September afternoon

nestA Saturday afternoon in September, the last of them.  Where the air leaves off and my skin begins, I can’t tell. They are the same temperature, the same softness, the same.  There is no need for a sweater or shoes. I sit in the lawn chair by the garden, eyes half closed, listening to the low, incessant churring of crickets, the intermittent hammer taps of a woodpecker in the maple tree overhead, the chatter of birds, their wing beats as they come and go from the feeder, the acoustic hum of bees burrowing into the jeweled nasturtiums.

It is that gentle, golden, in-between moment, no longer summer but not fully fall, either.  The sun, already sliding down the sky, casts long purple shadows across the grass and, elsewhere, creates translucent pools of light. It feels nearly holy, this luminous glimmer shafting through the trees. Everything is softening, crumpling, fading.  And yet, on this mild, sun-kissed afternoon it isn’t an ending I feel, but a thrumming continuum of energy, an urgent, insistent turning toward life and change. [continue…]

Presence

It’s been a week of snow and ice and the kids at home. Henry left early yesterday morning to fly back to Minnesota; Jack and I are about to start packing the car, in the hope that we can get out ahead of the latest snowstorm — a couple more inches predicted for today — and get him back to school before dark.

As always, there is a little bit of a letdown, as the house goes from full to empty again. You’d think I’d be used to it by now, and I guess I am. I know, at least, that silence has its own sound, that the scent of aftershave lingers in empty bedrooms, that even a damp towel left on the bathroom floor can tug at my heart. I know that I might as well dump the rest of the whole milk and toss out the half bag of tortilla chips, rather than wait for them to get stale sitting in the drawer. I know to wait a few days before changing the sheets on their beds; that it will be easier then.

And I also know how lucky I am. The other day, Henry and I struck a deal: he’d climb up Pack Monadnock with me if I’d make his favorite outrageously caloric pasta dish for dinner. The snow was deeper on the mountain than we expected, the going was slow, and, although he didn’t complain (much) there was no question that Henry would have much preferred to be home chatting with his friends on Facebook than slogging up the trail with his mom. He went hiking for me. That night, with pleasure, I cooked for him.

Last night, we hosted a Super Bowl party here for five of Jack’s friends and their parents. Jack sat at the kitchen island in the morning, chopping peppers for the chili. He played sous chef, opening the cans, rinsing beans, taste-testing for spice and heat. Cooking is definitely not his first choice of activity for a Sunday morning, but he knows that his help — and his company — means a lot to me. “I’ll do any mother-son activity you want this morning,” he’d offered when he got up, “just, please, don’t ask me to go hiking!”

Whenever our boys are home these days, it feels as if the time is too short and the demands are too many. How to balance their eagerness to see friends with our eagerness to see them? How to stay on top of work that needs to get done and still make space for the kind of hanging out that gives rise to connection and conversation? The fact is, we can’t tie the kids down and insist that they talk to us. And there’s not much we can say, at this point, that will affect the choices they make or the things they do. There is much about each of their lives that we don’t even know; for the most part now, those lives unfold elsewhere.

And yet, more and more it seems that the ties that bind — stretched to the snapping point at times during adolescence — are being rewoven and reinforced as our sons come and go, and as we create new ways of being together as a family. Home, once the only place to be, assumes a different significance as a resting place where nourishment, acceptance, and embrace are always available. When the four of us sit down to dinner, we still pause for a moment as we always have; we hold hands and say the grace we’ve always said. For quite a few years, it seemed to me that the gratitude at our dinner table was rote, not felt. As teenagers, the kids endured the ritual, went through the motions, their minds elsewhere. Now, though, I sense a return to feeling. A sense that our sons are glad for the comfort of continuity, for our rare moments of togetherness and the traditions that have always bound us as a family.

For so many years my husband and I have expressed our love simply by being present. As if, somehow, the very fact of our full attention might be enough to carry us through the roughest patches of parenthood. After all, what else did we have to offer? Sometimes, paying attention means hanging in there through some very unpleasant moments. It means not shying away from intensity but confronting it. It means addressing trouble head on, insisting on the truth, ensuring consequences, holding feet to the fire. Sometimes, to put it bluntly, being present really sucks. Parenting an adolescent is not for the faint of heart.

This morning, though, as I look back at the last few days, the word that comes, surprisingly, to mind is “presence.” It seems to me that my sons have been present — present in a way neither of them could have been just a short time ago. It is as if the self-absorption of the teenaged years is giving way now to a new, more adult awareness, to a realization that we are all connected after all. I wonder if one essential part of growing up is coming to see that happiness isn’t necessarily derived from doing exactly as one pleases. More often, in fact, we find happiness when we choose to please someone else. Giving of ourselves, we receive even more in return. We parents, of course, live and breathe the truth of this. But it can take a long time for our children to acquire such wisdom. A hike in the snow, sharing the cooking tasks, saying our blessing — these are small gestures in the grand scheme of things. But to me they feel like love coming full circle. Sometimes, still, I doubt my mothering; certainly, in the midst of family strife and conflict, I wonder if attention is really enough to save us. Receiving my children’s attention in return, I begin to suspect that it’s the only thing that will.

Please join me and other like-minded moms for an online chat: “Mindful Mothering: Parenting in the Here and Now” on TheMotherhood.com, this Thursday, Feb. 10 at 1 p.m. Eastern. Register by clicking here. Co-hosting the online conversation will be my friends Meredith Resnick and Lindsey Mead and fellow authors Tracy Mayor and Karen Maezen Miller.