M Train by Patti Smith


In an hour or so a boy dropped us off at the foot of a muddy embankment.

There is an intense tournament of Rock Paper Scissors taking place on the raft. I’m too far away to tell what’s being decided on. Oh, it’s a game. Steps back are taken with every loss, until a boy falls into the lake and crowing ensues.

More often than not these days, this is what daily parenting looks like. Me, on the shore, my kids afloat in an ocean of their own design. I mean, I still cook dinners, and I still feel immense guilt over cavities, but I’m no longer required to fit life jackets to wiggling forms, apply sun screen, or make a ruling when justice is too slow to arrive in a mutually agreeable form.

Which isn’t to say I am dozing here in my chair with my sandals still on my feet and my very sensible long-sleeve jersey zipped up over my bathing suit. I’m watching these boys with every cell. These boys are not risk adverse and there are so many sharp corners on that raft. There, look – one of them just performed some sort of flying maneuver and narrowly missed clonking his very soft, sweet head on the corner of the very hard ladder. But he’s fine. There’s crowing.

Here’s a conversation that’s happening now (I’m not a participant):

“Tyler, we have to go!”
“No, we don’t!”
“Yes, we do!”
“I don’t want to!”
“Tyler, we have to go, come on!”
“I am!” *swims slow enough that a girl half his height passes him*
“Tyler, now!”

Here’s what I love about the beach, and about most public places. Here is, often, the only thing I love about most public places: eavesdropping. I like other people so much more when I can just listen in on their conversations instead of participating in their conversations.

Take, for example, yesterday’s afternoon spent by the side of a pond on the top of a mountain. There was a group already there at the flat rocks that serve as a beach, guys in their late teens and early 20s, guys in the army, guys in college, guys working jobs that in 10 years will be the albatross around their necks. But not yet. Yesterday was bright with sun and brimming with that particular vibe I associate with ’80s movies.

“Look at Max. He’s doing the doggy paddle! Hey Max, want me to come out there and do the doggie paddle with you?”
“Well, I won’t say I don’t want you to come out here and do the doggie paddle with me.”

“I can’t swim to save my life.”
“You could run through the woods and meet her on the other side of the pond.” (a pretty girl in a bikini was swimming to the other side of the pond.)
“I can’t run through the woods to save my life.”

And on it went, and on and on and on. I wished for a tape recorder and I felt a higher-than-usual level of gratitude for my married, settled status.

The sun is nearly behind the tree line and I’m pulling my sensible, long-sleeve jersey even closer around me and wishing vaguely for a fleece.

I do remember a time when I might have been out on that dock with the boys. Not because they needed me, but because I needed them to see me as a mom who still did un-mom-like things. When L was just born and T was two and B wasn’t even a consideration, I did swim out to the dock during some kind of gathering, kids and parents and teenagers everywhere. I stood on the edge of the dock in my not-quite-sensible bathing suit and hesitated, and then leaped backward into a spiraling arch that ended with barely a splash, and the crowd erupted with applause.

Well, not really. The applause didn’t actually happen. I don’t think anyone but my dear friend back on shore even noticed what I’d done. “Look at you,” she said, later, when I’d gasped my way back to shore and swore I’d start swimming more often. “Look at you. A mom. Doing back flips.” And then she gave me a hug.

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