We live along an elevated edge of an abandoned granite quarry. Though it is pretty densely populated around here, the adjacent topography—the contours of the land that surrounds us—gives way to a wide expanse of sky. We are lucky in this way.
Our backyard and deck face the west, and the kitchen window above the sink looks out this way too. This means that, at the end of the day, perhaps when we need it most, we are privy to some of the most glorious of sundown skies. From our vantage point, though we cannot see the sun go down below the horizon, there is a lovely progression of dimming light that we do get to witness.
This is the cardinal direction that I favor most, the time of day when I feel most connected to the earth.
And yet, there are times, though not often, when I am roused enough by the morning sun and all of its offerings at the front of our house. The early light seems more like a promise, rather than the affirmation that the dusk provides. I’m not sure about you, but I have more faith in affirmations of what was, rather than in promises of what might be. But that scent of hope that a promise provides? It’s quite attractive sometimes.
The other morning was one such morning. It was a cotton candy sky—both the blue and the pink I suppose, though I am a traditionalist when it comes to spun sugar. I prefer mine pink. I lifted the shade and stood at her tiny dormer window for just a moment, stealing this view all for myself.
M was still waking up in her bed, but I knew if she didn’t hurry, she’d miss the morning light that was filled with her favorite color. I told her to come look. She’s never disappointed when I do that, though usually it is in the evenings and not when she wants to stay warm under the covers. She crawled onto her window seat and uttered her usual, whispered refrain, “Wow. It’s so beautiful.” Indeed it was. Somehow we were both able to see past the intrusive utility lines and the ugliness of the neighbor’s rotten shed. We were consumed by the rosy glow.
Ever since she’s voiced her affinity for pink, I’ve come to notice it more myself, especially in the sky. I now deliberately point it out to her, and she to me, so that neither of us misses a particularly spectacular show. Almost anything we’re doing can be momentarily stopped to revel in the bounty of light offered by the sun and sky. Before her, I probably would not have stopped so deliberately, and certainly not as often, to take note of the colors.
Now, the sundown sky often reveals the smallness of our time here. Since M entered my world, she has become the yardstick by which I measure this time. It’s not my parents’ lives. It’s not even my husband’s. No, the one thing that has made me take note of it is her. Before her, there were discrete goals that helped me measure time: attending and completing school, finding and advancing through a job, getting married, buying a house. These were but things on a list that needed to be checked off, and there was plenty of time to do it.
Once all of those things were accomplished, the rest of the time ahead of me felt more open-ended. I was slightly uneasy and irresponsible with it. I was wasteful. Then M was eventually born, and time instantly felt more finite. I felt a certain kind of deliberate call to action about how I was going to make use of what time was left. It all leaves me feeling a bit frantic.
I think we all have something that becomes our touchstone for measuring time, especially what we have left. For me, I’m now realizing, it’s my daughter and watching her grow. No matter how many more years I’ve got, I know it will not be enough. I think we’re all slightly greedy in this way, or at least I am. But, by ticking the time away night after night with sunsets that give us pause, or those sunrises that nudge us out of bed a few minutes early, I try to slow it all down just a bit. I’m pretty sure it’s not working, but at least we are enjoying the show together. And, I hope she will learn, earlier than I did, to give pause for all of those skies she will one day see without me by her side.
Much of my Instagram feed (where these images also have appeared) is filled with my sky-obsessed photos. If you like that kind of thing, come find me over there: @littlelodestar.
Copyright (c) 2014 Kristen M. Ploetz
We live in a small Cape just outside of Boston. We love our house, and have ever since we bought it nine years ago.
When we first came to own it, we were two worker bees who commuted back and forth to Boston (me) and Cambridge (my husband, E). We had nothing but a cat to take care of. Now that we’ve settled on our family size for certain, we know we do not need more space. The location suits us just fine since we enjoy being a one-car family; I now work from home and E walks to and from the Red Line every day, and we only have one child to tote around. Sure, there are days when I pine for a 40 acre expanse of secluded, wooded vistas in Vermont, but that’s what retirement is for, right?
Built in 1940, the house had great bones but needed some upgrades and updating, the least of which was complete eradication of the faux paint finishes that the prior owners indulged in and some basement carpeting that potentially served as a mushroom farm. We’ve since done all of those things, and all that’s left really is the outside. The kind of stuff that is not necessary, but that would complete the picture of the sanctuary that our home has become. When you’re homebodies like us, you spend your money here at home, it seems, rather than on things and trips.
Over the fall, we started the process in the front yard, something that was necessary, structurally. Last week, we received the plans and estimate for the backyard landscaping that remains to be done.
Before signing the contract for the remaining work, I asked my husband, “We’re really staying in this house, right? No plans to move, right?”
The funny thing was, I had not asked this same question any of the other times we decided to drop some serious dough into the house. Sure, some of those things were actually smart decisions and sound investments that we would recoup should we ever move, like upgrading the heating system, but many of the other things we simply had wanted. Why was I suddenly so cautious about whether we were going to stay, in my mind, forever?
I didn’t realize until the other night what was driving my hesitation: the moves my then intact family had made when I was a child. We’d moved a few times as a family, but there was one house, one place, that seemed like my childhood home for so long. The white colonial in upstate New York. It’s where I went to elementary school and made my first friends. It’s where I had my first pet to call my own, a stray cat named Kitty that found me. It’s where I had a crush on my best friend’s (much) older brother. It’s where I learned to roller skate. It’s where I learned about the awful tragedy of the Challenger explosion. It’s why the scent of a pine tree can make me nine years old again. I did a lot of growing up there.
We moved from that home in 1986 to come live in Massachusetts. My parents split less than a decade later. A different kind of growing up happened in all of those years since upstate New York.
There are very few pictures of that New York home left in our family photo collection. It got me to wondering what it looks like now. Being a four hour drive away, it’s not easy to do the drive-by that I sometimes do when I want to see the first apartment my husband and I rented together across town or visit the home I lived in while in high school.
I decided to Google my old address. I think what happened next revealed the Pandora’s box of the Internet.
When you look at your childhood home(s), you always expect the trees to be more overgrown or the paint color to be different. But that didn’t happen here. The house looks exactly the same, save for some gardening structure that seems to now be in the front yard. This photograph could have just as easily been ripped out of my family photo album.
Which is why I was so taken aback by my reaction when I looked up this photo. It can only be succinctly summed up by telling you there was profound sadness. I know the whole of it is because the family that once lived there is no longer together. I don’t think I really ever properly grieved that part of my parents’ split. Can any child of divorce ever really do that anyway?
I think my attachment to childhood homes, and that New York house in particular, is why I am so now keenly aware of what foundations we are building with our daughter in our midst. As she inches toward seven years old this year, her first year of school well underway, I know that her roots are forming. Roots that are integrally tied to the home we are creating, and the lasting impression that I now know forms as a result. I know that she will likely remember the texture of the granite rock in our backyard like the lines in her palm. The colors of the plants that grow here will be as familiar as the freckles that dot her legs. She will remember the sticky cool feeling the September grass leaves on her legs in the spot under our maple tree where we watch “bird TV”.
Though I know that nothing is forever, even if well-intentioned or planned out in advance, I remain sensitive to the value and central role that a home plays in a child’s life, especially as the years tick by in that same house. It’s why I am simultaneously, if not contradictorily, so excited and hesitant to make ours what we want it to be. To make it ours, as a family, for the long-term.
There was no hesitation in my husband’s answers to my questions. We signed the contract for the landscaping. The new plants will go in the ground this spring. A new patio will be carved out for gatherings with family and friends. These things will take root and get mossy. They will become part of our daily landscape. And, I hope, complement the strong foundation this home already seems to have.
Copyright (c) 2014 Kristen M. Ploetz
Tuesday was Kindergarten registration day in our school district. When the school was looking for parents of current Kindergarteners to volunteer a few hours to meet and greet the incoming parents, I jumped at the occasion. It’s not the kind of thing that I normally like to do and I totally did not have the time, mind you, with two pressing writing deadlines staring me down this week, among other things. But I wanted to help because I immediately recalled my emotions on the day I went to register M last March. Not surprisingly, I was a weepy mess when I left the registration room, and a parent volunteer was kind enough to not think I was crazy.
As I saw on Tuesday, crying at registration, it turns out, is not standard practice.
Looking back, I think I can explain those tears better now. When I was filling out those forms, M was going through some pretty tough stuff that was making school and separation unbearable for her every single day, but especially the three days she went to preschool. How would she handle five days of this? I wondered. She was, and largely still is, not someone who can cope easily with major changes in routine. Naturally, I was anxious about how it would go in Kindergarten when the time came.
And wouldn’t you know, when Kindergarten started in September, she was fine. Something happened in the span of the six months between registration and orientation. The issues she was dealing with in the six months before were distant memories as a result of some hard work we did as a family to help her. The transition was virtually seamless and there were no tears (from her at least).
When she was six months old, it was time for me to go back to work. I thought about how at one point, in those early weeks of nonstop nursing, I thought I couldn’t wait to get back to work just so I could have some time alone . . . and then when that day came, I was so completely torn about going back to work. My mind had had 180 days to parse out the meaning of this tender life now firmly centered on the map of my world. My mind and the direction I wanted to go, ultimately, had changed.
It got me to thinking about all the times when she’s had a major burst of milestones, or taken several steps backward. We’ve noticed that when those episodes occur, she’s either about to have a birthday or she’s just reached the half-birthday mark. It’s practically predictable.
Six month cycles, it seems, are how we measure time around here. Yes, there are the minutes that feel like decades, and the years that pass with the warp speed of the second hand, but true growth, hers and mine, seems to come in 180 day intervals. In that span of time, she and I both stretch to figure out who we are together, and how to be increasingly independent and apart. Our high and low tides take six months to fully ebb and flow. Sometimes I feel the sand washing away beneath my feet, inducing a vertigo like no other as my toes try desperately to hang on to as many grains of sand as they can. Other times the salty water crashes into my goosebumped shins, reminding me that there’s only going to be a few months in which to enjoy a swim. I’m content with that kind of cycle.
And wouldn’t you know, she turns six and a half today. I know that some folks celebrate half birthdays. We’ve never done that before, but this year we will. Her sixth birthday, which always falls around Labor Day (when very few people are around), was lost in the shadows of both starting Kindergarten and losing her first two teeth (very emotionally) within 24 hours of her birthday. It was an overwhelming time for all of us. She’d left her preschool friends behind with no way to contact them, and didn’t yet know anyone in her Kindergarten class, so her birthday party did not have very many friends that were truly of her own making.
But I do declare, March is a perfect time to celebrate six and half. It’s still cold, quiet, and grey around here. With the tulips still hibernating underneath the frozen ground and first strawberries still three months away, we desperately need some sweetness and color. So, I’m thinking a half cake and some balloons in pink, purple and light blue (her favorites), just for the three of us. Yes, this will do just fine. I’m not sure if we will mark the occasion in years ahead, but for some reason it feels right to do it now.
Happy 6½ Birthday, M. Watching you grow has helped me grow too. xoxo, Mama
Copyright (c) 2014 Kristen M. Ploetz
* I just want to quickly add that yesterday I received the Spring 2014 magazine from the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston, and noticed an intriguing (and timely) exhibit that I will likely visit: William Kentridge: The Refusal of Time (runs through May 4, 2014).
I don’t think about my status as an atheist or non-believer very much. Certainly not on a day to day basis. Sure, here and there it comes up in discussion at home with my husband or daughter, or occasionally with a couple of friends (believers and non-believers alike), but generally my point of view just rests mutely in the back of my mind. I suppose this happens when there is no regular gathering, such as on Saturdays or Sundays, to ponder the wonder of a collective non-belief. I’m also not very interested in proselytizing (who has the time!?). Ah, well. I feel no ambivalence about the conclusions I’ve reasoned and reached, so this is just like any other aspect of what makes me “me”, like my affinity for coffee or my messy sock drawer.
Still, despite my comfort level, over the past month or so there’s been a quiet bubbling to the surface of the one aspect of many religions’ belief systems that makes me wonder whether parenting is slightly easier for the believing majority: the promise or idea of an afterlife or heaven. I think there were two specific things that got me mulling this over more than usual.
The first was listening to a portion of the NPR series, “What Comes Next? Conversations on the Afterlife”, featured on All Things Considered. Granted, so far I have only heard one full interview (the rabbi) and bits of others, but it was a jolt of thought long held at bay for me. Listening to some of these folks made me pause and think, “they’ve got it good because they almost get a second bite at the apple with their loved ones by holding this view.” It also made me recall a passage from the book Life of Pi, by Yann Martel (which I read more than a decade ago), where the question was posed by Pi, which is the better story that he had recounted: the one with the animals or the one without? The answer was the story with the animals because it gave the beauty and brutality we face in life more divine context. Pi’s response was something to the effect of, “and so it is with God.” In other words, if you can believe one of two stories, why not choose the more comforting and beautiful one. Yet, despite the obvious comfort it offers in the context of death, I’ve personally never been able to make that leap of faith.
The other event was attending a funeral earlier this month. There were some religious readings, including a mention of heaven and the idea that we—that is, those of us still alive—will one day see the deceased again and that we will be looked upon from on high. The previous funeral I attended before this one was while I was pregnant with M in 2007, thus I was not yet fully immersed in the role of parent and lacked the different perspective I now carry about mortality and the fragility of life. As cold or as crass as some might think it is, I don’t believe there is an afterlife or special place that our “spiritual” selves go or reunite with others. In my mind, the physical end is the ultimate end. Yet it is this finality that makes me feel that perhaps believers may have the upper hand, at least insofar as being a parent is concerned.
Let me paint the picture this way. When you become a parent, you’ve essentially been given season tickets to a deeply moving, life-changing improv show. It’s a wonderful mix of comedy, drama and suspense. In the beginning, you see everything, from the behind the scenes tasks and toil to the front of the house standing ovation after a particularly good performance. No two acts, let alone performances, are alike. You are equal parts producer, director, supporting actor, acting coach and audience, though these roles ebb and flow throughout the season. Over time, you see less and less of the performance onstage, but you certainly have a handle on what’s been taking place by hearing the reviews. You are immersed. You are spellbound. Yet this is the one show that you do not want to see the end of. This is because to see the last performance would mean that the life of the main character—your child—would have to end before yours. No parent wants that. So instead, we usually duck out sometime before the final curtain call.
Of course, of course, saying goodbye to our children, whether it be because of our death or theirs, is hard for each and every single parent, no matter when it happens and no matter what your belief system is. But what I wonder is if there is some small, even if infinitesimal, advantage to the knowledge, if you’re a believer in the afterlife, that you will have an opportunity to come together again one day. I have to think that there is, if only because there is the promised benefit of seeing, albeit from a different plane, the end of the show as well as a soulful backstage reunion.
As an atheist, I do not operate under that premise. It sometimes moves me to tears that there are so many things that I will ultimately not get to see in M’s life solely because of the natural order of our mortality, which usually has offspring living well beyond their parents. The physical world and the finite running time of the show is all I expect. It is the ultimate “fear of missing out.” This is the handicap of an atheist parent, at least for me. It is often difficult to move through life knowing this, and makes me envious of those who can adopt a belief in something more after this physical world.
I’m not going to go as far and say that perhaps because of this vantage point that atheists have a stronger appreciation for life, and certainly not categorically so. No, to do so would be arrogant and presumptuous. But it certainly does beg the question of how one’s position about the possibility (or not) of the afterlife shapes the paths and emotions we face while alive.
Copyright (c) 2013 Kristen M. Ploetz
There is very little my husband and I do without M. We probably have less than a handful of date nights per year. It’s not for a lack of spare time or babysitters. OK, maybe we’re a little lazy when it comes to coordinating such outings. But we just genuinely like being together as a unit and include her in almost everything.
Everything, that is, except our annual October weekend trip to Vermont. We just came back from our third year away at a place that we love so much, and have already booked next year’s stay. She will not be coming with us then either. That time and space will continue to be hallowed and sacred.
The benefit of this trip where we part ways from M is mutual. She gets a break from us and, more importantly, two whole days of undivided attention from a beloved member of our family who loves her immensely. We get to re-focus on each other and take a break from the distraction of being “on” as parents, though I’ve discovered that we’re never really “off”, are we? Those thoughts of I wonder what she’s doing right now . . . they are not mute when we’re apart, just turned down enough to let our guard down and breathe. I know we are lucky to be able to do this.
On this trip, I started to think about the “why” of our getting away like this, especially since this was the first time where she’s hinted at being interested in exactly what we’re doing. Certainly a lot of it has to do with the kinds of activities that we like to do as adults that would bore her to tears two days in. Browse in bookstores, find new craft brews to linger over in the middle of the day, meander through a wonderful farmers market, long hikes through changing foliage . . . these are not the things that a six year old will take lightly. And with no siblings to diffuse the kids vs. parents energy, she’d likely be cranky about the whole endeavor.
But it’s more than the practical, age-related reasons because even as she gets older and might want to do some of those things, there is a part of me that wants to keep her from joining us on this particular trip. A second trip with the three of us in the spring where we do more kid-friendly things? Maybe. But not the fall trip. That’s ours.
I think a lot of it has to do with the notion that I want her to see that we, her parents, need long periods of time—that is, longer than a dinner and a movie out while she’s sleeping—alone together. Of course that time alone is important for us as a couple, if nothing else than to try to talk about something else other than her and remember why we were together in the first place (much easier the second night, interestingly enough). As we try to be a model to her of what healthy relationships (of all kinds) look like, we want her to see that we make it a point to do this, year after year after year. Just like many families do for holidays. Just like many groups of college friends do for reunions. She can’t understand fully yet that we do get “alone time” after she’s asleep each night, but she can understand it through the physical separation of two days. I am sure she can also sense that we’re more refreshed, patient and completely excited upon our reunion with her again.
But perhaps most importantly, it conveys to her the important idea that you should and must make time for who and what is important to you. She sees that we make the time to read to her every single night before she goes to sleep. She sees that her dad makes the time every single Wednesday night to go running at the gym. She sees that I make the time to volunteer at a nonprofit each month. She sees that we make the time to be alone together in October and escape to a place that has held immense importance in our lives since before she was even a notion in our minds.* In a time when so much of our time is dictated by demanding schedules, intrusive and passive distractions and a good amount of fatigue, it would sometimes be easier to forgo the cherished bits of “leisure” time. So we try, in small and slightly larger ways, to show her that we all have to resolve to reserve some inviolable time for the good stuff that nurtures our hearts, bodies and minds. We all have a finite amount of time here in this glorious world, and none of us knows how much we’re going to receive or when the account will be closed. Hallowed time cannot always be drawn upon later in life. No, the time to spend it is now.
* We’ve visited different parts of Vermont for many years now, but the last three years we have stayed at my favorite place in the world, Shelburne Farms. It actually is a great place to take children, and we will undoubtedly take M there soon.
Copyright (c) 2013 Kristen M. Ploetz
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