Sunday, September 6, 2009

No Answers

There are a lot of things I don't know, I'll admit it. The hardest thing is being a parent and trying to answer questions you don't know the answer to without making your kids think you're a total idiot. Even if you are, it doesn't feel great for a 5-year-old or an 8-year-old to look at you with disdain, with a look that says, "there must be an answer, how could you not know it?"

The other day, traversing the more touristy parts of lower Central Park with my boys, Eli, looked up at the zillionth person he'd seen that day in passing and then at me and asked pointedly, "Are we special Mommy? Or are we just average?"

I thought about the question and about the possible answers. I guess I could have asked him why he asked, but I assumed it was because we were in a crowded place, which always makes me wonder where I fit in the scheme of things, makes me feel insignificant unless, of course, I think of myself as special. Now, I could have gone with my gut instinct and answered, "Yes, of course we are special! Us, average? No way!" But it rang false inside my head. Didn't we only think we were special because we are special to ourselves? All the people walking toward us probably felt they were special too. Were they? Were we? By definition, not everybody can be special. But what is the criteria and who decides? Like a gold star, the moniker is given out willy nilly, passed along in moments that seem meaningful and personal, to someone in particular. Sometimes there is agreement among many, as in the case of some celebrities, Meryl Streep high among them. But rarely is there consensus. People love to debunk the "specialness" of stars. When Michael Jackson died, a lot of people cried out, "Why should I care? Why was he any more special than I am?"

Of course, I want my kids to feel special, but I don't want them to be spoiled or braggy or to act better than other people even if they happen to possess skills in something that puts them on the winning side. I am conflicted about how to handle this subject, very.

Luckily, as I pondered, clueless, we got to our destination, to lunch on the cheapy side of the Boathouse Cafe where Eli had remembered having a great cup of Chicken Noodle Soup, his favorite. I was off the hook. I never actually got around to answering the question. I might have to buy him a book or write him a story about how to think about such a thing, a moralistic piece like The Ugly Duckling or Elmer. Somehow it's easier when we can talk about a subject using an anthropomorphic animal as the example rather than ourselves. It's one thing to say, "See, Elmer is a special elephant because he is patchwork, all those other elephants are boring and the same, they're average," and a whole other to say, "See, you are a special kid because you're FILL IN BLANK HERE and those other kids in your class, they're just average..."

Kids have enough ways that they are told they are special or just average in school, and I think it's so hard, no matter where you fall on the spectrum. Competition is always making winners and losers out of people, even a group where everyone is trying. I hate that. I know it is the way it is and therefore, sadly, has to be most of the time, but it's one of the many reasons I am finding it hard to gear up for the school year. Summer and its randomness puts everyone on somewhat equal footing. At camp, it seems, there is less grading and more focus on everyone being gung ho.

After lunch, we wandered across the road to a shaded area under the trees, within earshot of some pleasant live music and within sight of the remote-controlled sailboats. We lazed there for a bit, then got up to rent a boat. As we walked along, we saw some dragonflies. I, as usual, got excited. They have over the last couple of years become my symbol, my sign that I am in the right place at the right time. If I see one, it is a revelatory moment, but revelatory of what I often can't figure.

Eli, again, called me out for answers I don't have.

"Why do you get excited when we see dragonflies, Mommy, when we see them all the time?"

I thought about it. Really, I thought, it's a matter of faith. I want to believe so desperately in something and I am so often disillusioned. In an uncharacteristic placement of spirituality over practicality, I have chosen to imbue dragonflies with meaning, to imagine that they are saying something about what path I should take, about the meaning of life, not just anybody's life, but mine alone. Can I say this to an 8-year-old? Should I really be saying this to myself? Isn't it stupid?

Luckily, we came upon the source of our musical enjoyment, a trumpeter and a saxophonist playing out of a "Loser's Music" book, and the kids were dying to pay them some money, to be early benefactors of the arts. I'm all for that so I dug out some dollars. Saved, again, from trying to explain to my progeny what I myself cannot even answer definitively, what I don't think anyone really knows. What books can I buy them about faith? Can I use the upcoming Jewish holidays as a metaphor for overall meaning, for why things we don't really know anything about become signs and symbols for why our lives have meaning, why we should be allowed to feel "special," dare I even say, "Chosen?" It is complicated. Why can't it stay summer forever? I like the distractions of not having to say anything for sure, of just trying in little ways each day to find some joy.

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