Two boys lawn mowin’

Wally (home sick from school) and I went to Lowe’s this afternoon. It was my first trip as a homeowner and it was a vertiginous experience. I left thinking what every first-time visitor must leave thinking: I’m going to learn how to fix everything in my house.

The purpose of the trip was to buy a lawn mower. On account of having less that could break, not needing to tote around a gas tank, and a rash of lawn mower thefts reported recently in our neighborhood, I came home with this thing. Caroline saw it in the trunk, laughed, and wanted to bet me I’ll be pushing gas within a year. We’ll see.

Jay and Wally just took it for a spin around the backyard (in fact, they’re still out there right now). Here they are, heaving to. The best part is that Jay can’t make the mower move on his own, but together…

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Thoughts on the end of a summer in Maine

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One night, a month ago, Caroline and I took a walk down the hill from my house. We went to the harbor, walked on the docks, and talked about the best summers we’d had as children. We talked about YMCA summer camp and weeks at the pool, and as we talked, we stood beside a stack of small sailboats that, hours earlier, kids at camp had steered in from the bay. We wondered whether these boats, and Maine, would figure into how Jay and Wally remembered their childhood summers when they were older.

Our time in Maine was wonderful. We arrived in early June, before school had let out, and left in the second week of August, when a few cool nights were just enough to suggest the possibility that the season had begun to turn. For me and Caroline, the summer was a chance to live at an easier pace, after what, in retrospect, had been a stressful second year in Michigan. For Jay and Wally, the summer was most about my stepfather, Papa Bill, who taught them how to pick blueberries, drive a tractor, operate a crab trap, and inflate a dinghy, and who introduced them to the pleasures of whole fat strawberry milk, and fluffernutter sandwiches.

I watched all this and found myself with an unusual feeling, a clearer than usual sense of how I’d like Jay and Wally to feel in their own lives. I think about Jay and Wally a lot, of course. I think about the things they need, the qualities I’d like them to possess, the opportunities I’d like them to have in life. But I don’t often think about how I’d like them to feel, I don’t get down deep to the level of how your body tingles after a truly delightful day, and think: I need to find a way to give that feeling to my boys.

So, I would say this summer gave me a new perspective on Jay and Wally, and on what I want to do for them as their father. Maybe it was because we were all more relaxed, and because my stepfather’s time with the boys allowed me to step back and look at them from more distance. Maybe it was because we lived in the house where I grew up, so that this summer was interwoven with previous summers, which made it easier to project from my own experiences to theirs. When Jay and Wally lay down to sleep at night to the drone of a window fan, I could think: I know what it’s like to be a boy asleep in that same bed, with the same crickets chirping out the window, the same fan breathing cool night air into a warm upstairs room.

We left Maine on a Friday and spent a week driving down the East Coast to South Carolina. We spent the last three days of the trip with Caroline’s parents, in Virginia, where they have a house on a lake. On our last afternoon there, Jay and I went swimming together, and afterwards, lay down beside each other on the dock to dry.

We were on our stomachs, with our heads turned towards each other, our noses only a few inches apart. Drops of water rolled down his cheek. For a few seconds we just looked at each other, and I was filled with the familiar feeling of how much I love him. But I also felt something else. For a moment I glimpsed what it must feel like, for Jay, to have me look at him like that, how good it must make him feel to know that he is that important to someone else.

Summer is over and, as I said in my last post, now we’re swamped with things to do. Empathy is often the first thing to go when you get busy, but I hope that Jay and Wally continue to feel as fully real to me as they have the last two months.

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Moving is chaotic, but clarifying, too

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This evening, after Jay and Wally were in bed, I found myself walking upstairs in our new house in South Carolina, holding a single, dirty, kid’s sock. Moments earlier I’d been standing in front of the washing machine, warm water already pumping into the drum, holding that same sock and realizing my dilemma: If I threw it in now it likely would be lost forever among our linens, but in the chaos of our unpacking, I had no idea where to find the little mesh zipper bag we usually use for the boys’ socks. So, I let the wash run and walked back upstairs holding the sock. It’s sitting beside me now, and I still have no idea where to put it.

That’s been a common feeling these past three days. We arrived in at our new house on Friday night, after a week-long drive down from Maine (I’ll write something shortly about our summer there). We spent the first night in our house on air mattresses. The moving truck arrived the next morning. The boys mostly amused themselves while Caroline and I tore into the boxes: the boys’ room first, then the playroom, then the kitchen, then, finally, our bedroom on Sunday night. That effort, plus multiple trips each to Target, Whole Foods, and Trader Joe’s, has us basically up and running. The boys started school this morning and Caroline got the key to her new office. This evening, as we ran through our bedtime routine, it almost felt like we’d been here awhile.

But back to the sock. The mental experience of the last three days has felt like standing in the middle of a blizzard, where each snow flake is something we need to do: It’s hard to know what to do first, if we take our eyes off one task it disappears into oblivion, and there are so many competing priorities it often feels hard to get anything done at all. This is true about life in general, but moving accentuates the overload in two ways: First, there are just a gazillion more things to do when you’re setting up a new house, and second, settling in a new place creates all sorts of forward-looking, optimistic feelings about the great life you’re going to build with your fresh start. To put this is in specific terms, here is a partial list of the things I thought to do just in the last hour: buy a lawn mower, clean Jay’s lunch box, save for college, schedule pediatrician and dentist appointments, do more pushups, buy ramekins, send our neighbors a thank-you note for their welcome cookies, cultivate Jay’s interest in building things, attach a marker to the white board with a piece of string.

It’s no surprise, then, that there have been times these past three days when I’ve quite nearly had trouble breathing. But there’s a good and satisfying side to having such a long to-do list, too. While it’s been overwhelming at times, more often the scope of the tasks before us has made it easier to stop, accept that I’m not going to get everything done today, and ask the question: What’s the most important thing I need to do right now? And often the answer to that question has been satisfying. I need to make sure Jay and Wally get enough to eat and get to bed early enough so they’re fresh for school tomorrow. I need to spend time with Caroline, even if it’s just sitting with her while she hangs clothes in the closet. I need to lie on my back and listen to the sounds out the window of a place I never would have expected I’d end up living.

When life feels a little more in control, it’s easy to suffer the illusion that you can get everything done,and when you think you can get everything done, you don’t feel the need to prioritize. Moving is an exceptional time in life, but I also think it stresses a constant if easily forgotten truth: We all, always, have more ideas for our lives than we can act on, and the real trick is figuring out what the most important thing is to do, now.

Related post from Growing Sideways: “After the flood and the move, it’s good to see you again.”