I am playing hooky from aikido class this morning. It is always an angst-filled decision making process, because I love aikido, it is challenging and exhilarating and lets me work my edges more than any other practice. But I’ve been working a lot and I’m tired. I’ve had some bad news lately, some difficult conversations with loved ones, and I just got my period. So when I felt myself not rising instantly from the breakfast table this morning when it was time to get ready to go, I had to face the fact that maybe what I need more than aikido right now is rest, and time to write.
Writing is a luxury for me, something that only happens by stealing time away from something else. Yet it’s one of those forces of nature — the need to write — that builds up slowly, day by day, until its pull is unavoidable and I have to give up something equally cherished, like aikido, in order to satisfy that gnawing need. Victor Hugo was interviewed by someone once, and the interviewer asked him his thoughts on a certain subject. To which Hugo responded, “I don’t know what I think about that; I haven’t written about it yet!” Writing is the same for me, a chance to sift through my emotions and impressions in order to figure out what I really think and feel about any given topic.
This week is birthday week. Lyra turned 18 on Sunday, and even more amazing, Bowen turned 20 yesterday! As much as I knew it was going to happen, I found myself unprepared for the emotional firestorm that occurred when my oldest became a 20 year old. He must really be grown up. I must really be grown up, too.
We moved to San Francisco when Bowen was about 18 months old. We had been living up in Comptche, caretaking 100 acres of beautiful Mendocino County second-growth forest and living in a tiny cabin where the only running water available was when you ran down to the creek to get some. Bowen was a beautiful little boy, strong and stubborn, with bleached blonde hair and a sturdy build like his mama. He was a homebody, somewhat to Rosses dismay, and preferred sitting in the cabin looking at books to working outside on the land. He was also a mama’s boy, maybe because I also preferred sitting around reading to doing most anything else.
In those days, I was the one working outside the home. I had my teaching credential and was trying to get a job in one of the local school districts. I subbed in Mendocino, Comptche and Boonville, all great schools. Because I was so lonely up there though, most weekends I would travel down to San Francisco to visit friends, a 2 1/2 hour drive. Often I would have Bowen with me, and he was a perfect companion for those long sessions of sitting in cars, sitting in living rooms, sitting in cafes, taking slow walks up and down the neighborhoods.
Then I found out I was pregnant with Lyra, and knew I couldn’t stay up in the forest where I hardly knew anyone. Much to Rosses dismay, I insisted on moving down to the City and finding a home with friends where we could have baby number two with some support around us. So we moved down and started an ill-fated collective household, because no household we knew had both the room and the interest to house us. Bowen took to city living instantly, and found stability and at least one life-long friend in a local playgroup that he became part of. I subbed in San Francisco schools — a horror compared to the country schools I had been in — until close to the birth, and Ross found work in construction.
After Lyra was born, I was rarely seen around town without my two cute companions. They were sweet and loving children, which is not to say they weren’t also a handful. But hey, I was 25 years old, I had energy to burn. As Lyra progressed from infant to crawler to toddler, the two of them earned the nickname “The Penguins.” I’m not sure who coined the term, but I think it was either Rose or Star, because we went to Black Cat house quite often for parties and meetings. After a short while, the term became ubiquitous. And there was definitely truth in the label: they were so cute and sturdy and pudgy, so matter-of-fact and observant, so impish and (especially Bowen) given to saying such unexpected things, that they really did in an odd sort of way resemble waddling aquatic fowl. I should have dressed them in tuxedos to drive home the point.
Most invitations we received were addressed to “Anne, Ross, & the Penguins.” When we showed up somewhere without them, friends would ask, “Where are the penguins?” Those were the years when I found it hardest to hear women with grown children tell me, “Oh, it passes by so quickly, doesn’t it?” No, it wasn’t passing by quickly at all, thank you very much. Every day I’d wake up, and I’d still have a one and a three-year-old. Nothing was quick about that. Gone were my days of sitting around reading for hours. The only change in store for me was waking up one morning and having a two and a four-year-old. Or a three and a five-year-old. The road ahead seemed endless, even as there were wide swaths of time that were purely enjoyable being the mother of two such lovely children.
I don’t know at what age my two oldest children stopped being referred to as penguins. It must have been after that baby fat wore away and they became schoolkids. A year ago or so, I was cleaning out some files and came upon the original for a party invitation I sent out when they turned 1 and 3. (Their birthdays are only 3 days apart.) It had a photo taken of me and the kids by my old friend Rachel Johnson (also former buddy from the Princesses of Plutonium affinity group). She and I had taken the penguins out to Battery Alexander for a photo shoot one day, I think for a folk music gig I was doing with a couple singer-songwriter friends. The picture on the invitation was great: me on the ground in my cool black leather jacket, laughing and grabbing the back of Lyra’s shirt. Her hair is long and wispy and sticking straight up off her head as she tries to crawl away from me, and meanwhile Bowen is sitting cross-legged between my legs in his baseball jacket, studying his fingers and looking unconcerned.
I gave the invitation to Lyra as photo documentation of her cute fly-away hair, and when she moved to San Francisco last fall I noticed she’d put it up on the wall of her room. That was almost too poignant for words, that she likes that picture and is now a competent young adult on her own in the very city she was born in, back when I was a competent young adult not so much older than her.
Lyra and Bowen still travel together a lot. They have a friendship that I could only dream about having with my siblings, and just this past weekend gave themselves a birthday party together at Lyra’s new flat in the Mission, with said friend from the old playgroup plus Lyra’s friends from high school and Bowen’s friends from Santa Cruz.
I just miss them both terribly. I miss being such a central part of their lives, and I miss having them be so central in my life. I don’t always feel quite this maudlin about it, and on balance I am really happy that we’re not all living under one roof! But the other day I was talking with a fellow whose kids are five to ten years older than mine, and he said, “Oh, yours are off to college? Just wait — they’ll be back. Let me tell you about my 29-year-old…” And I noticed I felt really happy about that.
Meanwhile, I’m afraid I have become one of those women I hated for their survivor’s perspective. I see a young woman with toddlers and it all comes flooding back, and I smile a knowing smile and say to her, “Isn’t it annoying when older women tell you how fast this is going to go?”