Saturday, August 23, 2008

Bittersweetness is another face of love...

There is an orange-y/pink sherbet sunset (or maybe it is vegan and a sorbet sunset), bright burnished gold at the bottom, and my son is asleep in our spare bedroom. It is very early for my little night owl to be slumbering. This is late August, a very bittersweet time many of us, but the locusts are still buzzing away, unaware (probably? I think?) of the cruel winter that seems inconceivable, almost laughable, on a luxurious night like this one. My husband is working on his Stuff, and as I wrote this paragraph, the deep indigo of the sky is pushing down on my gauzy band of sunset, squeezing it out. Sunsets, like August, remind me of the fleeting nature of pleasure, of time. I want to grasp life's beauty (how's that for a little Heartfelt Themes in Poetry 101, but it's true) and I have difficulty loosening my grip sometimes. I would be one of those Buddhist monks begging to design my sand mandala in concrete. I'm not very Zen most times, I'm afraid.

There is nothing like having a child, perhaps, that teaches us how very ephemeral life is which can be both reassuring and painful. Love or enjoyment mixed with sadness is the nature of bittersweetness, usually wrapped together with a note of longing for what is no longer. Judaism, the religious tradition in which I was raised, has bittersweetness seemingly at it's very core: an appreciation for what is (or recently was) and a knowledge that it will soon be no longer (or has past). I think it's because of the Jew in me - or, at least, that's what I blame - that I have such a propensity toward tears and emotionality. (I also love to laugh, of course, and any of my friends would confirm that I am an absolute goofball, but this is part of the Jewish Thing, too: laugh now, because tears are right around the corner.) My mom is the same way with crying. I remember as a child I was leaving a medical building for my annual checkup with my mom and there was a woman on the elevator with us who was quietly weeping to herself. It seemed clear that she got some bad news at one of the doctor's offices. As we were going down the floors, my mom turned to her and said, "Can I help you with something?" The woman shook her head, saying nothing, and hurried off the elevator. My mom was already crying in solidarity.

I'd like to say here that qualities of bittersweetness can very poetic and can lend to artistic, soulful expression. It is also very easy to abuse and make saccharine. I'm sorry to anyone if I'm crossing that line.

Continuing on the theme of sunsets being extinguished and August tick-tocking past, my son has finished the preschool he has been at since he was three and is going to be entering kindergarten in a few days. This is (was? Again, the bittersweet) such a lovely place. It is run out of the home of a Korean-born, Jewish-converted woman who has such a magical touch with the children. I'll call her Ms. K. You know that expression "an iron fist in a velvet glove"? That's Ms. K, though the word fist is far too violent sounding. The meaning, though, is that she is that perfect combination of strength and softness. She does not allow the children misbehave, and she has very subtle but effective ways of handling misbehavior, but if a child is misbehaving because of something rooted in the emotions, she is unerringly compassionate, loving and gentle. She has three other teachers - three life-affirming, committed and lovely young women - who work at her sweet little home school. They each have a unique approach and particular gifts, but they are all united in the core values of Ms. K's preschool: to help children feel cherished, important and respected, giving them the very best start as they make their way through the world.

Ms. K has a background in painting, so the school's walls have some beautiful paintings throughout. There are also sweet drawings and seed/bean works on the walls made by the children. Every day before snack time, the children rest and reflect while Ms. K plays the piano; after a few minutes, she calls them each up one at a time to stretch and they take a seat at their respective tables for a simple meal, usually crispy bread and fresh fruit. The school is on the second floor of Ms. K's home, and though creativity is encouraged, it is never, ever chaotic. All the scarves and wooden blocks and tea cups are put away in their appropriate containers by the children when play time is over. In order to foster a sense of peace, there must be order. Once you have order, and thus peace, then creativity can flourish. (The myth or stereotype of the artist thriving in chaos may be very entrenched but I don't find it particularly honest. When my life is disorderly, I can't focus on creating because I'm too busy dealing with the chaos. When my life has an overriding order to it, though, I can thrive much more as a creative person.)

Anyway, Ms. K's school has been a very big part of our lives for three years. I have learned so much from her and her school. Her approach - always the perfect, precise measurement of what is needed in any given situation - is something I find both admirable and deeply humbling. Being a parent will expose your very nexus of frailties sometimes. I can be short-tempered, impatient, demanding and harsh in ways that I never knew possible. (Of course, there is that infinite wellspring of love to soften the blow.) Observing Ms. K with the children (always listening, always fair, always encouraging) has helped to give me something to aspire to as a mother. The way she brightens a room with her warm smile has made me more aware of the simple gift we give with the corners of the mouth lifted upward. The way that she always greets the children as they are arriving as though she hadn't seen them in weeks - five days a week she does this - and they are very special to her, well, that is the mark of a very remarkable person, someone who is so enriched by giving. The way she has told me so many times in my more weak and worried moments that my son - different from the others because of his very essence, which I know to be a good thing ultimately - is a unique individual who is a gift to be treasured and nurtured. I will try to internalize this because I know it to be true, too.

Friday was my son's last day at school, which was technically camp. He is officially kindergarten bound. I knew that I would be sad and I certainly cried, especially when I was picking him up. He looked up at me, his eyes worried, and asked why I was doing that, why I was crying and I told him that I would miss his school. I hate crying in front of my son but I couldn't avoid it. If I could have, I would have told him that my tears were bittersweet: gratitude toward Ms. K and her school, and sadness about it ending. (There is also bittersweetness about my little boy growing up and that's related but distinct.) The sadness, though, is brightened immeasurably by the gratitude. I feel so fortunate to have shared this time of my life with such a special person, and I am so deeply glad that my son got this exquisite and absolutely uncommon start in life.

Life is fleeting. Make the most of it while it is happening.

Shalom, everyone.

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