the measure of success

My early life was bent on success. Born as the eldest of a generation and upheld as the example of all things fine, I led cousins in values and chewing gum expeditions and living room performances, until the age of 7, when life removed us from our family seat on the Atlantic, and took us west, alone, to the Rocky Mountains, where the limitations of love forced creativity, and led me to fashion my own entourage out of neighborhood clubs and backyard variety shows, festivals and fundraisers, until the wind beneath my wings crashed at the age of 14 upon the brutal death of the Queen, my paternal grandmother, Lila.

I dabbled then in darkness, and folly, for a long, long time, until I found myself in love, truly in love, of my own volition, at the age of 22. And as with each of the beaus who came before, I screened this possible partner with my youngest siblings–in his ability to forgo his pursuit of me in attention to them–with humor and kindness. He passed. With flying colors. His predecessor was also a child-loving man, but when it came to considering our own offspring, we argued, at great lengths, upon the manner of discipline and permission and authenticity which ultimately led to the dissolution of this relationship or should have; and either way, it ended badly, and prepared the way for the right man to become the father of my legacy.

DSC02294Sons. I always imagined a daughter. My Lila. But my mother warned that daughters would demand too much drama for no-nonsense me. So sons it was. Two. Lloyd and Aidan. Old Grey-One and Fiery One. And beneath the gift of these children, my trajectory of success took its final dive as it collapsed into diapers and nursing and playdates and carpooling.

The Old Grey-One is now at the tail end of his teenage years, but it was his approach of adolescence when I set out to rediscover my own prowess–desperate to call something mine. There were many forays that led to deadening ends, until I found my treasure buried right beneath me, in my words, first begun when I was at the tail end of my own teens, destructive as they were.

Several blogs and dozens of inner (and outer) journeys later, I find myself scrambling up the steep cliff of completing a work of memoir. A quiet task. Silent really. Lonely. Unknown. Unaccounted for. With no guarantee, of anything, particularly–success.

And yet, successful is how I feel this Autumn though the harvest belongs to my son–as I release him with his backpack and his passport, into the security line for a flight to Central America; and watch as he snakes his way toward the narrow passage which delivers his life–to him.

 

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the canyon

broken_heart1There is so much time–a grand canyon of time–between the intimacy of mothering and the emptying of the nest. And the time in between is something altogether out of time. Only you don’t realize this until you find yourself on the other side. Which is where I am now.

It’s a bit like marriage. Maybe a lot like marriage. Only the gap is swifter then. Like in the time between the birth of your first child and your first getaway. Where you discover that there is nothing. Left. Where there once. Was. Everything.

It was his birthday. I dug out the blue cardboard box with the silver stars and found a melted nine candle and melted one candle and put them together to create the impossible number: 19.

Going through the motions.

The night before was even harder. We sat on his bed and read the book that we read every year on the kids’ birthdays: “On the day you were born…”

He was born on a rainy Tuesday. Waited forever for him to come. Agonized through years of negative pregnancy tests. Two miscarriages. An emergency c-section. And once he was in my arms, I never let him ago.

Until, of course, it was time.

First in little ways. Then in small ways. Next in big ways. And finally, the day we took our baby to an institution 3 hours away and left him to live with strangers.

College.

9 months later, he returned home to us. Loving us once more.
Only I was miles away.

Turnstile

revolving-door-1
We sent our very independent and surly 18 year old off to college last August, and he returned this past May, thrilled to be home.

We were taken aback by this deep appreciation for our small world given his desperation to escape it a year earlier, and we mistook this as a leap in maturity rather than a deep disappointment in his experience at college and in himself there.

His new plan is to take a semester’s leave and to volunteer in his field (International and Community Development) to help bring the excrutiating static classroom experience to life; and to shed light on how to move through with passion and meaning and integrity.

With this aim, he has been working with a non-profit organization in Central America to find a good fit. They have decided on a women’s artisan cooperative in Costa Rica in the same town that he visited with his Junior High class in what seems like another lifetime ago.

He leaves in two weeks.
He leaves.
He.

As parents, we’re not sure about our role; which has been increasingly true for a least a couple of years now.

I’m beginning to understanding that parenting, all of it, is not so much a nest as it is a reverse toll booth or a turnstile or one of those revolving doors through which others move from the outside to the inside to the outside again.

In this analogy, I find it important to distinguish the role from myself. This distinction seems to have growing relevance as our children become adults.

I want to communicate support and encouragement without robbing initiative and autonomy, and that is a tall order.

Breath has become one of my greatest tools. And silence. And listening.

(But just in case, click here for his upcoming trip. Pass it a long if you’re so inclined.
Just don’t tell him that I asked.)

On Being Mom, by Anna Quindlen

The pensive infant with the swipe of dark bangs and the blackbutton eyes of a Raggedy Andy doll. The placid baby with the yellow ringlets and the high piping voice. The sturdy toddler with the lower lip that curled into an apostrophe above her chin. ALL MY BABIES are gone now.

I say this not in sorrow but in disbelief. I take great satisfaction in what I have today: three almost-adults, two taller than I am, one closing in fast. Three people who read the same books I do and have learned not to be afraid of disagreeing with me in their opinion of them, who sometimes tell vulgar jokes that make me laugh until I choke and cry, who need razor blades and shower gel and privacy, who want to keep their doors closed more than I like.

Who, miraculously, go to the bathroom, zip up their jackets and move food from plate to mouth all by themselves. Like the trick soap I bought for the bathroom with a rubber ducky at its center, the baby is buried deep within each, barely discernible except through the unreliable haze of the past.

Everything in all the books I once pored over is finished for me now. Penelope Leach., T. Berry Brazelton., Dr. Spock. The ones on sibling rivalry and sleeping through the night and early-childhood education, all grown obsolete.

Along with Goodnight Moon and Where the Wild Things Are, they are battered, spotted, well used. But I suspect that if you flipped the pages dust would rise like memories.

What those books taught me, finally, and what the women on the playground taught me, and the well-meaning relations — what they taught me was that they couldn’t really teach me very much at all. Raising children is presented at first as a true-false test, then becomes multiple choice, until finally, far along, you realize that it is an endless essay. No one knows anything. One child responds well to positive reinforcement, another can be managed only with a stern voice and a timeout. One boy is toilet trained at 3, his brother at 2.

When my first child was born, parents were told to put baby to bed on his belly so that he would not choke on his own spit-up. By the time my last arrived, babies were put down on their backs because of research on sudden infant death syndrome. To a new parent this ever-shifting certainty is terrifying, and then soothing.

Eventually you must learn to trust yourself. Eventually the research will follow.

I remember 15 years ago poring over one of Dr. Brazelton’s wonderful books on child development, in which he describes three different sorts of infants: average, quiet, and active. I was looking for a sub-quiet codicil for an 18-month-old who did not walk. Was there something wrong with his fat little legs? Was there something wrong with his tiny little mind? Was he developmentally delayed, physically challenged? Was I insane? Last year he went to China. Next year he goes to college. He can talk just fine. He can walk,too.

Every part of raising children is humbling, too. Believe me, mistakes were made. They have all been enshrined in the Remember-When-Mom-Did Hall of Fame. The outbursts, the temper tantrums, the bad language, mine, not theirs. The times the baby fell off the bed. The times I arrived late for preschool pickup. The nightmare sleepover. The horrible summer camp. The day when the youngest came barreling out of the classroom with a 98 on her geography test, and I responded, What did you get wrong? (She insisted I include that.) The time I ordered food at the McDonald’s drive-through speaker and then drove away without picking it up from the window. (They all insisted I include that.) I did not allow them to watch the Simpsons for the first two seasons.

What was I thinking?

But the biggest mistake I made is the one that most of us make while doing this. I did not live in the moment enough. This is particularly clear now that the moment is gone, captured only in photographs. There is one picture of the three of them sitting in the grass on a quilt in the shadow of the swing set on a summer day, ages 6, 4 and 1. And I wish I could remember what we ate, and what we talked about, and how they sounded, and how they looked when they slept that night. I wish I had not been in such a hurry to get on to the next thing: dinner, bath, book, bed. I wish I had treasured the doing a little more and the getting it done a little less.

Even today I’m not sure what worked and what didn’t, what was me and what was simply life. When they were very small, I suppose I thought someday they would become who they were because of what I’d done. Now I suspect they simply grew into their true selves because they demanded in a thousand ways that I back off and let them be.

The books said to be relaxed and I was often tense, matter-of-fact and I was sometimes over the top. And look how it all turned out. I wound up with the three people I like best in the world, who have done more than anyone to excavate my essential humanity. That’s what the books never told me. I was bound and determined to learn from the experts.

It just took me a while to figure out who the experts were.

(On Being Mom, by Anna Quindlen)

33

Round Two

Thirteen is… training-wheels adolescence. Fourteen is hardcore, biker adolescence.
~Anne Lamott

Just before the storm (photo: Kelly Salasin)
Almost 14~Just before the storm
(photo: Kelly Salasin)

Parenting a teenager is a lot like New England Weather… Everything is going along nicely… the sky is clear, the birds are singing, the world is right-side up, and then BANG! A storm rolls in. Thunder. Lightning.

Suddenly you’re without power.

Maybe all your connections are zapped.

“Where did that come from!” someone says.

And you say something like: “Polar Vortex.”

Or in our case, “FOURTEEN!”

We’ve arrived. Just yesterday. And as if on cue, the thunder rolled in, the lightning struck, and I was ready to quit. Give up. Move out.

MOTHERHOOD SUCKS.

It took all the maturity and self-restraint cultivated over the past 50 years not to put the power back in my hands. To let my heart lie there, trampled upon, without striking back.

And it took all the self-compassion cultivated since becoming someone’s mother, to walk away, to lick my own wounds, without taking any of it too personally.

There is a scene from a favorite movie of mine: Spanglish. With Adam Sandler. Do you know it? Remember what he says when he finds out that his wife has betrayed him? Something about hearing the universe crack…

My universe, as a mother, cracked twice this week. Once with each of my offspring. And I have to admit that I could barely summon much affection for either of them afterward.

Maybe they deserve it. Maybe I’m being melodramatic. Maybe THIS is parenthood. Or maybe this crack is an opportunity for something new.

I’m on the lookout for what that is. For how it will shape me. And reshape our lives together.

But right now?

I want to move out…
timthumb

Beloved

She felt motherhood slipping away, like an ice cap, slowly melting over time, and then suddenly breaking apart, drifting further and further…

Knuffle-Bunny-300x226Alone, at a children’s book museum, she released silent tears, as she read Knuffle Bunny Free to herself.

She had read the first in this series: Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale to her youngest when he was just a boy. Then there was Knuffle Bunny Too: A Case of Mistaken Identity ; and finally: Knuffle Bunny Free: An Unexpected Diversion–where the beloved Knuffle Bunny is lost yet again, and not grieved so much, as released.

Just this week her youngest son found his own lovey–a penguin–lost amidst the covers of his bed. He guessed he had been there for weeks. Without noticing. Without crying for help. Without the imperative of finding his Pengie.

Her older son was off to college and his kitty, Slimmy, once a treasured companion, now sat on a bookshelf, beside cologne and cds, in a vacant room.

Her own puppy, Mine, was similarly stowed, without the daily attention its weathered body received all those years ago.

And then she wondered, what becomes of Beloveds like these, when WE ourselves are gone?