A Mental Kick in the Pants

While looking at girls underwear at Target on Wednesday I saw something that stopped me in the aisle. A woman was walking with an older woman.  A mother and daughter it appeared. They were doing laps on the perimeter of the store, a favorite pastime for many people of older age: no obstacles for slower reflexes to work around. No issues with temperature and humidity. A seasonless, safe space to get legs moving. I’ve seen this often before, and I must say I’ve never thought it looked fun. But on this day, something was different. The two women were holding hands.

They walked and talked. And held hands all the way around. I watched for them as they lapped me in my hunt for girls soccer shorts, and I thought “That’s just about the sweetest thing I’ve seen all week.” They both seemed calm and content. The younger woman (fifties, maybe) didn’t seem anxious to leave and get on with the good part of her day; the older woman (70s or 80s) seemed glad, but not desperate, for her company. Maybe the younger woman held hands to offer balance to the older, maybe it was just a tangible form of connection, of expressing “I want to be here with you.” In either case, it was lovely. And I stopped and stood and watched for a long moment. It was instant, the smack-in-the-face beauty of the image. I wanted to take a picture, but that seemed weird. So I took one mentally and locked it away for safe keeping.

I happened to watch an AARP video on Facebook today – a friend had linked to it and it sparked my interest. When I clicked and watched, it sparked more: inspiration about living life until it’s gone. About the value of age, the worth of older people in our society, the importance of connection.

I fear old age, to be honest. Of becoming irrelevant to people, of the breakdown of my body and mind, of watching life go by without being able to participate in any meaningful way. But this video reminded me that “old” is more about your mindset. The body and mind might slow, but we can do some things to lessen those effects: eat well, stay limber, learn new things, and most of all, decide to remain in the mix. A 75-year-old man named George in the video summed it up: “When people start stopping, that’s when they start getting old.” I want to keep going. Even if it has to be in the climate controlled, sidewalk-crack-free aisles of Target. And if someone will love me enough to hold my hand while I’m going slowly, so much the better.

So much.

That daughter, in her calm, relaxed “I’m totally here” way was loving the heck out of the older woman.

Oh, that I would do that for someone, and that someone would do that for me someday.

Note-to-self taken. I’m keeping that image close to heart, and I’m putting George’s quote on a sticky note in my kitchen. A reminder to never start stopping; a kick in the pants to keep on going.

I need a kick in the mental pants sometimes.

 

The AARP video, for your entertainment and inspiration:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lYdNjrUs4NM

Bare Bones

As soon as I read the fifth page of All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, I knew I was in for a treat. When I described to my husband my stolen moments of snatching a few pages at a time, I said it was like eating candy. One of those Christopher Elbow chocolates with delicate, golden filigree on top and creamy ganache in the middle. Something sweet that you want to eat slowly – to savor; not the sugar-spike of a Jolly Rancher. It was delicious to consume Doerr’s beautifully crafted words. I even said some aloud, just to enjoy the sound. Let the syllables roll off my tongue and hit the air with a crackle.

“The eggs taste like clouds. Like spun gold… ‘How about peaches, dear?’ murmurs Madame Manec, and Marie-Laure can hear a can opening, juice slopping into a bowl. Seconds later, she’s eating wedges of wet sunlight.”

It left me full-up with the glory of language and it’s ability to convey feeling, but also with an empty longing. I got in the shower one morning, after ingesting a particularly lovely turn of phrase, with a sentence rolling through my head: I want to write something heartbreakingly beautiful. It repeated itself over and over. An ache of creativity hoping to escape. It was a rather selfish desire, I will fully admit, but one with which most writers can relate. When you love words – even the sounds of letters all by themselves – putting them together in new and fascinating ways to describe emotions as old as time, with which every single human can relate, feels like electricity in your veins. Not so much that it kills you, but enough to deliver a jolt and make you feel supremely alive.

When you get down to the bare bones of writing, that’s the joy. Take away the personal therapy it can provide, the (generally tiny amount of) money you can make from it, the blessing it can be to others (where would I be without Anne Lamott and Josh Ritter), and the conveyance of information, and a writer is left with words. The pure pleasure of consonants and vowels, nouns and adjectives, even helping verbs. And the desire from somewhere inside to get them outside. Like a child playing in a sandbox, with the tactile amusement of wet sand and dry – the scooping and pouring and molding of it – is a writer, given ten minutes and a writing prompt.

I never understand writers who say they hate to write. Who say they like the outcome, but not the actual process of writing. I (judmentally) think they aren’t really writers. They might type words onto a screen, make lots of money; their whole lives might revolve around the act of writing. But it’s hard for me to give them that title. It feels wrong.

Sometimes it’s a slog. Sometimes it’s full-on work – not playing in a sandbox at all. But even the work is gratifying. Like piecing together a puzzle. And the frustration of not knowing where the pieces go is part of the beauty of eventually figuring it out. Sometimes my five year old will give an exasperated “Ughhhhhhh” when she’s stuck on her 48 piece butterfly floor puzzle. But she will eventually return to it. Out of love for puzzles. The mixture of challenge and play. The satisfaction of two pieces sliding in next to each other just so. And then she smiles. And says “I did it!” And she did.

So I want to write something heartbreakingly beautiful. I’m sticking to that selfish, word-loving phrase. And when I do, I’ll say “I did it!” And smile. All the words that ever were are my sandbox, and it’s just about time to play.

And He Went. And I Let Him.

I let my son walk out the door this morning into potential heartbreak.

I wanted to keep him home. Hold him close. Shield him from hurt and hard choices. But I didn’t. I let him get into the car and drive off to meet his fate.

“School drama,” as he put it to another parent overhearing his dilemma, had erupted. Drama indeed. He came home yesterday with worry, and it followed him to bed. It woke with me in the night and said hello as soon as I cracked an eye this morning. A dull, gray cloud hanging above our house.

We talked it over. He called a friend to clarify a misunderstanding. He worked it through with Marc and then again with me. “I wish I had taken notes about everything so I knew what to say tomorrow” he fretted as I tucked him in. I told him the truth was all he needed to remember. All he could offer.

We dealt with the reality of the situation, not trying to escape the uncomfortable yuck he would face today: people will be mad; their mistakes aren’t on you; yours are; the number of people in the world who love you is greater than those who will be upset. As he wisely said the other night “It’s all about perspective.” Yes, buddy, it is. If my 11 year old can carry that through his day, I will be happily astounded.

The weight of carrying your child’s hurt like a trunk full of bricks on your back is…heavy. I could say I didn’t sign up for this when I became a parent, but that would be a cop-out lie. This is exactly the sort of thing a mother agrees to take on when she decides to give birth to or adopt human beings. To attempt to guide these small people through the maze of living. To help them discover the wonders present. To walk with them through the various levels of heartache. To be on their team when no one else will pass them the ball.

But it’s harder than I could imagine. Letting go enough to let them feel some pain, to learn from their own mistakes, to allow risk enough for them to feel the glory of their own triumphs. This is the work of restraint. Of not meddling. Of letting our children become.

There’s a song on Foy Vance’s Live at Bangor Abbey album (also his Joy of Nothing album, but I prefer the live, alive version) that has pointed me toward a phrase I’d like to employ in my life. For my whole life. It seems to be about the breakup of his marriage. An anthem of survival – something we could all use. It busts the album open with guitar, violin and drums, and this humble but matter-of-fact declaration:

Well I tried to do what I felt was right
And I know I fucked it up sometimes.
But at least my heart was open.

That last line is the title, and the point of the song. The astute reminder of how I’d like face my days. As well as what I hope for Luke.

Knowing that my son faced something hard, Mama Bear wanted to take over – protect and defend. Give a lecture to the entire 5th grade class. Overreact and pull him from school and wrap him up in my love to ward off all pain, therefore ruining his chances to grow at all.

But the better and harder reaction is letting my heart stay open. Calming down, doing what seems right, and avoiding building a protective wall, for me or my kids.

Luke didn’t balk about leaving this morning. He seemed ready to face the day.

His heart seemed fully open.

I want to guard that tender little center of emotion and character, but my job as Mom is changing. Mama bears have to let their cubs try to survive at some point – maybe when they’re the equivalent of 11? I had to let him go try. To do what he felt was right, perhaps mess it all up, and hope he retained his open, loving, forgiving heart.

And he went.

And I let him.

Deep breaths. Nervous anticipation for school pick-up. A propped open heart. These are my companions today.

Thank you, Foy Vance, for the beacon in the darkness. It’s helping.