bright blue of the sky and the shower of yellow leaves drifting over the road. I saw a sign, the kind they use for road work, and it said, "Put down the phone. Just drive."
It's a typical "don't text and drive" sentiment, but something about it I felt in my stomach. Was it the periods? It was like someone talking to you, or sending you a text message, instead of a mere public works announcement.
"Put down the phone. Just drive." Make it simpler. Focus on what you're doing right now. You're not missing anything. It can all wait until later. Right now is this moment, and it's here, and so are you.
I don't feel like I've been writing more lately, but I've definitely been thinking about it more, and thinking about the "why not" of it. The constant investigation of why I'm not writing more. When really I could just put down the phone and drive.
It's a habit to make, and it's mine to make. I can put aside the "I don't have time" and "I don't have anything to say" and "I don't have anything to write about." I can write about why it's so hard to write, or to make it a priority. I can create a practice of writing, ten minutes a day, less, just make it something I do more, more, more of.
"Put down the phone. Just drive." It also made me think about how it's so hard for me to just put things down, to leave things that aren't good for me behind. Just go. Just drive. Put it down already.
While I was driving I also passed a tattoo parlor. (There are a surprising number of them in the Jersey suburbs.) Again I had the thought that I want to get another one. It's probably not exactly the right time, as I don't know what it is I would get, and all of the rest, I knew exactly what I wanted and why. I wanted the permanency of them. I think that's what I like about tattoos, the very thing that scares a lot of people away: the permanency. I don't like giving things up, leaving them behind, letting them go. I want to keep it all with me.
Words are permanent. Or they can be. Writing things down delivers them into the world. Words make a mark. They can be powerful and dangerous and frightening. But, they are nothing to be afraid of.
I'm getting a little bit good at this. Following the arrow of thought wherever it goes. Staying more interested in the arc of its flight, the hue and heft of the feathers on its end, the sharpness of its tip, considering how it might feel piercing the skin or the heart but taking care not to get in the way of it, so as not to find out for real.
Looking at it as a thing of beauty, something to observe and stand in awe of, maybe even learn something from as I bear witness to its trajectory instead of diving in front of it and letting it sink deeply into my flesh.
Avoiding that drama. It's not that hard. You just don't move. You just stay still.
It's a different experience than plunging into the struggle. The pain can still be exquisite, even when you're just looking at it, running your hands gently through the air around and over the arrow instead of actually touching it.
Breaths and moments and days and weeks go by and I watch as my girls grow up, up and away, gorgeous like fawns, just as stunningly strong and just as beautifully delicate. The pride is fierce but the sadness of feeling them start to slip through my hands is somehow fiercer.
The leaves on the trees are as vivid as the feathers on the ends of the arrows, and soon they'll fall and drift in earnest. The air is crisp and clear, and the early darkness fills the heart to bursting with a beauty that makes me want to weep. The cold is starting to creep in, slowing things down. I'll try to keep watch through the deepness of the coming days, until the arrows of spring start to fly again.
1. I aspired to focus on mood this week, but I find myself thinking about structure.
2. My time is structured for 10 days by working in a new office. A new freelance job. It's day three but I already know my way around, where to get coffee, where the bathroom is. I pride myself on situation--on situating myself in a physical space. It gives me a sense of mastery, even if it's a really rudimentary one.
3. I was just reading an article about how form and limits are necessary in order to find and tap creative freedom. This is true, even though it seems counterintuitive.
4. Yoga is another place where that's become clear to me, maybe the place where it's become most clear. You can't just lengthen out your arm or leg and stretch it--well, you can, but there's a good chance you'll hurt yourself doing it. You have to engage the muscle before you extend it. You have to root yourself.
5. There's something to be said for freewriting, which in its very freedom and stream gives you some form, I guess. This is such a fluid idea, this push and pull.
6. But it always comes back to the push and pull.
7. This article I was reading also talked about motherhood and how having a child gives a women permission to leave nothing for herself, to put it all into this small person you've created. But if you actually did have 24/7 to yourself, to write, say, would that be enough structure for you to actually do it?
8. The pressure and pull of family--whether it's a child or a partner or a sibling or a parent or a friend--that forces you to create a space where there is freedom for yourself.
9. You make a container and then within that you can be free, or fully yourself, your essence. (Is that why cats like boxes so much?)
10. That's the creative feeling we crave, I think, the being with your essence while you're playing with words, or colors, or notes, or images, or whatever our medium is.
11. I do still want to focus on mood and description and the sound and feel of the words.
Yesterday, on the high school Facebook page, someone posted something about how she'd disliked The Great Gatsby in high school, and that her son was hating it too. Why did kids have to read these old, boring books they couldn't understand, she wondered?
I (among others) commented, saying I believed great and inspiring teachers are needed to make books come to life for teenagers. That was certainly true for me--I'm a lifelong Moby Dick fan because of my amazing AP English teacher. He taught me how to read closely, and how to write about it. It was like a whole new wing opened up in the house of my reading life.
Still, I get it if you just don't like a book everyone keeps saying is a "classic." But someone else on the thread commented, "When will we just accept that some people simply don't like to read?" That just made me sad.
I know it's true. There are those who don't want to sit down and waste their time with words. Even these days, when people are probably writing and reading more than ever before. We text far more than we talk. The publishing offices where I sometimes work are silent; it used to be that the phones were ringing and people were talking, to sources, writers, one another.
What else? Kids don't really have "signatures" anymore, because they don't learn cursive in school. They most likely don't recognize their best friends' handwriting, because they no longer pass notes in the hallways. And as I learned recently as a chaperone on a Disney trip, most of the thirty-some tweens we asked to write postcards home to their parents didn't know how to address one. ("Where does the address go? What about the stamp?")
My kid did know how, for the record.
Okay, maybe old-school reading just seems too exhausting to some after a long day of staring at a screen. But it seems like the least we can do is ensure that kids have an opportunity to get excited about reading in school. I hope very much my girls' teachers are inspiring them. I feel like the middle school ones did, and do (I was jealous on back-to-school night; I wanted to take Sara's English class). So far in freshman honors English, Kate is loving To Kill a Mockingbird. So that's good.
But I was always a reading and writing kid, and my girls are, too. What about the kids who aren't, who really don't enjoy reading, for whatever reason?
I worry, because reading and writing are such important tools for knowing yourself, aren't they. And for expressing yourself so that others can know you. I want to do something to help ensure that kids understand how much power writing will give them, and that reading will help them be better writers--and better, more compassionate people, too. And that stories, in whatever form, bring us together. That our entire lives are composed of stories.
I think about teaching middle or high school English.
Is that crazy?
It's been so humid and dark this week. The air is heavy, and it feels hard to breathe. The weird wetness of the air plus the dip in temperature that hints at fall is an awkward combination. The whole thing has made me feel like I’m moving through water. It’s slowed me down, and maybe that’s the only good part. It’s made me take a moment and look around me.
I’m looking especially at my daughter Kate. She’s almost 15. She has long, curly blond hair and blue-green eyes, and she’s lean and graceful. She’s a dancer. She just started high school and somehow seems to be taking it in stride. She’s a student, after all—she appreciates the actual learning, at least in most of her classes, notably language arts and history, though she’s tickled by her French teacher, a sharp-dressed older Haitian man. I think she’s been more enthusiastic in the last few weeks about French than she ever was about Spanish in middle school.
She wears striped T-shirts or concert shirts that just graze her midriff, or big, cozy sweatshirts with hoods that say things like “Pink” or “Cape Cod,” and those teeny denim shorts teenage girls favor. Her legs are strong from dance. They are beautiful. But if you look closely at her thighs, you’ll see a series of horizontal lines on each one. They’re scratches that are healing. Really, they are cuts, and she made them herself with scissors in the past few weeks.
She’s been having panic attacks for a year. The cutting is new. When I noticed it the first time she said she’d fallen into a bush. Even though when I first caught sight of it, it instantly looked intentional to me, I chose to believe her, to remain in denial for a day or two. That was the short amount of time it took for her to disclose what had been happening.
I was scared. I felt guilty. I felt frustrated. I felt ashamed. Strangely, I realize now, all the feelings I felt when my now-sober husband was in the final throes of his drinking.
Kate was in fifth grade then, when things got so bad that really, if he hadn’t stopped, he probably would have died. She and I were confidants in anger and outrage; we both just wanted him out of the house. We wanted to protect Sara, her sister, who was only nine, as much as we could. But Kate was only eleven. She shouldn’t have been my cohort. I knew that, and I tried to protect her as best I could—I spoke to her constantly about how I would always take care of her, no matter what, and she believed me then, believes me now—but I was like a shipwreck that year, and she saw that, and she stepped up.
Now she’s finally acknowledging her anger at having to do that. She’s mostly angry at her dad, I think, but I was at fault, too. I’m not indulging myself with mother guilt here; it’s just the truth. She took on more than she should have, than she was capable of. She was amazingly strong. But she shouldn’t have had to be.
The panic attacks have been painful to witness—I have never experienced one, my pain always having been more depressive than anxious—but they make sense to me, that she feels out of control, out of herself, not herself. The cutting takes that to another level, and I’m trying not to get too alarmed; I’ve read about it and it’s not generally a gateway to suicidal tendencies, more a way to find some relief from your anxiety and pain. I understand that, even though the part of me who is her mom, who thinks she’s the most beautiful and amazing and perfect person in the universe, is heartbroken by the thought that she would harm herself even that small bit, that maybe there will be scars on those beautiful legs. The cuts aren’t that deep, they really are more like scratches, so hopefully, no trace will remain. And we’re taking all the measures we need to take, together, to get her professional support, so we can confront it now.
But it’s a powerful lesson in restraint, I have to say. I want to panic and scream and cry and just wallow in the unfairness of it, that she has been made to feel this way by the circumstances of our life, and the imperfect way I handled some things. But she’s not a little girl anymore, and I can’t fix everything, I can’t make things go away. She’s a young woman with her own feelings and thoughts and her own reactions to them. It won’t help her if I freak out or tell her to “just stop.” What I need to do is be with her and behind her and just…there.
To that end, I’ve been treating her a bit like a china doll, at least in my mind. When we’re apart during the day, I text her more. When she’s with me I find myself touching her and petting her and hugging her more.
I know she’s going to be okay, but I also know that there’s not a place where okayness stays okay forever. Not for her or for any of us. I just need to be her mother, and make sure to love her and adore her, and also give her the space to be herself.