Children, Growing Up, Love


Slow-Swinging Sea
He stirs as I tiptoe past. It was the quietest of midnight bathroom visits, but sensing proximity, he surfaces. The butterfly nightlight gilds the unfurling comma of his body. He mumbles and I bend down close. Is this just a ripple as he passes beneath or is it a call up to his divemaster in the waking world?

“I had a nightmare.” A moan chokes the almost-whisper, tears bubble under the almost-plea. He asks still sometimes. More frequently now, he turns into himself and finds uneasy comfort in his approaching PCS.

He reaches for me from the small bed we’ve tucked into a nook in my room. For one night, this night, he is here. I must remember what I so easily forget: Tonight is the only night.

The only guarantee is this.

When does it go? Does the wind change, do we get any warning at all? The story has its own arc and rarely does it show mercy to the players.

Our neighbor died last week. Every day, he walked his goofy dog named Mulligan. Every day, he beamed out a smile. So many of us here lock our gazes on the ground as we stride headlong across the face of the day, but he spared a moment for a hello.

We rode the bus together to the metro in the mornings. This summer, along with his tattooed son, intermittent daughter-in-law, and 5-year-old grandson, he went camping in Minnesota. We rode together then too, taking bus to metro, the clan lugging duffel bags and airline tickets. He came back with sunburned cheeks.

The tattooed son walks Mulligan now. He smiles and says hello just like his dad did. Mulligan wags and sniffs and strains at his leash, doing the same.

In the great green room, there was a telephone, and a red balloon.

When was the last time we read aloud the book we used to know by heart? Who can call up the final Sweet Baby James?

Tonight is the only night.

Tomorrow, my boy will sleep in another place. Behind a closed door, in a dorm room, alongside his troubled lover. He will rest on the shore of the cove he’s found following his own songlines. He’ll plunge into caves that crack open in his private sea floor. He’ll battle the Leviathan that has fed on his leaked blood and whispers.

I sit down on the carpet next to him. Our dog is curled into a ball on a tattered wool blanket on the other side of me. She is a soft pulse, a shuddering exhale. I stroke my son’s hair, its tangled gold, its damp heat. He sighs. Then he touches my arm and pulls it down across his middle. Turning, he tucks me in under him, extending my reach, strapping my slender weight across him like a harness. I lay may cheek against the warm place his head left on the pillow. His discarded breath is my oxygen. His scent, my surf.

Soon he is rhythm and release. When his grip relaxes, I plant a kiss his slack cheek then roll away.

It is deep night and I am so very tired.

I fall into the passing current of sleep, drafting in the slipstream of my son’s swift descent.

Image credit: Asleep in the Arms of the Slow-Swinging Sea by Ruby Levick

Children, Family, Things I Can

90. Things I Can Keep: My Promise

Bedtime Story

We climb into bed at 7:45pm for the sole purpose of extra cuddles. After two chapters in the thawing forest of Narnia, I close the book and tuck myself around him. He scoots over and pulls my arm around his middle. We slip into our rhythm. Light and steady, whisper and pulse, we course along the curl of our twin spines like water smoothing a riverbank. He sighs and goes still. It is barely 8:30 and my boy breathes softly in my arms.

Image: Elizabeth Shippen Green, Five Little Pigs, illustration for “Mistress of the House” (1905)

Brain, Things I Can

82. Things I Can Watch: Dream Reels from the Projection Booth

Sleep. . . knits up the raveled sleave of care.
From Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Act 2, Scene 2

I follow him along the circumference of the earth. The globe bends under us. A rusted iron chain strewn out loose on the ground guides our hands, our feet. We walk near the shore then into the surf which licks our ankles as it rises. Soon it sweeps us up, the surge, and I clutch at my father’s back while he swims hard for a distant city on stilts. It is all that is left of our land.

Dazed and shivering, we climb to the rickety boards and look for a place to rest. A man squats against a corner of railing and hisses out the rates. Six to a room, he tells us. Fifty cents extra to use the loo.

All night and into morning, the brine clings and the heat swells. My father gives way to the other one, the who knows me as equal no matter much I long to be less. We have to find a place for our children on the sick earth. We have to fashion them a refuge, even if we are its only walls.

These choking and sumptuous images careen across the terrain of my imagination. I have seen such places only in glimpses, only when far from home. Kissed by spray from the Zambezi, I leaned over the precipice of Victoria Falls. Two decades have failed to dull the breeze lifting my pink skirt, to damper the white roar slamming geysers upon arrival.

I made a vow then: If I ever choose to die, it will be here. I will soar from this arcing explosion.

I have kept few promises in my life. This one holds, at least so far: I am allowed an escape hatch only of extraordinary proportions. I know that the effort involved and the miles covered will force me into new life.

Now, the stone edge of that Zimbabwean river is etched into a vein of recollection where the cliffs of Cape Breton gather around the New Forest’s scraggy tangle. The faraway place is memory, which means now I travel in dreams.

Sleep is a ticket to a steady body and a capable mind, but it is also a free ride to the outer limits. Just four bouts of it now — four dead zone nights following four decaffeinated days — have spun me along gilt-edged galleries and coursed me through sea caves, then pulsed me back out into the clutches of grinning dystopian warlords.

Through glass walls of a time-warping rocket, wrapped safe in a cloak of gravity and linen, I see worlds that maybe were and those that maybe will be. My soft spine arches as I clear the next mountain rising between the two. From both above and below, I watch as the laws of physics clash and spring against spasms of turbulent time.


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.

Children, Family, Learning, Things I Can

80. Things I Can Clear: A Place for Him

Ewe and Lamb

He likes daddy’s house better. “I get to be in the same room,” he says.

I like sleep better. So here, he has his own room. He is almost nine, and still, he begs for me to stay. He pulls me in after books and cuddles, “Just one more hug,” he pleads. “Just one more minute.”

On weekends, he tries all over again. “We can go to sleep in your room tonight, right?”

No. I tell him again, no. Not this night. No every night, two years of no in this house, eight years of no in this life. No, mama needs to sleep alone. No, Mama has trouble resting when she shares the bed. Mama is a monster who trips into a churning, troubled cauldron of demons night after night after night after night. Any chance this mama has of sleeping soundly, she’ll protect with all her might. Even if this means earplugs, eye masks, a bolted door, a lonely son.


Then suddenly, my boy wakes with the dawn and pads into my room. Hair wild and eyes gummed with dreams, he crawls into my bed and folds himself into the warm pocket of comfort around me.

Gangly, humongous, heavy as stones.

A boy? My boy?

I feel the height and weight of him, the crackling and waking up of every surging cell in him.

My boy is finished being small.


From here, he only grows up. Out, older, taller, away. He grows into himself.

How much longer will he want to be so close?

How many chances do I have to be his home?

His longing for nighttime company is more than a craving, more than a passing interest. Beyond the clutchy acquisitiveness children have for Pokemon cards and pizza nights and winning at Stratego, this hunger is something deeper. Primal even.

Every time he begs and cries for me, every time in all of his eight years, he is asking to feel bound up in something, to feel tethered to place and kin.

In the purest form of humanness — mammal and existential alike — he needs to be held.

Now, in this quickly closing chapter of his life, I can be the one who holds him. This web I weave around him — alternately flimsy and rugged — tightens into the vault from which he launches the man he will become.

This web I weave around him — alternately capacious and secure — sinters into the vault in which he stores the stars and wounds and whispers that he gathers along the way.

Tonight I decide: We will find a way to climb in close together. Close, so he can worm his way deep into the heart of the comfort he needs. Close, so I can protect my precious sleep and still love my boy the way he wants to be loved.

Tonight, I ask: “Do you want to make a nook in my room?”

He stares, checking my face for tricks. Then his spreads into a grin and he actually shivers with delight.

In record time, he finishes dinner, stacks dishes, helps walk the dog, and lops nearly 20 minutes off bath time. Then we plop ourselves on the floor of my room. The rack of toy bins in the corner needs to go.

“Okay,” he says picking up a matchbox car. “Donate.” He tosses it in a bucket.

“Easter bunny ears?” I ask.

“Trash,” he says.

We go like this. Legos, mardi gras beads, pirate eye patches. Toss, donate, keep. The box of trinkets he wants to hold onto is far emptier than I imagined. The toys are meaningless. What he wants is the absence of them. What he wants is the treasure their departure promises.

By bedtime, we’ve done it all. Vacuumed, dragged in extra mattress, unfurled sheets. He carries in a stack of books to line the windowsill, fetches the lamp with its denim shade. He keeps smiling at me. Smiling and smiling. “It’s so comfortable,” he beams, settling himself into a heap of red and turquoise linens. “Want to come try it?”

I bring my pillow and cuddle up in his nest. We are tucked into an alcove under the window across from where my big-girl bed lives. Bug can look right into Noodle’s crate. A few moments later, she tip-taps in and sniffs around the new setup, talks at us, then heads over and curls into a ball on her blanket.

Bug thrums with sleepy rightness, with a satisfaction rare in his bull-headed, only-child world.

He sighs and rests a damp head on my hip. “Put your arm around me,” he says. “All the way across.” He draws my hand over his chest, slips it into the fold between his torso and the blanket. In my other hand, I hold Cornelia Funke’s Thief Lord and pick up where we left off last night. The conniving Barbarossa has spun backwards on a carousel and toppled out as a toddler, while Scipio — wounded and obstinate — has chosen to careen past adolescence and emerge as a man.

We stumble towards infancy and whatever comes before. We surge towards dying and the end we refuse to imagine. On either side of us, these memories, these wishes, they stretch like corridors lined with swords and feather beds, disappearing into dark. When fortune spits us out against unforgiving walls, when moments choose us before we have a say, we carry our soft landings with us. We bear our own rending.

For our children, we dull what blades we can.

Even when they are certain they are done needing us, we tuck beneath them a pallet of silken rope and down.

We hold them anyway.

Image from “The Nursery,” March 1881.


Choices, community, Things I Can

78. Things I Can Wear: This Garment of Ours

While work hours declined dramatically during the first half of the twentieth century, thanks to higher wages, economic growth, trade unions, and progressive legislation, they have increased during the last three decades. Americans now work an average of one extra month per year than they did in 1980, and single mothers work an extra six weeks. Employees often work overtime and outside their job descriptions for fear of losing their jobs if they refuse. Cutbacks and downsizing have further increased workloads, making it all the more necessary to operate at the top of one’s game all day long, without any lapses. Fear of what one night of lost sleep could do to one’s appearance and performance the next day has become a common concern.

Kat Duff in The Secret Life of Sleep

We know it is zip code and native tongue, it is the body that houses the name. It is a solid school building and a safe walk there. It is scouts and sports and skate parks and dance troupes with coaches as supplemental mentors. It is a small stack of cards: library and HMO, towing and voting, ID and credit. It is the transcript and the stamp of the alma mater, and the names of the friends collected in those four years. It is the legs and the shoes at the bottom of them, it is a specialist with attention enough to notice the gap and intervene early, it is refrigeration, it is screened windows, it is the magnetic attraction of luck to fortune already acquired. It is all of this as water to a clownfish.  Continue reading “78. Things I Can Wear: This Garment of Ours”

Fitness, Things I Can

77. Things I Can Honor: The Body’s Cry

Sleep is one of the most important predictors of how long you will live — as important as whether you smoke, exercise, or have high blood pressure or cholesterol. . . Unhealthy sleep remains American’s [sic] largest, deadliest, most costly, and least studied health problem.

Sleep scientist William Dement in Secret Life of Sleep by Kat Duff

It’s possible to plug my ears and soldier on, but who’s the hero of that story? Push too hard for too long and you end up with blistered hands and a dead battery.

The weary frame begs for rest.

This family, this work, this creature living out her days in this one-and-only body has to release her stranglehold on momentum. It turns out that the slick promise of Forward Harder Better More actually pays out in stumbling weakening poisoning collapse.

What we knew once we can know again:

Sweet dreams invite sweeter days.

I return to chapter one to learn this lesson all over again.

Last night, I clocked eight hours. Tonight I will do the same.


Fitness, Poetry, Things I Can

54. Things I Can Pamper: This Flagging Frame

It is 10 minutes past 10 on the first night of summer. The boy is asleep. The dryer bumps and tumbles, smoothing our wardrobe for the trip ahead.

The computer at work is powered off for the week. Tasks huddle in their restive limbo behind that dark office door.

Here, crumbs dust the counter.
Free weights squat in the corner.
A story cocoons between silent covers.

This body is so weary.

Rain came then went again. On the dark balcony, pepper leaves sip at the sky. Petals curl into sleep.

Tonight, for once,
I turn from the eternally unfinished

I turn off the light.

At long last, sleep draws closed the curtains
and tucks me into her blue
furred throat.


Mindfulness, Poetry, Things I Can

20. Things I Can Close: My Eyes

Snake Oils:

Fret about it
Complain about it
Excavate the underlying cause
Make another promise
this one, really
Mop the house
Dial the number
Detail the feeling
Sidestep the feeling
Itemize the failings
File the taxes
Register for classes
Rearrange the closet
Rewrite the resume
Revise the story
Make soup
Start sourdough
Start seeds
Regret the follies
Rehearse the maybes
Gaze up
Stroke the dog
Squeeze the kid
Write on a blog
Disappear into
Not even breath)

It may take months
trying every tincture
to ease a tired
so deep it
leaches marrow from bone,
thins tissue
to husk
shedding away from the once wet
years even
to absorb
the stripped bare

It is the single
the message a fortune
as maddening
and true now as it was
in infancy
as it always only ever was.

The only cure for exhaustion
is unbroken silent eight-hour potion-free
rooted deep held in night’s
annihilating arms

Fitness, Living in the Moment, Things I Can

19. Things I Can Still: The Go

It took two injuries in three days.

For an hour, the floor became the only place I could safely be. My Mister, mother, and boss all encouraged the recline. Horizontal I stayed. They helped me to bed. Eventually, I hobbled to the easy chair. With laptop. With novels. With quiet punctuating the growl and jabber of construction workers welding outside my window. With the first birds of spring punctuating the quiet.

This is not a familiar mode. Stress begets sweat. When the engines are firing — even more so when they are flagging — the default setting is to slam the heavy bag or pound the streets. Dance, climb, lift, go go go.

Not now.

Now it’s this: Two howling muscles on the right side — lumbar and erector — keeping company with the perennial scapular pain.

Now this: Only stillness.

Sleep comes. Caffeine goes. Sleep comes harder. Eight hours. Then nine, then ten. I struggle upright through a fog like rheum, fumble for the Advil, then surrender again. Flannel sheets. Sweet relief. An afternoon nap gives way to a labyrinthine descent into oblivion.

Three days of sleep nine years overdue. Sleep I haven’t know since Bug put down roots in my naive womb.

It took two injuries.

It shouldn’t take even one.

This stillness belongs.

I inch open the door. Who knows the cost?

Welcome. Please come in.

Please stay.