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”

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”

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.

 

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)

 

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.

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.

 

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.