Because it is summer, and because summer has me of the mind of young children, free for long days of unscheduled abandon, today seemed a good day to share an essay I posted originally on my old parenting blog. As I enjoy long days with my boys, I was reminded of this one day with them that so captures how non-writing days serve as inspiration.
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I was the first one pregnant in our generation, on either side of our family. From those first weeks of confessing it, I ran the steep hill of all the things I would learn about what it took to parent. Diapers, pack and plays, how to know if it’s sick. And then they grow up a little.
You work on which vacuum has large enough bore to suck up Cheerios without clogging, teaching yourself to say sugar! instead of shit, and truisms like “hands are not for hitting.”
Mysteriously, I discovered I absolutely love parenting.
Not the least of which is the way its existential challenges never cease to amaze.
This month’s challenge: answering the question, “Mom, what is a hippie?”
My five-year-old said, “It means ‘an old man’.”
His eight-year-old brother corrected him: “No, it’s a teenager with long hair… and funny clothes… and…” He accurately described Shaggy, from Scooby Do, then faltered, breaking down to ask, “Mom, what is a hippie?”
And here parenting becomes existential – because even in their little boy way, they were grasping at something they could not articulate but could sense. They got that there was some socio-political, socio-historical implication behind the meaning. That it signified something they did not understand for there to be a hippie in their cartoon.
I begin to answer, but it’s the ubiquitous sound of one hand clapping. Any explanation of what a hippie is means nothing without understanding the context of the culture they were rebelling against. In our current environment where the two long-haired boys on my sons’ baseball teams are the sons of fashionista mamas, not grunge, how can they get what a statement it was for a guy to let his hair and beard grow shaggy in an era where hair didn’t touch one’s collar? Where men and women still wore hats in public, and my grandmother and even my mother still carried spotless white gloves? Our kids know hippie images as neon flowers on paper cups and napkins at the party store, or the peace signs in rhinestones on the neighbor’s jeans, without seeing them as re-imagined icons of what was once a radical attempt to move toward a gentler, more natural way of being, at a time of corporatization and war. How do you explain the experience that I remember intangibly as paper butterflies on my young aunt’s wall, fanning out above her black and white poster of “A Bridge Over Troubled Water”?
In attempting to find simple words to explain it, my understanding grows expansive in memory of history lessons and personal experience growing up in the 70s, touched with hindsight and the newer context of the world we have become since then. I was not a hippie or flower child or child of hippies; my parents were primly republican. As a child, I associated hippies with broken bottles on the pavement at our playground. Yet here I am, forty, riding along in my SUV with little boys rattling about in the back (who are fascinated we did not have to wear seatbelts as kids), and feeling a wan tenderness in memory of avocado kitchen appliances and trying to remember what the whole affection for rainbows was about.
My world becomes larger with children. Not just because more square-footage is required to be able to move around highchairs and train tables and strewn Legos, but because the whole expanse of the universe is new again in their eyes.
Soil that clearly belongs nowhere but between the roots of the hedges and flowers outside is now meant to be dug up, spread apart, carried about and stored in little containers that just would not have occurred to you as meant for analyzing dirt. That is, not until you have a playdate with brightly dressed, neat little girls who open the little play kitchen and find it caked with dried spattered mud and your son smiles and explains it to her – proudly pointing out how when he shook the soil in a jar with water, the mulch, peat and sand separated into layers, creating a distinct grey, tan and brown rainbow that he’d just been dying to show someone. He discovered density, you think with pride, at the same time you apologetically wash away the filth and reassure the little girls that there are clean toys here somewhere.
Life is a mystery. Full of dark turns and surprises and joys and tragedies and things so beautiful and amazing. You go on vacation and see a sunset or painting or giant gorge in the earth so startlingly beautiful that you honestly could not have borne seeing it without someone meaningful beside you to touch and say, “Look at that!”
Children find this not only on vacation, but in the mundane, the sagging days of life that might otherwise be only about when to fit in grocery shopping and whether a successful day at work was enough to qualify for bonus and if you will be able to sleep soundly tonight.
“Look!” they say, all the time. “What is that? Look!” They pick out the plainest flower at the market and fall in love. You find rocks in the bottom of your purse, a wilted feather left for you beside your bed, stray bits of hardware clanking in your dryer.
And they take what we have known always in our lives – something as irrelevant and silly as a hippie – and hand us a whole cosmos of depth and meaning to wrestle with.
“What is a hippie?” I repeated, ready to say something about how people sometimes choose their clothes to express their feelings about the world, or maybe share something about what it was like to be a child in the 70s, or how the times then were or weren’t like our times now.
But they were laughing at something.
Just at the point they had me thoroughly wrapped up in the riddle of it, the boys moved on.
In the same effortless way they expand our lives with depth and complexity, they model for us simplicity. My boys decided, simply, that “hippie” will be their favorite new word for anything weird… whether or not they really get what it means.
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More on finding inspiration when least expected: Writing Life: Today’s Job – Non-writing Days
Reading this summer, including with my boys: Summer Reading List 2012
Another post on challenging conversations with kids: Reminders of What We Wished Lost
Are you a writing parent? Where do you find inspiration or challenge in balancing family with work?
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Enjoy your summer day, all!