Routine makes it easier to let new things in


This morning Caroline and I dropped Jay and Wally off for their first day of daycare in Maine. They’re attending the same place they went last summer, and on the walk Caroline and I wondered whether their stay would begin as it had a year ago: Jay begging us not to leave, Wally eagerly scouting out all the new toys on the playground.

When you return time and again to familiar places, it can be hard to find evidence that time has passed at all. The cedar shingles on our house may have weathered a little grayer, but walking the streets of South Freeport with their overhanging elms, oaks, and pines, and staring down the storm drain where last summer with Wally and twenty summers before that I dropped pebbles, there are no obvious signs that anything has changed.

But then this morning we entered the daycare playground, and instead of clinging to Caroline’s side, Jay walked over to Ms. Jacky who runs the place, said hello, gave her five, and made it clear in a moment that he was more ready to meet the challenge of a new teacher and an unfamiliar group of kids than he had been a year ago.

All told we’re two weeks into our summer trip, with prior stops in upstate New York and lake country New Hampshire en route to Maine. Along the way, I’ve been thinking a lot about the way that routine, and clinging to familiar things, mixes with the desire and often the necessity to do new things.

Because in a lot of ways we’ve tried to recreate our normal daily routine while on the road. The boys do wake earlier than they usually do on account of the early New England summer sunrise, but in other ways we’re mimicking our South Carolina days: cereal and peanut butter toast for breakfast, Netflix shows during dinner prep, dinner at 5:30pm, boys to sleep by seven, lights out for me and Caroline just a few hours later. And when we do curl up to sleep, it’s beneath the same duvet and atop the same pillows we sleep on at home—one way we’ve tried to soften the sense of dislocation that comes with two months on the road.

These routines are satisfying, but they can also be limiting. A few nights ago in New Hampshire, Jay and Wally were playing outside with their cousins after dinner. By the clock it was almost bedtime, but the four boys were deep in each other’s worlds, spotting emergencies and zooming to the rescue on their police bikes. They could have gone on for hours like that, but pretty soon I called it, thinking there’s always tomorrow, and it’s hard to enjoy anything when you’re tired.  I packed Jay and Wally into our car, and we retreated into our evening litany: car pajamas, teeth brushing, two books, three songs, lights out. It seems a coin flip whether I made the right decision.

Now they’re off at daycare in another new place, and if this morning’s drop-off was any indication, it’s going pretty well. After we’d left them, Caroline and I walked back to our summer home, and made two cups of coffee using the same press I use at home in South Carolina. Mugs in hand, we sat in the backyard in someone else’s plastic Adirondack chairs, and talked about what it’s like to walk into a new place and meet new people as the boys were that morning.

I tried to picture Jay tentatively approaching a pair of girls in the sandbox, and Wally trying to get a teacher whose name he didn’t even know to watch him as he climbed quickly up a slide. In the same way it’s easier to sleep in a new bed when you’ve brought your old pillow, I thought about how it’s easier for Jay and Wally to make their way in an unfamiliar place when they have each other, a sense of themselves, memories of successful experiences coming into new places before, and the complete knowledge that Caroline and I will be there to pick them up that afternoon.

For the rest of us it works the same way, as we muddle along trying to sort the daily catch: we’ll keep this, throw that back, knowing all the while that it’s not always up to us choose the things we love, or the things we leave behind.

Wally and the skateboarder

Last week a very small snowstorm washed out two days of school, but by Sunday it was sunny and seventy again. That afternoon, Jay, Wally, and I drove to a nearby skatepark. It’s located next to the soccer fields where Jay played this fall and often after games we’d stop for a minute to watch the skaters and BMX riders trick their way through the concrete canyon.

On Sunday the multitude of skaters, in their short sleeves and wool caps, suggested a premature spring. Jay and Wally sat close by the side of the main course, as they like to do. One skater after another whizzed by and did a trick—various kinds of board flips and rail grinds, almost all of which ended with the clatter of the board, a swear, a trek back up to the starting block.

The skate park is a scene, especially when you add Jay and Wally to it. After a few minutes of watching, one skater, in his mid-teens, came over by us to take a drink from a liter bottle of Pepsi. He wore a black t-shirt that said, “The Motherfucking Life.” As he drank his soda, Wally twirled the wheels of his upturned skateboard.

I always worry that the boys are going to get hurt while we’re there. Boards fly after missed tricks, and some of the riders take fast lines through the course that bring them much closer to Jay and Wally than I’d like. But I realized we were really the ones who were sitting somewhere we didn’t belong. And there’s an ethos to skatepark culture, obvious at a glance, of following unwritten rules and not asking for special accommodation.

We’d been there ten minutes when an accident took place. One guy was coming down the ramp on his bike and the other was coming up it on his skateboard. Later they’d say that each thought the other was going to turn a different way, but instead they turned into each other. The skateboarder fell the ground. The bicycle fell on top of him. For a few seconds it was unclear who, if anyone was hurt. It turned out to be the kid on the bike, a boy maybe in his mid-teens. He grimaced when he tried to stand up, grabbed his shin, and limped over to the side, right by Wally.

Wally, who can strike up a conversation with anyone, walked over to the injured kid  He put his hands on his hips and leaned in slightly. “Why’d you trip?” he asked.

The kid had lowered his heard into his hands. He looked up at Wally. “I didn’t trip, he crashed into me,” he said.

I pulled Wally away, gently, but after a minute he went back over.

“Can I see your boo-boo,” he asked. The skater lifted his pant leg as though he’d just been asked to by a doctor. He had a long scrape up his shin. Wally crouched down, and bent his head within inches of the boy’s scrape.

“A song will make you feel better,” Wally said. Then he started to sing, the lyrics from a song we’ve listened to a thousand times in the car:

Victor Vito and Freddie Vasco
Ate a burrito with Tabasco

The skater, still holding his shin, eye-level with Wally, laughed and shook his head.

I laughed, too. However big the gulf between a two-year-old and an injured teenage skater, Wally had gotten it right: The song did make the kid feel better.

Jay and his cousin find each other again

This guest post is the second in a series from my cousin Mara Lewis chronicling her relationship with Jay.

One. Two. Three. WAR!  I won him back.  Six months later, yes, but I won him back.  James is no longer a toddler, but a boy approaching kindergarten.  Two summers ago, he and I got along great.  We picked blueberries in Papa Bill’s backyard, drew pictures on my iPhone, and walked down to the harbor together.  After our Maine vacation that summer, I felt closer than ever with Jay.

I also felt that our relationship from then on would only get better.  James would be thrilled to see me, eager to play, and always ready to cuddle.  Unfortunately for me, four-year-old James didn’t look at things the same way.  We hit what I’d call a rough patch in our relationship.

When I approached him for a hug, he scooted away.  It wasn’t because he was shy, although I preferred to think that was the reason.  Really the reason was he just didn’t like my hugs.  I wouldn’t say that Jay was cold to me, but he wasn’t particularly friendly either.  At age 21, I was old enough to understand that his behavior was just his being a kid, but too young not to let it hurt my feelings (although I wonder whether you ever grow old enough not to feel hurt by that kind of rebuff).

This Christmas, after another six months had passed, I spent the week in Maine with Jay and the rest of my extended family.  By this time, I’d significantly lowered my expectations for our relationship.

Thankfully, my lowered expectations served only to magnify the improvement in our relationship.  Good news everyone!  Our relationship recovered.  For whatever reason, or perhaps for no reason at all, Jay decided to be my friend again.

Let it be known, I may have made this choice somewhat simple for him.  I taught him how to play War, recited the same joke over and over and over again at his request, and willingly allowed him to jump all over me.  The joke, about a duck walking into a bar asking for grapes, had James bursting with laughter each time I came to the punch line.  He then asked that I not only tell him the (somewhat lengthy) joke nine more times, but that I also tell it to each person in our family, one at a time.  James had mostly outgrown his two-year-old cuddly nature, but he was still certainly capable of being cute.

By Thursday, day five of our weeklong vacation, our improved relationship was visible to the whole family.  Jay’s mother, walked into the living room to find us playing a competitive round of War.  James and I both put down an ace,  One. Two. Three. WAR!

“Jay, is Mara your best friend now?” his mother asked.

“No, Mom.”  Jay replied with a smirk on his face.

I felt my heart sink, but I wouldn’t let Jay see my disappointment.  I continued with our game as if unscathed by his comment.  Minutes later, I couldn’t help ask him again

“So Jay, who is your best friend?”

James turned red in the face.   Before answering, he slid off the couch and walked to the living room door.  He peaked out, confirming that no one was about to enter.  He then plopped back on the couch, lifted his pointer finger to his mouth, and whispered “shhh.”  He cupped his hand around his mouth, and moved his small body to my left ear.  “Her name is Anna.  We had a play date last week.”

“Do you like her?”  I asked.

He glanced over his shoulder to once again make sure that we were the only ones in the room.  “Yes.”  He said.  “But don’t tell anyone.”

It was then that I no longer felt the pang of disappointment that had struck me just minutes before.  Jay didn’t call me his best friend.  But he had confided in me, which to me was equally as telling.  I felt close to Jay.  And while I imagine this closeness meant more to me than it did to him, I think he felt it too.

Sitting with a girl on a bench


Last weekend Jay spent some time with a friend, a girl, a precocious kindergartener who a few months ago told me and Caroline, “It’s not good to want the things that other people want.”

It was Sunday, sunny, and we were in the park.  Caroline and I were sitting with our friends on a picnic blanket.  I could see Jay and his friend off in a far corner of the park kicking a soccer ball.  After a minute, Jay, who can barely contain this side of himself, got rascally.  He wouldn’t kick her the soccer ball, kept it all to himself, maybe said a teasing word.  The girl retreated to a nearby bench, turned her back to Jay, pulled her knees to her chest.

Uh oh, I thought, what is he going to do now?

Jay approached her cautiously from the side, still holding the soccer ball.  He leaned in.  What could he possibly know to say?  She turned even more decidedly away from him, and lowered her chin to her chest.   Jay circled around to the other side of the bench.  She turned away again.  He circled back.  Maybe he found the right thing to say.  He sat down beside her and she didn’t turn away.

I watched this all from a distance, smiling and also a little sad to think about all the  situations he’s going to bumble into in his life, and how sometimes or often he may not know how to get himself out of them.

Jay and his friend sat together for a minute, close on one side of the bench, their legs dangling below them.  Then I saw him start to squirm, and recognized my old familiar son.  He didn’t excuse himself, just started to run across the park toward me.  I met him halfway.  “I need to go pee,” he said.  “I know,” I said.  And we went looking for a tree.


Let’s walk on the beach today

One of my favorite Frog and Toad stories is “Dragons and Giants.”  It begins with Frog and Toad looking at themselves in a mirror, wondering whether they’re brave. To find out, they go on an adventure up a mountain where they have scary encounters with an avalanche, a snake, and a hawk.  At each turn they stand their ground and yell, “I am not afraid,” until finally, convinced  that they are in fact brave, they run back home and hide under the covers.

My last post was about coping strategies that kids and adults use to minimize or deny the big, unavoidable fears in life.  I was thinking over the weekend, though, that there are also two, somewhat opposing ways to confront those fears head on, the way Frog and Toad did.

The first, I think, is to make long-term plans, and to invest in relationships most of all.  The most calamitous moment of my life was when I found out that my mom had died, seven years ago this month.  I’ve written before about how in the aftermath of her death, the only way forward seemed to be to start building our family again.  Two years later, Caroline and I got married, and less than a year after that, Jay was born. Forming relationships and giving yourself over to other people, even knowing that they can be taken from you in a second, seems to me to be the best way to say, “I am not afraid.”

If the first way is to make long-term plans, I think the second is to act spontaneously. On Sunday morning, while still in our pajamas, Caroline and I were talking about how much we missed being in Maine.  Our summer there was feeling far away, when Caroline remembered that the beach is just 100 miles from Columbia, and pointed out that we didn’t actually have any plans that day.

Routine is one of my biggest coping strategies.  I think that if I can get my daily schedule calibrated just right, and stick to it, I can guard against life spiraling out of control.  But the pull of the beach was powerful, so I took the boys into the backyard while Caroline did some research online.  An hour later we pulled out of the driveway, with directions to a seafood restaurant just outside of Charleston written on an index card.

Two hours after we left home, we were eating crab cakes on a deck overlooking a waterway lined with shrimp boats.  And after that we drove to the beach. The approach was lined with palmetto trees, which still haven’t gotten old.  Caroline and I shared a moment of disbelief, that in the time it takes to go grocery shopping, we’d arrived in a scene that felt like a vacation.  The ocean was still warm on the first weekend in November, and Jay and Wally quickly partnered with an eight-year-old girl who had come well-equipped with sand shovels.

The rest of the afternoon featured some stressful moments, but overall felt triumphant.  It feels good to say, sometimes, that you’re not afraid to make your own way through the day.

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