Last Night, I Couldn’t Sleep

We are a little late getting to bed. Bug has just returned from a long New Year’s winter family camp weekend at the Frost Valley YMCA in the Catskills. His dad reported that Bug actually sang a Justin Bieber song at Karaoke in the dining hall in front of everyone. This, in addition to rocket-making and going down the tubing hill 13 or so times.
 
When my kid returns from these camp weekends, he has adopted funny new mannerisms. Tonight, he makes a little tchk with his cheek and cocks his head while he chatters at me. While he builds legos, he sings, “We are never, ever, ever, getting back together” under his breath. Also, his face is smeared with blue, his hands are purple, and he smells. Hygiene is not a top priority at camp.
 
After bath and jammies, we settle into his bed together. I finish the last book and set it on the floor. Bug is deep into his drawing of some complex set of ladders and pulleys again. I rub his back and start to sing. I don’t get one line into “Baby Beluga” before Bug stops me.
 
“Don’t sing, please.”
 
I stop rubbing. This is new. “Do you want a different one?”
 
“No.” He is coloring hard with dark blue marker. The work of our bath is quickly being reversed. “No songs. Just cuddles.”
 
I stoke his back again with a little more care. He colors in silence.
 
Is that it? Did it just happen? Did my little boy cross over? Someone once said that you will never know when read your child Goodnight Moon for the last time. We step blindly over milestones as if they are just cracks in the sidewalk.
 
I think back to our Christmas week together in Texas. On the first evening there, we sang from our caroling songbook. The second night, Bug asked me not to sing. I thought this was some combination of the laryngitis making me sound like a geriatric goose and the general overstimulation of our lodgings. The final three nights of our visit, he asked me not to sing. This was fine with me because even speaking had become a burden.
 
Are we finished with bedtime songs? Was it over the night before Christmas? Surely, it can’t happen like this. Boom, a kid enters a new stage and there is no looking back? Doesn’t he understand how momentous and heartbreaking this is?
 
“No songs at all?” I venture. “Not even ‘Big Rock Candy Mountain’?”
 
“No, thanks,” he says.
 
I watch him add an extra ladder. Adapt or die, as they say.
 
“What are you drawing?”
 
“Guess,” he says.
 
If I can’t sing, I can at least have a conversation with him. In the split second it takes him to enter adolescence, he may well become more irritated by my existence than indulgent of it. I suppose I better get with the program. I look at his drawing more closely. He inks a line from the ladder to a platform where a smiling person stands.
 
“A zipline?”
 
“Yep,” he says. “It’s a high ropes course.”
 
We talk about this for a few moments. He points out what is what. Our exchange is pretty spotty because he is still focused on his composition. The side of his hand and the wristband of his new digger-truck jammies are smeared gray-blue.
 
“Alright, Bud. I’m going to get everything ready for school tomorrow. Finish up the picture and lights out in just a minute, okay?”
 
“Mmm-hmm.” He starts on the higher element at the top of the page. The Flying Squirrel? The Postman’s Walk? He doesn’t give. I kiss his head and go downstairs to finish the dishes. I have almost finished loading the dishwasher when I hear the plaintive cry from the landing. “Mommy? Mo-o-o-mmy?”
 
“Yes, baby?”
 
“You forgot to put the cool water by my bed.”
 
I grin and come upstairs. “We are out of practice after a few days away, huh? I filled it up when you were brushing your teeth but we both forgot to take it to your room. Here.” I help him find the cup. He has not stayed in this house for eleven nights. I have to remember that these transitions take some adjustment. He gulps deeply and crawls back into bed, picking up an orange marker on the way. I stroke his head. “You need to finish up so you can get some sleep for tomorrow.”
 
“Okay.”
 
I lumber back downstairs to finish packing snack and putting away laundry.
 
“Mommy? Mo-o-o-mmy?”
 
I walk to the landing with a sigh. “Yes, buddy?”
 
“I need to go potty.”
 
“So, go potty.” He smiles big, wrapping his arm around my shoulder as I climb the stairs. “Let me guess. You took a nap in the car on the way home from camp today, didn’t you?”
 
He bounces into the bathroom. “What do you think I’m going to say?”
 
“I think you’re going to say, ‘yes’.”
 
He makes a silly face then nods. We goof with our faces going from stern to giggles. “Do you want to come in and see what I drew after I go potty?”
 
“Sure, baby. Then it’s bedtime.”
 
He digs out a pile of sketches that he has produced in the few minutes I was downstairs. This one shows an elaborate series of ladders and several emergency vehicles including two medi-vac helicopters. “It’s an underground hospital,” he tells me. “That’s blood. All full of blood. And that’s the thing with the wheels they take the people out of the helicopter on.”
 
“A stretcher?”
 
“Yep. And this is an ambulance. And here is the X-Ray machine.”
 
“Baby, it is so far past your bedtime, it’s not even funny.”
 
“Okay.”
 
I go downstairs to make copies of his paperwork to start the new before-school program.
 
“Mommy? Mo-o-o-mmy?”
 
I take a deep breath, round the foyer, and mount the stairs. “Bedtime,” I say quietly. “No more coloring.”
 
“But why aren’t you in bed?”
 
“Because I can’t finish my chores with someone calling me upstairs every seventeen seconds. Here. Hop into bed. We’re done.” I take away the clipboard and set it on the floor and put the sack of markers in the drawer. He pulls the blanket up.
 
Gently, gently, I make the offer. “How about a song to help you get to sleep?”
 
He nods and wiggles down under the blanket. “Okay. Will you lay down with me?”
 
“You bet.”
 
“And maybe do all three songs?”
 
“Sure thing, buddy.”
 
He smiles his dozy, droop-eyed smile and presses up against me. As the tune leaves my lips, I hear every word of every verse much more clearly than I have in years.
 
Tonight is probably not the last page of this chapter, but how could I know if it were? We just never know how close we are to the end. There is no way to flip ahead to see. I sing him the whole of each song well past his bedtime and deep into slumber. I add a free fourth tune for good measure just to make up for all the ones I will never hum into his drowsy neck again once he says goodbye to the lullaby for good.
 

Let’s not talk about fare-the-wells now
The night is a starry dome.

As long as this moment lasts, I sing my boy to sleep.
 

From Joni Mitchell’s “Carey” off the forever twilight album, Blue.

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Happy 100 Days: 1

The trail splits. It bends to the left, arches to the right, and also continues straight. Where next? Choices, choices.
 
A shrug. A grin.
 
How about all of them?
 
We have plenty of time. We find the road, grimace, double back. We pass a playground. The narrow path is bluestone gravel wet in places. We come out by a library. Then we swing around, make the right we previously ignored, and weave our way along the roughest trail of them all. It takes us into the woods. Three white-tail deer stroll through the tangle, browsing on the green remains poking up through the brown. They barely notice our presence and do not leap away when we pass. A single bird calls from a bare branch.
 
The wild place only lasts so long. Soon, we find ourselves spilling out into a trimmed back yard near a trampoline. We wander along wide streets past broad-shouldered houses up on hilltops. It is silent. One woman walks a dog wearing a muzzle. He looks very hard at us. There are no children. The window boxes are still twinkling with Christmas lights. Wreaths still adorn the oak front doors.
 
Once, I coveted. The hunger was intense enough that I sucked the marrow from the imagined misery of the inhabitants. Now, I am happy for the faceless and silent neighbors who have found their moment here. I wish them well. It is strange to enter the place where the Schadenfreude used to reside and to see its absence like a shaft of sunlight across a bare wooden floor. I do not need to live in one of those sprawling mansions. I live here, in this skin. I live in this walk. My home is this forever changing scene and these legs carrying me past houses that belong to others who are my community.  I inhabit the wide ribbon of road that winds down to a creek and sends me up and over the contours of this place.
 
It is all gone by. This I know, so it is not so hard to claim this blade of grass, this low branch, as my own. The people at one address or another will grow old. Like me, like you. They will have their moments of laughing so hard the tears come, the clock stops, the earth shudders to a halt along its trajectory around the sun. I wish them more such moments. I hope someone inside right now knows nothing but Yes and spares no thought for me.
 
Today, a haze blankets the sky. It keeps us warm while making us lose our way. A single airplane rubs its back along the low-slung atmosphere. Conversation sputters. We find two long breaths and the pause makes us nervous. We forget where to turn. It does not matter. We find a way back to where we started.
 
It is not the same place we left.
 
It never is. Never. No matter how close we get.
 

Happy 100 Days: 3

The cake sticks to the pan and breaks into pieces as it lands on the plate. This means a trifle is in order. Having never made one, I look online. Recipes abound. It is only four hours until the party starts, so I skip the recipes and wing it with what I can scrounge from the fridge.
 
I make chocolate sauce using light cream, vanilla, and cocoa powder before whipping the rest of the cream to a light froth. Chunks of cake line the bottom of a glass bowl. I dig around in the liquor cabinet, trying to choose from among the assortment of gilded, dusty bottles. Brandy? Grand Marnier? After a sniff of each, amaretto is an easy choice. I poke around in the kitchen for the proper tools. The turkey baster is the right size. The little sweet sponges of cake soak up the amber liqueur. A layer of chocolate sauce, a layer of whipped cream, another layer of cake. More amaretto. The scent makes my knees weak. The trifle heaps to the top of the bowl. Flecks of Ghirardelli chocolate dusts the top of the white cloud.
 
Into the fridge it goes.
 
The guests arrive with their bags and boxes. One man hollows out a giant bread boule and fills it with spinach dip. A woman has brought guacamole she made by hand, leaving the seed perched on top to keep it green. One guest shows up with three different bottles of vodka. Martinis are mixed in a chrome shaker. Ice rattles. Apple, raspberry, straight up and frosting the clear plastic cup. Chatter, a round of cards, hellos to the new member of the crowd. Stories pile on top of stories. Germany, Istanbul, Singapore. Holidays, movies, crazy exes.
 
A guest brings out a tart piled with eye-popping color. Glazed berries and kiwi glisten atop a golden crust. The trifle comes out of the fridge. Everyone oohs and aahs. The consensus is that a stuck cake is a blessing in disguise. We dig into the sweets. The cork pops on a red zinfandel then a pinot noir. We stand in a circle in the kitchen.
 
In the brief lull between laughter, the request a request to the group bubbles up: “Share an experience or accomplishment you aim to have in 2013.” The quiet deepens. People turn briefly inward to seek this truth. Strangers, acquaintances, friends. In this way, we introduce ourselves all over again.
 
To go on a week’s vacation to Italy. With a girl.

To finalize my divorce and move into my own apartment with my son.

A career change.

To let myself relax when I am relaxing.

To light a candle, put on music, and dance in the living room of my very first own home.

To box in my first real match.

To travel somewhere totally crazy for a stupid reason, like flying London for the weekend just to catch a concert.

To practice being content with what I already have.
 
We listen and nod, we hmmm in resonance. We decide we will keep tabs on each other and gather here again next December.
 
2013 will be a fine year. We hatch our big plans. When they break into pieces as they most assuredly will, we craft them into something new with whatever we have on hand. It is when we share that jumble of mess and redemption with friends that we notice how sweet it really is.
 

What Did You Learn Today?

I’m not afraid of storms, for I’m learning to sail my ship.
– Aeschylus

In college, my friend Gabriel and I used to ask each other this question: “What did you learn today?” It is hard to remember the exact parameters of this exchange. Did we ask each other every day? For a few weeks, or the better part of a year? It may have been a passing fancy or a practice to which we adhered with religious intensity for as long as the passion lasted. What I do recall is how much I loved the question.

“What did you learn today?” Imagine ending your day with someone you love asking you this and really listening to your answer. Imagine then offering up the same curiosity, sitting back, and hearing how the other’s mind has opened up, even if only by the slightest degree, that day.

Imagine walking through your world, knowing that someone is waiting to know what you have taken in.

Gabriel was the most precious companion during those wide-open years of our early twenties. The world around us was a fecund jungle, exploding with exotic curiosities. He was always willing to peek into the guts of things to see how they worked. With Gabe, I learned how to identify jewelweed and its more menacing cousin, stinging nettle, on springtime hikes in the Green Mountains. I learned how to knead bread, dry apples, facilitate a meeting, and appreciate Jorge Borges. I learned how to look at a stone by putting all five senses to the task. Most importantly, I learned that a bottomless appetite for questions is, paradoxically, the greatest way to sate a curious mind.

Gabe has drifted off into the fogs of time. He is, I hear through the thinning grapevine, a doctor in Boston. Internal medicine. I remember the explanation he gave years ago for why this type of practice appealed. “I love the puzzle,” he told me. He was jazzed by the chance to figure out what is going on with patients before the specialists get hold of them.

I was out and about this afternoon, and Gabriel’s question bubbled up from the depths. “What did you learn today?” Here are just a few things that captured my mind on January 1, 2012:

• When making tamales, you spread the uncooked cornmeal mixture on the corn husk first, followed by the raw meat mixture and sauce. All wrapped up together, the component parts cook at once inside the pressure cooker.

• A “luthier” is the fancy name for a guitar maker.

• It is only two turns off Monument Drive to get onto the Dulles Toll Road.

• Just because there are six cookies in the Tupperware, you do not have to eat six cookies.

• That thing I sang in church (Praise God from whom all blessings flow. . .) is called a “doxology.” This is a general name for a brief song of praise for the trinity, often sung at the end of a hymn.

• Some mallards, geese, and other waterfowl do not migrate south for the winter. These oddities, called “resident geese” or “resident ducks,” are becoming less of an aberration and more of a menace in some populated areas. Biologists are not exactly sure why the migration signal does not kick on in some waterfowl as it does in others, even others of the same species in the same region. The behavior of the resident birds is not nearly as fascinating as that of their migratory kin, if you think about. For as much as it is studied, migration is a poorly understood phenomenon in the biological world. How is it that these animals have their entire life story written around an annual journey of many thousands of miles?

Not bad for a day that did not see me crawling out of bed until 12:30 in the afternoon.

Most of us ask more questions and learn more things in a day than we can list. Whether we pass the hours bent over a computer or scaling a peak in Shenandoah, we are thinking and engaging. Often, we do not even know how to frame or name the occurrences into which we have inquired, as our minds are chewing on them without our conscious attention. What if we gave voice to our insights, what if we held them up to the light? We might be brink of unearthing something remarkable, even if that something is just the next question.

In the past few months, I have returned repeatedly to the theme of being on the cusp of a significant change. With the divorce final and the true magnitude of my single-mother-ness coming into focus, what faces is me is larger than a single lifestyle makeover. Several unsettling transformations are taking place simultaneously. As I try to capture, observe, make sense, and make choices, I barely catch one re-alignment in the landscape before another tremor shakes things up.

I am not sure exactly what my job is in all this (although there are more than enough people around here who are happy to advise). I wonder daily if I am missing something big. Hell, the whole of the marriage was built on shifting sand that appeared to be solid ground. How will I know if this next step – whatever it is – lands me in a sinkhole? Will I build my next home on a fault line? Is this job a mistake? This class, this financial choice, this school for Bug, this way I am spending my time tonight? Is it right or wrong? Is it safe? What the hell am I supposed to be doing?

Trusting the quaking ground to hold me, to shake me out into something whole, is terrifying. But let’s be honest. Pecos Bill did not lasso twisters just because he was a good guy. Grabbing the ropes and hanging on for the ride? That’s one massive thrill.

You know as well as I do that certain practices can keep you upright even as the bucking earth tries to throw you. New Year’s Resolutions are a catalog of these practices. Walk daily. Speak with kindness. Make art. Plant a garden.

Learn something.

Focusing the mind on the question is one way to stay open to the minor wonders of the world. If you are lucky, it might have the effect of keeping you excited about even the most nauseating changes, and give you pause when you face the temptation of the cave’s familiar comforts. It could even quiet that panicky chatter that besets the bewildered pilgrim at every fork in the road.

Finding a suitable travel companion does not happen overnight, if it happens at all. While you seek your Gabriel, make use of your own quiet witness. Ask the question. Listen for the answer. Carry the knowledge back to the journey while you let it carry you forward. Who knows? If you keep orienting yourself toward learning, you might find you have learned your way.