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Homeschool, Hikes, and Heartaches

This past two weeks, my life has mirrored the landscape of the dystopian novels I use in my middle school ELA classroom. A pandemic set loose on the world, exponentially rising death tolls, lack of basic services and consumer goods, inadequate healthcare, unmitigated government control, and widespread fear and hysteria.


The surreality of our current situation reinforces my belief that I cannot spend my life needlessly worrying. So many times in the past, I have had sleepless nights, letting potential problems keep me up, only to find they have never come to pass. Instead, I have been blindsided by issues I could never have foreseen. Today’s dystopian world is the perfect illustration.


Like everyone, I am trying to cope with our new reality. Between trying to teach my own classes online, to homeschool my kindergartener and first grader, and to productively fill our long days and empty schedules, some days are better than others. I am trying to be kind to myself and my children. We are all struggling. I am attempting to explain the unexplainable to them, why our world has shut down, why we have to practice social distancing. It is hard to answer the questions my young children have about these complicated issues without scaring them. It is difficult to remain calm in the face of so many unknowns.


And I am also trying to keep my children busy and provide opportunities for them to expend their youthful energy, even though all their activities and sports have been cancelled. There are very few places to take them. Even our local tracks have been closed.


So yesterday afternoon, after our daily homeschool lessons, I took my children up to the North Shore of Long Island to Cold Spring Harbor State Park. I have done this challenging two mile trail countless times with one of my friends. It was the second time that I had taken my children; the first time we did not get very far.


As my daughter, the future trail runner, bounds ahead, my son and I walk together.


“Mommy, my legs aren’t as long as Sis’s.”


“I know, Buddy. You are doing great.”


As we pick our way over logs, roots, and rocks, he begins to discuss a past event. “It was before we broke up,” he explains. My son has started to sort events into two categories: pre-divorce and post divorce. However, he descriptively timestamps events as before or after “we broke up.” Again, I explain to him that we didn’t break up; we could never break up. His father and I divorced, but we both love his sister and him very much. My heart aches.


From the time I learned I was pregnant with my daughter, over seven years ago, I have dedicated my life to protecting my children. Initially, I gave up wine and sushi and tried to fuel my body properly, nurturing beings I had never met but to whom I was already acutely tied. Out of the womb, my love and responsibilities have increased a hundredfold. I agonize over their physical, academic, mental, and emotional well-being daily, struggling to shield them from pain and conflict.


I have never before experienced the rage I felt when my children have been harmed by a playmate or bully. As a person who has always been immune to road rage, can turn my back on an enraged person, can tune out a belligerent student’s tirades, knowing full well his anger has nothing to do with me but stems from other issues, I have reeled from this blind rage. A feeling so uncontrollable, it can only be instinctual.


Unlike our previous visit to this site, this time my children completed the whole route. In a celebratory spirit, my slightly tired children and their exhausted mother return to the car for a thirty minute drive home. On the radio, a song I never heard before was playing, “Try Again,” by Andy Shauf. Despite recounting the story of a broken relationship, the tune is upbeat. The chorus repeats the song’s title, “Come on, baby, try again.”


I tell my children I like the song. Trying again is such an important lesson. We all need to try again as we did with our hike. Or how we sometimes need to do with our behavior. I am going to try to be more patient, I tell them. Maybe they can listen better, I suggest. We chat a bit more. A new song comes on the radio. But something has been dislodged in my son. He begins to pound his booster chair, repeating fiercely over and over, “You and daddy have to get back together again.”
It takes me a moment to understand what he is saying. He starts to kick the car door. “I am not kidding,” he yells at me. The irony is that I feel almost healed, but my poor children are still struggling with the aftermath of the divorce.


In the past, I might have given the stock answer, Daddy and I didn’t get along. However, the children’s therapist has cautioned that could lead children to needlessly feel conflict between parents. I say instead, “Sometimes parents don’t work well together.” Or, at all, I think to myself.


He calms momentarily. Throughout our ride home, he frequently returns to his outburst. I thank him for telling me how he feels, for sharing with me. I am sorry he feels that way. I do understand, I tell him. I know his ability to articulate his feelings is healing in itself. Yet, every time I hear his pain, my own heart splinters. There is no escape from this paradox. In trying to protect my children, I have caused them pain.


At one point, he says, “But mom, it is like the song. You can try again.” And I am undone by his intelligence, his ability to make inferences and connections. His optimism. He is five.


In bed that night, tears flow unbidden down my cheeks. Seven years of trying to insulate my children from heartache and loss. Despite our best efforts, we may still cause pain.

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#socialdistancing

I often think of the tragedies I have lived through: the Gulf War which had little impact on me because I was in middle school, though, I do think my fellow students planned a walkout; coming back into the United States after the bombing in Oklahoma City; the horror of watching the Columbine Massacre unfold on television my senior year of college. The biggest traumas of my life included 9/11, and even more locally, Hurricane Sandy, and then my own personal trauma, my marriage and divorce. I am in no way equating a local natural disaster or my divorce with the magnitude of 9/11. However, each one was terrifying, contained so many unknowns, and left me feeling powerless to control my situation.


After I recovered from the immediate horror of 9/11, I, like many New Yorkers, spent a great deal of time living under the shadows of the threat of another attack. I lived on a barrier island during Hurricane Sandy, and I remember the National Guard coming into a wrecked town covered in sand and debris, and I thought I would never come closer to a scene that resembled war. At the time, my father reminded me that people can act desperately when they do not have necessities; there were sewage issues and lack of safe drinking water in some Long Island towns for months after the storm.


The horror of my marriage and the divorce process impacted me on such a personal level that, unlike 9/11 or Sandy, I couldn’t escape its impact even for a moment. For so many years, I walked around with a weight on my chest that made it hard to breathe, laugh, or really enjoy life to its fullest.


And here I am, over a year out, and I am a new, happier, lighter person. Peaceful in a way I never could have imagined less than a year and a half ago. And, when I think about the darkest moments and what allowed me to survive physically, and, even more so, emotionally and mentally, it was my support network. My parents, my coworkers who have become my friends and confidantes, my circle of high school and college friends, and the friendships formed more recently. The moms of my children’s friends from daycare and elementary school. The people with whom I interact daily. The school secretaries who practically run the school where I work. My hairdresser. The people I talk to daily or even just once in a while. My students’ parents. My children’s teachers. The people you barely know or just meet for a moment in whom you confide at a low point or moment of despair.


There is evidence that you may actually confide more in people you barely know than the people you consider your safety network. I have been on both ends of that paradox. People I looked at across a room have shared the strangest and most intimate information with me. But, I understand. Often, when particularly upset or stressed, I feel my words tumbling out, oversharing with unlikely recipients. After a particularly difficult week dealing with my ex over the children’s visitation schedule, I poured my concerns out to a grandmother picking her grandchild up from a play date. She sagely advised, “Remember forgiveness is more for you than the person you have forgiven.” I try to live by her words.

But the emotions I am feeling in the midst of the Corona crisis are unique. I walked into a bakery yesterday and almost cried to the owner because, in the aftermath of talks of a state lockdown, I could not even imagine being unable to walk into a local store anymore. I am bemoaning the loss of all the normalcy I typically take for granted. All the routines that keep us grounded and purposeful, the routines that allow us the structure to overcome our small or larger challenges are being threatened.


My children’s routine is in upheaval. Their school, religion class, sports, and other activities have all been cancelled. I texted one mom I see at almost every activity just to ask how she was doing. I missed seeing her.


The store shelves are bare. Going into stores with empty shelves seems designed to cause panic and fear.


One of my best friends, who is typically a very laidback person, told me that the unknowns of the virus and this situation are making her feel very anxious. I told her my divorce and dealing with a narcissistic ex must have made me immune to such anxiety. In the past year, I sadly have had to release so much control over my children’s safety and well-being. The courts seem unwillingly to enforce consequences over parents who don’t comply with settlements. So when my ex has my children, I often do not know their whereabouts. Is he taking them to school? No, he dropped them off at before care, which is in violation of the settlement. Are they at his parents’ house for February break? Nope, he violated the settlement, took them to a hotel, and never informed me. Are they on this flight? No, he changed their flight without apprising me. He flouts the settlement at every turn. So, yes, as a person who often doesn’t know if her children are safe, I may have become immune to anxiety.


As far as the virus, as is often the case in many aspects of life, I have no control over whether I get sick or my friends or my family members do. Or, as contraction seems inevitable, when? Prior to school and work closures, any of us could have been exposed. Or during our social distancing, we might be exposed on our one errand for essentials. All of that is out of our hands.


But for me, the biggest loss, what I am struggling with today, is the loss of normalcy. The loss of a “boring” routine. The loss of going to work and seeing my coworkers and my friends. Knowing that my children are at their school with their teachers and friends. That in the afternoon, they will have their play dates or their activities. That I will greet the same parents. See the same familiar faces.


Today, I am grieving for the social interaction I have beyond my friends. The larger social network I take for granted. I think many of us are. Some of my friends who are introverted say they prepared their whole lives for this. I didn’t. I thrive on social contact. I need it.

9/11, Eighteen Years Later

I have many half written blogs that need revising, a zillion more blog ideas I have yet to begin, and so I never planned on writing about 9/11, but as I looked on Facebook last evening, and I read comments about how 18 years ago, over 3000 people went to bed unprepared for what awaited them, I became reflective.

Eighteen years ago, I was a brand new teacher just starting my career, incapable of being able to imagine 18 years into the future. I had no idea that I would still be teaching middle school English albeit in a different district on Long Island, or that I would even still live on Long Island, or that I would be the proud mother of two children and a reluctant divorcee. Forty seemed ancient. At 24 years of age, even 30 seemed faraway.

Instead I was only concerned with the present. As a first year teacher, I was more nervous about arriving at school than my students. I was struggling to plan and implement instruction on a daily basis. I couldn’t predict the timing of my lessons, never mind foresee that on a gorgeous September morning, life, as Americans knew it, would change forever.

I can still picture the guidance counselor who entered my classroom, took me into the hall, and kindly explained that the Towers had been attacked, that a plane had hit the Pentagon, and another had crashed in Pennsylvania. I sank to the floor. I could not process what this woman said, but I knew it was horrific. I was worried. My father was working in the city; my sister was attending college in Virginia. My mother and brother were back home in Nassau County. I was lucky; no one close to me was lost.

For days afterwards, I, like everyone else, was glued to the television. We were waiting for another attack. When I finally ventured into the city, the landscape had changed. The National Guard became a familiar yet foreboding presence in Penn Station. The ominous threat of another attack hovered overhead for years. Life was forever altered.

I think all adults look back on their childhoods and young adulthoods with nostalgia for their innocence. My recollections of innocence are all set in a pre-9/11 world. After the attack, my life became clearly divided into pre-9/11 and post-9/11. A clear line was drawn; I am not alone. It seems impossible that my seventh grade students as well as my own children have never inhabited a pre-9/11 world when 9/11 has provided such a clear demarcation in my own.

And yet I don’t want to write about 9/11. The unthinkable happened. Lives were shattered. Heroes were made that day. Not a day goes by that I forget. The anniversary evokes vivid memories of that moment. I can reach out and touch it. I can relive every moment of the day as strange as that sounds. The beautiful blue, nearly cloudless sky I viewed overhead as I drove into Queens early that morning. The utilitarian hallway where the guidance counselor delivered the news. Keeping the information, as per the administration’s request, from my students. Trying to utilize a useless cellphone. Driving home fearful. Watching the news around the clock for the next 48 hours; my school was closed for days.

Today should be a tribute to heroes, a day of remembrance for those lost, but it should also be reminder to live. Because we get one life to live, and we deserve to live it well. Because no one knows what life has in store for us. Because every moment with family and friends, doing what we love, or just living is a gift.

And none of us can foresee the circuitous route our lives take. Until I was 13, my father worked on the seventy-ninth floor of the second Tower. Visits to my father’s work involved an exciting and long subway ride to the bustling World Trade Center; the Towers were a part of my childhood just as they were a part of the NYC skyline for decades.

And in a strange twist, my 4 and a half year old son has become obsessed with the story of Philippe Petit, the man who walked on a tightrope between the Towers in 1974. My father frequently reads a picture book, by Mordicai Gerstein, entitled, The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, to him.

One day, my son found a Kodak photo my siblings or I had taken of the Towers, and he said, “That belongs here,” as he slipped the photo into the last pages of the book that read, “But in memory, as if imprinted in the sky, the towers are still there. And part of that memory is the joyful morning, August 7, 1974, when Philippe Petit walked between them in the air.” Gerstein’s last lines are poignant, and the message is straightforward, we can celebrate life in the face of unspeakable tragedy and loss.

And while I am lucky enough to be here, I will continue to make memories and to live joyfully. Not because I don’t remember but because,

We will never forget.

Traversing an Unexpected Path

“Children always choose their mothers,” a psychic once told me. She believed that from the spirit world, unborn children made this decision which would then impact the rest of their lives. I forgot about the reading until I had my own children. Then I adopted her belief and often say to my children, “Thank you for choosing me.”

Because becoming a mother is indefinable. It is an honor, a challenge, and a paramount responsibility. It is amazing, frightening, difficult, rewarding, and emotional. The highs are highs and the lows are lows, and the emotions I feel as a mother can change instantaneously. And nothing can adequately prepare a woman for the experience of motherhood.

However unprepared for motherhood I may have been, my plan was never to be a single mother. I married and waited several years before I became pregnant. During my pregnancies, the images I played in my head always included my husband and me as parents and partners. When my daughter was born, I was excited about embarking upon life as a family.

Becoming a mother made me vulnerable in a way I had never been. I felt as if my heart was now carried by another being, and her well being was inextricably tied to me. Eighteen months later, my son was born. I had been so frightened I would never love anyone the way I loved my daughter, but hearts are expansive and much to my surprise, mine doubled in order to include my son. I was more vulnerable than before as my heart was now shared by two little people.

Motherhood suited me. Instinctually, I knew what to do to care for my babies. And if I didn’t, I turned to my mother, my sister, and my friends for advice and support. The one person who could never be relied upon was my husband. He, physically and emotionally, began to abandon the marriage as soon as we had a child. When my son was born, he disappeared. One friend best described his abandonment when she said, “You are growing up; your husband has grown down.”

Most of the time, we have choices. I chose to embrace parenthood. My husband did not make the same choice. I love the imagery from the Robert Frost poem, “The Path Not Taken.” It is empowering to imagine oneself standing at a fork in the road and making a difficult choice. But sometimes one does not get to make a choice. A path has already been predetermined. That is how I feel about the path of single motherhood. It is not one I chose, but one upon which I was forced.

The path of single motherhood can be lonely, especially because my idea of a family always included a mother, a father and children. I actually had never considered any other version. However, that was not to be. And so I walk a path, I never imagined. And there is always beauty in the unexpected. The view from this vantage point, no less stunning than from the one I had originally pictured.

Most days, I have confidence in my role as a single mother. There are days I feel lonely and scared but never for very long. I am not perfect, but my children will have to the opportunity to witness my strength and courage in the face of the unexpected.

And so, I don’t need to be a psychic to realize I have made many good choices. Over the summer, my daughter threw a penny into a fountain and made a wish. She came running back and said, “Mama, I wished for a mom like you.”

Shattered

My marriage fell apart piece by piece. It was singularly the saddest experience of my life and left me feeling broken in a way that is indescribable.  Shattered. 

I had walked down the aisle blissfully naive. Hopeful. Whole. Perfect. Full of expectations and dreams for the future: a long happy life ahead filled with babies, a beautiful home, and treasured memories. 

Often, life does not play out as we imagine.  I ignorantly believed at 32 that marriage meant happily ever after. And so I was woefully unprepared for the destruction that lay ahead. 

Every late night arrival home, every unanswered phone call, every ignored text, every found receipt, every lie just broke another piece of my heart and chipped away at my marriage and my being. 

Eight years and two beautiful babies later, my marriage was ruined, the life I wanted destroyed, and my heart in splinters. 

I cried…a lot, and I was so fearful that I would never stop.  That I would never recover. That I had been irrevocably altered. That I would never feel hopeful, whole, or perfect again. I cried for what I had lost. I cried for who I had become. And I cried for the me I once was. 

In the middle of my worst days, I read a Facebook post about kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing shattered porcelain with liquid gold. In some cases, repairs take months, but the scars ultimately give the repaired object a higher value.

And I have come to see the wisdom in this Japanese art. Yes, I was shattered and defeated for a very long time. I am not the naive 32 year old I once was who believed a life of perfect bliss lay ahead. 

Now, I picture my splintered heart held together by hundreds of threads of gold. I am imperfect, but I am not broken anymore. And beauty lies in both my fragility and my strength as I begin to repair my heart and rebuild a new, different life.

Losing 1000 Pounds

2017 was the year I tried to lose 1000 pounds.

Weight I have carried a long time.
Weight difficult to drop.
Weight that holds me down.

2017: The hardest year of my life or so I thought. The year I turned 40. The year I gave up any hope that my marriage could be repaired. The year I started divorce proceedings.

2018 had to be smoother or so I thought. When New Year’s arrived, I wrote my resolutions as I do every year. This year they were a bit different. Gone were the typical eat healthier, exercise more, and lose weight promises I had made every year until that point. With bigger challenges ahead, I designed intentions instead:

Thrive don’t just survive
Don’t look back, move forward
Care for myself
Be a more patient, present parent
Travel lighter

Travel lighter: My marriage in recent years had been so painful, so disappointing, so heartbreaking, and had taken such a toll on me emotionally and mentally. After beginning the divorce proceedings, I silently cheered myself that I was a 1000 pounds lighter between my husband, his morbidly obese parents who were an integral part in the failure of my marriage, and the weight of a stressful and unhappy situation. 1000 pounds lighter.

It had taken me such a long time to find the courage and strength to even initiate a divorce that I had incorrectly imagined the next step would become tremendously easier.

Once again, I was wrong. There has not been one step on the path that has been easy. Even the parts that the attorneys promised would be simple and quick have been difficult.

I should have known. It turns our that if a man is oppositional during marriage, he will be even more so in divorce. I should have known.

Join me as I write to make sense out of mess and heartbreak, as I try to find hope again, and as I travel 1000 pounds lighter.