Plenty of Time

clock jacek yerkaI’m racing for the light. The flashing orange hand counts down. On the other side of the street waits the supermarket where I’ll load up on almond milk and broccoli before hurrying back across to pick up my son at school. Still twenty yards away, my legs groan in resistance. The backpack chafes my shoulders. I curse under my breath.

When did reaching the other side of the street rise to such prominence in the pantheon of meaning? What is it I hope will happen when I achieve this singular purpose? In all likelihood, the produce section will revert to its simple functionality. Cinderella’s pumpkin at the twelfth stroke. I’ll grab what I need and try to outrun the lady with the full cart who’s headed for the short checkout line. The purchases will turn into a hasty dinner and an even hastier breakfast. At the office tomorrow, I’ll hustle through tasks, trying to stay a step ahead of the next item on the list. Then I’ll dash out to catch the metro in time to catch the bus in time to make it to my son’s school in time to pick him up at after care in time to go home and have dinner and do it all over again.

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Right Side Up

playground

Face down. Flung across the bed. He cries and cries, body shuddering with sobs. Something has happened outside.

I heard about it first from an upstairs neighbor who called me after witnessing the melee from her balcony. Then two little girls, teary and clutching each other, filled me in on oh-so-many details of Bug punching one of them. The bigger kids arrived in a pack to corroborate.

My boy, the one who hits.

My boy, the object of this witch hunt. Hiding somewhere. Shunned.

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Border Guard

Stone Eye

Suddenly frightened by her hatred, she said to herself: the world is at some sort of border; if it is crossed, everything will turn to madness: people will walk the streets holding forget-me-nots or kill one another on sight. And it will take very little for the glass to overflow, perhaps just one drop: perhaps just one car too many, or one person, or one decibel. There is a certain quantitative border that must not be crossed, yet no one stands guard over it and perhaps no one even realizes that it exists.


 – Milan Kundera, Immortality

Here we must trust ourselves that the weight we feel is real.

Yes, it is only one milligram at a time. The increase is almost imperceptible. Those who want our resource will claim there is no change. They will suggest we are just anxious or imagining things.

When a true accounting gives evidence of the creeping escalation of our burden (and depletion of our stores), they will change course. They will try to convince us that we can handle the accumulation. They will flatter us that we are strong and our capacity is limitless.

Nevertheless, like any vessel, like any ecosystem, we do indeed have a threshold. If demands on our time and attention swell unchecked, the increase will become unbearable. We will have to pay the cost of the load, every pound of it.

So we must stand guard over that quantitative border and measure choice in terms of consequence. We must prepare ourselves for cunning maneuvers and seductive story lines. When we enumerate potential gains and losses, they’ll say that life is random, that we never know how events unfold. Things will change in ways we can’t predict or even imagine, hasn’t it always been so?

This argument is compelling. We’ll rethink history and wonder if perhaps complex forces beyond our control actually got us here. It will start to seem more true than our limited experience, more bearable than our uncomfortable insight. We might let that reasoning turn our focus away from what sits heavy on us.

The idea of unforeseen outcomes is a relief, really, and it will nudge us towards acting on whims and allowing brighter lights to guide us. We want to give ourselves permission to let things “just happen.” It would be unnecessary to identify the source of our unease. We’d be justified in skipping the difficult questions. We’d be free to dispense with complicated endeavors like seeking truth and living with integrity.

We could take a break from sowing discord. We could be agreeable and well-liked.

For these reasons, we are wise to be wary of any implication that our perception is misperception. We have to be suspicious of those who claim our attempts at setting limits are misguided and likely fruitless. We have to ask, How do they benefit when I ignore my instincts?

When I surrender to “fate,” who wins?

Only when we are able to articulate the choices in front of us can we make explicit trade-offs. This requires courage. It needs us to give voice to our intuition even as it is taking shape. With the careful inventory we’ve taken, we can decide what resource to tap and where to yield. We can consider how to fortify our depleted areas before we give over or take on.

But if we let the delusion of unlimited capacity carry us headlong into more, we will find that what we believe to be permanent is actually far from guaranteed. The repo man will come to collect something much more precious than we would have ever parted with by choice. It is up to us to claim the choice at the moment of the exchange or — better yet — well ahead of it.

We have the power to bargain with intention. We can be effective in planting and cultivating what we value most. This is true as long as we retain agency over our body, our time, and our determination of what’s worth saving in this beloved world.


Image credit: Horoshi Ito, I Know You

 

 

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.

89. Things I Can Seal: The Deal

Mechanic

The car I drive is the first I bought and the third I’ve owned. In 2011 when it seemed to breathe its last, I chose to keep it on the road. Here is that story. It is pushing 16 years now and finally failed its emissions test, revealing fatal injuries deep in the machine.

The registration expires at the end of the month. As the clock ticks down, the stress ticks up.

Maybe decisions like this are simpler for others. Or less fraught. Or — though it defies imagination — more fun? Here at Chez Smirk, the car quest has unearthed a staggering load of emotional chaos.

It’s just a car! Chill out, girl.

Except this:

  • A skinflint’s car outlives addresses, job titles, and even marriages. I am heir to a great family legacy of beater love. What I buy now needs to fit the next 10 years at least (insha’Allah).
  • The earth is dying. In this small corner of it, I do what I can to consider and conserve resources. The choice of which vehicle is as critical as how the vehicle is used. If a car is indeed necessary, then small is good, hybrid better, and plug-in best.
  • Plug-ins only work if you live somewhere besides a condo complex.
  • Hybrids are expensive unless they are several years old, and everyone selling a several-years-old hybrid has already put 180,000 miles on it. The new ones are getting cheaper but economies of scale have yet to reward my patience.
  • I am a single mom living on an almost-enough university administrator income in one of the higher priced areas of the country.
  • Interest steals from my son’s college fund so I only pay cash.
  • A little bigger for traveling and growing, or a little smaller for fuel efficiency and economy?
  • Type in “Honda” on Craigslist and you’ll get 300 cars from today alone within 20 miles of my address.
  • What the hell does a person look for in a used car?

All of this (and more) all at once (and repeatedly) every time I turn my attention towards this inevitable purchase. I also mortifies me to notice the ripples of self pity lapping at my ankles. The whole experience is quite lonely, and I still (ugh) ache for someone to rescue me.

Meanwhile, help is all around. But a girl’s got to know what to ask for and then work up the courage to ask. It’s easier to resort to excuses, which most often manifest as a state of overwhelmed agitation: Craigslist harbors just as many crooks as a used car lot, and my mechanic and my bank are open almost exclusively during the hours I need to be at work, and work is a deafening, mewling menagerie of stresses right now, and and and.

I try the logical self-talk I would give any girlfriend attempting this task, because from the outside, what could be simpler? “It’s just buying a car, people do it all the time.” Yet this approach makes me feel even more incompetent and out of my depth.

It’s easier to stick with what I know I can handle. Thumb through seller ads and haphazardly send brief emails of inquiry. After the occasional test drive and glance at a labyrinthine engine, say, “Let’s figure out a time I can take this in to get looked at.” Then add another line to the maybe-but-unlikely-to-do list, and eventually delete the seller’s info.

This is avoidance at its best. The illusion of progress accompanies my march across the calendar while I sing myself strangely comforting lullabies of defeat. I don’t know I can’t This is too much I’ll screw up What am I doing I can’t I can’t.

Doubt is an addiction with its own cunning hooks. It keeps me fixed and frightened and small and safe.

Except this:

I can’t is off the table.

This experience is baffling and difficult, sure. Learning most anything important is. But there really is only one choice.

I can.

I can study YouTube videos on how to inspect a used car. I can ask my parents for a no-interest loan. I can compare prices and skim reviews. I can assess the gleaming backsides in parking lots and traffic jams, and I can begin to build a private transport taxonomy. I can pepper my mechanic with questions, and carry an oil rag in my purse, and duck out for an hour in the middle of the day to go test drive a car.

I can inch my way to confidence with small — almost immeasurably tiny — steps.

And then it’s today and here, and another equivocal Craigslist inquiry leads to another sort-of plan for a test drive.

On a Saturday afternoon with banks and mechanics all closing in two hours? With my dad en route to Tucson, my mom in Scotland, my Mister incommunicado, and my boy in the back seat?

This is absurd. I can’t do this.

So I do it.

We shoot across town to check out a Corolla with only 49K miles on it. As if I’m outside my own skin, I watch myself stride up the walk. I marvel at the command this gritty mama takes. It’s like the time she removed the chutney jar from the ineffectual hands of the man at the party and twisted it open on the first turn.

The two middle-aged guys selling the car stand and shuffle at the curb, trying to catch up to her questions. She pops the hood, checks the threads on the oil cap then the treads on the tires. She runs her fingers along the seals in the trunk. She starts it cold and listen for pings, blasts the AC, make two hard turns and slams on the brakes.

All these weeks of dawdling and ooching along, she’s been picking up skills.

And now I step back inside that skin and press the gas.

I talk the guy and his brother into going with Bug and me — yes today, now — to the mechanic. I spin the mechanic’s emphatic “no time” into “we can squeeze it in.” Bug and I hop back in my car. With our bellies rumbling and gas light blinking, we slog through jammed Beltway traffic to my online bank’s sole financial center, arriving minutes before its 3pm closing. In the lobby, I get the skinny from the mechanic by phone (“This car is actually in great shape”). While the bank rep makes cocoa for Bug, I call up the seller and talk him down a few hundred bucks.

At 3:05pm, my phone pings. The VIN comes through. They lock the bank doors. I sign for the cashier’s check.

On Monday morning I’ll be at the DMV trading it for a title and a new set of keys.

It staggers me to know this single mama is managing this all on her own.

It steadies me to notice the many hands lifting me towards this version of myself.
 

 
Image: A Nine Pound Hammer

 

Choose your Own

I pull him on top of me, say let go,
I want all of you.

Fully clothed but so very naked,
he asks
Is steadily increasing
closeness required?
and I admit
(though not out loud)
that the way my ribs fall open
suggests, yes, I want him to enter
into me as tumblers
slip wide the hushed sliding
doors to a museum
where the glass wolf
eye and thinning lapwing feather
improvise a nest
in the last strip of silk from the wrist
of a deposed Saxon queen. This place
a low glimmer of a room
(it has only been rumored to exist)
and he is the unwitting key
as well as the single honored guest
passing us through virgin
corridors lined with relics
bearing no descriptions yet, one masterpiece
after another unfurling before our eyes,
no nameplate bolted into frame
and, come to that,
no frame.

He asks Can we have our vaults?
(his reliquary, a Parthenon of marvels
I circle in keen deference)
and I bite back the question
of whether he means spring
or safe (can we give and retain
with the same gesture?)
I say of course

and in this breath, speak a whole truth
with half a heart
threading its edge to one
who has the power of to draw
tunnels through concrete
and tilt the whole endeavor just enough
to spill us down to first strokes
of infant fingers through paint
whose color has neither been seen
nor imagined before
our eyes fall upon it. On me

he presses
open a fissure
between history and tomorrow
by defying logic
and lifting hands both
away from and into
gravity.
 

Tack in Place

He asked, “What’s your style?”

Style. . . ?

“Decorating. Design. What do you like?”

“Um.” Catalog pages, gallery spaces, antique shops. It all fluttered and slipped around in my uncertain brain. Is Pottery Barn a style? If it is, it’s not mine. Bauhuas? Gothic? I don’t even have vocabulary for these things.

“Well, I have these friends. . .”

These friends. An couple of artist-writer-dancers, old as the hills. They live in a shambling D.C. house crammed with faded velvet chairs, books to the ceilings, creeping plants and instruments enough for a chamber orchestra. On the windowsills, dusty bottles jostle for light with the wire and stone treasures from Egypt and India. The thrum and jumble cascade out to the stone limits of the property. The back yard is a fairy garden. Tea lights and whirligigs, mismatched wrought iron chairs and labyrinthine shrubbery housing whole communities of pixies.

I tried to explain to him that this is what I envision for a home. I can’t quite wrap my mind around it, though, let alone my words. It seems so cluttered and non-functional, and anyway, how does a person decorate “bohemian”? You can’t find it on Amazon.com. It takes living along a certain edge, seeking-making-stumbling upon bits and bobs among the X-marked meanderings into the neverlands where treasure like that begins.

Who has time? Space? This is a condo, for Pete’s sake. Between the spider plants and the Japanese fishing buoys, where would a gal store her financial records? And let’s face it. There will be no trips to Morocco for a samovar and silk curtains anytime soon.

My style? Dorm-room cast-off on a Goodwill budget.

Five weeks in the place and clueless as to how to proceed, I attend to the basics. The scarred molding is out. With the help of a borrowed miter saw and a day off work, I’ve just about finished hammering in the new strips. Hooks are hung near every door. Kitchen is sorted. Bookcases and desk are all up in Bug’s room. Bathroom shelves hold the guest towels.

Progress is measurable but the yardstick is chilly to the touch. Form exists for function alone. It’s as if this home and I are on an extended first date. The interaction is all halted conversation and nervous tics.

Moving through the house like it’s a museum rather than canvas, I place each item an inch from the wall. I anchor nothing. The single photograph displayed — a shot of the Colorado sand dunes taken by a friend and hand-framed in rough wood — sits balanced on the mantle in a sort of half-squat. The bedroom walls beg for splash but every color seems wrong. The thought of choosing curtains paralyzes me so the hideous black ones left by the previous owner still scar my bedroom. Everywhere I look, bare space blinks back at me.

So? What’s your style?

Today, Bug and I made the trek over to Maryland to visit an old friend who has just landed here. Divorce and custody battles forced him into an 11th hour move over 500 miles to a place where he had no connections, no work, no place to live. All of this so he could be near his kids. He found the only decent apartment he could afford in their school district, signed the lease and unloaded his U-Haul. He’s been here a week.

I stepped into his place and fell open.

It was home.

Floor-to-ceiling kids’ paintings. Lush and spindly greenery spilling from every corner. Books and jumbled art and gorgeously scarred furniture. Wood and toys and color. Mason jars for water glasses. Everywhere, texture.

What’s your style?

Everywhere, life.

The boys played at perfect pitch. In between refereeing lego skirmishes, my friend and I talked easily. I nestled into overstuffed couch and felt rocked from all sides as if by the sea. Orientation, at last. Breath cracked open the closed place in my chest and light caught a corner of the treasure down in there.

When my kiddo and I landed back at home, I plopped him in the tub and started poking around. All of our art supplies and Bug’s drawings are still back at my folks’ house, but we had to have something. Where to begin? I pulled a wobbly shelf back into the living room. Playing around with angles, I gave it a home and unpacked books of poetry. I raised lights. I tucked away cable cords. After stories and songs, Bug conked out and I found my second wind. Perhaps my first? An old calendar of bright family photographs was crammed into the bottom of a drawer. I dug it out and started cutting.

I have no frames or picture hooks. I have no gallery pieces. But I have scissors. Colored paper. Thumb tacks. Inspiration.

I have a style. It’s pushing back out from its deep, sunless sleep. Taking my hands. Tacking the boat. Placing the brand. Claiming the place.