Friday, June 22, 2012

Last Day

Even on this cold, rainy Seattle June day, the giddy joy of summer was ringing through the hallways of The Boy’s elementary school this morning. As Little Grrl and I made the rounds handing out end-of-the-year teacher gifts, every student, teacher, and parent we crossed paths with had that “visions of sugarplums” look in their eyes.

“Last day of school!” I called out happily to a first grade girl as we passed in the hallway.

“But not the last day of school ever,” she added with a knowing smile.

True enough. Many more last days of school lay ahead for all of us – the last day of elementary school when we move on to lockers and gym uniforms; the last day of high school when the first rustlings of nest-leaving begin; the last day of college, turning in your last paper and your campus-issued phone.

But for me, there won’t be another last day quite like this one.

Little Grrl and I headed across the empty schoolyard in the rain. I’d planned to walk to one of the many neighborhood coffeehouses, but a sudden wave of nostalgia washed over me.

“Want to go to Irwin’s?” I asked.

Our old stomping ground. Of course she did.

We haven’t been there in a very long time, maybe not since The Boy changed schools. But that first year in kindergarten, when Little Grrl only had preschool two mornings a week and we’d drive past Irwin’s on our way home from dropping The Boy off at school every morning, we were regulars. It was just what we needed in those days.

Some coffeehouses are sleek and austere, all dark shades and sophistication. Irwin’s is of the crunchy-cozy variety. Sunny windows, butter-yellow walls, and creaky furniture; lattes in painted mugs and big, lopsided, healthy-looking baked goods. It’s not as toy-intensive as the more intentional child-friendly coffeehouses in town, but there’s a comfy little nook with plastic dinosaurs and a basket of well-worn board books. Laid back hipsters, stroller moms, aging hippies, and work-from-home laptoppers share the space peacefully, without attitude or raised eyebrows.

It used to be the perfect place to unwind after the morning rush to school. Little Grrl would gnaw a plain bagel in contemplative, cooperative silence while I took my gentle deep breaths over the latte foam, releasing all that anxiety from turning over The Boy and all his volatility to school for six eerily silent hours a day. When she’d finished her bagel, she’d dig through the basket to find her two favorite board books and I’d read them to her absentmindedly, one after the other. Aliens. Lions. Then the aliens again. And again.

So much of my three years at home with Little Grrl was all about her brother. That wasn’t what I’d hoped for at all. I thought those three years would be our special time, just like the special one-on-one time I’d had with The Boy before she was born.

And we did have plenty of good times together. There were trips to the zoo and her favorite pizza place, long mornings playing at friends’ houses while the moms had tea, loads of raucous fun and exploration at Teacher Tom’s cooperative preschool.

But there was a heaviness there, too. She’d sit quietly in her stroller while The Boy’s kindergarten teacher and I would talk about the day’s challenges, brainstorming solutions. The following year she’d be tugging at my arm, bored and anxious while The Boy’s reading teacher would air his many grievances. She’d sit sad-faced and still in the principal’s office while her brother wept and squirmed in my lap and I willed myself into strength and silent power, navigating the conversation, staying on top of it even as I was running out of options. She’d be hastily dropped off at this or that friend’s house while I rushed off to yet another school meeting.

“Mommy, do you still love him?” she asked me one night when I was tucking her in. “Even though he got….a detention?”

And last year, as I was scrambling to hunt down a school district official’s phone number, hoping he could help me sort out the final details of The Boy’s placement at his new school, Little Grrl proudly walked over to my desk and handed me a drawing of a human heart. “Look, Mommy. A heart!” she said, as if she’d found the solution. My own human heart was absolutely breaking.

Things got better, thankfully. The Boy finally landed at a school that meets his needs, and Little Grrl had a fantabulous final year of preschool. She seems to have come out of the previous years’ darkness none the worse for wear, but I guess we can’t really know for sure.

How strange to be back at Irwin’s together, just the two of us after all this time. At five-and-a-half she seems positively grown up compared to the other toddlers and preschoolers milling around. She chooses an asiago bagel instead of a plain one. She pours herself a glass of water and finds us a table while I pay the barista. She sways her head and taps her fingers to a Creedence Clearwater song. And when a toddler in a tutu bursts into tears and wailing, the expression on Little Grrl’s face matches the mild annoyance of a young woman with a laptop sitting near us. “Ugh, too much crying,” Little Grrl remarks under her breath.

“That’s just what it sounds like when you cry,” I tease, and she gives me a teenager sigh. Then the conversation moves on to Irwin’s many varieties of scones and our plans for the summer.

Like the first grader said, this isn’t the last day of school ever. But it is the last school day ever that Little Grrl and I will have the time and luxury to sit around our favorite coffeehouse talking about scones. In September she’ll be starting full-day kindergarten. And I’ll be starting a job.

I’ll be starting slowly at first, as a substitute special education teacher’s aide for the school district. But hopefully I’ll find a full-time special ed aide position before long. And the following year, with any luck, I’ll add part-time graduate school to the mix. I want to get my M.Ed. in special education and do this for real. I don’t know how any of these hopes will actually pan out. But right now, it feels like a calling.

And so ends the early childhood phase, the stay-at-home-mom phase. I have loved every minute of it… Baby Björns and Moby Wraps, tricycles and tire swings, stories and puzzles at the library, cooperative preschool, homemade play doh and shrinky dinks, hours upon hours at the Children’s Museum and Pacific Science Center.

I’ll miss it, but I think all three of us have been ready for it to be over for a while now. The Boy has an IEP and a supportive team at school. Little Grrl spends hours alone with her books and crayons these days; an independent spirit already. And when her brother is home, the two of them play together for hours on end. The Boy reads to her and puts on Simpsons DVDs for the two of them to watch. Sometimes they just sit around in their rooms, strumming Mr. Black’s guitars.

I used to yearn for free time to just sit around and relax. This year, I found myself using that free time to do more work – gardening, cleaning out the basement, volunteering in special ed inclusion classrooms at The Boy’s school. No doubt about it: It’s time to be moving on.

There are new challenges ahead. New ways for them to need me and new ways for me to support them. In some ways it will be better, in some ways not. But we’re on our path, and the path is turning in a new direction now.

Last day of school.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Love This Book

Gaaah. Just... Mm. I do wish I had something articulate to say about Alison Bechdel's new graphic memoir, something worthy of it beyond "You this read now" and maybe a few cartoon exclamation points for effect. Why do I love this book so much?

I just read a pain-in-the-ass review of Are You My Mother that whines about how it's not as "good" as Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, Bechdel's first graphic memoir that unravels the intricate narrative of her closeted father's possible suicide and her own coming out story. And yes, of course, Fun Home is beyond amazing. But why would we want her to write that book twice?

Are You My Mother isn't some blockbuster sequel exposing even juicier family secrets. It's more like a very thoughtful commentary as the author absorbs her mother's reaction to Fun Home and examines their complicated relationship through a myriad of cultural and intellectual lenses – Virginia Woolf, Stephen Sondheim, A.A. Milne, psychologist Donald Winnicott, The Drama of the Gifted Child.

It's introspective. Über meta. Cerebral-licious. All of my favorite flavors. I've been a huge fan of Alison Bechdel for years, but this is the first time I've ever wanted to climb into the pages and give her a hug. Several hugs. Sigh.

Okay...I'm just going to immerse myself in this book, then re-immerse myself in Fun Home again, and then maybe re-read the entire Dykes to Watch Out For canon for good measure. See you at the library.

Updated to add:  I'm realizing now that the reviewer unwittingly made himself the Charles Tansley to Bechdel's Lily Briscoe, which is kind of perfect, really. Maybe after I'm done re-reading the Bechdel canon I'll re-read To the Lighthouse...

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

What's Love Got To Do With It

I used to walk around like this all the time. Yearning. Missing. Feeling the loss of something, something I’d never truly had in the first place. The obvious assumption in those days was romantic love, simply because that was the piece that typically wasn’t there. There was always some impossible crush, some recently departed boyfriend, some long-distance non-relationship holding me at arm’s length.

But even when there was an attentive paramour, there were cracks and corners for The Yearn to come rushing in. Maybe he was leaving soon. Or we didn’t quite understand each other. Sometimes the relationship itself had become pure tedium; a tired struggle to reach some vague nirvana that was never quite forthcoming.

I knew better, but knowing better doesn’t do you a damn bit of good, really. Will power and sober common sense have little jurisdiction over the wild stampede of Must Have Love. When the heart just yearns, they tend to get out of its way. Let her get it out of her system.

Still, for whatever it was worth, I knew better. My absurd romantic ventures happened within smirking, self-aware air quotes. I never dreamed of the material trappings of couplehood; weddings, babies, and so forth. I just wanted the embodiment of wild, poetic good mood swings. I wanted to recapture childhood kite-flying in a cornfield; waterfalls and 1970’s jazz-fluted Sesame Street animations. I wanted adventure, but also to feel treasured and nested and safe.

By the time I actually met a real live person worthy of imposing a lifetime of this bullshit onto, I’d lived through most of my 20’s. The 30’s were all about coming down to earth, settling in and learning how to actually conduct a functional relationship with a live human being for more than a year or two.

It was still dreamy, of course, but over time the dreams became firmly rooted in our joint reality – job hunting, home improvement, doctors appointments, red eye flights back east, waiting at bus stops in the rain. And babies…in all their heartbreaking, sleepless, bodily-fluid-spewing, marriage-overhauling glory. Preschool financial aid forms. Museum membership forms. Those “So Just How Autistic Is Your Child?” evaluation forms. (Remember when filling in bubbles with a pencil meant taking the GRE?)

And gradually, through all of that, we find ourselves simply married, simply a family. This is love in its purest, most earthy sense. This is farmers market love. Organic. The real deal.

Still, even with all the love and security and happiness…the old habit of Yearn still floats above it. Something still feels at large; in need of being sought.

And I don’t mean that in a crass, red-Porsche-driving comb-over midlife crisis guy, leave-him-for-your-secretary way. It’s not the least bit related to actual infidelity. To mistake it for some call to Madame Bovary action would be missing the point entirely.

It’s not so much yearning for romantic love as it is for romantic fulfillment. It wants Santa Claus. Puff the Magic Dragon. It seeks joy in a purely nebulous, unattainable sense. Embodiment brings it down to earth and essentially kills it, or scatters it elsewhere, back to the elusive zone.

So, basically, The Yearn is an end unto itself. It’s a little wistful, a little thrilling. There’s nothing, really, to be sought that I don’t already have. It’s just that the best of it lurks in hard-to-reach corners, and you can’t really pin it down in a photo album or a vacation or a job or even in your bed. It’s vapor. Its sheer lack of physical presence feels an awful lot like a void, but it’s not meant to be embodied. It’s simply meant to be felt.

There’s nothing truly missing here. There has to be space. There has to be loneliness and uncertainty from time to time. Be in it. It won’t hurt you. And it doesn’t mean you’re truly alone.


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