If you ask me how to measure life, I will tell you this.
To measure how small you are, look up at the night sky. Wait for a clear night when a new moon idles by. Remember to bring tissues; tears might be in the forecast. Then, as thousands of tiny glittering lights come into focus against the black overcoat of night, let infinitesimal rest softly against your rib cage. But be sure to set insignificant free—it has no place in your lexicon. Let space and time fill in the edges around you and put things into sharp perspective. Feel the boundless, overwhelming weight of mystery and wonder land heavy in your feeble arms.
To measure the how sturdy are the anchors of friendship and love, make a chain. Link every moment you brush up against each other in mutual thoughts of kindness and affection. Sometimes, you have to look carefully for each link. They are often welded from the quietest of voices and almost invisible gestures. Some chains are longer than you imagine, letting you drift far but never away. These are the ones that can withstand the weathering of time and tears, storms and sunny days. Hold on to these. They are the strongest.
To confirm your calculations that life is finite and far too short, walk through the tall, dusty stacks of the biggest library you can find. Crane your neck and stand on tippy toes. Stand strong against the truth that you will never, not ever, be able to read all those words. Then calibrate your aperture. Set it to precious. Read only the books most worthy of your time. Know they will be enough.
To gauge the majesty of this great Earth and the singularity of your existence upon it, spin a globe. Let your finger touch down near the poles, glide across the Tropics. Marvel at the magnificence. I should warn you: a latent wanderlust might take relief in your heart as you course the mountains and oceans. But do not dwell for too long about the places that will forever remain unseen, conversations with faraway strangers never to be spoken. They are a faulty yardstick. Grandeur is always best viewed against the landscapes and people where you have touched down and stayed awhile.
To measure the warp speed of time, have a child. It’s as simple and as complicated as that. I offer it as mere suggestion, but I honestly have not found another way. Two lives, separated by decades, strolling in tandem through time—it is a nonpareil adventure. Some days, your watch will stop unexpectedly. You’ll tap the timepiece with an ear angled down, checking to see if it’s still working. And then, moments later, you will look up and wonder who set it so far ahead of where you just were. You’ll question why it’s running too fast. You’ll understand why you’re often left breathless and wanting more.
How do you measure a life? Do you focus more on the grandeur or the granular?
Copyright (c) 2015 Kristen M. Ploetz
With almost precision timing for Mother’s Day, the towers of lilac buds growing along the southern side of our yard silently burst open, revealing their pale pinkish purple flowers within. It’s a mystery how these ragtag, decades old bushes time it for the second Sunday each May. No matter what Old Man Winter throws their way, they rarely miss. Though the explosion of blanched color is a private affair, it seems, waiting until my attention is turned elsewhere.
Their perfume floats like a veil on the warm spring air for only a few days. It reminds me how transient the most humble of beauty and service all too often is. They are not like the summer marigolds or hosta, those guests who linger at the party that’s gone on way too long, making their hostess grow weary and resentful of the tidying still to come. No, the lilacs are not like them at all. Rather, they are the diffident butler who quietly lets you into the grand mansion of spring, but go missing when you want your shawl.
Today we cut a few lilacs for my daughter’s first grade teacher: snip, tuck into wet paper towel, wrap in a short strip of foil.
You remember. I certainly do.
While we were walking to school, she clutched the quaint bouquet for her beloved teacher, the manufactured film of clear plastic wholly incongruent with the bark and bloom within. Seeing her small fingers wrapped tightly around the stems, I was thrust back onto the saffron yellow school bus I rode as a child in elementary school. I was carrying my own bouquet, though it was forsythia and they were intended for Mrs. Sherry, the bus driver. I remember her bouffant salt and pepper hair and navy blue polyester pants, with black boots poking out. I remember the smile she gave as I handed them to her. I remember how I felt when she did that.
How can I recall that scene in the accordion doorway of a hot school bus—some thirty years ago—yet cannot recall more than a handful of high school teachers or what kind of cake we had at our wedding? It baffles me. But that instant is like a pressed flower in my mind, its forsythia yellow color still vivid even though the petals might be a bit brittle and dry.
Will today’s lilac bouquet and teacher’s smile press just as firmly into my daughter’s mind? Or will they disappear like the butler?
Copyright (c) 2015 Kristen M. Ploetz
Late April has arrived and the sun is about to set. Small clouds of gnats form in the slanted, golden light. Their chaotic winged energy swirls and circles above the granite boulder, still warm from the day’s sunshine. Two robins call to each other over the din of highway traffic. Perhaps they will try to meet. A sharp wind whines through a barely open window on the porch, groaning in protest. It’s too early, too cold, it howls. I ignore the suggestion. The breeze feels good on my cheek. It reminds me that summer will soon be here.
Around the block my daughter is trying in earnest to ride her new bike without training wheels. I don’t know how it’s going, though I imagine much better with only one parent there than two. Especially if it’s not me, it seems. Something similar happened when she learned how to swim. I don’t hold it against her. I remind myself that her father should teach her to drive.
Then, without warning, I start to wonder if I’ve ever told her how to store tomatoes. On the counter or the windowsill, never in the refrigerator. It’s an odd, if not premature, thing to worry about, right? Most first graders do not need to know these things.
Without effort, my mind wanders unchecked. The list of things still left to be said unravels like a spool of thread knocked off a table. The weight of the wisdom to be handed down grows heavier in my heart.
It becomes harder to breathe when I let these thoughts sink in. I often need to fight back tears. There is nothing specifically or even generally that should cause this apprehension, but it mounts often. This is how my mind works. Will there be enough time?
Sewing a button
First crush and broken hearts
Seasoning a cast iron skillet
How to find her true north
The sun is setting now, and two tires spin almost silently up the driveway. Though I cannot hear the words, her voice giggles with the enthusiasm of a woodland brook in spring. It is the sound of progress and determination. It is the sound of growth and life.
The spool of thread comes to a soft thud against the wall.
There’s time, I tell myself. There’s still time.
Copyright (c) 2015 Kristen M. Ploetz
In darkness, she moved tentatively from the doorway to the foot of my bed. I could sense she didn’t know if I was awake. Until I realized I was alone in bed, I was uncertain whether it was the middle of the night or moments before the day was to begin.
“What’s up, Buggy?”, my voice still groggy from sleep that ended abruptly just minutes ago.
“Hi, Mama,” she said cheerfully as she slid into the still warm but empty spot next to me. She wrapped her featherweight arm around my waist.
I heard the rise and fall of her breathing, the wild energy of her feet dancing under the cotton sheet as she settled in close. I rolled onto my side to face her. She beamed at me. I kissed her cheeks, devouring their cool, rounded softness. Her hair, still silky from last night’s shower, smelled faintly of citrus. It fanned out in ribbons on the pillow next to me. Even without my glasses on, I could see the grey-black gaps between her new and disproportionately large teeth. I wondered when the remaining four teeth would fill in the spaces, completing the smile she’d flash for the rest of her life. A light knock on the doorjamb said it was time to awaken for the day, so we rolled out and shuffled down the hall together.
The moment was brief, but our connection was deep. How much longer would I be able to consume her—know her—just like this, through all of my senses? Loving a child bestows a profound intimacy and understanding of who they are and what they need. But it is temporary. I am increasingly aware of how much sand remains in the top of the hourglass.
When she was born, the inputs that had helped me understand and revere the world were instantly overwhelmed. My dendrites of daily living dialed to a new frequency. I now needed to share my senses of smell, touch, sight, sound, and taste in order to read her cues and sustain her life, not just mine. As someone who was already highly sensitive, this was no small undertaking. But I quickly parsed out the difference in pitch and volume in her cries of hunger, fatigue, and discomfort. I pressed my lips to her forehead to detect fevers during the longest of nights. I identified stains on my shirt with a quick sniff, removed a spot of raspberry jam with a quick lick on the fly.
Overwhelmed shifted to heightened. Heightened shifted to enlightened.
I still experience the physical world in a totally new way because of her. My eyes and ears are more open. Things that had become bland and dull are once again gourmet. In many ways, I returned to my own childhood, even those stretches of time I cannot remember. And though I still feel everything acutely, I’ve also noticed that the senses of mothering are starting to gradually diminish.
The first sense to go is taste, it seems. I remember the purees, crackers, and juice, all tasted second hand from chubby little fingers or a sticky nose. The sweet, milky taste of open-mouthed kisses that were given freely have long since stopped. Now, I’m occasionally treated to a salty tear on sad days or the trail that a powdered donut leaves behind, but not much more.
Thankfully, I can still relish the scent of her hair when she returns from playing outside on a late autumn day when the neighbors’ fireplaces are in full swing. It is nothing short of magic how a child’s hair can grasp so tightly onto the essence of pending snow and wood smoke, and hold it just long enough for me to inhale indoors. It’s always gone an instant later. Even her skin radiates a subtle fragrance that she’s had since birth, one that I could detect blindly in a room full of people. As she grows, I am sure a few more blossoms will be added to her bouquet, whether it be the hard won sweat of exertion or the sickly sweet fog of drugstore perfume, but she’ll always have those notes of baby underneath. I will inhale deeply to find it, when she lets me.
Seeing her, hearing her, and touching her, I imagine those will remain steady and frequent for a long while. The softness of her cotton leggings and the clammy feet that stick to me while we’re reading on the couch. Her still baby soft skin that confirms her youth when she holds my dry, wrinkling hand. The squeals in the backyard while being chased by her dad after dinner, the off key singing from the other room. Watching her limbs stretch year to year, already displaying whose genes she is going to have. The last few blond strands glinting among the darkening brown while she plays in the mid-April sun. The lake blue eyes that just as easily lift me when she smiles as they do unsettle me when she tests out some new form of defiant independence.
This is how I know soon enough there will be shut bedroom doors, less snuggling close together, and possibly fewer words spoken. So for now, I will let all of her in, every which way I can. I enjoy feeling enlightened.
What sense could you not live without? Do you have one sense that seems more heightened than the others? If you have children in your life, how do the five senses come into play when you are with them?
Copyright (c) 2015 Kristen M. Ploetz
Today marks ten years that we have lived in this house. A decade in one place. That is a milestone for me—the longest stretch I’ve lived any one place.
When I realized this, I was first struck by a feeling of unexpected melancholy, perhaps a longing because I did not live in the same house for my entire childhood, like some do. But then, letting that notion simmer for a bit, I decided it was not precisely what was bothering me.
Instead, it was reluctant acceptance that the balance of my life is now unequivocally weighted heavier on the adult side, not childhood. This milestone—a signpost of staying put and settling in as a grown up—is just the first of many more to come, though I arrived here much faster than I anticipated. I am wholly content with this realization, but it is jarring all the same.
A lot has happened in the time since we were given the keys to the house. We learned the difference between eggshell and semi-gloss paint. We made fools of ourselves calculating how many bags of mulch we needed to spread around the shrubs—it never goes as far as you think it will. We used clipped voices when appliances stopped working or pictures hung crooked and off center. We quickly appreciated the ways a quality Christmas tree stand can stave off divorce. We cursed at armies of ants. We learned how to grow tomatoes and radishes, but never got the hang of watermelons.
We found our spots on the couch.
We shaped our professional lives.
We became parents.
Routines settled in. Crises were averted, mostly.
We discovered our strengths and accepted our weaknesses.
For some, it might grow boring, living in the same spot for so many years. Our tiny house and humble 8,919 square feet of land might not seem to offer much reward. The same view day to day, inside and out, has the potential to numb. The variegation of novelty shifts to monochromatic redundancy.
Yet treasure abounds even in the most routine spaces.
By remaining firmly in place, you witness the waltz of the sun and earth, how the steps change ever so slightly over the course of a year. Facing west at the close of each day, you discover nuance among the twilights. You learn where to spread your blanket under the maple tree and maximize the stretch of cool shade it offers on a long afternoon in July. Year to year, seasons jockey for your attention. You discover the snow never drifts the same way twice—especially this year. You are confounded when the rosemary doesn’t grow back for the first time in many years, and you didn’t do anything different. You hedge your bets: will the lilac bush peak on Mother’s Day or will she be late this time around? You watch for birds, hoping to add a new one to your list.
Over the past ten years, twenty-seven different birds have alighted in our yard or in the maple tree. I know, because I’ve kept a list. I have my favorites, of course, like the cardinal and the titmouse. I know the blue jay is a bully, but the juncos are not easily persuaded. The hummingbird only visited once, and I think it was a fluke. I am determined to lure him back. I’ve learned to identify some birds through their songs and calls. They let me know when a cat is in the yard or a hawk is overhead. The Carolina wren baffled me for the past three years—I heard its trill long before I saw it, somehow convinced it was a veery until I finally matched face with call this past December. It felt like victory.
Still, I have yet to see a blue bird or an oriole in our midst. They are elusive, it seems, but I’m determined to stick around and wait, maybe even another ten years. For me, there is a comfort in standing still and staying put. A lot more will happen in that time, whether it be new birds in the yard or boyfriends waiting on the front step for my daughter. And I know it will all pass just as quickly.
Here is a list of the birds I’ve seen in the past decade of living here:
Copyright (c) 2015 Kristen M. Ploetz
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