The other day I was at a stop light on the way to the grocery store, and an elderly person pushed the crosswalk button at the nearby intersection. Apparently I was in a hurry and those bananas I needed to buy just couldn’t wait another minute because I noticed myself getting annoyed that we had to wait for this person to cross the street. And then suddenly my mind flashed forward about 80 years and I thought of M being that person in the crosswalk, long after I am gone, and I was hoping that the drivers around her wouldn’t get all irritated with her because, hey, that’s my baby you’re talking about. A quick reality check of my own attitude made me realize that the very person in front of me was someone else’s baby at some point long ago, and I should offer the same deference. Not everyone–young or old–moves through life, literally or figuratively, at the same speed and I need to remember that more often and just submit to the paces and strides over which I have no control.
One thing that I am not very good at is slowing down and just living in the moment. This character flaw came into clearer focus not too long after becoming a parent three years ago. Being essentially forced to submit to someone else’s schedule and whims (with an upbeat attitude no less) and put aside all of my own preconceived expectations is challenging at best. And I don’t just mean with my child–it’s with everyone.
I am sure at its base, a lot of it is from feeling stretched in a thousand different directions, often all at one time, often after very little quality sleep or downtime (which I admit is due to some lingering bad habits that have formed since M was born, but I digress). I think it’s also a result of me always trying to get to the next thing, like a checklist of things that “need” to get done. It’s no surprise really, considering that is how so much of our lives are designed from a very young age. You go to school and participate in extracurricular things so you can go to college. You go to college so you can get a decent job. You get a decent job so you can buy a home, pay off your loans and/or start a family. You put money under the mattress so you can retire some day. You retire so you can eek out some enjoyment in your golden years. Then you wait to die. Maybe that last part is a bit harsh, but it isn’t far from the bigger picture.
But the spaces in between is where I now struggle. How to just stop and linger and really savor the moment of eating summer’s last garden tomatoes rather than thinking about the dishes that must be done next, and then the nightly bathtime routine, and on and on. Or how to really just see that when M is a bit more clingy than usual after we get home, that maybe she just needs an extra 10 minutes of hanging out on the couch with me, rather than worry so much that dinner might not start at exactly 6:30 sharp–how easily I forget that she just spent the last 8 hours with someone else that wasn’t me. Or how it’s actually quite funny when she does something like throw an extra handful of flour into the bread machine because it means that she’s learning how to contribute in the kitchen and that I should be at least happy that she didn’t throw it on the floor.
Trying to slow down is something that I am actively working on. For me, it will be a lifelong work in progress. Some people seemingly have an innate ability to just let go and an endless supply of patience and positive attitude. I am not that person or that parent by nature. Lately, more days are better than not, but I often feel like I am still selling myself and my family short because of it. I really do need to loosen up a bit and just enjoy these fleeting moments because before long, I, and then she, will be alone shuffling in that crosswalk, with only the memories of the past as motivation to keep going. I don’t want the bulk of those memories to be of “hurry up’s” or impatient sighs or “it’s time to go” or “it’s too close to dinner”. I want them to be of the secret tastes of sweets before dinner, or an extra lap around the block or a fourth read of this month’s favorite book.
Patience and taking stock of what’s happening in the now will allow me to recognize that while it might be slowing us down if I let M put on her own shoes, I get an extra moment to notice how small her toes still are and she gets a boost of confidence. By allowing us to take one more spin around the block during our nightly stroll, we might get to see that silly squirrel that secretly pokes in and out of the neighbor’s eaves and makes M smile. By letting her read just one more book once in a while before bed, maybe I will help pass along my love of books to her. By letting her linger in her PJs a little longer every now and then, maybe I’ll get another glimpse of her being so absorbed in her play and witness some really fascinating dialogue between her and her dolls.
There are too many schedules in our lives, many of them dictated by forces beyond our control, looming over us like an overcast sky. By trying to slow down the time between those deadlines, I can make my family’s life and therefore my life all the richer. And I am not giving myself a deadline for the task ahead. Time to just go with the flow.
Recently, our next door neighbors moved to another town. M had come to know them over time and was particularly fond of their very affectionate cat. Although we had known for a while beforehand that our neighbors were intending to move, we did not inform M until just a few days before because we did not want to make her unnecessarily anxious or sad. When we told her, she didn’t seem to really understand what moving entailed, so I tried to explain that they were going to live in another house and wouldn’t be our neighbors anymore. The day they moved, M and I were sitting on our front steps after I had picked her up from preschool, and I reminded her that our neighbors had moved earlier that day. Her question to me was so sweet and highlighted once again how kids think in very simple yet profound ways: “Did they take their bed?”
I had been so worried about how she was going to feel about them moving and taking their cat and dog. But instead, M was thinking about something else entirely. Although she had never personally seen their bed, my guess is that she associated comfort and security with her own bed–although given that she does not spend most nights in her own bed for the whole night it does make me wonder–and she was concerned that our neighbors might not have someplace to sleep. Perhaps I am reading more into it than what she meant. I’m not really sure whether she could have conjured up any other material possessions they might have taken with them since she had not been in their house since the last time we took care of their cat.
Either way, I wondered what she’d want to bring if we moved. I had some pretty good guesses, with most of the things being stuffed with polyfil. Then I considered what things I would want to take if we had to leave in a hurry (although our neighbors did not leave under such circumstances). Assuming that all people and pets were accounted for, I think the one thing that I would want to make sure I packed or took with me is all of the photos and movies I have taken and saved over time. They give me security in a way that nothing purchased ever could. They help solidify images in my mind of people long since passed, places long since left and many vast experiences in my life, from the garden variety birthday party to my first true vegetable garden to a trip to Costa Rica. Some of them show things or people that cannot really be talked about without a lot of mixed feelings–by looking at them I can at least draw forward memories that are now bittersweet, or in some ways taboo. All of these photos and movies, which are essentially memories burned into paper, are like a collage of my life and everyone that’s been in it. I always want to have those things near, especially since time has a funny way of making things go fuzzy.
Q for you: What item(s) would you want to always take with you to maintain comfort and security?
Ever since M was born and she’s come to form bonds with other young children during her three short years, I’ve been thinking more and more of how one makes friends and maintains friendships over time. And why some friendships last, and some peter out over time (and trying to accept that that’s OK). And why some people have a lot of friends and some only have one or two. And why it sometimes seems so easy to make new friends yet other times it feels all awkward and clunky like you’re back in high school, even though that might even be more than half a lifetime ago. And why some friendships can be so deep that nothing goes unsaid, yet others seem only to scratch the surface. My guess is that social media sites like Facebook have changed the dynamics a bit too, with long lost friends suddenly reappearing in one’s life (for good or for bad) and a newfound daily dialogue where there was once largely comfortable silence, save for the random birth announcement or holiday greeting.
It’s been interesting to watch M form what can now probably be called true friendships. We’re lucky to live on a street where there are a few other girls (yes, they happen to all be girls, strangely enough) for M to pal around with. But two in particular, A and E (who are sisters), are M’s favorites by far–proximity in age is likely the reason why. M gets genuinely excited whenever she hears A or E outside playing and looks for her friends often from the window. It’s been fun to watch all of them start to grow up together and navigate touchy toddler/preschooler issues like taking turns or sharing or acceptable boundaries of personal space and simultaneously generate pure joy and giddiness over talking about things like poop and flip flops. M will get excited to try and remember to tell E something that happened earlier that day or show her something that she thinks is cool on the block. And A and E reciprocate these things in kind. I hope that they have many years of hanging out on the corner and sharing giggles and watermelon.
In many ways, seeing M form these friendships reminds me of my grade school years growing up in upstate New York. I had really neat friendships (until we moved to Massachusetts when I was in sixth grade) with my next door neighbor (A) and another close friend (L) who lived up the road. I was truly heartbroken that we had to leave those friends behind. Those were the ancient days of yore where the only hope of maintaining a friendship was by (gasp!) paper and pen, and even though there were some well-intentioned attempts at keeping things going, middle school life and geography ultimately got in the way. But a funny thing happened after I reluctantly (but now thankfully!) joined Facebook–I was able to reconnect with several elementary school friends, AND my old next door neighbor A!! How incredible! And wouldn’t you know that A and I still have things to chat about from time to time. Not just the fun things we remember about growing up in the 80s (the music, rollerskating, video games) but other bigger things, like our stances on religion in particular. We happen to have the same views on these things, so that makes it more awesome (at least from my perspective). But in many ways I don’t even know that it would have mattered how we turned out politically because the nucleus of the friendship seemed to come from a more organic place. I wonder whether M will have a similar experience as she and A and E eventually go their separate ways…(she may not know it yet, but eventually M WILL be moving out!)
I can see how it is easy to form friendships with people who literally grow up with and around you. They’re like family–even if you don’t like them one day, ultimately you love them for all that you have experienced together, the good, the bad and the not taking turns. And a separation of time and space doesn’t diminish or erase those kinds of friendships, so even if it takes 20+ years to reconnect, it still feels totally natural to be yourself when you do. Since M, at least at this point, tends to be more timid and not overly extroverted until she is comfortable in the presence of others, she takes a long time to warm up to anyone else before they might be considered a “friend”. It will be interesting to see how she forms new friendships in places like school or sports as she gets older. Maybe she will grow out of it, but at this point at least, she does not go out of her way to meet new people or approach groups of more than 2 kids.
And this is what made me wonder about my own friendships and how or why they formed. In all my life, I have not been one to have very many friends–I am happy with a close handful or so. But on the depth scale, I’d say that most of them have hovered around a 7 or 8, with 1 being “I’ll tell you my name and we can talk about the weather” and a 10 being “I have a very dark secret to tell you and no one else, not even my mom or husband knows but you” (I don’t, by the way). Why is that? Sometimes it gets me down when I see other folks who seem to have that one true best friend that is based on a very deep bond, and I don’t. Jealous perhaps. But overall I have generally been more of the introverted, solitary type over my life (by choice) so I wonder what it is that I think I am missing. Certainly I have family and a fortunately a husband that if needed, I could always turn to in moments of despair. But there is something about having a friend who you can share your most personal thoughts with and they really are there for you not because of blood or marital ties. Almost like a third party seal of approval that, yes, you are worthy of such things.
But as to how any friendship forms, I’ve come to the conclusion that a lot of it really seems to be about time and place. If I scan the catalog of friends that I have now, it is certainly a healthy mix of “work friends”, “college/law school friends”, “friends that I met because of M” (preschool, neighborhood), and a few other categories. Some definitely were strong friendships in their own right, but often later strengthened by parallel experiences we both had in common throughout the years (getting married, having children, changing jobs). I suppose that it’s no big surprise that having things in common with someone leads to friendships, but there also needs to be a bit of personality alignment as well for it to work. We could both love reading about gardening or breaking down last night’s Patriots game, but if you’re a condescending jerk (or I am) chances are that one or both of us is not going to invest much time or effort in maintaining the friendship.
Except kids are different. They often seem really not to care about any of that, or at least get over it fairly quickly, because all they care about is being silly and who has the coolest toys out in the yard at the moment. I think adults need to be more like that (present company included). Why does it get harder to make friends over time as you get older? Why not just go knock on your neighbors’ doors and see if they want to share a brew or some veggies from your garden or catch up on whose quarterback rating is falling this week? Does it really matter that they might not have the same world view as you? No, it doesn’t (except if they’re bigots–that’s nonstarter for me). I have been trying to do more of this now that we are bona fide homeowners in a community. Yes, this is way outside of my comfort range given my own hang-ups and tendencies to gravitate toward people who are just like me, but it is the example that I am trying to set for M because sooner or later, and subconsciously or not, she will see how I make and maintain friendships and may use that as her guide. I want her to learn that it is OK to seek out friendships, even with people that are not your carbon copy, and not just wait for the right time and place for a new friendship to form. Life is too short to wait for that to happen and you might miss meeting someone really interesting.
To wit, as a result of what have been surprisingly minimal efforts, I have a nice handful of what I like to call “cuppa sugar friends” — you know, the ones that you can comfortably knock on their door in the middle of making cookies because you ran out of sugar (or, ahem, gas for the grill during a family BBQ). And they’re not just the parents of M’s little friends. They are other neighbors who don’t even have children (or least not young ones). Until about a year or so ago, I didn’t know that I lived a stone’s throw from a retired geologist who is now repairing antique clocks and goes birdwatching in his spare time, and who happily takes our extra zucchinis and cucumbers. Awesome! If it were not for M’s lead in getting outside to chat it up with the neighborhood gang, I would not have come out of my shell and into the community to make more friends myself.
Let’s once again start with the premise that I am fully aware that I over analyze everything, I just need to relax and that there are certainly way bigger problems facing our world than what I am about to ponder. I get that. But last weekend the juxtaposition of two completely unrelated things had me unexpectedly re-examining my stance on the message that certain toys and stories might send to our daughter.
The first, princess related toys and stories. None of these exist in our home at the moment. For good or for evil, I have kept the pink world of princesses at bay–the dolls, the dress-up clothes, the stories and the movies…all of it. That is not to say that M does not see these things when she’s with friends or even encountered them at preschool either through her classmates or with some of the toys that are there. I am completely fine with that, and even if someday she wants a few pink princess things in her repertoire of toys, I would likely yield because I really do want to foster the imaginative spirit that these kinds of toys can sometimes engender.
But for the most part I have not been a huge fan of the whole princess thing, largely because of some of the kinds of messages that I think are conveyed to both boys and girls, particularly during a time where the vast number of princess options is mind boggling at best. Largely, my two main issues with princess stuff are how much it places importance on perfect appearance and the way it creates a sense of self-worth based on whether a man is interested in or can “save” you. At the end of the day, it just seems like a fantasy that unfairly sets girls up for disappointment or unmet expectations later in life, if not a distorted view of themselves. I’m not saying that every girl who has played with a princess doll has an unhealthy obsession with waiting for her knight in shining armor, but it almost seems undeniable that when you compare the fantasy role models that are typically associated with boys–knights, cowboys, and superheroes, for instance–the powerlessness of the princess genre seems unfairly weighted on the girls’ side. As a woman who herself has tried to secure her own foothold in a profession that still panders largely to the “good ol’ boy network”, I have not wanted these messages to be the main themes in my daughter’s play (although these subtle themes are admittedly probably not even impressionable on any measurable scale in the 3 year old set). I simply don’t want to let her down later when she realizes that being a princess is not a career path that any of us will likely be able to take.
Then a funny thing happened last weekend–M saw a princess cake at the bakery and fell in love with it. She was first with her dad while I picked up a few things elsewhere in the store. I could see them near the bakery and knew something was afoot. She practically dragged me back to the bakery to show me the treasure she had found. Her face told a thousand words. I am not even sure what emotions I was feeling at the moment, but there was definitely a certain feeling of “oh crap” circulating in my veins. She was definitely intrigued, although I am not entirely sure she even knew why.
Enter the red plastic barn. M has a red barn with farm animals, much like the one her dad and I grew up with as kids. She plays with it from time to time, but not having visited many farms in her three short years, it has largely had little context for her, other than being a cool place to hide the cat’s toys. Indeed, much of what she knows about farms, if anything, is largely based on some books that she has. But after recently reading the slew of farming/food industry books, it dawned on me that, with the exception of those farms that are using sustainable, humane and earth friendly methods, most of the “farms” that produce our food do not look anything like the red barns in these books or the one she plays with. In many ways, isn’t the whole bucolic country farm setting a fantasy too? And one that might let her down, much like the whole princess thing I obsess about? And that doesn’t even account for the fact that–whether you’re vegetarian or not–someday children will make the connection that animals raised for food will ultimately meet their demise before reaching the dinner table. Another “oh crap” feeling.
So how do I differentiate between being OK with the barns but not the pink tulle? In plain words, it seems that I can’t. It seems arbitrary to me to accept one but not the other. In fact, the more I think about it, I am beginning to feel like the princess-isn’t-really-a-career-path-or-way-of-life thing might be easier for her to grasp onto earlier in life — because how many princesses does one actually encounter at the grocery store or the dry cleaner — than the farm thing. The mainstream farming industry does a tremendous job of protecting the reality from consumers…because to allow otherwise would be just a bad business decision. I guess this means that while I am not going to rush out to buy Cinderella or her posse–unless, of course, M thinks she needs another farmhand to muck the stalls–I am probably going to (slowly) ease my stance and worry more about making sure that there are just as many police officers and firemen in the toy box as there are princesses–because isn’t that really where the inequities on the toy store shelves are anyway? But that’s a post for another day.
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