Commonplace

seeking the story in the ordinary

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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16 thoughts on “A Discarded Desk

  1. Dina- I have recently found your blog thanks to Jamie Krug and Lindsey Mead and am so glad I did. I love how you describe your farewell to your desk and all that came from that experience. Thank you for sharing! I’ll be back!

    1. Hi Stacey! I’m glad you found me too. Sometimes I feel like I could spend all day finding new wonderful people through the blogs I love. I’m off to check out your site! Thank you so much for your kind words.

  2. kploetz says:

    I completely understand this ambivalence of letting go and making space for the new chapters in our life stories. So absolutely you are not alone. I was in the same preschool graduating spot last year with my first (and only) and I must say, on this last week of Kindergarten, that I feel like this year, of all the almost seven years of her life, seemed to have a kind of stasis that I haven’t felt in a while. I wonder if you will find something similar once the move passes and he’s in Kindergarten. There was a lot of growth (her and me), but not as fraught with the bittersweetness of some of the earlier years. Lovely post.

    1. Yes…I think, as you insightfully suggest, that I’m in a particularly sentimental season of life. I’m curious to discover how these transitions feel year after year (though I’m not rushing anything!)…thank you for reading & sharing your thoughts here, Kristen.

  3. George says:

    I know what you mean about letting go of things. I have a baseball mitt that I bought with my bar mitzvah money…it’s older than you. Though I can’t remember my last game of catch, I can’t let it go…unless maybe one of these days one of my grand nephews decides to play baseball, which someone once said is a sport where you can spit anywhere except on the ball and on the umpire…perfect for young boys and old men.

  4. rudrip says:

    Oh, Dina. This post resonated. I found your blog through Aidan at Ivy League. I am also a former lawyer who left the practice and am navigating the terrain of unchartered territory. So much of it is uncertain and that is what causes my footing to slip. Holding on tight to everything, knowing eventually I will have to let go whether it involves parenting, identity or home.

    By the way, my Still Writing copy is highlighted in several places.

    1. I’m so glad you found me! We recovering lawyers could form quite the club. It’s wonderful to know there are others out there, finding their way…it somehow makes all the difference.

      And yes! My Still Writing is now well-used and well-loved…

  5. Definitely not alone. Oh, not at all alone. But yes, it’s relentless, time – I remember writing something similar about my son at 4, and now he’s 9.5 and I just blinked. I’m so glad you’re writing and sharing your story. I relate so much. xox

    1. Thank you for being out there, for being part of what makes me feel so much less alone…xoxo (And I just *can’t* fathom my four-year-old being 9.5…though, of course, rationally I know this will happen…and far sooner than I can imagine…)

  6. omnimom says:

    New friend: absolutely. What I love most about this is the parallel between parenting the oldest child and writing the first draft, both beset as they are with the question: where are we going from here? I have always been struck by the fact that my parenting ‘knowledge’ grinds to a halt at the exact age of child number one. A precipice indeed. At the same time, nothing is more thrilling to me than the kernel of an idea for a new essay, the way it takes shape in my mind, on the page, the way, as you say, it reveals itself. I guess, to continue the analogy, each phase of childhood makes you a more experienced parent just like each essay makes you a more experienced writer, even if we don’t always know when one phase is ending and the next is beginning. Thank you so much for including me in this lovely, thoughtful post.

    1. Once again, you have perfectly articulated what I feel. Thank you, for your words, for being out there, for being a kindred writer…

  7. The precipice is certainly uncertain! The parallel you draw between writing and parenting really resonates with me- both totally uncharted. We have moved many times–sending strength!

    1. Thank you, Denise! I’m glad you could relate to this post. And thank you, thank you for the strength…we will certainly need it ! xoxo

  8. Nina Badzin says:

    Oh I so get every word of this. Can I say that this right here is sort of a miracle and you should praise this child: “This morning, you replaced the toilet paper in the bathroom. Unasked.”

    1. You’re cracking me up, Nina! Yeah, he’s a keeper. (Now if only he’d get to bed before 10pm…)

  9. Debra says:

    I could very much relate to this, and also your post on the peculiar world of house showings (make it look like you don’t live here–but you do!) So glad I (just) discovered you here.

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