Saturday, September 24, 2011

To Sydney, On Your 6th Birthday

My sweet girl,

As I write this, you are sleeping soundly, in the bottom half of the bunk bed that PaPa made for Daddy so many years ago. You wanted to stay up until 9 o'clock tonight, and though you gave it your best shot ('Sound of Music' is a really long movie--good choice) you only made it to 8:18 before limping up the stairs and falling into bed. And who could blame you? It's been an incredibly full year.

Since you turned 5 one year ago, you have learned to read, to add and subtract, to jump rope and hula hoop, tie your shoes, ride a bike, snap your fingers, chew bubble gum, roller skate, and solve for x (Ok, the last one I made up. The rest are true.) You found a tiny kitten in the Spillway, hiding under a rock, coaxed her out with a shrimp you got from a nearby fisherman, and talked us into letting you keep her. You named her "Alice Sparkle," and the name stuck even after we discovered that Alice is actually a boy. You managed kindergarten with total grace and confidence. You have grown a foot taller, your hair is several inches longer, and your face has lost all traces of toddlerhood. You're a big girl now.

In many ways, you are exactly the same as you've always been, from day one: strong, loving, inquisitive, creative, fierce and passionate. You still love your baby dolls and will occasionally spend a full hour dressing, cuddling, and arranging them for sleep. You spend the majority of your free time drawing and making jewelry, and since you acquired the ability to read, your creativity has extended to writing and illustrating stories. Your friends are very important to you, and you go to great lengths to make them feel happy and special. For example, when your friend J. lost a ring at school the other day, you spent who knows how long investigating, quizzing classmates who may have seen it, talking teachers into searching the campus in spots where your subjects indicated they may have seen it. You were very upset when, at the end of the day, the ring still had not been found, and you spent the evening trying to talk me into buying J. another one for her birthday. When I explained to you that J's birthday is not until December, you went into your jewelry box, found one of your favorite rings, brought it to school the next day and gave it to your friend. So that she would feel better.

Generosity is a value we try to instill in you and Evan, but you really come by it naturally. You would give your last cookie to any kid on the street, and in fact you often do. You have such a beautiful spirit, strong and genuine and kind. Sure, you have fears, but you don't let them impede you--you walk out into the world every day with amazing confidence and a stubborn persistence that will serve you well in life.

I don't want to forget to talk about fashion. At morning meeting the other day, one of the other parents commented on how "well put-together" you always are and asked how I managed to get you looking so beautiful every morning. I had to explain that I have absolutely nothing to do with it, that you take tremendous pride in your appearance and how each morning after breakfast, you close your bedroom door and emerge 15 or 20 minutes later, impeccably dressed, immaculately coiffed and accessorized. You carry yourself with incredible poise, almost as if we'd sent you to one of those horrible etiquette courses, and sometimes when I see you walking towards or away from me I'm struck by how grown up you seem, how much time seems to have passed since I first held you in my arms.

This letting go thing is hard, Sydney, harder than I ever thought it would be. You don't need me as much anymore and though I encourage this independence and am so impressed by your incredible confidence, I just cannot believe that it happened so fast. Your friends have become the center of your world and my attention has shifted to teaching you about being a good friend, helping you strike that balance between taking care of yourself and caring for others. Though you appear to others to be indestructible, you are actually a very sensitive person, easily wounded (though quick to recover), and this makes you very aware of others' feelings. You will go to great lengths not to hurt someone's feelings (unless that person is Evan), and that extends to the way you talk about people. For example, the other day you were telling me that one of your friends has a crush on a boy in the kindergarten (gasp) and when I asked if the boy was cute you paused for several seconds and gave me a serious look. "Well," you said, "I'm sure J. thinks he is." What a thoughtful and diplomatic answer! Even in your friend's absence you were unwilling to say something that might be construed as hurtful.

Sydney, I am bursting with love for you. You have brought so much joy to our lives, it's indescribable. A few weeks ago I snuck into your room while you were sleeping and spent a few moments at your bedside, listening to your soft breathing and stroking your back. You're not a baby anymore; we have entered a new phase of our relationship. Thank you for your patience as I stumble towards parenthood, thank you for constantly reminding me to look at the world with wonder and not with fear, to face challenges with courage instead of anger, and to be the best friend I can be. I'm so proud of you. I will say that a million times over the course of your lifetime, and perhaps someday you'll roll your eyes when I say it, but for now, I will whisper it in your ear at night and before I send you off to your classroom in the morning and every possible moment in between.

Happy Birthday to my beautiful, kind, talented, fierce, stubborn, generous, amazing little girl.



Friday, September 2, 2011

Gimme Shelter

10 years ago this weekend, I moved to New Orleans. I was a 25-year-old music school dropout, having spent the previous couple of years working in restaurant kitchens, watching my college friends defend their dissertations and move into real jobs, flirting with a running addiction. A year or so working inpatient psych in Sarasota, the suicidal kids and the overdose graveyard shift in the locked room on the ER floor, had burned me out and I had moved back to Orlando, defeated and hopeless and seriously considering moving out to the beach, where I could work on my melanoma, pick at my guitar, and brand myself an "outsider artist."

Luckily, in the summer of 2001, my brilliant and beautiful New College friends put together a grand trip to Northern California--Gualala, to be specific--and we spent a week lounging in hammocks, playing endless rounds of Spite and Malice, dipping our toes in the Pacific and floating in the more welcoming streams, acting stupidly and trading bits of our souls. There wasn't much reminiscing, as I recall; but then, there wasn't much distance between our graduation and our real lives.

On the hammock one afternoon, a third of the way through a bottle of gin with the endless blue sky stretched out above our heads, my friend H. and I talked about my shitty life and the various ways in which I had surprised and disappointed myself. Relentlessly pragmatic, my friend suggested that a change of scenery and the company of fellow travelers would help get me back on track. She had moved to New Orleans a few months before; why didn't I join her there?

And so I did. It wasn't a tough call, given my long history of visits to New Orleans, my deep dissatisfaction with life in Central Florida, and my generally impulsive approach to major life decisions. I gave notice at work, sold my old Wurlitzer (sniff sniff, sob), packed the Tercel to the gills and headed off in the darkness up I-75. It was Labor Day weekend and pouring rain in the Panhandle; in my rearview mirror I watched a car fishtail and swerve off the road and I gripped the wheel and sang The Mississippi Squirrel Revival song when I spied the Pascagoula exit. Near Mobile the rain cleared and for the first time my drive across the Bay was not obscured by fog. I drove on, through the tunnel and across the pitted roads in the East and past downtown until I found the blue arches marking my new neighborhood. My friend was out of town for the weekend and so I found a pretty good pizza place on Carrollton (Venezia), had a couple of beers on the porch of the house on State Street Drive, and slept fitfully on the floor. The next morning I stumbled around in my running shoes until I found Tulane University, went for breakfast in the Quarter, and found Southern Decadence.

I wrote in an earlier post about that first morning, leaving out the most salient memory which--as is true of most memories--is steeped in emotion and devoid of much detail. I remember the way I felt back then, the hopelessness and despair, the disgust and disappointment and fear. I was in the proverbial desert, crawling hands and knees towards the promise of some Other life, some adventure, some nourishment; I came to New Orleans dying of thirst. I had a tattoo on my forearm and a music degree. Not a great formula for success.

I wasn't used to being a loser, but I got over it pretty quickly and even learned to embrace it. I spent a lot of time at Tipitina's and one night, as I was hanging on the bar watching my friends dance, a man sidled over to me and told me I looked sad. I shrugged and drank my beer, wishing he would go away, but he persisted. "You're empty, I think. I can see it in our eyes," he said and I thought that's the stupidest pickup line I've ever heard and he said "But that's okay, this town gonna fill you up." He walked away and I took the shot my bartender friend handed me and thought well it can hurry the hell up, then.

It took a few years, a few jobs, a Master's degree, a massive levee failure, and several Mardi Gras seasons, but here I am ten years later, full to bursting, ruined on any other kind of life. New Orleans is like a member of our family, the wild and unpredictable one everyone likes to complain about but desperately hopes shows up at Thanksgiving dinner. The city has a life force--you've felt it if you've been here--it pulses with every emotion you can think of, it forces you to stay awake. And ten years later I will venture to say that perhaps, just maybe, New Orleans is for losers--for misfits and malcontents, for the ones who lost their way in the wide world and came looking for a richer life, who came crawling, hands and knees, to a place where the store clerks call you "baby" and the ladies in the grocery pinch your infant's fat thighs and there is a certain comfort in the rites and rituals and idiosynchrasies. A New Orleans existence is not something you can sleep your way through, and that's what saved me a decade ago from a life of complacent surrender.

New Orleans, I love you. Here's to another 10 years together.