Music, Outdoors

Echo Location

She scrapes bow across strings whose low moan rises to a shriek.  Her elbow a piston, it turns the wrist in a blurred ellipse that frees a cry, a frenzy.  Two boys appear from behind the stage, leaping sideways across the brush that separates this place from the garden plots where an old woman in a headscarf shambles between rows watering broad petals of cabbage.  One of the children waves a stick like a flag.  His face is a wide grin that says, see me, see me.

Another boy in a man’s body perches on the edge of a chair on this portable stage.  Shaggy hair falls across his forehead as he leans into the music.  He is from Ireland and lives in Portland where he has his pick of women.  He does to the accordion what Kobe Bryant does to a ball.  We call this thing “playing,” this version of play unlike anything the rest of us will ever experience.

Bent at the waist ever so slightly, he gazes far off towards what must be the west where a weary August sun peels back the day’s skin and exposes the pink, swollen flesh of dusk.  The grown boy’s fingers are dervishes in harmonious riot, balletic and blind, somehow whirling an unbroken ensemble piece on that tiny stage of keys.  I look where he is looking — in the direction at least because what he sees is all his own.  I want to imagine his eyes fixed on a montage of hills, rain, soil-scarred hands lifting open a latch and reaching for him.  Just as likely, behind his eyes growls a gauntlet of fractured traffic between the airport and the next gig.  Or a dim wash of notes.  When I look that way, I see only the deep outline of trees against a sky now a garnet throb.

Then the breath, the snared half-second of surprise when bow and key and string and drum, all stop —

it’s only a pulse of the heart yet it stretches, stretches like the still air across embouchure, its reverberation through a valley of brass.  It stretches like a quantum measure that is neither real nor measurable.  Swelling up into that pause (which may be the end of all history and also may not contain a single new beginning) surges the cry of cicadas thick in the shadowed branches.  Through the crack too flaps the leather wing of one bat dipping for a moth then careening off, this also in the direction our accordion boy looks but doesn’t see.  Not what I see see anyway, and certainly not what the bat sees, though his vision may be closer to that of his chiropteran brother, a sightless echoing that delineates a terrain through sound, through a chorus of shape and motion.  Maybe he draws a whole universe like this, one round, rapid beat after another firing across a field of night.


 

Children, Letting Go, Parenting

Language Immersion

water dragon

The motionless dragon in deep waters becomes the prey of the crabs.


– A fortune in a cookie in Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth

My mother is taking a Spanish class.  This is her retirement.  She also teaches ESL several days a week and is active in two book clubs.  Each spring, with a gaggle of bibliophiles, she travels to the UK for a mystery writers’ conference.  She goes to church, putters in the garden, cooks a meal almost every evening to share with my dad, and shows up at Bug’s school events.  She even pops by my house to give Noodle a daily walk while I’m at work.

All of this, and now Spanish.

“I need to do something to keep from being bored,” she says.

In all seriousness.  Bored.

Continue reading “Language Immersion”

Children, Choices, Determination, Home, Parenting

Don’t Waste Time Doing Stuff you Hate

everyday hospice 2

We are at the midpoint of our nine days together.  On the first night, I arranged to pick up my son’s little buddy from down the hall to join us for the free Seldom Scene bluegrass concert at a local park.  Bug snarled and fussed while I packed up watermelon and blankets.  Then at the show, the banjo twanged, the audience swayed.  Bug and his buddy rounded up a half dozen other kids and played soccer in a clearing until the trees twinkled with lightning bugs.  He rode home flushed and grinning.

Yesterday morning, when packing up to go to the Spark!Lab at the Smithsonian, Bug fought until he cried.  Then on the train, he thrummed with questions and leaned forward in his seat peering out the front window down the dark tracks.  At the museum, he spent 2-1/2 solid hours building laser mazes, a sonar rover, a helmet with night vision and echolocation.

Continue reading “Don’t Waste Time Doing Stuff you Hate”

body, community, neighborhood

Come As You Are

Oks New Friends III

Harmony calls out a greeting from behind the geraniums.  She folds a bookmark into a paperback and steps off the patio.  Noodle leaps all over her.  She chuckles and pets her then asks about my knee.

“Still hurts but I guess that’s normal.”  My recovery is slower than I’d like, in part because of an overzealous gym visit 3 days after surgery.  I’ve since re-discovered ice and moderation.  I bend it a little and show her.  “The boss has let me work half days from home, and walking at the pool has helped.”

“Oh, you go to the pool?  With your son?”  Noodle is now snuffling in around the mulched shrubbery so I pull her in closer.  After retiring, Harmony and her husband moved here from the Midwest and within two months, they had new floors, bathrooms, and bird feeders.  With a tidy patio set on top of a red striped outdoor rug, their condo is one of the most welcoming in the complex.  The kiddos in the neighborhood have already knocked loose two of their solar lights playing soccer on the sidewalks, and I don’t want the dog to add to the damage.

“Sometimes we go together.”  I wave vaguely in the direction of our small community pool where the kids are squealing.  “Mostly I’ve been making myself go to the rec center, though.  I can swim laps there, and there’s usually a free lane during the day.”   As I say this, a family ambles by.  The toddler carries an inflatable swim ring as big as her, and the mom lugs a bag of towels.  “It’s nice to have a place to get together here in the summer, though.  Have you been yet?”

“Oh!” She laughs, steps back, sort of half sits down on her patio chair.  “I guess I have a swimsuit packed away somewhere that hides most of the awful parts.”

A beat.

My stupefied gaze.

Did she really just say that?

I stumble over my astonishment and laugh along with her.  “Oh, geez, come out!  Everyone is welcome.”    She says she has another friend in the complex – a friend her age, she makes a point of mentioning – and they haven’t done it yet, but they’ve talked about going swimming.

So they can. . . what?  Band together?   Protect each other from the forces of evil?

“You know how you get a beach body, right?  You take your body –” I gesture towards her and then to me, “ – and go to the beach.”  We smile at each other.  “Just come be with your neighbors,” I say.  “The pool is for everyone.”

But she’s not giving an inch.  “Well, I never had a body like yours, even when I had the body I felt good in.” She laughs again.  It’s a strained laugh this time.

Are we still doing this?  In 2016 at 60-something years old, she’s still doing this?  Will I be in 20 years?  Who is going to tell us we can’t be at the pool?

This is what I need to say to her.

To all of us, tucked inside our soft and hungry bodies.

We want you.

As you are.

We want you in our community, just like we want the kids in their swim diapers, the lady in the wheelchair who zips around walking her giant black dog, the folks who grill out at the picnic area.  This pool is the closest thing we have to a common house.  Three months a year, this is our town square.

We can’t let scars and bellies and imagined impossible ideals keep us from being neighbors.

Things are not so great in this country of ours right now.  We have some tough battles to fight.  But we’ve already fought some and we shouldn’t have to keep revisiting that scarred ground.  For nearly 100 years, women have had the right to vote.  We can work.  Serve in the military.  We can pursue scientific research, write and paint and dance and sing.  We can sleep with any consenting adult, marry whomever we please or not marry at all.  We can write laws.  Change laws.  Have babies without men.  Ride motorcycles across the country.  Play professional sports.  Design rocket ships.  Run companies.  Run for president.

And yes, wear whatever the hell we want to the pool.

So put on a swimsuit.  Or a caftan.  Or a clown suit or a business suit.  Or a veil or fishnets or scuba gear or culottes or Go-Go boots.

But please.

Come to the pool.

Or sit here on your sun-dappled flowery patio and read all summer if that’s what you’d prefer.  Of course.  That’s totally cool too.  Because being a 60-something retired gal in the suburbs of an American metropolis means you can follow your bliss.

But please let go of being wistful or lonely when you can hear the chatter and cannonballs from that pretty patio, when you see your fellow residents flip-flopping past with their sun hats and iced tea.

We want you.

We need you.

As you are.

Let’s put to bed the notion that we live in a world populated by sylphs and Veelas, and that you are some mutant monstrosity.  You are a human in this neighborhood and you live in your body.  It is strong, it is weak.  It is the same body that installed the stone sculpture and refills the birdseet.  The same body that greets my dog, my son, me.  The body that has grandkids up the road who love you.  The body that filled years of a career leading art programs at a children’s hospital in Wisconsin.

You belong here.

We all do.

As we are.

We have to start showing up.  Pasty hips and jiggly arms, acne, wrinkles, spider veins, all of it.  We all have to show up in the bodies that carry us over the earth.  Because what’s the alternative?  What purpose or good do we serve by staying home?

I can’t promise you that everyone will think kind thoughts.  The cellulite will be visible, and some of us – present company included – have indulged petty comparisons.  I can promise you, however, that neither the stretch marks nor the judgments will matter one lick to any outcome or relationship that matters.  Here in the everyday world of our neighborhood, the distribution of wealth, luck, friendship, leadership, respect, and opportunities for love has no correlation to flab.  The only thing the size of our backsides influences is the size of the underpants we wear.  This is a pretty flimsy standard upon which to base any decision of consequence.

I understand you want to lose weight.  I do too.  I fight this damned fight every day.  This body you say you envy?  It’s packed on nearly 15 pounds in less than a year.  Stress, depression, thyroid problems.  Scoliosis, chronic pain, disordered eating.  Acne, bunions, insomnia.  And now?  A bum knee.

This body here houses all these things.  These are features of my physical form much like the roar of freeway traffic outside my balcony, the windowless shared walls, the claustrophobic  8-foot ceilings.  Sometimes focusing on the flaws becomes an addiction all its own, and those dark patches press in like glaucoma narrowing the vision.  But then I remember that this is my home, and it is the place where this full, loving life of mine is being written.  Then I notice the art.  Then I thrill to the blessings.

I live with these things also here in the home of my body because this body is like a physical address.  It holds the scars and all the rest of it, too.  The emotive poetry, the sketching, the puttering in the kitchen with garlic and oil and greens.  This body is hiking, friendship, sex, tinkering, and books.  It carries the late-night cuddles with my kiddo, the volunteer work, the advising sessions with students, the adventures, the confusion, the kaleidoscopic memories that comprise the narrative I believe is me.  The whole twisting, unfinished, colorful, at times plodding, and always character-rich story of me lives here  in the home of this body.  All of me.

Inside your body, you.

I want to know you.  You have so much to contribute to this place, so much you already have.

When you show up, good things happen.  The connections between all of us here grow stronger.  You have already helped us grow from neighborhood towards community.

When you show up.

You have to show up.

You are my neighbor.  I am yours.  I want to know the you who is unfolding within your skin.  That skin that holds glorious, kind you.

Your neighbors want to know you.

Please come.

As you are.


Image: Leon Oks, “New Friends III”

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.

 

Mindfulness, Parenting, Things I Can

67. Things I Can Catch: Worries like Soap Bubbles

Soap Bubble

He squeezes his eyes against the suds and grabs for a dry cloth. His hair is long again, melting down his neck and licking at his shoulders. He glows like cherry wood. Cross-legged and bare as he is with his hair slicked back, he is small. Almost like a girl. Like a picture of me gleaming up from an old album.

He rubs his eyes and they redden. His lip trembles now. The soap was patsy. A more formidable foe flicks through the shallows.

“I don’t want to go to sleepaway camp,” he murmurs. And with that, his whole body collapses into sobs.

What ensues is a conversation, gentle questions, analogies about basketball, acknowledgment of feelings. Words, words and more words. I perch on my knees, a thin bathmat meager protection from the sturdiness of the tile. I lean in and let the easy expression settle across my features. A smile, beaming almost. A gaze, open as petals. I remember very little from The Art of Listening, but this stays with me: Approval, Delight, Respect. A hypnotist’s voice in a bedtime cadence carries the blood-deep lyrics of reassurance across the foam. Yes, and Yes.

He cries some more then talks. Pouting, furrowed, but he talks.

My hand inside the sage green cloth weaves between and under the words. I dip it into the water, stroke it along his shoulder. Dip it into the water, trace his ear. Dip it into the water, outline his cheek.

After he has dried off and brushed teeth, he climbs onto the bed and worms up under my shoulder. His sunburned cheeks are an electric pulse under the damp straw and silk. He giggles and crawls on top of me. Laughing now throaty and wild, his need gives way to a different sort of crying: “Cuddle, cuddle, cuddle!” He whoops and burrows into my ribs. He has grown to twice his size, unfolding like a sponge drunk in the surf.

 

community, Parenting, Things I Can

48. Things I Can Shoot: A U-Turn

It’s topped 90 degrees. The last storm howled through only day before yesterday, but summer couldn’t care less. She just strode in, popped open her beach chair, and planted herself for the duration.

Six days left of school.

As the mercury rises and the countdown quickens, restraint flags. When I pick up Bug at the end of the day, the whole class is prickling. It’s as if the entire second grade has raced to the ragged wall of the calendar and slammed into it. They stand there chafing as the rest of us catch up. Every kid wilts in a 3-day-old T-shirt. Every kid marinates in last week’s sweat.

Today I arrive in time to catch the end of a nipping contest among a group of first and second graders. Who-said-what-when-how? In the four minutes I’m in the classroom, the alliances shift twice.

Buckling ourselves into the car, I ask Bug about his day. I barely get the question out.

“Will you STOP THAT!?” he roars.

“Stop what?”

“THAT! Just doing that TALKING!”

His response is so beyond rude that I actually laugh, which makes him shove the dog out of his lap and set his jaw.

“Wow, Bud. You’re having quite a day.”

A long pause. Very quietly from a ducked head in the back seat: “Can I stay at my dad’s tonight?”

Keep it light, lady. I put a smile in my voice. “Sorry, kiddo. Tonight you’re with me.”

“Well, can we at least make some lemonade and sit on the balcony?”

Where did this come from? We’ve never once made lemonade, and we brought the chairs in from outside weeks ago. Who would want to park it out there? Given the choice, even the garden would trade places. The pepper plants have shrunk to husks and the basil’s given up entirely. You can almost see the ambient poison that earned this afternoon its Code Orange.

“Geez,” I say. “We don’t even have lemons at home. How about orange juice? Or maybe I have a packet of Kool-Aid?” Someone was handing out rainbow envelopes of the stuff at the Pride parade last year. I think one is still crammed somewhere in a cabinet.

Bug just sags. “Lemonade is better,” he mutters.

If I don’t do something here, this kid is going to start crying. Which actually means screaming at me because in my kid’s 8-year-old world, that’s a more satisfying way to manage the misery eating at him.

It’s been a long damned year.

I snap on the blinker and pull into the nearest driveway, which happens to be directly across from ours. I swing around and watch as the neighborhood pool, the air conditioning, and the pile of books on the living room couch recede behind me. Those comforts may work for me, but my boy needs a different pacifier tonight.

“Where are we going?” He asks.

“To the supermarket.”

He perks up. “For lemons?”

“Yep.”

I can almost hear the energy buzzing back into his weary body. This is good. I’ll take a hit off him when I have to thread my way through the pack of rabid drivers at the intersection that stands between us and the store.

“Okay,” he says. “Only lemons, right? Nothing else? We won’t even get a basket, okay?”

“You’ve got it.”

But we do get a basket — the kind you carry — and we pick out a dozen small lemons that perfume our hands. The eastern peaches are just too cheap and cute, so we fill a bag. Bug dives into one in the car on the ride home. The flesh is hard but sweet, and he devours it down to the stone.

In our kitchen, we rinse the lime green pitcher and force the lemons inside-out. Bug ladles in sugar and sloshes in water, then stirs with a wooden spoon. He pours just enough for a taste. A pucker, a blink, more sugar, then we get it right and fill our cups for outside.

Only now it’s not balcony. It’s swim trunks and floaties, and we walk to the pool loaded with travel mugs and soft towels and plastic rings and chat-chat-chat, “Mom, look at this! See this?” He’s rolling the inner tube along the sidewalk, lemonade splashing, face bright and grinning. Then we hear voices, the trill and clang of children popping, slapping, fizzing. They call out, call to him, holler Bug’s name. They cling to the fence in a jumbled line, all the now-familiar faces. They jostle wet curls, flash neon swimsuits, bounce shouts off concrete.

Come on, come on!
The lifeguard just called a break!
Where have you been?
Hey look, he has pool stuff.
You brought pool stuff!
Come on!

My boy picks up his pace and speeds through the changing room, and the group of children swallows him up. The parents listen to my lemon saga because they all want to know where we’ve been. Hearing me, Bug takes a dramatic sip from his cup and grins. Then the kids cluster around and listen again about the lemons because they want to know too.

Where were you? Why weren’t you here?

As if they all knew to show up here at the pool on this very afternoon, and expected us too. As if someone called the opening meeting of some secret society.

As if our membership is a given.

As if this is exactly where we are supposed to be.