Family, Home, Parenting

Director’s Cut


He blocks the dryer, wild eyes and a grin.  I duck, pump, shoot.  His wet boxer shorts whip past his ear and splat against the back wall of the drum.

“Oh man!” He turns and yanks a shirt from the washer tub, untwisting its rope of an arm from a pillowcase.  He cuts in front of me and pivots.  Past my block, he fakes then scores.  “Yes!” Fist in the air.

Continue reading “Director’s Cut”

Parenting, Poetry

Tin Man

Chain and door lock

He is a knot
lashed to a lock
hasp snapped tight
as lips.
Planting himself at the edge of the room
he holds fast to the border
between thrust and withdrawal, steel bars clamped
across his chest.
Silence thuds out from the footing
where he has sunk
his fury
and pulses
through the planks of the floor.

It is impossible to know what someone else feels.
I know exactly what he feels.
The vise grip jaw is mine
writ small. The iced chassis, his
unfortunate inheritance.
I approach with a voice of WD40, the thin straw
laying a bead across the distance between us.
It takes its time leaching in along the thread
of his coil, feeling for tumblers
and any hint of give. I fold my arms
like the mouth of a spaniel
around him and trust in the unctuous
persistence of my proximity
until his grip slips loose
enough to push free.

Parenting, Reading

Mad Skills

His teacher says we need to have them read to us. “A book a day at least.” I have not been doing this. Judging by the other parents’ shifts and murmurs, I am not alone. We are all folded into the small desks with our knees bent up to our shoulders. Mrs. P smiles. “And one more request. Please, please teach your children to tie their own shoes.” Groans now. Giggles.
Tee and I look over the sign-up sheet for parent-teacher conferences in November. We are the only twosome negotiating for a time slot. At every other desk, it is just one mom or dad – mostly mom – checking the schedule. Divorce comes with a handful of unexpected side benefits. They’re pretty expensive and probably not worth what our son has to pay for them, so we guard them with our lives. Tee and I both attend every event. We used to argue over who gets to chaperone the school trip until we realized we could handle it together. We have already set a theme and divided up cake- and game-duties for a birthday party over a month away.
“Geez, I can’t get here at 12:30 on a weekday,” I say. All of the morning and afternoon appointments are filled. Tee and I have our calendars out. “There’s a unit meeting on Monday I can’t miss,” he says. Our negotiations are stalling the process for everyone. Another mom takes mercy on us and offers us her 8:15 slot. She stays at home mom and lives right near the school. She’s our new favorite person. Tee and I put up a symbolic fight for about three seconds before erasing her name and squeezing our two onto the blue line.
The teacher introduces the parents to the Spanish teacher and the weekly schedule. Then the bell rings for us just as it does for the kids. Parents scatter. Tee and I are alone in the hallway, engaged in the eternal yet forever interrupted conversation about raising our son. Other parents might be doing this at home with each other. Maybe they’re not doing this much at all. Tee and I talk. We talk in corridors, over phones, between meetings at work. Scraps and patches. We find compromises lightning fast now without even discussing the values beneath our positions. We are a million miles apart but right on the same page.
Some days.
One of the things I miss and don’t miss in the slightest is having Tee in my home and private space, thinking with me about raising our son. I don’t know what I’m doing 95% of the time. Now, I bumble around in isolation. I ache for another set of eyes while knowing my ex husband’s presence wouldn’t actually help. I don’t understand the way he sees. We have decided to be in complete agreement on all things practical and to cross our fingers that we won’t bump too hard against the Whys of our choices. There are walls between us that we still don’t know how to scale.
Tonight, in perfect alignment, we are the envy of our friends and neighbors.
“So, do you have him read to you?” I ask.
He smiles a little. “Nope. We still do our three books and sometimes he points out a word, but. . .” he shrugs.
“I guess we should start.” I’m thinking about the inevitable struggle with Bug. Like just about every other human on the planet, he resists change.
“One a night?” Tee asks.
I nod. “I’ll start tonight.”
Bug has already had his bath when I bang through the door. He and my mother are sitting on the sofa looking through a picture book about spies. Bug slumps off to the bathroom to brush his teeth while I hear the run-down of the evening. Good dinner, chip on his shoulder, won’t talk to her about anything. I don’t bother telling her again that this is his personality right now. His attitude hurts her feelings regardless. I saw the other truth, though. They had been leaning in together, close and quiet in the orange glow of the lamp. Maybe it was only three minutes. Maybe we have to take what we can get.
She heads out and I brace myself. “All right, kiddo. Bed.” No slush time tonight. I just know this shift in our routine is going to drag us down to first gear. My nights with my kid are precious but they are so very long. It’s been years since Goodnight Moon. These days, three books and three songs can fill an hour, easy. If Bug has to read? We’ll be bumping along on the shoulder, me craning my neck for the exit ramp. The dinner dishes are heaped in the sink, the lunches are not made, the dog has to be walked. . .
Clearly, Bug’s not the only one who dreads change.
Right here, right now. I tell myself.
“Okay, Buddy. Tonight, you get to read one of the books out loud to me.”
“I’ll start tomorrow,” he says.
“Tonight,” I say.
“Next week? Please? Wait! I know. I’ll start when I’m seven.”
“Baby, you practically are seven. And Mrs. P didn’t say to wait a day or a week or anything. She said now. You’re teacher said it, so even Mommy has to do it.”
Bug deflates. I read two from the pile then root through it again and pull out one of the shorter ones. It is from the library and neither of us has ever seen it before.
“What’s this?” he asks.
“I don’t know. What does the title say?”
“Oh, Mom! Come on.”
I point to the first word on the cover and wait.
“H-h-hondo. And. Fuh – what’s that?”
“Hondo and Fabian,” he says.
We open the book. He reads the first line. Not a single stumble. He reads it just like any old reader would do it. I have to hold back the wave of Wow that surges up in me. If I don’t keep my cool, he won’t keep going. We turn the page. His voice rolls smooth right over the next line. Then the next. Hondo and his friend Fred are playing in the waves. Fabian the kitty is playing with the toilet paper. Bug is giggling. I use my fingers to cover parts of a long word and he pieces together “chicken.” Then, just like that, Hondo and Fabian are asleep. We close the book and I turn to Bug.
“You just read to me, baby. You just read a whole book!”
“Yeah, yeah. Whatever.”
“Whatever your own self. I had no idea you could do that! Look how all your hard work and practicing is making it so you can really-for-real read.”
“Could you just sing please?”
My mother is right. He does have a chip on his shoulder tonight. It’s no different than just about all the 182 nights I have with my flinty boy. That’s not nearly enough squares on the calendar to waste any one of them on wishing he were different, wishing any of this were something else. I pull the pillows down behind us and curl into him. He pushes my hand off of his side and twists away.
“Old Mr. Johnson had troubles of his own.”
“Will you rub my back?” His little voice. His one concession to attachment. I lift his shirt and trace my nails down his spine. His muscles roll as he hums a little laugh.
“I’m really proud of you, baby,” I whisper. “You’ve worked really hard. It’s going to be so fun reading together.”
Bug doesn’t say anything. I pick up the song’s drifting thread.
“He had a yellow cat that wouldn’t leave his home. . .”


Happy 100 Days: 90

While we are brushing teeth at bedtime, I somehow manage to elbow Bug in the face. I feel the crack, and immediately pull him into my soft belly. A split second passes and then he is wailing. Hot tears and even hotter anger seep through my shirt.
“I’m sorry, baby. Goodness gracious, that must hurt. I’m sorry.”
He howls into my side. “It’s your fault, Mommy!” Choking sobs. “It’s all your fault!”
I call down the stairs and ask my mother to bring us the ice pack from the freezer. She hands it up to us and I talk softly to Bug, finding a pillowcase to wrap around the pack. Bug is still clinging to me, yelling, “It’s your fault!”
“Yep, it is,” I say. I help him press the ice to his cheek then have him put on his jammies. I fill a mug with cool water for his bedside table. “It was an accident. I am sorry.” He keeps crying and scowling as the spot under his eye puffs to an angry pink. He reminds me about two dozen more times that I am to blame for his misery. I concede this fact.
Here is tonight’s small victory: My son does not hit me. He does not bite, kick, spit, or butt me in the face with the back of his head.
“Can I have paper for writing?” He asks. I dig up a clipboard from the clutter in his room. We crawl into bed and I begin to read as he writes on his paper with a thick red marker. Halfway through the first book, Bug interrupts me. “That’s you, Mommy.” I look over and see he has drawn on the far left of his page a frowning stick figure with a distressed look. I am impressed with the expressiveness of the eyebrows.
“That looks like a mean mommy,” I say.
“It is,” he says. He returns to drawing. I keep reading. After the next book, I look over again. He has filled in the page with two more stick figures. “Now you are sad,” he tells me, pointing to my double.
“Is that you with an angry face?” I ask.
“Yeah. I am punching you.”
“Oh. I see now.” He marks in little teardrops falling from the mommy’s eyes. “She seems pretty upset,” I say. “And he looks mad.” He draws the two faces again at the top of the page. One is crying and one is scowling. When he puts the cap back on the marker, I tap the page. “You know what you did, kiddo? You told your feelings to this picture.”
Bug reaches over and gives me the gentlest of swats on the shoulder. “Now I did the same thing to you for real,” he says.
I let it go. So does he. He pulls the page from the clipboard and drops it off the side of the bed. He starts practicing his letters. I start on the third book.
After we are finished reading, I tuck him against me into a full-body hug and sing “Baby Beluga.” My son’s new favorite approach to cuddling is to slip his arm under my neck and pull my head down on his chest. He wraps his hand around my shoulder and strokes my hair. It is an odd juxtaposition, my son holding me against him the way I have held him for so many years. I feel small and safe. I feel gigantic and cumbersome. I feel the echo of my voice off his fragile ribs and his unbroken heart.
Downstairs, I hear Giovanni come to drop off the dog. Her nails tippy-tap on the kitchen tile, a staccato counterpoint to the thundering footsteps of my parents as they wash up the dinner dishes and stash away the pizza stone. Bug’s schoolwork is on the kitchen table awaiting his teacher’s smiley-face sticker. A truck roars past on the muggy street outside. The air conditioner hums to life. The presidential debates begin.
I sing “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” and Bug sings along, his voice fading.
There’s a lake of stew and ginger ale too,
you can paddle all around it in a big canoe

He is under before I reach the end, but I finish anyway. I stay there for a few moments. His hand is against my ear, fingers tangled in my hair. He holds me as close as he can even in his sleep.
My son was angry at me. For the first time in 5 years and 363 days, he told me about it with words and art instead of with his hands.
So often, I sense the hugeness of the task ahead. Survive, save, support my child, teach him well, build a future. It is daunting. It can be very lonesome.
Tonight, I can feel my son’s strong pulse against my cheek. All around, the world goes on. It sometimes happens that in all that going on, people help. Sometimes, someone takes care of something that need taking care of. Someone walks the dog. Brings the ice pack. Pays the mortgage. Teaches the kids. Runs the country.
Sometimes, I can whisper my boy through his storm of feelings precisely because I am not alone.
What a revelation.
Sometimes, I am not alone.



Me: “Tell me about this picture.”

Bug: “That’s my two houses. Your house and daddy’s house.”

Me: “Are you hiding behind one of the trees?”

Bug: “No. I’m hiding in that brown and purple thing in the middle.”

Me: “What is it?”

Bug: “A little teeny tiny house. No one can come in but me, and I can do anything I want in there.”

Me: “Like what?”

Bug: “I can say ‘shut up’ all I want.”

Me: “What else do you do?”

Bug: “You know what else.”

Me: “Um. . . let’s see. You watch TV?”

Bug: “Yep. That’s what I do. I watch all I want. I watch TV all day long.”


Postcard from the Backcountry

You are my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.

Mark 1:11

This bungled, bumping journey with you is quite an adventure. Your unique sense of direction steers us into wondrous and uncharted territory. When I pause to look around, I see the strangeness for what it is. The high canopy shelters, the bright blooms startle, the roots hold the shifting soil steady enough beneath our feet. You carry me to a way of knowing I could not have visited without your companionship.
Because of you, I am learning new habits for walking well. As we go, I will pack these ways close and keep them within reach.

  1. Ignore the clock. No one wins any prizes for being on time. Misery cancels out the gold star for punctuality. When we are trying to dress to get out the door for school, moving between your two houses, or just gearing up for the next activity, we can make our way with care. A too-abrupt transition into the chaotic press of the outside world is like stepping straight from the bubble bath into rush-hour traffic. The mind needs to gain its footing. You will have your moment to stretch, to fuss a little, to hear about what waits on the other side of the moment. I can sit with you, touching you gently. Hot cocoa is waiting in the car, I remind you.  The kitty cat was asleep on your bed in the middle of the night. Your Grandpa Bill is coming next week.  A light touch can welcome you back from the unscheduled bliss of your play, your dreams, your lazy wanderings. We will get where we need to go eventually. In the meantime, let’s greet one another and enjoy the hello all over again.

  3. Seek positive intent. When you knocked over the child at the party, I know you wanted something but did not know how to communicate your eagerness. I will try to say, “You were excited about the flag the little girl was holding. You wanted a turn with it. You grabbed and pushed her, but that hurt her. You could say, ‘Please, can I have a turn with the flag.’ If that does not work, come get me and I will help you figure it out.”  Even when you are hitting me, I know you are trying to achieve something. I empathize with this. You are trying to tell me you are disappointed about the pleasure you believe you have been denied. Your hitting hurts, though, so I will help you learn to say “Mommy, I am so angry and frustrated.”  I will let you cry. I will show you ways to be gentle with your big, hot feelings. In training my eyes to look for your positive purpose, I learn to see the intent in other people’s actions, too.  When folks around me behave in ways that strike me as wrong, I remember that they are trying to manage their own complex lives. So many of us walk through our days feeling we have failed ourselves and others, that we have fallen short. Yet, we are all doing our best with the resources we have. I am, too. When I pay attention to the good at work inside confused behavior, my heart softens.

  5. Forgive, forget. Forced apologies are hereby banned. You have had enough with feeling bad about yourself for the time being. Saying “sorry” is only useful if you feel contrite, and we both know you cannot achieve anything as subtle and generous as repentance when you are tied up inside. For now, it is my job to forgive you when you make a mistake, even if you are not ready to admit you made one. I will decide you are trying your hardest, and I will remind you that you are good, no matter how tangled up you feel. We have time to untie the knots.  I will sit with you until we both simmer down, and then we will make our way out of the jungle together.

  7. Apologize freely. True apologies are not an admission of failure. When I catch myself acting with fury or aggression, I will stop and tell you I am sorry. “I really got mad and started yelling when you were kicking the shower door. I’m sorry, Bug. I should not have yelled. It did not help at all. I was actually scared before I was mad. Next time, I will try saying, ‘I am worried about you breaking the glass doors. I do not want you to get hurt.’” My job is to keep you intact and well. When you act out, you have something roaring inside you that needs to be heard or received. At the same time, I am trying to help you get somewhere safe.  I know we can work together to solve the problem.  I can say I am sorry for boiling over. Then I can turn down the heat and train my attention back on you, on us, on the opportunity before us. As I speak my apology and act to guide you to a calm place, I forgive myself. I release my grip on the mistake, and re-commit myself to loving you well. My mind is clear of the fog of self-loathing and hopelessness, and I begin to see options again. I can help you find your words. The path forward begins to lay itself bare.

  9. Come out of hiding.  When I slip into my room to piddle around on the computer, start tapping on my phone, or open the paper, I am not really with you. Long days of parenting and working can drain energy stores and leave me grumpy. My exhaustion manifests as a vanishing act. My sleight of hand does not fool you when we are together, because I am attempting to disappear in plain sight. When I withdraw, I believe I can shield you from the ill effects of my mood. I know better, however, and so do you. It’s no wonder you lock yourself into a suit of armor when you feel dark things. You see very few people giving name and face to their distress. My ducking and avoidance have far more of a negative impact on you than the blahs and blues of my presence. I want you to have more choices than “got it together” and “invisible.” I will try to stay with you, in my ups as well as my downs, and even the flat places in between. If I need to work on a project or take a few minutes to myself, we will discuss it. I can explain what is happening before I shift gears, and assist you in setting yourself up with an activity. You are learning to be perceptive about people and their needs. I can help you by naming my own place in time, talking you through what I expect, and being transparent about my behavior.

You have led me towards these small, immense lessons. I hope to continue to hold them close as we make our way through this tangled landscape. Walking this path is not easy, but it is the only one for us. In your company, I learn to be a better parent. This also means I am learning to be a better friend, neighbor, and inhabitant of this teeming planet.
During this leg of the journey (as with so many others), you are teaching me how to expand my capacity for love. You help me see more clearly, and I see what a beautiful boy you are.