Monday I drove my son Nels to his first day on campus. He’s taking Music Theory, English, and ASL to kick off his college career.
I walked alongside him past the birch trees framing our bright pathway – he stopped to inspect a centipede cheerfully trundling our way – and I felt the sun on my face, mirrored in the honeyed swing of my child’s long blonde hair. I knew I only had a few moments with him and his low, level conversation before he’d politely step back into his private world.
I am wearing no makeup, my hair is in a lake-stained messy bun, I have given up every aim except lake life which is impossibly slow. There is nothing much to do at all except silently pace oneself for the cool-off, and then another hot shower, and padding barefoot into bed together to enter a syncopated rhythm as each family member falls asleep.
The pandemic and resultant quarantine – as Washington state residents, we’re early adopters – would be scary enough in any case, but it sucks when you’ve got children, even presumably healthy ones. Small children always seem so vulnerable; my teenagers, however, can have grownup-sized anxieties with a tad bit less historical perspective than might otherwise give them comfort.
Today, coincidentally, was the first day of the year I felt the heat of spring when I opened the door. My first thought: the planet will survive. We human beings have made some big messes and stand to make more. The planet utterly doesn’t give a fuck.
Phoenix and I went on a neighborhood walk, carefully observing distancing practices of course. Just a simple walk – after only a week of quarantine – felt invigorating, sacred. I asked how his friends were doing. I asked how he was holding up. In is social circle, Phoenix occupies a similar role as I do in mine – expected to support, expected to listen and empathize, expected to be that emotional buffer for others. I tell him to be cautious about this. I tell him, “the day before yesterday I fielded a lot of calls. I felt just fine all day long, listening to others and helping them. But then that night I was beset by anxiety and couldn’t fall asleep until six A.M.”
It isn’t summer according to the calendar, but the weather has turned. It’s gorgeous outside; sunshine most days, warming the driveway where kitty Pip regally lolls as he surveys the neighborhood. A warm rain other days; the absolute greenery of trees a fresh, indescribably rich scent as we travel inside with our groceries.
The quiet in the evenings, after dinner is done and the teens have settled into their companionable laughter with friends online. I open the windows and put a few drops of essential oils in the diffuser and take a hot shower and pad through the house in bare feet and a soft t-shirt and knickers. My body is tired and spent from yoga and hard work. My bed is made and I await my husband. Family life is a paradise, when it’s not a hell. But it’s a paradise most every day and has been for years.
My work, I have had so much work. I am glad for it, but I have had to focus diligently as to not lose myself. Focus too, to schedule a two-week sabbatical in July. This engineered break has taken every bit of discipline and ingenuity for me to plan. Obviously I am grateful to have the kind of steady clientele I can take a break; too much work is a good problem to have. The kids and I will be swimming and sunning and beach-ing and iced coffee-ing like goodballs.
And meanwhile, in between client work a break to sew myself new chonies. I’ve got a concert in the park coming up with the kids, in Portland, OR and by then it will be hot as balls. Gotta make myself a dress that weighs nothing, and a big ol’ sunhat. These are the preoccupations my mind runs to, when I’m in bed and retiring for the day.
Tonight I carefully slice into a red bell pepper, then a green one, and finally a cheerful purple onion. I cut a quarter wedge from each of these and slice as thinly as my patience will allow. I am exhausted, and I am trying to prepare a new dish. So I move slowly; but I do move. I heat up two types of tortillas (microwave under a damp cloth napkin) and wrap them in heavy foil packets into the warmed oven. Having pickled a jalapeño (while the others roast in oil and salt), I dice it finely and add to the marinade hosting thick tempeh slices. I halve cherry tomatoes into a bowl and gently combine them with a little oil, salt, sugar: set aside. I fry up the seitan chick’n strips – having pre-baked them dry and chewy in the oven – and add the peppers and onions and more pickled jalapeño. The kitchen warms brilliantly with the fragrance of peppers and onions and the family cheers a little. Finally: I slice avocado, bring out the lime cashew cream, and the purple slaw, my husband prepared earlier. We don’t set the table as my work is spilled across it, but join one another convivially on the couch to watch a quaint baking show before we go our separate ways again for the evening.
I have these waves of beyond-exhaustion that come and go. Life is not easy at the moment, but it there is much to be grateful. I am bone-tired but also exhilarated; a nearly bottomless fount of creative energy, and a lot of wonderful support from my community. We have our health. Ralph’s job is going well, and the kids are thriving. We’ve got Christmas handled but that said, it’s always a challenge for me to pace myself during such an intense time of the year.
I have decided a huge amount of conventional wisdom about teenagers is utter bollocks, as they say. Teenagers are not ridiculous or less-than; they do not deserve our smart-aleck comments and eye rolls. They do not warrant our smug and authoritarian parenting. My teens are not rude, entitled, “crazy”, “hormonal”, non-sensical. They are not especially loud or dirty. They are exactly as I would have predicted from my incredibly extensive and intensive experience unschooling them through childhood: they are whip-smart, kind, funny, sensitive, and joyful. They are genuinely interested in other people, not just themselves. They are interested in the whole of life, not just work. They do not have the martyred energy, the passive aggressive forms of communication, the entitled and inflexible attitudes of adults. They respond to criticism or correction with open-mindedness and they change their behaviors if their behaviors are deemed problematic.
If the citizens of this country were anything like my teenagers, the world would be a much better place.
We are in for several months of absolutely stunning, perfect weather. We’ve had nothing but sunshine and warmth, and delicious soft rains. The daylight lasts well past nine PM and I’m taken back to my childhood and how much I loved those late twilights. During the blue and white, perfect daylight the life springs from the soil and everywhere the scent of green grass and blooms; the peonies we brought in to fill a vase are startlingly redolent with a heady scent. Everything is in bloom and the hot earth is panting and giving forth greenery. It’s beautiful here; I live by the mountains and by the sea. I may travel but I would have such a difficult time living anywhere else.
My youngest son has become irascible and peevish in this last half a year. I’ve parented long enough to not worry too much, But I don’t ignore those kinds of things either: children need interventions when things aren’t going well, when they are struggling. Tonight I made an offhand comment and he took offense; this is happening with relative frequency of late. He comes in the bedroom and lays down next to me I do not say all the things the adults in my life used to say to me. I don’t tell him he has a bad attitude or he’s snotty or selfish. I do not make condescending remarks about puberty or “teen attitude”. It’s a little damned depressing these thoughts even come to mind but, that’s how I was raised. Still, It is ending with me, I won’t parent that way. I won’t treat mine the way I myself was treated. My son holds me and I put my head on his chest. Both kids’ voices are deepening, and they are getting broader through the shoulders and they are taller than I and although we laugh about it, it puts me off track a bit. Impending old age and death, a ways off perhaps but sometimes it doesn’t seem so.
The older child soon creeps in and I hold him a while too. The two children seek me out several times a day. This is why, exciting as my career is, I can’t and won’t work fulltime as long as there are kids that need this. All kids need this. To think when I was pregnant with my first, I worried I wouldn’t have enough love, wouldn’t have what it takes. Well. I have what it takes. Turns out. What surprises me is that every day I can return to that intention, that not one day goes by I’m on autopilot all day. Sometimes I think parenting taught me mindfulness more than any other practice, or tradition, or lecture, or book.
The windows are open and I can feel the sea air and I can hear the trainyard; a sole candle burns on the dresser. The house is quieting although the younglings stay up late; they too are comforted by the long summer evenings, I think. Children of their mother.