Won’t Go Back to Boston
At the beginning of the month, the annual conference of AWP, or the Association of Writers & Writing Programs, happened in Boston. Last year was the first year in many that I did not attend and it felt like a reprieve. Not a reprieve from the conference, where more than 10,000 writing professionals gather to attend (or present at) sessions from those related to writing (“Please Complete Me, Please Don’t Make Me Gag: Love Stories for a Cynical Age” was a panel this year) to publishing and finding work (Also: “Landing the Tenure-Track Job without a Book: What to Expect in the Job Market”). Neither did I want a reprieve from talking with other writers, including old friends whom I look forward to seeing each year at AWP, nor a break from listening to authors read their work. All those things I love and look forward to each spring.
No, what I did not miss was preparing my family to function without me for a few days. Making sure there was adequate adult supervision, that everyone had rides to where they needed to be, that there was food, clean clothing and instructions. In the business world, a good manager can leave her place of business temporarily and things should run as well as if she were there. Often, being the mother of a larger family feels like being the CEO of a small company. But those in my charge are not all yet fully trained adults. And as such, cannot, nor should they, always proceed without direct supervision.
Beyond the conference itself, I had a fantasy of going to Boston because it also fell on the same week Claude was home from college for spring break. I could have taken him on an odd nostalgia trip—odd given that the places we would have visited were ones where, when we lived there, I was deeply conflicted and generally unhappy. When Claude was three months old, his perpetually unemployed father took a job in Boston even though we lived in Columbus, Ohio. At the time, I was pursuing a graduate degree in art history at Ohio State University. I had a plum assistantship in the editorial offices of a scientific journal and a large community of friends and colleagues. I had no interest in moving to Boston and was very upfront in saying so to my then-husband.
For several months, Claude and I lived alone in Columbus. I took my baby to work with me and friends watched him when I had classes. I paid for all of our Ohio expenses with my stipend and spent my free evenings and weekends in the company of friends, many of whom had small children too. Simply put, Claude and I were thriving. Which is why I wish I could reach back, take my 28-year-old self by the shoulders and say, “Don’t go to Boston! Giving up your life simply to keep the family together is not only horrible for you, it sends the wrong message to your child!”
But we make the choices with what we understand at the time and I understood that my parents had split up when I was a baby. More than fearing what leaving my husband would mean for my child or me, I was afraid of being like my parents. As with most fear, it was irrational. I was ten years older than my parents were when they became parents. And I had a college degree, two in fact, when Claude was born and was well on the way to achieving my third. I had a home, a career path, a community and I was clear about what I wanted. That is, until I gave it all up.
We joined his father in Boston, when Claude was nine months old. While there, Claude and I were more alone than we had been in Ohio. I had no friends or colleagues (because I had no job) in Boston, a city where, unless you can recite your Revolutionary War ancestors, it seems you are forever an outsider. We rarely saw his father, who had rented a shotgun apartment in Somerville. On the right were the doors to three small rooms; on the left was the bathroom and a door for the smallest room in the house, hardly bigger than a closet. I kept that door closed and rarely went in there because it eerily reeked of cigarette smoke, like some ghost from a Stephen King novel lived in there, puffing away when we weren’t looking.
Just before we moved from Ohio, Claude’s father inherited some furniture. Beautiful antiques though they were, many of which were family heirlooms, we did not need a dining room table and chairs for eight, nor a hutch that was so large it was impossible to assemble in our apartment. In our bedroom, the mattress laid frameless on the floor, snug against our dressers while in the next room, chairs were stacked upon tables and surrounded by boxes of bone china and crystal. Rather than a home, the apartment looked like a used furniture store, each room an assemblage of related items crammed together.
Bored and with nobody to talk to, I spent my evenings plotting our daily escapes. With Claude either on my back in the backpack or on my hip in the sling, we rode the subway to museums, libraries and parks. Some days, I packed us up in our old Toyota Celica hatchback and drove out of the city, once going all the way to Vermont and a third of the way up that state. I loved the old world beauty of Boston, which feels more European than American in some ways. But I was like a long-term tourist with nothing to attach myself to—no graduate program, no job, no friends and, realistically, no husband. All I had was Claude, an easy baby whom I loved like nobody else, but a baby nonetheless.
Six months after arriving in Boston, I returned to Ohio. At first, it was just to visit friends but once there, I decided we would not return to Boston except to collect our things. I told Claude’s father he could return with us to Ohio if he wanted and, frankly, was surprised when he did. That was 1995. I’ve gone to New England, specifically Vermont, almost every year since then, but have never returned to Boston. So why is it I would feel nostalgic to show Claude, who is now nineteen, something he has no memory of? To give him the mental images of the places I’ve told him about? He’d go if I asked him to and maybe even enjoy himself, but I don’t know that he’d gain anything of it other than to humor his middle-aged mom. Which makes me feel a bit pathetic.
(No) Going Back
Instead, we went to Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. After nearly a year at the School of Art & Design at the University of Michigan, Claude is not feeling challenged by his art courses and has wondered if the issue is his program or whether he’s in the wrong major. Unlike Michigan, Ohio State has two separate departments for art and design and I have an old friend who teaches in their Department of Design. On our visit to OSU, Claude spoke with my friend and another professor, as well as the chair of the department. He also met with the secretary of the Art Department and a few students. Unlike last year, when we visited the colleges he was considering, this time Claude led the conversations and asked pointed questions. I felt comfortable leaving Claude on his own and several times walked away to take care of Lyra, who was with us.
The Department of Design is in the building that housed the History of Art Department, my department, when I was a graduate student. I waddled those same halls pregnant with Claude and later carried him around just as he was carrying his baby sister. At 6’2,” Claude now towers over me. He thinks nothing of swinging Lyra into his arms with an ease that comes with experience. “People think I’m a college daddy,” he told me when we were walking across the oval. I talked to him like a solipsistic tour guide: That’s the Wexner Center, which was built shortly after I started going to school here and where I saw nearly all of Hitchcock’s films. Here’s the short cut to the Art Department from Hayes Hall, my boyfriend before your father was in this department and we went back and forth between these two buildings. Wow, the union looks great, it was all loopy ‘70s interiors when I was here. See that building? That’s Denney Hall where I worked for a year between undergrad and grad school. Claude politely listened though I’m sure he’d fail a quiz on anything I shared with him about my days at OSU.
“So what’d you think?” I asked him on the drive back to Akron.
“I want to stay at Michigan,” he said with a certainty that surprised me. “The programs are similar, the set up is kinda the same. But when I listened to the dean talk about all the work for a design degree and the projects and, well, you know what?” he asked looking at me from the passenger’s seat, “I realized I just don’t have the same passion for design that I do my academic classes.”
“Really?” I asked, trying to sound impartial. Inside my heart leapt, feeling I’d scored an A in parenting. Last year, a handful of art schools—SCAD, SAIC, CIA—pursued Claude. But I after watching how deeply engaged he was in his high school English and history classes, the only restriction I put on his application process was that he go to a full university for his undergraduate work. Still, there were times last spring when I wondered if my one edict was keeping Claude from opportunities he would not have again. No matter how hard I try to be the best parent I can, it sometimes feels like a crapshoot.
A Family Tradition: Reading the Beats at Nineteen
When Claude left for college last fall, I had in my mind a vignette where he would come home at Thanksgiving and share effusively the things he was learning in his classes. He would read his papers to us and tell us about the ideas of his professors and classmates. I had seen elements of this in his high school coursework, especially English, where Claude would get so excited by what he was learning, he would have to stand up and move around the kitchen while he talked.
Instead, he came home last fall frustrated and not a little deflated with his classes, which were all art courses. “Why can’t they just teach us the fundamentals before asking us to do something conceptual and creative? Why are we paying $50,000 a year for this crap? I’m not getting anything out of it!” (For the record, most of the bill is covered by grants and scholarships; Claude and I only pay a small fraction of that total.) He was sure of nothing—the school he was at, the program he was in or even being a student. “I should have taken a year off!” he told me repeatedly. He struggled with what felt like monumental decisions to him, but I saw him asking himself the right questions at the right time. Max and I told him to enroll in as many academic courses as he could spring semester. And that’s what he did. Along with English, this semester Claude is in a world political science course and a performance course with playwright Holly Hughes. And just one art class.
When he was home for winter break, I asked Claude the topic of the English course he had enrolled in. “I don’t know,” he said, “A couple of my friends really like the instructor so I just signed up for whatever he was teaching.” While a highly recommended instructor as the sole reason for registering for a course isn’t exactly typical, it’s not the worst way to pick classes. In late December, books by William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac and Allan Ginsberg began arriving from Amazon.com.
“Are you taking a course on the Beats?” I asked him.
“I don’t know. Those are just the books we’re supposed to order for the class.”
My father introduced me to the Beats when I, too, was nineteen. He handed me two books, Kerouac’s On the Road and Minor Characters by Joyce Johnson.
“If you want to understand me,” my father said as he handed me On the Road, “read this and then read it again every ten years.” As an after thought, or so it seemed, he added, “This other book is by a girlfriend of Kerouac’s. You can read that too, it’s interesting. But only after you read On the Road.”
I don’t recall telling my father that I wanted to understand him or not understand him. At nineteen, I hadn’t given his life much thought. Looking back, it seems clear he was asking to be understood. I did read On the Road shortly after he gave it to me and when I was finished I remember thinking, well, that was different. I didn’t read it ten years later or ever again, but the poetry of certain passages has stayed with me …they were all children, and in the sunny cherry blossom morning of springtime in the Rockies rolling their hoops up the joyous alleys full of promise…
I also read Minor Characters, which I believe was the first memoir I had ever read and a good one, too. The famous Beats flow in and out of Johnson’s story, but it is her personal bildungsroman, which is set against and poignantly captures the 1950s’ counter culture in New York City, and the stories of her non-famous friends that make this a book I continue to recommend.
But did either help me understand my father? No. Perhaps if I’d gone ahead and read On the Road when I was 29 and 39 I would have found the significance it has for him. The truth is, I just wasn’t interested. I once told someone I went easy on my father because he never yelled at me or hit me, which I realize is a pretty low bar to set for a parent. When I was a teenager and getting reacquainted with my father after a ten-year absence, I found his intelligence often revealed itself through his humor even if, at times, it was colorfully inappropriate. However, after he left my stepmother and moved out west, my sister and I found our phone conversations with him tediously one-sided—long litanies in minute (and sometimes vulgar) detail of events that had happened with people we didn’t know. He was only forty-five when left Michigan, but after a couple of years in Arizona, he ruminated like an old man.
In truth, my father was no better a parent than my mother because, while not aggressive, he is emotionally weak. And his weakness led him to make poor choices, or sometimes do nothing, which was also a poor choice. In the late sixties, as a single father, he was a twenty-something hippy living on Chicago’s north side and thought nothing of blowing pot smoke into a paper bag and having me inhale it. When I was four, my mother had returned and gained custody of me. A few years later my father was a vegetarian biker (as in motorcycle) living in rural Northern Michigan and did nothing when my stepfather sought to adopt me, thereby severing any legal ties my father had to me. And when I was sixteen and living with my father for the first time in decade, he was an old-hippy-biker-stoner-stay-at-home-dad who blithely allowed the predatory attentions some of his friends gave me. I stayed less than a year.
On My Road
As a religious studies major, I had studied Buddhism. But it wasn’t until the summer of 1996 that my ex-husband and I began practicing Shambhala Buddhism. Like all major religions, Buddhism has a variety of “denominations,” and we could have become Zen Buddhists or Theraveda Buddhists. But a fellow religious studies student introduced us to Karmê Chöling Shambhala Meditation Center in Vermont. Almost every summer since that first visit, when Claude was two and I was pregnant with Hugo, the boys and I have gone to the nine-day family camp at Karmê Chöling. Each morning of camp, while the parents meditate in a Tibetan style shrine room, the children are enrolled in classes where a little religious instruction is combined with a lot of outdoor play on the mountainside grounds of Karmê Chöling.
Choygam Trungpa Rinpoche, a Tibetan spiritual leader who was exiled with the Dalai Lama in 1959, introduced Shambhala Buddhism to the United States. Like most, if not all, spiritual innovators—including, but not limited to, the Buddha, Jesus Christ, Martin Luther, Joseph Smith, Suzuki Roshi—the Rinpoche’s story is complicated, if not downright messy. The first few summers we went to family camp a few of middle-aged dads, often in their second marriages, came with their families. Many afternoons, while we sat on lake beaches watching our children frolic in the water and sand, these former students of the Rinpoche enjoyed telling me stories about their teacher. They were all very clear about the Rinpoche’s foibles, which are widely known and well documented. But they were equally clear that the Rinpoche was a spiritual master. If for no other reason, Choygam Trungpa Rinpoche’s life is impressive for this one: in a few short years, he established institutions and translated texts that effectively established Buddhism in the religious pantheon of North America.
It was at least five years after we began practicing Shambhala Buddhism that I recognized the connection it had with the Beats. Even though I’d given my dad a copy of The Dharma Bums by Kerouac a few years after he had given me On the Road. Even though I knew that Choygam Trungpa Rinpoche had founded the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado where, for a time, Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs had taught. It was like I had a mental blind spot that prevented me from connecting the two. It wasn’t until I heard a radio interview with a man who had been at the Naropa Institute with Ginsberg and he said something like, “the Rinpoche told Ginsberg he was too attached to his beard and needed to shave it off,” that I saw the obvious: I’m practicing the same religion as my dad’s Beats. Maybe it’s a silly coincidence, but it doesn’t feel like it.
Claude Explains the Significance
While home for spring break, Claude worked on a paper about Kerouac’s On the Road. He told me there were two dominant male stereotypes in the 1950s. The first was the abusive and sexually vital king who refuses to settle down and be domesticated by women, characterized by Dean Moriarty. The other is the gruff, but indulgent “good provider” who succumbs to the feminization of his life, marries, moves to the suburbs and probably has a few kids. “So, you know how Sal, who’s basically Kerouac, chooses to go off with his wife in the Cadillac at the end of the book? He’s choosing tradition! Everyone thinks that book is so radical, but it wasn’t!”
Thinking of these two stereotypes, either of which limits a man’s full humanity, the Rinpoche was not unlike the sexually vital king. He died of alcoholism at age 48. Kerouac seemingly succumbed to the good provider role and was living with his mother when he too died of alcoholism at age 47. Fortunately, my father, who is now 67, has not died of alcoholism. When I review his life, I see he tried to be both stereotypes and, perhaps for the best, was good at neither.
I write obliquely about Claude’s father, because he is only a small part of the background of our story. But that is not the case for Claude. Last spring, after being disappointed and frustrated with his father for years, Claude confronted him in our driveway and told him that he, the son, felt like the adult in their relationship. They went back and forth speaking loudly, but not shouting, for a several minutes. Standing nearby and watching closely was Jules, who was supposed to have dinner with their father. Finally, their father exasperatedly asked Claude what it was he wanted from him. “To just show up. I just want you to show up,” he told his father.
What would have happened if his father had realized that by confronting him, Claude was showing his father that he wanted to have a relationship with him? And what if his father had heard the very clear and simple instructions on what Claude needed in order to have that relationship, Just show up! We won’t ever know. Claude told me last fall that he never thinks about his father, that the only time his father enters his mind is on the rare occasions when he sees him. It’s hard not to feel like I fell into a familiar groove when I had children with the boys’ father, a man whose exterior is so very different from my own father’s but who has the same emotional fortitude.
I can’t change their father; heaven knows I tried. I try to raise emotionally connected sons, very consciously so. And in my relationship with Max, I hope they see an example of manhood that explodes the two stereotypes of Vital Sex King or Gruff Provider. It’s not a crapshoot, even if it sometimes feels that way.
Back to School
“You didn’t want him to leave,” said a friend when I told her that I had waited too long to buy Claude’s Megabus ticket back to Ann Arbor. It was the day before he was to return and there were no seats left on the bus. Luckily, the trip from Akron to Ann Arbor is just under three hours.
“We’ll both go,” said Max and even though there were plenty of reasons why one of us should have stayed home (taxes, laundry, several indoor projects that need completed before the weather changes and we are back to yard work), I am glad he insisted. We brought Lyra, but left Leif home with Hugo and Jules. On the way to Ann Arbor, Max and I talked with Claude about his plans. After a year of existential angst trying to decide where his place is and what he wants to do with his life, Claude seems confident about, well, everything.
He’s going to get a liberal arts degree, maybe in English, and if so, I would consider taking Claude to AWP next year (in Seattle) because he’d enjoy any number of panels and certainly hearing world renown authors speak and read. Then again he might major in history or political science. Whatever he majors in, he’ll now take the art courses he wants to take but was not allowed to as a major in the program. Courses on the fundamentals of drawing, painting and sculpting. “You are at one of the best institutions of higher learning in the world,” I told him on the way back to his dorm, “you may never have the chance again to explore the things that are available here. Take whatever courses you want. Go for five years if you have to.”
For Claude, this first child of mine who is now making very adult decisions, my role has changed. No longer do I give him direct supervision, but rather wait for him to come to me when he needs feedback. Important decisions are his to make. After all the years I spent trying to raise him to be all he could or ever want to be, I now get to watch it all come together. I wouldn’t miss it for the world. Neither would Max. Why would anyone?