The Merry Month of May
Last week our family in various configurations attended two school picnics, one musical, one end of year school board celebration, a last baseball game, three dentist appointments, a performance of Alice in Wonderland, an ice cream social welcoming new students to our school, and a volleyball game. We hosted a party during which ten third graders played Minecraft for more or less four hours straight. We had the good fortune to be guests at a barbeque where one of our favorite friends tested out his DIY rotisserie grill made out of bike wheels powered by a windshield wiper motor. And we hosted two, much less creative barbecues at our own house.
I have missed, just flat out failed to show up, for at least two different appointments. I've been the last contributor to the gift for the girl scout troop leader and the baseball coaches, thank you gestures that hardly come close to matching the gift of time offered. I'm in danger of missing the boat on the end of year card in third grade and the end of year gift in preschool. Both of those need attention this week, and I'm hopeful I will rise to the occasion in one way or another.
So yes, it really has felt like May is another round of December.
Recently I asked a mom friend whose children are both out of the house whether May had slowed down for her. The report she shared had me understand that with college aged kids the rhythm is a lot the same only the distance between engagements is far greater. So now I know. This May routine won't let up anytime soon, considering that Eloise will graduate from college in or around 2032, a year that sounds so foreign to me it feels like it's arrival is improbable.
The facts of this matter have caused me a fair bit of distress this month. Until about last week, anxiety sprouted like like weeds, threatening to choke the life out of my life. I had a hard time sleeping as I tried to work out how I might still hit deadlines I had made up for myself about the wedding book project. I catastrophized, this is a particular specialty of mine, that after all this time, the thing would never actually happen, that my work was dead in the water, and the book was a figment of my imagination, though, it is so close to being complete.
But luckily, I am probably a reader before just about anything else--before writer, before meditator, before mother, maybe not before daughter, but before many things, I am and always have been a reader, and because of that, though writing is a solitary activity, I am never really alone in it. Teachers sit at my desk, offering their stories like balm. And while the intimate encounter on the page, never can compare with the, real encounter in the flesh, there is always enough there to find a crumb of hope, and often a lot more than that.
This month, I have been slowly working my way through a collection of essays, poems and stories by Raymond Carver. The book is called Fires. I have it here in front of me now, opened to the passage I underlined in purple last week. It's just a few lines on a page, and yet it got to the bone of something so true for me that just a glance at the purple lines chokes me up.
"I remember thinking at that moment, amid the feelings of helpless frustration that had me close to tears, that nothing--and brother, I mean nothing--that ever happened to me on this earth could come anywhere close, could possibly be as important to me, could make as much difference, as the fact that I had two children. And that I would always have them and always find myself in this position of unrelieved responsibility and permanent distraction...At that moment--I swear all of this happened in the laundromat, I could see nothing ahead but years more of this kind of responsibility and perplexity. Things would change some, but they were never really going to get better. I understood this, but could I live with it? At that moment I saw that accommodations would have to be made. The sights would have to be lowered."
Permanent distraction....The sights would have to be lowered.
How does that sit with you? That the sights would have to be lowered. I think by now, the whole world knows that there is something afoot in Palo Alto on this topic. Whether you are reading the New York Times or watching the sitcom Silicon Valley, you've probably caught wind of the galactic absurdity of high expectations that have come to symbolize, characterize, and satirize my hometown. And when I say my hometown, I don't mean a place I just happened to end up. I mean a place I chose to live, a place where I consider myself, for better or for worse, to be living among tribe mates. Lowering expectations is not a popular position around here--and by around here, I mean, with me.
Carver's passage is just the medicine I needed. Because it was in this moment in the laundromat when he accepted something true about his life, in particular his life with his children. "During these ferocious years of parenting, I usually didn't have the time or the heart, to think about working on anything very lengthy...The circumstances of my life with these children dictated something else." Carver did what he could. His life dictated something else. He wrote short stories. He wrote essays. He wrote poems. He did not stop writing, he simply wrote what he could write in the time that he scraped together. He made something of what he had rather than waiting for the the perfect circumstances to appear.
Something magical happens when we accept the life we are actually having, rather than pining for the one we don't. Things tend to get more practical, less grand. We start to collect the pennies of our small change life (stealing a Carverism here) rather than overlooking them for the bigger bills. It's not what we wanted, not nearly enough, and yet at the end of the day there might be a couple of pennies more in the jar than there were yesterday. For Carver, his small change ended up accumulating into a body of work that any writer would kill for. That he stopped fighting his life, that he lowered his sights--this decision of his delivered the words I needed to read last week.
They allowed me to release myself into the December that May has become, to actually join in the celebration rather than rail against it. To be sure, as with everything in Palo alto there is an element of overdoing it, but the truth is, the longer days of May, June, and July have always called humans to festival. The hours of sunlight tell us it is time to be out and about with our fellow humans. In ancient Greece, this was the countdown to the Olympic Games, for Native Americans it was the season of the sun dance, and across time this has been the season for weddings, probably because mild weather makes for easier traveling to see kin.
What trips me up is when I imagine that my "work" might be more important than the attending the ice cream social at school or celebrating my daughter who was voted most improved hitter on her baseball team where she played as the only girl. Which is not to say that each of these little bits at the end of school year are the end-all-be-all either. I don't want to romanticize the explosion of end of year specialness that could stand to be toned down. The point is, there is both. There is a time for one and a time for another, and a time for other things too. For me to write and parent and participate in my community, I need to be willing to deal in small change and to switch gears when necessary. And thanks to Carver, and other teachers I love, I remembered.
Which was wonderful, because I would have been a fool to miss this.