Career, Change, Choices

81. Things I Can Celebrate: Five Years

Anniversary Bed

August 23, 2010: first day on the job. This was another shift in the surge between a tidal wave of beginnings and a fierce undertow of endings. Landing a position at a university — one that had deigned to give me a graduate degree before I took off on a fateful, cross-country marriage odyssey — meant more than compelling work with college students. It meant benefits and a way to rebuild a gutted financial base. At a time when the best I dared hope for was chalk dust, this was gold.

So many things whirled and roiled to push me onto the metro that morning in August. Selling everything, leaving a home in the mountains, separation and divorce, going back to work, single parenthood. . . Every stroke felt like the last one I could possibly take. Then I took another, just as grueling. And another.

I wish I could tell my sisters that the other side of divorce is less of a slog. Isn’t that the line? “It gets easier.” Much like what my boss has been telling me every time the pace picks up at work. “Things will slow down soon.”

Five years, they still only ramp up.
Five years, single motherhood is still a steep ascent.

That said, the frantic anxiety about how to make it all work has quieted. When I press the gas on my work week each Monday morning, my mind leaves much of the domestic uncertainty behind. Eventually, my boy and I did manage to buy a home. We know our neighbors. He is rocking the classroom at school. We have a rhythm to our days, plenty of eggs and veggies in the fridge, a little cash in the college fund, a little more in the 401K. Within the few realms we control, we are doing as well as we can. Truthfully, we are faring far better than I ever imagined.

This relative peace at home allows for full presence at the office. I have attention to tackle the new set of pressures and commitments that greets me each Monday. Change keeps churning, wicked as whitewater. Like many universities, mine is trying to grow its influence under suffocating pressure to shrink its operating budget. Resourcefulness is as important as a bold voice; careful consideration as necessary as high-octane exertion. Most critical of all lately? Blind faith in the germination of sloppily but copiously scattered seeds.

I nourish and water. I pray to an absent god.

At this milestone, I can see and even feel what has broken the surface. Sturdy roots, infant limbs. Promotions and raises, geographic flexibility, new projects. People making decisions include me in conversations about the direction of our school.

All of this has meant growing up hard and fast. Five years is really just a blink. I understand now that maturity — at least “maturity” as it takes shape here at the 40+ year chapter in the story — involves going after more and more of the hardest stuff even when presented with the option to coast. This is a tough lesson to learn and a tougher habit to establish, especially when the young adult tendency is to dabble and blame, to shift responsibility and do a good-enough job. To hold out vague hope for something better down the line.

Growing up means understanding that “down the line” is stamped on the ticket I already bought and the miles I’ve already covered. My choices on Monday morning, on every morning, forge my destination.

I am learning to take on creative and difficult tasks that I’ve long assumed were the domain of people with talents and capacities entirely different from mine. I would sooner imagine myself capable of learning Mandarin than write computer code or keep tabs on a several million dollar research budget. But here I am.

This all comes at a cost, though, and it is a cost I still struggle with accepting. My days increasingly belong to tasks I would rather leave to someone else. The work I most love is crammed into the spaces between. My body is weary, my mind is sapped, and my sense of pleasure in just about everything is so far beyond reach it may as well be dandelion fluff in the last gust of summer.

So I celebrate in the least celebratory way imaginable.

I sleep.

This one weekend on the 5-year anniversary of life catapulting me into a foreign land, I finally let myself rest. Two nights ago, I clocked a solid eight hours. Yesterday, I took two naps. Last night, I managed 10-1/2 hours, and today, another nap. I dream long and luscious stories about dusty road trips and strange mountain men in dapper white suits. I wake up exhausted, walk the dog, and go back to sleep.

Tomorrow is Monday morning and I head back to the office. I’m excited to kick off the next half of this decade refreshed and restored. If the first half has taught me anything, I’ll need all the fuel I can get.

Change, Divorce

The Year of Pottery

We had a cookie ceremony. Friends and family poured ingredients into a shared bowl. Sugar, flour, chocolate, salt. The dear ones who were married long enough to know something about sticking it out through the rough stuff had painted a bowl to hold this moment. They’d splashed it sunflower yellow and added coral loops. Their baby daughter’s footprint marked the base.

Each participant stepped up and told a story. My almost-sister-in-law cracked open an egg and recalled the chicken coop in the yard in Wisconsin. My mother added pecans and told about the trees on the long-gone land of our Oklahoma kin. Each story found its way into the mix that was becoming Us.

When the mandolin and fiddle played the happy jig, the ceremony turned into dancing and caterers served chocolate chip cookies to everyone.

Nine years, it would have been.

We live up the street from each other now, both of us just a short jump to the park where we stood laughing in the sweltering sun on this day then. The man I married is my friend, our mix now composed mostly of flour and salt. It’s light on sugar but I don’t mind. It’s been 18 months since I’ve eaten a cookie. I’ve shed the craving for sweet.

The yellow bowl is a pop of light on my kitchen counter. It cradles lemons, nectarines, the paper husks of garlic bulbs. When my boy and I come home from school, I dance around the sink and stove cobbling together a meal. My son goes to relax in his “spot,” a bare wooden chair in the corner under the calendar.

He reaches into the bowl and pulls out a banana just like he did the last time he was here.

“You hungry for a snack, bub?” I ask.

“Sort of.” He splits the peel open and settles back. “This is just what I do now. This how it is.”
 

Art, Divorce

June 11, 2005

Wedding Cake

My son wants to know what the plastic box contains. It is in his room on the dresser where I have stashed it in the hopes of a near-future move. We lift the lid and I show him the colored paper. The stack of card stock is a jumbled rainbow of hues. Inside the lid is pasted a stylized directive: Please place completed scrapbook pages here.
 
Bug reads it out loud slowly. “What does that mean?”
 
“The box was from our wedding,” I explain. “Our guests drew pictures for us so we could remember them.”
 
From the bottom, Bug fishes one of the blank pages left from that day. A goldenrod square is pasted onto a larger lavender piece. A tiny stamp in the center of the smaller frame reads, “Your photo will be here.”
 
“How?” Bug asks.
 
“Like this.” The scrapbooks are all in his room. Weddings, pregnancy, first tooth, first steps. Tee and I hug in faded sepia on the front of one. I pull it down and nestle with my son on his bed. “We made two books because we had so many creative wedding guests. One is for family and one is for friends. This is your family too, you know.”
 
We flip past all the announcements and shower invitations. In a save-the-date , a silhouette of Tee and me leaps against a Lake Michigan sunset. A handmade flower-petal paper sports its indigo raffia bow. The booklet from the wedding day slips around in a plastic sheath that protects the lyrics to James Taylor’s “How Sweet it Is” alongside the cowboy-hat story of our first meeting.
 
Someone had the bright idea to use one of the tabletop disposable cameras to capture a few shots of the scrapbooking table. A violet satin cloth is littered with stamps, stickers, pens. Everything is so very bright. Sunburnt guests brandish markers and grins. The daisies my friend planted months in advance pop from their hand-painted pots.
 
I point out cousins my son knows now as older. He has me read their wishes to us.
 
“Was I there?” He asks.
 
“You were the reason we were all there, but no. You weren’t born yet.”
 
He turns another page. “Nelson!” he cries. “He was there!”
 
“You know Nelson?”
 
“Of course,” Bug says. “He lives at Daddy’s house.”
 
Nelson. A stuffed plush banana slug from a trip to an Olympic Peninsula lodge was a key player in Tee’s and my courtship. Nelson was present at the third and final proposal. Sometime during the wedding reception, Tee snuck the slug out of his jacket pocket and propped him onto the cake table. Nelson’s big-eyed welcome is now a sunny flourish against our melting, blue sky confection.
 
Bug slips down from the bed and goes back over to the box of blanks. He pulls the lavender-and-gold card stock from the top and settles down at his desk.
 
“Are you going to make one?”
 
“Mmm-hmm,” he murmurs. He is already in the flow. He outlines the shape of a purple butterfly with his marker. A red flower. I let him draw for a few minutes as I turn back through the album. A few cards at the back sing out their happy wishes. The rooftop group shot with all of us jumping is a cascade of smiles. Grandparents, siblings, all so much younger. They glisten and wilt and whirl and bounce.
 
I try to feel sad but I just can’t tap sorrow. It was a gorgeous day. Tee and I were giddy. I couldn’t stop giggling as I walked down that makeshift aisle my mother rolled out on the grass from a bolt of rainbow upholstery fabric. The sunflowers arching behind fiancé and friend opened their delight to me. Happiness still pulses there, beating in a subdued major key.
 
“When you are done, baby, do you want me to find a picture of you to put on the page?”
 
He nods but does not turn, still bent to the task of making his garden come to life. “Yep. And then put it in the book.”
 
“Okay. We can make room for you in there.”