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Category: high school

pulling rabbits out of hats

it is what mothers do. on a rare day, on a day when stars and moons and jupiter and venus all align.

it is what mothers wish they could do every breathing day–make it all all right again. pick up the pieces. clean up the mess. shake off the bits of gravel from there on the sidewalk, where the grit scraped the knee. kiss the hurt, slap on a bandaid. make it all right again.

we know, those of us with half an ounce of living, that more often than not, we can’t right what’s wrong. can’t make the mean girls go away. can’t shift the score of the ballgame. can’t even chase the mean coach into a corner, make him tremble for what he’s done to someone we love.

but, once in a while, when the pile of wrongs piles too high, we swoop into action. we make like houdini. pull rabbits from hats.

and so it was the other morning, when i got to breathe deep of that rare sense of glory, of having triumphed, mended a hole in the day of a kid i happen to love more than life.

here’s the simple story, told only to remind me and you that we really can, every once in awhile, grab onto our britches, dash out the door, and make like a hero for someone we love. and of course it’s not about being the hero, it’s about that rare chance to do as we wish others might do for us, be for us. that rare chance to live the magnificent, luminous goldenest rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

how often have we found our sorry selves at the end of our ropes, and wished upon stars that someone would leap to our rescue? and what a beautiful thing when we find that we can do just that. for no reason other than through-and-through, inside-and-out, plain pure love.

so this boy who i adore–you’ve heard me write of him over the years–he is this week about as neck-deep in plain old unfiltered stress as a senior in high school can be: he is in the thick of tryouts for crew, a sport that has kids pulling on oars till they literally see stars and crash to the floor (don’t get me started); he is also in dress rehearsals for the spring musical; and cranking out not one but six art pieces for AP photo class, with a gallery show opening next week.

and so of course this is the week his phone, a fifth limb if ever there was one, decided to sputter and gasp and utterly die.

now a boy without phone is, i quickly realized, a boy whose life is verging on crumbling.

for one, he had no way to wake up in the morn, as that phone serves to jangle him from deepest of sleep, with its haranguing alarm that wakes the whole house–except, of course, for the intended sleeper.

for two, since the world has been stripped of pay phones, he couldn’t call for a ride, or tell me what time to be where.

and the mere look on his face, the oh-my-god-if-one-more-thing-goes-i’m-going-too, it stirred me to muster some forces.

as i dashed in his room that dreary morning, just after he’d trudged off to school, and suddenly i spied the dead phone stiff on the desk, i charged into supernurse mode. i dialed the phone store (from a phone with a pulse, thank you). i made an appointment. i squeezed in a triage, smack dab in the thick of a workday. the dear man at the store, he pulled out a toothbrush, of all the high-techy tools. he oohed and ahhed at all the gunk that had nestled into the cracks of the phone. and then, in unsparing words, he looked up and declared: “this phone has come to its end.”

he rattled through options. i attached price tags to every last one. but then i thought of that kid, i thought how little he asks and how hard he tries.

i told the man i’d like a replacement, didn’t care much that it’d cost more, by a long shot, than popcorn and movies.

the nice man played a rare card: without my even asking, he rang up the bill, and as he punched in the buttons asked me something about was the battery working. i said i really didn’t know the state of the battery, but then when he showed me the final sum, he’d sliced off a whole $120, because he deemed it a “battery issue.”

then he handed me a brand new phone, and i brushed the tear from my eye, sprouted due to his kindness and the mere fact that not even dollars would keep me from fixing a hole in the skin of my kid.

i walked out of that store as if on a hovercloud, my chest nearly heaving at the rare joy of success, my mood downright giddy. what had felt like a mountain just hours ago, was now whittled down to a clearing. i couldn’t subside the pure joy of lifting the load from my boy. knew, through and through, there’d be more times than not that i’d stand on the sidelines helpless, while the stretchers were rushed on the field. but for now, there was only delight.

and that night, when that tired tall kid strode through the door, expecting to spend yet another long night without phone, he looked at his bedside table, and there, lit up and flashing the time, he spied the fruits of my motherly labors.

he practically rubbed at his eyes, as if he couldn’t believe what he saw: the one thing he wished for that day, the one thing he couldn’t possibly have carved out a minute to do, it was lying there, shiny and new, just waiting for him to pick up and text.

it’s a rare and heady day. but oh how glorious a gift to get to play like a mama magician and make one bumpy life all smooth again.

no old hare ever looked so magnificent, no matter the hat from which it was pulled.

have you yanked any rabbits out of hats lately? anyone pulled one out for you?

sometimes…

sometimes, when you’re a mama, you wish you could fix it all with an apple cut into crescent moons, and an oozy grilled cheese, and a wee ghost mug filled with chocolate-stirred milk.

sometimes, when you’re a mama, it’s nowhere so easy.

sometimes, say the night your firstborn promised the college essays would be done–signed, sealed, delivered–you find yourself checking the status, oh, every half hour. and it’s not too long till you realize this night could unravel right before your eyes.

and soon enough, you feel the weight of the world that bears down on the shoulders of the babe you once birthed to the world.

and as you sit there listening, sopping up heartache–his and, quickly, your own–you see in your mind’s eye the whole picture show of his life.

frame after frame spilling by.

and stunningly, awesomely, you grasp the enormity of the fact that you’ve been there for a front-row seat all the way along. and you cannot think of one other someone you have known so utterly wholly–every night fever and rash, every scuffle and pitfall. the girl who said no to the dance. and the one who this summer said yes.

and, by now slid down against the chair where he is curled, your shoulder against the sides of his thick rower’s legs, you think back to the hours and months before he was born.

you remember when your belly got to the brink of a room, any room, before the rest of you did. and how you loved that belly. how you tried on the clothes that would show it off well before you needed to wear them. because, after waiting a lifetime, you could wait not one minute longer.

you wanted this more than anything ever–before or since.

and you remember, back then, how you promised yourself, promised the unborn babe, promised the universe, and God too, that you would love that sweet not-yet-met someone so wholly and so completely, surround that sweet someone in such an un-pierce-able bubble of love, that babe would never be knocked back by the high waves of doubt and despair that, too often, threatened to topple you over–and did, more than just once.

and you really thought, back then, that committing to love was all it would take.

and so you set out to make it come true.

why, you’d practically wear that babe on your chest, barely put him down, sleep curled right beside him. you’d hardly go out, rarely bring in a sitter. you’d work from home, give up the downtown office–just to be minutes away, always.

you would do everything under the sun, for years and years and years, to keep that child from knowing the heartache that you could not bear to imagine.

the heartache that now seeped into the room, filling it like a hose with a spigot, as you sit there on a cold autumn night, watching him struggle to type in a chair with a screen that resists being filled with his thoughts, with his words, with his sketchpad for college.

you hear a depth of heartache that rips your own right out from your chest. and so, when the talking is done, you cannot walk back to your bed. you cannot leave his room, you realize.

you can’t type the words, can’t pull the thoughts from the utterly drained mind that is his–he’s been at it for days now.

but you can’t sleep down the hall. so you do what mamas do, sometimes. you stay where you feel the pull.

you curl up on the floor. lay your head on the emptied-out backpack, make like it’s the pillow.

and you close your eyes while the typing starts up again. the pads of his fingers tapping their way toward college.

and you feel the tears roll down your cheeks from under your closed eyelids. you taste the salt of the runaway one that rolls over your lips. you wipe it away before it’s noticed.

once upon a time you thought you could love your child free from all this. safe from all of this.

and at every turn along the way, you did what you thought would stoke him with strength, with joy, with lightness of heart.

but then on a dark night at the end of october, when all the colleges begged their assignments, you realized that, sometimes, in the end, all you can do is lie there and pray.

and wait for the dawn, finally, to come.

i write this for all of us, the mothers, the fathers, who keep vigil through these final days and nights, as high school seniors around the country, type out their thoughts and their big ideas for colleges who will or won’t let them in through the gates at the head of the line, the early decision line. and i write this for all those who love children at whatever stage, whenever and wherever and however they stumble and struggle. i know, because i have friends, that ours wasn’t the only house that felt dark last night as all the desklamps burned.

on a much lighter note, i promised a word on breakfast with ina, the barefoot contessa. she is, in a short string of words, everything you would hope she is. and so much more. she oozes goodness. engages in deep conversation. sparks up at a question. wraps it all up with a genuine hug. you get up from the table feeling as if you’ve just made a friend. one you’ve known for a long long time. which in so many ways, i did.

what dark nights have found you keeping vigil, curled up beside the someone you so thoroughly love?

going back

i went back today. back to the source of so so much.

i walked the halls. found my way past all the touchstones of my long ago. at so many corners, heard the voices from pages long turned.

stood beneath the clock where someone once asked me to join the underground newspaper. walked past the spot just outside the library where my senior english teacher, the monday after homecoming, when i was the queen who broke the beauty-queen mold, asked me if i’d read, “the demise of the homecoming queen.” i gulped, shook my head no, that long ago morning. wondered then, and months later, if she knew something i didn’t yet know.

only later on, months later on, would i understand the clairvoyancy of that question. it all came back again as the 53-year-old me passed over that spot in the much-waxed square-tile floor.

i walked past the radiators that lined the glass walls, just beyond the cafeteria, where all the cool kids and jocks hung out, where if you were a girl who didn’t feel so sure of how she looked when she walked, who worried that maybe they’d whisper, where you held your breath and walked fast as you could.

i went back to high school today, my high school. because the school is turning 50 and they invited us back, back to talk to the kids. back to talk about how the place stamped us, fed into the whole of who we would become.

i found myself surprised by some of the questions, surprised too by my answers.

what did we most regret, they wanted to know.

what one word would we pick to describe our years there?

what’s changed since we walked the halls?

in no particular order i heard myself say that what i learned in high school was how i would be in the world, how i was the kid who ducked and swerved between groups, didn’t see walls, didn’t like cliques, wouldn’t abide them, who looked for the sparks in everyone from the lonely band of misfits to the jocks to the harvard-bound brainiacs, who figured out how to live with a social fluency that all these years later is there in my back pocket, is there when i need to knock on the door of a stranger and ask to hear the hopes and the dreams and the heartbreak, is there when i need to look in the eyes of my little boy’s teacher and get her to understand that we are a team, are together, and setting our sights on the prize that is a little boy’s mind.

i heard myself say that what i regretted was that i didn’t dive more deeply into the books back in those years, when i was aswirl in all that rushed my way, and all that i thought mattered.

i heard myself say that i was blessed back then to be in high school just after the radical ‘60s and what i wanted when i grew up was to save the world. and how, all these years later, i sure hadn’t saved it but i had taken the time to try to understand a few things.

it’s at once humbling and emboldening to go back, to retrace who we once were, to connect the dots from there to here. to stand quietly under a clock that still lives in the frames of my memory. to stand there, at 53, and remember.

my high school years tumbled in on me in the end. my closing days of high school were raw and hard to think about.

it’s why i don’t go back easily.

but all these years later, walking through the halls alone, finding my way… hearing my voice through the microphone, retracing a someone i’d not so distinctly thought about in a long long time, it was a reunion after all.

and the someone i bumped into was my long long ago self.

have you retraced your steps to a place that deeply mattered in the making of who you are? how did you find the journey? and what did you discover along the way?

long walks and talks that never end

the end of the long hard story that was junior year of almost college is that, well, it ends.

ends any hour now, actually.

already is gliding toward close, is pressure cloud lifting, is window for words.

words, for my sweet boy and i, are the long-tested glue that hold us, cement us, keep our hearts in connection.

that boy and i have spent long long hours, over the years, deep in the forest of words.

we’ve climbed down to the side of a brook, watched the light dapple through leaves. savored the joy, pure delight, the swapping of stories. we’ve hiked into the deep, plenty of times, marveled at the heft of the tree trunks, the length of the shadows, the sound of the silence except for our words. once or twice, we’ve found ourselves lost, at the end of a trail. or so it seemed, as we pushed back the brush, searched for the sliver of clearing that would show us the way.

i don’t remember when, really, the long talking started. i do remember a young boy, maybe four at the time, walking in circles, unspooling his thoughts as i stood there and listened. we lived in a house with a square kitchen island, and that was the mooring, it seemed, around which he strode and he thought.

i remember the stairs, the ones that rose as if floating on air, no backs and no sides, just up. or down, with precipitous drop. i remember sitting there, for hours on end, watching the slant of the sun as it fell on his face. i remember the tears. i remember the stories. i remember the questions.

i remember the nook in his room, the slant of the roof right over our heads. i remember the leaves of the trees, brushing up against glass. how his room was a perch. a loft for high thoughts. i remember playing with blocks and towering stories.

as far back as i can remember, the boy and i have lived with our hearts inside out. little to hide. no words not allowed.

i suppose i set out to be the sort of mother who always had the “open for business” sign on the door. and in our house, the telling of story, the landscape of heart, is most serious business.

junior year, though, got in the way.

oh, the stories we started to tell. but then, oops, we cut ourselves off. knew we couldn’t go round that bend. not with math books and junior themes, faulkner and fdr twiddling their thumbs, up on his desk.

so for the last couple of months, too often, we clamped it. tightened the lid of the jar, lest stories begin. lest we get lost on a miles-long hike back to the woods that we love, the woods of the words.

the one short jaunt we’ve allowed, on all of these nights of late-night study, is our walk in the dark. around the “big block,” we call it. a study break. a bedtime preamble, literally. for me that is. for him, there’ve been too many nights with no bed in sight, but that’s over now, almost.

he can sleep all he wants.

and we can talk all we want.

just last night we went for our walk. and when we got to the very last corner, the one that turns us toward home, he pointed left, away from our house, deeper toward story.

i indulged. we kept turning corners, away from our house, for a good extra half hour.

oh, there were stories to fill every step. right up to the end, right up to the stoop in front of the door.

and oh, it felt fine to be back in the business of endlessly tilling our hearts.

my sweet boy and all of his stories are back. the long year is over, is ended.

all i need now, for the summer ahead, is a thick pair of soles for miles and miles of story.

it is a blessing, i know, to march by the side of a boy of 16–nearly 17–who still finds reason to walk with his mama, talk to his mama. sometimes, in the dark, i take his elbow, to keep from tripping over cracks in the sidewalk. the top of my head comes just to his shoulders. we’re quite a walking pair, little mama and her towering lad. oh, what a gift to take on the darkness with a boy of long stride, and long story.
what’s your preferred mode for soaking up stories with the someones you love?

that was fast

and there it was.

like that.

in yesterday’s pile of mail. just lying there, that short string of words, taunting me, teasing me, jolting me into the countdown of truth.

class of 2011. g-g-graduation party?

oh my God, i gasped.

now, i’d done that math. long long ago. maybe when still in the womb, in line with all my other fascinations with numbers (i tend to be moored by arithmetic, by adding, subtracting, defining my life in crisp-lined equations), i likely leapt forward in time, determined the points in my unborn’s unfurling story, first uttered the short string of digits, the 2 and the 0 and the pert pair of 1s. barely made sense, that sum of indivisible, indiscernible, parts.

for a good long while, through preschool and early-on years, through multiplication tables and kickball and the odd social fumblings of middle school, it’s just a blurry far-off posting there on the distant horizon, an odd combination you are called to conjure once in a while.

ah, but once your firstborn’s in high school, of course, they fling that digital string at you page after page, form after form, invoice after invoice. why it becomes a part of your child’s identity. he is 2011xxxx in their books.

and i suppose, vaguely, subliminally, ever-rising in consciousness, i’ve started to realize the punch in those numbers.

they are not merely computer-generated ink spurts. they whisper, ever louder, the undeniable truth: kid’s leaving, and here’s the date of departure.

egad.

oh, i’ve started to feel the rumblings. all this talk about college. all this mail that comes day after day. nice mail, fine mail, mail from places that want to harbor my boy.

but graduation party?

someone grab me a stool.

are we r-r-ready for that?

so there i stood in that way that we sometimes do, trying to get my eyeballs to clear out the fuzz, make sure i was seeing this right, not being fooled by some optical wizardry. downright insisted the brain part of the reading department kick into gear, try wrapping its neurons around the letters before me, make some sense of the fast-forward illusion.

hmm, seems to be not a ruse but the real, actual fact. complete with a date, and a comma besides.

coulda logged it onto the calendar. if i had one. for 2011, for cryin’ out loud. geez, i’m just breakin’ in this one, the one with the 0 at the end, instead of two 0s, a fine pair of eyeballs, peering out from the spot in the middle.

while i was busy, um, swallowing all this numerical befuddlement, the little one ran to my side. read round my elbow.

piped up, matter-of-factly, “this is how it will be, dad at work. just you and me.”

oy.

so it might be.

(lord knows, it’s not that i have even a wisp of a twinge at the notion of going along, just me and the little one, it’s just the hollowness of a four-bedroom house in which some of the beds never are mussed. and the towels in the bathroom….oh, never mind…)

so, yes, we will spend the next 15 months seeing that date–june 5, 2011–begin to flash along the roadside like some neon number that refuses to run out of wattage, blinking brighter and louder till it takes over the screen.

and so it goes as we pass through this life, aiming toward targets once miles and eons away, then inching closer, somehow getting so close we can make out the zigs and the crags of the outline. count the hairs on its head.

more often than not, we are propped up along the way, made to adjust to that thing on the far-off horizon.

so i’ve been told, when it comes to this college thing: “oh you’ll be ready, all right. your kid will make you so crazy you’ll cannonball him right out the door. toss the trunks onto the sidewalk, plunking behind him.”

hmm. not yet.

to this day, at nearly the midpoint of second semester junior year, that college-bound kid remains, solidly, squarely, among the most delightful lights in my day, he charms me. entertains me. teaches me, too. he makes me laugh so hard i swear i’ll embarrass myself one of these outbursts. says things that keep me awake thinking at night, not because they’re disturbing, but because they hold so much truth, so much wisdom, and like marrow of bone, i need to suck on it all a good long while to extract every speck of its essence.

so, no, not yet. i am not remotely ready.

and thus, the words on the slip of paper wholly stunned me, stopped me.

i felt the lightning bolt of truth shake through my body, down my arms, into my wrists, onto the tips of my fingers.

and there was the little one, right by my side. taking it all matter-of-factly.

life has a knack for sneaking up on you. and here, at this point on the map, i am noticing all around me, seeing the landscape blur out the window.

we seem to have picked up speed somewhere along here. not long ago, we struggled to learn to pedal a bike, swing a bat, spend the whole night in a tent despite the raccoon that scratched at the flap.

and, kaboom, here we are, getting a notice, high school graduation party. june 5, 2011. mark it, please, on the calendar.

gulp.

that was fast.

what sorts of chapters have crept up on you lately? how did it feel once you arrived? what pangs do you still harbor? or, are you, like me, still peering at that post down the way, teetering bravely, hoping not to topple?