Monday, October 4, 2010

September: A Reflection

September is a month that holds a magic and mystique all its own.  It is a month that signals drastic change--both in the weather and in the lives of schoolchildren everywhere.  It is also a month with great reflective power.  Sometimes it is a wistful reflection, as in Billy Joe Armstrong's song about the passing of his father called "Wake Me Up When September Ends"--other times it marks the symbolic end an era in one's life--usually the end of the innocence of childhood (which is usually associated with summer)--as in Daughtry's "September." 

There is just something about the month of September that stirs the cauldron of my emotions.  It was always my least favorite month as a kid, mostly because I found myself filled with the nervousness and apprehension that are brought on by the challenge of returning to school.  I suppose this has been ingrained in me since I was four years old and first began pre-school; until only very recently, I have ebbed and flowed with the tides of September, experiencing numerous physical, mental, and emotional transformations with the coming of each autumn.  To this day I still view the cycle of the year as beginning and ending with September--I suppose that is what twenty-three years' worth of time spent in school (eighty-five percent of my time on this earth) will do to a man.  As a matter of fact, last September (2009) was the first one since I first stepped foot inside of a classroom in 1987 that I did not have school come Labor Day; this September is the second such one but it is also the first in thirteen years that I am also not working outside of the home.  No school and no employment simultaneously essentially for the first time definitely made me stop and think back to how I've gotten to where I am at now.

I should begin by noting that I view my situation in a completely positive light: I have finished school and am actively and fully employed in my parental role; I am completely at peace with where I am at--something I could not say a year ago.  Last September was one of the most difficult months I have ever had.  I had earned my Master's Degree in Education back in May and had just finished teaching in a collegiate environment for the first time.  More importantly, though, I was beginning my quest for full-time employment as a public or private school teacher.  I found myself engrossed completely by my job search and stressed beyond description as September came and went and I remained unemployed.  I worried about the plans that my then-pregnant wife and I were trying to set up for ourselves and how my lack of a job would impact those plans (ultimately it worked out perfectly as it alleviated a number of stressors that Heather and I were sharing about our post-maternity leave plans for who would take care of Timmy by giving me that job).

But that was last year.

It goes without saying that the last twenty-one months have been the most exciting and eventful of my life.  In some ways, I have been so busy experiencing everything--taking it in all year and processing the myriad changes my life has undergone since January 2009--that I have not really taken a moment to look back on everything and to reflect on how I've changed as a person and how my life has changed overall.  At least, I hadn't until the beginning of this month.

This September, I have found myself looking back and marveling at all of the changes that have come to my life--many good, some bad...but even they had positive elements.  I was present for the birth of my son and served as my wife's Lamaze coach; I adjusted to the rhythms and chaos of the early months of parenthood; I shoveled my way out of at least two blizzards if not three (I'll include The Festivus Blizzard from December '09 in that...what an entry THAT story would make!); I saw my wife demonstrate true courage, determination, and sacrifice the day that she returned to work (as I experienced simultaneously the most gut-wrenching guilt and self-loathing that I have ever felt as I watched her walk towards the ferry terminal and look back over her shoulder and me and Timmy); I became a self-published author for a second time but found that my status as a stay-at-home-dad generated far more interest as I was interviewed for a documentary following the lives of Macaulay Scholars (post-graduation) and by the Staten Island Advance for an article on "The Modern Family" that can be found and read here: ; I survived the hottest summer I can ever recall; and I saw my entire social landscape reshape itself in ways I never dreamed it would.

I suppose that it is this last element that is most on my mind and is what I reflect most on as I sit here and type.  My introspection began on Saturday, September 4th when I went to Jones Beach for a Stone Temple Pilots concert.  Thinking nothing of the weather, I threw on a pair of shorts, a t-shirt, some wristbands, and headed out to Wantagh.  It had been 81 degrees when I left--the essence of a summer's day--but by the time I reached my seat (four rows from the top--a VERY windy area as I came to find!) I realized that the temperature was dipping.  And the sun was still out.  And then it got windy.  And dark.  And for the first time since April or May, I felt a chill in the air; summer was waning as autumn prophesied its impending arrival.

If you will allow me a brief tangent--I think that it's the weather change that I associate most with September; it reflects almost perfectly the feelings that I had as a kid and that I have now as an adult.  As a school-age child, I associated the fading warmth and the earlier nights with the same thing that every child does: the beginning of the school year.  I remember wearing jeans for the first time since May as I experienced what my Mom would call the "end of summer blues" during the final week or two of my summer break.  I associated the chill in the air with the one that would be flowing through me during those first few weeks of uncertainty.  Would I like my classmates?  Would my teacher be nice?  Would I do well that year?  Who would I be sitting next to?

Back then, September seemed to drag on forever; I remember looking forward to the first half-day that would usually come after two or three weeks, just to be away from school for awhile.  October would drag along too as the nights grew darker and the chill deepened...but then something magical would happen around Halloween.  For the first time, with the beginning of school behind me, I wouldn't focus on the dread that I would be feeling about the uncertainty of the school year (or the depression of having to be back in school)--instead I would actually be looking forward to something else.  Then, after Halloween came and went, time seemed to fly.  Before I knew it, it was Thanksgiving and then Christmas break.  January would fly by and I would get that blessed week off in February...but then "the big one" would come: that stretch from mid-February through mid-April where there would not be a single holiday to save me from what was then a grueling grind in the classroom.  Fortunately, my birthday is at the end of March so I always had that to look forward to...and then it was Easter.  By that point, there would be only eight or ten weeks left of school and it was all about the countdown.

(No--not this one:   )

Once I got to college, things changed a little bit. Now I was going back to school in August...but getting done in May. September still held that "first-day-of-school" feeling but it didn't seem to have the same bite or urgency that it did when I was younger. Suddenly, I was enjoying the month of September--especially at night. There was something refreshing about the crispness of the autumnal air on a twilight stroll to and through the park. The wind rustled through the leaves with a different timbre than in the summer--a faint crackling that seemed to be Fall saying "I am here." Or maybe it was the sound of the chlorophyll changing colors, announcing that the vivid greens built up by the spring and summer would soon be turning yellow, orange, and red. The air would be clearer and the moon's silver effulgence seemed to grow in brightness, filtering through the branches of trees growing ever more bare with each chilled gust of wind. The orange glow of the Harvest moon would signal that, yes, summer was gone and winter lay on the horizon; there would be cold, dark nights to come but with them would arrive the welcoming warmth of a mug of hot chocolate, the scents of cinnamon and pumpkin spice, and the sating replenishment of hearty meals like thick beef stew and chicken pot pie.

Actually, when I got to college, things changed a lot that first September.  I found myself a part of an exclusive and warm community of fellow students as members of the charter class of the then-CUNY Honors College.  I had forged many friendships during the orientation events in July and August, particularly with my fellow scholars at Baruch.  Two weeks after beginning classes, my whole world was shaken (as was every other New Yorker's) and I found that those same friendships were galvanized by a feeling of togetherness and a desire to do something in the wake of what occurred on that beautiful Tuesday morning.

As things began to settle back down, I found that I enjoyed a tight-knit circle of friends that was nearly ten in number (including me)--easily the largest group of close friends that I had ever found myself counted among.  Things were great within our group as our individual and communal friendships flourished and we found ourselves "growing up" together.  Then, somewhere in 2004, something changed; it was as if a current shifted suddenly and we ten were moving in different directions.  I watched as, one by one, those flourishing friendships floundered, growing stale and crumbling.  A few people just faded off--whether by circumstance or just a natural progression in personality that rendered us increasingly incompatible--but a few others left or were left on more contentious grounds.  By the time I graduated in 2005, I found that that circle of ten had shrunk to a group of four..and then three in 2006...and then two; in the end, only Heather and I maintained (and improved) upon the friendship that we had embarked upon back at the beginning of the decade (I must note, however, that the tides of Fate did bring us back together with one of those original ten and that that friendship has blossomed into something wonderful and far better than it ever had been; it's one of those chance occurrences that Heather and I both smile at and are both thankful for!)

It wasn't until this past May that I really began to take stock of how much my social landscape had changed.  Many friendships that I had enjoyed throughout college appeared to have been too close to the fault line of adulthood; once we graduated and began "the rest of our lives," many of those friendships just faded away.  Friendships that we swore would never end did just that--even ones that I never could have envisioned finding a conclusion.

I suppose that the climax of my social existence came in July of 2007 during my wedding.  That afternoon and evening were arguably the best of my life and were lauded by many who had attended the reception as being an exceptional time as well.  I was surrounded by my closest and most beloved family members and friends, by those who had fallen away but who returned to celebrate with my wife and I, and by those with whom I had had a falling out but managed to find reconciliation.  Naively, I felt like things would stay that great forever and yet here I stand, just a few months more than three years into the future of that day and I stare in amazement at the scene I see before me.  Of the seven members of our wedding party (three bridesmaids (one of who's friendship did not even make it to the wedding) and four groomsmen) I am still friends with (or even speak to) exactly two; it's unsurprising that one is a man I've known since we were in elementary school and who has been among my best friends for almost fifteen years and the other is a man I met on my very first day of high school and who has been among my best friends ever since--almost fourteen years.

I have been used to having close friendships end for some time now but to see each of the aforementioned people fade away (either in a blaze of fury or a silent sizzle as the fuse ran out of line) has been a humbling experience and one that I am only just now learning, truly, from.  I took each situation personally and physically, losing days, weeks, or even months of sleep.  Each one affected my mood, my appetite, and my very personality...but I think I'm finally understanding the flow of things a little better now.  I, like many people, I would imagine, clutched to friendships and valued them as treasured gems (often times in a one-sided fashion) but, in actuality, life dictates who stays in and goes from our lives; what we want or what we think will be the case are both irrelevant.

As I reflect on my seeming social misfortune I find that I am dusting myself off, picking myself back up, and uncovering nuggets of wisdom with each instance; I am hoping that the cumulative knowledge and experience that I will undoubtedly gain throughout my years will assist me in becoming more intelligent in determining who I care about and who cares about me and will NOT render me guarded and misanthropic--turning me into a bitter hermit of sorts.  I am hopeful that the latter will not be the case, though, because I am finding that, for every friendship from my college days that I am losing, I seem to be gaining new, more adult friendships.  I am fortunate to have made a number of meaningful and satisfying connections from my employment experiences--ones that stand in direct opposition to the norm that I have always experienced in my relationships.  Both of my bosses at Baruch as well as some of my office-mates have become great and valued friends.  The interesting thing to note here though is that all of them are older than me and thus I am rendered the youngest one on the totem pole.  I am used to being the older one in the group, the one to whom everyone else turns to for advice, the one who experiences things first in life and then imparts experience and perspective...but not here.  All of these new friends are or have been married, have themselves or have siblings who have children, and are successful and well-experienced in their respective careers.  To be considered a peer by them is something that humbles me and fills me with reverential awe that these people who I look up to value me enough to go out for drinks, or lunches, or whatever we happen to do together.

I suppose that this is a natural progression--to move from childhood friendships, to adolescent ones, to collegiate ones, and then on to circumstantial adult friendships.  I am fortunate to have loved nearly everyone that I worked with at Baruch and to have come away with a number of wonderful friendships and a few cherished ones that have become a part of my weekly if not daily life.  I suppose, again, though, that my problem has never been with the former (wonderful friendships) but always with the latter (those who are brought into the every day world--the inner sanctum, if you will).  It is the betrayal or simple departure of these people that is always at the core of my heartache.  It's opening myself up to each person, baring it all, and finding an eventual rejection or indifference (I'm not sure which one is worse) that cuts deeper and hurts more than the happiness and good times could ever reach.

All of this is coming to mind because of a connection I recently made between my experiences with dissolving friendships and my parents' own such events.  Each, in his and her own right, has led a life filled with scores of acquaintanceships and run-of-the-mill friendships but with very few long-lasting, meaningful, individual "best" friendships.  I find that I am slowly encountering a similar fate and it leads me to wonder whether or not it is simply destiny (or perhaps the attrition of adulthood) that is leading me down this path or if it genetics--that I am only carrying on the family tradition.

I guess when all is said and done it doesn't matter; I will do what I do with every other difficult and emotionally/mentally/physically/spiritually depleting challenge that I face: I will keep moving, putting one foot in front of the other, and never stopping, not even for a moment.

They say that no man is an island...but, if I can live there with my wife and my son, is it really so bad?  The food is fresh, I can feel the fresh air blowing through my long, flowing, epic hair, and, who knows, maybe we'll even get a visitor or two.  And if not?  It's still one hell of a view.