I’m sitting outside on our brick walk-up on the first truly nice day of spring. The sun is out, still a little weak, as it’s only April, but the air is a gorgeous 75˚ and perfect humidity, if there is any at all. On either side of me are three boxwoods and they’re making this strange fizzing sound, as if they could foam and the thin suds popped almost as soon as they were formed. I remember this phenomenon from last spring, and I went to search it online. The guessed causes ranged from insect infestation (of which I could find no evidence) to the warming of the sap in the wee branches exchanging moisture from the roots with nourishment from the warming sunlight, now eight minutes old. Always eight minutes old.
While the air temperature is warm, the breezes waft through the bushes and over the mulched garden beds, ushering along with it much tiny pouches of cooler air reminding me that we are still very early into the season. Sparrows, starlings, cardinals and finches are serenading, well, alarming their peers of the presence of my nine-year-old yet still-frisky gray cat, Gandalf. He’s still an impressive hunter, if not part-time resident of our home. He cheats on us with the pet-less, empty-nesters across the way. His reclusive and more loyal sister, Beezer, is black. She has come out of her hibernation. She’s never had kittens, but she has this strange sack-like stomach which sways from side to side as she saunters from house to house, rolling in the dust created from pulverized stones which were applied to the street during the recent ice storms. I always say she needs liposuction.
Ours is a quiet street. We live on what’s called a “pipestem,” or private street along which anywhere from three to fourteen houses are nestled in my 32-year-old bucolic neighborhood of more than 6,000 families. It was originally supposed to be the home of Dulles Airport. Congress put the kibosh on that. Instead of the airport, now we’re in the flight path. Sometimes they are so close, I can see the logo of those massive intercontinental jets as they circle above my end of the county.
I’m sitting outside, not just for my own enjoyment, but to serve as sentry as my youngest son rides his bike up and down our private street. He is eleven now. He rides in his Batman shirt and khaki cargo pants without a care in the world, without looking both ways. Without watching out for parked cars and cats and swooping birds. He speeds up hidden driveways closest to the main street and whips his nimble hand-me-down blue and silver bike around in a tight 180˚ preparing to vaunt himself, yet carelessly again, back into the main feed of the driveway.
The neighbors do not mind, but they are not home. They are at work.
I have considered, with more weight than the previous time, my return to it. To don a suit (do women still wear suits to the office? Are there still offices?), wear sensible heels, have sensible hair and attend sensible meetings — all with the noble intent to help conjure funds to pay for the next stage of my parental life: college tuition for our oldest son. And then our middle son. And then our third son.
I read an article in the New York Times this morning about why college costs so much. My outcome was not relief, a sense of “gotcha! now you colleges will tone down your lack of federal funding rhetoric and tuitions will recede!” but rather great discouragement; there is no way to shut down that business machine. And that’s what it is … a business. I don’t know who said the original sentiment, but the watered-down version of it at MCI where I used to work in corporate communications was this: “Create the need and then sell the answer.” I’m not pooping on college. I definitely see its value and its importance for a life well lived; so much of what you learn in college doth not come from books.
We attended a college financial aid night at the high school about three months ago in the dead of winter. We braved 12˚ plus winds for 300 yards from our car to the building to listen to a knowledgeable man from Georgetown University’s financial aid office talk about things that make no sense to me: that if we paid the tuition for my son to attend my alma mater at $23,000, we could conceivably get financial aid for him to attend Georgetown for basically the same amount thanks, to the benefits. My school is no slouch, but it’s not Georgetown. Couple that with the fact that our of-age son did well enough blindly on his SATs to get into several very good schools. But SATs and GPAs and ACTs aren’t enough for a white, American, middle-class, highly intelligent, book-smart, socially affable, male to be admitted (not “get into”) a good school anymore. He has to be regal, and somehow disadvantaged.
Back to creating the need: I read in the comments of the NYT article that the nation needs college educated kids to survive in the future. But the college costs are insane. That “low skill” labor jobs aren’t what’s going to carry this nation. That no one wants those jobs. Yet they, too, are absolutely needed for the future (who’s going to pave the roads?! who is going to catch the fish? who’s going to fix the cars? the planes? so many good jobs are out there!). There was also the sad acknowledgement that a college degree also doesn’t guarantee a competitive edge in the workforce. But it’s non-negoatiable; a college education is non-negotiable, it’s a must-have. Yet the tuition is insane. But the schools don’t need the money. But it’s become a business. But kids have to have a college education… But it’s super expensive… Am I repeating myself?!
Heck yeah I am.
So I started to whirl out of control over the last few days. Panicking. WHATTHEFUCKAREWEGOINGTODO? HOWCANWESTILLEATANDPAYFORCOLLEGE? HOWWILLWEDOTHIS? WHATABOUTCOMMUNITYCOLLEGE? WHATABOUTHISFUTURE? AREWEFUCKINGHISFUTUREALREADY? WHATBOUTHISBROTHERS? IHAVETOGETAJOB. IHAVETOGETAJOB. THEREISNOBOOKINMETHATWILLSAVEUS. JESUS. WEARESOFUCKED.
I started to run out of bandwidth. And to prove it, to prove that I had literally run out of mental space to be a sane and nonreactive person, I picked on the only person in my life who is nice enough to come back for more, because that’s the kid of guy he is: my husband. I created chaos. It wasn’t just him that I went after. I went after myself, in a really yucky and sad way. I said and thought things about myself that I would never say to or about another human being (well, maybe Hitler). It’s a very thin line, I learned –again– between picking on yourself and kicking yourself in the ass. After two days I figured out that I was creating a shitstorm for myself and that my anger vented at my husband was really about me. But why? Why did I pick him? Well, to deflect, and keep the heat off progress of course. If I create a shitstorm, I have to clean that up and feel sorry for myself some more. If I simply act and do the appropriate thing, where’s the fun in that? It’s about growing up, dammit.
Then there’s my own shit in my head to deal with. I’ve written about it here: the panic about my personal future and following and not crapping on my own dreams: to write.
To bring this idea closer to my own soul, to allow the kindnesses and compliments of readers and friends to actually sink in and not simply run off my skin only to drip into little puddles beneath my fingertips and pool around my feet or soak the linings of my shoes I have begun to read the eminently readable War of Art by Steven Pressfield. I learned about that book after listening to Steven Pressfield’s podcast on The Accidental Creative. His book is a breezy little tome, broken up into very brief segments or chapters or utterances (sometimes just a paragraph long) about Resistance.
Seth Godin refers to Resistance as The Troll Inside Your Head. Pressfield says that Resistance is that thing inside us which stops us all from being healthier, ending a sick relationship, allowing creativity and living better. In its early pages I learned that Pressfield not only has a ritual (I’ve heard SO MUCH ABOUT THAT NEED FOR A RITUAL… OK…I get it…) but he also has a zone, an altar, if you will, dedicated to his writing or his creativity. He is disciplined. I used to be very disciplined. Then I had kids. That threw that bathtub right out the window. But my kids are older now. Creating a ritual and an altar does not seem quite so rife with failure anymore. He talks about not setting a word limit or a time limit on his writing and that when he starts to lose his thought, then he knows he’s done for the day. He’s very reasonable.
Pressfield makes a very compelling case about Resistance and why it wins so often. Pressfield makes us dig very deeply to uncover why we let Resistance in.
We let Resistance in because we find it easier to be afraid than to be courageous. He draws comparisons between Resistance and self-sabotage. He wrote something about how it’s even a form of sabotage against our peers, about how the worst act of treason against them we can commit is to better ourselves or get this: we subconsciously halt the betterment of others because we don’t want to be stuck with ourselves. He used an oft-cited story of the fate which befalls the crab who dares to leave the stock pot and how the others will dismember it to prevent its liberation.
You have to own your stuff when you read this book. In order to grow from it, you MUST be willing to stare yourself in the mirror and admit when you were a crab who tried to pull the fleeing one back in: are you the friend of someone who is striving for weight loss who offers him cake or makes little jabs at her progress? Or are you the one who puts out a spread of fruit and vegetables and offers water instead of soda or wine?
That made me think back to a time in my life with my mother when as much as I wanted her to be healthy and sober and available to me, I was also (this is a big confession) weak and terrified that her recovery would require me to be softer and kinder and vulnerable to her. That I would lose my enemy. That I would lose my edge. Part of it was teenage girlhood. I better understand my role in my sins against her and with that, not so much a sense of guilt, but an awareness of my fears and my false power.
I am so grateful that my go-to response was NOT guilt for the first time in my life.
It’s not like I spiked her cokes or swapped her tylenol with valium. Guilt has no place in that dynamic because ultimately, I had no power over her. What I was guilty of, if anything, was thinking I had any role in hoping for as well as fearing any sense of recovery for her. It’s hard for me to convey to you without sounding like a shrew how truly difficult it was between us, when things were difficult. To do so brings to mind that poem about the little girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead: that when she was bad, she was really really awful. So I really try to avoid talking about it all. But doing that solves nothing either, other than makes me feel like I have to shut up and that makes me mad. I have found that when I simply accept things as they were that I don’t feel compelled to be pissed off about it all. I have to remember that.
Reading Pressfield allowed me to see my baser, more unkind and craven self from those days. Surprisingly, it has bolstered me. I see how far I’ve come! I also see myself less as a victim of hers or of circumstances and more as a participant, albeit a reluctant and confused one. I was not a young child when I had those fears of my mother’s success; I was running out of bandwidth then. I was an adolescent, on the verge of bursting from my pent-up rage against circumstances I had yet to fully understand but only sensed their state of frustration.
My middle son is now that age when I first began to understand what was going on — what was really going on — in my family. We were about to move to Virginia, uprooting my mother. My older brother had mentally left for college, I was poised to repeat 8th grade (due to low attendance and a few dozen tardies) and it was utter emotional and logistical chaos. I see my middle son now and as much as he hates school (boy!) he goes. Every day. He is more intellectually present now and his grades are improving. He understands that all of this is his responsibility (we provide the stable home life and he does the work). It has required a lot of attention on my husband’s and my behalf to keep him remotely on track, but nowhere along the line do I find myself sabotaging his efforts and secretly wanting him to slide.
My oldest son is the age when I started to become emotionally unglued; that when I actively hated my mother and defiantly rose against and mocked any belief in her proposals of recovery. It was likely my disbelief and emotional garrisoning was all I could muster as she was a virulent strain of artist, alcoholic and depressive narcissist. In retrospect, I think it was a survival skill. I was out of bandwidth.
Pressfield goes on to talk about how to overcome Resistance. How we need to be ready for it and to learn from it. There are pages awaiting me which prescribe a future without Resistance and I can’t wait to get to them. I’m in the section now where he could not shake the sense of a need to write nonfiction. That he simply couldn’t bear to write fiction yet and that he felt like a fraud for thinking himself worthy of giving perspective and advice to anyone who dared to read his words.
Man, can I relate to that. And yet he did it anyway. And I’m so grateful. Should I ever go in that direction in a cohesive sense with an all-out book, you won’t catch me daring to say I’ve accumulated the requisite letters after my name to make me worthy of dispensing advice. I can’t shake the feeling though that there’s no way to write fiction, ever, for me until I bang out something which is entirely nonfiction.
I can feel myself on the precipice. This is unlike any other sense of thrust or self-trust or self-belief I’ve ever felt.
I have considered writing when the kids are at school. But I busy myself with other things which I would categorize as Resistance. But not today. Today, I am aware. It’s like being on a financial budget: don’t needlessly spend the money if you want to have it later. Be smart about how you spend your time. Try to not run out of bandwidth. But if you do, be OK with it. Reboot. We can always reboot.
So I’ve come semi-circle about the returning to work thing. Watching my son ride his bike up and down our street mandates that I be home when he is. I have seven more years of this. I don’t think of that with regret though, as if I am trapped here. That is the mistake lots of us make. We are not trapped here. It’s a matter of perspective. Even a castle in the Alps can feel like a prison.
Ideally, I’d like part-time writing and editing work. Nothing too fancy. Just something to help the blow in a couple years. Pay for a vacation. To a place which requires an airplane ride, a rental car and abuts turquoise water. Wouldn’t that be nice? College will happen. We will figure it out. We will have to. Everyone manages to figure it out. By the time our youngest is finished I will be dead. hahahahaaaaaa.aa….aaaaaahhhh ….mmmm.
No. I will be 56. NINE YEARS, BABY! And it will ALL BE OVER! That’s almost dead. I joke. Fifty-six is the beginning of the salad days, my friends.
But for now, I sit here still. My shadow extends a good twenty feet to my right as the sun, still eight minutes old, is setting to my left. The boys have gone inside. The boxwoods are still fizzing. The birds are beginning their night songs and my cats have retreated to nap in preparation for their nocturnal missions. The liberated cherry blossom petals are rolling and tumbling along the ground, propelled by the breezes of alternating pockets of cool and warm air. They dance and twirl as if they are children on a playground, chasing a soccer ball. It’s truly magical. The issue at hand for me is to turn this love of observation into something I can share with the world, not just on this blog, but bigger.
The wind has picked up and now pollen is bombing my keyboard and screen, and my laptop battery is at 9% remaining. This is good. What a glorious day. … and there goes the ice cream truck on the main street its warped-78rpm version of “Dixie” and “Camptown Races” blaring out the yogurt-cup-sized tweeter.
Let’s talk. College is super-expensive, but it’s so, so much like dating. There is a place for everyone and it is a matter of finding who will appreciate how wonderful your son is, and that the someone is someone he also likes. Two extremely similar schools can offer utterly different financial aid packages because of their own needs.
Molly, it can be done. And, it can be done without bitterness and regret for lost time with your precious boys. It may require financial sacrifices (like no vacations that involve airplanes for a while), but really, your TIME is your most valuable commodity, isn’t it? Every day disappears so quickly and my sweet baby turned 27 years old today – whoosh! I am so grateful that I got so many minutes with him – much better than money spent on silly things. There is plenty of time for that later, when they are gone.
ps – I’ll share all my personal financial aid info with you ; )
Thanks, Cathy. I’ve come down from my telephone pole but I’d love to chat with you about what you have learned. I agree with you about the work / kids thing. I’ve never felt that being away from them at any point before college is a good idea because just when I think they’ve got things understood, someone falls out of a tree or blows something up in the microwave. The point of all life is to regret as little as possible. And the airplane trips can wait… (BUT WHHHHYYYY??? sniff. 😉 )
thank you for your friendship, stability and honesty. you’re wonderful. -m