I’m not sure if it’s my earlier days of schooling in science, or my lifetime love of taking photographs—nothing tops the magic of developing your own film—but I’ve always loved the various instruments that we use to examine the world around us. Microscopes, telescopes, cameras and mirrors—they all focus, capture and reflect the wonder that is contained within our world. They each offer a different way to put things in context. They help us better understand our reality. They have stories to tell, though sometimes the endings are yet unknown.
Take the telescope, for example. It allows us to see things far beyond our reach (at least right now). It puts us, mere mortals, into some often needed perspective. We are so small. We are not all that there is. Today’s biggest problem may not be all that big after all.
Or the microscope. We can glimpse at the infinite moving parts that make up life. Only when we step away from the viewfinder do we appreciate the macro that is comprised of the micro. We are humbled that some life, just nanometers in diameter, can be the difference between life and death for others. We may be larger in relative size, but by no means are we always going to be the victor.
Cameras, too. They capture a moment in time, something we want to remember. We use our editorial license to frame it just so, and though there’s no way to capture the other senses that were ignited in that particular moment—the squeals of baby feet being tickled, the yeasty smell of a warm kitchen on Christmas, the cool breeze that kissed our cheek—we take pictures to catalog a life that was lived. We create a pictorial inventory that allows us to take stock at the end of our days and remind us that it all really happened, and it was as beautiful as we remember it to be.
Mirrors allow us to see what’s in front of us, right now, as well as what’s behind us already in our rear view, sometimes safely, sometimes sadly. Mirrors force us to acknowledge the gray hair and the latent effect of too much time at the shore. We can take one last glance before we put the car in drive and pull away.
This morning, while I was pulling my wet hair back to start my day, I stood in the bathroom before our large mirror and realized I wasn’t really looking at myself directly. Sure, I don’t really need the aid of reflection to tie a wet ponytail, but we have this huge 3′x4′ mirror and three bright lights and yet I don’t really look at myself with more than a glance anymore. Somehow I am able to put on makeup and brush my teeth every day without really looking at myself. Why am I avoiding my own reality, one that I’ve essentially earned? Or maybe it’s deserved. Do you do this too?
I don’t know when I started this avoidance technique, but it seems to have coincided with the gray hairs taking up residence atop my head and the wrinkles and sags that have settled in these past few years. Rather than staring myself down, I tend to daydream and let my wind wander while I have these few minutes of solitude in the morning. It seems like a more productive use of my time.
And this morning I was thinking about all of these various instruments we use to look at our physical world around us. I thought about how they are equally useful, in a metaphorical sense, to examine our own lives. It got me to thinking about how, when I was younger, particularly in my late teens, the mirror (literally) and telescope (figuratively) were my primary tools. I was only concerned about what I looked like right in that moment, and what my future might contain. I didn’t reflect so much about the past. There was nothing particularly noteworthy that required me to memorialize it with a camera, if you could even come by one then.
Then there was a shift in my twenties, especially in college. I wanted to remember it all because I was having so much fun. I especially wanted to retain evidence of my budding independence and existence as an entity outside of my family (which was going through a divorce) and then long-term boyfriend from high school (we broke up around my sophomore year in college). As a result, there were many pictures taken while I was living my life in Worcester. In fact, it was probably my only tool, other than a vague sense that I was supposed to be using a telescope to peer beyond the four years I would be at college.
From the time I graduated college until my mid-thirties, I think a microscope would best describe the means by which I deliberated my life. What parts were there? What, or perhaps whom, was I made of? How did I function optimally, exactly? These are the questions you ask as you parse out career paths, future husbands, and domiciles. It is a period of extreme, close-up examination. Slide after slide, your eyes can hurt under the strain and headaches develop with so much focusing, but the work must be done. It is the critical point to do so as your life apex appears on the horizon.
And now? Becoming a mother has required me to shift the tools in my arsenal once again. I find this to be a period of deep reflection—primarily about my own childhood and my parents’ (since ended) marriage—as I compare and contrast the life I had and the parents I had, with the life and guidance I now offer M as her mother. I feel like I am looking in a rearview mirror much of the time, maybe to be sure I am not veering off the good parts of the course that my parents led me down, at least while they were still married.
The camera is also once again in heavy rotation. It is seemingly permanently affixed to my eye, my finger trigger happy like no other time. I do not want forget any of it. Has time always been this fleeting? I don’t recall it so. I also want to create indelible memories for my daughter to look back upon someday, particularly when we, her parents, are no longer of this world. I now realize that both of these motivations to create lasting impressions come from some deep scars (both good and bad) that I have finally come to terms with, and now realize shape so much of how I have approached my years as a parent.
But why am I suddenly so afraid of the mirror before me? I wonder about this. Is it that I am afraid to acknowledge what is really there, or, more to the point, not there? Indeed, it is the one instrument that requires some confidence and comfort in oneself; the others are all outwardly facing so we don’t have to look as good. I need to think about this for a while. I also need to remind myself that the telescope does not have to be banished to the back of the closet just because I’ve turned forty. I’m allowed to look forward and outward and course correct as new discoveries are made. Maybe only then, after I have finished charting the constellations and nebulae that are within my dusky sky, will I be able to finally look in the mirror with the same confidence as that once upon a time teenage girl.
What instrument do you favor to view your life right in this moment? Which one are you most comfortable holding?
Copyright (c) 2014 Kristen M. Ploetz
I am about to turn forty (in exactly three weeks), which has had me reflecting in some very deep ways lately. To be brutally honest, some of those reflections have been painful as I mentally try to find parallels between where I am at this age, and what was going on for my parents when they were this age (or at least my mother; she’s a few years younger than my dad). It occurred to me a few weeks ago that my parents split when my mom was this age. And as many of you know, when parents divorce, many things that were once done as a whole family fall by the wayside, especially holiday traditions. It is hard, even all these years later, to think about that sometimes.
Now that M is six years old, and her dad and I have been together more than 19 years (though married since only 2002), I savored my coffee and took inventory of our traditions this morning. After all, it’s the last day of school before the winter break, and the house will be quiet for just a few hours more until she’s home for a stretch. The frenzy is about to set in.
And then I
worried wondered? Do we have any traditions? What do they look like compared to our respective childhood traditions? I was concerned that there were no unified traditions that she will one day be able to look back on, which, for me, is a large part of this holiday season (especially since I celebrate without any religious component). It seemed like the right time to take stock. I needed to reassure myself that there are pearls being strung on this strand of her necklace.
There are indeed . . .
We get our tree usually the weekend after E’s (my husband) birthday on 12/5.
We now have a local farm where we go pick out a fresh cut tree and get cider donuts too.
We don’t make a fuss about the tree. Quite often, we just get the first one we see, provided the trunk isn’t funky. I think it’s because we want to get to the donuts.
E drinks the season’s first egg nog while putting on the lights. (I can’t stand the stuff!)
We put all the decorations on together, with the crystal snowflakes (we get one a year from my dad) going on last.
We play Christmas carols while the lights go on.
E and M hang far more of the ornaments than me, but I’m usually close by putting the other decorations out.
We hide a red cardinal bird each morning for M to find (my quasi-rejection of Elf on the Shelf).
We watch a holiday themed movie every Friday during December (and a few in between too).
We read holiday themed books before bed or school, and add one or two to the collection each year. (Gramma added this year’s new book though: Katie the Candy Cane Fairy).
E is in charge of stringing up the outdoor lights.
Every year there is at least one strand of lights that craps out. And we always think we’ve got more, can’t find them, go buy more, and then forget the following year.
I buy a bag of Hershey’s white chocolate and peppermint Kisses (the only kind M likes) for the candy dishes.
The bubble snowman night light goes in the downstairs bathroom.
We hang all the Christmas cards we receive around the door frame between the living and dining rooms.
We buy and donate toys to kids who need them, and we make a cash donation to two local emergency food providers.
I make snickerdoodles and sugar cookies and usually at least one other kind. We eat some and share the rest with our neighbors and family.
The adult children (and their spouses) on my husband’s side do a Secret Santa gift exchange. On my side, we set a dollar limit for gifts among the adult kids and spouses.
I take M’s photo for our holiday card in our backyard, each year making sure that the color red is prominently featured in her clothes or elsewhere in the photo, like the seat cushion this year. She’s usually freezing to death during the shoot and reminds me of it often.
We go to Gramma’s on Christmas Eve to eat dinner and open presents there.
We go to Mem and Pep’s late on Christmas day to eat dinner and open presents there.
We Skype with Grandpa and Grandma down in South Carolina to open their presents.
In between the grandparents’ houses and calls, we have Santa and our own family gift exchange at our house on Christmas morning. It’s certainly a whirlwind 48 hours.
We make those so-bad-for-you Pillsbury cinnamon buns on Christmas morning. And eat every single one.
And, of course, there are the minor tweaks or changes from year to year . . . and perhaps those make it all memorable too. I believe that 2013 is looking like “The Year We Moved the Tree From My Office to the Living Room and Then the Tree Didn’t Drink a Single Drop of Water and Dropped All of Its Needles Before Christmas”. Ah, well.
There are a lot of traditions, it seems. And though virtually none of them resemble the traditions from my own childhood, I find am increasingly OK with this.
However you spend the remainder of 2013, may it be full of love and laughter, perhaps the best tradition of all.
Copyright (c) 2013 Kristen M. Ploetz
I’ve mentioned a few times here before that M is, and forever will be, an only child. This was our choice, which I know is not true for every singleton family you might meet.
I’ve also mentioned that I grew up with a brother, and may have mentioned that my husband (M’s dad) grew up with a brother and a sister. I think some people find it odd that we have siblings (whom we love!) and yet we chose not to have more than one child. I can see why that’s unusual to some people.
Indeed, the fact that we are two people with siblings raising an only child often makes me curious about the differences between how we grew up versus how she is growing up. It got me to thinking this might be a good (if occasional) series to start, because indeed, there is something about raising, if not being, an only.
The thing that struck me the other day was, while I was in some sort of mood (and not a good one), how M’s perspective of us, as parents, will be the only one out there. In other words, she won’t have someone to temper the memories of the people we were while she was growing up as our child. It’s not a good thing or a bad thing, just the reality. I had never really thought about that before.
When you have a sibling (or at least it seems to me), you can balance things a bit more because there is at least one other input into the discussion. Yes, we all have our own individual perceptions of other people and circumstances, but having others to share and recount the past (and its truths) gives it all more texture and a certain level of credibility.
Here’s an example of what I mean. When I have a “moody” day and am not very fun to be around, I tend to dwell on it and how I’m somehow shortchanging M. I think we all do that as parents, no matter how many kids we have. We tend to be less forgiving with ourselves about the “off” days we have with our children, and forget the 90% of good and great days we generally live in. Add to this that for the past year, I’ve also been suffering with multiple migraines per month, which leaves me out of commission at least a few days a month here and there. So string a few of those moody days together with days where I need to sleep off a migraine for a few hours and I start to feel like I’m a lousy parent all of the time (even though my rational mind reminds me that it’s not actually the truth).
And then I start to question whether M will look back on these days with a sense of “she was always grumpy” because she is, in effect, the only witness to that. No brothers or sisters are around to remind her that no, Mommy was on the couch maybe one or two days a month (and hopefully for only a short while) or that she was only grumpy once in a while.
Or how about a benign example: I could see where M might grow up thinking that we served her Annie’s mac n’ cheese every day for lunch but a wiser/pickier/less pickier sibling would (rightly) point out that we were mean parents and only gave it to her once a week. But she won’t have that benefit of asking, “Do you remember when Mom would…?” Again, not a good or bad thing, just different from my childhood and the ability to do that with my brother.
The level of intimacy that the parent-child relationship has is almost unmatched to any other. The way we raise our children and the people we are around them shapes such a large part of whom they later become. Consciously or otherwise, it also shapes the kind of relationship we will have with them when they are adults, how they interact with us if/when they get married/have kids/choose where to live, and how they relate to us in our last years of life. It’s just interesting (and maybe a little scary) to now realize that only she will hold memories and opinions of us as parents through all of that. Let’s just hope it’s the better ones that outshine the others.
Do you talk about the people your parents were with your siblings? Does their point of view often coincide with yours? Or, if you’re an only, how does having only your perspective shape the way you view your parents?
Stay tuned for the next The Only Thing Is . . . where I will explore how assertiveness and the absence of siblings recently surfaced in an unforeseen way.
Copyright (c) 2013 Kristen M. Ploetz
As I stand here on the precipice of becoming the mom of a bona fide Kindergartener, suddenly wistful for the days when I could hold her in one arm, I find that a change of perspective is all that is needed. She is still very little after all.
Copyright (c) 2013 Kristen M. Ploetz
We’ve all asked it. We’ve all answered it.
That question: Where are you from?
I think we ask it for small talk and to find potential common ground, though I’ve always found it tough to answer.
Driving home this morning after dropping M off at her last day of summer camp, I had to take a detour road due to some major paving job near the school where the camp is held. As I drove by some nice homes and neighborhoods, I realized that I had never been on this road before. I thought it was weird given how long we’ve now lived in this small city. I realized I hadn’t really done the math lately on exactly how long I’ve lived in this city, so at the next red light I did some quick addition in my head. I’ve lived here about 16 years. Wow. Where did that time go?!
Then it got me to thinking about that question, Where are you from? Where am I from? Is it based on where I was born? Is it based on where I graduated from high school? Is it based on where I spend the majority of my years? That alone leaves me with three different answers based on my residential pedigree:
New York: 1979-1986 (Kindergarten through mid-sixth grade)
Methuen, Mass.: 1986-92 (graduated high school)
Worcester, Mass.: 1992-96 (attended college—meanwhile, my parents split and sold the house)
Then after college I lived about a year with my mom at her new house.
Quincy, Mass.: 1997- . . . That’s about sixteen years, and still counting.
When people ask me where did I grow up or where I’m from, I usually mention that I was born in Ohio, lived in upstate New York for a while and then moved to Massachusetts. It always feels so cobbled together. I notice people’s eyes glaze over when they quickly realize I don’t have a one town answer. Anyway, it really only answers the question of where I’ve physically lived, which I think is what most people mean when they ask the question.
But where did I grow up? That almost seems like a different (and deeper) question. I’m finding that’s the more important question for me now that I am a parent and think about it on M’s behalf. It’s also probably on the front burner because as M gets ready to start Kindergarten in a few weeks and knows only this house (so far), I think about how she will someday answer this question. This is the time of her life where her own memories are starting to gel and become part of her. The place where we live now is starting to shape the kinds of experiences she will have growing up. I wonder what memories will she recall and whether she be more tethered to the physical space or the people who fill it.
Of course, if we never move while she’s a child or even teenager, there will be only one answer she can give. But what if we move someday? The mere thought of packing everything up and going someplace else gives me heartburn. It gets me to thinking about whether my hesitation about moving to another house someday has to do more with her or me. We don’t have any good reason to move at this moment, but after getting kicked out of the bathroom this morning, I have an increasing awareness that our tight quarters might be a downfall when the teenage years arrive. Then again, I love our house.
Am I just being lazy by not wanting to ever move, or is it that I do not want to release all of the memories, money and sweat equity we’ve put into this house and in this city? Is my reluctance to move ever again a subconscious reaction to having to move when I was young and having no say in the matter? Being ripped from my friends at the age of twelve was very hard, and I am keenly intent on not doing that to M. Though I admit it’s hard to still hold a grudge knowing full well that my life today would look completely different and void of my most precious treasures had we stayed in any of those locations in my early years.
All of these thoughts make me wonder, is it more about where we’re from or where we’re at right now? Why is the default question about where we’ve been rather than where we’re going? I wonder. Is it to find commonality with new aquaintances? Certainly it’s much easier to find something to talk about if you both know about that great ice cream shop in the town center of Anytown, USA. But when we leave a certain place that we’ve lived in and loved, our sadness usually results from leaving the people and experiences that were intertwined there, not simply the hardscapes. Indeed, our intimate relationships are not common denominators for every person living in the same geographical space or city limits. What I mean is that my great memories of playing Barbies with my neighbor are no better than your memories of playing Barbies with your neighbor just because of where I was living at the time. It was because of the close bonds formed there in those hills of upstate New York. They just as easily could have been formed at the end of my urban driveway today. Yet when I look out there now, I see that there are none forming. I’m increasingly bothered by this.
Does it really matter if we ever move from this little house of ours? Would it matter if we changed mere streets or neighborhoods? Of course, we could work it so that the anchor would be her school and she could stay enrolled there. Though I’m not sure how comfortable I am with a school being the central backbone of her memories growing up. I want her sense of community to come from a wider view than where she learned about Magellan. If we ever decide to move, does a shift to an entirely different city or town make sense if we’re going through the effort anyway? Does the timing of it all matter? The houses, the schools, the playgrounds . . . they are all just the shell within which our life experiences take place.
Will it really harm M in any irreparable way whether we stay put forever or someday decide to move? My rational brain says no. Of course she will create and hold memories (good and bad) no matter where she lives.
But my sentimental brain says, maybe. The fact that I reminisce so deeply about places I lived for a mere fraction of the time I’ve lived in my current setting tells me so. The fact that I am waiting with anticipation to find out whether any of her new classmates live within walking distance of our otherwise childless neighborhood tells me so too. But these truths are tied more to the answer of where she is at right now, not where she will someday say she is from. As for where she wants to go, well, that will be up to her.
When we connect with someone new on the continuum of life (or try to define ourselves), maybe the question shouldn’t just be where are you from?. Maybe we all need to start asking each other, where have you been? where are you now? and where are you going? And then be prepared to settle in for a longer, fuller answer that lets us know just who the other person really is.
Copyright (c) 2013 Kristen M. Ploetz
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