– Hesitation

I went out to do errands. I brought Jimmy’s Nikon (very sharp, with a telephoto lens), because there’s a store sign I pass all the time that’s awkward in a provocative way. I meant to take a picture of the words; I forgot.

I did, however, see something else amazing: a blue VW bug on fire. It was directly across from me at the intersection of Rt. 1 and the entrance to the Dedham Mall. I was stopped at the red light; the burning, smoking car was in my sight line; and I remembered I had a camera. Opportunity!

I paused. The camera remained momentarily on the seat beside me. I mulled over my situation, step by step. This is what went through my mind:

  1. There’s a burning car. I should take a picture of it. I, for once, have a camera with me.
  2. If I roll down the window, and lean out with the camera, the car might choose that instant — with my luck — to explode, and spray burning gasoline and shrapnel in my direction.
  3. I could get burned, badly.
  4. Could the spraying flames from the exploding VW ignite the fuel in my car? Could I blow up?
  5. How terrible that would be, to be either horribly injured or die, in the act of taking a completely unnecessary picture of a stunning event.
  6. Perhaps I should turn into the parking lot and consider my options.

The light changed. And I turned into the parking lot. Then I took, with me sitting in the open window of the car to get some height and the lens zoomed to the max, this picture:

VW Fire, Rt. 1, June 12, from Uno\'s parking lot

The shot I missed was better: Herbie the Love Bug, looking me in the eye, with flames coming out of his rear end and smoke rising in billows over his roof. I guess I could never be a photo journalist (although I don’t recall ever having wanted to be one). I don’t act fast enough. Even a few seconds of hesitation, which is about what it took to go through that series of thoughts, adds up to a lost chance.

This tendency could explain my not being good at fast-moving multi-player sports.

This habit of pausing to gather my thoughts, however, which drives my kids nuts, could also account for my being pretty helpful in emergencies, as I think Julie, for example, could attest. If you’re with me, and you have a wound that’s dripping blood, I’m not leaping to the mental conclusion that you’re about to bleed out and die. I’m wondering where, exactly, did I stash the car’s first aid kit, and where on your body should I place some gentle pressure to get that blood to stop, and what should I say to you so you won’t worry.

– Row after row

There’s a kind of making that’s really just manufacturing. There are no choices or problems to confront. No risk. No surprise.

Purple skinny scarfI’m manufacturing a scarf as I sit on the sidelines and wait for Grace to finish her swim practice. Oh, early on I had to make one or two decisions — which of my surplus yarns should I use? how many stitches do I cast on? — but now all I have to do is pick up the needles and start moving my hands to operate the tools in a way I’ve done a thousand times before. As Lydia remarked a few weeks ago about this kind of knitting, it is calming, and it is productive. Row after row after row, the inches add up. I could almost knit this in my sleep. I want the scarf, which is intended for me, yet I feel no urgency about it.

On Monday afternoon, Grace interrupted her swimming of laps, hauled herself out of the pool, and walked over to where I was perched, knitting and waiting for her. Practice was only half done. She looked spent.

“I’m tired. I don’t want to keep swimming today,” she moaned as she leaned against my leg. A conversation determined that her complaint was nothing diagnosable.

“It’s a tough practice,” I replied. “They’re not always fun.” I tried, as I always do when her confidence wavers, to be an external ballast: “You’re halfway there. You look strong.” Inside, I asked myself, Why not just go home? She’s only seven.

“But, Mom!”

With my hand resting lightly on her wet back, I murmured with firmness, “Grace, I know you can do it. Plus, we’re here.” At an education conference in the fall, I learned that children become self-reliant in their interactions with trusted others. It’s our job to coax them, paradoxically, to become more independent. Is this what that speaker meant? I wondered.

Unhappily, she walked back to her lane and slipped into the water. She looked to the coach for direction, and then she bent her knees, pressed her feet against the wall of the pool underwater, and pushed off. Stroke after stroke, Grace swam 25 meters, then 50, 75, and finally 100.

I looked down at the knitting in my lap and tried to compare my rows to hers. What’s different?

When I started teaching, my friend Lisette, a (former) serious college athlete who also became a teacher, asked me, “What are you going to do this semester to get out of your comfort zone?”

“Huh?” I responded.

“What are you going to do that’s hard for you, that you’re not sure you can do?” she elaborated.

I took her question seriously and thought about it for many days as I was planning the semester, and I built into my syllabus challenges not just for the students, but for me. With a silent nod across the miles to Lisette, I do that every semester.

When I do this kind of mindless knitting, however, there’s no risk for me and nothing of value at stake. Like eating ice cream, it’s soothing and filling in a pleasurable way. We all need those kinds of activities in our lives.

Grace’s rows in the pool, however, are different. She’s not always sure she’s up to it or that she can finish what she has signed on to do. There are tears sometimes, cold water, and nakedness in the locker room. There have been no measurable victories so far, although Grace keeps hoping for them, and hence no ribbons on a loop of thread to hang from her neck. And still, she must practice, practice, practice.

Grace swimming


Picture of scarf in hand by Eli. Picture of Grace by Jimmy.