Outdoors

Full Spectrum

Why did I hesitate to put all this glory of the sun on my canvas?
– Paul Gauguin

Every parent compromises. We breathe through our uncertainty, living in the world as it is while occasionally dotting the page with what could be.
 
We put Bug on the rolls for the county School Aged Child Care Program when he was only four years old. A month into kindergarten, and he is still number 72 on the waiting list. They tell us he might get in by second grade.
 
Tee and I spent a good portion of last year exploring every day care option in the area. We found homes crammed with untended children staring, gape-mouthed, at Dora on giant TVs in converted basements. We found KinderCare centers with such an avalanche of scathing online reviews that we had to restrain ourselves from taking up arms to liberate the children inside. The nearby private schools only provide after-hours care to the gilded young who already attend.
 
Word on the street is that the Tai Kwon Do place in a local shopping center is decent enough. It has vans that pick up the kids after school. The teachers give their charges a 30-minute martial arts lesson, a snack, and play time in a small nook at the back. Bug and I visit on several occasions. The kid’s default is to notice the things in front of him, and he has only just begun to long for what is absent. Bug does not even register the adjacent nail salon or the lack of outdoor space. These are my issues, and I buoy my tone up above the churning resistance in my belly. Watching the students practice their kicks and shouts, Bug bounces and begs to join.
 
Not even a postage stamp yard for a jungle gym? Cramped quarters? A Leviathan flat-screen TV in the back of the room where the after-school kids gather? I force myself calm with little mantras. It’s only temporary, it’s only a few hours a day. He’ll be fine (and even if it’s not, what can I do about it? We can’t afford a nanny or a private school, and I have no choice but to work).
 
I only allow myself a single blink at the image of what I want for Bug. The saturated hues are bright enough to sear. It seems so foolish to covet the impossible, but I know exactly what it is: Real. Living, breathing, tactile, sensory. A wide-open green place where he can run and climb. Games and balls and unscheduled time with friends to spread out on a floor to paint or build. I want there to be no electronic babysitters. I want adults within reach that understand child development but also back off and let their charges find their way. I want Bug to get bored and wander through that uncertainty until his hands take up some task that speaks to him. I want him to track the seasons by simply being among the trees. I want what so many parents want: My kid tapping into his unlimited self on the living earth, playing hard with his whole brain and body engaged.
 
What is the use of giving shape to the impossible? We are poor(ish), nothing better exists, and I have to work. So I do not give that Real more than one swipe across the canvas before setting down my brush. This is as good as it gets. My wildly outdoorsy kid will only get to play in the fresh air on weekends. He’ll go to a good kindergarten, and be blessed by the fact that his dad and mom both love camping.
 
Tee and I sign the contract and pay up. Bug would spend 15 hours in a strip mall. Breathe, lady.
 
When mid-August arrives, we put Bug in the Tai Kwon Do day camp for a few days to acclimate him. I pick him up at the end of Day 1, and he tells me about their trip to the park and their short martial arts lesson.
 
“What else did you do?”
 
“Watched a movie in the morning. Then we watched another movie when we got back!”
 
Day 2. The field trip is to – yes, you guessed it – the movies.
 
“What else did you do?”
 
“In the morning, we watched a movie. After Tai Kwon Do, we watched another movie!”
 
Three movies in one day? Bug is very, very happy at this turn of events.
 
Day 3. The field trip is to the pool. This time, when I drop Bug off, I walk with him all the way through to the child care nook in the back. The chairs are lined up in rows. The TV is blaring Disney’s Peter Pan. Not a crayon, block, or board game is anywhere in sight. I have never really looked around before, but now I see that all the cabinets are stuffed full of martial arts equipment. The floor has no train set, no bin of legos, no easel or pegboard. The bookshelves house trophies. The tables are bare.
 
This is not a child care facility. It is a storage closet.
 
It is 8:00 in the morning, and I am paying this place for 9 hours of DVDs. I could take him to work with me and provide that kind of childcare myself for free.
 
I leave in a panic. In two weeks, school will start. This is what awaits my son? During the commute, I turn my universe upside-down trying to shake out another choice. Maybe I could quit my job. Maybe Tee and I could get back together and I could work so he could stay home, which is what he wanted anyway. Maybe I could beg my mom to retire. Something? Anything?
 
There is only so much compromising any of us can do. At some point, we hit the core of what we believe about the world, and we either have to change what we believe or we have to change the world. I can put my kid in a strip mall. I can contort my schedule into a pretzel to accommodate easy transitions before school, as I described in this post about the enrollment choice. I can even allow the occasional hour of Nick, Jr. if it takes place at the end of a dynamic day full of real life. I do believe in letting go of some rigid plans for my child.
 
But I also believe in the open sky and in the beautiful play of the body and mind when they are free to roam. I believe far too deeply in calling out the pulse of our humanness, of our mammalness, at every opportunity. We dull too many edges with our entertainments and ill-conceived inventions. We grow numb far too early, and we rebel far too rarely. When my son was born, I made a quiet promise to him and to the world for which he will someday be responsible: My child will have poetry and he will have the earth under his feet, and he will learn to be a steward of this precious place. Even if it means I throw out the safe-enough income, the health benefits, and the someday-home-of-our-own, my child will have the real. I will work part time and live in a rented basement before I let him spend his 42 weeks a year in a place that thinks it’s okay to stultify our beautiful young ones with three #&%*$ movies a day.
 
I arrive at work and start trolling. Internet. Phone. Someone, somewhere. Every place within the zip code of Bug’s school, I check again. Same names of the same desperate ladies in their cramped townhouses with the TVs doing the babysitting. Same big-box profit-hungry franchises. Same elite institutions with no transportation provided to and from the public schools. I expand my search to the next zip code. I have already cried twice, and it is only 9:00am.
 
Then. I stumble upon this place out on the very edge of the district boundary line. The website describes hands-on learning, farm animals, and free play. It is country day school, drawing on Dewey’s experiential roots and the progressive tradition.
 
I call. “Do you have openings for after-school care?”
 
“Before and after-school, yes.”
 
“You are in our elementary school district? Really?”
 
“Yes. The bus picks up here in the morning and drops off here in the afternoon.”
 
“Can I kiss you over the phone?”
 
Giovanni, my knight in shining armor, takes a hiatus from work, picks me up and whisks me over the twisting country road past million-dollar homes and horse barns. We pull up to the address and step out into the sun.
 
Into the Garden of Eden.
 
Five acres of land. A sledding hill. Two playgrounds with hand-hewn wooden play equipment. Chickens, a goat, a pony. Jumbled flagstones wind through an overgrown garden and pumpkins spill from vines behind the fence. Peeling layers of children’s art plaster the walls of an old, rambling house whose rooms are cluttered with books, board games, blocks, balls.
 
Other than a single computer in the office for the Assistant Director to send emails to parents, electronic screens are verboten. The bus ferries kids between this paradise and Bug’s school every morning and afternoon. Even with the addition of the before-school care we need, this utopia is only marginally pricier than the Tai Kwon Do place.
 
Most importantly, there is room for my son. Plenty of room. Acres and acres of open sky. He can run with his arms stretched out and swallow the whole day.
 
Now, when I pick Bug up at what he calls “the chicken school” at 6:15pm, he is pink-cheeked, grubby, and usually perched at the top of a jungle gym lording over the playground. He does not want to leave. I sit at the picnic table and watch him dash up and down, past the rabbit in the hutch, over the relentless weeds, dust flying.
 
For a time, I did not believe in anything but the limits of this new life. I did not allow myself to see in color because the dulling gray of resentment and grief had so blanketed the beginnings. Leaving behind a marriage, a life in the mountains, and dreams of a happily-ever-after can bring on temporary blindness. It hurts so much, that distance between what is and what could be. It hurt enough that I built a prison in my mind and stopped letting in the light. It is safer there, no?
 
Stay there long enough, and the temporary condition becomes permanent.
 
I have spent far too many years – years well before Tee – only letting my trust go so far. This here is enough, I say. This here is as good as it gets. I will learn to live with it. This time around, desperation forced my hand. I hit the core of what I believe about the world and teetered on edge of trading my faith for a release from the duty to serve that calling. A small existence may seem a safer bet than facing the possibility of change, but it’s an awfully expensive deal. A compromise of that magnitude is pure capitulation. Thank goodness the pulse of life is stronger than my cowardice.
 
This gift of a perfect way-station for my son arrived at the moment I refused to settle any longer for just good enough. I want to hold onto this small truth: it is an act of courage to believe there is more to this journey than surviving on scraps. It is never too late to voice desire for what can be, to dip the brush into the richest colors, and to use the whole spectrum to craft a life.
 
No more picturing toil and limits. No more hard, dark images of poverty. I shake off the hair shirt and surrender the title of martyr. Artist is much more to my liking. I pick up the brush. I paint the world abundant, and so my son and I are rich beyond measure.
 

Children, Creativity, Music

Sight Reading

The copy of Rise Up Singing is two decades old. On the inside cover, my maiden name is a flourish of ink penned by a girl I hardly remember. My boy and I have thumbed the spiral-bound pages thin, working our way through every song I maybe-kinda-almost know. Each time I come across another vaguely recognizable title, I begin, off-key and falling flat. Bug is the final authority on which ones can come to the party. “I do not like it,” he says of “Octopus’s Garden.” When I try Woody Guthrie’s “Do Re Mi,” he blocks the page. The garden song is acceptable, “Erie Canal” gets the boot, and “Waltzing Matilda” enjoys top billing for two weeks before experiencing an abrupt demotion.
 
Our collection is large. We have been singing together since Bug was an infant. In truth, we have been sharing songs since before he was even a he, back when Bug’s in utero nickname was Moo Shu and the critter was just a bottomless craving for Chinese food impossible to satisfy California’s high desert. Despite our sizeable repertoire, we have almost exhausted the supply of songs I know. Some have stayed and others have been forced into retirement by the boy’s capricious tastes.
 
I flip through page after page crammed full of unfamiliar titles. Hand-written lyrics are accompanied by simple chord progressions that mean nothing to me. I tell myself again that I should learn more of these classics, perhaps listen to some of them on YouTube. But I won’t. I reach the end and and come back around to the tried-and-true. “Red River Valley?”
 
“No, Mommy.”
 
“Country Roads?”
 
He wrinkles his nose.
 
I don’t even suggest “Baby Beluga.” He was bored with that one before he turned three. I flip another page. “Au Clair de la Lune?” He lets out a great sigh. Clearly the world is just not sufficiently entertaining.
 
“Hmm. This one is about a rooster,” I say. “I should learn it. And here is one called – ”
 
“Sing the rooster song,” he says.
 
“Can’t. Don’t know it.” I turn the page. “Let’s see. Here’s ‘Puff the Magic Dragon.’ You like that one.”
 
He flips the page back. “Please? The rooster song? Please?
 
“I don’t know it, baby. I can’t sing it.”
 
He points. “Aren’t those the words right there? You don’t have to know it. You read it.”
 
“But I don’t know the tune,” I say. “I can’t sing it.”
 
Bug sags. I flip to another page.
 
Last week, a new-ish friend sent me an email after reading my post about housing. “Do you really want to own a home?” She asked. “Are you willing to see the world as other than limiting?”
 
Ouch.
 
Yes, of course I do. Isn’t that obvious? Doesn’t everyone? Yes, I want to see the world as. . .
 
But wait. Isn’t the answer also a little bit no? Don’t those limits feel so safe? Don’t they protect a tired brain from having to reach? Self-defined prison bars are convenient in their way. They keep us stuck, but they come in handy when a person wants to have a firm grip on something.
 
They also make it easier to say no when life sends Oliver Twist up to ask for an extra helping.
 
One morning this week as I was packing up for school, Bug asked me, “Is that a made up song?”
 
I paused. Had I been singing? Sure enough, a little melody had taken shape under my breath without me noticing. It is gonna rain and we need our raincoats.
 
He asked again. “Is that a real song?”
 
Made up? Real?
 
Which is it?
 
What I do every day, mindless or intentional, becomes my child’s real. For good or ill, we grownups shape the world in which our kids move, and delineate the perimeters, and create (or not) the pathways out of them. What is real but what I say? What any of us say? Aren’t the real and the make-believe simply two different lines of sight on the exact same world?
 
“I made it up,” I say. Like everything. This power, this amazing power. “And it is real.”
 
Why is this so easy to forget? I don’t know a tune, so I cannot sing? What is every song but an act of creation? What is every story, every building on the skyline, every space capsule orbiting the moon but something fashioned from spare parts and fancy? Even a whisper of love into a bending neck is nothing but an idea that was not until it was. Everything. All we have here was an absence that some act of nature or will planted with the fleeting life that now inhabits it.
 
We have only so much knowledge, only so much money, only so much time left. We have only a few choices, and other people’s claims and fears can deplete the imagination.
 
Also, a feathered, nameless thing preens just outside the window. It takes wing and streaks across the day. The magnolia drapes us with glossed leaves and heavy perfume. Also, we are magicians.
 
Made up. Real.
 
One day we will open the songbook, and the pages will be blank. The melodies will skitter from our memories, and those that stay will be all wrong for naming our hungers. No medium in existence will fit our hands. What will be left then? What is left but all the everything inside the nothing?
 
The whole of creation is ours, if not for the taking, then for the making.
 
Back in bed, my boy looks at me. I look at him. The first lesson for any apprentice alchemist is to imagine the absurd, yet I have just told my boy that I cannot sing because I do not know a tune. I laugh right out loud. “That’s just about the silliest thing Mommy’s ever said, isn’t it?”
 
I turn back a page and open my voice. The rooster song requires a certain amount of twang, and my throat complies. Bug giggles through until the end. I cuddle up close to him. “How about. . . “ I skim. “Maybe the one about father’s whiskers?”
 
“Yes!” He says. We are off. Every page blooms with lyrics to music that belongs to us.
 

Uncategorized

Fight or Flight

Express yourself completely,
then keep quiet.
Be like the forces of nature:
when it blows, there is only wind;
when it rains, there is only rain;
when the clouds pass, the sun shines through.
Tao Te Ching, 10

We are dressed for the day. A Tupperware of cinnamon toast and eggs is ready for Bug to scarf down on the commute. The only thing left is walking the dog. I offer Bug the choice to stay in the house with granddaddy or come with me. He fiddles with his legos, weighing his options. Usually the dog’s constitutional is an all-business trot down the cul-de-sac. Ten minutes, tops. While I know better than to take the kid when we are in a hurry, the situation calls for adaptation.
 
“Gramma Genie can walk her,” he tells me.
 
“Gramma Genie is in Dallas, remember? Your great grandma Mardy fell and broke her hip.”
 
“Oh yeah,” he remembers. “What did they have to do for the operation?”
 
Many mornings, Bug will hang around my mother’s room chewing the fat as she gussies herself up for her workday. My father sequesters himself in the basement to write. In the blessed reprieve, I can buzz around packing lunches and walking the dog, half hearing that mode of relentless interrogation only a 5-year-old can pull off. This week, the big bedroom upstairs is quiet. Bug tags along after me instead. Great Grandma Mardy needs my mother right now much more than we do, so I attempt to move along at a steady clip while also keeping expectations down where they belong. Bug’s ceaseless chatter accompanies me. I explain as briefly as I can how hip replacement works and what the word “rehabilitation” means. I remind him he is supposed to be choosing between the dog and granddaddy.
 
Bug glances at the wan light coming from a too-quiet basement. The old man is no match for the outdoors. “I want to walk with you,” he tells me.
 
Racing down the driveway, Bug kicks through a puddle. It has rained torrents every night for the better part of a week. Giant mushrooms bloom low in the grass and a creek the length of the block has formed along the edge of the blacktop. Fenway snuffles, squashing tiny wild strawberries as she goes. The scent of honeysuckle drapes itself over the mist.
 
Ahead, Bug sees Cleo dart into a gauze of brambles. Our skinny calico cat often joins us on these jaunts, keeping her haughty distance. In an instant, she is invisible, her patches blending into the spongy decay of last season’s canopy. Bug turns to me, impulse flashing across his face.
 
“Let’s go on an adventure!”
 
I feel a sigh gather steam but I quell it. It is getting late. The dog roots around in the puddles. She has peed so we are done here. “It’s awfully wet, baby,” I say, “and we need to get to school.”
 
“It’s not too wet,” he says. He steps off the blacktop and his feet sink into the muck. I groan. He shrugs. “It’s okay. It’s only a little wet.”
 
The cat is visible for a moment, stalking her imaginary prey. She creeps further into the shadows. Bug watches her, keeping one eye on me. He is primed. “We have to chase her,” he explains.
 
“We’ve already gotten all dressed for school. I’m wearing my work clothes.”
 
“We can change our socks. You will dry off at work.” He grins at me, momentum quivering from toes to scalp. His gaze twinkles with something like. . . flirtation? I’m a sucker for a charmer. No and Yes start throwing punches. The crowd presses in, choosing sides. The determination to distinguish myself in my profession joins the clock in clanging out support for the clear favorite.
 
The underdog’s backers are silent.
 

Open yourself to the Tao,
then trust your natural responses;
and everything will fall into place.

Sometimes the hardest steps are the simplest to take. The playground scuffle goes on, but I tear myself away and look only at my son splashed across the canvas of the morning. How many of us get to kick off the workday by ducking into the wild woods? My grandma in that post-op hospital room would probably surrender her reserve seat in heaven for one last moment exactly like this.
 
“Let’s go get that kitty,” I say. I unclip the dog’s lead. Bug chants “Yay, yay, yay!” as he ducks under the vines and plunges into shadow. We are deep in when a breeze awakens the leaves and showers us with a morning-after rain. We look up through the blue-green awning at the sun making its way through a weave of branch and cloud. Bug and Fenway follow the incensed cat down into a creek-bed and up onto a soggy log. She leaps away and we part a congregation of weeds whispering at our calves.
 
Our ragtag foursome dips and climbs through summer then winter and even next year’s spring. We burrow through the earth’s core and emerge from the mouth of a cave that smells of seawater and smoke. We wander through a valley teeming with cockatiels that screech from the low branches of mango trees. Every person we have ever known has grown old and died. A waterfall as tall as a mountain washes us free of memory.
 
Bug parts a curtain of ivy and we spill out onto the road. The cat bounds back towards the house, her tail arched in irritation. My son’s face is wild with pink light and his legs are streaked with mud. “We came out all the way down here!” We have exited fewer than twenty feet from our entry point, but I share his wonder. The continent has shifted in our absence, and nothing will ever be the same.
 
We dash back to our house and peel off socks and shoes. I take the stairs two at a time to change the whole outfit because three inches of damp trouser cuff might blow my cover. I may be a feral thing, but I still have to don my breathing apparatus to survive in the world of steel and glass.
 
No one knows where we have been. How could we begin to explain? We slipped through a tear in the damp fabric of the morning and crawled onto the beach alongside those first gilled beasts. Only a skittish cat, one lop-eared dog, a boy and his mama recall what happened here, but our recollection is fading fast. In the car, Bug and I speak of quotidian things, of weekend plans and hip surgery. When we attempt to fit what we have witnessed into the shape of language, our tongues founder.
 
I know only this: When all the clocks in the world demanded we stay on solid ground, we stepped off the edge. We made our way back, but we may not stay for long. Do we have years or decades? Will we will reach ninety-two or knock off next week? No one gets out of here unscathed. For every moment we claim as our own, we will pay. It is only a matter of time.
 

If you open yourself to loss,
you are at one with loss
and you can accept it completely.

Walk the dog or stay home? Get wet or stay dry? Everything we love, even the very selves we occupy, might be gone in a blink. Knowing this, what choice do we have but to step over and meet what is here?

Mitchell, Stephen. Tao Te Ching. New York: Harper Collins, 1992.