Adventure, Friends, Happy Days, Parenting

Happy 100 Days: 24

Train platform, new friends (hello! hello!), young boys not much older than my son approach me to shake my hand and say, “Nice to meet you.” I am so stunned I almost forget how to respond. Metro cards, turnstiles, find a car. Kids spin around the metal poles, “Sit down! Sit still!” It does not work, they are all maps and windows and new new new. The littlest ones cry, both wanting the window seat and the seat next to daddy. Once we are zipping along, tears dry and the traffic, tracks, sky, tunnel mesmerize.
Then, up onto city streets. Dusk. Lights, crosswalks, thousands of cars. “Stay close! Stop at the curb! Don’t run ahead!” The boys slam into each other, their bodies pin-balls pinging between Pennsylvania Avenue office buildings. The caravan growths thin as it stretches down a city block. Two boys race ahead and we lose sight of them between the looming wall of strangers. The dad carries his young son far back, his daughter in the bubble-gum pink coat bringing up the rear.
Then, it is giant tree. White House in a golden glow. Crowds, bustle, tiny trains, throwing coins into open freight cars. We lose one another, gain an additional mother and daughter, lose her, re-group. The little ones and the big ones all press into the fence, sharing snacks, all learning and then forgetting names. The girls ask their mother for pennies. Another round of coins until we all stop digging into our wallets. The kids throw clumps of grass. The state trees arc behind us and we find the ones we know. Rhode Island, where one went to culinary school. Texas, where one will spend Christmas. Then we see Virginia and we all crowd around for a moment, squeezing our way in.
We break free of the crowd’s tight grip and weave our way down the streets again. Up the stairs and onto Freedom Plaza’s deep breath of open space. Up past the marquee lights of National Theater. No one remembers what is here anymore, no one spends time in the city. Where will we eat? All around us, hotels, glimmering brass. The Willard. The Washington Marriott. Lights, doormen, black hired cars. We gamble on distant memory and hoof up 14th street. The Shops at National Place offer up a bakery with a kids’ menu. Sandwiches, fruit cups, chocolate milk. Slump, hydrate, chat, color, wait wait wait and then eat.
Back out into the night. The metro again, the front car now, kids take turns peering through the dark glass at the curving tunnel ahead. We peek our heads out at the station stops and wave at the conductor who grins and winks. Girls pour their tiny toy animals onto the vinyl seats. Boys wrestle. “Stop that! Gentle hands!” The parents talk more. Who is in school, who lived where, whose kids like which sports, instruments, books. Have you decorated yet? Where will they be for the holidays? With dad? With you? Half weeks, split Christmas, alternating years.
At the final stop, we all wait at the turnstile. No one in this crowd is left behind. We only just met, and already we are each other’s fierce protectors. For one sparkling night, we barely-friends are one tribe.

Adventure, Children

I Hear that Train A-Comin’

When I hear that whistle blowin’
I hang my head and cry.

-Johnny Cash, Folsom Prison Blues

Bug has been in the Froggy class since January 2011. Same songs, same routine, even some of the same classmates. The wide-windowed preschool room with its labeled cubbies and bins of blocks has been a security blanket during a time of adjustment for his family. On Tuesday morning, all of that changes. Bug will walk into before-and-after-school care in a whole new place with kids he has not met yet. He will board a bus he has never ridden and start kindergarten with a teacher he has only seen at half glance from a face buried in my side.
I took the day off work last week to accompany my little boy on a final visit to both schools. He lingered in the doorway of each new classroom, hanging back from the buzz of activity. He clung to my arm and pressed his body into mine as if trying to crawl back inside.
That safe place is no longer big enough for him.
“Mommy,” Bug said to me on the way home. “I think I’ll stay in the Froggies for one more year.”
He is already going to be one of the oldest kids in his kindergarten class, with a birthday falling just five days after the county cut-off. He is a lumbering giant, tall and lean and towering over his peers as he roars around the playground. There is no “one more year.” This is happening. The train has left the station.
I tell him I am going to help him through it and that it is a big change but new friends and adventures are waiting for him. I tell him that his daddy and I aren’t going anywhere. That his doggy and his grandparents will still be waiting for him every night.
All of this telling is just white noise. His experience will be his own, and it will look entirely different than anything I try to craft. I understand that reassurance does not live in the picture I try to paint of how this will unfold. Rather, it is simply in my presence. If I can offer any comfort, it is in staying calm and standing loose when he turns back towards me to find his home base. It is in the sound of my voice, chattering out its quiet encouragement. It is in the three books at bedtime, the three songs, the way we walk the dog every single day whether we feel like it or not.
One of the greatest gifts of childhoods is one we most lament when we are young: we don’t have any say over our lives. I remember being little and hating the sense of powerlessness over my circumstances. When we are small, so many of us want to be grown up so we can decide for ourselves what to do or not do.
Alas, having a say is overrated. While Bug has no freedom to fight the change coming next week, he also has no obligation to initiate change of any sort. His freedom, then, is in being released from the struggle of having to make the tough decisions. The new beginning is here. My little boy is already packed up. The Powers that Be have bustled him aboard. The whistle blows, and off it chugs.
For the lucky ones, being young means not having to check the timetables or even agonize over taking the trip in the first place.
Of course, Bug is anything but powerless. He has a great deal of say in how this journey goes. Does he adapt to the rhythm of it, or does he fight momentum? Does he find a new set of travel companions in the dining car, or does he sit in a corner booth, yearning for what was left behind? In some ways, the capacity to determine the quality of an experience is more powerful than any illusion of authority. After all, we each move along a path only fractionally of our own making. Perhaps the only real influence we have over any of it is how we choose to behave at exactly the point where we find ourselves now.
In any event, Bug will be grown up soon enough. Give it another blink or three, and he will be the kind of free so many of us are: free to grow or stagnate, free to take risks or stay safe, free to lift his gaze or put on blinders. He will make choices that will have long-term consequences, and I will be unable to protect him from harm. Also, he will do breathtaking things I could not have imagined. Like all of us, he will occasionally hunker down in his personal version of the Froggies long after he should have hefted his knapsack and struck out for something more his size. Like all of us, he will occasionally board the wrong train altogether.
So, I tell Bug that he is starting kindergarten next week, it is happening, and he will find his way. My firm tone belies a roiling beneath. Down under my words, I hear another voice whispering. It asks a question for my ears alone:
If no one is here to tell me the next step is inevitable and that I have no choice in the matter, how do I determine it is time? If I can choose to stay here, buried in the warm folds of my own security blanket, how do I will myself to let go?
I can certainly allow myself to continue moving along familiar pathways. Looking and looking for a way to let myself off the hook, I retreat from the most frightening choice. I cross my arms, plant my feet, and say, “I think I’ll stay in Froggies for one more year.”
It is easy to find permission to persist in doing what I have always done. The problem is that the room does not have chairs big enough for me and the bins of blocks no longer challenge me. Outside those wide windows, something is coming my way. Even with my fingers stuffed in my ears, I can’t block the sound of that whistle blowing.

If that railroad train was mine,
I bet I’d move out over a little,
Farther down the line

Maybe it’s time to decide. If my little Bug at a mere five years old can step on board, perhaps his mommy is brave and strong enough to do the same.

Adventure, Outdoors

Face Lift

The quince shrub thinks it is spring. Pink blossoms unfurl from its branches, dusting the blacktop with pollen. The birds are similarly confused. One calls from the high, bare limbs, tuh-wee tuh-wee tuh-wee tuh-wee tuh-wee. Across the street, a second returns the song. They toss their ten notes back and forth, bridging the short distance between them. Soon, a third gets in on the action. At odd intervals, a chickadee scratches his beat behind the rhythm.
This warmth has been hanging around for longer than expected. On Sunday, Bug and I went to skip stones on a duck pond near the apartment of the man I have been seeing. He is a Don Juan with thick arms and a love affair with the open road. He knows water, mud, mountains. He made the flat rocks bounce six, seven, eight times, almost to the opposite shore. The ducks kept to the sides. My tosses managed maybe three piddly skips before plopping near the bank. The man laughed, telling me I throw like a girl. I shot back that Venus Williams turned that insult into a compliment ages ago.
Bug stripped off his shoes and socks. In his red plaid flannel and rolled up jeans, he was Huck Finn, tramping through the creek as it carried winter runoff and tiny minnows to the pond. The sun was easy on our skin. My friend settled down on a large stone at the edge of the creek and turned his face to the light. Bug wound around and around him, toes reddening in the chilly trickle, catching his balance against the man’s solid frame.
We collected pieces of mica and sandstone and scratched our names into the walkway above the bank. This man believes in talismans and magic. He drew a narrow, long eye inside the rectangle of brick. This is the first part of a converged symbol he penned on a napkin for me on one of the early dates. I do not see what he sees, but that does not stop him from showing me. In the adjacent brick, I drew a mate. The pair of eyes stared up at us, blank and cutting. I could not resist embellishment. Big eyelashes sullied the sleek edges. The swipe of nose, a swirl of hair, a smirking mouth. Don Juan lay back on the warm walkway. I traced his body in flaking, yellow rock. Bug called, “Mommy, look! A bug!” He had colored in the first of the eyes, turning its lashes into legs. He went to work on the second.
Bug rode the barrel of the man’s shoulders back through the woods. We made our way home, the sun beginning to fade. It grew colder again, but only by a few degrees.
It will not last, this strange reprieve. Already this morning, the clouds have gathered. Rain is beating against the windows.  But my arms are looser, and there is a pink burn in my cheeks. It could take a while to fade. By then, who knows? The sun may have come around again.  I have no shame. I keep the door cracked and take what I can get.