Change, Poetry, Relationships, Things I Can

85. Things I Can Hold: The Promise

Honeysuckle Tag

Months after the last blossom
wilts and lets go, a tendril
of scent unfurls
among the parched weeds
and knotted shrubs edging
the broken road.
Only at night the perfume steals
out to stretch its cramped
wings and lean
into the hum
of cricket’s legs
and streetlamps. It will be gone
by sunrise, tucked
under winter straw
that falls in summer, swathing
thirst and throb in a jacket
of silence.


Happy 100 Days: 13

Love and joy come to you
and to you your wassail, too.

“Only six more days until Christmas!” Bug tells me as he climbs into the back seat.
Holy cow. Six?
My kid has been with his dad since last Friday. We have three half-completed advent calendars in the house and a heap of gifts that may be opened before Christmas and maybe after, but certainly not on the day. Co-Parenting at the holidays is running a relay race: short bursts of lung-popping exertion following by periods of hyper-alert waiting. Now we have six days to get ourselves through the end of the school week, on a plane, and in place for Santa’s touchdown on a Dallas rooftop.
I guess it’s time to pull out the Christmas carols.
Joy of Christmas
The songbook we use belonged to my Grandmother. It was in the piano bench of the old upright she had in her Oklahoma living room. After she passed away and we sold the house, the piano made its way first to Colorado and eventually to upstate New York. There it stayed when our lives imploded and we had to cut and run. We sold it for $150 to the camp director who had just fired Tee. The contents of the bench were among the few items we salvaged. We made it here with several dog-eared hymnals and this yellowing book of carols.
Classical paintings of angels and virgins grace every other page. Most of the songs are truly Christian odes. No figgy pudding or “dashing through the snow.” This is all the red blood of Mary when the baby Jesus is born. Still, the tunes are swelling and sweet, and Bug loves to stay near me as I flip through the pages each year around this time. I sing bits of this and that until he hears something that strikes his fancy.
“That one!” he says.
Here we come a-wassailing among the leaves so green.
I sing the whole song through because all the lyrics are written out for me. I realize I have never made it past the first verse before. It is really a pretty silly thing, to sing about singing. I start giggling when I hear myself asking for the moldy cheese, and I can barely make it back around to the chorus.
“Do you know what wassail is, Buddy?”
“Wassail is a warm, toasty beverage. It’s funny because the word also means singing for the drink. The carolers are asking for a cup of warm wassail in exchange for coming around in the cold and singing,” I tell him. We are cuddled up close in his bed. He is drawing an elaborate treehouse as I explain. “They are basically saying, ‘Here we come a-hot-cocoa-ing.’ It’s like trick-or-treating at Christmas.”
I sing on before catching the small-print explanation under the title. According to a this 40-year-old songbook, “wassail” originally was a Welsh greeting of well wishes. At some point people began to drink from a shared wassail horn for good cheer. That festive Christmas sense of communal celebration became synonymous with the drink itself. Of course, singing for wassail gave an additional layer of meaning to the word.
Imagine such a thing. A single word that means good wishes, shared celebration, yummy warm drink, and singing. How is it that six days before Christmas, we all aren’t just shouting this from the rooftops? Who needs “mindfulness” and “wellness” and “community”? Why would we subject ourselves to such sterile terms to capture our joy? We already have more than we need in this language right here.


Who Never Grew Up

Memory is a cruel mistress
Who comes bearing the old bones
You buried in a corner of the yard.
She demands proper rites, a recognition
Of the sacred refuse.
She makes a reliquary of your shame,
Polishes it to catch the light.
Memory is a puppeteer
Twining her limbs around the skeleton
And shrouding it in flesh as if
New before returning the departed one to
Your embrace
Where you can feel the mass
Pressing again
And again
Against your living heart.
She pulls the string
At its back to play a phrase you know,
As if vibrations from a throat to your ears
As if real
(Was that his voice in the corridor?)
Is it any wonder we believe in ghosts?
Nimble is the hand of memory,
Steering the doll’s feathered fingers
To trace the arch of your lips,
Willing you to hunger
Then feeding you on what’s left
When the thread frays:
Colored light
And air,
The feast of lost boys.


Late Last Night, I Heard the Screen Door Slam

The dentist was the last holdout.
Henry Wray grew up here. He told me about it in that casual, rambling way a person can when he has his hands in your mouth. His stories were all yesterday. It was just a blink ago that Arlington had more single-family homes than condos. Tilapia risotto may not have been readily available, but you could walk down the block to get your hands such modern-day urban rarities as drill bits, a toilet brush, and practical underwear.
When he was little, Henry Wray’s mother took him shopping at Kann’s department store. He remembered standing up on the platform in the shoe department and ogling the caged monkeys kept there, one guesses, for the pleasure of the children and the relief of their mothers. As he grew, he moved and returned a time or three, watching the familiar landscape shift in that way cities do regardless of the potency of memory. Block after block gave way to office complexes, high rises, big-shouldered condos selling for $400 per square foot.
Dr. Wray has wrinkles. He wears a bow-tie. After a life of who knows what, he returned to the area and bought up one of the last little houses on North Kansas, a street that is barely a pass-through between the whizzing lanes of Wilson and Fairfax Boulevards. The tiny structure still had the feel of a home. A narrow corridor through the single-story bungalow was flanked by closet-sized rooms transformed into exam spaces and an office. The windows were plentiful. The carpet was brown. His part-time assistant greeted everyone with a booming hello.
To one side of Dr. Wray’s lot squatted a black-and-red structure made of what appeared to be oversized legos stuck together at wrong angles. It contained an insurance company and not much else, thought it was hard to tell through the tint of its windows. Behind the dentist’s house was a used car dealership and on the opposite side, a busted-up patchwork of weeds fenced in chain link.
From every side, shine pressed in on North Kansas Street. Across from Dr. Wray’s, the glassed balconies of a corner apartment building sipped shafts of light into bent shadow. A little further on, the FDIC’s rippling mirrors stretched the sun aquatic. The brushed steel face of George Mason University’s new Founders Hall burned back the day, its tiny windows blinking blinking against plaza trees that will require two decades of rain to cover its nakedness.
Every six months since I started working here, I made the 90-second journey across the street. I loved walking through Dr. Wray’s door (A front door! With a handle that turns!) After hanging my jacket on the coat rack, the dentist himself would call me back. I never had to wait. Henry Wray would reminisce as he hammered away at my plaque. On the way out, I would listen to the receptionist spill over with bubble and opinion as she jotted down my next appointment. I have one in my book for September.
Just last week, wrecking crews arrived. They rolled their equipment onto North Kansas Street and unfurled a barbed-wire border between past and future. You can get your visa stamped, but you aren’t coming back. The backhoes roared to life. Dr. Wray’s office, the last of the single-family homes in that long-gone memory of a neighborhood, lay in a heap on the ground. I watched as hot dust settled on the debris.
Time for a new dentist, I suppose. The old fellow is unlikely to start fresh anywhere else, unless “starting fresh” means sipping a martini by the side of some Canadian lake. This week, big yellow monsters clambered over the rubble of Dr. Wray’s office went to work on the black-lego building. Now, an entire city block is a moonscape of splintered drywall and shattered glass. Diggers pound deep into the orange dirt to gut the very belly of the earth. An underground parking garage? A sub-basement for HVAC? Anything and everything. It will go down, it will climb up. It will eclipse the sun. It will house the transients who, like me, have little time to spare for memory.
A local historian has written that no one can find a photograph of the Kann’s monkeys. People did not have smartphones in 1956, and even if they had, the mothers were too weary. Who captures such mundane things as shoe-shopping? As dental appointments? I did not think to snap an image of the last house on North Kansas Street or Dr. Wray’s red bowtie. I had no idea what was coming.
Silly me.
Blink, and it’s gone. Even though we know everything is fleeting, we cannot bear to hold that truth up in the front of the mind. We believe in permanence against all the evidence because it would be too frightening to consider how much we stand to lose.
Then the world up and blindsides us. Or, perhaps, we blinder ourselves.
I do this every day. I mourn the loss of the familiar, but I can’t even draw up an image of the object of my nostalgia. What did he look like, anyway? I gaze at the patch of once-woods where the new houses are going in, trying to discern some trace of the sacred canopy that sheltered a first kiss. What was there before? I wrack my brain. I probe the cavity. Emptied of recollection, the hollow place aches. Loss is the ice water. Better to go thirsty, some people believe.
We love so much without even knowing what inhabits the corners of our hearts: a small swath of trees, a giggle with a lover, the rainbow of petit fours in the pastry case at the supermarket. Every bit of it, beautiful enough to make the jaw throb, if only we had a moment, just one more moment, to notice this feast spread here for our senses. So perfect. So within reach.


In the Presence of these Witnesses

The stalks are high the year
I kiss him under a cornflower sky.
He is slender. Friends marry.
We perch on hay bales, thighs touching
spider thread and dust.
Now, their children grow
pole beans they help to sell at market
on Saturdays. The sun has not aged
since that afternoon. It still is as high
as I have to rise, up on my toes
so his face
blocks the gaze of the wise one
beckoning from across the field.
Love, her lips say. The breeze carries her words
the direction I learn
too late
is mine.
She nods to the fecund stretch of earth.
Love, come here.
On the hem of my dress
alights a grasshopper, dry
as my mouth on his.


Here, Now

When there is no desire,
all things are at peace.

-Tao Te Ching

Where is the snow?
Those of us who grew up with seasons rely on winter’s calibration. Without it, a melancholy itch infects the mood. Even though we cursed our frost-nipped fingers after a morning walk, the thin leather gloves with their 20 years of wear unfit for the job, the sting was welcome. The hand needs to curl, seeking of warmth in the compressed fist, drawing weak steam. Winter is for burrowing. It is for drawing in. The constriction, the stiff lean of pedestrians trying to compress into the shell of their insufficient layers, is a necessary discomfort. It is the chrysalis of winter. Without it, how can any of us crack open into spring’s new light? How can we become?
I watch my son bound down the dry cul-de-sac in nothing but a t-shirt, and I ache for him. This warming planet, his home? Out on the streets just beyond the cocoon of our neighborhood, swollen vehicles flash and roar as they barrel down. They crowd out the shoulders. Their velocity increases unchecked in the absence of winter’s forced caution.  Bug has no snow day. No crunch or silvery hush, no red nose, no vast and untamed place. My heart contracts under the weight of what is lost. The bending trail to the ice-crusted mountaintop no longer waits just outside his door. He cannot skate across the frozen expanse of a freshwater lake and immerse himself in the blue beyond.
And yet, he bounds. He lives in the Is Is Is. With no basis for comparison, his heart continues to surge, unburdened. The dog leaps alongside him at the end of her lead, and then the two are clambering up a heap of logs cut from a fallen tree in the neighbor’s yard. We count 59 rings before he charges off to press himself into the massive root ball that has released its grip on the thin soil.
What is my nostalgia to him? Nothing at all. His pleasure and his rage are his own. They are not what I believe them to be, and they are not for the things I love. Nothing remains as it was. Only when I clutch at the before do I feel its clawing absence in the now. Bug rarely shows interest in the photo albums or the stories of an old camp life he does not know as his. My sorrow is my own private indulgence. I lick the wounds and secretly savor the taste. I do not wish to share this compulsion with my boy. His world belongs to him. It is exactly as it should be.
I breathe the sunlit air into the torn place in my chest and lift my eyes. At the same instant, my son pauses, glancing skyward. Up in the branches, the exultant song of a cardinal welcomes the February spring.

Be content with what you have;
rejoice in the way things are.
When you realize there is nothing lacking,
the whole world belongs to you.

– Tao Te Ching


Everything is Built on Sand

Tee’s name popped up when the phone rang, but it was Bug’s voice on the other end. “Mommy, can I stay at your house tonight?”
Unprecedented. While Tee and I have been sharing Bug’s time exactly 50/50, he always, always, asks to stay at his Daddy’s. Sometimes just reminding him that he gets to spend an entire weekend with me will reduce him to tears.
At the house we share, Bug has his own room. Bunk beds, toys everywhere, free rein in that one space. At his daddy’s, he also has bunk beds, toys everywhere, and free rein. What makes his room at his dad’s house unique is that he shares it with Tee. His favorite man sleeps deeply right under him all night, and that man does not stir awake when Bug climbs down into the warm comfort of the big bed in the wee hours.
Bug’s request would have been more of a surprise if I had not known the big news of the day: Ms. Song had announced she would be leaving on an “adventure.”
Ms. Song is Bug’s touchstone. A Mary Poppins in mom jeans, she has been the most constant presence in his world for over a year. It is a rare thing to stumble across a sharp-minded and big-smiling person who teaches preschool because it is her calling, not just because it is all she could get. Every day, Ms. Song greets every single child in her class with a big hello and a hug. She calls the children by name. She requires the same joyous and personalized attention of every staff member in her classroom.  Her gift is the ability to attend with precision to each child’s unique capacity to manipulate scissors, pronounce Rs and Ls, and channel strong feelings into words and positive behaviors. Ms. Song knows the kids.
And she is leaving.  A new teacher starts next week. Bug gets about seven months with this next one before the big transition to kindergarten.
Parents want to shield their children from the sting of loss. Even knowing it is important for young people to learn how to navigate disruption, the instinct is to create stability. Even false stability, at times. What parent can stand watching a kid’s heart break? What parent does not want to rush in to balm the wound and whisper promises impossible to keep?
Adaptability is a requirement for thriving in the world as it is, and parents have an important role to play in helping kids learn the mechanics of it. Still. It hurts to see our little ones grappling with big feelings. Against that squeezing desire to protect is the knowledge that kids learn life is not so certain and nothing lasts forever. They learn it despite us. Often, they learn it because of us, even when we think they are not paying attention. They are paying attention. They always are.
The desire for things to stay fixed is as powerful as it is common, and its power can be crippling. When the pink slip lands or the divorce papers arrive or the landlord announces she is selling the place, even the strongest among us feels seasick, no matter how well equipped we are for the ride. The urge is to deny or to hide. Nuanced language and the experience of survival can help us handle the upheaval accompanying transition. As for handling it well? That is a talent that few master.
Children learn how to deal with change by watching grownups. Do we fret and avoid, or attend and apply care? Do we give voice to our feelings to the point of wallowing, or do we decide, that’s enough, and climb back on board? Do we practice straddling that uncomfortable threshold, both by bidding farewell to what is behind us and by welcoming what is to come?
What do our words and behaviors teach our kids about resilience? About adaptation?
Usually, Tee and I stick to our schedule, but we agreed to let Bug have his wish this one night. A room of his own may not appeal as much as one that is shared, but it is still his. Sometimes, a person just needs to touch familiar things to know they are not slipping away. At least, not for the moment.
I picked Bug up at his one house and ferried him over to his other house. On the way, we spoke lightly about the idea of “mixed feelings.” This is a familiar refrain, but, like those lullabies, it bears repeating. I tell him I have mixed feelings when he goes away for Christmas or summer break. I am happy that he is having fun with his cousins, and I am sad to not be with him. People can feel several things at once, even if they are very different things.  I remind him that it is fine to be happy that Ms. Song gets to go on an adventure and also sad that she is leaving.
I remember when I first introduced this concept to Bug when he was just about three years old. He pondered for a few minutes then piped up, “Like pistachios!”
Uh, really?
“Yeah! They are salty AND crunchy!”
The five year old in the back seat offered no such clever analogy. He simply absorbed my words (I have to hope) and changed the subject to our weekend plans.
Back at home, he proceeded to torment the dog, chase the kitty, ignore his grandparents (after checking their whereabouts), and jump on the furniture. Same bedlam, different day. I noticed, though, that he called out to me repeatedly throughout the evening. “Mommy? Come look.” And, “Mommy, where are you?” And, “Mommy, help.” With his talismans in hand – his flashlight, his pirate sword, his box of coins – he managed to settle down next to me, listen to a chapter of Peter Pan, and hum along to the three songs I sing before bed. It was a late one, but he made it to sleep. Eventually.
Ms. Song and the school have done their best to make the transition smooth.  The low-drama announcement preceded a few farewell rituals. The kids and teacher alike created little memory boxes with tokens of one another. Ms. Song is leaving behind her bear puppet, Oso. The kids can talk to him if they get sad, and he will send the message to Ms. Song.
Come Monday, though, Ms. Song will be gone. For the moment, Bug’s mommy and daddy return to their rightful place in things. Perhaps we are not just his touchstones, but the cornerstones of his forever shifting world.