The sales dude at Urban Outfitters, the one with tattoos sleeving both his forearms, wants to know why you and your daughter are exchanging the dress.
"Do you want the truth?" Sure, he nods. Whatever.
"Three other girls in the eighth grade bought the same dress for graduation."
He winces. He gets it. And he cheerfully makes the exchange, even though you do not have a receipt, even though you know there's a reasonable chance that at least one other graduating middle-schooler will have this new frock, too, since there are 100 girls and they all shop at the same three stores.
But never mind. Your daughter is smiling, and the flowers on the cream-colored background bring out the blue of her eyes.
Here is the rub of midlife parenting: Your girl, Fourteen, quivers at the wind-torn apex of self-consciousness while you loll on the far side of that peak, in a wildflower-strewn meadow of equanimity. You clambered your hard way here—remember the endless hair-straightening, the ill-fitting Sasson jeans?—to finally arrive at a place where others' judgment doesn't faze you.
Now you comb your hair with your fingers and wear flowered overalls that make you look like Cindy Brady. You sing Broadway tunes in the car. You haven't bought a new backpack in ten years.
All of this mortifies your daughter. Of course, pretty much anything mortifies her these days, but chiefly you, one of her two mothers, whose very presence reminds her that she used to be a little girl who fell asleep on a stuffed bunny named Big Ba and flamed with jealousy if you zipped another child's coat.
It's as if you've traded places: Once upon a time, she was the toddler for whom a walk down the block took 25 minutes because everything was just so interesting: fat, fuzzed caterpillar squinching along the sidewalk; oak leaves breaking underfoot; rainbow-streaked water drizzling over the curb.
Back then, you were the one in a hurry—impatient, distracted, the afternoon ticking away (ohmygod can we just please get to the co-op before it closes?), to-do lists in tatters as you sat on the couch from lunchtime to sundown, reading "Cherries and Cherry Pits" for the dozenth time.
And before that? Your own teen years? How about the 10-day trip to Europe with your parents when you were 15, when they schlepped you everywhere, bought complicated adapter plugs for your contact-lens cleaning unit and your blow-dryer, ordered vegetarian food for you in broken French, and you shuffled along, unimpressed by the Louvre or Stratford-upon-Avon or Buckingham Palace's crisp changing of the guard.
No, what you remember most from that trip was the moment you accidentally kicked your black tote bag into an Amsterdam canal—the bag containing the journal in which you'd been spilling your angsty adolescent heart—and a man in a rowboat fished it out with one oar and offered it up to your father's waiting hands.
Did you even thank your mother for the hour she spent in the women's bathroom at the Van Gogh Museum, helping you peel apart the wet, wavy leaves of that journal and blot the dampness with paper towels? Did you tell your parents the whole trip was awesome?
Of course you didn't. Because you didn't rediscover awe until you were an adult, when you drove cross-country to Portland, Oregon, and a double rainbow vaulted the sky just south of the Grand Canyon. Days later, you finally glimpsed the Pacific, undulating grosgrain of blue and gray, and you wept with amazement and fatigue.
Over the next decades, self-consciousness and cynicism, its protective twin, slowly drained out of you. Delight filled the vacancy. Now, you stop, wonderstruck, when the green-skinned turnip you're slicing turns out to have a vivid fuschia core. You cross-section a summer tomato, honeycombed blush and gold, and find its moist crannies and colors so astonishing that you must carry it into the living room and show it to Fourteen.
"Look," you say. "Isn't this incredible?"
And she shrugs. "Yeah. Uh-huh," and returns to her hunched position over the endless feed of Instagram.
Stephen Kaplan, an environmental psychologist at the University of Michigan, has written about fascination—effortless attention to something intrinsically compelling—as an antidote to the ever-demanding tug (Facebook, television, traffic) that leaves us feeling spent.
But you can't make a legacy of fascination; the kids will have to find it on their own. Time will help, of course. Loss will grind away, eroding self-absorption and honing gratitude to a sharp, bright shim.
For six years I couldn't smell a thing—not motor oil, not menthol, not chopped garlic—so when medication finally cleared the olfactory paths, I cherished every odor: the earth-flower scent of a maitake mushroom, the citrusy cling after peeling a December tangerine.
Eventually, Fourteen will figure out that life is short and riven with sorrow, that she should grab the fabulous while she can. She will understand why you are shivering on the lip of Lake St. Clair, just outside the Airbnb house you've rented for a week's vacation, staring at a huge, pink sun as it melts toward the water. She will know why you drag her out, later, to gape at a sky stirred crazy with stars. You can tolerate Fourteen's long season of being underwhelmed because you know—it happened to you—that the period of whatever will eventually cede, and the world will rush back in.
You hope to be there when it happens. But you probably won't. In the meantime, you take Fourteen to a play in New York, a work so true and brave it makes you cry. It is performed in the round. Across the not-so-large stage are other people watching you watching them as you watch the play together, ad infinitum, like an M.C. Escher sketch or a hall of funhouse mirrors.
And it strikes you that this is an apt metaphor for life—watching, being watched, alternately self-conscious, self-loathing and self-content, with an occasional breakthrough when all that awareness dissolves and fascination glimmers in the foreground.
Suddenly, Fourteen nuzzles close and reaches for your hand. She gently uncurls your fingers, then deposits her wet, chewed gum into your palm. And you take it. When she rests her head on your shoulder, you lean down until your temples touch. You try not to breathe. Because in-between the doubled rainbows and the stunning hearts of turnips, the infinite and the infinitesimal, there is this. Wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles: a you-shaped gap in the universe, and you slip inside, just for an instant, and everything fits.