Parenting, Things I Can, Writing

68. Things I Can Send: One a Day

Airmail Letters

In Zimbabwe, I wrote letters. Some were to my parents, some to friends, a couple to myself. Mostly, I wrote to a boy who’d loved me when I left but wouldn’t when I came home. During those months making sadza with my Sisi Portia and singing songs at human rights retreats, I covered thin blue airmail pages with stories and wishes and questions and promises. Sometimes the outsides of the envelopes were canvas, and I’d doodle around the address and play word games at the flap.

The highlight of any week was finding something in the mailbox from the states. How young I was then. Deep in the Masvingo province, red soil stained my shoes as I blistered my hands digging the foundation for a schoolroom. At the edge of Harare, I crammed myself into the back of an emergency taxi with six strangers to make the commute back to my host family. Passing through the market, I breathed smoke rising from tin drums where the maize was roasting. I ducked my head against catcalls from men too long at the beer hall calling, “Hey, musikana, marry me! Buy me a walkman!”

Here was this 20-year-old girl learning to carry on an entire exchange in a Bantu language, and it was still the mail from home that lifted me.

It’s too long ago to remember anything in those letters. The boy and his housemate wrote to me together a time or two, though they mercifully kept me in the dark about their new status. The content of any correspondence mattered far less than the fact of it. I wanted to touch a place that held me, or maybe just know I was remembered.

I understand now that mail from home was a status report on the acceptability of the exchange. This was its real value. My correspondents were still in the game. Play could continue.

I was too busy writing to realize that the act itself was shaping the journey. As much as these missives were “mail,” they were diary and commonplace book, hymnal and captain’s log. An envelope from home was an invitation to keep coloring in, keep making the story into what it was trying to become.

When I returned to the states, the boy handed me all that stamped and creased paper I’d sent from Africa, now neatly tied in string. He gave me back my pile of words. I hated him more for that than for choosing the other gal. The letters were for him to cherish. For that semester in Zimbabwe, I rode high on a precious delusion that he prized every word. I pictured him sneaking into his room and closing the door to read, re-read, get drunk on ink and fall a little more in love with me.

Did I mention how young I was?

I figured he’d guard those letters with his life. And here he was, handing them back to me.

Maybe I took them but it’s hard to remember now. Too many moves, too much life. I looked away, and the decades absconded with the bundle. I wish I had grabbed them from him and stashed them in a fireproof box. I wish I’d known what a story they’d make.

I wish a lot of things.

Today, I wish that on my son’s first day of his first year of sleepaway camp, the newness will offer him an untried self, the guides will provide a net, and the knowledge of home — out here, always here — will run so deep in him, he forgets to need me at all.

But in case he does, his mom will be there. Every day at mail call.



High Longing Time

We tumble along. One million two hundred nine thousand six hundred seconds since your last crossing of this threshold. You drag laces, one sneaker tied, loops as big as elephant ears. The solar-powered calculator in your hands breeds digits, times 24 times 60 times 60 again, weeks days hours to the tick-tick of your lengthening hair and harried length, stretching past the Sharpie scratch on the wall from your birthday just yesterday or so it seems.
Seams licking ankles, cuffs crawling up shins. These soft sweats kissed the carpet last winter. Before that, they would have swaddled you like the arms of giants. You are barely mine now and I keep losing my grip on the serrated edge of knowing you never were.
You ask who is heavier, who is taller, who has burped the most. I tell you it’s all me now but you’re catching up quick and so you pop off about two dozen rounds of air-bubbles from your well-honed esophagus. If I could believe in fate enough to beg its mercy, the height discrepancy may see-saw into its new alignment in due course.
I help you with the other shoe and touch my head to your chest. You let me do this and I imagine I can discern heartbeat under shirt, skin, wiggle. “Before you know it, baby, it’s going to be like this. You’ll go to hug your mama and I’ll be here looking up at you.” You grin and something like a chuckle rumbles and I catch the hot flicker of victory in your eyes.
Too soon, boy. This autonomy you so crave will come galloping at you and you will burst like the nascent tumescence fidgeting in Jack’s beans. You will spill out and unbend and rise to scrape the hot gas line threaded along the underbelly of the sky, soaking yourself in propellant and peril. Then, like the rest of us, you will swing your head around in big-eyed bafflement and search the crowds and corridors for a guidebook, a teacher, and elder, a guru. A fire extinguisher at least. And if you have not learned to temper your hunger and trust your own haphazard attempts at choice, you may find exactly what you seek.
This, if you care to heed my feeble warnings:
Watch out for love-bombs. Straight lines. Icons and iconoclasts. Listen to prophets with only one ear. Hold the lover with only one hand. Sniff with at least one half of your sixth sense the air around the champions. Shape the words to name what you smell.
Beware recruiters and their recruits, the faithful and faithless, backwoods zealots and penthouse swagger. Give a wide berth to anyone who woos death. Check the ink on any gospel. If it doesn’t smear, protect your flank.
Question most that beat synced so truly to your own.
All of these will have you for the small price of one fraction of your mind. After a trial period, the rest will be drawn down in monthly installments. You may forget to read the fine print. It happens to all of us.
Try anyway.
Do not cull the breadth of your head. Do not shave a hair from your longing.
Don’t be fooled.
Or do.
Don’t listen to me.
Or do.
You rise as you fall and the other way around too. Even now, I cannot catch you, even as I stand on my knees with my forehead brushing your chin.
I cannot, but I will stay here. As long as you need me to, I will pretend.

Living in the Moment, Love, Poetry

Struck, Cored

I cut my fingers
raw on you. Deep trench in the
soft tissue, I wince and fight
the urge to pull back, press instead
into the resonant sinew, press
on. It never toughens
or it has not yet
despite callous
feint and cool. It is still inflamed
in those places. Strings
bite. You don’t
pull back so I won’t.
We make this chord.
It is the first one, the only one
Now, the only one
two three notes to twine this way
ever. This stroke is all
we’ve got. I with you, we lay
ourselves bare against fret
and neck, stay there, suck teeth,
let it sting. Hear the thrum
on vein, the way sound
is wave swelling up
from grain and hollow
belly driving me against you,
plunging us
into us.

Love, Parenting

Close Shave

With Bug in the tub, it seemed a shame to let all that water go to waste. Off went the socks and up turned the jeans. My grandma would call it a “hot soaky.” I called it Yes.
Oblivious to my freeloading feet, Bug dipped into little meringues of shaving cream decorating the rim. He dotted his arms with it and donned fancy white hats and matching gloves before spreading it in whorls on the tile walls. I dug out the old Gillette Trac handle made obsolete by the march of progress and removed the last rusted blade. In Bug’s hand, the flat head became a squeegee, a paintbrush, a snow shovel.
Bug glanced at his toothless razor, the foam, my legs. The troika of temptations coalesced into their one true destiny. His eyes brightened with the dawn of revelation.
“Mommy, I have an idea!”
Spa day over in three… two…
“I can shave your legs!”
Bug took the lather into his palm and smoothed it down my calf. With uncharacteristic focus and gripping the Trac handle with two hands, he opened wide, straight(ish) trails through the white. “Feel how soft,” he said, touching the damp skin beneath.
This was over a year ago. Our bathtime routine took a 180, and sea monster battles gave way to regular mock grooming sessions. In terms of life expectancy of kid innovation, a year is the outer limit. The next idea has been right there waiting to pop. So, why does it take me by such surprise? Tonight, I hand Bug the cruddy Trac handle, he gives the foam a halfhearted swipe, and the light clicks on. “You know,” he says, eyeing the razor and then me. “I could do it for real.”
“Oh.” Not a chance. “You know, I don’t think so. You don’t need to be using blades on me.”
“But I could! I know how.”
My naked boy sprawls now, taking up the tub. I can still feel the wriggling fish of him against my flesh. As an infant, he was startled by the water and loathe to inhabit that terrifying echo chamber alone. I ladled him into the bowl of my lap and kept him afloat in the warm eddy there, nursing him through the shock of immersion. He clung, mouth and claw, his eyes anchored on mine as his jaw worked in defiance of the disquiet.
Now, he rolls like a walrus, laying all the way back with his head under. He listens for the hollow tones. Then, he sits up and takes another crack at it. “I’ll be careful, I promise!”
My son, using a razor on me? This kid laughs when I stub a toe. When overexcited, he cries, “I’m gonna smack you in the face!” Or he pretends to throw a toy at me then giggles when I flinch. Bug is too enamored of his power fantasies. No, I don’t want him anywhere near me with a sharp object.
Suddenly, my hot soaky seems scant protection against a chilling insight. I don’t trust my son. Fancy that.
This seems a rather dangerous state of affairs, and it extends well beyond us. Boys become men. He has to learn how to handle his ever-increasing capacity for harm. Isn’t it my job to help my boy become trustworthy? To harness his hunger for power and focus its generative force?
What if I give him the chance to make the choice himself?
“Please, Mommy?”
Never let them see you hesitate. Into the half-beat, his desire surges. “I’m old enough! I’ll be really, really careful.”
Okay. Here goes. “You know, you work hard at lots of things and I see you getting better at them all the time.” I stand and back the 4-blade Cadillac out of its valet spot by the shower-head. “This is a big job, but maybe you can handle it.”
“I can!”
I hand him the pink razor and we look together at the tiny teeth. He touches them with a fingertip. Then he scoops up a handful of foam and lathers up both sides of my leg. I roll the jeans even higher to make way for his expanding canvas. With intense concentration, he places the razor against my skin and begins to slide it down, down. He takes such care, the blades barely touch my skin. I lay my hand on his and show him how much pressure he can apply. When I let go, he presses in, glancing up at me before continuing. I nod. He is a Zamboni, not missing a single stroke. He even rearranges me, having me place my foot up on the wall so he can slip underneath and shave my calf from below. I call him Michelangelo. He pats all around and says, “Okay, other leg.”
My son doesn’t draw a single drop of blood. When he puts the razor down and helps me rinse, he has me touch my legs again and again. “See how smooth?” He crows. “They’re so soft!”
They are, as is his touch. My boy took an opportunity to hurt me and used it to care for me instead. He made a promise. For him to fulfill it, I placed a portion of my welfare in his hands. Apparently, this is how promise works.
What a tricky thing, love. We walk this roiling deck all the time. Hold off or venture? Guard or lay bare? When is it safe to unbutton the collar and open the throat to the whims of another?
It’s not never. It’s not always. It probably isn’t even when we think it is.
It might be when we catch ourselves tipping at the warm edge of a revelation. When we find our old tools cannot prize open the curtain separating this place from the next, and a sharper edge is required.
When we know there is peril in placing such power in untested hands. When fear beats a tattoo against the taut skin of old scars and yet underneath it, a whisper (has it been there all along?)
When we tune to its key and let the dangerous thing pass between us. When we choose.
Here, we say.
Yes. Like this.