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. . . and they found a certain contentment, living more or less happily ever after, which is what “now” is while one’s in it.

From Robert Coover’s “The Frog Prince”

I lay flat on the stained carpet, felled by a muscle spasm with diamond-tipped talons. My boy, stung pink with sun, is sprawled across a twist of sheets and pillows. He has been complaining about a stomach ache. “I just don’t feel good,” he keeps repeating while he looks at me with a mix of longing and irritation.

Beside us, Noodle mopes in her crate. All the pacing and fussing and nosing  to spur one of us to action had the opposite effect, and now she sighs heavily and frequently while staring right at us.

A pillow props up my knees up and I grit my teeth against waves of pain as I read. We’ve just begun The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which we’ve inexplicably overlooked during the previous eight years of literary peregrination. Bug sips from a cup of seltzer water and kicks the blanket further down the bed.

Right in the middle of Edmund’s box of Turkish Delight, Bug turns and reaches across me. Scootching his hand under my shoulder, he inches me closer to his mattress. Then he leans in and plants a slow, soft kiss on my cheek. I see a smile ease loose across his face as he lets me go and flops back onto his bed.

“It’s all three of us right here,” he says. “Wouldn’t this be a perfect family portrait?”

I put my finger in the page, close the book against my chest, and look around.

My boy, the dog, a home, this night.

One story, one kiss.

Our perfect family.

 

20150829_224248

The used car quest was ultimately unsuccessful. One gains insight nonetheless. It’s useful to practice haggling, for example, even if the other party refuses to engage participate. Also, it pays to notice tires.

I am back home and wilting on the couch. Beside me is a man whose company today qualifies him for sainthood. On his only free weekend day and for reasons I can barely fathom, my Mister voluntarily returned to the same Beltway purgatory he endures every Monday through Friday. He accompanied me as I waited for mechanics and tracked down Craigslist contacts and passed a fruitless hour in the DMV line and missed the bank by 15 minutes. He fueled himself on my meager supply of diet coke, store-brand hummus, and apples that grew steadily warmer in the August heat of my dying Saturn.

Now that we’ve limped back to my place and collapsed into our frayed knot of disappointment, he offers to stick around for the evening.

This is his big chance. Movie? Sports? Video games? He’s earned more points than I’ll ever be able to repay, and also, my own tank is too tapped for carousing. Such opportunities are rare. We’ve already made our annual trip to a movie theater this year, and the last time we turned on ESPN at his place, Doug Fister was still pitching for the Detroit Lions.

Out of the whole deck of options fanned out in front of him, what lights the spark?

“Let’s go run around JoAnn’s Fabric and buy a bunch of random art supplies, stop by and pick up kabobs, then come back and make stuff.”

And so we do.

The music swirls around us. The dog rests in soft bliss on her blanket. We fall in. We forget to talk.

How do you know you’re in the zone?

You don’t.

It’s when you blink up and out, glance in disoriented wonder at the clock, and feel the curtain fall behind you.

You know when you’ve been there.

And you may think you need a new car.

And you may check the movie listings.

But you also know the only way to get where you really want to go is to immerse yourself in your joy, to create or move or explore your way there.

Play is the ticket.

Surrender, the key.

Sleep. . . knits up the raveled sleave of care.
 
From Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Act 2, Scene 2

I follow him along the circumference of the earth. The globe bends under us. A rusted iron chain strewn out loose on the ground guides our hands, our feet. We walk near the shore then into the surf which licks our ankles as it rises. Soon it sweeps us up, the surge, and I clutch at my father’s back while he swims hard for a distant city on stilts. It is all that is left of our land.

Dazed and shivering, we climb to the rickety boards and look for a place to rest. A man squats against a corner of railing and hisses out the rates. Six to a room, he tells us. Fifty cents extra to use the loo.

All night and into morning, the brine clings and the heat swells. My father gives way to the other one, the who knows me as equal no matter much I long to be less. We have to find a place for our children on the sick earth. We have to fashion them a refuge, even if we are its only walls.

These choking and sumptuous images careen across the terrain of my imagination. I have seen such places only in glimpses, only when far from home. Kissed by spray from the Zambezi, I leaned over the precipice of Victoria Falls. Two decades have failed to dull the breeze lifting my pink skirt, to damper the white roar slamming geysers upon arrival.

I made a vow then: If I ever choose to die, it will be here. I will soar from this arcing explosion.

I have kept few promises in my life. This one holds, at least so far: I am allowed an escape hatch only of extraordinary proportions. I know that the effort involved and the miles covered will force me into new life.

Now, the stone edge of that Zimbabwean river is etched into a vein of recollection where the cliffs of Cape Breton gather around the New Forest’s scraggy tangle. The faraway place is memory, which means now I travel in dreams.

Sleep is a ticket to a steady body and a capable mind, but it is also a free ride to the outer limits. Just four bouts of it now — four dead zone nights following four decaffeinated days — have spun me along gilt-edged galleries and coursed me through sea caves, then pulsed me back out into the clutches of grinning dystopian warlords.

Through glass walls of a time-warping rocket, wrapped safe in a cloak of gravity and linen, I see worlds that maybe were and those that maybe will be. My soft spine arches as I clear the next mountain rising between the two. From both above and below, I watch as the laws of physics clash and spring against spasms of turbulent time.

 

Anniversary Bed

August 23, 2010: first day on the job. This was another shift in the surge between a tidal wave of beginnings and a fierce undertow of endings. Landing a position at a university — one that had deigned to give me a graduate degree before I took off on a fateful, cross-country marriage odyssey — meant more than compelling work with college students. It meant benefits and a way to rebuild a gutted financial base. At a time when the best I dared hope for was chalk dust, this was gold.

So many things whirled and roiled to push me onto the metro that morning in August. Selling everything, leaving a home in the mountains, separation and divorce, going back to work, single parenthood. . . Every stroke felt like the last one I could possibly take. Then I took another, just as grueling. And another.

I wish I could tell my sisters that the other side of divorce is less of a slog. Isn’t that the line? “It gets easier.” Much like what my boss has been telling me every time the pace picks up at work. “Things will slow down soon.”

Five years, they still only ramp up.
Five years, single motherhood is still a steep ascent.

That said, the frantic anxiety about how to make it all work has quieted. When I press the gas on my work week each Monday morning, my mind leaves much of the domestic uncertainty behind. Eventually, my boy and I did manage to buy a home. We know our neighbors. He is rocking the classroom at school. We have a rhythm to our days, plenty of eggs and veggies in the fridge, a little cash in the college fund, a little more in the 401K. Within the few realms we control, we are doing as well as we can. Truthfully, we are faring far better than I ever imagined.

This relative peace at home allows for full presence at the office. I have attention to tackle the new set of pressures and commitments that greets me each Monday. Change keeps churning, wicked as whitewater. Like many universities, mine is trying to grow its influence under suffocating pressure to shrink its operating budget. Resourcefulness is as important as a bold voice; careful consideration as necessary as high-octane exertion. Most critical of all lately? Blind faith in the germination of sloppily but copiously scattered seeds.

I nourish and water. I pray to an absent god.

At this milestone, I can see and even feel what has broken the surface. Sturdy roots, infant limbs. Promotions and raises, geographic flexibility, new projects. People making decisions include me in conversations about the direction of our school.

All of this has meant growing up hard and fast. Five years is really just a blink. I understand now that maturity — at least “maturity” as it takes shape here at the 40+ year chapter in the story — involves going after more and more of the hardest stuff even when presented with the option to coast. This is a tough lesson to learn and a tougher habit to establish, especially when the young adult tendency is to dabble and blame, to shift responsibility and do a good-enough job. To hold out vague hope for something better down the line.

Growing up means understanding that “down the line” is stamped on the ticket I already bought and the miles I’ve already covered. My choices on Monday morning, on every morning, forge my destination.

I am learning to take on creative and difficult tasks that I’ve long assumed were the domain of people with talents and capacities entirely different from mine. I would sooner imagine myself capable of learning Mandarin than write computer code or keep tabs on a several million dollar research budget. But here I am.

This all comes at a cost, though, and it is a cost I still struggle with accepting. My days increasingly belong to tasks I would rather leave to someone else. The work I most love is crammed into the spaces between. My body is weary, my mind is sapped, and my sense of pleasure in just about everything is so far beyond reach it may as well be dandelion fluff in the last gust of summer.

So I celebrate in the least celebratory way imaginable.

I sleep.

This one weekend on the 5-year anniversary of life catapulting me into a foreign land, I finally let myself rest. Two nights ago, I clocked a solid eight hours. Yesterday, I took two naps. Last night, I managed 10-1/2 hours, and today, another nap. I dream long and luscious stories about dusty road trips and strange mountain men in dapper white suits. I wake up exhausted, walk the dog, and go back to sleep.

Tomorrow is Monday morning and I head back to the office. I’m excited to kick off the next half of this decade refreshed and restored. If the first half has taught me anything, I’ll need all the fuel I can get.

Ewe and Lamb

He likes daddy’s house better. “I get to be in the same room,” he says.

I like sleep better. So here, he has his own room. He is almost nine, and still, he begs for me to stay. He pulls me in after books and cuddles, “Just one more hug,” he pleads. “Just one more minute.”

On weekends, he tries all over again. “We can go to sleep in your room tonight, right?”

No. I tell him again, no. Not this night. No every night, two years of no in this house, eight years of no in this life. No, mama needs to sleep alone. No, Mama has trouble resting when she shares the bed. Mama is a monster who trips into a churning, troubled cauldron of demons night after night after night after night. Any chance this mama has of sleeping soundly, she’ll protect with all her might. Even if this means earplugs, eye masks, a bolted door, a lonely son.

No.

Then suddenly, my boy wakes with the dawn and pads into my room. Hair wild and eyes gummed with dreams, he crawls into my bed and folds himself into the warm pocket of comfort around me.

Gangly, humongous, heavy as stones.

A boy? My boy?

I feel the height and weight of him, the crackling and waking up of every surging cell in him.

My boy is finished being small.

Forever.

From here, he only grows up. Out, older, taller, away. He grows into himself.

How much longer will he want to be so close?

How many chances do I have to be his home?

His longing for nighttime company is more than a craving, more than a passing interest. Beyond the clutchy acquisitiveness children have for Pokemon cards and pizza nights and winning at Stratego, this hunger is something deeper. Primal even.

Every time he begs and cries for me, every time in all of his eight years, he is asking to feel bound up in something, to feel tethered to place and kin.

In the purest form of humanness — mammal and existential alike — he needs to be held.

Now, in this quickly closing chapter of his life, I can be the one who holds him. This web I weave around him — alternately flimsy and rugged — tightens into the vault from which he launches the man he will become.

This web I weave around him — alternately capacious and secure — sinters into the vault in which he stores the stars and wounds and whispers that he gathers along the way.

Tonight I decide: We will find a way to climb in close together. Close, so he can worm his way deep into the heart of the comfort he needs. Close, so I can protect my precious sleep and still love my boy the way he wants to be loved.

Tonight, I ask: “Do you want to make a nook in my room?”

He stares, checking my face for tricks. Then his spreads into a grin and he actually shivers with delight.

In record time, he finishes dinner, stacks dishes, helps walk the dog, and lops nearly 20 minutes off bath time. Then we plop ourselves on the floor of my room. The rack of toy bins in the corner needs to go.

“Okay,” he says picking up a matchbox car. “Donate.” He tosses it in a bucket.

“Easter bunny ears?” I ask.

“Trash,” he says.

We go like this. Legos, mardi gras beads, pirate eye patches. Toss, donate, keep. The box of trinkets he wants to hold onto is far emptier than I imagined. The toys are meaningless. What he wants is the absence of them. What he wants is the treasure their departure promises.

By bedtime, we’ve done it all. Vacuumed, dragged in extra mattress, unfurled sheets. He carries in a stack of books to line the windowsill, fetches the lamp with its denim shade. He keeps smiling at me. Smiling and smiling. “It’s so comfortable,” he beams, settling himself into a heap of red and turquoise linens. “Want to come try it?”

I bring my pillow and cuddle up in his nest. We are tucked into an alcove under the window across from where my big-girl bed lives. Bug can look right into Noodle’s crate. A few moments later, she tip-taps in and sniffs around the new setup, talks at us, then heads over and curls into a ball on her blanket.

Bug thrums with sleepy rightness, with a satisfaction rare in his bull-headed, only-child world.

He sighs and rests a damp head on my hip. “Put your arm around me,” he says. “All the way across.” He draws my hand over his chest, slips it into the fold between his torso and the blanket. In my other hand, I hold Cornelia Funke’s Thief Lord and pick up where we left off last night. The conniving Barbarossa has spun backwards on a carousel and toppled out as a toddler, while Scipio — wounded and obstinate — has chosen to careen past adolescence and emerge as a man.

We stumble towards infancy and whatever comes before. We surge towards dying and the end we refuse to imagine. On either side of us, these memories, these wishes, they stretch like corridors lined with swords and feather beds, disappearing into dark. When fortune spits us out against unforgiving walls, when moments choose us before we have a say, we carry our soft landings with us. We bear our own rending.

For our children, we dull what blades we can.

Even when they are certain they are done needing us, we tuck beneath them a pallet of silken rope and down.

We hold them anyway.
 

Image from “The Nursery,” March 1881.

 

Lawrence Lessig asks, “Do you have that love?”

Do you claim your urgent and aching love for this great democratic project? Do you turn towards what it can still be instead of what we’ve already lost?

Do you fight with everything you’ve got?

For their 2014-18 Congregational Study/Action Issue, the Unitarian Universalists have chosen Escalating Inequality:

Challenging extreme inequality is a moral imperative. The escalation of inequality undergirds so many injustices which our faith movement is committed to addressing: from economic injustice to mass incarceration; from migrant injustice to climate change; from sexual and gender injustice to attacks on voting rights.

In study groups and conversations, we learn root causes and undo myths, all with the aim of taking effective action.

Up the street from here is a UU church. Members of an Escalating Inequality group meet monthly to engage these hard questions and think together about how to reclaim what is precious to us, and what may ultimately be all that saves us: our voices, our power, our hope.

Our love.

 

While work hours declined dramatically during the first half of the twentieth century, thanks to higher wages, economic growth, trade unions, and progressive legislation, they have increased during the last three decades. Americans now work an average of one extra month per year than they did in 1980, and single mothers work an extra six weeks. Employees often work overtime and outside their job descriptions for fear of losing their jobs if they refuse. Cutbacks and downsizing have further increased workloads, making it all the more necessary to operate at the top of one’s game all day long, without any lapses. Fear of what one night of lost sleep could do to one’s appearance and performance the next day has become a common concern.

Kat Duff in The Secret Life of Sleep

We know it is zip code and native tongue, it is the body that houses the name. It is a solid school building and a safe walk there. It is scouts and sports and skate parks and dance troupes with coaches as supplemental mentors. It is a small stack of cards: library and HMO, towing and voting, ID and credit. It is the transcript and the stamp of the alma mater, and the names of the friends collected in those four years. It is the legs and the shoes at the bottom of them, it is a specialist with attention enough to notice the gap and intervene early, it is refrigeration, it is screened windows, it is the magnetic attraction of luck to fortune already acquired. It is all of this as water to a clownfish.

We know that what carries the slim minority into a state of relative comfort (and I include myself in this group) is so much more than individual choice. We know that economic and cultural forces are at work, and that each of us is hamstrung by this web of history.

We understand how pernicious the issues of violence and poverty and racism and discrimination, yet we cling desperately to the notion that it can be earned. That if we have it, hell, we’ve worked our asses off and we deserve it. And if we want more of it, we have to work harder and faster and better and more enthusiastically. We have to work like the Zuckerbergs and Buffets. We have to dig down deep and apply all of what we’ve got plus a whole bunch of what we pretend we do. We have to practice the seven habits, win friends and influence people, and for heaven’s sake Lean In.

Maybe we whoop and holler in defense of individual drive and boldness and entrepreneurial pizzazz because we know — we know — this paper house in which we’re squatting is mortared with wet sand. One dry spell, and we’re bare ass on the ground sweeping up scraps. We have to believe we have some control over the plot of our own story. The hopelessness on the other side of that myth is too much to bear.

The delusion is only made brighter by the expert sales-and-marketing team over at Global Enterprise Central, whose satellite offices now populate every square inch of our visual space. The success is individual, the work is individual, the failure is individual, the choice is yours. You know you’ll never win the jackpot. Plug away and you might win a handful of crumbs. And this: you’ll most certainly lose everything if you ignore the imperative to give it 180% every waking minute of the day.

I move through my little universe as a woman who has forgotten all of this. I am a single working mom (I hear clanging through my skull). It is ALL ON ME. Our home, our transportation, his health care, his health. Food and fitness and educational opportunities and emotional well-being. A culture of creativity. Activities that are mechanically and artistically and mathematically and spiritually and socially improving. Kinship with an extended clan. The composition of our family. My retirement options. His college prospects. Friendships and community, living with purpose, a daily contribution to the healing of our planet.

Every penny, every minute, every word, every choice: pivotal.

All of it, my responsibility.

On me. On me. On me.

Then.

Somehow, slowly, I remember.

I remember that this is a false schema.

I remember the words I heard dozens of times back when I could still hear, before I was whirling around in this strange vortex of suburban, struggling single motherhood. These words:

We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.

When Martin Luther King, Jr. sent this truth out from Birmingham, he wrote to the nation. He wrote across decades, which means he writes to us now. And he is not writing alone. Also Howard Zinn and Haunani-Kay Trask and Sojourner Truth and Oscar Romero and Cesar Chavez and Granny D. In word and action, these and so many others remind us of the thousands of threads tying us to each other and to the fate of this planet we inhabit.

It takes an act of courage to hold these truths in the front of our minds. We have to remember that our daily slog is insufficient. It falls far short of what will save us. In fact, the only thing that will save us — save what is much more valuable than my son’s college fund and my well-stocked refrigerator — is dedicating the best of ourselves to cultivating collective action for equity, justice, and ecological redemption.

We have to hold our gaze steady and press our shoulders hard against the forces that profit from our forgetting. Yes indeed, someone out there is drinking deep from what wells up in the gaps between us. It may be more complicated than a pack of fat cats laughing wickedly as they punch buttons on the control panel, but only a little more complicated.

Dirty deals go down every day suppressing legislation that could free us to live our better selves, all in the name of growth. Yet here we are, working harder and longer and all we grow are stress and anxiety. We forget even to consider joy an option, grabbing little snatches of it in a 5K run or trivia meetup or reading a single book to our child at bedtime while trying desperately to keep our own eyes open for this fleeting moment of quality time.

We individualize self-care along with everything else. It is a choice to eat garbage or pure plant-based goodness, as if the relentless stress and omnipresent high-calorie junk are unrelated to forces bigger than ourselves. As if every urge is a psychological manifestation that is located in the private depths, bounded by our own personal pathologies. As if the work to become fit and well and healthy, to rise to the thrive and flourish bar of the latest self-improvement buzz, is up to each of us individually.

As if we succeed or fail at being well, just as we do at earning a living or protecting our kids, all alone. As if this myth of individuality has broken free of any logic that may have once checked it.

I remember now.

The personal is political.

Vice versa too.

Like the prophetic leaders who came before, I am the one who gets to check the forever hungry, forever leaking-in presence of the myth.

Publicly, honestly, I get to check it. I can make choices to hold precious the work and lives and creative efforts of the members of my community. Of my human family.

Including me.

Simply by treating my own life as a creation separate from the razor-toothed gears of the factory line, I strike a blow against the false schema of the self.

This week, I start with the basics.

I choose sleep.

Because I remember.

I remember that rest is fuel for courageous and creative action. I sleep to nourish, sleep to dance, sleep to love and befriend and speak and repair and join together.

I remember to weave my way back to a mind and a body whose purpose can be much greater than the rows of ones and zeros that have tried to define the shape of me for too many years.

To weave my way back into the garment that binds us all together.

To wrap myself in it, even as I ready myself to open my arms and invite what is waiting into the fold.