Friends, Home

Choosing Teams

We need others to bring us back into the comity of human life. This appears to have been the final lesson for me — to appreciate someone’s embrace not as forgiveness or as an amicable judgment but as an acknowledgement that, from time to time, private life becomes brutally hard for every one of us, and that without one another, without some sort of community, the nightmare is prone to lurk, waiting for an opening.

Barry Lopez, “Sliver of Sky” in Harpers Magazine, January 2013

Bug has his seatbelt off before I’ve even pulled up to the curb. He reaches for the door handle. “My team! My team is here!” he cries. Up the low hill at the park, the big kids play basketball in the deepening dusk. Bug jumps out of the car, clambers over the fence, and starts across the grass. But it is not the court he is after. He veers right and aims for a tree with low branches at the corner the blacktop.
 
A small gang of boys swarms around tangled limb and leaf. Bug makes a beeline for this flush-cheeked hive of activity. I follow my son and once I am closer, familiar faces resolve into view. Our upstairs neighbor. The bully from the pool. The shaggy-haired big kid from the townhouses who watches out for the little guys. Half of them hold sticks. One is directing some kind of game. Several dangle from the higher branches.
 
I get Bug’s attention, or some fraction of it, and tell him I’ll be sitting over at the playground. He nods, his head already turned away from me. The group swells to absorb him before sucking itself back into the shadows like some kind of amoeba. A moment later, my boy is nothing more than a white-blonde streak at the center of a stick-brandishing, howling horde galloping across the grass.
 
I chat with parents whose names I’ve just learned and whose history with each other takes up far more room on the bench than I do. Too soon, the last of the light recedes carrying reluctant children off with it. It is dark a little earlier each visit. Soon, we won’t have time to come after school and we’ll have to make do with each other.
 
My kiddo and I are the last ones. We find a place to sit together. A bat dips low. Bug leans his head back against the bench and laughs when another one flutter-bumps against the sky.
 
The next night, he is not with me. This is the way. Half the nights, half the weekends. It is a whole life scored right down the middle. Not quite torn in half, but thin enough at the seams that you can see through to something far worse.
 
It’s risky to pull too hard.
 
When my son is with his dad, this new home, this first-place-of-my-own home, is warm and full with the kind of space that invites me to open into it. A crowd of authors chatters at me from the shelves. The music whispers my bones awake.
 
When my son is with his dad, this place is as empty as an abandoned grave. Silence is a hungry throat closing around me.
 
When my son is with his dad, I am me with me with me.
 
Except for the dog. Ain’t no getting around the dog.
 
When I drag in from work, she and I walk. These days, we don’t speak much to each other. We have a way of finishing each other’s thoughts. We meander over to the shortcut that passes through the park. When Bug is not with me, it is only a path I am after. My head has gone off on its own magic carpet ride. I float along the sidewalk in a bubble of dog-padded solitude.
 
It’s only when I am halfway through the playground that I see someone waving. A face I recognize. One of the moms from the townhouses. Then one of the other moms whose kid is in Bug’s class. And a dad, too, whose son is Bug’s favorite and most disastrous friend.
 
I lift my head. My hand. My attention. The dog’s tail wags bigger. As we cut through the woods, I lean down and give her a head scrub.
 
My team! My team is here!
 

Art, Home

Tack in Place

He asked, “What’s your style?”

Style. . . ?

“Decorating. Design. What do you like?”

“Um.” Catalog pages, gallery spaces, antique shops. It all fluttered and slipped around in my uncertain brain. Is Pottery Barn a style? If it is, it’s not mine. Bauhuas? Gothic? I don’t even have vocabulary for these things.

“Well, I have these friends. . .”

These friends. An couple of artist-writer-dancers, old as the hills. They live in a shambling D.C. house crammed with faded velvet chairs, books to the ceilings, creeping plants and instruments enough for a chamber orchestra. On the windowsills, dusty bottles jostle for light with the wire and stone treasures from Egypt and India. The thrum and jumble cascade out to the stone limits of the property. The back yard is a fairy garden. Tea lights and whirligigs, mismatched wrought iron chairs and labyrinthine shrubbery housing whole communities of pixies.

I tried to explain to him that this is what I envision for a home. I can’t quite wrap my mind around it, though, let alone my words. It seems so cluttered and non-functional, and anyway, how does a person decorate “bohemian”? You can’t find it on Amazon.com. It takes living along a certain edge, seeking-making-stumbling upon bits and bobs among the X-marked meanderings into the neverlands where treasure like that begins.

Who has time? Space? This is a condo, for Pete’s sake. Between the spider plants and the Japanese fishing buoys, where would a gal store her financial records? And let’s face it. There will be no trips to Morocco for a samovar and silk curtains anytime soon.

My style? Dorm-room cast-off on a Goodwill budget.

Five weeks in the place and clueless as to how to proceed, I attend to the basics. The scarred molding is out. With the help of a borrowed miter saw and a day off work, I’ve just about finished hammering in the new strips. Hooks are hung near every door. Kitchen is sorted. Bookcases and desk are all up in Bug’s room. Bathroom shelves hold the guest towels.

Progress is measurable but the yardstick is chilly to the touch. Form exists for function alone. It’s as if this home and I are on an extended first date. The interaction is all halted conversation and nervous tics.

Moving through the house like it’s a museum rather than canvas, I place each item an inch from the wall. I anchor nothing. The single photograph displayed — a shot of the Colorado sand dunes taken by a friend and hand-framed in rough wood — sits balanced on the mantle in a sort of half-squat. The bedroom walls beg for splash but every color seems wrong. The thought of choosing curtains paralyzes me so the hideous black ones left by the previous owner still scar my bedroom. Everywhere I look, bare space blinks back at me.

So? What’s your style?

Today, Bug and I made the trek over to Maryland to visit an old friend who has just landed here. Divorce and custody battles forced him into an 11th hour move over 500 miles to a place where he had no connections, no work, no place to live. All of this so he could be near his kids. He found the only decent apartment he could afford in their school district, signed the lease and unloaded his U-Haul. He’s been here a week.

I stepped into his place and fell open.

It was home.

Floor-to-ceiling kids’ paintings. Lush and spindly greenery spilling from every corner. Books and jumbled art and gorgeously scarred furniture. Wood and toys and color. Mason jars for water glasses. Everywhere, texture.

What’s your style?

Everywhere, life.

The boys played at perfect pitch. In between refereeing lego skirmishes, my friend and I talked easily. I nestled into overstuffed couch and felt rocked from all sides as if by the sea. Orientation, at last. Breath cracked open the closed place in my chest and light caught a corner of the treasure down in there.

When my kiddo and I landed back at home, I plopped him in the tub and started poking around. All of our art supplies and Bug’s drawings are still back at my folks’ house, but we had to have something. Where to begin? I pulled a wobbly shelf back into the living room. Playing around with angles, I gave it a home and unpacked books of poetry. I raised lights. I tucked away cable cords. After stories and songs, Bug conked out and I found my second wind. Perhaps my first? An old calendar of bright family photographs was crammed into the bottom of a drawer. I dug it out and started cutting.

I have no frames or picture hooks. I have no gallery pieces. But I have scissors. Colored paper. Thumb tacks. Inspiration.

I have a style. It’s pushing back out from its deep, sunless sleep. Taking my hands. Tacking the boat. Placing the brand. Claiming the place.
 

Home, Living in the Moment

Leftovers

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

Determination, Home

Control Flow

After we shut off the water supply and unbolt the line, Bug scurries down the hall for towels.

“Which one?” he calls. “Where the laundry is?”

“No, across from the laundry. The little door. That’s going to be the linen closet.”

“Okay.” He comes back with all we posess, his arms spilling over with a rainbow of hand-me-down terrycloth. It’s a familiar routine on a new stage. So many rainstorms, so many sopping towels. My father would holler up from the basement for more as he tried to staunch another torrent from the window well. We’d run the mucky things through one dryer cycle after another as we hustled to stay one step ahead of the next cloudburst.

“Home ownership,” he’d grumble and shake his head at me, determined as I was to take up this albatross. “You’re about to find out what it’s really like.”  Continue reading “Control Flow”

Change, Co-Parenting, Home

Rough Cut

We stand at the edge of the playground. A throng of racing children and chattering parents presses us to chain link. He asks about the house and I give him the latest update. Good news, for once. When the celebratory chaos has melted away along with the popsicles, Bug and I will head back to my office to print and sign 44 pages of loan documents. The seller’s bank has approved an extension and my sketchy but efficient new loan officer is pushing for the end of the month. Tee listens and asks polite questions. Neither of us ever bought a home before and I am now tackling this with the help of a huge circle of friends and family which does not include him.

He says that he’s heard about the housing market around the place he is considering. Four-bedroom homes there are going for about what I am paying for this cramped condo. He has dreams of a fixer-upper and his father swooping into town in a van packed with a table saw and hydraulic nail gun to help turn the place into a masterpiece.

Continue reading “Rough Cut”

Co-Parenting

I Just Called to Say

Today, I call up Tee to thank him for our friendship.

“Last night, I learned all over again that if you look for what’s wrong, you find it,” I say. People defeated by chance are out there bashing their exes as we speak. I have done my share of this. Now it makes me cringe.

Tee and I have something more precious than I ever knew. Some of it is the luck of the draw, and I breathe a sigh of relief for the hand I hold. Some of it, though, is a choice we make every day.

Continue reading “I Just Called to Say”

Children, Family

Born at Sea

TheSailorDog
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?”
 
Scuppers.”
 
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.

Determination, Divorce

In the Stocks

For once, little stubs of green
numerals wink
hinting
they could buy me out
of this hunched perch.
It is just me here, me and my accounting
of the meager spoils I seized
when I fled. The penalty
for desertion could be far worse.
I tally the fortune
of this accident of birth.

Iced rain falls and
in town, surely
a band warms up.

The remaining stocks
sway like burnt timbers
against scouring wind but still
stand, their earnings enough
for one eighth of a used car
one hundredth of a used house
one year of heat and power

a one-way ticket
out of here.

The charred posts
have never flowered no matter how
much they drink.
Ah well. No need to fret.
I grow thinner by the day and
night is falling. Under me
the stunted sprouts are, yes,
still green. Chance being
so capricious (what a marvel that must be!)
I decide this will do. It is enough.
I stretch my shoulders. I arrange
my spine. I pad my wrists
with cash for spring
time.
 

Friends, Love

Wedded Blissing

Here’s to the happy marriage!
 
Your magic combination of hard work and dumb luck does more than give the rest of us hope. It also offers your friends, kids, and friends’ kids a model of healthy partnership. God knows, we need more of those.
 
The glow you tend through your ways of being together is an inviting place. Thank you for letting us warm our hands there before we set out on the next leg of the journey.
 

Brain, Growing Up

Rapprochement

How far away can I go and still be connected?
What can I — and do I — want to do for myself?
And exactly how much of me am I willing to give up for love or simply for shelter?

At several points in our lives, we may insist: I’ll do it myself. I’ll live by myself. I’ll solve it myself. I’ll make my own decisions. And having made that decision, we then may find ourselves scared to death of standing alone.

– Judit Viorst, Necessary Losses

Sometimes, we don’t even know this old push-pull is operating until our minds yank us into position and force us to see.
 
Or, in my case, the body does the yanking. At the start of the new year, it all comes rushing, this longed-for independence. No men are waiting in the wings. The ex has moved on to a new girlfriend. The condo is galloping towards me. What happens? I fall.
 
And fall again.
 
And end up in urgent care.
 
In a cast. On meds. Then in a splint. Unable to work for days on end.
 
Then wrench my back. And suffer mightily.
 
And retreat to the safe but suffocating confines of my family’s care.
 
Some part of me refuses to step forward into the open mouth of adulthood. A long-ago self insists that this is too much. It wobbles. I slip. My center of gravity tilts. I stumble. I need. I reach backwards and downwards for the kind of help that children demand.
 
Fear is a clever thing. I does an end-run around rationality. It kicks the legs out from under the boldest stance.
 
And so, I convalesce. I gather strength. Someday soon — Next week? Next month? — I will be able to come to a sitting position on the side of my bed without grasping for a handhold, without gasping for breath. And then I will make my way down the stairs. Out the door. Into the wide open day.
 
I just have to keep acting against the illusion of falling, the trickery of my fright. Alone is never alone, not really. All around, these kindnesses. These people. These approaches moving in the opposite direction of rapprochement. This mind more powerful than fear.
 
These ways forward I have not yet found. These secrets, waiting to reveal themselves.
 

Viorst, Judith. Necessary Losses: The Loves, Illusions, Dependencies, and Impossible Expectations That All of Us Have to Give Up in Order to Grow. Fireside, New York: 1986