Walking in the time of coronavirus

How many times do you think we’ve walked around the block since we’ve been home, “ Paul asked on Wednesday.

    A little math later — if we walked around the block between one and three times a day, if it has been unbearably rainy for 10 days when we couldn’t even get out for one walk — we realized that we’d walked around our block at least 100 times since March 13th. 

    In the early days of the coronavirus closure, the trails were still open. We found ourselves visiting all the local spots. But as hiking trails closed, our world narrowed to this little block, many times a day. 

    In the goals we’d set for ourselves at the beginning, we’d talked about moving our bodies every day.  Chris and I thought we’d be parent-enforcers, drawing children away from screens and notebooks and books. It has turned out that Paul has rousted out of the house and around the block more than anyone. 

    It’s been  easy for Chris or me to justify a fifteen minute movement break to go around the block, to stand up from our desks and piles of work to connect with our kids, get the dog outside to pee, and defog our brains before the next message or Zoom. 

Breakfast, lunchtime, supper, once around the block for each: this is the rhythm of our days in family isolation. 

Here are the highlights of our walks so far:

  • We’ve watched the completion of a neighbor’s stone retaining wall. Energy that might have previously been devoted to workplace gossip now focused on the day’s wall progress. Was the mason there today? Where was he, we wondered, when he wasn’t? Was that really a smiling face of stone? It had to be. We all saw it. When would we know when the wall was done? When they seeded grass on the curb? When mulch and bedding plants were laid down? That had to be it.
  • We’ve watched the flowering of all the spring trees and counted the little winters — redbud, dogwood, blackberry. There are other little winters, but not on our block. And now at the beginning of June, everything is green. The trees have all leaved out, and the humidity begins to overtake our lunchtime walk.
  • Wandering just a little way from our block, we’ve found a secret party spot for college students. They’re no longer here to party, but there’s no question from the evidence they left. We keep their secret. 
  • Two blocks from our house is the town cemetery. Paul, who has always been scared of it, is now willing to walk there. I, who grew up across the road from a cemetary, rejoice because there is no calmer, more grounding walk. Would it be creepy to live next door, Paul asks. The people there are people just like anyone else, I tell him. He suggests that the distinction between the living and the dead is an important one. 
  • Stuck at home, everyone is throwing themselves into their gardening. Every house is ready for its photo shoot with tidy vegetables beds, impulse-bought flowers from the college farm, and statuary. I myself have bought a Jizo statue, and it brings me joy every day. It reminds me that some pains no longer ache. 
  • Lunchtime walks are about the news. We talk about racism. We talk about the police. We talk about injustice. We talk about our fears of a worse world.
  • We find a patch of poison ivy that the dog — bless her — always wants to pee in. We find another path.
  • We meet neighbors from time to time. We stand far apart to talk, but talk we do. It is a relief to see faces that aren’t our own. One day, we run into Paul’s friend and her mother. It seems surreal that just a few months ago, we were carpool buddies. Once, we had school in the school building; once we had carpools. That seems long ago.
  • We watch the tree trimmers trim all the street trees out of the electric lines. We have opinions.  They left so little of that tree or this.  Another tree is clearly dying. Why don’t they just take it all the way down?
  • A rental house that’s been empty for 6 months shows signs of life. One of the street’s mystery houses suddenly has flowers on the porch. Signs for teacher appreciation and graduation appear and then disappear. A trio of young siblings boost neighborhood spirits with their sidewalk chalked messages. Stay healthy at home. Eat fruits and vegetables.  Stay sunny. 

Stay sunny. We’re trying. We’re putting miles on our feet. This is our snapshot of week 12 of social distancing and walking. 

Graduating in a pandemic — when your child is gay

Graduating during the 2020 coronavirus is as weird as you’d think. For the last month, we’ve made our way to drive-past celebrations where my husband sticks his head out of the moonroof and beats a celebratory drum while I drive ever so carefully behind  a parade of vehicles. We’ve coordinated mailing campaigns for our graduates at church. We’ve planted signs in yards and had signs planted in ours. We’ve cheered on the celebratory FB posts by parents of graduates, and we’ve posted our own pictures. We’ve offered sympathy for those moms and dads who are sad to see their child’s senior year of high school end like this. 

  For me, though, there was no sense of loss until our immediate family   gathered around the tv on Friday night to watch graduation. Until the footage started rolling of our daughter singing “My Old Kentucky Home” — in her graduation robes but also in her childhood bedroom — I hadn’t shed a tear. The dim twilight filtering through the curtains we’d drawn so we could see the screen, her sixth grade brother shirtless, I in my rocking chair with my knitting, and and the graduate and her father on the sofa: what a strange way to watch a child pass that milestone from childhood to adulthood, from school days to adult responsibility. Only the technical difficulties in the video propelled us to laughter that held an element of hysteria.

 When your child is gay, this milestone hits differently. No matter how welcoming a school, no matter how cozy a nest, an LGBTQ student’s passage through high school looks different from the warm 1950s glow of what we imagine high school filtered through Happy Days and 90210 to be.  I don’t imagine that the 21st century high school experience looks like the  football captain-Homecoming-cheerleader-parade float-prom haze for any 21st century teenager.  John Mellencamp wrote “Jack and Diane” almost 40 years ago now. 

We knew high school wasn’t a rosy dream in the 1980s, too.

But for parents of gay children, it’s another thing entirely.  You lose sleep in a different way. For my daughter, her identity was also mediated through a late teen diagnosis of ADHD, but that’s another story for a different essay, when that piece of our history — the painful struggle to find that diagnosis and the missteps, both hers and ours— is less painful.  Life lesson for parents of preemie girls: take seriously the risk of ADHD in your healthy, sparkly, spunky girls. 

 For the last two months, I’ve watched and listened as other parents lament the loss of prom, awards nights, spring musicals and sports, and graduation. If I’m honest, all that I could think is that we had a few more months of keeping our daughter safe at home.

 My daughter went to good school, with a chapter of the Gay-Straight Alliance, with truly progressive teachers, and with many tolerant classmates. I never feared for her safety too much on the basis of her sexuality. Something that I’ve learned is that statistics are only so helpful in letting a parent sleep at night. 

Whenever a woman is assaulted, we rightly call out politicians who rush to assure us that they are appalled because he is the father of a daughter, a husband to a wife, a son of a mother.  We don’t need those family relationships to know right from wrong.

And yet, since I’ve learned that my daughter is a lesbian, I find that my response to stories in the news about violence against LGBTQ folks has taken a turn toward atavism. My response — my rage and my fear — comes from the gut now and not the mind.  The statistic that LGBTQ youth consider suicide at three times the rate of their straight peers stops my heart. I may be stirring soup on the stove, scouring out a bathtub, or making a bed, but when that news story comes on, I am frozen and cannot move.

It’s all to say that as much as I know I should, it’s been hard to lament her senior year ending this way.  Two months free from knowing that your daughter is being told she’s going to hell? We’ll take it. Of course, the homophobia is ever present in social media and media. But two months away from being personally told that she’s personally going to hell? It’s hard for a parent not to see the upside.

A pandemic is not a good solution for keeping a child safe. As much as we rejoice that she made it through high school, safe and whole, adulthood beckons. In a few months, she’ll likely be off to college. We live in a better world than the one I grew up in. The closeted kids I knew in high school are shocked that it’s nothing to be “out” even in our rural school in the 21st century.  Until we live in an entirely different world, I will always be a little scared for her. My heart will always be stopping when I read that news story.  But as safe as we’ve felt in our socially distant home in spring of 2020, we don’t want the pandemic to last forever. We don’t want her in her graduation gown in that lilac room forever. It’s time for her go out into the world. It’s time for me to worry about her as all parents keep carrying their adult adult children in our hearts do. It’s time for her to make the world her own.

I’m still glad that high school is over.

The State Of Our Quarantimes

Ten weeks into our stay-at-home experience, I cleaned out the refrigerator and found the list of rules our family had made at the beginning of our time at home. Almost a quarter of a year into these quarantimes, it seemed a good time to review how well our expectations have matched our reality. Despite the fact that my fridge expedition was based on a mysterious odor that we’d been hunting for the last two days, I’m pleased by how we’ve done and how realistic we were at the beginning.

In March, we sat Paul and the girls down at the table and came up with the following list:

Goals

  • Everyone has space and sanity
  • Everyone gets their work done
  • Everyone learns something new
  • Everyone keeps shared space clean

How We’ll Get There

  • Everyone gets dressed every day
  • Quiet Hours are 10:30 PM – 6:30 AM
  • Everyone attends to hygiene daily
  • Everyone needs to spend time alone and time together every day
  • Everyone needs to move their bodies every day and when possible go outside
  • Everyone needs to clean up after themselves and help with chores

Thinking back to the elaborate charts, schedules, and resource lists that were circulating on social media in March, our commitments seemed underwhelming. We set the bar low. We were thinking about how to thrive together as a tween boy, two (and often three) high school seniors, and two middle-aged parents who’d always declared that we could never work in the same office. Our romance is strong, and our work styles are profoundly different. Now we were all sharing the same work and living space around the clock, and we had a cranky senior dog, three cats, and a chicken to contend with. The chicken almost immediately got herself killed, as chickens do. One of the cats got tired of us after a week of quarantine, snuck out of the house, and took off for a month, only to return when food seemed more desirable than humans seemed disdainable.

With two adults who had worked at home in the past — one of us as research assistant and one of us a PhD student — we knew that we couldn’t exactly predict how the goal of “get our work done” would happen. It turns out that although we had three times more children than the last time we’d worked at home, three near-adults and one near-teen are more forgiving on the work front than 1 baby or toddler. I joke that I’ve become much more productive at home than at school because it’s easier to be get work done while being distracted by four children than by 450 children. Packed in that joke is grief, which will have to be wrangled once we are done putting one foot in front of another.

What we did not predict when we made our list ten weeks ago was how important time outside and time together would be. You see hints in the list, but we made those strictures just knowing that people in the tween and teen years can take to their rooms. We didn’t know that time outside would set all of our moods for the day or that the middle schooler would become the most enthusiastic walker of all of us. We didn’t know that board games and hysterical laughter — emphasis on the hysteria — around the supper table would come to seem necessary to the day.

We don’t yet know how many more weeks of time at home we’ll have. We don’t know when we’ll need to come back to it in the next year or two. I’m glad to have had a moment on this Memorial Day weekend to take a pulse on the state of our Quarantimes. I’m also glad that I found the source of the smell in the fridge, some recently purchased chicken that had now better never see our bellies.

Driving is not my jam — my blues song of the widening of Rte. 25

Driving has never been my thing. I like to think that, after 30 years of driving, I’m a competent driver, maybe even at the peak of my driving performance. Thirty years is a long time since I drove around Ohio County, Indiana, in the dual-braked driver’s ed car with 3 other girls while we listened to Mr. John Roeder’s favorite, John Cougar Mellencamp. He was John “Cougar” in those days. That’s how long I’ve been driving.

After thirty years, I don’t think my friends and acquaintances talk about my driving behind my back. I’m just a cautious driver.

But I’ve never liked it. The long lost tradition of a Sunday afternoon drive has always been lost on me. I was a  carsick toddler. I have memories of puking alongside every Alberta highway and forestry road. When people ask what I remember about being a preschooler in Northern Canada, they’re disappointed to learn that the answers are (a) being potty-trained; (b) drawing on my friend Ricky with a pen and getting in trouble; (c) falling down on the ice rink, and (d) lots and lots of puking next to a car.

Undoubtedly, my Grandpa Carnahan’s habit of piling me and my grandma along with his friends Kingie and Frances into the car of a summer evening and driving around to look at fields didn’t add to my love of cars. Kingie smoked unfiltered cigarettes the whole time while Grandma, Frances, and I suffocated in the back seat where the AC didn’t reach. Thank god for flat southwestern Indiana roads, or I would have revived my preschool habit of puking.

Being a person of great imagination and also the best friend of creativity, high anxiety, I didn’t love driving any more after I made the move to the driver’s seat. Do  kids today still watch terrible videos about car crashes in health class? I know that the state of Indiana only required me to take a two semesters of Health Class, but in my memories, every day of high school brought a fresh or repeated movie about the dangers of driving. I was the ideal audience for these movies. Nobody needed to scare me straight. Just scare me, and I was ready for a lifetime of law-abiding driving, not to mention imagined terrors every time I got behind the wheel between the ages of 16 and 18.

So I don’t like driving although I’m now the primary driver in our family. Chris walks to work, so I’m the caretender of the car and its needs. I have a few rules that make me a successful, if disgruntled, driver.  They are:

  1. Never be more than 1000 miles late for an oil change.
  2. Never pass on a two lane country road unless you can see for a good half-mile
  3. Pay attention to what people are doing in front of you.
  4. Five mph above the speed limit is fine, but no more.
  5. You are, under no circumstances, more important than anyone on the road. In other words, be careful.

This summer, the main road between our house and the county seat is being dug up for road work. It’s not repaving. It’s not a slight widening. No, about ½ a mile from our home, there are wide man-tall ditches where the workers are replacing underground pipes before they do the road work itself. What used to be a straight road now veers all over the place through these giant holes in the ground. New ditches appear weekly and lanes move around as if the road were a living serpent in a decaying landscape. I’m sure to the workers who have to dig these pits, asphalt new lanes, and then paint new lines on what seems like a daily basis, well, I’m sure this process doesn’t seem as fast and otherworldly.

Last week, I was driving home from a trip to the grocery store in Richmond. From a ways off, I could see that the traffic pattern coming into town had changed again. Not only that, it looked like the state road workers — God bless them and give them a raise — were setting up the new pattern right then. I knew that this was not good news for me. I knew I was going to have a hard time figuring out where I was supposed to drive.

But I was happy to see there was another car in front of me. I would not need to figure out where the new lanes were and where the old road disappeared. I would just play follow the leader.

Except… the driver of the vehicle in front of me couldn’t figure the road out any better than I could. First, they stopped to ask the worker where they were supposed to go. Smart move, I thought. Then they pulled forward for about 10 feet before stopping again. A worker ran up to the car and pointed out the next bit of lane.

If I were a person who liked to drive, I imagine that I might have been impatient or dismissive with this driver ahead of me. Instead, I was happy to know that there was someone else to whom these meandering maze of ditches was also a impermeable experience. The driver finally slowly led me forward, with many more stops to figure out which part of the road to drive on. She — I’m calling the driver a “she” — probably thought she about to get honked at, but I couldn’t have been happier to follow her until we made it to the next light and a familiar traffic pattern.

I suppose there might be a metaphor here. Cynically, someone else might invoke the cliche of the “blind leading the blind.”  Not me. If there’s any parable here, it’s that the ground is ever slipping beneath our feet. Maybe each birthday takes us further into a world that seems less familiar than than the one of our childhood. Maybe it’s that the unprecedented chaos in our politics and our governance makes it seem as though man-high ditches are springing  up around us. Aa Yeats tell us, “things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” Everything feels novel and awful, every day, and yet somehow I made it home to put away the ice cream before it melted, thanks to the driver in front of me.

Me, I’m just glad that someone else is just as baffled as I am by the summer road work in Berea, and I find comfort in the truth that if we drive slow enough and ask for enough help, we’re maybe going to make it through the widening of US-25.

Chickens and Current Events

img_1583Chickens don’t know about Donald Trump. I can’t stress enough the importance of this fact in my life right now: chickens do not know about Donald Trump.

A flock of chickens came to live with us this spring. Paul has wanted chickens since he was 4 years old. Being parents and naturally resistant to bringing more creatures into our lives, we put him off for six years.

First, we told him that we had to get our own house in Berea. That goal achieved, we told him that we had to get settled into our new home. We may even have told him that Daddy had to get tenure before we could get chickens. Finally, we said that he could possibly get chickens in the fourth grade. If his school was still hatching chickens through the 4-H program when he was in the fourth grade, he could bring one of the classroom chickens home.

This year, that distant date in the far future — 4th grade! — arrived. It was time to get serious about chickens. In the months leading up to their arrival, Chris and Paul read books about chickens and their care, and Chris worried about whether we would be up to the task. I researched chicken permits in the town of Berea and drew a little map of our coop for City Hall. I found a low-cost coop kit that looked like we could reasonably assemble it. I began accumulating supplies for keeping baby chicks in the basement, and Chris and Paul built a brooder out of a plastic bin and some bird netting. We talked to friends who had chickens. We joined the Tractor Supply rewards program.

After an eventful two weeks of classroom life with 22 lively fourth graders, two chickens came home in late March, and they were soon joined by four friends from Tractor Supply. One of the classroom chickens died quickly, but the other five of the flock stayed in the basement under the light long enough for us to be very tired of having chickens in the house. The cold spring delayed their move to the coop outside. At Mother’s Day, they finally moved into their own home outside our back door.

And that’s when Chris and I discovered the pure joy of having backyard chickens. Chickens don’t know about Donald Trump. Chickens don’t know about anything except being chickens. They are not weighed down by a knowledge of English and a subscription to three different newspapers.

Although the chicken’s are Paul’s, we adults  find ourselves drifting outside of an evening to watch them. Sure, that’s when they need their food and water changed, but we also let them out of their chicken run for an hour. We watch them wander around the yard, peck their way into some kind of order, and experiment with eating weeds and rocks.

Casey is the smallest chicken and believes that she should lead a life of free and wild adventure. It takes sneaking, herding, and sometimes the sight of the Terrifying Green Leaf Rake get her back into the coop at night. She is half the size of the household cat, but the cat is afraid of her. Big Amber and Pluff are the advanced chickens with impressive combs and are suspected of being possible roosters. The twins — Zelda and Big Ears — started life as “The Twins”  because we only recently started to be able to tell them apart. They are ciphers.

They all look like dinosaurs at times, especially when they stretch their necks. They fly for a few feet around the yard when they want to show each other who’s boss. Casey’s the boss, but Big Amber and Pluff don’t recognize her leadership. She has a tiny, rubbery comb, so her rule must be challenged daily.

What you discover, if you’re an adult with a beer sitting around in a chicken yard at around 7 PM, is that your stress and worries retreat like the cat from a marauding Casey the Chicken. The chickens do not know about work; they don’t know about parenting teenagers; they don’t know about college politics; they don’t know about illness and aging; and they especially don’t know about Donald Trump.

Donald Trump tries to suck up all the attention in the nation. He’s successful at it, but he doesn’t command attention with the kindness, gentleness, and goodness of a Mr. Rogers or a Koko the Gorilla (RIP).  What he’s done to immigrant children this month is so terrible and terrifying that a person feels like she ought to be paying attention every second of every day, like she should check twitter in the middle of the night, like she should never stop ceasing to write and march.

And so there’s nothing better than a few minutes of an evening to spend watching the chickens. They don’t know about the President. They can’t know about the President. For a short time each day, there’s nothing more refreshing

Chickens and Current Events

Chickens don’t know about Donald Trump. I can’t stress enough the importance of this fact in my life right now: chickens do not know about Donald Trump.

A flock of chickens came to live with us this spring. Paul has wanted chickens since he was 4 years old. Being parents and naturally resistant to bringing more creatures into our lives, we put him off for six years.

First, we told him that we had to get our own house in Berea. That goal achieved, we told him that we had to get settled into our new home. We may even have told him that Daddy had to get tenure before we could get chickens. Finally, we said that he could possibly get chickens in the fourth grade. If his school was still hatching chickens through the 4-H program when he was in the fourth grade, he could bring one of the classroom chickens home.

This year, that distant date in the far future — 4th grade! — arrived. It was time to get serious about chickens. In the months leading up to their arrival, Chris and Paul read books about chickens and their care, and Chris worried about whether we would be up to the task. I researched chicken permits in the town of Berea and drew a little map of our coop for City Hall. I found a low-cost coop kit that looked like we could reasonably assemble it. I began accumulating supplies for keeping baby chicks in the basement, and Chris and Paul built a brooder out of a plastic bin and some bird netting. We talked to friends who had chickens. We joined the Tractor Supply rewards program.

After an eventful two weeks of classroom life with 22 lively fourth graders, two chickens came home in late March, and they were soon joined by four friends from Tractor Supply. One of the classroom chickens died quickly, but the other five of the flock stayed in the basement under the light long enough for us to be very tired of having chickens in the house. The cold spring delayed their move to the coop outside. At Mother’s Day, they finally moved into their own home outside our back door.

And that’s when Chris and I discovered the pure joy of having backyard chickens. Chickens don’t know about Donald Trump. Chickens don’t know about anything except being chickens. They are not weighed down by a knowledge of English and a subscription to three different newspapers.

Although the chicken’s are Paul’s, we adults  find ourselves drifting outside of an evening to watch them. Sure, that’s when they need their food and water changed, but we also let them out of their chicken run for an hour. We watch them wander around the yard, peck their way into some kind of order, and experiment with eating weeds and rocks.

Casey is the smallest chicken and believes that she should lead a life of free and wild adventure. It takes sneaking, herding, and sometimes the sight of the Terrifying Green Leaf Rake get her back into the coop at night. She is half the size of the household cat, but the cat is afraid of her. Big Amber and Pluff are the advanced chickens with impressive combs and are suspected of being possible roosters. The twins — Zelda and Big Ears — started life as “The Twins”  because we only recently started to be able to tell them apart. They are ciphers.

They all look like dinosaurs at times, especially when they stretch their necks. They fly for a few feet around the yard when they want to show each other who’s boss. Casey’s the boss, but Big Amber and Pluff don’t recognize her leadership. She has a tiny, rubbery comb, so her rule must be challenged daily.

What you discover, if you’re an adult with a beer sitting around in a chicken yard at around 7 PM, is that your stress and worries retreat like the cat from a marauding Casey the Chicken. The chickens do not know about work; they don’t know about parenting teenagers; they don’t know about college politics; they don’t know about illness and aging; and they especially don’t know about Donald Trump.

Donald Trump tries to suck up all the attention in the nation. He’s successful at it, but he doesn’t command attention with the kindness, gentleness, and goodness of a Mr. Rogers or a Koko the Gorilla (RIP).  What he’s done to immigrant children this month is so terrible and terrifying that a person feels like she ought to be paying attention every second of every day, like she should check twitter in the middle of the night, like she should never stop ceasing to write and march.

And so there’s nothing better than a few minutes of an evening to spend watching the chickens. They don’t know about the President. They can’t know about the President. For a short time each day, there’s nothing more refreshing

Fee Glade: Why I Pray

Among the gifts of summer is my daily morning walk with Chris. In the slower summer season, we walk for 30 minutes before he has to open the Center, and then I continue my walk to Fee Glade where I pray before the rest of the day.

If I were a better person or a more spiritual person, I’d make that meditative visit all year long. Instead, I’m a person who’s doing her best to have herself at work before 7 AM during the school year. So this practice of prayer at Fee Glade remains a summer gift in my life.

Why do I visit Fee Glade?  Because it represents the heart of truth and wildness at the center of our lives. In the very center of a landscaped, planned campus where history uplifts and weighs down, behind a black metal fence lies chaos and utter wildness. No cultivation, no plan, but trees and vines curling among each other in an impenetrable mass.  Wild morning glories twine their way through the fence to catch the line of daylilies cultivated on the side of civilization.

I’m fortunate to inhabit the wild place where it all comes together in Berea, our divided space.  Married to the college but living and working in town, I get to see the best and worst of both. It’s a rare position, and I’m thankful for it but it takes prayer to make sense of this place so informed by an American history of conflict and resistance.

As I look into the glade each morning, I try to hold in my heart all of Berea. A spider casts a 20 foot line of web from tree to tree, and I imagine that web holding us all together. I imagine each of dozens of little churches, each of our neighborhoods, each of our hidden trails as part of one whole, “brothers and sisters in Christ” as our Sunday morning prayer at church reminds us.

I imagine all the factions, all the departments, and all the squabbles at the college and at my school, and I remember that at the heart of our disagreements are our wild hearts. We can try to manicure ourselves into civilisation. We can attend trainings to be better colleagues, and we can work hard to be better together. It’s best not to forget our wild human hearts at our core that bring out emotions and fears we don’t understand. If we can remember that no matter our professional faces, that we each inhabit a different entwined overgrowth of millenia of humanity, then I think we can forgive each other and keep working together for good. Maybe we can learn to love each other’s wildness.

Last week, Chris and I visited the reading room at the Library of Congress. It’s a remarkable monument to learning. It’s gorgeous mosaics and classical statuary surrounding bookshelves and desks with little lamps. The room reminded me that scholarship and learning are glorious pursuits. Besides standards and outcomes, there is value just in finding out something, learning it, and committing it to our shared knowledge.

What moves us to study, though, are our wild hearts, our passion for this life and world. Behind the reading room lies chaos and humanity. Our minds drive us to find a path through the mystifying and dense layers of the vines of history. Just like Fee Glade, that preserved spot of wilderness that reminds us what we are about.

That’s why my feet draw me there daily in June and July.

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The gift of time travel

DSCF0339The minutes seem short when you have a teenager. You feel like you’ve got your own personal doomsday clock: it’s reached 11:59 before you even realized it.  Having a child grow up is not the end of the world though; most days of living with a teenager, you wonder if you will make it to your child’s adulthood or whether your brain, heart, and temper will explode before then.

There’s something cruel about arriving at middle age as your child arrives at adolescence. Here you are questioning what you’ve done with your life so far and now you’re also questioning if you’ve done any good as a parent.

Here you are about to teach someone to drive a car, and you wonder if you have done even a fraction of what you need to help this person live independently on her own.  Is there still time to teach her to roast a turkey, change a tire, always keep an eye on her drink, spot bad men and women from a distance, and do hospital corners on a dorm bed? Hell, I’ve never changed a tire in the wild .

Sometimes when I need it and I’m panicking about the last years under our roof (dear lord, so we hope), the gift of time travel arrives.

This morning, driving Elly to work, I plugged my phone into the car, and the phone and the radio contrived some magic between them. Out of the blue, the radio started playing one of the old Sesame Street songs that I’d downloaded a dozen years ago on a different phone.  Unthought of for years, here were Ernie, Big Bird, and Herbert Birdsfoot serenading us about harmony. Elly was incredulous. She surely hadn’t ever wanted to listen to this terrible song. She had surely never heard it before, she thought.

For me, time stopped. In my panic that time races, I forget how much time there has been.  Caught up in the era of makeup, AP World History, and fighting the fallout of toxic masculinity, I’ve forgotten the years in which Big Bird was the most important figure in our lives.

The song brings me back to little Eleanor and all the time we’ve had.  Listening to old Herbert Birdsfoot — Herbert, how can I have forgotten that you were even a character? — I feel like a young mother again.

I heard an interview with Danny Boyle before the Trainspotting sequel came out, and he said that one of the great gifts of middle age is learning that time doesn’t exist or that it doesn’t exist in the way that we thinking, heading forward.  We can go back in time in our minds.

I write about the gift of time travel this morning because I want to remember how it works as we head into the rush of January and school tomorrow, all the pressing moments of adolescence and approaching adulthood. I don’t want to forget that sometimes the radio gives you a gift on a Sunday morning. Muppet birds sing on the radio, bringing the gift of reassurance that there has been enough time and all will be well.

WWGSD?

Despite growing up in the eighties, in the middle of a horror movie boom, my brothers and I always knew that Friday the 13th wasn’t unlucky. Our beloved mother, at the center of our lives, was born on Friday the 13th.  As children we could not have understood  how lucky we were to have her, but we knew that she turned the bad news of Friday the 13th on its head. She brought — and brings — joy everywhere. There was no way that a number associated with her could be unlucky.

As I reach midlife and see how many of my friends have lost their mothers or who have difficult relationships with difficult mothers, I do realize exactly how lucky I am to have the mother I do.  My mother, Sheila Hobson, is one of those people who have a gift in conversation for making people feel not just like they’re the center of her attention as they talk, but like she sees and values exactly who they are. Coming away from a talk with my mom, we all feel like we are loved for who we are right now, that she sees the path that’s brought us to the present, and that we are now exactly who we should be.

My mother embodies what we think of when we think of Divine Love. But being always a practical person at heart, I find it much easier to envision that sweet love of my mother than the love of a distant God.

Of course, when I was a teen and a young adult, we had our struggles. Being the ever typical adolescent, I thought my mom was TOO nice, TOO kind to people, TOO generous in her outlook. Stereotypical teen angst against the world! That dark vision didn’t last as I lived long enough to grow up and mature, to see much of my dark outlook tempered by experience, brain development, and a mellowed hormonal stew.

My mom has a birthday this week, and I’m grateful to have her for another year. I’m thankful, too, that her birthday comes at the beginning of the school year. In August, I emerge from the solitude of summer.  Summers of my early thirties and forties were taken up by the arduous, lonely care of young children. This summer’s isolation has come, by choice, from the pursuit of sustained creative work. Regardless, August is Back to School and back to work for me. It’s the time for me to cast off my natural introversion and misanthropic cynicism for the meaningful work that I love.

As we celebrate my mom’s birthday right before the year starts, I ask myself “What Would Grandma Sheila Do?” Every year, more and more, I want to be more like my mom. How can I give my coworkers, my boss, and my school families my complete attention? How can I greet and value them exactly as they are? How can I make each person come away from our time together feeling loved and cared for? I’m not that good at it, but each year I try harder. In addition to having my mom as a role model, I’ve been lucky to have coworkers like Diana Van Horn and Diane Smith who have showed me how to better show care in the unique and eccentric environments that are schools. Each year, I set my goal to think every day about “What Would Grandma Sheila Do?” (or Diana and Diane) as inevitable conflicts and annoyances arise.

In August, it all comes back to my mom.  How can I be more like Sheila Hobson? How can I pass on some of the gifts she’s give to me as her daughter? How can I pass on the love that she nurtured in me from minute one?

Happy Birthday, mom, Sheila Hobson.  The 13th will always a lucky day for us who have the grace to know you.FullSizeRender (3).jpg

Home Truths

— “Shoo,” said the man at Action Rental as I returned the pressure washer from the weekend. “It’s a hard job keeping a house together. I don’t know if it’s worth it.”

— That reminds me that, as the virtuous glow from getting the house washed fades, I still need to shovel the rest of the mulch under the swing set and refresh some spackle on the house. I need to call the plumber to re-grease the faucet in the kitchen sink. I need to hire someone to replace one of the door thresholds. I need to paint all the woodwork and the doors in the house. And of course, it’s always time to prod the teenager to mow.

— Helping Paul clean his room on Saturday, I told myself that the main reason I’m happy that Chris got tenure at the college is NOT that I can’t bear the thought of another move with a child that still loves Legos. It’s not the main reason, but it’s big.

— Then Chris took me for a Sunday drive in the country. We must be reincarnated 80 year olds from a more innocent time, the era of the Sunday drive. Of course, driving around in the country made me immediately want to put our house on the market and find a way to live out of town.

— I reminded myself that living within walking distance of work, with minimal acreage to tend, is what allows people with chronic illnesses to maintain their health while contributing to society through good work.

— Also,  I don’t want to move Legos again.

— Also, I’ve only got the garden about a third of the way to my vision for it.

— It’s a good thing I’m not single. If I were single and trying to find dates at this point in the garden year, I’d have to list this under hobbies: “Picks beetles off berry bushes and then drops them in soapy water to dissolve their hard outer shell.” Hobby-wise, that’s kind of creepy. Luckily, I already have a family who values summer berries and thinks I’m a badass for touching beetles with my bare hands.

— The tomatoes are almost coming on. We had one early tomato, and now more are starting to turn.

— That’s good because my approach to feeding a family in the summer is just cut a up a watermelon and let them graze.  Soon I can add home-grown tomatoes to their diet.

— If I could get away with it, I would never feed my children anything other than tacos and raw fruit. I would devote none of my brain to cooking, and we’d just eat tacos forever. So it’s a good thing there are tomatoes to add to the tacos.

— Shoo, as the Action Rental man said.