31 July 2011

Cultivating Hope, Part II

We’ve spent many weekends this year preparing for our first garden. We had a fence installed, and then built beds. We hauled dirt, mulch, and compost. We set up an irrigation system including barrels to harvest rain. And of course we planted seeds and seedlings. And throughout it all, we hoped.

And just when it seemed that we had everything in place, including the timer on the irrigation system adjusted just-so… we left on a two-week vacation.

We left cosmos plants, not yet six inches tall; pumpkin and melon plants with three leaves apiece; a puny basil plant near a couple of equally small pepper plants. It seemed very much a nursery, what with all these baby plants that had just barely poked up through the soil. We did, however, enjoy our first harvest before leaving: a single tiny strawberry. I shared it with Madeleine, and it was sweet and juicy – just as we’d hoped.

And so, when I returned to my garden, which had enjoyed a couple summer thunderstorms in my absence, I was astounded at the changes in the plants. It was comparable to seeing my nephews after a long interval apart: how is it possible that they have grown this much!

And not only are most of the plants larger, the pumpkin and melon (or is it cucumber? I didn’t label well this year – a lesson for next time) threaten not only to take over their own beds, but their neighbors’ beds as well. Some plants I don’t recognize. Are they weeds? I’m willing to wait and see before I rip them out. And others I recognize but know I didn’t plant: tomatoes. They must be volunteers from the compost.

It’s gratifying to see how well the garden is doing, even if there’s a part of me that thinks: these plants did this all on their own. We gave them what we hoped was an environment in which they could thrive. We should all be so lucky in our own lives, that our proverbial soil was well-prepared for our arrival, right? And the lessons the garden teaches are of the highest magnitude. Not much teaches staying power quite like waiting for those berries to ripen, or pulling up a carrot that I think must be ready, only to find it’s about the size of a fork tine. And there is always the lesson of perseverance: next year, next season, we can try something new or do something better.

Again, I see the parallels to parenting, and life in general, and I think of Voltaire and Candide as well: Il faut cultiver notre jardin, loosely translated as “We must cultivate our garden.” This is sometimes used in the context of ‘first things first’ or ‘let’s take care of our own problems before we tackle the problems of others.’ At this point in my life, though, as a mother of two with a full-time job, I see another interpretation: Find ways to seek happiness within the confines placed upon you.

There are few hours minutes in my day that aren’t filled with responsibilities to my children, my husband, my home, or my job. I’ve made my peace with that, and I wouldn’t trade my lot with anyone. And yes, being a full-time mom / wife / teacher is sometimes difficult – but compared to what? Compared to a 19th century homesteading wife? Or compared to a medieval mother? Or how about a present-day Afghan woman? What if this garden was my family’s sole source of food? I’m grateful that it’s not, although there is something very gratifying about (the idea of) feeding my family with the literal fruits of our own labors. Putting my life in perspective helps me to realize that I do live in the best of all possible worlds.

And the garden helps me appreciate that. I’ve really been striving to carve out time for myself to write, to exercise, to learn Spanish, to read, to garden. And it is in these moments that I am capable of finding happiness in small things – and where, it seems, hope cultivates itself.

22 July 2011

The Tracks in Montréal

On my way to the Métro
I saw you at once when I emerged from the darkness
of the underpass.
You were slumped against the concrete barrier,
backpack at your side,
your neck cocked at a right angle
facing the sun
and I thought,
How uncomfortable.
Your neck will hurt when you wake up,
and you’ll have one hell of a sunburn,
but only on half your face.

But as I walked closer,
I discerned
things I didn’t want to notice,
and wouldn’t choose to see:
your belly didn’t move up and down
fresh track marks and a smear of blood
on your tender inner elbow
and my realization, strangely, was that
you might not be the type to worry about
a crick in your neck.

Someone’s son.
Years ago
someone must have held you and rocked you to sleep,
and yet, I could not bring myself
to touch you,
to shake you,
to check for a pulse.
I dared not even
touch your shoe
with my sandaled toe,
or call out to you.

I continued walking –
I did not hurry –
to the Métro station
where within the walls,
I called 9-1-1.

The phone rang
six, seven, eight times
before a woman answered in French.
I asked if she spoke English,
wanting to avoid any miscommunication.
I told her where you could be found:
with your right-angle neck
and the tracks on your arm,
between rue Ferdinand
and rue Notre-Dame Ouest
on the sidewalk parallel to the railroad.

Later, I wondered,
if it happened like this:
your face turned,
your cheek accepting the kiss of the sun,
and the light blinding white,
censored all traces of darkness.

16 July 2011

Letting Go of the Bike

When we initially inquired about renting our vacation apartment in Montréal, we were told that bikes were available. There is a great bike path along the canal just a quarter-mile or so from here, so we really wanted to spend some of our time seeing the city in this way. When we spent time regularly in San Diego, one of our collective favorite memories is riding our bikes around Mission Bay, stopping at the playgrounds along the way.

We were also aware that a bike in Arden’s in-between-a-child’s-and-an-adult’s-size would be hard to come by. And so we weren’t surprised when the best choice for her was really a bit too big. Dan adjusted it as best he could for her, and she spent some time this morning, in fits and starts, pedaling – somewhat half-heartedly – up and down our street. Yes, it’s a city street, but it’s only about 100m long, is one-way, and has very little traffic at all. But somehow, riding new terrain on an unfamiliar, almost-too-big bike when you’re mere weeks from being eight-years-old, can mentally feel akin to learning to ride without training wheels for the first time. After a couple spills, she wanted to call it quits.

We reminded her that most of bike riding, maybe even as much as 90%, is just simply believing that you actually can ride. She didn't want to hear it. We put the bikes away and walked to the park a block away where the kids got soaked, running and splashing in the fountains there, built specifically with kids and hot summer days like this in mind.

A pair of brothers was riding their bikes on the trail through the park, and I convinced Arden to try the new bike there while Dan and Madeleine rode down to the canal. After I made her say a ridiculous, eye-rolling, self-affirming mantra, she got back on the bike. I helped her get going a few times, but then, once those wheels got rolling, it was all her, pedaling away. And then she’d circle around and pedal back, and away again, and back. Before today, all of my teaching-a-child-how-to-ride ideas were just that: ideas. Dan’s been the one to actually handle this department of parenting. I could talk about it, sure, but it was all theoretical.

A child riding off on a bicycle really is the ultimate metaphor for parenting, as Sloan Wilson so aptly notes:

The hardest part of raising a child is teaching them to ride bicycles. A shaky child on a bicycle for the first time needs both support and freedom. The realization that this is what the child will always need can hit hard.

As much as any other endeavor my child will embark upon, first and foremost, she will have to believe that she can do it. And instilling that belief, by far, is the most important task a parent has. Today, I had history on my side, as she’s ridden bikes before and knows she can do it. All I had to do was remind her of her ability.

I wonder, though, how much more difficult will my task of encouragement become when her task is something she’s never, ever, done? Or something I’m feeling a little shaky about her doing?

Running alongside and whispering encouragement, though, are actually pretty easy to execute. It’s that last act of teaching a child to ride. When I realized that my hand grasping the back of the seat was no longer what she needed, and in fact, had become an awkward hindrance. When I realized that by holding on, I might actually cause her to fall. Eventually, I had to let go. Let go, and let her ride off, alone, trying to convince myself that she is ready, she is prepared! for any obstacle in her path.