Saturday afternoon, I’m walking with an acquaintance on the trails behind the high school, talking about public education. How is education changing? What’s happening?
Beneath a maple, we stop and talk for a little. I tell her about my youngest daughter, who’s 16 and at a place of reflection, asking, Who am I? Where is my life going? Writing made me realize how easily we drift into one life or another, drawn along by circumstances and the people surrounding us. How easily we fall into what seems like a good idea, a fad that might define us.
What seems like a hundred years ago when I was an undergraduate at Marlboro College, someone painted Know Thyself on the sidewalk beside the dining hall. Listening to my daughter as I go about doing my same old things — washing dishes or making dumplings or knitting a hat for a Christmas present — I realize I’m witnessing her small adolescent pack struggle with this same old question made completely brand-new for each of these young people. I’m riveted.
On the trail, a flock of geese flies so low I hear their wings flapping. On our way back to the school, I keep thinking about those geese.
One can claim that growing up… means abandoning magical thinking for rational thinking, yet one can also maintain that nothing should be abandoned, that what is true on one floor of the mind may not be true on another, but that one must live on every floor of the mind, from the cellar to the attic.”
In a dream, my daughter drives along an interstate and rounds a curve. A semi spreads across the road, its back-end across our lane. In a fraction of a moment, I predict we’ll hit the truck. Before I can speak, my daughter steers to the right, and I have a sickening foreboding that she’ll hit the truck and I, on the right, will emerge unscathed. I’m not afraid really; it’s grief that nails me.
She steers us around the truck, over the grass, back onto the road, and keeps driving. My heart hammers.
In the dark, I lay awake. There’s a lesson here, I counsel myself.
On this rainy October morning, here’s a few lines about parenting from Anne Lamott and an excerpt of my book in The Fix.
…one of the worst things about being a parent, for me, is the self-discovery, the being face to face with one’s secret insanity and brokenness and rage.”
― Anne Lamott, Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year
These Vermont days unfold one after one, exceptionally warm for this time of year. Mornings, I write on our back deck. By dinner time, the air has cooled, so we eat in our little dining room, while the dark descends around our house.
Over dumplings, my teen shares stories of high school, and we chew over the school’s new open campus policy. She talks and talks. Listening, I realize so much of the past year and a half was this strange virtual world. Her stories are mesmerizing with intrigue and merriment, but also laced through with all kinds of complicated things.
No parenting advice here. While I’m on the phone Friday morning in our glassed-in second story porch, pitching a story, I see a Subaru dash into my driveway. My daughter and her friend leap out, laughing. Before I finish my call, they’ve disappeared, deep in their own narratives. They’re serious students, with long thought-out lists of goals. How glad I am to see them together, cackling. Before I head back to work, I brew another pot of coffee and stand on the back porch, listening to the crickets.
Be well, I think. Be happy. Be very careful driving and keep your eyes open. And return and tell me, some at least, of your world.
…. I bought my friend the newest Mary Lawson novel, A Town Called Solace. She’s loaned it back to me.
He’d assumed that you went to school because you had to learn things, starting off with the easy stuff and moving on to the bigger issues, and once you’d learned them that was it, the way ahead opened up and thereafter life was simple and straightforward. What a joke. The older he got, the more complicated and obscure everything became. ”
Pulling up dead cucumber vines in my September garden, I realize my main crop this year is a forest of sunflowers. In years past, I’ve verged at times into the maniacal side of gardening. This year, however…. this year, as we all know, has simply been this year.
My oldest wanders out to the garden, her head bent to one side, braiding her hair. She’s begun training on the local volunteer ambulance crew, and tonight is her first overnight shift. She tells me she’s going to stay up all night. Why would I sleep?
My garden soil is dry, hot from the sun beneath my bare feet. The fall greens — kale and Brussels sprouts — are interspersed with brown stalks of dill, seeds drying.
Hidden in my forest of flowers, I remember when I was eighteen and left home. One of the first things I did was stay up all night, wandering around outside in the dark with a friend until the sun came up. It was the first time I realized how long a single night can stretch.
She straightens, and I admire her braids. She’s all grown up, heading out into the world to do her own thing and make her own way. Still, I remember her at four in her pink overalls, determined not to sleep then, either. She hurries away, and I stand there, with my dirty hands, watching.
We need enormous pockets, pockets big enough for our families and our friends, and even the people who aren’t on our lists, people we’ve never met but still want to protect. We need pockets for boroughs and for cities, a pocket that could hold the universe.”
Just before school starts this year, we spend a Sunday driving to the other side of Vermont, down along Lake Champlain, and crossing at the Crown Point bridge. There’s little traffic anywhere. We stop in Bristol for coffee, and then I keep driving, my friend and I in the front, our three daughters with their long legs sprawled in the back.
We’re headed to Fort Ticonderoga. Our daughters are taking an intensive history course this year, and I’m thinking the girls view the trip at first as a combination of the dusty past and an Instagram opportunity. Very quickly, we realize this is a site of stone, metal weapons, rammed earth, strategy, and bloodshed.
In the day’s sultriness, we wander behind the fort and discover the Fort’s immense gardens, now given over almost entirely to flowers. There’s few visitors and apparently no staff.
Below us, the lake lies still as a photograph, blue surrounded by the green hills. The crickets unfurl their slow late summer song. We’re in absolutely no rush at all, lingering among these flowers petals while, up on the hillside, someone bangs a constant dirge on a drum.
Soccer practice begins. School looms. In the night, I wake and wonder what does any of that mean anymore? What is this strange time? Sleepless, I readThe Farmwith a cat on my feet. Through the open window, the humid night swallows sound, the crickets’ nighttime singing almost a whimper. Unlike the raucous spring mating season, late summer sounds dwindle.
But the season is fat, full. I dream of delicata squash lying on the ground, beneath their wide leaves.
My youngest sits on the couch beside me, with a bag full of pens and paper that her uncle bought her for school. She snaps open her binder and replaces last year’s ragged dividers with unmarked manila pages for this year. On the tags, she writes CALC, then APUSH, outlining her junior year courses.
I pick up my knitting — yarn I’ve unraveled from a previous sweater I never finished. Maybe this project will remain on the needles forever, too.
Sebastian Junger, one of my favorite writers, collaborated on a documentary, The Last Patrol. Combat veterans take a long foot journey, searching for what’s good about America — particularly relevant these days.
“The public is often accused of being disconnected from its military, but frankly it’s disconnected from just about everything. Farming, mineral extraction, gas and oil production, bulk cargo transport, logging, fishing, infrastructure construction—all the industries that keep the nation going are mostly unacknowledged by the people who depend on them most.”