Plant Anyway

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He  drops his backpack by the door and heads out. Whether the temperature hovers at freezing or rises to a swelter, he and his friends find each other. Sometimes I block the way and steer him back to his violin for a round of scales. The neighborhood kids bang on the door every three minutes, “Is he done yet?” They loop around the breezeway on bikes and scooters. A few come up barely past my knee. A few are already shaving. When he’s free, they all charge off down the hill, hollering ever-changing rules to an ever-evolving game that winds through this labyrinth of stairwells and parking lots.

I shut the door and head to the kitchen to rinse out the lunch containers.

Divorced at 37 and still single at 43, parenting a surly tween, stuck in the suburbs, jammed into a 5-story development abutting a freeway, and working a desk job for a paycheck that barely covers groceries while a white supremacist and a Russian oligarch run the White House.

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Back To Each Other

BlessedNest

Think of your child as a plant who is programmed by nature to grow and blossom. If you see the plant has brown leaves, you consider if maybe it needs more light, more water, more fertilizer. You don’t criticize it and yell at it to straighten up and grow right.

Kids form their view of themselves and the world every day. They need your encouragement to see themselves as good people who are capable of good things. And they need to know you’re on their side. If most of what comes out of your mouth is correction or criticism, they won’t feel good about themselves, and they won’t feel like you’re their ally. You lose your only leverage with them, and they lose something every kid needs: to know they have an adult who thinks the world of them.


– From “Building a Great Relationship with your Child” in Aha! Parenting

On our spring break trip to California, my son rounded up other kids at the hotel pool and played for 4 hours without pause.  At the San Diego Botanical Gardens, he climbed up into tangled two-story treehouse and built a shelter out of balsa wood.  On one bright morning, he hiked with his grandma and me through the hills at Torrey Pines as Pacific tides lapped at the cliffs.

He also fought, screamed, raged, cried, hit, kicked, and hurled insults.  Every single day at every point of conflict, his body went rigid with defiance.  He said hateful things.  He brought his grandmother and cousin to tears.  Me, to worse.

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Growing Pain

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He cries almost every night. The homework is too much or I bark too loud the fifth time I ask him to wash his hands for dinner. Something tips him over the cliff and he flings himself face-down onto the easy chair in the living room. His sobs surge through his whole body. If I try to comfort him, he storms into his room and slams the door. I’ll find him there later, sprawled across the bed lost in a graphic novel. He refuses to turn, only growling, “I didn’t tell you it was okay to come in.”

For several weeks we’ve been tripping over his mysteriously exposed hair-trigger. A freshly minted nine-year-old, he’s exhibiting all the signs of a boy on the brink of thirteen. I dig through the cabinets of my memory for details, vaguely recalling Josh & Chuck’s tour through the wonderland of male puberty. Back in May, the information was intriguing yet premature. I won’t need this for years. 

But now my mind lays its hands on one discarded detail: A boy exhibits the external signs of puberty — hair, voice, skin — several miles into journey. The early biological changes begin right around. . .

Yep. Now.

Are hormones to blame for what’s going on here? It seems too sudden. In just a few weeks, this boy has gone from engaged in homework and flowing through dinner and bedtime Hobbit to dissolving into weepy confusion at the smallest obstacle. Then he pops back up, rocketing skyward and racing around the house on his skateboard, dragging the dog onto his shoulders in a fireman’s carry and hurtling himself across the beds. It’s mania and despair whizzing at full tilt, cornering so hard they leap the track.

You could make the argument that Bug is picking up on his mama’s inner turmoil. When it comes that critical survival skill of wearing masks, I am still an amateur. With my frayed filter and inside-out emotions, it’s altogether possible that my boy is caught in the wake of my recent breakup. Truth is, the end of this relationship is much much tougher than I imagined it would be.

Five years ago, divorce was hell. But it didn’t prepare me for this. Because divorce is also lawyers and parenting agreements and custody and schedules. The agony is of a prolonged sort. It is also shared and a little bit public. This is especially true when children are involved. A larger circle holds the pain and burden because it’s a whole family coming undone, a whole community reconfiguring itself.

This one? It’s all mine.

At a week shy of 42, the drama of ending a relationship slips pretty low on the list of pressing social concerns. Among colleagues and friends, other  struggles lead conversations. We have pregnancies and layoffs, budget cuts and school board elections, ailing relatives and children with troubling diagnoses and unexpected debts and international political crises. “Breakup” is one of those things that flits across the surface of a conversation, much like when a pet dies. A friend may offer a hug or a momentary ear, but no one really holds the loss alongside the one bearing it.

My mister and I were together for over 2-1/2 years, and knew each other for close to three. That’s nearly a third of my son’s life, and it’s the whole of the time — and more — that Bug and I have owned our home and built around ourselves this community. I’m struggling with the absence of a man I felt was my partner in all of this, as well as with the erasure of his unique journey from my days. Certainly the decision was the right one. Even so, grief is enervating. Transition takes far more creativity and determination than I have some days. Also, I just miss him.

Of course my son will be feeling some of this with me.

Bug has no journal, no blog, and only so many names for what he feels. So while I also want to fling myself onto a piece of furniture and cry, I must choose instead to stay steady and attentive to him while he rides the current. I try to be his solid place to touch down, which yields the unexpected bonus of a place to set my own feet.

Until the moment we are standing together in the bathroom as he brushes his teeth. I look at my shirtless boy with his golden mop of hair and hard eyes, and I think woah.

“What?” He mumbles through the toothpaste. “Why are you making that face?”

“Here, come here,” I say. He steps closer to me and we gaze together into the mirror. “You’re past my shoulder. Do you see that? You’re almost to my chin.” I touch his head. “When did that happen?”

He shrugs. “Let’s measure me.”

We go to his bedroom doorway and he presses his heels against the jamb. We make the mark and marvel at it together.

“You’ve grown an inch since your birthday,” I say.

“Almost an inch,” he corrects.

“Since your birthday,” I say, studying this sprouting giant. “Which was six weeks ago. Baby, that is really something!”

He shrugs again but I can see the hint of a grin. He goes to the bathroom to rinse, then comes back with the measuring tape. We measure up from the floor. The lowest line marks the first birthday we celebrated in this house two years ago. Since then he has grown six inches.

Six inches.

In two years.

And here I am, spinning a narrative in which his emotional surges are all about me.

It’s no wonder this boy is hurting. He’s growing like I’ve topped his pizza with pepperoni made by Monsanto.

And if I’ve learned anything in my almost 42 years, it’s that growing hurts.

Even when it’s exactly the right thing.

 

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.

 

 

63. Things I Can Recite: Alas, Poor Yorick

denmark-girl-at-kronborg-castle-garrisonsIt’s July 9th and raining again. My former father-in-law sends me photos of my son at the beach on an island in Lake Michigan. Bug is scrabbling on the shore near his two cousins. They are all turned away from each other, each bent over a single small universe of sand. The girls are 12 and 10 now. I held them when they were babies. They were my nieces before. Now they are just someone else’s children.

Sorrow again.

Or rather, sorrow as always.

In Pacific Heights, the 1990 thriller that put even the most liberal of us squarely on the side of monied landlords, a happy couple invites the dude to move in. He does, and proceeds to lay waste to an entire world one light fixture at a time.

This sorrow here with me? He is my tenant from hell. It is hard to believe he once so completely charmed me, but he must have.

Back when the pages of my 8th-grade diary needed an indigo flourish, he came oozing up from the spiral binding and began scoring my lines with crenelations. He had callouses and clean fingernails, serving up a Darcy-Heathcliff cocktail with a twist of Bond. It took a few years and a semester of college English Lit to peel back the pinstripes. He was the Danish prince all along and stopped bothering to claim otherwise. Now he’s as indelible as he is unmistakable, moping around the crumbling grounds in a state of masturbatory melancholy that borders on solipsism.

It’s too late to eject him.

I’m too mortgaged to try.

What came before? I see a picture of myself at 10 or 12 on a beach in New Jersey. The snapshot catches me mid-leap in the surf, a dragonfly in amber. Water arcs from the bucket in my hand and my friend shrieks. Her note twinges the air, humming across years like wings. We are neon streaks, brown limbs, airborne, foam.

I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.

The faithful prince catches me again and twines my feet in those calligraphic lines. He promises me Elsinore and all her ghosts, as if such an offer holds any appeal. I climb the stone steps still trailing silver thread, making my way to the keep. A trap door opens in the floor and I follow the stairs as they spiral down and away. Back to apotheca. To kitchen. To dungeon. I trace the walls again, again, walls unbroken by portculis or bridge.

I remember windows when he lets me.

Sorrow. My voice. My lodger.

My common-law spouse.

The shape of the skull on my shoulders, the heft of it in my hand.

 

Photo credit: Sisse Brimberg & Cotton Coulson, Keenpress for National Geographic

Link

Magic Rings

We belong to the conjurer. Separate and seamless, you in his left hand and me in his right. A twist, a clang, we slam into one. Solid chain, linked, as if made this way. As if always.

It’s jarring when they slip apart again. So smooth they go, and this time, without a sound.

We no longer speak in the dark. Promise has lost its voice. Nevertheless, we lean in as if we still believe. Look here, he says. He gives them a twirl around his wrist. We watch, knowing better. The price of admission includes a pass for enchantment.

Do we want them linked or free? Reasonable people would just get on with it. Decide and be done. If the man unbuttons his cape and hits the house lights, we’d know exactly what we’re working with.

Maybe impotence is a form of power. For a night, a year, for the backlit wish of a lifetime, magic is indulgence. Against better judgment, we hope he’ll never let us see under the hood.

When faith is in peril, keep the theater dim. Whisper the charm. Follow the gesture of the offered hand and pay no mind to his fingers. He may or may not wear a wedding band. Of all people, he knows how tenuous the link. He knows there are always invisible seams.

He’s mastered levitation and the suspension of doubt.

What happens to the discarded ring? Somehow, the story lingers. We refuse the god but ask the pastor to invoke him regardless. He is there still, or maybe it’s just an imprint of an aged spell. Hammered metal, more than an orderly arrangement of molecules in a chunk of deep earth. It is a thicket of notions, a fasting band, a crown of thorns.

You slept for a hundred years, after all, as did I.

Metal, dust, molecule, atom. Inside everything is the smaller fragment. What holds an object steady is just a set of conditions. What holds the intersection in alignment is just the proximity of sets. The stitching is evident if you look closely enough.

Incantation is both source and sustenance: the words, the whisper, the angle of light, and where you choose to place your hands.

We are not fixed by circumference. Every line we draw contains the space between component parts. Anything can escape.

Anything can stay.

If you Stop to Put Out the Fire, Turn to Page 8

My eye keeps tripping over the red square on the Google calendar. It says “Class Assignment Surveys Due” but I can’t recall if it’s for work or Bug or something else entirely. While I’m trying for the fourth time to re-arrange the month of June, my weary brain gives me a nudge. Remember? Yes. The survey is an annual collection of parental insight into our kids’ quirks and métiers. These descriptions supposedly help the school determine class assignments for the coming year. Our perspective is mere garnish on the overfull plate that our precious darlings serve up to teachers and playground monitors every day, but it must add some texture to the mélange.

I get on the horn to call Tee. “Surveys are due next Friday,” I say. “I think we have to pick them up at the office.” He doesn’t recall the email so we bounce around about the details before finding the PDF online. I ask Tee if we could each jot down some ideas and then combine them to submit to the school. He hedges before asking, “Why can’t we each just fill one out? I’m sure they won’t mind getting one from each of us.”

We have come to this juncture so many times, the page is coming loose from the binding. If you disengage, turn to page 47. If you try to collaborate, turn to page 82.

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