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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.

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Being a Grownup

giving to all her questions just one answer: 
In you, who were a child once–in you.

~ Maria Rainer Rilke, from “The Grownup”

Being a grownup means not doing it just because everyone else is doing it. It means recognizing that in truth we have little idea what anyone else is really doing or how they’re doing it. It means understanding that we all have so many selves, so many layers, so much that goes unknown and unseen.

Being a grownup means taking the pressure off.

Picture an open wound — blood that won’t stop. Yes, absolutely, applying steady pressure can be a necessary and even lifesaving measure until the paramedics arrive to take over.

But when you’re still applying all that pressure years later, long after the wound has closed and the ridgeline of scar has become simply part of the landscape of your body, of your days, that is when you can step away. Slowly left your hands and see the miracle of what has repaired itself over time. To be a grownup is to remove your hands. Don’t hide the scar; it is the topography of your soul now, mountainous here and cavernous there, with long stretches of nothing but sand, water, and sky.

Grow up and see that all along, you contained answers only you could discover and decipher.

They lived in you like so much starlight that had to travel for many years to reach your heart, your consciousness. Grow up, and learn delicate art of listening for these answers that appear when you least expect them, that don’t discriminate between cityscapes and lush forest and mountain stream, splendor and squalor.

The answers within you can slip out anywhere. Be aware.

Beware those who insist that for a sum, they’ll lead you somewhere you’ll never find on your own. No one else has the map of you. Run to those whose clues make you light up in recognition, cry with relief, or feel you’ve found your place on this earth.

Find the silences where you can hear your own voice echoing off the rocks. Whatever your element, spend as much time as you can there. And when you find yourself in exile — which you will, when you’re a grownup — trust that your longing will lead you home.

Have faith that you will get to return to the place where all of the answers greet you, like the beloveds you lost along the way. Grow up and see for yourself: You belong.