community, Growing Up, Purpose

Resonate

umbrella house

It was easier when the heroes were prophets. They stood just far enough forward that we had to keep moving to keep up. We had to lean in to hear. That was when tyrants wore names like uniforms. Good and evil faced off across chasms and we knew better than to tumble between. We stood firm on our side. Myth grew us a chorus of muses. They sang in every shade of green.

Over across the way, it was hard to make out anything but ruin. Rumor had it someone had salted the earth. The restoration was a long way off. We knew we could only build a bridge after the villains had been vanquished. Even if we could arrive sooner to begin the purge and planting, would our comrades welcome us? Would they even recognize us? Continue reading “Resonate”

Brain, Choices, Growing Up, Learning

Border Guard

Stone Eye

Suddenly frightened by her hatred, she said to herself: the world is at some sort of border; if it is crossed, everything will turn to madness: people will walk the streets holding forget-me-nots or kill one another on sight. And it will take very little for the glass to overflow, perhaps just one drop: perhaps just one car too many, or one person, or one decibel. There is a certain quantitative border that must not be crossed, yet no one stands guard over it and perhaps no one even realizes that it exists.


 – Milan Kundera, Immortality

Here we must trust ourselves that the weight we feel is real.

Yes, it is only one milligram at a time. The increase is almost imperceptible. Those who want our resource will claim there is no change. They will suggest we are just anxious or imagining things.

When a true accounting gives evidence of the creeping escalation of our burden (and depletion of our stores), they will change course. They will try to convince us that we can handle the accumulation. They will flatter us that we are strong and our capacity is limitless.

Nevertheless, like any vessel, like any ecosystem, we do indeed have a threshold. If demands on our time and attention swell unchecked, the increase will become unbearable. We will have to pay the cost of the load, every pound of it.

So we must stand guard over that quantitative border and measure choice in terms of consequence. We must prepare ourselves for cunning maneuvers and seductive story lines. When we enumerate potential gains and losses, they’ll say that life is random, that we never know how events unfold. Things will change in ways we can’t predict or even imagine, hasn’t it always been so?

This argument is compelling. We’ll rethink history and wonder if perhaps complex forces beyond our control actually got us here. It will start to seem more true than our limited experience, more bearable than our uncomfortable insight. We might let that reasoning turn our focus away from what sits heavy on us.

The idea of unforeseen outcomes is a relief, really, and it will nudge us towards acting on whims and allowing brighter lights to guide us. We want to give ourselves permission to let things “just happen.” It would be unnecessary to identify the source of our unease. We’d be justified in skipping the difficult questions. We’d be free to dispense with complicated endeavors like seeking truth and living with integrity.

We could take a break from sowing discord. We could be agreeable and well-liked.

For these reasons, we are wise to be wary of any implication that our perception is misperception. We have to be suspicious of those who claim our attempts at setting limits are misguided and likely fruitless. We have to ask, How do they benefit when I ignore my instincts?

When I surrender to “fate,” who wins?

Only when we are able to articulate the choices in front of us can we make explicit trade-offs. This requires courage. It needs us to give voice to our intuition even as it is taking shape. With the careful inventory we’ve taken, we can decide what resource to tap and where to yield. We can consider how to fortify our depleted areas before we give over or take on.

But if we let the delusion of unlimited capacity carry us headlong into more, we will find that what we believe to be permanent is actually far from guaranteed. The repo man will come to collect something much more precious than we would have ever parted with by choice. It is up to us to claim the choice at the moment of the exchange or — better yet — well ahead of it.

We have the power to bargain with intention. We can be effective in planting and cultivating what we value most. This is true as long as we retain agency over our body, our time, and our determination of what’s worth saving in this beloved world.


Image credit: Horoshi Ito, I Know You

 

 

Growing Up, Mindfulness, Poetry

First Taste

collard greens 2

I tear from their stems
leaves as big as elephant’s ears,
dino kale, mustard, Russian red.
Friends came
bearing this plastic sack of plants.
I hugged close
the friends then lifted out
one giant collard leaf
and pressed it against my cheek.

These succulent greens grew
in a stark suburban yard
stripped bare of topsoil
and shade. It took a few years
and the season’s first frost
to draw sweetness up through veins
threading bitter lamina.

The tough, cold fiber
yields to a tug,
its surprising suppleness
as porous as my own
skin, as ready
to give.

I did not want
to cook something new. Dinner fuels
me, most days that is
enough.
In the pan, oil spits
at the intrusion
of garlic and broth.
The spatula’s flat wooden blade
gilds ashen leaves
and they shine with the sharp scent
of roots, ice, chlorophyll, flame.

The flavor makes my mouth
ache like when I’m close
to crying. I eat
slowly, marveling at how far the comfort
of routine has carried me
from pleasure.

It is wonderful to see you
is what we say. It used to be the other way
when sensation raced
to the side of the bed, bouncing
on its toes,
get up get up, come look.
Taking notice comes first
now. This is the shift
that marks the start
of growing up. We wake
to walls and grab
at threads of hunger,
at any texture that can mimic
or at least stand in
for wonder. We pause
still hoping for a surge
until we surrender and step out
as first light
splits the horizon and say
It is wonderful
to see
you.

We learn to lift
ourselves towards desire. We learn to proceed
with our hands
extended, feeling
through weed and loam, inviting
something to stroke our wrists
and yank us over
into the bright fat flesh
of the world, the place
all around us
where explosions as fleeting
as one leaf
against tongue, skin,
or sky can make us catch our breath
in a thrill of awakening, breaking
us open in gratitude
for a visit
from that part of our heart
that left home
we thought
for good.

 

Change, Children, Growing Up

Growing Pain

door jamb

He cries almost every night. The homework is too much or I bark too loud the fifth time I ask him to wash his hands for dinner. Something tips him over the cliff and he flings himself face-down onto the easy chair in the living room. His sobs surge through his whole body. If I try to comfort him, he storms into his room and slams the door. I’ll find him there later, sprawled across the bed lost in a graphic novel. He refuses to turn, only growling, “I didn’t tell you it was okay to come in.” Continue reading “Growing Pain”

Children, Growing Up, Love

Overboard

Slow-Swinging Sea
He stirs as I tiptoe past. It was the quietest of midnight bathroom visits, but sensing proximity, he surfaces. The butterfly nightlight gilds the unfurling comma of his body. He mumbles and I bend down close. Is this just a ripple as he passes beneath or is it a call up to his divemaster in the waking world?

“I had a nightmare.” A moan chokes the almost-whisper, tears bubble under the almost-plea. He asks still sometimes. More frequently now, he turns into himself and finds uneasy comfort in his approaching PCS.

He reaches for me from the small bed we’ve tucked into a nook in my room. For one night, this night, he is here. I must remember what I so easily forget: Tonight is the only night.

The only guarantee is this.

When does it go? Does the wind change, do we get any warning at all? The story has its own arc and rarely does it show mercy to the players.

Our neighbor died last week. Every day, he walked his goofy dog named Mulligan. Every day, he beamed out a smile. So many of us here lock our gazes on the ground as we stride headlong across the face of the day, but he spared a moment for a hello.

We rode the bus together to the metro in the mornings. This summer, along with his tattooed son, intermittent daughter-in-law, and 5-year-old grandson, he went camping in Minnesota. We rode together then too, taking bus to metro, the clan lugging duffel bags and airline tickets. He came back with sunburned cheeks.

The tattooed son walks Mulligan now. He smiles and says hello just like his dad did. Mulligan wags and sniffs and strains at his leash, doing the same.

In the great green room, there was a telephone, and a red balloon.

When was the last time we read aloud the book we used to know by heart? Who can call up the final Sweet Baby James?

Tonight is the only night.

Tomorrow, my boy will sleep in another place. Behind a closed door, in a dorm room, alongside his troubled lover. He will rest on the shore of the cove he’s found following his own songlines. He’ll plunge into caves that crack open in his private sea floor. He’ll battle the Leviathan that has fed on his leaked blood and whispers.

I sit down on the carpet next to him. Our dog is curled into a ball on a tattered wool blanket on the other side of me. She is a soft pulse, a shuddering exhale. I stroke my son’s hair, its tangled gold, its damp heat. He sighs. Then he touches my arm and pulls it down across his middle. Turning, he tucks me in under him, extending my reach, strapping my slender weight across him like a harness. I lay may cheek against the warm place his head left on the pillow. His discarded breath is my oxygen. His scent, my surf.

Soon he is rhythm and release. When his grip relaxes, I plant a kiss his slack cheek then roll away.

It is deep night and I am so very tired.

I fall into the passing current of sleep, drafting in the slipstream of my son’s swift descent.

Image credit: Asleep in the Arms of the Slow-Swinging Sea by Ruby Levick

Choices, Growing Up

Unadorned

window decay

The chance you had is the life you’ve got. You can make complaints about what people, including you, make of their lives after they have got them, and about what people make of other people’s lives, even about your children being gone, but you mustn’t wish for another life. You mustn’t want to be somebody else. What you must do is this: “Rejoice evermore. Pray without ceasing. In every thing give thanks.” I am not all the way capable of so much, but those are the right instructions.

– Wendell Barry, Hannah Coulter

Growing up requires you to let go of seeing things the way you want them to be and seeing them instead as they are. I understand the same rule applies to giving thanks and, as it happens, to rejoicing.

 

Growing Up, Learning, Things I Can

98. Things I Can Follow: His Opening Play

ice bridge card
Three triangles adorn his shirt, each framing a fairy wizard holding a sword of light. He passes behind the man carrying in a cardboard box of 20 chicken nuggets and a tub of soda. Bellies and waifs, long necks and hoodies, scruff and Adams apples. One wears a cowboy hat, several slouch under baseball caps, one comes banging in through the glass door in a full-length black trench coat.

At first the chatter deafens as it ricochets off linoleum and drywall. Cards are shuffling and chairs are scraping and players peer over shoulders at plastic-sheathed pages in stacks of three-ring binders.

“You don’t want your Shambling to run into a Foul-Tongue.”

“I got a foil ruler. I hope someone finds a way for that card to be good.”

The one with tight curls and meaty limbs is in charge. He strides through the pack, surprisingly nimble for a man so large. His orders boom out and the chatter quiets. “Modern and Standard, you’re at tables 1-12. Your pairings are posted by the thermostat.” A stir, a rush. The rest jostle for space by the door. Backpacks droop from shoulders. Darting eyes, laughing eyes, eyes that focus entirely in the fan of cards in hand. Playing mats unfurl — rubber-backed masterpieces painted with purple volcanoes or lush forests or distant flashing battles.

“Draft, you are at tables 13 up to 25. You have 50 minutes to build a 40-card deck.” Groans, chuckles. They rip open the mylar sleeves, they peer in and assess options. The room is now murmur and hush.

My boy with his surfer hair is focused with an intensity I only see when he’s facing a screen. This child can barely sit still for homework without slumping into an Oscar-worthy posture of exhaustion. Now he is perched on the lip of his chair, silent and poised for action.

When something is hard, he whines and pouts. “It’s so boring.” Then he gives up. When a new skill is just beyond his reach, he says, “I don’t like it.” Then gives up. The suggestion of a new project — “Hey, let’s go to Michael’s and get that cool glass etching kit we saw at the party!” — leads him first to take measure of the gap between what he knows and the work required. The shortest span is a bridge too far.

He gives up.

Then we are here, and everything I thought I knew about my kid’s relationship with motivation turns inside-out.

An hour passes. Then another 30 minutes. And another.

Bug only just learned about Magic the Gathering from other 8-year-old boys at camp this summer. I bought him his first cards a few weeks ago. He plays a bit with kids at school, but they make up their own game. To do otherwise is daunting. The beginner rule book for simple play contains passages like this:
 

An enchantment represents a stable magical manifestation. This means two things: you can cast one only at the time you could cast a sorcery, and after you cast one, you’ll put it on the table in front of you, near your lands. . . Some enchantments are Auras. An Aura enters the battlefield attached to a permanent and affects that permanent while it’s on the battlefield. If the enchanted permanent leaves the battlefield, the Aura is put into its owner’s graveyard.

These “basic” rules cover 36 pages. The more comprehensive guide runs to 207.

I mill around in the shop next door to the gaming annex. So many people have turned out that they’ve set up yet another long table in the middle of the store. Through their turns, the players mutter and evaluate.

“Demon’s grasp, killed the first three preachers.”

“Amaria? You’re running something new in Modern? I didn’t realize.”

“I ran Squadron Hawk for a while.”

The volume begins to rise. People razz each other, knock back Mountain Dew, stomp in out of the rainy night.

“I have too many spells in my deck!”

“And I’m all like, ‘fuck that guy.'”

“Hey, language!”

“Yeah, language, dude.”

“Sorry. Hey I’m zombie-ing my way out the door.”

It’s nearing 11pm. We’ve been here since 7:20. I walk back into the annex with the firm intention of gathering Bug up and hustling him out. It’s hours past his bedtime, and tomorrow is going to be a battle. He is seated across from a guy that looks like half the engineering undergrads at my university. “I don’t know,” the young man says, spreading his hands wide with a smirk and a shrug. “What are you gonna play?”

“Oh yeah,” laughs Bug. “It’s my turn.”

Next to him, the pink-haired player — one of only three women out of the 70 attendees — glances over and grins at my boy. She is looking up a rule, tracing her chrome-tipped finger across the face of her phone.

Bug slaps a card face-up on the table. He and his opponent lean in to study it. The man rolls a many-sided die and it tumbles across the padded mat.

I take a seat nearby and start sketching in my journal.

Beyond the rudimentary components of the cards and their procedures, the game’s Multiverse involves a level of intricacy that would make Tolkein proud.
 

The Blind Eternities are a chaotic, logic-defying place of quasi-existence filled with raw potential called Æther. Only Planeswalkers can survive there, and only for a limited time. Mortal beings without the Planeswalker spark are soon destroyed by raw entropy and uncontained mana that suffuses the Blind Eternities.

It’s some heady stuff. The minimum recommended age is 13.

Yet here is my boy, just days before his 9th birthday, stepping over the border into this labyrinthine world. He peers out across that canyon between what he knows and the skills required.

He takes its measure.

He decides.

One knot, one board, one play at a time, he begins building his bridge. 

Growing Up, Poetry, Things I Can

75. Things I Can Lay Down: A Nest under Sky

From the dining table of a rich absent landlord,
from a rooftop tilting over
screaming streets,
from the hide of a man
whose soft fangs belie
battles he claims
as the source of his scars,
I plucked splinters
and locks of discarded hair.

I was ravenous
even for hollow breath
echoing against a bare wooden
belly. Strings cut flesh to callous
and every song clanged
like paper against my hunger.
I tried to pry frets
from the neck. I tried to harvest
spider legs.

A sign was necessary. A silver
ring or maybe a strip
of fur curling on the tip
of a thorn. I walked
not away. Something else.
Out.

Towards.

Under
a canopy of sumac, bent like a crooked
house, I passed
through to the first division
and pressed petals
back into their seed.
I swaddled my thighs
in creek water. I bled
into moss.

I lay down a bed like a bow
to the half open moon.
The voice I used to call
up the shape of a home in the sky
Goodnight you moonlight ladies
was the same lunatic jabber
of coyotes coursing through folds
in a mist forever closing
between us.

I wake now to the face of a frozen sun,
my bones young and brittle, hung
with crystal globes and gloved
in frost. I glitter like grass
and shatter in the light. Blowing
out from a depression
in the earth shaped like someone
exhumed,
I catch a full spectrum
of morning

in each one
of my birth’s hundred
billion prisms
every time
I refuse
to die.

 

Growing Up, Things I Can, Writing

69. Things I Can Tell Myself: One Small Truth

I am not going to read Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday.

Never mind that he’s on deck for a Monday evening book group at the Unitarian church right up the street. And I have two full weeks until then, which is more than enough time. And it’s an opportunity to talk ideas and raw human family concerns with like-minded, world-eyed liberals right here in my community.

And that I want more than anything to disrupt this aching lonely purposeless robotic toil-consume-pick up-drop off-sort-pay-do-it-all-again-tomorrow middle aged existence by weaving myself into a project bigger than me, and attending this group is one simple step towards a richer life.

Because that’s a lie.

I want other things. This I want, yes, but only as much as other things, not more than. Maybe even less than, if I’m really honest.

My 7am Zumba is a few notches higher. That’s why, instead of reading past 11pm, I turn off the light and quiet myself down.

Also higher on the list? Long, meandering walks through the neighborhood with Noodle.

Making my own hummus from scratch is up there too.

Drawing crayon doodles on the envelopes into which I fold letters to Bug at camp. And scritch-scratching in my journal. And tip-tapping here: All higher.

Also whirling through loops and riding over soft plateaus in nighttime phone conversations with My Mister. And deadheading the basil. And transplanting the peppers. And mining the deep vein of creativity when the tough tasks come calling during my 8 hours.

Lunchtime yoga. That’s higher too.

If I really want that book club and the currency I imagine it carries — I mean, if I really want it — the choice is simple. Kick Jared Diamond up to the top of the list. Let something further down fall off.

And here I am, standing at the local library about to wave my key-card under the scanner. I look at what I’ve got. An Alice Munro collection of short stories, a thin volume of poetry exercises, a Stewart O’Nan novel called Last Night at the Lobster.

And Jared Diamond.

I think, What would it hurt to just take him home? Maybe if he’s there on the bedside table, I’ll pick him up. He might enthrall me. Just imagine how edifying, how engaging that discussion group! Fourteen days? No problem.

But why do this to myself?

Why this relentless work to repair, mutate, improve?

(Or prove?)

Somehow, I still fear the call chorusing through me is a siren’s song. The desire I drive so hard to override must be Peter Pan at the window, stunted id and stars for eyes.

Somehow, I am still trying to get this growing-up thing right. And still doubting that the woman right here in this skin is actually enough.

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.

from Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese”

I’ll do better (because doing better seems to be so damned important) if Jared Diamond makes his 512-page case somewhere other than my bedroom. I set his down on the re-shelf cart.

The moment I do, two quick but powerful currents rush past from opposite directions. The first says, Rock on, Girl! You’re free of that pointless assignment!

The second one is harder to decipher, but I still manage to catch its gist. It says, There goes another chance to be a person of substance. Have fun playing in the shallows, my friend.

And because my father earned a PhD, lists dozens upon dozens of publications on his CV, and spends a good chunk of his weekends reading not only the entirety of the Washington Post but a good portion of the works of nonfiction reviewed in its “Book World” — because of all of this, I am forever falling short of the mark.

That mark written on the bones of ghosts.

That mark mapped in disappearing ink.

I beep through the library checkout with only poetry, short stories, and a novel. As I do, I take a deep breath and tell myself the true small truth. This one has nothing to do with Jared Diamond.

It is this:

I will never be my father.

The heart shivers, resists, cries out for the comforting lie.

Then lets go.

I carry home my works of fiction and image. I walk my dog, slice peaches and cherries, talk on the phone with My Mister, then come here to write.

Fiction. Image.

Lyric. Story.

(So much closer to nonfiction than anyone let on.)

Something alights outside my bedroom window. It calls softly.

This song, I’m learning.

This song, mine.

 

 

Divorce, Growing Up, Things I Can

63. Things I Can Recite: Alas, Poor Yorick

denmark-girl-at-kronborg-castle-garrisonsIt’s July 9th and raining again. My former father-in-law sends me photos of my son at the beach on an island in Lake Michigan. Bug is scrabbling on the shore near his two cousins. They are all turned away from each other, each bent over a single small universe of sand. The girls are 12 and 10 now. I held them when they were babies. They were my nieces before. Now they are just someone else’s children.

Sorrow again.

Or rather, sorrow as always.

In Pacific Heights, the 1990 thriller that put even the most liberal of us squarely on the side of monied landlords, a happy couple invites the dude to move in. He does, and proceeds to lay waste to an entire world one light fixture at a time.

This sorrow here with me? He is my tenant from hell. It is hard to believe he once so completely charmed me, but he must have.

Back when the pages of my 8th-grade diary needed an indigo flourish, he came oozing up from the spiral binding and began scoring my lines with crenelations. He had callouses and clean fingernails, serving up a Darcy-Heathcliff cocktail with a twist of Bond. It took a few years and a semester of college English Lit to peel back the pinstripes. He was the Danish prince all along and stopped bothering to claim otherwise. Now he’s as indelible as he is unmistakable, moping around the crumbling grounds in a state of masturbatory melancholy that borders on solipsism.

It’s too late to eject him.

I’m too mortgaged to try.

What came before? I see a picture of myself at 10 or 12 on a beach in New Jersey. The snapshot catches me mid-leap in the surf, a dragonfly in amber. Water arcs from the bucket in my hand and my friend shrieks. Her note twinges the air, humming across years like wings. We are neon streaks, brown limbs, airborne, foam.

I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.

The faithful prince catches me again and twines my feet in those calligraphic lines. He promises me Elsinore and all her ghosts, as if such an offer holds any appeal. I climb the stone steps still trailing silver thread, making my way to the keep. A trap door opens in the floor and I follow the stairs as they spiral down and away. Back to apotheca. To kitchen. To dungeon. I trace the walls again, again, walls unbroken by portculis or bridge.

I remember windows when he lets me.

Sorrow. My voice. My lodger.

My common-law spouse.

The shape of the skull on my shoulders, the heft of it in my hand.

 

Photo credit: Sisse Brimberg & Cotton Coulson, Keenpress for National Geographic