Here are a few of my essay’s written for the Chilmark Writing Workshop, Writing From the Heart Blog:
Summer Camp – October 2008
I never went to summer camp. When I was a kid, our “enrichment” program included running around, riding bikes, playing baseball, getting filthy, dancing through a sprinkler, and waiting for the Good Humor man. Every summer, my best friend spent two weeks at 4-H Camp. That was a big deal and considered quite adventurous. She loved it, and shared stories of canoeing, hiking and all sorts of mischievous deeds. And boys.
My son went to day camp. We tried for several summers to give him an outlet for fun and adventure. He didn’t quite fit in with the Eddie Bauer crowd. When he was about six, we sent him to an insect program at the local Audubon society. I pictured him traipsing through the forest, collecting all sorts of interesting creatures. They made bugs out of paper plates, and went on a guided hike where he was reprimanded for veering off to catch a dragonfly or butterfly or some such thing. I hope that one day he will find his summer niche, with friends that appreciate him.
What I crave is a summer camp for slightly over-the-hill, down-to-earth mothers who need some adult conversation and a dollop of peace and quiet. A little sleep wouldn’t hurt either. A couple of good books and some uninterrupted writing would be nirvana.
At my summer camp, we’d all have private little cabins with baths – I did the dorm room thing at eighteen and wasn’t particularly fond of it then; a little fridge and a microwave for those late night snacks. I picture the cabins as Spartan and sunny, but sparkling clean, with soothing whitewashed walls, and a rhythmic ceiling fan twirling our cares away. With a squishy bed, comfy chair, and an ottoman, what else does one woman need?
I dream of lake or ocean views, or perhaps a babbling mountain stream; a little screened porch to enjoy the crisp night air, and a gathering room for girl talk and unabashed laughter, with long conversations that do not revolve around child rearing, crafts, or cooking. Speaking of food, nothing fancy, just home cooked by someone other than me, served with a smile, and cleaned up afterward.
And to this summer camp, I invite you, my Writing From the Heart comrades.
Tiny Murders – January 2008
I look at my son, a fourth grader, and feel like he’s disappearing. Too much pressure and not a moment of unstructured time. I
suppose that I am ancient among these young mothers whose children are destined for Harvard, but really, must we steal away their childhoods to compete in the global market?
I sat in the same school that my son now attends. Except. We spent first through fifth grade in one school. Our kids attend three schools by fifth grade. Except. We went outdoors for two recesses and a before-school romp. These kids receive twenty minutes of recess a day, when it is not too cold, windy, snowy, or damp, and if they complete their daily work. They are corralled inside the building each morning to begin their morning work, before the teacher enters the classroom or the morning bell rings out.
Gone are the impromptu games of softball on a lovely spring day. Gone are the outdoor science walks. Gone are the days when children were given adequate time to master new skills and concepts.
I admit that my son is a challenging child. Active, impulsive, strong-willed, but one could always say he was a happy child. Gleeful. Now he is angry. He has become increasing unhappy each year since first grade. I’m told that this is normal for a kid like him. But my gut tells me that elementary school shouldn’t be so difficult.
Book reports are no longer an essay describing a much-loved book, but rather a family project. My favorite? The tri-fold travel brochure.What with the never-ending mastery tests and mastery test practice exams, test reviews that rival a college syllabus, volumes of curriculum material they must digest at warp speed, is it any wonder some kids snap? Are they smarter than we were? Probably. Happier? Definitely not. I have a friend whose nine-year-old son started making frequent trips to the bathroom as mental health breaks.
It reminds me of a conversation at my high school reunion. I sat chatting with an old friend and her husband, an okay but somewhat pretentious guy. He prattled on about how he had cleverly managed his government career to retire by 50, only to return as a highly paid private consultant. Their brilliant daughter, was no doubt headed to an ivy-league college, and the teenage son, a bit of a wanderer but destined to make his first million by 20. The husband said this, it seemed, to justify his son not taking a conservatively appropriate path. So I asked him, “Yes, but will he be happy?” His wife winced.
At a recent school meeting, they asked what I want. I said, “I want my son back.” These kids need a childhood. The bare feet in the grass, sports for the fun of it, lazy Sunday afternoons, empty backpack kind of childhood. Throw out the homework journals, get rid of the incessant assessments, read a book for fun, play a game of kickball, and leave the kids alone.
The First Time – November 2009
The first time your child stumbles, it’s a physical mishap; he trips, plops to the floor, and cuts his lip. Blood and tears are soon resolved with hugs and a popsicle.
The first time your child is critiqued, is during preschool. The teacher tells you that his cute little drawings are “immature” for his age, and you wonder what is wrong with this woman.
The first time you see your child struggle, it’s kindergarten. He’s beating to his own drum, already a round peg, that will never quite fit into a square-peg world.
The first time you get those “looks” from the perfect mothers, all absorbed in their tidy, constrained little lives, you become angry at yourself for feeling less.
The first time you lose a friend because your child finds it nearly impossible to navigate himself in the expected fashion, you mourn. And then you realize that your true friends will show their integrity by sticking around.
The first time the school does irreparable harm to your child, you find yourself consumed with rage, barely able to function, yet forced to contain that anger if only for your child’s sake.
The first time you don’t quite manage to control your rage, you realize, with just a little bit of glee, that it’s probably a good idea that they learn you’re not one to piss off.
But, you also remember those first firsts - the first time that your son spoke, or walked or smiled, or danced, and you remember how the world felt perfect.
The first time your son is excited to see you, or says, “I love you dearly,” or “You’re the best Mom,” or “You’re so adorable,” you find yourself filled with a love that mere words cannot do justice.
And the first time your son rides a bike, does a full body flip, masters a Pogo stick, is a perfect gentleman during First Holy Communion, earns a Karate Green Belt, cares for a physically disabled friend, asks an enormously profound question, or says “I love you,” even though he’s eleven, and even though someone is watching, you fill with a pride that causes a mother lump in your throat.
The first time you realize that time is passing too quickly, and you’ve let the outside world taint your family, that, that, fills you with a sickening remorse and sadness.
And so you plod through the first time of every day, as you grieve with each painful first, breathe through the difficult firsts, laugh at each joyful first, and shine with each heartfelt first.
Here is the conversation we never had… August 2008
We never said goodbye.
I knew you were in a tough place. The last conversation we had – a phone call separated by a thousand miles – I knew. But as usual, we shared our woes and made each other laugh. And I wrote myself a note. Call B. There you were. Right there, your name in front of me on a scrap of paper, when that late night call came. My immediate thought – “If I had called, would it have made a difference? Maybe you tried to call me, maybe my phone was busy…”
I was shocked but not surprised. You told me this is how it would end. I told you I wanted to grow old together, two forever friends sitting on a porch, laughing ourselves silly. You told me you had no intention of growing old.
You did this before, but you always came back to us. And so, I wove myself into a comfy cocoon of denial. You did it exactly as you told me you would. In one moment, you were gone.
I want to call you on the phone. I want to talk to the one person in this world who never thought I was odd. I want to bitch and swear and laugh together. I want to hear you say, “Hey, it’s me.” I want to talk about my boy. I want to hear your voice.
You never said goodbye.
If tomorrow were my last day on earth… January 2009
So much for finishing the novel. Here’s what I would not do. No housework. No thinking I should lose some weight. No wearing of uncomfortable clothes. No bitching at my husband, no reprimanding my son. No e-mail. Not one more load of laundry, or one more dish to wash. Let them sit there.
I’m thinking of the movie, The Ultimate Gift, where the little girl asks for “a perfect day.” That’s what I want. A perfect day. Sunny, warm, not too hot, maybe about seventy-eight degrees, a light breeze. I’d call my best friends, and have a talk with my mom. Then I’d go to a private beach with my husband and son, set up a picnic, eat food high in cholesterol, maybe a nice, juicy burger – no worry about organic meat – well maybe just for my son. And salty snack food, creamy ice cream, chocolate. Oooh, a coke. Haven’t had one of those in years. It’s my last day, so the fates would let me eat whatever I want and feel just fine.
We’d walk along the beach, talking and holding hands. My son would have a long conversation with us, he’d be happy and content, as would we. There would be lots of laughter, hugs, and kisses. And more hugs and kisses. At night, we’d snuggle in bed together and watch a movie. I’d caress my son’s face and hair, smell him. Hug my husband some more. I’d tell him that he was a great husband, that I have no regrets other than leaving him too soon. I would tell them both I love them. A lot. Would I be able to give my little guy enough “I love you’s” to last his lifetime? I would write him a last entry in his journal. I would be sad to be leaving them.
Feet – February 2009
I’m not a foot person. I find feet to be extremely functional, sore when cranky, and requiring extreme amounts of lotion to remain comfortable.
I’m not a foot person. Long toenails gross me out. Smelly feet, the same. Maybe this is because I was born with six toes on one foot. The doctor removed the little one, and it was supposed to shrink to “normal.” It didn’t. My feet were always a little different, and I suppose this is analogous to my life experience.
And then my son was born with these adorable, tiny feet. Soft, rounded and pink, ten perfect little toes. Feet that never stopped moving.
Now those perfect little feet are eleven. The baby feet are gone. The boy feet are disappearing. Climbing feet, karate feet, lean, muscular feet, planted firmly on the ground. I see the man feet that will someday grace my floors. Feet than still never stop moving.
Fat – March 2009
I’m short. This alone, does not bother me. Sometimes, my short stature is actually an asset. My son is also small. I know this is difficult for a boy. At eleven, he is at an age when these things matter. Kids call him names. At one point, I had to tell him that yes, he is a bit on the short side and he might as well accept it. But I also pointed out that much of the world is, in my opinion, abnormally tall.
I talk about height, because height and weight often go together. On me, those extra pounds show up like fingerprints on a sun-lit window. Fortunately, for my son, he’s compact and muscular, with chiseled shoulders and a rock-hard six-pack. I wish I had his physique.
I remember the pain of shopping in the “chubbet” section of Sears. What masochistic son-of-a-bitch came up with that term? I suffered through this humiliation while growing up in a family of extremely petite women.
But when I look back at my high school pictures, I think to myself, “What the hell was I worried about?” Not thin by any means, but certainly not fat. I was healthy, energetic, sexual and happy.
Why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we worship a Hollywood standard that any sane person would realize is unattainable? And when these women reach their late 40’s, they don a neck that looks like Tom the Turkey, and an upper lip that has you wondering, “What happened to their face? Was it dental work?” All this, in an attempt to attain some false sense of youth and beauty.
I’d still like to lose 10 pounds. But now, rather than focus on vanity, I’m worried about cholesterol and glucose and whatever else I can obsess over, as I watch television commercials featuring every illness known to man, selling drugs that have more side effects than cocaine, while creating pharmaceutical companies fat with cash.
Emergency Room – April 2009
By the time we reached the emergency room parking lot, he was already dead. The memory of my parents’ arrival is seared into my brain. I felt as if my body was detached from my being, the night surreal, the moment unending. Inside the emergency room, my brother lay dead on a gurney, his body bruised and bloodied. The men in our family convinced my mother and I not to go inside, saying that it would be too painful to see him that way. As if, seeing his waxy body at the funeral home was easy?
I did not go the second time. The afternoon when my father was the dead one. I watched him die before my eyes, and I couldn’t bear another trip to the emergency room. I stayed with my infant son, as my mother and husband followed the ambulance. There is no easy way.
Making Out – February 2008
I remember making out. We were 16. My boyfriend’s blue Bonneville with bench seats, long and wide. I could change the radio station with my feet. An AM radio and steamed windows. He smelled of Brut or British Sterling, a dab of WindSong on my neck. Mouths hinting of spearmint or peppermint, hungry young mouths.
We had not yet made love. Would not for some time. It wasn’t that we didn’t think about it. In fact, we barely thought of anything else – at home, in school, during church. But it was a different time. We were not ready. Or I wasn’t ready. And so we discovered love slowly, sensually, deliciously. Hours of lips, and cheeks, and necks, hands exploring, bodies melting. The all consuming thrill of first love.
This was before real life took over. Jobs, and stress, and families; the mortgage, and laundry, and we have to get to sleep or we’ll be dragging tomorrow. Before a boy, afraid of bad dreams and darkness and his own bed.
Making out when all of life’s possibilities were before us. When each kiss, and lick and murmur could be savored and enjoyed. When the only pressing issue was a curfew or the inquiring town cop.
Making out whenever and wherever we could steal away. His kisses lingering as I drifted to sleep in my parents’ house. Missing his arms around mine, feeling the imprint of his hand on my back. Waiting for another moment together.
Ah, but now. How could we settle for an evening of such innocent bliss? When we barely have a moment alone, barely have time for a quick peck on the lips, rarely holding hands, or dancing, long walks or engaging talks.
To miss each other. It’s sad.
If My Soul Went to College – June 2009
In college, my soul would gravitate toward topics I’ve studied for decades, but have yet to master.
Calm 101 - Learn to remain calm amidst chaos.
Deep Breathing 105 - Breathing exercises, and the key to implementation during crisis.
Releasing Tension 213 - Feel young again without those pesky muscle aches.
Special Topics 300 - An independent study in:
Life affirmation - We do our best and move on.
Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda - An exercise in releasing regret.
Trusting Your Inner Voice - You really do know what is best. Learn how to listen to that voice.
Shunning Your Inner Critic - It’s not your fault. Really.
Here’s Why I never Told You – June 2008
Here’s why I never told you how painful it was when our friendship took a hiatus. I am not sure exactly how it happened, but it felt like a dagger to my soul.
I never told you that I couldn’t handle your distance. I know that you were going through a difficult time, but unfortunately, timing was not our friend. I was plummeting into a very dark place. I couldn’t be the one to reach out. I could not call. I wanted to reach for that phone, to hear your voice, to ask for help. I was spiraling down a drain of despair, while you were circling your own. And then time passed, and the sadness turned to anger, and then back to an immeasurable depth of sadness.
Here’s why I never told you what I was going through. I couldn’t. I could not speak of it. And then time went on and when I did reach out to you, you were so cold. It was like reopening that wound all over again.
I never told you that seeing you at his wake was like a spiritual healing. To feel your arms around me, to know that we still loved each other. To realize that life is too short.
Here’s why I never told you how much I loved you and how much I hurt when you were gone. I felt you might not understand the depth of my feelings, we are so different you and I, and yet still connected by a history, by a genuine liking, by a friendship that passed the test of time; back when we felt strong and invincible, when we still thought we could control this life of ours.
So now I will tell you. You are so very important to me. To go through this life with an old friend, it makes the getting out of bed easier, the painful times more tolerable, the good times richer. To share a laugh with someone who remembers when - it feels safe, it feels like going home.
Driving Lessons - April 2010
I was sixteen and we were smitten. You taught me to drive in your big ol’ blue Bonneville, showing me how to navigate by keeping the center of the hood lined up on the right side of the road. We traveled at night through the back roads of our Podunk town, as you’d snuggle up close, whispering instructions, your hands hot on my body. We giggled and drove, and perhaps that is why I can now drive as my son pummels my brain with three-thousand questions.
I took driver’s education in school, but that did not compare to those nightly driving lessons. On the first outing with my father, he was quite impressed with my driving skills. What would he have said, had he been privy to those late night lessons given with your gentle guidance and tender kisses?
Too bad there isn’t one single lesson for broken hearts, soured marriages, or friendships gone awry. We lack a go-to manual, when your world is spinning out of control amidst chaos.
And parenting. There’s a book for potty training your child. Another will give answers to common childhood illnesses. A book for the spirited child, the indigo child, the explosive child. There’s books on OCD, ADHD, and every other diagnostic acronym we place on our children. But no one can tell you how to handle the surfacing despair and rage, when your child is ostracized. Or how to really answer your son when he asks you why he’s different, or how to keep your wits about you as he acts out from anger and sorrow.
There isn’t an answer to the plethora of worries that keep a mother awake into the wee hours… “Will my beautiful son find his place in this world?” Will his heart mend? Will he find someone to truly care for him?” There are no directions for a mother’s self-doubt.
We need lessons in tolerance, empathy, and kindness. We need connectedness that isn’t wired. We need room for differences, that doesn’t require a diagnosis. We need driving lessons for the heart.