When we drive to my father-in-law’s in East Texas for the holidays, the soundtrack for our journey is whatever’s playing on the radio. Once we get outside Austin, we click on a station that casts out its spell, playing song after song I once knew by heart—about longing, loving and loss. As we speed past rows of hay bales and signs for Sam’s Stump Removal and the He’s Not Here Bar, I let a favorite tune carry me along, listening the way I did when I was growing up and every word was meant just for me. Somewhere in my brain all the words are stored and they rise up like messages from my old self. Singing along, I am driving to Galveston after the prom, sitting on the floor playing my mom’s records, drawing in seventh grade art class, lying on my futon in Austin anesthetized by headphones and wine. Carole King, David Bowie, Bob Dylan, Billy Joel, Hot Chocolate, Super Tramp, The Police, Talking Heads. And what strikes me as I listen, staring across empty black fields, lonesome houses, and silent cows, is that all my old dreams—to love and be loved, to have adventures, live free and have fun, and mostly to be myself and be happy—have come true. I am living the life I am singing.
Suddenly I am the kind of parent who can buy her son an electric guitar for Christmas, a gift that seems lavish yet fitting for our sometimes-green-haired boy. I am the person who buys the $40 ham—can it be?—and cooks the whole dinner, simple yet perfect, without qualms. I am someone who debates the long-term benefits of a home equity loan versus a line of credit—so that we can embark on home improvement. I even save 8% for retirement. Alongside my family, I perform the miracle of winter gardening, which in our climate is actually much easier than spring planting, venturing out back to pick lettuce leaves and clip broccoli heads for dinner. (My first garden, a strip of zinnias and radishes, was considered a rebel act in our Houston suburb and my stepfather’s house.)
I don’t know quite when it happened. Where I once was slightly wayward, a cynical snob, distrustful and short-sighted—and that would be the very-short list—I am now . . . a mother who springs from the couch to make with my son the batch of sugar cookies I promised, an agile partner in the life-long tango of marriage, someone who knows what the moon is doing, a woman who can swim two miles and is still getting faster, a person who gives until just before she is empty, someone who cries more for joy than sadness.
Which isn’t to say I’m perfect. I don’t live in the stone house of my dreams by a little pond. Instead, we fight over the single bathroom. My heart is not always open. Just this morning I told my son to shut up when he protested wearing his helmet when he rides his scooter. I am not a pillar of patience and strength. I pretend to be asleep when my son calls out in the night and don’t answer the phone while I’m watching trashy TV. I have not forsaken ambition, I still ride out tsunamis of frustration.
I remember just a few years ago sitting with Jim on the couch, our arms and legs tangled in embrace, the baby finally asleep. Over ice cream we embarked on the old "empty glass vs. full glass" argument. A recovered alcoholic, he experiences life in a blissful accepting state. I, on the other hand, see the ceiling that needs repainting, the dead lawn, the book I have yet to publish. He pleaded, cajoled, debated me, but I did not give in to unbridled optimism.
Yet in the intervening years something has shifted, I don’t know where or when. It is as if I just recently realized I have two hands. In one, I still clench my unquenched appetite, my lists, my strategies—in the other rests all that I already have in my open palm. Maybe this is what they mean by balance.
I walk around wondering how I ended up so happy. Is it all that swimming? Is it eating right? Is it being married ten years? Is it our approaching trip to Barcelona? Is it finally settling into good relationships with my parents? Is it having a child who can wash his own hair? Is it finally getting enough sleep? (Nah!) Is it getting an astrological reading that said my hardest times are over? Is it winning some writing prizes? Is it writing this column? Is it having friends that believe in me? Is it a rewarding (in both senses) job? Or is it simply a controlled intake of chocolate and coffee?
Over the holidays, we took Cope to see the new movie of "Peter Pan." Afterwards he leapt around the house brandishing an extra wand from our new wood blinds, dressed in his father’s fifty-year-old George Washington costume. (Captain Hook and he must have had the same tailor.) I always cried when I saw earlier versions. When Wendy chooses her parents and home in London over the jungles and mermaids of Neverland, not to mention the ability to fly and adventures with Peter, I always felt acute disappointment. Why must she give up everything? This time, when the children return and Mother in her velvet dressing gown sweeps them in her grateful embrace I felt lucky to be grown up. Because if you ask me, J. M. Barrie only got it partly right. As children drenched in imagination, we can flee and fly and fight—but bedtime and other adult rules always have their way in the end. Only as adults can we find the freedom to be ourselves. It takes the wisdom of years—a lot of them for some of us—to get quiet enough to hear our desires, brave enough to announce them, committed enough to follow through, and graceful enough to enjoy them. As this new year arrives I find myself driving a blue highway under clear skies, a pack of gum on the dash, the radio tuned in. I guess as long as David Bowie sings of changes and Hot Chocolate believes in miracles ("you sexy thing"), I’ll be joining in.