Alison: “Summerly, your jacket is still in a pile on the floor. Would you please do something about that?”
Alison: “Summerly, your jacket is still in a pile on the floor. Would you please do something about that?”
A week or so before Christmas, I was finishing an email to a far-flung family member who is usually in town for the holidays but, for obvious reasons, didn’t travel this year. I was signing it “xox” while also also talking to one of my children (which frequently affects my typing accuracy) so instead of the “x” key, my finger landed on the “s”. Instead of “xox”, I’d written “sos”. Instead of hugs and kisses, the message had become a cry for help. Isn’t that just 2020 in a nutshell?
Sing it with me! When you get to an ellipsis, you know what to do 😉
In the first month of Covid, the virus gave to me
constant high anxiety
In the second month of Covid, the virus gave to me
too many hard decisions…
In the third month of Covid, the virus gave to me
fear of public places…
In the fourth month of Covid, the virus gave to me
In the fifth month of Covid, the virus gave to me
NO TIME ALONE…
In the sixth month of Covid, the virus gave to me
six new panic triggers…
In the seventh month of Covid, the virus gave to me
word retrieval issues…
In the eighth month of Covid, the virus gave to me
vague memories of weekends…
In the ninth month of Covid, the virus gave to me
perhaps a drinking problem…
In the tenth month of Covid, the virus gave to me
ten gray hairs each hour…
In the eleventh month of Covid, the virus gave to me
In the twelfth month of Covid, the virus gave to me
I wish I could remember…
It’s been almost a year since Summerly was able to attend gymnastics class, thanks to a certain pandemic, but she still practices all manner of calisthenics and prefers to cartwheel across the house rather than walk. For months she worked on learning how to do a handstand bridge kickover, and she finally mastered it this fall, much to her delight and sense of accomplishment. A few weeks later, while she waited for her brothers to finish in the bathroom so we could read books before bed, she was practicing her new skill in our bedroom and realized that she suddenly wasn’t able to do the kickover part anymore. As usually happens at this time of the evening, little issues threaten to turn into big deals because kids are tired and desperate for just that last bit of attention they can wring out of their equally tired parents. On this particular day, all the kids had been home for five of the past six days because Arlo hadn’t been feeling well, so we were waiting for his test results to come back before everyone else could return to school. I had exactly three scraps of patience and parental energy left at this point, but because bedtime can be a cruel and unusual few hours, the disappointed child got extremely upset. “I can’t do it anymore! Why can’t I do it? I’m never going to be able to do it again! I’m not flexible anymore!”, etc. etc. I ran through the usual, “Your body is probably tired. Remember when this happened before with your backbend? We’ll practice tomorrow and you’ll get it back just like last time,” but she wouldn’t be assuaged, responding with a litany of “I’m not flexible anymore!” on repeat.
I tried to catalog all of the advice I’d gotten and techniques I’ve tried to recenter kids when they go off the rails, but I came up completely blank. So I decided to change the subject, suggesting, “Your friends are going to be so excited to see you back at school tomorrow.” Her response was, “But I don’t have PE tomorrow! I missed PE today. And the only time I can see Julie and Elka (her new friends who are in a different homeroom and therefore only allowed to interact infrequently and at a distance) is at PE! So I won’t get to see them until next week. I was really sad about that today.”
AHA! Breakthrough! “I get that that makes you feel sad,” I said. “I’m sorry. This is hard. Can you imagine how much harder it would be if you couldn’t go to school at all, like most kids these days? I know it’s really upsetting to miss out on time with friends, but at least you’ll most likely get to see them in person on Monday. In the meantime, maybe you could write them notes and ask Ms. Scott to give them to their teacher tomorrow, or we can take pictures of the notes and email them to their parents.” I don’t remember if she said anything in response, but what I do know is that she stood up, put her hands above her head, did a handstand into a bridge and then, miraculously, a kickover.
A month or so later, we had another tough evening in which Summerly reacted poorly to Brian speaking strongly to her. She recovered, he recovered, and the rest of the evening was arduous but everyone held it together for the most part. After Liam had gone to his room to play and Arlo was winding down on the third floor with Brian, Summerly came downstairs while I futzed about the kitchen, unable to relax ’til they were all dispatched for the night. Totally unprompted, she lay down on the hardwood floor and said, “You know another reason I didn’t act so well tonight? Today at school Molly said that Julie is rude, but I don’t think she is. I think Molly was upset because she was feeling left out. And I’m also jealous that Arlo got to go on a field trip today.” We talked it through and she went to bed feeling noticeably lighter.
Moments like these–when I watch my daughter name her feelings, express them openly, earnestly, unabashedly, and I witness the effect this process has on her–are stunning. She’s eight and a half years old, and she’s not only self-aware and insightful about her own emotions (usually), but also able to verbalize them as a therapeutic exercise, and I can actually see her body and her brain react in positive ways. One minute she can’t do a kickover, but after unburdening her mind, her body can cooperate again, as if her core is actually strengthened by sharing the source of her sadness. When she’s struggling with confusion or worry or envy, she’ll lock into a parent’s tone of displeasure and spiral into recalcitrance or obstinacy, but once she speaks these feelings out into the air between her and another person who receives them with compassion, she is free. I hope with every atom of my being that she won’t lose this coping mechanism, that she won’t ever keep the turmoil inside. I realize that there may come a day when I am no longer her confidante, but in that case my greatest wish for her is that she has someone to whom she feels safe enough to speak her grievances. This is a gift she is practicing. She has a gift, one she knows how to give herself, a gift so many of us don’t know how to give or have no one to help us learn to give it.
Wise men, keep your gold and frankincense. Bury your myrrh for all it’s worth. No gift is greater than the one people can give unto themselves, and may we all find ways to give it, and give it, and give it.
Recently I was reading a book to the kids in which a child’s parents inform him that his grandparents wouldn’t be able to visit for the holidays. The child protests, saying, “But Grandma and Grandpa always come,” to which his parents explain that they have to do things differently this year and that that doesn’t mean it won’t be a great holiday. I thought, ‘Excellent! A perfect book to read during a pandemic! An illustration of a family adapting their traditions by necessity and making the best of it! An example of how wonderful it can be to create new traditions, or to abandon tradition altogether to make space for new ways! A story form of this life we’ve been handed, a model of how we can still enjoy all of these dozens upon dozens of annual occurrences that must be conducted in unusual fashion! So I jumped right in with, “See, you guys, there really is no such thing as ‘always,’ at least as far as we know. ‘Always’ is actually a really ambiguous adverb. Think about times that you use the word, and you’ll find that there’s a more specific, more informative way to say what you mean. ‘Always’, when we’re talking about relativity of time, is as abstract as ‘infinity’ when we’re talking about numbers.”
I hoped Liam was listening, as we repeatedly have discussed his resistance to flexing routines. For example, a few days earlier when he’d gone to do his math homework on the iPad only to realize that it was completely out of juice and needed to be charged for a while before there was any hope of it lasting through the session, I suggested that he practice violin while it was plugged in. His response was, “But I always do violin AFTER iPad!” I was hopeful that we could make a shift in both his vocabulary and his rigidity because recently we’d made progress with another disambiguation: the words “need” and “want”. I’d been impressed a few days earlier to hear him self-identify that, considering his bureau drawer full of clean underwear, he didn’t actually need the days-of-the-week underwear that were in the laundry; rather, he wanted them.
We continued our discussion about “always” as a concept rather than a concrete quantity and went on to read the rest of the story (which, as it turned out, was in fact NOT the perfect book to represent the pandemic-life paradigm, and it actually demonstrated a family that, despite being well intentioned and surprisingly adaptable, displayed severely dysfunctional interpersonal communication skills). Later that night, I noticed that the light was on in the hallway bathroom, and the door was open. In our home at this time of day, these facts clearly indicate that Liam was in the bathroom and that he’d probably be there for a while longer. I sighed and walked over to close the door and remind him yet again that he needs to close the bathroom door at times such as these. As I said this, I watched him use a piece of toilet paper and throw it in the trash can next to him. “Liam,” I said, “toilet paper always goes in the toilet. Baby wipes always go in the trash. I repeat: baby wipes go in the trash; we do not flush them. But toilet paper, after you use it, always goes in the toilet.” He responded, “Okay. But there’s no such thing as ‘always.'”
Well played, my son. You have kicked the soapbox clean out from beneath me. I shall submit my resignation letter in the morning.
It was Greek Day at school one day last week, and at pickup Summerly climbed into the car and handed me this:
It’s her very own Pandora’s Box, embellished with rhinestones and decorated in her characteristic style (I like to describe it as “slapdash with panache”). “There’s something inside it,” she said. When we got home, much like the eponymous box’s original owner, I couldn’t resist investigating its contents. What I found within was a set of folded strips of paper, each but one inscribed with a “misery” of our world, and a single shred of hope tucked among them. Look at this:
Her “misery” is that Covid-19 is making people sick, and her hope is an end to Covid-19. This rendering of the current human mindset is simultaneously simplistic and profound, and for some reason it flooded me with feelings. Who ever dreamed that our second graders would live in a reality where this dichotomy even exists?
Pandora’s name means “the one who bears all gifts” and she was created as a punishment to mankind because they had been given fire by Prometheus, the Titan who’d stolen it from the gods. The Greek Pantheon is fascinating, not least due to the petty, puerile, punitive, conniving, deceitful, hypocritical way they interact with each other and humans, according to myth. The Pandora story provides a perfect example: Prometheus committed an act of thievery against Mount Olympus. He gave the filched fire to humankind. And the gods punished humankind. Despite the faulty logic involved here, there are two alternate endings to the Pandora story; in one, she lets loose all of the evils to wreak havoc on humanity for all eternity and, horrified at what she’s done, slams the lid back just in time to trap one last item inside: hope. The less cynical version of the tale allows hope to fly from the box, swirling around as the one extant power to counterpose the evils, giving humanity a weapon to combat a defeatist mindset that assumes the inevitability of doomsday and threatens the potential for people to ever be delivered from a life of oppressing suffering.
I’m going to hang these two strips of paper somewhere, probably in my closet, where I can see them frequently but not constantly, as an affirmation of that second version of the myth. We must refuse to believe in a world without the heartbeat of hope. If hope is “the thing with feathers” as Emily Dickinson says, may it not beat its wings to bits inside a box. May it take to the air, the very air we breathe, and make it safe to breathe again.
My eight year-old has a hope for the end of Covid-19. Your words to Zeus’s ears, my child. And may this punishment leave behind all the gifts it brought to bear.
As a child, I loved them but I didn’t know what they were called, so I gave them a name of my own: “Open People”. Later on I learned that they carry various titles, including Matryoshka dolls, nesting dolls, stacking dolls, and Russian dolls, and I’ve accumulated a very small collection that I’d love to enlarge if I had a budget and small gallery dedicated to that end. I’m not sure why I’ve always been fascinated by them, considering their structural simplicity, but I think I’m beginning to understand.
Matryoshka dolls provide a facile metaphor, that of one generation of parents giving rise to another and another after that, and there are many other interpretations and iterations of the doll as a symbol, or so the internet tells me. In the spirit of layers upon layers, I’m having another idea: imagine that every person is like a Matryoshka doll. Within each of our identities we carry other versions of ourselves, postures from the past that date back to that moment of birth represented by the innermost doll, the one usually painted to look like a baby. This is the only doll that cannot be opened, and it’s traditionally hewn from a single piece of wood; it’s the only version of self that has no cracks. I do not believe that a human baby comes into this world with inborn sin, afflicted by the misdeeds of any human who has existed before. We are born innocent, fully intact in our purity, free of prejudice and bereft of belief. We are unbroken, wholly equipped with nothing but genetic material and instinct as directives. We are honest, faultless, guileless and real. If anyone can ever be considered perfect, this is the hour when that term can apply. Never are we more divine than in the moment we first breathe air.
From there, our child selves build upon each other like layers of pearl forming over that initial granule of sand, one after the other, eventually becoming adult selves, each containing every one that came before. All of these former selves coexist, even though they’re not necessarily perceptible to those around us, insomuch as they contribute to who our present selves have come to be. Without all of those other selves, our current selves could not be what they are; former selves are essential to the formation of present identities.
This is why face value is sometimes so approximate, why what’s inside a book should never be estimated by its cover. There’s implicit multiplicity within every personality, and the form in which we each walk through this world today is built upon an aggregation of every yesterday. Sometimes I imagine myself as a Matryoshka doll, each layer opened and laid out among the others, all unpacked, each edition of identity twisted at the waist, pulled apart. and set next to the rest. It helps, this image. We are never quantifiable by a singular identifier or a sole role in this life. Sometimes when I imagine my personal past this way, it’s as if so many former versions of myself are all sitting around a table, each carrying its own perspective, together trying to synthesize a deeper understanding of what it means to be this particular person. It’s a fraught conversation at times, but once in a while they agree to borrow parts from each other, try on each other’s bottoms or tops, twist around and see how it feels to live like the other half. And then, afterwards, I imagine them all reassembling, tucking back inside the largest shell, each folded against the contours of both the one that came before it and the one that came to be because of it, the most current self closing the others quietly in.
Sometimes it’s hard to remember that the reality we see laid out before us isn’t the only point of reference we have. So many moments have paved the way for now, and the paths we have yet to walk await us. I try to keep in mind that when I make my way along those paths, all of my selves are in accompaniment, sometimes offering a reminder or a observation from their perspective. It’s a comfort to know that who I’ll be down the road will be grateful to have the person I am today–with all of my faults and uncertainties and weaknesses and things I have yet to learn–along for the ride. I’ll remind her to never forget that allegorical line that encircles her midriff, an emblem of the Matryoshka doll of selfhood, and to remember that we all are Open People.
One night at dinner recently, I mentioned to the kids that I’d seen a dear friend’s daughter waiting at pickup that afternoon and that she was wearing a mask matching the one they’d all worn that day. Brian heard this remark and said that the girl’s father, his best friend, had mentioned by text that he waves at me in the pickup line almost every day but doesn’t think I ever see him waving.
Alison: “Really? I haven’t seen him! I guess it’s because that’s my reading time and I’ve been totally engrossed in this book. Actually, I finished it waiting in the line today!”
Kids: (uproarious applause)
Alison: “Wow–thanks, guys! It really is an accomplishment for me. Want to hear the name of the next book I’m going to read?”
Alison: “How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids Will Talk“
Summerly: (deep sigh of relief) “Oh, thank goodness. I saw that one in your pile and was wondering when you’d finally read it.”
I’m trying not to take it personally.
When my youngest sister was very small, her favorite color was adamantly pink. When she was probably four or five, she uttered what is now a family-famous lament: “There’s just not enough pink in the world.”
My daughter fell off her scooter recently and scraped the inside of her elbow. As with all of their injuries, witnessing the progression of the healing process is fascinating for all of my kids, and we are often called upon to inspect and marvel over a scab or scar. A few nights ago, Summerly lifted up her arm and said, “Look, Mommy! It’s almost completely gone!” Sure enough, the scab was practically nonexistent by that point, leaving in its place a swath of shiny pink. “Yes,” I said, “the scab is almost gone, but the scar is there to remind you how you healed.” She looked at me and asked, “Are they always pink?” and I had to think about it for a minute. I explained that scars can be a variety of colors depending on one’s skin color, the type of injury, the age of the scar and its location, but that usually a new scar, one just past the scab phase, no matter what color the person’s skin is, is indeed a shade of pink. “Cool,” she said.
I hadn’t actually thought about this before. Of course we’re all aware that no matter what color a person’s epidermis happens to possess, if cut, it will bleed, and that blood will be red. But it was a new idea for me to consider what universally happens after a wound has mended itself: the new skin is pink before it fades to white or darkens to black or retains a rosy tint. It was comforting to add another line item to the “what do all people have in common” list, an item that is visible, tangible, simple and constant. In a time and a world supersaturated with uncertainty, it felt nice to lodge conviction in something as concrete as an axiom: freshly healed skin is pink. My appreciation for the color pink skyrocketed in that moment, as I was now seeing pink as a badge of convalescence, a flag survivors wave to show the capacity for repair. Let’s let pink be a banner for fresh healing in all things, not just skin; let’s co-opt the color as a symbol of recognition that something, anything, wasn’t whole or wasn’t healthy and means were taken to impart healing upon it. Whether a cut heals on its own, aided by robust biology, or it requires intervention to help it mend doesn’t really matter. It doesn’t matter whether a person experiencing all the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune is able to move through them unaided or if she benefits from a support system to buoy her on her journey. What matters is that we all live in a constant state of healing of some kind or another, or we try to. We’re always on our way from one pink process to the next, and we should count every pink moment in our past a point of pride.
The year 2020 has been cut-artery red. This country has been in danger of bleeding out on the table, presided over by a bad actor pretending he’s a surgeon. The last ten months have been a gaping wound of a time to be alive, and there is a monumental amount of healing to be done. I hope with every shred of being that 2021 will shed the red and herald a different color, one that bathes us all in its roseate light, because there’s just not enough pink in the world.
Arlo had been acting more tired than usual, and he looked a little wan, so I decided to keep him home from school out of an abundance of caution and made a virtual doctor’s appointment so he could get cleared to go back to school the next day. An hour later, he started running a low fever, so I called Brian and the other kids home per school pandemic policy. I took him for a covid test, which came back negative, so everyone else returned to school the day after the results came back, but Arlo needed one more day to recover from whatever had been afflicting him. That morning, he ate a bowl of cereal after taking ibuprofen on an empty stomach, having eaten very little of anything for almost a whole day. This resulted in the poor kid not being able to keep down the cereal, and unfortunately he was on the sofa at the time, so that meant a lot of cleanup and laundry on my part. The remainder of the day, however, was really pretty enjoyable, and it had been a very long time since I’d had that much time with just him. That night, as I was saying goodnight to him, I mentioned this.
Alison: “I really enjoyed spending time with you today.”
Arlo: “Even when I throwed up?”
Alison: “Even then.”
Arlo: “But I throwed up on me! And then I smelled like dead frogs! But I don’t anymore.”
Alison: “Yes, we cleaned you up. You don’t smell like dead frogs anymore.”
Arlo: “But you do!”
Alison: “No, you do!”
It’s amazing how quickly a Kindergartener can take the sublime and transform it so deftly into the ridiculous. It’s a special kind of genius that’s at once juvenile and rarefied, and it slips away, little by little, as they themselves undergo the inexorable metamorphosis that will eventually yield their adult selves. All parents feel that “nudge and tug” of watching their children grow: the longing for them to age into certain phases and out of others coexisting with our reluctance for time to pass and, with it, the youthful stages that our children possess at each selfsame point in their lives. It’s why we don’t correct Arlo when he still says “pupcake” for “cupcake”, why we were sad when he started referring to his favorite lunch as “pizza” instead of “eepza”, why we all fondly call the card game “Exploding Kittens” by the moniker he gave it: “Boom Cat”. I know someday we’ll reminisce about the magic that accompanies this age: a propensity for injecting the absurd into elevated moments, to color conversations with inanity, to doodle in the margins of life. I try to hold on to moments like this because I know there will come a day when I’ll miss them, when I’ll think back on this day–the day that my kid vomited directly onto the white Pottery Barn sofa, begged me all day for a pet tarantula, refused to eat anything except the inside of a piece of baguette for dinner, used a Sharpie to color straight through a piece of paper onto the hardwood floor, and told I me I smell like dead frogs–with a wistful smile in my mind.