It creeps down the side
of the credenza, spilling onto the shelves below
before climbing again, gaining purchase
in minute crevices where paint
appearing flat
is not.

The vine spawns more
vines, fat leaves
unfurling from a ration of soil
I dumped in the pot
a year ago.
I have trimmed it back
twice, down to the nubs,
sure if I allowed it to grow unfettered
it would burst its seams
and shrivel
in this dim office
cut by a narrow fraction of glass
facing north.

Yet it keeps coming back.
Curling around corners, heedless
of borders, it feeds off that old handful of dirt,
flaunting its green like the Amazon
canopy, thirsting for nothing
but sips from the tap.
Barring my scissors,
it would carpet the floors
drape the walls
drip from the ceiling
and steal down the back of my chair
until it could slip
inside my collar, whispering
against my throat
its secret
for licking at nothing
and still swelling
with a bellyful
of yes.

Parts, Whole

In the dark chill at the end of another wearing day, the third in a succession of days managed on five hours of sleep, I stand on Tee’s doorstep. Inside, my boy is wailing. It is dropping into the 20’s tonight, and behind me, a river of cars, cars, cars, rushing in every direction.

In the early fall, I used my tuition waiver to take a course on somatic skills for conflict resolvers. In intervention situations involving extreme stress, when the intense feelings of the conflict parties can blindside even the most seasoned professional, it is wise to remember the wisdom of the body. Lift and align the posture, raise and expand the vision, breathe into the belly. The full range of our intellect is more available to us when we root ourselves in physical balance. Now, as I stand on the doorstep, I make a practice of allowing my vertebrae to slip into place. I lift my chin. I open my eyes. Hearing the sobs before me and the roar of traffic behind, I breathe.

Inside, my son is a crimson-eyed nuclear meltdown. Tee tells me the boy did not sleep at school on a day disrupted by two field trips.  Bug yanks himself from me, rocketing up the stairs in his socks and t-shirt. It is late. Between this moment and the comfort of his bed is dressing all over again, another commute, dinner, pajamas. Tee and I try to speak calmly to Bug as he hides and cries upstairs. Whatever reserve of self-control the child has is tapped out. He twists himself away from us, flails, weeps. These days, such outbursts are rare. But what can you expect? Without rest, none of us is any good. I understand this. I am experiencing this, on my third overdraft from the sleep bank.

I cannot stand to see my child so miserable. I pull Tee around the corner and whisper, “I would be fine if he stays here tonight. We can trade a day. I’ll help put him down. I just hate to drag him out of here when he is so tired.” Tee stares, blank. The response, or complete absence of one, is so typical of this man that I am surprised to find myself surprised. His passive face calls up no indication he has even heard, let alone can summon a thought. One beats, two, three, four. No words. Until this: he steps back around into the stairwell and calls up:

“Come on, Bug, time to get your shoes on and go.”

And then I am up, hefting a giant tornado of a boy without a lasso, wobbling down the stairs. I am splayed in my work skirt in the foyer of Tee’s house with this arching, spitting 40-odd pound wildcat on my lap. I force his shoes on, and the heels of them, flailing, crack me several times on the shins. Tee sits on the bottom step an arm’s length away, silent, watching. Bug’s body wrenches with sobs. He is speaking in gobbledygook, wanting everything and nothing.  I long to lift my child and carry him up to his bed. Crawl in next to him, let him surrender to my strength, sing him “Friend of the Devil,” rub his back. But that bed is not his tonight, no matter how badly he wants it or I want it for him. There is nothing for us to do but drag ourselves out on the serrated night.

I finally have to wrap the full power of my embrace around Bug’s torso from behind, force him still, all while doing the one and only thing I can remember to do: breathe, breathe, breathe.  My grip tight, my core willed to softness, I whisper into his prickling scalp. “Deep breaths, baby. Shh, shh. Mommy’s got you, you’re safe, you’re okay.” Against my own rising fury, I speak these comforts. Anointing Bug with my scant supply of serenity has a cooling affect on me. The waves of rage at this passive man so close and so remote, and waves of distress about my own insomnia-wrecked body, and the waves of despair about the impossibility of rescue, they just roll on over. Without crashing into me or taking me down, they only pass by because I’ve got my boy in my arms, and I can breathe through them, and they cannot drown me.

I hope my love for my boy is enough to bridge these rifts in his world. A friend of mine, a hopeless romantic, tells me one of his guiding quotations is this:

Love, in the purest sense of the notion, can only be given and received completely. Anything less may be of great value, sustainable, and appreciated, but it is only a reflection of love.

He is childless, of course. Still, I marvel at the sting of the sentiment.  My heart swells, aches, bursts open for my son. What could be more pure than the love a mother has for her child? And yet, do I truly give it completely? I deny him the single home, the one bed, the place he is always safe where both his parents are there to carry him to his sole sanctuary when he is unable to get there himself.

I wonder if I am capable of such pure generosity. I choose to follow a calling which carries me away from a man who cannot fulfill his promise. Bug is the one who pays for this choice. It would have been so easy, at any point during the past eighteen months, to say, “My heart can endure its own loneliness. It can even bear intimacy in the absence of faith. But it cannot stand my son’s suffering.” I could have asked Tee to stay, and offered our child that one, concrete gift of happiness. Is mine a true love, if I offer my boy only a fraction of what I have to give?

Without warning, Bug surrenders. He puddles, his skeleton and muscle dissolve to brine and beginnings. I pour him into his sweatshirt, gather first him then his backpack and my keys, step into boots, fumble with this shifting cargo out the door into the where traffic growls and pounds against the night. All I want is to slip my boy into the cocoon of his becoming, close his ears to all of this noise. I carry him, still sobbing, then drive him, still sobbing, through the tangled knots of congestion. Home, home. And when we come in, he is almost sobbed out. I am thankful for the small favors of grandparents who let us stay, for a warm and lit house, for someone to dust  the toast with cinnamon and slice the apple. My boy, wrung out, eats in bed, slowly but with an insatiable appetite. I read to him from The Secret Garden and sing, finally, the song about running from the law straight into the arms of temptation.

Today, a poem called “Descartes in Love” lands in my inbox from The Academy of American Poets:

 Love, accepting that we are not pure and lucent hearts, ricocheting towards each other like unlatched stars—no, we are tainted with self. We sometimes believe the self is an invisible glass, just as we believe the body is a suit made of meat. Doubt all things invisible. Doubt all things visible.

Because I hear no pulse up on the scarred surface of things, it can seem as if nothing living is left down below. Then, on pure chance, I tap a buried vein. Up flows nourishment almost too rich to stomach. I have neither the courage to trust in its permanence nor the strength to claim its limit. Faith in the moment as it slips through my fingers is the best I can do.

I am still more tired than I have ever been. But my boy sleeps now, his belly full on my breath, his soft spine curled into my unbending one. I will keep vigil. My love may be an imperfect force, but for this one night, its current is constant; its source, bottomless.


Ken Chen’s “Descartes in Love” is part of the series, “Brief Lives.” It came by way of Poem-A-Day from  

After Midnight

Just think:
a cute little flat
in a college town, a job in a non-profit
animal welfare organization
and evenings free to rock
the open mic.
All of this, in a blink.
Poor girl.
Your godmother must have earned her wings
from an online university.
All that magic,
and the best she can do
is a dress,
a dance,
a man?
When you leave
his ring on the nightstand
and cross the moat
for the last time, be ready to take
matters into your own hands.
If she shows up again,
grab the wand
and run.

Mother, Night

We talk of Christmas
gifts to make for ones we love
whose number may include each other.
Ties and books and the difficulty of music,
and what to do for the sister
with particular tastes
and an absence of time.

I say my year will be complete
if all I receive is a box of sleep.
Just think: to unwrap
one week, a mere seven nights,
each a polished pomegranate
swollen with its eight hours
and perhaps a nap or two, jewels
tucked in around the edges.

The story of this gift is far from new.
Three men arrive at the crèche
bearing gold and perfume.
What of their fourth?
In the forgotten chapter, lost
back in the desert,
he dared to crack the wooden arc
open, to sample the offering.
He could not resist the scent
(who could?)
and dipped his finger in.

Just a taste
and he was adrift
in the oblivion
he was supposed to have shared
not with the babe
but with poor Mary
who still, two millennia hence,
awaits the arrival
of a decent night’s rest.

The Seventh Life

She begins to cry sometime after midnight.
Each howl a round, dry bottle
she casts over the water
only to watch it sink.
No buoyancy at all,
just the cool ink where it fell
silent, still.
In this house of warm flesh
every door is shut. Even her nemesis
is out of reach
closing in on a doe,
a black comma
on a pallet under a coat of winter wool.

She didn’t do this before. Never in her many years
has she wandered the house, pleading,
the inflection cresting at the end of the cry
a sustained note,
a hooked interrogative
dredging my drowned body
from the depths.

I would invite her in (I claim)
but never have, not once.
She kneads the soft places
with her claws.
It doesn’t so much hurt
as scrape the edge of desperation
and beg for a way back in.

There is no vacancy
in this fallow womb.
Even though she presses her longing
against the spars,
the sea of my heart does not surge
and my breast is parched.

She will have to let the light from distant stars
in through the portholes
of her eyes
and seek refuge
in its inadequate warmth
as we all do.


I allow myself ten minutes of self pity per day. It isn’t wise to take gulp it down all at once. Sipping is a better course. It whets the appetite but keeps some on reserve for when the mouth goes dry. After each taste, set it aside. Lift the eyes, take notice, breathe. Dig for a pen. Step into the music, call a friend. Give someone else a hand.

Over the course of a year or fifteen, perhaps the practice of coming up and out becomes the default. This is the hope, anyway.

So, please excuse me while I overindulge today.

Bug and I immersed ourselves in Halloween this weekend. Haunted mini golf, a raucous costume bash, and a pumpkin baking frenzy. I knew Tee would have Bug tonight as he does every Monday. Weeks ago, he asked if he could bring young Potter to my place for trick-or-treating, as my suburban neighborhood is a bit more pedestrian friendly than his town house complex. Last night when I called to confirm the plan – my Hermione costume ready, the house strung with pumpkin lights, a small mountain of candy by the door – Tee informed me he had changed his mind, “Didn’t we talk about this?” Miscommunication or oversight, not malice for certain. But still, my kid is not going to be here on Halloween.

We have had more than our fill of the holiday in each other’s company. Hell, he and I were singing karaoke and dancing until midnight on Saturday in our matched Gryffindor scarves. This is not a big deal. I even told the lawyer Halloween was not one of the holidays we needed to parse out in the Parenting Agreement, because it simply is not that important to Tee or me. Bug will be with the parent whose day falls on Halloween each year.

But, boy, did the news take a big scoop out of me. There was already a hole where my family used to be. The news is ice water on a cavity.

I do not want to go home tonight. Who can bear the chitter-chatter at the door, the pleas, the insufferable cuteness of their wings, their wigs, their gore?

This is a laughably small grievance. So many suffer much worse. The specters of lost children stab with acute, cardiac precision on the holidays. Friends I know have children across oceans, or who only come in the summers, or who are gone forever. Mine is not such a terrible fate. Bug will be with me on Wednesday, and on Thanksgiving, and again on alternating weekends into the only future I dare imagine

That still leaves tonight, and this insatiable thirst for self pity. The requisite moderately sexy Halloween outfit hangs on the back of my office door. I packed for work with a vague notion of something other than my house tonight. The streets here are lined with bars offering pub crawls and pumpkin beer to the childless and festive. Yet, I cannot work up the enthusiasm. Oblivion no longer satisfies.

I cast about for a texture for tonight’s indulgence. I open my tongue and taste the air. What is the craving? For ink? Steam? Curry? Stupid giggles with a friend? Silence? I circle back around to the same old place, the lessons not yet learned. When hurting, do something kind. Slow-dance the mind. Comfort the heart. Seek a source. Open the lips; take a long, slow sip.