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We are all so close here, piled up on top of one another. This is condo living. I deal with the proximity by clinging to anonymity. It feels safer to convert teeming neighborhood into desert. Miles to walk, an oasis forever disappearing into the horizon.

It takes willpower to override the tendency to duck and hide. Being an extrovert is no panacea. Grit is required to glance up, courage to engage in the exchange of pleasantries. Slowly, slowly, one month or three at a time, I nod or smile or even offer my hand.

When Noodle escaped the house a month ago, I posted a plea and a photo on the condo listserv. Racing home  from work, I found five of my neighbors clustered around the sobbing dog walker. Heads bent, they were busy delineating zones to comb. Several others had already fanned out and were searching the surrounding blocks. For the first time, I learned the names of the men who live along my corridor and the other woman who comes daily to walk a half dozen pups in the building.

I jogged the perimeter of the complex. I asked everyone I saw for help, waving down dog owners whose paths had crossed mine for months, but with whom I had never exchanged a word. My Mister spotted the fugitive up in the woods and helped get her home. Later that evening, I opened my door to a fellow I’ve never met clutching his chest in relief at hearing Noodle’s shrill chatter inside.

As we circle the complex these days, neighbors who recognize the pooch from her 15 minutes of fame stop us to say how happy they are that she’s home.

Today, we walk over to Tee’s house to collect Bug. On the way, I pass the grandfather from the park. He’s a retired cop from Thailand who is determined to practice his English. He and I spent an hour last week talking in the park while the kids swung on the vines. This time, we participate in the requisite how-are-you-isn’t-this-weather-gorgeous exchange then amble off on our separate paths.

A little boy about Bug’s age is zipping his scooter along the sidewalks just a block from Tee’s house. I ask him if he knows Bug from up the street. He considers this for a minute then says, “Oh yeah, he’s in my class.” On our return trip, Bug and I take the small detour so the two boys can tumble around together. They hadn’t even known they were neighbors.

A block later, I see across a parking lot the mom of one of the kids in Bug’s after-school care. We gab there in the afternoon sun. Then Bug, Noodle, and I take the path through the park where I greet another mom from up the road. My boy charges off with hers while she and I hatch plans for a swim-date when our pool opens.

Another two kids from school play tennis with their dad. Hello.

The Thai grandpa now passes back through the park after his walk. Hello again.

A super-sweet new gal with preschool boys shares a batch of Wisconsin cheese curds with me and actually gives me a hug the first time we meet. Hello hello!

At home, Noodle conks out on her blanket and Bug logs his daily reading. We fill our bellies and pile dinner dishes in the sink. I am so happy to be in. We are safe, we are connected. It’s okay now to furl into my cocoon and resume the shallow breath.

“Okay, Bub. Time for bath? Maybe an early night? You’ve got school tomorrow.”

He gapes at me. “What! It’s still daytime!”

“And?”

“And upstairs? Playing? With everyone?” He gestures at the door. “You know.”

Yes. How hard it is for me to hold onto this. My son does not inhabit my desert. He lives fully awake in his own lush tropics. Curling up is as foreign to him as expanding is to me. It is for me alone to do battle with the tenacious thirst for transformation to someplace-someone-sometime else. For me alone to plant the acre I’ve settled.

This right here? For my boy, it is the promised land.

“Of course! Go on,” I shoo him to the door. “The boundary is the street, remember? You stay inside the complex.”

“Okay.” He grabs his scooter. “Bye, Mom.”

Now I hear the squeals of the girls upstairs, a slamming door and then another, a tattoo of feet on the concrete landing. Roar and shriek, a massive game of tag. Silence, then a swelling cacophony of wheels and shouts that recedes into a distant clatter. The neighbor kids live the peeled-back version of what I have only begun to attempt. They cruise past hello and hurtle straight into Let’s go!

I’m learning, or maybe unearthing what’s been here all along.

Today, I remember one name. Check my pace. Ask a question.

Today, I fix my gaze on the oasis.

Walk towards it.

At last, it begins to resolve into something true.

Even on a day that saps breath, beat
remains.
Night, home, a high whine
sears the deep ear. When veering toward bed
or bread or any
webbed polyfil
to muffle
the last throb of momentum, habit
is the last hope.
Turn towards
Calabria, thud and sway
into currents
already in motion,
churn flesh inside
out. Turn up
here like sleepwalking
to Messina, like emerging
at the first dawn.


Because I trudged out of the office late on Friday with at least 7 hours of work stuffed into my backpack
Because my son and I were both so wrecked at the start of our weekend, all we could do was pick and gripe at each other until 20 feet at least separated us during our evening walk
Because on Saturday morning, I was crying before I’d even gotten out of bed
Because the relentless pressure from work hadn’t abated during the night
Because my kiddo and I have outings already on the schedule for this sunny spring weekend
Because the week ahead at work is a vise grip on my mood
Because a roomful of PhDs can’t screw in a lightbulb
Because Sunday afternoon is not only my last shot at getting all the work done for Monday, it’s also my only shot at sharing this one weekend with my only boy
Because even though my 9-year-old laptop finally decided to glitch out on the VPN program that allows me to work from home

there is no way
no way on this green and fragrant earth
I am taking my son with me to the office
to hack through the ever-thickening tangle of tasks.

Because life is too
other than this,
too mine.

Because this computer is still a machine after all
an engine
a cotton gin
with codes and circuits that may be labyrinthine but they are also decipherable
fixable.

Because I demand my weekend back.
My sleep.
My body.
Because despite the persistent phantom grip of performance on the back of my neck

these ribs this brain this family

these two days
belong to me.

So I run
outside under thawing sun and whipping wind.

I don safety goggles and drill holes in plastic buckets and turn black soil and drop in tiny rosemary seeds.

And then
after my son falls asleep, I come here
to this ancient, groaning, overheating machine and look and look and look
through security settings, Norton and Spybot
without a map
or a Rosetta stone for these codes, no
I read Cervantes at bedtime and dance to The Knife by candlelight.
But lyrics are no use now.
The only thing is to dig deep
and say
I can solve this
I will solve this
control panel, google, cut here to paste there, reboot, download,
adjust settings, override

Until
Your remote session has been established. For security purposes, please close this browser window.

Tomorrow, I will sit here next to snow pea tendrils crawling toward the light,
the dog splayed out and baring her pearly pink belly to the southern sun,
my kiddo secreted away in his Blanket Palace reading Diary of a Wimpy Kid
and I’ll work.
I’ll work on my Sunday
which may be a sin or it may simply be
what’s needed.
But because I fixed what was broken,
it’s my Sunday
to work as I see fit.

Gaslight /ˈɡaslīt/
verb
Alternative: “ambient abuse.”

1. A form of sophisticated psychological manipulation intended to cause a victim to question her own sanity
2. Withholding factual information from, or providing false information to, a victim, having the gradual effect of making her anxious, confused, and doubtful of her memory and perception

The President has advisors and a staff of dozens to function as his external brain. The rest of us are stuck with this measly glob of gray matter. That, and whatever spreadsheets and task-apps we’ve managed to cobble together.

On the hostile shores of the 9-hour day, another question lands. Another and another. Almost none need a simple response. Almost all demand contortions of reason and planning that border on the gymnastic. The terrain is littered with the debris of the unfinished.

In every job description, the ability to “prioritize” in a “fast-paced environment” is listed as a requirement. The mastery this entails becomes clear when watching the tidal swell of a deadline bear down from the horizon line. These are not abstract squares on the calendar. No, these are public commitments to have a physical, tangible structure in place for someone — perhaps hundreds of someones — to inhabit. The someones will converge, expecting function and clarity. The someones will not hang back an extra day or three just because it’s all so very much. There is no pressing pause on the rising wave. It comes. Its force carries everything. The only choice is to equip and flex.

As for breath? Grab it while you can.
 

Here is what roils under the requisite readiness:

A whisper. Words, but not quite.

This is too much.
There’s no way.
I don’t have any idea how to make this work.
 

It starts to pick up volume and swagger.

Seriously? People are taking this s**t too seriously.
This project isn’t what really matters.
Go for a walk. Grab something to eat. You’ll think better after a break.
Save your creative energy for things that are more “you.”
 

It rewrites history. It directs the narrative.

See how you screwed up that exchange? This is not a skill you’re ever going to master.
Look at the trail of mistakes you’ve left in your wake.
It’s just a matter of time before you drop the ball on something even more important.

You stumble around in a fog most days. Half of them already know what a phony you are.
The rest will learn soon enough.
 

Then it gets downright cutting.

Go ahead. Try giving it your meager all. It doesn’t matter. You’re never going to get ahead.
Talent can’t be learned. You either have it or you don’t.
Anyway, this project is as trivial as your chosen line of work. There’s no room for growth even if you succeed.
You’re not just a phony. You’re a failure.
 

Doubt turns to fumbling. Fumbling, to mistakes. Mistakes to insomnia. Insomnia to hiding. Then the voice doesn’t even need the distortion of a whisper. It’s the sound of me, in the most familiar register.

I’ll just keep on plugging away at the small, manageable things.
It’s not like I’ve earned the right to more than holding down a job and feeding my kid and paying my mortgage.
I should be thankful I still wear this title, considering how little I’ve done with it.
This is the best I can do, and it’s good enough.

 

Some of us forgo the abuser. Why bother with the middleman when we can beat ourselves into submission?
 

Today as I stand at my desk and face a fusillade of demands, I can do this:

Hear the voice and recognize it as the liar it is.
No matter how fierce the wave bearing down, keep on responding.
Finish this small piece of work here in this moment.
Notice the accumulation of finished tasks coalescing into a composition with some depth and heft.
Allow the career of someday to take its shape from this work right here.
Speak in my whole voice against the gaslighting. Against the temptation of insanity:

I’m not supposed to know how to put this all together.
The answer doesn’t exist yet. That’s what makes it a project and not a kit.
The trick is to puzzle through it like every creative person and every decision-maker on the planet.
Like my kiddo, when he begins with the blank page and a single marker.
Like the President, when he begins with a panoply of needs and a single choice.
One task, one question, one motion, one focus.

 

Today (and tomorrow, too):

I can tell the crushing, crazy-making voice to go stuff it.
Then my gloppy brain and I can get back to work.

Gaslight definition drawn from Urban Dictionary, Wikipedia, and Counseling Resource.

Look at me, dancing my little dance for a few moments against the background of eternity.

– Sarah Manguso, Ongoingness: The End of a Diary

His dad opens the door and leads me in. I step out of my shoes and climb the stairs. In the bathroom, our son is tucked into a lumpy cloud of pillows and blankets. His eyelids are tinged green. “Hi mom.” It’s his Eeyore voice. He takes his time peeling himself from the heap. Leaning his body into mine, Bug wraps his arms around my middle. He sighs.

“I’m sorry you’re feeling yucky,” I say. His hair is stuck to his temples and neck. I stroke his skin and for once, he doesn’t stop me. He pulls back and looks at me with eyes far too big. He tells me he was sweating and then shivering, and that he sort of slept while watching a Harry Potter movie.

“Do you want to go to your other house and maybe make a nest on the bathroom floor there?”

“No,” he says. He gets all the way up now and presses into my arms again.

“Maybe just go home and read together?”

“Okay.”

He plods out of the bathroom and down the stairs. Tee collects the backpack, the uneaten lunch, the unfinished homework. We step out together into a startling shaft of afternoon sun. When did spring decide to come out of hibernation? My desk at work is angled away from the window. An awakening can stroll all the way to its fullness and recede again without my notice. If I remember to resurface when I clock out, I might catch the last of its halo disappearing into the horizon.

The air fringing the sidewalk is so light and gentle it makes my chest throb. Only so many days like these ever happen in a season. In a chapter. In a lifetime. This is one of the truths that resolves into view at the rate of decades. The reward for a long life is the biting grasp of life’s brevity.

At home, the dog yips and babbles as we tumble inside. “Let’s open the balcony door,” I tell Bug. “We can put the blankets there. Right where you can be in the sun.”

Bug shrugs. “Okay,” he says. “Can I have tea?”

After walking Noodle, I dig around for the King Arthur picture book. Bug and I settle into cushions and pull a blanket around us. Leaning into my body, he alternates between sparkly water and hot tea. At our feet, the dog sprawls out under the current of evening air that cools my son’s fevered skin.

 

Way up there, a tiny plane skates across the early spring blue. Here, the bus wheezes up to a stop sign, waits its turn, then groans on. The sun has hours yet to make its languid descent into rooftops and half-clothed branches.

Scuffs streak the plexiglass. The eyes are trained to peer right through.

What would it be like to see only this in here? Only what’s behind? I still have hopes of Corsica. Each year another scar cuts across the frame. The edges blur. It’s clear enough, though, for today: Maybe almond trees, maybe the Pillars of Hercules. Or Galapagos. The Badlands at the very least.

It was just now, or near enough to now, that I pressed through a scouring wind to summit Mt. Snowdon in Wales and cooled my blistered feet in Llyn Ffynnon-y-gwas. Such a thing could happen again. Those engines up there could carry me to the source of the next pool where my toes touch bottom as fish nibble down to live skin.

Another renewal.

It’s not impossible.

Or if I choose to walk lightly, I could use my own traction. Starting on this very bus, I could cast off on a winding route to the borderlands where the last of the wildcats hush their flanks against night.

The sky is a door. I am 41 and just came from the gym where I pulled 70 pounds and crunched 100 times on an incline bench.

Now my pooch who narrowly missed her date with a Chinese abbatoir flies like a formula one race car across the dog park that backs against the freeway. She turns fast enough to send mulch and dirt blasting into the sound wall. I shed my jacket and hurl the ball, my arm getting looser now with each lengthening day.

Now I sit in solitude at a dim table at the Indian restaurant. I taste it all: the whang of the cilantro leaf, the spring of my jaw against cubes of cheese, the smoke that lingers in papered boils on the flatbread. Tabla music patters against the sizzle and clank of the kitchen.

Now I bend to this page and rub the dull lamp until it glows.

Everything here is here. Everything here is forward.

What luxury, this illusion.

How fleeting.

The texts ping in, one, then six or seven more. All day in bursts, each sounding a claxon. She is in the ER. She is prepping for surgery. She’s in the OR. She’s in recovery. Her hip is fractured. Her hip is mending.

If she makes it through the next three months, she’ll turn 95 in July.

What must it be to come up out of the fog of anesthesia into the even more stifling smog of dementia? To see only through scuffed glass, to see only the scars? No forward. Not even a here, really. The machines that didn’t exist in your lifetime then did, now they buzz across a silent blue you can’t see. Now they carry other people away into pockets of the world you’ll never know.

If you’ve even lost the comfort of memory, what then? Where do your eyes alight?

I am 41 and grip hard to delusion. This blank page is an open window. That sunlit frame holds no pane. I can step right through and cast my line up against gravity, snag that jet and let it ferry me into another fable, one waiting just for me.

I ignore the microscopic particles, the wind and all it carries, strafing the body of this vehicle. I pretend the light falls through unimpeded. Against the mounting evidence, I claim this day and this endless tomorrow.
 

Tooth Fairy
He may be 8 years old.
It may be 10:30 at night.
She still tucks a few bucks under the pillow.
She still folds around them a tiny card
she makes with her tiny
silver hand.