“Great. Crazy busy, well you know how it is. Never enough time! Great seeing you!”
And on and on it goes, the passing of the busy baton. You busy? I’m busy! We’re all SO busy.
It’s understandable how it happens. We, the relay team, save our real conversations for friends and family. And then we run the busy race with the people we kinda sorta know, or used to know, or have no interest in knowing.
I often leave these conversations wondering where I am on the spectrum with the people who’ve flung their baton my way. Inevitably I end up passing the busy baton quickly to the next person and worry that it is obvious how much I loathe the exchange.
I’ve found ways to shorten the ritual. In my experience if you are loading multiple kids into a car, you get a pass. No one expects anything but a wave. Or, you can always answer your own question. “How’s it going? Busy?” All my fellow racer has to do is nod. We swap knowing glances and move on.
Lately, I’ve had this little pipe dream, it’s more like a daydream really. What if I were to really answer how I was, day by day, minute by minute?
Early in the morning, my answer might be:
“I’m great. Kids are wonderful. I’m writing every day, exercising most days too. I’ve got balance right now. And you?”
Imagine the snotty, “Who does she think she is?” looks I’d get.
By mid-day my answer would most likely shift:
“I’m good, I think. Not really sure. Writing is going well, but it’s hard to tell where I am in the process. And you?”
And, by the evening hours:
“Eh. Working from home can get a little lonely sometimes. At least I’m close to the washing machine to throw in the forty-seven daily loads required to keep up with two growing boys. That’s fun. Gives me time to contemplate what the hell I am doing with my life. And you?”
I bet I’d have a lot less of these conversations once the word got out. When the racers found out I was the weak link. Most definitely not a team player.
I’ve spent a little more time than I’d like to admit on this daydream. So much time that when the daydream became reality recently, at first I wasn’t sure if I was hearing the little narrator in my head or an actual out-of-body person.
There I was dropping my son off at his evening activity, engaged in the latest leg of the race with a Mom who I barely knew.
“Hi Holly,” said another voice quietly to my left. It was an old acquaintance, a friend of a friend. I’d shared some wine and coffee and screaming kids with her, over the years. She greeted me quietly not wanting to interrupt my “conversation.”
“Hi, how are you? How’s school?” I blurted, more than ready to leave my other exchange.
The last time I saw this person we were out with a bunch of couples, a group that didn’t know each other very well. It was a fun, festive night, and she and I had talked for quite a while about how she was back in school, in pursuit of a career change. The light danced between her eyes as she described her classes and the juggling required to make it happen.
“Oh...um,” she said, fumbling for words.
Thud. The baton dropped on the floor. Oh no. This was exactly why we racers stay on task, to avoid just this moment.
“I’m not in school right now. I had kind of a breakdown in January.” She smiled as she said the words, signally she wasn’t using the term clinically. She glanced nervously at the other woman, who I had been talking to, and to my surprise, continued.
She explained how she wasn’t sure if the new field was right for her. That the program was costing a lot and meant tons of time away from her kids. She felt badly for having wasted the money and was still trying to figure out if there was a way to make it work. Then, she said, as if to add a ray of hope, “I took a part-time job, in the schools, and I’m loving it.”
Her raw pain hung in the air. I knew what came next and I was determined it wouldn’t happen. In two minutes she would get out to her car, and promise herself never again to pour her heart out to almost strangers.
“You’ll figure it out,” I said, as though certainty could be passed like a baton.
Then, an amazing thing happened. The woman, standing next to me, the one I had been exchanging cursory pleasantries with leaned in, as though gathering the three of us into a huddle.
“We’re all in the same boat. Never quite sure that we’re doing it right.”
We nodded, knowingly. It was a whole lot of working, parenting, spousing, vacationing, housekeeping, bill paying, obligating—a cesspool of busy that required no further explanation.
But, for one decidedly not-so-busy moment, there we were. Relay suspended.
“Nice running into you,” my old friend said, finally. “And, meeting you.”
Every year in March, it starts. Camps, workshops, teams, trips. A frenzy of information clutters the in-box and mailbox. Promises of learning and expanded horizons and fun in the sun, in exchange for a gargantuan chunk of change.
Last spring, I was finally feeling the benefits of being an “older parent.” Of lessons learned from too much or not enough, in previous years. This summer’s schedule melded with ease, a carefully woven web of activities for both boys.
John would attend rehearsals for a summer production three days a week, go to sleep away camp, and still have some lingering free-time. Check!
Will would be spending the entire month of July swimming and playing tennis at our local pool club. From 8:30 am to 4 pm each day, he was booked, just like he liked it. Check!
Then, on the doorstep of summer…
John decided he wanted to audition for a town-wide production with his friends. Only catch, it was the same weekend as the other production two towns away. He’d have to pick. Oh and that production, the one he ultimately ended up choosing rehearsed from 6 pm to 10 pm Monday through Thursday. Leaving nothing to fill the long days of summer…
I frantically consulted remnants of recycled catalogs. Anyone I ran into fielded my pleas…for ideas on how to fill John’s summer.
A friend suggested he volunteer at the local library. So, I picked up the forms (there are ALWAYS forms) and presented them to John at dinner.
“Maybe,” he said, casually considering his options. “Mom, I’m good. Don’t worry. I’ll ride my bike, hang out with friends, go out to lunch.”
Go out to lunch!?
The first couple of weeks unfolded seamlessly. A family wedding, John at his first sleep away camp, the beginnings of rehearsals. After a little prodding, he did fill out those forms and discovered that he loved volunteering at the local library. He even started a blog.
Probably the biggest perk of his daytime freedom came when he was able to accompany Rob and I on an excursion to Newport. (Will, of course, stayed back with a friend, determined not to miss a minute of tennis or swimming).
All was good. Really good…until…about one month in…
“Mom, what’s going on today?” John asked with desperation in his eyes.
“Heading to the pool shortly. Want to come?”
Panic. He had absolutely nothing until 6 pm that night.
A few minutes later I heard him noodling on the piano, a newfound filler in his day. This time I decided not to ask…
That night, I pronounced, “I signed you up for a piano lesson tomorrow with Miss Kathye.”
“Okay,” he said simply.
We first met Miss Kathye when she was the music teacher at the boy’s preschool. A few years later, she moved into a pinnacle slot in Will’s life as his piano teacher. Although “piano teacher” doesn’t quite cover it…
She’s the kind of person who after Will’s lesson (which always runs long), inquires about what John is working on, then helps him practice his latest audition piece—giving him ideas and confidence and praise. She’s more than a friend, she’s our family creativity collaborator.
So, it was no surprise to me when, at the end of his lesson, Miss Kathye asked, “Any chance you would want to help with pirate week at preschool camp next Tuesday, John?”
Yes! Please say yes, John.
“Sure,” he said.
“What do you think they’ll have me do?” he asked, as we pulled into his old preschool driveway on Tuesday morning.
“Help with the kids. Talk like a pirate?”
“Please pick me up on time,” he said, exiting the car. (I’m not exactly known for “on time.”)
Four hours later, I parked in the exact same spot, watching the mothers and fathers exit with their petite humans, all smiles and yawns. My almost man was nowhere in sight. I checked my phone.
B out in 10
Ten minutes later, he settled into the seat next to me, matter-of-factly pronouncing, “They need me again tomorrow.” Then, he launched into a hilarious story about one of the adorable little kids he’d spent the day with. “They call me, Mr. John.”
Mr. John went back the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that.
“Okay if we have him for the rest of July?” Miss Kathye asked at the end of the first week.
I smiled. Mr. John had stumbled on the perfect way to spend his dog days of summer. No catalog or brochures required.
For the remainder of July I dropped John off at 8:30 am and picked him up around 1, just in time for him to crash in front of the TV or take a bike ride or a swim, before heading out to his evening rehearsal.
The weeks zoomed by. John’s performance weekend arrived, just as his camp counselor duties were over. Will swam and swam, and played endless tennis matches (that for him were never enough.)
And then, the calendar turned to August and our marathon travel season began. A time to connect with family and distant friends and each other. We packed and unpacked so many times, “putting away laundry” meant nestling the clothes back into their designated suitcase, readying for the next trip. Until…
It was time for our annual pilgrimage to Staples with a school supply checklist that rivaled our grocery list. To buy jeans that wouldn’t actually be worn for weeks because mother nature clearly hadn’t gotten the “summer’s over!” message. To think about schedules and practices and clubs and homework and…
In the end, John’s summer of nothing was a whole lot of something that couldn’t be planned in March or by me. It came together in glorious old-school fashion, courtesy of boredom and spontaneity.
A reminder, to me, that nothing is better cherished than feared. Because something is always right around the corner…and when it shows up, you can’t help but wish for a little more nothing.
I wrote this piece four years ago. SO much has changed. Take class assignments, for instance. They now arrive via e-mail making class lists comparable with the click of a mouse, and, and...Who am I kidding? NOTHING has changed. My boys are off, enjoying summer. And, I'm still working on "someday."
I pace back and forth “working” in the dining room. The only room in my house with a clear view of the mailbox. Today is the day--teacher assignments arrive in the mail.
My boys are nowhere to be found. They are on their annual summer getaway with their grandparents. They are not losing any sleep or rearranging their day, or even giving a second thought to who their teacher is this year.
Next week, when they return home and are once again surrounded by friends who will ask the obligatory “Who do you have?”, they’ll be happy or a little sad as they piece together their new school family. But that’s it. Just another day, just another year.
So why do I care so much?
The phone rings. “Not yet. Call you as soon as I get it.” It is my almost first grader’s best friend’s mother.
I come from a family of teachers. Both of my sisters are teachers. My parents were teachers. My grandparents were teachers. Growing up I spent weekends and vacations and pretty much every waking minute with teachers.
I have ultimate respect for the profession: for the tireless, non-stop energy and stamina it takes to shape 20 plus little minds each year. I have so much respect for the profession that I didn’t go into it. I know it’s a calling and I didn’t have it.
I also know that teachers come in all shapes, sizes and stages of life. Some are tall, some are short, some are cheery, some rarely crack a smile. They have good years and bad years. They fall in love, give birth, care for dying parents, get divorced, mourn loved ones and get sick. They are energized by the newest reading techniques and overwhelmed by endless testing. They have, do and feel it all. Because — they are human.
As a daughter and sister, I know that good teachers hold their own through it all. But as a parent, I crave the perfect teacher. The trifecta: teachers who love their jobs, get my kids and teach them things too.
My father reminded me last summer, right around this time, that “It’s good for kids to experience all kinds of personalities, to get them ready for the world.” I nodded in obedient agreement and then thought, “Ready for the world? Just let it be a good year!”
But I do want them to be ready for the world, to experience the smile of the new teacher excited by the warm glow of learning. And the mastery of the “seen it all, done it all” type who knows how to crack the “I can’t do it” code. But most of all, I want the only other person who spends seven hours a day with my kids to look into their eyes and see potential.
After the paper with their teacher assignment arrives, I will try to smile and be happy with whatever name it reveals. I will try not to launch through my mental database and into discovery mode seeking out parents who’ve gone this way before. I will try not to care too deeply about the sober ratings of pool parents. Or, passing parents at the grocery store who provide a vague, “You’ll like her.”
I wonder if the teachers are lighting up the phone lines on this day? “Oh no! Not her.” Or, “Fantastic! I was hoping I’d get a group of energetic boys this year.” More likely they’re swapping not so cryptic reviews of the parents, because I’d imagine, some (throat clear) are easier than others.
I hope that I am one of the good parents, the ones with whom the teachers want to work.
Someday, I hope, I will care a little less and trust a little more.
And, I hope my son gets Mrs. … wait … hold that thought. Moment of truth, the mail is finally here!
This piece originally appeared in the Hartford Courant: August, 2011.
It’s here! The sunny space in the year when life’s routines loosen, and an expectant air of possibility creeps in. Lazy afternoons spent by the pool, sipping an icy concoction, as a gentle breeze…(okay, we can dream right?)
An ideal summer read, for me, tugs just enough, but not too much, nudging a seasonal reprieve from reality along. The adult selections below are just that—friends to accompany you on your chosen adventure. Or, a blessed day of no plans at all.
This month a guest blogger reviews the children’s selections. John Howley (insert a proud mama smile here) is a thoughtful reader, who reviews middle-grade books on his new blog: www.booksformiddleschoolstudents.blogspot.com
Happy Summer, everyone!
by Rainbow Rowell
Is it possible to fall in love with someone you’ve never actually met? It is if you’re Lincoln O’Neill and your job is to read your co-worker’s e-mails for inappropriate content. Lincoln loathes his work and his post-college life at home with his mom who packs his lunch every day, until he “meets” Beth. Attachments explores the complexities of love and honesty in the digital age. And, as usual, Rowell does not disappoint. Her well-intentioned, but flawed characters are relatable and fun—perfect beach companions.
ONE PLUS ONE
by Jo Jo Moyes
What happens when a single mom, her mathematician daughter, an ex-husband’s teenage son, and a gaseous canine embark on a road trip with a complete stranger? A wild ride, with lots of predictable but entertaining twists and turns. This one’s a quick read that will pair well with anything on the rocks.
THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN
by Paula Hawkins
Ever make up stories about the lives of the people you see while hum drumming through your day? Meet Rachel, a recently divorced thirty-something, whose favorite past-times are pre-made gin and tonics and imagining the life she wants for people she doesn’t know. Until…one of those people goes missing and she decides to enter their reality, intimately shaping her own.
This story will keep you guessing. Who’s crazy? Who’s sane? The ending may be a tad too tidy, but it hardly matters. This thriller is a ‘get me back to the lounge chair’ read.
Reviews by John Howley
RULES FOR GHOSTING
by A.J. Paquette
Dahlia Silverton is a ghost, who’s stuck in the house where she died because of an unknown secret from her past. When a new family moves in, she must learn to share her space with living humans, including an annoying boy named Oliver. Dahlia finds hope in the form of another ghost named Mrs. Tibbs, who promises to help release her. But when Mrs. Tibbs is captured by a ghost hunter, Dahlia must seek an unlikely ally to break free from her secret. This book is entertaining, a good read for anyone who appreciates a clever combination of humor and adventure.
by Rick Riordan
In this book you will find all the information you would ever need about Greek gods. From Aphrodite to Zeus this book puts a fun modern twist on all the traditional Greek stories and gods. I really enjoyed this book because it makes you want to keep reading and it is written in a really fun, entertaining way. This is a really great book for people who enjoy the Percy Jackson series or any other Rick Riordan books.
The distinctive style of a literary work or author
Conference season is upon us. A time for artistic souls to traipse and travel from all corners and crevices to revel in the complexity and camaraderie of the publishing industry. To sit in workshops and ponder questions like: What does my character want? What does my character need? It’s a humbling process that, for me, started many moons ago, in a workshop now far far away…
Circa 2005 “I’m Holly Howley and I am here today because I took a leap two years ago. I stopped working to stay home with my two boys and it’s hard to hear your voice when you are by yourself all day,” I said, sounding like a train full of emotions was ready to run me over. Dear God, did I really just say that? The day was a birthday gift to myself. An opportunity to spend an entire day with other writers. It was also an opportunity to spend a day with myself by myself. A concept akin to taking a Mediterranean cruise for a mother of toddlers. Of course now, in this moment, the idea seemed entirely overrated. “Write about your dinner table growing up,” the workshop leader prompted. While I’d been obsessing about my opening remarks, the group had clearly finished making their introductions. It was time to get down to the writing. The reason we all were there. My insides groaned. “What kind of stupid topic is that?” I began by scribbling details of the actual table I sat at night after night as a child. The curve of the walnut stained legs. The heavy layer of furniture wax on the tabletop. Clever was the best I could hope for, I decided. Until… many minutes later, a whiff of something, surfaced. And, slowly, the layers began to peel away, in small barely recognizable pieces. When it was my turn to share, I began: “Most nights dinner took my mother by surprise.” (Sorry, Mom!) It was a relief to hear sprinkles of laughter, recognition around the room. It was a relief to hear me. I spent the next several hours lost in a maze of internal scraps. Daring to care too much while letting go of trying too hard. As the day wrapped up, the workshop participants exchanged contact information. But, somehow I doubted I’d follow-up. I’d found the person with whom I most wanted to connect. Me.
Is there anything better than snuggling up with a furry friend, steaming mug of hot heaven, and an inspired readwhile the wind whips the mounds of snow around outside? (Don’t think so.)
I thought it would be fun to share some of my recent finds in case you’re in pursuit of a good book for those upcoming rainy spring afternoons. Or, even better, a day at the beach (yes, summer is on its way!)
I’m not much on giving reviews. For me, the review is in the finishing (as in, if I’m not hooked 20 pages in, I move on). Instead, how about a favorite detail or two?
by Gillian Flynn
This bestseller got me through the heartbreak of my thwarted Puerto Rico trip. Was supposed to be my beach read but instead became my companion for the first blizzard of 2015 (seems SO long ago.) This bestseller masterfully weaves the creepy and absurd, rendering it memorable.
by Nancy Horan
Number one thing I enjoyed about this historical fiction story (highlighting Frank Lloyd Wright’s life with his mistress and her role in the woman’s movement) is how no one is let off the hook. Horan portrays characters who are both loathsome and lovable, and therefore believable.
by Kwame Alexander
This 2015 Newbery Medal Winner is tough to describe, but smooth to digest. The reader can’t help but breathe in sync as Alexander intricately weaves a yarn of growth and loss through the rhythm of teenage twins and basketball.
Eleanor & Park
by Rainbow Rowell
This book is still sitting on my nightstand (even though I read it over a month ago) because I’m having a hard time returning it to the friend who sent it my way. An anything but typical first-love story about two on-the fringe adolescents growing into themselves with each other. Beautiful, complicated, unforgettable.
by Cynthia Lord
Ever wish life came with rules? Twelve-year-old Catherine has created a very specific list of rules to help her autistic brother navigate everyday situations. This charming tale of a frustrated, but determined, sister, daughter and friend tackles the question, "What is normal?"
by Gordon Korman
Korman is a master of middle-grade suspense and the well-timed twist. This book champions resilience and the power of pooling talents toward a goal. Favorite part of this book: the plot is purely kid driven.
by Gordon Korman
My always reads non-fiction nine-year-old devoured this one--score! (Overheard him asking the librarian for a book like Ungifted after he read it...)
My read: Ungifted messes with the (tired) definition of “smart” and is hilariously funny in the process.
It was 5 am on the heels of a rather ambitious few weeks. Holidays, work trips, numerous rounds of the stomach flu, computer issues, yada yada yada…the stuff life is made of, the stuff vacations are made for!
“T-shirts, shorts and a bathing suit. That’s all you need!”Those were the instructions, given by my bestie, who’d even dropped off the appropriate travel-sized toiletries the day before. A low maintenance four day getaway with two of our favorite people.
A quick stop at Dunkin' Donuts, and we were en route to the airport. The sun had not yet risen on the frozen tundra of Connecticut, and it didn't matter because were heading to the land of endless sun: Puerto Rico.
In hindsight I probably should have noticed Rob was being kind of quiet, but who talks much at that hour? Except my friend and I…
One of the perks of traveling with good friends—discussing nonsense with ease, topics that are interesting to just about no one but you, that’s why you’re friends. In fact, I think we were reading a Facebook post on mothers and friends when Rob said, “Be right back.”Simple enough, he was going to the bathroom.
Twenty minutes later we were boarding the first plane, destination not-so-sunny Philadelphia where apparently fog was mucking up the works.
“There will be a forty minute delay,”said the loudspeaker voice.
“Forty minutes or four?”I asked Rob.
He was looking at the floor, with an odd, serious gaze. “Four O.”
I opened my book. He closed his eyes.
Thirty minutes later the voice returned, “It looks like we are all clear for take-off.”
Bing. The Fasten Your Seat Belt light sprang on. And that’s when my husband, the consummate rule follower, sprung up from his seat and ran toward the back of the plane.
“Sir, sir,”I could hear a flight attendant say.
“Going to throw up!”I could hear him say.
Oh boy. I closed my book. A woman one row in front of us offered me some of her anti-nausea medicine.
“Thanks,”I said. “I’ll see if he needs it.”
But, I’d cleaned up enough vomit over the prior two weeks to know that no amount of anti-nausea anything was going to cut it.
Five minutes later a very pale Rob, holding a very big bag was being escorted by an angel flight attendant (this woman was THE definition of friendly skies.)
“I’m taking him up front,”she said. (Sure would have stunk to be in first class that day.)
I won’t detail what happened next. After all, who among us hasn’t had the stomach flu? And, who among us hasn’t had nightmares about having the stomach flu thousands of feet in the air with a plane full of passengers shooting dirty looks your way?
Fourteen hours later (okay it was more like 30 minutes) we were in Philadelphia and it was clear that we, Rob and I, were at the end of our vacation.
We waved goodbye to our friends (who had about 4 minutes to make their connection) and I proceeded to join a very long line of other forlorn fliers.
An hour later after several intense exchanges with numerous customer service sorts who tried to help, but couldn’t, then did—we were back, en route, to Hartford.
The rest of the “trip”was smooth sailing (of course). In fact, we arrived home in time to escort the kids off the bus (who by the way were not at all happy to see us and forfeit their fun weekend plans with Mimi.)
Soon, the usual homework was sprawled across the kitchen table and hungry mouths were asking, “What’s for dinner?”
It was quite simply like we’d never left. And, shock was setting in.
I’d been so sure that I needed to get my white-as-a ghost, sick-as-a dog husband home. Woman on a mission and all of that. But, now all I could think was, “I am supposed to be in Puerto Rico, not making dinner!!!”
I decided to check on my patient. “How are you feeling?”I asked.
“Can you bring me some Saltines?”the voice from under the covers responded.
“Seriously?” I think. Now keep in mind, the kids and I had had the stomach flu, together, while Rob was away. It had taken me three days to finally consume ginger ale.
“You’re already hungry?!”I said, not waiting for the answer.
When I returned to the bedroom, plate of Saltines in hand, Rob sat up, “Are you mad at me?”
“Of course not,”I said. “But, could you do me a favor?”
“Start planning a new vacation?”
“That and throw-up non-stop for the next two or three days!”
“I’ll see what I can do,”he said, with an almost smile.
“And, maybe spike a low grade fever for good measure?”