Adventure, body, Relationships

Injured and Alone

paredes 2

The injury aligns with the breakup, a window sash in its jamb.  One smooth slide to a perfect seal.  In stays the still air.  Out there, bees and dew and all the fecund detritus of summer.

This forced meditation is only welcome because it came in with its trunk and has evaded any attempt to pin down its schedule for moving on.  All I can do is make it feel at home.  I fold myself in beside it and listen to it breathe. Continue reading “Injured and Alone”

Family, Home, neighborhood, Outdoors

Settle In

Durrie Winter Scene

The first flakes are dusting the sidewalk. My son and his little buddy are engaged in a take-no-prisoners Pokemon battle in the living room. They munch on microwave popcorn and negotiate rules while I re-pot the frozen rosemary rescued from the balcony. Beans for soup are soaking on the kitchen counter. Next to them, a bowl of sourdough rises under a cloth.  Continue reading “Settle In”

Growing Up, Mindfulness, Poetry

First Taste

collard greens 2

I tear from their stems
leaves as big as elephant’s ears,
dino kale, mustard, Russian red.
Friends came
bearing this plastic sack of plants.
I hugged close
the friends then lifted out
one giant collard leaf
and pressed it against my cheek.

These succulent greens grew
in a stark suburban yard
stripped bare of topsoil
and shade. It took a few years
and the season’s first frost
to draw sweetness up through veins
threading bitter lamina.

The tough, cold fiber
yields to a tug,
its surprising suppleness
as porous as my own
skin, as ready
to give.

I did not want
to cook something new. Dinner fuels
me, most days that is
enough.
In the pan, oil spits
at the intrusion
of garlic and broth.
The spatula’s flat wooden blade
gilds ashen leaves
and they shine with the sharp scent
of roots, ice, chlorophyll, flame.

The flavor makes my mouth
ache like when I’m close
to crying. I eat
slowly, marveling at how far the comfort
of routine has carried me
from pleasure.

It is wonderful to see you
is what we say. It used to be the other way
when sensation raced
to the side of the bed, bouncing
on its toes,
get up get up, come look.
Taking notice comes first
now. This is the shift
that marks the start
of growing up. We wake
to walls and grab
at threads of hunger,
at any texture that can mimic
or at least stand in
for wonder. We pause
still hoping for a surge
until we surrender and step out
as first light
splits the horizon and say
It is wonderful
to see
you.

We learn to lift
ourselves towards desire. We learn to proceed
with our hands
extended, feeling
through weed and loam, inviting
something to stroke our wrists
and yank us over
into the bright fat flesh
of the world, the place
all around us
where explosions as fleeting
as one leaf
against tongue, skin,
or sky can make us catch our breath
in a thrill of awakening, breaking
us open in gratitude
for a visit
from that part of our heart
that left home
we thought
for good.

 

Family, Friends, Home

For This

Kulturgeschichte / Essen / Belle Epoque

For more than one of the eleven around the table, the year left bruises. For more than one, tears choke the blessing. Words that begin as thanks are threaded with veins of dense and nameless matter.

Loss is a removal that adds weight.

Chuckles accompany each small confession. We are older now. Pleasure hits the tongue in the bitter spots too. Years distill gratitude to its sharpest potency.

We round the corner and my turn is seventh. I say that I most often describe myself as a single mother. I say this is inaccurate because a tribe holds my son and me. We are not doing this on our own, we never have been alone. I say that family is like a story. It ends up looking entirely different than what we expect and somehow ends up looking exactly as it should.


Image credit: Otto Günther, Am Tagelöhnertisch (1875)

 

Children, community, Friends, Things I Can

36. Things I Can Relax: The Borders

I’ve just cruised home from the metro and dumped my bike in the foyer. Someone knocks at the door. On the doorstep, the brother and sister whose names I don’t know balance on their scooters and ask if Bug is home.

“In about 10 minutes,” I say. “I’m going to get him right now.” The pair wheels off.

I’ve taken half a breath, grabbed the keys, harnessed the dog. Someone knocks on the door. The girl with the hair down to her waist steps off her scooter and asks if Bug is home.

“About 8 minutes,” I say. “I’m on my way.”

When I return with my boy, he heads to the kitchen and pulls tortillas and cheese from the fridge. Someone knocks on the door. I hear a mumbled conversation. Bug says, “I can’t,” and closes the door. He nukes a quesadilla and wolfs it down. He’s running the pizza cutter through the second and telling me about the new kid in his class.

Someone knocks on the door.

He stands in the two inches of threshold. Another muffled exchange passes across the narrow crack. He murmurs, “I can’t right now.”

The girl on the other side says, “Why not?”

A pause.

When will he ask these kids in? Does he want to keep the line firm between home and outside, between what’s his own and the world of everything else? When I ask if he’d like to have someone over, he just says, “I don’t know, I guess,” or “Maybe later.” He may have reasons — perhaps unconscious reasons — for barring access. He may also simply have formed the habit. After all, he has been living half his life with a walking suit of armor.

He’s at the door, half his face out, the rest of him in. The girl is waiting. Maybe I should tell him it’s okay to go out? Or I could invite her in? I could go over and help him explain what he wants.

I stay put. My boy is 8 years old. I’ve done enough translating for him. He can negotiate his own relationships now. He  decides what to say, and how, and when.

In the kitchen, I putter with the dishes and groceries. I listen but pretend I’m not. I’ll throw him a rope when he asks for one. Only then.

Bug finally tells her, “I have to finish my snack.”

She’s undeterred. “Will you come out after?”

He shrugs, “Sure,” and closes the door. He folds the last of the quesadilla into his mouth then pushes his feet into his shoes. “Bye, mom,” he hollers. The door opens again then slams.

I leash Noodle and wander out behind Bug. He is in the courtyard with the pack. I’ve seen them all at the bus stop, at the pool, on skateboards around the complex. When we approach, the girls coo and stroke Noodle. She quivers, caught between terror and ecstasy.

The brother and sister whose names I haven’t yet learned are looping in circles around the posts. I introduce myself, extending my hand. “I know everyone else here, but I haven’t met you yet.” They take my hand in turn, shaking it softly, ducking their gaze. They tell me their names and I ask if they live in that unit there, and they nod then roll off. The big boy at the end of the corridor says, “What about me? Have you met me?”

We’ve played at the pool and park with him for two years. His dad has one of the most welcoming smiles in the neighborhood. “Of course I know you!”

“Say my name!” He says.

I laugh and call it out.

The kids all tear off, wheels and shouts and pounding feet. I walk after them. The distance between us grows as Noodle pauses to catalog every molecule in the cracks of the sidewalk. Around the corner, two women sit on the patio where the brother and sister live. One is older, one is closer to my age. I walk up and introduce myself, tell them I’m Bug’s mom. “I just met your kids. They’re lots of fun.”

“Yes, yes,” the younger one says. She shakes my hand. I tell her my name, tell her the dog’s name. She pets Noodle, nods some more. “Yes, nice to meet you.” The phrase is careful, like one she needs to practice. The woman next to her smiles, nods. They don’t tell me their names. I say how much fun Bug has playing with her son and daughter, how happy I am that the kids are all out together. “Yes, it is nice,” she says. Nod, nod, smile. I wave goodbye and walk off again. The sound of wheels and sneakers on concrete tumbles from around the next building.

I double back towards my place and see a giant box leaning against the wall outside my neighbor’s door. Now, she and her husband are laughing as they try — and fail — to lift the giant cardboard monstrosity over the threshold.

“You need six hands for that,” I say. I deposit Noodle in my house and go back to help them heft the thing inside.

“It’s a new headboard. The old one was getting creaky,” she tells me. “I didn’t realize it was so heavy.”

Her husband drops his end on the floor and drags it the rest of the way to rest it against the side of the sofa. He takes a few gulps of breath.”That’s good. We can leave it for now.” His face is flushed.

“Well,” I say, “if you need some more muscle to set it up, you know where to find me.”

“Nah, we got it,” he says. He smacks his wobbling biceps then flexes. She rolls her eyes.

Back outside, I listen for the kids. Somewhere in the next courtyard, feet race up — or down? — an open stairwell.  Someone shouts, “Not it!”

My boy has a place in that game, a place all his own. I step over a discarded scooter and head in to start dinner.

Friends, Home, Things I Can

4. Things I Can Organize: A Social Life on a Budget

Staying connected to other humans is a necessity. This is especially so for a working single mom with a taste for the blues. Yet the rules of the Financial Fast forbid dining out and spending money on entertainment.

Catching up with folks for free is harder than it seems. After dispensing with restaurants, shows, coffee shops, bars, karaoke, ice rinks, shopping, and all the other cold-weather activities out there, what’s left?  Three weeks of January without seeing loved ones = emotional suicide (I tell myself). When schedules are tight and the nights are long, grabbing a bite out seems like the only option (I tell myself).

Is it any wonder so many Americans are looking up from the bottom of the financial pit, wondering how the hell to climb out? It’s sometimes the case that a person’s money struggles come on the heels of a single seismic life event. Most folks, however, work their way there one small seemingly inconsequential decision at a time. It’s possible to rationalize any expense, no matter how big, no matter how frivolous. Wants morph into needs, and the same old habits keep playing out.

The point of this fast is to figure out ways to stick to the rules, not ways to sneak around them. For those of us living close to the bone, the tradeoff between money and time is as near even as you can get. Make your own bread from scratch, and you’ll save about as much money as you could earn with the time spent elsewhere. Take on a little extra work, and the money ends up paying for the additional gas and childcare. It all comes out in the wash. How can a person really tend to these necessities on limited means — both financial and otherwise?

These 21 days lean towards the Save Money/Spend Time side of the equation. This is why it’s important to consider a broader definition of “spending habits.” A few extra minutes making lunch for work is important, but where else might resourcefulness and creativity be useful? After all, we all have certain essential activities that keep us thrumming. It may be dancing or sports, learning or art, travel or food — whatever it is, chances are, doing it the familiar way is too expensive. The problem is that self-discipline smacks of self-denial. When limits become suffocating, either the old ways return or the person inside wilts.

There has to be a third way.

For our little family, I believe there is. Inside this labyrinthine universe of Us, maintaining relationships is as essential as exercise, work, and a good night’s sleep. That said, our schedules stretch us so thin, friends feel like another “thing to do,” which is exactly why we have to keep them in the front of our minds. Community feeds us. We have to feed it in turn.

This weekend, we let the Financial Fast force ingenuity and forethought. Instead of going out on Saturday night, we extended a dinner invitation to my folks and a few family friends. We spent the day cleaning and making our little condo fancy with the baubles on hand. The meal was bare bones — dull, in fact — but no one seemed to care. My mother contributed pie and appetizers, and another guest brought a salad. Bug was crazy proud to host. All day and evening, he pitched it. As guests arrived, he donned an apron and took drink orders. Our little group was a warm light in the dead of winter.

It was work and it was exhausting, but also, it was so very simple.

And we managed it all on the grocery budget.

If not for the fast, we probably would have just gone to a movie. Or I might have plopped Bug in front of a DVD while I focused on one of the countless unfinished projects from work. Instead, Bug and I worked together to welcome friends into our home. We planned a menu, decorated, baked and tidied, and shared time with the people we care about. Here we are the next morning with a beautifully organized space, feeling connected and happy.

Maybe the trick is to take the long view. We have to dare to imagine the composition — career, home, relationships, art, and overall well-being — we most want for ourselves and our families. The question then becomes: What can we cultivate here and now with what we have on hand?

For these weeks as in the year ahead, a Saturday night can be exercise in frugality, but it doesn’t have to just be that. It can also be an opportunity for creativity and celebration, and a chance to build towards a life both balanced and vibrant.

 

Children, Growing Up

Egg and Milk

He stands with his back to the doorjamb and tries to sneak up onto his toes. “Flat feet,” I say. He grins up from under the turquoise towel a friend made as a shower gift. It had seemed huge then. A baby would drown in all that terrycloth. Now it barely covers his rear end.

He goes down on his soles and I swipe the marker across his crown before he can pop up again.

“Wow,” I say.

“What?”

He turns and looks at the black slash. It is more than an inch higher than the only other mark. We made that one half a year ago on his seventh birthday – the first birthday we celebrated in the first home we’ve ever owned. In all those cabins we half-claimed before moving out and moving on, we had never recorded his growth.

“Just six months. Look at that.” I start to write by the line.

“Can I do it?” He asks. I hand him the Sharpie. In slippery big-kid block letters he scrawls his name. Next to it, “May 2014.”


After I pick him up from school, we race in, drop our backpacks, and grab the ball and scooter. Spring. Light. At last, evening does not mean night. It happens every year and is a surprise every time.

He opens the fridge and digs, pulling out hard boiled eggs, a block of mozzarella, yogurt tubes. He takes a glass down from the cabinet and fills it with rice milk. He slips a knife from the rack and sets up the cutting board. He does all this now. The thrill of watching my boy saw off a hunk of cheese is enough to give me a shiver. No one would believe me if I told them. No one would care.

He is seven and doesn’t need to ask. This kitchen is his. In some parts of the world, he would have long since killed and dressed his first deer.

In the bedroom, I peel off my suit and whip my 6:00 hair up into a ponytail. My neck breathes and my spine shakes loose. When I come out, he is sucking down the last of the cherry yogurt and has knocked back the whole glass of rice milk. The golden ropes of hair tumbling past his shoulders are in desperate need of a comb. He bobs from one foot to the other. “Come on, Mom.” He picks up the remaining half of an egg and shoves it in his mouth. Then he jumps on his scooter and bangs out the door.

We have barely reached the corner when his name starts to ricochet around the park. Little voices call. Greeting or alert? Like prairie dogs, they pop up then down, re-arranging themselves. A girl crouched in the overgrown grass stands and waves a handful of buttercups at us. Another girl appears beside her. Together, they dart to the fence to watch us arrive then squeal and take off when we cross over. Three boys straddling the top of the slide leap to the ground and careen through the play equipment, faces flashing. The echoes of my boy’s name follow us in. He drops his scooter near the bike rack. Falling into stride with the galloping pack, he disappears.

When I see him next, he is hanging from the monkey bars at the center of a swarm of children.

His legs windmill and his torso pivots. Motion churns milk and egg to fertile slurry. His limbs unfold between blinks, telescoping, fanning, revealing new sinew snaking out across new bone. His arms stretch skyward. He plunges toward light.
 

Brain, Parenting

Tell-Tale Art

I tell him learning anything new takes practice. I tell him he isn’t yet an expert at chess and if he wants to be as skilled as his friend, he’ll have to keep taking lessons. I tell him he’s not good at all kinds of stuff yet. I tell him he’ll become talented at just about anything he wants badly enough to practice like crazy.

“You’re being mean!” he yells. He stomps into his room and slams the door.

When I go in later, he is curled up under the covers. “All I want is to play basketball,” he mutters. “That’s the only thing.”

I start to tell him something else but it’s probably a waste of breath. What good is it to keep telling at him like this? I reach to stroke his head and he actually lets me. “Do you know why you’re good at basketball?” He doesn’t answer. I lean in close to him. “You’re good at it because you’ve been doing it over and over and over again for years. Guess what? When you were really little, you couldn’t make shots at all.”

“Yes I could. I was always really good.”

“Sweetie, you were a baby once. And a toddler. Like that girl at the park today. Remember?” His classmate’s sister was there, trying to hurl her neon pink soccer ball up, up at the basket. She chased it down the hill, over to the fence, around the field. She could barely keep it on the court let alone shoot it anywhere close to its intended target. “You were like that once. Guess what else? You don’t play as well as those college players your daddy takes you to see. Not yet, but you can if you keep at it. They’ve had a lot more years to practice.”

“Yes I am! I am as good as them!” He hmphs around and pulls the blanket over his head. I sigh. I’m clearly blowing this.

“Listen. Just about everything in the world that you like was built or made by someone who didn’t know how to do it once.” I’ve gone right back to telling. There’s no stopping me now. I tell him someone didn’t know how to make pizza. They learned. Someone didn’t know how to make giant water slides. They learned. “Baby, if people decided that the things they are good at when they are seven years old are the only things worth doing, we wouldn’t have a whole lot. We wouldn’t have video games or houses or running water or cars or legos or anything.”

“Yes we would. I could make video games.”

I should shut up. I really need to learn to shut up. This is futile. A frustrated person is as deaf as granite and about as yielding. He doesn’t want to sign up for chess. Or piano. Or soccer or swimming or art or Spanish. His reply to every suggestion? “I don’t like it. I’m not good at it.”

But I don’t shut up. I keep going. I explain that reading used to be hard. He didn’t like practicing. He still doesn’t like practicing. But the more he does it the better he gets, and now he can find his way into stories without my help. Once he couldn’t read. Now he can. The bridge between the two is practice.

He says, “I could always read. I was just pretending I couldn’t.”

Okay. Message received. I close my trap, hug my boy, and give him a giant kiss on the head. “I love you, buddy. Let’s go get breakfast ready.”

He’s grumpy eating waffles because there’s not enough syrup. He’s mad when I brush his hair because it’s tangled and it hurts. He doesn’t want to take the bus but it’s too late to make it to before-school care. I ask him how his morning is going on a scale of one to ten.

“Zero”

“Great!” I say. “It can only get better from here!”

It matters that I stand on an incremental idea of intelligence. I’ve had to tell myself I believe it often enough that now I actually do. As opposed to seeing intelligence as a fixed entity, the incremental approach holds that effort and practice can change not only how smart you are but the ways in which you are smart. You can’t measure intelligence and even talent may be an illusion. Training grows skill like a muscle. Where you focus is where you become strong and where you don’t is where you won’t. A brilliant physicist might be a monstrous manager and the world’s worst dancer. As an accumulation of behaviors, intelligence is a habit of mind rather than a meaure of it.

It matters here because this conception has been the ladder I’ve used to climb out of a lifetime of self-talk so defeating it borders on abuse. Only part of mental health is explained by physiology. Like talent, depression is as much a habit of mind as it is an expression of seratonin levels. Choosing to see intelligence as a verb helps me recognize that feelings of resistance have absolutely nothing to do with whether or not I am cut out for a particular endeavor. Stuff is hard and it is especially so when it’s new. Every beautiful or terrible thing our species has fashioned has required perseverence. It would always have been much easier to give up.

It matters too because trusting in this version of intelligence might keep me from passing on to my son this legacy of globalizing distortions. Belief in fixed capacity is fertilizer for depression. I want both of us to practice the art of speaking out loud all the ways a person can grow more proficient in any number of languages. I want Bug to learn early the vocabulary of self-efficacy. Sure, he’ll be awkward. He’ll hit walls. Some new skills will be much tougher to acquire than others. Maybe my parenting optimism is on steroids today, but if I know my son is perfectly capable of mastery and that he will learn how to chart his own course, I can be his touchstone as he does battle with his limits.

But let’s be real here: it also doesn’t matter. My kid isn’t buying it. If he believes intelligence is fixed, guess what? It is. For Bug, being good at something means it is supposed to be effortless. A person is naturally talented at some things and those are the things he should do. This idea baffles me.

“I hate this day,” he says as shrugs into his jacket. It is only 8:40 a.m.

When I walk Bug to the bus, other parents and kids are there waiting. Anxiety about my son’s attitude is a backpack full of wet concrete. I can talk up one side of Mt. Everest and down the other telling the world what I believe but my child is only going to want to learn new things if they are beguiling enough to make him want to trade in his ease for the effort required.

What is the currency for a seven-year-old? This: whatever other seven-year-olds decide has value.

But I am a loner of a mother. Where would I begin to plug my son into the allure of new activities if he’s already decided he isn’t interested? Which kids in my son’s school play saxophone or collect snakes? I don’t have a clue what the names of Bug’s classmates are, let alone their hobbies. What I know of their parents wouldn’t fill a teaspoon. My son has been in this school for nearly two years and I couldn’t identify his best friends if they rode up past our house on a St. Patrick’s Day float.

Besides, I’m not good building community.

Making new friends is scary. Remembering names is hard. I don’t like it. Why can’t I just stay inside my cozy house and write and dance and bake pumpkin bread with my son? I like doing that stuff. I’m good at that stuff.

Thanks, universe. Got it.

The dad at the bus stop nods a hello as he has on all the other mornings. My turn to endure the telling. It whispers, Every single amazing, effortless activity in the world was hard once. I take a deep breath and re-introduce myself. I say I’m looking forward to seeing his girls out now that it’s getting warmer. Maybe we could all go to the park? He mentions that his family goes to Nationals games and that they’d love for us to join them when the season starts. “You know what?” I say, pulling out my phone. “We’ll never make it happen if we don’t exchange numbers.” He texts me his name, his wife’s, his children’s.

I’m not good at it this. The vulnerability makes me squirm. On my way home, I run into another neighbor in the hallway. It would be so easy to pass her with a polite hello but all that telling is still clanging around. The degree of difficulty of an endeavor bears no relation to its suitability. I force myself to slow down long enough to have a conversation. After the requisite small talk, she confesses she’s been having a hard time getting to know neighbors since moving in last fall. Also, could she come by to see my bamboo floors? She and her husband are remodeling and want to replace the carpet with hardwood.

Baby, the telling whispers, if people decided that the things they are good at when they are forty are the only things worth doing, our world would be a dismal place indeed.

I tell her I’d love for her to come by.

As I head out to my car, I feel a bouyancy breathing under the anxiety of these new commitments. The telling whispers, There was a time before Thomas Edison knew how to work a telegraph machine. Before Langston Hughes could pen a verse.

Thanks, I tell it back. Nice work.
 

Home, Music

You Know All the Rules By Now

Well the first days are the hardest days
don’t you worry anymore

When you’re sixteen and you pick up lice from camping out at a Dead show, you and your girlfriend walk by the People’s drug store on the way home from school. You set up chairs out on the porch in the afternoon sun, pop a bootleg in the boom box, and gossip as you comb nits from each other’s hair.
 
‘Cause when life looks like Easy Street
there is danger at your door

 
When you’re forty and you pick up lice from your son’s first grade classroom, you leave two dozen unchecked emails in your inbox, cut out of work early (again), speed over to the CVS, and race to catch the train then the bus. On the way, you send messages to your son’s dad about all the things he needs to do to treat his place. You ignore the afternoon sun and rush into your condo, making a mental note of all the places your boy had his head during the past five nights he spent with you.
 
You strip beds, pull coats from hooks, peel covers from the sofa, corral a menagerie of stuffed animals. You curse the dollhouse washer/dryer that reaches capacity at three pillowcases. You wheel the vacuum around the mountain of fabric and upholstery and giant fluffy penguins now climbing towards the ceiling.
 
You bag up all the pillows. You push two loads through. You boil water to sanitize the hairbrush.
 
Then you storm through the living room
 
and stop
 
Goddamn, well I declare,
have you seen the like?

 
by the sliding glass door.
 
The dog stirs and glances up. You look out for the first time at the fading light. It is daylight savings time. The day has hung on for you. Just barely, though. You have 30 minutes left to fling yourself out and grab her before her fingers slip free.
 
Anybody’s choice
I can hear your voice

 
You lash your lice-infested tresses into a lice-infested elastic, put on the lice-infested hoodie you wore last night, and go run three hard miles with the setting sun at a heel on your left flank.
 
You come panting back inside. The dog pushes up against you as overjoyed as she has been every time you’ve walked in that door for the whole eight years of her existence. She doesn’t know you have lice and wouldn’t care even she did.
 
Now, you can see.
 
Again.
 
Finally.
 
Like the morning sun you come
and like the wind you go

 
How your son is in the best hands now because his father is the same man who used to sit and brush your hair with such gentle strokes, you felt like you’d been carried off on a magic carpet ride. How your water pours hot from the new heater you just installed. How the juice surges from every outlet to lamp, dryer, vacuum, stove. How the bed is soft and the sleep is sound and the lock is solid and the mortgage is covered and the shelves in CVS and kitchen alike are stocked with everything you could ever need and more than you ever will.
 
How you and your son’s dad and called each other and spoke easily about how to tackle a shared concern.
 
How your Mister got on the horn and told you to tell your boy that Thomas Jefferson had lice.
 
Come on along or go alone
 
You notice how very rare and undeserved this abundance of resource for this small a problem.
 
He’s come to take his children home.
 
When you’re here today and you pick up lice from a spot on this teeming planet, you strip down to your skivvies, squirt eye-watering insecticide shampoo into your hair, crank up Daddy Yankee and boogie as you comb the nits from your hair.
 

Butchered lyrics are from the Grateful Dead’s “Uncle John’s Band.”
 

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.