Parenting, Writing

Back to School

Back to School

The first words emerge slowly, like extracting the quarter-inch of honey that remains at the bottom of the jar. It’s only been a few weeks since I’ve put pen to paper, as it were, but that writing muscle of mine loses definition quickly. The days between my last writing session and this one have been full of profound and mundane activities – organizing the kids’ clothing drawers and back-to-school shopping, saying goodbye to the preschool community our family has been part of for the last five years. Today Helen started Kindergarten and Caleb started 2nd grade. It has taken time, but I bit by bit I’m beginning to feel like part of the school community. Oh, and we adopted 2 4-month-old kittens, a brother and sister, Hana and Hilo:

 

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Transitions are hard for Caleb, so he was the one in tears, Helen the one smiling, as the school bus pulled away from our corner this morning. It is no wonder that I’m having difficulty getting started on my writing this morning, with the image of Caleb’s splotchy, tear-stained face at the bus window at the forefront of my mind. Before the bus arrived, I tried to reassure him that 2nd grade would be a lot like 1st grade, with his same friends and daily routines.
“But it will be harder,” he said. “There will be all these things I don’t know how to do.”
That is the trick about school, about childhood, isn’t it? A near constant process of taking in new information, (maybe) figuring out how to process it, and then more new stuff. I don’t have the heart to tell Caleb that this doesn’t disappear in adulthood. How much of my daily life is full of skills I have mastery over? Parenting? Hardly? Writing? I am constantly learning. Even at the gym, working with my trainer, each set of exercises she gives me is by design a physical challenge.
Maybe the difference, for me at least, is in the attitude. As a kid I was like Caleb, where new situations made me anxious. They still do, but alongside the anxiety is excitement. I love learning new things. True, I often get to choose what I take on as a learning experience, and everything isn’t new all at once, like it is when you are in elementary school. But I liked to be stretched. I like the surprise involved in learning, in taking on something new.
Earlier in the summer, Caleb and Helen and I were discussing school rules and routines, and what Helen could expect when she started Kindergarten.
“Don’t run in the hallways,” Caleb told Helen. “No tattle-telling.”
“Well,” Helen said, “If I’m doing something I’m not supposed to do, I’ll just say ‘I didn’t know. I’m new here.’”
Clearly Helen has already figured out a key skill when in a new situation: plead ignorance. I should try to remember to have that mindset.

My new endeavors this fall include a writing class (as a student, not a teacher) at Hugo House in Seattle. I’ll be taking a class called “Narrative Time: Balancing Pace and Plot” taught by longtime Hugo House instructor Michael Shilling. I’ve been obsessed with narrative time ever since I heard a lecture on the subject by Jess Walter, which I blogged about here. In the class I’ll be working on something else new (or, haven’t done in 20 years, which counts as new): fiction writing. An inspiring talk by author Anthony Doerr last May and a kid-free cross-country flight for me shortly after planted some fiction seeds in my brain. Not much above-ground growth at this point, but it’s been a fun project to work on bit by bit alongside revisions to my memoir.

I’ve been trying to make a habit of reading some poetry at the beginning of each writing session, so I’ll include a September poem here. It can be seen as an old or a new poem, depending on the time context you set it in. I’ll leave the choice up to you.

September, 1918
BY AMY LOWELL
This afternoon was the colour of water falling through sunlight;
The trees glittered with the tumbling of leaves;
The sidewalks shone like alleys of dropped maple leaves,
And the houses ran along them laughing out of square, open windows.
Under a tree in the park,
Two little boys, lying flat on their faces,
Were carefully gathering red berries
To put in a pasteboard box.
Some day there will be no war,
Then I shall take out this afternoon
And turn it in my fingers,
And remark the sweet taste of it upon my palate,
And note the crisp variety of its flights of leaves.
To-day I can only gather it
And put it into my lunch-box,
For I have time for nothing
But the endeavour to balance myself
Upon a broken world.

3 thoughts on “Back to School

  1. Paul Buttenwieser

    The first day of school In and of itself justification for the word ambivalence. I think once the bus pulled away Caleb’s tears stopped, maybe only to resume at pick-up, just so Mom doesn’t get off scot-free. But I hope (and think) he mostly had a great day.
    Grampa

  2. Katie Buttenwieser

    Janet, Excellent post! Caleb & Helen reflect the full spectrum of our emotions when we start something new. Tell Caleb that his Grandpa Paul is excited/anxious about his trip to NYC tomorrow, even ‘tho he’s done it hundreds of times. It’s a family trait! Love, Mom

  3. Larry Cheek

    There’s a beautiful heart to this little essay: Caleb moaning that “There will be all these things I don’t know how to do,” then mom telling us that “I don’t have the heart to tell him this doesn’t disappear in adulthood.”

    Right, the fear doesn’t disappear. What can change is our attitude toward it, where we accept the fear as the small price we pay for growth and accomplishment. Knowing his mom, I’m pretty confident Caleb will learn this principle well before he reaches the adult stage.

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