Sun Beams & Ballads

I love the transition into fall, always have. The gentle tug, much like a torn muscle or broken skin that gets tight as it’s healing and then eventually loosens up a bit, keeps me awake emotionally. I’ve always known the tug was time, something I’ve feared as being scarce and unpredictable. I am calmly resigned to its weight.

This season is feeling noticeably different to me. As I experience the generous moments of time slowing, allowing me to freeze the frames, I am more struck by where we are and for how brief a moment.

I may be rambling, but I’m grateful for it—for all of the sticky yet slippery emotions of nowthen and almost here and remember when. Grief and celebration as a weight on my chest is not so much a fear of time, but a deep gratitude for all the time that I have had.

Camp: A Reinvention

Early this spring I saw a flyer for a STEM camp called Camp Invention. The description invited kids from kindergarten through 6th grade to participate. My heart leapt thinking that it would be something that the girls could do together, maybe the last opportunity of its kind. I signed them up and stuck the flyer on the fridge.

When camp finally rolled around the edges of our patchwork schedule were frayed and worn. The Sunday before camp I hastily read the list of things to bring. Each girl needed one take apart item, which needed to be an electronic device that was not a cell phone or a camera. They also needed a bag of things for up-cycling. I banged around the house and found two iPod docking station, alarm clock radio type things. I also found a small toy that you put on your ankle and swing around your leg to make it light up like an old Simon game.

The up-cycling bags were overflowing with yarn, feathers, beads, and plastic caps and jugs. I was clearly not in a very STEM mindset, it looked more like they were going to a costume-making camp. I shrugged and tossed in a metal car and a few bolts.

When we arrived at camp there were few familiar faces. I assured them it would be fine, reminding the girls that they’d have each other and could work together. The first counselor we met told us that kids were divided by age and that the girls would each be in a different group. Their shoulders slumped.

I took a deep breath as I watched Finley’s lip tremble and Briar’s nose wrinkle. Ave look stunned. “Well, let’s find your tables,” I said as the girls were given group color assignments-Fin was red, Ave was yellow, Bri was blue. I scanned the room. There was no order to who was sitting where. I looked for the table with the most red badges, from what I could tell there were no girls wearing red badges.

The girls were silent, timid, and shared an expression of near panic. “Are you guys ok?” I asked.

They nodded silently.

“You sure?”

No nods, just blank stares around the room. I winced. “Ok, well why don’t you all sit over here and wait to hear what they tell you to do,” I said. A counselor walked over, her long ponytail swishing. “Hey girls! You ready to create?” They looked at her, forgetting to nod they were so nervous. I smiled at her, “They thought they’d be in one group.”

She smiled back at me. “I think they have to be a part, but we’ll have fun. What are your names girls?” They quietly told her their names and she exclaimed over how sweet they were. I thanked her, hugged the girls, and told them to have a great day.

Fin’s face was still one of terror, but as she often does, she steeled herself to get through it. I teetered on scooping them up and forsaking the money paid, in order to stop the sensation of leaving them in the midst of something they hadn’t wanted, a camp that I’d pushed.

I swallowed hard and blew a kiss before walking out the door and crying in the parking lot.

Lately it seems like parenting is an endless tangle of moments that threaten to make me cave, redirecting and taking the route that seems easier in the moment. Mostly, I think I am managing to override the allure of the easier route, except last night when I ordered Chinese food.

Each day at camp was easier than the last and each afternoon they regaled me with the experiments and ‘figuring stuff out’ activities that they did. Fin brought home little paper airplanes made from origami paper each day. She called them her crochets despite Ave’s attempts to correct her.

“Watch my crochets fly!” she’d chirp as she sent them soaring and twisting into the air ahead of her. They were delightful, bright-colored little things and they reminded me very much of the girls and this summer. A hodgepodge of activities, unexpected turns, and always bright colors and flight.

Finley was indeed the only girl in her group. She never once complained about it.

LikeAGirl

 

Avery and her group were so firmly situated in 9dom, not yet having the resistance to embarrass themselves through over-exuberance in the way that the older group was, not quite as goofy as the youngest kids, but all speed, competition, and ‘we rock.’ It was a beautiful thing to witness, this complete absence of anything but complete devotion and celebration of the tasks at hand.

Hurry

 

Briar’s luminosity caught me off guard. She is inquisitive and dreamy, traits I don’t think she’ll ever outgrow, but she is fully illuminated by the explosion of tween girl. Razor sharp wit, dancing eyes, and quirky confidence. Her Parkour course made of buttons and clay caught me off guard. “You know about Parkour?” I asked.

 

“Sure, and the intensity of the course builds to light this switch.”

Parkour

When it was time to see Finley’s course I watched as her little fingers arranged the wire on a battery set on its side to illuminate the tiny light bulb. I slowly recognized the pieces on her course as having been a part of the ankle toy and even a thing or two from the iPod docking station. “Hang on, I just gotta wiggle it here and then boom, see? Light!” She explained the pieces, “And that black thing? That I just randomly found and saw that it literally fit perfectly in the circle in my template. I don’t know what it does, but I had to glue that perfect fit.” She shrugged and smiled.

Light

 

It’s been close to a week and they are still putting objects together and declaring how they might solve problems or make life easier. Breathing tubes, readers for water in soil, the ideas keep coming. It’s funny, as I look back I can remember signing them up to be together and to have fun, I never imagined that what would happen is that they’d connect with their own imaginations and unlock a curiosity and can-do approach to everything.

Camp Invention turned out to be a kind of reinvention and the experience taught us all how much we are capable of going just by trying.

 

Discovering Gratitude

The coffee canister has been empty for days. As important as coffee is to us in the morning, neither of us has made an attempt to refill the container. Over the winter I inadvertently bought a bag of decaf; it’s been in the freezer ever since. Tuesday we had a big meeting and I sprinkled enough from the decaf bag to make two cups of coffee.

Sean looked at the coffee maker with confusion, not understanding why the machine chirped it was done so soon. “I only had enough for two cups,” I said to explain. He nodded and went about pouring a cup. It felt less cruel to let him drink decaf believing it was loaded, than to ruin the cup by revealing its true nature.

This morning I slipped downstairs before five knowing there was finally coffee to brew. I kept the lights off and made a pot before feeding the cats. As the machine spat and hissed and the cats ate contentedly, I walked outside in my tank top and underwear.

A few days earlier Sean had said to me, “There is a moment in the morning, I can feel you beside me, the house is quiet and the girls are asleep—safe and happy. All I am aware of is you, your hand on my arm or the way you kiss my forehead and none of the worries are there yet. I feel the gift of a new day, the potential and hope. It doesn’t last long before there are deadlines and frustration, hurt feelings and shit that I have to do, but Manda, these kind of moments, even if they last for a second, they let me know that it is possible. Life can be like that.”

I’d been quiet in response. Our life has been a hornet’s nest of unrealistic commitments and expectations, the odds of meeting them all we’ve defied and handled with endurance and willful disregard for whether we were too ambitious. I don’t mean the last few months, I mean the entirety of our marriage. Lately we’re questioning if we need to make a change.

My mom called me the other day, we were literally on the phone less than 45 seconds. She called to say, “I worry that the two of you never stop to celebrate. You work and work and work, but I don’t think in those moments when you achieve one of your audacious undertakings that you stop to savor what you’ve done. It is my only criticism of you two and I make it with all the love in the world, and I just beg you to hear me. Ice cream, champagne, whatever, just pause for four minutes and soak in what you’ve accomplished.”

I promised that we would. We didn’t, or, maybe more optimistically I can say, “We haven’t yet.”

Standing on the porch in my underwear, no glasses, the world was blurry and I felt a moment of hesitation before I let the morning air envelope me. It was like a spiritual cocktail of the best of every summer and autumn I’ve ever had. The air was slightly damp with a hint of the heat that will come later. Birds looped in circles above me between trees, a sprinkler ratcheted into its cycle, corn stalks undulated to my left and cucumber blossoms glowed to the right.

I walked to the edge of the porch. I curled my toes over like a diving board and stood up straight, air filling my lungs as I opened my arms. A single bird flew from one pine to another and the finches nesting in the bird house chirped. I felt as tall as the trees, I kept my mind still as I marveled at how the stress and worry that had made me feel small and brittle lifted.

I stood like that for a while, adding in a few stretches before taking a spin through the garden. I mustered every Pinterest and self-care refrain that I could think of, thanking the plants for growing, the stones for giving me support, and myself for getting out of bed to take this time.

I have no field guide for happiness or stress reduction, but this morning following an instinct to allow gratitude to course through me in whatever form I could find felt right The cats didn’t barge in, the allure of Twitter and Instagram did not call, the girls stayed asleep. It was as if the morning were sacred, everyone including myself allowing this emotional cleansing to happen.

I wish that for you.

—an evening walk

—a weekend getaway

—kneading bread dough

It doesn’t have to be perfect or planned, it doesn’t have to last for an hour; it just needs to speak to you. We genuinely need it.

 

 

 

Is It Harder Being an Adult Than a Kid?

“So, is it hard? Do you want to cry when you put us on the bus?” her face was titled against the car window toward where the bus would eventually emerge. Her tone was mostly kidding, with the slightest, wistful undercurrent.

B

I stared at her profile. Her pert nose exactly as it looked the day she was born more than 11 years earlier. Round cheeks and curly lashes framing eyes that are a mirror image of her dad’s. I’d braided her hair after a bath the night before. She had said to me in the bathroom that morning, “Should I keep my hair in the braid or take it out?”

 

“Keep it in, I think it looks beautiful with those little wisps coming loose. Or take it out, whichever you want. I know it’ll be out before you get home.”

 

She dramatically pulled the band out of her hair and said, “There, it’s done now. Out,” and she winked as she flipped her hair and strutted away dramatically. These small moments quiver with the energy of this time between child and teenager.

 

I smiled. Behind her the very trees I’d peered through as I waited for the yellow bus to come as I sat watching the sickening updates of Newtown on my phone.

 

Was it hard to watch them leave on the bus? Yes! No! The push and pull of older kids is dizzying, one minute I fear they’ll die if I let go, the next I fear I’ll snap if I don’t get a minute. Helicoptering, free-range, I’m neither really; I’m making it up as I go, writing the plan in pencil, not pen

 

“You know what Briar, being an adult is hard. I cry a lot, but I don’t mind. I won’t lie, there are a lot of things that are hard—figuring out money stuff, dealing with unreasonable people at work, cleaning the house. The thing is, all that stuff is also kind of lucky. I have money, a job, and a house. The thing about the bus and growing up and getting more independent, those are all things that are supposed to happen. It’s my job to make sure you feel ok walking up on that bus or taking a test. So is it hard? Yes. Is it worth it? Totally.”

 

“Do you get scared though? Is being an adult more scary than being a kid or is it just the same?” she was running her fingers along the blue embroidery thread on her white shorts. She wasn’t meeting my eye and I knew it meant she was nervous about my answer.

 

For all the advances of technology and articles saying that kids are growing up faster, the truth is that no matter how big you get or how tech savvy you may be, there are still things that make your face go pale, your palms sweat, and your throat catches. Some days it feels easy to parent with honesty and heart, other days I want to curl up and have a grown up come and tell me it’s going to be ok.

 

I bit the inside of my mouth. “I’m honestly not sure. When I was a kid I didn’t worry quite as much as I do now about money. I didn’t have kids to want to protect, but I did worry all the time that something would happen to my mom.”

 

Her head whipped around, “You did? You worried about your mom?”

I forget that she doesn’t know my entire history. She doesn’t know about my preoccupation with people dying. She doesn’t know that when I was in fifth grade, like she was this year, not a single girl in my class would talk to me. She doesn’t know that I’d walk three blocks out of my way on the route to school to avoid dogs.

 

“I worried about a lot.” The words hung in the air. I still worry about a lot, sometimes assuming I’m the only one with worries. I looked back at her. “Worrying is a part of living, for some of us more than others. I don’t think one time in our life is easier or harder than another. They’re all different.”

 

She considered this. “So would you be a kid again if you could? Or are you happier as an adult?” Her face was calm, unclouded by worry.

 

“That, sweet girl, is a tricky question. If I went back to being a kid then I wouldn’t have you and that would be a serious loss. I also wouldn’t understand how strong I am, that’s something I’ve only learned in the last few years. Maybe the secret I should tell you is that there is still a lot of kid inside of me. That’s why I balance on curbs and play at the playground with you guys. I also visit in my mind the best times from my childhood.”

 

“So then your answer is kind of that life is hard but you love all the parts?” she asked.

 

I thought about it and nodded. “Enjoy it, sweets, that’s the one tool we always have—the power to enjoy who and where we are.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Be One More

The other day I was sitting in our backyard soaking up the sound of the leaves  in the wind, the rustle like water to my ears. Blades of grass danced with beads of water from the soaking I’d given them. I looked at the yellow blossoms popping along the cucumber vines, the soil rich with coffee grounds and molasses water. Pink chive blossoms bobbed in the wind from their perch in the whiskey barrel, along with the cilantro and mint I’d planted.

Then something caught my eye, a little blossom that I hadn’t planted, a volunteer, my mom would call it. It had sprung from the crevices in the stone wall—never planted, never intentionally watered, and having to strain for its place in the sun. I crept toward it, utterly mystified that it could grow there in the damp, dark circle of the walk.

 

 

 

 

Solitary

I snapped pictures from every angle, trying to capture the spirit I saw in the delicate blossom, the improbable strength, and the parallels I saw in the voices rising after the murders in Charleston. It was my way to try to add a voice without overstepping, assuming, or forcing my way in. It didn’t really work.

I kept thinking about what I’d seen in my yard and what was happening in the world. I shared stories I read online and talked with Briar one afternoon.

“Did you hear about the shooting?” I asked. She often tells me that they watch CNN Student News at school.

“You mean the convicts? The men who escaped?” She asked earnestly and nodded.

“No, I mean the nine people who were shot and killed inside a church.”

“In a church? Why?” she asked horrified.

“Because they were black.”

She was silent.

“A twenty-one year old man pretended to pray with them and then he killed them.”

We talked for some time about how to deal with hate. She said maybe all the people who hate could be killed or locked up. I explained that killing a person doesn’t kill an idea, that the hate still lives. As we continued talking she latched on to the idea of it having been done by a 21-year-old more than she did to it having been done to black people.

Two days later I asked if they’d talked about it at school. “Nope, just the convicts.” I winced. They surely talked about ISIS, as she’d recounted discussing the evil of foreign terrorists. That wasn’t too heavy. A music teacher taught them that the notes in music, EGBDF, are governed by the God on top and the Devil on bottom. Religion wasn’t too loaded to talk about.

Nine people dead from hate? Not a word.

I waited as I weighed my own burden of responsibility in the dense knot of hate in our country. Little things, teaching my youngest that the movie isn’t the brown-skinned Annie, it’s the new Annie or it’s the Annie with Quvenzhané Wallis. There are countless things on a daily basis, from wise cracks to stereotypes that go uncorrected by grown ups. Small things add up to very big things.

Then a second flower appeared. The girls gasped. “Mom, can you believe it? There is a white flower now too. It’s growing right there with the purple one.” We held our fingers under each blossom, gently lifting them up and admiring them. “I can’t believe they just did that, they just did it from nothing. Did you even water them?”

“You know what? I didn’t water them, but I’m sure going to start.”

Two

Briar swiped a leaf from the path. “Look, mom, it’s a heart,” as she held it over the two flowers. It began to look like a whole lot more than a single volunteer beating the odds. It was starting to look like a makeshift garden.

Love

I don’t think that what we have ahead of us is easy or certain, but I think it’s worthwhile. My start is learning*, listening** to others even as it makes me uncomfortable or feel guilty. I’m going to do it along with my girls, because they are my garden. I am feeding them and showing them how to lean into the light as well as how to help others have their share of the sun.

 

 

* You can follow the hashtag #CharlestonSyllabus on Twitter to begin learning.

** Two people who I am listening to are A’Driane Nieves and Kelly Wickham.