activism, Choices, Take Action

Ask Fear Out

dance trilogy

When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.

– Audre Lorde

I buy the house for the future. Political variables do not enter into the equation. Of course the system will stay healthy enough to sustain my son and me. Housing markets rise and fall. Financial markets swing from bear to bull. Social security may last or disappear. Through all this, my house is insurance. The same is true of my education, my work experience, my retirement savings, my kid’s college fund. The road will have its bumps but we’ll be okay, more or less.

(But for how long?)

My decision fails take into consideration that truth is only assumption and that nothing is fixed.

Now a fear takes root, a fear bigger and more eclipsing than any I’ve ever experienced. Inside this fear swim all the possibilities of a much darker future. Inside this fear dawns a recognition of the fragility of my security.

Privilege, as it happens, will not protect me.

Continue reading “Ask Fear Out”

Growing Up, Purpose

This New Day

woman-registered-vote

The suffragette whites hung at the foot of the bed.  In the jacket pocket, I’d tucked a gold wedding band belonging to one grandmother and a pair of gold earrings from the other — the last Christmas gift she gave me before she died.  Both of these women were born before the ratification of the 19th Amendment.

In their lifetime, my grandmothers earned the right to vote.  Even so, they didn’t have a chance to see a woman run for president.  One probably wouldn’t have marked Hillary’s name.  The other — a little blue dot in bright red Texas — would have. I wanted them both with me on election day 2016. Continue reading “This New Day”

Adventure, Letting Go, Relationships, Things I Can

99. Things I Can Light: Story from Flint

What men call adventures usually consist of the stoical endurance of appalling daily misery.

– Louise Erdrich, The Plague of Doves

Do we choose the journey or does it choose us? How much say do we really have?

I imagine I’ll tell the story of now as a gritty trek through a wild and scouring place. It will be the reason for the deep cuts and silver streams lining the map of me. I’ll marvel at my strength (grown out of necessity in this restless soil) and adopt the progeny of my mistakes as my own kin (oh, how very many of them).

Something will reveal itself eventually. It must. It always does.  Continue reading “99. Things I Can Light: Story from Flint”

People Watching, Things I Can

66. Things I Can Cross: Campus at the Edge of Could

They sit on the grass in a loose circle. Rain has steamed the patches that remain to a fecund spill of harlequin and jade. The one with long hair and glasses is a swaying stem, her pod at the edge of splitting open. “He had a whole philosophy about the virtues,” she says. Her hands flit out to catch the round putty of this idea then stretch it out, out.

On these summer days when dusk falls near bedtime, the lunch hour employs a more forgiving clock. Two men in dusty coveralls striped with orange reflective tape sprawl on a bench next to chain link. A temporary enclosure wraps around campus like silver Christmas ribbon, knotted somewhere hidden, impossible to pull free. You’d have to find the shears. Behind them, a sign strapped to wire: Do Not Move Fence. Someone has not only tried but succeeded. The lousy lot of us — students and faculty and staff, our shared absence of virtue rendering us indistinguishable from one another — has such an excess of time on our hands (or perhaps a paucity of imagination when it comes to selecting a target for our disaffection) that we need reminding how to treat a fence.

The younger one is white, filmed with dust, his red goatee threaded to rust. He holds a phone — or the amalgam that now passes for a phone — aloft. A noise crackles from it. His buddy’s hair fans in every direction. He is black, though in this case the speciousness of the designation is even more palpable than usual. Dry soil has powdered them to an identical tone.

Race, of course, is about everything else that churns under the surface we imagine solid. It is thrumming here. In the way they speak, sit, gaze. The one on the left splays his legs and drapes his arms, one over a knee, the other along the back of the bench. The one on the right leans forward, stiff, holding the phone-like object. Whiteness and blackness is in this posture, this way of taking — or pretending not to take — the measure of passing students.

The crackling is a voice, a distant Barack Obama. The president’s unmistakable cadence, the falling and punctuated pauses, is carrying across a field of cameramen and wind, piped through the pinhole speaker next to the tiny screen now aloft in the younger man’s grip.

Has something happened? While I was in my lunchtime yoga activating the parasympathetic nervous system with happy baby, did another plate shift? Another city block catch fire? Another of my neighbors fall in the dark hush of a redacted narrative?

I look around at the others. The grass-bound circle of literary acolytes is now far behind me. Women perch on metal chairs outside the student center which houses a new Panera. This is the most popular lunch spot on campus despite a growing national suspicion of Bread’s intentions. A beauty in a creamsicle dress and platform heels turns heads like a stadium wave, collapsing construction worker and student into one undifferentiated hunger. The only ones oblivious to her liquid progress are two younger men striding past. They clutch the straps of their backpacks, heads bent at such an angle they almost meet at the temple. The one speaking rushes out words and stumbles over them. They hadn’t run it with the new numbers — that must be why — that’s why it turned out like that. Neither breaks stride as the sundress swirls across their path.

The president’s voice pings off leaf, satchel, water bottle, sunglasses. If something has happened, the light would scour this plaza instead of skidding as it does off bared calf and shoulder. The fountain would pound instead of froth, the faces furrow, the gazes tunnel into the things we call phones, seeking an answer or maybe a map in those digital libraries that far out-Alexandria Alexandria itself.

When it happens, whatever it is, so much we think is solid in this place will tumble like rockfall into the ravine through which we course. Momentum we imagined our earned and maybe even natural pace will back up behind that unthinkable-but-now-here flash of history. In that instant, downstream will transform into the bewildered trickle of a future uncertain how to fill the space it occupied when it was so lush, when it was able to slake the thirst not only of its own banks but of everything in us that came there to drink.

 

Children, Parenting

Turning Rite

A rattling on metal. Something like gravel on the roof of a train. It echoes down four stories and then back again through the flue reaching above mine and the one above that, all the way out to night. The fire is a mere whisper of its former self, a glow in a carpet of gray. I reach in with the hook end of the poker and creak down the damper. Rain gushes down outside, washing away the remains of dozens of exploded snowballs, our frantic footprints, the tiny snowman with the stick features we built in the first dusting on the basketball court. It will melt away the ice that has already canceled school for tomorrow, carrying it down curbs, into sewers, away to the Chesapeake bay.
 
At dinner tonight, we slurped soup and talked of rituals. Tea ceremonies and such. “What’s a ritual?” Bug asked. Our guest and I tried our best to puzzle out a definition. Like a habit that you do over and over, but with more meaning. Sort of. And like a tradition, sort of. “Like brushing your teeth every night?” Bug asked. We pulled out the Oxford dictionary. We looked up both “ritual” and “habit.” The former is marked by its regularity and invariability, and it often has a religious and ceremonial quality to it. We tried to come up with our rituals. Are the three books and three songs every night a routine or a ritual? Where do our prayers and passages reside? Do we have a sacred fixation?
 
My boy sleeps now. Out through a reflection of green-pink-everycolor lights, the street below is a river. Ice-tipped peaks and silvered trenches first soften to hills then flatten to black.
 
Our last book at bedtime was a new one from the library: The Man Who Walked Between the Towers. It is the true story of the feat of one Philippe Petit who, in 1974, snuck a cable between the two buildings of the World Trade Center as they were still under construction. He walked it, danced it, and even lay upon it as the sun rose over New York City. The book tipped me vertiginously too high and too far behind all at once. Dizzy, I had to catch my breath. Those towers are gone and Bug wanted to know why.
 
This question was going to come. Even with this certainty, I knew I would never be prepared. Shutting the book and setting it aside, I scooted down close to him. “There were some people who wanted to hurt America,” I explained. “They hijacked airplanes and flew them into the buildings. The buildings fell down. People died.”
 
True to his engineering mind, he actually wanted the how, not the why. I filled in the gaps easily. Too easily. It is all as fresh as if I am watching it now on that giant screen, the same silence choking us — bound as I am to the anonymous, forever Us of that moment — in a university lounge just a few miles from the Pentagon. Bug asked one straightforward question after another. “Did they fly into one building then out and into the other?”
 
“No, baby, there were two different planes. And a couple of others.” I kept it simple. In the spots where he plunged the shovel of his curiosity, I elaborated. We meandered around that day, finally making our way to the moment the passengers on board the last plane stopped the bad guys by crashing into a field. After Bug found where to place his period at the end of the story, he leaned his shovel against a tree, slid down into the bed and asked me to sing.
 
It is legend to him. Ancient history. No frisson shivers through a spectator with quite the intensity it does for a player. These are lines on maps and pages in books. When you are here and now instead of there and then, you trace them with your finger. You maybe imagine visiting. Normandy. Vietnam. Manassas. In other places, too, shadows of what was human made and human razed streak the land. The ones who remember delineate the shade. Those who don the mantle of memory after the last survivors are gone then call those phantoms back again and again until ghosts knit to earth like a skin under the now. Library of Alexandria. Berlin Wall. Twin Towers.
 
It should come as no surprise that Bug is not frightened by the story I tell. It is no different from any other history lesson. People work. Build things. Invent and discover. Go to war. Lead and follow. Make art and families and cities and revolution. Hurt each other. He’s learned already that villains are real. That heroes help. That people can come together to change what is into what could be.
 
That danger lurks and courage grows.
 
My boy’s classroom doors have little black accordions of paper clipped up high in the windows. He tells me these are for when the bad guys come in. While the kids hide, a teacher can unclip the little curtains to block anyone from seeing in. Bug told me this on the way to the car and then asked if I’d brought a snack.
 
My son sleeps. Rain rattles against the damper then dulls to a hum before finally falling silent.
 
He asked for extra songs tonight. Tiny lights glinted from tree branches in the living room. A velveteen Santa sat on a side table with a key silent in its back, having earlier tinkled down its wordless version of what we’ve all learned to know without even trying. I curled into my boy and called from memory the first few verses of the old standbys. Silent night, holy night. . . My voice slowed and and thinned as his eyes drooped. Christ is born in Bethlehem. . . Planted in the furrows of my brain, these hymns. As Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ on Christmas day in the morn. . . I settle my child to sleep with the lyrical story of a God we do not worship in an ancient land that is not ours. Born is the king of Israel. . .
 
The evergreen outside the window sheds its silver husk. Boughs that protected a soft patch of snow from the freezing rain earlier now dip and shudder in the downpour. Inside, an ember pops. The scaled lip of the last log glows for one fulgent moment before turning to ash.
 

Children, Outdoors

Ancestry (abridged)

He cranks the handle of the umbrella. It creaks open like dragon wings after a long winter. The skies have been emptying themselves over this place for days. Underfoot, the ground is no longer differentiated. Soil? Water? It all pools together and pushes up around the feet. Slog and slop. The green is shameless now, cascading wanton curtains of thrilled leaf. Bug neither cares about the soggy seat cushions nor acknowledges that lasagna isn’t exactly patio-dining fare.
 
The rain has paused. We will be eating outside.
 
The four of us scoot in around the green iron circle cluttered with linen napkins, big porcelain plates, and parmesan cheese. The pansies behind Bug pop in violet butter from the boxes. He devours the slipping, fat noodles and wipes up the remaining sauce with garlic toast. We talk easy and only half about anything. My mother is wearing the necklace my father sprang on her at the tag end of Christmas day last year. It is a silver-and-stone replica of the solar system.
 
“Which one is Pluto?” Bug asks.
 
“It’s the littlest one, isn’t it?” She lifts the chain and examines. Bug reaches out and touches the polished tigers-eye sphere suspended in a silver ring.
 
“Is that Saturn?”
 
We go through the planets one by one. He does not see the sun. “Grandma’s head is the sun,” I say. She strikes and pose and we all chuckle.
 
“I bet the hippies are still out there in the Arizona desert selling those things,” my father says. “You know, they make every single piece by hand.”
 
“What’s a hippie?” Bug asks.
 
Silence. We all consider.
 
“An ancient civilization,” I finally say. My folks both laugh.
 
“Hippies were a strange tribe of people who broke with tradition long ago,” I go on. “They created their own rituals and ways of worshipping the things they held sacred.”
 
“Yeah,” my dad snorts. “Unlike every other civilization in the world?”
 
“They made wild, new music and wore beautiful costumes.” I explain. “Some of their songs and stories are still with us today.” I take a swig of my ice water and reach the professorial conclusion. “In fact, you could say it was a renaissance.”
 
My mother laughs. “Yeah, a renaissance of hair.” She smiles at Bug. “Everyone grew their hair long then.”
 
“My hair is long,” Bug says.
 
“Yeah. It wouldn’t be if not for the revolutionary ways of the Hippie,” I say.
 
Bug ponders this. Behind him, the tiny duckpins of the fuschia plant are popping open and splaying their purple viscera. “What kind of hair would I have?”
 
“Short,” say my folks together.
 
“Army short,” says my dad.
 
“And you wouldn’t be able to wear jeans to school,” explains my mom.
 
“You have much to thank the Hippie for,” I tell him.
 
“Why?” Bug reaches for more bread but I block him with a carrot. He takes it and gives it a crunch around his loose tooth.
 
“Because before that, people had ideas about doing things only one way,” I say.
 
“Everyone had to follow orders,” my mother explains. She gestures towards the rest of the lasagna and my dad reaches for it. She slops out extra helpings on the smeared plates. The dog snuffles near and I give her a firm point down the steps.
 
“Hippies were big kids like your aunt and uncles,” I explain. I wave off the offer of another helping. The evening is just too light for more. “Young people. Tired of being told how to be. They decided they were going to do things their own crazy, artsy, colorful way. And so they did, even if it got them in trouble.”
 
“Okay,” says Bug. He tucks into the melty cheese. His shirt is spattered. The capacity of his stomach stuns me, as does the fact that he is just so very tall.
 
“You should have seen your granddaddy’s hair,” my mother says with a faraway look in the direction of her husband.
 
He grunts. “Yeah. It was really something. Down to there, hair.”
 
“Where it stops by itself,” she says.
 
It goes quiet except for the sip of wine, the slurp of sauce. A borer bee dips low and Bug ducks away. I remind him that bees prefer nectar over tomato sauce and that she’ll be off to find something sweeter. She should have no trouble lighting upon an ample source in this fecund pocket of earth.
 

Love, Poetry, Reading

Book Lovers

Each with his favored arm
made his foray
scorning confections and only sometimes opening a hand
dusted with the crushed stamen
of a hothouse orchid. Walt came bearing small sprouts
at least before his straight-up offer of crotch and vine
while against my throat, Edgar licked
glossed feather. I choked down Eliot’s ragged claws and talk
of Michelangelo, glancing against the vorpal snicker
Carroll carried unsheathed. The graze bared
blood beat and Baldwin fire going the way I dared not ache.
I had barely found my feet and certainly not my sense
when, whispering, Kazuo led me to a corner of the room
I’d never seen and there, Salman with a slow grin
esta-esta-estuttered open his voice in song.

Continue reading “Book Lovers”

Choices, Poetry

The Cat Came Back

The first mistake was the one you made.
The second was thinking it had
forgotten you. What will the third be?
Do you let it climb naked
onto your back and ride
you like a name?
Do you give it tea, your ear, a year
or three to chatter itself empty?
Do you build Hadrian’s wall
and repel any breach?
Do you involve the police?
Maybe you rest your arm
across its bristling shoulders and say
Thank you
but I’ve got this
now.

Uncategorized

Manassas, Virginia

On the battlefield, he runs headlong through overgrown weeds, gales bending the stalks in beautiful unison. The deeper he ventures, the taller the grass. The soil is more giving in the low belly of the field, shot through with capillaries of water that burst at his footfalls.
 
Squinting against the wind, Bug calls back to me, “How will we ever find our way out?” The boundless jungle enraptures him. He crouches, pretending to be a tiger, his knees darkening with mud. His eyes are too low to see the house, the visitors’ center, the violet swath of the Appalachians beyond. Below his vision, two lines of cannons face us down, one on the west hill and another on the east. Surging between their sites, Bug feels no sense of danger. He does not hear the sighing of the ghosts as they turn in the soft tangle of roots beneath his feet.
 
Bug unfolds to his full height and takes in the field. “Was there really a war here?”
 
In broad strokes, I paint a picture of a whole nation of people disagreeing about the way things should be run. I tell him that for a while, America was divided in two, and if the Confederates had won, we would live in one country with one president and one kind of money, while his Massachusetts cousins would live in an entirely different country. The war, I explain, was full of terrible fighting. The Union won, so we stayed all together.
 
Bug races to the first of the cannons and attempts to peer down the bore. We talk about how they worked, making sense of vent and breech and cascabel. Across the field, a mirror image: the Union line, in formation. Before us towers the mounted figure of Stonewall Jackson who, it stuns me to discover, was only a year old than I am now when he died.
 
Inside the visitors’ center, Bug is ravenous. He presses his face to the glass displays and asks the name and use of every single shell casing, every scrap of rope. He tells me we should go back outside to dig up more bayonets. We read the placards and I fill in gaps as best I can, describing scenes of war, the smells, the boys no older than his young uncles wearing those worn out boots and dragging themselves into position as fire rained down. Twice through, Bug watches the narrative light display flickering over a wall-sized diorama of the battlefield. He absorbs the tiny dots as they cross Sudley Ford, march into formation on Matthew’s Hill, and finally face off from either side of the lone Henry House. The only civilian to be killed in the whole of the Civil War was determined to go about her business inside the house on that July day. Bug wants to know about her, asks again and again who she was and how she was killed.
 
Then: “Did any horses die?”
 
We make our way to The Capture of Rickett’s Battery, a Sydney King painting on display near the entrance. The image horrifies me and I wonder if I am exposing my boy to too much. He spies a horse with its angry wound, asking if it is hurt and if it is dead now. I deliver my spare answers gently. He pauses there for a few minutes, quiet, looking. Then we are outside again. This time, he clambers up the dull iron body of a Union cannon.
 
As lightly as I can, I ask, “Bug, have you learned about slavery at school?”
 
“No.” He is trying to gain a foothold on the wheel.
 
“Slavery is when one person owns another person, like owning a car or a toy, and forces the person do work for them.” This is the best I can manage on the fly like this. Bug is focused. He may or may not hear me. “People who are slaves are not free to live where they want or even have the friends they want. They don’t get paid for the work they do.” Bug continues to make his way up and onto the top of the ammunition case, the harsh wind wreaking havoc on his hair. “One part of the country wanted to keep owning slaves to do work. The other part thought it was wrong. That’s one reason for the Civil War.” I still my tongue, pressing back the urge to go on about the economic and political rifts between the industrial North and agrarian South. The rest will have to wait.
 
“It was right here?” He is crawling slowly out to the chase of the cannon, balancing on the narrowing cylinder.
 
“It was all over the country, but yes, one big battle happened right here.” Low clouds streak across the searing blue. “A lot of people died because they couldn’t work it out by talking. When the war ended, we were one country again, and no one is allowed to own anyone else.” Finally, I say the thing I hope will someday be true. “Now, all people here are free.”
 
“Did our team win?”
 
We are standing in the dead center of Stonewall Jackson’s strike zone, but what can he do from his impotent perch? Virginia is ours now. “Yep, baby,” I say, reaching out. “We won.”
 
Bug takes my hand and leaps from the muzzle to the ground, then plunges once again into the sweep of grass as it dances on that soft, sorrowful earth.
 

Divorce

Closing Remarks

Thank you for saving me from those awful American teenagers in St. Lucia.

Thank you throwing yourself between the two cars on that icy road in California just to keep the new Subaru from getting smashed. For calling in favors to build us a deck in California. For constructing the shed in the front yard with your dad, the play structure in the back yard with my dad, and the coffee table with me.

Thank you for letting me sleep in. For giving Bug and me a home in the woods. For biting your tongue. For mastering Carcassonne.

Thank you for being such a playful daddy, and staying close with your family, and storing the skis and sleds and tents and skates and wagons and hoses and buckets and boxes, all out of the way but within reach.

Thank you for building the clothesline and the sandboxes. For setting up the stump-jungle-gym in the yard, for hanging the hammock, for doing all the driving, and for digging the car out in winter.

Thank you for playing guitar without singing sometimes so I could write. For taking Bug on the back of your bike, taking him camping at Rock Island, taking him for walks around the lake.

Thank you for throwing the ball hundreds of times just exactly straight so he could feel the crack of the bat. Thank you for doing the same for me, for correcting my pitch, for never losing your patience no matter how wildly I swung the racket or club or bat.

Thank you for agreeing to have our computer and TV in the basement or back room, and sometimes for having no TV at all.

Thank you for dealing with the mice and spiders.

Thank you for appreciating every meal I cobbled together even if you didn’t like it.

Thank you for hanging the art and the curtains and the shelves.

Thank you for airing the tires. For raking the leaves. For speaking calmly. For reading Bug stories. For wrestling with him on the living room floor.

Thank you for your calm that night when our son was just a year old and I couldn’t take another minute with him, and I met you at the door with my overnight bag and tears streaming down my face and I thrust Bug into your arms and announced I was going to be gone for the night. Thank you for taking it all in stride and trusting that I would return and letting me go catch my breath in a Denver hotel room by my blessed self.

Thank you for drawing the maps and the blueprints. For bringing home the dining hall schedules. For keeping me abreast of the activities in camp even when I was too consumed with home and Bug to care.

Thank you for inviting me to common meals. For nudging me to host the game nights in our house. For coming home at lunch from time to time to be at the table with your family.

Thank you for learning to drive stick and use the tractor and run the plow. For splitting the logs and building the fires. For mastering the chainsaw, the table saw, the nail gun. For building the fence so the dog and our son could have a place outside to run.

When I called you to schedule the next meeting for the divorce, thank you for reminding me to ask the lawyer about tax benefits and timing. For cracking a joke. For your light touch.

Thank you for staying kind to your son and me when you were compelled to blow or burn or use your teeth. Thank you for sticking around. Thank you for being the best man you knew how to be.