Nine Days

Those of us who experience ugliness in our family dynamics often prefer to remain concealed. There is less shame when one stays underground.


– Tracey Watts, “The Explosive Child” in Brain, Child Magazine

In two months, the school year ends. I’ve scheduled the vacation from work. I’ve cancelled the trip to Myrtle Beach. My son and I will have nine uninterrupted days together.

This is a luxury. Most working parents crave time like this, time with our over-scheduled and growing-too-fast kids. Be grateful, Smirk.

Gratitude yes, it is here. It just happens to be mixed with a shot of dread. I am mystified about how to make the nine days anything but miserable for us both.

How many parents are sitting on a locked vault of tangled up feelings? It can’t just be me.

(Maybe it is just me.)

I’m not very skilled as a parent. Loving, sure. Dedicated and creative and willing to learn. But bumbling, too. Perplexed. The issues that arise are rarely what I predict and never what I’m prepared to face. My responses miss the mark. I careen around our home, swinging between tight-lipped and screeching, in the face of my boy’s constantly shifting needs.

The loving bond that grows dense and loose in my friends’ families is, in ours, a stunted thing. At the end of our weeknights together, when Bug finally stops arguing about homework, bath time, and how many chapters we’re reading, when he finally conks out, I’m sapped. The thought of facing a mere weekend together wears me out.

Nine days?

The thing is, I’m willing to learn. I’ll eagerly dedicate these next two months to preparing for those nine days. My son is nearing tween-hood.  This may be our last best chance to cultivate the trust and connection that he’ll need as he slogs through the tar pit of adolescence. I have a stack of books. And blogs. And habits to practice both in anticipation of what might come and in response to what does. When I turn to it and start learning, it all makes sense. The way forward is clear.

Then almost as soon as it appears, that clarity begins to blur. In creep the other responsibilities. Up goes the volume on their demands. The fact is, only so much of the strife in our home is a result of “parenting” as some discrete set of techniques. Of our troubles, far more than I’d like to admit, arise from me.

I live 23-1/2 of every 24 hours in a state of low-level panic. A thirty minute cardio high is the only thing that reminds me of the world outside my hall of mirrors.

Unresolved financial concerns haunt me. How can I leverage my skills and energy to move into a higher-paying position? With this question nagging, I push harder at work. I submit a conference proposal, step up on a search committee, and get involved in the new DC undergrad internship initiative. None of this I have time for, of course, but I do it because I need to ensure that Bug and I stay a few feet back from the financial cliff.

The anemia of my social life concerns me. How can I give Bug a strong community of peers if I don’t build one around us? With this question tugging, I reach out to the people around me. I schedule a walk with a girlfriend, volunteer at the Unitarian church auction night, plan a weekend playdate, and put a potluck on the calendar. None of this I have time for, of course, but I do it because I need to ensure that Bug and I are woven into a rich and supportive community.

The paucity of my creative efforts prick at me.  So, too, the half-assed attempts at mindfulness, the chaotic closets and filthy windows, the short shrift I give to the relationship with my Mister, the public meetings I fail to attend for the condo association and local school board and VDOT as they make decisions that upend the value of my home,  the urgent call to action for racial and economic justice, the runaway bad habits of eating too much and staying up too late that destroy my sleep and mood and ability to manage any of this with grace. . .

Does growing into a better parent begin with focusing on “parenting”?

Or with 10 minutes of morning journaling? Or with a commitment to a professional development plan?

With daily exercise and 8 hours of sleep?

With a counselor?

With breath?

With less?

What heals a frayed bond between a 9-year-old boy and his mama?

We love each other, of course. All of this begins and ends in love. This hard work, these questions about how to proceed, they pull at me to build a home that can be my son’s sanctuary and his launch pad. Every question comes down to love.

In its most active, living form, what does love need? As it tries to push itself up from the root, how do we cultivate it?

This question churns under all the others. Sometimes I forget this simple truth, and the details topple me. That is when I roar until my throat fills with mud, and I am swamped with shame. That is when I want to sink into the earth.

And that is precisely when I most need to remember that my love for my son is under everything. It won’t let me sink. It catches me and helps me find my way back to the surface.

Then I — then we — get to keep on learning.

In two months, my son and I will have nine uninterrupted days together.

I have no idea what to do to prepare.

My son and I have nine uncertain years left together.

I have no idea what to do.

I guess I’ll do it anyway.


 

Back To Each Other

BlessedNest

Think of your child as a plant who is programmed by nature to grow and blossom. If you see the plant has brown leaves, you consider if maybe it needs more light, more water, more fertilizer. You don’t criticize it and yell at it to straighten up and grow right.

Kids form their view of themselves and the world every day. They need your encouragement to see themselves as good people who are capable of good things. And they need to know you’re on their side. If most of what comes out of your mouth is correction or criticism, they won’t feel good about themselves, and they won’t feel like you’re their ally. You lose your only leverage with them, and they lose something every kid needs: to know they have an adult who thinks the world of them.


– From “Building a Great Relationship with your Child” in Aha! Parenting

On our spring break trip to California, my son rounded up other kids at the hotel pool and played for 4 hours without pause.  At the San Diego Botanical Gardens, he climbed up into tangled two-story treehouse and built a shelter out of balsa wood.  On one bright morning, he hiked with his grandma and me through the hills at Torrey Pines as Pacific tides lapped at the cliffs.

He also fought, screamed, raged, cried, hit, kicked, and hurled insults.  Every single day at every point of conflict, his body went rigid with defiance.  He said hateful things.  He brought his grandmother and cousin to tears.  Me, to worse.

Continue reading “Back To Each Other”

Post Box

“You have to go the way your blood beats. If you don’t live the only life you have, you won’t live some other life, you won’t live any life at all.”

– James Baldwin

I’m not married to him now.
I remember these things.
He could weave string into bracelets. Yarn into pouches. He picked up discarded wrappers and curled them and knotted them and made them into chains.

When he asked me to marry him, he brought out the ring in a box he had made from paper tucked in on itself.

He is not my husband now. I remember these things.

The soil of my own life was restive in my hands. Its thrum vexed me. It was so pliable. So insistent. It offered no clues yet demanded everything of me. As if some larval creature moved through it, the contours kept changing. I would press my fingers in halfway but pull back, plugging the divot before it had a chance to drill open a corridor in me I was unprepared to claim. I could not – would not – choose a manner of shaping, let alone the shape itself.

My very own life in my very own hands. I was confounded.

Potter, sculptor, bricklayer, farmer. Technical skill is just the beginning, all hammers and season, chisels and heat. The other work is the inversion of craft. Abstruse. Intangible. Vision? Call? It is the sense of shape before shape. It is a moment of conception in stop-action. The mind must coil around the shimmer and foam and draw from-in-with it, frame by frame, a creation splitting into its own origin.

Here is art. Here is courage.

Skill marries imagination in a painstaking process. It requires coaxing that inner membrane out, out to reside within the material at hand. Slipping. Adjusting. Aptitude falling short. Hands seeking the next nuance, the next skill to call that thing into being. And the thing, the virtual life, when it meets tool and clay, shivers without permission into forms no one ever imagined. It slips into sync with the material world as much in spite of the artisan as because of her.

This was me, holding a pulsing handful of wing and seed and licorice root, warming the rank, luscious matter that cannot be created or destroyed but is always only changing form. This was me without any idea which of the six dozen flitting shapes in my mind it might take. This was me, seeking an instruction manual. A trail marker. A sorcerer for whom I could apprentice.

He offered me a tiny folded box. It fit in my palm.

I learned to knit while we were married. A bucket of bamboo needles. Yarn by the mile. A haberdashery of hats and scarves and ill-fitting slippers.
I squirmed on the sofa. I ignored the ache. I forced my gaze to zero in on the next stitch in the pattern.
This was me, making something with my hands.
At last. Something.
This was me, turning fairytale outside-in. Deaf to the clatter of limb against wall. Surrendering to threads biting fingers, ankles, throat. Hewing my own Gepetto out of fine-grained evasion and then feeding him my lines.

My son grew into the oversized hats then grew right out of them.

The man I married looped ribbon into lanyard. He did this, as all things, without haste.
I took up those strings. I practiced those boxes. I pulled and folded.
I pretended they were mine. I wanted them to be mine. His paper box fit in my hand. His cellophane chains fit my wrists.
My fingers ached. Below me, the fecund earth roiled. I stilled the urge to plunge.

In the winters, our house, whichever one in whichever time zone, was edged in white-gold lights. He laced every corner. He installed timers at the outlets. I walked through the dark mountain frost on those blue-black nights. Miles from any town, the only cloud brushing that carpet of stars was the one I alone breathed.
I followed the bend until our house appeared on the hill. My cloud found its kin. A fire there. Odd relief: the communion of breath with ash, the shared obscuring of depth.
A ribbon of smoke, a runway of light. A place to land. The home we made.
I imagined it was ours and that I was an equal part of the Us who created it.
Our marriage. Our son. Our Christmas. Our hearth.
A rectangle of lights framed the door. A square of lights outlined the window.
Strings of light made boxes of light made chains to grip in the direction of travel.
Always, the urge to plunge. Did I admit that it was almost as strong as the one that pulled me back? Almost. Not enough.
It could have been.
Down to the creek, the glassed stone, the trout slipping down low. A canopy of mist kissing the water’s quaking skin. Somewhere near, the bald eagle in its nest. A screech on the hillside. The towering stone, the natural bridge, the dirt road twisting down and away. Down from light. Away from the frame, the flame, that steady glow.

Almost.
My son in there. I went home. Always.
Until I couldn’t.

Now, I am making the Christmas that a good mom should. My son and I drape aquamarine garland from the doorframes. We follow lines scratched deep in the vinyl.

The sound is tinny. Grainy. There is dirt in the grooves. Weeds push up through the cracks. Seeds rupture. Their dogged tendrils erode the smooth edge.

Something unfurls in the air here. It is not pine. It is not mulling spices.
Carapace and decay. Bud and birth.

The Christmas I make is my penance.
Yet no one is demanding it. No one has handed me an invoice or called me before jury.
Peers don’t speak their judgments aloud. Not now. They have their own failings to answer for.
The man who was my husband is not holding a yardstick. He never was.
The box fit in my palm. The box fits all of him. Of course it does. It is his. It always was.

The man who is not my husband still has the Christmas stocking from his childhood and he takes it with him every year no matter where he ends up on December 24. He makes sure our son’s stocking is wherever our son will be on December 24. The stocking goes back and forth like a lunch box.
Like our son.

The tree twinkles. Gifts are piled in heaps that brush the low boughs. Cards wend their way around the globe.
The season squeezes. The strings pinch but no one is here to pull them. No one but me.
I find a spade. The dulled blade is still sharp enough to split threads. To crack floorboards. To pierce ice and soil and root.

In these moments when my son is with his father, I marinate in disquiet. I look around the home we are making and see the places where we spill from the corners. The dining room table is a hard-hat zone of paint and pennies and half-written poems in calligraphy ink. The empty floor of the living room yawns wide and pulls me to dance under low lights. I write. I pace. I wander out into the night with the dog and turn my bare face to winter sky.

Christmas is changing shape. Everything is.

The material comprising the ground under my own feet still puzzles me. Frightens me. Yet this terrain I inhabit, both alone and with my son, is all I’ve got.

This is me closing my eyes and seeking the shape preceding shape. I follow its source. I feel its beat and match my pulse to that throb.

I bend. I reach.

This is me.
Plunging.
 

Mad Skills

His teacher says we need to have them read to us. “A book a day at least.” I have not been doing this. Judging by the other parents’ shifts and murmurs, I am not alone. We are all folded into the small desks with our knees bent up to our shoulders. Mrs. P smiles. “And one more request. Please, please teach your children to tie their own shoes.” Groans now. Giggles.
 
Tee and I look over the sign-up sheet for parent-teacher conferences in November. We are the only twosome negotiating for a time slot. At every other desk, it is just one mom or dad – mostly mom – checking the schedule. Divorce comes with a handful of unexpected side benefits. They’re pretty expensive and probably not worth what our son has to pay for them, so we guard them with our lives. Tee and I both attend every event. We used to argue over who gets to chaperone the school trip until we realized we could handle it together. We have already set a theme and divided up cake- and game-duties for a birthday party over a month away.
 
“Geez, I can’t get here at 12:30 on a weekday,” I say. All of the morning and afternoon appointments are filled. Tee and I have our calendars out. “There’s a unit meeting on Monday I can’t miss,” he says. Our negotiations are stalling the process for everyone. Another mom takes mercy on us and offers us her 8:15 slot. She stays at home mom and lives right near the school. She’s our new favorite person. Tee and I put up a symbolic fight for about three seconds before erasing her name and squeezing our two onto the blue line.
 
The teacher introduces the parents to the Spanish teacher and the weekly schedule. Then the bell rings for us just as it does for the kids. Parents scatter. Tee and I are alone in the hallway, engaged in the eternal yet forever interrupted conversation about raising our son. Other parents might be doing this at home with each other. Maybe they’re not doing this much at all. Tee and I talk. We talk in corridors, over phones, between meetings at work. Scraps and patches. We find compromises lightning fast now without even discussing the values beneath our positions. We are a million miles apart but right on the same page.
 
Some days.
 
One of the things I miss and don’t miss in the slightest is having Tee in my home and private space, thinking with me about raising our son. I don’t know what I’m doing 95% of the time. Now, I bumble around in isolation. I ache for another set of eyes while knowing my ex husband’s presence wouldn’t actually help. I don’t understand the way he sees. We have decided to be in complete agreement on all things practical and to cross our fingers that we won’t bump too hard against the Whys of our choices. There are walls between us that we still don’t know how to scale.
 
Tonight, in perfect alignment, we are the envy of our friends and neighbors.
 
“So, do you have him read to you?” I ask.
 
He smiles a little. “Nope. We still do our three books and sometimes he points out a word, but. . .” he shrugs.
 
“I guess we should start.” I’m thinking about the inevitable struggle with Bug. Like just about every other human on the planet, he resists change.
 
“One a night?” Tee asks.
 
I nod. “I’ll start tonight.”
 
Bug has already had his bath when I bang through the door. He and my mother are sitting on the sofa looking through a picture book about spies. Bug slumps off to the bathroom to brush his teeth while I hear the run-down of the evening. Good dinner, chip on his shoulder, won’t talk to her about anything. I don’t bother telling her again that this is his personality right now. His attitude hurts her feelings regardless. I saw the other truth, though. They had been leaning in together, close and quiet in the orange glow of the lamp. Maybe it was only three minutes. Maybe we have to take what we can get.
 
She heads out and I brace myself. “All right, kiddo. Bed.” No slush time tonight. I just know this shift in our routine is going to drag us down to first gear. My nights with my kid are precious but they are so very long. It’s been years since Goodnight Moon. These days, three books and three songs can fill an hour, easy. If Bug has to read? We’ll be bumping along on the shoulder, me craning my neck for the exit ramp. The dinner dishes are heaped in the sink, the lunches are not made, the dog has to be walked. . .
 
Clearly, Bug’s not the only one who dreads change.
 
Right here, right now. I tell myself.
 
“Okay, Buddy. Tonight, you get to read one of the books out loud to me.”
 
“I’ll start tomorrow,” he says.
 
“Tonight,” I say.
 
“Next week? Please? Wait! I know. I’ll start when I’m seven.”
 
“Baby, you practically are seven. And Mrs. P didn’t say to wait a day or a week or anything. She said now. You’re teacher said it, so even Mommy has to do it.”
 
Bug deflates. I read two from the pile then root through it again and pull out one of the shorter ones. It is from the library and neither of us has ever seen it before.
 
“What’s this?” he asks.
 
“I don’t know. What does the title say?”
 
“Oh, Mom! Come on.”
 
I point to the first word on the cover and wait.
 
“H-h-hondo. And. Fuh – what’s that?”
 
“Fay-buh—”
 
“Fabian?”
 
“Yep.”
 
“Hondo and Fabian,” he says.
 
We open the book. He reads the first line. Not a single stumble. He reads it just like any old reader would do it. I have to hold back the wave of Wow that surges up in me. If I don’t keep my cool, he won’t keep going. We turn the page. His voice rolls smooth right over the next line. Then the next. Hondo and his friend Fred are playing in the waves. Fabian the kitty is playing with the toilet paper. Bug is giggling. I use my fingers to cover parts of a long word and he pieces together “chicken.” Then, just like that, Hondo and Fabian are asleep. We close the book and I turn to Bug.
 
“You just read to me, baby. You just read a whole book!”
 
“Yeah, yeah. Whatever.”
 
“Whatever your own self. I had no idea you could do that! Look how all your hard work and practicing is making it so you can really-for-real read.”
 
“Could you just sing please?”
 
My mother is right. He does have a chip on his shoulder tonight. It’s no different than just about all the 182 nights I have with my flinty boy. That’s not nearly enough squares on the calendar to waste any one of them on wishing he were different, wishing any of this were something else. I pull the pillows down behind us and curl into him. He pushes my hand off of his side and twists away.
 
“Old Mr. Johnson had troubles of his own.”
 
“Will you rub my back?” His little voice. His one concession to attachment. I lift his shirt and trace my nails down his spine. His muscles roll as he hums a little laugh.
 
“I’m really proud of you, baby,” I whisper. “You’ve worked really hard. It’s going to be so fun reading together.”
 
Bug doesn’t say anything. I pick up the song’s drifting thread.
 
“He had a yellow cat that wouldn’t leave his home. . .”
 

No Fixed Address

In the parking lot of the state college campus where Tee was staffing an exhibition table, Bug nursed. We sat in the back seat with the door open to a spring afternoon. Tee came around the corner to meet us, concern folding in a face usually at full sail. He moved to block us and pushed the door partway closed.

“What are you doing?” I asked. In my lap, Bug raised his eyebrows up and back to get in on the action. He didn’t lose his grip. Besides the perfunctory drape in an airplane or shopping mall, modesty had rarely factored into Bug’s mealtimes.

Tee shrugged and shuffled. “Everyone can see. We don’t know people here.”

Continue reading “No Fixed Address”

Featherweight

To the woman who has signed up for a single-parent dating seminar because she wants to figure out how to get things right, he says, “It’s like boxing.” Then he laughs and apologizes. To a runner, the metaphor is endurance. To a world traveler, maps and foreign tongues. To a boxer? The next match.

“Sure, hear them out,” he says. “You can get good advice from everywhere. ‘Do it this way. Try that.’All of it probably works.” He halfway smiles. “My trainer teaches me things.” Here, he hunches his shoulders just a fraction and brings his loose fists up to shade his face. “’Use your legs like this, lean like this.’” He shrugs and his hands open like wings. One alights on his thigh hidden just below the table. “My legs might be just a little bit longer. Maybe I have to lean differently. I need to find that out.” Now he lifts his palms and placates an invisible onslaught. Of fists? Advice? Skepticism? “You just have to find your own balance. Your balance.”

The others at the table pause and let this settle in. The only Right is boxing from within your own skin. Continue reading “Featherweight”

Happy 100 Days: 3

The cake sticks to the pan and breaks into pieces as it lands on the plate. This means a trifle is in order. Having never made one, I look online. Recipes abound. It is only four hours until the party starts, so I skip the recipes and wing it with what I can scrounge from the fridge.
 
I make chocolate sauce using light cream, vanilla, and cocoa powder before whipping the rest of the cream to a light froth. Chunks of cake line the bottom of a glass bowl. I dig around in the liquor cabinet, trying to choose from among the assortment of gilded, dusty bottles. Brandy? Grand Marnier? After a sniff of each, amaretto is an easy choice. I poke around in the kitchen for the proper tools. The turkey baster is the right size. The little sweet sponges of cake soak up the amber liqueur. A layer of chocolate sauce, a layer of whipped cream, another layer of cake. More amaretto. The scent makes my knees weak. The trifle heaps to the top of the bowl. Flecks of Ghirardelli chocolate dusts the top of the white cloud.
 
Into the fridge it goes.
 
The guests arrive with their bags and boxes. One man hollows out a giant bread boule and fills it with spinach dip. A woman has brought guacamole she made by hand, leaving the seed perched on top to keep it green. One guest shows up with three different bottles of vodka. Martinis are mixed in a chrome shaker. Ice rattles. Apple, raspberry, straight up and frosting the clear plastic cup. Chatter, a round of cards, hellos to the new member of the crowd. Stories pile on top of stories. Germany, Istanbul, Singapore. Holidays, movies, crazy exes.
 
A guest brings out a tart piled with eye-popping color. Glazed berries and kiwi glisten atop a golden crust. The trifle comes out of the fridge. Everyone oohs and aahs. The consensus is that a stuck cake is a blessing in disguise. We dig into the sweets. The cork pops on a red zinfandel then a pinot noir. We stand in a circle in the kitchen.
 
In the brief lull between laughter, the request a request to the group bubbles up: “Share an experience or accomplishment you aim to have in 2013.” The quiet deepens. People turn briefly inward to seek this truth. Strangers, acquaintances, friends. In this way, we introduce ourselves all over again.
 
To go on a week’s vacation to Italy. With a girl.

To finalize my divorce and move into my own apartment with my son.

A career change.

To let myself relax when I am relaxing.

To light a candle, put on music, and dance in the living room of my very first own home.

To box in my first real match.

To travel somewhere totally crazy for a stupid reason, like flying London for the weekend just to catch a concert.

To practice being content with what I already have.
 
We listen and nod, we hmmm in resonance. We decide we will keep tabs on each other and gather here again next December.
 
2013 will be a fine year. We hatch our big plans. When they break into pieces as they most assuredly will, we craft them into something new with whatever we have on hand. It is when we share that jumble of mess and redemption with friends that we notice how sweet it really is.