Growing Up, Purpose

This New Day

woman-registered-vote

The suffragette whites hung at the foot of the bed.  In the jacket pocket, I’d tucked a gold wedding band belonging to one grandmother and a pair of gold earrings from the other — the last Christmas gift she gave me before she died.  Both of these women were born before the ratification of the 19th Amendment.

In their lifetime, my grandmothers earned the right to vote.  Even so, they didn’t have a chance to see a woman run for president.  One probably wouldn’t have marked Hillary’s name.  The other — a little blue dot in bright red Texas — would have. I wanted them both with me on election day 2016. Continue reading “This New Day”

body, Creativity, Growing Up

Drink Loose the Noise

What young self didn’t know was that cool is a lid that screws down tight on the swelling delight of yes.  From the edge of her ancient eye, older self notices women in the dark corners of the bar bouncing in their seats.  Girls titter near a post trying not to sway — girls who are surely women but seem so far from their fullness.

The dude in an oversized plaid suit and orange ponytail hollers into a microphone while the bassist ducks his eyes under his fedora and yanks on steel strings.  Two spaghetti-armed boys blow brass right through the back wall.

Older self stands and strips off her sweater.  She steps toward the unnamed sister, the one in a cherry red tank top and spiked gray hair. She touches her arm and draws her onto the space in the center of the room.  The worn Persian rug there is a far cry from a welcome mat, but carpet is no great challenge.  Years earlier, she sent her young selves scurrying off to road-test every surface. Concrete, rooftop, mountaintop, pier.  Boardroom, waiting room, snowfall, bed.  Every floor is a dance floor when it’s time to dance.

It’s always time to dance.

She pops her hip and snaps her hand, beckoning to the one across the room who’s been having trouble sitting still.  They are three now.  Soon they are five.  Soon nine.

Low ceilings press in on the battered cafe.  Amateur pencil sketches hang crooked the walls. Light shifts and a gleam slices across the bowl of the saxophone.  Soon it’s a glittering ballroom.  Soon the pulse of the Cotton Club on a Saturday night.

The wall of dudes collectively holds confines itself to straight faces and non-committal postures until one man, pushing 70 easy, steps into and sheds 10 years. The young women form a ring of cool, turning their taut backs out for protection.  The rest shimmy and grin knowing there is no outside and no in.  Guarding one’s soft parts is a survival skill for certain,  but the older ones have learned the taxonomy of danger.  They can differentiate battlefield from playground now.  It wasn’t always so clear.

Here, the belly is free to roll towards the snare’s smash and crack.  That’s lightning for sure, but older self unfurls anyway inside the grounded body of her scars.  She twists the lid loose and drinks the song’s bright rain.  She is growing older still.  Time is running out, so she runs out into it.  She fills her bones until they spill over with dance.


 

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.