So, I know it’s almost midnight and still over 70° in Vermont and the first week of September (when it’s supposed to be 70 during the day), but somebody at the country store said the magic words, “Pumpkin Spice,” and it was time to take a whack at painting some foliage.
The paunchy gal here is a figurine brought to me years ago from Mexico by a friend. He must have seen a resemblance, but in all fairness, she’s actually a little less paunchy than I am. She’s taken up residence on our new deck. Before the deck, our weedy patio hid her exposed body, but I like that she’s now shamelessly sunning herself, embracing life and the world, not hiding in fear among the weeds, and definitely not worrying if society will disapprove of her brazenness.
Anyone who’s read this blog for more than a few months at a time, knows I have a penchant for redecorating. I change banners and colors. Sometimes it focuses more on painting and then on cartoons and back again to writing with pictures. So, you won’t be too surprised to read that I’m thinking about a new banner.
What may be surprising is that, unlike previous PickingMyBattles banners, this one may include my brazen friend and also may not have more than a tiny a tip of the hat to the bad parenting and even worse housekeeping that have driven so many posts over the years.
Thing1 was still nursing when he started toddling. He went through the crawling stage and the pulling-himself-up stages. Then he’d reach out for our hands and walks with us for guidance.
And then he didn’t reach out. He figured it out, and our help was no longer needed.
And then he didn’t need to nurse, and he took another step away.
And now he’s getting ready to take a giant step away. Thing2 is taking some of the same steps as he starts middle school and finds his own identity.
And I’m questioning mine.
‘Mom’ was, for a long time, the primary (and sometime only) way I identified myself, and I was happy about it. I didn’t like myself before Thing1 was born. Being his mom, meeting his needs changed my perceptions about boys, about the world and about myself.
But there was a person there before he was born. That person evolved, but she’s still there.
She’s still bi-polar as hell, still eating too much and the owner of a bleeding heart. She’s no longer afraid of hard work or committing to others. She’s a techie, an artist and a writer. And she’s demanding to be as much a part of my identity as the person my kids know just as ‘Mom’.
There is no such thing as ‘just a mom.’ That phrase strips motherhood of the depth of its responsibility and meaning as thoroughly as it reduces women to one of the other popular one-dimensional labels of angels or whores. I’m a bit of all of them and more.
There are still battles to be fought on behalf of Thing1 and Thing2. Thing1’s hair trigger colon still threatens his independence while Thing2’s creativity combined with his pack-rat sensibility could give new meaning to Vermont’s image as ‘the Green Mountain state’ with more of a green glow. I’m grateful to be the one fighting along side them. They’ve helped me see how much stories about family do matter as much as – maybe even more than – the stories about politicians and generals. I will always write those because they are the stories about people coming together, they are ultimately stories about hope.
But there are otherbattles, my battles, to fight as well – battles for creativity and a life of contribution and meaning beyond the laundry pile. They are just as important, and all of those battles can only be won by embracing every aspect of my identity – the loving mom, the bleeding-heart angel and even what the world may see as the bi-polar whore.
They are what combine to make what any seasoned veteran truly is — a fighter.
The concert program revealed that the middle and high school bands would also be performing. It’s a small school system, so I was still surprised by the increasingly packed house. We’ve been to a lot of recitals and school concerts over the years, so I thought I knew what to expect.
I knew nothing.
The high school band played first. The elementary and middle schools bands sat in the first row of seats waiting their turn. Mr. Neeson, the band instructor, introduced the piece, a march that the high schoolers will also be performing at the Memorial Day parade in five days. He then called for and got a B-flat from the band before them their cue.
The first notes marched perfectly in unison, echoing through the tiny auditorium and daring the audience not to clap. The band, culled from all grades of the high school, handled changes in rhythm and key, and the Big Guy and I had to remind ourselves that we were listening to kids who weren’t old enough to vote carry on a fairly complex musical conversation.
They segued to a jazzier number, a ‘jam’, we were told, that was composed for the concert. The Big Guy and I gave each other the super-impressed look. Our jaws dropped as the students got up from their places and switched instruments.
“I don’t make each kid solo for a performance.” Mr Neeson turned around to talk to the parents for a moment. “I do require they all know how to improvise, to listen to and play with each other.” Then the music started again.
There are fewer than 400 kids in our entire school system and, from the outside, it may seem fairly homogenous. The reality is that our school sees multi-generation Vermonters and transplanted flat-landers, Trump fans, Bernie-or-busters, and everyone in between. There are kids who get new iPhones every year and kids who may get their only meal of the day at school.
There was no way to tell if the pianist was a liberal or the drummer is a libertarian. The only thing the audience knew for certain was that these kids had learned how to change their perspectives, see new points of view and express their individuality, creating rich, beautiful music instead of just noise.
More than once during the concert, the Big Guy and I told each other that Thing2 needs to be in band again. Thing2’s creative spark burns hot enough that he may very well propel himself into a creative life when he’s grown up — with or without a school program. The performances, however, melded into a beautiful example of how arts in the schools are about so much more than vocation or even avocation. We knew Thing2 loved band practice, but it was only when we saw him and his friends working together to make something wonderful, that we realized the music program was teaching him as much about life as it is theory and even creativity.
The high school band finished, and Thing2’s band took the stage. Mr. Neeson turned to the parents again.
“So how many of you are Beatles fans?” he asked. Every hand in the audience went up. He asked if we knew the chorus to the first song on the album Abbey Road and then enlisted us as backup singers.
The band had no singer, but as the first drum roll completed, I saw a few parents mouthing, “Here come old flat-top”. My eyes were damp as the next two lines reverberated, and by the time the band was playing “One thing I can tell you is you got to be free,” every parent in the room was ready to sing out,
“Come together, Right NOW!” And really mean it.
Two kids playing two different sports, with one assistant coaching the other, and our morning routine has shot to H E double hockey sticks.
We have not made the bus more than once in the last three weeks, and Monday was no exception.
Monday was a two sport day with a golf tournament two towns away and a game for the other after school, so we loaded up the car with gear and got to the bus stop to see it pulling away. It was OK, it was an opportunity to go over the schedule for the night and review the to-dos for the rest of the week–testing and more testing for college, prom fittings, and of course the all-important play date.
The last thing on my mind was creativity. I didn’t even have time to congratulate myself on setting the alarm clock two hours earlier to make sure it happened Monday morning. I’ve been drawing and sketching every day and working on illustrations for a children’s book but have not been in the mood to stop and soak up and/or paint the landscape.
The missed bus stayed two cars ahead of us for most of the drive out of our 300 person town. As we reached a main road, all I noticed that grey morning was the line of brake lights in front of us.
Thing1, however, was scanning the entire scene as he waited to guide the car into what Vermont calls “traffic”. As I went through the to do list, he leaned forward and glanced up at the sky. Then he looked at the mountain that rows up behind the nondescript garage across the street.
“Mom,” he said, “look at that light. do you see that little sliver of sun hitting the hill?” I nodded no I had not and still didn’t look up as we had seen that particular hill at least twice a day every day for the last 16 years.
Thing1 does not go gaga for art as his brother and I do. He draws very well, but his passions lie elsewhere so his next words demanded me to look up.
“Now that’s a painting,” he said.
I closed my list and listened and looked at the mountain. The parting clouds had refracted that sliver of sun so that the three-day-old leaves on the trees were infused with gold. Golden mist from the rainstorm that had past 10 minutes earlier diffused the details of the scenery in front of us, and just like that I was back into landscapes.
All it took was an overly busy, completely ordinary day and the observation of a kid who is pretty smart for a math major to point out the forest and the trees.
The Big Guy and I rarely go to movies. It’s too expensive once you add snacks, and since most of the movies geared towards adolescent boys rely on volume to sell their stories, we’re just as happy to let the kids watch them on Netflix with the headphones plugged in.
We are religious about our local theater, Hubbard Hall in Cambridge, NY, however. The title on the playbill is irrelevant. When Hubbard Hall announces a new play, we make plans to see it with and then without the boys.
We were both reminded of the reason why on Saturday night when we went to see Tennessee William’s Glass Menagerie. The most autobiographical of his plays, it depicts the dysfunctional mother and her two dysfunctional older children trying to carve out a living and a life for themselves.
Hubbard Hall is famous for stripping down a play to its bare bones. Occasionally they incorporate elaborate sets into the stage design, but more frequently, minimal props and sets are used. Hubbard Hall has been fortunate to have had a string of wonderful directors and actors, and the less elaborate sets let the audience focus on performances where simplicity works to suspend reality for two hours. It leaves the viewer gripping their seat the entire time as they react to the play and pray for the spell to continue as long as possible.
Saturday did not disappoint. When the daughter Laura’s unicorn and then her heart are broken, I could see other audience members on the verge of tears. When the son leaves and reflects on his abandonment of his family, people next to me were audibly crying.
The play ended almost on a whisper, and, even though it was almost the cost of a movie for four (minus the snacks), the Big Guy and I walked back to the car in awe — as we always are — of how much bang we got for our bucks.
LAURA: Haven’t you noticed the single horn on his forehead?
JIM: A unicorn, huh? —aren’t they extinct in the modern world?
LAURA: I know!
JIM: Poor little fellow, he must feel sort of lonesome.
– The Glass Menagerie, Tennessee Williams
I had the picnic basket packed with pasta salad, cheese and crackers, and watermelon by 7PM. We had an hour to go. It was a only a five minute drive to the church yard, but we’d need to get there early to find a good spot.
When we arrived, the unofficial meeting was just coming together. There were dozens of young faces – some just a few months into this world. There children born on the other side of the globe lolling on picnic blankets with kids whose grandparents and great-great-great-grand’s built this town. But, while the faces are different, the feelings of the attendees – unlike on official Town Meeting day – were very much in sync.
Everyone, regardless of how they felt about the latest stop sign or school budget line item, greeted their neighbors happily. Some had brought dinner. Others brought dessert. In front of the congregation was what looked like a laundry line, draped with colorful sheets. It looked like the make shift stage Thing1 and Thing2 had created under our swing-set a few years ago.
By the time the sun dipped behind the mountain at the edge of the field, the meeting was ready to begin. A wiry man with a snowy white beard walked to the center of the lawn making introductions and as he left the grassy stage, players bearing elaborate marionettes glided into view.
For the next two hours, we watched field in front of the mountain darken, with the only light coming from lamps clamped to teepees at each side of the stage. The players and puppeteers told tales of foolishness, mercy, greed, and, finally of one of those rare but wonderful instances of man’s humanity to man.
The last story of a lifetime of generosity and love ultimately benefiting the generous concluded with the illuminating of paper lanterns constructed to look like houses. The puppeteers dimmed the stage lights and soon, the only sight was the tiny houses against the mountain and the only sound was the rushing river nearby. And the only thing we knew for that moment was the peace that we were unconsciously sharing with everyone in that field.
That moment was a gift from the players. It was also a gift from the Arab and Jewish storytellers who gave these stories to their children and to the world. As our moment of peace came to a quiet end, I thought of their descendants a half a world away, locked in endless conflict and, gazing at the stars, I wished peace for both sides – for their sakes and everyone else’s. I wished for us to remember that, we all have an inheritance like this – one that could unite us more than we allow it to us divide us if only we’d claim it.
It’s only a wish,and, as John Lennon said, I may just be a dreamer. But I didn’t imagine these stories or that moment.