We're diehard New Yorkers, Eric and I. We've lived here longer than either of us has lived anywhere else. We've called the Big Apple home for twenty years. We weren't born here, neither of us grew up in the city, but we've been here our entire adult lives, and we're raising our family here - I've given birth twice at beth Israel Hospital, I've been 7 cm dilated in a taxi cab stuck in a traffic jam in Union Square at high noon on a 95 degree day in May - so at this point, as a New York family, we're pretty well bona fide.
Today those babies are fortunate students at an enchanting public school, they go on brilliant field trips to some of the best cultural institutions in the world; we play at a dozen delightful parks within walking distance of home, have whiffle ball games at the river in the evening and watch the sun set over the Hudson; we walk the Highline year round to observe its wonders in all four seasons, we're on a first name basis with everyone at the Chelsea Square Restaurant. We've made our life here.
New York City is a great place to raise kids. I say this with full awareness that, even on our modest income, we enjoy a level of privilege I can't explain, advantages which we've neither earned nor deserve any more than any other family somehow making a life in the urban wild. The city is ragged with inequity, it's visible everywhere, and all I can say is that we're trying to carve out our own way, hoping to make ourselves part of the solution not part of the problem; we're trying to use it as an opportunity to teach our kids - and ourselves - gratefulness and compassion, tenacity, responsibility, and generosity, awareness and advocacy.
I never stop loving New York City - this crazy, chaotic, flawed, wondrous human experiment.
Except in the summer.
I've never been a big fan of New York in July and August, but somehow when you're 25 and doing bootleg outdoor theater in abandoned lots on the lower east side, and going for cheap falafel and beer with your cast-mates afterward, the swelter feels gritty and sexy. When you're 43 and trying desperately to get some writing done, and your sticky, wilted children are whingeing with boredom, prickly heat, and 'lack-of-summer-cabin' fever, it starts to seem like a ridiculous place to live.
When the kids were really little, and I had, for the time being, pretty thoroughly (if somewhat reluctantly) given myself over to that all-consuming phase of motherhood, the summer days played out like all the others: a nice long trip to one of the parks in our immediate vicinity, maybe a picnic lunch, then home for naps and an umpteenth viewing of Finding Nemo. The comfortable monotony would be broken at intervals by grandparents visiting from out of town, and at some point in the summer we'd take a nice trip.
It was enough.
Some years, Eric and I did summer Shakespeare out of town. There would thus ensue a great scrambling for babysitters in a new town, and the kids would live for a few weeks as little mascots of a troupe of mostly single, itinerant, thespian types who remarkably, to a person, always generously embraced these wee people as part of the team, let them run around backstage and try on costumes, took them on bug-finding adventures and canoe rides, taught them sword play and racy Renaissance humor, bought them ice cream cones.
In the summer of 2011, when our son was finishing first grade and our daughter was barely out of toddlerhood, Eric booked a TV show and we moved on the fly to Los Angeles. Our son did second grade there, and our daughter started preschool for the first time. We had a tiny house in the hollywood hills, on a quiet cul-de-sac, and a huge terrace cut into the steep slope. We had fruit trees - lemons, limes, even figs to pick. For the first time in their lives the kids tasted not only food that grew in their own yard, but independence. They played outside on their own, kicked a soccer ball in the street, wandered little coyote paths through the ivy-covered hillside, chased lizards, watched the red tailed hawks circle the canyon and perch in the cypress tree.
It was, in every way, a new climate, and I found that I breathed differently there. Suddenly, I had more energy than I knew what to do with, and like, three whole hours a day in which to be a creative person again, to earnestly restart - and ultimately, to rethink and remold - my life as an artist.
All that year we made frequent trips to the beach; we splashed in the Pacific in January. And the summer that followed that school year was spent mostly at the ocean. The kids came to know the musicians and magicians, snake handlers and panhandlers of Venice Beach. They boogie boarded in Santa Monica, collected sand crabs in Malibu, learned every nook and cranny, every kid-sized, wave-carved cave of every vertiginous rock at El Matador.
It was bliss.
But we were on borrowed time. The show had been cancelled, and so, in August we headed back to New York. Home! But I must confess, I went kicking and screaming.
The kids, returning to familiar environs, were thrilled to reconnect with old friends, visit well-loved playgrounds, eat Famous Original Ray's Pizza again.
I had more trouble adjusting. I gritted my teeth and got back to work on a slew of writing projects I'd started in LA.
That school year flew by, and then it was summer again, 2013. It was hotter than hell that July; we had several record breaking heatwaves; our window unit A/C hummed and rattled and dripped away all day to little avail. The kids were bored and antsy, my patience splintered, I crabbed at them a lot for things that weren't their fault. I got nothing done, work wise.
No longer was it enough for them, at 8 and 6, to just noodle around at the playground every morning all summer. They needed more stimulation. Suddenly New York, in contrast to our west coast idyll of the previous year, felt like a burden, a suffocating cell block.
It seemed that their friends were all at pricey full time day camps, or monthlong sleep-aways, or on extended international travels. Obviously, there are always a million things to do in New York, but most of them cost money, and they all cost time. Museum passes, movie tickets, and amusement parks add up quickly, Cyclone rides are 9 bucks a pop. And the sleepy, sandy subway journey out to Coney Island or Far Rockaway and back again is too draining to do daily.
I love having my kids around for the summer, and I deeply believe that downtime is vital, boredom is good for you, having to create your own fun nurtures imagination and self-sufficience. But they reach an age where they need room to roam without a parent helicoptering; they need a freedom and independence that New York, for all its delights, cannot afford them. They're really too old now to have me spoon feeding them organized, prepackaged fun, but too young to go find it on their own. The hard reality is that if I want them to do something other than loaf around and play brain-melting video games (verboten), I have to keep them entertained them 24/7. And it's not so much that keeping them engaged is difficult, it's more a matter of what I have to let go of in order to do that... like, my work.
I remember reading somewhere that the poet Anne Sexton won a Radcliffe grant and used the money to put a swimming pool in her backyard. She took a lot of flak for it, but it makes perfect sense to me, as a work-from-home parent, that for a mother of two young girls, trying to carve out a writing life, there was no better investment in her work than whatever would keep her children happy and healthy and occupied. I'm on a generous grant - the Lincoln City Fellowship, from the amazing Speranza Foundation, but it turns out it's tricky to put a pool or even a tire swing in a brownstone.
Then, last summer, a miracle happened. A friend of a friend offered us a housesitting gig for the month of July at their home in Topanga Canyon, at LA's western border, genuinely one of my favorite places on earth. Eric was working all summer in Shakespeare in the Park at the Delacorte, playing Borrachio in Much Ado About Nothing and Edmund in King Lear; we hated to be apart, but I realized if I turned down this opportunity, I'd slog through the dog days begrudging him a dream job and cursing our sweet kids for my inability to accomplish anything artistic.
Off we went. Four weeks in the Santa Monica mountains, with a pool and a swing set in the backyard, neighborhood friends, the vast canyon to explore, and the sparkling ocean 14 minutes down the hill.
I'd rise at dawn, before the kids were awake, and go running on the canyon trails. Back at home I'd throw them some breakfast then throw them in the pool. I had a makeshift desk right on the deck and I'd write all morning while they swam and played. By lunchtime, having already put in a respectable day's work, I felt both fulfilled and wrung out in best way, and could take off for the beach guilt- and disgruntlement- free.
It was magical.
I detest the constant chatter about "work-life balance" - because it's a concept most often leveled at modern working moms in a manner that's both accusatory and reductive, and inherently sets you up to feel like a failure in one direction or another - but if there IS such a thing, that summer was it for me. I felt like I could be, in the main, fully present for my work and fully present with my family. To me, that's success... or at least the foundation of it.
So this summer I finagled a way to flee the city again. This week, we're meeting my family at a cousin's cabin in Canada, right over the border from Buffalo where I grew up, and just down the beach from my grandparent's cottage, now gone, where I spent childhood summers. Then, we have the Topanga house again, for a slightly shorter, and as yet undetermined, length of time. We have one-way tickets to California, and only a general sense of what we'll do when we leave the canyon. We may housesit for some other friends, we may rent a van and just drive around like right beach bums. At some point we'll wind up in northern California with my in-laws for a few days.
It's an adventure.
And I'm going to blog about it.
I don't know what it will to turn into exactly, but I'm devising a daily practice of physical exercise, encounter with nature, being with my family, of course, and writing as I go. I'll loosely divide the project into Canyon Days, Lake Days, Ocean Days, and I imagine my reflections may appear in any of my blog categories, Arts, Family, Wellness, Spirit, Style...
One of my favorite yoga teachers of all time, the marvelous artist-yogi Edward Vilga, often opens class by saying, "We'll make some shapes, and then... other things will happen." And they usually do. Joy unfolds as the body winds and unwinds. New ideas and old tears come flooding. I'm always changed for the better after practice.
I'm taking my kids to swim in the lake that shaped my childhood; I'm venturing back into the canyon where I found harmony and revelation last summer; I'm diving into the ocean at Malibu where some cosmically crazy moments (read: the button jar and the green shoes) have happened for me in the past; I'm visiting places that are dear and nostalgic, inspiring and challenging, and maybe even going some places I don't know of yet - and I'm just going to try to be present with it all daily and write about it. And hopefully... other things will happen.
This is summer...unscripted.