Determination, Parenting

Object of the Game

It isn’t the gray. It is not the shaft of air tunneling down the black or even the thin promise of light. It is not the howl of gears in need of oil and spit and breath, the places where teeth rub against brittle skin worn to rust and grit. It is not the blood even or the lost child or the empty wallet or the anticipation of want.
It is a recollection. Become a parent and everything changes. Down we go, compelled.
Once I played Mancala on the sofa of a shelter with a girl who had a child.
Her own mother stayed there, too. Three generations in one borrowed room. She told me her mother had taught her the game. In the smooth divots of that wooden palette, she doled out glass beads. Our turns shifted the place they needed to land. Each play altered the number of beads in our hand. The little marbles dropped, leading us around the board. We were Hansel and Gretel following gemstone breadcrumbs, trying to find a way home. Count, calculate, move, hold your breath. Nothing stays. Someone comes like a crow to pluck your shiny things. She told me she learned so well her mother refused to play her anymore. She needed someone who would be willing to lose. She had never lost.
We sat in front of the ceiling-high windows. The panes of glass looked out onto a street in her neighborhood. It was the place she had been born and raised, the place she could not find that just-enough combination of work + babysitting + bus fare to make rent. Who would have taught her how? Her mother was on the other futon in their room upstairs. She slid the gleaming bits of glass, 2-3-4. She said she decided she was going to master this game. She didn’t care if it made her mom feel bad to lose. She needed to win. This was her chance.
I was no help at all working there. I had no job leads, no contact at the ANFC. Nothing but the key to the locker where donated diapers and spaghetti-os lived. That, and keeping watch. In the heart of a city both cagey and caged, I could bar the doors and ensure an unmolested night.
There on the sofa, I was merely a convenient opponent. Company. This was more than nothing, though not by much. Do we not know this now? In a situation so dire, who can endure remembering without pause? The relentless press of need will cripple the very capacity required for filling it. Who can hold awareness of how much is required, how many miles the blistered feet must still cover, without curling into a ball? Without giving up entirely? I was a vehicle for distraction. For collecting glittering baubles. Anything but the Real for that precious pause.
You work and work and work just to keep getting up again to work some more. You are an accident of birth and the blind flailing towards some kind of coherent life. From the time you are little. You do your homework or you put it off, you start a lemonade stand or you peddle drugs. You aren’t getting closer to anything it all it seems until one day, there it is: A door. One of your company walks on through and the other is still trying to stumble down the corridor. Then it whispers shut. Then is gone and with it that first one, the one who was only just steps ahead. Behind a wall without a way through. That other self. That could-have-been.
That doppelganger.
Who sits across you from the couch, offering nothing but company. And a silencing of the noise of everything that still must be done to keep your child safe, to give her some chance of getting down that dark tunnel faster than you ever did before the door slips shut.
In the low light of those oversized windows, the girl with no place to live taught me her game of strategy and luck. She beat me every time until I learned. Then she didn’t stand a chance. I was young. She was younger but had more years under her belt by far. Ages. Epochs. I held all the advantage and forgot to let her win there in that one place where she could. We put the board away. She went up to the room to rouse her child from her hot nap. I went home.
Her baby would be 20 now. Older than the girl was then.
Did her little one make it? Did she arrive? Did she beat her mother at the game?
There are doors here. We find them. For our children. We push our way down that black tunnel. Push past the terror. Down past where we know others have gone. Some have tipped over the edge into pits we dread. Others slipped out into those places just beyond, those places we ache to be.
We feel blindly at the edges of damp concrete and steel, press our hands down into those cracks where the grime collects. Where the gears bite and groan. We know the danger. We also know there is a treasure there. A lever to pull. A place where things fall open. We seek the shape of the doors we only vaguely recognize. We have seen the shafts of light. Even if we missed our own chance, we remember the feel of the air blowing through. That noise, that thump and howl, it could just be the empty wind. Also, it could be a trumpet song trying to find its way to our ears. It could be music somewhere here. A stage door opening onto string and brass. The velvet curtain lifting. A trough of glass beads. All of what was lost and more, glittering there for our children to claim as their own.

Determination, Divorce

In the Stocks

For once, little stubs of green
numerals wink
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

Children, Happy Days, Parenting

Happy 100 Days: 38

When I picked Tee and Bug up from the airport on Friday night, the kiddo was on the brink of tears. In the car, I finally pried it out of him. “I don’t want to go to school tomorrow,” he sobbed.
“Oh, buddy,” I smiled. “It’s Friday today. Do you know what that means?”
“No.” He was rubbing his eyes. The flight was five hours from Seattle.
“It means the whole weekend is still ahead of us. You were just away for a week of Thanksgiving vacation, and we have two more days before school.”
And so it was that this morning, Bug crawled into my bed at 5:54 and told me he had been awake “for hours.” I told him my bed was only available to sleepy people. Funny how quickly he gave in.
These little dawn cuddles usually don’t last more than 20 minutes. This morning’s lasted for nearly three hours. We snored there together, right on past sunrise, right on past the honking geese and the snoofling dog. We had the yummiest, snooziest lie-in we have had in all of the six years Bug has been on this planet. When we finally roused ourselves, we stayed put, smooshing and talking about dreams and such for the other half of the morning.
It was a day of firsts, apparently. The sleep-in kicked off one of the most therapeutic home-bound Sundays on record. I didn’t even have weekends like this before Bug was born. We did watercolors and coloring books, made soft pretzels from scratch, built a railroad station out of legos complete with a border guard and a city park. We both enjoyed completely unplanned sleep-where-you-fall naps sometime around mid-day. We stayed in our pajamas until nearly 3:00pm, and we only dressed then so we would be warm enough to romp around the playground in the afternoon sun.
We never got in the car. We didn’t spend a penny. We only argued once, and it was finished in minutes with a hug and dinner.
Somewhere in there, I finally got around to creating a homework nook where Bug can plop down when we arrive home from school. This has been one of those lingering tasks I have deftly avoided for two months. I knew it would be helpful for his focus but I could not summon the energy to take it on. It is not easy to find a place on the first floor that isn’t crowded with stuff. Today, high on rest and vacation ease, tackling this project was a breeze. Bug now has a corner of the dining room complete with a bin of school supplies, two chairs, and a clear spot at our underused table. As soon as it was unveiled, Bug sat right down and went to work, covering four loose-leaf pages in pencil drawings.
Just before bath time, we took out a big piece of construction paper and some markers. We wrote “Bug’s Homework Station.” Bug decided it should be decorated with “all bright colors,” so we covered it with polka dots and lollipops. He took great care in taping the sign to the side of the plastic drawers on the table where his crayons and glue sticks now live.
While Bug was simmering in bubbles up to his chin, I sat on a stool at the side of the tub and watched. A little playmobile girl was fighting through the “gloop,” trapped and choking under the surface. His right hand was a giant sea-creature that would rise up through the froth and swoop down on her, “Chomp! Oh, bonk, argh my head!” Trying and trying again to catch her, the hand-monster was foiled every time.
It has been years since a day this good. It has also been years since I have seen my son so clearly. For this extended moment, I was quiet enough in my own head that I could look at Bug and imagine the world as it is to him. What a tilt of the glass! It is like stopping on the busy sidewalk where you walk every day, lying down, and looking up through the buildings and trees. The purpose of every angle, even the ticking of the clock and the throbbing of the human traffic, all shift into new alignment. Sometimes it takes an intentional pause to see things as they really are. In fact, such a pause may be the only thing that clears the gaze.
As he soaked, I felt myself peel open and marvel at the singular experience of the boy inside Bug’s skin and mind.
He looked up from his bath battle and stared back at me a beat longer than usual.
“What?” he asked. “Why do you look like that?”
I smiled. “Because I lo-o-o-ve you.”
He shrugged. “So?”
“And you’re my beautiful boy.”
Arhh!” Another splash. The hand monster was about to break the surface again. The playmobile girl tried to swim away. “The gloop is around my throat and I can’t breathe!”
Neither could I.
For one fleeting moment, I understood the magnitude of my luck. It feels like waking up.