Growing Up, Parenting


“Can I please stay at my daddy’s?”
“You’re with me tonight, buddy.” His backpack is weighing down my shoulder. One of the four books he’s checked out of the school library is a hardback Harry Potter, which we happen to have at home. “What do you like about your dad’s house?”
“I like my bunk bed.” His hair falls over his face as he drags himself along the sidewalk. “Daddy lets me play toys before bed.” My son’s pace diminishes in inverse proportion to my edginess. I open the car door for him and wait, forcing my face calm. Finally, Bug piles in, lobbing his lunchbox across the back seat before harrumph-ing down in his booster.
I climb in and start the car. “I sort of remember someone playing legos on the bedroom floor at our house before bed every single night. Maybe that’s some other little boy.”
He doesn’t take the bait. “Why can’t I go to daddy’s?”
We edge into a tiny gap in the tight string of red taillights lined up outside his school. It is so dark now. We were scaling the monkey bars at park before dinner just weeks ago. Was it years ago? “Our house needs you,” I tell him. “You have to come around to help all the rooms remember you. The dog, too.” Traffic is at a crawl. We have to wait through three turn signals to get to our street. I grip the wheel and babble on, cluttering the car with my major-key noise. “Our family isn’t complete unless you’re there.” Bug puts up a half-hearted argument and then falls quiet.
I weave around to discussing his new daily book – one after dinner but before bath and bed. His teacher wants him to practice reading aloud then and re-telling books on his level.
“So I get four books every night?” he says.
“Yep. You’re one lucky kid.”
In our complex, I pull into our spot and collect the backpack, phone, and keys. I open my door and start to get out but Bug is still in his booster. He doesn’t move to open the door. I turn and see him gazing off and slightly down. He is fiddling with the buckle of the seat belt and chewing on its edge. The clock is ticking past dinnertime. A surge of impatience crests. I order my shoulders lower then settle into the pause, letting my boy have this long minute to be exactly where he is. I reach back and stroke his leg. The sweatpants are fleecy. Cozy.
“What’s going on, Bud? Are you feeling something right now?”
He shrugs. “I’m homesick,” he says.
This is a new one. “Homesick. Boy, I know how that feels. Do you want to have a little cuddle and a book on the couch when we get in?”
“Okay.” He lets go of the buckle and collects his lunch box.
Outside, black night already, a fingernail moon. Bug stops in his tracks. “I can see the rest of it. The round part.” I glance up. The shadow of the moon’s full belly is hidden under a purple shroud. The shape is clear but only if you look a little bit away.
Bug is already up the stairs with my keys in hand. After banging open the door, he clomps right past the dog and into his room, kicking his shoes off in the corner. I give the pooch her momentary fix of head-scrubs and ear-flaps before joining Bug. He is on the floor with a Tupperware of little rubber bands. Three elastics are looped over his fingers.
“Do you want to do this instead of reading?”
“Yeah. See? This is how you do this new way.”
I sit down and pick up three of the bands. “Is this the fishtail you told me about?”
“Uh-huh. And you use your fingers like this. The bottom one goes – see – over the top.” He shows me and then watches me once through to make sure I do it right. Pink, blue, purple, pink, blue purple. Dinner is still just an idea. The clock pants and strains at her leash. I open my grip and let her run.
Bug and I sit together in the low light right in the doorway. We are half-speaking, half-turned away from each other. I-66 rumbles in a nearby distance. We each come to a decent wrist-length of woven elastic. We help each other stretch the bands wide to loop the finishing hook around to the other end then slip on our matching bracelets. When I get up, he follows me like a shadow. I am unaccustomed to his need for nearness. “Help me choose something to bake,” I say. He sits with me as I scroll through internet for a cake-mix-halloween-candy recipe I can use for tomorrow’s office baby shower. He hugs my leg like he did as a toddler then stays right at the bar to plays legos. Dessert goes in the oven and broccoli comes out of the microwave.
After dinner, we fall onto the couch with books. He reads Henry Builds a Cabin and re-tells how the bear (who he only half realizes is Henry David Thoreau) sits in the sunshine outside his new walls, calling the clearing his library. Bedtime has already come and gone. I restrain the urge to rush Bug through tough words. “Staircase.” “Shingles.” He leans into me as he finishes. “Then it starts to rain and he wears his house.” He smiles and looks up at me before a cloud crosses his face. “I still feel homesick.”
“I think it’s pretty neat that you are inside your home and you feel homesick at the same time. You have two homes that are yours. You can love them both and miss them both sometimes.”
He slips his arm through mine. “Still.”
The breath of my ever-growing task list is hot on my neck. Dishes in the sink. Dog needs walking. Lunches need packing. I force a pause. “What helps when you feel homesick?” I ask.
“Reading books in your bed. Extra cuddles. And staying with you all night long.”
I laugh. “Oh, baby. I don’t know about that. Neither of us will ever sleep.” I get up. “Listen. Let’s get your clothes changed and I’ll wash up.” He disappears into the back and then comes sashaying back into view.
“Mommy, you forgot dessert!”
I toss the sponge on top of the pile of dishes. The last of my restraint goes with it. “You know, it would be much more useful if you said, ‘Mommy, what can I do to help,’ instead of just telling me what I forgot.” He stops in his tracks and his face collapses in. I can’t unsay the words. The closed, angry boy I know so well appears before me just like he’s been here all along. He plods over to his stool and disappears inside his legos.
My tone is the too-familiar grit texturing our compressed days. The rough edge of my stress and clock-watching abrades my boy little by little, snap by snap. It becomes a day then a week then it just is. It is us, it is who we are together. I scour my boy flat and square-edged. I cannot press my fingers in to get a hold, to reach him. My attempts slip off.
How much of my son’s chilliness is protection from mine?
I shut off the water and watch Bug at his legos. Homesick. Herein the place I worked so hard to secure, the place with a room of my own and one for my son, I carry my own version of the affliction. It is a faraway sort of sensation cleaving low into you. You can hear echoes across a divide whose depth you can’t quite grasp and whose other rim you can almost-but-not-quite touch. Over in that before, all the hopes and plans and comforts live on. There, nothing has been tested. Nothing has been upended and the crew hasn’t come to break down the set and expose it for the plywood and clever lighting it was all along.
I can barely wrap my hands around the space where this ache resides. How can I possibly expect a seven-year-old vocabulary to capture it?
Maybe for all his usual stubbornness, for his fire and ice, this boy is not so tough. Maybe he needs me to be his safe place more often than not. My son took a risk by sharing his homesickness with me. Can I be the grownup here? Can I let him be small?
I leave the dishes, rehearse my new lines silently, and bend to him. “Listen, Buddy,” I kiss him on his head. “I’m sorry I snapped just now. That wasn’t fair. Why don’t we try again. You ask for dessert with a ‘please,’ and I’ll respond in a different way.”
We practice. We share double helpings of cavity-inducing, yellow-cake-Milky-Way treats. We sit close. After brushing teeth, I let him choose the books and climb into my bed for reading and songs. He falls asleep halfway through Baby Beluga, and I stay there until he is deep down. The cool blade of the sickle moon slips in between the blinds. I slide my arms under my boy like he’s a newborn and carry him to his bed. There, we curl around each other, breathing each other’s breath, drifting in our own in-betweens, alone together.

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. . .”

Growing Up, Reading

Muscle Memory

Memory believes before knowing remembers.

– William Faulkner, Light in August

I could not finish the books. I couldn’t even really start them. Characters swam on the pages, darting away from coherence. Like minnows that scatter every time you step closer, the letters exploded away from any hint of meaning and reappeared further out and in a different configuration entirely.
It may have been the separation. My sister starting college. The hormones, the boys, the upending surges of adolescent depression. It could have been a misalignment in the stars or a bad batch of ink. In any event, Hemingway and Faulkner were not even nibbling on my line.
It was high school lit class and my mind could not penetrate the two assigned books for the second semester: The Sound and the Fury and The Sun Also Rises. Ambitious? Sure. But this was Montgomery County, Maryland where students were held to certain standards. If the professions of our 20-year reunion attendees were any indication, high expectations generally yielded the intended results.
By spring of our junior year, we had long since netted and dissected Baldwin, Bronte, and Shakespeare, so hooking these two should have been no great trial. Still, I could not make sense of them. Their language was barely identifiable as English. It was like trying to face Beowulf without Seamus Heaney in tow.
At sixteen, I was a poet already as well as a lifelong reader and writer. My amateur children’s stories were full-spectrum fantasies and my diaries oozing with odes to leaves and sky. Abandoning my bicycle at the break in the trees at the park, I’d walk alone into the woods with my ratty backpack flopping against my hips. As I crouched at the edge of the creek, the world would grow huge in its tiny pause. Whatever stained, curled journal I was filling at the time would open its pages to the sound of the gold-tipped ripple in the current. Sometimes a character would move from dormancy to gestation and maybe even to life. Like Wednesday, the girl who played a string of chimes made of spoons and had to find her way down from her mountaintop when her parents disappeared, leaving behind neither clue nor explanation.
When my hand was stiff from writing, I’d settle down there on the soft thigh of the water, open a battered copy of Sandburg or Gibran, and make my own self disappear.
It was misery not to be able to read those two books for class. Trigonometry and its indicipherable alphabet of tangents and arcs was bad but predictably so. Even having to re-take advanced algebra in summer school was tolerable compared to this strange illiteracy. Not to be able to read in my native tongue meant something worse than a few flitting minnows. I felt myself swimming towards them in steadily deepening water with lead weights strapped to my ankles. The further I plowed, the deeper I sank.
It was the season of sinking.
That spring, I left school for a few weeks. “Dropping out,” I called it, which it wasn’t. My world did not allow for disappearing. I was too suburban. Too amply resourced. Too loved. Absent parents reappaeared and began the frantic work scheduling appointments with teachers and school counselors. A nice child psychologist sat with me weekly in a cozy office as I stumbled around, dodging questions I didn’t know how to answer. The bewildering bureaucracy of the school figured out how to let me leave behind the toughest courses and only stay in the two I could manage — Latin and Social Studies — while still passing the whole of the year.
Then, my parents reconciled. We moved to Vermont. I cut loose my two millstones and swam for air. I never finished Trigonometry or William Faulkner.

“Oh, Jake,” Brett said, “we could have had such a damned good time together.”
Ahead was a mounted policeman in khaki directing traffic. He raised his baton. The car slowed suddenly pressing Brett against me.
“Yes,” I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”
– Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

Now, Hemingway is another story entirely. It only took me about a decade to nurse that wound and then get the hell over it. Anyone who hasn’t read Old Man and the Sea by about 25 shouldn’t be considered literate. In my case, two visits to Key West to visit that bougainvillea-draped villa and those six-toed cats made the man more a man and less a monolith. I’ve skipped on through For Whom the Bell Tolls and A Farewell to Arms, and it was almost a non-event when the car slowed and I felt Brett pressing into me.
As for Faulkner? Like one of those word-tangling, wave-making madmen upon whom I tended to glom my attention, he blew my mind before I saw it coming. He left me to flail at the riverbottom and then he swam off with the rope. I suppose I actually left him, but the net effect was the same. I couldn’t face his language without remembering the feel of both the ascent and the fall.
For two dozen years, his words have not been able to penetrate my protective resistance. Twice I’ve tried to let him back in. Something seized up in me both times. It was as if those full-grown fish were just an illusion, a school forming the shape of some coherent and sensible being. Each time, even as I’ve hooked and subdued Thackery and Austen and Whitman and Rushdie, Faulkner’s words split apart from their meaning at the exact moment I inched close enough to touch them. They scattered and left me blinking and grasping and kicking for the surface.

Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders.

Then I move into this new home. It is the first I’ve ever owned, the first I’ve ever understood I could claim. I bring in the few boxes of books that survived the purge brought on by the final contraction. In one is a yellowed copy of Light in August. It takes it place in familiar if diminished company against a new wall. A few weeks in, after the pictures are hung and the dishes stacked away, I have a quiet nothing night. It is August. The days are still long. Boredom, another long-forgotten friend, scratches at the door.
Faulkner couldn’t care less if I choose him or Ursuala LeGuin to the right, Edward Abbey to the left. The traffic swooshes along I-66 outside my window. The dog sighs in her curl by the door. The fan hums. A story lives and not, like Schrodinger’s cat, inside the pages.

And memory knows this; twenty years later, memory is still to believe On this day I became a man.

I walk to the edge and step in. The water is warmer than I remember. The bottom, not so far down. Fish swim in smooth, fat arcs just below the surface. They are the color of tar and rust. Streaks of dusk flash against them. One slips against my ankle and lets me bend low to feel with eyes and skin the shape of its pulse. It pushes folds of water up and up my calf, my shin, my thigh, its alien muscle calls me in.
Night comes eventually. I swim out to him. He still does not bother with the rope. I don’t bother reaching for it. The low light is plenty. My arms, enough.

Mindfulness, Parenting

Bug Bites: Zen and the Angry Child

You mustn’t suppose
I never mingle in the world
Of humankind —
It’s simply that I prefer
To enjoy myself alone.
– Ryokan

Into the morning blue he wakes as dark-eyed as when he greeted night. He hurls himself at me, his hair like snapdragon stalks unpruned along the fence of his fury.
“Idiot,” he grumbles. I am at a loss. First I tell him if he’s old enough to use that word, then he’s old enough to make his own breakfast. Then I change course. Thorns will not be the texture of our day. I slide from the bed and crawl across the carpet to my splayed and scowling son. Right up close, I say, “I love you, baby, and you love me. I always know it.” I wrap my arms around him and tickle his sides. As he wrenches himself away, he bites back the smile I catch peeking. “Even if you don’t feel it right this minute, I know you love me.”
“No I DON’T.” Cold simmer cuts up from under the blonde cloak shadowing his gaze.
When he was two, he declared himself a girl. Rainbows on his underwear. Sequins in his hair. His third and fourth birthdays were pink crowns and princess cake. In his fifth year, he shed the tutu and snapped on a fist. He has not unclenched it since, except in moments belly-flat on the floor or twined sticky into me. Moments when he forgets.
While the oatmeal simmers under its skin of sugared cinnamon, he arranges a dinosaur jungle on the floor. The T-Rex pounds at the lesser beasts. A barrage of high-impact explosions upends all the palm trees leaving half a dozen herbivores strewn across the killing field.
I watch him wander into the tangled garden of his imagination and take corners I can’t see. I tiptoe to the edge and consider joining him there. Does he need the company of others, of playmates, of me? My only child turns away and blazes a trail alone among his hedgerows. Is it labyrinth or maze? He is not reluctant to find his own way in. I wonder what, if anything, compels him to follow the thread back out again.
Bug's Drawing of a Flower and a Watering Can
Returning home at the end of day, we trip our way to bed after fighting over dishes, teeth, bath. It is time to surrender to routine. Both of us need to waltz our way back to a rocking gait that smooths the friction at the edges where we meet. Three books. Three songs. Every night for six years.
He has a fairy blanket on the bed. It is the last vestige. He keeps it close even in the August swelter. With Tinkerbell bunched at our feet, we read Zen Shorts for the 400th time.
“Mommy, why is this book called that?”
“Well, the three stories Stillwater tells all come from Zen. And they’re all short.”
“What’s Zen?”
Oh geez. 
I guess it’s a way of living. It’s very old. Thousands of years, maybe? It has to do with making quiet places inside your mind and body.”
He twists away from me. Restless, ever moving. He is all proboscis and fire ant. A cement mixer. A quicksand man. I have had to learn to test my footing before every step. “You know how we talk about breathing when you’re wound up? Or when I heat up? Zen is about getting still. Like Stillwater in the book. Then you can accept things without needing them to be different.”
Zen Cliff’s Notes. Am I close? He’s humming and tapping his fingers in a pattern along the wall. I touch the edge of his leg just enough to make contact but not enough to capture his attention and raise his inevitable ire. “Even when there’s craziness all around you, even if a robber comes into your house or people say mean things, you stay peaceful inside yourself.”
“Yeah, yeah. Okay, okay.”
“It’s not just for kids,” I tell him. “Here.” I get up and go find the book of Zen poems a friend gave me back when time to play with meditation was there for the taking. Or rather, when we chose to see abundance in a clock face rather than just its pinching glare.
I open to Ryokan.

Here are the ruins of the cottage where I once hid myself.

“Okay, whatever. That’s enough,” he tells me. The gold ribbon marking the page hides down in the spine. He pulls it away and trails it down over the back. “Now you’ve lost your place,” he tells me.
“Good,” I say. “I was hoping for that. Now I can start at the next place.” I leave the ribbon free and close the cover. The cottage is far behind me. I am alone on my unmarked path but also tangled at the root with a boy whose opening is his own to burn or tend.
“Are you mad?” His grin crouches in the dry weeds. His eyes cut a path to me. He is ready to pounce.
“No, baby. I’m nowhere close to mad. I’m happy to be here with you, exactly like this.” I set the poems on the floor and open my voice for the first song.

Home, Living in the Moment

This Home Here

In the back seat of the car, my son flips through the pages of Dolphin Tale. Bug fell in love with the story of Winter and her prosthetic tale when the movie premiered. His obsession has reached a fever pitch since I announced we’d be taking him to Clearwater, Florida the day after school ends.
“Do you know who lives there?” I asked.
He thought for a moment.
“Do you want a clue?”
A nod.
“It’s not a person but it is a living thing.”
His eyes widened, a light flashed inside his skin, and he fell over backward on the rug. Lying there with his arms spread wide and his whole face beaming, he cried, “The dolphin!”
Now, he follows the story. From the back, I hear him slowly piecing the words together. “Sawyer was worried that Winter might not make it back.” These are word bubbles popping along a graphic version of the story. And that is my son, reading to himself.
Did you catch that? My son. Reading. To himself.
When I ask what is happening in the book, he does not respond. In the rearview mirror, I watch his gaze dances over the page. He is bent to the work. His focus is absolute.

When I pick him up at Chicken School, Bug is playing Uno with his buddies. “Ready for basketball, kiddo? Or do you want to finish the game?”
He has two cards remaining in his hand and is inches away from victory. Nevertheless, he tosses them onto the discard pile and hops to his feet. “I’m done. Let’s go.” He gives his best friend a pat on the head and tells him he won by forfeit. Then he races out the door.
The red barn has two hoops bolted to the side at two heights. We slip-jog down the hill to the woods to schlep up a trio of lost balls. On the concrete, Bug squats and leaps, sinking one basket after another. Airborne and streaked with sweat, he stands as far back as he can and hurls the ball with all he’s got. Pow. It’s in. Again, again. He walks up close, darts to the side, heads to the edge. Every angle. Low basket, high basket, sometimes just bouncing the ball off the rust-red clapboards to see how close to the pitched roof he can get it.
He does not say “look at me.” He does not even ask me to play, though I do anyway, moving all around him. He barely registers my presence. He races after the ball, brings it back, mutters a sharp “Yes” to no one when he makes a perfect swish.

Once home, Bug says he want to walk the dog with me. I grab her leash and we run run run down the cul-de-sac to the green corridor between houses. Grandma is putting the finishing touches on dinner but we are sure to be late. We bound into the fern-shagged carpet of the woods. Dry leaves up to our shins, mud in the creek.
The dog takes off up the hill and Bug leaps down into the ravine. “Do what I do,” he says. And so I scoot under brambles almost my belly even though going over would be so much easier. One after the other, we scale the eroding creek-bed wall, slip on the exposed vine, cross the creek on the fallen tree, back again, then shimmy down the tumbling rocks. Bug ducks and darts and clambers ahead, whistling back the pooch and making sure I don’t cheat. “You can’t just go over, you have to step on it,” he tells me. I double back and do it right. He sees a frog and shrieks with delight.
Up ahead, the dog grabs a mouthful of something white. She skitters away but we chase her down back towards home. She eyes me warily as I pry the bone from her jaws.
“Can you see what it is?”
“A head,” Bug says.
“Huh. I can see why you think that. But look here. You see that hole going down through the middle? And the wings?” I turn and lift my shirt from behind, bending so he can see my spine.
“Oh! It’s a backbone!”
“A vertebra.” I touch one of mine. “They’d be in a string like this, all down the back. Probably a deer?” Below his blue t-shirt, I press my fingers into his ridged line. “It protects the spinal cord that carries all the messages from the brain to the rest of the body.”
The dog is panting and watching my every move. I return her prize and Bug picks up a walking staff twice his height. He uses it to fly between stumps. He calls it a broom. He chases down an invisible golden snitch.

I finish the last verse of “Big Rock Candy Mountain” as Bug finally puts down his legos and crawls over me into the bed. He props himself up against the turquoise fleece cushion and picks up his pen and clipboard. I sing my way through “Baby Beluga.” He has a calculator now. He puts 10 tiny tick marks into 15 small triangles, does a quick calculation and announces, “A hundred fifty people.” He pulls the page off, lets it fall, and starts on the next.
I wend my way through the deep blue sea and Bug make an arc in fine blue ink. A box. Tiny wheels, a platform (which he spells out carefully) and trucks along the edges. His feet press into my side, squirrel under my back, find their cave. His eyes do not leave the page. With the morning sun, another day’s begun, you’ll soon be waking. . .
The song comes to its dozy close. Bug does not register anything different in the world outside of his design. He continues to add tidy, miniscule circles around the edges of the machine. “How does it work?” I ask.
“What are those boxes for?”
A pause. He rubs his nose. “People.” That’s all I get. Pen back on the page. His gaze is steady, tracing the leading edge of the ink.
Immersed, he has no need for conversation. He belongs exactly there inside his unfolding creation. Nested with his mama in a bed that works just fine, he is free to cross into the sanctuary of his imagination. His expression is both zeroed in and a million miles away. He’s found the sweet spot. He’s in the flow.

As I watch my little boy inhabit that generative wrinkle between ticks of the clock, I see how we live there together but in complete singularity. I cross that same threshold when dance fills me to soaring, when paper covers rock and its ink hushes the world. I know the place because it is where I walk under stars when my skin slips free and all I ever was and will be is night.
Story. Sport. Journey. Art.
We erect these places by the simple act of returning to them again, again, and shoring them up with whatever we dig from our pockets. When we come up empty-handed, we bend and scoop up fistfuls of breath. Of soil. Of our own flesh. Pack them into the cracks. Fortify our belonging.
We sing them open and fix our mezuzah on the door. We map their coordinates upon our names.
Here am I. Here are you.
We dwell in this Here we’ve chosen.
This here.
This, our home.

Love, Poetry, Reading

Book Lovers

Each with his favored arm
made his foray
scorning confections and only sometimes opening a hand
dusted with the crushed stamen
of a hothouse orchid. Walt came bearing small sprouts
at least before his straight-up offer of crotch and vine
while against my throat, Edgar licked
glossed feather. I choked down Eliot’s ragged claws and talk
of Michelangelo, glancing against the vorpal snicker
Carroll carried unsheathed. The graze bared
blood beat and Baldwin fire going the way I dared not ache.
I had barely found my feet and certainly not my sense
when, whispering, Kazuo led me to a corner of the room
I’d never seen and there, Salman with a slow grin
esta-esta-estuttered open his voice in song.

Continue reading “Book Lovers”

Children, Family

Born at Sea

Bug schlepped a canvas bag weighed down with five books and a beach towel to school on Friday. This was on top of his normal overstuffed backpack. With a parade of literary events, his class had been celebrating Dr. Seuss’ birthday all week. The grand finale had the kids lounging around the classroom on their towels like a pod of beached bibliophiles. It was a Key West siesta under fluorescent lights. When I picked him up, he told me someone special had come to his class to read.
“Was it Horton?” I asked. “The Cat in the Hat?”
He rolled his eyes. “They’re pretend!”
“Oh, so it was Santa Claus, then.”
“No! Guess for real!”
“Let me see. Was it. . . your daddy?”
His face lit up. “Yep!”
Tee is one of the three Class Moms for Bug’s kindergarten room. He is a regular volunteer and he manages all the electronic communication to keep the rest of us absent kin in the loop. The twinge of envy I feel about his extensive involvement is eclipsed by relief. At least my kid has a parent who is a solid presence in the school. (Even typing this, I am quelling the urge to explain all the reasons why this is the way it is, and how I am doing my best given commutes and job demands, etc. etc. Maternal guilt is a bottomless pit).
“So,” I said, turning into the driveway. “What did Daddy read?”
“Scuppers,” Bug said with a grin.
“Sailor Dog!” I cut the engine and twisted around to face him. “Boy, we read the heck out that book when you were little. ‘Born at sea in the teeth of a gale, the sailor was a dog.’ That is your daddy’s most favorite book ever.”
Bug jutted his chin. “How do you know?” This is Bug’s latest gambit: haughty skepticism. I take it as a sign of charisma and burgeoning self-reliance. This helps me bite my tongue.
My better self won out and offered up a shiny smile. “A long, lo-o-ong time ago, back when your daddy and I were first dating, he did nice things to try to get my attention.” I stretched toward him over the console and whispered, “I’ll never understand why, but he kinda liked me.”
Bug’s wall of snottiness crumbled. He unsnapped his seat belt and ooched forward. “Yeah?”
“Yeah. And you know how sometimes, when big kids or grownups like each other and start getting romantic and silly, they bring flowers and chocolate, all that lovey-dovey stuff?”
Bug nodded. His eyes were wide.
“So, your daddy and I had only been seeing each other for a few weeks. This was long before you were born. It was before we were married, before we really knew each other at all. One day, a package came for me at work. It was all wrapped up in paper. It didn’t say who it was from. I took it back to my desk and tore it open. Do you know what was inside?”
Bug shook his head. “What?”
Bug took a second to absorb this. Then his face split open. “Scuppers?” He burst out laughing.
“Your daddy had sent me a picture book to show me he liked me.”
Bug rocked back with a whoop and collapsed into his booster seat. He laughed so hard he could barely catch his breath. “He sent you Scuppers? What?”
“Yep. I kept looking at it and turning it over. I couldn’t figure it out! He hadn’t even put a note in it. Some guys surprise you with a big bouquet of flowers. Not Tee. Nope. He sent me. . . ”
“Scuppers!” Bug snorted. “A kid’s book.”
I shrugged. “That’s when I knew your daddy was a giant goofball. And I also found out what his favorite book was.”
Bug shook his head and opened the car door. “I can’t believe Daddy. I just can’t believe he got you Scuppers.” He bounced out of the car and up the driveway. I grabbed the backpack and books he invariably forgets without a reminder from me. This time, I let him off the hook.
Bug knows his daddy loves him because Tee is there. Every time my kiddo turns, he finds his father all over again. Tee’s care is a physical presence. His love is relentless. (Long may it last)
Bug knows I love him because I lay with him every night and rub his back. Three books, three songs, without fail. We greet the dark together.
Bug knows that his daddy I once loved each other, too. I do not want him to forget. Our story is the prelude to our son’s. It was calm waters before it was storms and shipwrecks. It didn’t end the way storybooks are supposed to, but it was ours. It was love. All that remains of it is our son’s. There is treasure down there somewhere. It is his for the taking.

Brown, Margaret Wise. The Sailor Dog. Golden Books, 1953.

Children, Happy Days

Happy 100 Days: 20

I can’t remember the last time a bedtime book made me giggle so hard I could barely get through it. Bug kept asking, “What? What’s funny?” When I tried to explain, I just laughed some more. Then he was laughing and he didn’t even know why. We romped and rolled through a summertime back yard with no idea we would spill out under the moonlit Yes. When I reached the end, I caught my breath and felt my throat clutch. Sweetness alive! Marla Frazee knows how to tell a story. This little book is a winner.
Best Week small

A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever
, by Marla Frazee. Harcourt Books, 2008.

Sure, it’s been around since 2008 and you probably have already worn the cover thin from reading yours so many times. If you are like me and a little behind the curve on such things, then it’s time to track down a copy. Go share it with someone you want to make smile. There is a good chance that anyone who has ever had a grandma or grandpa will do exactly that.

Brain, Reading

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”