The Neighborhood 

It’s 5:30 Friday evening. I got home a little early, changed clothes, and poured myself a glass of wine. The temperature outside has been in the 60s the past couple of days, so I turned off the air-conditioner and opened some windows.

I live in the top two floors of a row of two-over-two townhomes. All the units have garages which back to central parking, around a treed, grassy island.

From my open dining room window, I hear little kids ramming around with what sound like plastic wheeled toys. (Parents, you know that sound!) I hear a mom. From this distance, she sounds like the muffled mumbles of any adult in the classic Charlie brown cartoons. The children are shrieking with glee, yelling rules at each other for whatever game they are making up in the moment. As all good suburban cul-de-sac kids do, they occasionally bellow the warning, CAAAAARRRRRR!

These sounds transport me back almost 20 years, when I had two small kids. When the boys were very little, we lived in a townhouse community, smaller, but not unlike the one I’m living in now. Instead of out back, the parking and island were in the center, viewable from the fronts of the houses. If enough adults stood guard, the kids could ride their large plastic wheeled vehicles around the island.

It was in this way that we met most of our neighbors in the community where we first lived, and again when we moved to a more expansive suburb. Now, some evenings when I drive my car into the parking area, I see orange cones set up, and those signs that say “children at play”, and adults standing around, sharing a beverage, while they keep one eye on the posse of children. I remember the drill: one parent would take a turn, giving the other one a spell, and promise to run the children, hard, until they were tired. This was in an effort to ensure an early (or at least timely), drama-free bedtime. Our measure of success was the low bar of “safe and happy” on those nights and anything beyond that, with regard to the kids, was gravy.

I mostly feel happy that the days of large plastic wheel toys and shrieking children are behind me, but I would be lying if I didn’t add that the sounds I’m hearing now make me the tiniest bit wistful. My little boys were just so cute. And fun! Exhausting too. But remarkable. They were (and are still) a source of pride and joy.

There is a sense of community that parents of similarly aged children develop. I don’t have that connection with any of my current neighbors. Now, I am (probably?) that scary old lady who smiles a little too broadly, and is a little too forthcoming with the unsolicited advice.

When we were in the thick of it, I could barely imagine a day when I wouldn’t find Hot Wheels cars and LEGO blocks and empty chip bags and Capri Sun pouches all over my house. But now here I am, with a 7th grader who needs no toys, rides a “big boy” bike to school, and even puts most of his trash into the garbage cans in the house. His older brothers spend more time now at their dad’s house than at mine, but I see them regularly, and we have completely adult conversations. And occasionally drink a beer together! (What?!)

I remember as my kids were growing up, thinking how each stage is the best, as you get to it. All the stages are special for unique reasons, but the one I was in at the moment always seemed the best to me. Little kids, like the ones I hear shrieking right now, can be exhausting, but their smiles and joy are completely genuine. My favorite age range is still from 7 to 11, but I’m still really enjoying Eli even as an adolescent in middle school. (But I will readily accept your prayers for us both.)

Yes, my life has changed significantly over the past two decades, and I’ve been through many stages. But in this moment, I can say with certainty, as I look ahead to all that awaits, that this is, without a doubt, the best stage yet.

It’s a process

50LIKE MANY OF MY CLASSMATES, I turned 50 earlier this year. I watched the birthday parade on Facebook as each one reached the milestone. I know it’s just a number, but honestly, how am I 50 already?? I’m told my face looks younger, but believe me when I say that my body is starting to feel every bit of my age. The physical changes are inevitable; you're told it will happen, and you don't believe it, and then all of a sudden, you're thinking, so they were right.

It seems I’ve reached the stage where people – inexplicably – seek my advice. I readily share my wisdom, if I may call it that, because after being a Card-Carrying Grown-Up for three decades, I figure I know a thing or two. Doesn’t mean I’m always right or have all the answers – far from it – but I’ve learned some things, and I'm not afraid to share.

I see in young adults the stages I remember going through. It's a joy to see a glimpse of their future self – proof that they're going to be just fine. Other times, I think, wait 10 years and then you’ll realize that you really didn't have it all figured out. I want to give them the keys to the kingdom, but it would be criminal to rob them of the necessary experience of doing it all on their own. It’s actually important to take that job that ends up sucking (and leave it for a new one), to date, to experience a break-up, to establish a household, to manage your money, to find your own jam. These experiences shape you.

It’s like that children’s story, “Bear Hunt” – can’t go over it, can’t go under it, can’t go around it, gotta go through it.

Twenty years ago, I was in the throes of raising a family. I defined myself largely as a mom. Now, in what seems the blink of an eye, my peers and I are sending our offspring away to college and (hopefully!) into their own adult lives. Some celebrate the empty nest, and others rue it. Behind us are the establishing-yourself-as-an-adult phase, the courtship-and-marriage phase, the house-buying phase, the childbearing phase, the minivan (or large SUV) phase. I still have a pre-teen boy at home, and two attending community college, but the days of giant plastic toys and nap schedules are far behind me (praise be to all the deities).

Those of us of a certain age are realizing it's time to reclaim, and maybe also redefine, our own identity, separate from our progeny.

It’s tempting to look back and second-guess some decisions I made, but the truth is, I wouldn’t be exactly where (or who) I am today if I hadn’t followed my own unique path. Regret is a waste of time and energy. We can’t change the past, so we must try to learn from it. Glean that nugget of wisdom from each life experience that will help you next time. Think about what your purpose is for being in this place at this moment, and about how you got here. If you can learn from your past, you have not failed.

And yes, that does sound like a commencement speech, but it turns out there's wisdom in those platitudes. (Listen to your elders, kids. They've been there.) 

There’s still so much to look forward to. I am starting to hear a small but persistent voice that whispers, you're on the back nine now, sister – there is less and less time to waste. But I’m savoring every moment. There’s also plenty I still need to figure out. But I am enjoying my journey. I’m in a good place, and I'm so excited to see what comes next.

 

Going up

I USED TO PAY BETTER ATTENTION in elevators. I had to, because with clients in various office buildings around the city, paying attention in elevators was a critical job skill. I'd think to myself, it's Monday, so today you're down 19th from Dupont Circle and your client's on 6. Tomorrow is the alternate Tuesday, so you're west on M Street, 7th floor, and Wednesday it's the one on 17th Street with the grouchy security guard, top floor.

It was a point of pride that I almost never forgot which elevator button to push. I had my act together and was pretty proud of it.

Then last year, I retired my wheeled briefcase and started working in the same place every day. My new office building has touch pad elevator call buttons: You press your destination floor and the panel tells you which elevator will take you there. You don't press a button in the elevator because it already knows. This allows you to kind of zone out during the ride up.

Yesterday I took the day off so I could arrange some long-overdue medical appointments. And so I found myself in a different office building first thing in the morning. As I entered the elevator, another woman was already in there. The 8 button was lit. I pressed 5. The doors almost closed, then opened again, much to the relief of a harried-looking mother with three active kids, between the ages of 6 and 2. She herded her brood into the elevator and instructed her oldest daughter to press 11, which she did.

You know how kids love elevator buttons? Well of course the little guy wanted to press a button too, and he lunged for the bottom row, which included the ALARM button. Mom pulled him back just in time, then shooed her other son out of my personal space, scolding him, "You're being rude." I didn't mind, though. I was thinking about why this one mama had brought all three kids with her to a medical appointment, without a stroller. Had the nanny canceled? Perhaps her husband was out of town. 

The car stopped at 5; no one got out. I looked at the other woman, who had never looked up from her phone. Huh, I thought. She is so engrossed in her phone that she forgot to get off the elevator! Amused, I watched her to see how she would react when she realized she'd missed her stop. 

The doors closed and the car continued to 8. The lady with the phone got out. 

Aha, I thought. She realized she missed her stop and got off at 8 instead. But I was focused on those kids. I thought, if Mom needs help, I will come to her rescue. She sure is lucky she boarded an elevator with me, an experienced mother of three kids!

As the elevator continued up to 11, that's when I remembered that *I* was the one was supposed to get off at 5. I had become so distracted that I managed, in that short ride, to forget which floor I'd pressed. 

Mom was focused on executing her tenacious 1-on-3 defense, but I still wanted to avoid a potentially embarrassing exchange. So I followed her off the elevator, as if I'd meant to get off on the same floor. To pre-empt any questions, I gave her a meaningful look and a nod and said, "It gets better, I promise," and added with a knowing wink, sister to sister, "I understand. Hang in there!" She thanked me and wished me a nice day. 

I waited for the foursome to disappear around the corner before quietly pressing the call button and re-entering the elevator for the ride back down to the fifth floor.