The picture of me looks like this: gangly legs with tall white knee socks, black and white saddle shoes, misshapen faux horn glasses way too big for my face, and a plaid, pleated skirt with a gigantic decorative safety pin, something you’d find on a Halloween costume.
Understandably, there was always a sort of insouciance about going back to school. Unlike earthquakes, it was just something that happened every year when the hottest days of summer had run their course and my mother ditched the tube tops and started wearing normal clothes again.
Pregnancy lasts for nine months because this is about an adequate amount of time to learn every thing you need to know about childbirth, newborns, sleep “training”, every manner of disciplinary option available to you in your future parenting years that will not land you in prison, and finally, how to successfully raise an accomplished, respectable and civilized person of the world.
And then the baby is born. And you learn about all the things you didn’t know you needed to learn about: preschool waiting lists, dual immersion educational options and vaccinations—which ones, in what combinations, at what age, and how often?
Right about the time that kids learn to sleep properly—something that befuddlingly takes years—then they need to learn how to wake up early and get dressed, be breakfasted and alert enough to pack up the previous day’s completed homework to meet the school bus, usually before the sun comes up.
This whole “childhood” thing is not for the inexperienced.
Which brings me back to the first day of school. As I looked at my friends’ Instagram posts of their kiddos' “First Day of School” pictures, hashtagged #iwontcry and #summerisover, complete with wheeled backpacks and brave, toothless faces standing tall on their front porches and sidewalks, I felt a little pang of regret, envy even.
And then I leaned over and looked at my six year-old, still asleep at 8 o’clock, her eyelashes dancing with a dream, the filtered morning sun throwing patterns across her cheeks—and stole away to walk the dog in the dew heavy grass before we started our first day of school, in pajamas, over hot chocolate, first grade books already littering the kitchen table.
Last good-byes, Teton County Fair (c) cara blessley lowe 2013
The girls know, when they receive them as babies, that the lambs will be sold and killed for food. Baby lambs are called kids, and seeing kids--mere teenagers!--leading their sweet charges up the feed truck plank to the slaughterhouse is an unfortunate irony.
It is a cluster of consoling: of boyfriends and fathers and brothers with their arms and giant ranch-hand hands wrapped around the girls’ shoulders, belt buckles half the diameter as their waists; of sisters and other girls, mascara ribbons streaking their faces, a profusion of tears usually associated with weddings, or war.
As a bystander, you can’t get too sentimental.
These animals are bought, born, loved, raised, sold: the lesson is that earning a living is not without sacrifice, not without a price. This sacrifice means giving up something you love, adore even, and not just letting it go or even giving it away to another family, but leading it to it’s death.
There is a giant banner that sprawls the barn walls hailing the virtues of “Character”, which makes me wonder if I even understand the word. I never had to kill one of my animals when I was a kid.
Perhaps every parent should have to dry the tears of what I’ll call ‘chosen loss’ before the world thrusts it on their kids unawares.
Might there be a future where 4H takes root in those beleaguered neighborhoods of Chicago and other American cities where children killing children has become common enough to the point of being overlooked by the media and our political leaders?
Might makeshift barns replace sacked-out tenements, children learning compassion--not vengeance--through the heartbreak of loss?
At first, it’s just birth plans and cloth diapers, co-sleeping and schedules, and the next thing you know, your child is conspiring to feed the dog tacks.
Parenthood is no laughing matter.
We talk about this over rosé and s’mores, a campfire blazing away a threat of chill at sunset, the children as liberated from harm’s way as one could fathom: save grizzly bears, drowning and marshmallow roasting sticks to the eye. We holler the customary cautions and strap lifejackets on for safe measure, even though they are just skipping stones from the stern of an anchored boat. (There have been less obvious disasters, of this I am certain.)
We ponder choices, the desirability of geography, community, commuting, the trade-offs of not flying your Preferred Airline, hairy drives over wintry mountain passes, a winter that just does not quit, shares of beef and cubic-feet of deep freezers, all the while staring into the fire with the wizened eyes earned a handful of scant years into the walk as Keepers of Young Things.
“Think of their lives,” my friend throws out. “Their lives are crazy, they have no idea.” And they don’t.
This night is 360 degrees of mountains and foil-smooth lake, the cherry-topper of a full moon rising brighter than a lighthouse on a foggy night, and not a soul in sight.
There is something redemptive and grace-filled that children, in all their hope and optimism and God-given survival mechanisms, do not grasp the reality of their situation, as beautiful or as ugly as their situation may be.
In this case, it is beautiful. Of course there are still meltdowns and power struggles, heartbreaks and vulnerabilities beyond your wildest dreams, always; not to mention the abandonment, largely, of the life and personhood formerly known as Yours and You.
All of it, at this moment, seems a trifle of a concern.
All of it, you’d dare only with the best of friends.
Sunset on the Capitol, me and E, on my birthday eve
There are few things as rewarding as watching your kiddos connect the dots: first words, first steps, that a-ha moment of recognizing something known but never seen in real life. Monuments fall into this category, along with life-size Elmos and watching donuts travel the conveyor belt at Krispy Kreme, a sheet of liquid sugar glazing the dozens to a high-gloss finish.
Children and how they process the world around them level the playing field in remarkably refreshing and undiscriminating ways.
Accepting an invitation to visit friends in Washington D.C. brought on the Great Debate: a grown-up, much needed adult trip the two of us, or a family affair, which meant wrangling babysitters for fancy evenings out with said friends and the hand-wringing hope that all the training and one-on-one we've spent with our kid will carry the day.
What with S and I commuting to LA for film work, various birthdays, and a general carpe diem approach to living, logistics conspired, and so we flew, all three, to D.C.
The visit was chock full of a grown-up agenda, which generally meshes with our child-rearing philosophy. Children are meant to fit into your world, you don't structure your entire life to accommodate their every mood and whim. That said, missed naps are nightmarish in the early years and once they are sleeping the night, no more gallery openings with your three-month old tucked discreetly into a Moby wrap.
The week began with the most fear-inspiring event on the agenda--a catered cocktail party at our friends' house our first night there. They live in a brownstone carrying Historic Registry credentials on Embassy Row, a stone's throw from the White House, covered ceiling to floor in either a) priceless tapestries or b) rare indigenous and/or modern art. Expected at the party were folks you'd see in either D.C.'s society pages or on any given televised political round-table, or neighbors--which fit into either of the above two categories, or once did.
How does it happen that when you transfer your energies mostly full-time to child rearing, putting on hold a life in which you previously Made Things Happen, that your children's behavior, for better or worse, takes the brunt of your performance anxiety as a parent...? Fair or not, right or wrong, in my case it is a bona fide fact, and this evening was no exception.
As the night progressed I watched as our four year-old, decked out in a navy velvet shift, walked calmly among the partygoers, never taking more than one hors d'oeuvre at a time, and managing to keep her blueberry-garnished ginger ale in her glass--not spilling on herself, another, or on the furniture. She was having such a good time that she didn't cling to my leg once. In fact, most guests didn't even realize she was our child, giving us the privilege to overhear remarks that took notice of her manners. It's as though she knew how high we had set the bar and was absolutely meeting it. Imagine that.
After the party, I kissed my baby good-bye and left her with Miss Corinna, returning hours later to find her hidden among Blue Willow bedding, sleeping away the night. Who is this kid, I wanted to ask my husband, but didn't, out of superstition of jinxing a run of exemplary behavior. I prayed a prayer of gratitude instead, that all the work was, well, working....
Such evenings become bookmarks for those times when E has absolutely had her fill of...fill-in-the-blank...the White House and the Capitol, walking and monuments and museums and parties, and wants nothing more than to go to the zoo, buy a bag of grain, and feed the goats. Which is exactly what we did.
E and I talk a lot about death these days. It must be a four-year-old thing. And while we said goodbye to her cranky-beloved granddog two weeks ago, it was this old mess o'bones that made the entire life cycle a bit more tangible in her eyes.
We found it, like all great discoveries, by accident, exploring a special place near our home, tinder-dry grasses scratching our flip-flopped feet, eyes peeled for random spiky thistle tops sure to bring a halt to the day's adventure. The coloring looks more like a ring-tailed cat, which we don't have in western Wyoming, at least according to the experts. Raccoons have blacker tail bands and the skull is so long that it doesn't look like either of the above really, or a housecat, which would be another plausible guess given the size.
One of the things I love the most about where we live is how one minute the place seems so civilized and genteel and the next, this. (Just like middle-of-the-night coyote howls I heard last week in Brentwood
.) The contrasts, animal wildness rubbing against human efforts to tame it,
are everywhere, and even seemingly humdrum suburban backyards yield the greatest of finds. Just ask E. O. Wilson
Children are especially fine lamplighters of these discoveries, if their unadulterated curiosities aren't squelched by the very adult ridiculousness of labeling things as "gross", "disgusting", "nasty" or "filthy"--any of which these things may actually be. W
e made it home before dark with just one thing to add to her collection: a chunk of vertebrae that E can hold up to the small of my back, understanding how we are put together, and what it looks like when that's all that's left.