You mustn’t suppose
I never mingle in the world
Of humankind —
It’s simply that I prefer
To enjoy myself alone.
Into the morning blue he wakes as dark-eyed as when he greeted night. He hurls himself at me, his hair like snapdragon stalks unpruned along the fence of his fury.
“Idiot,” he grumbles. I am at a loss. First I tell him if he’s old enough to use that word, then he’s old enough to make his own breakfast. Then I change course. Thorns will not be the texture of our day. I slide from the bed and crawl across the carpet to my splayed and scowling son. Right up close, I say, “I love you, baby, and you love me. I always know it.” I wrap my arms around him and tickle his sides. As he wrenches himself away, he bites back the smile I catch peeking. “Even if you don’t feel it right this minute, I know you love me.”
“No I DON’T.” Cold simmer cuts up from under the blonde cloak shadowing his gaze.
When he was two, he declared himself a girl. Rainbows on his underwear. Sequins in his hair. His third and fourth birthdays were pink crowns and princess cake. In his fifth year, he shed the tutu and snapped on a fist. He has not unclenched it since, except in moments belly-flat on the floor or twined sticky into me. Moments when he forgets.
While the oatmeal simmers under its skin of sugared cinnamon, he arranges a dinosaur jungle on the floor. The T-Rex pounds at the lesser beasts. A barrage of high-impact explosions upends all the palm trees leaving half a dozen herbivores strewn across the killing field.
I watch him wander into the tangled garden of his imagination and take corners I can’t see. I tiptoe to the edge and consider joining him there. Does he need the company of others, of playmates, of me? My only child turns away and blazes a trail alone among his hedgerows. Is it labyrinth or maze? He is not reluctant to find his own way in. I wonder what, if anything, compels him to follow the thread back out again.
Returning home at the end of day, we trip our way to bed after fighting over dishes, teeth, bath. It is time to surrender to routine. Both of us need to waltz our way back to a rocking gait that smooths the friction at the edges where we meet. Three books. Three songs. Every night for six years.
He has a fairy blanket on the bed. It is the last vestige. He keeps it close even in the August swelter. With Tinkerbell bunched at our feet, we read Zen Shorts for the 400th time.
“Mommy, why is this book called that?”
“Well, the three stories Stillwater tells all come from Zen. And they’re all short.”
“I guess it’s a way of living. It’s very old. Thousands of years, maybe? It has to do with making quiet places inside your mind and body.”
He twists away from me. Restless, ever moving. He is all proboscis and fire ant. A cement mixer. A quicksand man. I have had to learn to test my footing before every step. “You know how we talk about breathing when you’re wound up? Or when I heat up? Zen is about getting still. Like Stillwater in the book. Then you can accept things without needing them to be different.”
Zen Cliff’s Notes. Am I close? He’s humming and tapping his fingers in a pattern along the wall. I touch the edge of his leg just enough to make contact but not enough to capture his attention and raise his inevitable ire. “Even when there’s craziness all around you, even if a robber comes into your house or people say mean things, you stay peaceful inside yourself.”
“Yeah, yeah. Okay, okay.”
“It’s not just for kids,” I tell him. “Here.” I get up and go find the book of Zen poems a friend gave me back when time to play with meditation was there for the taking. Or rather, when we chose to see abundance in a clock face rather than just its pinching glare.
I open to Ryokan.
Here are the ruins of the cottage where I once hid myself.
“Okay, whatever. That’s enough,” he tells me. The gold ribbon marking the page hides down in the spine. He pulls it away and trails it down over the back. “Now you’ve lost your place,” he tells me.
“Good,” I say. “I was hoping for that. Now I can start at the next place.” I leave the ribbon free and close the cover. The cottage is far behind me. I am alone on my unmarked path but also tangled at the root with a boy whose opening is his own to burn or tend.
“Are you mad?” His grin crouches in the dry weeds. His eyes cut a path to me. He is ready to pounce.
“No, baby. I’m nowhere close to mad. I’m happy to be here with you, exactly like this.” I set the poems on the floor and open my voice for the first song.