To Fill The Air

cicada dreams

Walking the dog, it comes. Out of nowhere, or somewhere almost forgotten.

If my words did glow
With the gold of sunshine

A song.

Out loud. Into this ordinary day, I sing.

This is the first time in months my voice has opened like this. It is not the first song, no – there’s always the radio, always mugging for neighborhood kids.

But like this? Just the day, the dog, and me? I am new all over again.

Continue reading “To Fill The Air”

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Water, Light

garden woman

Deadheading flowers will encourage more blooms on flowering plants. The normal goal of a plant is to flower, set seeds and die. Since we want them to continue to set flowers. . . we want to discourage flowers from setting seed. Deadheading the flower as it expires will redirect the plants energy from setting seed to creating more blooms. Additionally, keeping your plants free of dying material will discourage disease and allow more parts of your plant to receive sunlight.


From Cedar Circle Farm organic farmstand and education center

Someday I will live where I can garden naked. For now I make do with stepping out onto the balcony at daybreak, damp from a shower and dressed in enough to mask my skin’s craving.

July’s rain is nothing to its glare.  A geranium in its pink pot drinks up half the jug without draining a drop. Everyone is thirsty.

A spider bobs on filament above a mess of thyme. Every time my clumsy elbows tear loose her spun walls, she rebuilds.  I take care to duck under her strands but she knows better than to trust me.  She skitters to the safety of the railing, her back an arrow of malachite flashing through a mica shield.

The thyme has tangled itself into the rosemary.  Both started from seed two years ago.  Now they are a wild fury.  Winter buried their leggy stems, spring drowned them in pools of choked mud, and now summer burns them raw. As determined as their spider neighbor, they go on.  New strands unfurl sometime in the night.  When sun steams open the sky, tiny leaves press towards light.  They grow even when the only sustenance is a stolen sip from morning’s turgid heat.   Even left forgotten in the corner, they climb out of their barren beds and peel open their seams to free a thin, bristling marrow.

The marigolds and petunias perched up in boxes have curled in and darkened. I deadhead the withered, closing my fingertips gently around each base and letting the dry tissue fall free. It is more of a coax than a tug.  Picking blackberries requires the same light touch.  The ripe ones slip loose.  Any that resist are left to darken their bite to sugar.

Ample rain and sun have kept these blossoms in a state of perpetual return. They begin even as they end.  The petunias are tricky this way.  Bud or compost?  At a glance, it’s hard to know which are closed for good and which are waiting to open.  The only way to tell is with a tiny stroke, just enough for the purple fullness to lay its pulse against the skin. The gesture is almost imperceptible.  Does it fold itself over and surrender to its end?  Or does it flex and hold inside its cocoon of flesh?   Touch has no influence on the dormant thing, only on me.  Its signal sounds through cell, through our common organelles, that it is bud and not corpse.  I let go and step back.  Somewhere deep in its furred sepal it clings to the threads of its root, churning sustenance into the shape of itself, murmuring, here, I am here, don’t rush me, I’ll know when it’s time to wake up.


Image: “Earth Goddess” from a 2013 exhibition at the Atlanta Botanical Gardens by Mosaïcultures Internationales de Montréal

Lost & Found

diamond in sand

Six years ago, I lost a diamond. It was a tiny bit from the whole, just one of many fragments — a single round stone from my father’s mother’s wedding ring, chips from my maternal grandmother’s jewels, and a white gold base that had been my own simple engagement ring. A craftsman put all these together and carved it with fine floral scrollwork.

At a December birthday party for Bug’s preschool friend, I glanced down and noticed the hole in this wedding ring. It was one of several small diamonds, easily replaced. Even so, the loss agitated me. In that tilting moment, I felt stripped, even a little ashamed.  The chattering conversation with other parents swirled around me and I couldn’t find my place in it anymore.

Looking around was futile. The dizzying bounce-castle playland reeled with dozens of shrieking children, a mini train, a video arcade, and a vast carpet littered with cake crumbs and rock salt shaken from winter boots.

I couldn’t bring myself to tell anyone. The hole felt like exposure, like it was baring some part of my story I wasn’t ready to face or share. I turned the band around to hide the cavity inside my fist.

When the ring came off six months later, it stayed off. By then, the holes in the marriage had multiplied beyond repair.

The ring lives now in my jewelry box. A little tarnished, it still bears the lovely tiny flowers. It still holds my Grandma Francis’ flawed stone. It still has the cavity where the lost chip used to be. For five years, I’ve been meaning to have the thing refashioned. With no unmarried cousins in line, why not turn the raw material into a necklace? A tiara? A bindi dot for nights on the town? This is what the brokenhearted do sometimes. They start their repairs from the outside in, turning burdensome symbols into pretty trinkets.

A wise idea, no doubt, yet here we are. Down in a dark tangle of discarded costume beads and widowed earrings, the ring is silent, holding what’s left of my grandmothers’ gems. It still contains that tiny reminder of something shaking loose, something escaping when I was looking the other way.

In grim or sentimental moments, I lift the ring from its shadowy velvet coffin. It is less fraught now, just metal, stone, and a little bit of history. The hole there no longer chills. In fact, I am oddly fond of that missing piece. That space is where the light shines through.

Back then, the story called for a way, and an opening appeared. This is how it goes with loss.

Now I claim the absence along with the substance.

I imagine the lost diamond out there, carried away in the tread of someone’s shoe, crushed into an icy Glens Falls sidewalk. It rises with the spring thaw and courses along rivulets, down, down, until it splashes into Lake George and sinks to the cold, jagged bottom. It returns to its beginnings. It becomes what it was all along: rock, debris, the stuff of earth churning back into itself.

Freed from the confines of its white gold setting, it expands, morphs, rearranges its atoms.

Eventually, in the full, unfurling expression of the shape it’s decided to take (for now), it returns.

When it does, I barely recognize it.

The messenger, the man, is already kin. I blink until I see in him the resemblance of the generous gift of my family’s love now multiplied. Their glinting progeny reaches for my wrist and draws me – the girl, the woman – into the next chapter. From their place in the wings, the ones who have passed from the story now urge us to carry on. Their part is over. They leave us here to do what we will with what they entrusted to us.

Last night, my grandmother’s diamond returned.

Changed, certainly.

And so much more lustrous than if it had never gone its own way.

 

 

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.

 

 

78. Things I Can Wear: This Garment of Ours

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.