Monday, May 31, 2010

Oxygen Tank

For the last nine and a half months we four have all been explorers, pushing again and again into new places and languages and cultures, adding place after place to our list of conquered territories. Now we voyage back to the familiar.

Just this afternoon, we finally closed the giant circle of the trip. It started back on August 10 as we boarded a Dartmouth Coach bus in front of the Hanover Inn, bound for Logan Airport. We landed back in New York last Tuesday, and since then have been working our way slowly North back to that same exact place.

On our way here, we have stayed with friends, then with my parents to celebrate their 44th wedding anniversary. Last night we stayed in a dorm room for a reunion at the college where Bill and I met and fell in love. But today as I drove into Hanover and past the bus stop, I finally brought us all back full circle to where we began.

42 weeks away from then till now, which is the same number of weeks I counted and waited until Grace was born.

Now we're diving back down into the lives we left, learning what has changed and what still remains. While Thomas Wolfe (You Can't Go Home Again) and Bon Jovi ("Who Says You Can't Go Home?") disagree on what happens to the concept of home once you've been gone a long time, the jury is still out for me.

Complicating things is the fact that we've taken the year away, and we're back, but we're not actually home just yet. The philosophical question -- what is "home?" -- is a literal one as well, since the home we left eleven months ago is now completely ripped apart, under construction in the process of being put back together.

We rented out our house in Brooklyn for the first part of our trip, but since the tenants didn't want to commit to a full year, we came up with what seemed like such a wonderfully practical idea: once they left, we'd renovate the house while we were away. We'd move our furniture into storage and hire contractors to fix all the broken stuff and reconfigure the house to fit our new stage of our family's life.

It was a good idea, and totally practical in terms of timing. But psychologically, for two little girls weary of being dragged from place to place, returning here without a place to land was perhaps not so very straightforward. Right now they're excited to be back, but also jetlagged and not a little bit confused.

So this week, we're circling around that desired-for feeling of home like little bugs around a light, relying on the places and the people we love to keep us warm and fed and safe. They have not let us down, but instead keep filling me with exactly the things I most desired.

My friends and family are giving so generously to me, which means I have more to give to the girls. As we've been traveling -- on the train, and then on the airplane, and then even on the familiar streets of Brooklyn, or on the path to Memorial Hill at college, the girls have been sticking closely to my side. They are too big for this, I suppose, but they actually hold my hand when we walk, leaning a little on my arms. They keep finding ways to lean their little heads on my shoulder, and when it's time to go to bed, they want to snuggle up close to my body. "I love you so much, Mom," Abigail will breathe into my hair. I know she means it with all of her heart, but what she's also saying is, "So much is changing. This feels weird. Please keep telling me that I'm going to be OK."

I am an oxygen tank for them, full of the air of home. I've learned to distill the essence of home to fit it here in this tiny vessel of myself. I've also learning how to refill myself, so now when they need me I know how to charm the tiniest little circle and give them that feeling of place, even when things are rocky, or uncertain, or strange. Or even French.

It took me awhile to recognize that I could do this for them. But now I see it so clearly -- I feel it in their little hands grabbing onto mine. Whenever we make a change from one place to the next, the girls suddenly need my undivided attention, my care and watching. I open up the regulator on the tank, and give them as much of myself as I can. They breathe in home, they breathe in confidence, they breathe in the feeling that they themselves can make their way.

Because comforting them is not the whole point. It's lovely, really, to have such sweet girls holding my hands and breathing into my ear how much I am loved. But my aim is always to give them what they need so that they can do whatever we are up to more independently. This extra air builds them up so that they can strike out on their own. Gradually they adjust to each new atmosphere, and start to stay away for longer stretches. WhereverWeGo, home travels in me, and then suffuses into them. They breathe the air of home, and then they go back out again -- strengthened, older, stronger -- into the world that awaits.


  1. Welcome home! For my own selfish enjoyment, I wish your journey could continue. Thinking about this post made me realize something that I think many parents take for granted. We are that oxygen tank for our kids in everyday life. To a 4 or 7 year old, a trip to the market, a family reunion, or even a ballgame can be a new and frightening experience. Be there for your kids, whether it's a trip to the market, or a trip across Europe. Congratulations on the success of your journey, I for one have enjoyed being allowed to share in it.

    Thanks and Best Wishes,

  2. Laughed and groaned at the letter to the folks in the next hotel room. Yikes.

    My mostly mild-mannered husband, God bless him, would have walked over there and said almost everything you expressed, but perhaps not in such kind words. He has great patience for me and my antics, but absolutely none for hotel inconveniences, especially if our sleep is interrupted. He recently requested that our hotel room be "comped" because we were awakened by a false alarm in the middle of the night and had to evacuate our room. "Not our mistake, not our problem, and we won't be paying for the room." Fortunately, that time he said it all rather calmly to the woman behind the desk in the lobby, was granted the free night, and got us free breakfast vouchers for the following morning. For a breakfast that included freshly made omelets, not just scrambled eggs. He is my hotel hero! Forgive my digression, but that was a proud moment in my hotel-dwelling life!

    Glad you are home safely - and breathing home and life and trust and strength into your daughters. You are a fabulous mother. Your girls are very blessed to have you in their lives!!! And I am blessed to read your fine words and figure out ways to apply your wisdom to life with my children.

    PS. Please allow me to remind you of how important it is to make sure you provide oxygen to yourself before assisting those around you...

  3. How beautiful! I love the concept of you being oxygen for your daughters. It's such a perfect description of how we hold them up during difficult times. It also proves how important it is to nourish ourselves. Welcome home and good luck on the renovation!

  4. It must be incredible culture shock. And coming home to a new view of home. Enjoy the settling in process, with all its little pleasures and bumps along the way.

    In giving your children what they need, you also give yourself what you need. And in this new old place, it will be interesting to see how that evolves.

    Welcome home.