piano keys

The piano may join us
in this corner we call the dining nook
where our family that is two
keeps a bucket
filled with markers and pens
next to the salt
shaker. When we move again
the table and sofa
remaking our one room
into the many we covet
this becomes the sitting
place and the piano
will be doing that already.
It can stay. A song now
glitches on a hand-me-down
laptop. These machines age
in dog years. The choice
is between upgrading or losing
one lyric after another
to the exponential rise
of force X point O.

Option C is none here,
the above too poor an excuse
for music. It is hardly a maker, 1s and Os
whipping in packs along circuitry
delivering a canned calliope, midway
carousel operating
by remote.

I also want to be new
as if mounting the horse with fresh
paint might offer a ride somewhere
other than where I started
as if I am the lucky one. You are young
enough to believe capacitive touch
means building with light. Still at the table,
you are angry that screens are not invited here
and I lift my wrists in an extended rest, too few
fingers for the chord
my angers weave.

The piano may make us
play the old music
as if for the first time. One note
yours. One note, mine.

All together now.

Soon we will trade these keys for those,
string the hammered
steel tight across wooden belly and let heavy
dampered echoes reach
between us, press down,
tumbling our separate weights
into a sound only four hands
can make. Like us, the instrument
will have to share
this room of a dozen uses. It will join us
at our sharp corners.

You empty your glass. The wall here
is the color of leaves, or maybe one leaf
of blank sheet music. We each draw
a marker from the bucket. The first lines
decide everything.


inline jump

He fits into my rollerblades now. It’s true that this actually happens. A moment comes when an eight-year-old kid zips off in his mama’s grownup skates. Then the moment goes racing off along with him.

Given the origin of these blades, it’s disingenuous to say I’m giving up my claim. The title was hardly mine. I swiped them from my own mother a decade ago, so it’s fitting (pun intended) that my kid wears them now. We’ve just transferred custody. No doubt this is a temporary arrangement until my kiddo outgrows them.

Which he will.

Because he’s eight, and he’s the tallest boy on his basketball team. He towers over every kid in second grade at his overpopulated suburban school. Around here, “outgrow” is a verb on par with “breathe.” This year alone, he’s done away with his booster seat, basketball shoes, an entire fall and spring wardrobe, all his swimsuits, and every pair of underwear and socks. He’s also outgrown half the pop songs he used to love along with any interest in legos, Pokemon, picture books, lullabies, and G-movies.

One thing he hasn’t left behind? His lust for speed.

As a toddler, we parked him in a spring-loaded Johnny-Jump-Up hanging from his bedroom door. As soon as those feet launched, his eyes went wild and his squeal cracked glass. He bruised his 18-month-old shins on the doorjamb and roared even louder. We put up pillows. He kicked them away.

He hasn’t touched down yet.

The scooter I gave him when he turned four still bangs its way around our living room and out along the busted sidewalks on the way to the park. His skateboard travels with us to the playground. His bike is a required conveyance for grabbing a mint-chococalte-chip cone from the Italian restaurant up the street.

And the rollerblades?

His rollerblades?

As soon as we’re in the door, he kicks off his sneakers and shoves on those wheels. He rides all over the neighborhood, his big helmet encasing his most precious parts. Just two weeks ago, he was wobbling along, stepping through grass to keep from actually gaining speed. Now he aims for the hills and finds his center as he goes. He has two skinned knees, a bruised rump, and scuffed palms, but he bounces up now. I watched him today as a wheel caught a crack in the sidewalk. He whipped a 180 with his arms pinwheeling. Catching himself on two hands, he lowered himself into a sort of 4-point squat and pushed up to standing. Then off he zipped, brushing away dirt and picking up speed.

My boy has yet to break a bone. I figure it’s a when rather than an if. It’s really okay if he falls (I tell myself). I know the shortcut to the ER. The last time I claimed those rollerblades as my own, I passed the better part of the evening with the residents there wrapping my wrist in a cast.

As it is, the mantle of Speed Demon conveys with the skates.

It’s all his.

I’ll stand on the sidelines with the car keys and ice.


Ireland Balloon Flight

It’s one thing to talk about taking a trip. It’s another to board a flight. The in-between is the true test of commitment.

The stunning Silverleaf stopped by to comment on Sunday’s travel post. Her visit jarred me into action. I’m still months away from anything so radical as a B&B reservation. Last night, though, after reading Silverleaf’s encouragement, I edged a few minutes closer.

The goal is to take my boy overseas next summer. To shrink the options to a reasonable handful, the criteria for selecting a destination are these:

  1. Manageable for an American mother and a 9-year-old kiddo traveling as a duo
  2. Affordable on a working-mom income, saving a few bucks every month for the next twelve
  3. A place my feet have never seen (ruling out France, Germany, the U.K., Switzerland, Costa Rica, Canada, St. Lucia, Mexico, and Zimbabwe)
  4. Safe for driving (or otherwise getting around) without pressing all of my crowd-induced stress-buttons
  5. Rough in places where we can wander off the map
  6. Familiar enough that if kiddo or mama becomes disoriented, it’s possible to navigate to a helpful place
  7. Far enough that it will open a window onto the big unknown

These carry me directly across the water to the land of castles, bogs, rain, and the River Shannon.

Silverleaf’s nudge sent me bopping around the internet last night when I should have been tucking myself into bed. I zig-zagged over the map, looking for an Irish island or village that might make nice waystation for us a year from now. I bookmarked some (Farm animals in the hostel yard, oh yeah!) and jettisoned others (Antiques in the lobby? Maybe when Bug is 20).

Because it was all still rolling around when I finally did make it to bed, it naturally bubbled up in conversation today. The bubbling occurred in a brief exchange with a colleague who has more money in his bag of golf clubs than I do in my son’s 529. Travel discussions tend to involve him telling me about his most recent Icelandic mountain expedition while I tell him about the water park down the road.

It just so happens (I learned today) that this colleague is good friends with an Irish couple who owns a hot-air balloon company. It also just so happens that this colleague is also is more than happy to send Bug and me their way next June.

A blink, and the picture is another degree sharper.

A click, and we are another minute closer.



Collected from the public library as well as my personal one, this is the current assortment. Each asks for my attention. Each wants to be the number one choice.

  • The Outsourced Self: Intimate Life in Market Times by Arlie Russell Hochschild
  • Stepmonster: A New Look at Why Real Stepmothers Think, Feel, and Act the Way We Do by Wednesday Martin
  • 77 Creative Ways Kids can Serve by Sondra Clark
  • Murdering Mr. Monti: A Merry Little Tale of Sex and Violence by Judith Viorst (yeah, I didn’t know she wrote murder mysteries either)
  • Galileo’s Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love by Dava Sobel (already started 3 times)
  • And of course, my very own spiral-bound journal

What is a girl to read? With so few hours — make that minutes — to spare for this most delicious of hobbies, how do I choose?

To whom should I commit?

I suspect this question may hint at a decision more pressing than which book to open first.


She perches on the powder-blue cushion that pads her brass vanity chair. Lifting her chin, she smooths a dab of cold cream into the barchan expanse of her throat. The tray on the counter is mirrors and filigree. It holds the fluted light, reflecting back a tessellation of silver lipstick tubes. They stand alongside brow combs and kohl pencils, upright in frames whorled with beads and rhinestones.

Fanning out on the glinting surface are brushes thin as needles and broad as petals, brushes as coarse as thistle and fine as down, virgin brushes and brushes worn to nubs. For the baser applications, tissues the color of an Easter sky pop from the top of a crocheted box. Cotton balls in a nesting tower press their breathy faces against the glass.

At her back, a wooden cabinet with worn brass handles opens to stacks of folded washcloths and bath towels. The linen fits in a perfect geometry between containers holding a disco-flash plastic spectrum: Pert and Gee Your Hair Smells Terrific, Aqua Net and Johnson’s Detangling Spray. There, too, extra bars of scented soap, boxes of band-aids for every joint and laceration, hair nets and pink sponge curlers and shower caps and amber tonics with squat-lettered labels fading into oily glass.

Up around the ceiling and down to the chrome fixtures and hidden pipes drifts a perfume of clay dust and crushed flower, spun cotton and wood stain.

From a round box, she lifts a fluffed ball the size of a kitten. Powder whooshes just inside the low lace neckline of her satin slip. She plucks from a bouquet of combs and hairbrushes a pick to fluff her thinning auburn curls.

On the side of the makeup case she carries in her purse is a tiny mirror. She chooses a tube from among the silver array and twists it awake, tracing color across her mouth before dropping the lipstick in the case and snapping it shut. In the small rectangle of glass, her lips peel back. She frees a blue tissue and dabs a coral smudge from her teeth.


We pinned a world map to the living room wall. It guides our fingers and our eyes when we trace our neighbor’s travels or the origins of our takeout spring rolls. The radius of our life spans less than an inch on one pink edge, missing the rainbow sprawl of continents, canals, deserts, and seas.

The tax on growing older is an unsettling measure of frugality and caution.

It also demands a revised dictionary.

Building towards a dream used to be heavy on the dream. Do you want art and justice in this life? Launch a local poetry slam or gather with neighbors to plant a community garden. Create a weekend dance jam. Teach theater, sign up for a writing workshop, move into a housing co-op and take to the streets.

At 41 with a child in tow, the emphasis shifts. Building trumps dream. The latter is a slate-gray mist; the former, a clear and steady slog. The process is this: work like a dog, keep the fridge stocked, and stash the extra pennies in my boy’s 529.

Travel once meant registering for a summer dance camp in Maine then figuring out how to make it work. It meant study abroad in Africa. It meant road trip to Cape Breton Island (why not?), road trip to Chicago (there was a boy there, you see), quick flight to Costa Rica (tickets were cheap and hostels cheaper).

Now, when I do manage to fit it in, travel means visiting the kin in Texas or booking a family beach week in Florida.

This is how growing up shifts the vocabulary. I share a common tongue with my younger self but as the years multiply, our overlapping lexicon dwindles.

Vacation means a day at the local water park.

Adventure means conquering a small Shenandoah mountain.

Hope means begging merciless fate to keep at bay the darker dangers that swim a little too close to the surface.

Language alters as knowledge expands. Or perhaps language alters knowledge?

World means swarming coastlines that fester and sink. It means trafficked children in cages lining Bangkok alleyways. It means Mexican drug gangs and teeming Mumbai streets and Tunisian suicide bombers and Saudi women at the lash.

Grownup means folding shame and fear into an ostensibly rational assessment of supposedly real constraints.

For the past two years, I’ve pulled the travel section from the weekend Washington Post and stuffed it, unopened, into the recycling bin. That’s two years of Sundays in which I’ve gone straight to the business pages, the advice columns, the local news, the national headlines. Even the photos on the travel pages hurt my eyes.

The demands of this life are too consuming (I tell myself). I can’t afford/don’t have time/am too exhausted to carry Bug and me someplace “out there” (I repeat). Stories about how and where and when to go first sting then throb. It’s like seeing an old lover with a new partner and a brighter smile. The adventures on those pages belong to a different breed of human, one who has taken a different — smarter? — path. Had I lived up to my promise and potential (I hiss at myself), perhaps the woman I might have been would be richer, more adventurous, married, and multilingual. Or maybe she’d just have some guts. Maybe she would be booking a group trek to Antarctica.

What if (I prod myself) I could?

My 20-year-old eyes try to see that map pinned there on the living room wall. What do I hope to achieve by keeping my boy and me contained in our safe, pink centimeter? Do I want my son to fear the unexplored span? He is stuck with this world just as the rest of us are. He can hide from it or open to it, deny it or claim it, give up on it or contribute to it. He can live in blindered oblivion, or he can weave and grow and connect and thrive.

Which definition of choice do we choose? The one comprised of the struggles and options that land at our feet, or the one made of shaping a vision and fumbling our way towards it?

This week, my Mister let Bug and me join his brood on a dive into the Great Smoky Mountains. A trip like this seemed unattainable on my own. He introduced us to this little patch of our very own country. We hiked Chimney Top and Grotto Falls, we rafted the class 4 rapids of the Pigeon River. We walked every night to the scrubby top of Legacy Mountain to listen to the whippoorwill call out the arrival of the first stars.

It was a travel adventure designed by grownups. It was a manageable, affordable vacation in an expanding world. It was a choice to open the door a little wider.

And it was so much simpler than I had imagined.

With my 20-year-old eyes and my 41-year-old responsibilities, I see how little a push is required, how small the step over the threshold.

Back home today with my suitcase still spilling out on the bedroom floor, I opened the travel section. I read every turn, every word: blonde hedgehogs in the Channel islands, a Benedictine monastery in the Australian town of New Norcia, a Balkan road trip in a Citroen alongside the Adriatic sea. I pictured us in each place. My son and me on a ferry with the cold sea blowing down our sleeves. My boy staring out the window at the crumbling red roofs along rocky coastal roads. Together at dusk, tracking bats in a heavy sky.

Next year, we will leave our pink nest and step together out across the blue. We will let our feet find their way into the jagged purple green, let the strange names of towns cross our lips for the first time. With the same pen we use to scratch new lines onto our map, we will write the dictionary we choose to carry on the next leg of our journey.

A rogue yellow blossom has annexed the cilantro’s territory. The butter bright petals bob at the end of a stalk that’s bolted into white lace.

In a blink, the flower takes flight. It circles the railing and alights on the end a strand of Thai basil. Slender feathers flash golden black. The breeze coruscates leaf, stalk, bird, into a kaleidoscope of shapes falling together, spilling away.

I am far across the room. If I had missed that moment of flight, it could still be butterfly, bumblebee, invading weed. I step closer and see now that the bird is dipping the brush of its beak into a tiny violet thimble budding from the basil stem. Its vertical sips meet a circular breeze. The oblique collision jars this usually quiet corner of the garden.

My Audobon book is unopened on a shelf in the bedroom. When I head to the woods, I try to remember to pack it along with the wildflower guide and The Trees of North America. To be honest, the opportunity for a hike rarely presents itself these days. When one comes to fruition, it tends to be a scrap shim I jam in to shore up the edges of this teetering palafitte of responsibilities.

The last trip out, I was halfway to the mountains before realizing the hiking boots and trail food were sitting back by the front door at home. After a few detours, I was strolling through the meadows of a local nature preserve. Hungry and shod in busted sneakers, I found modest satisfaction in having brought my guidebooks. One told me that the fragrant flowering shrub bursting along the forest edge is called a Small White Rambling Rose.

This bird here may be an oriole. A finch. A butterwing, sunpincher, pinbrush. It could be Ramone for all I know. Taxonomies of my animal kingdom neighbors are as foreign to me as the musical notations of a zither. I try to step closer to see what I can discern about this fellow’s tail or shape, but he’s done with his snack and flits up, around, down to the concrete floor, up against the glass door, then off into the much bigger green shadowing this modest corner.

His name goes with him.

Or maybe he left it here with me, that odd marking made by someone who only imagines the scratch and heat inside a nest, who only wonders how the nectar of summer’s purple herb tastes against the tongue’s single song.