A while ago a friend sent me an article by the renowned American journalist, Anna Quindlen. It was a retrospective on motherhood by one who has survived its most arduous years. She acknowledges the ‘unreliable haze of the past’, the futility of parenting books and comes up with a several anecdotes about her worst parenting moments.
For someone still steeped in a parental brine of snotty noses, endless sibling rivalry and sticky surfaces this all seemed to be going in the right direction. Like a mariner scenting salt in the wind I inhaled deeply as she described her fully grown brood that miraculously go to the loo by themselves, zip up their jackets and move plate to mouth with relative accuracy.
Then the article takes a turn in the wrong direction for one still covered in residual slime. A soft focus lens zooms in on her three children (6,4,1) sitting together on a quilt in the dappled shade of a summer’s afternoon. It is not expressed, but one somehow imagines them all to be fully dressed and with clean hair, the sort of children that welcome being attacked with a shower hose and Johnson’s baby shampoo. One can only imagine the effort it took to get them all on the quilt at the same time and looking at the camera but none-the-less, blinded by the unreliable haze of the past she appends the reminder that we should be cherishing these years, days and living in the moment more.
Now on the day I was sent this (the Sunday after Bloody Mary Sunday) I went on to live through Alexander shouting at the congregation to sit down during the Gospel. This was done in his gruffest voice, usually reserved for reminding people that he pees like a man and from the prominent vantage point of the church gallery. I then moved on to ignoring my outspoken son and Eleanor struggling for possession of a magnifying glass on the floor of the Sackler Museum so that I could converse with two live Zoroastrian (two out the 150,000) professors. We discussed the theory that the Three Kings had been Zoroastrians and admired the amazing detail of the Persian miniatures for a short minute. These are the sort of moments that can be lived and savoured. Seconds after the embarrassing silencing of the congregation it was clear that this was going to become a funny anecdote worth the upward stares. A brief inspection of my boot and I am vertical again amongst the pews. The struggle over the magnifying glass is not ideal but then again it is not that dissimilar to the frenzied battle scenes hanging above, or so I tell myself.
Dear Anna, I feel that I reaped as much as I could from these ambiguous moments and faired quite well but then I pushed my luck by trying to have lunch in the Native American Museum’s canteen (it is meant to have the best food on the National Mall) alone with three children. If you can imagine a cubist painting of refracted chaos in which you can dimly discern the following elements: 5yr old with tray in packed canteen, cranberry juice spill, $98, discovery of Velcro behind all cushions, second cranberry juice spill, gastronomic rejection of suspected spiciness, apple juice spill, urgent request for bathroom, mammoth search for hidden bathroom (it becomes clear that they are not a prominent feature of Native American history) whilst carrying small ticking bladder, water bottle spill on anything that is not yet cranberry-pink or too spicy and final round-up trip to loo with ulterior motive of investigating hand dryers for a second time – you will have a fairly good impression. It was utter and meaningless hell. A couple next to us, with half a child between them, watched the entire proceedings with unabashed obsessiveness, we were the most interesting performance they had seen in ages. A woman came up to tell me she remembered being just like me. To my embarrassment I was incapable of facial or verbal expression.
I returned home to ponder the sanctity of the moment. When are we not being made to feel guilty about not living in the present enough? All this harping on about seizing it and about Carps and Diems has given the moment a disproportionate status and endowed it with a hallowedness that is a bit suspect. It is just a bit too sentimental and Dead Poet’s Society. I contend that not all moments are born equal. There are moments to be seized and others that should be let loose.
Anna’s article is in part a note-to-self brought on by an attack of soft-round-the-edges reminiscence, which we will doubtless all fall prey to. However, for those still in the thick of it, to be told that we should be savouring the present is not really news. In fact I fear it is not helpful and worse still it might backfire. What mother does not see the slumbering heads of her children and berate herself nightly for a failure to do so? I can only compare it to those who aim to encourage by telling one how much worse off someone else has it. If I am feeling lousy, the last thing I want to know is that I should buck up and feel sorry for someone else. It delivers all the comfort of a good kick in the shin.
Dear Anna, I realise that you were trying to do us a good turn with this gentle cautionary tale but the scent on the wind of a self-zipping jacket is more likely to provide us with the perspective and solace to be better parents. It will breathe life into our tired limbs and give us the hope and strength to grasp the moment and anything else that is tumbling down about our ears.
It is, therefore, in an attempt to undo any parental self-castigation amongst those still lumbering through it, or those now clouded in the mists of reminiscence, that I “append” my own family snapshot taken several hours after I had read the article: ‘Our lunch tray’.
Should I ever become a Pulitzer prize winning journalist, I will post this photograph as a reminder that whilst there are moments worth savouring on life’s path, there must necessarily be others, on the far side of the spectrum, that one is not required to digest. To this I will attach a picture of my grown and gleaming, self-cleaning offspring.
Seizing the moment sounds attractive and deep but it should not be romanticised. Some moments are meaningless and should be left free-range and allowed to slip on by.
And now, I am off to buy a quilt.
Link to article by Anna Quindlen