community, Friends, Giving, Uncategorized

A Gift of Need

We are embodied spirits who need raw material, both physical and spiritual, to create. But we forget that we are also social beasts who need not slash through the bramble of those needs alone.

Maria Popova in the postscript to The Art of Asking: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help by Amanda Palmer

Fruit Gathering

A friend wrote to me with an offer of help. A generous spirit by nature, she also follows Momastery which further expands the reach of her care. She has a modest surplus in her family this year and felt called to support the extraordinary Together Rising Holiday Hands project. After a bit of soul-searching she made a brave overture: she sent a note offering me a small financial gift so Bug and I could get through the holidays. Continue reading “A Gift of Need”

community, Things I Can

91. Things I Can Carry: The Load


She stands halfway up the tower of steps balancing a small box in her arms. She’s asking a student for directions to Robinson Hall. The young man unhooks one of his thumbs from his sagging backpack and turns slowly to scan the campus behind him. He shrugs and gestures off towards everything.

“I’m headed there,” I say as I pass. “Follow me.”

“Oh, that would be great. Thank you!” She falls into step. The sun is too bright. Heat bounces off the concrete plaza.

“Please let me carry that for you.” I turn and offer my arms.

“You sure you don’t mind?”

I heft the box. Its weight surprises me but the effort is welcome. “I’ve skipped the gym for the past week. I need the workout.”

She asks what I do at the university. I explain my role with PhD students and she offers up the question that always comes next. “Do you have your doctorate?”

I laugh it off, cracking the usual joke. “Seeing it from the inside, I’ve lost my taste for scholarship.” This is only half a truth, but it is a serviceable deflection of a topic too leaden for a sunny afternoon.

She’s not buying it. “From my experience,” she says, “you just have to hold your nose and get it done.”

We are walking in the shade now past the fountain. Undergrads weave through the commons in shorts, hoodies, headscarves, earbuds. I glance at my companion. Is she a student’s mom? A volunteer? She’s small and spry, probably in her 50s, with brassy curls and a sure step. Her trousers and blouse are carefully casual. Her makeup, light and even. She oozes wealth, but who knows?

We have these three minutes together.

I choose real.

“Honestly, I’m a single mom and I’m juggling more than I can handle as it is.”

She perks up. “A single mom! You do have a lot going on!” Her breeziness borders on excitement. “This is what my dissertation research was about. Mothers choosing to work or be home.” She pats the box. “That’s what’s in my book.”

It turns out I’m carrying the display volumes for her reading at the upcoming Fall for the Book festival. As we make our way into Robinson Hall and wind through its maze of corridors, she tells me about the research: 200 women with toddlers, 123 of whom she interviewed again when their kids were graduating high school. They shared their stories about the tension between work and home, about the tough choices they had to make.

We bang into the stairwell and plod up to the 4th floor. She asks me about my social life. “You must not have time for someone special. . . ?” I tell her I do and she bubbles with glee.

We eventually stumble into the bunker of offices crammed in behind one wall of the main hallway. I hand her off to the festival coordinator along with her books, but only after she gives me her card and a warm handshake.

I head back to my office past a bearded skater bending to the water fountain. An Asian man in a crimson plastic backpack hurtles past and trips breathless into class. From the seminar room across from my office, a Spanish instructor sounds out a sentence. The students, their tongues in tangled unison, parrot it back.

This campus hums with potential energy. I’m grateful for a career that moves in so vital a setting, where ideas ping and arc across every exchange, and where curiosity nudges back the skin of our questions so we can dig into the meat.

Even so, it’s always a relief to leave. High on puzzles and flow, I still house echoes of longing to return to my boy, my pooch, my neighborhood, my nest.

But on October 3, although it’s a Saturday, I’ll take the road back here. I want to cross her path on purpose. I’ll be ready to lighten her load again, this time by carrying one of those books home.

Visit Deborah Kahn at

Children, Giving

Present Moment

Last night, my Mister and I talked across our nightly distance. We told each other stories of gifts. What had we received that had really knocked our socks off? What were we proud to have given? Both of us had to reach far back for the most shivery memories. A brother’s model aircraft carrier. A first double-cassette stereo materializing in the bedroom on Christmas morning. Continue reading “Present Moment”

Friends, Home

The Interdependence of Self-Reliance

Friends gave me a bed. My Mister helped me rent the van and drive it over the river to collect my friends’ bed. The student from Afghanistan with the big smile who lives with my friends grabbed one end of the mattress as my Mister grabbed the other. My friend risked fingertips and bent with me to unlatch the frame of the bed.

We drove off through my city. My friend called when we were down the block to let us know we’d forgotten a cross brace for the bed. We turned around. My friend was waiting by the loading dock. We opened the doors and my friend smiled. “Long time, no see!”

My Mister drove back over the river and I fielded a call from another friend trapped in the belly of a divorce.

My friend’s hitching breath. My friends’ hands. My friends’ offerings. My friends’ voices.

In my parking lot, I walked circles around picnic tables talking to my friend about her upcoming move and the new commute to her kids’ school. My new neighbor hopped over and offered to give my Mister a hand hauling the mattress and boxspring up the stairs. We set up my friends’ bed.

My Mister drew me into arms he says are mine.

Later, alone, I shook open white queen-sized sheets that once belonged to my parents and stretched them across my friends’ bed. I unfolded my pillowcases, the ones I sewed myself from swaths of sunflower fabric blushing with green dragonflies. My great-grandmother’s quilt with its pastel hexagons and fraying green piping drifted down across my friends’ bed. Biggie, my giant white polar bear buddy, settled down on a pillow. He was a gift chosen by my son’s dad and and my former brother-in-law, well before either one was either one.

Afternoon slipped around my curtains. The island blue weave is faded from sun that followed the drapes along my winding road from California to Colorado to New York to here. September light made its way through the treetops alongside the thrum of I-66 to warm my window and spill across my friends’ bed.

My circle of light. My circle of friends. My finding my own way. My finding everyone.

My return to the beginning.

My home.

Art, Children, Friends

Love before Love

Valentine's Soup

Friendship marks a life even more deeply than love. Love risks degenerating into obsession, friendship is never anything but sharing.

– Elie Wiesel

Bug creeps out of his bed and tiptoes into my room. “Mommy, I made twenty-eight bowls!” His eyes are far too bright for this ungodly hour. For the third time, I walk him back to his room and perch next to him on the bed. He has been drawing a Valentine’s Day picture. The pink and red markers are running to chalky streaks.

“You know it’s well past time for sleep, buddy.”

“I know, but see?” He starts to color in the legs of the lone person on the page, already forgetting why he called me in. Continue reading “Love before Love”

Happy Days, Living in the Moment

Happy 100 Days: 1

The trail splits. It bends to the left, arches to the right, and also continues straight. Where next? Choices, choices.
A shrug. A grin.
How about all of them?
We have plenty of time. We find the road, grimace, double back. We pass a playground. The narrow path is bluestone gravel wet in places. We come out by a library. Then we swing around, make the right we previously ignored, and weave our way along the roughest trail of them all. It takes us into the woods. Three white-tail deer stroll through the tangle, browsing on the green remains poking up through the brown. They barely notice our presence and do not leap away when we pass. A single bird calls from a bare branch.
The wild place only lasts so long. Soon, we find ourselves spilling out into a trimmed back yard near a trampoline. We wander along wide streets past broad-shouldered houses up on hilltops. It is silent. One woman walks a dog wearing a muzzle. He looks very hard at us. There are no children. The window boxes are still twinkling with Christmas lights. Wreaths still adorn the oak front doors.
Once, I coveted. The hunger was intense enough that I sucked the marrow from the imagined misery of the inhabitants. Now, I am happy for the faceless and silent neighbors who have found their moment here. I wish them well. It is strange to enter the place where the Schadenfreude used to reside and to see its absence like a shaft of sunlight across a bare wooden floor. I do not need to live in one of those sprawling mansions. I live here, in this skin. I live in this walk. My home is this forever changing scene and these legs carrying me past houses that belong to others who are my community.  I inhabit the wide ribbon of road that winds down to a creek and sends me up and over the contours of this place.
It is all gone by. This I know, so it is not so hard to claim this blade of grass, this low branch, as my own. The people at one address or another will grow old. Like me, like you. They will have their moments of laughing so hard the tears come, the clock stops, the earth shudders to a halt along its trajectory around the sun. I wish them more such moments. I hope someone inside right now knows nothing but Yes and spares no thought for me.
Today, a haze blankets the sky. It keeps us warm while making us lose our way. A single airplane rubs its back along the low-slung atmosphere. Conversation sputters. We find two long breaths and the pause makes us nervous. We forget where to turn. It does not matter. We find a way back to where we started.
It is not the same place we left.
It never is. Never. No matter how close we get.


Happy 100 Days: 53

We had five good hours after too many to count of the other kind. The day started with the grumpies and turned into the yelling and the kicking before the sun was even up. It was all scowls and meltdowns from there.

Bug was not the only one having them, I am ashamed to admit. We tried to save the day every which way, even letting Giovanni whisk us off to Manassas Battlefield so we could clamber over cannons and caissons in the unseasonably warm November light. Even so, the afternoon was all tears and grumbles and the push-pull of some unscratchable itch.

Then the child care fell through. Along with it, the evening plans.

At 7:00pm, generous friends found extra chairs and squeezed in two more place settings to make room for us as the table. Other children wrestled and played with Bug. My son turned sweet just minutes after we arrived. He stayed that way, more or less, until a little past midnight. He didn’t even turn back into a pumpkin. He simply fell asleep in my arms.

Without advance warning, friends shared their pasta and their hugs. They gave us five hours of noise and light, which was, in its way, five hours of peace.

What a gift.



You have to go the way your blood beats. If you don’t live the only life you have, you won’t live some other life, you won’t live any life at all.
– James Baldwin.

Is this what happens after the tender eardrum bursts? Is this what it is to bear the thick scars, to become deaf, to grow hard?

The third man in less than a year has chastised me for lacking empathy. The third man in less than a year has used the word “selfish” to describe what he sees. It seems this should sting, but oddly, it falls away. The swelling sensation in my chest for my son has to indicate some capacity for care, right? The dedication to Bug is so instinctive and self-sacrificing that this thing love, while perhaps not my dominant chord, is a riff repeated throughout the improvised song of me.

Perhaps the other exes will be nodding their heads as they read this. You said it, brother. That exhalation of relief at being rid of such a cold and steely thing. This is confusing, though. I have also been told I love a little like scalding, a little recklessly. Sometimes, when I get a verse of you stuck in my head, it is hard to shake it free.

A brief and totally unscientific survey of the years preceding the marriage indicates a pattern of ducking out from under the proffered embrace. I fling myself back into the path of my own cyclone, grab hold, and ride. Yes, even if it bucks and hurtles me away from the you whose train just carried me where I claimed I wanted to be.

Alas, this string of men may be right. Should I be peeling back prickled rind of their criticism? It would be nice to make a course correction if it is called for. It’s just that I find myself a tad too unconcerned with this interpretation. Selflessness may be overrated. (Spoken like a truly spoiled brat).

Early experiences with the blues teach a girl a few things. Like, take charge of your own joy. Don’t wait for someone to re-write the song in a major key. Go the way your blood beats. It was never Tee’s job to make me happy, and one of the things he told me recently is that a few years into our relationship, he stopped trying to put a smile on my face.

Sad, but you know what? Good for him.

The desire to be a generous mother and wife eclipsed my capacity for blazing my own trail. We try so hard, the driven among the women, to be soft and giving while the unwritten strains of our own magnum opus threaten to burst the seams. I am sure I am not alone in having tried to quell the jostling desire for a more symphonic score, to draw the string around the neck of the sack and press it down in the river of some man’s cadence until it stopped squirming, until it just floated away on his meandering current.

It does not work (unless it does, and which is worse?)

Certainly, I love to love. Also, though, I have learned to return to the dance, my sweat, the craft. Ink, work, questions, earth. It is unfair to rely on him to conjure the beauty. I have learned how to work the magic with my own hands. This has a price, of course. Not needing him might (oh, irony!) leave him hungry. No wonder I begin to look ugly when, upon hearing the growl in his belly, I toss him the bones. He is no fool. He sees me heap my son’s plate with an extra helping, then retreat behind my velvet curtain and feed in rapturous solitude on the meatiest bits myself.

Please allow me to veer to the side here and indulge in a little contextual inquiry. How is it that we are already a few bites into the 21st century, and a woman who unapologetically carves out time to tune her own strings has to ask herself if she is a loving enough creature? When I rise before the sun to dance or run or write, I know I am leaving that man to his own dreams. He wants me to stay. I get it. I have been the one left before, and it chills a little, right at the moment when the most delicious thing would be to slide up into a tangle of limbs. Girls who become women have to swallow the hardest lesson: the thirst accompanying the beloved’s receding back is what finally makes you decide to stop grumbling at the barren sky. Pick up your own instrument. Pluck out your rough tune. Turn your voice to the horizon and call the rain.

She wakes up when she realizes she no longer aches for company. She has, without knowing how it happened, stumbled upon a few marvelous secrets.

One: it is really a treat to work hard and succeed at something that matters in the world, and the more you do it, the more you want to do it.
Two: that thing you enjoy? It turns out to be just as fun when you do it alone, in the company of strangers or friends, or alongside a lover. It really doesn’t matter. Just doing it makes you smile down in your belly, and that is the truest source of your generosity.
Three: loneliness is the low-hanging fruit. Joy is just a little higher up. Take your pick. Both are within reach.

For me, the greatest surges of love occur when watching a companion out there, bringing his hands down across the taut skin of the world and banging things into place. Seeing him play and build, move and shake? That’s what sets this lady to shivering, not his proximity. Or, at least not only that. I, too, crave the comfort of the hearth, and it is so very nice to spin a cocoon of whispers and flesh, to fit inside someone’s breath.

Please consider this: I am as warm blooded as the rest.

When I turn away, I am not running away. It is not a cold thing. The door is open wide, and I am still offering up whatever scoop of love I have to give. It overflows, and I will gladly glop the best of it all over you once we have both worked up a hunger in our separate pursuits.

It is a gift to wind through the fine lines of the staff with a companion, feeling the buzz of resonance when hitting the notes together. I am not so self-contained as to welcome the prospect of a lifetime of playing one-handed. Being able to cherish and care for a companion, to practice love, not just as a three-chord ditty but as a collection of movements, is a breathtaking blessing. I hope I am fortunate enough to have a chance to attend to a partner’s place in things, and to help him open his voice to his true lyric.

If I am free to practice mine alone, I will leave him to his. My arms will stretch wider, my mouth will lift higher, and I will be able to hear the many layers of him. All I need is a few measures to compose myself.

Growing up ain’t easy. We resist it until we surrender, and then we pull our fingers from our ears and hear, at last, how clear the sound of our own pulse, how perfectly timed the beat of our veins to that of our feet. Finally, we do not concern ourselves with finding someone to fill the gap. We write the bridge in where it belongs, and then cross it to meet our companion, weaving together our whole and separate songs.