Brain, community, Writing

All The Better to See You With

lip and eye

It starts here.

9pm, heading home from pub trivia at a busy spot near my office. Down on the metro platform, the orange line train pulls in. Only six stops to my station. I’ll be walking the dog by 9:30.

The doors slide open onto a car bubbling with chatter. Summer in DC, the weekend lasts all week. Between nuzzling couples and clusters of young people, a few wilted office drones slouch and sleep. I take one of the few unoccupied seats. Bar hoppers stream out around me.

 

Manspreading.

He takes up a row. Briefcase on its side next to the window, legs splayed, foot halfway into the aisle. As I settle into a corner perpendicular across the car, he catches my eye. I ignore him, pull out my journal and start writing.

The sensation a prickle, a tiny persistent sting against scalp and skin.

He’s still looking.

Continue reading “All The Better to See You With”

Growing Up, Home

Plant Anyway

corn shucking.jpg

He  drops his backpack by the door and heads out. Whether the temperature hovers at freezing or rises to a swelter, he and his friends find each other. Sometimes I block the way and steer him back to his violin for a round of scales. The neighborhood kids bang on the door every three minutes, “Is he done yet?” They loop around the breezeway on bikes and scooters. A few come up barely past my knee. A few are already shaving. When he’s free, they all charge off down the hill, hollering ever-changing rules to an ever-evolving game that winds through this labyrinth of stairwells and parking lots.

I shut the door and head to the kitchen to rinse out the lunch containers.

Divorced at 37 and still single at 43, parenting a surly tween, stuck in the suburbs, jammed into a 5-story development abutting a freeway, and working a desk job for a paycheck that barely covers groceries while a white supremacist and a Russian oligarch run the White House.

Continue reading “Plant Anyway”

community, neighborhood

Our Shadows Live Here Too

dore dark forest

Someone is pooping in my neighborhood.  On the edge of the path that connects the playground to the AT&T parking lot, a pile of black feces swarms with silver-winged flies.  They are doing the important work.  All around the heap of waste are scattered thick restaurant napkins, crushed, stained with smears.  Someone squatted right here.  Right where our kiddos play.  Not in the brambles, not behind a tree, but right here.  When he (because I assume it’s a he, who else would be so bold?) finished, he left his tissue all over the ground.  The garbage can is 20 paces away, and there is another at each corner of the park.  Continue reading “Our Shadows Live Here Too”

Brain, Determination, Writing

Fear, Being Anticipatory, is Always Without Knowledge

It is the same path she’s always followed. It’s grown so familiar she can walk it in her sleep. Most days, she does.

Then one December day, slipping into the groove is more of a stumble. Cold seeps under her cuffs. With the sun so far, the chill has no escape, not up or out, so it stays. The fall turns her neck. Looking up now, she sees how deep the trench, how far the sky.

She remembers the open place up there. Unmapped, daunting, the choices had radiated out in all directions. Wearing this furrow into the uneven terrain had seemed the most reasonable way to proceed.

No doubt someone told her then that ambiguity’s promise eclipses certainty’s price. Only now can she grasp what was lost in the exchange.

With damp walls at her hands and back, she presses in. She begins the climb.

It’s a strange thing about the human mind that, despite its capacity and its abundant freedom, its default is to function in a repeating pattern. It watches the moon and the planets, the days and seasons, the cycle of life and death all going around in an endless loop, and unconsciously, believing itself to be nature, the mind echoes these cycles. Its thoughts go in loops, repeating patterns established so long ago we often can’t remember their origin, or why they ever made sense to us. And even when these loops fail over and over again to bring us to a desirable place, even while they entrap us, and make us feel anciently tired of ourselves, and we sense that sticking to their well-worn path means we’ll miss contact with the truth every single time, we still find it nearly impossible to resist them. We call these patterns of thought our “nature” and resign ourselves to being governed by them as if they are the result of a force outside of us, the way that the seas are governed — rather absurdly, when one thinks about it — by a distant and otherwise irrelevant moon.

And yet it is unquestionably within our power to break the loop; to “violate” what presents itself as our nature by choosing to think — and to see, and act — in a different way. It may require enormous effort and focus. And yet for the most part it isn’t laziness that stops us from breaking these loops, it’s fear. In a sense, one could say that fear is the otherwise irrelevant moon that we allow to govern the far larger nature of our minds.


 Novelist Nicole Krauss responding to Vincent van Gogh’s 1884 letter to his brother.

Mindfulness, Parenting, Things I Can

67. Things I Can Catch: Worries like Soap Bubbles

Soap Bubble

He squeezes his eyes against the suds and grabs for a dry cloth. His hair is long again, melting down his neck and licking at his shoulders. He glows like cherry wood. Cross-legged and bare as he is with his hair slicked back, he is small. Almost like a girl. Like a picture of me gleaming up from an old album.

He rubs his eyes and they redden. His lip trembles now. The soap was patsy. A more formidable foe flicks through the shallows.

“I don’t want to go to sleepaway camp,” he murmurs. And with that, his whole body collapses into sobs.

What ensues is a conversation, gentle questions, analogies about basketball, acknowledgment of feelings. Words, words and more words. I perch on my knees, a thin bathmat meager protection from the sturdiness of the tile. I lean in and let the easy expression settle across my features. A smile, beaming almost. A gaze, open as petals. I remember very little from The Art of Listening, but this stays with me: Approval, Delight, Respect. A hypnotist’s voice in a bedtime cadence carries the blood-deep lyrics of reassurance across the foam. Yes, and Yes.

He cries some more then talks. Pouting, furrowed, but he talks.

My hand inside the sage green cloth weaves between and under the words. I dip it into the water, stroke it along his shoulder. Dip it into the water, trace his ear. Dip it into the water, outline his cheek.

After he has dried off and brushed teeth, he climbs onto the bed and worms up under my shoulder. His sunburned cheeks are an electric pulse under the damp straw and silk. He giggles and crawls on top of me. Laughing now throaty and wild, his need gives way to a different sort of crying: “Cuddle, cuddle, cuddle!” He whoops and burrows into my ribs. He has grown to twice his size, unfolding like a sponge drunk in the surf.

 

Growing Up, Learning

The Things I Can

Follow the The Things I Can Adventure

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

I was at a Dead show the first time I heard it. 16 years old. A circle formed at the edge of the stadium’s corridor during the drums-and-space jam. Undeterred by the revved-up traffic and whirling skirts, that circle was a solid, swaying knot. All twenty or so human links weaved in and around each other. I heard the voices in unison and asked a woman dancing nearby what they were saying. “Serenity Prayer,” she said. She repeated it for me.

Was it an invocation? Some kind of magic spell? It must have been if it managed to help a bunch of folks in recovery navigate the rainbow pharmacopeia that trailed the band in its transcontinental wanderings. Somewhere along the way, I memorized that prayer without intending to. It is now such a part of my cultural vocabulary that it’s as firmly planted as the opening of the Gettysburg Address and the entirety of Frost’s “Two Roads Diverged.” In fact, it barely registers anymore.

How deep do these lines run? Do they stay safely entombed or do they erode? It has to be a matter of practice.

Sometimes, it’s a matter of the right trigger.  Continue reading “The Things I Can”

Growing Up

Driven Out

Just like all great stories, our fears focus our attention on a question that is as important in life as it is in literature: What will happen next? So if we think of our fears as more than just fears but as stories, we should think of ourselves as the authors of those stories. But just as importantly, we need to think of ourselves as the readers of our fears. And how we choose to read our fears can have a profound effect on our lives. – Karen Thompson Walker in her TED talk, “What Fear Can Teach Us”

I ought to be thy Adam; but I am rather the fallen angel. . . Frankenstein by Mary Shelly

The reader can’t put down the book. It’s well past midnight and her bloodshot eyes stagger across the lines. She turns another page. This is better than Stephen King, not even in his league, clipping along against a minor chord shuddering in the shadow of the action. Every door opens on a freefall into hell, each descent rank with its own unique boil and famine.

She does not look up. She is ready for anything without being the least bit prepared.

The crack across the ceiling spiderwebs without a sound while her pinhole focus contains only one character marooned on one desert island where melting icecaps have designs on the shore. Fingers, each alone as huge as her thigh, push through. A gaze presses close, taking in the whole of the room. Still she hasn’t noticed. Those fingers wedge wider an entry, those fingers give way to hands.

The pages of her fear are a shield. They fasten her yet again into the cockpit’s choking chemical burn, strap down her arms and freeze the throttle. The churning sea races to greet her. The certain but predictable disaster is comfort of a sort. If any of this came true — which it surely will, because something enough like it already has (how do you think this became her personalized Choose-Your-Own Adventure?) — what would happen if she closed the book? What if, halfway through her final descent, she yanked the cord, severed the word, and cast the whole thing onto the nightstand?

What if she looked up?

Giant eyes, each the size of her own skull, take the measure of the room. Of her shape. Her scars, her tics, her threadbare sheets.

Of her.

What if she looked right at (it) and watched the pulp of those hands jarring loose chunks of drywall, ripping back the illusion of structure? What if the impenetrable box containing her artless version of Dante’s fifth circle — forged, as it was, in infancy, no doubt — is penetrated after all?

She will not be able to unsee.

She’s already had her shot at that.

Those unbreathing, rolling, unmoored eyes are glass buttons made real by some inverted pinocchio magic. (He) is the golem she moulded from the debris of punishment and silence, the same one that slipped eventually down the side of the bed and fed on skin cells and broken sleep for three lifetimes.

Until now.

She never reached down to tend him but neither did she root him out. Such concentrated matter does not fade or decay, certainly not without its turn in the light.

He comes trailing the stink of hunger. And something else.

He crawls in beside her, filling the not-forgotten space between her and her dogeared book, spilling into corners. This is where he began. She watches him peel back a crusted mouth that is a funhouse image of her own. She has no choice but to let him show her what she stuffed down his throat when she was not ready to bear what she couldn’t name.
 

Choices

Wind like a Whetted Knife

I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied

from Sea Fever by John Masefield

In the dream, I lean over the bow. Something doesn’t fit. The water is too distant and the progress slow and I feel landlocked. Maybe the ship is smaller than my wandering feet. Maybe it’s bigger than anything I could possibly steer.

Or it isn’t wrong at all and I am just too impulsive for my own good.

In any event, I jump.

And then I am plunging into an upside-down and roiling sea. Momentum carries me further in than I had anticipated and deeper than is safe. Kicking hard up, up, my lungs try to wring the last bit of air from that last scanty breath. Light wobbles. With a surge, I break the surface just as the white plates of a looming hull flash past. This angle resolves all distortions from my upper deck perch. They don’t call them cruise ships for nothing. Keel slices water. Spume and churn.

Uh oh.

Did I think I could go out for a dip and then just mosey back on board? Did I bother to scan the horizon for some other fitting shore?

Did I figure I’d grow gills?

Is it too late for a do-over?

Hollering is useless. My voice bounces across waves and ricochets off the unblinking steel scales. Now the only thing is to swim harder than ever before on the slim chance of closing the growing distance. If I make it (and that’s a mighty big If), then what? The slick walls offer no peg, no crack.

Defeat has no voice here. With every stroke, I force behind my eyes an image of a handhold and a body still surging with the strength to climb.

I have exactly one shot.

Questions boil in my waterlogged throat:

Is he the ship or is he the ocean?

Which is courage?

Which is home?
 

Divorce, Parenting

Cause and Effect

Waking up is relief even if it is to the dull edge of January dawn.

He is there, a red T-shirt and splash of white stripe, resting at the bottom of the swimming pool. It is too late. I know this but I dive in anyway and haul him to the concrete. Pressing air through tiny lips. The taste of chlorine. The taste of silence. Over and over and over. No tears. Breath. Press. Breath. No pleas. Just this single determination. Pushing out water, pushing in oxygen. He stirs but it is only me, my desire, my exhalations inflating the sodden puppet.

Then he turns. Just a little. Eyes crack, lips part. What are you doing, Mommy? Concern bends his brow. Wariness, too. Before he can resist, I tuck him into my arms. Gather him like fallen limbs. He is only three and still so very light.

Just taking you home, baby.

I stand with my son bundled and dripping against my chest. Warming him. Warming us. I step away. Up the passageway, past the closed doors and towards ours which must be somewhere that way. Somewhere else.

I stand knowing this is me leaving me. Me walking away from the woman on her knees bent over her drowned son. Me choosing madness over truth. Myth over pain.

The unutterable facts:

He is gone and I am the one who lost him. I turned my back. Let him leave the car at night while I hefted grocery bags and backpacks. Forgot to give him the key. Me. I am the one who saw the door was still locked and he was not in the corridor waiting. I felt the fear rising; I did not run for him then and there. I took 30 seconds too long dumping the grocery bags and backpacks. Another 30 seconds trying to find a warm coat to put on him because he hadn’t brought his home. I was the one who wasted those fateful, final 30 final looking with widening eyes down the dim hallway and up the shadowed stairwell of our complex instead of hollering his name at the top of my lungs because of. . . Decorum? Pride?

The unbearable facts:

I lost my son. The blow of awareness is sudden and blinding. My negligence is the cause, I am the cause of his death and so the blame for my suffering falls on me alone. This knowledge is itself a source of staggering shame. It seems I care more about my role in the loss than the loss itself. Me, me, me. It’s always about me.

Then, back around around again.

The impossible knowing:

A life without this boy in it.

Too much.

So I gather him up. Forever now three, complete. Just his light boyhood, his lift, his easy willingness to be carried without protest. I carry him close and walk in great strides away

from sincerity. From courage. Poised at my moment of choice,

I abandon my moment of truth.

The one closest to me wonders if he should fear my break with reality. I do not say out loud yes you should. That it is not a possibility but a certainty, but in any event, it is far from a clean split. It is a spiderweb. A slow shatter.

I wake in the dark but it is close enough to light. The house is quiet but for dog on her pallet by the sliding glass door. Cracks at the seams expand as temperatures contract, peeling back the illusion of solidity. Out there in the space between, my son, like my sanity, straddles dimensions. We are Schrodinger’s cat. Both of us are completely intact. Neither of us is entirely home. We cannot touch

and I caused this.
 

Children, Growing Up

Seven Turns This Way

He turns seven. He is not alone in this. The weekend is endless pinball flash and spinning light. Too many parties. Cookie dough ice cream. Pokemon legends raining down on a tumid Chima lego metropolis. Deforestation at the borders. A relentless hunger for more and more.
 
For three nights, sleep is drawn and quartered. Whole symphonies of yelling smash their percussive chords against each distended limit. Love is squeezed down in its most elemental form: the exigency of coexistence in the absence of affection.
 
Finally, Sunday carries night over and drops it at our feet. Everything is half-done but somehow complete. He falls away from me during the third book and I recall the shape of ease for the first time in days.
 
Now I must find my own way under perseveration’s cruel echo. In bed, I kick and kick against the spooling film, all blooper reel and captured sin, the worst lines caught on repeat in the projector’s teeth. Eventually the bulb burns through and cuts me loose. I dive with one last surge and I am under, finally confined to sleep if not by peace at least by the simple pressure of submersion.
 
Wailing wrenches me back to the surface. I choke on my own breath. He is silhouetted in the door, wracked with sobs.
 
“Oh, baby, what’s the matter?”
 
He careens over the carpet and plows into the bed. “My back. My back!” Then his voice shatters. I open my arms. He climbs up and folds fetal into me, quaking with a fear made corporal. He is no longer a baffling, windburnt stretch of leg and scar and huff. He sheds all seven of his years. He is the night following the day he was born, completely undone by something for which he has no name, completely trusting me to make him safe.
 
I touch his spine seeking warmth or blood or bumps. A stingray? A troll? There it is. A flat plate, stiff and certainly not skin. I lift his shirt and peel off the alien invader.
 
“Sweetie, look.” I hold it up in whatever line of sight the dim night allows.
 
“What is it?” he says.
 
“A Pokemon card.”
 
He reaches up for it. A soon as it is in his grip, he shivers down to stillness. “Oh.” He pulls the card in like a baby blanket and curls his arms around it.
 
“I think your back was a little sweaty and you rolled over on it.”
 
“No,” he says with a drooping sigh. “I wasn’t hot. He was the one who was sweaty.”
 
“He who?”
 
“The Pokemon,” he tells me. “From fighting all night long.”
 
“That could do it.” I nudge him up and we plod back to his room. He asks me to cuddle there. His mattress is a candy-floss cloud compared to mine and so I agree. “Yes, but just for a few minutes.”
 
“A few long minutes,” He says. “As many minutes as you can.” We pull up the tinkerbell blanket and he tucks my hand in under his side. I settle in close to him. I stay until he drifts off and then linger a few minutes more, at least until turning, turning the way he does, he turns back into his years and there is no room for me.