Halloween memories

It’s a pretty remarkable Halloween – two feet of snow are piled up outside the window, and the pumpkins are buried under white stuff.  I’m sure that, all over the Northeast, moms and kids are rethinking Halloween costumes, trying to figure out how to bundle princesses into parkas, whether a Zombie in a snowsuit still has a fear factor, how to convince a six-year-old that even ghosts wear boots.

Such parenting challenges are behind me, though I well remember the joy of a balmy Halloween night and, on a frosty one, the delicate negotiations required to keep everyone both reasonably warm and acceptably ghoulish.  My job this Halloween involves no face-painting or fright wigs, and it’s been years since I donned my own witch costume and told a scary story to the neighborhood kids before they began their rounds. Back in the day, Jack would laboriously sketch various pumpkin faces on paper before taking knife to flesh; always, the final product was the result of much work and deliberation. This year, he’s not carving a pumpkin, but the stakes for his Halloween labors are as high as ever.

As it happens, I’m sitting in front of my computer doing one final proofreading of my son’s early-decision college application, due tomorrow.  He’s putting the finishing touches on his last essay, and already this morning we have exchanged several phone calls and text messages and emails.  I may not have a clue, anymore, what he’s doing in math or how to look over his French paper, but at least, in this one small realm, I have some chops.  I can provide a pretty decent editorial safety net.  And, given how little help he requires from me these days, I have to admit, it feels good to be needed.  Still, I do miss the days of fangs and fake fingernails, grinning pumpkins and gory masks.

This month, Good Housekeeping magazine reprinted a blog I wrote two years ago, about trying on Halloween masks with my son.  It was his first year away from home, and we were both still adjusting to that new reality – me to the empty nest, him to the structure and challenges of boarding school, a path he’d chosen and his dad and I had supported, but one that was demanding considerable growth and change from all of us.  The details of that day already feel distant, and yet I’m so glad I wrote them down. Jack and I get along really well these days, and the struggles of his sixteenth year feel like ancient history to us both.

Today, I’m glad to share this essay again, as a reminder of how time marches on, how love endures above all else, and how we are shaped and molded by small moments — and by our willingness to notice and cherish and remember:

Every year since my younger son Jack was three or so, we have tried on Halloween masks together.  It was always Jack’s holiday, the plans for some elaborate costume taking shape weeks in advance, the scarier the better.

When he was really young, he was happy to go trick-or-treating in whatever sweet little outfit I dreamed up for him–a tiny vampire, a tiger, a pumpkin.  But the age of innocence didn’t last long.  He wanted to be terrifying.  Whereas Henry was content to paw through a bag of cast off clothes or to grab an old dress out of my closet and stick a witch hat on his head at the last minute, Jack wanted a full-bore, frontal-assault sort of costume.  The kind that could not possibly be homemade, but absolutely had to be store-bought, preferably dripping fake blood.  He wanted a knife or a spear or a hatchet to carry, and would not be caught dead putting a jacket on over his black flowing garments, no matter how chilly Halloween night turned out to be.  The costume ruled.

Yesterday morning, Jack and I set out early with a shopping list he’d made the night before–all the things he’s discovered he can’t live without these days.  Tea bags, boxes of cereal, Clearasil, a hot water heater. . . We were efficiently checking things off the list — until we found ourselves alone in the Halloween section of Walmart. It was hard to resist pausing to critique this year’s batch of outrageous masks. Jack pulled a clown mask over his head, and I slipped on a piece of zombie headgear, complete with creepy little arms dangling from the sides.  Pretty soon, we had tried on every mask on the shelf and contemplated a few mullet wigs as well.

Last year at this time, Jack and I were pretty much at a stand-off with one another.  His sixteenth year hasn’t been easy for any of us, a time of tremendous growth and transformation, challenge and worry. We’ve fought about everything, had many intense heart-to-heart talks, and have worked hard over the last few months, each in our own ways, to find new, healthier ways to relate to one another. In a few weeks, he’ll turn seventeen.  He’s happy, doing well in school, nearly grown up. It is easy, once again, for us to enjoy one another’s company.

Jack didn’t buy a mask for Halloween.  But our detour down the mask aisle brought back lots of good memories for us both.  I realize that what I remember most clearly now is not all the actual Halloween nights of his childhood, but rather our annual trips together in search of the perfect mask.  And how, year after year I, a fully grown woman, willingly tried on ghoul and ghost faces for my son.  How much fun we had together, when I wasn’t in a rush to get the job done, or to get somewhere else, but slowed down to his pace, and took the time to play and ponder.  That’s what we did yesterday.

It felt, for a few minutes, as if he were just a little kid again.  “We’ve always done this,” he said, as we left the Halloween aisle and headed off in search of batteries and earbuds. “Wouldn’t miss it,”  I answered.

Technology, a boy on the brink of adulthood, some questions

My son Jack and I spent most of last Sunday in the kitchen together. Although he has a desk upstairs in his bedroom, and I have one in my office, the kitchen is the place in this house where most of the creative work gets done, whether it’s putting together a pot of soup, writing a blog post, reading manuscripts, or composing a college application essay.

Jack sat on the sofa, tackling one short essay after another on the Common App and various college supplements, while I perched at the table, reading on-line submissions for a panel I’m on next week. Between essays, he would chat with me about possible angles he might take, and then he’d go outside to shoot hoops in the driveway for ten minutes and think things through.

Essentially, Jack’s challenge was the same one every other high school senior we know is wrestling with at the moment: How to present himself in words to complete strangers who will then all-too-briefly compare him to thousands of other unique, gifted kids competing for the same spots in next year’s incoming freshman class. Of course, I have no one with whom to compare my son; I’m reading just one college application, not a thousand. And, as his mother, I’m about as far from an objective judge as I could be. But I was struck, nevertheless, by the depth of his thinking and the range of experiences that have contributed to the construction of his eighteen-year-old self.

By late that night, he’d answered one question with a sonnet, written an honest, thoughtful essay about the difficult but valuable lessons he learned from getting suspended from high school, tried to compress two summers of work he’s passionate about into a thousand characters, and described how his environment growing up has influenced the person he is today.

As Jack emailed his work from his computer across the room to mine, and we zapped edited versions back and forth, I couldn’t help but marvel at  the ease and efficiency of the process. Thanks to the wonders of the digital age, we could work independently yet side by side in the coziest, most companionable room in the house. At the same time, I found myself thinking of the role that technology has — and has not — played in shaping the multi-faceted picture of my son that emerged from his day of writing and reflection.

The next day, an article in the Boston Globe, titled “Trying to Gauge the Effects of Growing up Digital” caught my eye. “A few clicks, a couple of swipes,” it begins, “and Bridget Colvin’s four- and-a half year old son, August, was tapping away on an iPad smudged with tiny fingerprints.” The author goes on to point out that “there is little doubt we are seeing only the early stages of a hyper-connected world that is changing childhood.” The images brought the point home: toddlers swiping fingers across board books, expecting the characters to come to “life;” parents handing their iPhones to fussy babies to quiet them; one-year-olds adeptly playing “Baby Birds,” a version of “Angry Birds” for the Pre-K set; three-year-olds skillfully surfing for videos on YouTube; a description of Fisher-Price’s hot new toy, the $15 Laugh & Learn Apptivity Case, an “oversize iPhone case that doubles as a baby rattle.” Since the toy was released last month, Amazon has been unable to keep it in stock; the most popular app for the case, “Where’s Puppy’s Nose,” has been downloaded more than 700,000 times.

My son Jack never was never an “easy” child; active, curious, sensitive, bright, he struggled to find his place in a world that often seemed too overwhelming. Learning how to be at ease in this world, physically and emotionally, and how to live in it fully, has always been his greatest challenge. Confronting that challenge through all the years of his childhood and adolescence, he has suffered, matured, and, in the end, blossomed.

I can’t help but wonder what kind of young adult Jack would be today had he been offered an early escape route from his complicated feelings. How would he have developed had he been able to lose himself in an app at age three or four, instead of having to negotiate the complex emotional and tactile stimulation that life continually threw at him? Would he have learned resilience if he’d been able to tune out the intensity of real experience by tuning in to an animated wonderland instead? What would feel important to him now, if he had spent the hours of his early childhood having interactive adventures in front of computer screens, instead of getting into mischief and experiencing the painful consequences? Who would he be, if he hadn’t been a boy who grew up playing in the backyard with his friends, laying on the couch under an afghan sounding out the words to “Frog and Toad,” learning to do math by collecting a hundred acorns during an autumn walk, and then adding and subtracting them into piles?

I got a disturbing glimpse of the answer to some of those questions a couple of years ago, when Jack became so enamored with video games for a while — and then so good at them – that he eschewed the real world of relationships and heartache and expectations, for a virtual one that he could create and control at will. It seemed like a perfect match up – his lightening quick brain and extraordinary hand-eye coordination made him really, really great at video games. But the more hours he put in in front of the screen, progressing through increasingly difficult levels of exceedingly complicated games, the more his ability and willingness to engage in the challenges of the real world atrophied. He lost the concentration necessary to read deeply, lost interest in homework, quit sports, pulled back from school and friends. For the better part of a difficult year, he was physically home but emotionally absent.

For Jack, making the hard choice to endure the emotional ups and downs of reality rather than escape into an alluring alternative universe, has turned out to be a formative, life-altering experience. He had to figure out how to use technology constructively, of course, as a tool with which to work, rather than as a substitute for life. But, just as important, he also had to figure out how to build a sustaining, meaningful friendship with himself — at the very moment of adolescence when we humans are often most desperate to escape from ourselves. And, because we had moved from the suburbs, where he was surrounded by friends and neighbors, to the relative isolation of the country, that friendship with himself has had to sustain him through many long, solitary hours.

“Life in rural New Hampshire was as lonely as I predicted,” Jack wrote in one essay (I quote with his permission). “The driveway was dirt and undribble-able and while the lawn was big enough for a complete baseball diamond, there weren’t any players around. Being alone with my thoughts was uncomfortable; I’d never had to be alone in my life. But in the midst of my sadness, I began to grow up. I became more creative with the ways that I entertained myself. I spent time drawing, reading, inventing card games and playing the guitar, as well as just sitting and thinking.

In my pensive misery as a twelve-year-old it dawned on me that I would never become the self- sufficient, creative person I wanted to be if I couldn’t even enjoy my own company. I would continue to distract myself with all of the problems around me and never face my own. Although I’m a social person by nature and love spending time with good friends, I owe the security I have in myself to learning how to become my own best friend, in the quiet countryside of New Hampshire.”

Jack and I talked about all this as I drove him back to school last week, where he’s taking a demanding senior-year course load and has decided to try out for the varsity basketball team – despite the fact that he’s spent the last two winter seasons playing squash. He’s been playing basketball for hours a day all fall, just for the fun of it. So, he started working out, lifting weights, running, practicing his jump shot, as a challenge to himself; whether or not he actually makes the team is less important to him than the pleasure he’s found in the discipline of trying.

As Jack would be the first to admit, just a couple of years ago, in the midst of his video-game obsession, he wouldn’t have taken on the challenge of making the team, nor would he have risked the disappointment of rejection. Now, having come to understand himself more fully, he’s realized that it’s by actively engaging in the physical world that he connects with his happiest, best self. Fortunately, when he decided he’d had his fill of video games, he had a “self” to return to, a work-in-progress self to be sure, but one that had been shaped by an early childhood without much access to TV or movies or computers.

Having spent his formative years with no choice but to learn to live in his own body and be entertained by his own imagination, he had plenty of “real world” experiences and skills to build on, some familiarity with the pleasure of making things, getting lost in a book, or climbing a mountain. Thinking about this, putting it into words on a form on his computer, he couldn’t help but wonder what life, and adolescence, might be like for a boy of his temperament coming of age in this next generation.

Having watched Jack’s journey these last eighteen years, I wonder, too. If you grow up with a gadget in the palm of your hand, do you ever develop an inner life? If large portions of your first years on earth are spent online, will you ever make contact with that sacred entity within that guides you toward your full potential as a human being? If you’re an expert at surfing the web by age three, will you ever discover the pleasure of crocheting a hat, building a snow fort, or laying on the grass and staring up at the sky? If there is no silence in your mind, no quiet place in your heart, no true solitude in your soul, do you ever hear the voice within?

We don’t have the answers to these questions; they will be revealed by the next generation of children, the ones who are happily tapping away at iPhones in their car seats. But I think it’s interesting that my eighteen-year-old son, who is a self-taught whiz on the computer, is worried about those kids. And I’m glad to hear him say that he’s grateful now for the low-tech early childhood he had – even the loneliness, even the boredom, even the hard parts.

Jack has one more essay to write, and he’s chosen the topic: mastery for the sake of mastery. In it he wants to write about the pleasure he’s found over the years in teaching himself all kinds of random, mostly useless but deeply satisfying skills: how to do the Rubik’s cube, skip stones across a pond, flip an omelet, climb rocks, hit a wicket shot in tennis, recite Hamlet’s soliloquy, juggle five balls at a time, play “Purple Haze” on the guitar.

Like I said, I’m not a very objective judge, but I think he’s ready for college.


Further reading: a related and fascinating article on the front page of yesterday’s New York Times, about the growth of low-tech Waldorf schools in the high-tech epicenter, Silicon Valley. Also, a recent piece in, of all places, Fast Company, about the disappearance of down-time.

Playing hooky

There is always something else that needs doing. But there are never enough days like yesterday, days when the trees don brilliant robes and stand tall, rustling softly in their finery. When the sky melts into azure infinity, when the air is as soft as breath, and nasturtiums bloom like crown jewels scattered upon a tumbled carpet of fallen leaves. The thrum of insects, the call of a crow, the precious light, the honeyed warmth – it was too lovely an October afternoon to miss. A day that whispered, “Ignore the to-do list, shut off the computer, and play hooky.”

The dictionary defines it thus: “an unjustifiable absence.” It seemed to me that the golden afternoon was justification enough. Summer was offering an unexpected encore, free to all takers. My husband Steve and our friend Nance met me on the trail and, with the dogs bounding ahead, we climbed up to a quiet clearing with a view of mountains, a place we call “the meditation chairs.” Over many years, visitors to this spot have assembled hundreds of stones large and small into an arrangement of artful cairns and comfortable seats that invite revery and repose and reflection. It was a perfect place to sit for a while, savoring this glorious, unseasonally balmy Monday.

Nance and I looked at each other as we headed back down the trail and we both had the same thought at the same time: would it be crazy to go swimming? We went from the mountain straight to the pond, smooth as glass in the waning afternoon. There was nothing to do but peel off our clothes and plunge. The slap of cold was small price to pay for the exhilaration of slicing through that icy black water, straight out to the middle of the lake, and then turning to look back at hills soaked in color, the empty beach, the resplendent stillness. We swam to shore shivering, exultant, grateful.

When our boys were young, a full moon on a clear night was always a good excuse for sleeping outdoors, but it has been years now since I’ve done it. The truth is, I haven’t been quite ready to return, alone or even with my husband, to some of those cherished traditions that were so much a part of our family life. My greatest joy as a mother was to introduce my children to the world, to lead them gently into wonder, to provide an abundant harvest of experiences that would stir their senses and quicken their imaginations – walks in the woods, nights under the stars, stories told by firelight, hushed sunrises and barefoot walks through dew-soaked grass. Now that they are grown, I miss those times more than I can say. I miss my sons as the little boys they were, much as I love and admire the young men they have become. And I miss the joy of our shared play, the sense of adventure that infused our days and nights, the fun of dragging air mattresses and sleeping bags out into the backyard on a moment’s notice and cuddling up together beneath a vast canopy of stars. I miss seeing the world through a child’s eyes.

I’m also realizing that herein lies one of the great challenges of this new phase of my life as a woman whose child-raising days have ended: to learn all over again to see the world through my own eyes. I want to look and feel deeply now not just for my sons’ sake, but for myself. And to remember that this life, these days, are not just thrilling for young children, but for me, too. To live well on the earth means to inhabit gently its fields and streams and wild places, to praise its magnificent abundance and variety, to protect its treasures, to celebrate its beauty even as we honor our own playful spirits, no matter how old or how young we are.

Now that I have no little boys to take by the hand and lead out into the wonderful morning, it’s easy for me to get so caught up in the doings and details of my “grown-up” life that I miss the soft curve of a day, the gentle approach of evening, the first wink of stars at twilight. I forget to pause long enough to savor the miracles of creation that are right in front of me. But it’s time for me to pay closer attention to this world now for my own soul’s sake; indeed, to partake of its wonders myself just as I once offered them to my children. It is such a simple thing, really, to sit, to look, to see, to cherish. The harvest moon, certainly, is always worthy of celebration and homage, whether one is five or fifty.

And so, I pitched my small tent on the crest of our hill last night and unrolled my sleeping bag. I lit a fire under the stars, listened to the coyotes yipping in the field below, watched the beneficent moon inscribe her graceful arc through the night. When I awoke this morning, my hair damp with dew, the first streaks of crimson were just appearing on the horizon. I lay alone in my tiny tent, silent, serene, looking out across the mountains with a heart full of gratitude — for all that was, and also for all that is. This world. This life. This day.

Thank you, dear friends, for the week full of wonderful birthday wishes and, too, for sharing the precious gifts of your lives with me. I cherish your comments and am in awe of the power of words to bring us close, to weave such marvelous threads of connection through our hearts and minds.

A birthday for me, a gift for you

I’ve already received exactly what I asked for for my birthday tomorrow. I gave my sons Henry and Jack plenty of advance warning and then I was quite clear about my wishes: Handwritten letters, please. Not e-mails. Not hastily signed store-bought cards. Not presents. Just letters, from each of them to me.

Somewhat to my surprise, they both came through as requested — early, in fact. There are two sealed, handwritten envelopes sitting on the kitchen table at our house, and I can’t wait to open them.

But there are many other gifts, invisible ones, that I find myself thinking about today. The gift of friendship, offered me daily in so many guises and gratefully received. The gift of good health, easily taken for granted until it’s taken away. The gift of mindfulness, always elusive for me, yet always worth cultivating. The gift of gratitude, a choice I can make right now. The gift of the present moment, renewed over and over again without ceasing. The gift of breath — where would I be without it? The gift of marriage, constantly transforming and evolving, challenging me to become my best self. The gift of motherhood, which has shaped and sculpted every response I’ve had to life for the last twenty-one years. The gift of beauty, worth organizing a life around. The gift of memory, filling in all the empty spaces left by loved ones no longer here. The gift of presence, and the realization that there are so many ways to be present if I am really and truly willing to stay with what is. The gift of imagination, ready to take flight at a moment’s notice. The gift of dreams, expecially the ones worth sacrificing for. The gift of silence — expansive, rich, and deep. The gift of touch, love made manifest. The gift of spirit, infusing all creation. The gift of wonder, mine whenever I take time to attune myself to mystery. The gift of kindness, may I offer it generously and accept it with grace. The gift of joy, that most precious and precarious of blessings. The gift of sadness, the measure of darkness that lends meaning to all happiness. The gift of connection, which I experience with every word and thought and good wish shared in this space.

To celebrate my birthday, I would like to offer you a gift — an opportunity to receive the audio version of my book, The Gift of an Ordinary Day, along with a copy of my favorite collection of poems by my very favorite poet, Evidence by Mary Oliver.

I have been reading and re-reading my own cherished copy of Evidence all morning, marveling as always at Oliver’s wisdom, generosity, and grace. How pleased I am to share these poems with you, each one a heartfelt hymn of gratitude.

Here is just a taste, a short poem that speaks directly to me today, as I contemplate my own dreams and aspirations here at the beginning of my fifty-third year.

I Want to Write Something So Simply

I want to write something
so simply
about love
or about pain
that even
as you are reading
you feel it
and though it be my story
it will be common,
though it be singular
it will be known to you
so that by the end
you will think –
no you will realize –
that it was all the while
yourself arranging the words,
that it was all the time
words that you yourself,
out of your own heart,
had been saying.
Mary Oliver

To be eligible for one of two copies of Mary Oliver’s Evidence, along with an audio recording of The Gift of an Ordinary Day, leave a comment below. Tell me about a cherished gift in your life. Or, if you wish, just say hello. Your presence here is a gift to me, and I am deeply grateful!

I will draw two names at random after midnight on Tuesday, Oct. 11, using the tool at www.random.org. Winners will be notified by e-mail.