community, Parenting, Things I Can

48. Things I Can Shoot: A U-Turn

It’s topped 90 degrees. The last storm howled through only day before yesterday, but summer couldn’t care less. She just strode in, popped open her beach chair, and planted herself for the duration.

Six days left of school.

As the mercury rises and the countdown quickens, restraint flags. When I pick up Bug at the end of the day, the whole class is prickling. It’s as if the entire second grade has raced to the ragged wall of the calendar and slammed into it. They stand there chafing as the rest of us catch up. Every kid wilts in a 3-day-old T-shirt. Every kid marinates in last week’s sweat.

Today I arrive in time to catch the end of a nipping contest among a group of first and second graders. Who-said-what-when-how? In the four minutes I’m in the classroom, the alliances shift twice.

Buckling ourselves into the car, I ask Bug about his day. I barely get the question out.

“Will you STOP THAT!?” he roars.

“Stop what?”

“THAT! Just doing that TALKING!”

His response is so beyond rude that I actually laugh, which makes him shove the dog out of his lap and set his jaw.

“Wow, Bud. You’re having quite a day.”

A long pause. Very quietly from a ducked head in the back seat: “Can I stay at my dad’s tonight?”

Keep it light, lady. I put a smile in my voice. “Sorry, kiddo. Tonight you’re with me.”

“Well, can we at least make some lemonade and sit on the balcony?”

Where did this come from? We’ve never once made lemonade, and we brought the chairs in from outside weeks ago. Who would want to park it out there? Given the choice, even the garden would trade places. The pepper plants have shrunk to husks and the basil’s given up entirely. You can almost see the ambient poison that earned this afternoon its Code Orange.

“Geez,” I say. “We don’t even have lemons at home. How about orange juice? Or maybe I have a packet of Kool-Aid?” Someone was handing out rainbow envelopes of the stuff at the Pride parade last year. I think one is still crammed somewhere in a cabinet.

Bug just sags. “Lemonade is better,” he mutters.

If I don’t do something here, this kid is going to start crying. Which actually means screaming at me because in my kid’s 8-year-old world, that’s a more satisfying way to manage the misery eating at him.

It’s been a long damned year.

I snap on the blinker and pull into the nearest driveway, which happens to be directly across from ours. I swing around and watch as the neighborhood pool, the air conditioning, and the pile of books on the living room couch recede behind me. Those comforts may work for me, but my boy needs a different pacifier tonight.

“Where are we going?” He asks.

“To the supermarket.”

He perks up. “For lemons?”


I can almost hear the energy buzzing back into his weary body. This is good. I’ll take a hit off him when I have to thread my way through the pack of rabid drivers at the intersection that stands between us and the store.

“Okay,” he says. “Only lemons, right? Nothing else? We won’t even get a basket, okay?”

“You’ve got it.”

But we do get a basket — the kind you carry — and we pick out a dozen small lemons that perfume our hands. The eastern peaches are just too cheap and cute, so we fill a bag. Bug dives into one in the car on the ride home. The flesh is hard but sweet, and he devours it down to the stone.

In our kitchen, we rinse the lime green pitcher and force the lemons inside-out. Bug ladles in sugar and sloshes in water, then stirs with a wooden spoon. He pours just enough for a taste. A pucker, a blink, more sugar, then we get it right and fill our cups for outside.

Only now it’s not balcony. It’s swim trunks and floaties, and we walk to the pool loaded with travel mugs and soft towels and plastic rings and chat-chat-chat, “Mom, look at this! See this?” He’s rolling the inner tube along the sidewalk, lemonade splashing, face bright and grinning. Then we hear voices, the trill and clang of children popping, slapping, fizzing. They call out, call to him, holler Bug’s name. They cling to the fence in a jumbled line, all the now-familiar faces. They jostle wet curls, flash neon swimsuits, bounce shouts off concrete.

Come on, come on!
The lifeguard just called a break!
Where have you been?
Hey look, he has pool stuff.
You brought pool stuff!
Come on!

My boy picks up his pace and speeds through the changing room, and the group of children swallows him up. The parents listen to my lemon saga because they all want to know where we’ve been. Hearing me, Bug takes a dramatic sip from his cup and grins. Then the kids cluster around and listen again about the lemons because they want to know too.

Where were you? Why weren’t you here?

As if they all knew to show up here at the pool on this very afternoon, and expected us too. As if someone called the opening meeting of some secret society.

As if our membership is a given.

As if this is exactly where we are supposed to be.

Mindfulness, Purpose

Vision is Seeing Underground

The specific enterprises that will create purpose in life will differ from person to person. . . I expect what is common among people is that however purpose is created, it can hold depression at bay. I still have my depression-prone temperament and a set of genes that pull for low mood, and life is as stressful as it ever was. But purpose is like a talisman, a charm that can ward off serious depression. This again is a reminder that we may be better off if we think about recovery, not simply as the absence of depressive symptoms, but as a set of active qualities or practices that prevent low mood from taking root, despite the presence of liabilities elsewhere.

Jonathan Rottenberg, The Depths: The Evolutionary Origins of the Depression Epidemic

Even when you can’t tell weed from blossom, keep tending your plot. It is early yet.

Mindfulness, Parenting

Bug Bites: Zen and the Angry Child

You mustn’t suppose
I never mingle in the world
Of humankind —
It’s simply that I prefer
To enjoy myself alone.
– Ryokan

Into the morning blue he wakes as dark-eyed as when he greeted night. He hurls himself at me, his hair like snapdragon stalks unpruned along the fence of his fury.
“Idiot,” he grumbles. I am at a loss. First I tell him if he’s old enough to use that word, then he’s old enough to make his own breakfast. Then I change course. Thorns will not be the texture of our day. I slide from the bed and crawl across the carpet to my splayed and scowling son. Right up close, I say, “I love you, baby, and you love me. I always know it.” I wrap my arms around him and tickle his sides. As he wrenches himself away, he bites back the smile I catch peeking. “Even if you don’t feel it right this minute, I know you love me.”
“No I DON’T.” Cold simmer cuts up from under the blonde cloak shadowing his gaze.
When he was two, he declared himself a girl. Rainbows on his underwear. Sequins in his hair. His third and fourth birthdays were pink crowns and princess cake. In his fifth year, he shed the tutu and snapped on a fist. He has not unclenched it since, except in moments belly-flat on the floor or twined sticky into me. Moments when he forgets.
While the oatmeal simmers under its skin of sugared cinnamon, he arranges a dinosaur jungle on the floor. The T-Rex pounds at the lesser beasts. A barrage of high-impact explosions upends all the palm trees leaving half a dozen herbivores strewn across the killing field.
I watch him wander into the tangled garden of his imagination and take corners I can’t see. I tiptoe to the edge and consider joining him there. Does he need the company of others, of playmates, of me? My only child turns away and blazes a trail alone among his hedgerows. Is it labyrinth or maze? He is not reluctant to find his own way in. I wonder what, if anything, compels him to follow the thread back out again.
Bug's Drawing of a Flower and a Watering Can
Returning home at the end of day, we trip our way to bed after fighting over dishes, teeth, bath. It is time to surrender to routine. Both of us need to waltz our way back to a rocking gait that smooths the friction at the edges where we meet. Three books. Three songs. Every night for six years.
He has a fairy blanket on the bed. It is the last vestige. He keeps it close even in the August swelter. With Tinkerbell bunched at our feet, we read Zen Shorts for the 400th time.
“Mommy, why is this book called that?”
“Well, the three stories Stillwater tells all come from Zen. And they’re all short.”
“What’s Zen?”
Oh geez. 
I guess it’s a way of living. It’s very old. Thousands of years, maybe? It has to do with making quiet places inside your mind and body.”
He twists away from me. Restless, ever moving. He is all proboscis and fire ant. A cement mixer. A quicksand man. I have had to learn to test my footing before every step. “You know how we talk about breathing when you’re wound up? Or when I heat up? Zen is about getting still. Like Stillwater in the book. Then you can accept things without needing them to be different.”
Zen Cliff’s Notes. Am I close? He’s humming and tapping his fingers in a pattern along the wall. I touch the edge of his leg just enough to make contact but not enough to capture his attention and raise his inevitable ire. “Even when there’s craziness all around you, even if a robber comes into your house or people say mean things, you stay peaceful inside yourself.”
“Yeah, yeah. Okay, okay.”
“It’s not just for kids,” I tell him. “Here.” I get up and go find the book of Zen poems a friend gave me back when time to play with meditation was there for the taking. Or rather, when we chose to see abundance in a clock face rather than just its pinching glare.
I open to Ryokan.

Here are the ruins of the cottage where I once hid myself.

“Okay, whatever. That’s enough,” he tells me. The gold ribbon marking the page hides down in the spine. He pulls it away and trails it down over the back. “Now you’ve lost your place,” he tells me.
“Good,” I say. “I was hoping for that. Now I can start at the next place.” I leave the ribbon free and close the cover. The cottage is far behind me. I am alone on my unmarked path but also tangled at the root with a boy whose opening is his own to burn or tend.
“Are you mad?” His grin crouches in the dry weeds. His eyes cut a path to me. He is ready to pounce.
“No, baby. I’m nowhere close to mad. I’m happy to be here with you, exactly like this.” I set the poems on the floor and open my voice for the first song.