July 2012


This afternoon I was washing the lunch dishes near three pm. Two eights were at the table nearby cutting paper into pieces and stacking them neatly into decks, with the goal of designing their own Munchkin cards. As they worked at getting the paper just right, they talked.

They talked about music, what’s great, what’s lousy, what all the kids at one school love, what all the kids at both schools hate. They talked about Minecraft. One boy was the expert. One boy wondered what it is anyway. Then the talk wandered onto weapons. The Minecraft guy talked about Nuclear Bombs. He said they are the most powerful weapon there is, or something like that. They can’t blow up  the earth, but they can do the most damage, more than missiles. The other boy wondered about a missile. It can do a lot of damage, his friend said. How much? It can blow up a whole battlefield. How big is a battlefield? Pretty big. As big as the sky? No, the sky goes on forever..

Somewhere in the midst of this conversation, my three got up from his napping mat, where for some  reason he had not fallen asleep as he usually does for an hour or more, climbed up on the chair beside me at the counter, got down with a pair of scissors, took a sheet of paper from the bigger boys’ pile on the table, and began to cut fringe around the edges.

Pluto’s not a planet, you know, he interjected loud and clear.

Yeah, it’s not, the bigger boys agreed. Then the conversation turned to planets, to Saturn and it’s rings, to Jupiter and it’s blueness, to Pluto which might be a moon of Jupiter, to the Moon, which is really the Earth’s moon.

Earlier at lunch, I had been surprised to learn my other three could hold his own in a conversation with these eights. His topic wasn’t planets, but water parks and roller coasters. All three boys, the three and two eights, love them both, and compared experiences on the wildest rides from Water Country to Canobie Lake to Cedar Point to parks in London and the Czech Republic.

Who says threes should be with threes and eights should be with eights? Its much more fun to mix things up. You never know who’ll be an expert on what, who’ll strike up a conversation with whom, which things kids will have in common, regardless of their age.

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This weekend when we arrived at the place in Ashfield, there was poop everywhere, big sloppy flops of it all along the road and even in the driveway where we parked the car. In the morning we investigated, found footprints and poop in the yard, along the edge of the pond, up to the field, down the road, as well as in the driveway. Someone had been there drinking, munching, pooping, making themselves at home.

We wondered on moose and cow. In town we checked the internet, scat seemed most likely to be cow. We talked to folks at the Farmers’ Market and at the Hardware Store, got phone numbers for Animal Control and a neighbor whose land was being used by a farmer for livestock, a character whose name seemed to come with stories.

At home I made calls, to neighbors, to the folks who use our land for collecting sap and mowing hay, to Animal Control. We found out a bit more. They were cows. They had escaped once, maybe more. There were twenty five. Soon the farmer was at the door, in rubber boots and shorts and a t-shirt saying something about Africa in yellow letters on black, looking so much like my brother, I couldn’t back away.

He told us his story, offered a bag of meat, poop scooping, and his best effort to keep the cows at home. We heard about his farm, about the bears and moose intervening in his new world, straddling the land of Goshen and our world in Ashfield.

The next day he came by to clean up, as did our neighbor to share the news and to give us a great deal of advice about looking after our place long term. There are plenty of projects in owning a country home, getting to know the neighbors not the least of them.

I like being home in the city imagining the cows walking through the woods on the logging road to come to our place to eat and drink and sow some wild oats. I wish I had been there for that scene. I’m hoping for lots of reasons it doesn’t become a habit, but once or twice, that’s all right. It gave me a story, some images, some connections. We learned something new, as I become once again, the city girl in the country, after twenty years of being the country girl in the city. Funny how life flip-flops that way, cow flops the turning point this time around. Yes Farms, Yes Food bumper sticker on my van gets new meaning once again.

I’ve been reading an article in The Atlantic, now I’ve finally unsubscribed and received what I expect will be my last issue. The article, somewhat ironically, is about how women really cannot have/do it all. No surprise there. I couldn’t even read an issue of The Atlantic once a month. Most months of my subscription sat in piles around my living and dining room and then went to the recycling bin completely unread. This article is long and I’ve spread it out over several nights. By the time I hit the sack I’m so tired I lose focus after a few pages of reading. That’s life these days, probably for most women I know. Work and kids and personal life take a good deal of energy, many hours a day, and don’t leave a lot of time for thinking about how women can’t have it all, never mind reading or writing about the subject.

The article both gets me down and clears my mind. The author talks about how professional women’s careers used to peak around 45 to 55, but now that lifespans are much longer, we could reasonably expect to peak in our fifties and early sixties, and work into our mid seventies or even eighties. As far as I can tell I’m not on that trajectory. Not only do I not seem to be peaking at anything, the article makes me wonder where I’m headed on lots of levels. What IS my career? Does family day care count? Can I consider myself an early childhood professional and find a peak there somewhere? What did I expect when I was an undergraduate or graduate student surrounded by bright, ambitious, well-educated, and generally privileged young women? Was this what any of us imagined as the peak in our careers? How many of the women I knew in college would consider themselves to be peaking in any sort of career? How many left work in some significant capacity, whether to look after their children while their partners built careers or due to some other derailment, whether job loss in a tough economy or illness or something else that means they may not have what any of us would have imagined as a peak, or a career?

The title of this blog piece came from my thoughts about the afternoon I spent meeting with my co-workers about the upcoming changes in our family day care brought on in part by my shift from working full time in the day care to splitting my time between day care teacher and administrator and Sudbury Valley School staff member. It’s been a tricky process to negotiate this change. I’m not aiming for a peak in my career, just trying to figure out what next, to explore a new challenge before it’s too late. As the Atlantic article says, it’s a rare woman who can enter a new field as late as her forties and make it work. For all of us who stayed home with kids or modified our careers to respond to their needs, it may be too late to crank out a brand new career. It’s probably time to give up  those high aspirations for making it big in a high powered field. It’s likely, however, that we’ll be working for a good many more years. What does that mean? How do women today spend sixty years in the work force, if they’re like me and started working at sixteen and will likely continue into their seventies, and never hit the big time?

There must be an art to finding peace and satisfaction in whatever work we do, whether it’s a job that gives us time to look after our kids or a position where we can devote a good deal of our full selves once the kids are more independent, or a job in old age when we need or want to keep working but need to slow down in some way.

Some of us started out with a few years on a career path of devoted ambition before having children. Others had our children later and had to figure out how to downshift careers somehow midlife to make room for mothering. It’s a lot of stages of work-life balance for most of us women, probably for many men, too. Women are going through enormous change these last few generations, and are figuring a lot of it out as we go, not based on what our mothers or grandmothers did, but on what we can and should do now.

So this afternoon in our teacher meeting we talked about some of the ways we four women are doing it.. We started by trying to make a teacher schedule that accommodates one teacher in her fifties ready for a little more responsibility now her son is entering high school, another in her late sixties who wants to keep working as a serious professional while making time for her own needs outside of work, another in her early forties who is a single mom reentering the work force after a few years of being unemployed and many years before that of serious work that ended, in part as her need to be with her son and not to take on increased responsibilities at work when he was young, and another (me) in my mid-forties, bridging longtime work running the day care business and teaching young children with new work as a staff member in a very alternative school serving young people from four to twenty one or so, as my first son goes off to college and my younger two adapt to having me working at their school.

We all have our needs and the day care does, too. We want to keep everyone as happy as we can, including ourselves, our own families, our clients and their children. It takes a lot of communication, a lot of reflection, a lot of juggling and hard thinking to make it all work. The good news is we are a committed and intelligent lot who really love each other and the day care and want to make it all work.

I think we will. I really do. The day care means too much to us to let it down in any way. It’s still scary for me to make change. I worry that I won’t be very important in the day care any more, and I don’t know how that will feel. I worry that folks won’t do things as I would like when I’m not here and that I’ll be interfering or distant in sorting that our, rather than just right. I worry my new job will be too hard, the driving too much, that something unforeseen will come up which will throw the whole plan off. I worry the enrollments won’t pick up at either the day care or SVS and the budgets will be off. I worry and I worry, but then I get back on track and get excited and energized.

After our teacher meeting, I was talking to my close friend and college roommate, who is working in her second career as a public school librarian, having left the law when her kids were young and gone back to school as they became more independent. I was telling her about the Atlantic article and she said I was lucky my brain was really active and working at this point in my life. I couldn’t argue with that. I do feel lucky to have so much interesting stuff to think about and people to talk with about what I love and to have so many projects in the hopper most days I don’t know which to choose. That’s the upside of not being able to have it all, and sometimes wishing you could.

I love my kids and my friends and family and can’t give up too much time with them. That along with lots of other things means I’ll never be a super woman writing articles for Atlantic Monthly about my fabulous career peaks and choices. I do expect though, to be actively engaged with the world. It seems likely I’ll be living and working in the world of children and families and care and education for another twenty or thirty years.

My goal is to keep life interesting and dynamic, not to get bored, to continue to give back in some way, to learn new things and to be a partner to those learning new things all around. If that’s my goal, having it all may be in reach, not big bucks, not a big name career, not power and influence, most likely, but lots of learning, and hopefully some impact on the world.

Nearly thirty years after graduation, I’m still trying to live up to the words under my picture in the high school yearbook, “My goal is to make the world a better place.”. Hopefully in some small and perhaps eventually in some bigger ways, I am and/or will.

My first son is off to college in a month, using the math and science brain he most likely inherited from his dad, off to a place he found with some help and guidance from me. After many years of having his mom and dad around a lot, I can only hope that part of my choice to leave public school teaching when he was born to run the family day care, and to continue running it while my kids were home will benefit my kids, and through them, perhaps the world.

I have no ambitions to be the first female president. Instead my ambition has been to do well by my kids and my work without overtaxing my self. I didn’t make it to a phd, didn’t stick it out in public education, haven’t published a book, nor even an article, save in a small newsletter, but I have worked hard for nearly thirty years. I hope I know a good deal more about children and teaching and caring and running a business than I did when I was young. I hope I can use what I’ve learned in the years ahead, when I’ll need to keep earning a decent income and keeping myself engaged with the world.

My house is quiet. I live with teenagers and an adolescent. They sleep in. I’m middle aged. I don’t. Though this morning 8 o’clock felt pretty good, even if I did fall asleep when the kids turned the tv off at eleven after an argument about watching more, and woke up at 1:30 am to a house all lit up, my older son off to his girlfriend’s place in Quincy, my middle guy still up in his lit up room, my gal sound asleep on my bed, in the dark, my phone on the bathroom counter where I must have left it, full of messages I hadn’t retrieved since it stopped getting reception sometime awhile back on retreat, and one from last night from my son asking me which hairdresser he usually goes to, trying to remember, asking me to call if I thought about it before scheduling hair appointments for him, his sister, and me this afternoon, late, so we won’t miss all of Artbeat and so he doesn’t have to rush back from Quincy in the morning.

Tomorrow he leaves for college orientation, four hours away on his own in his dad’s car, to spend one night on his own in the dorms before the others arrive , rather than leave on Monday at four am to arrive at eight. It’s his first time on his own on such a long drive to a new destination. He seems up for it. More letting go for me.

This week we get to start looking at his packing list for college. He realized he has a roommate, but neither has contacted the other. It’s a guy from Florida, which feels good, someplace new. When I was off to college at seventeen, I was from a small town and my roommate was from Queens. That was just as far as Florida in many ways, and we’re still friends today, spent three of our four years of college living together in some way. The girl next door that first year is my housemate in Ashfield now, lived with my first roommate and me for two of the three next years of college. We travelled cross country afterwards, where we shared a studio apartment in San Francisco. We’ve spent summer vacations together with our families since the first two were toddlers. My Ben is the first one of our mutual gang heading off to college, her gal will be off in two years, makes me wonder if Ben will make friends this weekend who he’ll love in middle age. College was that for me, good friends, future and now past husband, intellectual transformation, new life in a new place with new people, new ideas, new environment, new politics, new way of being very much with me today.

This week on our way back from the Adirondacks where I stopped after the retreat to meet my girl and my mom, where we all visited with my brother and his family, my gal and I stopped in Burlington VT, shopped in the April Cornell store, which I first found in college in Ithaca, then again in Harvard Square when I arrived here in Cambridge. Then we had lunch in a little cafe called Stone Soup, with delicious mostly vegetarian food, at a table by an open window facing onto the street adjacent to a pedestrian mall which could have been Ithaca, or Northampton, near our shared place in the country. My daughter loved Burlington so much she wants us to go back for a week, could imagine living there someday, as my son’s girlfriend hopes to do for college at UVM, as my boyfriend did as a young adult, sharing space with a classmate of mine from High School. The first things he said when I called from the road to say where we were and that we’d be late were, Isn’t it beautiful there? and does it remind you of Ithaca? Yes, and yes.

None of us knows where our kids will go in life, or where we will, but some times, the patterns feel familiar.

This week back from retreat has felt new, though it might have been predictable. I had one of those hectic days between travel and work, full of errands, sweet moments and crises, and people, then a lovely day of work yesterday with the day care kids, an idyllic evening with my kids, save a small cat pee problem, a walk to Davis Square with conversation with friends and kids, ice cream, laughing, smiling, following my grown children in admiration of who they are now, and  gratitude that amongst the parents of teens standing in the park talking over the loud Artbeat music, I alone was with my kids.

After a lot of years of roller coaster life, it sometimes feels amazing to be in a place of calm and laughter and comraderie with my kids, just to take a walk together, to be five again with my son’s gal now a regular in the family, to have my daughter do silly shadow tricks on the sidewalk on the late walk home, giggling, and trying to get me to go along, to have my son comment on how little I go barefoot or to try to get me to catch a frisbee tossed amongst his friends, to have my younger son bring me ideas from the internet or tell me about his musical adventures, last night arranging his first song, after a week of wind camp in town, trying to make music for the standard instruments, whatever those are, and to be included as though I’m not an old toad, which is what I suppose all parents of adolescents and teens worry they’ll become, princess to frog, things reverse in some ways for some of us, who were adored when our kids were young, and shunned as they grow older, but it’s not that way for most of my friends and their kids, and it’s not that way for me, and for that small bit of unpredictability this morning I’m grateful.

Unfortunately, the predictable part of Saturday morning for me is postponing paying bills and banking work and laundry while I blow some time here on the internet. Back to those chores, more discipline after retreat, combination of letting go and working hard the best bet for me these days, in order not to miss out on life or to get buried in stuff I might choose to ignore.

 

It’s a funny thing to write a blog post from retreat. Retreat ought to mean leaving the world for a bit. This year I have a different living space, and with this comes more room, and internet access. Though it’s slow and variable, I can go online without sitting on the ground behind the offices, and I have to think about how I choose to use it. At first I was grateful because I could send my daughter the e-mails I had hoped to send throughout her first week at camp, one way messages I expected would make her happy in my absence and which would come in paper form to her at the dining room tables in the mess hall, if my recollection of camp matches her experiences at all. I was also happy to be able to download bank and credit card statements, as the work goal I had set was to get my financial books in order. It wasn’t until this evening that I tried that, nearing the end of my data entry, I decided to give it a whirl, and it helped, if just a little.

Mostly, though, I’ve checked my e-mail and kept abreast of things in the outside world. This may or may not count as breaking the retreat. For me, it’s allowed me to mend fences with one person, as I have the mental and heart space here to fully focus on the message of the place, love and forgiveness. That was good and wouldn’t have been the same in letter form, as I wouldn’t have known my message was received.

Yesterday I got an e-mail from my mom telling me she had decided to let her old cat go, and would take my daughter with her this morning to a place which would do it with some grace. Getting the e-mail gave me a chance to think about my role, to wonder if I could take the cat, to talk with folks here before meditation, who suggested the first decision to make was whether or not to call, which I did, and it didn’t change my mom’s decision, but it allowed me to hear her thoughts and to understand a bit better how she viewed her cat’s end of life, and to get some peace about my daughter’s experience of the loss.

I also got to see my son’s Improv Show, which I had to miss to be here, and to laugh along with his dad and his friend’s dad, whose voices I could hear in the background, along with those in the foreground, which included voices not only of my son, but of his two friends who all met in day care long ago, teenage voices barely recognizable, had I not had the video to connect them to the large bodies that are their teenage selves.

I also got to hear the news of my sons going on a hike with their dad, something they haven’t done in many years, where my son might use the rain gear I got him for his recent camping trip, along with the boots his dad bought him for his graduation, and where they would introduce a new member to the hiking party, my son’s gal. Life is moving on, and here I am, on retreat, doing my best to get a handle on the change.

Which is what is so lovely about retreat, with or without the internet. There is time for a nap, time to wake and recall the dreams, time to read, to write, to listen, to sit on the back porch by myself for every single meal and treat in the company of birds and butterflies and this evening, the cat, who nuzzled up against me as I ate my ice cream with fresh blueberries and peaches brought from the farm stand near my mother’s house, and with whom I shared the last of the ice cream when La Gata licked the bowl.

And now it’s back to organizing those internet data pieces, which come through more quickly than they might if I typed them in by hand, but all mixed up, so that the going back over them may take as long or longer as it would have without the internet. Hard to say if the connection is helpful or hurtful. If I take the advice of our meditation leaders, perhaps it’s best to reserve judgment, and hold the duality, good and bad/good nor bad. Good night.

This afternoon after a morning of breakfast and writing and laying out my papers on the table to think about getting my financial records in order, group meditation, lunch, a long talk with an important person, I found time for a book and a nap. The book is Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding. I bought it earlier in the year from my most recent favorite used book store and began to read it, having loved another of her books, The Heart is A Lonely Hunter, as well as the cover of this book,  A TIME Reading Program Special Edition printed in 1965 with a heavy paperback cover made to look like the best needlework of that era, for which I paid 3 – at the used book store in 2012. I was born in 1966. I like reading a book in such good shape that is a year older than I am.

In any case, the book is just right this time around. For some reason I got bogged down and stopped about a quarter of the way through the book the first time around. There aren’t chapters, just parts one and two. Today before entering my deep sleep, I made it to part two. Which allowed me to dream about my daughter and me as we paddled in a canoe. Midway home, I jumped out of the canoe into the water, desperate for a swim. This left her to negotiate on her own and at one point, she had to haul the canoe up and over or around a rock close to shore and home, and her new orange sandals, which she has in real life at camp this week, having requested in the winter when we signed her up for camp that we buy those sandals with a heel strap right away, which we did, on some off price website or another, orange sandals with rubber soles and heel straps in a woman’s 9 for an eleven year old girl which suited us both when they arrived in their playfulness and practicality and style, not too old, not too young, which seems to be the trick at age eleven.

Which, coincidentally, or not, is the age of the main character in the book, or twelve, actually, but pretty close. Frankie, who becomes F. Jasmine in part two, is a lonesome girl who is looking for her place in the world of we. Interspersed with her wanderings about home and neighborhood and town and her conversations and memories of interactions with family, friends, caretakers, citizens, and strangers, are her childhood stories, the games she recalls playing as she goes about her shift to gal, of being a girl, of writing and performing in shows, of running a drink store, of walking about pretending to be Mexican, of playing with her young cousin John Henry, of talking with the housekeeper and her dad. A turning point for her in her mind and in the story is when her dad, a widower since her birth, suggests that she no longer share his bed, now that she is twelve. The man is distant and in his world much of the book, and she tries to gather his attention, but its clear they live pretty separate lives.

I think of my gal in her elevenness, working to figure out the fashion of an adolescent. She asked me recently if I realized that NEXT YEAR she will be thirteen. I questioned her, as she is eleven now, but as she pointed out, her birthday is on Christmas, so this year she’ll be twelve, and NEXT YEAR she’ll be thirteen. Right now she’s in a cabin at camp with a group of girls ages eleven to thirteen. It’s funny to think of her with them, the youngest, working her way up.

When I was eleven I was about to move to a new town, to a new house around the corner. My two best friends who had grown up with me in our little country neighborhood had already moved, one to Michigan, where I am right now, and one to a neighboring town. Eventually the one who moved to Michigan moved to that same town, and I moved to another, not to a neighborhood, but to a house in the middle of a field, from a small rural school to a small town school, one step further from the farms where my parents grew up, one step closer to the city where my father and my stepfather had and did work, one step closer when I consider it now, to the adult life in cities I have always lived, save my time in Ashfield on the weekends and various vacations or this retreat when I go back to that quieter life.

Which reminds me to stop writing. Carson McCullers will have to wait til later this evening. I’m off to meditation to see what comes. It’s always surprising to listen in quiet. After years of listening in that field where I spent life from eleven to seventeen, I’m learning to listen again here in Michigan, where my mom was a first grade teacher when I was conceived, and where my best friend moved when I was a girl becoming a gal and my gal is in New York at a camp on the very same road where my dad grew up, where our extended family still lives, and one of my dad’s cousins still farms.

Maybe later I’ll listen to Joni Mitchell’s Circle Game. Feels apt.

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