body, Brain, Children, Determination, Family, Growing Up, Learning, Parenting

The Parent He Needs

Two Souls One Heart

On my son’s first birthday, a stomach virus knocked him flat. For the next few days, he couldn’t keep anything down. Even though he begged for the comfort of nursing, I had to ration his time on the breast. We fed him Pedialyte from a dropper. He screamed in protest until thirst overcame his resistance.

After a few days, he rallied. Small portions of pureed food stayed down. Great quantities of breast milk too. He resumed scooting all over the house and tormenting the dog. The doctor had said he’d get over it, and this seemed to hold true.

Except that he kept losing weight.

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Growing Up, Home

Plant Anyway

corn shucking.jpg

He  drops his backpack by the door and heads out. Whether the temperature hovers at freezing or rises to a swelter, he and his friends find each other. Sometimes I block the way and steer him back to his violin for a round of scales. The neighborhood kids bang on the door every three minutes, “Is he done yet?” They loop around the breezeway on bikes and scooters. A few come up barely past my knee. A few are already shaving. When he’s free, they all charge off down the hill, hollering ever-changing rules to an ever-evolving game that winds through this labyrinth of stairwells and parking lots.

I shut the door and head to the kitchen to rinse out the lunch containers.

Divorced at 37 and still single at 43, parenting a surly tween, stuck in the suburbs, jammed into a 5-story development abutting a freeway, and working a desk job for a paycheck that barely covers groceries while a white supremacist and a Russian oligarch run the White House.

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Home, Living in the Moment


The floor stays dry but the margarine tub fills to the brim. I empty it three times over the next 24 hours knowing I will eventually have to resolve the issue. Trial-and-error or outsourcing? Neither comes for free.
Down the hall, Bug sings and chatters in the bathtub as I cobble together dinner. In the vegetable drawer, I discover the broken remains of my inaugural promise to the fridge. A half-full bag of slimy green beans. A bouquet of yellowing parsley. I marvel at the improbable fact of their decay. If my long-ago ancestors claimed place with crops, what to make of rot? Decomposition of the unused scrap has to be an indicator of both affluence and folly. Maybe it is also a sign of roots. When food turns bad in the larder, you’re not just visiting anymore.
I toss the sludge and pull out eggs and cheese. As I reach for a cutting board, I notice three bananas going brown in the basket. A fruit fly alights. Hello, excess. It is time to prepare a meal and now this plot twist? I disdain waste yet mashed bananas aren’t in my dinner repertoire. I start mentally scanning the video of my next 24-hours, watching myself prep lunches and check breakfast inventory. Office wardrobe. Commute. How in the world will fruit pancakes fit into all this? You can’t squeeze batter from a stone.
Then I pause. Set down the knife. Consider.
This granite countertop. This half-bare cupboard. My kid dive-bombing his plastic killer whale in the bath and making a giant mess.
This, my house. My kitchen, my parenting, my menu, my rules.
My way, here on out.
I pull out the mixing bowls, the whole wheat flour, the jar of sugar. No measuring cups. I wing it with a coffee mug. No canola oil. Olive will do. No milk. Orange juice, then. In goes the banana mush. I add twice as much cinnamon as any reasonable person would because I know Bug loves it. Into the muffin tin. Into the oven.
While the timer ticks down, spinach succumbs to a too-big knife. This was all that was left from a Wusthof-Trident set that split up when the marriage did. Eggs crack open into a cereal bowl. I slit a softening peach across its seam, free the stone, and shave buttery jewels from its flesh. Bug pads in, damp and pink. I ask him to set the table. He does this now, just three weeks in, with neither argument nor a need for direction. On our first night together here, he chose which seat was mine and which his. This hasn’t varied since.
We sit in the deep-breath echo of our dining room eating steamed broccoli with our fingers. Bug uses a pepper grinder to carpet his eggs and vegetables. He folds back the towel covering a warm bowl and closes his eyes.
“Mmm,” he says, breathing in the sweet steam. “Muffins? For dinner?”
“Yep,” I smile. “Muffins for dinner. “
“Can we make more in the morning? With blueberries?”
“Sure thing,” I say.
I’ve kept my second promise and fed the fridge fresh berries. She’s held up her end of the deal, at least for today.


Lessons from the State of Emergency

  1. You can cook far more than you ever imagined on a backyard grill.
  2. A living room camp-out is almost as exciting as the real thing.
  3. The deep freeze needs a good purge anyway.
  4. If the metro is running, just get on. Your destination will appear.
  5. Neighbors you have never met are eager to talk and happy to help.
  6. Suffer or adapt?
  7. You don’t need A/C to build a castle.
  8. People really do treat broken traffic lights as four-way stops.
  9. Ice is a minor miracle.
  10. If you get up the courage to ask your ex for a hand, he might provide it.
  11. The dark basement is your friend.
  12. When your kid needs to unleash his boiling crankiness, get in the pool with him and let him splash you in the face as many times as he wants. His pleasure will not surprise you. Yours might.
  13. If you see a nap, seize it.
  14. Trees are further proof that it is possible to love and fear something in equal measure.
  15. It’s never too hot to cuddle.
Change, Choices, Co-Parenting

Stuck Landing

We will need to limber up for the advanced scheduling contortions set to begin on September 4th. Kindergarten means our little family-ish arrangement has to bid goodbye to the preschool on the campus of Tee’s university. Aligned calendars and an easy childcare commute have been blessings in a rather tumultuous chapter, and now we brace ourselves for a school-year timeline designed for long extinct agrarian families. Bring on the yellow buses, packed lunches, and after-school children’s warehouses.

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Animate Object

I find I incorporate gneiss, coal, long-threaded moss, fruits, grains, esculent roots,
And am stucco’d with quadrupeds and birds all over,
And have distanced what is behind me for good reasons,
But call any thing back again when I desire it.

– Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”

I need a new metaphor for strength. Since my late teen years, thanks to powerful role models and fantastic friends, I have seen myself as a strong woman. It helped to come of age protesting the first Gulf War. I can still remember Vietnam era activists visiting my high school to provide training on sit-ins and passive resistance. They were eager to share their wisdom with a new generation of outraged citizens. I was hungry for it. By the time I was nineteen, I was standing in the town square, raising my own fist and quoting Oscar Romero and Audre Lorde in a tireless call to rally the masses (however trifling they may have been) to right the latest wrong.
I was strong. Everyone told me so, but I did not need to hear it from them. I knew it inside. I knew that when I walked, I embodied the determination of a warrior. I painted the image with my fingers onto the walls of my mind, urging it to life:
A revolutionary leads the call-and-response of the swelling army. Eyes blazing, posture unshakable, voice speaking truth to power in rhythm with a thousand comrades.
Never mind that at night, fear and uncertainty would grip my heart and squeeze out the tears. Never mind my confusion pounding itself into the pages of my journal or into the recoiling chest of some lover. Come morning, I was strong. Raise the flag, compañeros! March into battle.
Nineteen also welcomed the genesis of my running life, and my body grew lithe and powerful alongside the public persona. I began to dance soon after. In the studio, I tapped into a creative capacity I had never known existed down there under the surface of things. Being able to speak for a more expansive way of being through movement only increased my vocabulary and enhanced my sense of potency. The form of dance I first explored – contact improvisation – allows dancers to move together around points of contact, using weight and gravity to form beautiful, fleeting pieces. Pure expression. Such power lives inside the ability both to lift and be lifted by muscle, bone, and intention. Sweat poured. Legs hardened. I felt lengthened and electrified by movement. In long strokes, another symbol:
A whitetail deer bounds up and over the hillside, never caught by bramble or tar pit. Reaching. Free.
Simultaneously, the mind demanded its perpetual improvement. College gave way to facilitation and teaching. Writing became central. Graduate school was next, followed by more teaching. Along with the decision to develop expertise in an area (any area!) came the simultaneous commitment to eschew short-lived comforts in the interest of the long-term investment. As both student and teacher, I would sleep while others socialized, wake up at dawn, study for hours while my peers slumbered, and plunge all my attention into the heart of the question at hand. In the interest of inquiry and craft, I maintained the ascetic self-image.  I did not drink or watch television, I did not bother with fashion concerns beyond basic grooming. In this fastidious attention to my work, I felt invincible. I painted the life into it:
Leonardo da Vinci, hands grasping a brush, a bone, a chart. Heaps of books litter the space. Sketches and diagrams and spilled ink on pages of formulas. Behind his stillness, his eyes are a frenzy of motion.
Then, years turned into a decade or more, and I acquired a marriage and a child.
Whatever I believed to be true about myself not only thinned under the relentless rub of these primal and primary relationships, it bled. Bug’s intensity from the moment of his arrival until today, 5 ½ years later, has demanded a kind of responsiveness from me that is not my natural strength. Patient attention to another human being for days, weeks, years? Staying steady in the face of flash and fury? Living with constant yet unpredictable interruption and need? So much for da Vinci and Archbishop Romero. Neither of them had kids. Family and its strange, claustrophobic isolation sapped my strength and rendered my metaphors impotent.

My fingers drip with paint but the wall flexes its blank expanse. How quaint those old symbols seem now that they are emptied of their magic! In the absence of a functional concept of power, I find myself regressing to the ways of my elders. The patterns raked into this soil early in my life, far before I chose my own way, become the trenches that both trip me and trap me. I do what comes unconsciously when faced with these new, completely unexpected challenges.
Bug is aggressive and erratic, and I find myself tensing into a tight ball and barreling down on him like a bull in the ring. Is this strength? It feels strong, but the fit is wrong, and the chilling fallout indicates this approach weakens us both.
When I have to get through a hectic morning, I power up like a pneumatic drill. Snapping back help and narrowing my gaze, I grind with gritted teeth through each task. Constriction. Tension. Stress. Is this strength? It feels strong as well, but the power is deafening. Stiffening. A good way to snap.
My work situation is still less than adequate to support us financially, and I am Atlas, taking on everything and then some. I bear it all and look for other opportunities, and seek seek seek a way up and out. Is this strength? It, too, feels strong, but it leaves me sapped and hopeless. An absence of faith is the opposite of strength. It is defeat.
All the oldest ways of being strong – not ways I have chosen, but ways I have learned regardless – are the ones I am relying on now. Guard and push and limit and clutch.  Come up with plans of action based on the idea that something is lacking and must be added, improved, removed, or fixed.
My notions of power are in need of renovation.  As a working single parent struggling to make ends meet, living with her parents, and trying to learn from the failure of a marriage while dating and co-parenting – in short, as a person whose situation is wholly different from any she has faced in her past – what symbols do I animate? How can I draw true strength into this unfolding story? A metaphor is a gift Daedalus fashions to lift the narrative up and out of the turmoil of conflict and into the breathing space of redemption. Where do I let the wings carry me?
These days, I am sketching the rough outline of a few to see how they fit. One is bamboo, bending in the highest wind but not breaking. Another is riding the surf, staying loose, knowing another wave will hit, and feeling the way. I even try to hold onto a picture of oysters at the bay’s edge, adapting as the sea leaks into their beds. Instead of withering, I imagine adjusting the needs and ways of my flesh to the shifting climate.
So, tonight, I spread my palette with gneiss and stir in snippets of long-threaded moss. I let my fingers make the first strokes as the shadow of a new strength unfurls on the cave wall.  As my hand does its uncertain work, I notice the ghosts of the ones that came before. Thank heavens I quieted my impulsiveness and did not wipe them clean. In a far corner, the others – warrior, deer, and scholar among them – begin to stir.

And have distanced what is behind me for good reasons,
But call any thing back again when I desire it.

Because life is what it is, I suspect the toughest days are ahead. Fortunately, magic is never gone from anything that once possessed it. The old symbols, and even this old girl, may have a bit of juice left. It does not need to be much. Just enough to give awakening breath to the life unfolding before my eyes and right here, at the tips of my fingers.


Everything is Built on Sand

Tee’s name popped up when the phone rang, but it was Bug’s voice on the other end. “Mommy, can I stay at your house tonight?”
Unprecedented. While Tee and I have been sharing Bug’s time exactly 50/50, he always, always, asks to stay at his Daddy’s. Sometimes just reminding him that he gets to spend an entire weekend with me will reduce him to tears.
At the house we share, Bug has his own room. Bunk beds, toys everywhere, free rein in that one space. At his daddy’s, he also has bunk beds, toys everywhere, and free rein. What makes his room at his dad’s house unique is that he shares it with Tee. His favorite man sleeps deeply right under him all night, and that man does not stir awake when Bug climbs down into the warm comfort of the big bed in the wee hours.
Bug’s request would have been more of a surprise if I had not known the big news of the day: Ms. Song had announced she would be leaving on an “adventure.”
Ms. Song is Bug’s touchstone. A Mary Poppins in mom jeans, she has been the most constant presence in his world for over a year. It is a rare thing to stumble across a sharp-minded and big-smiling person who teaches preschool because it is her calling, not just because it is all she could get. Every day, Ms. Song greets every single child in her class with a big hello and a hug. She calls the children by name. She requires the same joyous and personalized attention of every staff member in her classroom.  Her gift is the ability to attend with precision to each child’s unique capacity to manipulate scissors, pronounce Rs and Ls, and channel strong feelings into words and positive behaviors. Ms. Song knows the kids.
And she is leaving.  A new teacher starts next week. Bug gets about seven months with this next one before the big transition to kindergarten.
Parents want to shield their children from the sting of loss. Even knowing it is important for young people to learn how to navigate disruption, the instinct is to create stability. Even false stability, at times. What parent can stand watching a kid’s heart break? What parent does not want to rush in to balm the wound and whisper promises impossible to keep?
Adaptability is a requirement for thriving in the world as it is, and parents have an important role to play in helping kids learn the mechanics of it. Still. It hurts to see our little ones grappling with big feelings. Against that squeezing desire to protect is the knowledge that kids learn life is not so certain and nothing lasts forever. They learn it despite us. Often, they learn it because of us, even when we think they are not paying attention. They are paying attention. They always are.
The desire for things to stay fixed is as powerful as it is common, and its power can be crippling. When the pink slip lands or the divorce papers arrive or the landlord announces she is selling the place, even the strongest among us feels seasick, no matter how well equipped we are for the ride. The urge is to deny or to hide. Nuanced language and the experience of survival can help us handle the upheaval accompanying transition. As for handling it well? That is a talent that few master.
Children learn how to deal with change by watching grownups. Do we fret and avoid, or attend and apply care? Do we give voice to our feelings to the point of wallowing, or do we decide, that’s enough, and climb back on board? Do we practice straddling that uncomfortable threshold, both by bidding farewell to what is behind us and by welcoming what is to come?
What do our words and behaviors teach our kids about resilience? About adaptation?
Usually, Tee and I stick to our schedule, but we agreed to let Bug have his wish this one night. A room of his own may not appeal as much as one that is shared, but it is still his. Sometimes, a person just needs to touch familiar things to know they are not slipping away. At least, not for the moment.
I picked Bug up at his one house and ferried him over to his other house. On the way, we spoke lightly about the idea of “mixed feelings.” This is a familiar refrain, but, like those lullabies, it bears repeating. I tell him I have mixed feelings when he goes away for Christmas or summer break. I am happy that he is having fun with his cousins, and I am sad to not be with him. People can feel several things at once, even if they are very different things.  I remind him that it is fine to be happy that Ms. Song gets to go on an adventure and also sad that she is leaving.
I remember when I first introduced this concept to Bug when he was just about three years old. He pondered for a few minutes then piped up, “Like pistachios!”
Uh, really?
“Yeah! They are salty AND crunchy!”
The five year old in the back seat offered no such clever analogy. He simply absorbed my words (I have to hope) and changed the subject to our weekend plans.
Back at home, he proceeded to torment the dog, chase the kitty, ignore his grandparents (after checking their whereabouts), and jump on the furniture. Same bedlam, different day. I noticed, though, that he called out to me repeatedly throughout the evening. “Mommy? Come look.” And, “Mommy, where are you?” And, “Mommy, help.” With his talismans in hand – his flashlight, his pirate sword, his box of coins – he managed to settle down next to me, listen to a chapter of Peter Pan, and hum along to the three songs I sing before bed. It was a late one, but he made it to sleep. Eventually.
Ms. Song and the school have done their best to make the transition smooth.  The low-drama announcement preceded a few farewell rituals. The kids and teacher alike created little memory boxes with tokens of one another. Ms. Song is leaving behind her bear puppet, Oso. The kids can talk to him if they get sad, and he will send the message to Ms. Song.
Come Monday, though, Ms. Song will be gone. For the moment, Bug’s mommy and daddy return to their rightful place in things. Perhaps we are not just his touchstones, but the cornerstones of his forever shifting world.


Ground Level

In the photo from an unidentified year, Christmas is a litter of red bows and crumpled paper. Two grinning and sleepy-eyed girls hold up matching nightgowns. As they kneel there, a drab stretch of olive green peeks through the debris. That carpet was already flat and washed out when we moved into the house in 1983. Wall-to-wall padding the color of tinned peas stretched along the hallway through the living room and out to the edges of the dining room.

For the years we lived in that house, I barely noticed the flooring. It took a beating under our adolescent feet. Forgotten Easter eggs and candy canes gathered dust in its corners. Dander from a revolving menagerie of dogs and cats dusted its depths. Embers popped from the fireplace burned dark scars into its skin. Everything we tracked in from the woods and sidewalks worked its way into the fibers, along with the desperate sweat from our middle school dance parties, the busted lamps and windowpanes from our high school drinking parties, and the spilled ink from our volumes of love notes to uninterested boys.

My sister and I lay on that floor with the usual suspects from the neighborhood. Stretched out on our bellies, we played Trivial Pursuit and rubbed the belly of one dog or another. From the record player, Prince and UB40 belted out the soundtrack to our epic conspiracy to win the attention of those aforementioned boys.

The carpet is such an expanse of dingy green, almost popping out of the photo now. In all those years and all that proximity, I don’t think I ever even noticed that it was holding me up. It was as invisible as dust mites, as overlooked as the native tongue.

The surfaces that hold us and bind us are this way. They meet us on our arrival, having been laid down by the folks whose arrival preceded our own. The pell-mell approach of our predecessors becomes a Way that eventually mellows into The Way Things Are. It even becomes ours. We walk upon those planes, the familiar buoyancy cushioning our feet even as we are oblivious to its presence.

As willing as I have been to bore with drill-press intensity into definitions of justice and art and the magical capacity of the human mind for learning, I have never quite turned the implement back on myself. Have these eyes ever looked straight at my own assumptions about work and family as they relate to my choices? Oh, sure, I have burnt a few gallons of midnight oil playing psychobabble ping-pong with friends and lovers about what relationships are all about. Breathless with certainty that I had re-written the script, I managed to skirt around the scrupulous inspection of my notion that I would and should have a partner in this life. Even while raging against gendered and racist patterns of thought and behavior, I avoided focusing too closely on the preconceptions about what roles my partner and I are to play in creating our very real shared narrative. Similarly, I have never looked dead in the eye of my own sense of what it means to succeed. The ideas that I am gifted yet troubled, and that I can do anything but end up doing very little, are a little too densely packed for whatever tools I have brought to the task.

Is this experience true of other people who have had minimal struggle in a largely unremarkable life? Do others share this comforting idea that native ability combined with a little hard work will pay off, and that the pieces will simply fall into place? Have I been piling faith and weight onto a belief that a spouse by my side would lead clearly to kids and then to home and then a future, and the whole package would coalesce into something not so different from what surrounded me in my growing-up years? Tee and I fell into each other. We set up house on a foundation poured long before our arrival. This is what family is (isn’t it?) This is what work will bring (won’t it?) All you need to do is stake your claim to this stretch of land, and the rest will come.


Not to heap too much abuse on this old girl, but I realize now I have been living like that grinning adolescent in the photo. Sprawled on a floor I take for granted, I parade my plenty. All the while, I gaze past the person at who is holding the camera and even past what might be gazing back from the other side of it. A bill is on the table, detailing the price my own parents had to pay for creating that little postcard snapshot for the album. What child wants to look at that? It is so easy for a kid to avert her eyes from the sweat popping on her parents’ brows as they hand down the double-edged sword of their labors: the unquestioned assumption that such bounty is a birthright.

Since leaving home (returning, leaving, returning again), I have padded along the familiar set and slipped into unquestioned grooves, following a script written in another time and place for a character who is not me. The ground below, not solid at all. Particle board and paste, leading nowhere, threatening to give way.

My childhood home went on the market in 1990. Seen through the eyes of potential buyers, it came up lacking. First came new kitchen linoleum, then fresh bedroom paint, and by all means, get rid of that awful carpet. Our family went to work yanking up the foul, green stuff in strips. The first among us who tore the padding from the nails below stopped and called the others over. We gathered round in slack-jawed awe. Down below, hardwood floors. Miles and miles of gleaming, untouched boards.

We pulled up every inch of carpet and exposed the honeyed oak. The glossy surface shined even brighter with a sanding and a polish. Like a new copper penny, it caught the light spilling in from the picture windows and cast it right back up to the very corners of our home – the home we would shortly be leaving. We had never thought to look. We had never thought to dig. It had simply not occurred to us that a treasure might be less than an inch below our feet.

It was not without regret that we left a home we had never truly seen, never really been able to know as beautiful. Who among us considered the true potential of what is right within reach? The cushion of the familiar is usually good enough.

Last week, I walked out of the courtroom, frayed at the edges. My corners were beginning to tug away from the known, the bare underneath of me exposed. As raw as I felt, the experience was not as traumatizing as I expected it to be. The procedure of the divorce is an exercise required by the state. Tee and I have long since vacated the premises of the marriage. I have already begun to pull up and shake out the memories, the stains and glitter alike.

I may not be stripped down yet, but I am getting close. Without the name, the spouse, the soft layer of family that has absorbed the falls for the better part of the past decade, the very ground can feel uncertain. Too hard, perhaps, to cushion the blows. Or maybe not hard enough to hold me.

Despite the uncertain topography, I walked out with my paper and its Commonwealth seal feeling oddly calm. I have a sense that something extraordinary might really be under the surface of this life I have been living. If I can pierce through my own patterned ways, crack open the legacies I have handed myself through years of unquestioned approaches to things – to men, to work, to the very sense of what I might do with the time I have left on this earth – then I might uncover miles of lush, open terrain. A gleaming way, made for my very own feet.