100. Things I Can Captain: This Boat, These Waters

mother child at sea

It’s taken two years to get here. I’ve skirted the edges of this reckoning so long I know every stitch in its hem. Now I sit in front of a screen, a calculator, and a pile of paperwork to ask the question straight out.

Can we make it on my salary?

I asked the same question back in 2012 when the house hunt began. The answer was a definitive “no.” Buying this home was a hard push into a choppy sea. I did the full assessment then and knew that my income would fall short. To cover our expenses over the long haul, I’d need to earn more.

I also knew that it was the right time and place to make that push. This condo is in my son’s school district, near his dad and my parents, close to the metro, and tucked into a neighborhood where we can walk and play safely. We had been living with my folks for three years and had saved just enough cash to launch.

Even understanding the danger of the optimism bias, I decided to trust in our capacity to create new opportunities. A couple of other factors nudged this trust into action. One was that the window was closing fast — interest rates and home costs were rising while inventories were shrinking, and this place was a great fit at an almost-manageable price. Another was that I had to admit out loud that I am the lucky owner of education, skills, a supportive family, proximity to a strong job market, and a well of determination whose depth I was only just beginning to grasp. My cozy little port of self-doubt and hopelessness still felt safe but it was beginning to rot.

So I headed out of the shallows.

When I hit land again, the sail that had carried us there freed itself from the rigging and floated down around me. It covered the terrain with its ripped and unraveling seams, its ragged opacity. Since then, I’ve only peeked through those holes at what crawls around underneath. I’ve been too shaken by the place I found myself — and honestly, too consumed with making hard strides through it — to pull back that fabric.

Until now.

Because I can.

The 100 Things I Can exercise has taught me this: every task, every challenge, every desire I consider beyond my capacity is actually within reach. Some may demand too much investment — Iet’s be honest: the work required to become a cardiac surgeon at this point is more than I’m willing to take on — but at least I see a way.

These 100 Things have also given me pause to notice how quickly I say “no” when something big swells up on the horizon. Each is an opportunity to turn to towards it and ask straight on, “What would it take?” I may accept the challenge or I may steer clear. In either case, I’m learning oh-so-slowly how to make that choice a considered one rather than one that comes from the deadly comfort of habit’s padded cell.

Over the past year, I’ve taken on two teaching gigs, a writing project, an executive search, and two additional graduate programs. All of this is on top of the full time responsibilities of my job. Every new pursuit has felt like crossing the Atlantic on a raft. But oh, how strong these arms are now!

The raise that’s accompanied this growth is meager. Nonetheless, it is enough that I have to circle back around to that limp sail still hiding the ground under our feet.

Can we make it on my salary?

What I find there will probably be hard to face. Honestly, the question scares the pants off of me, which is why I’ve avoided it for so long. My pay now is about as good as it gets with my education in my industry. If it turns out we are living beyond our means, then I have to make some serious and difficult (and yay exciting I remind myself) changes. We are just us, Bug and me. I am the one at the helm of this family. My career, his education, my retirement, his best shot in this life. For the future as far as we can see, my choices are THE choices that determine our fate.

(Pressure, anyone?)

Again, this: I can. I can write a new map for us. I can learn new skills to get us going. I can handle so much more than I ever knew. I can certainly handle the answer to this question.

So I ask.

And now I sit.

Before this calculator, this screen, this heap of financial documents, I sit and pull back the sheet. I assess the rough terrain of this place we find ourselves.

What is under there is indeed hard to face.

After all the essentials — food, shelter, health care, child care, car expenses, utilities, all the stuff that keeps us clicking along — we have $120 left.

That’s $120 per month to cover all the rest.

Here is what “all the rest” includes:

Clothes, shoes, gifts, eating out, games, toys, furniture, art & craft supplies, outdoor gear, birthdays and Christmas and every other holiday, snacks, plants for the garden, travel, postage, home improvement, festivals, subscriptions of any kind, eyeglasses, accessories, fitness classes, donations, electronics, books, and entertainment of any sort.

$120 per month.

That number is a choke collar. My head throbs. My hands clench. I try to pull the cover back over but that only tightens the grip.

Until I pause and notice something. See where that wretched little number stands? To the left of the asset line.

I feel for the knot at my throat and tug it loose. I open my chest for breath.

For the first time since this whole single-parent-working-mama journey began, my assets are greater than my debts.

I let the number sit still there for a moment, then I take it in my hands. It is a size I can bear. It is a gift after all, and I repeat this truth to myself: We can make it on my salary.

We can. For now, for as long as we need to, we can make it. As I sort myself out for the next project, we can make it.

It is going to kick our asses to do it. The kiddo will learn to live with hand-me-down jackets and weekends at the park. I will grow my hair wild and invite friends over for coffee. I will keep the lines firm in my grip. Through these unmapped waters, I will hold the boat steady.

While I’m here at the helm, I can start looking up.

The horizon there may be a shore, after all.

And there is always the sky.

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99. Things I Can Light: Story from Flint

What men call adventures usually consist of the stoical endurance of appalling daily misery.

– Louise Erdrich, The Plague of Doves

Do we choose the journey or does it choose us? How much say do we really have?

I imagine I’ll tell the story of now as a gritty trek through a wild and scouring place. It will be the reason for the deep cuts and silver streams lining the map of me. I’ll marvel at my strength (grown out of necessity in this restless soil) and adopt the progeny of my mistakes as my own kin (oh, how very many of them).

Something will reveal itself eventually. It must. It always does.

I’ll walk around it and peer in from every angle until light hits its center. Then I will draw open the ribbon and measure its heft according to the values of service and creativity I hold dear.

I will carry it to the garden where it can store the sun for everything that grows up around it.

It will be jagged and breathtaking.

I will call it my great adventure.

I’ll forget that the choice was only half mine.
 

98. Things I Can Follow: His Opening Play

ice bridge card
Three triangles adorn his shirt, each framing a fairy wizard holding a sword of light. He passes behind the man carrying in a cardboard box of 20 chicken nuggets and a tub of soda. Bellies and waifs, long necks and hoodies, scruff and Adams apples. One wears a cowboy hat, several slouch under baseball caps, one comes banging in through the glass door in a full-length black trench coat.

At first the chatter deafens as it ricochets off linoleum and drywall. Cards are shuffling and chairs are scraping and players peer over shoulders at plastic-sheathed pages in stacks of three-ring binders.

“You don’t want your Shambling to run into a Foul-Tongue.”

“I got a foil ruler. I hope someone finds a way for that card to be good.”

The one with tight curls and meaty limbs is in charge. He strides through the pack, surprisingly nimble for a man so large. His orders boom out and the chatter quiets. “Modern and Standard, you’re at tables 1-12. Your pairings are posted by the thermostat.” A stir, a rush. The rest jostle for space by the door. Backpacks droop from shoulders. Darting eyes, laughing eyes, eyes that focus entirely in the fan of cards in hand. Playing mats unfurl — rubber-backed masterpieces painted with purple volcanoes or lush forests or distant flashing battles.

“Draft, you are at tables 13 up to 25. You have 50 minutes to build a 40-card deck.” Groans, chuckles. They rip open the mylar sleeves, they peer in and assess options. The room is now murmur and hush.

My boy with his surfer hair is focused with an intensity I only see when he’s facing a screen. This child can barely sit still for homework without slumping into an Oscar-worthy posture of exhaustion. Now he is perched on the lip of his chair, silent and poised for action.

When something is hard, he whines and pouts. “It’s so boring.” Then he gives up. When a new skill is just beyond his reach, he says, “I don’t like it.” Then gives up. The suggestion of a new project — “Hey, let’s go to Michael’s and get that cool glass etching kit we saw at the party!” — leads him first to take measure of the gap between what he knows and the work required. The shortest span is a bridge too far.

He gives up.

Then we are here, and everything I thought I knew about my kid’s relationship with motivation turns inside-out.

An hour passes. Then another 30 minutes. And another.

Bug only just learned about Magic the Gathering from other 8-year-old boys at camp this summer. I bought him his first cards a few weeks ago. He plays a bit with kids at school, but they make up their own game. To do otherwise is daunting. The beginner rule book for simple play contains passages like this:
 

An enchantment represents a stable magical manifestation. This means two things: you can cast one only at the time you could cast a sorcery, and after you cast one, you’ll put it on the table in front of you, near your lands. . . Some enchantments are Auras. An Aura enters the battlefield attached to a permanent and affects that permanent while it’s on the battlefield. If the enchanted permanent leaves the battlefield, the Aura is put into its owner’s graveyard.

These “basic” rules cover 36 pages. The more comprehensive guide runs to 207.

I mill around in the shop next door to the gaming annex. So many people have turned out that they’ve set up yet another long table in the middle of the store. Through their turns, the players mutter and evaluate.

“Demon’s grasp, killed the first three preachers.”

“Amaria? You’re running something new in Modern? I didn’t realize.”

“I ran Squadron Hawk for a while.”

The volume begins to rise. People razz each other, knock back Mountain Dew, stomp in out of the rainy night.

“I have too many spells in my deck!”

“And I’m all like, ‘fuck that guy.'”

“Hey, language!”

“Yeah, language, dude.”

“Sorry. Hey I’m zombie-ing my way out the door.”

It’s nearing 11pm. We’ve been here since 7:20. I walk back into the annex with the firm intention of gathering Bug up and hustling him out. It’s hours past his bedtime, and tomorrow is going to be a battle. He is seated across from a guy that looks like half the engineering undergrads at my university. “I don’t know,” the young man says, spreading his hands wide with a smirk and a shrug. “What are you gonna play?”

“Oh yeah,” laughs Bug. “It’s my turn.”

Next to him, the pink-haired player — one of only three women out of the 70 attendees — glances over and grins at my boy. She is looking up a rule, tracing her chrome-tipped finger across the face of her phone.

Bug slaps a card face-up on the table. He and his opponent lean in to study it. The man rolls a many-sided die and it tumbles across the padded mat.

I take a seat nearby and start sketching in my journal.

Beyond the rudimentary components of the cards and their procedures, the game’s Multiverse involves a level of intricacy that would make Tolkein proud.
 

The Blind Eternities are a chaotic, logic-defying place of quasi-existence filled with raw potential called Æther. Only Planeswalkers can survive there, and only for a limited time. Mortal beings without the Planeswalker spark are soon destroyed by raw entropy and uncontained mana that suffuses the Blind Eternities.

It’s some heady stuff. The minimum recommended age is 13.

Yet here is my boy, just days before his 9th birthday, stepping over the border into this labyrinthine world. He peers out across that canyon between what he knows and the skills required.

He takes its measure.

He decides.

One knot, one board, one play at a time, he begins building his bridge. 

97. Things I Can Redraw: The Boundary Lines

resistance

I remember to look up. The reason I remember is because I have been so busy looking down.

Down, yes, but looking as in actually seeing.

Vision is an unexpected discovery, like a forgotten scent stirring in a place of dead things. Like yesterday when I caught myself singing as I ironed my purple shirt for work. I’m gonna let it shine. . . The silvery thread of music startled me to a shiver.

My song. Still here. My sight. Always, again.

I have been looking down and so noticed for the first time the thick ropes of roots pushing up the sidewalk. This is why I’ve stopped and let my gaze slide up the gnarled skin, up and up into the turning leaves.

“What?” Bug says. He almost plows into me. Then he too peers skyward. Cars rip past us on the clogged road. His is an all-wheel-drive school. Walking is forbidden because keeping the children a safe distance from these thin-lipped, texting, whiplash drivers trumps community concerns about obesity levels and global temperatures.

It’s rare these days that this stretched-to-splitting mama has the guts or gas to rebel. Oh, but it is a tasty little thrill when she does. Because sometimes we have to step right out in front of absurdity. Sometimes we even have to let it run us down. How else do we keep the winners from winning it all?

Once in a while when the train arrives two minutes early or the traffic parts like the biblical sea two blocks from my neighborhood, a gash opens in the choking press of late hurry go more go hurry late. It is a bright gust, it is mountaintop air.

It is opportunity.

I get to flout that stupidest of stupid policies.

I get to walk.

And here we are doing exactly that. Bug is wearing his backpack and his first sweatshirt of fall. I’m wearing my Wellies. Hurricane Joaquin in bearing down on us and we are taking the slow route home.

We gaze up together.

“Have you ever noticed how big this tree is?” I ask.

He considers it. “Big how?”

“Look at these roots. The whole sidewalk is a hill. It’s growing right under us.” We nudge our toes at the knobby knees pressing through concrete. “It probably goes all the way across the road.”

Bug lifts his gaze again to the towering branches far above. “It would be hard to climb.” We circle around it and take in the grade of the sloping grass. Then he peers across the grounds of the hulking telecom sales center that abuts our neighborhood. “That one.” He points to a drooping, naked thing with one arm. “That’s a good climbing tree.”

We cut across, striding right through the chain of “No Trespassing” signs. Bug tosses his backpack on the soaked ground and gives me a sly grin. “You first.”

I consider my twinged back, the slick bark, a throbbing current of sleep deprivation. Oh, the warm couch waiting. Then I shrug. “Okay.”

I shimmy and slide, hooking my knee over a knot and swinging myself up. Bug tries but his shoes keep slipping. He peels off his sweatshirt and ties it around the trunk. “If it’s dry, maybe I can get up.” This is an imperfect plan. After his third try, he leaves the jersey limp and tethered like an abandoned prisoner. He races off towards another stand of trees. “That one!” He cries and leaves me to collect our things.

Inside a sheltering arc of boughs he ranks them, 1-2-3, from easiest to hardest. I go first again, contorting my limbs to fit. I haul my mass onto a branch and perch there under a damp canopy. He gets partway up too before we both sort of spill off. I laugh and show him my hands. Mud has worked its way deep in. Laugh line, love line, all in bold. He holds up his grimy palm and I give him a high five.

Near our heads dangles a bulbous seed cluster we notice now for the first time. From tumorous, split husks gleam half a dozen cherry-red zombie eyes. They look like they might actually blink. We step back and decide to forgo a deeper investigation.

As we circle the parking lot for the shortcut home, I glance up again. “If the hurricane does come, we may lose all these leaves before they even change.”

Bug kicks at some that have fallen. He stops at the edge of a cracked tree whose branches on one side are entirely bare. The other side is draped in rust foliage.

“The rain is coming,” he says.

“How do you know?”

“Feel that,” he says. “There’s a gust.” He lifts his face. I do the same.

“It’s darker too,” I say. “Storm dark.” We both watch the steel sky churn.

“Whenever there’s a gust, it rains,” he tells me. “The rain is probably like 30 seconds to 5 minutes away.”

“We’d better get home quick.”

“Okay,” he says. “And we can make a fire and wait for the flood.”

Image from the Cheap Art collection of the Bread and Puppet theater in Glover, Vermont

96. Things I Can Witness: Sickness, Health

My mother was in a severe car crash yesterday. I say “crash” because of course it was an accident. Also, two drivers slammed their vehicles into each other. Damage and injury ensued. Crash it is.

I learned about this crash from a text. “I’m sorry I won’t be able to walk Noodle today. I’m at the ER waiting for a cat scan.” This is my mom. The request for help is ever-so-gently implied and braces itself for disappointment. Also, she cares always that others are okay. Concern for everyone else gets top billing even when she’s just wobbled out of an ambulance.

I called and texted to dead air. I was already en route (though it was anyone’s guess which hospital), having left a garbled message for my supervisor about missing our afternoon meeting. Then my mother called back.

“I’m mostly okay.

“Is Dad there with you?”

“He’s at a lunch meeting. He said he’ll come when they release me. I just got out of X-ray and now I’m waiting for the scan.”

“So you’re there alone?” I’m already turning off campus and heading north. I have to press because I know she’ll cover for him. It’s a ridiculous charade. Hell, Bug and I were their housemates for three years. She knows and I know that my father puts work first, so I ask again and she half apologizes for him even while pinching her lips at his absence.

“Oh, it’s fine. I was worried my teeth were broken, but it turns out I only had a mouthful of glass.”

We hang up and a few minutes later she pings me back to let me know my dad is out of the meeting and on his way. Sure enough, he arrives before I do, so I turn back and land at my office in time for my boss.

After a diagnosis of bruised ribs, a goose-egg, and random surface havoc, they send her home. When we talk later, Vicodin drags her speech out and she assures me she’s fine. “The shower stung a little.”

“What do you need?”

“Your dad’s here. I had a can of soup. Really. I’m fine.”

I’m sure she is, though I’m less than certain of his capacity to keep her so. She takes very good care of my father. Even around the edges of her own career, she always stocked the fridge and made the vacation plans and supported my sister and me well into our respective adulthoods. She tends to her chaotic extended family, schedules the carpet cleaning and window replacement, and feeds the cat. She keeps everything humming along.

My dad has his own ways of contributing, and I see this a little more clearly now that the fog of my adolescent daddy issues has (mostly) lifted. When my mother’s frustration with her husband’s obliviousness makes her want to explode — she was in Scotland for 2-1/2 weeks and returned to a fridge full of rotten food — she repeats her mantra: “He is a good provider.” Indeed, he is better than anyone I’ve ever known in this regard. He would have made his own daddy proud.

True to the gendered roles of his generation, my father takes care of all the outside chores and most of the structural/mechanical/HVAC aspects of the house. True to the equality rebellion of that generation, my parents work towards their financial and retirement goals together.

It is as surprising as it is obvious that my father would leave off work halfway through the day to care for my mom. In his way, he is her warm (if itchy) blanket. As she convalesces, she’ll have to give him a grocery list and remind him to take out the garbage, and he may forget to follow through on both. Even so, behind her voice on the phone, I hear his. He’s there next to her on the sofa, cracking jokes and laughing with her at Bill Maher.

For most of my life I have run in the opposite direction of my parents’ relationship. I’ve sought out intimacies that were so dissimilar, they may have been a different species altogether. Certainly my marriage was an odd imitation. It outgrew its costume in less than a decade.

The friction my parents generated in the first half of their marriage led to a separation and almost-divorce when I was in my teens. The concessions they both made to repair that rift seemed far too pricey. I have been determined to be more communicative, less gendered, more adaptable, less childish. Along the way, I’ve build expansive and byzantine and ornate and enchanted romances with people who were wildly unsuited to me.

But I have yet to build a home.

And this, I hear through the phone, is where my parents live.

My father is there for her. Sure, this comes after a pause to complete the work which occupies at least 75% of his attention. Nevertheless, he comes. And she asks now for only a smidge more than she ever hopes to receive. Sure, the longing for a more complete union is forever pressing from beneath, stretching taut the skin of her diplomacy. Nevertheless, she accepts what he has to give.

He stayed and worked from the house today. They took a break and he ferried her to the lot where the tow truck stashed her totaled Honda. After emptying the glove box and trunk, they headed back, stopping at the supermarket together to stock up. He will be with her when she starts test-driving new cars. She will be with him when they review their bank accounts to decide what they can afford. He’ll go back to work. She’ll return to her book clubs and volunteer ESL classes and (fingers crossed) walks with Noodle.

For as long as this chapter of their lives together lasts — and we all see with more sharpness today how instantly the book can close — they will be the ones who take care of each other.

Here I sit, quiet and a little stunned in the solitary place that contains the whole of me. It is night here. My son is at his father’s. The dog dozes by screen door. A retreating rain and the thrum of the interstate are the only voices that pass by. They dance at the windows then slip away.

It’s a marvel. Somehow, for all their mistakes and failings, my parents have fashioned a partnership, a love, a home. I pick up some of the discarded garments and turn them over in my hands. Split seams, yes. Stiff stays and rough hems and oversized buttons. Still, they could fit. If I arrange them to my form, if I piece them together with my own tattered wardrobe, I might find they suit me after all.

 

 

95. Things I Can Trust: A Room of Want and Plenty

Door Out

I was putting groceries away in the tiny kitchen when I opened a cabinet down below the silverware drawer. Empty. Large, deep, and completely bare. This was six months after I bought my home. For half a year, I had stood in front of this cabinet and chopped vegetables, rolled out pizza dough, stacked plates. I never noticed it.

For a condo dweller, this was gold. Free real estate had edged open new possibilities in my tightly packed world. My joy clanged through the house. I remember laughing as a whooshing sense of openness coursed through me. All that time I was fighting for room, this open place was right here!

I kept it empty for two days, peeking in the open door at that inviting space. Now, of course, sports bottles and travel mugs fill every crevice around the cupcake carrier stored down there. The 10-pound bag of rice I bought today is homeless, squatting on top of the loaf pans behind the cereal boxes. The hidden space in my kitchen has all revealed itself. New nooks only appear these days if I purge and rearrange them into being.

Tonight I stand at the counter inches from that packed cupboard and try to keep the knife steady. The handful of chopped spinach goes first on the plate. I flip the eggs, finish them with a quick brown skin, then nudge them onto the bed of greens. My lips are moving as I speak the steps. Garnish with the white cheddar. Rinse the grapes, take a napkin.

Stay alive one more night.

My wrists jitter. The counter is a mess. I carry the plate with two hands and leave the chamomile tea to steep.

I take a deep, uneven breath as I sit to eat. As I exhale, I quietly thank my younger self — Two year-ago me? Maybe pre-40-me? — for her generosity. It was thoughtful of her to stick with good habits at a time when skipping would have been inconsequential. She was already in a happy mood, hopeful and in love, yet that woman still walked every day. She renewed the gym membership, cuddled with the dog, downloaded the podcasts. She took the stairs.

Younger me went to the trouble of stocking fresh produce in the fridge week after week, even when it would have been easier to grab a Power Bar on the way to game night with friends. She stopped drinking alcohol on a whim, making the decision when she was lighthearted and clear-headed. She decided that being a teetotaler was both simpler and a helluva lot easier on the wallet.

I have to thank her, repeatedly and intentionally, to keep from hearing the foul invective spewing from the loudspeakers nailed to the walls of my mind. She and every other incarnation of me that has ever inhabited this skin is right now enduring a campaign of pure terror. I have slogged through two weeks physically shaking from the severity of this bout of depression. For the first time in my life, I understand the impulse to cut. What a relief it would be to concentrate the darkness, to focus it, control it.

The pain is everywhere. It is almost unbearable.

Except that I’m bearing it.

Because younger-me chose to stay alive. She chose, over and over again, to keep moving against her inner resistance. She decided to test the limits of her capacity instead of simply believing the rigidity of them. Along the way, she learned 100 new skills that she has put to work in her world. She chipped those boundaries away, smoothing the walls ever wider. She carved out for herself then — and thankfully, for me now — a studio (workshop? sanctuary?) that is as capacious as it is versatile.

That room is here.

Here somewhere. Under the counter or inside the next task. Within this ink, this dog’s willing flank, this 12th lat pull at the gym.

Maybe it waits inches from my knees, promising to steady them as they threaten to buckle under the weight of this vile albatross.

It’s somewhere close, and it’s been here all along.

It’s pointless to feel too urgently for it. Fingertips hungering for a secret recess in the stone wall of this dark maze will only rub themselves raw. Instead I mimic the sure steps younger-me practiced when she was stronger. I follow the songlines of habits she trod into our shared earth. I curl the free-weights in my shaking grip and count to 15. I walk the two mile loop. I slice the vegetables, drink the water, run the laundry, go to the office. Plaster on her smile. Look up and pretend I wear her eyes.

I turn away from the hissing indictments of my conduct and follow instead the sound of her simple affirmations. I pretend to be the woman she worked so diligently to become.

I may indeed lack the will right now to make room in myself for the needed restoration, yet it turns out I contain plenty.

I come to the end of another unbearable day.

It turns out I might be able to face one more.
 

94. Things I Can Whisper: Become, Surrender

I do my work. I do my best to make the small decisions well, and I try not to hunger for the great things, for the deeper explanations. For I am sentenced to keep watch over this small patch of earth, to judge its miseries and tell its stories. That’s who I am.

– From The Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich