community, Relationships, spirit

Season of Light

Solstice Android Jones

My Unitarian Universalist congregation rang in seven new members at an exuberant ritual following our annual Joy Service last weekend. This gives us one more reason to celebrate in a season already packed with celebration. It also gives me a chance reflect on our congregation’s many members and friends, and the variety of ways we experience our faith journeys this time of year.

The days grow shorter still. All around, twinkling lights frame homes and shops, even our own glittering sanctuary. Yes, December radiates holiday cheer, but not all of us feel warmed by the light. Some of us may instead feel the chill of absent loved ones, uncertain finances, national political turmoil and minute-by-minute news of mounting global crises. The festive glow surrounding us can make things even gloomier as it illuminates the distance between ourselves and the holiday spirit. And because our hearts already feel two sizes too small, we may just keep these troubles to ourselves.

Continue reading “Season of Light”

Family, Home, Reading

We Call Home

My boy is sad today. He can’t, or won’t, tell me why. He lets me put my arm around him as we walk to the car. “What should we do tonight?” I ask. It is the middle of the week. He has given up (mostly) on asking to play games on his tablet.

“I don’t know.” He climbs into the back seat. We lurch along route 123, Taylor Swift matching the pulse of brake lights.

At home, he kicks off his shoes and heads to the couch. He bunches the blue blanket up around his legs. “Do we have any books in this house?” he asks.

This house? Framed in spines, insulated in ink? He must be blind to the floor under his feet. I carry a stack from his room. He opens Toot and Puddle and pulls the blanket up over his lap.

It’s cold enough for a fire. The wood I bought is piled halfway up the wall. The family who split and sold it called it seasoned. The pop and spit of our first fire suggested otherwise. It doesn’t matter. I build a tipi of logs, tucking into its folds a handful of sticks collected from walks around the neighborhood. We have no forest here. Shrubs and maples dot the path that crosses the park and weaves around the AT&T complex. After gusty nights, I gather kindling, cracking limbs across my knee. Cars hum past on their way to the interstate, mothers push their babies in swings. Like a latter-day homesteader, I wobble through the warren of townhouses and condos, bending low to add another purple-gray branch to the bundle spilling from my arms.

Damper open, wind hums down through the cold throat of the flue. I roll up leaves of the Sunday sports section to help things along. With a crackle and low groan, the pulped, broken trees burn back to life.

I should start dinner. From the couch across the room, clunk, flip, flip, clunk. Bug skims then discards. After a few moments, silence. With the iron poker, I press a knot of classifieds under the grate. The ends of the branches flame to orange, blacken, curl. Log grains catch.

These things we call fallen, they burn.

I feel him next to me. I pad to my room and drag the turquoise fleece cushion from my bed out to the warm floor. Our Christmas tree, fatter than it has any right to be, twinkles purple, green, blue. I click on the tea kettle. Bug has carried over three books. A graphic novel, a Magic School Bus, a re-take on The Nutcracker. He leans against me.

“Hey buddy. Do you want me to read to you?”

“No, I just want to be close.” He sprawls on the cushion, face on my leg. Popping embers. Rising steam. The water is ready but I’m not. In the orange glow, he turns pages.

The heat works its way down to my sternum. Into my bones. This is what it is to unfurl. It is drinking light. We’re a year and a half in, and still, I marvel. We actually made it here, to this spot on this golden bamboo floor in our own home. Half a decade ago, I couldn’t even fathom what we’ve now mastered. My boy learned to ride a bike this year. He can already stand in the saddle, legs pumping to climb the big hill to Bob Evans. He can sink a shot from the foul line. Draw zombie comics. Approximate the square root of 11. Make breakfast burritos on the stove from scratch.

My boy can read. Beyond making sense from syntax, he can really read. On a Thursday evening in January – now or 2035 – he opens a book and finds tucked into its pages a nest made just for him.

Bug sighs and turns to look up at me. “Can we have extra reading tonight?”

“Of course, baby.” Stories fill our corners, swathe our sofa, clutter our coffee table, carpet our floor. Stories, ours, all of them. The ones we read.

The one we write.

These things we call buried, they thrive.
 

Family, Home

Make Room

pooch curled
One question concerns me: Was she was someone’s family pet before the smugglers took her? It’s likely. She climbs up onto any willing lap and folds her flanks into the knobs of her knees, tucking her nose under her tail. She burrows like a deer into this nest of her own bristle and bone. She stays, riding the chop even when the lap belongs to a shouting Pictionary player who is trying in vain to sketch a triceratops before the timer runs out.

My office is powered down for two full weeks. Bug is with his dad’s clan up north for half of winter break. This would have been a perfect time to go get a haircut. Assemble those shelves in the utility closet. Catch up with faraway friends. Sleep.

Our lives have no room for this. I can barely keep a philodendron alive. Nevertheless, Bug reminds me about the promise I made a few months after our pooch passed away last spring. “We can start thinking about it in September.”

In September, he asked, “When can we start talking about it?” I told him Thanksgiving.

At Thanksgiving, he asked, “When can we start looking?”

I don’t head into Petco’s December adoption event with the intention of adopting. I’m just checking things out, just starting a process that might take months. But there she is. She lays with her paws crossed and ears up, keeping a polite distance from the shrieking tumble of puppy-ness.

They tell me she is from Thailand. A rescue. Undoubtedly a dog of rough beginnings. Undoubtedly full of needs and fears and miswired circuitry that might make her a heap of trouble. The little boy from her foster family says she follows him around and curls up with him every time he sits down. He doesn’t seem to grasp what a nightmare she might be. He chatters on about what a cuddler she is, and how gentle, and what a good friend.

In the days after I submit an application (just an application, not a commitment), I learn more than I want to know. She slips free from her foster family and disappears into the sprawling suburbs. She is prone to flight. This is not surprising, given how she’s learned to survive. The illegal meat trade is a brutal teacher. In Thailand, smugglers lure both pets and strays off the streets and stuff them into crowded crates. They tear off to slaughterhouses in Vietnam or China to sell their wares.

Animal protection laws are lax at best. When merchants are caught, they may not even pay a fine. Rescued dogs land in safe but spartan shelters with hundreds if not thousands of other disoriented creatures. Inadequate funding and sparse veterinary care leave many of these dogs with grim futures. In Thailand, pet adoption is exceedingly rare.

A few organizations from around the world fly volunteers out to select one or two to ferry across the ocean to new homes.

She’s come this far only to make a break for it the first chance she gets. She has no idea that anything good — anyone good — is on the other side of trust. During the uncertain week when she is missing, they tell me she unlikely to make it back.

What they don’t know is that this little girl was born under a lucky star. Maybe a whole constellation.

With the help of professional trackers and an army of volunteers, someone finds her hiding in brambles on a side street in Chantilly. The vice president of the rescue organization decides to hold onto her for the time being. They call me up to tell me we can bring her home.

Home?

There’s no way we’re ready for this.

Of course, neither was that family in Thailand. More to the point, neither was she.

It isn’t possible to send them word. She has no records except the ones written in an unfamiliar alphabet and cobbled together before she boarded her flight. Even if we were certain she’d had a home, if we could find a town, a street, someone to ask, who would translate our inquiries?

Would a photo would be enough?

It is for Bug.

He loves her at one glance. “Look at those cute little eyes!” He fawns over her tiny snapshot on the smartphone.

Thaya

Two days later, they meet in person. She whips her tail so hard she can barely keep her back legs on the floor. She tries to scale him to get to him face to lick lick lick. He squeals and laughs, petting her all the way down her wiry back.

Despite it all, she trusts him. Trusts us.

Foolish girl.

At home, she finds a lap. It’s far too small for her. No matter. She burrows in.

An earthquake, a tidal wave, a belly laugh. She isn’t going anywhere.

She claims her place.

We have no room for her.

Anyway, she stays.

  • Soi Dog is a Thai animal welfare organization that aims to end pet cruelty and homelessness in Thailand.
  • This CNN photo blog takes a hard look at the dog meat trade.
Choices, Creativity, Divorce

Post Box

“You have to go the way your blood beats. If you don’t live the only life you have, you won’t live some other life, you won’t live any life at all.”

– James Baldwin

I’m not married to him now.
I remember these things.
He could weave string into bracelets. Yarn into pouches. He picked up discarded wrappers and curled them and knotted them and made them into chains.

When he asked me to marry him, he brought out the ring in a box he had made from paper tucked in on itself.

He is not my husband now. I remember these things.

The soil of my own life was restive in my hands. Its thrum vexed me. It was so pliable. So insistent. It offered no clues yet demanded everything of me. As if some larval creature moved through it, the contours kept changing. I would press my fingers in halfway but pull back, plugging the divot before it had a chance to drill open a corridor in me I was unprepared to claim. I could not – would not – choose a manner of shaping, let alone the shape itself.

My very own life in my very own hands. I was confounded.

Potter, sculptor, bricklayer, farmer. Technical skill is just the beginning, all hammers and season, chisels and heat. The other work is the inversion of craft. Abstruse. Intangible. Vision? Call? It is the sense of shape before shape. It is a moment of conception in stop-action. The mind must coil around the shimmer and foam and draw from-in-with it, frame by frame, a creation splitting into its own origin.

Here is art. Here is courage.

Skill marries imagination in a painstaking process. It requires coaxing that inner membrane out, out to reside within the material at hand. Slipping. Adjusting. Aptitude falling short. Hands seeking the next nuance, the next skill to call that thing into being. And the thing, the virtual life, when it meets tool and clay, shivers without permission into forms no one ever imagined. It slips into sync with the material world as much in spite of the artisan as because of her.

This was me, holding a pulsing handful of wing and seed and licorice root, warming the rank, luscious matter that cannot be created or destroyed but is always only changing form. This was me without any idea which of the six dozen flitting shapes in my mind it might take. This was me, seeking an instruction manual. A trail marker. A sorcerer for whom I could apprentice.

He offered me a tiny folded box. It fit in my palm.

I learned to knit while we were married. A bucket of bamboo needles. Yarn by the mile. A haberdashery of hats and scarves and ill-fitting slippers.
I squirmed on the sofa. I ignored the ache. I forced my gaze to zero in on the next stitch in the pattern.
This was me, making something with my hands.
At last. Something.
This was me, turning fairytale outside-in. Deaf to the clatter of limb against wall. Surrendering to threads biting fingers, ankles, throat. Hewing my own Gepetto out of fine-grained evasion and then feeding him my lines.

My son grew into the oversized hats then grew right out of them.

The man I married looped ribbon into lanyard. He did this, as all things, without haste.
I took up those strings. I practiced those boxes. I pulled and folded.
I pretended they were mine. I wanted them to be mine. His paper box fit in my hand. His cellophane chains fit my wrists.
My fingers ached. Below me, the fecund earth roiled. I stilled the urge to plunge.

In the winters, our house, whichever one in whichever time zone, was edged in white-gold lights. He laced every corner. He installed timers at the outlets. I walked through the dark mountain frost on those blue-black nights. Miles from any town, the only cloud brushing that carpet of stars was the one I alone breathed.
I followed the bend until our house appeared on the hill. My cloud found its kin. A fire there. Odd relief: the communion of breath with ash, the shared obscuring of depth.
A ribbon of smoke, a runway of light. A place to land. The home we made.
I imagined it was ours and that I was an equal part of the Us who created it.
Our marriage. Our son. Our Christmas. Our hearth.
A rectangle of lights framed the door. A square of lights outlined the window.
Strings of light made boxes of light made chains to grip in the direction of travel.
Always, the urge to plunge. Did I admit that it was almost as strong as the one that pulled me back? Almost. Not enough.
It could have been.
Down to the creek, the glassed stone, the trout slipping down low. A canopy of mist kissing the water’s quaking skin. Somewhere near, the bald eagle in its nest. A screech on the hillside. The towering stone, the natural bridge, the dirt road twisting down and away. Down from light. Away from the frame, the flame, that steady glow.

Almost.
My son in there. I went home. Always.
Until I couldn’t.

Now, I am making the Christmas that a good mom should. My son and I drape aquamarine garland from the doorframes. We follow lines scratched deep in the vinyl.

The sound is tinny. Grainy. There is dirt in the grooves. Weeds push up through the cracks. Seeds rupture. Their dogged tendrils erode the smooth edge.

Something unfurls in the air here. It is not pine. It is not mulling spices.
Carapace and decay. Bud and birth.

The Christmas I make is my penance.
Yet no one is demanding it. No one has handed me an invoice or called me before jury.
Peers don’t speak their judgments aloud. Not now. They have their own failings to answer for.
The man who was my husband is not holding a yardstick. He never was.
The box fit in my palm. The box fits all of him. Of course it does. It is his. It always was.

The man who is not my husband still has the Christmas stocking from his childhood and he takes it with him every year no matter where he ends up on December 24. He makes sure our son’s stocking is wherever our son will be on December 24. The stocking goes back and forth like a lunch box.
Like our son.

The tree twinkles. Gifts are piled in heaps that brush the low boughs. Cards wend their way around the globe.
The season squeezes. The strings pinch but no one is here to pull them. No one but me.
I find a spade. The dulled blade is still sharp enough to split threads. To crack floorboards. To pierce ice and soil and root.

In these moments when my son is with his father, I marinate in disquiet. I look around the home we are making and see the places where we spill from the corners. The dining room table is a hard-hat zone of paint and pennies and half-written poems in calligraphy ink. The empty floor of the living room yawns wide and pulls me to dance under low lights. I write. I pace. I wander out into the night with the dog and turn my bare face to winter sky.

Christmas is changing shape. Everything is.

The material comprising the ground under my own feet still puzzles me. Frightens me. Yet this terrain I inhabit, both alone and with my son, is all I’ve got.

This is me closing my eyes and seeking the shape preceding shape. I follow its source. I feel its beat and match my pulse to that throb.

I bend. I reach.

This is me.
Plunging.
 

Children, Giving

Present Moment

Last night, my Mister and I talked across our nightly distance. We told each other stories of gifts. What had we received that had really knocked our socks off? What were we proud to have given? Both of us had to reach far back for the most shivery memories. A brother’s model aircraft carrier. A first double-cassette stereo materializing in the bedroom on Christmas morning. Continue reading “Present Moment”

Change, Happy Days, Love

Happy 100 Days: 4

It takes me six days to work my way up to looking at the gift. On the DVD, he has hand-written “Merry Christmas,” and “Love.” I know it is photos. I can’t bring myself to take it to Texas, so it is waiting for me under the tree when I return.
 
“Have you watched it yet?” He asks.
 
We are not supposed to be talking. After dozens of half-hearted attempts, we said a final goodbye before Christmas. Still, it is never easy to walk away when there no one has inflicted harm. The reasons are real yet vague. On even days, we understand it cannot work. On odd days, we are each the solace and the best friend.
 
“So, have you?”
 
“No, I have not found time.” Which is not true. I have willfully forgotten the presence of the gift under the tree. Even when I sit right there in the living room, I cannot see it.
 
Against our better judgment, he comes to the house. He carries a sack of take-out kabobs and an uncertain smile. He sets the table and I fill the water glasses. We eat buttery rice and talk all the way around topics we have agreed to ban from this intercut. Instead, we make a show of getting re-acquainted. It feels like a first date (or the first after a long drought).
 
We make a show of discussing everything non-us. We chat. It is very civilized. This is how we break the chokehold of unanswerable questions. This is how learn the true scope of the narrative.
 
This is how we write it.
 
After we finish dinner, he helps me make the hummus and marble cake for tomorrow’s party. He forgoes the electric beater and asks for a whisk. The butter and sugar whip to a froth and he adds the eggs one by one. Vanilla. Sour milk. In the top of a double boiler, chocolate melts. I let him taste from the spatula. We both lick the spoons.
 
I make two small cupcakes so we can have something sweet for ourselves.
 
Then, he takes me to the living room and turns the lights low. The Christmas tree is still bright. “Enough stalling. We’re watching this tonight,” he says.
 
“Okay.” I plop down on the couch. He gets the DVD player up and running. And then, there it is. “This is our past,” the screen tells me. The Grateful Dead kicks in and the familiar pitch of Jerry’s voice sings the opening strains of “Scarlet Begonias.”
 
As I was walking ’round Grosvenor square. . .
 
Then the photos roll. I recognize the first few and then I see some I do not remember him taking. Our first walks. That first morning he dropped me at work. The first time I met his family when we went to sing karaoke on his cousin’s birthday at a bar west of town. Him there, goofing and laughing. Me there, flirting and singing.
 
I knew right away she was not like other girls.
 
Me, making an acorn mosaic on a rock in Shenandoah. Us, raising our glasses with our friends at a winery. Bug as Harry Potter at Halloween when he was still so little, his hair dyed brown and those big glasses sliding down his nose. Drinks at the bar of that awful, crowded Thai restaurant where the meal took two hours to arrive and we were so hungry, we ate the soggy maraschino cherries out of our mai tais for sustenance. Bug playing legos on the blanket Giovanni hammered into the ground for him at our campground. Family parties, guitars, line dancing. My birthday balloons. His birthday hike. Me balanced on the side of a fountain. Him balanced on the top of a mountain. Us standing in the blustery night, bright-cheeked before the National Christmas Tree.
 
I had one of those flashes I’d been there before, been there before.
 
The music changes. The photos spool on.
 
We are a couple. I understand this now. He is more than some in-between fling. This is not “dating after divorce.” He is real, as he has been telling me for over a year. We are something substantial. Whether we leave it or keep at it, we are far more than just an idea. We are two people with a shared history. The pictures capture so much of it. Some are melancholy. Some of the images precede or coincide with white-hot arguments we both recall. Much of our past, though, is just plain old happy.
 
As for the rest? I don’t know. The DVD ends with a video he captured one night when we were in his house eating cookies he had just made. We are talking sweet, melty cookie talk to the camera. I am chattering on without realizing he is taking video. Near the end when I realize it is being recorded, I burst out laughing.
 
The image fades to this: “Our future is unwritten. . .”
 
We have nearly a year and a half behind us now. We have said goodbye, yet here he is, holding my hand on the living room couch in the glow of the tree.
 
He says, “I have never fought this hard for a woman before.”
 
I say, “I hope I’m worth it.”
 
He chuckles. “Yeah. Me, too.”
 
He leaves for the night but we do not say goodbye. We are not disposable. Something different than what I intended has happened here.
 
I have no idea who this Us is. We are just meeting now for the first time.
 
Once in a while you get shown the light
In the strangest of places if you look at it right.