Commonplace

Finding beauty in the everyday…together.

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Life is but a collection of moments strung together, one right after another, to make up you…

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Early morning, I throw on a hoodie and slip out in the first light to send a quick e-mail. The crisp air hits my cheeks; my feet flatten the dew-soaked ground. Distant sounds of crickets and owls fade as day edges out night. I hurry back to my bunk before the boys awake and am greeted by the relative warmth, the comforting, rhythmic sounds of the boys’ breathing. I’m struck by the enormity of my role as their mother, their shelter. Here, we are always one step removed from nature and cozier for it. All is as it should be.

I’m sitting on the grass during a particularly long stretch of afternoon when my five-year-old tackles me to the ground, all 38 lbs of him landing on my chest, knocking me down. I let us fall backwards and he throws his arms around me, pressing his cheek to mine, not letting go. I unsquint my eyes and look up to see the sun glinting through the trees against an expanse of clear blue sky…the baby follows suit and soon we are a mess of tangled limbs, mussed-up hair. A kiss, and we part.

We’re standing on the concrete porch of the cafeteria as the rain falls only harder. We decide to make a go of it. The baby strapped in the stroller, I pull the three-year-old up to me and have him grasp my neck. “Hold tightly,” I whisper. My oldest proudly walks ahead in his new Superman raincoat. And we set out, braving the downpour together, the muddy grounds squishing through the holes in our summer shoes, sprinkling dirt flecks on our wet calves. Not one complaint; they’ve grown somehow used to this by now.

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We sit in the outdoor amphitheater overlooking the lake. Everyone is gathered as we await a camp-wide performance. Suddenly the assembled campers – across age groups, gender – erupt into unscripted song. Voices ping pong back and forth, while “Let It Go” lyrics waft up from the wooden benches into the cloudy night sky. I’m moved to tears by the sheer power of the collective voices, by children who are purely happy—to be here, to be themselves, to be together, to feel so safe and carefree as to shed any insecurities and join with one another in song.

I’m sitting at a square wooden table past nightfall in the small swath of space where the wifi reaches to read my favorite writers’ words. I’m shivering in the summer night mountain air, nearby voices speaking in a mix of foreign tongues – Hebrew, Polish, others. I catch a word here and there and am not distracted, but comforted by the distant company. I am sitting on a rickety chair, outside, under the sky, the stars, breathing the cool, clean air, feeling the earth underfoot—this same ground upon which my feet have walked…so many years ago…the steps that, one right after another, led me here. To right here; to right now. To my small cabin with my three sons sleeping soundly a few yards away, heavy with the weight of a day walking those same paths—now theirs, now ours.

It’s cold in our cabin. Cover me up, you ask. Your feet are sticking out. I tuck them in. You smile. That dimple…

I drift off to sleep, comforted by the 24-hour hum of a camp day…a ball bouncing on the upper courts, a walkie-talkie in the distance, the rumble of a golf cart climbing the gravelly path, campers shouting from a nearby building during their evening activity…the sound of their turn, their memories being made.

A day off. A minivan brigade winding along alternating paved and unpaved roads leading to a local (read: 1.5 hours away) children’s museum. Impossibly never losing each other. We stay together because it’s what we do. We pump gas in the pouring rain after a trying Target run, tears from laughter streaming down our faces, mixing with the rain…we are friends from a different time, who remember when, who mouth the words to the same songs, memorized still. Friends who can tell of what was, and together, face what’s to come.

One of my closest camp friends, now the director, darts around the grounds checking, conferring, confirming…He’s in charge now, yet I still glimpse the boyishness behind his eyes. How did we get here?

One ordinary afternoon, we exchange a few words outside the front office before he bikes off. We’re both too busy and too burdened—he mainly with camp, me with kids—to say more. But it’s all we need. Twenty-three years of friendship has led to this. Has made us into mind-readers. And I’m struck by the quality, the endurance, the pick-up-where-you-left-off nature of the friendships I’ve formed here.

Another day off, and we split our time between exploring the camp grounds and taking a drive into nearby Honesdale for dinner on Main Street. Dar Williams and dirt roads lead us there.

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We pass unthinkable beauty. Are we in the world now? asks the five-year-old. On the road, we quietly imagine a life different than ours. One remote and sprawling that yawns through the summer season and tells of tending the earth…We are reminded that often it’s better to get out than stay in. To chase adventure, see what we can see, to drink in this great, wide world.

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I’m on night-watch, sitting in the gazebo on boys’ campus when a counselor comes by to pull me out and show me the night sky, the moon rising over the lake. So I don’t miss it. That’s what happens here. We help each other see everyday beauty. We make sure it gets noticed, doesn’t pass us by, that we experience it, together. He touches my shoulder and I recall that here, contact, connection is commonplace. And just like that, I no longer feel too old or too cold to be sitting in the middle of boys’ campus on a Wednesday night deep in August. No, I don’t mind at all.

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There is something about the finiteness of this world within a world. This togetherness. This here and now. This feeling that everything outside this place can wait. That this is all there is. This is everything.

We watch the rain fall and puddle-jump in the fading light.

We read bedtime stories on a rain-soaked porch in the warm glow of a single lamp, interrupted only by a couple passersby I’ve known for life.

We whisper after dark and gently shut screen doors while neighbors slumber.

We wake to the musty smell of the dark wood paneled bunk in the early morning hours before the boys stir.

We shake spiders off our towels before use.

We laugh harder; smile deeper.

We of dusty calves and dirty feet, tangled hair and fresh, natural faces.

We who know the price, the power, the privilege of being here.

Even in the hardest moments of these longest days, I will miss it here, I think. I will miss this.

We attend the end-of-camp event—the same slide show, but featuring new faces, the same songs, but sung by young voices…I watch as the oldest campers live out their last carefree days, teetering atop that roller coaster of time before they descend into the abyss of adulthood. I recall the empty sadness, the wistful finality of that transition.

Another summer ends, and I’m overcome by the weight, the power of all that’s come before, of tradition, of change, of the hold this place has over me. Sometimes the nostalgia is almost too great to bear.

We have moved on; yet it remains. There’s comfort in the familiarity; curiosity in the difference. Nothing stays the same. Nor should it. It’s another time, another’s turn.

I scoop my sleepy children off the dusty ground and we walk out into the night, the echo of “Taps” at our backs.

This is camp. This is life. This is home.

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This is the first of a series of posts about my time working at my alma mater overnight camp with my three young sons for five weeks this summer.

In a way, it was as if we’d never left, as if all roads led here, as if we were always meant to return. Somehow we find a way back to where we’ve been. Often we find it’s where we’ve come from that tells of what could be.

IMG_7210And so this dance of life marches on and we begin again and again. And again…

I’ve been thinking a lot about grit lately. I’m not the only one.

What Is Grit?

Angela Duckworth, an Associate Professor in Penn’s Psychology Department, focuses her professional research on studying the character traits that contribute to doing well in school and life. She defines “grit” as a passion and perseverance for long-term goals, stamina. “Living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

Being faced with a challenge, being undeterred. Follow-through.

Through researching children and adults in different challenging settings, Duckworth and others have found that grit, more than talent or IQ, is the greatest predictor of success.

So how do you cultivate this magical “grit”? Duckworth and her colleagues concede that it’s still largely a mystery. Permit me a few (admittedly anecdotal, unscientific) thoughts on the topic…

City Life

It is my humble hope that raising my children in the city during their early years has fostered a certain amount of perseverance and character.

My sons learned to ride their bikes on the cracked, uneven pavement of city streets. They must stop at every corner.

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They make do without a backyard, but dirt mounds and side streets are spectacular stand-ins:

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Here they are playing some “find the hidden penny” game they invented in the pavement cracks in front of our row house:

IMG_5514And exploring in the trunk of our car:

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Often, they can be found playing with dirt in a public space:

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Or using it to “paint” our front steps (ok, I wasn’t so fond of this one):

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They don’t need much, and I like it that way. They’ve become inventive, resourceful. They find joy in the simple, small things; they uncover the beauty in their everyday surroundings; they are happy with what they have (most of the time).

I think city life fosters a feeling that the world doesn’t revolve around you. You see—every day, with your own eyes—just how big this wide world is, how many (different!) people inhabit it, and you learn your path must yield to others, often.

Our days are full of compromise and simplicity. Our days feel full of grit.

The Value of Waiting

The reality of our family life—many boys, often accompanied by one mom—is also conducive to character-building. My boys are learning (slowly, painfully) that their needs cannot be met immediately. My attention is almost always divided; I’m constantly triaging.

People often ask me why I don’t have more help. But I think it’s a good thing that my boys don’t have their (non-emergent) needs met RIGHT NOW. In that way, (I hope) they understand they are not the center of the world; they learn patience, independence…grit.

Summer Camp

Next week, we will head to my old summer camp…the same one that brought me some of my best memories, my dearest friends…and my husband. To this day, a simple picture of the camp’s grounds makes my heart swell.

I will be working there for a month, and the boys are coming with me.

We will trade our playroom full of toys for a field full of dirt, sticks, and stones. An expanse of earth will be our playground. A modest wooden cabin with a shared porch will be our home. The showers within are old, and often cold; open cubbies for our clothes the only furnishings—perhaps a tattered poster graces the wall, secured by thumbtacks. Dirt will become a familiar companion—creeping into our living spaces, appearing on the floors, even in our beds. Not the synthetic, grimy dirt of our city life…but earth.

We will walk everywhere. Up and down hills, over jagged rocks, in rain and sun. It’s the only way.

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We will share every meal, dining “family-style” in a large cafeteria with a distinctive, perpetual smell I can’t quite place, its floors concrete, its walls lined with plaques hand-painted by once-campers. Meal times and menus are pre-set; the food served is all there is.

We will be surrounded by young and old, all cohabitating, co-parenting, commingling, connecting.

Certain comforts may be gone—rather, swapped for the far greater comfort of being surrounded by others, being part of this community, this world within a world. For a time, it will be far more about people and place than things.

This is good. Gritty.

We are going to live with less. Get out of our comfort zone and into the world. We will disconnect. And reconnect. We will look at the sky. We will see stars.

NOTE:

My writing routine, and my internet connection, may be compromised while we’re away. So if you don’t hear from me for a few weeks, imagine that I’m lying with my boys on the most beautiful expanse of grass overlooking a lake you’ve ever seen…and you probably won’t be too far off.

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Photo credit: Joel Seltzer

And before you know it, I’ll be back…

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I’m truly honored and humbled to share that I’m up on Brain, Child’s site today. I’ve long admired Brain, Child Magazine because, quite simply, it features consistently quality content about all aspects of motherhood. Their contributing writers are some of my most profound writer crushes—the ones I’d “follow” anywhere.

I’m awed and grateful Brain, Child has chosen to run one of my pieces on their blog. “Now I Mother From a Distance” is near and dear to my heart, especially lately—as it depicts the poignant ambivalence of bidding farewell to the comfort and simplicity of those early months of motherhood, facing the complex uncertainty of what’s to come, and, despite distance, growing, and going forward, together.

You can read the full piece here:  Now I Mother From a Distance.

 

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I was never one to obsess over a “bikini body” or getting in shape in time for summer. Now I realize it’s because I had a bikini body…and never cared much for bikinis.

But last week, I set out to shop for a couple summer staples and caught myself frowning at the image in the dressing room mirror, again and again. You know that cute little trend out there—the lightweight dresses with an elasticized waistband? Don’t they look comfortable and perfect for these 90+ degree days we’re already having? Well…it’s not so cute when that elastic seam falls right in the middle of your post-baby belly. Every time.

I guess this is the first summer of settling into this new body, realizing it’s here to stay. Last year, my baby—my third, the one whose pregnancy, I know now, irrevocably transformed my shape—was merely six months old. I was still recovering, not yet sure I had arrived at my new normal.

Now I have, and I confess I’m always looking to conceal the leftover belly. I guess I’m a little vain that way. But it can be hard work to love the no-longer-shiny-and-new version of ourselves.

I exited store #? empty-handed and conducted an informal experiment on my walk home. I (subtly) glanced at every midsection I passed—what were other women wearing? How did they pull it off? You know what? They didn’t. Or rather, they did—they were wearing those dresses, they were wearing whatever they wanted…and nearly every single one of them confidently showcased that little paunch I try to conceal. The only people without it? 16-year-olds.

I’m no teenager. Nor do I want to be one. If this protruding belly is what I’ve got to show for where I’ve been, for what I’ve done, for the three beautiful baby boys I bore in a three-and-a-half year span?

Well, then. I’m in pretty good shape after all.

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From my unsuccessful shopping spree, I went directly to my doctor’s office for a routine visit. A few chairs down in the waiting room sat an older woman, wheelchair-bound, her skin wrinkled and weathered…nearly transparent, exposing a web of blue veins. A brittle mane of gray hair framed her shell of a face. Sunken eyes, a cloudy shade of blue-gray, struggled to stay open. She looked not unlike old Rose in the opening scenes of Titanic. We made eye contact. I smiled, then looked away.

When I glanced back, her head was down. She had fallen asleep. A moment later, she jolted awake again and looked around, a bit startled, a bit confused. As if she was not quite sure where she was. As if it took every ounce of her nonexistent energy to stay alert. And more often than not, she couldn’t. She gave in. She let her exhausted body rest.

I turned back to the receptionist who was asking me to confirm my phone number a second time and exhaled. I hadn’t realized I’d been holding my breath.

I paused to savor the energy I felt, even after cramming a hot, hectic round of errands into a stolen hour. The way I can still chase after my active boys, climb every playground structure, wrangle the toddler’s sizable, defiant limbs during a diaper change, collapse onto the floor next to my oldest to collaborate on a Lego creation.

Make no mistake. I’m showing my age. Wrinkles are forming at the corners of my eyes, gray hairs steadily multiplying…they may be somewhat obscured by my dirty blonde locks, but I can see them. I know they’re there.

Mine are the coarse, calloused heels of a girl who spent her youth walking barefoot along shorelines and boardwalks, my skin scarred from several C-sections, a foot race down a college dorm hallway gone wrong, a road trip accident…stories for another time.

The lines on my face suggest years of laughter and squinting in sunlight, my poor vision recalls books read under bedspreads late into the night, the darkening of my once-towhead a nod to time’s passage, a stubbornly crooked row of bottom teeth—a link to my father—belies nearly five years of braces, a genetic peculiarity that refuses to be tamed. A single cartilage piercing, the only visible remnant of a bad college breakup; a faint smudge on my right forearm, what’s left of a beauty mark I scratched off with my bare hands as a child—because I didn’t think it was beautiful at all.

These are the imprints of life. Our bodies don’t stay the same; of course they don’t. They evolve, they show signs of a life lived, a life loved. As they should. They bear witness to where we’ve been, that we’ve been. They are like maps that tell tale of our time, our travels…

No, I’m no teenager.

Now I marvel at the smooth softness of my sons’ creamy skin, the silky tufts of baby-fine blonde hair. Theirs is a blank canvas.

And yet I can hear the brave pride in my five-year-old’s voice as he recalls when he gashed his right knee. A fall as he lost his footing climbing onto the curb after a walk last summer, the beach at our backs. A missed naming for a friend’s newborn, as he bled into baby wipes in the back seat of our car, cared for and comforted by his father while I trailed his younger brothers on a nearby stretch of grass.

That story is forever woven into the fabric of his life. A memory etched on his body and mind. Some nights, after bath, he tenderly runs his fingers over the pale pink scar. It’s smooth now, he notes.

And so, we settle in to this new season. Be comfortable in your skin, in your clothes, in your life while you live it. Be kind to your body.

After all, it tells the story of you.

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