The Exact Same Moon: Fifty Acres and a Family by Jeanne Marie Laskas
Rating: ••• (Recommended)
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Sunday morning doesn’t seem right at our house until we’ve read Jeanne Marie Laskas’ “Significant Others” column in The Washington Post Magazine. On the Sundays when her column doesn’t appear, there’s a real feeling of loss. One way to fill the gap is to read one of her books, the latest of which is The Exact Same Moon: Fifty Acres and a Family. If there’s a proper genre for Laskas’ writing, it would be creative non-fiction. More than a memoir or a biography, and different from essays, her writing captivates readers with insights from everyday life in relationships and in community living. Here’s an excerpt from the beginning of Chapter 7 (pp. 116-123):
Those sumac trees are weeds. There is really no polite way to say it. The poor things. Tall and leggy with pointy leaves that look like knives sticking out. A child could draw a more convincing tree.
The only thing is, every year I watch them. Because they're the first to go. While the maples and oaks and other hardwoods are out there basking in the summer sun, basking as if there is no tomorrow, as if this is summer and summer is here to stay, the sumacs get the slightest tinge of crimson red. They're the ones that say, "Hey, it's gonna happen. It's gonna be over."
No, not just summer.
I don't know. Am I being melodramatic? Well, what do you expect? It's the first of September. In twenty-one days I turn forty. Twenty-one puny days.
I've started to design my headstone. Yeah. Something simple, I think. Maybe just an ivy design etched around the edges. Then inside the border it should say something like "Whew. That was complicated" Or maybe "Why does life have to be so complicated?" The main thing is I want italics on the word complicated, so as to connote protest. Because I don't want complicated. I never wanted complicated. If, as I was being born, I got to stand in the cafeteria line choosing the menu of characteristics that would define my life, I would not have chosen even one spoonful of complicated. I would have chosen . . .happy. I would have chosen amusing. I would have chosen honest and clean and dignified. Then for dessert I would have chosen a dollop or so of adventure. And I would have walked out and felt glad.
So why did I marry a shrink? There's a reasonable question. A shrink-spouse would, you might imagine, just complicate things. A shrink-spouse would be the worst kind to have if, say, you were forced to wrestle through an "issue" such as: He's turning fifty-five and he doesn't want kids, and you're turning forty and you desperately want kids, and now what in tarnation are the two of you going to do?
You would think, oh, I have a headache just imagining how those conversations went. You would think the two of us might have spent night after sleepless night processing this complicated matter, and re-processing it, and taking responsibility for our feelings, and owning our emotions, and locating our true selves, and honoring each other's fears, and doing all that sort of complicated talking that leaves the average person needing to run and hide and curl up and watch reruns of Gomer Pyle.
But, no. This is not what happened, and this is not the complication I am talking about. What happened was, we took more walks. Walks to the old lady's house, just to say hello, to bring her some of our corn and some of our peppers and some of our friendship. Walks to George's to say "How about this drought, hub?" (He was right.) Walks to the mailbox with Betty and Marley and Wilma. Walks on the ridge with Skippy and Maggie in tow, or Cricket and Sassy. It seems as though we've walked away much of this summer.
I did not, by the way, wear my hiking boots on our walks. Oh, no. I got a pair of flimsy fluorescent-green sandals at Wal-Mart. They have a big pink flower motif on the soles. I am still wearing these sandals everywhere. Alex hasn't quite gone to this extreme, but I have noticed him caring a lot less about his feet.
Walking in flimsy sandals, visiting neighbors, telling stories. This is the way of the country. This is the way we did it. We told stories to each other. We told stories of every person we could think of who'd decided to raise a child later in life. We couldn't think of one person who regretted the decision. And that went for plenty of second-time-around dads, some of them older than Alex.
We told enough of these stories that pretty soon we could see a more or less predictable plot. It really was the same story, over and over again:
A man and a woman talk about having a child. The child in question, when it is still just a question, is simply that: a question. An abstract notion. And there is no connecting with an abstract notion. An abstract notion is one hundred percent imagination. You can turn it into anything you want. If you are a person who wants a child, you probably turn the abstract notion into a cute little bundle of joy running up to you with nothing but kisses and hugs on her itty-bitty mind. If you are a person who does not want a child, you probably turn it into a howling goo-coated creature in a car seat that won't stop kicking you in the kidneys.
Each figment of each imagination is as valid as the other, in that both are born somewhere along the continuum of desire and fear. That is, neither of them is born in the world known as the real one. The here-and-now.
Enter actual child.
What happens when the actual child is born—that real-world creature with more or less ten fingers and ten toes—is, love takes over. Of course it does. This is not the complicated part. This is virtually instantaneous. Because this is just what love does. Love is like gravity. It really has no choice but to pull.
This is why people, no matter what their age, tend to end up wondering what in the world they were thinking when they suspected they might regret having this child. How, you wonder, could you even have thought that? When little Sammy or Mary or Tiffany or Jamal is here, in your arms, the abstract notion has vanished. In its place is Sammy or Mary or Tiffany or Jamal. Love has taken over.
It was the same story, over and over again. It wasn't so hard to figure that we were living it, too.
And yet if we were living it, then our answer was already made. This lent an inevitability that sat uncomfortably on both of our shoulders, and so for a while we fought it.
I thought about love. If having a kid was about the transforming power of love, well then, let's look at love. Any relationship will teach you that love often means sacrifice. Love almost always means sacrifice. When a man loves a woman, he wants to make her happy. When a woman loves a man, she wants to make him happy. You sacrifice in order to make life better for the other. Sometimes you feel you'll do just about anything. This is why, for instance, a loving husband might be inclined to drop a big wad of cash on a wife's birthday present (read: sapphires?). But I digress.
As Alex and I took our walks and told our stories, I kept asking myself, in private, this question: What sacrifice is too great? I mean, if bringing a child into our lives has even the potential of making Alex's life miserable, I shouldn't do it, right?
If he thinks he's too old, if he really, and quite reasonably, would rather not spend his retirement years dealing with the inevitable storm of adolescent angst headed our way were we to have a child now, then I shouldn't do it, right? That's a sacrifice I should make.
That's what I kept asking myself. What sacrifice is too great?
But then one day while we were walking, Alex was the one, he was the one who brought up the word.
"Its not like it would be some huge sacrifice," he said.
"It's not like I have some big retirement plan I'd have to cancel," he said. "All I've ever done is work. What else am I going to do? Buy an KV and drive around the country? Take up golf? Canasta?"
"I hadn't thought of it that way," I said.
We were on the ridge overlooking George's sheep. Kind of a sacred spot, really. This was where we walked on our very first trip to this farm, the day we discovered it, the day we discovered the view that made us both fall head over heels in love with this place. We promised, back then, to put a gazebo up here. The gazebo is still, at this time, an abstract notion.
"So it's not like I'd be sacrificing anything, really" Alex said.
"Well, you'd be sacrificing freedom," I told him. "Any parent sacrifices freedom."
"And in your case, you'd be sacrificing the freedom that retirement represents. You'd be giving that up, and in its place you'd have . . . algebra homework."
"And working on science projects, you know, a volcano you spend all night helping your kid create and then at three in the morning you flick the switch and the damn thing doesn't spit the lava."
He thought for a moment on that. He said: "Well, if I imagine my so-called retirement years—if the choice is between troubleshooting a volcano and sitting in a chair with nothing more to do than watch Magnum, P.I. reruns, I've got to go with the volcano."
"I'm telling you, I could get into this."
"You don't think maybe you're trying to talk yourself into something?"
"I think it might be fun to raise a kid with someone who actually likes me," he said. His relationship with his children's mother had never been easy.
"Well, I do like you," I said.
"So that's what it comes down to?" I said. "Boy, this was a lot easier than I thought."
He just . . . smiled.
"Look," he said. "We have to make sure you get to be a morn. That's just—that's what we have to do."
"Well, I think—"
"Think about it. What if you live out the rest of your life regretting that you never got to be a morn—"
"It's not an easy thought."
"No. And for me it's an impossible thought."
"Well, let's try to imagine it. Here I am watching you live out the rest of your life regretting that you never got to be a morn—and it's because of me? I couldn't live with myself.
You know what, I couldn't."
"It wouldn't be because of you—"
"It would be like you were a dancer, but because of me you never got a chance to dance. You know? What the hell is that?"
"It wouldn't be because of you—"
"Or you were a singer, and I'm holding my hand over your mouth—"
"And I can't be that. I won't be that. I'm not that."
"No, you're not."
"So it's an impossible thought," he said. "You know, Sherlock Holmes had it right. He said if you eliminate the impossible, what you're left with, however improbable, is the truth."
"The truth," I said.
"The truth," he said.
"How about that Sherlock?"
"Well, doesn't this put you in a sort of dilemma?" I asked.
"You don't want a kid, but it's impossible for you not to have one. Doesn't that make you trapped?"
"I don't feel trapped. I feel like this must be what's next."
And that really was that. We stood at the gazebo spot and looked out over these now-familiar hills, hills that always remind me of the jolly beer-bellies of men, we stood there, and we let go of the impossible. It was miraculously simple, but a miracle all the same.
Then, on the walk home, Alex put his arm around me. "One thing" he said. "If you get to have a kid, shouldn't I get to have a pool table?"
"A pool table," I said, pausing to consider. "All right. In fact, for the rest of our lives you get everything you could possibly want."
"Good," he said.
"Good," I said.
"I want to be in the NBA," he said.
"I’ll see what I can do"
"Not a benchwarmer," he said. "I want to start"
I imagined him in a pair of snazzy, shiny shorts, with tattoos all over his arms, dribbling his bad self up to the kneecaps of Shaquille O'Neal. "You need to think about that one, okay? I just want you to think about it."
If you’re looking for a book that will lift your spirits through brilliant writing, poignant stories, and great insight into human behavior, pick up The Exact Same Moon, and enjoy.
Steve Hopkins, January 22, 2004
ã 2004 Hopkins and Company, LLC
The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the February 2004 issue of Executive Times
URL for this review: http://www.hopkinsandcompany.com/Books/The Exact Same Moon.htm
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