That was the question that 18 years later I can still clearly hear my 4 year-old son asking me. Nearly two decades later, I still don’t have a good answer.
It was my second week of school teaching in a new district. A vendor with whom I had a scheduled appointment was late and explained as he arrived that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. I pictured some yahoo in a small privateplane somehow making a horrific mistake.
My library’s television wasn’t on, but I did have a computer. The sales rep and I sat down and watched as the second plane hit the tower. I initially thought it was a repeating loop of the first plane, not being able to conceive of two different planes hitting this symbol of New York City. It was unimaginable.
A teacher who taught Participation in Government brought his class down to watch the library’s television and for the first time I heard the name Osama bin Laden. I had no idea who that was, but that teacher became a dear friend from whom I’ve since learned many additional things.
School closed early and faculty and students filed out of the building in a remarkably quiet fashion. Under the bluest of blues skies I drove to pick up my children from their daycare, eager to have them in my arms.
In the days which followed the sky continued to shine inexplicably blue. I drove the NYS thruway west to work as tractor trailers headed south laden with huge generators to provide power to those seeking survivors and recovering bodies of those lost.
In the weeks that followed, people were kinder to one another, voices were softer. There was a sense of appreciation for the heroism displayed by the police and fire fighters who risked their lives. Our country, while broken, was whole. We were United States.
As of mid morning on Monday my hair still smelled like woodsmoke from Saturday night’s bonfire on Herring Cove beach. I washed it later in the day, but delaying the shampooing allowed the odor to linger in a lame attempt to cling to the week I had just spent at the Cape. It ended too soon.
After my adventures in Greece earlier this summer, I came to the realization that 2 weeks in Greece was essentially the same cost as the house I rent in Wellfleet. Hmmm. That was striking. Maybe it was time to let go of of this twenty year tradition for the sake of experiencing new destinations…
But, the magic of the Cape seems to get me every time, even when getting there is a clusterf*ck of traffic. Morning walks to the ocean, swimming with my dog in a pond that feels like our own and enjoying friends and low key entertaining…I just don’t know how to let it go.
Difficulty letting go has been a theme for me, it seems. This annual vacation, my Volvo wagon, lovers, specific articles of clothing…I hang on to things that have personal meaning that is sometimes irrational and beyond physical properties. I suspect it comes from unresolved childhood issues and a general lack of stability growing up. I mean, by the time I was in 6th grade I had attended three different school districts (and 5 separate buildings) and moved at least 8 times, which certainly didn’t lend much in terms of consistency to my life.
Perhaps all of that upheaval created a need for some constants in my life, beyond my brother and oldest of friends, and the annual trip to the Cape has simply grown into an event that is beyond a mere beach vacation. It’s a touchstone of my summer.
As I drove east and then south to Wellfleet, I did so with the mindset that this was it, end of an era, and I felt okay about it. Seven days later I knew that somehow I would find a way to continue this tradition, even with an anticipated return to Greece and a trip with my youngest son to Spain. At least for the next year. It’s just too important to my emotional and mental health, and my dog, to abandon.
Traveling with my 20 year-old son made for an interesting trip. Because of the time he spent in Thailand last year, he has some experience with having to navigate his way from destination to destination. He may not have the same intuition as my oldest son when it comes to transportation, but he has grown to be helpful and developed some useful skills.
I’ve jokingly remarked a couple of times (maybe even to you, specifically) that the best part of our recent vacation to Greece was having someone with whom to day drink. With some sobering up reflection, I now recognize that what’s going to remain with me, even longer than the 5lbs of feta and dolmas I brought home, are the moments we spent talking, sharing thoughts, making decisions together (rosé or white?) and spending hours and hours outside together, under cloudless blue skies.
Over the years I’ve witnessed too many friends lose a child, most frequently, a son. I grew up in a town where a number of my peers died being physically reckless in a way different than today’s young people. Usually it was a car + alcohol + speed situation, not exactly the same kinds of substances to which our country is experiencing an epidemic of abuse and addiction to currently. Narcotics have always been way too scary to mess around with to me, which initially made overdoses so incredibly shocking. Now, though, it is my presumed cause of death when anyone between the ages of 17 and 30 dies suddenly.
A few former colleagues of mine have lost children suddenly and at least one was directly related to substance abuse. That mom told me something that will always stay with me. In my whole life, I might have experienced two other instances in which words have had the same profound impact on my heart and thoughts. What she said was revelatory:
All you can do is enjoy them while you’ve got them.
During times of frustration with my sons, I’ve reached for that truism frequently. It helped me to accept that I couldn’t make my sons do, or not do, really much of anything. Whether it was attending classes at the High, writing a thank you note or washing their hair, it was on them. No amount of time spent arguing or in disagreement could force any of my children to do what I wanted them to do, if it wasn’t what they wanted to do. They are their own people.
After my friend’s loss and the lesson she gave to me, I remember thinking “if something really horrible happened to my kid, I wouldn’t want his last interaction with me to have been a heated exchange about why he hadn’t handed in a required assignment for school.” I’d much rather it be a quick “love you” at the end of a call or text. I learned I needed to let some things go.
On Naxos Island, my son and I rented bikes for the day and rode about 20 miles to the beach and an abandoned hotel project that had become a destination for graffiti artists. After we were fitted for bikes and provided with helmets, my son clipped the strap on his together and hung it on his handlebars. I said, “you’re not wearing that?” And he said “No.” I bit my tongue, clipped my helmet on and told him to leave his helmet behind if he wasn’t going to wear it. My helmet remained firmly in place on my head for the duration of the ride.
Over the course of the day, I suggested once or twice that my son might want to hit the sunscreen. He declined. I rubbed on my second or third application of the #30 spf I had purchased in Athens without comment. His decision. His eventual sunburn.
There comes a point in a parent’s life when they have to let go in ways that may be frightening, especially when their child’s approach is completely contrary to what they themselves had spent years teaching their offspring was the right or best or appropriate or safe way to conduct the life they had been given. It’s part of the process of separating from one another, isn’t it?
I returned to Albany last week to hear of the death of the child of a neighbor I had when I was in high school. Again, a son. My assumption about the cause of the young man’s death was, unfortunately, correct. My heart hurt for those left behind.
Finding one’s way through life isn’t easy, despite the maps with which we are provided. We hope that our children make good choices, but when they don’t, we can only wish for the consequences to be negligible – a sunburn at worst, certainly not the loss of their young life.
Nearly every day there’s another anxiety inducing situation or remark delivered courtesy of the incompetent and corrupt Trump administration. There is no end in sight and I’m growing increasingly concerned about the state of our country and what the future may hold. To be perfectly blunt – shit is scary and I find myself frequently on the edge obsessing over the direction in which the President seems to be leading us. It is really bad.
As a librarian, I was trained to evaluate information and seek multiple perspectives on topics and I try to apply those skills in my personal media consumption. I sometimes listen to conservative radio when I’m in the car and have made a point of checking Fox and other media outlets to get the “other side” of the story because I really want to understand their position. I truly don’t want to only absorb opinions that match my own, but when I listen to right wing commentators I feel my heart start to race. How are we interpreting the same actions in such radically different ways?
My only explanation for our divergent viewpoints is differing motivations and priorities. Personally, I’m not particularly motivated to accumulate money, so the purported tax break doesn’t impress me. I’d be much happier having any reduction of my tax burden being redistributed to people who need it more than I. The popular technique of demonizing refugees and other people seeking safety and opportunity isn’t very effective either. I’m not afraid of people who don’t look like me or who have skin of a different color. I’d like to think that I’m evolved enough to recognize that if fear of “other” was compelling me to behave in a particular way towards certain people, I would know that it was a deficit in myself, and not them.
The things in life that are most important to me, my priorities, are things like clean water, breathable air, a stable home, and access to food, education and health care. I’m not interested in building walls. Instead, I want to know why in a country as rich in resources as ours, there are people who do not have their most basic needs met. Why are there families who have to choose between food and medicine? How do low and middle income families ever get ahead? Hard work no longer reliably gets rewarded in our society. How many people do you know who work their asses off 40 or 50 hours a week to, at best, barely hang on to basic necessities?
Speaking of bare necessities, we can agree that these include a place to safely sleep, essential hygiene products like a toothbrush, and linens suited to the environment are essential, can’t we? I’m disgusted to know that employees of the federal government are in a position in which they must either:
A. seriously argue that a blanket is not a required item for a child sleeping on a concrete floor or
B. actually resist that avenue of thinking and, perhaps, even decry the kind of fucked up logic that is currently being put forth by the Whitehouse and refuse the task.
I’ve always refused to allow fear to be the reason behind the choices I make and resent the Republican game which makes this emotion such a central part of their playbook. I have to admit, though, that I am afraid. Our government is becoming something I’ve never before seen in our country and there does not seem to be a bottom to our fall. I’m tired of hearing about the economy and I don’t care how well anyone’s portfolio is doing. It doesn’t mean anything to me if unemployment is at historically low rates, either. You see, those highs and lows mean nothing if our souls are bankrupt and the expectations for our elected representatives are satisfied by the quality of the people currently in those positions. It’s time to get involved and resist. I want my country back.
Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, originally published in 1999, is one of those books that has stayed with me since I first read it many years ago. This YA novel relates the story of a high school freshman, Melinda, who is ostracized by her peers because she calls the police while at a party during the summer after eighth grade. What no one other than Melinda knows is that she called for help because she had been sexually attacked by an upperclassman. She told no one. She did not speak.
Recently, I read the graphic novel edition of the title and was completely taken in by the story again. Updated to include social media, cell phones and other contemporary details, the story translated beautifully to the visual medium of a graphic novel. Our copy has already disappeared from the collection, a sure sign to librarians of a book being a winner. We have two more copies on order.
The latest title written by Anderson is Shout, an autobiography written in verse and, again, it is exceptional. Subtitled “The true story of a survivor who refused to be silenced,” this book tells the story, at last, directly from the author’s perspective without the protection a fictional character can provide. It is raw and harrowing and at times deeply sad, but there is a thread of defiance that is awe inspiring. The story manages to span a time period from World War II to #metoo and has left a mark upon me that I suspect will remain forever.
Below are a few of the lines that stole my breath.
I didn’t know how much I admired that centuries old building.
I wouldn’t have predicted how sad I would feel to see it aflame.
I wasn’t interested in reading Victor Hugo.
I didn’t truly appreciate how fortunate I was to have visited a cathedral and lit a candle for my father in an edifice more than 800 years old.
I approached antiquities with the false knowledge that they would always be there.
I couldn’t have predicted how annoyed I would get hearing “Notre Dame is their World Trade Center.” Nope, doesn’t compare. One was centuries old, the other less than 30 years-old. One was a religious icon, the other a symbol of financial dominance. One was presumably an accident, the other was intentional murder. Do I have to continue?
I wouldn’t have considered how effortlessly the Catholic Church could repair the physical damages because of the tremendous wealth (~$30 billion) they possess.
I might not have wondered if there is some sort of cruel justice for all of the victims of clergy sexual abuse.
I had no haste to visit Paris, but now I really want to get back there again. Vite.
The years that I was married were busy ones. The boys were young and my husband and I worked opposite hours maximizing coverage of the children, but leaving little time for one another. As the kids grew, we grew apart until I remember a sense of invisibility appearing. I didn’t feel seen. In fact, I felt about as acknowledged as a throw pillow which had been part of a household for so long that its original bright color had faded into something no longer distinctive. It wasn’t good – or good for me.
My first post-marriage relationship, in many ways, kept me in that same shadowy place. Although I felt excited and emotionally engaged, the circumstances weren’t ideal and I felt restrained from being my best live out loud self. As a woman who increasingly wanted more – more fun, more open honesty, more life, I came to realize that the only part of my relationship that was consistently growing was my frustration. It’s taken a surprisingly long time to move from that dark place to a new vantage spot that comes with more sunshine and light. It’s getting better.
Have you heard or used the term 518-Famous? A close friend has been calling me that and it cracks me up. I absolutely love the phrase and I hope that whomever originated it did so with fondness, because that’s how I interpret being tagged as such. It isn’t a declaration of one’s value, it’s more a comment on the small, intimate circle that is Albany for a lot of people.
At an event last week there were some really nice women who had either seen the Front Parlor storytelling event, or follow me on Instagram. They approached me knowing my name and it was pretty cool having a conversation immediately because this person you just met is familiar with your stories or perspective. While my circle of friends and acquaintances is pretty large due to many years in the hospitality industry and education, I’d like to believe that any notoriety I may own comes from this blog more than anything else. This is the place where I’m most myself publicly, I think, and where you just may have witnessed my becoming increasingly more visible. Maybe even 518 famous.