Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Herbs, again

The fact that I planted herb seedlings this Memorial Day brings to mind Samuel Johnson’s description of remarriage, though on an admittedly different order of magnitude. Me trying once again to grow something is truly the triumph of hope over experience.

It is also on some level a refutation of my newfound belief in core competencies. After reading Laura Vanderkam’s “168 Hours,” a time management tome that reassured me that the best things to spend your time on are the things you’re good at, I decided to stop dwelling on all the talents I don’t possess, all the skills I haven’t developed, all the intellectual pursuits I haven’t pursued, and concentrate more of my attention on what I already know I can do.

But even in adopting that philosophy, I recognized the downside: I was essentially giving myself permission to avoid all potential challenges. By finally admitting that I don’t want to learn yoga and I don’t seem capable of understanding the finer points of the health care debate, I was throwing in the towel.

Plus I don’t have that many core competencies. If I gave myself permission to focus on only those skills for which I possessed both interest and aptitude, my day would be restricted to writing newspaper features, baking cookies, going running, and taking walks.

So in a way, it was a relief to realize I still wanted to try growing herbs this year, even though my inaugural attempt last year didn’t yield very impressive results.

Last year, one of my four attempted crops grew: the garlic chives that my friend Jane gave me to plant. She assured me they were foolproof, and she was right. They grew, they spread, they flowered, and best of all, they reappeared this spring.

Not so with the three seedlings I bought at a nursery last year: basil, rosemary and thyme. They never grew beyond the size they were when I put them in the ground, and after one or two recipes’ worth of their leaves, they were of no more use to me. They dried up, and were apparently reabsorbed by the very same soil that was expected to help them grow and prosper.

But with the warm weather this month came the same old fantasy. Other people smell spring and imagine they’ll take up running or do a spring cleaning; I imagine myself finally having all the fresh oregano, cilantro, mint and dill I could possibly want, and all at a moment’s notice, easy as walking out the back door and into the garden.

So I decided to try again. I started small and worked hard: three herb plants – basil, rosemary and oregano – and a few hours in the garden, first weeding, then troweling a hole, then tamping in the dirt around the roots.

As I watered my young charges, I tried to convey to them a sense of hope. No, I’m not a talented gardener, but maybe they could choose to hang in there anyway. Maybe the circumstances of soil, sunlight and temperature will be propitious enough this year that they’ll flourish in spite of my inabilities.

Like a little kid, I couldn’t resist going outside to check on them several times in the 24 hours since they were planted. They look the same, which is not a bad thing. So far, so good. Rain is predicted for tomorrow, which sounds promising even if I don’t really know that they need more water just yet.

So yes, adhering to one’s core competencies is probably a good idea, or at least a safe one. But maybe it’s possible to develop new core competencies. Maybe I’ll not only be lucky this time but actually get good at herb gardening.

Go ahead and grow, little seedlings. I’m rooting for you every step of the way. And if you do prosper, maybe I’ll take another look at some of that coverage of the health care debate and try a new yoga pose or two. If I can get good at gardening, it may be time to rethink all my assumptions about core competencies.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Work and non-work: Decompartmentalizing

It was probably the most trivial item on my entire To Do list this week, and yet it made such a difference in my sense of personal organization.

“Fix email folders,” I had jotted down on my tasks list. I wasn’t sure what exactly I needed to do; I just sensed that there was probably a way to re-organize my email folders that would be more visually satisfying to me.

As it was, I had one main folder called “Work,” under which were numerous subfolders for emails related to upcoming articles and those already in progress; and another main folder called “Personal,” in which were folders for volunteer activities, community events, family correspondences and vacation plans.

I hadn’t chosen the designations “Work” and “Personal”; they were the default folders assigned by Gmail, but they seemed logical enough to me when I set up my mailbox. Everything presumably related to one or the other: work or personal life, so surely this was as good a way as any to start the process of dividing one’s correspondences.

But somehow it just didn’t work for me on a psychological level. The work items didn’t necessary feel like work, and the personal items sometimes did feel like work. It made sense to put emails related to an event I was covering for the Globe into a work folder, but when I received tickets to the same event by email, the tickets didn’t seem like they should be classified as work. And organizing the faculty/staff luncheon at my kids’ school is a volunteer activity, which made it by definition personal; yet it certainly felt more like work than leisure as I sent out countless emails asking people for food contributions and reiterating once again the school kitchen’s nut-free policy.

So I simply removed the “work” and “personal” designations. It was such a trivial act, but it did so much to clear my mind, because on a symbolic level, it seemed so much more genuinely reflective of my life. I do a variety of different things every day, and since I’m self-employed and write from home, “work” assignments don’t always feel so different from “personal” assignments. In the course of a typical week day, I might research an article, interview a subject, vacuum the carpets, make up the next month’s schedule for school library volunteers, select a recipe for dinner, draw up an agenda for the adult ed class I teach, and respond to an email about an issue related to church. What’s work? What’s leisure? What’s personal? What’s domestic?

This isn’t a complaint. Not at all. It’s life the way I believe it should be lived. Yes, I need to keep the revenue-producing tasks on my radar as a priority; given the choice between taking on another volunteer role at the kids’ school and accepting an assignment from a magazine I haven’t previously written for, I’m likely to gravitate to the latter, both for practical and ideological reasons. Writing is still one of my greatest interests as well as what I get paid to do. But I also really value the fact that as a self-employed person, I’m able to integrate so many other aspects of my life into the so-called “work” day.

When I was in my early 20’s and still new to the professional realm, working full-time in a corporate role, I was a little stunned to realize just how much of every day most people spent at their jobs. Even as an entry-level employee not expected to take work home or put in extra hours, I was there from 8:30 to 5 every weekday. “That’s the whole day,” I marveled silently during my first week of employment, a little bit horrified to discover this secret of adulthood that I’d previously chosen to overlook.

I realize how lucky I am now to be self-employed now. It gives me time to do both what I get paid for and what I like to do, whether those two categories are discrete or overlapping. Dissolving the “work” and “personal” designations in my email box was a token gesture, but for me they held a lot of symbolism. It was useful to me to override the Gmail defaults and acknowledge that in my life, “work” and “personal” are often indistinguishable, and that’s one of many things about my life for which I am truly grateful.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

20 years wed

Because I write my blog the day before I post it, I’m doing something that my superstitious nature normally resists. I’m making a presumptive statement about an event that hasn’t occurred yet. Today, as I post this entry – May 23rd , 2012 – it’s my 20th wedding anniversary. Anticipating neither the end of the world nor the demise of my marriage within the next 24 hours, I’m assuming it will be okay to go out on that limb, just this once, and write that on Tuesday, even though it’s still a day away.

Normally, Rick and I don’t make a big deal about anniversaries. We’re always up for a small celebration, but the idea of measuring the years as milestones has never really made sense to me. In for a penny, in for a pound, I like to say; if you expect to stay married, two years, ten years and twenty become indistinguishable.

And I still feel that way. It seems to me the most challenging years of marriage are the first year of sharing a household and the first year of parenthood. Once you’ve made it past both of those watermarks – whether they happen in the course of the legal institution or separate from it -- everything else seems equally challenging and equally triumphant to me. Last fall, my family and I attended the wedding of a couple who had lived together for several years and had a two-year-old son. Even though we don’t know them very well, I felt reassured as I listened to them exchange vows, thinking that they’ve already gone through the hardest parts.

I suppose it would be fitting to take out our wedding album and browse through it, were the album not packed away in a storage box in the garage of our rental home right now. Even without it, though, I can remember an abundance of details from that unseasonably warm late-May day in the middle of Memorial Day weekend: seeing my high school and college and workplace friends gathered together; the three grandparents on my side and two on my husband’s who are now gone; the tiny pearl buttons on the back of the same lacy dress that my mother had worn thirty years earlier; the chocolate hazelnut cake my sister made.

I’m not sure what the 25-year-old who posed for that wedding album would think of the person who write about her two decades later. The future seldom unfolds quite the way you imagine it will, and yet I’ve never spent a lot of time or imagination projecting ahead. I don’t think I had any particular expectations for what my life would look like 20 years hence, and I don’t think anything about it would surprise me too much.

A quick Google search informs me that the traditional 20th anniversary gift is china, but I don’t plan to give Rick any fragile collectibles today and I doubt he’ll do so for me, either. For the past several years, we’ve chosen to celebrate our anniversary by doing something special with our kids, figuring they’re the best and most tangible by-product of the 20-year union. This year we’ll once again take them on a weekend getaway, once the weather is a little warmer.

“How’s married life?” wrote an unmarried friend to me recently.

“Oh, I can think of about 200 different adjectives for it, and my guess is so can my husband and so can almost anyone else who’s been married for 20 years,” I responded.

Yes, truth be told, I probably can think of 200 different adjectives. Marriage is a lot of different things, especially two decades in. But most of my adjectives are complimentary, at least today. And I’d like to think as of this date I can add a 201st adjective for my own union: long-lasting. It’s been a fine 20 years, and I hope we celebrate plenty more milestone years yet to come.

Monday, May 21, 2012

It's all about (good) attitude

For a long time, I undervalued the quality of cheerfulness.

I thought it was banal. I thought a sunny outlook implied a lack of intellectual depth. I thought it betrayed a disturbing level of naiveté.

I’m not alone in this respect. A friend of mine once expressed the theory that if everyone is getting along, it means people just aren’t paying attention. Complacency being the enemy of critical insight, and so forth. Another acquaintance once said to me that the trait she most hoped to one day be able to ascribe to her own child was “acerbic.”

Still, running into a friend in the supermarket on Saturday afternoon reminded me of how wrong I’d been about this. This particular friend has more strenuous and more constant caretaking duties within her family than anyone my age that I know. She lives in a four-generation household. She takes care of her own children, one of whom has a disability that requires a lot of heavy lifting – both figurative and literal -- on her part. She attends to household chores for the whole clan. And she told me at the supermarket that she now covers the night shift of physical caretaking for her husband’s very elderly grandmother.

Yet she’s always cheerful. Not falsely or resignedly cheerful; but genuinely sunny and upbeat. She had two kids in tow and told me that they had just been at a baseball game for her son’s Miracle League team, a group devoted to children with physical disabilities. We talked about summer plans; she said she was looking forward to a cross-country drive with her husband and children. She said she was picking up ingredients for a family dinner and was planning to scones for Sunday breakfast. And she asked all about my family as well.

It would be too cliché to call her an inspiration. It’s not that she can be happy despite having a much bigger burden to carry than I do that impresses me; it’s just the way a pleasant attitude is part of her DNA. I know I myself don’t have that kind of upbeat presence, but as I drove home, I tried to think which of my other friends do. It made me realize that to a certain extent, I’ve prioritized irony and edginess in some of my friendships. A lot of people I spend time with tend to complain or gossip when we get together, but I can’t imagine this friend ever gossiping, and I’ve certainly never heard her complain.

And really, I think I need more exposure to that, in hopes that I’ll become more like that myself. Maybe when I was younger, it was okay to prioritize irony and edginess, but lately I’ve started to feel a bit sated. Kindness has become more important to me than cleverness, and concomitantly, I think it’s time to recognize the value of a good attitude. I probably won’t run into this friend again for a while, but I’ll try to keep yesterday’s encounter in mind. She sets a good example for me, and her pleasant outlook doesn’t seem to have set her back any. I’m not sure I can live up to this standard, but it definitely seems like a worthwhile goal.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Busy time(s) of year

“It’s a busy time of year.”

That’s what we all tell each other: as we try to find a mutually convenient date to get together; as we fill in the pause on the other end of the phone after asking for a favor that is apparently not going to be granted; as we apologize for forgetting our carpool turn.

It isn’t the only busy time of year, to be sure. We use this same line from Labor Day through the ramp-up to a new school year in September and again from mid-November through New Year’s to get through our holiday schedules. This particular “busy time of year” seems to me to begin when the kids return from school after April vacation and run through the weekend that follows the end of the school year.

This is a time of year at which I have to remind myself that my topmost priority other than taking care of my family – my priority as far as how I spend my workday while they are off at work and school – is writing articles, researching ideas and meeting deadlines, not being a full-time hostess.

And yet when I look at my To Do list this week – or next week, or the one after that – you’d never know that my job was to write newspaper stories. Because this is the time of year when my calendar fills up with other obligations. I need to compile a scrapbook for a retiring third grade teacher. I’m in charge of cream-whipping for the townwide Strawberry Festival (a job I’m assuming won’t require much advance preparation, but I’ve never done it before; I could be overlooking some critical training task). There are baked goods to be furnished for a student minister’s ordination. I’m hosting a farewell party for a friend who is moving out of state, and a weekday brunch for the school library volunteers. I also have to coordinate the yearly faculty/staff luncheon at my kids’ school, and the seventh grade advisor just contacted me and the three other seventh grade room parents to ask if we planned to hold the annual ice cream social for the class.

And it all seemed manageable until I came down with a cold. I get colds about once every three years; I can’t remember the last time I had one. For that, I’m grateful. And yet when they come, they hit me hard. I’ve been up since four o’clock this morning with a scratchy throat and just want to go back to bed.

That’s a lot of complaining for someone who volunteered for just about all of the above. Well, not the cold, of course. But both the busyness and the cold are a small price to pay for having a fairly interesting life. I know all of these events will turn out fine, and with a little diligence, I’ll even manage to pull them all off without missing any deadlines.

Right now, though, a more important task than any of the above calls. We’re out of cough drops, and I’m desperate. So my Kleenex box and I will head off to the drugstore for some relief, and then get back to work.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Click here for guilt

Oh, the guilt.

It all started with a hair care product that a stylist introduced me to last fall. Unlike just about every other hair care product on earth, it’s perfectly suited to my very curly hair. But like many salon products, it’s expensive, and once I got hooked on it, I was spending three or four times more on my hair per month than I did when I relied on drugstore inventory.

Maybe I can find it online, I thought to myself. Of course, if I could, it would probably be on some obscure beauty supply wholesale site where the ordering system would be complicated and the minimum shipment would be two hundred dollars’ worth of the product.

But no. To my surprise, the first hit that came up on my Google search was Amazon, offering the same product for half what I was paying at the salon: nine dollars a bottle, which would likely last me about three weeks. With a click, I virtually deposited two bottles in my cart.

That added up to eighteen dollars, which was a fantastic price for this product but left me seven dollars short of the $25 minimum that qualifies an order on Amazon for free shipping. Normally when this happens, I throw in a book or small electronics accessory, but at the moment I didn’t feel particularly deserving of a gift, and the point of the purchase was to save money, not to spend extra.

Then I remembered a fragment of a line I’d heard on NPR a few days ago. “People on Amazon buying diapers….socks….laundry detergent,” it said.

The lightbulb went off. I could fill up my cart with ordinary grocery dry goods. “What do I least like to lug home from the supermarket?” I asked myself. Paper towels. Click! Toilet paper. Click! Twenty-pound bags of dog kibble. Click!

A vision developed in front of me as I sat at the keyboard. Everything that’s a pain to buy at the supermarket was going to appear on my doorstep. Free delivery, and at purchase prices marginally lower than what I normally pay.

And that’s where the guilt kicked in. I know ordering from Amazon has its ethical drawbacks. Avoiding state sales tax means I’m not helping to build Massachusetts infrastructure. Having a truck deliver grocery items rather than taking them home in my Prius increases our carbon footprint. And it’s not like I want my local Market Basket to go out of business. Not at all.

I gave it some more thought. It was just a one-time event, but already I was finding the idea of never again unloading bulk paper products or heavy dog food bags from the car tantalizing. Was I really willing to take on the ethical implications of this choice?

It was a powerful reminder that just about every decision we make comes with costs and benefits. The thought of having these items delivered to my door made me happy. But was I willing to use that sense of good cheer and the extra time it earned me to do something really positive and productive to benefit the world? If so, it was a fair trade-off. But if I didn’t make a conscious effort to somehow compensate for my decision, it was harder to justify.

So I’ll try to think of a way to “pay back” the time and freedom that having paper towels and toilet paper delivered to my door will gain me. I’ll try not to squander the extra time or take it for granted.

I’m sure I’ll still make plenty of visits to our local supermarkets to buy food. I’m not ready to go so far as to order edible groceries on line yet. But it’s definitely a quandary to which I need to devote a little bit more thought. And with the mental space I freed up by not having to shop for paper products this month, that’s what I’ll try to do.

Monday, May 14, 2012

An unexpected lesson on Mothers' Day

I’ve learned so much more from my mother than I could ever list in one essay, though it would certainly make a fine topic for Mothers’ Day post.

But actually, what I found myself thinking about as Mothers’ Day ended yesterday was what mothers learn from their children.

An assignment for a story that was published in yesterday’s Boston Globe proved this on a grand scale. I had the privilege to interview Peggy McKibben, whose son is world-renowned environmentalist and journalist Bill McKibben. Toward the end of the interview, I prodded Mrs. McKibben for any insights on where her son’s passion for the environment might have originated, but she is a modest person and took little credit. “I’ve learned tons from Bill -- far more than he's learned from me,” she said about her son.

Well, so have the hundreds of thousands of people who have read his books or attended his lectures and rallies. But I thought of Mrs. McKibben’s words late in the day as I brushed my teeth and listened to my 9-year-old explain something about what was happening in fourth grade in the upcoming week. Suddenly she broke off in the middle of a sentence and looked down at her toes, which she had painted with sparkly dark-red polish earlier in the weekend. “My nails look great,” she commented. “I’m so proud of myself for painting them.”

I’m not the kind of doting mother who would let the fact that a 9-year-old can apply nail polish amaze me, but there was something so delightful -- and instructive -- in Holly’s unabashed pleasure in what she had done. I thought of all the other feats she’d accomplished in the past 24 hours. She’d washed all the dinner dishes the night before, written the first draft of a story in the backseat of the car during a long drive on Sunday morning, completed a six-mile round-trip bike ride without complaining, and followed a recipe of her grandmother’s to make a simple egg casserole. I knew of all of these accomplishments because I’d witnessed them firsthand, but also because at some point after doing them, Holly had taken time to mention her sense of pride, just as with her nails.

None of these exactly represents the work of a child prodigy. What interests me isn’t that she did all of these things but that it’s so easy for her to express pride. I thought of the things I’d done during the same amount of time and how unlikely it would be for me to say “I’m so proud of myself!” I’d had an article published on a section cover of a major metropolitan newspaper, baked two loaves of banana bread, run four miles, vacuumed the whole house, and made dinner for six. Yet, like the majority of women I know, it seldom occurs to me to look at what I’ve done and say “I’m so proud of myself!”

Holly’s pure delight with her nails reminded me that maybe I should do this more often, though. Peggy McKibben is learning from her son about global environmental challenges and how to confront them; I’m learning something much smaller in scale from my daughter. But on Mothers’ Day, a day traditionally devoted to celebrating mothers, it’s rewarding to stop and think about what we can celebrate about being mothers: the opportunity to learn from our children, whether the message is grand or minute.

And I’ll try to take a little more time to feel proud of myself this week, despite the fact that my toes are not painted with sparkly red polish.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Housework anxiety

Sometimes I wish the judges would just show up and resolve my anxieties once and for all.

My most trivial anxieties, that is: not the ones about my children’s future or our family’s carbon footprint, but the ones about my housekeeping abilities.

And perhaps it’s a sign of the current ethos, dominated as it is by American Idol and other judge-centric TV shows, that I feel like the best way to determine how I’m doing is to turn it over to a panel of critics.

I picture them showing up unannounced and walking through the house dispassionately but with purpose, brandishing clipboards and taking notes. I’d see my home anew through their eyes as they gauged the cleanliness of each nook and cranny. Stainless steel appliances polished? Check. Sills recently dusted? Of course. But what’s this sheen of stickiness on the stovetop? What’s up with the piles of homework strewn across the kitchen counter?

I can be confident that the beds are made….well, sort of. The covers are smooth, but please don’t check for hospital corners. That pile of mail on the hall table? It just arrived yesterday, I promise! Yes, I know there are too many boots by the back door, but it’s been a rainy, muddy week. And really, you wouldn’t believe how often I sweep the floors, but with the dog going in and out from the yard so often….

Given my housekeeping shortcomings, it probably seems strange that on some level I actually want these hypothetical judges to show up. But then at least I’d have some answers. Left to my own imagination – and working at home, surrounded by this particular environment throughout the duration of my work day – I vacillate constantly on whether our levels of tidiness, neatness and cleanliness register as mostly all right or mostly insufficient. Our house is a lot less cluttered than many homes I’ve seen. But we don’t have cleaning help, and I’m not someone who always remembers to look for cobwebs up by the skylights. And while it’s true that my kids’ possessions seem to flow one-way only – from their bedrooms into the family room and never the reverse – surely that’s what everyone’s kids are like, isn’t it?

Turning it over to a third party to make the determination is not the answer, I realize. I have to make my own peace with how I choose to keep the house, and I shouldn’t need to think about it from the perspective of an outside arbiter.

Sometimes it reminds me of something the labor-and-delivery nurse who taught our birthing classes before Tim was born said at the first meeting. “How many women do you know who have won awards for how successfully they went through the birthing experience?” she asked. No one responded. “Exactly!” she said. “There isn’t an award for it! You do your best, you do what works for you, and you hope for the best results, without worrying about whether you did it ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’”

The circumstances with housekeeping are a little different, but I still find her words useful. Unlike writing an article or driving a car, nothing depends on whether someone else thinks you’re doing it well or poorly. You just have to do it based on your own priorities.

My priorities? Clutter-free surfaces and sanitary kitchen conditions, and no clothes on the floor. As for the cobwebs by the skylights? Well, those spiders have to live somewhere. And if they’re up there, I can take it as proof that they aren’t on the kitchen counters.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Still me

Yes, I was already aware of it. Every time I fill out class notes for my alumni magazine, I recognize that I don’t have much to report that’s very different from what I reported the year before.

But faced with the interesting challenge this week of summarizing my life in two or three sentences for a college friend I hadn’t seen in 26 years made it clear to me the full extent to which I’m the same person I was at 19. Two or three sentences…and the phrase “I still” came up again and again. “I still run a lot, but I’m still a really slow runner.” (Admittedly, it would be surprising if I were a faster runner at 45 than at 19, but nonetheless.) “I still live in a small town outside of Boston.” “I still write a lot” (though whereas back then I wrote journal entries and college papers, now I write for a major metropolitan newspaper.)

I tried to put my finger on just what this tendency for sameness said about me. “Am I static? Stagnant? Steadfast?” I wondered on Facebook. Supportive friends came up with other descriptions. “Solidly anchored,” said one, but of course, she’s a Unitarian Universalist minister; she’s arguably in the business of making people feel empowered by their own choices. “Consistent!” said another. “Practice makes perfect,” observed my husband, surprising me by coming so very close to calling me perfect.

So many of the things I enjoy doing are things I’ve always enjoyed: running, of course, and writing and reading, but also biking and walking. Cooking and baking. Traveling to some types of destinations but not others. Sometimes I try to remember the last new skill I acquired, and I almost always come back to the few new computer skills I’ve picked up recently, but in a way that’s more about the changing times than the changing me. Last winter I learned to drive a tractor, of which I was proud, but that’s really just an extension of driving a standard shift car, which I’ve been able to do since I was sixteen.

On the other hand, earlier this spring I read Laura Vanderkam’s 168 Hours, a book about managing time mindfully and intelligently, and I was particularly struck by her concept of core competencies. As she sees it, people are both productive and happy when they concentrate on what they do well and avoid dissipating their focus with a lot of other pursuits.

Of course, this flies somewhat in the face of the many societal messages about learning new things and being open to new opportunities. We’ve all heard inspirational stories about octogenarians taking up the piano or people who reach retirement only to begin a new career.

I don’t think that will be me, though. In early 2011, I resolved to try two new things: specifically, yoga and growing herbs. Both, I thought, could open up entire new areas of talent and experience for me in my mid-40’s.

I tried yoga for a few weeks, but I just couldn’t develop any excitement for it. “Runners can’t slow down enough for yoga,” I said by way of excuse, but I’m sure there are plenty of runners who disprove that theory. I gave yoga up. The herb gardening fared a little bit better. I grew enough chives, basil, thyme and mint to use all summer. (Okay, mint is a weed; I can’t take credit for that. But the others required a little bit of nurturing.) And I enjoyed it enough that I’m going to try growing more herbs this summer. But it’s more just something I did than something I learned to do.

So maybe I’m stagnant and maybe I’m steadfast. Maybe both. Mostly, I’m me: almost the same at 45 as at 19, other than a few obvious changes in life circumstances. These are my core competencies, and I might as well claim them proudly – then, now, and if I’m lucky, in another few decades yet to come.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Sibling horseplay

On Sunday evening, I sat down at my laptop planning to write about something cerebral, but it wasn’t meant to be. I was too distracted by the shrieks and giggles ten feet away from where I was writing.

Every now and then, and particularly, it seems, on Sunday evenings, my two children need to let off steam with a long, noisy wrestling session on our bed.

This can be difficult for me to witness. Tim is a head taller than Holly, which doesn’t matter all that much in wrestling, but also thirty pounds heavier, which presumably does. I’m always afraid that calamity will result from these ultra-physical moments between the two of them as Tim slings Holly over his shoulder before tossing her down on the mattress. Of course, there’s always the possibility of his being the injured one as well, the way Holly pounces on his back. They assure me that the big soft cushioning of our double mattress makes it an entirely safe game, but if that’s true, it’s still hard for a mother to watch.

It’s important to their sibling relationship, I realize. They like to let off energy and they like to do so with physical contact. I need to get used to this, despite the fact that it is alien to my background. I grew up with two sisters, and we never got more physical than maybe an occasional piggy-back ride.

My mother was also one of three sisters, so she didn’t notice anything remarkable about our interactions – or lack thereof -- but my father once informed us that the correct way for one sibling in a household to pass by another was with nothing less than a punch to the ribs. Tripping was another acceptable option, he said, and there was always the classic noogie. This was how he and his sister spent their childhoods, he told us, and he didn’t realize that it wasn’t like that in every household. To him, we must have seemed semi-glacial in our physical reserve.

Well, my children will never have that problem; I’ll just be relieved if neither of them breaks an arm or punctures a lung with all this horseplay. But despite my mild anxieties about the orthopedic risks at which they put themselves, I acknowledge that in some ways, this is probably good for them. Not only do they vent some pent-up physical energy; they also develop a sense of their own strength and muscle control. Holly is not fond of organized sports, so this may be the closest she comes most days to testing her gross motor skills.

Still, by 9 p.m. I break it up and tell them they both have to read for ten minutes to calm down before bed. They complain, but they follow my instructions, and within minutes they’re lying side by side, engrosssed in their books.

That’s good for them too. Horseplay, reading – either way, they seem to end a lot of evenings side by side. It’s how life with a sibling should be. That I know, even if I never punched, tripped or noogied my sisters during our own childhood years.

Friday, May 4, 2012

This too shall pass -- unfortunately

It’s inevitable at this time of year: from the day the kids return to classes after April vacation, it feels like a rapidly accelerating slide to the end of the school year.

This year, more than ever, I wish I could slow it down. But I can’t, not even a little bit. After last year’s winter of blizzards, school went through the end of June, stretching out the post-April interlude just a little; this year we have just one skimpy day to make up, and school year 2011-12 rolls on out of town with the last departing school bus on June 19.

It’s not the summer vacation part I’m concerned about. Being self-employed, I don’t have to worry about filling long hours for the kids while I’m at work, and they don’t need or expect a lot of structured activities. We have a pond membership, so we’ll go swimming often, and we’ll head up to Maine some weekends. Not ‘til August will we leave town for any length of time.

But that’s all fine. What bothers me about seeing the school year end is just that I am finally at the point of parenting at which it all seems to be slipping away too fast.

Other parents tend to reach this stage a lot earlier, if I’m to believe what they say. We were barely past the first year when my parenting peers started lamenting how fast the children were growing up. But I never saw it that way. It wasn’t that the time dragged; it was just that contrary to everyone else’s claims, the early years of parenting seemed to me to happen very much in real time. That first year of babyhood seemed like it lasted…well, about a year. Toddlerhood was another couple of years, and the preschool stages seemed to take a couple more years after that.

I never chimed in when other parents wished they could stop time while their children were very small. I enjoyed each new stage, and seldom felt sad about seeing one stage end and another one begin. “Someday you’ll miss these times,” grandmothers would tell me as I pushed a two-year-old on the swing at the playground or read to a three-year-old at the library. Maybe someday I will, but it hasn’t happened yet. It was wonderful as it was happening, but I was always fine with the passage of time.

This year, it’s different, though. I’ve been saying since last September that we’ll never have a year as good as this one. The kids are both simply at such delightful stages. Tim is serious and hardworking in seventh grade; he hangs tight with a small circle of friends and gets along fine with the kids to whom he’s not as close. Holly made new friends this year; they don’t just play together, they organize their own book group discussions, write plays and call the boys in the class on their occasionally egregious behavior. Both are happy to leave for school in the morning, happy to sit down to their homework in the afternoon, and happy with free time on the weekends.

It’s not only contentment with the present that makes me want to stop time. Though I wish this weren’t the case, it’s also apprehension about the future. I have lots of friends with kids a few years older than mine: the more I hear about the rigors of high school honors courses, driver’s ed and college searches, the less I want to reach any of it.

I also really like our current living situation, but we’re renters; it won’t last forever. And I like the fact that my parents and in-laws and sisters and almost all my extended family members and friends are healthy and well at the moment. Overall, I like the current absence of significantly problematic circumstances in my life.

Unfortunately, this too shall pass. It’s all too good to last. If I do eventually become the kind of person who looks back on past phases and wishes I were still in their midst, it won’t be the playground days or the infancy days; it will be these days right now.

It can’t last; there’s nothing I can do about that except enjoy it right now, and honor the present, and observe it, and commemorate it. And so I write about all that is good; it’s the closest thing I know of to preserving it forever.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Sparsely decorated

When a friend who is also a professional organizer sent me her e-newsletter today, I wasn’t surprised to see that the topic was reducing clutter. That’s a professional organizer’s bread-and-butter, after all; no one calls an organizer because they don’t have enough stuff.

Clutter, or, put more gently, the accumulation of material goods, is a topic of great interest to me. Just yesterday, I dropped by the home of a new acquaintance here in town, and we fell into an almost philosophical discussion about what we own and why. Her house had the same sparse ambience that mine does – sometimes I facetiously use the word “barren” to describe our decorating style, but the fact is that I just don’t like having a lot of things around. Both our current house and the one we moved out of a year ago featured semi-rural settings and lots of windows, so I like to say we use natural décor: instead of knick-knacks, we keep the focus on the tree branches and cloud formations and shadows that form ever-changing nature-centric tableaux just beyond our walls.

At the moment, we’re in the midst of a rather interesting experiment regarding material possessions. When we moved into our current home, it was intended to be a one-year rental, although we’ve since extended our lease another year. Nonetheless, exhausted from the process of packing up our last house and moving, my husband and children and I agreed that we were going to be in no hurry to unload everything we owned into this new house, especially if we’d be packing it all up again in just a few short months. We agreed that we would unpack what we needed – kitchenware, clothing, linens, office supplies, the kids’ favorite toys and books, electronics – and hold off on the rest until we could see what we missed. After a year, we figured, anything we hadn’t unpacked from the boxes in the garage were items we didn’t care about much anyway and probably didn’t need to have around.

After a few months in our new home, I began to realize that there were several bare surfaces on which we could display some of our favorite keepsakes. Finally one Saturday afternoon, I started digging through the boxes in search of just a few decorative items to put out: colored glass vases, ceramic pitchers, a couple of objets d’art I’d inherited from my grandparents and particularly treasured.

I located the items I had in mind and found places to display them, but in doing so, I found a lot of items I’d forgotten about as well: more vases and pitchers and other decorative items than I ever remember owning. Seeing some of them brought me a sense of bittersweet nostalgia; it seemed somehow sad that these much-loved pieces with which I’d once decorated my home had slipped out of my mind altogether in a year’s time.

I’m not sure exactly what it says about the more philosophical issue of our relationship to our belongings. Definitely, we don’t have a clutter problem. But, I sometimes wonder, do we have a sentimentality problem, if it’s so easy for us to live without personal items around the house?

On balance, our experiment in leaving boxes packed feels successful to me. After a year, I do know what I miss, and from that mental list, I’ll dig around in the storage boxes this weekend until I find them. Yes, by the standards of most households, we’re impressively clutter-free. But once in a while, I’m absolutely willing to let sentimentality take over and compel me to unearth some long-buried personal treasure that I can once again display and enjoy.