SmirkPretty Blog

What Grows Here

Gray rain falls outside the half-window. Everyone is sick here. It was silly to come to work when I have leave in the bank, but I hoard it. For my son, perhaps, or just because. I want to be stronger than need. People have made it further on less. The office doors close and lock. Green plants drink the moisture from the air and spill out over the edges of their pots, oblivious to the lengthening night, the inevitable winter.

My head spins but my chair is soft. The floor is soft. I make a pillow when I cannot stay upright and lay myself on the closest thing to earth, five stories up. It, too, is soft enough. I stay hard because of these small, inanimate kindnesses. I refuse the offer of juice. I refuse the offer of a ride home. I have made it this far, and it is afternoon, and I will work my eight hours. The students who stop take the best of me because I offer nothing less. I stay until five o’clock. The projects are complete and better than mediocre. No one has helped, and the pride in this tastes like the flat, white paint on the walls. Like the drop ceiling tiles. Like nothing at all.

The metro grinds up slowly, dragged down lower on the tracks by its swollen belly. I push my way into its choked middle, get stuck in the craw. Not a spare seat, not a square of territory. The pole is claimed and what remains is clammy from before. Not even a cool square of metal on which to rest my palm. A lanky blonde in a red trench coat faces me, my forehead inches from her lips. I pull out a book. The American within slides headlong into a torment she calls love. She is in Côte d’Azur. She speaks erratic French.

Vouloir is to want.
Attendre is to wait.
Manquer is to miss.

Everyone is talking there. Eating and kissing, sipping menthe and yellow citron pressé. A child bends to pet a white bird. The silence of compression dissolves into laughter and a mother calling, Francois, viens! I ignore the dizziness and lean an inch of my hip against the pole. No one speaks. I can smell the breath of the tall man to my left. He has had a drink today.

I do not ask for a seat. There is a bitter taste in my mouth. I am stronger than all the bacteria in this place. The pole is a petri dish. The train car is a tenement. We all share precious bits – cilia, lung, adenoid – but do not dare exchange a gaze. We copulate then flee. No one leaves a number. No one leaves a name.

Who among us is on the brink? Will I be the first to give way? What would happen if I just let go of the pole, if I just surrendered my weight to the rocking field of rain-flecked overcoats and creased brows? We are all so tired.

At the third stop, a seat appears behind me, and I stumble over feet and bags, sinking in. I have made it again, by my own volition, through turbulence to the next holding pattern. A mile walk in the evening haze awaits. I must gather strength. In Vence, the bells in the cathedral cleave the morning. Biciclettes whir along the streets, the women drink Veuve Clicquot. I glance up. Across the car, the blonde in the red coat has found a seat. She is staring right into my eyes. Hers are small and too close together. She oozes poison. I wonder at her for too long but she does not drop her glare. Where is her book? Her gadget, her paper, her daydream about the mouth of a man on her bare knees? I return to France where the American has seduced a young poet but she herself is the one who cries.

I glance again, and the blonde drips arsenic from her chin. Still, she glares at me. I fear she has knives in her sleeves. Her mouth is small and tight, a milkweed pod compressed by too much rain. It missed its chance to unfurl. Inside, everything decays.

The train wheezes to its final destination. Crackling commands sting our ears. Pings andlights command us all to our feet, force us to flee. No one is allowed to rest here. En masse, we trudge up and up, in rows and clumps, out. My head spins but my legs abide. Gravity is no match for me.

Near the exit, on mud-slick tiles, I hear her voice.

“What’s your problem?” She strides next to me. Vinegar churns through her throat and ears.

“Excuse me?”

She is taller now, the red coat slapping her shins. “Here I have an injury and need a seat, and you just take it from me.” That shriveled mouth tries to snarl, but nothing elastic is left. I wonder if she was beautiful once. She is a decade younger than me. I glance down to see a single black sock wrapped around one slender ankle. An injury? Down below the wool and satchels, stone jaws and bodies rocking, rocking, I was supposed to discern her pain?

“I had no idea. I would have been happy to give up my seat if I had known.”

She continues to limp along next to me through a stained corridor of glass, the choked animal of the interstate pulling itself inexorably forward below our feet, one jerking inch at a time. Now, the eyes do not venture towards mine. “I’ve got nothing else to say to you.”

“I’m sorry you were uncomfortable. I’m sure anyone would have been happy to get up if you had asked.”

She stares ahead. Limp, step. Limp, step. Her shoulders curl in. She is a stalk, pole beans dried to husk. “I am not speaking to you.”

“I hope you will ask next time,” I say. “It would be so much easier.”

I want to gather her in my arms and tease the stiff cord from her neck. Such things are not done. I keep my distance but also keep pace. I do not let her flee. Too soon, we are out in the reluctant light. She turns away as do I, and she lurches over concrete and up the iron-tongued stairs.

Everything that matters is left unsaid. We are in this together, but she may never know. Can she hear me still next to her? I am whispering past her shoulder. I try to alight. She slaps me away. Over the groaning distance, I speak and speak. In silence, I force her to hear.

Yes, the day is a dark and lonely thing, if you paint it so. In our anonymous intimacy are the selfish, the wounded, those who serve only their own hungers. But also, you are in the company of those who are made to give. You may not know it, but you brush up against the tender and the naked; every day, they reach to meet you.

Do not be fooled into believing you are owed this generous thing. The earth is capricious in her offerings. Care may come. It may not. You may find yourself on your knees before a cenotaph, digging for the human heart that was never there at all. But this is the chance you have to take.

Bow your head. Let the plea awaken your tongue and the soft wet call pass your lips. You have to be as tender as that damp milkweed waiting inside its bristled fist. Dare to peel open, dare to loose the embryo of your longing to the fecund, tainted air.

Sail Cloth

It was one of many, undoubtedly, but it is the one I remember best. The costume was made of bright, sky-blue gingham. My sister’s was green. Knowing our competitiveness and our proclaimed “favorite” colors, mother bought matching fabric in different shades. She sewed the collars and cuffs, the puff-balls and buttons. They were billowing things, wide-legged bloomers in a single piece up to the ruffled neck. Then she painted on our faces. Mine was a smile and my sister’s a frown. Or was it the other way around? It is odd I consented to be a clown considering how frightened I was of the things.  Halloween gives us permission: embody that which you fear most. For one night that year, we roamed the neighborhood at sunset, throwing the demons off our scent and demanding our spoils.

In the chapter following childhood but preceding parenthood, I approached Halloween with a much more improvisational attitude. Patterns and forethought gave way to 11th hour leather, sequins, and duct tape. Keys and washers could hang from chains. A sharpie can turn a bedsheet into a flag or cape. Like concocting a dish without a recipe, all you have to do is open the cabinets and make use of what appears. Mash it together to yield something outlandish and utterly unrecognizable. Partake regardless.

“Leap, and the net will appear.”

“Do what you love, and the money will follow.”

“Built it (or, don’t even build ‘it,’ Just build) and they will come.”

Pick your dime store proverb. Any old one excuse for immersion will do.

Unfixed is still my preferred gait. If the activity involves a voyage and a bit of play, I give over and let the doing of it offer up what it will. This is why I have bins in the basement full to bursting with filled journals, but only a single publication to my name.  It is also why my resume reads more like a ransom note than a character study. Whether dancing, dating, writing or earning a paycheck, I follow impulses and revel in processes. The product is only an afterthought.

This time of year, the folks walking the streets as pinball machines and chess men are marvels to me. It is not my habit to set a goal and work it into being.

Like so many of us, I was fortunate – or so I believed – to find a companion as open to adventure as I was. The waters below so captivated us, we could not turn our gaze to the stars. Immersion failed us. In the absence of a navigator, our meandering course led us right into the Bermuda triangle.

But I digress. (As usual).

A freewheeling approach to craft and learning has served me well as the mother of a very young child. Want to play with clay? Let’s cook some up and see what happens! Paint? Here’s some chalk and glue. Go smear it on the driveway! Young children are enamored of materials and processes. Where other parents might grow impatient with the purposeless messes, I have found it easy to encourage Bug to make magic from sources at hand. Play with sounds, spices, worms, words. Mix the media. Simmer, stir. See what bubbles up.

The problem is this: On Halloween, you cannot dress your kid as a half-written sonnet.
Bug is no longer among the “very young” category of child. When this transition happened, I haven’t the faintest idea. I notice, though, that he is less interested in the path and more focused on the destination. My child begs for the concrete. When we break out the play-doh, he wants a gryphon or a sword. When I hum, he wants to know the words.

This year, Bug’s desire for a predetermined image at Halloween has me squirming. Yes, our overstuffed closets have supplied a robe and glasses, and my crafty mother has crocheted us matching red-and-gold scarves. It has, however, been painful to make real the pictures inside my boy’s brain. Somehow, he conjured up a picture of Harry Potter with a lantern. Despite my best attempts to replace it with something we had on hand, he dug in and stood firm.

I may tend towards open-ended processes, but I want my son to learn the beauty of drawing the vision to life. Knowing how to map a course towards a point on the horizon will serve him when we his parents are no longer at the helm. Like all of us, he needs to trust in his capacity to secure vessel, sails, skills, and crew.  Ambition does not come naturally to either Tee or me. This means I have to (get to?) turn out of the current and harness the wind.

In the end, we took out pen and paper. I had Bug draw this imagined lantern then describe the parts of his drawing. A five-year-old’s sense of dimension is screwy. To give his image depth by comparison, I took out oatmeal canisters and cookie boxes. Once his rectangle rose up off the page, we discussed handles and doors and reinforcement.

“How will it light up?” I asked. Bug had to wrap his mind around lenses and power sources. He may be dressing as a wizard, but light and object do not spring fully formed into being. Everything in this world came about by way of a process – chemical, physical, human – and the mechanics can guide us as we attempt to assemble our own creations. The lantern from cardboard and paint. The child from flesh and love. Our home from land and frame and mortgage payments.

I would like to believe that surrender to craft and chance would yield something more than just a mastery of the doing. Such faith is costly and not without its risks.

I cannot house my kid in a half-written sonnet.

I also cannot build a whole new life today. This is worth bearing in mind. If it is true that all of creation is the result of processes, then it follows that creation is itself ongoing. Genesis, germination, fruition, decay. Even those costumes my mother made have long since frayed. Back to mice and moths. Back to the threads. Back to beginnings, as Bug and I are now. As all of us always are. The fixed idea still demands surrender to the pace of its own becoming.

I would like to learn from my mother’s way. Choose a pattern, and take up the cloth. Piece something together. As imperfect and fleeting as it may be, clothe my child in it. Finish it. Believe my own hands capable of such a thing.

Beater Love, Part II

Part I, wherein the son and father makes his appearance.


It was a 1979 Honda Civic, the silver weathered down to a dull, bruised gray. It had a hatchback and faded fabric seats the color of old theater curtains. In the summer months, you could catch a whiff of Oklahoma road dust and old man sweat. The wheezing thing had belonged to my grandfather, my father, my sister, and finally, me.

It amazed me to crawl into the tiny bucket seat and feel the weight of my old man’s old man still there. He had been a giant, a gnarled oak, all red dirt prairie and World War II battlefield scars. Why such a fellow would have chosen a tiny Japanese car made out of tin foil and pipe cleaners is beyond me. When so many of his fellow grizzlies were driving Ford pickups, why would he have squeezed his bulk into a motorized foot locker?

Unless, of course, that was the point.

The hillbillies who sat around his restaurant pontificating to maddening pointlessness may have paid his bills, but that didn’t earn them his respect. He made a living for his family in that two-bit town despite what they all thought of his no-account daddy. For as long as I can recall, my grandfather kept a soggy, wooden toothpick forever jammed into the corner of his mouth. Maybe it helped him hold his tongue in the company of his neighbors. The car let him thumb his nose instead.

None of this mattered to me when I was little. I just remember his lap. John Deere, semi truck, VW bus, and who knows what all else – all my earliest driving experiences found me perched on the massive trunks of my grandfather’s legs. A muscled arm sheathed in hog bristles and tree bark slung casually around my belly kept me upright. The effortlessness of his might was both a marvel and a source of great comfort. Even as a wisp of a thing, I could grip the wheel of whatever beast growled its restrained power at me, and I could surrender to the thrill of driving. As ever, the pointed end of a toothpick hovered near the back of my dopey, bobbing head.  Every time I drove with him, I came out unscathed. Granddaddy never seemed to be surprised by this.

When the Honda made its way down to me, it came complete with the busted seat springs and an ancient cylinder of Grandaddy’s toothpicks still in the glove box. The problem was, the old fella kicked the bucket before he had a chance to teach me how to drive stick.

In July of my 16th year, I finished driver’s ed. My instructor came away with a heart condition and no desire to see me in the remedial lessons I doubtless required. He gave me the nod, and I hounded my mother to ferry me to the DMV. She had to take the morning off work to get me there. Twice. When I finally passed, my mom whisked me back home just ahead of the perpetual cloud of exasperation that follows working mothers everywhere. She sped off and left me standing in the driveway, keys in hand, staring at the little gray package of manually-operated freedom waiting just out of reach.

Damn. Summer day. Nothing but wide-open streets, a full tank of gas and. . . ?

Get to it, girl. A car wasn’t the only thing your granddaddy left you.

I marched up the block and knocked on a neighbor’s door. Glory be! Marco was home. So what if he was three years older? And already a college man? And couldn’t care less about a dingbat teenager from his old neighborhood? Marco’s mama had raised all three of her big, Italian boys to be courteous, and I was hungry enough to take full advantage of his mandatory chivalry. He sighed and followed me back down the block.

Whiplash, teary hysterics, a fried clutch, and several dozen unrepeatable four-letter words later, I jolted and screeched up to Marco’s curb and deposited him home. He went tumbling out the door before I had even come to a complete stop. “It’s just a see-saw,” he called to me from the safe remove of the sidewalk. “Remember, easy does it. You’ll be fine.” Neither his forced smile nor his hoarse voice echoed the confidence of his words.

It was okay. I didn’t care if I had to stall and jerk along the highways for next hundred years. I settled myself into the easy grip of the caved-in seat and took the wheel. I worked the pedals and got the thing moving. In the glove box, Grandaddy’s toothpicks rolled right along with me.

Taken Literally

Learning can be effortless, continual, permanent – and also pleasant. . .  We can learn without effort if we are interested in what we are doing (or in what someone else is doing), free from confusion, and given assistance when we seek it.

Frank Smith, The Book of Learning and Forgetting

We are halfway through Year Three. Sirius black is on the loose, Dementors are terrorizing the countryside, and Crookshanks has it in for Scabbers. In a parallel universe, Bug’s Halloween costume is already assembled. About once a week, he pulls the cloak from its hanger and tries on his glasses, just to make sure everything still fits.

In the evenings, my mother and I bustle around the kitchen preparing dinner while Bug snaps Legos into intricate models at the table. Chattering about the latest excitement at Hogwarts usually compels my boy to spare some focus for the conversation. In the middle of a recent re-cap of the previous night’s chapter, mother asks, “I just wonder when he is going to start reading.” Continue reading “Taken Literally”