Friday, August 28, 2015

Ready or Not

I am a girl who loves a list. I find great satisfaction in the finality of crossing an item out, marking it completed, checking it off the list. But I have given up on tidy lists these last days of August and started moving items to a jumbled to-do inventory for September, hidden in my day timer by the turn of a page.

No page is thick enough, however, to hide what is written at the top of next week. School starts Monday. I am not ready for this. And, yet, I am so ready for this, for a return to something like normalcy after a summer of tumultuous fun. Ready or not, here it comes.

Since becoming a mother, I’ve felt more often than not that I am flying by the figurative seat of my pants. My husband would guffaw at this. He knows I like to have a plan – along with a list. But with kids, you kind of need both: a plan of action and the willingness to amend that plan as it is implemented. In short, my plan is no longer so firmly in my control; sometimes we have to alter the course mid-plan to make a wardrobe change or clean up a mess or bandage a scraped knee.

I am getting better, by necessity, at going with the flow. At least sometimes that is true.

Right now, with the first day of school looming on the very near horizon, I feel as if I should have a plan. But I don’t, not really. I’ve been too frenzied to make one. Sure, my kids’ backpacks are hung from their hooks in the kitchen, filled with the supplies their teachers have requested for the first day of school. I have given some half-distracted thought to the snacks and I will pack into lunchboxes that first day. Everyone has sneakers that fit and a selection of clothes first-day-of-school suitable.

But I still feel like my world is spinning with summer diversions, sporadically completed work, and the household chaos that comes with having three kids home constantly – at least when we’re not out playing or exploring. The front porch is a jumble of beach towels and drying bathing suits. There are tennis racquets and golf tees thrown into the car, bikes and soccer balls and forgotten gardening tools strewn about the yard. Legos and art supplies and books litter every room of the house, mingling with my notes for this story or that, scribbled on scraps of paper and misplaced in the wake of activity.

There is no planning amid such chaos, and any list I manage to jot down is soon lost.

I am waiting for that time when the kids are in school, that stretch of hours each day, to regroup. Then I’ll take a good, hard look at my untidy list on that hidden page and figure out what to do first. I keep telling myself that once I can return to a normal schedule, I will have plenty of time to catch up – on the work that’s been piling up, on the clutter that has creeped into every corner of the house, and on making a plan for getting it all done. Of course I’ll also have to plan for homework help and dinner prep and how to keep two dozen kids interested and learning and having fun at soccer practice.

Next week we jump from wavering summer plans to more rigid fall ones. From barefoot soccer in the yard to shin guards and cleats and lined fields. From pure pleasure reading to homework assignments. From mostly hanging with the kids to packing them off in the morning and returning to my coffee and my keyboard – and an impossibly quiet house.

No matter how well packed the backpacks are and how carefully selected the First Day outfits, my children’s return to school always hits me like an accidental punch to the gut. Somehow I’m never quite ready for how much older they seem that first day of school than they did the year before, and how lonely it is returning home without them.

That quiet house is what I need to get back to crossing things off the list, but I’m also, just a little bit, dreading the quiet. I know from past first-day-of-school experiences that I’ll get used to it again pretty quickly, that soon I’ll settle into the school year flow. On that first day, though, I’m never quite ready. No matter; school starts Monday. Ready or not, here it comes.

Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul, posted to her Blog: Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears as Meghan's Close to Home column in the August 28, 2015 edition of the Littleton Record.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Swirling August

The summer my youngest was a baby and the older two clumsy toddlers, it rained. A lot. Nearly every day, for weeks. I finally sent the 2-year-olds outside, wearing nothing but rain boots and giddy grins, to play in the giant mud puddles on our driveway, while I sat on the front porch with the baby, glad they were, briefly, occupied.

Back then summer seemed to stretch toward an impossibly far horizon, with no swimming or bike rides or hikes – and plenty of sleep deprivation and diaper changes. I loved being with my children, but there was lots of space to fill around nap times, and that vast stretch of time often felt formidable. As one person told me, “The days are long, but the years are short.”

Now it seems the days fly right by, and summer is a whirlwind of activity. When we flip the calendar to August, I can feel summer swirling toward the final whoosh that will suck us into September.

One part of me is looking forward to returning to my regular work routine, having time to catch up on all that I’ve neglected these last two months. I spend a good portion of the summer figuring out how to meet deadlines with approximately eight dedicated work hours per week, plus daily coffee-fueled, early morning sessions. If you’ve ever tried to research a project or draft correspondence while attending to the endless (and beautiful) curiosity of an 8-year-old, handling (not always patiently) repeated requests for snacks from a constantly ravenous 6-year-old, and alternately admiring how nicely the children are playing together and breaking up squabbles over the most inane issues, you can relate to my summer work challenges.

Another part of me dreads the coming frenzy of September, with its return to school days and homework, soccer practice and schedules. In these waning days of summer freedom, I try to lock into my mind forever the image of my daughter running through waves, dancing with the summer sun. Of my son peering seriously into the water, his swim goggles pushing ears out at goofy, endearing angles. Of the littlest one, bright-eyed and squirming with delight as a hermit crab scuttles across her outstretched palm.

If you’ve ever lingered on the hot sand or in the cool river of a child’s summer, watched as they made some new discovery or conquered a new skill, tried to hold on to the enchanting and uninhibited giggles of children playing, you know the aching joy of watching – and helping – kids grow up. Too fast. Always too fast. The years, indeed, are short.

I am thankful that my work and my husband’s work allow me to spend so much time with my children, to have these summers for as long as they last. I know there are only so many more years when my children will want to share their adventures so wholly with me, when we’ll be mostly free to play and explore and make the summer days up as we go along.

At the start of the season, my kids were bursting with ideas of fun, summery things to do. Outings to rivers and ponds, new hikes and bike rides and old favorites, trips to the ocean, lots of ice cream. In June we jumped from school straight into soccer camp, which overlapped with a week of adventures with the California cousins. We spent July adjusting to these long days of changed timing and responsibility, closing out the month with our annual pilgrimage to Cape Cod, and returning home to wild days and late nights with the Tennessee cousins.

Now, in August, we are in the full swing of summer, but we know these days are numbered. Already, twilight arrives earlier each day, mornings hold a coolness they didn’t two weeks ago, and there is a telling twinge of fallish color creeping into the hillsides.

We’re cramming as much as we can into these last weeks before school. Camping out in the back yard, with the Milky Way wandering through the sky above our tents. Exploring new bike paths and swimming holes with friends we won’t see much once school starts, and venturing out with school friends we don’t see so often during summer. Wandering through the woods near home with the dog. Impromptu Lego sessions on the living room floor. Trips to the library. Soccer in the front yard. Maybe one more visit to the ocean, another hike, a few more swims in the river before it gets too cold – or we are distracted by other, non-summer, things. Before we shift from carefree summer back to the routine of fall.

I’m expecting that shift to be brutal this year, in part because my children, for the first time in their young lives, have taken to sleeping in this summer. We have essentially abandoned any pretense of a regular bedtime during these days when light hangs in the sky well past their school-year tucking-in time. Most days there is no pitter patter of not-so-little-anymore feet coming down the stairs until 7 o’clock. Some mornings closer to 8. There is no rush to eat breakfast or get dressed or put down the good book that kept someone up later than I know the night before.

I think we’re all in for the rudest of awakenings when their alarm clocks chime at 6:42 a.m. one Monday morning coming soon, marking the start of the first school day of the year and the end of summer. I keep thinking I should ease the kids into that first early rise, start getting them to bed earlier so that first day is not so harsh.

But these summer days of childhood are so sweet, so ephemeral. September will be here soon enough, with all its structured activity and responsibility and early mornings. Maybe it’s better to let the kids soak up all the sunshiny freedom they can, linger in bed a few more mornings, hold on to summer right to the last moment.

Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul, posted to her Blog: Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears as Meghan's Close to Home column in the August 14, 2015 edition of the Littleton Record.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Swimming Holes

It’s one of the great joys of summer: splashing in a clear, cool river on a hot, hazy day. At the advent of the season, when kids can almost taste the freedom of school’s final release and ice cream shops are readying for customers, regional publications put out their lists of favorite swimming holes – the most secret, most scenic, most secluded ones.

Yankee magazine has done a swimming hole list. New Hampshire magazine has, too. Heck, even the BBC published a short list of Vermont swimming holes a few years ago. There are entire websites and Facebook pages dedicated solely to swimming holes. I guess some people are well-traveled connoisseurs of these refreshing summer haunts, but I like the old familiar ones best.

There’s a swimming hole down the road I’ve visited since I was a child, where I return now with kids and dog on the hottest, muggiest days – or just when we need something easy to do away from the house. It’s not the deepest or the most beautiful, and it’s certainly no secret. But it’s conveniently close to home, and it offers endless cool fun on the long, hot dog days of summer.

My brothers and I splashed in this same spot when we were kids. For us, who came to the mountains mainly during winter, the river was a summer wonder. We were used to crossing the small bridge spanning the Ham Branch when its current was concealed in thick layers of snow and ice, a mere silvery sliver of moving water visible through all that white.

Sometimes, though, we found our way north in the summer. On hot days we’d make the short trek down from the house to find the river transformed in its summer color. We built dams and watched tiny fish swim through the water, threw rocks just to see the splashes they’d create. All things kids at rivers have probably always done. Things my kids at this river do now.

Some days we come to the swimming hole prepared with towels and snacks and snorkeling masks for peering through the moving water to see what’s below the surface. Often there are cars parked along both sides of the road, with sunbathers, splashers, and swimmers strewn upstream and down. Sometimes we have the spot all to ourselves.

The best swimming is right below the grated metal bridge, which hums with the occasional passing rumble of car or pickup truck tires. We wander the rocky river islands seeking flat stones for skimming and throw sticks into the deepest water for the dog, who prefers the crispness of winter to the heat and biting bugs of summer. I think swimming is summer’s sole redemption in the dog’s mind.

The spot where my brothers and I used to pile rocks as big as we could carry in a futile attempt to alter the water’s flow is a bit wider now than it was 30 years ago. But someone – or, likely, a series of someones – has extended the dam. Rocks are added and removed probably with each visitor. My children consult with each other as they work on their own renovations to the dam, placing fist-sized stones in the larger breaches, handfuls of pebbles to fill the gaps between, sand and clay to cover it all until the next rain and rising current.

The river flows through anyway, a comforting gurgle of water moving easily downstream.

Other times our swimming hole outings are brief. We stop by on the way home for a quick dip, or run down after dinner to cool off before bedtime. On one such evening venture a couple of years ago, as we stood with our toes in the water, my brother and sister-in-law came floating down the river in inner tubes, along with a pair of friends and a cooler (in its very own tube) ferrying refreshments. Cool rivers on hot nights are not just for kids and dogs, after all.

I’ve visited other swimming holes, of course. There’s one a bit further upstream where we happily slip and slide down gentle, flowing waterfalls, like river otters playing in the waves along the worn-smooth boulders. We sometimes go south to the Pemi, finding cool pockets of water pooled in smooth rock basins carved deep by eons of flowing water. We have found bullfrogs and thousands of tadpoles swimming in shallow concavities near the edge of the Pemi and huge, juicy blackberries nearby.

I have dipped into the deep, perfect pool at the base of Bridal Veil Falls, a sweet reward for a not-too-strenuous hike. One summer during college I leapt from cliff ledges along some Vermont river into the cool expanse below. I have waded into the almost unbearable chill of high alpine lakes in Colorado, enveloped in solitude and impossible beauty.

I am, like most of us probably, part intrepid explorer and part contented homebody. I love to wander to new places and experiences. But often I find myself returning to the familiar, to the places of my good memories. Places like my old standby swimming hole. It’s not the most scenic or secret or secluded. But it’s a darned good place to be on a hot summer day.

Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul, posted to her Blog: Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears as Meghan's Close to Home column in the July 24, 2015 edition of the Littleton Record.