Happy 100 Days: 68

“Mommy, did you know shapes are everywhere?”
I am half listening as I pack up our water bottles and snacks for a trip into town. “Uh huh? Shapes?”
“Yes, shapes. Like that light is a circle.”
I see he is staring up at the ceiling. I pause. “Huh. You’re right. It is a circle.” I look around for a minute. “I see rectangles.”
I point. He smiles. “The laundry doors!”
“Can you find a diamond?” I heft our bags and remind him for the third time to put on his shoes. He looks around, sees the slats of the wine rack. “Diamonds!”
Soon, we are in the car and driving on the freeway. The dentist has squeezed me so we have no time to lose. Bug is drifting into a half-nap in the back seat. I whisper that the drive is long and that he should rest. He is almost under, but as soon as we exit into the business district, he rouses himself.
“It’s okay to sleep, kiddo. We still have a ways to go.”
“But I want to look around at everything,” he says. He is quiet for a minute. “I see rectangles and circles,” he says. “The stoplights. And that sign.”
Right now, I am trying to navigate traffic. Still, I can’t help but look.
“What about a crescent? I wonder if we can find any.”
“What’s a crescent again?”
“It’s that half moon shape, sort of like a C.”
We find the letter C on trucks and buildings, but no proper crescent. We have no luck with triangles until we spy the architectural flourish on the roof of an office building. We see a half-circle dome on another. Bug sees more diamonds (pedestrian crossing) and arrows (one way). He sees traffic cones. Octagon stop signs. Stars on the American flag. Square windows in buildings.
This neighborhood houses my office and my daily walks. Tee and I once lived in an apartment here. I cover these same blocks every day on my commute. I have never once noticed this simple fact: Shapes are everywhere.
In the back seat, Bug is making a chart of all the shapes he notices. The catalog grows to 13, then 14, then 15. We park, pay, and head across the plaza. We pass storefronts. “I smell Thai food!” Bug cries. A Thai restaurant, a Japanese restaurant, a hair salon, a gourmet grocer. On one of the doors, the brass handle catches my eye.
“Bug! Do you see what I see?”
He looks then his face lights up. “Crescents!”
Every store in the plaza has half-moon door pulls on the glass panes. “Before, when we were driving, we could see big shapes but we weren’t close enough to see the little ones,” I say. “So we didn’t see any crescents at all.”
“Now we see so many crescents, we can’t even count them all!” Bug hops over the bricks, holding my hand tight.
In the dentist’s waiting room, Bug and I spot one of those plastic shape-sorters babies use. “Isn’t that silly?” I laugh. This is what we have we been doing all day, and here is this toy, right here!”
We turn it over. No crescent. We disagree about the rhombus. Bug insists it is a half-octagon, and we argue about how many sides an octagon cut in half would have. We decide that whatever the shape, we will try to find one outside sometime. I figure this might be tough, but it’s worth a shot. I’m sure western architects abhor the rhombus as much as they, apparently, dislike the crescent.
Does vision exist at the place where classification and determination meet? Perhaps the taxonomy of experience is up to each of us. How you decide to sort will inform the gaze.
Shapes are everywhere. A lot of _________ are everywhere. Fill the blank with your abundance of choice.


Happy 100 Days: 75

I haven’t even taxied down the runway yet and this home-buying mission is making me queasy. The loves ones say, “What fun!” and then tell me fifteen things to bear in mind when I start to look. The other loved ones say, “Oh, gracious, it’s so hard,” and then tell me fifteen entirely different things that could make me crash and burn. Meanwhile, the sweet little home I had tagged to see this weekend went under contract yesterday, and the two properties still open are even junkier than I had feared.
“Keep picturing the perfect place,” one friend says. “If you can see it, you’ll make it happen.”
Okay. Good advice. So, I peek out the windows and down through the clouds, whispering reminders to myself when the turbulence starts to make me panic. A small living room where I can move the furniture and dance. A nook for Bug to do crafts and make a mess. Plants in hand-painted pots drinking in the light from the windows.
This week, I made the command decision to shut all this off when I am at work. If I am not careful, it can seep in under the door and choke off the air supply. No looking at home listings, no checking emails from the realtor when I am at the office.  My job is what makes all this possible, so I have to be here when I am here.
The phone rings. It is the nice lady from the free Mover’s Advantage program. Again. I ignore it. I am in the throes of preparing for the information session for the January qualifying exam for the students. This is the job, and this is where I direct my focus.
The qualifying exam is the  threshold assessment the doctoral hopefuls take after they have finished their core courses. Those whirlwind four days in January will be the litmus test for whether or not they have the right stuff to continue in the program. At the info session, the PhD program director and I offer up a few pre-exam details to calm their jittery nerves and let them know exactly what will happen starting at noon on January 3. Our school has honed a system to a sharp(ish) edge over the years, and we try to keep it straight and clean for the students. The double-blind exam is administered in two parts, with a quantitative in-class portion and a written take-home essay. I proctor. Anonymous faculty members grade. Students sweat. Most pass.
Before Day One of Semester One in the program, temperatures begin to rise. At the orientation in August, the incoming cohort is already abuzz with questions about the exam. You can’t blame them. They don’t want to get a year or two and $20,000 in, only to discover they don’t have the combination of brains and stamina to seal the deal.  This is why we try to make the expectations crystal-clear. The students can take care of their studies. We’ll make sure the test is fair and the packets are in order.
My colleague and I touch base a few minutes before the info session to divvy up the tasks. I make the fatal error of popping back into my office to check my email. A long-ago friend who used to work in affordable housing in Vermont has read my blog from wherever he is in the world now. He has shot me an email from across the miles, illuminating yet another fifteen points for me to bear in mind as I begin my quest for a home.
This is a welcome gesture, of course. But, wow, is it terrifying. The ink is barely dry on the loan approval, and the dark clouds of these new tasks are gathering on the horizon. Time-of-sale ordinances. Buyer’s attorney. PMI. Contract review. Closing costs. Home inspectors.
This friend is one among many who clearly has no idea what an amateur I am. The bankers seem equally clueless about the extent of my ignorance. Maybe I have bamboozled the lot of them, or maybe they are banking on the folly of the neophyte. How should I know? I can’t tell where to begin. I feel out of my depth and stupid to boot. Find the place first and ask about ordinances later? Learn about PMI before looking for a place? A home inspector before attorney? When is — no, what is — contract review?
A first-time homebuying course would be a great place to begin, but the county’s classes are full full full. One is available at the end of November (!) but until then, I have to figure it out on my own. More questions. Are the online courses reputable? Whom do I ask? Do I check out a library book? Which one?
I print out the lengthy (and so generous — thank you, dear friend!) email to take home. I will read it when I have attention for it and can look up these strange  terms I should probably already know. (Escrow? Short sale? Lord have mercy.) Then I head over to the qualifying exam info session to do the job that will pay the someday-mortgage.
I walk on shaky legs out of my office, trying ease my mind back to a more manageable altitude. In the hallway, a first-year student flags me down. “I have a question about qualifying exam,” he says, a little breathless. “I saw the form online, and it says this thing about having grades for all the core courses, and I think I should be taking the exam at the end of this year, right? But I will still be in the classes that need the grades when the form is due. . .”
“You’re ahead of the game,” I say with a smile. “You’ll be taking 804 and 805 in the spring, right? You don’t have prerequisites?”
“No,” he says. “I’ll be done with the core in May.”
“Okay. So, after the winter break, I will schedule another info session for the folks taking the May exam. We’ll go over the details then. You don’t have to come to this one today, and anyway, some of the information will be different in the spring.” I go on to give him a brief review of the steps. I watch his shoulders ease down.
“Okay,” he breathes. “I’m on track.”
“Right on track.” I nod. “And thank you for being so conscientious. It’ll serve you well in this program.” I keep telling these student to picture themselves walking across that stage at graduation. Everything between here and there is just details and determination.
I turn the corner to the meeting room where the first few students mill around, big-eyed and jumpy.
At the end of the session when they ask about failure rates (as they always do), I answer like a true politician. “Every one of you has the capacity to pass this exam.” The program director reminds them that all they have to do is put their analytical skills and and writing abilities to work. They already have what it takes to finish this program and write a dissertation, so they have what it takes to pass the exam. We would not have admitted them otherwise.
This is true, to an extent. They have the right stuff when we admit them. The big unknown is how they use it once they are here. They will make it if. . . If they sharpen their research skills. If they build strong, collegial relationships with their mentors. If they organize their time, accept criticism, improve their writing, and make tough choices. If they keep their eyes on the prize. If they do these things and take care of themselves along the way, they will have done all they can and more to walk across that stage and go home with a degree.
They have to take it one semester at a time. One course, one qualifying exam, one field statement at a time.
Once again, I learn to swallow my own medicine.
As I walk out into the late afternoon light to head home, I let my mind lift off again and find myself dizzy with the possibility of a home. I picture myself standing on the doorstep of my new place, fitting the key into the lock. Lush vines spill from a hanging plant by the door. Shoes litter the foyer. Afternoon light from the back window greets me. A crock pot on the counter bubbles with cumin and garlic. Bug and I sweep aside the mess of paper scraps, scissors, and tape on the table so we can share our dinner and talk over homework.
In my job, I can stand before the group of incoming students and see clearly what they cannot. They wobble under the weight of the program requirements, the student handbook, the course textbooks, the research expectations, the administrative paperwork, and the 90 new colleagues to whom they have just been introduced, while I am picturing how they will progress from Day One to graduation. This is my small area of expertise, such as it is. “All this material is a lot at once,” I tell them on that first day. “Take it one step at a time. Remember that my job is to stay on top of the details of this program. I will send you reminders and updates all along the way. When you get lost — no, before you get lost — come to me. I will help you find the answers to any questions you have.”
Just because they (I) can’t see the way forward (yet) doesn’t mean the sky is not open and waiting.
And just because they (I) are not experts on this process (yet) does not mean expertise is not here for the taking.
How am I any less a student than my own students? I have what it takes to fly this thing to its destination. The only unknown is what I choose to do with the questions, talents, and momentum I bring. Will I engage my skills as a researcher? Will I organize my inquiries and build my vocabulary? Will I keep clinging to the misconception that I have to (or even can) go it alone? Like my students, I must seek the help of professionals and enthusiasts. Those smart, experienced friends who understand housing dynamics are offering their guidance. They are mentors. I bet if I ask, they will help me stay on track. They don’t want me to get two years and $200,000 in only to discover I am saddled with a junk heap.
Also like those students, this undertaking was all just an abstract idea about two months ago. First comes the impulse, then a little investigating, then an application, then the acceptance. One mile, then another. Refer to the flight manual. Follow the itinerary. The clouds will part. The destination will make itself known.
I lay with Bug in his bed, reading three books and singing three songs. After he drifts off, I walk out onto the back deck and take in the sky, the light from the neighbors’ windows, the hum of traffic. I stretch my neck and then my toes, letting the full weight of myself settle into place.
If you can see it, you’ll make it happen.
There it is, right there, just on the horizon line.


Happy 100 Days: 85

Ten Steps Closer to Home:

  1. Shake off the inertia.
  2. Call upon a generous and excited friend who happens to love real estate.
  3. Sketch out the picture of what you want, not just what you can manage.
  4. Choose to create an anchor for your family in a place you want to be.
  5. Look beyond the boundaries.
  6. Find a few places that give you the giggles.
  7. Skim mortgage lending sites.
  8. Click for quotes.
  9. Hatch a plan.
  10. Begin.
Living in the Moment, Outdoors

Maiden Name

The unnamable is the eternally real.

Tao Te Ching

In Shenandoah, the first of the wildflowers are beginning to open. A few eager trees lead the pack, popping with pastel confetti. We walk slowly, the dog in tow. Coming here was a last-minute plan for a lazy Sunday. Giovanni’s pack is perfectly provisioned, as always. He has brought not only water and mixed nuts, but a first aid kit, toilet paper, and a knife. Should we end up stuck here a few extra hours, he has a flashlight and an emergency radio.
My pack contains two Audubon guides and a single wilted band-aid. The latter makes a passable bookmark. Also, I remembered my boots.
On the way up the Compton Gap trail, we spot the first of the small purple blossoms tucked into the crevices of the cool rocks. I am fairly certain of their name, but I stop anyway. Flipping through my wildflower book, I find a matching description. With their fifth petal a pointed tongue, violets are almost impossible to mistake for anything else. Among the earliest arrivals in the Appalachian chain, they are poorly hidden Easter eggs, peeking up from random turns in the trail.
At an outcrop, we drop our packs and peel off our fleece jackets. The sun has joined us, brushing against the early leaves. Many trees are still bare-knuckled, fighting a pointless battle against a forgiving sky. One, however, is feathered in a cloud of snowy blossoms that spring from a clutch of slender trunks. She is probably more accurately called a shrub, but since she stands as tall as any of the surrounding oaks, she deserves the more robust title. She seems to think so, too, puffing herself out over the edge of the mountain. Neither her more staid companions nor the wide-open pull of gravity intimidate the brazen thing.
I try to find the tree-shrub in my book, seeking out “white radially symmetrical blossoms.” Her leaves are still embryonic while her slender petals insist on their pull towards day. They are long and translucent tissues, five to a blossom, veined with cracks that make them appear both newborn and wizened.  I cannot find the tree despite trying to match the thin, vertical striations of her bark and the dried leaves below to the photos in the glossy pages. She clearly exists, and it tickles me to imagine I have beaten John Audubon to the pleasure of an introduction. One last time, I look into the yellow-tipped stamens and the blushing bud where the petals grip the branch. The tree is herself. Her greeting of the sun is no less bright for the absence of a name.
Above, an airplane grumbles past, then another. They are high enough in the thin streak of clouds to be invisible, but their whine echoes against the valley and does not end, not for one breath during our extended moment on the mountain. We rest there on the exposed rock, stretching pores and bone. Giovanni has stashed a surprise in his bottomless pack. We share a piece of chocolate cake, taking slow, melting bites.
Down the path, we stop again. Where a trickle of water slicks the rocks dark, more bright clusters shoulder their way through the soil. I park myself on the side of the trail and bend close. The tiny blossoms are no bigger than my pinkie nail. They are white. Even the centers with their aurora of hair-like petals are white. The stems, a furred and frosted green, stand in close bunches with an explosion of flowers at the end of each. Giovanni a little further up the hill. I am worried he is bored, but he tells me to take my time. He steps closer and leans in. “That one?” he asks, glancing between page and blossom.  “No,” he says, answering his own question. “This one is too white in the middle. It’s not as fuzzy, either.” He rests on his haunches, holding the lead as Fenway snuffles in the damp soil. After a few quiet passes, I close the book and shrug.
“Maybe it’s a wildflower,” he tells me.
“Yeah, a wildflower.” We begin walking again. At the crossroads where the Compton Gap spur crosses the Appalachian Trail, a small marbling of grayish white appears at our feet.
“What’s that?” Giovanni asks. This time, he is the first to crouch. I join him. Our foreheads touching, we gaze at the alien flower. It is a midget, milky and bulbous and growing in the low shade. It is nothing anyone would call “beautiful.” Small shoots of the simultaneously spiked and rounded flower push through the moss. We gaze together, naming what we see before we even open the book.

“It is sort of pink underneath.”
“The stalk is furry.”
“The leaves are ovals. See the veins? And they are spread out on the ground.”
We count the seeds, if that is what they are. Finally, I pull out the guide and we leaf through the pages. “No,” he murmurs. “Uh, uh. Keep going.” Then, he cries, “That one!” His shout gets the dog’s attention. She trots over, ears up. All three of us hover between flower and page.
“Plantain-leaf Pussytoes,” I read.
He chuckles. “Pussytoes.” I turn to the page with the description and as I read it out, Giovanni touches the flower, nodding as the particulars of the living thing fall into line with the words describing it. “That’s it,” he says.
We are up, a second wind carrying down the final stretch of the trail towards the car. I am giddy about the flower and its name. “We found one!”
“Two,” he corrects. “That bluebell thing, too.”
“Blue violet,” I say.
We have found nothing, of course, nothing but a series of letters in a book corresponding with what is right in front of us. Why does it satisfy so well, this puzzle and its specious solution? Why are we so compelled to bend in close and inspect the organs of a small, gray seed pod, and to describe it with such precision?
Vision cares nothing for beauty. It cares even less for the confines of language. The eye’s only pleasure is in gazing intently at a thing and painting the edges into memory, rubbing light against husk until a shape appears.Looking closely confirms what we know in our uneasy hearts: every incarnation both clings to and recoils from the earth itself. Borders bleed away. Shrub, stone, seed, sun: each works its component parts into the soles of our retreating boots, catching a lift to someplace entirely new so it can become something entirely different. We take comfort in image as it fades into name, then legend, then just a phantom whispering at the limits of memory. Meanwhile, the living thing has not only forgotten us, it is already gone.