Last Friday evening, I sat on a picnic bench at the Union terrace overlooking Lake Mendota and watched the sun set over windy surf. All were bathed in amber light…the black lab jumping off the dock and fetching his retriever stick, the wind-surfer determined to make the most of the day’s gales, my six-year-old as he illustrated his own version of Where the Wild Things Are in chalk across the Union floor, my nine-year-old as she befriended an adorable toddler who was more than happy to have the attention of a “big girl,” my three-month-old nephew as he nestled in the arms of his mother as she fed him dinner, my husband, my in-laws, and I, as we sat and chatted about how we had spent the day. As a teacher, who chooses to take the summer off, I came from a full day of “summer” while the adults around me, with the exception of my newly retired mother-in-law, had come from a full day of work. My sister-in-law, working through a round of vet school rotations, rose before the sunrise. As she cradled my nephew and breathed him in, I am reminded that my “summer” is a luxury to be grateful for, and I soak it in with the sun. I don’t expect to get much sympathy from those of you working 45 plus hour work weeks all summer long. However, if you’ve ever lived an incredibly busy, demanding life, and then suddenly find yourself with a little more time on your hands, if you are newly retired, or your life situation changes because you find yourself out of work, I am hoping perhaps, you can emphasize with the time of transition, the period of metamorphosis when you are moving from one phase to another, forced to consider how you will spend your time and energy. As I sit in the Wisconsin sun, I am seeking sojourn in this spot like the others who chose to come here tonight. As I look around me, I wonder if any of them, like me, are pondering their priorities.
Last summer, my family moved to Madison from Maryland. I bid farewell to my old school district and was looking for a new position. Finding meaningful work was a top priority as was helping my children embrace and enjoy life in a new city. Unpacking and organizing our life also made the list, but to be honest, didn’t rank as high. The summer moved quickly, and at its end, I still found myself surrounded by boxes, papers and pictures. Beyond the kitchen cabinets, nothing seemed to be where it was supposed to be, and things were certainly not where I thought I would find them when I looked for them. It took me six months before I found my iron. Somehow, even though, it felt like we had purged so many things before leaving Maryland, we still seem to be surrounded by clutter. This summer, I decided it would be different. A year has passed since our original disembarkment. My kids have made friends and adjusted to our life here. I found meaningful work, and while that requires attention, it lacks the emotional energy required by job hunting and preparing for interviews. Now that we are a bit more settled, maybe that organized lifestyle that has always felt beyond my grasp will actually be attainable. Maybe, if I just take a small piece of my day and dedicate it to housecleaning and home improvement projects, I can pave the way to a more organized life. Without realizing it, I had created summer resolutions.
So, as I sat on the terrace and drank a glass of Wisconsin’s finest, I took stock of my resolutions in relation to my day. What had I accomplished? I woke with the intent of organizing our home office space and finally finishing my closet’s transition from winter to summer clothes. Yes, I recognize how embarrassing this is considering it is July. I imagine that by the time this conversion is complete it will be sweater weather again. And what progress had I made today? Let’s just say, I failed to unpack even a pair of sandals.
Where did I go wrong? I got off to a good start. I woke up and finished the dishes, which I left the night before, so that my family and I could watch a movie together. Then, I went for a run, showered and fixed breakfast for myself and the kids and packed lunch for my husband. The kids and I biked to their swim lessons, and while they swam, I wrote. In my earlier post, I shared that I am committed to writing for 15 minutes every day, and I am proud to share that I have been sticking to this commitment. I wrote until the kids finished their lessons. After swimming, I figured we could go home and do some chores, but the kids asked if we could play on the playground, and since all we had waiting for us at home were house cleaning tasks and home improvement projects, we diverted and turned the pool’s small playground into our own personal airlines. We soared on the climbing gym, flying to Mexico through Canada, I imagine the first passengers to take this route. Anna, who just returned from a trip to Alaska with her grandmother, brought her papa back an ulu, an Eskimo knife, and experienced her first taste of airport security when she tried to bring it on the plane. When, the slide became the security checkpoint, I was informed that because my bag contained a knife, present from our earlier snack, I absolutely could not take it on the plane. At this point, I was forced to provide a credit card, in the form of a piece of wood mulch. After we, and by we, I mean me, grew tired of playing airplane, we tackled the monkey bars. Anna is adept at the bars, but Bass was a little scared, so we encouraged him, holding his legs for him and promising not to let go until he was ready. Before we left, he was swinging proudly and independently. I never could do the monkey bars as a kid, but today I successfully moved one bar’s length, which felt like an accomplishment.
We continued to play on the playground while two more groups of kids went through their swim lessons. Again, the only thing waiting for us at home were those chores and projects I mentioned earlier, and they were probably not worth rushing for. I decided that not having to rush is worth relishing in itself. Eventually, we tired of playing, and we biked home and fixed lunch on our patio, chatting with our neighbor, Sue, who was working in her garage. We share a driveway with Sue, and the patio is just the space at the top of the driveway which we converted to a sitting space by setting up a small table and a few chairs and keeping our car at the lower end of the driveway instead of in the garage for the summer. Sue is also our landlord, and when we first used the top of the driveway as a congregating space, we intended only to do it for the day, and to put everything back in its place when we finished, which is what many landlords would want. Sue, though, commented on how she loved how we were using the space as a patio, shared how she thinks we should keep it like that all summer and added her own porch chairs to the mix. So on this day, she joined us for lunch, and we took in the gorgeous day together, enjoying our grub and watching the birds eat theirs as they picked berries off the tree branches hanging above us.
After lunch, I thought it might be sensible to tackle some chores, but Anna desperately wanted to give a geology demonstration, which she did with gusto. She savored the audience and even made her demonstration interactive by creating a digging station for Bass and I where we could find treasure that she had discovered just ten minutes before in our yard, but had now transferred to a bucket of dirt. Sea Bass loved the activity and was eager for his turn to hunt. He also put on a skateboarding show, which mostly involved him moving from one side of the driveway to another and then jumping off and holding his arms out to take a bow. When the kids have a captive audience, their shows are never short, but again, I was in no rush. I had nowhere else to be. The housecleaning tasks hovered over me a little as I realized the time was ticking away, and my morning resolutions probably wouldn’t get done. However, I could give my kids’ my full attention. I could give them the gift of my time. I could focus on the detail of every rock we discovered. Today, time was our treasure.
After lunch, I could feel myself in need of a reboot. The kids asked if they could watch a show, but I said no. Sea Bass came up with the idea to fly his kite in the park across the street, and Anna went along with him, albeit grudgingly, but she went. As they played across the street, I drifted in and out of sweet slumber, the sounds of their laughter drifting in with the wind. I peeked out our porch window a few times, and I was glad I had forced Anna to go, as flying a kite is really a two person operation. I was proud of her for jumping into the fun and cheering Sea Bass on as he tried to raise his kite off the ground.
After they flew kites, Sebastian saw his friends, our neighbors, playing across the street at the park, and he went out to join them. Anna and I played with Kiki, the doll I made her when she was four, finding an outfit for her from her assortment of handmade clothes and fixing her hair. This is something Anna had asked to do yesterday, and I was glad we were making the time to do it. She really doesn’t play with dolls that often, but I know the days of dressing dolls are probably numbered. After Kiki was clad in a fresh ensemble, we decided to go swimming and went out searching for Sebastian. He and his buddies were climbing a tree. They had discovered the perfect tree fort. It was slightly precarious as part of the branches rested over the lake, but I used a stick to assess the water depth as “not that deep,” and reminded the kids not to go to the outermost parts of the tree, which they sort of paid attention to. I talked with my neighbor and watched the kids create a fictional world together in this tree on the lake, and I realized how much I loved seeing them engage in this kind of play, how glad I was that Anna, at 9, didn’t consider herself too old for this kind of play. Lately, on the playground I noticed that she won’t always join in until I join in, and I’m realizing that maybe she’s decided that if mom’s not too old, she can’t be either.
After conquering worlds and defeating pirates, we went swimming. Sea Bass showed off his new strokes and skills, and Anna put me in charge of judging lots of handstands, like hundreds of handstands. We splashed and joked around and swam into the late afternoon.
We returned home and showered, and I walked Cato, our dog and called my dad. I inquired about his day and shared how we had spent ours, how good it felt to play with the kids all day, but how the household chores and projects weighed on me a little, and I felt like perhaps I should have accomplished more.
I didn’t step foot in the office, but I managed to load a set of dishes in the dishwasher before Grandma came over with little Cousin Ben. I pushed his stroller as we walked to the terrace to meet the rest of the family. Sea Bass and I made faces at Ben and got him to smile at us. As Ben drifted off to sleep sucking his thumb, I was reminded of when Anna and Bass were that small.
As I sat on the terrace and watched the orange sun bathe itself in the lake, I reflected on my residual guilt at not accomplishing more with my day. And then, I walked to the water’s edge and washed my hands of the residue. I left it all there on the terrace floor…the sweeping, the laundry, the papers on the dining room table, the boxes in the office closet, the shoes in my bedroom, the shelf that’s supposed to help me be more organized, the shelf I failed to put together, the dog food I didn’t buy, the car I failed to rent for our upcoming vacation, the checks I failed to deposit, the bills I failed to pay, the package I failed to send…I submerged my hands in the lake water and shook them out vigorously, letting my to do list and its accompanying guilt burden Lake Mendota for a moment.
I recast my day in the sun’s golden glory. I reflected on how I flew to Mexico through Canada and mustered the courage to do one monkey bar and in doing so helped my son find the courage to do them all. I braided a doll’s hair as Anna asked me if it was okay that she sometimes pretended that Kiki and Rufus, her pet wolf, were real. I assured her that it was and told her that they are as real as she makes them. I listened as she shared how disappointed she was with her swimming “report card,” which they give at the end of swimming lessons, and I told her that she should be proud of herself because she had tried her best and made progress. It’s the growth that matters. Sometimes, one monkey bar is a triumph. Sometimes, ignoring the tasks, is the accomplishment.
The sun has set, and tomorrow is a new day. Tempting as it is, I can’t let all those tasks sink to the bottom of Lake Mendota forever, but maybe I can leave some of them on its shores for a little longer, realizing that time is indeed a treasure, and one day, just as my nephew’s sweet face brought me back to an earlier time, I will recollect these summers, and when I do, what will my mind drift to?
I imagine it won’t be how productive I was…