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Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Way of the River

          Slowly at first, we lock eyes. He’s dressed in a gray T-shirt, lined with sweat around the collar; gray hair curls behind his ears. His fingers are dirty from construction work, his eyes piercingly pale blue. I notice him staring at me, his icy glaze peering past the hood of my car, past my own brown eyes - longer, deeper, further than he should be able to see. I look back as a zip down the street. At first I am befuddled at his stare but I continue on driving down the street with my son in the car seat behind me. As I pass the man, his blue eyes turn hateful and through the whizzing car surrounding me, I can hear him shouting. My heart beats with aware trepidation, then turns to shameful dishonor as I hear the words. “SLOW DOWN!” he screams at me as I pass him and continue on to the intersection. My face is hot, feeling slightly annoyed yet inexplicably in agreement with him. Suddenly, I am a little girl. I am being punished. I am in the corner, hiding from my parents, shameful for the lie I told. 
          I drive home and park the car. I want to drive all the way back to my icy blue-eyed man. “You don’t understand!” I want to call out to him. “I’m from New York and I drive only slightly aggressive and fast for a New Yorker! I have a child in the back seat and I am usually a very good driver but I often get frustrated with how slow some people drive sometimes! I abhor very fast drivers and I promise you I am not a danger to society, or anything else that you might be thinking!” 
          But the man is long gone, and I am home, rushing lunch into my son so I can fold laundry while he has some quiet time in his room so I can get dinner ready on time so I can avoid a late bedtime for little Aidan so my husband and I can talk business for our upcoming vacation so we can fall into bed at midnight and start all over again tomorrow. I ignore the road signs along the way, the ones that whisper in a gentle hush, “slow down.” “Slow down.” I overlook the voices and carry on. There is too much to do.

         The following week, we depart for a week long trip to the Adirondacks. I’ve been looking forward to it for months. Vacation Mommy turns out to be very different than Regular Mommy. I savor the crisp air and peaking autumn foliage before me. I slow my pace and spend the entire morning walking the lake shore with my baby as he hunts for pebbles and leaves. I lose track of time. I relish the salty crunch of hot French fries, the creamy goodness of ice cream in the parlor on Main Street, the buttery decadence of the lobster roll I treated myself to for lunch. I sleep solidly. I hold hands with my husband as we walk through town for dinner. I feel slightly more alive and awakened. And, I am not rushing. My attitude towards the immensely long road trip changes too. Seeing my 3-year-old passing the hours in the car by singing and talking without fret, I shed my road trip anxiety from earlier years with Aidan, when he would meltdown and throw fits from his hatred of  car seat confinement. Quite simply, he has chilled out and grown up. My husband and I shrug and toss our detailed mental itineraries to the wind. “We’ll get home when we get there,” we tell ourselves and mean it. And we do. Pleasantly.
         But the next day, the pangs of perfectionism eat away at my relaxation. There are barrels of dirty laundry to do, an empty refrigerator to fill, and neglected rooms that need tending to - a tiny cobweb here or there, an empty tissue box holder, a bill to mail, a birthday present that needs wrapping for the following day. I feel Vacation Mommy evaporate into Bitch Mommy as I ignore my husband and son for the last stay-home day of our vacation before work and school start again. I choose unpacking the luggage over craft time with Aidan, re-organizing the newly stocked fridge over relaxing on the couch with my husband during Aidan’s quiet time, harried bitch-mode tone over a more ladylike one. Later, I remove my make-up and a reflection I am not used to stares back to me. I notice delicate tissues of skin around my eyes that were once not there, and creases underneath instead of the freckly youth I’d always been bashful about. I look at my mirrored brown eyes and think of my sweaty, angry construction worker angel of the week prior and his glaring blue ones. Slow down, he tells me. Slow down. Stop.
         Where have I been rushing to all this time? I think of all the times I’ve snapped at Aidan while getting dressed for school. “Let’s GO!” I finally always bark while he struggles with a sock or pleads to take one more plastic figurine with him. I sometimes make him cry. I race him down the stairs and to the car; some sort of absurd relay with a tiny, half-pint child. I regret taking the “shortcut” road that follows the lovely Rappahannock River to school because everybody drives so slow to obey the very low speed limit. “I should have gone the other way! I should have gone the other way!” I bitch in the car as I trail behind a beat-up car inching along. I think of how the five-minutes-late-to-preschool timing will have a ripple effect on all my errands and things to do before picking Aidan up and tackling the rest of the day. Has it been a race to lunchtime? A race to when Daddy gets home? A race to Aidan’s bedtime? I can hear the voice that has developed out of my breath over the last year or so. I don’t like what I hear. I can sense the pressured pace of my stride. I don’t like what I see. I flash forward to the rest of my days as a mother and am disgusted at what lies ahead of me; an anxious frazzled woman devoid of purpose and gratitude, forever rushing around to futz over minutia and ignore the journey. I’m racing towards an end that is ambiguous and hazed, and along the way, I see a path of regret and dizzied apathy. I see a race to nowhere, and a small precious son, trailing behind.
         We chose to only have one child, in part, of course, so that we could focus on that one little person, centering all of our energy on his needs and still have time to enjoy what we were doing. And for the most part, we have done that. But somewhere in between the first chaotic war-zone days of Aidan’s existence and the newer, predictable big boy childcare period we’re in, I’ve single-handedly found a way to morph my self-identity as a mother into a mutant, unappealing form of itself. It’s so easy to equate the completed chores of motherhood into self-purpose and success. Emptied garbage, check. Clipped baby’s toenails, check. Dinner is cleaned up, check. I pureed yams into twenty containers for the freezer, check. We got some fresh air, check. As baby grew and tasks became more routine, I guess I found a way to complicate the things that made me feel successful. We got out of the house on time, went to Storytime at the bookstore, got your new vitamin prescription filled, read books, had an afternoon playdate with your new friend Dylan, made dinner in time for Daddy to come home, AND Mommy got to scrapbook your six month pictures tonight just as Daddy was drying you off from bath time, check, check, check. Every completed job of motherhood and homemaking became a way for me to feel a sense of purpose and satisfaction. I realize that maybe I have hung onto this way of everyday life far too long. As Aidan approaches four years of age and grows more independent and unique by the day, perhaps I sense the loss of identity I’ve built a life around. Perhaps I fear the journey I will inevitability need to take as I re-define exactly what makes me productive in a new and different season of parenthood. And perhaps, because of all this, I’ve been hanging onto the daily chores and rushing about to this place and that place in an effort to preserve my comfortable spot as mother-of-a-young-child.
         Whatever it is, I decide to listen to my gray-haired construction worker. I slow down. Literally, I start with slowing down my driving. I realize that the speed limit in various spots in town is actually a lot slower than I’ve thought. I obey the limits precisely and take those long, belabored pauses at stop signs one learns in Driver’s Ed. Instead of bitching about slow drivers, I become the slow driver; Aidan behind me as co-pilot. And I discover that by taking our time in the car, we still seem to arrive everywhere exactly at the same time anyway. I take it further, and experiment with what might happen if we are a little late for school or errands or a playdate. It turns out, nothing awful happens. And in fact, I feel my pulse slowing, my voice relaxing, and my mind opening up to the conversations I have with Aidan along the way.
         I challenge myself to linger as long as possible after preschool as Aidan plays in the communal playroom and forget about time frames. I talk with other mothers I’ve seen for at least the last year but never taken the time to say hello to. At home, I try to disregard agendas and my “blocks” of Aidan’s structured day - Lunchtime, Craft Time, Quiet Time, Movie Time. I realize that the formless, go-as-we-please playtime Aidan and I both used to dread when he was younger is something our souls were starving for. We put a picnic blanket under a tree in the front yard and read new library books in the warm afternoon sun of November. It bleeds into other parts of our day and I don’t seem to care. I ask Aidan what he wants to do during the long long afternoon hours and I listen to his answers with an open and interested heart. When Daddy is finally home for the night, I join in their upstairs wrestling matches and silly board game play. I let dishes crust in the sink and emails go unchecked. Our weekend calendar boxes suddenly become blank and the anxiety over how we’re going to entertain Aidan dissipates as we simply figure it out along the way. We play at the park or stop in a bookstore on a Saturday and let the rest of the day form itself around rediscovered toys and niches of the house to ignite imagination. I realize that my husband and I have created our current lives around working so hard to satiate Aidan’s unquenchable curiosity that we’ve been robbing him the opportunity to fill his own empty spaces without our detailed intervention. I’m horrified by my lack of awareness about this. But I relish Aidan’s discovery of boredom, quiet, and simplicity.
         In the light of my new mindfulness, I stumble upon other epiphanies. If I linger or delay with chores or errands, I still manage to find the time to accomplish them. I channel my troubled perfectionism into a game to see if I can “perfect” mindfulness. Can I be the best at imperfection? At going slowly? At blurring borders and time?
         Slowing down reveals a new pathway to listening. I listen. I really listen to what the silence is telling me. And in place of my rushed conscience and precision, I hear new answers that I hadn’t thought about before. Answers about me, not my role as a mother. Read. Read things you’ve never thought of reading before. Write. Write now. Write for your life. Practice yoga again. More answers come. Lay in bed with your husband in the dark, listening the night away to music like you used to do many years ago. Get lost in space and time in those dark hours. Still more. There is a place in the world for you after Aidan goes to school. After this stage of parenthood. There is more for you. Perhaps if I listen closely and be still, I will find my way to that path, as well. I feel an exhilaration about the opening I’ve allowed into my life and what gifts present themselves in that open calm.

         One afternoon, the sounds of Aidan acting out superhero battles in his room dissipate into silence. He’s been playing for about an hour in his room during our much needed Quiet time from each other while I sort bills out to pay. I call upstairs to him but hear no response. When I check in, I don’t see my little guy for awhile, until I notice a small flesh-colored lump on the bed. He’s taken his figurines into his bed for a fight, and in the midst of it all, must have fallen asleep. The late winter light casts itself onto his brown head of hair and drooling, opened lips. I can’t remember the last time he’s fallen asleep accidentally in the afternoon. My mind starts fantasizing about how this unnatural late day nap will interfere with his ability to fall asleep at night, and how my husband and I will have to delay our nighttime plans, discussions, and pursuits. I should wake him up, I think. Instead, I climb onto his twin-sized bed and curl behind him, putting my lips to his fuzzy scalp. I think of a friend of a friend who put her young son to bed several months ago and then died suddenly on the couch from some rare disorder that is still being investigated. I wonder if she had had a few more moments on earth, would she have wanted to rush through that last bedtime ritual with her son, or linger, smelling his innocence and caressing his youthful cheeks? Would she have remembered the chores she accomplished as each day bled into one another, or the still, idle flashes of intimacy with her son? Slow down, I hear again. Be still. Right now, there is only this tiny flesh, breathing up and down on the bed, snoring softly in my arms.

         Aidan and I break out the heavier jackets for the newfound chilly winter air. We head out and start our day. We proceed down our normal route towards school and stop at the light where we always get stuck. Here in the warmed isolation of the car, I feel secure and cozy. Unrushed. “Let’s take the way of the river,” I say to Aidan, deciding nonchalantly to take the winding road that travels along the water with a speed limit of 20. The way of the river; a winding unhurried course, where sunlight strikes the simple blue-brown water, illuminating glorious patches of earth I’ve overlooked for far too long.