Home, Living in the Moment

Hello Here

On the brink of leaving this home for the next (inshallah), and I still don’t know what I’m after. Place? Family? Community? Safety? The list is long and it changes with the breeze.
 
Ambiguous purpose calls for simple acts. I turn to my son and say, “Let’s go outside.”
 
These days, he joins me. This is new. It used to be a struggle, cajoling and begging before demanding or giving up. Now, he pounds down the stairs, “I’ll put her leash on! Here, let me!” He throws open the sliding glass door and calls her with his quasi wolf-whistles. She is suspicious of his intentions but ducks inside, unable to resist the word “walk.”
 
Flexi-leash in hand, Bug races down the driveway dragging the dog. She tosses a few desperate glances back at me but I’m no help to her now. Bug has finally learned to slow long enough to let her have a break for her bladder. It rarely lasts past the last drop so she forgoes all olfactory temptations gets down to business. They lope down the swath of grass between the fences. At the bottom where the year’s accumulated leaves lay in drifts, Bug snaps off her leash and she tears off into the trees. He squeals in delight and tramps after her, knee-deep in brambles.
 
The dog is the leader but doesn’t know it. Winding and snoofling through brown tangles, she takes us on a looping journey up and back down the hillside. Scattered clumps of daffodils poke their way up into patches of sun and purplish flowers unfurl from buried brush. Light threads its way down through dry spindles scratching the sky. I carry a plastic shopping bag and collect the crumpled cans and muck-filled Corona bottles that peek up through the leaves.
 
I follow Bug. Bug follows the dog. The dog follows her nose. We come upon a creek snaking out from under a neighbor’s chicken wire fence. Across the way is a clutch of bamboo as high as a rooftop. It bends against the breeze. The road beyond is near enough to keep me vigilant. Bug fords the brook with a single leap and slips up the muddy bank beyond. He picks his way through the deep green flutes, swishing them low. Feathered leaves stroke the water’s golden skin.
 
“I’m in the bamboo jungle! There is a tornado coming! Get out of the storm, Mommy!” I duck across and hide with him in the cool dark there. Cars roar just feet from our back and I holler the dog back from the roadside. She bounds into the creek, splashing us with wet silt.
 
When it is time to go, we gather leash and garbage and assorted leafy treasures. I urge. Bug dawdles. The dog drips. Eventually we shimmy into a dry creek-bed and follow the tracks of raccoons and deer back to the trail into our neighborhood. Just as we start up the hill, we turn and see a strange sight. In all our years of walking here, we have never come across such a thing.
 
A boy.
 
He is making his jerky way over the buried roots up to a log that bridges the dry trench. His black hair and pale skin trace a ghostly curve over the hillside. He looks up and sees us. I wave. He pauses then waves back. Bug and dog and I are poised on the forest edge ready to go home.
 
“One second, Mom,” Bug says. And he is off. He plows straight through the weeds and pricker bushes and heads straight uphill. The boy leaps off the log, starts to climb, and then slows. Bug is talking to him. He turns and responds. In a blink, they are deep into it. By the time I have gotten the dog turned and have approached the pair, they are discussing the bamboo forest and the forts up on hilltop that some older kids built years ago. “We come in here all the time,” the boy says.
 
“So do I!” Bug cries.
 
They talk pets. Neighbors. Teachers. Movies. Books. The boy is into the Warriors series and Bug is reading JK Rowling. I hang back and marvel at their ease. They compare notes on the best scenes from the last Harry Potter movie. Bug seeks and seeks a common footing. The boy, a few years older, is happy to oblige. They giggle about an explosion at a quidditch match then giggle some more when the dog grunts and tries to lick the boy’s hand off.
 
The sun is sinking and it is past time for dinner. Bug manages to tear himself away. We plod back up the swath of grass. Bug watches the boy return to his own porch and join a group of children there. A grown man sees us and waves a big Hullo. I return the greeting.
 
“We come in here all the time,” the boy had said. We had never seen him, yet here he was. We have paid attention to this place for years without looking for anything. The dog’s nose has been a truer guide than our own intention. Only in today’s purposeless looking do we stumble upon what we didn’t know we’d been after: a person who shares our place and a similar way of wandering through it.
 
My son’s bold delight stuns me. Even with no idea what he will find, he bridges the distance to meet what glances against his sense of wonder. Call it innocence. Call it courage. Whatever it is, in our new home (inshallah), may that wide-open not-looking to guide us to what we seek.
 

Family, Outdoors

Takes a Licking

We do not comb our hair. We shove our feet into old sneakers. The dog dances around our knees.

The stained coat is good enough. At least it is lined and will keep the wind out. “Hold her tongue,” Bug tells me. He means for me to squeeze her snout closed to keep her from licking him. I do not do this. It would be easy but he has grown stronger with the latest surge. He is rough with the dog now. He is approaching her weight. He torments her with the grooming comb and scarves from the dress-up trunk. Instead, I place her head against my knee and try to force her still while pretending to be gentle. I try to model tenderness but it is hard when my most regular company is a 72-RPM boy and an oaf of a dog. Continue reading “Takes a Licking”

Friends, Mindfulness

Pressing Need

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”

Happy Days, Mindfulness

Happy 100 Days: 28

The crows lift off
from the bare branches,
a wave lifting
a blanket in billows,
throats layering
caw atop caw,
scratching black marks
into mist
on a day not yet begun.
They arc to the left
lost to the next stand of oaks
land, a beat
and a half, feathers edge
against limb and beak, the space between
their calls slow
but never stop. Never still,
they dance
the sky, they cast off
in rows
knit purl knit
wing under and over
wing
somehow they do not tangle
but turn back to alight
on the dry fingertips above
where they began
tightening the circle
of shadow
to a knot
refusing to give way
to the dawn.
 

Uncategorized

Happy 100 Days: 63

A hawk lifts off from a branch when we pass under. It is the same one we saw in the spring from the balcony. It was a distant visitor then, its tail a crimson haze. We named it Cesar.
 
The rain pelts our coats. Looking up to find the place where the bird has landed sends water snaking down our jaws to pool in the necks of our hoods. The hawk’s tiny eyes look down, taking the measure of us (two gangling primates and one lop-eared wolf). We cannot pose much threat, our boots slipping on the path’s wet skin of leaves. Still, the raptor lifts its wings and rises again, beating against the fierce wind to find the elevation where it can see but not be seen.
 
Here, under the sagging autumn canopy, we are silent. The power to name is no longer ours.
 
Blocked by debris, the creek has cut a new channel. White water surges alongside the roots of the oaks. It makes its escape downstream, forming an island. The emerald heads of mallards reflect the last of the light. Their white necks trace busy figures against the roiling pond. The small flock bobs in dizzying circles, rivulets of wet streaming along their feathers and back to the source.
 
Around the bend, the blue heron stands knee-deep in churning white right at the funnel where the waterfall begins. He glances our way. Not until the pooch veers towards the creek do the wings shudder to life. Gunmetal feathers unfurl, grab air, and haul the body up. The heron barely bothers to tuck its spindled legs under its belly. It skims the surface, tarnished bronze feet almost flicking into the water. It alights in a quieter eddy upstream on the opposite bank. It turns its head away from us, the cutlass of its beak rending the wind.
 

Outdoors

Full Spectrum

Why did I hesitate to put all this glory of the sun on my canvas?
– Paul Gauguin

Every parent compromises. We breathe through our uncertainty, living in the world as it is while occasionally dotting the page with what could be.
 
We put Bug on the rolls for the county School Aged Child Care Program when he was only four years old. A month into kindergarten, and he is still number 72 on the waiting list. They tell us he might get in by second grade.
 
Tee and I spent a good portion of last year exploring every day care option in the area. We found homes crammed with untended children staring, gape-mouthed, at Dora on giant TVs in converted basements. We found KinderCare centers with such an avalanche of scathing online reviews that we had to restrain ourselves from taking up arms to liberate the children inside. The nearby private schools only provide after-hours care to the gilded young who already attend.
 
Word on the street is that the Tai Kwon Do place in a local shopping center is decent enough. It has vans that pick up the kids after school. The teachers give their charges a 30-minute martial arts lesson, a snack, and play time in a small nook at the back. Bug and I visit on several occasions. The kid’s default is to notice the things in front of him, and he has only just begun to long for what is absent. Bug does not even register the adjacent nail salon or the lack of outdoor space. These are my issues, and I buoy my tone up above the churning resistance in my belly. Watching the students practice their kicks and shouts, Bug bounces and begs to join.
 
Not even a postage stamp yard for a jungle gym? Cramped quarters? A Leviathan flat-screen TV in the back of the room where the after-school kids gather? I force myself calm with little mantras. It’s only temporary, it’s only a few hours a day. He’ll be fine (and even if it’s not, what can I do about it? We can’t afford a nanny or a private school, and I have no choice but to work).
 
I only allow myself a single blink at the image of what I want for Bug. The saturated hues are bright enough to sear. It seems so foolish to covet the impossible, but I know exactly what it is: Real. Living, breathing, tactile, sensory. A wide-open green place where he can run and climb. Games and balls and unscheduled time with friends to spread out on a floor to paint or build. I want there to be no electronic babysitters. I want adults within reach that understand child development but also back off and let their charges find their way. I want Bug to get bored and wander through that uncertainty until his hands take up some task that speaks to him. I want him to track the seasons by simply being among the trees. I want what so many parents want: My kid tapping into his unlimited self on the living earth, playing hard with his whole brain and body engaged.
 
What is the use of giving shape to the impossible? We are poor(ish), nothing better exists, and I have to work. So I do not give that Real more than one swipe across the canvas before setting down my brush. This is as good as it gets. My wildly outdoorsy kid will only get to play in the fresh air on weekends. He’ll go to a good kindergarten, and be blessed by the fact that his dad and mom both love camping.
 
Tee and I sign the contract and pay up. Bug would spend 15 hours in a strip mall. Breathe, lady.
 
When mid-August arrives, we put Bug in the Tai Kwon Do day camp for a few days to acclimate him. I pick him up at the end of Day 1, and he tells me about their trip to the park and their short martial arts lesson.
 
“What else did you do?”
 
“Watched a movie in the morning. Then we watched another movie when we got back!”
 
Day 2. The field trip is to – yes, you guessed it – the movies.
 
“What else did you do?”
 
“In the morning, we watched a movie. After Tai Kwon Do, we watched another movie!”
 
Three movies in one day? Bug is very, very happy at this turn of events.
 
Day 3. The field trip is to the pool. This time, when I drop Bug off, I walk with him all the way through to the child care nook in the back. The chairs are lined up in rows. The TV is blaring Disney’s Peter Pan. Not a crayon, block, or board game is anywhere in sight. I have never really looked around before, but now I see that all the cabinets are stuffed full of martial arts equipment. The floor has no train set, no bin of legos, no easel or pegboard. The bookshelves house trophies. The tables are bare.
 
This is not a child care facility. It is a storage closet.
 
It is 8:00 in the morning, and I am paying this place for 9 hours of DVDs. I could take him to work with me and provide that kind of childcare myself for free.
 
I leave in a panic. In two weeks, school will start. This is what awaits my son? During the commute, I turn my universe upside-down trying to shake out another choice. Maybe I could quit my job. Maybe Tee and I could get back together and I could work so he could stay home, which is what he wanted anyway. Maybe I could beg my mom to retire. Something? Anything?
 
There is only so much compromising any of us can do. At some point, we hit the core of what we believe about the world, and we either have to change what we believe or we have to change the world. I can put my kid in a strip mall. I can contort my schedule into a pretzel to accommodate easy transitions before school, as I described in this post about the enrollment choice. I can even allow the occasional hour of Nick, Jr. if it takes place at the end of a dynamic day full of real life. I do believe in letting go of some rigid plans for my child.
 
But I also believe in the open sky and in the beautiful play of the body and mind when they are free to roam. I believe far too deeply in calling out the pulse of our humanness, of our mammalness, at every opportunity. We dull too many edges with our entertainments and ill-conceived inventions. We grow numb far too early, and we rebel far too rarely. When my son was born, I made a quiet promise to him and to the world for which he will someday be responsible: My child will have poetry and he will have the earth under his feet, and he will learn to be a steward of this precious place. Even if it means I throw out the safe-enough income, the health benefits, and the someday-home-of-our-own, my child will have the real. I will work part time and live in a rented basement before I let him spend his 42 weeks a year in a place that thinks it’s okay to stultify our beautiful young ones with three #&%*$ movies a day.
 
I arrive at work and start trolling. Internet. Phone. Someone, somewhere. Every place within the zip code of Bug’s school, I check again. Same names of the same desperate ladies in their cramped townhouses with the TVs doing the babysitting. Same big-box profit-hungry franchises. Same elite institutions with no transportation provided to and from the public schools. I expand my search to the next zip code. I have already cried twice, and it is only 9:00am.
 
Then. I stumble upon this place out on the very edge of the district boundary line. The website describes hands-on learning, farm animals, and free play. It is country day school, drawing on Dewey’s experiential roots and the progressive tradition.
 
I call. “Do you have openings for after-school care?”
 
“Before and after-school, yes.”
 
“You are in our elementary school district? Really?”
 
“Yes. The bus picks up here in the morning and drops off here in the afternoon.”
 
“Can I kiss you over the phone?”
 
Giovanni, my knight in shining armor, takes a hiatus from work, picks me up and whisks me over the twisting country road past million-dollar homes and horse barns. We pull up to the address and step out into the sun.
 
Into the Garden of Eden.
 
Five acres of land. A sledding hill. Two playgrounds with hand-hewn wooden play equipment. Chickens, a goat, a pony. Jumbled flagstones wind through an overgrown garden and pumpkins spill from vines behind the fence. Peeling layers of children’s art plaster the walls of an old, rambling house whose rooms are cluttered with books, board games, blocks, balls.
 
Other than a single computer in the office for the Assistant Director to send emails to parents, electronic screens are verboten. The bus ferries kids between this paradise and Bug’s school every morning and afternoon. Even with the addition of the before-school care we need, this utopia is only marginally pricier than the Tai Kwon Do place.
 
Most importantly, there is room for my son. Plenty of room. Acres and acres of open sky. He can run with his arms stretched out and swallow the whole day.
 
Now, when I pick Bug up at what he calls “the chicken school” at 6:15pm, he is pink-cheeked, grubby, and usually perched at the top of a jungle gym lording over the playground. He does not want to leave. I sit at the picnic table and watch him dash up and down, past the rabbit in the hutch, over the relentless weeds, dust flying.
 
For a time, I did not believe in anything but the limits of this new life. I did not allow myself to see in color because the dulling gray of resentment and grief had so blanketed the beginnings. Leaving behind a marriage, a life in the mountains, and dreams of a happily-ever-after can bring on temporary blindness. It hurts so much, that distance between what is and what could be. It hurt enough that I built a prison in my mind and stopped letting in the light. It is safer there, no?
 
Stay there long enough, and the temporary condition becomes permanent.
 
I have spent far too many years – years well before Tee – only letting my trust go so far. This here is enough, I say. This here is as good as it gets. I will learn to live with it. This time around, desperation forced my hand. I hit the core of what I believe about the world and teetered on edge of trading my faith for a release from the duty to serve that calling. A small existence may seem a safer bet than facing the possibility of change, but it’s an awfully expensive deal. A compromise of that magnitude is pure capitulation. Thank goodness the pulse of life is stronger than my cowardice.
 
This gift of a perfect way-station for my son arrived at the moment I refused to settle any longer for just good enough. I want to hold onto this small truth: it is an act of courage to believe there is more to this journey than surviving on scraps. It is never too late to voice desire for what can be, to dip the brush into the richest colors, and to use the whole spectrum to craft a life.
 
No more picturing toil and limits. No more hard, dark images of poverty. I shake off the hair shirt and surrender the title of martyr. Artist is much more to my liking. I pick up the brush. I paint the world abundant, and so my son and I are rich beyond measure.