Warming Up

She says, We have a big family. Everyone helps.

The wall of graying oak and maple bends along the dirt drive. Low barrels of fading mums press in around an unblinking blue door. The house is as buttoned up as she is, yet chimney smoke rises. The day tumbles awake. Behind the drift and frost, a pulse.

Her boots stir up leaves that have fallen since the last rain. I imagine many hands, pink fingertips, white breath. The cracking in of a wedge, the mallet’s arcing blow. Someone bends, lifts, carries.

The wall goes up.

I pluck, dismantling it here, there. The loss is barely a shave.

More trees will fall this season. They are everywhere. Obstiant grasp, inexorable reach. They anchor the rust-gold blanket that encircles the house and extends to whatever comes next.

I pull a splinter from the crease in my finger. She takes my two twenties. I put the gloves back on and muscle the last of the logs into my trunk.

Brain, Parenting

Tell-Tale Art

I tell him learning anything new takes practice. I tell him he isn’t yet an expert at chess and if he wants to be as skilled as his friend, he’ll have to keep taking lessons. I tell him he’s not good at all kinds of stuff yet. I tell him he’ll become talented at just about anything he wants badly enough to practice like crazy.

“You’re being mean!” he yells. He stomps into his room and slams the door.

When I go in later, he is curled up under the covers. “All I want is to play basketball,” he mutters. “That’s the only thing.”

I start to tell him something else but it’s probably a waste of breath. What good is it to keep telling at him like this? I reach to stroke his head and he actually lets me. “Do you know why you’re good at basketball?” He doesn’t answer. I lean in close to him. “You’re good at it because you’ve been doing it over and over and over again for years. Guess what? When you were really little, you couldn’t make shots at all.”

“Yes I could. I was always really good.”

“Sweetie, you were a baby once. And a toddler. Like that girl at the park today. Remember?” His classmate’s sister was there, trying to hurl her neon pink soccer ball up, up at the basket. She chased it down the hill, over to the fence, around the field. She could barely keep it on the court let alone shoot it anywhere close to its intended target. “You were like that once. Guess what else? You don’t play as well as those college players your daddy takes you to see. Not yet, but you can if you keep at it. They’ve had a lot more years to practice.”

“Yes I am! I am as good as them!” He hmphs around and pulls the blanket over his head. I sigh. I’m clearly blowing this.

“Listen. Just about everything in the world that you like was built or made by someone who didn’t know how to do it once.” I’ve gone right back to telling. There’s no stopping me now. I tell him someone didn’t know how to make pizza. They learned. Someone didn’t know how to make giant water slides. They learned. “Baby, if people decided that the things they are good at when they are seven years old are the only things worth doing, we wouldn’t have a whole lot. We wouldn’t have video games or houses or running water or cars or legos or anything.”

“Yes we would. I could make video games.”

I should shut up. I really need to learn to shut up. This is futile. A frustrated person is as deaf as granite and about as yielding. He doesn’t want to sign up for chess. Or piano. Or soccer or swimming or art or Spanish. His reply to every suggestion? “I don’t like it. I’m not good at it.”

But I don’t shut up. I keep going. I explain that reading used to be hard. He didn’t like practicing. He still doesn’t like practicing. But the more he does it the better he gets, and now he can find his way into stories without my help. Once he couldn’t read. Now he can. The bridge between the two is practice.

He says, “I could always read. I was just pretending I couldn’t.”

Okay. Message received. I close my trap, hug my boy, and give him a giant kiss on the head. “I love you, buddy. Let’s go get breakfast ready.”

He’s grumpy eating waffles because there’s not enough syrup. He’s mad when I brush his hair because it’s tangled and it hurts. He doesn’t want to take the bus but it’s too late to make it to before-school care. I ask him how his morning is going on a scale of one to ten.


“Great!” I say. “It can only get better from here!”

It matters that I stand on an incremental idea of intelligence. I’ve had to tell myself I believe it often enough that now I actually do. As opposed to seeing intelligence as a fixed entity, the incremental approach holds that effort and practice can change not only how smart you are but the ways in which you are smart. You can’t measure intelligence and even talent may be an illusion. Training grows skill like a muscle. Where you focus is where you become strong and where you don’t is where you won’t. A brilliant physicist might be a monstrous manager and the world’s worst dancer. As an accumulation of behaviors, intelligence is a habit of mind rather than a meaure of it.

It matters here because this conception has been the ladder I’ve used to climb out of a lifetime of self-talk so defeating it borders on abuse. Only part of mental health is explained by physiology. Like talent, depression is as much a habit of mind as it is an expression of seratonin levels. Choosing to see intelligence as a verb helps me recognize that feelings of resistance have absolutely nothing to do with whether or not I am cut out for a particular endeavor. Stuff is hard and it is especially so when it’s new. Every beautiful or terrible thing our species has fashioned has required perseverence. It would always have been much easier to give up.

It matters too because trusting in this version of intelligence might keep me from passing on to my son this legacy of globalizing distortions. Belief in fixed capacity is fertilizer for depression. I want both of us to practice the art of speaking out loud all the ways a person can grow more proficient in any number of languages. I want Bug to learn early the vocabulary of self-efficacy. Sure, he’ll be awkward. He’ll hit walls. Some new skills will be much tougher to acquire than others. Maybe my parenting optimism is on steroids today, but if I know my son is perfectly capable of mastery and that he will learn how to chart his own course, I can be his touchstone as he does battle with his limits.

But let’s be real here: it also doesn’t matter. My kid isn’t buying it. If he believes intelligence is fixed, guess what? It is. For Bug, being good at something means it is supposed to be effortless. A person is naturally talented at some things and those are the things he should do. This idea baffles me.

“I hate this day,” he says as shrugs into his jacket. It is only 8:40 a.m.

When I walk Bug to the bus, other parents and kids are there waiting. Anxiety about my son’s attitude is a backpack full of wet concrete. I can talk up one side of Mt. Everest and down the other telling the world what I believe but my child is only going to want to learn new things if they are beguiling enough to make him want to trade in his ease for the effort required.

What is the currency for a seven-year-old? This: whatever other seven-year-olds decide has value.

But I am a loner of a mother. Where would I begin to plug my son into the allure of new activities if he’s already decided he isn’t interested? Which kids in my son’s school play saxophone or collect snakes? I don’t have a clue what the names of Bug’s classmates are, let alone their hobbies. What I know of their parents wouldn’t fill a teaspoon. My son has been in this school for nearly two years and I couldn’t identify his best friends if they rode up past our house on a St. Patrick’s Day float.

Besides, I’m not good building community.

Making new friends is scary. Remembering names is hard. I don’t like it. Why can’t I just stay inside my cozy house and write and dance and bake pumpkin bread with my son? I like doing that stuff. I’m good at that stuff.

Thanks, universe. Got it.

The dad at the bus stop nods a hello as he has on all the other mornings. My turn to endure the telling. It whispers, Every single amazing, effortless activity in the world was hard once. I take a deep breath and re-introduce myself. I say I’m looking forward to seeing his girls out now that it’s getting warmer. Maybe we could all go to the park? He mentions that his family goes to Nationals games and that they’d love for us to join them when the season starts. “You know what?” I say, pulling out my phone. “We’ll never make it happen if we don’t exchange numbers.” He texts me his name, his wife’s, his children’s.

I’m not good at it this. The vulnerability makes me squirm. On my way home, I run into another neighbor in the hallway. It would be so easy to pass her with a polite hello but all that telling is still clanging around. The degree of difficulty of an endeavor bears no relation to its suitability. I force myself to slow down long enough to have a conversation. After the requisite small talk, she confesses she’s been having a hard time getting to know neighbors since moving in last fall. Also, could she come by to see my bamboo floors? She and her husband are remodeling and want to replace the carpet with hardwood.

Baby, the telling whispers, if people decided that the things they are good at when they are forty are the only things worth doing, our world would be a dismal place indeed.

I tell her I’d love for her to come by.

As I head out to my car, I feel a bouyancy breathing under the anxiety of these new commitments. The telling whispers, There was a time before Thomas Edison knew how to work a telegraph machine. Before Langston Hughes could pen a verse.

Thanks, I tell it back. Nice work.

Home, Living in the Moment

Hello Here

On the brink of leaving this home for the next (inshallah), and I still don’t know what I’m after. Place? Family? Community? Safety? The list is long and it changes with the breeze.
Ambiguous purpose calls for simple acts. I turn to my son and say, “Let’s go outside.”
These days, he joins me. This is new. It used to be a struggle, cajoling and begging before demanding or giving up. Now, he pounds down the stairs, “I’ll put her leash on! Here, let me!” He throws open the sliding glass door and calls her with his quasi wolf-whistles. She is suspicious of his intentions but ducks inside, unable to resist the word “walk.”
Flexi-leash in hand, Bug races down the driveway dragging the dog. She tosses a few desperate glances back at me but I’m no help to her now. Bug has finally learned to slow long enough to let her have a break for her bladder. It rarely lasts past the last drop so she forgoes all olfactory temptations gets down to business. They lope down the swath of grass between the fences. At the bottom where the year’s accumulated leaves lay in drifts, Bug snaps off her leash and she tears off into the trees. He squeals in delight and tramps after her, knee-deep in brambles.
The dog is the leader but doesn’t know it. Winding and snoofling through brown tangles, she takes us on a looping journey up and back down the hillside. Scattered clumps of daffodils poke their way up into patches of sun and purplish flowers unfurl from buried brush. Light threads its way down through dry spindles scratching the sky. I carry a plastic shopping bag and collect the crumpled cans and muck-filled Corona bottles that peek up through the leaves.
I follow Bug. Bug follows the dog. The dog follows her nose. We come upon a creek snaking out from under a neighbor’s chicken wire fence. Across the way is a clutch of bamboo as high as a rooftop. It bends against the breeze. The road beyond is near enough to keep me vigilant. Bug fords the brook with a single leap and slips up the muddy bank beyond. He picks his way through the deep green flutes, swishing them low. Feathered leaves stroke the water’s golden skin.
“I’m in the bamboo jungle! There is a tornado coming! Get out of the storm, Mommy!” I duck across and hide with him in the cool dark there. Cars roar just feet from our back and I holler the dog back from the roadside. She bounds into the creek, splashing us with wet silt.
When it is time to go, we gather leash and garbage and assorted leafy treasures. I urge. Bug dawdles. The dog drips. Eventually we shimmy into a dry creek-bed and follow the tracks of raccoons and deer back to the trail into our neighborhood. Just as we start up the hill, we turn and see a strange sight. In all our years of walking here, we have never come across such a thing.
A boy.
He is making his jerky way over the buried roots up to a log that bridges the dry trench. His black hair and pale skin trace a ghostly curve over the hillside. He looks up and sees us. I wave. He pauses then waves back. Bug and dog and I are poised on the forest edge ready to go home.
“One second, Mom,” Bug says. And he is off. He plows straight through the weeds and pricker bushes and heads straight uphill. The boy leaps off the log, starts to climb, and then slows. Bug is talking to him. He turns and responds. In a blink, they are deep into it. By the time I have gotten the dog turned and have approached the pair, they are discussing the bamboo forest and the forts up on hilltop that some older kids built years ago. “We come in here all the time,” the boy says.
“So do I!” Bug cries.
They talk pets. Neighbors. Teachers. Movies. Books. The boy is into the Warriors series and Bug is reading JK Rowling. I hang back and marvel at their ease. They compare notes on the best scenes from the last Harry Potter movie. Bug seeks and seeks a common footing. The boy, a few years older, is happy to oblige. They giggle about an explosion at a quidditch match then giggle some more when the dog grunts and tries to lick the boy’s hand off.
The sun is sinking and it is past time for dinner. Bug manages to tear himself away. We plod back up the swath of grass. Bug watches the boy return to his own porch and join a group of children there. A grown man sees us and waves a big Hullo. I return the greeting.
“We come in here all the time,” the boy had said. We had never seen him, yet here he was. We have paid attention to this place for years without looking for anything. The dog’s nose has been a truer guide than our own intention. Only in today’s purposeless looking do we stumble upon what we didn’t know we’d been after: a person who shares our place and a similar way of wandering through it.
My son’s bold delight stuns me. Even with no idea what he will find, he bridges the distance to meet what glances against his sense of wonder. Call it innocence. Call it courage. Whatever it is, in our new home (inshallah), may that wide-open not-looking to guide us to what we seek.


Giving Way

The storm blows
trees across lines
and we all come out to see
neighbors we have not met
in thirteen years
calling to us from across the way,
“Hello, hello, do you have power?
Do you have any damage?”
It is hot for days.
The dog and I clamber
over fallen beeches
to walk the trail
winding along a stream
as we do every week.
A stranger in soiled wellies with his panting
labrador pauses to ask
about the contents of our fridge
and the integrity of our roof
before apologizing
for all the mud. “The path to the pond
is pretty rough with all the trees down.”
The pond?
He and the hound bid us farewell
and I see a trail
I have never met
in thirteen years
bending off through the shattered woods.
It takes me two months to find
time, it is September
before we follow the thin ribbon
of roots and earth
to a place where lily pads blanket the surface
and tiny frogs whing away from the splashing
advance of my dog through mud
swallowing her up to her chest. She dips
her head again
and again to drink
living water
all of a sudden
right here.