Monday, February 28, 2011

New Hope

There was a plum tree in the front yard, heavy with silvery-purple fruit, and a haze of fuzzy bumblebees hovering around the lavender. Everything there had a deliberate storybook quality to it, including myself, I suppose. This was the very intentional direction I’d taken. Put myself in a different place, found a room in a sleepy vacation town’s suburb and waited to see what would happen.

It was summer. Still no teaching job lined up for the fall and no opportunities to sub, so I patched employment together with tutoring and taking classified ads for a newspaper whose office was in an old barn. That’s the thing about Pennsylvania. There’s regular country and Fancy Country. You know you’re in Fancy Country when the 7-11’s and car dealers are shaped like old barns, and the actual old barns have been repurposed into law firms and “shoppes.”

But I loved it there. Towns, not cities. That’s what I preferred in those days. You could walk from one end to the other, sit on a bench and have your coffee in the sun while the tourists streamed by in all-too-colorful scarves and crafty jewelry. The locals were either wealthy married/traditional or artsy eccentrics.

I was happily in the latter category, and in good company in that house. The woman we rented from was a former model with her own jewelry business. One roommate was bound for the Peace Corps in the fall. The other didn’t last very long after almost setting the place on fire one time too many. But we, the remaining three, fell into an easy orbit of intermittent support and friendly solitude. All three of us in flux, not quite settled into jobs or relationships, not quite sure what was coming next.

The roommate and I would hike sometimes, driving deeper into the country in search of trails less-traveled. Or we’d just drive, winding around the back country roads she knew, losing ourselves in conversation. More often I’d set off by myself, to hike or haunt the colorful streets of the tourist towns; to sit alone at a poorly-attended poetry slam, watch a wistful folk singer or a cringe-inducing one-man show about some dude’s path to enlightenment.

It was lonely, for sure. But the loneliness felt strangely okay. It was a welcome quiet. A retreat. I have no photographs from that summer, but when I think back on it I get a very distinct sense of just…leaves. Bright green ground-to-sky leaves upon leaves, with the golden sun pouring through.

Those Pennsylvania summers. You just swim through the humidity sometimes. But at night the air is heavy with seedy, sultry tiger lily pollen and sweet honeysuckle. The stone house stayed cool, especially on the back porch. We’d sit there together some evenings, sprawled on the wicker furniture to share the day’s exhilerations and frustrations; share our stories, insights, advice. And talk about sex. Of course.

And I remember thinking this is what I need. Women friends who understand, who think, who are strong and insecure, who live and feel. Men are lovely, but you don’t get that from them. They make you doubt yourself. You want their love, so you buy into their bullshit and blame yourself, when really all either of you need is space and freedom from the pressure to be each other’s everything. And I started feeling better. Like I could do this living-on-my-own thing after all.

There were no resolutions. But things were winding down. The Peace-Corps-bound roommate moved out. One boyfriend disappeared; an ex resurfaced. My summer jobs ended. And the owner of the house decided he wanted to move back in with his daughter in the fall. It was time for me to move on.

My sister had an extra room in her new Philadelphia apartment. It was mine if I wanted it. Did I want it?

It’s the city, I rationalized. More job opportunities. Better-attended poetry readings. And – let’s face it – more single men. I could have stayed in that town, found another room to rent, another quirky job, another orbit of like-minded women. But in the end, I decided my chances would be better in the city.

And so, I went. Traded the tiger lilies for bricks and concrete; the verdant peace for hipster cacophony. It would be a whole year before I’d make Philly my own and feel truly home there. What lay ahead was more of the same lonesome transition I’d begun in the small town, but faster-paced with some spectacular disappointments in store.

I never questioned my decision to leave the small town. I’d moved there that summer with the hopes that something would happen; that somehow my life would just start. Nothing happened after all. Then again, everything happened. I had my first taste of really living independently, without being tied to school or family or a boyfriend or even friends. And I brought that newfound independence to my new city, struggled and floundered and failed for a while and then…things got better. I was on my path.

Seven years later, I married Mr. Black in that same charming little town. I’d lost touch with my old housemates from that nascent summer, but they were there in spirit in the leaves and the flow of the river. Moving on again.

One of the old songs. I couldn't resist.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Cowboy Dan is Coming

So here’s a new exercise in geekery: Lately I’ve been watching the TV show Parenthood pretty much just for the Max scenes. Let’s face it – I’m practically waving a “Max” pennant when I watch that show. It’s just so oddly comforting to see glimmers of my real life on TV, and a kid like mine portrayed with frankness and empathy.

So comforting, in fact, that I can almost look past the Hollywood blondie-ness of the mom, or the fact that she can win back Max’s friend who dropped him by inviting the kid over for a therapist-supervised playdate (while she and the reluctant other mom have wine).

At least that’s better than Mary Steenburgen’s mom character in the original 1989 Parenthood. Now there’s a mother for you. She drifts through that whole movie, beatific smile on her face, barely ruffled by the chaos and confusion around her. She loves her kids, but you hardly see her actually interact with them.

Steve Martin’s the one who gets puked on. He’s the one who grapples with doubt, fear, helplessness, ambiguity about the joys of his own children, and downright disappointment in his troubled son. Give him a red dye job and some glasses and I am Steve Martin in that movie. And Cowboy Dan is coming. He’s coming.


My heart is a little on the broken side today. Like…teenage-first-unrequited-love broken. It’s making me want to listen to Suzanne Vega’s “Cracking” for the first time in 20+ years, that’s how broken. And, just like getting over that first teenage heartbreak, I’ll get over this too. I’ll develop a schema for it. Grow stronger and more savvy. Cynical.

He was just the nicest guy. Nice as could be. Empathetic, well-spoken, polite, willing to listen. Nothing like that preschool dad who yelled at me and my son on the playground two years ago. Nothing like the judgmental types you run into on parenting message boards. Just a nice, ordinary guy who’s worried about letting his son be friends with my son. He just kind of needs someone to reassure him, that’s all. He means well and I wish him only the best.

It was just a little surprising, is all. I was beginning to think I’d lost my ability to cry. I guess not.

Is this what Steve-Martin-in-Parenthood would do? Seems to me there ought to be a little more comic mayhem involved. Or comic ranting. Something. But this is real life. The leader of The Boy’s social skills group won’t be coming over to facilitate any playdates. And it won’t be like the movie, when Kevin saves the day at the Little League game and gains such confidence that he can later joke about being in therapy. Cowboy Dan? Might not be coming after all.

Still…it’s only first grade. Might as well pace ourselves and try to keep things in perspective.

These disappointing little episodes happen against a background of such joy. There are plenty of other friends in The Boy’s life, and a world of Legos and family trips and library books. School is going a lot more smoothly now. As far as I can tell, he’s blissfully unaware of the behind-the-scenes parenting nonsense that preoccupies us grown-ups so. Tomorrow we’ll work on our valentines and maybe go out for a big family Pre-Valentines-Day lunch. And so it goes.
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