Way, Way Off the Monocacy

Last week my boys and I tagged along when a professional conference took my husband out to Denver, Colorado. We persuaded him to ditch the meeting a few times, once to tour an old mine in Breckenridge and another to see the Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs, but one day we were completely on our own and, after visiting the United States Mint in Denver, had a few afternoon hours to fill. When a waitress heard me debating some alternatives with my boys (and I, as usual, realizing that they would agree on nothing in the city), she registered my rising panic with the keen eye of a veteran mother, disappeared into a back room, and returned with a pen and a hotel map.

“Okay,” she said, as she slapped the paper on the table. “Do you have a car?”

Yes, in fact, I did. The rental place had given us a behemoth that I was barely able to park. I was so reluctant to use the thing, I almost denied it, but sense (or lack thereof, I’m not quite sure) demanded the truth and so I nodded my head.

“Well, then,” she uncapped the pen and began drawing lines out of Denver, rattling off names and places familiar from earlier internet searches, like Dinosaur Ridge and Red Rocks, but finally she paused and said, “But do you want to know my favorite place?”

“Sure,” I said.

“Does it have rocks and cliffs?” my oldest asked.

“The bowling alley?” my youngest suggested.

“Here,” the waitress circled a light green splotch with her blue pen. “Roxborough State Park.”

While I would like to say that we all immediately agreed and loaded into the rental tank with snacks, backpacks, and sunblock, in fact we dithered and debated all the way back to the hotel room, into the lobby, and finally down to the parking garage, where, with a broken sack and a few bottles of water, I simply declared (or, more accurately, commanded, with a strong edge of irritation), “We’re going to the state park!”

Driving out of Denver proved a long slog through traffic, which didn’t help the tempers of my backseat drivers, who resorted to calling each other names that should have shocked me until we finally got a glimpse beyond the foothills and into the Rocky Mountains, the white-capped massiveness of which finally rendered them speechless…for a few seconds. Despite the disappointment of seeing new development almost to the very entrance of Roxborough State Park and some initial confusion about how to pay our entry fee, I was in a hopeful mood when I finally parked near the visitor center. Both boys threatened to bail before we’d begun hiking — the youngest because they had no live animals in the visitor center itself, and the oldest because he didn’t immediately see any high cliffs with lots of rocks — but when I started, they followed, and as our trail began to climb, their complaints weakened.

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Complaints in process of dying.

In fact, when I caught back up to them after stopping to take some pictures of wildflowers, they were actually beginning to seem interested and perhaps even a little bit in awe. At a crossroads in the trail, they chose to follow Carpenter Peak, and the vistas opened wide.

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As I continued to stop to take photos of wildflowers, the oldest pulled ahead, while the youngest usually dallied to give me company.

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I appreciated it, not least because there was a sign at the beginning of the trail warning us to be aware of mountain lions. Both of the boys tried to amuse me by imagining them in ridiculous places. I reassured them by letting them know that we were unlikely to see them coming. Then I took more pictures.

 

 

Perhaps it was just the altitude, but the boys and I returned to our mastodon of a car in an almost giddy state that even a reprimand for rock-throwing (he really can’t seem to help it) couldn’t entirely destroy. It lasted through the seat-kicking, insult-throwing car ride home, into the I-can’t-find-anything-to-eat-on-this-huge-menu dinner, and even into the cover-stealing night. I think I can even feel it a little now.

But I am glad to be back home on the Monocacy.

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Yellow Salsify (Tragopogon dubius) yesterday morning on the Monocacy River.

The Talk on the Monocacy

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Excerpt from a conversation between two boys, 11 and 13, and their mother:

Setting: “The hideout” at the Monocacy River

Boy, age 13: Guess what I found in the woods, Mom?

Mom: Uh, what?

Boy, age 13: A box of condoms!

(Boy, age 13, grins. Boy, age 11, looks unsure but laughs anyway)

Mom: Do you know what those are for?

Boy, age 13, (rolls eyes): Yes! I’ve had health class for 3 years.

(Boy, age 11, conspicuously quiet but still grinning)

Mom to Boy, age 11: Do you know?

Boy, age 11 (with sarcasm): Uh, yeah.

Mom: What are they for?

Boy, age 11: Like, getting drunk or something.

(Boy, age 13, starts laughing)

Mom: Would you like to explain, Boy, age 13?

Boy, age 13 (turning red): No! Not now!

Mom (imagining later explanation): Would you like me to explain, Boy, age 11? If Boy, age 13, won’t now, I can.

Boy, age 11: Yes, um, no, um, I don’t know…

Mom: It has to do with S-E….

(Both boys interrupt)

Boy, age 11: No, no, no!

Boy, age 13: It’s something the boy puts on his penis for sex!

Mom (discreetly laughing to self): Okay, where is this box?

 

The Bird up the River

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Yesterday I volunteered at my son’s school picnic, which was held at a park some ways up the river. The day itself was nice, sunny and breezy, not at all humid, and even cool in the shade. The morning was going well, my son seeming to play happily with his friends while I monitored a life-size version of Angry Birds, the highlight of which, surprisingly, was not flinging painted balls from a large slingshot,  but rebuilding the fortress of cardboard boxes that the balls knocked down. I got bonked on the head a few times, but this was nothing to what was happening inside of my head. As I looked on, the world was becoming blurred at the edges and overexposed, overlaid in pulsing splotches of shimmering color. I drank water, smiled at the other volunteers, laughed at the kids, but my sense of otherworldliness grew as the slow hours progressed.

In the afternoon, after a lunch of pizza and oranges, I noticed my son sitting apart from the other kids. At his mute but earnest request (a pair of hazel eyes can speak volumes), I’d been keeping my distance, but, even from 200 yards away, I could see by his drooping shoulders that something was wrong. When I got close, I could see that he was crying, and, after a practiced silence and casual inquiry, I discovered that the group of boys he usually relied upon had “banished” him from their circle the rest of the year because he had spoken meanly to them “just once!” For a group of children entering middle school, such behavior is perhaps to be expected, and not just among girls, as people so stereotypically suppose. My son and his friends seem to have spats regularly; one night he has “no friends” and the next he’s talking about what funny things his best buddy said that day.

As typical as this may be, however, it is even more complicated for my son, who suffers from poor impulse control and even worse social skills because of things that happened to him even before he was born. Through no fault of his own, his behavior can seem bullying when he’s trying to be funny, and he cannot read subtle social cues. For instance, he’s quite sure you want him in your game even though you smirked and rolled your eyes when he joined in. My son’s temper is short – he blows his top at small things and spirals into an ugly vortex of nasty name-calling – but a few minutes later he can’t remember what he said. When you accuse him of saying something rude or pulling your arm and he denies it, you think he’s lying, and, technically, he is, but he honestly believes he’s telling the truth. As a parent, I know all this, I’ve studied it and wrestled it with it, and it is still difficult for me.  How, then, can I expect another child to understand? Or, honestly, even another adult? Despite the books, articles and pointed conversations I’ve distributed in my son’s wake, among all of the teachers and staff and adults he sees, understanding and acceptance are slow to follow.

Of course I didn’t say all of this to my son or to the boys who hurt him. I did, however, let them know that they had hurt him and that, whatever he had said, hurting him back wasn’t the best way to deal with it. Eventually they made some tentative movements at reconciliation, but not before my impaired vision was joined by an all-encompassing headache that made me feel as if my mind had detached itself from my body.

And there was over an hour left of the picnic.

With everything going on, it’s amazing that I noticed the flash of orange darting from tree to tree, and a miracle that I didn’t write it off as something that I was imagining. In fact, as I slowly approached the sycamore across the way, I told myself that it was impossible, that it couldn’t be what I thought it was, what I was hoping it was. Once underneath the tree, I looked up, scanning the branches, and, just when I was sure that whatever it was had moved on or had never been, I saw a  bird light onto one of the lower limbs. And – I had been right – there it was – an actual Baltimore Oriole! It was the first one I’ve ever seen in real life, despite its status as Maryland state bird and mascot of our beloved major league baseball team. And it was every bit as bold and bright orange as texts had always assured me.

It was a small thing in a long day, but there’s a poem by Emily Dickinson that I often return to and that this Oriole so completely illustrates:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

Constructive Destruction

My boys are a destructive force – let’s just put that out there – and it’s one of my jobs, as their mother, to civilize them and thus to mitigate their destruction. Of course, we all have a little bit of the savage in us. When I discuss the animal kingdom, I like to include myself, as a human, in that kingdom, and acknowledge that many of our actions, and our motivations, are rooted in our basic, animal selves. We want to survive, we want to thrive, and we want the resources and power we require to do that. Some of us are better equipped for survival, whether through biology or circumstance or, perhaps most importantly, adaptability and resilience. Others struggle.

It is a quandary that I encounter on an almost daily basis that my boys, in order to survive, seem to need to destroy and dismantle. Unless they dig holes, bang on trees, lift logs or break something, they themselves fall apart. According to today’s parlance, they have “sensory issues.”  Why they have these issues is not something I wish to discuss.  It’s up to them to share such information.  It’s enough simply to say that intense activity is necessary for them to function in a way that modern society would find acceptable.  And yet, in this modern world of cities and towns and carefully ordered neighborhoods, it is very difficult to find a place for them to be as physical as they need to be.

When he was younger and living in Minnesota, my older son used to dig holes in our yard. They were all over the place, some quite deep, and he liked to move the black dirt from place to place, pretending to fill in potholes, imagining that one day he would find the dragon that lived underneath us.  Perhaps because we lived in an older house in an older neighborhood, our neighbors were simply amused by the whole process.  Here in Maryland, however, we have found some of our neighbors less tolerant of such endeavors.  After my sons began excavating a rather large trench, one of them said to me, with an air of innocent kindliness, “I’ve always had neighbors who take care of their yards.  I guess I’ve been lucky.” The until now was unspoken but eloquent.

Driven from our home, the Monocacy River has become the boys’ primary outlet.  Yet, even there, I must apply some restrictions.  It is, after all, public property, and they can’t simply cut down a tree where they wish. When they dig holes, I worry about where they’re digging, and, as much as possible, I protect living things from being injured by their projects. After some internal debate, I no longer argue when they build their dams, which allow them to lift, dig, haul and plan, on the small streams that are off the main river.  They break them as quickly as they build them, enthralled by watching the water bulge over its temporary banks, then burst out, refilling the channels downstream like a miniature tsunami. Still, as the spring progresses, we encounter more fine-weather walkers, and I can see the disapproval in their furrowed brows and tight lips, the aggressive slowing of their gait as they pass us by.

But where are we to go?  What are we to do? We ask our children to sit quietly at their desks at school all day. From experience I know that, if they can’t, a common consequence is to have their recess taken away. And gym, music, and art, which used to be outlets for creative activity, are now often as filled with tests and standardized academic measurements as math or reading.  When the children come home, we then want them to participate in organized sports and activities, which still require sitting, or listening, or drilling. If a child can’t do these things, then what?  Where do they go?  What do they do? How can they be in this world?

I’m a rule-follower. I’m a conflict-avoider.  But I’m slowly abandoning the lifelong role of people-pleaser. It’s simply impossible, and, as much as I think it’s desirable, it’s really not. And so I will let my sons play at the river.  And some people will disapprove of how they play. But they will be the unfortunate ones, because, in their quest for rightness, they’ll miss wonder and passion and the beauty that destruction sometimes brings.

 

Assistants

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As one of my most faithful readers and assistants, my older son has requested, quite reasonably, that I devote an entry to his most recent efforts and special acquisition.  He is an avid bicyclist, particularly off-road, pounding his gears through mud and rocky terrain, popping his tires on honey locust thorns, and catching his chains on trailing vines and stinging nettle. He is, in short, our bike repairman’s dream. But he is also enthusiastic about this trash collecting project and was eager to find a way to help me more.  His idea: a heavy duty trailer for his bike.  It carries up to 190 lbs, and, when it’s not carting his reckless brother, it holds a very generous amount of unruly garbage.  It even moves easily through the unofficial paths on our “island,” which hide more than a few natural hazards.

My son has also asked to make the trailer a chariot for our arthritic dog, but, remembering what happened when she tried to ride in our canoe, I have declined on her behalf. (But that’s another story.  And, for that matter, another river.)

Maybe it’s time to deal with those tires.