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Not a Mirror Image: A Daughter Starts High School

Having skipped third grade and with a January birthday, I was only 13 at the beginning of ninth grade. Back in 1987, that was still junior high, though I started taking Russian up at the high school and would walk between the two buildings at least once a day.

The summer between 8th and 9th grade was a truly transitory one; soft, flowing Indian dresses and Camel Lights gave way to an all-black uniform and Marlboro reds. Guns ‘n Roses and the Sex Pistols overtook Suzanne Vega and Van Morrison. I still didn’t wear much makeup, but dark-red lipstick became part of my mask. It was the summer we grieved the deaths of Jon Fisher and Elie Aizen, who’d died in a car accident at the tail end of the school year. It was the summer of babysitting, getting stoned, and listening to Pink Floyd; of making out and drifting apart and losing a kind of exuberant creativity and innocence that, for me, had marked the second half of eighth grade.

Nearly 15, my daughter Aviva starts high school next week. She signed up for the cross-country team, a commitment to run six days a week that took all of us by surprise. At her age, I was started to shrink, whereas I see her starting to take up room. It’s fascinating, to step back and see the ways in which time moves apart, like two magnetic poles pulling in opposite directions, and also how it seems to circle back in on itself, an invisible dance of existentialism, quantum physics, and downright mystery.

The weekend school started in 1987, a friend and I went camping at the Shutesbury Reservoir. Two girls, two boys, and two tents: You do the math. Some Peachtree Schnapps might have been involved, though even then I was never much for drinking. The inevitable pairing off happened, and just today I learned the term for it while I waited with Aviva for the city bus that would take her back to her dad’s house. We’d walked from her high school orientation to town, where I took her out for breakfast. And as we waited and I continued to hear bits and pieces about her recent summer camp experience, I learned this acronym: HAKWACO (pronounced HACK-WAYCO). Hugging and Kissing with All Clothes On. Well ok then!

Labor Day weekend, 1987, I may have gone a little further than hakwaco-ing, though I would not lose my virginity until four and a half years later. The camping trip resulted in my first boyfriend, Eric Mabius (later of acting fame). My kids LOVE this story, especially the part about our time as boyfriend and girlfriend lasting all of three weeks.

Ninth grade. This morning, I sat in the very same office that once belonged to my guidance counselor, getting Aviva’s schedule straightened out. She’s signed up for Spanish, ecology, history honors, acting, English, and a study hall for sanity’s sake. She’s making her list for a Staples outing this weekend. She’s interested in volunteering at a local organic farm and counting the minutes to go back to her beloved Jewish hippie summer camp next year as a counselor in training. She’s her usual wry, independent, serious, sarcastic, sensitive self.

There’s surely something about parents saying, “When I was your age…” that automatically makes kids tune out most of the time. But then there are the occasional questions, especially when it comes to sex, drugs, and other taboo topics that — in my estimation — ought to be on the table when it comes to communicating with a teenager. She knows some but not all of my stories, just as no doubt I will get to hear only a selection of hers as these next years unfold.

The school has changed so much in the last 30 years — a number that still makes me pause to make sure I’m counting the right number of decades — that I had to ask where the library was. But then a voice came over the loudspeaker asking so-and-so to come to the office, and time crashed over my body like a wave, crashing one lifetime against the shores of another. Mine and hers, forever and inextricably intertwined, and utterly distinct and separate. She is not me. I am not her.

As we walked past my parents’ house, which sits between the school and the center of town, I recalled wearing her in a front pack to the high school in 2002, so proud was I to introduce my baby to the couple of teachers I’d stayed in touch with over the years (history and Russian). Fast forward nearly 15 years and here we were, here she is, stepping into the next thing, as I do my best to step aside and watch her go.

I wrote a song for her on the first day of kindergarten and shared it on my blog; she’d be mortified if I followed suit for high school. Instead, I’ll write about this moment, when time expands and contracts like a pair of healthy lungs, downplay my bursting pride in this young woman I get to love and nurture, and try not to be too “extra” on her first day of high school.

kyle-ellefson-196125

Tiles in a Laborious Mosaic

“There are very few human beings who receive the truth, complete and staggering, by instant illumination. Most of them acquire it fragment by fragment, on a small scale, by successive developments, cellularly, like a laborious mosaic.”

~ The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 3: 1939-1944

Thought: There is a LOT of news we don’t hear about. Every single day, things happen. Small miracles. Wrenching losses. Breathtaking moments of ecstasy and countless, repetitive motions. “You and me” takes on hundreds of manifestations. The big picture will always be there, beyond our field of vision, a scale so measureless it requires tremendous faith in the unseen and unseeable.

What is a mosaic made of, but so many tiny tiles?

Every day that we wake up and find that we are still here, alive, conscious, breathing, able to interact in whatever ways our bodies make possible, is an opportunity to change our minds and alter that unfathomable pattern in the direction of wholeness.

Here’s the catch: It’s hard.

We get tangled in webs of invisible energy. We react. We rush. We carry so much pent-up rage and sadness that it’s bound to leak out all over everything if we don’t acknowledge it and find channels for expression, release, and healing. The world doesn’t meet us where we are any more than we meet the world as it is. We meet the world — I do this so very often — through a distorted lens of how I think it should be. The world shrugs back like a teenager. “Whatever.”

Tears come unexpectedly. At first, I sit still and let them roll down my cheeks as the singers sing on. Then it becomes too much; I feel the strain of trying to control what is quickly moving from a quiet flow to a full-on storm, and I leave the room quietly, move towards a large window at the end of a wide hallway. It is facing west. The sun is low over a bike path, a parking lot. I watch people coming and going as the sobbing I didn’t see coming overtakes me. It’s every hard thing, every yearning, every pinch, every tight spot, every constraint. It’s neither rational nor irrational. It is scary and at the same time, somewhere in the deep of my brain, I know it won’t last.

It doesn’t last.

I return to the room. I take my seat back on the cushion. My wife sits a foot or so away from me. The space is filled with sound. Guitar, tabla, bass, drums, cello, flute, violin, harmonium. Deep voices and piercing voices coming together in an ancient call and response. I sway a little but don’t join in for a while, allowing myself just to stay here in the stillness. I notice the urge to flee. I stay. I notice 10,000 variations on this theme. I resist all of it. I stay. I stay. I stay.

And sure enough, I begin to soften. Almost despite myself, I open my mouth to sing. I sing quietly. I don’t need anyone to hear me. I am here, and that is enough.

We all have moments where we are “not our best selves.” But what does this even mean? Best, worst, first, last — all of these monosyllabic words that don’t ultimately mean anything. What matters is our ability to hold steady through the periods of turmoil and tumult, when you’re so caught up in the wave that you don’t know how to break through to the surface for air. It is easy to panic in these moments, to flail. To pull others down with you. To make it infinitely scarier and more painful than it already is.

There is a big picture, and so very much happens in the course of a day, a week, a month, a year, a life. None of us knows how much time we have here, and every day seems to be an exercise in imperfection, starting over, self-forgiveness, and learning.

When I say, “Be good to yourself,” this is what I’m talking about. It’s not a code for anything else, nor is it a permission slip to ditch responsibility for our impact on others. It is as simple an imperative as I can muster for myself, a baseline, and — hopefully — a bit of solid ground to feel for when life is moving at lightning speed and we temporarily lose our bearings and forget our place in the entirety of things.

As Anaïs Nin noted in her diary so many decades ago, life unfolds and takes shape “fragment by fragment.” And we are all essential tiles, in an incalculable whole.