"Our most ancient metaphor says life is a journey. Memoir is travel writing, then, notes taken along the way, telling how things looked and what thoughts occurred. . . .This is the traveler who goes on foot, living the journey, taking on mountains, enduring deserts, marveling at the lush green places...as a pilgrim, seeking, wondering." -Patricia Hampl

June 30, 2009

My (Long, Gregarious) Summer of Love

If you're over 45, you might recall a blissed-out Wavy Gravy talking to the masses at Woodstock: We must be in heaven, man! (Sorry--if you're not quite a baby boomer, you'll have to recall the footage of said Wavy Gravy, or see it here.) It was the original Summer of Love, 1969, a year I covet having been born just a few years later and having no recollection of it myself. But I've watched every single last second of the four-hour Woodstock documentary like a chocoholic licks her fingers (and the fork and the plate) after a velvety mousse, and have ever since adopted a very whimsical and free-spirited approach to my summers.

I take summer very, very seriously. If you read this blog, you know I'm a folkie and a hippie at heart, so activities like road-tripping, outdoor concerts, water-romping, hiking, and generally hanging out with friends, family, and campers are par for the summer course. My perpetual Woodstock is anywhere I'm immersed in a chaotic sea of faces or in the quiet stillness of nature. One of my favorite writers, E.M. Forster, put it this way: "Only connect." Forster's begging us to recognize in the faces of strangers our own humanness, flawed and wonderful; to recognize the magnificence of nature, both human and earthly. Very Walt Whitman (another favorite).

My psyche knows that with fall comes the stress of going back to work, now as a new mom, charting the waters of early-morning rush-rush-rush, navigating the full-time "rigor and vigor" of teaching and mommy jobs simultaneously, and getting my sea legs at finding the balance between them. My psyche knows that fall is around the corner, not even six short weeks away, and damn, I wish my psyche would just relax.

But it seems that I've had several more months of summer. It was my maternity leave. Once Devi and I figured out how and when she naps and eats, the invisible fence around my couch snapped, and we've been out and about every day since. We were off to the public market (normally, this is an activity I can do during early-to-late summer) as soon as the weather spiked 60 degrees in late March; we've been hanging out and urban hiking and generally having ourselves a grand ol' time as if it's been summer since the snow melted. On any given day, especially the rainy ones, you'd find me inundating Devi with my own throwback soundtrack: singing the Free to Be You & Me album, or the Beatles, or Van Morrison songs, whipping her little body around her room (careful, of course, to support the head and neck), dancing her around until we're both belly laughing. I've loved every second of this leave, and it will be a difficult transition to return to school--so I'm livin' it up with my beau and my babe while I can. We've already visited the gals in Pittsburgh and will soon be traveling on two consecutive weekends to Philadelphia and Vermont, respectively. Summer, the Open Road, my family, and Johnny Cash on the iPod. Bliss.

Imagine my alacritous response to Heath's informing me that he's been asked to offer a seminar in Tokyo and Osaka, Japan this August. Now that's my kind of road trip! In a matter of days, I'd managed to get Devi's passport photo taken (her first!) and scheduled a visit with our doc about HOW THE HELL TO TRAVEL TO JAPAN WITH AN INFANT. I mean, how does one carry a baby through the hypnotic, bustling streets of foreign cities where the language and faces are but totally unrecognizable? Are where does one change that baby? And nurse her? And transport her without having to lug a carseat around?

Japan. Japan! The Walt Whitman in me is doing a dance of joy, and then there's this weird, familiar voice on my shoulder whispering nasty things to me, like how dare we take our precious little girl away from her loving grandparents for a whole, long week? Of course, I'll be blogging about the preparations for the trip as well as the adventure itself. Meanwhile, the sky is blue, the sun is out, and the weather's perfect: it's time to get Devi ready for the swimming pool, another afternoon of sheer heaven, man.

June 21, 2009

Kind of a Why Question

Anyone who knows my family well knows that this weekend was a difficult one. Friday marked the two-year yahrzeit, or commemoration, of Don Hiller's passing by the Hebrew calendar. Yesterday was my parents' anniversary, and of course, today was Father's Day. A perfect storm of memory, sentiment, and emotion, and somehow, still, here we are, unscathed if not a little drained.

I was told after my father passed (you see? I still, still cannot write the other word, can't even say it most days) that I'd only be able to imagine him sick for quite some time. That was true. I had dreams in which my dad was totally emaciated, ravaged by cancer, unable to speak to me: which was precisely how the last few days of his life were. The six or so months--from diagnosis to our last goodbye--make me nauseated just thinking about them. Even minor moments of respite, like the one afternoon the Baptists came to the hospital room to hold our hands tight and pray with us, or the time my dad's long-time coiffeur, Tony, came to the room to give my dad a proper shave and a haircut--make me ache. But the last days. The last days were the worst, as anyone who's ever lost anyone to cancer, or any other illness knows. You pray that the hell will end, and you find you're praying for just one more day, so that maybe he can find the strength to utter just one last word to make it okay to say goodbye.

About ten days before my dad died, when he had already been suffering from dementia for a couple of weeks but before his speech was totally gone, I was sitting next to him one afternoon. I'd long given up bringing him chocolate milkshakes or anything else we thought would help him gain weight (pancreatic cancer--why should it be capitalized?--robs one of the appetite). He'd woken from a nap and asked me to find a piece of paper and a pen. I grabbed whatever was close by: and he struggled to push the pen along, staring in disbelief at his own hands. I still have the piece of paper--illegible words in cursive, save for one: problem. I asked my dad if I might write down what he wanted to say.

He wanted to write a poem, he said.

This was my dad, who hadn't written a poem since junior high. Who had worked in communications by day and who taught business accounting at RIT one night a week for thirty years. I gladly scribed his words:

The question is,
Where do the homeless sleep?

Kind of a why question.

If the home people have a place to sleep,
Where do the homeless sleep?

We accept homelessness,
And glance over it. We
as this community
Have everything: we
don't lack for a thing.

What is everybody else doing?

Dad, you sound like the Dalai Lama.

That's right. I am the Dalai Lama.
Look at how I'm being taken care of.
I am the high priest. And I am.
Stuart, Me, Aaron, all kohanim*.
We do not get ill.
We are protected.

Do you mean to say that anyone who is not
of kohanim will get sick because they are
not protected?

You're right. Take that last line out.

When the snow falls,
Who will wither?

We watch the balloon.
Wither will it go?

It will float again.
It will float again.

When he was finished speaking, dad gently glided back into a sleep state. I remember feeling disoriented; my dad had spoken a poem about homelessness and high priests, and I had no idea what to do with it. I typed it out at home that night, and put it away. Until tonight.

Luckily, when I dream or think about my dad now, he's as vibrant and handsome as ever, his perfect smile and rosy cheeks, his scratchy, award-winning moustache and sparkly, dark eyes smiling too. I've been catching myself making his corny jokes. I also catch myself looking at my daughter the way he looked at me. God, to realize so late the unfathomable proportion his love for all of us. Only one memory of his incapacity is totally clear to me today, and it will stay with me forever. It was his last day. He was finally at home with hospice care, and we were all saying our goodbyes. He somehow found the strength to hold my face with both of his hands, and said, very faintly, smiling, I can't wait. I knew what he meant.

I'd gotten pregnant about a month after the diagnosis; when I excitedly told my father, he remarked that I didn't look pregnant--and he knew a pregnant woman when he saw one. A week later, I lost that baby. I think my dad's last words to me was an affirmation that we'd conceive again and he'd be with us, somehow, to enjoy our baby. And I believe, very strongly, that he is with us every day, watching our Devi. I only have to catch her laughing at something I can't see from the changing table to know it.

And so: as always, Dad was right. The balloon, as he prophecied, floated again with my niece Nora's, and then Devi's births. I was reminded of that image when we recently walked to support the Crohns and Colitis Foundation; it was a beautiful affair that was kicked off with music and ended with a barbeque. We walked in memory and in honor of a friend who'd lost his own battle with cancer. And as we left the parking lot, I watched two balloons float from a child's hand into the pinkish, dusky sky. And I looked at my baby, and at my husband, and I knew that my dad was with us.

There's so much I want to say about that poem. That poem. Was my dad concerned about the homeless and was wrestling with his guilt about being more comfortable in a hospital bed as a dying man then they could on the streets? Given the kind of man my father was, absolutely. That poem, to me, speaks volumes about my father, and yet there's so much more to say about the man he was. Perhaps this paragraph is superfluous, but this is memoir. I need to get this out.

Heath's first father's day. We couldn't have asked for a more sweet, delicious baby. I know that daddy was the first to kiss her, before we ever did, and that I've been given an incredible gift.

June 20, 2009

Open Road, Updated

Hello Faithful Blog Readers,

In the past several weeks, it has come to my attention that there are far more of you reading Open Road posts than I'd imagined! Thanks for the positive feedback, everyone. It's great to know that I'm truly sharing 'The Road' with so many people.

If you've enjoyed what you've been reading, kindly become an official "follower" of the site: there's a button at the top of this page [see Ride Along the Open Road, on left] that allows you to do so. You may choose to remain anonymous, so I still won't know who exactly is reading, but you can visit as often as you like and read to your heart's content; I'm trying to get a head-count of sorts. Some of you tell me that you're regulars here, so please just make it official. Another improvement to the site: a little box you can check if you believe the content of the post you just read would interest another person. And if you're so moved, you can actually leave a comment! But please, be nice.

I'm going to be playing around with what's called 'monetizing' the site. I will be experimenting with placing ads here and there. The content of the postings will remain mine. In other words, the look of the site may change--I, however, will keep on keeping on. Please be patient while I figure out how to make it pretty (and hopefully profitable--baby needs a college fund).

Lastly, since it seems I cannot help but write what I know, and right now that is the office of motherhood, please recommend this site to people you think would appreciate it!

Thanks, general Open Road populace! Stay tuned for more memoir and musings.

June 11, 2009

Il Dolce far Niente

In the summer of 2001, before we all became a little more skittish about flying, I spent ten days vacationing in a Tuscan villa with a bunch of friends. Many of us were educators, all of us were unhitched, and we were as carefree as Kerouac sipping his cocktail of benzedrine and dope--except that our libations were endlessly-flowing Chianti and ironically-titled mixed drinks we'd fashioned with either melon liqueur and limoncello. It was a time to savor: we'd sit, drinks in hand, by the invisible edges of the estate's infinity pool, overlooking the Tuscan countryside, fields of enormous sunflowers and cypress trees, and laughing our young, American hineys off. Sure, an occassional adventure to neighboring towns, but mainly in the interest of savoring local fare, eyeing the local hotties, or taking in another winery. I spent those days hopelessly lightheaded. An elderly, local man who'd been observing our kibbitzing over espressos one morning exclaimed to us, "Ah! Il dolce far niente!"--the sweetness of doing nothing, of relaxing after hard labor.

The expression comes to mind so often these days, even though I'm hardly "doing nothing." When people ask what I'm up to, since I'm obviously not sweating out grading hundreds of essays or trying out lesson plans on my husband, I have to pause. I'm raising a human being! I want to sardonically exclaim as I hoist Devi from one hip to the other. When I brought my little chick to the English office one day in early June, a colleague asked me how my "retirement" was going. You mean my maternity leave? I asked. No, he said, grinning. You heard me right. Retirement. I mean, doesn't the baby sleep, like, 15 hours a day? What the hell do you do with all that time?

Granted, it was a time of the academic year when high school English teachers brace themselves for the influx of essays, make-up work, portfolios, and final exams. Had I been back at school by now, I'd be a serious mess. I imagine I would come home from picking up Devi at daycare and figure out a system that allowed me to simulataneously grade work while dancing the baby around the room, let Heath forage for his own dinner in the tundra of the freezer, and prepare lunches, bottles, and clothes for the next day. I've often said that my blood pressure is currently the lowest it's ever been, and I credit this phenomenon with my not being responsible for the edification (and final grades) for 113 kids who may or may not remember that I ever agonized over their verb tenses and misplaced modifiers, helped them with college admission essays, or lept from my desk spewing Shakespearean spells.

Parenthood is hard. Very hard. (I don't think anyone disputes this, unless he or she is the unfortunate product of a bad parent.) At any given moment in a day, I am struggling to figure out if Devi is giving me the Heartbreaking Lower Lip of Sadness because she could have used another couple of ounces to eat in that last bottle, or if I've jailed her in the exersaucer rather than let her roam around on the playmat, or if I should have placed her in the crib on her side rather than her back, or if she's too cold or too hot, etc. etc. (SAHMs and SAHDs, fill in the rest.) There was a period of several weeks wherein I sobbed because I was uncertain about nursing (was she eating enough? how many ounces? how can I tell? is she thriving?), having trouble pumping and storing breastmilk, and was probably downright exhausted. The interesting days were those when Devi pooped through two consecutive outfits, and all the clean onesies were two flights down in heaps on the basement floor, waiting to be folded and brought up to her room, nevermind that the baby bathtub was out of reach and nowhere near the soap or washcloth or towel--and we were late for a doctor's appointment. And I'd forgotten to eat breakfast. And hadn't showered yet. And couldn't fit into my pants. This is a common scenario, I know, but for those of you who never stayed at home with an infant, just know that I'm not exaggerating.

Learning how your child functions and what makes her happy is a full-time job. One makes a significant amount of decisions in a day concerning the welfare of one's child, not unlike (say it!) a teacher does. And for the record, dear colleague, when my sweet child sleeps, it is my opportunity to keep house (lawn to laundry). I never nap. It seems when Devi wakes up from her afternoon slumbers, I'm inevitably in the middle of something my OCD doesn't want me to stop doing. So far, over the course of the five months of her young little life, I've been able to finish reading only a couple of novels (and have half-read about three others that aren't worth finishing). I've started to write a couple of stories for publication that I will probably not have time to work on consistently and with sagacity until Devi is an adolescent.

And yet, I find that my time 'at home' is not only rewarding, but there are, yes, moments where I am truly enjoying il dolce far niente: walking Heath's shirts to the cleaners with the oxfords snuggly nestled under the stroller seat, greeting strangers who look adoringly at our daughter who's fallen asleep in the bjorn. Last Thursday, I was vigorously rubbing about five pounds of raw chicken with a potent garlic seasoning in preparation for hosting several guests for dinner on Friday night, as Devi danced around her exersaucer to whatever chick music was blaring through Pandora. I was dancing too. Sunlight and fresh, crisp, spring air wafted into our kitchen and the house smelled vaguely of the mint and curry chickpea dish I'd just socked away in the fridge. It might be the most domesticated work a woman can do, but you know something? I surprise myself when I admit that I enjoy it. Moments like those are as delicious as sipping limoncello in the Tuscan countryside. Mmmm, really. Just without the buzz.

What else does a new mom who's used to being absolutely out-of-her-mind insane with grading at this time of year do with herself and her baby? I admit, I've sampled the free classes at Gymboree and Music Together and am contemplating signing us up (so as to get out of the house, meet other new moms, and maybe help to impart a new skill, like deciphering musical algorithms, upon my baby). I've taken her to the Public Market on Thursday mornings before it gets too crowded, where I'll introduce her to new smells, like raw fish and fresh peaches, coriander, dill, and coffee. We have lunch with friends who also have infants (we call them "playdates," even though the infants are invariably sleeping or eating). We get out, we get around. Where I go, she goes (except for that groovy little bar my friend Sarah introduced me to the other night). Oh yeah--and feeding and caring for and nuturing and loving up my baby, changing her and bathing her and making sure that all the too-small clothes make way for the clothes that will probably fit in the next few weeks, playing with her and doing tummy time and exercizing her joints, digits, and limbs, singing and reading to her, making noises and faces to mimic, singing and saying the alphabet over and over and over (sometimes in Spanish, for kicks), narrating what we're doing and where we're going and what's going on and what's in front of us, pointing out colors and flowers and people and recording fleeting moments like amazing smiles and rolling over, noting what makes her smile and what makes her giggle, what makes her laugh and what makes her hysterical.

I'm sure retirement has its merits, but these months of maternity leave have been the most enjoyable of my life. I am blessed to have been able to do it for this long, and the minor sting of life on one salary is completely bearable, though if we ever want to help send Devi to college, I must return to work. I don't know how I'll make the transition, but I know I'll have to make every moment with my delicious daughter count. I suspect that the lawn and laundry will fall by the wayside.