Caveat: I had big plans for this post after reading Kristen’s last post and feeling all kinds of connection to her and inspired to write about Free’s latest developments. Currently, however, it is 10pm, and I have just put Free to bed after her first big gymnastics show and a long, long day at work where the hits just keep coming. I cannot begin to capture the goodness of what Free is going through in my current (negative, tired, crabby) state, so instead, I’m going to take examine a more abstract angle from my grouchy state. I beg your forgiveness and hope that later in the week, I’ll be able to tackle it all from a better place.
I don’t love it when people say that kids grow up too fast.
Of course, we parents are allowed to feel that sentiment, but the lengthy years of bringing the infant through the toddler and big kid and then really big kid and preteen and teenager stages involve so much work that when I hear people say “cherish the moments because they…,” I glaze over and swish the rest of their words down a mental toilet while thinking, yeah yeah yeah.
It’s not because the advice is unworthy or the observation untrue; on the contrary, it is so cliche and obvious that it strikes me that it’s only said when someone is trying to fill space with words just for the sake of filling space with words, which I generally cannot abide. I appreciate when someone is trying to connect with me, but I do wish we could all just acknowledge that when it comes to kids growing up too fast, we get it, so can we all just stop saying it and move the hell on already?
OR, if you’re going to tell me something I already know, at least do it in an interesting way, by showing me why it matters or how we are connected through this very obvious and yet still deep and heartbreakingly painful experience we all must go through–the one where we must let them grow up even when we don’t want to and it confuses the hell out of us and yes, we know it means they will grow away from us, and we hope but don’t know for sure if they will come back.
Instead of rolling out the trite phrase, show me, as Kristen did, your 7 year old’s “you’re toasted” threat, which I can clearly see is the product of a lot of hard handwriting work. (My god, is she using an apostrophe correctly?! Can she please come and teach my 9th graders how to do that?!) Let me peek, with you, into said 7 year old’s new room and watch as she unravels her secrets to you, or shine a light for me onto what “this much amazing” looks like to her 3 year old sister. Ok, now you have my attention. Instead of swish, swish, swish, my brain is saying yes yes yes! along the lines of Joyce’s Molly Bloom.
When someone writes or speaks to me on that level, I am mesmerized, caught, fully present. On the other hand, I will admit to a tiny bit of internal eyeball rolling when someone with older children warns me how limited my time is with my own. Newman is in the crux of the empty nest conflict right now, and as much as I am fully sympathetic with him because I love him and trust that he is wise and is telling me something I know that I will be feeling intensely someday, I’m just not there right now in the same way and so am not yet that invested in this little nugget of wisdom.
The irony with Newman’s experience, of course, is that he’s mourning the loss of his own children’s childhood at the exact time that he’s nervous as hell about Free (and all her impending remaining years of childhood) impinging on his freedom and solitude–and on our relationship. Not that I blame him for it. I totally get it, actually. It’s just ironic, and that very irony is what makes it more interesting to me. It reminds me that one cannot always fully appreciate how precious the moments are until one feels them slipping away, and even then, one can feel the waves pulling in both directions at once–the tension is in feeling uneasy about being caught in the middle while all the action occurs around you, leaving you feeling a little off-balance and alone.
Those who are actually caught in the waves pulling away from us can also offer their own interesting insights, of course. Toward the end of J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield finally reveals his “crazy” vision for himself in this way:
“Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be. I know it’s crazy.”
Of course, it’s not crazy at all for Holden to be on the cusp of adulthood observing that if he must “fall,” he’d like to do so in a way that allows him to protect others from falling too. The fact that he thinks it is crazy is what makes Holden so totally lovable because he hasn’t yet reached said adulthood and realized that the urge to stop childhood in its tracks is quite common. So much of Holden’s turmoil could be sorted out if he could see how normal it all is, but of course, if people were to go around telling him that, he’d probably start the same swish swish swish that my brain knows so well.
We may swish swish swish a lot of what others have to tell us if we think they are far away from our own experiences or perspective. Sometimes, we can bridge that gap, but getting beyond politeness usually means you’re invested in other ways. I have quite a few friends who have children who are very young, as in 0 to 3 years. I spend a lot of time listening to pregnancy and infancy and toddler stories, about 99% of which are stories of things I have lived through myself. Very little of it is brand new information or is told in ironic or new, interesting ways. However, I’m thoroughly happy to listen to these stories. How can this be, you ask? I have lately been pondering this same question, and I think it comes down to some simple (and for good reason, usually unspoken) rules.
1) I will invest many hours in listening to your stories if you occasionally stop talking and let me also share a story about something that you have not yet experienced and may not yet be invested in but which is just as exciting or awful to me as your nanny/diaper/teething story is to you, and which I can absolutely value because I remember how important it also was to me back then. There is a simple mathematical equation here which involves equal parts love, listening, and talking, give or take a story.
2) Even though what is important to you now and was once important to me “then” is over for me now and I have moved on out of necessity, I will try my best not to give you advice unless I hear you asking for it. I will also try hard to muster interest even if I do not initially feel it, and this is because I love you, not because you have a child but because you are a friend and were so before you had a child, and so please try, once in a while, to be with me in some of the ways you were before said child in addition to the ways you are with me now that you have a child. I will love all parts of you because I know all parts are within myself, each wanting its time to shine and be acknowledged.
One of my students observed today that he liked Catcher in the Rye and was enjoying it generally, but he wasn’t sure what the central conflict was, and it was bothering him. I gave them all the “no Sparknotes” lecture before we began the unit, and so far, discussion shows that most of them are honoring my request, probably because I haven’t yet thrown any quizzes their way. I was thrilled to hear this student’s reaction. “But that’s just what makes it so true to life,” I answered. “Do we always know what the conflicts are while we’re in the middle of them? Or do we flail about for a while and at best, make note of little shiny details that catch our interest, even if we don’t always know why?” I then took a few moments to sketch out, very broadly of course, how the story and meanings of my separation and divorce were only now, four years later, starting to form coherent patterns in my mind. “My world was upside down for a long time, and nothing made sense. I might have been able to point to a dying marriage and label it as the ‘central conflict,’ but that was it. Nothing else was clear. Salinger is great because he’s showing us Holden’s conflicts from inside and from the moment itself. We are where Holden is, but we also get to step outside of him and try to figure him out from our own perspectives. How cool is that?”
Telling and listening to stories is what makes life meaningful, interesting, and sometimes even ironic. If I were better at it, tonight I’d have said some of what I said in fewer words that made more sense. For now, I’m ok with letting it all hang out. We all need permission to be like Holden in that way, sometimes…rambling on and on and taking our sweet time to get to the point.
Sometimes the point is far less interesting than the details along the way.