Archive for the ‘emotions’ Category

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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Nutmeg and her boyfriend broke up today, and suddenly the whole mood in our own apartment turned somber.  Nutmeg is a big girl, more than capable of taking care of her own needs or finding friends who can offer support, but the thought that she’s in pain and we can’t do anything about it has really colored our day.   What had started out as an afternoon in which iDaddy and I were just lazing around, doing the Sunday Times crossword puzzle and thinking about when we should brave the cold to head downtown for Opera Night at Caffe Taci — an event we used to go to all the time when it was in our neighborhood, but which we’ve only been to a few times now that it’s relocated to Midtown — suddenly turned sad-by-proxy.   And I’m having flashes of other weekend afternoons, when the girls were teenagers, feeling on call for them, poised to be available at a moment’s notice to retrieve them from a shopping mall or drive them to a friend’s house or just TALK to them, never really feeling like we could settle into doing whatever it was the two of us we wanted to do.

Worse than that, really — because now we’re poised for something that’s so much more vague. We’re on pins and needles, but it’s over something emotional rather than logistical, and it feels a bit unearned and inappropriate.  When the girls were little, they objectively needed us to get them places or buy them things.  Now, Nutmeg is 25 years old, with friends of her own, a life of her own, problems of her own.  How much of a role should iDaddy or I even play in this?  Should we hop in the car and drive the half-hour to Brooklyn to keep her company, which was my first thought when I rushed to the phone to call her this afternoon?  (She didn’t pick up.)  Should we rescue her from the real estate headache the breakup will inevitably produce, offering to pay her boyfriend’s half of the rent on their one-bedroom apartment until the lease is up and she can move somewhere cheaper?  Should we help her buy out his half of the couch?

Nutmeg is already protecting herself from this kind of reaction, I think, by keeping us at arm’s length as she tries to work out her heartache on her own.  She first told me this past Monday that she and her boyfriend were having a rocky time, after I hadn’t heard from her all weekend and had assumed she and he were busy doing fun stuff together.  But in truth Nutmeg wasn’t with him at all, but was with her best friend, visiting from Boston, trying to find consolation over what she was sure was an impending break-up, talking and drinking and talking and going to a movie (which turned out to be the wrong one to have chosen at such a moment) and talking some more.  I was hurt that she hadn’t turned to me at all over that weekend, but I shouldn’t have been; I’m not her friend, I’m her mother.  What really hurt me was the suspicion that she hadn’t called me because she was pretty sure I would say the wrong thing, and she needed to brace herself for it.  I pride myself on always saying the right thing to friends who are in pain, but I know that when I try to console my daughters, I often blow it.  No matter how many times I’ve learned that offering, however obliquely, to rescue them is absolutely the wrong response, that’s almost always the response I offer.

But is it possible that a tiny piece of them, no matter how grown-up and independent they are, wants rescue?  When Nutmeg and I finally spoke last Monday, she told me that the only fun part of the weekend had been when she and her best friend decided that if Nutmeg really did break up with her boyfriend, the only rebound guy worth getting excited about would be Zach Braff, an actor she’s admired ever since she saw his movie “Garden State” years ago; I happen to know his parents.  Today, the way that she told me the break-up was a done deal was with a plaintive one-line text message: “Set me up with Zach Braff please.”

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Years ago, I had plans to write a book about the science of happiness.  But in a very short time, I decided against it — and this decision took some doing, since I already had a signed contract with a book publisher and an advance that I had to give back.  I’m not sure why I soured on the idea exactly (it didn’t help that I heard rumors of several similar books in the works, books I was sure would out-sell my more measured, less famous-authory one).  But I think it had something to do with how annoying I found, and still find, happy people.

A NYT review by Neil Genzlinger of tonight’s first installment of a three-part PBS series, This Emotional Life, got me thinking about that old book idea.   There’s much to learn from scientists about what goes on in the brain when we feel happiness, and much to learn, too, about how we can construct our lives to feel it more.  Even more interesting, at least to me, is what happens in the brain when we feel negative emotions like fear, anxiety, depression, jealousy.  A psychologist I know told me recently that the book I should write next is one about, as she put it, “the ugly emotions,” and that idea appealed to me a lot more than a book about happiness.  (What does that say about ME, I wonder?)  Something to consider.

The thing that brings the TV show “This Emotional Life” all back to my main and heartfelt writing interest — writing about mothering grown-ups — was a short snippet from tonight’s, or maybe it’s tomorrow night’s, episode that features one of my favorite oddball comedians, Larry David.  His parents, he says, probably loved him, but he experienced them mostly as “two people that were older than me who gave me money and fed me.”  I realize that part of Larry David’s comic brilliance is his tendency to exaggerate — but part of it, too, is how he manages to reduce the unspeakable things we all feel to their essence, and then to speak them.  In a way, he’s right, isn’t he?  Hasn’t he put his finger on what what parents are, essentially: two people who are older than the kid who support the kid for a while?  How amazing, when you think of it that way, that so much lifelong emotional complexity is laid on top of that simple, immutable truth.

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