Sometimes you sit in a room with someone who is doing something hard. You sit with them and let them do the hard thing. You sit with them not doing the hard thing for them. You sit there not answering the questions facing them unless the questions are some version of, “Can I do this?” The only answer you say out loud is, “You’ve done hard things before. Of course you can do this.” You offer them sips of water. You keep the glass filled.
The women arrive carrying ceramic bowls of muffins and popcorn. They introduce themselves and shrug out of winter coats, peel the backs off name tags, jot words on green post-its and find seats around the room.
We set up the easel, the flip chart, the clipboards, the jar full of pens.
We share our names, our role models in the movement, the things that make us smile.
After skimming Parker Palmer’s Circle of Trust touchstones, we give a collective nod to a tenor of inquiry and welcome.
Then we begin.
#62 of the first 100 blessings is this right here.
This circle of bloggers and readers.
The blessing is you writing in a voice all your own — meditative, manic, academic, vibrant, raw, irreverent, sweet — and moving your readers to strike their own singular chord. And you who reads, you who lets the words snake in with your breath, who may even follow one whispering trace to its source. Continue reading “Follow These Where”
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.
- 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.
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 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
I want to say I’ve never done anything like this before. Trying to buy this home is the toughest undertaking of my life. Or, so it seems when I am in the throes of it. After hustling like a horse trader, I managed to get the loan officer to talk to the realtor to talk to the seller’s agent to start all working with me again. After being sure we were just beyond losing, we turned it all around and were just days away from closing.
Then wham. Today, my bank slammed the book shut for the last time. Not (just) because they’re scoundrels who serve The Man but also because central stairs in the condo complex are under repair. Without a property manager forthcoming enough to provide documentation of the extent of the damage, my bank couldn’t approve the loan. It’s sensible. It’s cautious.
So here I am six (SIX!) months into this short sale, thinking to myself, “This is the hardest *&$% thing I’ve ever done. Harder than parenting. Harder than the divorce! I’m not up to the task!” Etc. and all that jazz.
All of that internal chatter? Total B.S.
At 22 years old, about a century ago, I lived in a housing cooperative in Vermont. Just about the time I moved in, the 5-year deadline on the financial support from the local land trust came screaming in at us. We had two dozen residents in two buildings about to be hit with an interest rate hike of several percentage points. We were all living on a shoestring. The cost of home ownership, food, utilities, maintenance, insurance, and every other little thing was shared among a band of bohemians and revolutionaries. Without the gap support from the land trust, that house would have been back on the market and in the hands of yet another city landlord.
Not a chance. We were a posse and this was our block. We went to work. Buckling ourselves in, we powered through days-long meetings with federations and experts, poring over legal documents and funding application guidelines. We dug and dug deeper still to find pockets of money or ideas. We tried allying ourselves with the Canadian co-op associations, the local credit union, members of the Progressive party, Congressman Bernie Sanders. Anything and everything. Giant three-ring binders littered our floors and we flipped through them in twos, threes, until the wee hours.
We went to the state capitol building. We lobbied, we bent and twisted. We re-wrote our bylaws and changed our mission.
And we swaggered home with our suitcase of money.
It required significant adaptation. Our co-op residency requirements had to change to designate a certain percentage of the units as low-income housing. We alienated some of our more off-the-grid members (who am I kidding? That was everyone) by kicking ourselves up to a professionally run property with an application process involving tax documentation and pay stubs. Everyone grumbled. We pushed through agonizing consensus-based meetings to ensure that the whole of the community could live with the concessions.
We saved our home.
Somehow in all of that, we also scored a major grant to make massive structural repairs. New roof, new porch, new beginning.
Maybe the only difference now is that I’m putting all of that grit into a place for my very own self. It is weirdly disorienting. All this effort, not for any identifiable community good but just for my son and dog and me to have a place to shake off? If it’s only for us, can I command the determination? The resources? The support? Gerry Connolly ain’t taking a meeting with yours truly. This is my game now. My block.
And where’s my posse now?
It turns out it is right here. My realtor and I have become thick as thieves in the last six months. As soon as I got the bad word, she was back in the driver’s seat with her foot to the floor and zeroing in on other banks with more flexible standards for collateral soundness. My erstwhile lender has answered half a dozen calls from me today even though she’s not making anything off of me anymore. She just keeps sending on over the documentation and details I will need for working with someone else.
And this is just the beginning.
There’s the firecracker of a guy I’m seeing who’s not only helped me think through every step of this latest kerfuffle but is also just waiting for me to say “go” so he can take his circular saw and hard hat over to the site and get this damned thing fixed.
There’s the assortment of friends strewn from Mexico to Toronto sending me links to housing sites, mortgage brokers, credit unions. They also pile oh encouragement and perspective.
There’s my boss who has given me the freedom to take off on a moment’s notice, as well as all the assembled co-workers who have picked up the slack whenever I’ve disappeared to douse another real estate fire.
There are my folks. Willing to work it, work it, work it in whatever way it has to be worked. Do I need cash? A co-signer? More time? An ear? Granted, they have a dog in this fight. If fish and houseguests start to smell after three days, what happens when you approach three years? In any event, their support is beyond generous.
There are all the new friends in my community who tell me their stories, listen to mine, ferry me around to shop for knock-off furniture, offer to come help paint and move, offer me names and ideas, and just provide the much-needed release from the intensity of it all.
And there’s my son. “Mommy, you can have the $44 in my bank account to help you buy your house.”
This posse is tight and tough. Because of it, I can’t wallow in my dank alley of defeat for more than one hiccup before someone shoves me back out onto street. That suitcase of money is sitting right there in plain sight. “Get on out there, girl! Do what you gotta do. Tell me where you need me, and let’s get to work.”
This fight ain’t over. My little dream has just taken a hit and is coughing in the dust, but we’re all closing in. Minutes ago, a text arrived from the realtor. We’ve got a backup bank willing to overlook a few questionable details and move with utmost haste to close the deal. Now, on to the seller’s gal who is also in this crew, trying to squeeze out a couple of extra weeks. All of us, defending the block. My block.
Consensus and compromise and hustle as we close in on high noon.
I said, “Help?”
And help came.
It was the rising inflection
that made all the difference,
the vibration, just a lilt, carried
from throat to ear
a far cry
from the flat period
of its named
and willful absence.
This was never allowed
here, and suddenly it is
as if no one ever doubted
for assistance, for reciprocity,
as if we are bound
as King said, in one garment of destiny.
As if it has always been true
even here, and suddenly
it always has.
Press for Help.
This is printed on the big red button in the surgeon’s room. If I do, will someone pick up my son? Get us to school and work in the morning? How about a hug, a hot meal, a belly laugh? God knows I could use all of the above. Right now my right hand is numb and 1/4 of my index fingernail has just been sliced away. I don’t imagine I’ll be in very good shape by the time the Lidocaine wears off. Driving is going to be fun, what with the splint still on my left arm from an unplanned encounter with gravity during a recent roller skating session.
All of this from a little splinter picked up at the lake. Don’t I get extra points for playing in the dirt with the boys? Maybe someone will send a car around with a driver and a mini-bar in back. I am tempted to press. Alas, I am fizzing in a beaker of peroxide at the moment and the button is a bit out of reach. Continue reading “Pressing Need”
Reasons for gratitude on the day the teacher emails half a dozen times in 24 hours, calls home once, and sends the kid to talk to the school guidance counselor:
- The teacher emails and calls when the kid is having trouble.
- The teacher responds to email replies and returned calls by providing additional information and suggestions.
- Tee copies me on every correspondence with the school (and I do the same for him) even when the teacher forgets.
- The school has a guidance counselor on staff who has time for kindergartners
- My kid has a whole team of caring adults supporting him.
- Next year, he will have a different teacher.
- At the end of the school day, he can run off all that accumulated talking-to and think-iness at Chicken School.
- Grandma makes a veggie lasagne and pulls it hot out of the oven as soon as we walk in the door.
- At bedtime, Bug stumbles across his first word search in the coloring book he brought to bed. Fascinated, he looks for the correct adjacent letters then draws his brown crayon around the words, “hunt,” “movies,” “safety,” and “tell.” He sounds out each letter, following along with the key at the top of the page.
- After books and songs and cuddles, Bug presses his face into mine, kissing my cheeks sideways. He giggles twice then rolls over and falls fast asleep.