Commonplace

Finding beauty in the everyday…together.

We were crowded in the elementary school gym on a 90-degree day with no A/C. We were told there would be babysitting; there wasn’t really. Our almost-kindergartners were whisked away…I was left behind to chase after my two younger boys, the sweat gathering on the nape of my neck as I cursed my black skinny jeans. There were introductions, policy overviews (dress code, lunch program, dismissal protocol…). I barely caught a word.

Somewhere between doling out the fifty-billionth snack and doing laps with the umbrella stroller in which I discreetly tried to monopolize the ineffective, giant floor fan, the co-chair of the Parents Association approached. She was a woman not much older than me with a shock of black hair, tailored pants, kind, knowing eyes and a gentle smile. She offered to watch my younger boys so I could walk down the hallway with my newly minted Kindergartner to see his classroom – to, as she put it, “have a moment.” I felt the tears come; I choked them back. My sons were having none of it, so off we all went.

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A whirlwind of put-those-toys-back-where-you-found-them later, I knew it was time to throw in the towel. We clumsily gathered our things and what was left of my dignity and headed for the door. (Not before stopping at the complimentary bagel spread so the baby could dump a full cup of OJ on himself—the stickiness of the juice mixing with several layers of sweat.)

But the details don’t really matter now, do they? These are insignificant, external things, after all. The real problem was with me. Something nagged at the corners of my mind and heart. What did I really need? What was I seeking? A way to neatly tie up the sum of my son’s childhood until now with a nice, pretty bow? So I could feel ready for this? So he could?

I summon the little I glimpsed of my son lined up, ready to walk off to his new classroom. He stood proud and tall. There was a little wave, wasn’t there? Maybe even a self-assured “bye mom.” And he was gone. I felt a sadness I didn’t expect. We’d said goodbye like this before—he’s a day care veteran, after all. But this was different somehow.

Wasn’t this what we all hope for? That our kids become these self-sufficient beings, capable of walking off—first down the hallway, then down the street, across town, and ultimately out of our household to create another—without us?

Have a moment. The words caught. That was just it, wasn’t it? My utter inability to have this moment. To hold it, savor it, squeeze the marrow from it. To stash it away in my special box of precious letters and artwork. To preserve it for all time. It was passing me by even as I was living it.

Have a moment. Instead I was lost. In the sweat, the distraction, discomfort, the ceaseless chase as the younger boys wrestled free to roam the school hallways. I tried to force myself to shut it all out, to focus on what was happening. On this milestone—for me and my oldest boy.

It was, of course, on the road, as we drove away with the sweet school at our backs, when the tears and clarity finally came. Have a moment. I needed that moment for me. He was fine. Ready. And it’s not about me anymore. Tomorrow, a bus comes and takes him to a classroom I will not frequent. He will live whole days I know little about. I will curtail my curiosity; I will ache for details, get few.

We are two separate people, he and I. We may share the same temperament, the same strong-willed stubbornness, a love of what’s right and fair, and all things carbohydrate…the same sandy hair and wide green eyes, ever reluctant to let go of a day and drift off to sleep…

But I carry him no more. No, I couldn’t if I tried. Now it’s nearly dawn on the day I will wake him to board the bus alone.

We will have a moment. And many, many more, my sweet boy. As he becomes a little less mine, a little more his own, a little more the world’s. And I will take them with me, always.

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A postscript: Shortly after I published this post, he woke with a start, dressed quickly and without a fight, and was ready 45 minutes early. Hardly any appetite, yet still I felt a need to shove a waffle in his unwilling hand. I blink, and the bus is here. How many school buses had I seen in a lifetime? But this one was here to carry away my child.

“Mom, when you get off the bus, wave to me, ok?” I mouth “I love you” through the window; he gives a pound in return. One last wave, a smile. I choke back tears, turn, and go on with my day…two other little boys needing me still.

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I’m standing on a stretch of grass outside the camp’s dining hall during the weekly Wednesday evening cookout. My watermelon-stained hands struggle to free a wipe from its package. My oldest nags at my feet for a third cookie. And dammit, where is my middle son? Just then, my stroller tips over. You help me pick it up, saddled as I am with my 30-pound baby on my hip, my sticky hands…I feel guilty and needy. But “we’re in this together,” you say as you do. And you’re right…you’re right.

I had arrived at camp not two days earlier. People were bringing my children food, helping me assemble my pack ‘n play. I take your daughter’s hand and lead her to the bathroom; you watch my baby while I chase after the big boys…

Here we are, raising our children side by side. Creating for them what will always feel like home.

This is the village it takes.

By day, I work in the front office. By night, I huddle in our cold bunk with my three young sons, covering them with sleeping bags and kissing their dusty foreheads. I steal some brief time by myself with a book before my eyelids grow heavy.

Not one to like being alone, this fits. I’m comforted knowing others live out their days beyond mine, that my three boys are all snug in a single, small, sweet room, that the guards are by the gates, standing watch over us all….

IMG_7941It’s hard, yes.

But.

Adversity builds character; hardship breeds connection.

I know those bags under your eyes mean your baby was woken by the fireworks late last night. I know; I heard them too. I know how hard it is to keep your children quiet for the hours each morning while the rest of camp still sleeps. To navigate a narrow stall shower when, until now, your kids only knew baths. To eat family-style in a massive, bustling dining hall, your children threatening to escape between each bite. To corral your toddlers during camp-wide performances while you attempt to catch a glimpse. To referee spats between your kids and others—over the right to the lone basketball left on the upper courts or the singularly special rock among the thousands passed on the way to dinner. To carry your tired toddler up the hill despite exhaustion so deep, your bones ache. To parent publicly, without our spouses, without a safety net. To be “on” every minute.

I know how it feels to have a meltdown over pancake breakfast at the day that lies ahead. To mask the signs of weariness with a smile when you’d rather wear your heart on your sleeve. I know it’s hard to let people in, to feel like a burden.

I know the hardships of being here, yes. But I know the joys too. Oh, I know them well.

I know the depth of the relationships formed while wrestling a stroller along dirt paths. We climb the hill from the lake to the dining hall on Friday night, curving along girls’ campus, wondering why. Realizing it’s the sweet mixture of nostalgia and a deep appreciation for the now of this place, and these people, that’s at our backs, pushing us forward. This alone is enough.

We all have different lives we lead back home, in the “real world.” One hour ahead and a million miles away. Our waiter? He’s finishing law school in Mexico. The nature guy? A high school chemistry teacher. But here? Here, we all come together to do this. To make this place work. We each play our little part. For a time, this is all there is.

Instead of believing the world should bend and bow to accommodate your needs, camp comes to teach that you are merely, wonderfully a small, but integral part of something far greater. You plug in to a schedule, a structure, a community that does not revolve around you. You give up much, but gain more in return. You’re better for it.

Together, we watch our children grow more confident, independent, adaptable with each passing day. They befriend people of all ages. They navigate the winding paths and the constant coexistence with increasing ease. They come home seeming older, longer somehow.

So we stay. We press on. Because creature comforts don’t hold a candle to true connection.

And then, at summer’s end, we return, re-enter. Adjusting our eyes to the peculiar landscape of the outside world. All looks different somehow, askew. But we are what’s most changed.

We came from a world undivided, without houses or private yards separating families…where our children floated freely among us, cared for communally. Now we trade our gritty dirt roads for smooth ones and realize sometimes, often, the meaningless ease of a paved life is unfulfilling. Where people angrily gesture over nonsense from the muted protection of their SUVs instead of extending gestures of kindness to the neighbor walking the path beside them.

*        *        *

We just moved to a new town. The boys start new schools next week. I’m starting over. I forgot how hard that can be. To show up to a school function and not know a soul. To walk up to an ongoing conversation, interrupt, introduce. To assume these other women want to know me, that I have something to offer. I’ve never been good at that. For all my extrovert tendencies, I still struggle with beginnings.

I write these words from a quiet house on a rare night alone. The silence is deafening. I miss the chaos, the din of our everyday. I didn’t think I would. My bare feet plod along the carpeted hallways; I saunter into empty rooms and finger the smooth, undented pillows. I lie on my oldest boy’s bed and tap absently at my phone. I close my eyes and summon the clamor and clatter of the camp cafeteria, teeming with children. The ice cream truck’s jingle sings playfully in the distance during one of its last summer rounds, but there’s no one to greet it. I realize I don’t quite recognize myself anymore without my children near, without the noisy soundtrack of our overflowing lives.

Because (and here’s the dirty little secret, what makes me, me) I am happier with my hands full. Surrounded. Overstimulated. And although these writing days have drawn me in more than ever before, I still very much need and want to be with people, even many of them, and all at once.

So I stand…surrounded by heaps of laundry, preparing to wash away the last specks of camp dirt from our days, missing my village. From the laundry room, I can see through the screen door out to the backyard and beyond to the fence of neighbors we don’t yet know. But I’m comforted, hopeful. Because I’ve had it once, that village.

I know what can be.

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

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

*          *          *

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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