Christmas, 2006 started out promisingly enough. We had attended our usual gathering at a friend’s house on Christmas Eve while Liza enjoyed time with her dad’s family, returning home to us to sleep the excited sleep of a 7 year old waiting for Santa to come. All was calm, all was bright. Until about 3 am, when I was awakened by the unmistakable sound of a child in distress, a child on the verge of getting violently ill. Hoping the incident was simply the result of too many sweets at Grammy’s house she was safely tucked back into bed only to get sick an hour later. By the third time we realized this was the dreaded stomach bug. It proceeded to strike like clockwork every 30-60 minutes for the next fifteen hours. Merry Christmas indeed.
Christmas Day dawned cold and bright and, although we were bleary eyed from the long night we tried to interest Liza in opening a gift or two. But it was no go. Our plans to travel to Massachusetts for Christmas dinner at Kelly’s sisters house were impossible. I sent Kelly on her way with my love to her family and hunkered down for a long quiet day with my sick girl. Her dad came over bearing Gatorade, ginger ale and popsicles courtesy of the gas station convenience store. But even they were no match for this particular strain of stomach bug. The only presents I could entice her to open were some new pajamas (much needed at this point) and an American Girl Doll movie about “Molly, girl detective.” For the next six hours she lay near me while I read and we watched Molly solve the mystery of the Depression-era boarding house over and over and over. Six years later I could probably still recite that movie word for word. I felt sorry for her and sorry for myself. For I knew that under the tree was a present I had scrimped and saved for and carefully packaged to surprise her – tickets to “High School Musical: Live in Concert,” which for a seven year old in 2006 would have been like being in the audience at the Ed Sullivan Show when the Beatles took the stage. In other words, it was BIG. All I wanted was to see her face when she opened that gift and yet my “do you want to open some presents?” question was only greeted with muffled groans and a shake of her head as she burrowed deeper under her blanket.
Eventually later that night Kelly arrived bearing a plate of food from her family holiday dinner. (Can we pause here to thank my then girlfriend for driving 5 hours round trip just to make sure I had a holiday meal?) The stomach flu eventually gave up the ghost, and I tucked Liza into bed thankful for the long ordeal to be over. Christmas had always been my favorite day of the year and I felt sorry for myself, sorry for Liza and cheated out of a day I had anticipated for weeks. “Worst Christmas ever,” I thought. But I was wrong. You see, every year at Christmas Liza and I remember that year of her stomach flu. She remembers being sad, but safe and cuddled up with mom, and the excitement of a Christmas that came on December 26th. (Yes, the High School Musical tickets were a big hit and my eardrums have almost recovered from the experience). I remember a Christmas Day so quiet and so still, when my role was distilled down to the bare bones of motherhood – caring for a sick child – at a time when I daily doubted my ability to effectively parent my complicated girl. I remember the endless loop of that American Girl movie, the way I read the new book Kelly had given me while Liza slept, and the way the plate of turkey and stuffing from her sister’s kitchen felt like the best food I had ever tasted.
Liza is now a lovely young woman of thirteen who has surpassed me in height. The fleecy pajamas she got for Christmas that year have long seen been outgrown and replaced by shorty shorts and tank tops from “Pink.” Tomorrow morning the gifts she opens will come from trendy stores and cosmetic counters as I haven’t entered a Toys R Us to Christmas shop in a few years now, and we no longer set out cookies for Santa (although Mrs. Claus does miss them, truth be told). But every year at Christmas I hold her a little tighter and she permits my embrace a little longer, because every year that sick little girl on the couch is further and further in the past and promise of a young woman heading off to a bright future is a few years closer. And we remember that Christmas that wasn’t about presents or big family dinners. But simply about a mom and her girl.
It’s hardly original to think that the real start of the New Year comes every September when kids go back to school and life shifts from the slower rhythm of summer to the more hectic pace of autumn. I realize that I’m roughly the eleventy billionth writer to use this concept as the theme for an essay. Forgive me, my mind has been dulled by weekend after weekend of sun exposure, coolers full of diet lemon Snapple, five beach novels (3 set on Nantucket and one set on a fictional island that clearly was Nantucket), alfresco dinners, morning walks, and nights spent being grateful for the brilliant invention that is central air conditioning. But the remaining August days are few, and morning sun takes longer and longer to shine, and night sky darkens earlier and earlier. Autumn approaches and with it my seasonal battle with a condition my friend Kath used to call “weltschmerz,” or “world pain.” It starts with a dull ache in my chest as I grapple with the end of another perfect summer, the pit of anxiety in my stomach as I contemplate the schedule-juggling, and heightened work-load that arrives like clockwork after Labor Day, and an inescapable, unnameable sadness that dances at the edges of every day.
Now, as any good native New Englander should, I do love Autumn and its bursts of color, its crisp days, cider donuts, and trips to Mack’s Apples for Cortlands, and the chance to pull my jeans out after they’ve lain forgotten in my bottom drawer all summer. My sadness isn’t even tied to Liza being yet another year older, (although next year when she starts high school perhaps I will recant this declaration), for I love the way each September brings challenges for her in the form of higher levels of dance classes, more advanced classes, new opportunities, and the joy that is watching her bloom into an extraordinary young woman. Rather my “weltschmerz,” is rooted in closing the door on another summer – the season I love most of all – with its slower pace, reduced expectations for productivity, and precious, precious time with my family. I’ve written before about my lack of ambition, and my inability to jump on the workaholic train with any sense of authenticity. Summer fits me perfectly. People slow down, take time off, vanish to summer homes on lakes and beaches, they take lunch hours to stroll downtown or sit at sidewalk tables a bit longer, even at work they are tan, rested, relaxed, happy, as if the burden of work becomes lighter and more bearable between Father’s Day and Labor Day. This is heaven for someone like me, who sees the work day as a major obstacle between me and my time with family and friends. But come the Tuesday after Labor Day and it’s as if a switch has been thrown sending everyone back into “high gear,” (a phrase I particularly loathe).
I cling to my summer the way Liza used to cling to her pacifier as a baby – greedily, angrily, and with the completely certain knowledge that it was going to be taken away at any second. But my petulance is futile. For just as ripping those first red leaves off the Swamp Maples will not slow the steady march of Fall, nor will stomping my feet and pouting stop those around me from changing, and growing and moving on with the business of life, leaving me stuck in “summer mode.”
Yesterday, on our last long-weekend outing of the summer, I noticed the creeping tide of color on the hills over Lake Sunapee, and for a moment I felt that ache in my chest again and wanted to freeze time so we could always stay happy, tanned, relaxed and with a big bag of sour cream and onion potato chips and stacks of good books at our side. But then, as I contemplated the excitement that awaited Liza as the top dog 8th grader at her junior high, the opportunities that awaited Kelly in her new studies, and the (almost terrifying) giddiness I felt at having a new show to rehearse with a completely new company of people, I took a deep breath, said a silent thanks for an absolutely perfect summer, and exhaled. I let summer go. After all, I’m reasonably sure it will be back… someday.
Happy autumn. Happy New Year.
We take summer seriously in my family. We also take fun seriously. We’re big fans of fun. Nothing makes me happier than when Kelly and I, or all three of us, are off on adventure. Kelly usually drives and I co-pilot which means usually sitting with my feet on the dashboard (because my wife drives a car which doesn’t quite fit my legs) and our conversations generally go something along the lines of me asking her if she has any kind of plan or directions or general sense where we’re going and her responding along the lines of “sort of…we’ll figure it out!” And we always do. We’ve traveled the back roads of Sugar Hill in search of legendary cheddar cheese, we’ve walked through the eerie emptiness of the closed-for–the- season York’s Animal Kingdom on our way to a local ‘Harvest Festival.” We’ve posed with the nude statues on the grounds of The Ogunquit Museum of American Art, gone to wine tastings at a vineyard in Sandown, and snuck onto the grounds of The Indian Head Resort in Lincoln to take photos in their decorative teepee. We’ve relaxed in Adirondack chairs near a waterfall in Peterborough, had an impromptu swim and nap at the town docks in Newbury, eaten ice cream in the middle of Harvard Yard, giggled through an auction at a Methodist church in Gilford, and gone to open houses for multimillion dollar homes in Provincetown. A friend of mine remarked that we seem to “experience an entire summer vacation in one weekend,” and she couldn’t be more right. We love our adventures and we love taking friends along for the ride, in fact I still smile remembering the weekend that Joe and Kelly and I embarked on a hijinks that took us from the top of Cannon Mountain to the Hopkinton fair and everywhere in between with the goal of ‘seeing as much foliage and eating as much maple as possible in one weekend.” Our excursions are unpredictable and even when the occasional outing is kind of a bust, they are always fun and they are always an escape from the work that awaits us during the week.
Ah yes work. Work is the one thing that pretty much never comes along for the ride on our weekends and vacations. I’m as Yankee as they come but I have to admit somewhere that Puritanical work ethic skipped over me. I shouldn’t be surprised. I grew up in a family where my dad routinely sauntered home from his office for lunch and a nap, where running to the store for some cereal could be turned into a family outing, and where the concept of working on the weekend was as anathema as buying jarred sauce for the lasagna. It simply didn’t happen. Is it any wonder with nap-loving, road-trip taking, ice-cream eating roots like these that I grow impatient with our current culture of prizing overwork as some sort of moral superiority? When I read that Hillary Clinton (a political and personal hero of mine) was praised for promoting work/life balance because she encouraged her staff to go home to their families at SEVEN O’CLOCK at night, I thought “really?” By seven I like to be through dinner, into my glass of wine and readying for my nightly Jeopardy match with Kelly, or finishing up an evening dip in the condo pool or an after-dinner stroll not just walking out the door to go home. When I hear someone announce they “took the weekend off” from their desk job at an arts organization, I think “really?” Weekends are given to you, you don’t “take” them and for the love of Pete what kind of arts emergency is really going to arise over the weekend that can’t be dealt with Monday morning? When a dear friend proudly announces her work email is turned off while we’re at the beach, my eyes can’t help but roll a little (OK, alot). When I ask a friend to join us for fun, food and friendship on a Saturday and hear “oh I’m at the office” I think, really? WHY? Once I was even semi-scolded by a friend after I spent a weekend away, “well it must be nice but there are things that must be done!” Um. What things? We grocery shop, we do laundry, we do dishes, we go to work, we do all the things everyone else does. Why is the concept of hitting the road for a day, a weekend or a week, or even the concept of a rainy day spent at home with movies and popcorn, so hard for some people to grasp? I don’t get it.
Several years ago I went through my state’s leadership program and met over 30 amazing people – all dedicated, hard working and terrifically fun and friendly folks. I spent the summer after that program taking advantage of their geographic diversity to seize some new experiences – ice cream at a new spot in Jaffrey, a swim in a tiny lake followed by a barbecue in Warner, Mexican food in Rochester. It was a blast. Upon hearing of my travels one classmate said to me “Wow, when do you WORK?” I was taken by surprise. I had done all these things on weekends or evenings. I go to work like everyone else does. I work hard, I get my job done, I get it done pretty damn well. The fact that my fun with my new friends was seen as being mutually exclusive with work was a little unsettling to me.
Look, I get that for some people work is relaxation. I don’t understand it but I get it. So if sitting at the office on a sunny Saturday afternoon is how you chill out then I guess all I can say is ‘enjoy.’ And of course I realize that even the most dedicated slackers among us have those days when a grant is due, or a presentation needs to be polished, or a big event is coming up and we put in a few extra hours, but those are exceptions, not the rule. And because it’s almost impossible to avoid it these days, my work emails do come to my phone and home computer. But I turn them off when we hit the road or when I’m on vacation. And every time I feel the urge to answer an email I now ask myself “can this wait ‘til tomorrow, ‘til Monday?” Happily, 99.9% of the time the answer is yes and I let it go. For a long time I really thought there was something wrong with me because I seemed to lack this compulsion to work all the time. But then I realized that great truth that none of us really want to face. I’m just not THAT important. I fund raise for a theater and I do it well, but is that REALLY a job that requires constant connection, and weekend work? Please. No. just.. no. Is the legacy we want to leave really one that begins with “well they spent a lot of extra time at the office?” My wife is a psychiatric nurse. Her job is about a bazillion times more critical than the one I do, but I don’t catch her volunteering for extra shifts or reading case studies on the weekend. She knows what she does matters and she does it in the time she’s there. Period. More people should take a page from Kelly’s book.
So my friends, as summer draws to a close here is my wish for you. Turn off your email notifications, leave your office keys at home, pick a destination that sounds fun, hop in the car with someone you love, and (if you’re not driving) put your feet on the dashboard, roll the windows down, and enjoy. And don’t forget my family’s number one rule of summer adventures: stop for ice cream!