Tuesday, June 17, 2014

When you only have two years...

I have a rare moment alone on the sleeping porch just before dusk.  The tall, sturdy oak beside our garage hangs over in a canopy of leaves, over old rooftops staggered all around me, and there is Lake Calhoun, just peeking through the branches, still and bustling all at the same time.

I'm saying goodbye.  Just like I did weeks before I left Poland, sitting in the grass by the pond overlooking Pszyczna.  I had taken the train there by myself and wandered into the grass to have a sandwich and a nap and a moment to see Poland as the memory it would become.

I'm saying goodbye, not just to Minnesota, but to what it symbolizes, this moment in time, this chapter in my life.  These days that have been both long and fleeting.  In a few short weeks, I will never have this view of the world again.  I will no longer live in a house on a lake, where a short ten-minute walk carries me to fish tacos, sailboats, paddleboards and kayaks, a trolley ride to ice cream at Lake Harriet and a concert at the Bandshell.  From this vantage point, my bike could take me to at least ten parks, a slice of pizza, a beer or a cup of coffee, not to mention the grocery store, a haircut, a movie or yoga in the park.

But as I look at Minnesota dreamily through the canopy of trees and the whisper of Lake Calhoun, I have to remind myself that there is another season here.  A season when the sleeping porch is closed, when the lake is a sheet of ice, when the air bites your fingers off and you don't see your neighbors for months on end because even taking out the trash is a herculean effort.  Dark evenings make the days short and restless, and this old house struggles to keep out the caustic bite of the wind, always searching for a way to get warm.

I have to remind myself of this, so my heart doesn't ache for what we'll leave behind.  Friendships, neighbors, new hobbies, new favorites, new traditions and routines.  This place in our life when our boys are five and three, where our boys were four and two, where they arrived three and one.  Their early childhood was here surrounded by lakes and snow and Minnesota family and friends who have watched them grow, watched Charlie gradually lose his curls, watched Finny learn to ride a bike, swing across the monkey bars, swim across the pool.

We found a church that became a home and a family and a new way of looking at things.  We found a closeness with family that had always been distant, a chance to know what it is to be a niece and a cousin.  And we found friends who knew that we were leaving, and invested in us anyway, brought us into the fold, offered helping hands, extended warm invitations.

Just this afternoon the boys wandered into Linda's kitchen.  Charlie played her ukulele with his Tiger sunglasses on, while Finny typed his name on Mona's brand new typewriter at the kitchen table.  We taught him the last name in pieces--Van-Him-ber-gen.  And then he rattled away a string of x's, q's, r's and z's, wanting to know what nonsense word he had created.  Linda, always available for a talk, never too busy to think us rude for wandering onto her porch, showed us how the cockatiel, Olive Oil, purrs over the smell of coffee on her breath.  She's filled with small gifts for the boys:  lion socks, a sleeping bag, a dollhouse, books, puzzles, a child's guitar.  Mona made Finny a bracelet the other day out of plastic string.  He didn't take it off for days.  Mona too is never hurried, always available to make chalk drawings with Finny, to spray the hose on the slide, to show Finny a shrew or an ant or a trick on the swing.  They are four years apart, but two of a kind.  Both wanting the day to go by slowly enough to gather leaves, ride the glider, watch the ants in the cracks on the driveway.

For Charlie, this is all he knows.  Cincinnati is a fairy tale, a land far, far away that we talk about returning to.  For Charlie, Minnesota is a series of places we go, things that we see, friends that we visit.  He might wonder what happened to the purple house we pass everyday on the way to the Y.  He will ask about Nicholas and Enzo, Jasper, Tess and Easton.  He will wonder where the trolley tracks went and the teddy bear pancakes and the "new" grocery store with the truck cart.  He will miss Kitty Jane.  They both will.  She cast a spell on them in the castle room at the Y.

For me, this is where I learned to ask for help.  I almost drowned last winter on the shore of this frozen lake, overcome by motherhood, loneliness, and an inability to do-it-all.  But I didn't.  Instead, I grew up.  I gained wisdom and compassion and a spiritual life and community.  I learned a great secret about life, parenthood, adulthood in general--this is hard.  I will get sad.  I will feel isolated, exhausted, drained.  I will lose some of myself in the raising of small children.  But I will gain a kind of understanding, a kind of patience, a kind of resilience that I otherwise would not have had the opportunity to grow.  These kids will beat me down.  They will fill my days with spilled milk, wet pants and conflict.  They will mess up everything I try to clean and get out everything I try to put away.  They will always leave something for me to trip on and a plate full of dinner that I spent way too long preparing for me to throw away.  They will tear me down.  They will grow me up.  When you raise your kids in Minnesota, you start to take it easy on yourself for having the TV on, you get creative with laundry baskets and old toys, and you start to appreciate that jumping on the couch is valid, important, and essential when you are four and can't play outside for months on end.

For David and I, this is where we learned to rely on each other.  We learned to be far from our parents and closer to each other.  We found our identity as a couple and a family separate from the opinions and influences of extended family.  We missed them terribly, but we also cherished a time away, a time to figure out who we are, what we believe, what matters to us as parents and as people.  We took care of each other when there was no one else to look after us.  We took bike rides and went on dates.  We talked a lot.  We ran together, skiied together, served communion together, and learned our children together.  We made mistakes and we said sorry.  We got drunk on the couch and grew addicted to Homeland.  We shoveled, we kayaked, we planned and dreamed and wondered...where is this life taking us, who will our children be, and can we handle one more, can we bear the fatigue, the work, the exhaustion of one more child we feel called to love.

Our friends in Minnesota have been astounded by how much we've seen and done and experienced in our two years here.  But that was the gift:  two years.  When you think that you're home, it's easy to spend your Saturday at the grocery store or mowing the lawn.  It's easy to get the same cheeseburger at the same diner every Friday night, and it's easy to meet the same friends at the same park at the same time every week.  But when you only have two years, you have to ski the Luminary Loppet, you have to wander into the garden of the cherry on the spoon, you have to buy tickets to the children's theater and you have to try paddleboard yoga.  When you only have two years, you have to ride your bike to Minnehaha Falls, you have to pick apples, ride the trolley and run the Twin Cities 10 Miler--when else will you be able to walk out your door and run ten miles around three urban lakes?  When you only have two years, you never eat at Apple Bee's.  It's a wasted opportunity to taste the novelty of the moment.

But at the end of two years, it's not the new experiences we will miss the most; it's the familiar, the favorite, the ones that sunk into our daily lives. It's this porch overlooking the rooftops where we do puzzles and read stories, it's the stairway that leads right into the kitchen where tousled heads bobble down barking breakfast orders.  It's the Edina Morningside Preschool playground, the Foss Swim School, the aqua park, the church parking lot where we learned to ride our bikes.  It's the children's room at the library, the free bread at Great Harvest, our table in the corner at the Chatterbox where we race colors to the end of the Candyland board.  It's My Burger and ginger cookies from Rustica.  It's a bottle of wine at Amore Victoria, the fast blue slide at Williston Treehouse, and the hot tub at Aunt Celeste's.  It's Ella, Willow, Katie, Tess, Mason, Devin, Finnegan, and Nicholas.  Jasper, Enzo, Luke, and Easton.  It's the monkey bars at Linden Hills park, the glider at Mona's, and playing water fight with Raymond.

And it's them, the boys; it's who they are right now.  Always gathering sticks, rocks and leaves and bringing them into the house.  Dropping their pants to pee on a tree whenever they have the urge, no sense of modesty, no sense of shame.  It's the time in our lives when the costume box is always pulled out on the rug, when we discovered Charlie's love of Otis Redding and a good techno song, and where Daddy taught his toddlers entire scenes from Monty Python and the Holy Grail--"What is the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow?" in a perfect British accent.

When we first moved here, Finny would scream bloody murder at the sight of an ant.  Today I watched him show Charlie how to cup his hands around one and let it gently crawl up the back of his hand.  When we first moved here Charlie was a head of curls bouncing around in his crib.  Now he's the boy with the big undies, the big bed, the big curiosity, and the big gruff voice always asking--Mommy, is a rocket faster than an airplane? When will the baby come?  And When are we going home?  We are home, Charlie.  What do you mean?  I mean home...to Cincinnati.

And this idea of home.  As a place.  Is it where you're from or where you are?  We left home to come here, but two years later, we are leaving home to go back.  If we'd left in February our unhealthy dose of seasonal affective disorder might put us in a hurry to grab our scarves and boots and pack our bags.  But we're leaving in June and so we have time to stop and look at the view across the lake, we have time to let the sand gather between our toes, we have time to feel the waves lapping up against our boats on Lake of the Isles.  We have time to realize that we love this cold, North country because it was a growing spot for us, that although we are excited to arrive at the next spot, we are dragging our feet trying to leave this one.

It's a lonely, desolate feeling to look across a sheet of frozen ice in January, but turning the corner to arrive at the lapping of waves through a canopy of trees is not a worldview one is anxious to leave behind in June.  So, I stop on my walk, sit in the grass and gaze out at the sailboats and the buildings and the waves.  I take the long way home around the lake, I let my oar rest across my lap and I sit in the sand and drink up these simple moments when my boys find no greater pleasure than scooping up buckets of lake water and dumping them in the canals they've dug in the sand. 

When you only have two years, you try not to drink too fast.  You try to sip slowly, savor the taste of their smiles, the soft, tininess of their boney knees in your hand, and the sound of brilliant discovery in their voices as they notice the chipmunk climb into the wall, the spider swing down from the branch, the fish swim up close to their ankles. 

And you fill with gratitude for this moment, knowing that eventually, you will turn your head and the path will change, the lake will recede into the distance, and something new will come into sight, leaving only the memory of this view, of your time at the lake house, of your little boys, five and three, gathering treasures they've found in the sand and vague memories of cold winters and brilliant summers spent growing up in Minnesota.