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Archive for April, 2010

I read a lovely account this morning in the April Conde Nast Traveler of a father (aged 56) on a four-day trek in Joshua Tree National Park with his daughter (aged 19).  It’s called “Eliza Grace, the Mojave, and Me.”  As I read the details of the experience, I was confirmed in my city-girl belief that a backcountry camping trip is pretty much my personal vision of Hell.  But it ended with the kind of epiphany that really speaks to someone who’s been thinking about what it means to be the parent of adult children.  Here’s how the author, Guy Martin, describes his feelings at the end of the trip, when his daughter Eliza tells him she’d like to do it again next year.

It seems to me then that our trek wasn’t really about Eliza encountering the backcountry. We did a few good hard things. We moved some bad luggage over a lot of really rough ground. We lived in the wind, we lived with some squirrels and rats and snakes, we met the horned toad. We slept with the coyote and with the mourning dove.

But in fact the deeper education was mine. As we age, it’s too easy to live with our children as we think they are, and much harder to embrace—in the shifting present—the adults they’ve become. This may be a function of velocity; their lives speed up as inexorably and as radically as ours slow down.

But. In the ancient matrix of the wilderness from which we have just stepped, nature knows better than to apply the possessive to the offspring for long. Eliza Grace is of me but not mine. The girl belongs to herself.

So, from Eliza’s gracious invitation to join her in the Mojave, I take the lesson that I will never match the velocity of her being and becoming. In fact, she’s telling me that that’s not my job. Rather, my job is to be the father of a constant surprise.

That’s our job, isn’t it, as parents of adult children.  Not to keep up with them, not to “match the velocity,” but just to witness, share, and enjoy the “constant surprise.”  When we’re lucky, as Guy Martin is, as I am, our children take us along for the amazing ride.

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I don’t know much about poetry, but the poems that strike me most deeply are the ones about parents and children — in particular, the ones about mothers and daughters.  I kept one on the refrigerator for years, until Meta, at the time an English grad-student with heightened sensibilities, told me it was banal and tacky.  But I like banal and tacky!  That’s the stuff that makes me weep!  And besides, I had created such a nice little tableau with that poem.  I had posted it on the fridge with an ironically childish refrigerator magnet from Nutmeg, which she made as a camp counselor the summer after she graduated from high school, when we had already abandoned her for our new life in NYC.  I have the magnet still: it’s an apple (Big Apple, get it?) on which she pasted a yellow taxicab, a blue C (for Columbia, where iDaddy had his new job), and a steaming cup of cappuccino to represent all the cafes in which I would soon be doing my writing.  As for the poem, it’s gone, I fear, taken down because both girls wanted it gone.  I recently searched the web site of The New Yorker, where it was published, to see if I could find it, but I can’t remember enough of the poem for that.

But another poem came my way just this morning from its author, whom I met at a literary dinner the other night.  I was lucky enough to be seated next to Becky, and we talked all the way through our meal, from the cold cucumber soup to the blueberry cobbler, about our writing and our kids.  Today Becky sent me this poem about her daughter, who’s 27, and she said it would be okay to post it on my blog.  So in honor of that generous spirit, and in honor of National Poetry Month, here it is.

Ode to a Pair of Pants

by Rebecca Okrent

For my daughter

Like moulted skin they tell

you’ve become other than you were,

no help from me since my misguided offerings

are piled like insults at the back of a drawer.

Well-worn when you found them

beside junked Tee’s and

catechism frocks at the thrift shop, the pants,

unwashable, must carry your DNA,

might have foretold

the rheumatoid arthritis that translated

your body into another language,

spooling your hopes.

The threads are Christmas tinsel,

interwoven with psychedelic blues.

The elastic band sagged at your waist –

I watched: daughter as saltlick

for Beelzebub bar mitvah boys.

Where they’ve been: college,

Appalachian Trail, dance studios,

Vancouver, Seattle, etc., Greece,

Istanbul, on your body,

into my lap, pants frayed to transparency as

you never will be, dear enigma.  It’s insulting,

you say when I wonder what I might have done

differently, not from disappointment,

but to spare you the bloom-bruising

hail and a garrisoned heart.

I never get it right.  If I found these pants again

I’d be too late.  Presuming your desire, confusing it

with mine, I have failed.  I wear my love,

tattered as these pants are,

its weft not tinsel, but mail.

Lovely, isn’t it?  Two ideas here are the ones that resonate the most with me, the ones that seem best to capture the quandaries of parenting grown-ups: “Presuming your desire, confusing it/with mine” is one of them.  And the urge “to spare you the bloom-bruising hail” is another.  Both things to watch out for, and I thank Becky for expressing these universal sentiments so specifically, and so poetically.

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A little while ago I came upon Mother Words, a lovely blog about mothering and writing and writing about mothering.  It’s written by Minneapolis writer Kate Hopper, author of the forthcoming Ready for Air. We found each other in blogville, I forget how exactly, and Kate asked if she could do a Q&A with me about some of the landmines involved in writing about your children.  Her daughter Stella is only six, and Kate’s book is about Stella’s premature birth and her blog is in part about life with Stella, so she’s curious about what might happen 20 years from now when Stella realizes she’s been turned into “material.”

I was happy to say yes, because I like Mother Words so much.  Kate said it was OK for me to cross-post the interview here on my blog, too, so here it is.

MONDAY, APRIL 5, 2010

WRITING ABOUT ADULT CHILDREN: AN INTERVIEW WITH MOMMA LOSHEN

As you know, I’m interested in the ways mother writers deal with the ethical issues that arise when they’re writing about their children. I’ve posted about it here and here. And you can read the responses of writers I’ve interviewed here and here.

It’s easier to find essays out there about raising young children, and part of the reason, of course, is that those young children aren’t telling you what you can and can’t say about them. Hell, they probably don’t even know you’re writing about them. But when kids get older, they have opinions about what you can and cannot say/write about them. It gets more complicated. But I love to read the writing of women whose children are older, because, well, I find it interesting—it’s a glimpse into our future.

So I was thrilled to stumble on the newish blog, Momma Loshen, where Momma Loshen writes about the ups and downs of parenting adult children. Momma L. agreed to a few questions about writing about one’s children, so I’d like to welcome her to Mother Words today:

KH: On your blog you say, “In the interest of protecting the feelings of the innocent — my daughters in particular, whose feelings I’m not known to have tried to protect in personal essays I’ve published through the years — I’m using pseudonyms and trying to keep a low profile. Luckily, a low profile is an easy thing to keep on this overpopulated blogosphere.”

I’m interested in hearing more about your decision to blog anonymously. You feel you need to protect your daughters’ privacy, yet you’re drawn to writing about mothering and motherhood. Can you talk a little about this?

ML: My need to protect my daughters’ privacy comes after years of NOT working too hard to protect their privacy — and having them get bothered by that. Actually, it’s only the older one, whom I call Meta on the blog, who was really bothered — when she was a teenager, after I wrote a series of personal essays about her and her younger sister (whom I call Nutmeg on the blog), Meta told me I was never to write about her ever again as long as I lived. I had thought I was very careful about what I wrote about them — even when they were children, I showed them what I was writing first — but at least in Meta’s adolescence, the only rule she would issue was a zero-tolerance rule.

KH: How is writing about your daughters anonymously different and/or the same as writing about them non-anonymously? Is your purpose for writing different now?

ML: I still showed them the blog, after I had written a couple of posts, and asked them if it was OK for me to continue with it anonymously. Meta also blogs anonymously, and knows it’s possible to protect your identity, but I wasn’t worried about their public identity so much as I was worried about how they would feel reading the stuff I was writing — I mean, THEY know who they are! Meta said it was OK, that I wasn’t writing about her (which would have violated the zero-tolerance rule), I was writing about me in relation to her. A subtle distinction, but I went with it.

After a while, I did let some friends know that I was blogging as Momma Loshen, and some of them have become regular readers. Oddly, Meta is a regular reader, too, and occasionally posts comments on my blog. I don’t know if she’s mentioned it to HER friends. Also oddly, Nutmeg, who has told me often that she loves the essays I wrote about her because it’s kind of like looking through a photo album of what she was like as she grew up, doesn’t seem to have been reading the blog at all.

My purpose in writing this blog was originally to see if there was a book worth writing about this subject — and then, of course, if I really ended up wanting to write a book on this topic, my plan was to go public with the blog so I could use it as a way to create that all-important “platform” that every author is supposed to have. But I’m not there yet, and I’m not sure what Meta would say if I eventually did want to reveal my identity and, therefore, hers.

KH: When did you begin writing about your children? Why? What kinds of reactions did your daughters have to this when they were younger?

ML: I started freelancing when Meta was born (she just turned 30), and some of my earliest assignments were for parenting magazines, so occasionally I mentioned my kids, even when they were little. I wrote about Meta’s problems with weight when she was 6, and how I put her on a diet — it appeared in a woman’s magazine, along with some photos of her, and I think that was what started her on hating being written about. But if she complained, I didn’t really notice. When she was about 8 I wrote about Meta getting reading glasses to prevent myopia, for a major newspaper, and again there were some photos of her — I thought she sort of liked it, but now I wonder. And when she was about 10 I wrote an article for that same newspaper about getting kids to be less sedentary, and for the first time I insisted to my editor that Meta get a chance to speak her piece in a sidebar that she wrote herself. Meta had a chance to point out my own relative sedentariness, too, and to write, “I guess the point is, when it comes to your children, they should do as you say, not as you do.” Touche!

I wrote about Nutmeg playing soccer when she was about 8 — also a women’s magazine, also a photo of the team — and she kind of loved it (except for me saying she wasn’t such a great player when she was on a co-ed team). I also wrote about her a lot when I had an occasional newspaper column — getting whistled at when she was 12, wearing clothes that showed her bra straps, playing girls’ basketball, also at about 12 or 13. I’ve written about them a lot, I realize — book clubs I’ve been in with both of them, Meta’s bat mitzvah and what it meant to me, Meta going to an all-girls college, and blah blah. Sometimes I worried about being too much like Joyce Maynard, using their lives for my own purposes, turning my family into material. But I felt that if I always asked them if it was OK, it wouldn’t be so bad. And anyway, most of my professional writing activity had nothing to do with them — these essays were occasional, and they were the fun part.

KH: What advice would you give to parents who are new to writing about their children? Are there things you wish you had done differently?

ML: Based on Meta’s subsequent anger at me, I probably wouldn’t have written at all about her weight. And I probably would have been more careful about being absolutely sure they were OK with whatever I was writing when I wrote it. For a long time I cared only about what made the best essay, and the best essays are the truthful ones, no matter who it hurts. I can still make a case for that — but there’s a good argument to be made for sparing people’s feelings, too. Maybe that’s because I’m 56 years old. In the end, what you end up with is a relationship with your children, not with some anonymous reading public, and that’s the thing that’s essential to preserve — even if it means the essay isn’t as good as it could have been.

Kate ended her post by saying she was curious about how some of her readers tread the dangerous shoals of writing about their kids.  She’s gotten two comments so far, neither very specific.  I, too, wonder the same thing about MY readers (you’re out there, aren’t you?).  This kind of thing has long been a problem for writers and the people who live with them — not only for their children, though maybe most hurtfully for their children.  David Sedaris was once confronted by his sister, who was angry at him for using an anecdote from HER life in one HIS stories.  “Well,” Sedaris told her, in a reply that strikes me as totally logical even as I recognize its thin edge of cruelty, “YOU weren’t going to do anything with it.”

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Nutmeg has been looking into the possibility of a new job at a publication I’ve yearned my whole life to write for, a publication I grew up revering.  I’ve written for a few prestigious magazines, but never for this one.  Nutmeg is working for one of those prestigious magazines already, but this new one is even better.  It is, as she put it, “the Harvard of magazines.”

She used the phrase in an email she sent to iDaddy and me after coming back from a one-hour interview with two people who would be her supervisors, including the head of the whole web site.  (The job is not for the print version of this “Harvard of magazines”; hey, this is 2010, and Nutmeg is a young journalist — of course the job is for the web site, just like Nutmeg’s current job is.)  She addressed the email to “Team Job,” a.k.a. her parents, the ever-present boosters in her never-ending career dramas, the people whose advice she still turns to because she knows we’re smart and thoughtful and informed and, unlike some of her friends and colleagues, have only her best interests at heart.  I read the Team Job email while I was out doing chores this afternoon, the first really nice day of spring, ever square inch of sidewalk and every patch of grass on the Columbia campus crammed with happy people. “for god’s sake,” Nutmeg wrote, at the top of her pros and cons list of whether this job would be better than the one she has (she doesn’t capitalize much in her emails), this job would be

“every granddaughter-of-a-bensonhurst-jew, daughter-of-a-queens intellectual’s dream.  so the idea that I could possibly work there is both incredibly flattering and incredibly exciting.”

Flattering and exciting — it sure as hell is.  Reading that sentence, standing there on Broadway as pedestrians scurried past, made my heart flutter and swell.  How far she’s come, the granddaughter of a Bensonhurst Jew, daughter of a Queens intellectual.   I got a little weepy thinking about this.  Ah, Nutmeg, you’ve made it, I thought.  I was so pleased.

But then, I have to admit, in not too long my thoughts started to drift over toward myself.  Ah, Momma, you’re so over — that’s kind of where my thoughts drifted.  I’ve always been braced for Nutmeg and Meta both to transcend me, but so soon?  And in an arena that I so desperately wanted for myself, and haven’t yet given up on, and could never quite conquer?

Give me a moment, please.  I’ll go back to being Nutmeg’s indefatigable booster in just a moment.  But first, I think I need to grieve just a little bit for my own fading career.  Then I’ll go back — soon, I promise — to giving my full attention to my amazing daughter.

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