Commonplace

Finding beauty in the everyday…together.

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.

*        *        *

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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We stood together on the stoop, the boys and I, peering out as the trash truck sunk its merciless teeth into my mother’s 50-year-old desk—the one I had used since college and painted pale yellow and slate blue during senior year. The one that always held my most cherished notebooks. It had only two drawers, and they were small and rickety at that. Its use value had diminished, and so it fell victim to our decluttering efforts before the move.

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Nevertheless, a familiar wave of nostalgia washed over me at seeing it go. I winced. My oldest noticed.

“If you didn’t want to say goodbye to it, you shouldn’t have thrown it away.” And then, reassuringly, “That’s ok, Mom! We can get a new one, maybe. Maybe one that’s gray and yellow?” (My favorite colors, he knows.)

Where did this empathy come from? This perspective? This independence of thought?

A subtle shift is underfoot.

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You still sing with the sweet-voice of a child. You let me linger at preschool drop-off. Potty words still amuse; you’re only halfway to ten, and years from body odor and scruff signaling impending manhood…

But your baby cheeks are gone, replaced by chiseled boyish good looks.

And you ask to hold the umbrella by yourself.

And you know how to buckle your own seatbelt.

And you read to your brothers.

You spell words unassisted.

You give me winks.

And deep, long hugs on hard mornings. Somehow, sometimes your little four-year-old heart knows just what I need.

Last week, you made a collage all by yourself—scissors, glue, all of it.

This morning, you replaced the toilet paper in the bathroom. Unasked.

Last night, you had a bad dream and woke to recount it in troubling detail.

I see your mind working overtime, trying to make sense of it all.

Soon there will be school buses you board by yourself instead of preschools we walked to together. Things you tell your friends, or your journal, that you keep from me.

I knew how to hold you close, but how do we do this thing, this letting go? Every day, loosening my grasp just a little more. Letting you be more of the world’s than my own. Letting you belong to another.

You are on a precipice. I don’t want you to fall, but I also know I can’t hold you any longer. You are my first; what lies ahead of you is a mystery to me. I know the comfort of what was, but when I try to peer into what’s to come, I see only shapeless shadows.

*                        *                          *

I always long for the comfortable. The known. A familiar desk, a task previously conquered. Seldom steady or self-assured as I set out for something new; sometimes sentimental to a fault.

In Still Writing (which I’m reading, loving, savoring…recommending), Dani Shapiro describes the creative life as one fraught with uncertainty:

“All we can hope is that we will fail better. That we won’t succumb to fear of the unknown. That we will not fall prey to the easy enchantments of repeating what may have worked in the past. I try to remember that the job — as well as the plight, and the unexpected joy — of the artist is to embrace uncertainty, to be sharpened and honed by it. To be birthed by it. Each time we come to the end of a piece of work, we have failed as we have leapt — spectacularly, brazenly — into the unknown.”

I start writing and I don’t know where it will lead. This is new for me, hard. Uncomfortable. I bite off an entire hand of nails as I slog through a daunting first draft because I’m impatient. I want to know where it’s going, that it’s going somewhere worthwhile, anywhere at all.

*                        *                          *

Writing…parenting…in both, we must embrace uncertainty. Fail better. Walk into the unknown. It scares me, just as it thrills. These uncharted waters, the mystery of what lies ahead. Like the blank page, little by little, our story, his story, begins to reveal itself.

What we know for sure is that we can’t stay here. Time is relentless in its pursuit of what follows. So we follow along, taking comfort in the commonality of it all. Because after all, writing and parenting are both at once intensely personal and reassuringly universal.

It is in giving voice to my innermost thoughts that I realize they are shared. Our words, formed in solitude, in the quiet, alone-but-far-from-lonely moments of putting pen to page, connect us to the world.

Parenting, too, simultaneously pulls us inward just as it connects us to others. We retreat, focus on our “immediate” family, get lost in those details that matter to no one else. But with every moment, every milestone, every guilt-ridden confession, every triumphant relief, we discover that we are connected to all the mothers who came before, all those walking alongside us.

The same songs fill the bedroom air, the same wobble marks those tentative first steps, the same worries over how we feed our children’s bodies and minds, the same swollen heart when his tiny hand is clasped in yours or her little arms are flung around your neck, the same ache at the thought of the deceivingly distant day that “home” for them is elsewhere…

My new writerly (dare I say?) friend, Lauren Apfel, puts it perfectly:

“I think because I genuinely felt, not to be too grandiose, that [having children] was the first truly universal thing I had done in my life. There was so much humanity in the experience, so much about it that pulled me out of myself. I wasn’t one mother, alone in her exhaustion and exhilaration, I was, at once, every mother I had ever known or ever would know.”

My oldest son graduates preschool this week. He turns five the week after that. Soon after, our family is moving away from the only home, the only city we’ve known. I left my corporate job and am now stumbling along on this uncharted path.

I’m learning to live in the discomfort of that space where things are no longer as they were. I’m embracing the uncertainty of the blank page, the unknown tomorrow.

Others came before me. Others walk alongside me.

I’m on a precipice. But I’m not alone.

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