He drops his backpack by the door and heads out. Whether the temperature hovers at freezing or rises to a swelter, he and his friends find each other. Sometimes I block the way and steer him back to his violin for a round of scales. The neighborhood kids bang on the door every three minutes, “Is he done yet?” They loop around the breezeway on bikes and scooters. A few come up barely past my knee. A few are already shaving. When he’s free, they all charge off down the hill, hollering ever-changing rules to an ever-evolving game that winds through this labyrinth of stairwells and parking lots.
I shut the door and head to the kitchen to rinse out the lunch containers.
Divorced at 37 and still single at 43, parenting a surly tween, stuck in the suburbs, jammed into a 5-story development abutting a freeway, and working a desk job for a paycheck that barely covers groceries while a white supremacist and a Russian oligarch run the White House.
A list of bogeymen like this would have haunted my nightmares a decade ago. Around each awful possibility swirled a sooty, choking smog. Loneliness, suffering, joyless toil, pain. The imagined misery edged in on my choices and kept me in a state of anxious vigilance. I had only a vague notion of an alternative course, of what might comprise a safe sort of happiness. Maybe it looked a little like flourishing in the mountains in the company of a community of farmers and activists and artists. Mostly it looked like avoiding failure.
Terrible things might happen to other people, but I had caution as my guide. I squirreled away my pennies and married the nice guy and only took road trips after the hotel reservations were made. My faith in the protective power of intention was a flimsy braid, but I held it as tightly as I could.
Even though it has long unraveled, I still clutch it in my sclerotic grip.
Here I wake into a day whose conditions would have horrified my younger self. On any number of measures — financial, relational, professional, medical, geographic, artistic, you name it — my life falls short of where I expected it to be, to say nothing of where my hard-working forebears were aiming.
Even so, here I also wake to a day whose joys would have escaped my younger self. I step through the sleepy house to the sliding glass door where the dog lies curled into a ball, ears perked but unwilling to surrender the warmth of her nest. The clear morning opens across a balcony littered with last season’s withered plants. Spring has come for good now, or so they tell us. Soon enough, we can turn fresh soil and fill pots with pansies and sweet peas. My son sleeps in today so I write. We’ll volunteer together at church and later play Carcassonne with friends. I’ll concoct a veggie chicken something-or-other, which means I need to get into the kitchen soon and start steaming broccoli.
The only soot in this picture darkens the fireplace where we’ll soon sweep out winter’s ashes.
What stresses needle at my attention inside this would-be dystopian life? Negotiating violin practice on a day when the sun urges us outside. Making paper crafts with the kiddo while also getting a jump on spring cleaning. Fitting in the next Kitchen Conversation around a dozen women’s packed schedules.
Certainly, troubles related to the terrors feared and fulfilled weigh on me. I haven’t formed any kind of plan to pay for a growing catalogue of home repairs. Managing friction with my son after a demanding work day takes energy and creativity that far exceeds mine. And figuring all this out alone sometimes makes me really sad.
Even so, it’s no sadder or harder than most other lives. The horrors of the imagined have failed to play out. Yucky, unwelcome, potentially crippling stuff happens. It even happens to me. Nevertheless, it hasn’t shattered me. Not only do I keep on moving, but most days a little music plays.
All this begs the question: What dark snapshots of the future do I carry around with me now? I wonder how today’s anxieties about tomorrow’s disasters dilute courage and interrupt momentum. Even if all of the dreaded events happen, doesn’t history suggest they will not topple me? They may knock me into unmapped terrain, but don’t they simultaneously cut new paths through it?
You’d think a few decades of experience would be enough. Apparently I’m a slow learner.
A neighbor stops to chat as our dogs strain and sniff to say hello. Then I’m back in the kitchen chopping broccoli and bopping to a “Boss Hits” playlist Bug created. He, wrapped in his giant blue blanket, reads Maze Runner on the couch. The weeks ahead spills over with community organizing activities, and I notice for the first time in ages that I actually feel rested, that I’m sleeping better than ever.
What would happen if I let go of the illusion of control? If I dropped the rope?
Maybe my imagination still has to grow up in order to let these seemingly contradictory truths walk alongside me. A girl can struggle with money, family troubles, and detours that carry her far from a perception of her best self. All this, and she can still walk fierce. Still thrill to the day. And even in it its (her) imperfect state, she can still love the world enough to turn the soil awake.
Image: Arie Reinhardt Taylor, “Corn Shucking”