The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
Subscribe and Save up to 55%
The first time I got to my feet after my spine was surgically fused, I felt as though I were carrying a bag of sand on my back. Drowsy and swooning from narcotics, I was helped into bed by my nurse. Before the day was over, though, I was asked to stand again, and this time to walk. They told me the surgery had been a success, with no major nerve damage, but I was reluctant to test this theory.
I was in this condition because, at the age of forty-one, I’d learned that the mild scoliosis I had lived with my whole life had suddenly worsened. I was bending in on myself, reducing my lung capacity and pinching the nerves to my legs. The only way to arrest the deterioration was to fuse my spine from my shoulders to just above my buttocks. A long incision was made down my back, the muscles laid open like the pages of a book. My disks were removed and discarded, my spine carefully straightened, and the vertebrae attached to two rods using screws. I woke with a perfectly straight spine and more than an inch taller.
For my first postsurgery outing, I walked the hallways of the surgical ward, holding the rails of my walker in a death grip. Later, encouraged by two visiting friends, I ventured outdoors. In a photo of me on that mild, midsummer day, I’m wearing a hulking black brace and a white foam collar, my face puffy from drugs.
A week later I was released from the hospital, and my husband drove me home. My sister stayed with us and would walk with me in the mornings. My neighborhood is pleasant in summer, when the roses and other flowers are at their peak. But with the neck collar, the brace, the walker, and that heavy, sandbag feeling weighing me down, I ignored the flowers. Inching along, I scanned the ground for anything that might trip me up. I felt a deep sympathy for the elderly, with their fragile bones and uncertain steps.
Life with my new spine took some getting used to. My muscles pulled against the rods and screws, and simple tasks like tying my shoes took ingenuity. Sleeping was a challenge, as curling around my pillow was no longer an option. But I regained enough strength to give up my walker and set aside the collar and brace.
Two and half years later I find myself rushing about the way I did before the operation. My spinal hardware still bothers me, as does that sandbag feeling. I’m prone to incapacitating muscle spasms if I push myself, and I end many days with muscle relaxants. I’ve been cautioned against putting too much strain on the healthy disks remaining in my neck and tailbone, but it’s hard to give in to my physical limitations. I don’t want to take the extra time to complete basic tasks. I want to keep up with everyone else.
Sometimes I do stupid things. The other morning I dashed down our wooden stairs to answer the doorbell, and I tripped. The fall was only five steps, but I cried tears of stunned humiliation and was left with a bruise the size of Kansas on my posterior. Had I fallen farther or landed differently, my metal hardware could have broken. It makes me think how fragile each of us is, and how we get only one body to last a lifetime.
Jennifer Lesh Fleck
She came into our lives on a smoky summer day. The wildfires had been raging around our valley for so long, we’d become accustomed to a hazy yellow world. Residents were advised not to spend too much time outside, but one evening my boyfriend and I decided to risk it and walk downtown for dinner. On the way back we were in a jovial mood, our bellies full of wine. We were approaching the train tracks when we found her, all alone, looking too skinny, her tortoiseshell fur unkempt. We crouched on the sidewalk, and she came over, rubbed against our legs, and purred.
Rescue cats are my weakness; my house was already full of them. My head urged me to keep walking, but my heart told me we couldn’t leave her. We brought her to my boyfriend’s apartment to figure out our next move. She immediately settled in as if she’d always lived there, not hiding or making any attempt to get out.
Neither of us wanted the upheaval of a new pet. Plus my boyfriend was an avowed dog person. He agreed that she could stay temporarily. If we couldn’t find her owner in a day or two, we’d take her to the shelter.
We did everything you’re supposed to do: We called animal control and the Humane Society. We checked the missing-pet notices online. We took her to the vet to see if she was chipped. No leads. In the meantime she was the perfect houseguest. She didn’t scratch the furniture. She faithfully used the litter box. She ate any food we set out. She followed us around but didn’t make a pest of herself.
My boyfriend tried to play it cool, but I could tell she was winning him over. She raced to the door when he came home, and at night she curled up on his chest. When he’d had enough, he would say, “OK, kitty,” and she would agreeably jump into the nest he’d made for her beside his bed.
One day he told me she’d helped him accomplish his goal of sitting down each evening and relaxing for twenty minutes. He’d found it impossible to do this on his own, but now she’d leap into his lap, settle in, and force him to sit there and do nothing. It was the meditative pause he’d badly needed.
He stopped scanning the missing-pet notices. She was already home.
In my twenties I spent a winter at McMurdo Station in Antarctica. It was the 1970s, before satellite communications. When the radio signal went down, we were completely cut off from the rest of the world, unable to leave until flights resumed in the spring.
There is no daylight during the Antarctic winter. I worked alone in the Berg Field Center, on the south end of the station. I’d set up a cot there so I wouldn’t have to leave the building when a blizzard came. In the perpetual dark, my sleep cycles changed. I would get up slightly later each day. The extra rest allowed me to stay up longer, so I would go to sleep later, and my natural cycle would slip another hour or two. The clock lost its meaning in the endless Antarctic night.
I began to dream in vivid color. Every day while I worked, I couldn’t wait to return to that dream topography, where I rode a horse in the Colorado mountains and went with Mom to Cousin Richard’s farm in North Carolina. I know it was my brain making up for the lack of stimulation and human contact, but it felt vital and real. In my dreams I visited the houses where I’d lived as a child and saw my old friends. I flew back to the New Jersey beach where my grandpa had once held my hand, but the waves were too high, and I became frightened. Suddenly I was alone. The surf crashing on the shore was so loud. I opened my eyes in Antarctica and heard the blizzard outside, blowing hard against the building, shaking my little cot.
I live in Colorado now, and sometimes when I dream, I return to Antarctica, as if searching for someone or something I lost.
“Do you have to do everything well?” my girlfriend asked. I was building her a compost bin out of scrap wood and pallets. What she really was saying was It’s just a stupid compost bin! She was impatient to get this chore over with so we could move on to dinner or a movie. But if I was going to build something, I would do it well. A couple of extra nails might make the difference between the bin lasting ten months or ten years. Besides, if I didn’t bother to do this simple task halfway decently, then where would it end? Would I fail to tighten the lug nuts properly on the changed tire? Not bother to look both ways at an intersection? Skip the proofing on a grant proposal it took me a week to write?
I am a craftsman at heart, and when the world says, Hurry up! the craftsman says, Take your time and do it right. I have never regretted taking the extra time, but I have often regretted doing something in haste.
As far as I know, the compost bin still stands. The relationship, though, didn’t make it through the year.
My friend Nancy and I were both knitters. When, in her mid-forties, she was diagnosed with stage-IV breast cancer, she coped by throwing herself into her knitting projects, making chunky scarves for friends, patterned socks for her husband, and a soft cap to cover her own balding head during her first round of chemotherapy.
On days when her nausea wasn’t overwhelming, Nancy and I planned outings. We’d pick a new yarn store somewhere in the Bay Area and head out.
After four years of chemo and surgeries, we both knew the treatments were no longer working. I remember our last yarn-store trip, to our hometown shop. Nancy gravitated toward a large blanket project. She would likely have trouble following the pattern in her condition, but she bought the yarn anyway: a soft, fuzzy midnight blue.
“If I knit fast enough, maybe I can finish it,” she said hopefully.
For the next few months Nancy sat in her favorite chair and knitted, her head clouded with opiates. She often fell asleep midstitch. She loved the warmth and heaviness of all that wool draped across her lap.
A week before she died, Nancy was down to the last ball of yarn on the blanket, but she was sleeping more and more and fretted that the project would never be finished.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I’ll take over and do what you can’t.”
After she died, her husband and I considered wrapping her in the blanket for cremation, but we decided against it. Instead I took the blanket home with me to finish.
That was more than nine years ago. I’m still telling myself that I’ll get around to it eventually. I used to feel guilty whenever I came upon the unfinished blanket in my closet, but now I enjoy pulling it out and feeling all the holes from dropped stitches, the bumps of purls that should have been knits, the yarn tangled around the needles in the exact place she left them.
Maybe it’s perfect the way it is.
Santa Cruz, California
I’d always wanted to be a mother. My own childhood had been chaotic, confusing, and punitive, and I imagined I would do better: a loving home, a sweet dog, friendly neighbors.
Because of the volatility I’d experienced as a child, I planned to have children only once I was settled with a solid partner and financially secure. Unfortunately I found myself pregnant before I had any of that. My instinct was to have the baby, but others — my parents, my brother, the embarrassed father, friends with children, a concerned therapist — all suggested it would be best if I didn’t. No one believed in me. I’d made some huge mistakes. I wished I could prove them all wrong, but I also didn’t want my child to have an uncertain home life and an erratic mother.
After I ended the pregnancy, I married my boyfriend, but the union was doomed. In my early thirties I remarried. I wanted to get pregnant immediately, but my husband was younger and wanted to wait. I suppressed my desire, heeding his hesitation. When the conditions were finally ideal, we tried to conceive without success. We underwent every treatment we could afford. (Insurance didn’t cover most of them.) I was consumed by guilt over the decision I’d made so many years before. I had waited too long, been too careful, and now it was too late.
I’m a calligrapher and sell my work at art shows. Mostly I use quotes from well-known writers and philosophers, but my best-selling piece features a saying I wrote myself: “Never underestimate the length of a shortcut.”
This bit of wisdom might have come to me on a day when I decided not to take an extra ten minutes to double-check a spreadsheet at work. Or the time I was running late and took an unfamiliar road, thinking it would definitely get me there sooner. Or the moment after I stepped on the scale and realized that the latest quick-weight-loss diet had failed like all the rest.
But I think I know when I came up with it: One day I was so anxious to get home that I stepped on the gas to try to beat a red light and got T-boned in the intersection. I had months to sit and think as I healed.
Whenever I’m tempted to save time at the risk of my health or welfare, I think about the true length of a shortcut.
At sixteen he and I were just good friends: the kind who choose each other as partners on school projects and take swing-dancing lessons together; who decide to go to prom together eight months before anyone else has a date; who make each other birthday presents and talk on the phone while both watching the same movie on TV.
I found myself falling in love, even though we remained strictly friends. I was content just to be with him, doing anything or nothing at all. On prom night we stayed out until five in the morning and didn’t even get into trouble. When he dropped me off, we hugged.
The night we graduated, I gave him a letter that had taken me weeks to write. In it I tried to express all my feelings for him. He must have read it, but he didn’t say a word.
Two years later I was dating my first boyfriend in college. My high-school friend had dropped out and traveled to Latin America, where he’d met a young woman. When he wrote that they’d gotten engaged, I was heartbroken. At their wedding I cried more than his mom. He had also told me that he’d kept the letter I’d written to him.
He eventually got divorced. I got married. Years later, at a friend’s birthday party, we found ourselves alone, and he told me he loved me and kissed me on the forehead.
He remarried. We both had good, kind partners who put up with us and cared about us. And yet, one evening, as the four of us were sitting around talking, he and I secretly held hands. I could not have been happier.
Two and a half years have passed since that night. We live with our spouses ten blocks from each other. My love for him has not diminished.
As a college student in the 1960s, I rented a room from Mrs. B., a Hungarian widow and refugee. A fascist gang had murdered her husband during World War II, and after the war she’d escaped the Soviet-controlled country and ended up in Boston.
Our peaceful street was lined with wood-frame houses, all no more than spitting distance apart. Before dawn one morning the quiet was shattered by sirens. The house next door to ours was in flames. I stumbled outside, joining neighbors in various stages of undress.
Still in her nightgown, Mrs. B. stood with tears on her face. I wonder if she was recalling the horrors of war and the destruction of her beloved Budapest.
Because the houses were so close together, there was a danger that ours would catch fire. “Move away from the house!” the fire chief commanded.
Mrs. B. asked his permission to go back inside for something important. She said she could do it quickly. At first the fire chief denied her request, but she begged, and he relented. She could have one minute, he said, no more. If she took more time than that, he’d send his men inside to drag her out.
She reentered her house. A minute passed. No sign of Mrs. B. What was taking her so long? Just as the chief was signaling his men to race in, Mrs. B.’s front door flew open, and she stumbled out, sobbing and smiling, her arms raised high. In her right hand was a framed picture of her dead husband. In her left was a brassiere.
Later she told me she’d been unable to figure out what to take, so she had just grabbed the two nearest items and run out.
My dad was sixteen years older than my mother, and when he came to school events, he was often mistaken for my grandfather. My mother prided herself on keeping him young, cooking him heart-healthy meals and insisting he take his nightly walks.
Three years ago my father was diagnosed with congestive heart failure, and his pace slowed considerably. He spent his days eating oatmeal, reading from a stack of books, and occasionally wandering to his room for a nap. At night his hacking cough kept everyone awake. Even the special wedge pillow that propped him up in bed was no match for the fluid in his lungs.
Though his time was limited, he didn’t seem worried. He was satisfied with his quiet life, and in no hurry for it to end. “I’m not sure what I do all day,” he would say, “but I know I spend all day doing it.”
People on the outside may find this hard to believe, but life in prison moves at a hurried pace. Though everyone in here has nothing but time, the guards insist we hurry up and eat, hurry up and get down the hall, hurry up and shower.
One day I was outside doing my exercise routine: push-ups, sit-ups, and jumping jacks, with a jog around the yard in between cycles. Whenever I went jogging, I would pass a thin man of about sixty who was walking along the track, taking his sweet time. It really irked me.
When the guards yelled for us to come inside, I approached the slow walker and suggested that he move off the track in the future, so he would not be in anyone’s way. The man asked why I was in such a rush. If I was exercising to live longer, why not take the time to enjoy the life I had?
As we left the yard, he pointed out the vivid blue of the sky, the cotton-colored clouds, the emerald-green leaves of the trees. He got me to pay attention.
When we finally reached the door to reenter the prison, the guard angrily told us we would both be written up for taking too much time.
My mother insisted on living life in perpetual motion. My father was the opposite, keeping a slow, steady pace. I wanted them to walk together through life, holding hands, like couples in the movies, but she was always out in front, telling him to hurry up.
Once, I took my elderly parents to a nearby university campus. It was a beautiful, sunny day. Soon after getting out of the car, my mother, with her rickety walker, was ten steps ahead of my father. He ambled along with his own walker as best he could, but within minutes she had left him far behind.
My dad looked like he was about to cry. “Why can’t Mom wait for me?” he asked. “What’s the rush?”
I wanted to tell my mom to wait, but she was too far ahead, and I didn’t want to yell. There was a wedding procession nearby. Two men in love were walking together to the church to say their vows. They were holding hands.
Finally my mom stopped to wait, steaming with impatience, looking as if she were about to take off again.
I reached her ahead of my father. “One day Dad won’t be here,” I said to her, “and then you’ll regret chastising him for his slowness.”
“Don’t say such things!” she replied. She hated any talk of death.
“What’s the rush, dear?” I heard my dad say as he approached, the sun on his face.
“Can’t you walk any faster?” she asked.
“I’m going as fast as I can, dear.”
With her first few steps my mom tried to match her speed to his, but before long she was gone, and I was alone again with Dad.
I’d never understood their love, but it was there. On his deathbed, my dad clung to my mother, in no hurry to let go of this woman he called his best friend.
After he died, my mother began to slow down. Her pace came to resemble my father’s. It was as if she finally wanted to be by his side.
In my early twenties I worked as a lifeguard on Northern California’s Russian River. Sometimes, before work, I would go to the beach with a group of coworkers to dive in the Pacific for abalone — a type of sea snail. I was the only woman, and the others treated me like a kid sister. I knew that if I wanted to continue to join them, I could not hold up the group. So I learned to get into and out of a wet suit quickly and how to pack my gear in the shortest amount of time.
On diving days we left before the sun rose. To get to the diving spot we had to scale down a steep oceanfront cliff using a rope. Once we reached the rocky shore, we would wade into the ocean as the waves crashed around us.
My first dive was incredible. I swam past rock formations and through kelp beds that swayed with the current. The abalone live on rocks ten to twenty feet beneath the surface, and the ocean floor was alive with color: orange, purple, green, red, yellow, and blue.
I got good at finding the abalone and would collect my limit and head back to shore before the others. I did not want to keep the boys waiting. I’d quickly get out of my wet suit and into warm clothes, then climb up the cliff and make it to the truck first.
Now in my sixties, I still dive for abalone. I rise early in the morning, truck already packed with my wet suit and gear, and head to the coast in the dark. At the ocean I pause to watch the sunrise. Then I get into my wet suit at my own pace and enter the water with ease to search among the rock formations for the beautiful abalone.
I had my first real relationship when I was nineteen. I met him at a party, and we danced to soul music, then made out on a playground swing. When we split two years later, I thought, What a waste of time.
It wasn’t until some months had passed that I could see what I’d gotten from being with him: a love for biology, an attachment to the ocean.
My next relationship began when I was twenty-three. We met at a bar and danced to Michael Jackson, then kissed in front of my house. Four years later, when we broke up, I thought, Did I just waste my time again?
It took a while for me to realize what parts of him had stayed with me: an ear for music, a playfulness with words.
My most recent relationship started when I was twenty-seven. The night began with us dancing to Anderson .Paak and ended with kisses on a bench in Golden Gate Park.
The breakup — just last week, after a year together — came as a shock. I reviewed all the warning signs I’d ignored: the unanswered love letters, the thoughtless gifts, the resentment.
I’m not sure what aspects of this relationship will persist, but right now I don’t want any of it. It feels like he stole time from me.
San Francisco, California
I served in the Peace Corps almost thirty years ago, but I still think about my two years in Cameroon almost daily: in the grocery-store cereal aisle (choices!); in line at the post office (efficiency!); waiting to get my car repaired (free coffee!).
During my service I strove to be prompt. The classes I taught started on time, even though the school year, for some reason, had started two weeks late. And when I said I’d meet a friend at the village bar for a beer, I arrived early and brought along a book and a journal, because I knew my friend would be late.
One day, while I was traveling to the regional capital to go to the bank, my bus got a flat tire, and the driver told all the passengers to disembark. The Muslim men faced Mecca, laid down their prayer mats, and began to pray. The rest of us walked up the road a mile or so to a bar. I was in my second year of service and no longer found these delays irritating.
At the bar I played peekaboo with the owner’s toddler. Her father told me she had seen white people only on television, and he was surprised she wasn’t scared of me.
The other passengers and I laughed and shared stories of travel mishaps. We sang along with the radio. I picked up the little girl and danced with her, losing track of how long we were there.
When the bus pulled up to collect us for the rest of the journey, we reboarded reluctantly.
My days now are filled with teaching and travel, all at the frenetic pace of American life. I often long for time to slow down the way it did that day, when no one was in any rush to fix that flat tire.
Mary Beth Simmons
West Conshohocken, Pennsylvania
It started with a friendly wave, a hello. This turned into chats, and then coffee, and then more. It was about time I had a bit of luck in the love department. I was divorced and hadn’t been held in a long while. He was my neighbor and would slip a rose under my windshield wiper while I was at work and leave me letters telling me I was the one. But we were taking our time. After failed marriages for us both, we wanted to be sure. We saw each other mostly on nights I didn’t have my kids, and he didn’t have his kids, and we had no other familial or school obligations.
As the years went by, I remained patient. Moving slowly seemed the right thing to do, and I was incredibly busy as a single mom. But after my youngest left home, I began to press him: Couldn’t he come to this family function with me? Couldn’t we spend a weekend somewhere together? He always had some perfectly reasonable explanation for why it wouldn’t work.
He was an incredible lover; our time in bed was always good. He mowed my lawn. He fixed things in my house. He bought me gifts. He took me to dinner often. In many ways he was the perfect boyfriend. He just resisted becoming more than that.
Then I discovered he had another girlfriend. This woman didn’t mean that much to him, he said; they were never “intimate.” I was devastated anyway and insisted we quit seeing each other. Since he was my neighbor, though, I still saw him all the time.
One day my car broke down, and I called him, and he came to my aid. Soon we were lovers again, even though I knew he was still seeing the other woman. I told myself I could do this. He and I were friends who happened to share physical intimacy. We would enjoy what we could give each other with the understanding that he could give only so much.
I tried. I really did. But after many tears I realized that I needed emotional intimacy, too. It took me a while to let him go completely. We had become so familiar with each other’s bodies and lives. But his distance made me cautious, and I held back in response.
We still wave and smile. I know that if I am in a jam, he will be there for me. I hope he knows I will be there for him in return. I’m not hurt or angry. I feel mostly a wistful sadness. I’m thankful for the opportunity to learn so much about myself: what I needed and what I could give; what I could accept and what I could not.
Henry Snelman was my grandfather’s hired hand on his New Hampshire farm. Henry was maybe ten years younger than Grandpa and had lived with my grandparents’ family for as long as any of us could remember. I knew little of Henry’s background other than that he was from Finland, had no family of his own, and spoke limited English.
In the late summer of 1943 Henry and Grandpa were getting in the last load of hay. Grandpa was standing in the wagon when the lead horse gave a yank on the harness, and Grandpa lost his balance, fell, and broke his neck, dying almost instantly.
My grandfather left behind no will and no money, just the farm and the animals: two or three cows, a couple of workhorses, two pigs, and a few laying hens. By September my grandmother had left the farm to live with her daughter, and our family moved in. Henry stayed with us, which was fortunate, because he knew how everything worked. My salesman father was not particularly skilled at farming and tended to be short-tempered. Henry dealt with the horses and cows, showed us how to use the machine that separated the milk from the cream, and taught me how to collect eggs from the hens. When my sisters were arguing about whose turn it was to do the dishes, Henry shooed them out of the kitchen and proceeded to do the chore himself — carefully spreading newspaper on the floor and placing the dishes on it to dry. He had a calming effect on us, even though we found some of his habits a bit strange. For example, he liked to take a jar of cream and set it in the sun until it curdled. Then he would drink it, smacking his lips.
Henry took special care of me, the youngest. When I asked my father if I could bring a ball to school, my father seemed to ignore the question. Henry went to the barn and found me a ball.
I’ll always remember the time my impatient father said to Henry, “Come on, hurry up.”
A man of few words, Henry replied, “Me take me time. Me let the hurry go by.”
Nancy P. Greenleaf
Ponce Inlet, Florida
We met on New Year’s Eve in Central Park and dated for just a little while. Seven years later, when I was in my late thirties, I passed him in the streets of Manhattan. (What were the odds, in a city of 8 million?) I could tell he recognized me, but we both continued on in opposite directions. Then something told me to turn around.
“I know you!” I said.
He asked where I was going, and he accompanied me to a cafe. When it was time for me to catch the train home, I told him it had been nice to bump into him, and I wished him well. I was ready to end our reunion. He wasn’t. After some hesitation on my part (he was the one who’d broken it off the first time), he won me over, and we started to see each other again.
I was in love with him but also anxious about turning forty. My window of opportunity to become a mother was narrowing. I loved this man and believed we had found each other at this moment to build a life together and have a family, but we were both busy establishing new careers.
Looking back, I see that I rushed everything. I put pressure on us to improve our finances and decide where to live so we could become forty-something parents. I was so worried this wouldn’t happen that I ended the relationship after two and a half years.
I’m now forty-four and single. For the past three years I’ve been bedridden and unable to walk due to an autoimmune disease. As I struggle alone with excruciating pain, I remember the days when he and I were together with no talk of “the future.” We took quiet walks, watched movies, or made dinner side by side. I wish I had just one more day like that.
Jersey City, New Jersey
In the “back to the land” community where I lived in the 1970s, I’d often ask my neighbor, “How you doing?” and she’d respond, “Having the time of my life.” This made us laugh. When are we not having the time of our lives?
We were high on marijuana a lot back then, and we enjoyed dissecting the meanings of familiar sayings, examining each word as if for the first time. “Take your time” was one. How do you “take” time? What makes it yours? Can it be taken from you?
I’m sixty-five now, a retired university academic, the author of two published books, a kidney-cancer survivor, and a mother of four successful children. I still live on the same wooded property. And I still smoke pot.
I smoke it when I need to get monotonous chores done or think over tough problems. Sometimes I smoke it just to enhance my mood. After a hectic week, marijuana reminds me to slow down, to monitor my thoughts, to understand my intentions, to think about my words. It has become a sacrament, a reminder to take my time.
Taking piano lessons at the age of eight was a big mistake. While I sat on the bench and hammered away at the keys, I wished I was doing something more important, like playing wiffle ball, having water-balloon fights, or watching Saturday-morning cartoons. Two years later I fell in love with music, and my AM transistor radio became indispensable, but it was too late. I’d already quit my lessons and drawn the conclusion that I had no musical ability.
As I approached my fortieth birthday, it occurred to me that I might have closed the door on learning an instrument too hastily. As a birthday present to myself, I bought an inexpensive guitar and started taking lessons.
Night after night I plugged away at the songs that had jump-started my musical passion at the age of ten: “Up around the Bend,” by Creedence Clearwater Revival; “No Time,” by the Guess Who; “Spirit in the Sky,” by Norman Greenbaum. My progress was slow, as one might expect, but I managed to develop a repertoire that even now, seventeen years later, reconnects me with my youth.
A few weeks ago, while searching for a new song to learn, I stumbled across an arrangement of “The Circle Game,” Joni Mitchell’s wistful tune about growing up. From verse to verse Mitchell traces the stages of childhood, from cartwheels to car wheels. When I was thirteen years old, at my own transition between childhood and adolescence, “The Circle Game” was the first song whose lyrics I really listened to. In the third verse, the singer cautions the child listener against growing up too quickly, telling him to take his time.
As I practice arpeggios, I think about my grandsons, ages four and ten months, and how I want my years with them to pass as slowly as possible. But they grow up so fast. Whenever the four-year-old pulls me onto the living-room floor to help him build a rocket ship out of Legos, I think, Please, kids, take your time, not so much for your sake but for mine.