An Open Letter To The New Graduate – Endings and Beginnings

Maya,

As I sit in the balcony watching, your distinct smile is visible from afar. You and 500 other students are about to receive your diplomas and, in the process, cross over from high school students to graduates.

Our house has been hectic this past week with all four of us coming and going: weekend call at the hospital (me), finishing up AP exams, dance practice, work hours, graduation rehearsals and a 5k added just for kicks (you). Our paths crossed briefly, at the extremes of early morning or late night. Waiting in the auditorium for your name to be called allows me to focus on what is finally happening. My vision blurs as tears form; a pop-off valve for my swirling emotions. I try to tease out exactly what I’m feeling, but the intensity is too much at the moment. They call your row and your name is finally read. I watch you walk confidently across the stage and receive your diploma.

And in the blink of an eye, high school is over.

The next hour is chaotic at best. I struggle, but finally find you in the outdoor courtyard amongst a sea of green caps and gowns. Looking for friends, you dart and weave through the crowd, with that frenetic energy you always bring to the table. I try to keep up, my iPhone at the ready, capturing static pictures of dynamic moments with your friends. As our family poses for pictures, the smile on my face and my arm pulling you close don’t project the complexity of my feelings. Pride, joy and excitement, mixed with a healthy dose of melancholy.

You are no longer my little baby girl.

I have been attempting to write a piece about you and your graduation for a while now.  Originally, it was filled with advice for my University of Wisconsin bound daughter. It had some good stuff in there. “Be yourself”, “Take chances” or “Be curious”.  But that wasn’t really about YOU. It was what I hoped for you. And in that sense, it was more about ME. That piece remains on my electronic desktop, to be continued at another time.

As I take more photos of you and your friends, I recall photos from the past. There is one in particular where you are dancing, having launched yourself off the ground, legs stretched perfectly parallel to the stage and your arms extended. Those dance pictures never cease to amaze. Moments in time captured at your zenith, before gravity kicks in. The raw force it takes to propel yourself into the air is captured in images of powerful muscles in your legs. But there is also a grace in your ability to channel it all into a movements of beauty. Force and grace. Maya, you are most definitely a force. And you often display a grace beyond your years.

I remember one summer day when we were at the local pool. You and a friend chose to pass on swimming, in favor of practicing your aerials on the grassy picnic area. You ran across the grass for hours, hurtling your body into the air, almost, but not quite rotating your body around quickly enough to stick the landing. Again and again. Persistent. Tenacious. Unwavering.  And then…finally…you did it.

You throw yourself fiercely into so much of what you do. When a classmate’s illness kept him from attending most of school one year, you demanded his desk remain in the room. When your principal announced a fund raising event, you wrote an essay for him, complete links to websites documenting reasons the chosen charity was unacceptable and suggestions for better choices. You have been a friend and ally for those struggling to find themselves or where they belong. You rehearse and practice your dancing for thousands of hours, despite turned ankles, irritated nerves and nails torn by dancing on pointe. And through it all you have made life-long friends, gained confidence in your voice through the power of inclusivity and found your passion for movement and music.

That picture of you dancing, frozen in mid-air, feels appropriate for this moment. With force and confidence, you have leapt into the air, away from high school as a new graduate. With amazing friends, an emerging voice and a love of dance, you are now defying gravity.

But I know as summer gives way to fall, you will come back down to earth, as a new freshman on an exciting college campus. And I know there will be tears. My tears. I am not ready for you to land.

You may be excited for your new roommate and living in the college dorm. For dance classes halfway up Bascom Hill. For runs on the lakeshore path and walks up State Street. For the 5th quarter and jumping around on football Saturdays. For studying late on a random Wednesday night. But that means that my little girl will not be living under my roof. I won’t see the rolling disasterous mess you call a car pull into the driveway. I won’t see your gluten free food packages or half eaten tubs of frosting left open on the counter. Or wake up in the morning to see you asleep sprawled on the couch. 

I think back to that day of a hundred attempted aerials. You were not to be deterred. You fell. Again and again. But you picked yourself up each time and went back to do that sprint into your jump, knowing the next one would be the one you’d land. Until finally you landed it. I watched you from about fifty feet away. Not really in your line of sight, but I could see you. Watching, in case you fell too hard or  twisted an ankle. Or to see you stick the landing. But you didn’t need me. You handled the adversity that day quite well on your own. And now, years later, you are both more skilled as a dancer and more capable and confident as a young woman. Ready to take on all the exciting challenges that lie ahead.

I am sure in the coming months I will struggle and try to pull you closer. Just as I am sure you will be pushing away. That will be part of the challenge this summer; your pushing, my pulling.

I know you are ready to spread your wings. I am just hoping for a little more time before you fly away. 

Hiatus

Time passed. One day became two. Weeks became months. What began as a temporary absence evolved into a void.

No writing. No journaling. No attempt at an opening paragraph. On occasion, I hastily blurted a random thought or two into a voice memo on my phone. But the recorded words stayed in coded form. Bits and bytes waiting to be transcribed and brought to life as words on a page.

For the better part of a year, I have worked on at least one piece of writing at a time. An idea or story. An outline for a book. Always some small part of my brain processing and playing with an idea, while racing through the craziness of my day.

But the last few months have been a bit of a hiatus.

The intensity of my work life and family life converged for a while, with quite a bit of travel mixed in. San Francisco for a conference. Klamath Falls, Oregon for a brief family Thanksgiving. Preparing for my son’s long-awaited homecoming for winter break back in Chicago. Christmas spent covering the hospital and ICU. Ringing in the New Year while working in an ICU in Elkhart, Indiana.

And somewhere between the West Coast and the rural Midwest, I got lost.

That little part of my brain stopped sorting new thoughts and ideas. Instead, I fed it a steady diet of Netflix, cryptocurrency and progressive politics. Comfort food for my cerebral cortex. And as the writer inside me took a leave of absence, I found other parts of myself taking a time-out as well. My running shoes sat untouched most days. My swim bag remained buried in the corner of the mudroom, as I went AWOL from my water polo team. Whatever exercise I managed was mindless and without purpose. As my writing and journaling stopped, so did my desire to physically push and challenge myself.

But I did not close my eyes.

I watched my daughter continue to face the challenges of being a sixteen-year-old junior in high school, navigating the ever-shifting landscape of friends, school and life. Juggling final exams and ACT tests, hours of dance and Poms, injuries, babysitting and a boyfriend. Like her dancing, She stumbles at times. But like she does when dancing, she pops right back up and continues moving forward, becoming more adept and able every time.

I watched my son face the challenges of being nineteen, while working on the universal yet uniquely personal battle between autonomy and dependence. Between freedom and restriction. More often than not, that process now takes place out of my sight, as he currently lives two thousand miles away. I am still coping with this. But each time our orbits align (and hopefully not collide), I see a little bit more of the man he is becoming.

I watched my wife challenge herself to tap into her mathematics and education degrees, putting herself out there to help neighbors, family and friends with the mysteries of high school geometry and pre-calculus. I saw this amazing cycle of confidence build. Not only in her students as they became better prepared for their quizzes and tests, but also in herself as she applied a unique approach to help each student fill in his or her specific knowledge gaps.

I watched. More passive than active. Letting events play out and unfold before me, often while stretched out on the family room couch. My sweatshirt and a comforter worked overtime, protecting me from both the falling temperatures outside and having to actively engage in the world around me.

But it is time. Time to leave passivity behind, along with the comforter and the couch.

Despite the cold, I went for a run outside the other day. A few years ago, running in sub-freezing temps was a no-brainer. Just put on the right clothes and go! Now it’s a bit of chore. It took more thought and effort to push through the inertia of inactivity.

It started with shivering. Time felt slow. Movement felt forced. But ten minutes into the run, my body heat began to build, and with it, the familiar warmth comforted me. The sound of air moving in and out of my mouth layered on the rhythmic sound of my shoes disturbing loose gravel and stone under my feet, brought me back to an old familiar space.

For the next forty minutes my joints ached. My calves and hamstrings burned. I sweat. It was snowing, and the falling flakes were cool on my flushed face as I ran through their vertical descent. And sometime during that relatively routine run that I had done countless times in the past, a small dormant part of my brain came back to life.

It’s time again to write.

Sixteen Redux

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There you are, in the big chair, half curled and snuggled up against me. A tangled clump of hair covers part of your face.  You’re somewhere between wake and sleep listening to Goodnight Moon and my made up stories of butterflies and rainbow fish. You are warmth to my perpetual chill.

There you are, lying sideways asleep in the bed. Crumpled sheets draped over you rhythmically rise and fall with each breath. You are eight or nine years old? The stillness of this tableau a striking contrast to your boundless energy and movement during the day.  I stand, a sentry in front of your door making a silent promise to protect you always from the darkness. All the while fighting back my own fears. Fears of the randomness of the fates that even a father’s love sometimes cannot overcome.

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Focus

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I pull into the driveway, trying to leave that last of my work day behind. As I enter the house, I am greeted by the all too familiar semi-chaotic scene. Lola comes jumping into the hallway, happy to greet, while my kids stay somewhat immobile in their current positions. Madison often on the couch, computer on as well as the TV. A token book maybe by his side. A phone there as well with the screen still lit up from recent use. Maya will be in the kitchen, simultaneously eating while sprawled out on the floor, music from Spotify playing overhead, trying to do math homework in between answering the multitude of texts that keep streaming in. My frustration at the lack of focus in these two irritates me to no end as they have not remembered to put their morning’s breakfast away and the dishwasher from last night is still not emptied. I can’t look anymore, and just head upstairs to change…

Madison. I watch you pace along the pool deck with your new smooth shaved head. You settle in behind the starting block waiting your turn. The goggles move from forehead down to your eyes. Your gaze, straight ahead in front of you. Up the starting block you go. Waiting. For the whistle. “Swimmer’s take your mark”. Hands curl on the platform, legs spaced apart, while newly formed muscles from a season’s worth of practice tense…waiting… The Starter’s “gun” goes off, and you spring to life. How things have changed from the soft little racing starts you used to do. There is purpose behind this one. You slice through the water to remerge. Middle lane. Fast lane. Maybe a third of a body length behind those next to you. Butterfly. Arms synchronized out in front, pulling forward. You hit the wall, turn and power off. Purposeful. Focused. Intense. Now headed back. I can see you moving, driving forward. Your shoulders? When did you get such broad shoulders? You pull slightly ahead with each stroke now. Into the second turn and back out again. You look smooth. Coordinated. It’s the third length of the four that it really hits me. Focused. Driven. You own this. This race, your season. You put the work, the time, effort. Morning practices, dry-land sessions. Not for me. For you. Time slows. Just a little bit. This moment is so beautiful to me. Watching you…

Final length. Middle lane. You’re ahead and holding. I remember my arms, heavy, burning, wanting to stop. Finding what would push me, to push past the ache and burn. My team? My pride? You’re finishing strong, still smooth, closing in on the timing pad. Final strokes…you don’t stop. No coasting or easing up. You hammer your arms into the timing pad and the clock stops. The mixed joy and frustration of a personal best, yet short of your personal goal. I know how you feel. I know how I would feel. But I wish you knew how proud I am. The race is over but it still lingers. It’s still there in the pool and in my mind. I fight back the tears.

Maya. You’re in front of me. On the stage. Poised and still, awaiting the music to start. The song begins and so do you. Movements and poses I have seen hundreds of times around the house, are now being put together rhythmically to your music. Your eyes and face, staring ahead, with such intensity and focus. Every movement with a purpose. Some slow and rolling, others sharp and punctuated. The music builds and so does your pace. You’re flying across the stage, jumping, hanging there with air beneath your feet. Your breathing, controlled, by visible muscles under your outfit. My eyes are drawn to yours, but all I see is a burning intensity that is all your own. And as you do your aerial, time seems to slow a bit and everything else fades away except for you on the stage. This moment is so beautiful to me. Watching you do what you love to do.

The song is not over. Your timing is spot on. Arms and legs and body moving in perfect time to the rhythm and words. Your routine ends and it’s over. But your performance still lingers. On the stage and in my mind.  I wish you knew how proud I am. I fight back the tears.

The weekend is over.  Sunday night and homework  is still not done. Scattered actions and the unfocused thoughts of two teenagers dominate the house as the reality of a school day tomorrow makes its way to their brain. And as I try and deal with my own frustrations over this, I do find some solace in replaying their recent success in my head. Their intensity, their focus. They both have it. They have it in spades. It is just at times extremely selective when and where they choose to use it. But as my kids find their way in this world, I look forward to watching them use their focus and intensity in what they love to do. I can’t wait to see how beautiful that will be.