body, community

Injury Reconstruction

Crouching Aphrodite

Follow me here: your brain will begin to change as you do.


– Alexandra Horowitz, On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes

The gait is an oddity.  You scoop now, or maybe swoop.  To walk forward, you have to cover distances along the vertical, an axis you’ve rarely considered. It is as if one torn hinge down below popped a hasp hidden along an adjoining edge.  The door swings upward now.  You must believe in this way of opening.  You must be willing to shift the fulcrum and lean against places you thought were solid.

Adaptation reconfigures the concept of self-reliance.

You are unable to chase down your wild one.  You find people who can. The children of the neighbors whose names you vaguely remember, they invite you because you invite yourself.  Their friends come, chatter and thump, with chocolate glass and athletes’ names stitched onto their backs.  Meat hisses and blackens over a grill.  Your little man plucks a fallen tree from the ground and hurls it across a blossoming acre of sky.  The other one rips a PVC frame from a soccer goal and turns on him.  They tear around the side where ropes and fence posts swallow them up.  Inside, girls scream.  Grease pops, a baby reaches with his crystal mouth for a slice of fruit left on raw wood.

You scale concrete steps and marvel at mechanics which you thought your birthright.  Undeserved, as is every blithe entitlement.  Fleeting, as is every aspect of the truth you trusted enough to ignore.

Pain is a flavor like coffee gone cold.  Good coffee, though.  Oil gleaming on jeweled beans.  Smoke at the edges.

Your joint is a broken tongue slipping around the memory of speed.  This is a small inconvenience.  You are grateful in a wholly unexpected way to those who have tripped over this earth in imperfect bodies.  All the ones who have scrabbled with impossible latches that bar the way to gardens too narrow anyway, or too terraced.  You thank them for every smooth paving stone, every ramp, every handrail.  You are ashamed of your earlier blindness, that disability of of the unimpaired.

The lips of those who see your hitch at first pucker with scars.  Then they chuckle them loose.  “This is just the beginning, you know.”  They are your comrades in arms.  In hips, ankles, in sciatic nerves.  Together with these allies in mortal combat, you watch an enemy front advancing over the horizon.  It moves fast.  It swells in on your flank.

Defeat is inevitable, a foregone conclusion.  You resist nonetheless.  You hold it off and clutch at your inch of territory even as it shrinks in your grip.

You lift your arm and ride its arc.  It will go too, soon enough.  It is here now, though, that crescendo, that cascade.  You lift your ears to the buzz (engine, wasp, feathered wings dipping then gone) and let heat squirm against your bare face.  This wash and flurry grates awake sinew that in its younger, uncracked state felt barely anything all.

You may return to ignorance.  Luck, they say.  This could heal without blade, just a dimming of pain, a steady return to familiar physics.  You welcome the liberation of your attention.

But you know better now.  You know that luck never holds out.  Bones will hollow.  Fluid will vanish from the eyes and reappear in lungs, in ankles, in tiny bubbles scurrying through veins.  Forward motion is a fleeting state.  As is independence.  As is hubris.  Soon you will need bodies stronger than yours to escort you across your days.  The same will happen to your children and neighbors, to your heroes, to everyone you’ve ever loved.

Like the shattering of childbirth, this crack and shift will fade.  Like childbirth, its footsteps will echo.  Its ghosts will walk your body’s locked corridors.

Keep all the hinges oiled.

Hold the keys close.


Image: Crouching Aphrodite (Venus) at the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme (National Roman Museum)

community, Things I Can

91. Things I Can Carry: The Load

RoadsTaken

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 www.TheRoadsTaken.net

community, Parenting, Things I Can

52. Things I Can Trust: His Compass

The rain lets up. In the kitchen, the skillet heats. I press shredded cheese into pockets of moist masa harina. Bug peels himself from the couch and kicks his feet into his sneakers. “I’m going out,” he tells me.

He wheels off through the courtyard on his scooter. I toss the first pupusa onto popping oil. A few minutes later, he’s back.

“No one’s home,” he says. The rain cleared the swimming pool deck, and the girls upstairs have flown off to Japan for the week. I step out to point across the breezeway, reminding him where his two new friends live. He jets off down the sidewalk.

Inside, the patties have warmed to gold. I open the blinds. The smiling man who drives the tiny sports car pauses inches from the window to leaf through his circulars. A couple passes behind him and takes the stairs, bickering about who was supposed to remember to check their mail.

Our unit sits at the top of the steps from the parking lot. Our door opens onto an alcove of community mailboxes. The mere act of leashing Noodle or loading schoolbags opens our living room to all curious eyes. We are friendly and brazen now. It took some time. The only alternative is armor and I got tired of lugging it around.

Neighbors buzz by with groceries and dogs. They unlock their mailboxes. They crack jokes, bark at their children, duck their heads and pretend they don’t see in. They plant earbuds, jingle keys, tap on their phones, bump into us. I say hello to everyone. I try to remember names.

Bug is back. He’s riding solo, looping around the concrete walkways. I see him pause at the adjacent condo, the one that houses the Portuguese couple whose children are grown. When we leave town, they water our plants and bring in the paper. Bug knows he is safe to go there if anything happens to me. Now he is knocking on their door. Now he has gone into their house. Now his scooter leans against the wall and, for the moment, my boy inhabits someone else’s world.

This kid astounds me. His classmates are all in for the evening? No problem. Just go say hello to someone else you like. Instead of waiting for change, he turns boredom into community. Instead of lamenting absent friends, he seeks out the ones on hand.

I step back to the stove and slip the first batch onto a rack. The oil is smoking so I click the heat to low. A moment later, he stomps inside. “I’m going next door,” he hollers. “Is the car unlocked?”

“Are there kids there?” I ask. “And what do you need in the car?”

“Just my skateboard,” he says. “No, no kids.”

“Who are you going to play with?” The cornflour is paste on my hands. I walk out to the foyer, patting the cheese flat into my palms. I peel, flip, pat, peel. It sticks anyway.

Bug paws through the keys on the hooks in the entryway. “Just some teenager.” He grabs a key. “Bye.” He pounds off down the stairs.

Now my antennae are up. Who is this mystery adolescent? And what sort of activity is my 8-year-old going to share with a teenager? I drop the pupusa onto the skillet and invert the others to keep them from burning. A sliver of cheese escapes and toasts to a crisp.

I hear Bug mount the stairs. I meet him there as he’s snapping on his helmet. A girl is waiting for him in the alcove. The soft shyness of her face makes her age hard to guess. She has dark hair in barrettes, glasses, a nervous smile, down syndrome. I put out my hand and introduce myself. She shakes my hand and tells me her name and explains that our neighbor is “my — um, my mother’s — um.” She thinks for a minute. “I’m her niece.”

“Oh, your mother is her sister. She’s your aunt.”

She lights up and nods. “That’s it!”

“I met so many people in your family at the birthday party,” I say. “How do you keep track of everyone?” She shrugs and grins. Bug adjusts his helmet and steps onto his deck.

“Do you have a skateboard too?” I ask her. “Are you going to ride?”

“I used to have one but it’s not here.”

“Do you want to use our scooter?”

“Yes, I would like to use the scooter.” I drag it out. Bug is already halfway down the corridor. She balances on the narrow base and pushes off after him. “Stay off the road and in the complex,” I holler.

Bug shouts back to me or maybe to her, “That’s okay because the complex is HUGE.”

It is dusk now. The pupusas sit in a limp mountain on a rack on the stove. I’ve made far too many for us. A dozen, more. The table is set with salsa, watermelon, carrots, silverware. My boy is still out there somewhere.

Do I trust their judgment?

The whispers begin. I wash the mixing bowl.

What if he catches sight of friends at the park? What if she wants to climb out on the railing? What if the ice cream truck is parked down the road?

The whispers hiss and jostle. I fold the cloth napkins.

Who will talk the other into holding back? Who will egg the other into jumping?

The whispers turn up the heat. I fill the water glasses.

Am I an idiot to trust my neighbors. Do I know this girl?

Do I know my son?

This is how the illusion of control worms its way in and cripples nascent independence. It chokes out any breath of fellowship. This is doubt at its most insidious.

This is why I let him go.

It is also why I wipe the counter. Make tomorrow’s lunch. Stay near the window but inside the house.

And maybe they are still out there wheeling around the neighborhood.

Or maybe they only needed to survey the perimeter of their shared territory once to satisfy their curiosity.

And maybe it was the vent fan whisking away the scorched oil that muffled their return.

Or maybe it was the internal chatter clanging louder than their homebound feet.

Out the window, I see now the helmets and wheels strewn along the wall. I find them parked on the neighbor’s couch, sipping Sprite and giggling at a Disney teen sitcom. The neighbors are puzzling over real estate listings. A baby nephew fusses in his carrier until someone picks him up. The husband comes in dripping sweat from a run. On their stovetop, a pressure cooker bubbles and shrieks.

I nudge Bug out the door. He calls a thank-you back over his shoulder. He bounces the five steps to our door and the six more to our table where downs half the pupusas and all the watermelon.

Home, Mindfulness

Patch Work

This should be a crisis. It would have been on any given night in any given year before now. Crouched by the HVAC closet, frozen air blowing right into my house from the snowy night, I sop up the quarter inch of filthy water pooled on the concrete floor.
 
I had not planned to be anywhere near here. My workout clothes are on, water bottle filled, iPod charged up. Almost out the door 30 minutes earlier, I’d forced myself to do a U-turn. Those presents aren’t going to wrap themselves, Chiquita.
 
In the hours after my son’s snow-day ended with his dad picking him up, I had moved with steadfast determination towards the sweet promise of three miles on the elliptical. Legos were tossed into bins, vacuum run, dishwasher emptied. I stopped myself halfway out the door to tackle a final task that I’d been skillfully avoiding for days. Just one set, Lady. Then you can go sweat. My workout, my precious reward, could wait 15 more minutes.
 
Okay, fine. But just the one.
 
After packing goodies and taping up boxes, I opened the closet door to grab a roll of wrapping paper from behind the rumbling air handler. It came up dripping. The bottom end of it was a sponge of wet mush. I took a breath, braced myself, and forced my eyes to the floor. Brown. Rippling. The boxes of tools and bags of charcoal had booked a winter cruise.
 
Now, hunched here in my yoga pants with presents only half wrapped and a workout swiftly receding into the horizon, I toss aside the floating metal door sill which has come loose. A puddle disappears under the floorboards and travels who-knows-where.
 
Out come igloo cooler, portable grill, paint supplies. The rest of the ruined wrapping paper. Stained plywood scraps. All of it lands in a grimy heap by our twinkling Christmas tree. Presents are mushed in the commotion. In the absence of a shopvac (where would a girl store such a monster?), I gather a cache of bath towels. Sop, rinse, first shift clocks out and heads to the laundry. Second shift takes up the mess under the drip pan. Once the bulk is up, I don boots and step in to diagnose the problem. Pouring in the contents of the water bottle I had filled for a purpose I can scarcely recall, I see the leak spilling right out of the new drain pipe I foolishly invited our resident maintenance dude to install.
 
I curse him. Curse myself for trusting him not once but twice, asking him to do this even after he botched a drywall job. As soon as the first mental punch cracks open the door, in slither the familiar hissing thoughts of defeat. I feel suddenly, horribly alone. There is no one help with this. I can’t afford this. I can’t do this.
 
I don’t close the door on them. I just toss the empty bottle aside, shrug, and haul a heap of dripping towels to the bathtub. Then, as quickly as they came, all those thoughts just skitter on away. They hadn’t even hung around for 90 seconds. I can almost hear the slip-rattle of their scaled bellies as they vanish down the corridor and head out in into the night. I smile — actually smile — as I notice how completely fine this whole situation is.
 
New thoughts come knocking. These, I choose. These, I invite in to keep me company as I work.
 
How cool is it that I found this problem before the downstairs neighbors did? Isn’t it neat that I decided to stay and wrap the presents so I could stumble upon this?
 
And
 
Well, I guess it takes me two times to learn not to trust that guy with anything inside my house.

 
And
 
Making good choices about home repair takes practice, just like mastering anything: speaking a new language, getting around in an unfamiliar city, making sourdough tortillas, managing a first-grader’s schedule.
 
And
 
It’s just a problem to solve. I’ll clean up now and cobble together the tools I need to keep it from getting worse. Then, once I’ve caught my breath, I’ll tackle the next step.
 
And
 
I’m so glad I already worked with that other handyman my realtor recommended. Now I have someone I can call!
 
(Which I pause to do). And
 
Wow, what a great opportunity to clean the crud off of some of these things piled up in the HVAC closet.
 
And
 
Dad’s right. Homeownership does suck. Hey, I’m a homeowner! And I get to figure all this stuff out!
 
Straddling a chair and prattling on, these thoughts keep me buoyed up at the surface of the evening. Where is the self-pity? The sagging sense of defeat? The inward longing for someone to come and figure this out for me? The door is still open but those worries and aches haven’t returned.
 
They slinked off down the block a while ago. Maybe it’s too bright in here for them now.
 
Over three years have passed since the separation. This month marks the second anniversary of the divorce. Getting through the day and facing both the routines and the surprises do not grind at me as they did when this all began in 2010.
 
I have experienced crisis. This is not one. Not by any stretch. The yardstick for catastrophe has changed shape entirely. This? This is just a leaky heater. It’s not even a bad thing. It’s just another event in a day. Unplanned, like so many, yet totally manageable.
 
As I toss towels in the dryer, I hear something scrape against the bottom of the washer tub. I reach in and pull out a tiny, marred gold object about the size of my pinkie-nail. It is a pendant in the shape of a clam shell. It must have washed out from a flooded corner. From the foundation. From the ocean floor. I drop it in my pocket and root around for a moment to see what else is in there. I pull up a handful of currency I don’t remember stashing there, but when I see it shining in my palm, I recognize it instantly.
 
This:
 
A small but growing community. A few neighbors whose names I know. Parents down the road. A companion who comes not to rescue me but to believe in me. A young but expanding career, a cushion in the bank, time off when I need it. A child a few blocks away in the good care of his loving dad. A half-full toolbox, two able hands, one agile mind.
 
Workout gear. NPR on the iPod. Thirty minutes to spare.
 
Now, the towels are dry and a fresh set pads the drainspout. The grill and cooler and plywood are all wiped clean and stacked neatly near the twinkling tree. I refill my water bottle and step outside.
 
Mist cradles the evening. The forecast calls for more snow. I’m ready for it.
 
I’m ready for anything.
 

Children, Friends

Trick of Light

The Boy who Refuses to Smile sits down on the low wall next to the girl in purple tights. He leans into her and she into him. She wears sequined high-top sneakers and sparkles like a star. The third child climbing onto the bricks is a nameless shadow, near but in a different frame, on another block, in someone else’s story. The Boy pastes on the requisite grin and stays still for one, two, three cameras. He angles towards her glitter. Their knees touch. She tilts her head and smiles like a diva.
 
“Oh, so that’s Bug,” the girl’s uncle says. He steps closer to me and introduces himself. “We hear your boy’s name around our house all the time.”
 
Tee and I grimace at the same moment. I brace for the kind-yet-careful description of our son’s latest wave of schoolyard tyranny. The aunt laughs. “Nothing like that. I think there might be a crush.”
 
Bug slides off the wall and darts ahead before turning and coming back for her. “Star, come with me!” She runs after him. They clomp up the steps, peering into an offered cauldron and digging for some just-right wrapper. When they hustle back down through the cluster of Iron Men (three of them) and princesses (countless), Star’s pumpkin swings from Bug’s forearm. Star pauses to beam up at the assembled adults.
 
“He’s carrying my candy for me because it’s so heavy.”
 
Bug races forward and doubles back yet again, calling into the little girl’s face as if from across a moor. “Star, this way!” He points to foam webs slung from the railing and plastic swords dripping like stalactites from low branches. “That house is for sure open.”
 
“Okay!” she cries, sliding the pumpkin back off his arm. He waits while she does this. They break into a run towards the orange lights flickering against dark faces, a glass door opening to greet them.
 

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.