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This time in 2014, our faculty voted to merge with another university department. So began the Year of Pain. We forced ourselves together, cracking open cultures, grafting extremities onto an unformed core.

The fertilization plucked a thread in me. A quickening pulse, a sudden expansion (which, from another angle, is simply an unraveling).

Into that opening bloomed one opportunity after another. Phototropic absent intention, each one reached towards fervor and fed on indiscriminate impulse.

I invited them all in.

When someone needed to design and lead a graduate policy writing seminar, I drafted a syllabus.

When someone needed to mentor two doctoral TAs in teaching practice, I took them on.

When someone needed to contribute an academic affairs article for the October issue, I  sharpened my pencil.

When someone needed to present at the conference, I submitted the proposal.

When someone needed to teach a semester-long course in pedagogy to visiting Chinese professors, I rearranged my fall schedule.

When someone needed to administer a dean search, I opened the hood.

When someone needed to support all the students from two additional PhD programs because mergers mean more, I signed the job description.

Twelve months. All of this in one cycle around the sun.

This week, my supervisor handed me a piece of paper. A note. A pay increase. She also copied me on the discussion of which office I’ll be using when I work half of each week from the campus that is 12 minutes from my house rather than 45.

With all of this dizzying good news, you’d think when they let us out at 2:00pm on the Friday of a holiday weekend, I’d skip off to happy hour with friends.

Instead, I sag against my kitchen counter and burst into tears.

So weary. My everything — spinning head and sleep-starved body and stretched-thin days with my boy — all of it worn out. Yes, shorter commute, larger paycheck. Also yes, more learning, more pivoting, more work, more life.

More life indeed.

My only life.

I push off from the counter and throw back a glass of cold water. All that need is still gunning for me on the other side of the door. Its knock is insistent. No, it will not come in. I walk from the kitchen and turn Blues BBQ up loud enough to drown out the drumbeat of 40 years of mistakes.

And one year of overcorrecting. One Year of Pain.

I fit the battery into the drill and open holes in the bottoms of half a dozen plastic containers.

Then I step onto the balcony and plunge my hands into the soil.

The sage seedlings have started to unfurl, as have tiny pops of mint. The dill fans its lace as the sky moves. I lift them all into larger pots, deadhead the geraniums, pull feathery spiderwebs from cilantro already gone to seed.

Everything leans in one direction. The sun, such a piper. I rotate buckets and wedge the smaller ones in up front. The spinach is almost too leafy now and will need to go either into a larger pot or into my breakfast. As I water the hanging boxes, the clean scent of lemon verbena wraps itself around the Thai basil’s purple spines.

The lavender is the only seed that hasn’t taken. A mold furs black soil in two tiny pudding cups.That flower decided against trying in a climate too alien.

Maybe it lacked the strength to emerge from a wish for its remembered home.

The snow peas and sugar snaps are lush now, their tresses spilling over the concrete lip of the balcony. I bend and tear the creepers from one another as gently as I can. I wind them around the railing and hope the wind leaves them be.

What must they make of this strange place, up so far from the earth? Do they know this is it?

Do they understand that from here, they grow?

From here, and nowhere else?

I am the only one who brings her kid to this year’s spring celebration. At least half my doctoral students are parents, but they all let their children sit this one out. Bug has the great (mis)fortune to be an only child of divorced parents. No matter where the ride is headed, he’s along for it. Some say this will teach him to be adaptable. It certainly forces him to make his own entertainment.

Someone has boiled a bucket of crayfish. Bug lets me crack one open for him to try. His eyes open wide and he begs for more. He and a student spar with a couple of disembodied claws. My boy pours himself lemonade, slices a piece of rum cake, pulls up a chair, and regales the crowd with stories of 2nd-grade troublemakers.

On the long drive across town to get home, I tell Bug he should be proud of himself for being a part of the gathering. Fading, he stares out the window into the deepening dusk. He doesn’t answer. We haul ourselves up the stairs to our condo. Music and voices tumble along the corridor under a current of cigarette smoke, perfume, charred meat. Kids scramble through bushes edging the stairwell.

“Someone’s having a party,” I say.

In our house, I leash the frantic Noodle. “Come on,” I tell Bug. “Let’s go see what’s going on.”

He hesitates. The couch is compelling, yet the noise outside wins. He follows me over. I knock on the door across from ours. A stranger answers, two more peek out, faces bright and buzzing. Someone hollers for my neighbor. She comes to the door with a big hello. “It’s my birthday!” she says. “Come in!”

“We hear children,” I tell her. She grins, puts her arm around Bug, and leads him right into the house. The pack of nieces, nephews, grandchildren opens up to absorb him. He disappears into it and the door closes.

I walk Noodle around the block then come back to check on my boy. My neighbor’s husband comes to the door and ushers me in. A dozen Brazilian, European, and Iranian kin are whooping it up in the living room, on the patio. One-by-one, I shake hands and learn everyone’s place on the family tree. Someone flips open a laptop to show photos. We sing the English happy birthday song and clap with the sped-up Portugese version. We eat cake and mango, pork and clams. Bug runs over to our house and comes back with markers, paper, scissors. He and the kids sequester themselves in a bedroom. We hear squeals, then the door opens and they pound through the living room and out to the small back yard.

It is two hours past bedtime when we finally collapse on the blankets. I tell my boy he should be proud of himself for playing with kids he’d never met before. I tell him he’s practicing being courageous and creative. I tell him he’s becoming a good friend.

He asks me to read Inkspell. As Fenoglio and Meggie and Dustfinger fight their way into the Adderhead’s darkest dreams, my boy chooses yellow from the tin of colored pencils and draws himself quiet.

He’s an only child of divorced parents.

He’s also just one cool kid.

I’ve just cruised home from the metro and dumped my bike in the foyer. Someone knocks at the door. On the doorstep, the brother and sister whose names I don’t know balance on their scooters and ask if Bug is home.

“In about 10 minutes,” I say. “I’m going to get him right now.” The pair wheels off.

I’ve taken half a breath, grabbed the keys, harnessed the dog. Someone knocks on the door. The girl with the hair down to her waist steps off her scooter and asks if Bug is home.

“About 8 minutes,” I say. “I’m on my way.”

When I return with my boy, he heads to the kitchen and pulls tortillas and cheese from the fridge. Someone knocks on the door. I hear a mumbled conversation. Bug says, “I can’t,” and closes the door. He nukes a quesadilla and wolfs it down. He’s running the pizza cutter through the second and telling me about the new kid in his class.

Someone knocks on the door.

He stands in the two inches of threshold. Another muffled exchange passes across the narrow crack. He murmurs, “I can’t right now.”

The girl on the other side says, “Why not?”

A pause.

When will he ask these kids in? Does he want to keep the line firm between home and outside, between what’s his own and the world of everything else? When I ask if he’d like to have someone over, he just says, “I don’t know, I guess,” or “Maybe later.” He may have reasons — perhaps unconscious reasons — for barring access. He may also simply have formed the habit. After all, he has been living half his life with a walking suit of armor.

He’s at the door, half his face out, the rest of him in. The girl is waiting. Maybe I should tell him it’s okay to go out? Or I could invite her in? I could go over and help him explain what he wants.

I stay put. My boy is 8 years old. I’ve done enough translating for him. He can negotiate his own relationships now. He  decides what to say, and how, and when.

In the kitchen, I putter with the dishes and groceries. I listen but pretend I’m not. I’ll throw him a rope when he asks for one. Only then.

Bug finally tells her, “I have to finish my snack.”

She’s undeterred. “Will you come out after?”

He shrugs, “Sure,” and closes the door. He folds the last of the quesadilla into his mouth then pushes his feet into his shoes. “Bye, mom,” he hollers. The door opens again then slams.

I leash Noodle and wander out behind Bug. He is in the courtyard with the pack. I’ve seen them all at the bus stop, at the pool, on skateboards around the complex. When we approach, the girls coo and stroke Noodle. She quivers, caught between terror and ecstasy.

The brother and sister whose names I haven’t yet learned are looping in circles around the posts. I introduce myself, extending my hand. “I know everyone else here, but I haven’t met you yet.” They take my hand in turn, shaking it softly, ducking their gaze. They tell me their names and I ask if they live in that unit there, and they nod then roll off. The big boy at the end of the corridor says, “What about me? Have you met me?”

We’ve played at the pool and park with him for two years. His dad has one of the most welcoming smiles in the neighborhood. “Of course I know you!”

“Say my name!” He says.

I laugh and call it out.

The kids all tear off, wheels and shouts and pounding feet. I walk after them. The distance between us grows as Noodle pauses to catalog every molecule in the cracks of the sidewalk. Around the corner, two women sit on the patio where the brother and sister live. One is older, one is closer to my age. I walk up and introduce myself, tell them I’m Bug’s mom. “I just met your kids. They’re lots of fun.”

“Yes, yes,” the younger one says. She shakes my hand. I tell her my name, tell her the dog’s name. She pets Noodle, nods some more. “Yes, nice to meet you.” The phrase is careful, like one she needs to practice. The woman next to her smiles, nods. They don’t tell me their names. I say how much fun Bug has playing with her son and daughter, how happy I am that the kids are all out together. “Yes, it is nice,” she says. Nod, nod, smile. I wave goodbye and walk off again. The sound of wheels and sneakers on concrete tumbles from around the next building.

I double back towards my place and see a giant box leaning against the wall outside my neighbor’s door. Now, she and her husband are laughing as they try — and fail — to lift the giant cardboard monstrosity over the threshold.

“You need six hands for that,” I say. I deposit Noodle in my house and go back to help them heft the thing inside.

“It’s a new headboard. The old one was getting creaky,” she tells me. “I didn’t realize it was so heavy.”

Her husband drops his end on the floor and drags it the rest of the way to rest it against the side of the sofa. He takes a few gulps of breath.”That’s good. We can leave it for now.” His face is flushed.

“Well,” I say, “if you need some more muscle to set it up, you know where to find me.”

“Nah, we got it,” he says. He smacks his wobbling biceps then flexes. She rolls her eyes.

Back outside, I listen for the kids. Somewhere in the next courtyard, feet race up — or down? — an open stairwell.  Someone shouts, “Not it!”

My boy has a place in that game, a place all his own. I step over a discarded scooter and head in to start dinner.

The absence of television is my secret indulgence. The house, silent, throbs with stored energy. Even the ambient nothing is saturated with sound and light.

The night is mine to claim or spurn. I have relinquished the service of intermediaries.

Tonight, my boy wanted pupusas for dinner. I’ve never eaten one, let alone prepared one. No matter. On my lunch break today, I popped over to the supermarket for masa harina.

We weren’t 30 seconds in the door before Bug raced off on his scooter with the neighbor kids. I cranked the music and heated the skillet. Wet cormeal, caked hands, cheese, oil. Mash and spatter, the warm scent rising.

Bug came back flushed and hungry. He downed four and told me, “Pupusas are a hit.”

Now, he is in bed running the twilight battle soundtrack, fighting off sleep with jet engines and exploding artillery. I move through the house as laundry churns and dishes dry in the rack. The dog awaits her nighttime walk. The lunches are packed, the plants sated.

Next to my bed is the red bag left from Sunday. After the 5K, my Mister and I wandered through town. In the garden behind an elementary school, we parked ourselves with our compostable takeout containers of eggs and greens. Full and sunned, we strolled down the main strip. A ruckus at the library checked our progress. Crowds, umbrellas, noise. Curious for a Sunday.

The lady at the door told us the bag was $5, and it was our ticket in. We handed her a bill and she offered up a shopping tote. We could fill it. These were the weekend book sale’s all-you-can-haul final hours. We elbowed our way through hordes of neighbors and pawed through the leavings. Children’s fiction by Ursula LaGuin, The Black Stallion, one for me by the author of The Lovely Bones. An investigation of Shakespeare’s missing folios. The Golden Compass (two copies, it turns out — I must have been eager). A treatment on writing memoirs. A stack of rough-skinned novels by women, a few fat beach reads with “murder” in the title.

The spines bit at the seams and at My Mister’s back, yet everything and everyone made it home intact.

For the past five days, the sack has been sitting unsorted on the floor of my room. Tonight, as Bug winds down and a May breeze sidles through the screens, I sit on the carpet and dump my treasures. I pull from my shelves the pieces I have no need to keep. A few dimestore mysteries, a couple of salacious works of pop journalism. Those go into my backpack for campus the book drive. The new ones, I slide into the gaps left behind, righting the spines and checking that all neighbors are compatible enough to coexist at least for the short term.

The hardback volume on the voiceless boy, I set aside. It goes onto my bedside table to keep Cervantes company. It might be what carries me off to sleep tonight.

The red bag is folded now and stashed with the other grocery totes in my kitchen. The washing machine has finished clanging and spinning. The dog has settled in her crate.

In my son’s bedroom, I hear pages flutter then thump to the floor.

The house is silent.

The night is mine.

This is nothing like alone.

Keep running.

Keep a walking pace if you have to. Just keep running.

I’ve never signed up for a 5K before. My Mister hasn’t either. We pay the money, pin on our numbers, and show up early enough to beat the port-a-potty line. The fundraiser is for my kiddo’s school, so all that really matters is making an appearance.

For us, though, what really matters is finishing.

We’ve been battling head colds and threats of ear infections. We sleep deeply (for once) the night before and wake up rested (more or less) well past sunrise.

At the end of the 1-miler preceding our race, we watch as one kid after another powers around the corner and surges past the clock. Little machines, every one. We stretch and psych ourselves up. We make snide comments under our breath. Of course it’s easy for them. They aren’t lugging around 40 years of bad choices.

All we need to do is this:

Finish.

By the second mile, I’m not sure I’ll be able to. Head is swimming, belly is churning. I am a regular runner, but in all honestly my regular run is a plod. This is what happens when you jog several times a week for over two decades without ever checking a timer. My pace is a stroll. It works to keep my heart strong. What more do I need?

What I need now is one thing only.

Keep running.

As the ground under my feet roils, I calmly repeat the mantra. Keep running. Slow and steady. Keep running.

I ease down to a manageable pace. Two dudes I passed at the last hill are now passing me. It doesn’t matter. I’m running.

So I keep running.

The rattling noisemakers and whooping cheers are just ahead. Maybe I can make it. I sort of want to be sick. I really want to go sit on that bench.

The noisemaking, cheering ladies hold up a sign that says, “Almost there! Half mile to go!” They whoop and holler. The one who offers me water is a friend. Our boys are buddies. Right now I could punch her face.

I thought her clanging rattler was the end.

Half mile is 5/6th of the race done, I tell myself.

Half mile is a whole 1/6th of the race to go, I argue back.

Half empty. Keep running.

Half full. Keep running.

I halve the half and hear the next round of clangs and claps from ahead.

Then it is the corner.

Then it is the last pounding surge of thigh and calf and breath that shouldn’t be able to sprint, but does anyway.

Then it is finish line.

I plow into a crowd whose eyes are already done with me. I wobble to the sidewalk. Keep my head above my heart. Try not to throw up.

My legs return to me. Gravity becomes an ally again. The voice I almost forgot I had hollers out at my Mister as he pounds through the arch.

Then I am standing tall on a stump in the grass with an apple and water, and the principal is calling out names. I half listen. The sun presses into my neck and shoulders. My hands are sore from clapping. The lithe and grinning runners — real runners — collect ribbons and hugs, then pose and snap photos with their cameras.

The principal comes to my age category. Third place, second place, names I don’t recognize of women I don’t know. Then first place.

A name I recognize.

A woman I am meeting for the first time.

I wobble a bit then step up for my ribbon, my hug.

My mister lets me pose and snaps a photo with my camera. Blue ribbon on the damp, pink field of my tank top.

Sun bright.

Smile bright.

For the simple effort of maintaining a single aim, this small award.

This big reward.

Noodle in the Garden

In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt.

– Margaret Atwood

This condo is my Taj Majal. I first stepped over the threshold on the eve of Thanksgiving 2012, and knew in a breath it was home. Honeyed bamboo floors, a wide open great room, blocks away from a park and Bug’s school. It took seven months to fight through the short sale until they handed me the pen at closing. That day in June is among the sweetest of my life.

Even so, through the giddiness, one regret tugged.

Condo living means no square of earth to line with stones and bury the bulbs through winter.

Every place I’ve lived since packing out of the college dorm two decades ago has had a little place to grow pole beans and bachelor’s buttons. Even if it was just a swath of grass in the back of a shared house, I would find a way to urge things from the dirt: snapdragons, vinca, tiger lilies dug up from the nearby creek bed. When living in a city apartment, I not only planted a small sun-burst shaped herb garden behind the driveway with my housemate, I shared a plot at the community garden down the road with one of my farmer friends.

This condo is a dream with sunny, west-facing windows and smiling neighbors. But it has no yard at all. Its only outdoor space is a teeny-tiny balcony looking out over a shrubby berm and the I-66 sound wall.

We’re now coming up on our second year here. Houseplants spill from all the corners and keep us breathing green through cold season. In fall or spring I might go to my Mister’s and help him rake or pull weeds. Shared labor is one hallmark of the Us we are becoming, and while sweating alongside him on his quarter acre binds us together, it does little to tie me to his land. I come home to a bare balcony and a hunger for plunging my hands into the soil at my own feet. Gardening’s decadence comes from tending a plot of one’s own — or one’s own circle, as the case may be.

This year, I looked out on the balcony and thought, It would be so nice if. . .

But I can’t.

No time, no money, never done it, don’t know how.

Except that this is a bunch of hooey. My son pours the same whine when he’s toiling away at fractions and decides to give up. He collapses in a heap, wailing, “It’s too hard! I can’t do it!”

I guide him back to his chair and say, “You can’t do it yet because you haven’t learned it yet. You can do it as soon as you learn it, and you absolutely CAN learn it. I’m going to help you.”

So I do, and so he does.

This is the season of Courage to Change the Things I Can. I won’t grow a thing if I come up with a dozen reasons why it’s too hard. Indeed, trusting I can pull it off is the first critical step in pulling it off. This Things I Can project keeps reminding me that every damned thing is hard until it’s easy. Which means it’s hard for the hundredth time, it’s hard for the 9,000th hour. It’s hard until the skills become automatic. Even then? It may still be hard.

Hard and Can’t share some notable features but they happen to be different species.

You can’t do it yet because you haven’t learned it yet. You can do it as soon as you learn it, and you CAN learn it.

In March, we bought a stash of seed packets and organic potting soil. Bug donned safety goggles and drilled holes through yogurt containers. We sowed, misted, nurtured, and cheered. We mourned a batch and started those over. We stocked up on Goodwill trash cans and old busted tupperware from the backs of our cabinets. I splurged on herb starts, pansies, and window planters from the nursery.

Now it’s May. Our garden thrives.

It brings me a step closer to doing the same.

Could the young but realize how soon they will become mere walking bundles of habits, they would give more heed to their conduct while in the plastic state.

– William James

A quick metabolism and hearty genes provide cover. A person can live for decades with disordered eating, and no one — not even the most intimate partners — may know.

According to the Mayo Clinic, the signs and symptoms of binge eating disorder include the following:

  • Eating unusually large amounts of food in a specific amount of time, such as over a 2-hour period
  • Feeling that your eating behavior is out of control
  • Eating even when you’re full or not hungry
  • Eating rapidly during binge episodes
  • Eating until you’re uncomfortably full
  • Frequently eating alone or in secret
  • Feeling depressed, disgusted, ashamed, guilty or upset about your eating
  • Frequently dieting, possibly without weight loss

The word “disorder” is troubling for a number of reasons, but it’s hard to argue with 8 for 8. For me, as for others, the genesis is in earlier chapters, with coping turned habitual. My parents both worked and once my big sister hit adolescence, she wanted nothing to do with her irritating shadow. At 10 years old, I came home to an empty house. This was no tragedy, of course. We had neighbors, bikes, a park with woods, homework, books, a piano, walls full of LPs, a thousand things to do.

Of all the activities within reach, eating was the easiest. It was low effort, quick reward. So, I ate. It kept me company. It occupied my fidgety attention. It was instantly satisfying. I could eat anything in the house without anyone assessing or demanding I share.

Even for a little girl through whom angst flowed like milk, childhood was not a particularly painful time. Even so, whatever wispy loneliness I carried cemented the habit: Food as companion, food to staunch the boredom.

Thirty years later, this is still very much so. Thoughts about food and eating — what’s coming next, what I just ate, measuring, deciding — are background noise and main score all at once.

The company of friends and family shrinks every concern about eating to a faint whine. In any sort of social setting, food is just a pleasant set piece. Eating is manageable. Even overeating in the company of others feels nothing like the lonely binge. Dining out, parties, holidays, lunch meetings, dates — all of these occasions are easy. Light. Companionship engages my attention and fills the hole that seems so bottomless when I’m on my own.

Really, any engaging activity muffles the hunger. I can dance or write, garden or volunteer, wrestle with my son or make art. I can even pay my taxes or dust my blinds. As long as the time is given to lyric, motion, and productivity, the food obsession recedes.

The challenge is the rest of life.

Alone at my desk, plowing through projects. Alone in my house at the end of a soul-sapping Thursday. Alone with my son asleep in the other room, tired myself but itching for some kind of richness, some kind of stimulation.

Alone and circling the unanswered questions about future, finances, my career, my son’s well-being. Alone and lacking any clear direction, with the nagging awareness that I should be giving shape to something more suited to us with this clay, these hands.

So I return to the compulsive, familiar pacifiers.

I know better. We all know better. But knowledge falls short of action. Instead of moving through the moment of craving and finding myself a song or a pen or a friend, I walk to the fridge.

I eat. Eat and read lit mags online, or skim leftover sections of Sunday’s Washington Post, or download podcasts. I eat and wander the house.

Hours go by this way. Eventually I break surface, climbing up from the burrow of bread and fruit. Immediately the bullets from that Mayo clinic list hammer into me. I’m uncomfortable, well past full, feeling disgusted and out of control.

It all seems so very silly, so first-world. Just a blink away are Baltimore and Katmandu, and here I am worrying the extra bowl (or 3) of cereal I just ate? I’ve come through the hell of a divorce and displacement, bought a home and moved forward in a fulfilling career. I raise a child and manage my investments and work out regularly and attend to a lovely intimate relationship with my Mister. All of these things seemed impossible just a few years ago. All of these things require strength I never knew I had. Don’t these experiences provide me with the capacity to tackle this one simple task?

Stop eating so goddamned much all the time.

Except that “stop eating” is not a viable goal.

Every attempt I’ve made in the past three decades to “fix” this “disorder” just puts attention squarely where it shouldn’t be: on the problem. Focusing on the broken part reinforces the bond between that essential brokenness and the gal carrying it around.

It’s also tempting to excavate ancient burial grounds and reckon with sleeping psychological ghosts. I’ve done plenty of that, with little to show for it. The phantoms are resting quite well now, thank you very much.

All of that said, if I want to be effective in this world, I’ve got to disentangle myself from this thicket of numbing, distracting, and ultimately disabling behaviors.

When participating in the 21-Day Financial Fast at the beginning of 2015, I discovered all over again that a specific, short-term objective with clear rules can take me miles further than whips and rebukes. Starting from a similar place of hopeful strength might serve this task well. It’s time to recognize that I am perfectly capable of setting smart, thoughtful goals and taking bold (if tiny) steps towards them.

So here is what I propose:

Eat when I eat.

(A revolutionary concept, right?)

Let’s put it this way: Only eat when I eat.

Applying lessons from mindfulness — another of my woefully undeveloped capacities — is proving useful here. If eating is the only activity when eating, then perhaps my mind will have a chance to notice how much (and how little) bandwidth food takes up. Exclusively eating means setting aside every other pursuit and carving out time to sit with a meal. Exclusively eating also means fully engaging in whatever occupies my hands and senses when meal- or snack-time is over. Without food to keep me company, will I be as likely to troll the internet and play Quiddler on my phone? Or will I notice that the time I’m adrift in low-reward distractions is really not very fulfilling after all?

I’m not sure what I’ll discover, but it’ll be fascinating — and undoubtedly tortuous — to find out. The 21-day financial fast was tough enough, and I went into that a skinflint who takes pride in driving a 15-year-old beater. This project will be bending loose some pretty rusted joints.

Yesterday was Day 1.

May 31 is the finish line.

Buon appetito!