Co-Parenting, community, Relationships

The Spoils of Civility

Ritter Skates

The transformation of the heart is a wondrous thing, no matter how you land there.

–Patti Smith, M Train

Tee’s face fell when I told him my Mister and I broke up. “That’s a bummer,” he said. “He’s a really good guy. What happened?”

I kept it vague. It would take a steadier hand than mine to fill in the fine detail of our shared briar patch. Attending to the perennial questions that twine their way through our story has worn me out. It’s all a little too bright and raw inside me at the moment, and anyway, it would be a mistake to cast my ex-husband in the role of confidant. He’s kind though, and he held the news gently. He told me he was sorry, and that both the boyfriend and his two kids were a positive influence on Bug. Tee seemed genuinely disappointed that our son would miss out on having that family in his life.

Continue reading “The Spoils of Civility”

community, Friends, Home

This Happening

Open Now

The vet’s best guess is that our rescue dog was born sometime in the fall of 2013. Over scrambled eggs and waffles this morning Bug says, “Let’s make her birthday October 12 .”

October 12, as it happens, is a school holiday in the states. Indigenous People’s Day is what the more enlightened of my fellow American’s have begun calling it. I’ve taken off work so Bug and I can hang together, but the neighborhood kids have been asking for him all weekend. I know I’ll be sharing him and that’s just fine — it will provide some needed post-window-replacement cleanup time. Every piece of furniture in every room of the condo is still sitting three feet from where it belongs.

Now it looks like my tidying plans will have to make room for Noodle. “What do we do for a dog birthday party?” I ask. Continue reading “This Happening”

Career, Determination, Learning, Things I Can

100. Things I Can Captain: This Boat, These Waters

mother child at sea

It’s taken two years to get here. I’ve skirted the edges of this reckoning so long I know every stitch in its hem. Now I sit in front of a screen, a calculator, and a pile of paperwork to ask the question straight out.

Can we make it on my salary?

I asked the same question back in 2012 when the house hunt began. The answer was a definitive “no.” Buying this home was a hard push into a choppy sea. I did the full assessment then and knew that my income would fall short. To cover our expenses over the long haul, I’d need to earn more. Continue reading “100. Things I Can Captain: This Boat, These Waters”

community, Things I Can

91. Things I Can Carry: The Load


She stands halfway up the tower of steps balancing a small box in her arms. She’s asking a student for directions to Robinson Hall. The young man unhooks one of his thumbs from his sagging backpack and turns slowly to scan the campus behind him. He shrugs and gestures off towards everything.

“I’m headed there,” I say as I pass. “Follow me.”

“Oh, that would be great. Thank you!” She falls into step. The sun is too bright. Heat bounces off the concrete plaza.

“Please let me carry that for you.” I turn and offer my arms.

“You sure you don’t mind?”

I heft the box. Its weight surprises me but the effort is welcome. “I’ve skipped the gym for the past week. I need the workout.”

She asks what I do at the university. I explain my role with PhD students and she offers up the question that always comes next. “Do you have your doctorate?”

I laugh it off, cracking the usual joke. “Seeing it from the inside, I’ve lost my taste for scholarship.” This is only half a truth, but it is a serviceable deflection of a topic too leaden for a sunny afternoon.

She’s not buying it. “From my experience,” she says, “you just have to hold your nose and get it done.”

We are walking in the shade now past the fountain. Undergrads weave through the commons in shorts, hoodies, headscarves, earbuds. I glance at my companion. Is she a student’s mom? A volunteer? She’s small and spry, probably in her 50s, with brassy curls and a sure step. Her trousers and blouse are carefully casual. Her makeup, light and even. She oozes wealth, but who knows?

We have these three minutes together.

I choose real.

“Honestly, I’m a single mom and I’m juggling more than I can handle as it is.”

She perks up. “A single mom! You do have a lot going on!” Her breeziness borders on excitement. “This is what my dissertation research was about. Mothers choosing to work or be home.” She pats the box. “That’s what’s in my book.”

It turns out I’m carrying the display volumes for her reading at the upcoming Fall for the Book festival. As we make our way into Robinson Hall and wind through its maze of corridors, she tells me about the research: 200 women with toddlers, 123 of whom she interviewed again when their kids were graduating high school. They shared their stories about the tension between work and home, about the tough choices they had to make.

We bang into the stairwell and plod up to the 4th floor. She asks me about my social life. “You must not have time for someone special. . . ?” I tell her I do and she bubbles with glee.

We eventually stumble into the bunker of offices crammed in behind one wall of the main hallway. I hand her off to the festival coordinator along with her books, but only after she gives me her card and a warm handshake.

I head back to my office past a bearded skater bending to the water fountain. An Asian man in a crimson plastic backpack hurtles past and trips breathless into class. From the seminar room across from my office, a Spanish instructor sounds out a sentence. The students, their tongues in tangled unison, parrot it back.

This campus hums with potential energy. I’m grateful for a career that moves in so vital a setting, where ideas ping and arc across every exchange, and where curiosity nudges back the skin of our questions so we can dig into the meat.

Even so, it’s always a relief to leave. High on puzzles and flow, I still house echoes of longing to return to my boy, my pooch, my neighborhood, my nest.

But on October 3, although it’s a Saturday, I’ll take the road back here. I want to cross her path on purpose. I’ll be ready to lighten her load again, this time by carrying one of those books home.

Visit Deborah Kahn at

Determination, Things I Can

89. Things I Can Seal: The Deal


The car I drive is the first I bought and the third I’ve owned. In 2011 when it seemed to breathe its last, I chose to keep it on the road. Here is that story. It is pushing 16 years now and finally failed its emissions test, revealing fatal injuries deep in the machine.

The registration expires at the end of the month. As the clock ticks down, the stress ticks up.

Maybe decisions like this are simpler for others. Or less fraught. Or — though it defies imagination — more fun? Here at Chez Smirk, the car quest has unearthed a staggering load of emotional chaos.

It’s just a car! Chill out, girl.

Except this:

  • A skinflint’s car outlives addresses, job titles, and even marriages. I am heir to a great family legacy of beater love. What I buy now needs to fit the next 10 years at least (insha’Allah).
  • The earth is dying. In this small corner of it, I do what I can to consider and conserve resources. The choice of which vehicle is as critical as how the vehicle is used. If a car is indeed necessary, then small is good, hybrid better, and plug-in best.
  • Plug-ins only work if you live somewhere besides a condo complex.
  • Hybrids are expensive unless they are several years old, and everyone selling a several-years-old hybrid has already put 180,000 miles on it. The new ones are getting cheaper but economies of scale have yet to reward my patience.
  • I am a single mom living on an almost-enough university administrator income in one of the higher priced areas of the country.
  • Interest steals from my son’s college fund so I only pay cash.
  • A little bigger for traveling and growing, or a little smaller for fuel efficiency and economy?
  • Type in “Honda” on Craigslist and you’ll get 300 cars from today alone within 20 miles of my address.
  • What the hell does a person look for in a used car?

All of this (and more) all at once (and repeatedly) every time I turn my attention towards this inevitable purchase. I also mortifies me to notice the ripples of self pity lapping at my ankles. The whole experience is quite lonely, and I still (ugh) ache for someone to rescue me.

Meanwhile, help is all around. But a girl’s got to know what to ask for and then work up the courage to ask. It’s easier to resort to excuses, which most often manifest as a state of overwhelmed agitation: Craigslist harbors just as many crooks as a used car lot, and my mechanic and my bank are open almost exclusively during the hours I need to be at work, and work is a deafening, mewling menagerie of stresses right now, and and and.

I try the logical self-talk I would give any girlfriend attempting this task, because from the outside, what could be simpler? “It’s just buying a car, people do it all the time.” Yet this approach makes me feel even more incompetent and out of my depth.

It’s easier to stick with what I know I can handle. Thumb through seller ads and haphazardly send brief emails of inquiry. After the occasional test drive and glance at a labyrinthine engine, say, “Let’s figure out a time I can take this in to get looked at.” Then add another line to the maybe-but-unlikely-to-do list, and eventually delete the seller’s info.

This is avoidance at its best. The illusion of progress accompanies my march across the calendar while I sing myself strangely comforting lullabies of defeat. I don’t know I can’t This is too much I’ll screw up What am I doing I can’t I can’t.

Doubt is an addiction with its own cunning hooks. It keeps me fixed and frightened and small and safe.

Except this:

I can’t is off the table.

This experience is baffling and difficult, sure. Learning most anything important is. But there really is only one choice.

I can.

I can study YouTube videos on how to inspect a used car. I can ask my parents for a no-interest loan. I can compare prices and skim reviews. I can assess the gleaming backsides in parking lots and traffic jams, and I can begin to build a private transport taxonomy. I can pepper my mechanic with questions, and carry an oil rag in my purse, and duck out for an hour in the middle of the day to go test drive a car.

I can inch my way to confidence with small — almost immeasurably tiny — steps.

And then it’s today and here, and another equivocal Craigslist inquiry leads to another sort-of plan for a test drive.

On a Saturday afternoon with banks and mechanics all closing in two hours? With my dad en route to Tucson, my mom in Scotland, my Mister incommunicado, and my boy in the back seat?

This is absurd. I can’t do this.

So I do it.

We shoot across town to check out a Corolla with only 49K miles on it. As if I’m outside my own skin, I watch myself stride up the walk. I marvel at the command this gritty mama takes. It’s like the time she removed the chutney jar from the ineffectual hands of the man at the party and twisted it open on the first turn.

The two middle-aged guys selling the car stand and shuffle at the curb, trying to catch up to her questions. She pops the hood, checks the threads on the oil cap then the treads on the tires. She runs her fingers along the seals in the trunk. She starts it cold and listen for pings, blasts the AC, make two hard turns and slams on the brakes.

All these weeks of dawdling and ooching along, she’s been picking up skills.

And now I step back inside that skin and press the gas.

I talk the guy and his brother into going with Bug and me — yes today, now — to the mechanic. I spin the mechanic’s emphatic “no time” into “we can squeeze it in.” Bug and I hop back in my car. With our bellies rumbling and gas light blinking, we slog through jammed Beltway traffic to my online bank’s sole financial center, arriving minutes before its 3pm closing. In the lobby, I get the skinny from the mechanic by phone (“This car is actually in great shape”). While the bank rep makes cocoa for Bug, I call up the seller and talk him down a few hundred bucks.

At 3:05pm, my phone pings. The VIN comes through. They lock the bank doors. I sign for the cashier’s check.

On Monday morning I’ll be at the DMV trading it for a title and a new set of keys.

It staggers me to know this single mama is managing this all on her own.

It steadies me to notice the many hands lifting me towards this version of myself.

Image: A Nine Pound Hammer


community, neighborhood, Things I Can

88. Things I Can Offer: A Playdate

Castle Fort 2

My doppleganger lives at the opposite end of the hall. She is also a single working mom with a little boy, a squealing pup, and a sort-of-manageable custody arrangement. We both teach. We both have moms in the area who help us out but we both still struggle with childcare and doggy care. We both are juggling about 15 things too many.

We even share a first name.  Continue reading “88. Things I Can Offer: A Playdate”

Career, Change, Choices

81. Things I Can Celebrate: Five Years

Anniversary Bed

August 23, 2010: first day on the job. This was another shift in the surge between a tidal wave of beginnings and a fierce undertow of endings. Landing a position at a university — one that had deigned to give me a graduate degree before I took off on a fateful, cross-country marriage odyssey — meant more than compelling work with college students. It meant benefits and a way to rebuild a gutted financial base. At a time when the best I dared hope for was chalk dust, this was gold.

So many things whirled and roiled to push me onto the metro that morning in August. Selling everything, leaving a home in the mountains, separation and divorce, going back to work, single parenthood. . . Every stroke felt like the last one I could possibly take. Then I took another, just as grueling. And another.

I wish I could tell my sisters that the other side of divorce is less of a slog. Isn’t that the line? “It gets easier.” Much like what my boss has been telling me every time the pace picks up at work. “Things will slow down soon.”

Five years, they still only ramp up.
Five years, single motherhood is still a steep ascent.

That said, the frantic anxiety about how to make it all work has quieted. When I press the gas on my work week each Monday morning, my mind leaves much of the domestic uncertainty behind. Eventually, my boy and I did manage to buy a home. We know our neighbors. He is rocking the classroom at school. We have a rhythm to our days, plenty of eggs and veggies in the fridge, a little cash in the college fund, a little more in the 401K. Within the few realms we control, we are doing as well as we can. Truthfully, we are faring far better than I ever imagined.

This relative peace at home allows for full presence at the office. I have attention to tackle the new set of pressures and commitments that greets me each Monday. Change keeps churning, wicked as whitewater. Like many universities, mine is trying to grow its influence under suffocating pressure to shrink its operating budget. Resourcefulness is as important as a bold voice; careful consideration as necessary as high-octane exertion. Most critical of all lately? Blind faith in the germination of sloppily but copiously scattered seeds.

I nourish and water. I pray to an absent god.

At this milestone, I can see and even feel what has broken the surface. Sturdy roots, infant limbs. Promotions and raises, geographic flexibility, new projects. People making decisions include me in conversations about the direction of our school.

All of this has meant growing up hard and fast. Five years is really just a blink. I understand now that maturity — at least “maturity” as it takes shape here at the 40+ year chapter in the story — involves going after more and more of the hardest stuff even when presented with the option to coast. This is a tough lesson to learn and a tougher habit to establish, especially when the young adult tendency is to dabble and blame, to shift responsibility and do a good-enough job. To hold out vague hope for something better down the line.

Growing up means understanding that “down the line” is stamped on the ticket I already bought and the miles I’ve already covered. My choices on Monday morning, on every morning, forge my destination.

I am learning to take on creative and difficult tasks that I’ve long assumed were the domain of people with talents and capacities entirely different from mine. I would sooner imagine myself capable of learning Mandarin than write computer code or keep tabs on a several million dollar research budget. But here I am.

This all comes at a cost, though, and it is a cost I still struggle with accepting. My days increasingly belong to tasks I would rather leave to someone else. The work I most love is crammed into the spaces between. My body is weary, my mind is sapped, and my sense of pleasure in just about everything is so far beyond reach it may as well be dandelion fluff in the last gust of summer.

So I celebrate in the least celebratory way imaginable.

I sleep.

This one weekend on the 5-year anniversary of life catapulting me into a foreign land, I finally let myself rest. Two nights ago, I clocked a solid eight hours. Yesterday, I took two naps. Last night, I managed 10-1/2 hours, and today, another nap. I dream long and luscious stories about dusty road trips and strange mountain men in dapper white suits. I wake up exhausted, walk the dog, and go back to sleep.

Tomorrow is Monday morning and I head back to the office. I’m excited to kick off the next half of this decade refreshed and restored. If the first half has taught me anything, I’ll need all the fuel I can get.

Determination, Things I Can

59. Things I Can Begin: The Research

Ireland Balloon Flight

It’s one thing to talk about taking a trip. It’s another to board a flight. The in-between is the true test of commitment.

The stunning Silverleaf stopped by to comment on Sunday’s travel post. Her visit jarred me into action. I’m still months away from anything so radical as a B&B reservation. Last night, though, after reading Silverleaf’s encouragement, I edged a few minutes closer.

The goal is to take my boy overseas next summer. To shrink the options to a reasonable handful, the criteria for selecting a destination are these:

  1. Manageable for an American mother and a 9-year-old kiddo traveling as a duo
  2. Affordable on a working-mom income, saving a few bucks every month for the next twelve
  3. A place my feet have never seen (ruling out France, Germany, the U.K., Switzerland, Costa Rica, Canada, St. Lucia, Mexico, and Zimbabwe)
  4. Safe for driving (or otherwise getting around) without pressing all of my crowd-induced stress-buttons
  5. Rough in places where we can wander off the map
  6. Familiar enough that if kiddo or mama becomes disoriented, it’s possible to navigate to a helpful place
  7. Far enough that it will open a window onto the big unknown

These carry me directly across the water to the land of castles, bogs, rain, and the River Shannon.

Silverleaf’s nudge sent me bopping around the internet last night when I should have been tucking myself into bed. I zig-zagged over the map, looking for an Irish island or village that might make nice waystation for us a year from now. I bookmarked some (Farm animals in the hostel yard, oh yeah!) and jettisoned others (Antiques in the lobby? Maybe when Bug is 20).

Because it was all still rolling around when I finally did make it to bed, it naturally bubbled up in conversation today. The bubbling occurred in a brief exchange with a colleague who has more money in his bag of golf clubs than I do in my son’s 529. Travel discussions tend to involve him telling me about his most recent Icelandic mountain expedition while I tell him about the water park down the road.

It just so happens (I learned today) that this colleague is good friends with an Irish couple who owns a hot-air balloon company. It also just so happens that this colleague is also is more than happy to send Bug and me their way next June.

A blink, and the picture is another degree sharper.

A click, and we are another minute closer.



community, Parenting, Things I Can

52. Things I Can Trust: His Compass

The rain lets up. In the kitchen, the skillet heats. I press shredded cheese into pockets of moist masa harina. Bug peels himself from the couch and kicks his feet into his sneakers. “I’m going out,” he tells me.

He wheels off through the courtyard on his scooter. I toss the first pupusa onto popping oil. A few minutes later, he’s back.

“No one’s home,” he says. The rain cleared the swimming pool deck, and the girls upstairs have flown off to Japan for the week. I step out to point across the breezeway, reminding him where his two new friends live. He jets off down the sidewalk.

Inside, the patties have warmed to gold. I open the blinds. The smiling man who drives the tiny sports car pauses inches from the window to leaf through his circulars. A couple passes behind him and takes the stairs, bickering about who was supposed to remember to check their mail.

Our unit sits at the top of the steps from the parking lot. Our door opens onto an alcove of community mailboxes. The mere act of leashing Noodle or loading schoolbags opens our living room to all curious eyes. We are friendly and brazen now. It took some time. The only alternative is armor and I got tired of lugging it around.

Neighbors buzz by with groceries and dogs. They unlock their mailboxes. They crack jokes, bark at their children, duck their heads and pretend they don’t see in. They plant earbuds, jingle keys, tap on their phones, bump into us. I say hello to everyone. I try to remember names.

Bug is back. He’s riding solo, looping around the concrete walkways. I see him pause at the adjacent condo, the one that houses the Portuguese couple whose children are grown. When we leave town, they water our plants and bring in the paper. Bug knows he is safe to go there if anything happens to me. Now he is knocking on their door. Now he has gone into their house. Now his scooter leans against the wall and, for the moment, my boy inhabits someone else’s world.

This kid astounds me. His classmates are all in for the evening? No problem. Just go say hello to someone else you like. Instead of waiting for change, he turns boredom into community. Instead of lamenting absent friends, he seeks out the ones on hand.

I step back to the stove and slip the first batch onto a rack. The oil is smoking so I click the heat to low. A moment later, he stomps inside. “I’m going next door,” he hollers. “Is the car unlocked?”

“Are there kids there?” I ask. “And what do you need in the car?”

“Just my skateboard,” he says. “No, no kids.”

“Who are you going to play with?” The cornflour is paste on my hands. I walk out to the foyer, patting the cheese flat into my palms. I peel, flip, pat, peel. It sticks anyway.

Bug paws through the keys on the hooks in the entryway. “Just some teenager.” He grabs a key. “Bye.” He pounds off down the stairs.

Now my antennae are up. Who is this mystery adolescent? And what sort of activity is my 8-year-old going to share with a teenager? I drop the pupusa onto the skillet and invert the others to keep them from burning. A sliver of cheese escapes and toasts to a crisp.

I hear Bug mount the stairs. I meet him there as he’s snapping on his helmet. A girl is waiting for him in the alcove. The soft shyness of her face makes her age hard to guess. She has dark hair in barrettes, glasses, a nervous smile, down syndrome. I put out my hand and introduce myself. She shakes my hand and tells me her name and explains that our neighbor is “my — um, my mother’s — um.” She thinks for a minute. “I’m her niece.”

“Oh, your mother is her sister. She’s your aunt.”

She lights up and nods. “That’s it!”

“I met so many people in your family at the birthday party,” I say. “How do you keep track of everyone?” She shrugs and grins. Bug adjusts his helmet and steps onto his deck.

“Do you have a skateboard too?” I ask her. “Are you going to ride?”

“I used to have one but it’s not here.”

“Do you want to use our scooter?”

“Yes, I would like to use the scooter.” I drag it out. Bug is already halfway down the corridor. She balances on the narrow base and pushes off after him. “Stay off the road and in the complex,” I holler.

Bug shouts back to me or maybe to her, “That’s okay because the complex is HUGE.”

It is dusk now. The pupusas sit in a limp mountain on a rack on the stove. I’ve made far too many for us. A dozen, more. The table is set with salsa, watermelon, carrots, silverware. My boy is still out there somewhere.

Do I trust their judgment?

The whispers begin. I wash the mixing bowl.

What if he catches sight of friends at the park? What if she wants to climb out on the railing? What if the ice cream truck is parked down the road?

The whispers hiss and jostle. I fold the cloth napkins.

Who will talk the other into holding back? Who will egg the other into jumping?

The whispers turn up the heat. I fill the water glasses.

Am I an idiot to trust my neighbors. Do I know this girl?

Do I know my son?

This is how the illusion of control worms its way in and cripples nascent independence. It chokes out any breath of fellowship. This is doubt at its most insidious.

This is why I let him go.

It is also why I wipe the counter. Make tomorrow’s lunch. Stay near the window but inside the house.

And maybe they are still out there wheeling around the neighborhood.

Or maybe they only needed to survey the perimeter of their shared territory once to satisfy their curiosity.

And maybe it was the vent fan whisking away the scorched oil that muffled their return.

Or maybe it was the internal chatter clanging louder than their homebound feet.

Out the window, I see now the helmets and wheels strewn along the wall. I find them parked on the neighbor’s couch, sipping Sprite and giggling at a Disney teen sitcom. The neighbors are puzzling over real estate listings. A baby nephew fusses in his carrier until someone picks him up. The husband comes in dripping sweat from a run. On their stovetop, a pressure cooker bubbles and shrieks.

I nudge Bug out the door. He calls a thank-you back over his shoulder. He bounces the five steps to our door and the six more to our table where downs half the pupusas and all the watermelon.

Home, Parenting, Things I Can

41. Things I Can Believe: Those Wise Words

We need a way to forgive others, ourselves, and the fact that things don’t turn out the way we expected. Writing our experiences, our fears and our aspirations can clear away the overload of resentment and the stale taste of remorse.

– B.L. Pike in “Write Now: Why You Really Can’t Wait Any Longer”

I ask my son to help with dinner. He snaps and stomps, tells me he’s not going to cook for both of us, he’s only going to make his own snack, and it’s not fair. For once, I conquer the urge to roar back. Instead, my voice is even as it reminds him of his options. He can either make dinner for us both by himself, or he can help me make dinner for us both together.

“Why do I have to do everything around here?” He storms into my room, hauls Biggie the stuffed polar bear off the bed, and thrashes him against the mattress. Noodle comes streaking out, head bowed, ears down.

I empty the dishwasher then check the mail.

Continue reading “41. Things I Can Believe: Those Wise Words”