Art, Change, community, Relationships, spirit

Fishing for Plenty

Before I Die 4

The line between. A light spilling through. The friend dressed in flowers gazes up at a ceiling of filigreed wood. She describes her new love of colored pencils, writing one word across a page over and on top until the word is laced into a web of color. The expression carries her to tears. She folds her sorrow into a page stitched with threads of graphite and pigment and calling.

She can hold the prayer on the tips of her fingers. A weight anchoring her to the dark place breaks free. She lifts toward light. Continue reading “Fishing for Plenty”

community, Mindfulness, neighborhood, spirit

Plenty of Time

clock jacek yerkaI’m racing for the light. The flashing orange hand counts down. On the other side of the street waits the supermarket where I’ll load up on almond milk and broccoli before hurrying back across to pick up my son at school. Still twenty yards away, my legs groan in resistance. The backpack chafes my shoulders. I curse under my breath.

When did reaching the other side of the street rise to such prominence in the pantheon of meaning? What is it I hope will happen when I achieve this singular purpose? In all likelihood, the produce section will revert to its simple functionality. Cinderella’s pumpkin at the twelfth stroke. I’ll grab what I need and try to outrun the lady with the full cart who’s headed for the short checkout line. The purchases will turn into a hasty dinner and an even hastier breakfast. At the office tomorrow, I’ll hustle through tasks, trying to stay a step ahead of the next item on the list. Then I’ll dash out to catch the metro in time to catch the bus in time to make it to my son’s school in time to pick him up at after care in time to go home and have dinner and do it all over again.

Continue reading “Plenty of Time”

Career, Mindfulness

Leap Frog

leapfrog
The Provost’s office announced it is offering up to half million dollars to a lucky PhD program at our university. My team received the news with a collective wave of nausea. Great prize, slim odds. A seventeen page proposal would be due in less than a month.

We’ve hacked through the dense foliage of earlier iterations of the RFP for three years running, and the only thing to show for our noble effort has been “great language we can use elsewhere.”

We accept the challenge this fourth time. Despite unfilled positions, anemic staff, maternity leave, and faculty stretched to breaking (or maybe because of all these things), we have to try. We tell each other to phone it in because other programs always win anyway. We say it knowing the idea is absurd, knowing we will give it our all. Because this is us, an earnest clutch of A+ students.

Also, $475,000.

My first impulse is approach-avoid this the way I do so many other tasks I despise: evade, excuse, put off, then CRAM. My rather irritating Better Self reminds me that as appealing as procrastination is, a more effective tactic might be to eat the frog. So I carve out half a day from my overtaxed schedule, shove everything else to the side, and start working.

A few hours in, I realize something marvelous.

This is a blast!

How lucky can a girl-writer get? The boss decrees that I ignore all my other business and spend my workday drafting and reworking a writing project — one whose goal is to land cash for my students. It’s a pain in the ass but it’s total flow. Challenge, creativity, reaching past my abilities to generate something meaningful. It’s a test.

A game.

So I play.

Only when I look up at the clock, close out, and plunge back into my burgeoning to-do list does the sickening stink of workplace misery engulf me.

And right there as I descend into the morass, I understand the mistake of my perception.

It’s not the task that sucks.

It’s all the tasks.

It’s the clutter, the questions with their missing answers, the half-complete puzzles waiting for someone else’s missing piece.

The desk-turned-junk drawer.

The “Do you have a quick minute?”

It’s the persistent drumbeat of financial crisis, and the knowledge that piles are growing while help is shrinking.

The hissing awareness that the only way out of a slow but steady downhill career grade is to eject from the vehicle and get behind the wheel of something else going somewhere else.

It’s the anxiety.

I carry the burden of all the tasks all the time, keeping myself frantically aware of everything un-done even while in the midst of doing. The irony? Evidence suggests this is a totally pointless expenditure of effort. All the things I set aside while tackling the Provost Award waited patiently enough. When my attention returned to those tasks, I took care of them just fine.

The world continued to turn. I continued to do my work.

As for the Provost Award? We wrote a fabulous proposal.

Our jobs are tangled up with so much of who we are. Work is values and perceptions. Work is what we believe to be real, and it holds so many of our wishes for ourselves, our families, the world. How is our performance? Are we making a contribution that matters? Can we afford the mortgage or will we find ourselves sick, broke, and homeless? Is there any joy in the work? Are we filling gaps and creating new paths?

Our livelihood is means and end simultaneously, existing in a thicket of uncertainty. Does protecting time for our families threaten our ability to support our families? Are we making a positive impact or making enemies? During the day-to-day minutiae, can we tell if our chosen methods are effective? How, under so much pressure, do we learn to do things differently?

Anxiety grabs all these drifting questions and presses them into one dense, throbbing, mass. What if I’m not good enough? What if I can’t cut it? These __________ (vague but terrible) things will happen to my family and me if I fail.

I can see the bold edges now of the lines that hitch anxiety to controlling behavior. It’s a comforting illusion. If I can clean up this mess or present this shiny object as an example of my capabilities or get this person to fall in line with my clearly superior M.O., then the giant black hole of chaos seems a little less threatening. The world feels safe (for the moment).

The problem, of course, is that this constant vigilance about every possible danger fails to keep that danger at bay. It also makes for a wretched existence, and it turns a person into rather miserable company for everyone in (her) orbit.

Life IS uncertainty and chaos. We know this. I know this.

Every so often, like when an award application turns a bright light on the flaws in my perception, I remember again that only one thing matters: This thing right here.

Like paragraph 3 of the Provost Award. Or composing this outline of a presentation. Or winding my way through one maze of inquiries that leads me to an answer a student needs.

Or sitting in the other room petting the dog while my son turns the kitchen inside-out so he can make his own eggs for dinner.

Or holding still the slack thread between my love and me.

Because I know the reel in my hands is a stage prop, and the only way to capture the shape of my longing is to let go.

When I keep such painstaking track of all things that need doing, and catalog all the possible disastrous outcomes if they are bungled or forgotten, then every single moment of my life is toil. Carrying around all that responsibility means that my feet are too heavy for skipping, my neck to bent for lifting, my eyes too fogged for seeing the wash of morning light on the willow branch across from the bus stop.

The only control I have is to give my full attention to what’s unfolding right here, engaging it as it is and freeing it from all the hooks of what it might cause or become. When I am here, I can do a much better job assessing what is effective. I can sense what brings value to my life and to the lives of the folks around me. When I see how we are faring right here, right now, I can choose my next move.

Keeping my head in the game means admitting it’s only a game.

Choosing a play.

And then leaping in.
 

Career, Determination, Learning, Things I Can

100. Things I Can Captain: This Boat, These Waters

mother child at sea

It’s taken two years to get here. I’ve skirted the edges of this reckoning so long I know every stitch in its hem. Now I sit in front of a screen, a calculator, and a pile of paperwork to ask the question straight out.

Can we make it on my salary?

I asked the same question back in 2012 when the house hunt began. The answer was a definitive “no.” Buying this home was a hard push into a choppy sea. I did the full assessment then and knew that my income would fall short. To cover our expenses over the long haul, I’d need to earn more. Continue reading “100. Things I Can Captain: This Boat, These Waters”

Determination, Fitness, Mindfulness, Things I Can

95. Things I Can Trust: A Room of Want and Plenty

Door Out

I was putting groceries away in the tiny kitchen when I opened a cabinet down below the silverware drawer. Empty. Large, deep, and completely bare. This was six months after I bought my home. For half a year, I had stood in front of this cabinet and chopped vegetables, rolled out pizza dough, stacked plates. I never noticed it.

For a condo dweller, this was gold. Free real estate had edged open new possibilities in my tightly packed world. My joy clanged through the house. I remember laughing as a whooshing sense of openness coursed through me. All that time I was fighting for room, this open place was right here!
Continue reading “95. Things I Can Trust: A Room of Want and Plenty”

Determination, Things I Can

89. Things I Can Seal: The Deal

Mechanic

The car I drive is the first I bought and the third I’ve owned. In 2011 when it seemed to breathe its last, I chose to keep it on the road. Here is that story. It is pushing 16 years now and finally failed its emissions test, revealing fatal injuries deep in the machine.

The registration expires at the end of the month. As the clock ticks down, the stress ticks up.

Maybe decisions like this are simpler for others. Or less fraught. Or — though it defies imagination — more fun? Here at Chez Smirk, the car quest has unearthed a staggering load of emotional chaos.

It’s just a car! Chill out, girl.

Except this:

  • A skinflint’s car outlives addresses, job titles, and even marriages. I am heir to a great family legacy of beater love. What I buy now needs to fit the next 10 years at least (insha’Allah).
  • The earth is dying. In this small corner of it, I do what I can to consider and conserve resources. The choice of which vehicle is as critical as how the vehicle is used. If a car is indeed necessary, then small is good, hybrid better, and plug-in best.
  • Plug-ins only work if you live somewhere besides a condo complex.
  • Hybrids are expensive unless they are several years old, and everyone selling a several-years-old hybrid has already put 180,000 miles on it. The new ones are getting cheaper but economies of scale have yet to reward my patience.
  • I am a single mom living on an almost-enough university administrator income in one of the higher priced areas of the country.
  • Interest steals from my son’s college fund so I only pay cash.
  • A little bigger for traveling and growing, or a little smaller for fuel efficiency and economy?
  • Type in “Honda” on Craigslist and you’ll get 300 cars from today alone within 20 miles of my address.
  • What the hell does a person look for in a used car?

All of this (and more) all at once (and repeatedly) every time I turn my attention towards this inevitable purchase. I also mortifies me to notice the ripples of self pity lapping at my ankles. The whole experience is quite lonely, and I still (ugh) ache for someone to rescue me.

Meanwhile, help is all around. But a girl’s got to know what to ask for and then work up the courage to ask. It’s easier to resort to excuses, which most often manifest as a state of overwhelmed agitation: Craigslist harbors just as many crooks as a used car lot, and my mechanic and my bank are open almost exclusively during the hours I need to be at work, and work is a deafening, mewling menagerie of stresses right now, and and and.

I try the logical self-talk I would give any girlfriend attempting this task, because from the outside, what could be simpler? “It’s just buying a car, people do it all the time.” Yet this approach makes me feel even more incompetent and out of my depth.

It’s easier to stick with what I know I can handle. Thumb through seller ads and haphazardly send brief emails of inquiry. After the occasional test drive and glance at a labyrinthine engine, say, “Let’s figure out a time I can take this in to get looked at.” Then add another line to the maybe-but-unlikely-to-do list, and eventually delete the seller’s info.

This is avoidance at its best. The illusion of progress accompanies my march across the calendar while I sing myself strangely comforting lullabies of defeat. I don’t know I can’t This is too much I’ll screw up What am I doing I can’t I can’t.

Doubt is an addiction with its own cunning hooks. It keeps me fixed and frightened and small and safe.

Except this:

I can’t is off the table.

This experience is baffling and difficult, sure. Learning most anything important is. But there really is only one choice.

I can.

I can study YouTube videos on how to inspect a used car. I can ask my parents for a no-interest loan. I can compare prices and skim reviews. I can assess the gleaming backsides in parking lots and traffic jams, and I can begin to build a private transport taxonomy. I can pepper my mechanic with questions, and carry an oil rag in my purse, and duck out for an hour in the middle of the day to go test drive a car.

I can inch my way to confidence with small — almost immeasurably tiny — steps.

And then it’s today and here, and another equivocal Craigslist inquiry leads to another sort-of plan for a test drive.

On a Saturday afternoon with banks and mechanics all closing in two hours? With my dad en route to Tucson, my mom in Scotland, my Mister incommunicado, and my boy in the back seat?

This is absurd. I can’t do this.

So I do it.

We shoot across town to check out a Corolla with only 49K miles on it. As if I’m outside my own skin, I watch myself stride up the walk. I marvel at the command this gritty mama takes. It’s like the time she removed the chutney jar from the ineffectual hands of the man at the party and twisted it open on the first turn.

The two middle-aged guys selling the car stand and shuffle at the curb, trying to catch up to her questions. She pops the hood, checks the threads on the oil cap then the treads on the tires. She runs her fingers along the seals in the trunk. She starts it cold and listen for pings, blasts the AC, make two hard turns and slams on the brakes.

All these weeks of dawdling and ooching along, she’s been picking up skills.

And now I step back inside that skin and press the gas.

I talk the guy and his brother into going with Bug and me — yes today, now — to the mechanic. I spin the mechanic’s emphatic “no time” into “we can squeeze it in.” Bug and I hop back in my car. With our bellies rumbling and gas light blinking, we slog through jammed Beltway traffic to my online bank’s sole financial center, arriving minutes before its 3pm closing. In the lobby, I get the skinny from the mechanic by phone (“This car is actually in great shape”). While the bank rep makes cocoa for Bug, I call up the seller and talk him down a few hundred bucks.

At 3:05pm, my phone pings. The VIN comes through. They lock the bank doors. I sign for the cashier’s check.

On Monday morning I’ll be at the DMV trading it for a title and a new set of keys.

It staggers me to know this single mama is managing this all on her own.

It steadies me to notice the many hands lifting me towards this version of myself.
 

 
Image: A Nine Pound Hammer

 

community, neighborhood, Things I Can

88. Things I Can Offer: A Playdate

Castle Fort 2

My doppleganger lives at the opposite end of the hall. She is also a single working mom with a little boy, a squealing pup, and a sort-of-manageable custody arrangement. We both teach. We both have moms in the area who help us out but we both still struggle with childcare and doggy care. We both are juggling about 15 things too many.

We even share a first name.  Continue reading “88. Things I Can Offer: A Playdate”

Children, Family, Learning, Things I Can

80. Things I Can Clear: A Place for Him

Ewe and Lamb

He likes daddy’s house better. “I get to be in the same room,” he says.

I like sleep better. So here, he has his own room. He is almost nine, and still, he begs for me to stay. He pulls me in after books and cuddles, “Just one more hug,” he pleads. “Just one more minute.”

On weekends, he tries all over again. “We can go to sleep in your room tonight, right?”

No. I tell him again, no. Not this night. No every night, two years of no in this house, eight years of no in this life. No, mama needs to sleep alone. No, Mama has trouble resting when she shares the bed. Mama is a monster who trips into a churning, troubled cauldron of demons night after night after night after night. Any chance this mama has of sleeping soundly, she’ll protect with all her might. Even if this means earplugs, eye masks, a bolted door, a lonely son.

No.

Then suddenly, my boy wakes with the dawn and pads into my room. Hair wild and eyes gummed with dreams, he crawls into my bed and folds himself into the warm pocket of comfort around me.

Gangly, humongous, heavy as stones.

A boy? My boy?

I feel the height and weight of him, the crackling and waking up of every surging cell in him.

My boy is finished being small.

Forever.

From here, he only grows up. Out, older, taller, away. He grows into himself.

How much longer will he want to be so close?

How many chances do I have to be his home?

His longing for nighttime company is more than a craving, more than a passing interest. Beyond the clutchy acquisitiveness children have for Pokemon cards and pizza nights and winning at Stratego, this hunger is something deeper. Primal even.

Every time he begs and cries for me, every time in all of his eight years, he is asking to feel bound up in something, to feel tethered to place and kin.

In the purest form of humanness — mammal and existential alike — he needs to be held.

Now, in this quickly closing chapter of his life, I can be the one who holds him. This web I weave around him — alternately flimsy and rugged — tightens into the vault from which he launches the man he will become.

This web I weave around him — alternately capacious and secure — sinters into the vault in which he stores the stars and wounds and whispers that he gathers along the way.

Tonight I decide: We will find a way to climb in close together. Close, so he can worm his way deep into the heart of the comfort he needs. Close, so I can protect my precious sleep and still love my boy the way he wants to be loved.

Tonight, I ask: “Do you want to make a nook in my room?”

He stares, checking my face for tricks. Then his spreads into a grin and he actually shivers with delight.

In record time, he finishes dinner, stacks dishes, helps walk the dog, and lops nearly 20 minutes off bath time. Then we plop ourselves on the floor of my room. The rack of toy bins in the corner needs to go.

“Okay,” he says picking up a matchbox car. “Donate.” He tosses it in a bucket.

“Easter bunny ears?” I ask.

“Trash,” he says.

We go like this. Legos, mardi gras beads, pirate eye patches. Toss, donate, keep. The box of trinkets he wants to hold onto is far emptier than I imagined. The toys are meaningless. What he wants is the absence of them. What he wants is the treasure their departure promises.

By bedtime, we’ve done it all. Vacuumed, dragged in extra mattress, unfurled sheets. He carries in a stack of books to line the windowsill, fetches the lamp with its denim shade. He keeps smiling at me. Smiling and smiling. “It’s so comfortable,” he beams, settling himself into a heap of red and turquoise linens. “Want to come try it?”

I bring my pillow and cuddle up in his nest. We are tucked into an alcove under the window across from where my big-girl bed lives. Bug can look right into Noodle’s crate. A few moments later, she tip-taps in and sniffs around the new setup, talks at us, then heads over and curls into a ball on her blanket.

Bug thrums with sleepy rightness, with a satisfaction rare in his bull-headed, only-child world.

He sighs and rests a damp head on my hip. “Put your arm around me,” he says. “All the way across.” He draws my hand over his chest, slips it into the fold between his torso and the blanket. In my other hand, I hold Cornelia Funke’s Thief Lord and pick up where we left off last night. The conniving Barbarossa has spun backwards on a carousel and toppled out as a toddler, while Scipio — wounded and obstinate — has chosen to careen past adolescence and emerge as a man.

We stumble towards infancy and whatever comes before. We surge towards dying and the end we refuse to imagine. On either side of us, these memories, these wishes, they stretch like corridors lined with swords and feather beds, disappearing into dark. When fortune spits us out against unforgiving walls, when moments choose us before we have a say, we carry our soft landings with us. We bear our own rending.

For our children, we dull what blades we can.

Even when they are certain they are done needing us, we tuck beneath them a pallet of silken rope and down.

We hold them anyway.
 

Image from “The Nursery,” March 1881.

 

Choices, community, Things I Can

78. Things I Can Wear: This Garment of Ours

While work hours declined dramatically during the first half of the twentieth century, thanks to higher wages, economic growth, trade unions, and progressive legislation, they have increased during the last three decades. Americans now work an average of one extra month per year than they did in 1980, and single mothers work an extra six weeks. Employees often work overtime and outside their job descriptions for fear of losing their jobs if they refuse. Cutbacks and downsizing have further increased workloads, making it all the more necessary to operate at the top of one’s game all day long, without any lapses. Fear of what one night of lost sleep could do to one’s appearance and performance the next day has become a common concern.

Kat Duff in The Secret Life of Sleep

We know it is zip code and native tongue, it is the body that houses the name. It is a solid school building and a safe walk there. It is scouts and sports and skate parks and dance troupes with coaches as supplemental mentors. It is a small stack of cards: library and HMO, towing and voting, ID and credit. It is the transcript and the stamp of the alma mater, and the names of the friends collected in those four years. It is the legs and the shoes at the bottom of them, it is a specialist with attention enough to notice the gap and intervene early, it is refrigeration, it is screened windows, it is the magnetic attraction of luck to fortune already acquired. It is all of this as water to a clownfish.  Continue reading “78. Things I Can Wear: This Garment of Ours”