Harvest: An Ode to Sun Golds

This morning, as I headed somewhere, car keys in one hand, iPod in the other, I found myself yanked momentarily away from my earnest, busy intentions[1]by a glimpse of gold peeping from the green foliage in the corner of our front yard.

And then, before I really knew what hit me, I was balanced precariously at the edge of the raised bed we call our “garden,” plucking cherry tomatoes from the sprawling vine.

It is one of the rituals — and pleasures — of my domestic life that every spring I plant tomatoes. The ritual began a year or so after we bought our first house, when our oldest was a toddler, and in the beginning, I had grand ambitions for it, as I do for most things. Tomatoes, I promised myself. Watermelon and cantaloupe. Summer squash and zucchini and cucumbers.

I would feed my little family of three just like a midwestern farm wife!

Spring Planting, 2003

Spring Planting, 2003

That first year, I started heirloom seeds I had purchased from a beautifully-illustrated catalogue .  I  ended up with dozens of seedlings that, lacking that midwestern farm wife’s farm, I mostly had to give away. That first year, I knew someone who had ten-acres-and-a-mule so I hauled home trash cans of black gold (i.e. manure) in the back of our newly-acquired station wagon. I nursed the seedlings along, got them into the ground; I battled horn worms. I can’t remember if the harvest that year was good or bad.

In the eleven years since, my ambitions have been whittled down. On a good year, I plant tomatoes and cucumbers and beans and one of the other of them will stubbornly refuse to grow.  More often, I just buy tomato seedlings at Lowe’s and slap them into the ground and hope for the best. I used to be a thoughtful gardener:  now I know that things grow despite —not because of — me.  Some years squirrels get all my harvest. Some years, it’s just plain too droughty, and I forget to water regularly, and the whole enterprise is pretty much of a bust.

This year, I planted cherry tomatoes because I was sick of spending 4 bucks a pint for them all summer long.  Sun golds and black cherries — so candy-like you could almost call them the bonbons of the tomato world.

If nothing else, growing your own food is a great way to learn just hard it can be —  to grow food.  My garden could never — not even in my wildest dreams —  produce enough to see us through a winter.

Although our society is rife with inequities, certain sorts of abundance are a given.  We assume there will always be cherry tomatoes, arrayed pint-beside-pint at the grocery store. And that assumption is correct.  Barring apocalypse, there will be.

The lesson the tomato plants in the front yard teach is that the fact that I get even a single tomato at all is a miracle.

This morning, I set my business aside for a few minutes and picked tomatoes.  In seconds, I had more than I could hold in my hands.  I made a bowl of my t-shirt; kept picking.

The plants are such an unmannerly sprawl that finding the fruit is a game of hide-and-seek.  Just I think I’ve gotten all the ripe ones, I move to the other side of the bed and spy new ones. There is always just enough for dinner that night, and the next day’s lunches.

Sun gold.

Sung old.

The garden sings its beautiful song.

It might as well be a detail from a fairy tale, the way the plants magically replenish themselves in the night and then offer up more, our everyday abundance.

 

[1] Must be productive, must be efficient, must keep to the schedule, the to-do list!

Elbow Room

Yesterday, I had a kid home from school with strep throat. She’d already been to the doctor, so she was kinda sick, but not as sick as she had been, and what she wanted to do more than anything else was hang out on the sofa in her pajamas and watch The Hunger Games. What I wanted to do more than anything else was get back to my regular routine, because it seems like I’ve been receiving phone calls requesting that I pick sick kids up at school a lot this past month. But as my 12-year-old cued up The Hunger Games, which she had somehow not managed to see until now (deliberation or accident, I’ll never tell), it occurred to me that I was being handed on a silver platter the sort of opportunity that mindful parent-types encourage all the time, to wit, to occasionally sit down and consume popular culture with your teen and afterward to “talk about it.”

I’m pretty much a puritan at heart, so the idea of sitting down to watch a movie at 8 in the morning didn’t sit very well with me, but then again, I’m also a sucker for all that parenting talk about ” teachable moments.” Besides, I was feeling kinda cruddy myself. (I’ve also been hyper-aware lately of how swiftly time passes and how much opportunities to “hang out” with my teenager are dwindling.)

I didn’t watch all of it — aside from the fact that I had things I needed to be doing, seeing attractive teenagers cage-fight other attractive teenagers to the death isn’t exactly my idea of a good time — but I saw enough to realize that The Hunger Games can be dissected in some fairly interesting ways (the rest of you, who saw it two years ago, probably already knew that).

Some of The Hunger Games was filmed in Atlanta (as is much of The Walking Dead—I could really get going about the idea that the city where I live is a stand-in for a post-apocalyptic wasteland). Some of The Hunger Games was filmed in Western North Carolina, the verdant, mountainous area of that state where, as I pointed out before my reading in Hendersonville, NC this time last year, “a good portion of Atlanta wishes they lived.” Western NC is where my daughter goes to camp every summer; it is where, I think, she feels most free, and most herself. I’ve camped and hiked there for years — if Atlanta is a stand-in for Post-Apocalyptic Wasteland, then Western NC is our family’s own personal stand-in for Wilderness, with a Capital W. It’s as close to it as we can get.

Atop Big Glassy Mountain, Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site, Hendersonville, NC

Atop Big Glassy Mountain, Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site, Hendersonville, NC

The movie bugged me. But it also, probably in part because of where it was filmed, left me with a oddly expansive feeling for the rest of the day. The feeling was somehow similar to the way I feel post-camping or hiking: like I’d been out there for a little bit. Like I’d pushed myself a little bit physically and come out ok. Like the grime I was covered in and the rocky ground I’d slept on had somehow shifted my perspective and that was not at all a bad thing.

This, I thought, was very strange.

The previous day, I had received this in my email inbox:

APS tips for Walking to School and Bus Stops

Atlanta Public Schools is aware of recently reported abduction attempts near multiple school properties. While they have not taken place on school property, APS continues to work with the Atlanta Police Department to ensure the safety and security of all of our students as they walk to and from schools and bus stops. These incidents provide opportunities for our parents to talk to their children about personal safety, in general, and the importance of looking out for the safety of others.

The following tips for walkers and bus riders can serve as a conversation starter and reminder for all parents and students in the district.

• If you see something suspicious while walking to school or the bus stop, call 911. • Report abduction attempts to the police and school administrators immediately and include as many details as possible. • Develop a buddy system for walking to school and bus stops. Students should never walk alone. • Always walk in groups with at least two or three other students. • When possible, parents should walk their children to school. • Plan the most direct route to school with the fewest street crossings. • Do not speak to strangers for any reason, even if they are asking for directions or information. • Never accept rides from strangers, even if they offer items such as money or gifts. • Stick to the route you picked with your parents. Don’t let friends talk you into shortcuts, and never walk through alleys or across vacant lots. • While walking, do not talk on the phone or wear headphones. Be aware of your surroundings at all times. • Never enter or play near abandoned houses. http://www.atlantapublicschools.

This information was sent to every parent with a child from the ages of 4 to 18 in the Atlanta Public Schools. And while no one would disagree with its main thrust — that parents need to talk about their children about safety — some of its generalizations (are they really espousing that high school students really never walk alone? or that parents walk 15 year olds to school?) gave me pause, particularly in light of watching The Hunger Games less than 24 hours later.

Why is The Hunger Games (or Divergent, or any of the other dystopian, post-apocalyptic stories aimed at teens) so popular? There’s never one reason for anything, of course, but I’d speculate that one reason for the popularity of books like these is the way they scratch a particular itch we all have to experience a certain sort of aloneness, a certain sort of freedom, a certain sort of wilderness. In the dystopian future, a teen has to take care of him or herself. She has to live by her wits. In the dystopian future, parents are gone or ineffectual or well-meaning but misguided: survival depends on your own gut instincts.

Obviously, such impulses toward wilderness and wildness, when spun out to conclusions of cage-fighting and post-cataclysm social breakdown, should only be satisfied vicariously. But what does it mean — to experience wilderness — at this mediated moment in our history? Should that experience even be possible? Should we mourn if it can’t be? And above all, how can it be accomplished if your parents are always right there beside you, dogging your every step?

All Saints Day (A Recap)

The numbers:

First toddling trick-or-treater (Strawberry Shortcake and a sleeping sibling berry) — 4:45.

Pieces of candy, doled out one by one — 450.

Candle in the jack-o-lantern snuffed and the porchlight turned off because we’d given every single Tootsie Roll away — 7:45.

This morning, the sidewalk is littered with cast-off fangs, a confetti of candy wrappers.  Another Halloween has come and gone.

For years, I claimed Halloween was a holiday that left me cold.  For one thing, it was the biggest day of the year when I worked retail in a vintage clothing store,  and having to help college frat-boys find last minute costumes (in the mid-80s, they often gravitated toward drag) can really put a damper on your Halloween fun.

And then, much more recently, when the Girleens were quite tiny, Halloween seemed to last for weeks.   Some years we attended three or four  parties before October 31 even rolled around.  All those  Peanut Butter Cups I filched made me feel gross, and besides,  Halloween turned out to be a holiday that brought out my maternal insecurities.  My family would never figure out how to roam the neighborhood as the Tattooed Man, the Bearded Lady and the toddler Strongman.  We were boring.

This year, I have a streak of gray in my hair as broad as a barn*  and we’ve reached a Halloween sweet spot.  The Girleens by and large figure out their own costumes (I just have to open my wallet or drive them to the thrift store).  The event lasts three hours, quick and dirty. I supply pizza and set a few ground rules and then I can sit back and enjoy the spectacle.

But yesterday morning, I drove Younger Girleen to school, along a route I’ve driven for seven  years now.  The car radio was tuned to the sugary, most repetitive pop station transmitting throughout metro Atlanta, because that’s how we roll these days.  The morning dee-jays were nattering on. Their topic?

“My mom was so lazy she dressed me as xxx for Halloween three years in a row.”

I get it.  I am not the target market for the most sugary pop radio station imaginable in Atlanta— my daughters are.  And being irritated by either the 1.) sexism, or the 2.) lack of agency  displayed in a conversation between two radio dee-jays at 7:40 in the morning is — well, it’s bootless.

Likewise, I understand how  popular culture is all about taking “ownership” of aspersions cast on you as a way of making them toothless.

I am a lazy mom!  A bad mom!  Hear me roar.

But you know, no wonder the statistic that 1 out of every 4 middle-aged women in America takes anti-depressants.

We may still have work to do, friends.

But all that is neither here nor there.

What is?

Our scrappy urban neighborhood has become a magnet for trick-or-treaters.  450 pieces of candy given out!  The kids traipse house-to-house in packs; the parents hang back.  To get that candy  you want, you’ve got to walk up to the stranger’s house.  Is the person who approaches friend or foe? You’ve got to assess.  You’ve got to brave the darkness.

O, lazy mothers, everywhere, take heart!  The point of Halloween is not, no matter what the dee-jays claim,  greed or the most creative costume.

On Halloween, our children  navigate uncertainty for a few hours, while we parents stand back, trying to keep our well-meaning hands off.  To watch them run in packs in defiance of the rustling shadows is the holiday’s sweetest reward.

*That gray hair?   Not  a costume.

Pubs, Sultry Summer Edition

The Summer 2013 issue of The Massachusetts Review, which includes my story “Plenty” is out and on the metaphorical stands.  You can subscribe here.

“Plenty” might be suitable for the season, which around here, we just call  “Thick of Farmer’s Market” (we also call it steamy-hot):

All those years ago, when the guy with the guitar at the blueberry farm had handed back her change, his fingers had been stained up to the first knuckle with blueberry juice. And then, on the drive home, she and John had had their first real argument — over how easy or hard it might be, to defer one’s student loans, or wear faded overalls, or be a gentleman farmer.

The next morning, she had cooked down the berries while John was at work, with a recipe she’d kept when she cleaned out her grandmother’s house, spidery handwriting on a stained index card.  She tilted it on the counter and set to work.  Eva’s Blueberry Jam,  it proclaimed, and in the right-hand margin: the best Edward says he ever tasted!  Who was Eva?  Edward?  The house filled up with the smell of hot sugar, like a fairground.

An aside:  last weekend’s Blackberry-Lime Jam  was just made for research’s sake, of course.

IMG_2402

And while we’re on the subject of art and craft, and magazines, when my poem “Cucumbers” was published in Ruminate this past spring, I received a year’s subscription to it.  I just got the Summer 2013 issue.

It’s gorgeous, both in form and content.

Print, in case you haven’t heard, is pretty close to dead.  Who needs ink, when we’ve got bits and bytes and vapor?  The wisps of words we have do the job just fine.

I’d argue otherwise. I’d like to, in fact, put in a vote for things that are tactile — for  process.

I won’t lie:  I love the convenient jolt I get whenever I click away from the work I’m doing to read… whatever.  (To be honest, usually it’s the neighborhood listserv, which no one in their right mind would call either  art or craft).  I can waste an hour or so letting my mouse rove from here to there and back again with the best of them.

It’s so easy, for us to consume.  Words and opinions, in this particular case.  We eat them up.  We chew them up and spit them out.  And we hardly ever even have to pay for them! When we have gotten so good at attaching ourselves to the I.V. of communication,  what point is there in something as old-fashioned as print and paper?

But there might be something to be said — for the shrink-wrapped magazine that arrives unexpectedly on a sultry summer afternoon.  For one thing, its arrival in the mailbox helps keep the U.S. Postal Service afloat.   For another, the unpredictability of its arrival might actually be a sort  of gift.

We can summon up so much, and so quickly!  We get exactly what we want.  The second that we want it.

So maybe it’s good for us  — to occasionally be surprised.  Even if it’s by something as mundane as a magazine.

The day my copy of the latest Ruminate arrived, I stood at the curb and reached into my mailbox.  The neighbor’s hickory tree has already started tossing down a few harbinger nuts, hints of cooler weather to come.  The street was quiet, quiet.  Sealed off.  I tossed the mail onto  the front seat of the car and backed out of the driveway and Younger Girleen and I headed off, to the orthodontist.

This time last week, she and I were headed farther afield.  To Western NC to pick up her older sister at camp.

On the way we stopped, as we have the past couple of years, to pick berries at a  farm perched at the top of a slant-sided hill. South Carolina tableland, I suppose you’d call the area, the littlest toe of the foothills of the Blue Ridge.  The real hills, or their bulky outlines, hang on the horizon like a bank of clouds.  We pick a gallon of blackberries from looping canes; another of  rabbit-eye Blues.

And then I lug them into our hotel room that night, and out again the next morning.  After Big Sister has been picked up, and hugged, and we are headed homeward, we discuss:  a crumble this year?  A pie?  Should we just eat them by the handful?

There was enough for all those things.  There was, in fact, plenty.  

Last Sunday afternoon, I brought glass jars to a boil in a black-speckled canner purchased at the local hardware store that, a year or so after the Big Box went in two miles away, gave up the ghost and went under.

Thinking all the while.  Of this, of that, of the way an 11-year-old’s legs magically lengthen when you aren’t there to see that 11-year-old for two weeks.

Thinking also of the water required to sterilize a half-dozen jelly jars, the natural gas required to heat it, and the jar of jelly to be had at Kroger down the street.  What does it cost?  Two, three dollars?

I am a fool.

Every morning when we pull out  our newly-minted jam and smear it onto slabs of toast, I admire its distillation of that afternoon, when I picked berries with my eight-year-old, and a hawk wheeled overhead, and I was lost in process.  

Our fingers touched every single berry in this jam!  Younger Girleen points out.

At the orthodontist, I sat in the waiting area while her titanium spring dental appliance was adjusted, magazine on lap. Fingers happy with the heft of the paper pages, the crisp ink, the middle section of reproduced paintings by an artist I’d never before known to seek out.

A fool, yes, but such a happy one, on certain sultry summer days.

The Recital (Part One)

I started this blog six years ago, when Elder Girleen went off to elementary school.

Last night, she “graduated” from fifth grade.

I could attempt to wax eloquent about the passage of time, because that’s what we parents do, but to paraphrase Benny, a character in Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad —

nostalgia is the end — everybody knows that.  

Even so, this whirlwind of culminating moments — final recitals, final exhibitions, graduations — is tailor-made,  not just for nostalgia (and oh how they milk that,  with the kids marching into the auditorium two-by-two to the first few bars of The Verve’s Bittersweet Symphony*  and a slide show of their baby pics) but for a sort of regrouping.   These rituals carve out emotional space, and in that space we take stock, we  take, as they call it in yoga, a deep centering breath.  

I don’t say as much as I used to here about the personal, about the daily.  Part of that’s because — let’s face it —  blogs as a medium died a flash-in-the-pan death eons (a couple of years) ago.  The world has since migrated to Twitter and Facebook. Part of that’s because when your children are themselves surfing the ‘net, you’re fielding a lot of hard questions about what’s private, what’s personal, and what should be offered up for public consumption.

But above all, there’s only so much time.   I write more stories these days.

But last weekend, I sat on yet-another  uncomfortable folding chair.  Took one of those deep, centering breaths and in doing so took a second to parse things out,  to mark this particular moment.

*Just the sweeping strings of the instrumental intro; lyrics like

‘Cause it’s a bittersweet symphony, this life
Try to make ends meet
You’re a slave to money then you die

are kinda a downer, particularly at a 5th grade graduation ceremony.

Fall, Once More

Surely I didn’t let this much time go by since I wrote anything down here — I must, between June and now, have written down something!

Be that as it may — it does little good  to worry at my words, or at their absence.  It is a new school year, a blank slate.  My oldest daughter is long and lean and tan and gimlet-eyed, she swings a leg over her blue bike (brand-named Moxie)  and pedals into her  future.

My work is practically done!  I feel both proud and sorry.  First I had no children, and then — it seemed like suddenly but it actually was not — I did.  Tiny newborns who demanded attention from me that I hadn’t, up until that minute, known how to give another human being.

And now, it feels like seconds later — my job has become the inverse of that.  To step back. To ignore the maternal clutch I can’t help but feel as the spokes of the bicycle wheels flash in the sun and my firstborn rides off without looking back, standing up on the pedals, her back straight.

Ode to My Neighbor’s Eggs (and My Daughter’s 9th Birthday)

An egg only two hours old is truly a beautiful thing.

The ones my neighbor’s hens —her girls, she calls them —  lay are an even, pale brown and a faint, barely-there blue and a  few of them are dusted with a sprinkling of darker freckles.  Some of them are larger than others.  Some are more oval.  Every single one of them nestles in its space in the cardboard carton my neighbor hands over like a diamond ring in a velveteen-lined box.

Night before last, I squandered four of the dozen I’d just bought on the cupcakes I was making for my older daughter’s class, for her ninth birthday.

The first one I picked up fit so satisfactorily in the cup of my hand.  It somehow felt realer than eggs you get from the store.  Was that because I know the back yard these particular hens peck bugs from, the red-tailed hawk that sits the pine tree overlooking the tumble of kudzu and blackberry bramble behind it?  Or was it just because, knowing all that background, I gave this egg more scrutiny than I usually give the ones I purchase during a harried trip to the grocery store on Saturday morning?  Was it that my brain might be large enough to absorb the thought of five hens in a backyard coop doing what it’s in their chicken natures to do, but before the enormity of thousands and thousands of chickens laying thousands and thousands of eggs — all uniform and white and indistinguishable from one another — my poor human brain fails me?

I tapped each egg — gently, gently, harder — against the rim of a green mixing bowl.  The shell cracked open cleanly, the contents slid into the bowl, the yolk high and domed, bright orange.

It’s interesting, how many of our sayings are influenced by animal husbandry and by the barnyard.  Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.  Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.

Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

The egg, of course, I thought, as I stood in my kitchen after my children had gone to bed, hugging a green mixing bowl to myself as I beat yolks into a pale yellow froth.

I could’ve bought cupcakes at the store. The kids who were going to eat them didn’t care, either way.  One of them hates vanilla icing, another dislikes cupcakes altogether. The recipe I was using was persnickety and kind of a pain, it was almost ten o’clock at night, and I hadn’t made enough butter cream frosting.   I opened another box of butter, retrieved the confectioner’s sugar from the cupboard. I thought how silly I was, how silly this was. There’s not time for this, I lectured myself.

I was born the year The Feminine Mystique was published.  From childhood on, I’ve imbibed this message: domestic is demeaning. A smart woman, a woman worth her salt, is above domestic duties, although under duress, in between more fulfilling work, she does them.  Not for nothing did my mother have thumbtacked to the bulletin board in her office the sentiment:  Dull Women Have Immaculate Homes.

And more recently I’ve read much — I understand that the rituals of motherhood can be indulgences, the by-products of luxury and privilege.

Poor little egg, how can it keep from being crushed by all this weight?

I held one in my hand, and it was serene and complete, in its eggness.  Besides, I’d already started on this course, and twenty-four cupcakes were in-process on the kitchen island.  I turned from there to the counter.  I sifted flour.  I beat egg whites.  I remembered as if it were yesterday the mixture of love and abject terror I’d felt the day we brought Elder Girleen home from the hospital; I thought on the tilt of her feathery eyebrows.

They’re amazing things, my neighbor’s eggs.  Every day, the girls — Poppy and Iris and Marigold — lay them.  Every single day.

Nine years, I thought, since she was born, my eldest daughter.  Nine years since I held that crumpled bud of a baby with a shock of dark hair in my arms.  In nine more years, she’ll go off to college.  Equally amazing.

I bent to pull muffin tins from the oven. Life moves so fast; we have so many choices.   Most of the time I forget — that there is joy to be had in small gestures, performed with intention.

It was ten o’clock at night, and I stood yawning in my kitchen, alit with a still, small urgent spark of desire:  to honor the eggs my neighbor’s chickens laid; to honor the universe for giving me daughters, and birthdays.

Things, Pressed into Service

If you classify yourself as a “reader” in the simplest sense of the word (ie, one who reads), and probably even if you don’t, sooner or later it happens — you find yourself on the tour of the House of the Famous Writer.  More specifically, you find yourself peering over a velvet rope into a particular room that long ago was pressed into service to become a famous writer’s workspace.  What transformed it from a dining room or a bedroom or a hall closet into a space where genius burned?  A typewriter, of course, and the desk on which that typewriter sits.  Books, stacked in teetering piles on every surface, or tucked into bookcases, floor to ceiling.

I have to admit that I’ve never found the rooms where writers worked (even famous ones)  extraordinarily interesting; such tours have never been something I planned a vacation around —what sort of sick pup would do that? The Houses of Famous Writers are, instead, places I’ve ended up paying good money to walk through  because

  1. I’ve found myself with free time in a place where the Writer’s House has been promoted as a tourist attraction since time began  (ie, Hemingway’s House, in Key West, of which I remember little except that the gardens surrounding it reeked of cat piss).  Or,
  2. I see a sign for the Writer’s House as I’m on my way from Here to There, and anything has become a great excuse to get out of the car (ie, Carl Sandburg’s House, where I was most impressed by the fact that he raised goats, which seems in many ways a more sensible (and lucrative) profession than writing)*.

For many many years the rooms where I wrote had once been dining rooms in rental houses that had seen better days.  Who on earth in modern America needs a dining room, particularly if they live alone or with roommates or a significant other but sans children and eat dinner every night with a plate balanced on their knees and the television on?**

Now, I write in a room that was once a porch and was glassed-in by previous owners, nominally at least. The aluminum casement windows that prove just how long ago it was glassed in were like some red carpet for tiny spiders — man, the bugs just sauntered in. The space is cold in winter, hot in summer — or at least it was until recently, when an “incident” that caused an apple from our front yard tree to fly out of an older sibling’s hand and miss the intended younger sibling target***) spurred us to go ahead and get “real” windows to replace the “fake” ones.

Now my writing room is, in fact, a room.  It’s a room that also contains a bicycle and crayons scattered across the floor like so much tinder, but it’s a room, all the same.  The windows perform as intended, and in an added, unexpected benefit, also serve as a lovely frame, now and then transforming the everyday into a form of artwork.

Would it be too tired a cliché to say — maybe sometimes you notice more when your view has been just a bit constrained?

We are on the cusp of fall.  Four days ago we were still wrestling with the draggling tag-end of a long hot summer, but the temperature has finally, mercifully, just in the nick of time dropped.  The leaves of the hickory tree to be noticed through the windows are still green, drought-limp and still, and waiting, waiting.  Drowsy, and they dream of falling.

Soon.

We have passed into a new season.  Two children in elementary school!  This transition might contain one of parenthood’s great secrets:  once all your children are in school, you get some of your life back.  And this secret is so secret exactly why?  Because admitting you might have once had some sort of life you long to regain marks you as  —what? — a dreadful, dreadful traitor?

Our mornings are different than they used to be.  By third grade, clothes matter, at least to girls.  Hair sometimes refuses to do what it should!  Things are misplaced; schoolwork left undone!  Let us bow our heads, engage in torrents of loud weeping!  Last night I dreamed one of Elder Girleen’s peers arrived at school in three-inch heels and c-cups.  It’s that non-organic milk, I tried to assure myself and woke up in a cold sweat.

The corollary  to the fact that I am regaining something of my old life is that I also have new work to do:  to give my daughters, who no longer need me quite the same way, their lives.

We have passed into a new season.  The childless on the neighborhood e-list are stewing over Halloween.  So many children!  They knock on the door uncostumed!  They’re van-loaded in from Henry County!  Sometimes they hit the same houses twice! They’ve been raised wrong!

We have passed into a new season.  Early mornings, the middle-schoolers bike to their school in the center of this neighborhood, toiling up the hills and coasting down, in a scarfed and bundled pack.  Today, a straggler was pedally madly, desperately, to catch up. Around the corner behind her, one last cyclist.  The straggler’s dad.  He’s hanging back, but oh, he’s there.

I was walking by; I saw it.  I fiddled with the ipod tucked into one jacket pocket, turned the volume way  way up, loud enough to drown out the voices on the neighborhood e-list who’ve deemed such behavior an unsafe, subversive act.

Oh brave new world!  O brave new season!  Miraculously, my children are changing. I pray — to what? To whom?  Unknown —for the wisdom to change with them, and walk on.

*The second thing I was impressed by was the “napping couch” beside Sandburg’s desk — what rosy times there were then!

** Given how often dining rooms are pressed into service as writer’s workplaces, I suppose a conclusion could be drawn about the ability of words to serve as nourishment, but I’d really rather wax eloquent about goat-farming.

***Most recent spin regarding the apple-tree/broken window mishap:  “She should have to pay for the window too because she WANTED me to hit her.”

The Dance

At the gym, the soundtrack of my younger days is spilling so loudly from the speakers it erases thought, and everybody seems to be running in place.  Cyndi Lauper’s Time After Time, Nirvana’s Come as You Are, and then — Good God Almighty! —  the theme song  from Friends.

I am lifting weights, but really, what I am doing is remembering, the soundtrack from the speakers conjuring up the day of Kurt Cobain’s death, a friend’s apartment, an ashtray squared companionably on the table and Come As You Are on the radio.  That was the year I was starting to have just enough intimations of mortality that wishful thinking had made me read the label on the pack of American Spirits we were splitting as Addictive — rather than Additive Free.

Were we grieving for poor Kurt Cobain as we sat there at the table?  Not much.  So many rock stars, drowned or shot or suicided! We had cut our teeth on them.  We were contemplating a day off from work; we were overeducated and underemployed, we had postponed adulthood with graduate school; we didn’t realize how good we might have things.

And just like that the music has done what it was meant to do, and I am transported.  Away from this tiny gym lacking bells-and-whistles in a stripmall where at least half the storefronts are empty, it having been built in  those halcyon optimistic days before the bubble burst.

Alternate mornings, I lace up my sneakers and head out, silver oblong of ipod nestled in one hand; I nod at the neighbors I pass, we are all of us sealed off, the music loud.  In our own worlds.

When my daughters hear music, they can’t help but dance. In the cereal aisle of Whole Foods, while the childless edge past them, wishing I had my offspring under better control.  In our living room; on the front steps; on the walkway leading to the car.  At the Arts Center, weekly, where one of the instructors recently pulled me aside and whispered in my ear Like it or not, I think you’re going to be bringing kids here for classes for years.  You’re the mother of dancers.

It’s one of the joys of my life, to sit on the waxed floor of the hallway at the Arts Center outside the classrooms, while on the other side of the door, my daughters are dancing to Debussy, the ballet mistress’s voice counting time.

The Art Center was built in the twenties, was once the residence of the son of a Coca-Cola magnate.  The downstairs is paneled with mahogany pulled from Pullman cars. Eighty years ago, the magnate’s son’s private menagerie roamed the grounds. Now girls clad in leotards have the run of the house.  They are beautiful in the late afternoon light that streams through the Arts Center’s stained glass windows.  I could eat them up; I could sit there forever while my daughters dance right where the daughters of the Coca Cola magnate’s son slept in ornate beds.

Is it cold comfort, the way that as we reach adulthood we replace that effervescent joy in movement with running in place to music  that’s become “the Oldies” — or is that as good as things get?

Better than nothing, I think as I walk, earbuds nestled in the rosy, still young coil of my ears. This morning there was a two-degree drop of temperature, signal enough to the hopeful of a change of seasons.  Butterflies hover over our zinnias, making hay while the last of the sun shines.  In front of a particular house, chartreuse balls dropped from a Bois D’arc tree lie in the grass like an interrupted game of croquet.  Good as it gets, and better than nothing.  We all dance as we can, each in our own way.

Treading Water: or, The Deep End

This is it, then.  The lovely nutmeat of the summer.  The musty smell of tomatoes pulled from the vine; the scent of sun-baked dirt before the afternoon’s rain storm.  Sweat that teases the hair at the nape of Elder Girleen’s neck into tendrils; the beautiful, enveloping ache of refrigerated air when we finally get the front door unlocked after a morning spent running errands.

It’s just a second’s work:  from heat dense enough to weigh it in your hands to its inverse — such coolness!  Our work-a-day world’s attempt to imitate nature’s best, most magical decanting of summer: that knife-sharp plunge from land into water on the hottest July afternoon.

Lacking large, natural bodies of water around here, our pursuit of that leap, that head-clearing, breath-taking instant leads us to — where else? — the swimming pool.

Which I have written about here, and elsewhere.

The rest of this post could be spent lamenting the fact that Younger Girleen doesn’t seem to have advanced much beyond the class she took two years ago (the evidence, it seems, is right here). Could be spent divulging that if Motherhood were, in fact, a board game, I might’ve earned two points for the lunch packed for the girleens to eat today pool side (perfect isosceles triangles cut from a watermelon so ripe it split itself before the pressure of the knife blade reached it; last night’s left0ver, handmade California rolls) and then lost three more points due to the sad fact that not only had I just plain forgotten to bring with us clothes to change into, I’d gotten us to the pool ten minutes late for a thirty minute lesson.

This post could be all that, but instead, let us examine —

Happiness.

For that topic, subgenre  parents, in particular, has once again hit news stands in a recent New York magazine article titled “All Joy and No Fun:  Why Parents Hate Parenting”.

The article’s entertaining, and brings up many valid points, and in the end says about the same thing we all probably would’ve said before we read it, which is —

Yes, it defies logic, yes, by the standards by which we judge happiness these days it shouldn’t be the case, but all the same, us parents wouldn’t change a thing.

I read the article yesterday, and discussed it with The Husband this morning, and today, as I sat at the side of the pool during the twenty minutes respite swimming lessons gives me (just think — I would have had thirty if I hadn’t been late!) my thoughts kept idly circling back to it.

The pool is such a perfect rectangle; I adore its shimmer, its precise angles, the way that, in order to experience it, we all — always — have to strip down. I was not the only parent who brought their offspring to the lesson late.  All around me, mothers were frantically spritzing their children with sunscreen before sending them off to the side of the pool.  All around me, mothers were conducting business, on their cell phones.

We’re all so earnest these days, aren’t we?  We work — at everything — so hard.

The Summer Fiction issue of the New Yorker was open on my lap — because  I tell myself that as a fiction writer it’s part of my job to know exactly who the 20 writers under 40 are this year that will blow me away.

I am no longer under forty.

I have probably not lived up to my potential.

I don’t necessarily mean I haven’t lived up to my potential professionally, though that might or might not be true.  I suppose what I mean is this:  Wisdom, and possibly the idea of happiness (or unhappiness, as the case may be), might in some part, however glancingly, hinge on the realization that none of us live up to our potential.

Recently, I read a blog post that began:  I’m a great mom, even though I don’t…

And just as recently, someone turned to me and said:  I’m a bad mom, but…

Both these statements, arbitrarily thrown into this topic as they might be, contain within them  the same thing. An ideal, and the recognition that we can’t live up to that ideal (because I can’t help but believe that any woman who says in print I’m a great mom harbors the secret fear that she’s actually not).  Ever.  We have none of us lived up to our potential.

But over there, in the swimming pool, in all those kids awkwardly churning around?

Pure potential.

How can parenthood not be complicated?  How can we not be ambivalent?  Seeing — and experiencing, second hand — our children’s potential gives us such an undeserved second chance.  But at the same time it reminds us each and every day, every single second, of what we — because we have to, that’s what growing up is — no longer have.

I was particularly struck by the following paragraph in that New York article:

More generous government policies, a sounder economy, a less pressured culture that values good rather than perfect kids—all of these would certainly make parents happier. But even under the most favorable circumstances, parenting is an extraordinary activity, in both senses of the word extra: beyond ordinary and especially ordinary. While children deepen your emotional life, they shrink your outer world to the size of a teacup, at least for a while. (“All joy and no fun,” as an old friend with two young kids likes to say.) Lori Leibovich, the executive editor of Babble and the anthologyMaybe Baby, a collection of 28 essays by writers debating whether to have children, says she was particularly struck by the female contributors who’d made the deliberate choice to remain childless. It enabled them to travel or live abroad for their work; to take physical risks; to, in the case of a novelist, inhabit her fictional characters without being pulled away by the demands of a real one. “There was a richness and texture to their work lives that was so, so enviable,” she says. (Leibovich has two children.)

The ability to travel, to live abroad, to take physical risks, to inhabit fictional characters — golly gee, those things sound fun, don’t they? Those things are fun. And guess what,  experiencing them doesn’t often remind us of our inabilities, our lacks, our failure to live up to our potential, because if they do, we just stop doing them.

Parenthood, on the other hand, is with us always.  We can’t decide to quit doing it, the way one might conceivably decide to quit travelling and settle down.

Maybe the next generation will  get it better than we do — that we waste far far too much of our time weighing entirely dissimilar things on a single scale.