It was a dingy corner of a gym at a local community center during a simple 6th birthday party. I was chasing down the two-year-old, an interloper on the kindergartner’s birthday circuit, amidst hardened gum stains and up and down rubber-lined steps set against linoleum flooring.
The building was dated—40s? 60s?—and I drank in that musty smell peculiar to old gymnasiums and the backs of stages, a blend of sawdust and teenage sweat.
Backstage. Where we traded secrets between scenes, crushed hard on the band, grew up behind bleachers. Among discarded cracked-wood benches, their chipped paint a faded orange or blue, holding history in a layer of dust, stray nails, and Sharpie stains boasting who “wuz there.” Peering out from behind thick burgundy curtains, I alternately wondered if he liked me and what was for dinner.
Or turn right off the lone hallway in an abandoned public school in Hicksville, New York. During a free period, we’d trespass in the cluttered dark behind the faded gold drape of the auditorium’s main stage, pressed up against donated furniture and music stands that dug into my back.
A hollow farmhouse in an empty field, explored at dusk,
A swath of sand in the shade of a splintering boardwalk, seashells piercing skin,
A muddy campground on the banks of the Delaware River, sleeping bags to soil, a single bathroom—pink?—where we’d forego showers,
An apple core, consumed whole, along the Appalachian,
Ants crushed under dirt-filled fingernails and eyes blackened from ball with the boys,
Nights spent in cars or sleazy roadside motels,
Or on a repurposed mattress flung unceremoniously onto the floor of a handsome bassist’s bedroom.
Memories line up into a life. One lived dusty-kneed, in the dirt, on the ground, steeped in artifact and earth.
Bells and whistles be damned.
Life shines brighter against a lackluster backdrop.
In 7th grade, they called me fake. And I was. I know now (and probably did then) that it was bred of my desire to people-please. I never wanted to offend. I wanted to be liked, loved, by everyone, always.
With age, awareness, and exhaustion, I’ve grown less likely to self-censor or serve up faux flattery. But I still filter. Mine is a peculiar mix of litigator neuroses, an extreme aversion to error or offensiveness, a veneration for social convention, and now as someone who writes, a heightened attention to content and construction.
I place the words carefully on the page, just so, and with intention. Each post and publication, every comment and comma, even emails and tweets. Carefully crafted, proofread, overthought. My fingers never fly ahead of my critical eye. Tap, tap, tap. Backspace. Delete. Sit. Stew. Nail-bite. Tap, tap, tap.
When it comes to what’s spoken, we have far less control over our delivery—and we (fearfully?) face a reaction in real time—so sometimes we say nothing at all.
In person and on the page, we filter the flattery. Curb our compliments. We worry about how our words will land once we let them loose. We are so careful with our communication that we may miss our moment.
The one where we say:
You are one of the best writers I’ve read;
Your patience with your children inspires me to be a better parent;
Your eyes are a lovely shade of blue;
Even though we met not long ago, this friendship is really important to me;
and so on.
It has a tendency to tiptoe into the territory of what Dani terms the “faux-generosity” endemic to Twitter—and, I would argue, social media generally. But I credit many of us with the ability to deliver—and decipher—what’s genuine. In this age, we can reach out to virtually anyone in our world to share, from a safe distance, exactly how we feel. By this age, we know how rare but welcome these words truly are. We can forge friendships with our fingertips. We can fill the space with what’s real.
I often think of this passage from The Little Prince and wish we could speak as plainly, be as forthcoming about our need for each other:
“No,” said the little prince. “I am looking for friends. What does that mean–‘tame’?”
“It is an act too often neglected,” said the fox. “It means to establish ties.”
“‘To establish ties’?”
“Just that,” said the fox. “To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world . . .”
It’s simply said, less simply done. But it’s everything.
Say it in life.
Not surprisingly, Amanda’s insightful comment on this post left me deep in thought, and I felt compelled to write on. “…even with ties, what is it if there isn’t the tiniest bit of trepidation,” she asks. Yes. That innate impulse to pause before we speak, to edit what we write, to tread lightly as we transform our inner thoughts into words spoken and shared—that is humanity at its most essential. Proof positive of the care and consideration we have for those who walk through this life with us.
It reveals a concern for the other, for all that lies beyond the self. It is a sign that we recognize we live in a shared world, that we are not alone here. We don’t go running our mouths or carelessly flinging our words all about, because we know they bump up against others, with hearts and minds and thoughts of their own. That we temper our speech and actions with concern for those in our surroundings—oh yes.
So, say the nice things out loud, absolutely. But that filter? That precious pause? That thought before speech? Revel in the humanity there.
I let my mind wander—sinking into the past as I stared intently ahead. My regular rotation of radio stations quickly turned to static, so I switched to ‘seek.’ Sixty-five mph felt too fast a clip at which to pass through the world, and I was grateful for the slower pace as the roads turned more rural, familiarity receding in the rearview.
My destination was a fixed point on a map on my phone screen. But I veered off onto dirt roads whenever moved or when I tired of someone trailing me. I snapped photos, breathed in the clean, cold winter air, blasted Cat Stevens’ Another Saturday Night from the car speakers as I captured an abandoned farmhouse in the fading light. I felt the freedom and confidence that comes from being on the road alone, beholden to no one, turning off the beaten path into the unknown. Life is in the detours.
As I neared the Inn, Waze auspiciously read “almost there,” and yet the destination never came. Anticipation building, I drove on for another several minutes before realizing I’d clear overshot it. Left to navigate on my own, I circled back and caught the missed turn on my second try. I parked and looked down; Waze blinked back. “Almost there,” it still read.
The rabbi’s manual in the car console. The Inn on the corner. The ice melt residue on my leather boots. The rocking chairs on the porch. The bible in my room’s desk drawer. The subtle throbbing of the cold sore on my upper lip and the crack on my right pinky finger from the dry winter air.
The bellhop escorted me to my room, told me there’s yoga at 5:30. She must have sensed my reluctance, for she offered, “Another woman in your party may not attend; she just got here too.” An out. Permission to do what I always do, what I do best: watch from the sidelines. Not engage. Forgo immersing into this life and instead only bear witness. Skim, not sink in.
But if not now, when? Did I drive all this way (it really wasn’t that far) to sit in a (gorgeous) room at an inn, alone? Doing nothing new? Taking no chances? I chastised myself with a series of cliché motivational quotes.
Then I sent frantic messages to a dear writer friend: What does one wear to yoga? Something I, admittedly, should have researched before I packed for the trip.
I settled on my oldest, most comfortable black leggings and as I faced my self-doubt in the full-length mirror, the phone rang. It was Dani. It was time for yoga. Let us begin.
I’m terrible at yoga, it turns out. Oh, I know, you’ll say it was my first time, it’s a practice, you can’t be bad at yoga. But let me stop you right there—I’m bad at yoga. I’m ok with this. It’s good to know.
The instructor’s directions tumble out one right after another. I can’t make sense of them. I’ve temporarily forgotten—I mean plain don’t know—my left from my right. Everyone else seems experienced. The instructions come faster and faster and I’m lost. Utterly lost. I can’t keep up or follow along. My neck muscles tighten. I’m worried about the hole in the inner seam of these old, old leggings. I’m wishing, wishing, wishing for it to be over.
I stubbornly keep at it—not for myself, no. But so as not to disturb the practice of the others around me. Of Dani Shapiro next to me. Worried about everyone else. Not what’s inside, not myself.
Listening, wanting—to be able to do it, to do it right, yearning for positive reinforcement, for external validation. Failing. Falling. Unbalanced, unempowered. Horrible. Just horrible at this. My head hanging down, blood rushing, the strain on my legs is almost unbearable.
Realizing then, in that moment, this is how I live. Looking out more than in. Wondering, worrying about perception, appeasing others more than asserting myself. Never acknowledging, never relying on the intensity of my inner strength, my own self, somewhere, way down underneath it all.
I don’t trust in my body, this body. I don’t give birth naturally. I don’t dance. I don’t assume I will find the rhythm or know the steps. I’m always wondering if I’m doing it right, who’s watching, if I fit in. Mine is not a smooth path through this world. It’s staccato, belabored. Unnatural, overthought. Nail-bitten. Lacking flow.
I can’t get out of my own head.
I’m still on that yellow mat. It’s mocking me. I set my sights on one thing: keeping my balance. It’s a worthy goal. Hard, but achievable. For several seconds, I waver and wobble in place. Progress.
“Breathe,” she says. And I realize…I forgot to breathe.
Here’s the thing, the dirty little secret: I’m never present. My body is often in one place, my mind another. My children are young yet—the oldest barely in grade school. My fingers fasten coat buttons while my mind wanders to what’s next…what else…what’s for dinner…do I need to buy oranges? Where’s the baby? Has he gotten into the markers? What can I be doing in this rare moment while my children self-entertain? Wash the dishes? Prepare their school lunches? Clean up the strewn puzzle pieces in that corner? Lay out their pajamas? When I manage to make it out of the house alone, I smile through gritted teeth, where I hold all my tension, and worry about what the boys are doing back home. Often the pressure to be present bears down more heavily than the weight of everything else I’m carrying.
Maybe I’ll be different one day. When the children are grown, when I can complete a thought without interruption, when my mind is no longer splintered and shattered and seemingly held together with scotch tape.
But somehow I doubt it. I’ve come to understand that this is who I am. Everywhere and always. I thrive on the chaos and overwhelm. On the complexity of being several places at once. On the fight to find myself in a life that could so easily edge me out. It’s the contrasts I seek: waking in darkness, calm amidst chaos, stillness within sound.
I like writing around the edges of my little life. The thrill of fitting it in, tucking it into the corners of my days—a stashed secret I can carry with me through a life filled with so much else. The me I know now is surrounded by boys and noise. And it’s the struggle to find silence that makes it all the more sweet, that makes it mine.
Upon return, I quickly settled back into my life. Within minutes, I’m in the warm minivan, boys buckled in back seats, driving to pick up my oldest from after school science. A weight lifted. An expectation fulfilled.
This is where I belong.
The scent of another writer’s perfume still lingers on my scarf, filling my nostrils as my sons fill the car.
*I am only writing here of a small sliver of my two-day retreat experience. There was writing and workshopping with remarkable women, our stories coming together. There was good and hard work punctuated by good and honest mealtime conversation among strangers no longer. There were snowstorms swirling outside and warm fires burning within. There was much I didn’t write about here.
“If you don’t get an au pair, you’re crazy.” My mother looked up from stirring the pasta water as we caught up about the weekend. I’d left her with my three young sons, aged five and under, while I escaped for a rare 24 hours alone and away in Manhattan.
She’s one in a chorus of many who regularly implore me to get more help. I never do.
I had my sons in rapid succession—three in three-and-a-half years. I was never free of hand or heart to give myself over completely to play. Instead I filled our home with newborn needs again and again, feeling far more at ease in the space of those earliest months, when the endless cycle of eating and sleeping leaves room for little else.
Now that the youngest is two, I busy myself with a steady stream of dishes and dirt, laundry piles and lunch prep. My hands are often so full of soiled clothes and stray cups that I can’t possibly catch a ball. My attention divided among my three boys so it doesn’t have to settle on any one. I’m wrung out and weary and most of all, worried—that I prefer it this way.
You can click here to read the rest of my contribution to the thoughtful series on play at You Plus 2 Parenting.