Change, Outdoors, Things I Can

21. Things I Can Unravel: Equanimity

We all have an old knot in the heart we wish to loosen and untie.

– Michael Ondaatje, The Cat’s Table

The sun rides in on the back of a fierce wind. Even though the equinox is just days from now, this taste of spring will slip away again tomorrow. Thank goodness. Winter is much safer.

The inevitability of change is worrisome. Buds unfurl and something in us pushes open. That something undoubtedly lacks the social grace to wait for an invitation. Who knows what will shatter? What will bruise? All of this is in the service of “growth.” What seems so lovely when talking garden metaphors is brutal when ripping old scar tissue to realign poorly set bones. It’s all a matter of location and scope, and so much is out of our hands.

I step out onto the scoured mud of the battlefield. The gusts whip through my hair. They bend the dog’s leash into a bow that moans like a cello string. I did not expect this violence in the air. We walk anyway, all 5 1/2 miles of swamp and field, in the last of winter’s glare. The dog leaps after grasshoppers, burying her nose in crackling grass.

With every step into relentless headwinds, I make my plans, rehearse my lines, catalog the tasks undone. Each thought is a scrap of debris stuck to the walls of my skull. Eventually, I remember to let the rushing air scrub the hull clean. I have to remember this over and over again.

The dog trots ahead, snuffles in damp leaves, falls back, prances up onto a berm. With one a paw raised, she surveys the thrashing field, alert for predator or prey in the brush. Down in the low wet, peepers sing and sing.

The sun creeps across the celestial equator. Under the vast and rippled blue, I walk blind into the next churning eddy. My skin thrills at the prying insistence of those gusts. Light snakes in under collar, hairline, wrist.

I am not ready for what’s coming.

I stride towards it anyway.

I gulp it down.

I howl back in its face.

Children, Growing Up

Egg and Milk

He stands with his back to the doorjamb and tries to sneak up onto his toes. “Flat feet,” I say. He grins up from under the turquoise towel a friend made as a shower gift. It had seemed huge then. A baby would drown in all that terrycloth. Now it barely covers his rear end.

He goes down on his soles and I swipe the marker across his crown before he can pop up again.

“Wow,” I say.

“What?”

He turns and looks at the black slash. It is more than an inch higher than the only other mark. We made that one half a year ago on his seventh birthday – the first birthday we celebrated in the first home we’ve ever owned. In all those cabins we half-claimed before moving out and moving on, we had never recorded his growth.

“Just six months. Look at that.” I start to write by the line.

“Can I do it?” He asks. I hand him the Sharpie. In slippery big-kid block letters he scrawls his name. Next to it, “May 2014.”


After I pick him up from school, we race in, drop our backpacks, and grab the ball and scooter. Spring. Light. At last, evening does not mean night. It happens every year and is a surprise every time.

He opens the fridge and digs, pulling out hard boiled eggs, a block of mozzarella, yogurt tubes. He takes a glass down from the cabinet and fills it with rice milk. He slips a knife from the rack and sets up the cutting board. He does all this now. The thrill of watching my boy saw off a hunk of cheese is enough to give me a shiver. No one would believe me if I told them. No one would care.

He is seven and doesn’t need to ask. This kitchen is his. In some parts of the world, he would have long since killed and dressed his first deer.

In the bedroom, I peel off my suit and whip my 6:00 hair up into a ponytail. My neck breathes and my spine shakes loose. When I come out, he is sucking down the last of the cherry yogurt and has knocked back the whole glass of rice milk. The golden ropes of hair tumbling past his shoulders are in desperate need of a comb. He bobs from one foot to the other. “Come on, Mom.” He picks up the remaining half of an egg and shoves it in his mouth. Then he jumps on his scooter and bangs out the door.

We have barely reached the corner when his name starts to ricochet around the park. Little voices call. Greeting or alert? Like prairie dogs, they pop up then down, re-arranging themselves. A girl crouched in the overgrown grass stands and waves a handful of buttercups at us. Another girl appears beside her. Together, they dart to the fence to watch us arrive then squeal and take off when we cross over. Three boys straddling the top of the slide leap to the ground and careen through the play equipment, faces flashing. The echoes of my boy’s name follow us in. He drops his scooter near the bike rack. Falling into stride with the galloping pack, he disappears.

When I see him next, he is hanging from the monkey bars at the center of a swarm of children.

His legs windmill and his torso pivots. Motion churns milk and egg to fertile slurry. His limbs unfold between blinks, telescoping, fanning, revealing new sinew snaking out across new bone. His arms stretch skyward. He plunges toward light.
 

Family, Poetry

Pistachio

He arrived with a pack
of yogurt in plastic tubes
and nuts rattling
in their shells. Our children
ran to the creek. I didn’t know
his middle name and he didn’t know
my sister’s first and neither
of us saw the way the earth sloped
to a gulley until we stumbled
on two lost soccer balls
caught in ropes of mud.

The stage was set
into the side of the hill.
He leaned against me. I called out
mirror. He called out washing machine.
The children’s arms banged
against weathered boards.
It seemed so easy
to find a game, to play
at family.

We broke
to breathe and fill
bellies. I love these the girl said.
Nut splitting free. Salt licking
foreheads and beading on lips. No one kissed
yet. We took turns holding a dixie cup
motionless in the water to catch minnows
flitting just out of reach. We all believed
it could work,
this falling together
like a shell hinging shut
again, like a seed
starting over.
 

Home, Living in the Moment

This Home Here

Story
 
In the back seat of the car, my son flips through the pages of Dolphin Tale. Bug fell in love with the story of Winter and her prosthetic tale when the movie premiered. His obsession has reached a fever pitch since I announced we’d be taking him to Clearwater, Florida the day after school ends.
 
“Do you know who lives there?” I asked.
 
He thought for a moment.
 
“Do you want a clue?”
 
A nod.
 
“It’s not a person but it is a living thing.”
 
His eyes widened, a light flashed inside his skin, and he fell over backward on the rug. Lying there with his arms spread wide and his whole face beaming, he cried, “The dolphin!”
 
Now, he follows the story. From the back, I hear him slowly piecing the words together. “Sawyer was worried that Winter might not make it back.” These are word bubbles popping along a graphic version of the story. And that is my son, reading to himself.
 
Did you catch that? My son. Reading. To himself.
 
When I ask what is happening in the book, he does not respond. In the rearview mirror, I watch his gaze dances over the page. He is bent to the work. His focus is absolute.
 

Sport
 
When I pick him up at Chicken School, Bug is playing Uno with his buddies. “Ready for basketball, kiddo? Or do you want to finish the game?”
 
He has two cards remaining in his hand and is inches away from victory. Nevertheless, he tosses them onto the discard pile and hops to his feet. “I’m done. Let’s go.” He gives his best friend a pat on the head and tells him he won by forfeit. Then he races out the door.
 
The red barn has two hoops bolted to the side at two heights. We slip-jog down the hill to the woods to schlep up a trio of lost balls. On the concrete, Bug squats and leaps, sinking one basket after another. Airborne and streaked with sweat, he stands as far back as he can and hurls the ball with all he’s got. Pow. It’s in. Again, again. He walks up close, darts to the side, heads to the edge. Every angle. Low basket, high basket, sometimes just bouncing the ball off the rust-red clapboards to see how close to the pitched roof he can get it.
 
He does not say “look at me.” He does not even ask me to play, though I do anyway, moving all around him. He barely registers my presence. He races after the ball, brings it back, mutters a sharp “Yes” to no one when he makes a perfect swish.
 

Journey
 
Once home, Bug says he want to walk the dog with me. I grab her leash and we run run run down the cul-de-sac to the green corridor between houses. Grandma is putting the finishing touches on dinner but we are sure to be late. We bound into the fern-shagged carpet of the woods. Dry leaves up to our shins, mud in the creek.
 
The dog takes off up the hill and Bug leaps down into the ravine. “Do what I do,” he says. And so I scoot under brambles almost my belly even though going over would be so much easier. One after the other, we scale the eroding creek-bed wall, slip on the exposed vine, cross the creek on the fallen tree, back again, then shimmy down the tumbling rocks. Bug ducks and darts and clambers ahead, whistling back the pooch and making sure I don’t cheat. “You can’t just go over, you have to step on it,” he tells me. I double back and do it right. He sees a frog and shrieks with delight.
 
Up ahead, the dog grabs a mouthful of something white. She skitters away but we chase her down back towards home. She eyes me warily as I pry the bone from her jaws.
 
“Can you see what it is?”
 
“A head,” Bug says.
 
“Huh. I can see why you think that. But look here. You see that hole going down through the middle? And the wings?” I turn and lift my shirt from behind, bending so he can see my spine.
 
“Oh! It’s a backbone!”
 
“A vertebra.” I touch one of mine. “They’d be in a string like this, all down the back. Probably a deer?” Below his blue t-shirt, I press my fingers into his ridged line. “It protects the spinal cord that carries all the messages from the brain to the rest of the body.”
 
The dog is panting and watching my every move. I return her prize and Bug picks up a walking staff twice his height. He uses it to fly between stumps. He calls it a broom. He chases down an invisible golden snitch.
 

Art
 
I finish the last verse of “Big Rock Candy Mountain” as Bug finally puts down his legos and crawls over me into the bed. He props himself up against the turquoise fleece cushion and picks up his pen and clipboard. I sing my way through “Baby Beluga.” He has a calculator now. He puts 10 tiny tick marks into 15 small triangles, does a quick calculation and announces, “A hundred fifty people.” He pulls the page off, lets it fall, and starts on the next.
 
I wend my way through the deep blue sea and Bug make an arc in fine blue ink. A box. Tiny wheels, a platform (which he spells out carefully) and trucks along the edges. His feet press into my side, squirrel under my back, find their cave. His eyes do not leave the page. With the morning sun, another day’s begun, you’ll soon be waking. . .
 
The song comes to its dozy close. Bug does not register anything different in the world outside of his design. He continues to add tidy, miniscule circles around the edges of the machine. “How does it work?” I ask.
 
Nothing.
 
“What are those boxes for?”
 
A pause. He rubs his nose. “People.” That’s all I get. Pen back on the page. His gaze is steady, tracing the leading edge of the ink.
 
Immersed, he has no need for conversation. He belongs exactly there inside his unfolding creation. Nested with his mama in a bed that works just fine, he is free to cross into the sanctuary of his imagination. His expression is both zeroed in and a million miles away. He’s found the sweet spot. He’s in the flow.
 

Dwelling
 
As I watch my little boy inhabit that generative wrinkle between ticks of the clock, I see how we live there together but in complete singularity. I cross that same threshold when dance fills me to soaring, when paper covers rock and its ink hushes the world. I know the place because it is where I walk under stars when my skin slips free and all I ever was and will be is night.
 
Story. Sport. Journey. Art.
 
Friend.
 
Song.
 
Clan.
 
We erect these places by the simple act of returning to them again, again, and shoring them up with whatever we dig from our pockets. When we come up empty-handed, we bend and scoop up fistfuls of breath. Of soil. Of our own flesh. Pack them into the cracks. Fortify our belonging.
 
We sing them open and fix our mezuzah on the door. We map their coordinates upon our names.
 
Here am I. Here are you.
 
We dwell in this Here we’ve chosen.
 
This here.
 
This, our home.

Divorce, Letting Go

This is not Then

It is impossible to run from the truth of him anymore. Without another man to hide behind, my naked heart receives the full blow. He walks into the house to drop off our son and he towers now in a way he never did. The sensation is not desire but it is similar enough to make the ground tremble. He is not the weak one anymore. That role is mine now.
 
Finally.
 
In the Saturday sun, Bug and I pound a volleyball back and forth before picking our way through brambles at the neighborhood park. Our path takes us around by the community gardens where folks till black soil into stirring plots. An erratic series of reports through the brush leads us to a basketball court glistening with a damp frenzy of male limbs. We watch for a moment before climbing a hill to a buttery yellow house trimmed in white.
 
“Right here, buddy,” I say. My feet find their way to the precise spot. For a blink, everything is a bright a June day. Bug climbs up behind me.
 
“Right here what?”
 
“This,” I say, spreading my hands, “is the spot where your daddy and I got married. He was there looking at me. This tree was absolutely covered in white blossoms.” Back then, two of the flowering trees had stood side-by-side. The arch studded with sunflowers had formed a bridge under the canopy of snowy petals. Now the larger twin is gone and just one tree stands bare. Eight years have passed. There isn’t even a trace, not one scar in the earth. Bug and I gaze all around the grass as it makes its tentative appearance into early spring. A few pink and purple pansies have been planted in mulch by the door.
 
“Everyone was in chairs here. Your grandmas and grandpas, all your aunts and uncles and cousins.” I retrace my steps backwards along the path I took holding my father’s arm. Oh, how I had laughed during that walk! The giddiness returns in a shiver. It is as potent as the moment I strode out between all the people I loved towards Tee, sweating and grinning there by the blooms.
 
“Were you embarrassed?” Bug asks as he follows me. We make our way through the trees and down to the tennis courts.
 
“Embarrassed? Why?”
 
“You were in front of all those people.”
 
“No,” I say. “I was happy.”
 
Bug darts ahead into an empty court. A brisk wind has been cutting into our collars. Bug follows the white lines, kneeling occasionally to press his cheek to the sun-warmed clay. On the neighboring courts, groups of doubles thwack and scrape, hollering at one another. We make our way around the back and look for the next trail into the woods. A man calls out and asks us to toss back a ball.
 
“Where?” I ask.
 
He shrugs and laughs. “Somewhere out there.”
 
We walk on, scanning. “I see it!” Bug hollers. Hiding in the grass is a lighter shade of green. He grabs the ball and races up to the fence. It is chain link nearly two stories high. Bug stops a few feet from the edge, pulls back, and hurls the ball. It sails up and over, clearing the top by at least twelve inches. Everyone on the court whoops and cheers. Bug’s pink face shines.
 
Early in our courtship, Tee spent weeks teaching me how to throw a baseball. First he had to un-teach me and then I practiced the awkward new pitch until it became second nature. In the field near his apartment, I could send that ball soaring over the power lines. He had to walk further and further back to catch it, and he smiled so big and called out his praise when it really flew. “Can you feel the difference? I can see it!”
 
The return of my maiden name has restored other lesser lords to their previous stations. Old muscle memory has regained its dominion. Solitude has settled back onto its cinderblock throne. This regime was not democratically elected, and so it happens that it is not easily unseated. I understand now that a coup d’epouse is an impermanent solution to the challenges of becoming a truly human creature.
 
That passage from the white-trimmed door to that lush duet of foliage is now only a neural pathway. It turns out I could not plant a new civilization in the soil of me just by crossing those 20 feet. Like the whole of the absent sister tree, the petals I remember are black earth now. Neither grass nor root has a record of our covenant.
 
Bug and I walk on. The yellow house where I donned my white dress recedes behind us. The park is not just the place where Tee and I married. It is the place where Bug celebrated his 5th birthday, burying pirate treasure in the volleyball sand with his preschool friends. It is the place where a visiting friend joined me on a stroll earlier this winter and we stumbled across fallow garden plots I did not know existed.
 
It is the place my son shows me that he has inherited not only his daddy’s pink glow but his throwing arm, too. Undoubtedly, he will be as ignorant of the rarity of his innate athleticism as he is of his fortune in the assignment of fathers.
 
Today, it is where I learn that I did love that man once. And it is where I practice walking under the weight of my own name in the other direction.
 
As it turns out, a swath of awakening earth is up ahead, warming itself for my arrival.
 

Friends, Mindfulness

Pressing Need

Press for Help.

This is printed on the big red button in the surgeon’s room. If I do, will someone pick up my son? Get us to school and work in the morning? How about a hug, a hot meal, a belly laugh? God knows I could use all of the above. Right now  my right hand is numb and 1/4 of my index fingernail has just been sliced away. I don’t imagine I’ll be in very good shape by the time the Lidocaine wears off. Driving is going to be fun, what with the splint still on my left arm from an unplanned encounter with gravity during a recent roller skating session.

All of this from a little splinter picked up at the lake. Don’t I get extra points for playing in the dirt with the boys? Maybe someone will send a car around with a driver and a mini-bar in back. I am tempted to press. Alas, I am fizzing in a beaker of peroxide at the moment and the button is a bit out of reach.  Continue reading “Pressing Need”

Uncategorized

Happy 100 Days: 92

Eleven and a half hours. That is how long he sleeps without stirring once. I wake at dawn and head out into the damp dark to run with only the glow of the waning moon to show the way. I return, stretch in the dew, walk the dog, pack lunch, shower, and bring the water to boil for oatmeal. He sleeps on and on.
 
This is what happens the night after the day the kid rides his bike to the school and back all by himself. Not all by himself, actually — training wheels notwithstanding, he is still skittish about hills. When we come to the top of a slope, he slows to a crawl and asks, “Mommy, can you hold on, please?” I touch the handlebars the way I remember learning to hold the barre in ballet. This lightest of grips is poised and at the ready. When he hears a car, he tenses and turns back three or four times to look. He veers in a wide arc away from the curb. I tell him the story about hitting the telephone pole when I was learning to ride a bike even though I was staring right at it. “You tend to go wherever you are looking, so keep looking at the place you want to go, not the thing you are trying to avoid.”
 
“I am going to run over that black spot,” he says. He peers with great intensity at a tar patch on the street ahead and steers his front tire over it. “Now, I am going to go over that one.” The cars pass on by.
 
At the playground behind the school, we run and run and run and run. It is dusk and the storm clouds are rolling in. I chase him up the slide and down the ladder, up the fire pole and down the parallel bars. We do not speak. This game demands no negotiation of rules. He bends and peers at me from between poles across the yard, eyes flashing and skin on fire. He breathes hard and braces himself. I charge and he shrieks, mulch flying. He tears off over the jungle gym and under the bridge, ducking, faking left then right. His wild laughter echoes off the school’s brick walls. We run until he notices the sky.
 
“Those clouds are very low,” he says.
 
“Yes. They are.”
 
“We should go home.”
 
He is back on the bike and I drop my fingers onto the handlebar. He nudges my hand away. “No, Mommy, you don’t need to hold me.” He weaves in and out and around the pillars at the front of the school building, tires churning up the chalk murals of peace signs and rainbows. On the way home, we meet the slope going the other way. He lifts his hands from the bars and gazes at the red, puffy spots on his palm.
 
“We can put ice on your hands when we get home,” I tell him.
 
He makes a fist, releases it, then pushes on.
 
“They make special gloves for biking,” I say. “They have padding and no fingers. We can get you some.”
 
“I’ve seen them,” he says.
 
And now he is climbing. Up in the seat, he stands as he pedals up the hill, grinding against gravity. I grin and tell him he’s got it. He climbs all the way to the top hill and then drops into the seat, pauses, and looks at his hands again. The red spots are angry now.
 
“We’ll use that soft ice pack,” I say.
 
“Okay.”
 
He turns right at the stop sign and continues all the way home. He never asks for my help, never complains. He makes it to the driveway and then lets me maneuver the bike into the garage. Inside, we root around in the fridge for the ice pack. He presses his hands to the blue pockets of relief.
 
When I put him to bed an hour earlier than usual, he does not protest. We read our three books and sing our three songs, cuddle and nuzzle and have butterfly kisses.
 
It is no surprise he sleeps on and on this October morning. When he wakes and comes padding into my room, he tucks himself under the already made folds of my comforter, grinning with sleepy bliss.
 
“Can you come cuddle me, Mommy?”
 
“I can cuddle you for exactly one minute. We have to get ready for school.”
 
I lay down next to him and put my face against his. He turns and presses his nose into my cheek.
 
“How about exactly two minutes?” He puts his hand on my arm. The red blister has faded to a pink whisper.
 
“Okay,” I say. “Exactly two minutes.”
 
He hums into my neck, closes his eyes, and pulls my arm across his belly.
 

Uncategorized

Happy 100 Days: 94

 
At the Colonial Farm Park, we walk back into 1771. It is all bonnets and woolen trousers. The family living there hangs tobacco in the barn to dry. The cast-iron belly of a pot hangs low over a fire that heats a potage of turnips, onions, and potatoes to boiling. The children are at work pulling “mile o’minute” from the fence with large wooden rakes. The skinny black cat is stuck in the tree, but one of the women uses a thick branch to help him down. As soon as he is back on the ground, he races off to terrorize the chickens.
 
Bug and his friend scoot around the corner to get in on the action when the clutch of young people returns from rounding up a loose piglet. A boy tosses darts made of corn cobs through a hoop. The girls spread their skirts and rest in the shade before supper. They show the two children from the future their dolls made of twisted corn husks wrapped in scraps of hand-dyed wool.
 
The place is inches away from one of the most congested metropolitan areas in the country. Or rather, what will become such a place in another 250 years. My friend’s little boy points out a cumulus cloud. A leaf falls into the collar of his shirt and he giggles. I hear the geese jabber at someone passing over the hill.
 
Time passes. Maybe a long time, maybe not. My friend and I talk, sitting on stumps outside the warming face of the log house where garlic dries in the rafters. Bug and his buddy are somewhere out of sight. A chicken squawks its disapproval at the relentless kitten. Eventually, Bug comes around to see me.
 
“Mommy, do you know what we are doing?”
 
“I have no idea.”
 
“We’re building a dollhouse.”
 
We rise and shake of the torpor. Indeed, he and my friend’s daughter have collected fallen sticks and sleeves of bark, gathered stones, overturned logs. They continue to balance these mismatched building block across one another, higher and wider. All around them, the skirts spread, the bonnets loll. No one speaks. Somehow, the house is erected.
 
My friend and I sit some more. Later, we wake, and 20 years has passed. The sun has moved our rough seats into the shade. We shiver a little and pull sweaters back over our sunburned shoulders. When we leave, we find the children have assembled the corn-husk family in its new quarters. The rooster struts past, swishing his black-ringed tail. The kitten watches from a distance. Everyone is ready for winter.