Monday, May 20, 2013

childhood, parenthood, and childhood

Life is good, and we are in a good place.  Right now, Jimmy is technically unemployed, but we know he has a job come July.  Our home is small, but it is our home, and it stands strong around us to keep us cool in the day and safe in the night.  Most of our family is far away, but all are well, and we can hear their voices almost any time we like.

Lena is five-and-a-half years old, about to finish kindergarten, heading into her first real summer vacation.  She puts on shows in our living room, she curls up with piles of books to read, she sings songs while she draws picture books, she knits her brow in concentration as she practices her swimming stroke.  She says, "Remember when I was a baby....?"  As in, "Mom, remember when I was a baby at my old preschool, and I used to play in the sandbox?"  She is big enough to unbuckle her little sister from the carseat, to dress herself, to fetch her own snack and cup of water.  She is learning to tie her shoes.  She is a happy bundle of pink skirts and dirt on her face, of deep questions and poop jokes.  Every day she comes home from school with a pack of joys and frustrations, the frustrations usually being along the lines of playground arguments over hopscotch rules, embarrassment over missed questions in class, or forgetting to put a special leaf she found into her backpack to bring home.

She is so very five.  I look at her, and I remember being five.

Of course, I am quite a ways off from being five.  This year I am thirty-five.  And lately, the thirty years between, how do I explain this?  They terrify me.  Because I don't understand what those thirty years have done to my childhood.

(I am fine.)

I am very fine.  My family is fine.  But so many of the foundations of my childhood are gone.

The neighborhood I grew up in used to be a pretty, well-groomed picture of suburbia, neat lawns, kids bicycling in the streets.  Now, some homes are still cared for but so many others are not, even to the point of abandonment.  Untrimmed trees bow low into sagging gutters and the grass grows high.  Last year I learned that the lazy creek winding behind the homes across the street from ours was discovered to be seeping pollution from nuclear waste improperly buried near it sixty years ago.  And the school I attended from kindergarten through high school isn't even a site to drive by, anymore.  Bulldozed to the ground, they even took the steep hill we used to climb from the grade school to the high school and leveled it flat, right down to street level.  Every brick is gone.

Even the church I was raised in, the one establishment I always trusted during those years, a strong, loving, educated church nearly one hundred years old, now - even that church sits right this moment teetering on the edge of existence, and for just no good reason at all.  A family argument gone terribly wrong, maybe.  Truthfully, I'm not there to be a proper witness.  But for all the people trying to pull it back up to safety, it teeters still, and I don't even know if it will exist when I fly back home in August.

But all of this is small, to me, when I think about my childhood friends.  Buildings may come and go, establishments collapse.  But my friends...  I've known them since classroom naptimes, chocolate milk in little cartons, foursquare, and losing baby teeth; I've known them since camp bonfires and late night sleepovers, and I've known them since first driver's licenses, SATs, and ordering caps and gowns.   Some of those friends are very well today, and they seem from here to be happy.  But there are others, other whose eyes look always dull with disappointment, with addiction, with multiple rough divorces.  Others who give me relief just when they "like" a silly Facebook meme, because that "like" means they are still alive, possibly sober, and existing somewhere with a roof, a door, and an internet connection, even if only for the moment.  But at least they are still alive.  And as an adult, I continually re-learn the stories of my childhood through the stories of my friends' - friends whom I had no idea were living their childhoods with the worst of the worst:  family addictions, prejudice, shame, abuse, rape, suicide.

Thirty years terrifies me because, as usual, there aren't any good reasons, any good answers as to why or how.  Some of us have excellent starts, some of us have terrible starts.  Sometimes we meet expectations, sometimes we rise above, and sometimes we fall excruciatingly short.  At some point in life, surely we each do all three to some extent.

We can say a lot about parenting, individual responsibility, psychology, climate, Fate.  I think we could argue the topic all day and all night, forever.  And I think it's naive to assume that now is the time to argue the question at all, as though the next thirty years won't offer up just as much unexpected change,  just as much revelation, for everyone.

I worry for my friends who are in trouble now.  But I am terrified for my children.  That I don't know exactly how to protect them from terrible choices and awful circumstances.  That there is absolutely no way to predict the outcome.  That there may not be a way to see fully what is happening in the present.

We do our very, very best, and every day we plan to do better tomorrow.  We are vigilant, and wary, yet we insist on hope until the hope bursts through our pores and waters our eyes.  We pray.  We call desperately on the grace of God.  We whisper "faith."  We try, we try, we try to let go of yesterday, and we try to let go of tomorrow.  We do what we can for today.  We do our very, very best.

And whenever we can, every time we can, we tell our children we love them.  Wrap our arms around them.  Kiss them.  Squish them.  At all costs we make sure they learn the first, most important lesson:  they are loved.  Please, teach them they are loved.

The second lesson?

To laugh.

Teach them how to laugh.

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