Scott's bicycle was stolen last month. He had it locked to a street sign outside. His parents mailed him an early birthday present though: money for a new used bicycle.
One Tuesday night, we walk to the storefront on Broadway where his name and telephone number are written on masking tape and stuck to the duck beak-shaped seat of a tall Raleigh bicycle with handlebars like antelope horns and a golden mustard frame. He test rides it in a park, but messes with the gears somehow and must walk it back to be fixed. I lay on the patchy grass of a little league outfield, watching the clouds fly in clusters across the sky. I hold Penny's leash. She sporadically sprints toward squirrels and pigeons, making me feel like a fallen maypole. Scott pedals back through the park moments later, churning the greased chain, and wobbling slightly. A little later, my sweet skinny husband buys the bicycle. Later we walk side-by-side along the narrow sidewalk of Irving Park Avenue——he with his spokes spinning, me with our pup's claws clicking. Soon Chicago's warm summer streets will feel the treads of our black rubber tires together again. My bike is in the kitchen leaning against the wall.
I like our little apartment. It is plain, white and small by American standards. Never to grace the recycled paper pages of any hip urban magazine or appear in the filtered digital photographs of any chic design blog, but that doesn't matter to me. A cozy, cluttered little cupboard——a cotton-curtained nook——it is our hiding place. Our home.
This was Scott's third bicycle to be stolen. Two in Boston. One in Chicago. There is something overpowering about cities, isn't there? Almost like a cancerous mole, spreading in the sun. Every person multiplying, moving and making noise. So many people in one place, a chaos controlled by faltering morality and written laws.
There are experiences and people here in the city we do not have in the country. And for these opportunities, we are grateful. They busy us. Proof is on the pages of the notebook beside where we lay our keys at night. Scribbled notes of our schedules, along with capital letter proclamations of love. When we feel most confined and confused within our narrow existences of work and sleep, we allow our cravings of quiet to silently torment us. After making plans and verbal pacts, we put it in a pot and place it on the back burner where the tea pot once sat. Set to simmer, we occasionally lift the lid to let some of the steam out. We are waiting for our spoonful in September and our supper one year from now.
Traipsing away now from the crowded, crooked, potholed path of the unaccomplished artist, I feel happy relief. I've found an occupation that I feel inspired and passionate about pursuing. This is why I cannot yet fill a moving truck and race it to Massachusetts. I've been accepted to a year-long training program to become a Montessori teacher. Classes started in June seven miles north in Evanston, Illinois.
A few months ago, while at the intersection where the expressway meets Montrose Avenue, I stand waiting for the walk signal when the idea, "I think I'd like to be an elementary school teacher" wafts into my mind with the wind off the lake. This thought is followed immediately by, "maybe Montessori." I must say that at this point, I know nearly nothing of Montessori, and yet this moment of stillness on the sidewalk feels divine. I walk home, plunk down on the couch and begin researching.
A grainy black and white photograph of Maria Montessori appears to the right of the screen. An old woman in a dark patterned hat and long fur coat. She looks like my Nana's mother. A soft jaw line, white hair, dark eyes and a gentle smile. Maria, I learn, was the first female doctor to graduate from the University of Rome and as valedictorian of her class nonetheless. Later, through years of research, she began developing schools. Schools for young children, who were taught in an environment made specifically for their curious minds and ever-developing bodies. A place where they learned how to live. How to wash their hands, tie their shoes, read, write, water the garden, draw pictures, do math equations, care for animals and wash dishes. Where they were supervised and taught, but left to explore, experiment and make errors. Where they were not applauded with stickers and presents, nor spanked, given time outs or humiliated with dunce caps and ruler whippings, but taught peace and independence. Maria Montessori developed schools where children learned how to be good people.
I've been a nanny for the last few years. And I can say now that I was perplexed much of the time. I remember telling my mother that it felt like all I did was tell the children not to do things: Don't touch that! Don't climb on that. You can't play with that! Stop screaming! Stop whining. But children don't know. As I wrote in my application essay, I had to constantly remind myself that these children I was caring for were brand new humans. Knowing this was wise——for I think many people forget that children are brand new to the world——however I didn't fully understand what being new truly meant. I didn't realize that little ones want to touch and handle everything around them so that they can more fully understand their environment. That of course their instinct is curiosity! Who wouldn't want to explore a foreign place? They want to know the weight of things, the feel and smell and touch of the materials around them. They are new to language, new to emotion, new to their little bodies. New! This means that it's up to us adults to guide them. What a responsibility! One I want to learn how to do well because I tried with my uneducated instincts and didn't always get the best results.
My future has evolved into a vision of a little schoolhouse where I can find the obscurity I shunned for so long. I was so naive. I believed everything my generation told me. Anyone can be an actor and fame is all that matters. Fame is money, confidence and popularity——therefore, fame is happiness. But happiness is not a one-size fits all state of being.
I wasn't living out my own ideas. I couldn't. I couldn't hear them. For they had become an unintelligible murmur smothered by the bombastic cacophony of doing what I thought others would recommend I do——rather than what I actually wanted to do. I am a good actor, I told myself, so I should pursue a career as an actor. But nowhere along the way did I fully acknowledge the logic of statistics and the fact that I would hate the life of an actor. I do love to act, yes, but much more than that, I want to settle in the country and make babies, grow vegetables, hike and write. I want quiet, which is a desire I've always felt, but whenever I was close to it, I'd soon pack up and move to some new clamorous city, suppressing again the life I feared was too boring. Not boring for me, but boring when broken down into the descriptive words of my life (boring for party talk and social media posts). I admit it! I wanted impressive things to report to all my online friends. I wanted to compete in the game of life. Look at me! I'm a success! I wanted to boast through posts and photographs. Then one day I decided to stop——truly stop——caring what others thought I should do. I withdrew from the screen of my cell phone and quit facebook. And when I did this, I honestly started to make a lot of interesting decisions and self-realizations.
Before, I had secretly convinced myself that a housewife was all I wanted to be. This was fear and self-doubt, I know now. Fear of a future career I didn't think would ever happen and severe doubt that I was smart enough to do anything but ring groceries, waitress and babysit. So I imagined playing house——with a baby on my hip, wooden spoon in my hand and full baskets of warm laundry at my feet. The problem was, my fear manifested into judgement toward women who worked and sent their kids to daycare or left them with nannies. I will never do that! I said to myself. But this was because I personally didn't want to be working. I wanted instead to hide in a house. The passive introvert side of me, the part afraid of strangers and responsibilities, started to creep in and take control. Hiding at home for years sounded like a retreat, easy and safe. I'd be in the garden picking dinner when my husband came home from his 9-5 career, his top button open, tie crooked and loose. But now I see, really see, that every person needs a purpose. We all need work of some kind, preferably meaningful work where we help others. And part of that can be parenting, but I see now that it must be more than that.
As I've grown, my future became heavy with maybes. Maybe I could run a little Bed and Breakfast. Maybe I could write a book...or a screenplay! Maybe I could suddenly be discovered doing something, make a bunch of money and then buy a house and hide out playing with my children. But I am smart and I have a lot of love. Love I want to share. And I want to not be afraid anymore, because I'm fine once I get out there. Once I'm with other people, sharing my ideas, building something. I am worthy of work. Real work. Work that requires education, intellect, heart and will. Yes I am a woman. Maybe becoming a Montessori teacher sounds like a "girl job" or a job where I will play with little children all day, but I know that isn't true. I want to teach because society requires teachers, for without strong well-rounded education, our society will never progress at the rate our world needs.
I just had a much needed talk with my good friend, Amy. She's in Canada working toward a doctorate in biology with a specialty in salmon. It's hard for me still that she's there and will be there for some time. But she's really happy and talking to her today made me feel so exhilarated. She's found what she wants to do and she's doing it and she hasn't let the fact that she's a woman scare her away. She's very intelligent, confident and has more guts than the fish she studies. She's an inspiration because she's not just waiting for her life to take care of her, instead she's making sure to take care of her life. I understand now. We're both learning how to make our own decisions. Do what we want to do and not what we think others would expect of us or hope for us. As we age, people tend to apply labels to our skin (as we do to them), like push pinned sticky notes. Over time it hard to see ourselves from beneath the potpourri of paper. We encourage our children to be unique and to think for themselves. But if they do these things, we criticize them for going against the norm. We tease their choices and even guilt them into doing what everyone else is doing because they're asking too many questions——which causes us to ask too many questions and we don't want any questions! WE DON'T WANT TO HAVE TO CHANGE. Or worse, we don't want to feel guilty or negligent when we outright REFUSE to change. Don't make me question authority, we plead through poking fun. PLEASE! Don't make me question my entire life. That's too hard. I have too many other things to juggle: work, cars, kids, pets, possessions. The lawn mower is broken again. The snow blower needs gas. The vacuum isn't sucking and the dishwasher has a leak. The cars need oil changes, brake pads and blinker bulbs. And I really want to buy a seventh pair of sneakers. We juggle too much. Too many scheduled activities and appointments. So busy multitasking (an overused word and endeavor), we do not have the time nor the energy to face the most basic matters with the attention they deserve. It's just easier to do it ourselves, we say, tying the shoes on our seven-year-old's feet and carrying our diaper-wearing four-year-old. We don't have the time right now! There is never enough time. Food comes from some other place, some factory where a stranger chops the meat and vegetables into microwave-safe containers. And instead of facing the real reasons we are depressed or lonely, we "treat" ourselves with gluttony, new clothes, espressos, and liquor. Then when we don't fit into our pants, we fill the pantry with "diet food" that's been chemically manufactured by scientists——not farmers, not even cooks——but scientists with beakers of bubbling preservatives, sweeteners and artificial flavors. We want our food fast, preferably pre-cooked with instructions and dried sacs of seasoning. Then we tell the doctor we don't feel well and they send us to the pharmacy where white coats behind walls of condoms and cough drops fill bottles of more chemicals. We are walking chemistry experiments. What combination of chemicals will keep our bowels regular, our moods moderate, our eyes open and our weight down? I hate chemistry. I never liked it in high school. My experiments never turned out the way they were supposed to.
Last Wednesday, I drive my dog and I 17 hours to my parents' house. There my father and I paint outside while listening to an oldies Cape Cod radio station. My mother and I walk our dogs the 5-mile "loop." On the television, the Red Sox play and Everybody Loves Raymond makes us chuckle. Long talks, family party preparations and shopping for "teacher clothes." I stay a week and weep like a baby when my father and I say goodbye. He's going to drive to Sears to get a new car battery and so he follows me on the highway. I sob, checking my rear view mirror as much as it's safe to. Before his exit, he pulls up beside me and blows me a big kiss. My bloodshot eyes run behind my $5 sunglasses. I hate living so far from them. While home, I realized how similar I am to my father. I had always credited my passionate manner to my Scorpio birthday, but this past week I understood for the first time that it isn't the sway of the stars, but my father who I take after. We both become somewhat fanatical from the books we read and the documentaries and news sources we watch or listen to. And everyone who doesn't agree or understand us is ignorant to the real truth, we believe. My father is this way with conservative politics and The Civil War. I am this way with food. My mother said to me that my father's fervent ideals can make her feel isolated. That was it for me. I realized then that I must not subject myself to such submersion anymore. I can have my beliefs and read my biased books, but I need to be careful not to fall into the deep end of extremes, obsessively googling videos, buying vegan magazine subscriptions and ordering anti-meat tee-shirts. I've already come close to drowning. Maybe I've even hypothetically died. How unbearable it is to not have those close to me as passionate about the environment and animal rights as me, I'd silently scowl to myself. But what about their suffering? What I've missed entirely is how incredibly unbearable it must have been to have a loved one who tries to convert you to their cause every day. Well, I don't want to isolate anyone I love anymore. And I don't think I will. For as long as I continue to eat this way and feel as happy and energized as I feel, I won't be urged to carry my soapbox to every family event or dinner table. I stopped feeling so defensive about veganism. I think that is because I truly believe for the first time that this way of living and eating really does work...for me. I've been on a long exploration to find the food that makes me feel physically and emotionally well. I can't, nor do I want, to force anyone else to believe what I believe. Only when one is interested will I tell them the story of my wayward path and present euphoria. For now, I will happily sip my banana smoothie, while savoring mango season and planning for apple picking.
When we moved to New York City after graduating college, my brother made me a mix CD called, Home for Now. Years later, we have had many homes for now. Currently, Chicago is our home for now. Here the trees on either side of our apartment hold green umbrellas like a distant St. Patrick's Day parade in the rain. Here the buildings are close, but they could be closer. There is some space. Enough, anyhow, for the breeze to squeeze in and sift through the window screens like a long cool exhale, shaking the green papers I have potted in plastic pots and organic soil on the sills. One day we will have a home for now and later, today and tomorrow, next year and even several years after that. It will have a compost pile, clean air, and in the summer, rows of ripening tomatoes and crisp romaine lettuce. A structure of little painted bedrooms, bookshelves and second hand furniture, it will stand near an apple orchard, a berry farm and a mountain range. One day, we will live in this home and we will allow ourselves to be boring--oh so blissfully boring!