The first time I saw this picture (oh be quiet, you know you have a picture of gelatin desserts that you look at once a week too) I thought our little guy in the front was looking pretty jaunty. He was off to have a day of some sort. Probably a sweet day. He was no longer a mashed mess of bear limbs in a bag. I couldn’t quite see his expression (perhaps because his face just sort of fades away into a blob) but I imagined him smiling.
Today? Today he looks like he has turned away from the group. It is likely they are talking behind his back but because he is RIGHT THERE he can still hear them through his chewy ears. His blob face looks sort of alarmed. Just moments ago the four bears were together in a circle (Or maybe a square if their flat back were aligned correctly.) Now he is alone. And he doesn’t know if he will ever get welcomed back in to the fold. He might as well be eaten. Welcome to my gummy bear mood test. I have found it is a pretty apt determiner of your mad, I mean mood.
When you look at the photo do you think…
The Gummy Bear candy is the pinnacle of edible gelatin applications. Can you imagine if in addition to their good cheer, adorable appearance and delicious taste they could actually give us the vitamins we need each day? They do? Humanity is amazing!
Those other damn bears won’t share their square. Typical.
I want to bite the head off of that bear…. deadly red die just speeds up what is happening to all of us anyways.
After listening to this audio clip do you think:
Birdsong reminds me of spring and rebirth. I think of possibilities and the incredible cycle of renewal that can come for each of us, and for earth as a whole.
Do you hear that bird? I think it lost its mother. I think it might be starving. Doesn’t it sound hungry?
Those birds wake me every morning.
Now watch this video do you think:
No one can keep true love apart. There is a bond between families that we are born into and those that we choose that remains strong through all of life’s trials.
The mom seems to be looking for another dog. I think one of the puppies is dead and she knows it.
I hate puppies.
I cycle through all three. Glad, sad, mad and then glad again. I am like a beginning kids reading book with more swearing.
What about you, are you more like to respond with anger, joy or sorrow? Have you seen the cartoon that starts out as a brilliant and nuanced illustration of these emotions and ends up a formulaic mess? Wait…you might have another interpretation of Inside Out. Or maybe my zig zagging between the _ads just leaves you confused. When I started putting this together I was a 2. Now I am pretty sure I am a 3. In any case it is good that I am working from home today.
For weeks I have been woken by a woodpecker. Sadly, not my husband’s. It sounds like construction inside my head, its knocking not quite rhythmic making it hard to sort out neatly into dreams. The sound echoes off of the strange slants of my bedroom ceiling entering my consciousness the way the bird enters the ailing tree.
Awake earlier than we want my husband holds my hand and gives it a light squeeze. I feel a rush of pain and remember the injury I sustained rolling around on the floor at a dinner party. It was a post season celebration of Destination Imagination, and the parents had got to act out our engineering challenge of building a paper tower. If it sounds confusing it was. After failing to build a tower we then needed to play the roles of paper and paper clips in real life. As a method actor in childhood I understood the mindset of my crumbled paper and threw myself into the part. Body folding in ways it shouldn’t I tossed myself aside flinging out my arms in utter desolation. Doing so I whacked the top of my hand on a coffee table and sustained some sort of odd acting injury. If you think I was the weirdest adult in the room I have video evidence that this is not true. I don’t quite know how a post it tower can be phallic, but acted out by 40 somethings in some way it could be. Who knew that the reverberations of two years of our children working and playing together would result in one of the worst videos ever. Or that a handful of months later I would still be nursing my hand.
This weekend I spent two days in Boston at my mother’s retirement dinner and symposium. Amongst academic talks deans and students and professors came together to express their appreciation for the way she shaped their careers and their lives. From my pre teen years I have teased my mother, picked at her quirks. At its best my ribbing was affection, its worst destruction. She is still often a punch line and material for my writing, as well as my therapy. This was a wonderful weekend as a string of toasts that revealed to me the richness of her work, and patience and dedication she was able to show her field, her colleagues and herself. At the end of the day she told the story of arriving at Radcliffe at 17 and how she grew up at Harvard.
I grew up here – and as it turns out have grown (almost) old here. I can trace the stages of my life in paths and buildings. I knew from the moment I heard my first Stanley Hoffmann lecture in “War” in Emerson that I wanted to do this. I was an undergrad in Social Studies at a moment when every seminar turned into an anti-Vietnam teach-in. Each moment of my life has its physical spot. Studying for exams in a bathing suit on the roof of Barnard Hall; my dissertation defense in the basement of the faculty club, my first love affair in Winthrop House, the yard where I pushed Anna’s stroller, classrooms where I struggled to deliver my first lectures, and then after laptops, invented ways to keep students’ attention. In this list of memories tied to Harvard there is the exhibition of my husband’s collection of Chinese Scholar’s Rocks at the Sackler shortly before his death.
I can say these grounds and faces were for me what the associations of home town are for others. I’m not alone in this. It’s bizarre, I know, but I’ll quote Hegel on the Greeks: “Their grand object was their country in its living and real aspect; — this actual Athens… these Temples, these Altars, this form of social life…these manners and customs.” This geography, its concrete particulars, is identity.
Her life will go on and so will Harvard. Yet they will forever feel the echoes of each other.
Killing time at the airport for my flight home Prince’s “I would die 4 u” played at 9 am. The soundtrack of my coming of age was made up of Price and David Bowie. This has been a tough year for magical musical men. My birthday present from my first serious boyfriend was the Sound and Vision Box set, complete with a laserdisc a decade before I owned a DVD player. I would open the box to stroke the disc, looking at its unmarred circle imagining us married and playing it together when the technology finally caught up to Bowie’s vision. None of that came to be. But the narrative arc of Ziggy Stardust brought music closer to my main medium of storytelling. I superimposed my own risks and adventures with the man who stole the moon. In the airport I am literally moved by Prince’s song. I am bouncing, in some ways more and other ways less than I did my freshman year in college. It was the song I blared to wake me from the stupor of inorganic chemistry. There was no way to zone out when I was getting pumped up. My mind is blown that there will be no new music from these men. But it is full of the echoes of the sound (and vision) of what they have created and I have lived.
There it is again. The woodpecker is only searching for breakfast, but it is changing my outlook. More than that it is eating away at the tree, making it less stable with each passing morning. The marks it makes will never leave.
Through insult and injury, sound and vision, working and retiring, acting and living, nothing is ever completely over. It all echoes.
There is a fair chance that not a single one of you will weave through the trip I have below. It is my trip. But it is also my blog. There are times when I think I am writing about something personal and it seems to resonate with you…so I invite you to join me in the journey I took between 4pm and 2am yesterday/today.
At 4pm I watched Tim Urban’s TED talk. For those of you who don’t know or read the blog Wait But Why I offer you the gift insight, humor, and research in the form of that link. Such level of examination is rarely seen outside of graduate school. But before you think its all boring let me tell you that Tim is a major procrastinator, so his signature style of stick figure stream of consciousness lacks the pretension of the Phd.
Assuming that a fair number of you will never click that link allow me to bastardize it in atoo long paragraph. Tim’s TED talk was about procrastination. August Tim said yes to the talk that was set in the calendar for February. At the time August Tim had no idea how much he was screwing over January Tim. Life experience and a career catalyzed by illustrating and writing about procrastination might have given him a clue but August Tim was busy with stuff like ice cream. The Sept, Oct, November Tim’s were similarly engaged so the end of the year rolled around andDecember Tim was PISSED off. He was the one that was supposed to be memorizing the talk to “Happy Birthday” level of familiarity (that shit takes TIME) but the talk hadn’t been written yet. Just when he was going to get down to business the instant gratification monkey showed up. (Now this is Tim’s image and isn’t the same analogy that I would use but damn would it take time to come up with my own.) In any case the monkey shows up and gets December Tim busy with all sorts of things in the dark Playground. He needs to use Google Earth to REALLY study India. Every inch of India needs to be reviewed from a birds eye of about 20 feet. The procrastinator knows that a deadline is looming, casting its ever growing shadow over the playground. Yet it isn’t until true career meltdown or major personal embarrassment is at stake that the panic monster wakes up and shuts down that monkey. Freed from the playground the procrastinator gets to work on his editing/thesis/TED talk. Then he miraculously gets it done in 3 /minutes/hours/days We all know that the quality of the work could have been so much better if he had started early…but…next time. The second half of the talk (which I could totally tell had been prepped and “memorized” two days before he took the stage) talked about a life of procrastination. This is distinctly different from a lifetime of procrastination. In a life of procrastination things are not in a dark playground, they are simply dark. There are no specific projects and deadlines to ignore…in fact the monkey/monster cycle comes as a bit of a break from full time procrastinating. Tim tells of thousands of readers that email him to describe their pain. Their shortcomings. Their total sense of worthlessness. These are the feelings they have when their instant gratification monkey takes a nap and leaves them awake and alone with their thoughts. That is a state that those of us with a procrastination life try to avoid.
From 4:30-5:00 I listened to a patriots podcast and matched numbers in another nail biting game of 2048 (6 x 6 survival mode.)
At 5:00I ordered pizza to be delivered at 6:00 when Steve was due to return from skiing.
At 5:28 Oliver told me the pizza had arrived and he had signed for it.
At 5:28.35 I asked if he had tipped.
At 5:29 Oliver ran down the car before the delivery person drove away.
From 5:29- 5:32 we practiced figuring out 20% and enjoyed our dinner and each others’ company.
From 5:32- 5:50 we passed around a mechanical pencil and graph paper and sketched what we would want in our dreammedia room. Oliver focused on proportion and drew what I am pretty sure was a set of midcentury modern Eames chairs. Leo drew an indoor trampoline. I sketched the chase for the heating.
At 5:50 the boys went to the playground (light) and I tried to keep from going to mine (dark.)
At 6:00 Steve came home from skiing and was so tired that we barely spoke. When I went upstairs to watch election coverage (reason we would benefit from a media room…I might choose to watch TV somewhere other than bed.)
At 6:05 Steve was in his PJs which on many days would have beaten me but I had put mine on at 4:00.
At 6:30 Oliver came into my room where I sat with the TV on election coverage, my phone on 2048 (6×6 survival mode) and my laptop open to Facebook. The monkey had me all set up without the need to think at all. Oliver said to me “I am really surprised that you like that game so much.” With GREAT effort I lifted my head from the screen to meet his blue eyes. “Like it?” What is this child talking about? Then I remembered that his life is not the dark playground and the things that he chooses to do are things that he likes. This seems incredible. In a life of virtual leisure I do very very few things I like. Which brings us back to the monkey. He doesn’t care if I like the distractions he throws at me. He just wants to keep me busy. I have dabbled in enough books on mindfulness, awareness, and the power of now to realize that all of this mind numbing screen time is designed to keep me from waking up to the world. For now I have to get the 2048 tile, then 4096 and on and on. I can explore that other stuff some other time.
From 6:30-7:15 we have a great time discussing inflation and our National Debt. That sentence may be the least believable one I have ever written but it is true. Leo has proposed a global currency chase where we print more dollars to pay back out debt then quickly change US currency so we don’t flood our own market. As soon as other counties catch on we can change again. I imagine field trips to the Denver Mint would be more exciting. Right now the best part is standing on the stair that is exactly 5,280 feet above sea level. Oliver is involved, trying to explain inflation using a gallon of milk (clearly not organic), but Leo is down his own rabbit hole designing coinage. Steve is contemplating all of us through the tired eyes of a day skiing. I wonder if they would like The Big Short.
From 7:15-9:00 We watch the voice. I continue to match numbers so really I just listen to the Voice. (Its a good show for that.) Actually I listen to Leo who keeps a constant patter going about how much he enjoys certain backstories (his term) how funny Blake is, his preference for Christina over Gwen (Christina can really sing, Gwen cares only about outfits which is NOT SUPPOSED TO BE THE POINT OF THE SHOW (emphasis his)), and reviews of the battle round performances that are so stream of consciousness that I have to take his word for it because I can’t hear a single note of music. I can’t imagine where he gets that tendency.
By 10:00 everyone is asleep and I am lying in considering Tim’s talk while I work with my various screens. I am thinking specifically about the stuffed procrastination monkey which as a Patreon patron of Wait But Why I received as the most menacing holiday gift ever. Actually I was able to choose between he and the panic monster. But the panic monster scared the shit out of me so I picked the monkey and handed down Leo the gift of instant gratification. Which is an externalized representation of what I had already shared with him in genetic code. In any case I am thinking about the monkey and how for me he is no so much about keeping me from working as he is about keeping me from thinking.
By 1:00am I have an unfamiliar resolve. I’m going to take down that monkey.I’ll show him. I think. He can’t stop me from thinking. The fact that the monkey is me is not lost on my but I DECIDE not to think that. I send out this thought for consideration. I felt better after I wrote the post on drowning. True. That is a totally true statement. But I don’t FEEL the feelingas I think the sentence. I have given myself that line to think the way I might script dialogue in the fiction I always imagine I will write. I realize how many of my thoughts are like that. Narrated lines. Sure they are in the first person but it has the feel of a movie made from a John Irving novel. The hapless character thinks she is living her life as she chooses, but only the narrator knows her motivations. I am the narrator. I insist to the John Irving monkey. “Just match your numbers sweetheart,” the monkey soothes, “spend a little time with the Patriots Podcast and unload the dishwasher. You like the dishes. They are so pretty. Or chips. What about potato chips? I bet you would like to get yourself some salty crispy chips.”
That asshole is so infantilizing. I think. This is not even close to the first time I have called myself an asshole. I am watching ELECTION coverage. I yell at him. That is something people in control of their lives do. “I was just going to say that.” The monkey answers. “Look at you, so together, watching election coverage after facilitating a conversation about inflation with your kids. What a grown up you are.” Why are you saying you? I ask the monkey. Wait. Why am I saying you? (Even if I don’t figure anything else out I might have uncovered the meaning behind the title of Tim Urban’s blog) You and I are the SAME. We are the SAME person. You are just a monkey because Tim drew you as a monkey and you are John Irving because he came from New England just like me. I am Anna Irving and I like bananas.See? You can’t script what I think and distract me with shiny objects.
But of course the monkey me can. And almost all of the time does. Games on the iPad, walks with podcasts, falling asleep with the TV on. Monkey me limits the amount of time that I can think. And when the thoughts come they still seem to come as if they are composed.I have often said (so often that it shows itself as the scripted line that it is) that I can only think through talking or writing. It might be that I only let myself think when I am talking or writing. I am protected by a meta level of reflection that keeps me from falling in. In the midst of being a narrating narrator I stumble across the line. Falling In. That wasn’t what I was supposed to think. Fuck thats scary. If I am afraid of falling in I decide it might be beneficial to give myself a push.
At 1:45 am I turn off the TV. I plug in my phone, watch, iPod, laptops (So many screens the monkey tells me waving his hands.) and set them on my bedside table. I lie back on my horrible pillow and wait to fall in. I am thinking about the Patriots trade. I take several breaths like I did at the zen center but I don’t actually want to silence all of my thoughts, just my monkey chatter.I want to hear the rest of my thoughts and I even want to feel them. “NO YOU DON’T” screams the Irving monkey. “BANANA.” This time I don’t yell back. It’s OK. I’m going to be OK. And I am talking to myself this time not to monkeys and not to narrators. For a moment I approach a state of otherness like I am on the verge of sleep, a drug trip, or orgasm, about to lose control and I pull myself back up. This is scary. Yes. It is scary. I tell me. The monkey is away from this precipice jumping up and down screeching agin about the Patriots trade, they got rid of Chandler Jones for a second round pick. I wonder what the value of that pick is. Could we package it with another pick and get the first pick of the second round and tell Goddell to go to hell? Hey there. Let’s deal with that tomorrow. For once I am procrastinating the procrastinating. Come back to this. Lets see what you have been so afraid of. I edge closer, gently sending away thoughts of whether or not the kitchen light is on, what the traffic will be to get to volleyball, whether or not the new accountant emailed me back. WAIT. NOT. The new accountant did NOT email me back. I clearly need to deal with that. It is the ONLY responsible thing to do. But it is 1am so my only choices are sleep or check out that huge dark area beyond the cliff.
Cliff it is. I peer over and it is as if everything inverts. The earth that I was standing on is up at the sky and the sky is down here in the pit. It seems like if I fall I will be falling up. I am still on the edge, not sure whether to let go and I have a stomach turn like gravity is changing and I only think one word. This thought is different from the others. It comes from inside and out. It is not think like a line of dialogue but huge and wooly and it is the air I breathe. It is both full and empty and shocking and familiar. Everything is this word.
I scramble back, away from the word. I don’t want to feel how it can consume me. How it can be me. From back here on the earth it is less scary. It is weird even. I have a bountiful life. My father has died, some plans have never come to be, some money is gone but I have everything I need. And more. I have more than I need and even enough to share. The monkey looks at me mockingly.
Maybe I was wrong. But I know what I felt and I know how I act. The frantic academic life of my teens, the sex and drugs of my 20s, the six business start up and shut downs of my thirties, the comfort I can offer Volunteer boards, and Steve and friends and kids but never myself. The distraction of the mania and the defeat of the depression equally good at keeping me from spending any time with that wooly word. All of this scrambling and scrabbling to stay away from what? From where? This here? The monkey is jumpy again. “C’mon.” He says. “We are going to go play a game in this big comfortable bed over here.” “You don’t want to go there.” “You shouldn’t even look over there.” You can’t stop me. I tell him. You can’t stop me. I tell me. It is 2 am and I am going in.
This time my stomach doesn’t flip quite so much. I am surrounded but I am breathing fresh air. I am stroking the dark wool. It feel soft. I am soothing it. It’s OK I tell the part I am making smooth next to me. Somehow I know it is Leo. It is Leo at 4 years old afraid that he hasn’t been invited to the party he himself imagined. That’s alright I tell him. He squeezes my hand with too chubby fingers.. I am at my own table. There are treats. So many treats that I think it must be a trick and I start to feel sick looking at them. There are wings and fries and full on candy. There is nothing subtle on that table. Next to it is the vegetables. They don’t look very good either. You’ll still be here tomorrow I tell the treats. I am not telling you NO. I am telling you not now. They don’t talk back…they are food after all, but I guess that they understand because I feel less sick. Which doesn’t make me drawn to the vegetable table either. I am focusing on sending a breathe of air into my belly. Letting it draw my attention to my stomach. It is not screaming back at me. It is neither full nor empty.
Now I am at Thanksgiving with my father. He is alone at the table, too bright lights shining on the uncleared place settings with congealed gravy and picked over bones. “You left me here.” He tells me. His eyes are big, the anger that kept his engine running is gone. “I am alone.” I know dad. I answer. I’m sorry. And I do I leave him at his table and I feel sorry and so so sad. But it isn’t too much sad. It is not loss with a capital L.
Some of the wool is smooth from where I have been stroking it as I walk around. Beyond it tangled mountains rise up and I can hear distant crying. I can’t go there now. I haven’t made a pathway. I can only see the things right in front of me. I know there are Losses threatening far away. Losses of human rights, clean water, losses to big for me to name. My breathe is stuck. It is not going past my chest. There is no air going in. I stand still with the pain and then it passes. I roll my shoulders back but instead of focusing on stretching the tight muscles of my neck and scapula I send my attention to my breastbone. I don’t even recoil at the word breast like a ten year old. I lift up and out for the first time not thinking of my skeleton but of all of the fear I am holding there. The fear of impotency. The fear that I can’t fix things. The fear that makes me turn my shoulders and myself in. The part of me that needs 2048 to keep from thinking. It is simple. In this moment I know that. I am absolutely right. I can’t fix anything. I can’t change whatever is going on in those mountains over there. All I can do is stay right here with my eyes open, my chest open, and feel the fear and the failure. So I do. And it hurts. After a while I allow my eyes to close.And then I sleep.
It was a crushing news day. I read about a friends’ child dying. I heard testimony about ISIS and mustard gas. I learned that a close acquaintance had lung cancer. I realized that a colleague had enough money problems to have to abandon her craft. I watched a video of a brutal racially motivated crime and saw a photo of a man killing cats with a smile. I listened to Latino mayors talk about their cities being swallowed by the sea. Amongst it all are the testimonials of other Americans who think a man who spews hate should be our next president.
My response to the above?
I wrote a post about NAPPING. Of all of the carefree privileged topics on the planet napping may top them all.
But to react with guilt?
It helps no one and changes nothing. I feel guilty just thinking about the inefficacy of my response
Instead of guilt I will practice being grateful. I appreciate my health and relative wealth, liberties that let me be liberal, a skin color that allows me to work within the establishment if I choose. I am grateful to be able to support organizations and individuals that work to create equality. I notice science and policy that is slowly beginning to shift towards taking care of the planet and I choose advocate for these changes.
I can stop napping and wake up to our flawed world and know that things can change in a second for the worse. Which means they can change for the better as well.
I can celebrate that.
What do you do with your guilt? What gratitude can you offer today.
He has been gone for almost half of my life. Functionally it is more than that, as he has not met my husband or my children, seen where I lived, experienced things I have created and dismantled.
Thinking of him has gone from every painful minute to daily to weekly to monthly. I talk about his preference for a certain candy bar when shopping with the boys, but it is fact more than his essence. Like a memory triggered by a picture the story conforms to the the boundaries of the information in front of me, the story is about as alive and vital as the candy bar in its wrapper.
I wonder too, how much my memory of him is shaped by exactly that…memory. I revisit the same stories wearing a path in the sand. The other tales are somewhere over the next dune…hazy, inexact, blending in with the landscape.
Our relationship is like a first love perfectly preserved in the golden memory of youth. He died when I was 24, and he is not around to participate in the monotony of daily life. He was present for the transformative moments of that transition from girl to young adult, and then gone to be romanticized.
It feels disloyal to have him fade in places and sharpen in others. Yet it is inevitable. I look into the faces of my boys and seek him there. I see him it in a leg cross, and the crook of a finger. When Leo asks if we can build a rock garden in our back yard it is as if he is sitting at the table in front of me. I don’t want to ask, but I do, and Leo explains they have been studying gardens in art class. Still, probably most students didn’t have the connection which Leo did…some sort of cosmic echo coming through the years.
I seek the double helix in my children and remember how much my father loved spirals and fractals. Patterns of nature. His art was supposed to elicit questions of what is natural and what is manmade. I realize there is 50%of those same spirals in me. Nature and nurture both, just like his art. I see him in the face looking up at me instead of the one I looked up to.
When I sit at the coffee shop ranting about the disappearance of sweat pants it turns into a performance rather than a conversation. This is how our family dinners went. He picked a topic and worked himself up to a frenzy. I feel his righteous wrath running through me. I see the slightly charmed slightly alarmed faces of my friends me as I rant about pants and I feel like him. As the years go on I become more of a homebody…for the last 7 years of his life he didn’t leave our house. Leaving some of the irritating details of life to Steve, like bills and cooking has echoes of his relationship with my mother. When I examine the surface of the bark of a tree, following the folds down to the root system instead of up to the leaves I have images of him, large calloused fingers outstretched to stroke the bark with characteristic gentleness. Relentless sports talk was his soundtrack, and is now mine. First to help keep him with me, now because he still teaches me in his death.
Mostly though he is alive in shadows and echoes instead of his huge brash technicolor self. A man who didn’t wear socks, who would trace my face with his sculptors fingers, understanding my features as planes of a whole instead of disparate parts to analyze in a mirror. Seated at the head of a table challenging everyone around him, eating white rice. Leaving to pee before every single dinner, although each second of the day outside of this one was his own to manage. His time was too magical to interrupt.
It is my morning rorschach test. Every day as I step my way around the clean basket of laundry my mood is revealed before I have made it down the stairs.
This morning it was sitting there hissing that things are never done. Not just the laundry which obviously is never done, but the training of our kids. We can have family meeting and talk about contributing to our household. They can learn to scrape oatmeal bowls and shut their doors so I can’t see their floors. Which I wouldn’t be able to see anyways. Yet this basket is invisible to them. Their doors are at ninety degrees to each other and the basket sits blocking both of them. Last week Leo was laundry. He switched the wet clothes. He folded. He found a place for the bathing suits. Yet every day dozens of times he avoided this basket.
There are mornings when I see the softly worn fitted sheet and wonder if Leo will ever stop loving pink. We selected it together, a bold graphic with pink and purple, orange and yellow its circles clustered together to imply a pop art flower. He was four at the time and I was pleased to have this bold accent, our secret, hidden under his navy comforter. He doesn’t love it anymore. He simply uses the top sheet on the pile and for a while it has not been this one sitting as it is in the perpetual laundry basket.
Yesterday the IBM towel that had been the uppermost strata had capsized onto the floor so the laundry itself took up even more of the landing. As I wound my way down the stairs my mind curled through our past three years. The confusion over whether Steve would keep his job at IBM, the crazy decision to preemptively move to Denver in case the sale of his microelectronics area resulted in layoffs. Our settling in and Big Blue settling its sale. Steve has the same job, same projects, same customers, same co-workers. The only thing that changed was our zip code. Which turns out to be unnecessary.
The basket sits less than 18 inches from the entrance to the linen closet. Inside it is always more orderly than I imagine. Things are crisply folded. Except of course the fitted sheets because that would be impossible. Instead I have crumpled them each into a ball hiding the elastic in the middle. I give them a crease in the front and press them down to resemble a stack. Sometimes when I open the door they burst out like a spring snake unable to be contained. Even as I gather them back to their slot I feel oddly proud. They burst forth. They sensed freedom. They made it out of the closet.
My husband has skirted it hundreds of times. He does more than 50% of our housework and rarely lets things dangle like this. I wonder if he has stopped seeing it, or is using it the way I am, testing both my family and my mood. Sometimes it seems a task to be done, sometimes a pathway to memories, always an obstacle. I think I would mind it more if I wasn’t the one who left it there.
I remember the bulbs, squirrel eaten and buried upside down. They will have to fight their way through human error and forces of nature to open their faces to the sun. We planted them together my boys and I, looking ahead. Today the ground is snow-kissed..the bulbs blanketed in their sleep.
Inside the boys are bundled in their own blankets, the plastic fleece gone from soft to pointed peaks with lots of laundering. I wonder what happened to cotton, why is it not the fabric of OUR lives. It washes without creating fabric dreadlocks.
In the midst of this peace I feel the anger swirling up. It starts so small it surprises me. I am caught on the thread of the fabric and soon I am in a fog. I can’t believe there are blankets made out of plastic. It goes against the very nature of blankets. I can’t believe they are in my house. I think of the poison from the production process and it poisons my mood. Every. Little. Thing. Makes me want to SCREAM.
I walk away from my snuggling boys to work on my wrath. I am never sure which way it will go. I might nurse it into a frenzy, boiling with self righteousness over unmade beds, and the fact that a large portion of my country supports Donald Trump. Or I may talk myself down slowly slowly noticing and letting go of the waves of rage, running my fingers along smooth fabrics, thinking about everything until it becomes nothing at all.
It has been 12 years since I physically acted out in anger. A combination of therapy, medication, mindfulness and motherhood has changed me. I used to slam things, hit pillows and once even a person. I used to chase the dog around the table, scaring her until we both settled down, my rage receding, her big head in my lap while I stroked her and we both calmed down. It is horrible to remember. It is also important to remember.
In my room I stop fighting. I allow the thoughts to come. Why am I broken? What if I have passed this on to my kids? Why can’t anyone else clean the toilet? My thoughts stutter with my breathing. My lungs feel small and my breathe hitches as I try to slow down. In. Hold. Out. Hold. Here it is again.There is goes again. Almost as quickly as it comes it recedes and I can see outside of myself again. Fresh snow falls on the skylight above my head. Downstairs my boys are shedding their blankets and donning their boots. The kiss of the white snow has awakened them from their sleep. They are ready to head outdoors.
I offer myself forgiveness, just as the dog did so many years ago. I head outside to watch my boys play beside the bulbs which silently and slowly prepare for spring.
He is refusing to come inside. This isn’t the first time. He is still busy at the edge of the porch, small fingers scrabbling through what appeared to be dirt. Pausing in the unusual spring sunlight I don’t plead my case. Instead I stop to look and realized that my four year old is digging the grout out from our cobble walkways, separating grout into the paste part and the particulate. He has a small pile of rock to his right. He looks up at me as I wait, uncharacteristically patient, and rewards me with a smile that lights his face from side to side. “Isn’t it beautiful Mama?”
Decades before my father is asking me the same thing. He is holding a rock that looks like a turd. “Isn’t it beautiful?” He asks, half challenging and half protective. He has the object cupped in his rough sculptor’s hand, and he is using his other pointer to gently stroke the surface of the rock. Beneath his squared nail is a bit of clay which I see clearly in the light of the gallery. Behind him the wall is filled with niches designed to perfectly fit their pieces. Not too many of these look like poop. “You have to get beyond the idea of pretty to the idea of beautiful. You can’t judge these things by how they look, but how they make you feel. Great art is not pretty.”
Years later I try to follow his advice. I tilt my head and drop my agenda and I can see what my son means, glints of reflected light shine from his rock pile and he has clustered things in a way that the balance of the stones is surprising. This is something else that my father taught me…the way physical objects can challenge our perceptions. A solid stone can be pierced with holes if you look closely enough. What appears to be wood can actually be bronze or ceramic, what seems to have been created by nature can actually be worked subtly by the hand of man. We need to look harder to see the story in everything. My boy is getting to his feet, carefully carrying his pile to the base of our outdoor sculpture. He needs to re-form it into its previous shape but nothing is exactly the same. This time it is even more precarious and I hold my breathe imagining that a single exhale could topple things and set off his upset. He is volatile. He sits the little bits of rock that now seem to make a single stone next to a pile of pebbles that he had scavanged earlier from our rock garden. They are both perched on a natural rock basin, filled with a fourth kind of stone which steadies the a large boulder. He is satisfied now…he has gathered the five types of rocks together. H is ready to head inside.
At dinner he picks at his food, mouth moving with talking more than taking bites. I try to pull my attention from the pitch black rings that might forever stay under his fingernails to listen to his pitch. “We should have a bigger rock garden.” His tone sounds like the one he uses when asking for his own iPad. Yearning mixes with pre-emptive disappointment. The cadence reminds us that we have the power to perfect his life, yet cruelly we choose to leave him a bereft boy with neither an iPad nor a sufficient garden.
“What would you do if you had a rock garden?” I ask. He raised his head in surprise at being engaged rather than dismissed. “I would play in it.” He said simply. Then his forehead wrinkled. “I would also sit and think.”
In my teens I had plenty of time to sit in Rock Gardens. We spent a month in China touring rooms of rock, decorated by rocks. Even the streams were sometimes simply rock beds, our imagination needed to produce the water. I didn’t use the trip either to play or to think. Instead I would duck through a moon gate into whichever centuries old space was our destination of the day. I would pull out a book and sulk and read. The streams remained dry, the interior vistas unseen. It wasn’t until later that I integrated my father’s lessons of many layers of looking into my life.
My son looked up at me expectantly. Would this be the time that he would get his rock garden. A BIGGER one. He eyes were not the same shape but somehow they already knew what my father did. How to see beauty where there was nothing pretty at all. How to understand the importance of things never being just what they seem. How gathering the types of rocks together enhanced both their essential share rock-ness, and the ways they were unique.
With this insight he did not need a bigger rock garden. The world could be his rock garden. And when I stopped thinking about dirty fingers it could be mine too.
Outside of my family the person I see most is someone I haven’t spoken to in nine years. We don’t live in the same state anymore, but when I am in a certain state of mind he visits me, sometimes helpful, sometimes mocking, always too slippery to hold on to.
For the first handful of years after our break up I nursed my pain. I was energized by the hot spike of indignation I felt when I told our story and his ultimate betrayal. I would tease out the ways in which he was wrong, the ways he failed to appreciate the intimacy of our relationship, choosing business over friendship in the most literal way.
I should not have been surprised. Through my divorce, my father’s death, my weekends spent with unfamiliar men on unfamiliar drugs he was my Monday morning. We would meet for breakfast and he would tell me matter of factly that my latest hook up was married. He knew everyone in town, but would only vet people for me after the fact, informer rather than protector. We would have our coffee refilled and transition from my craziness to his business. He would flip back a page of one of his endless loop of list notebook and we would track the to dos that had to be carried over from pages ago. I would try to assign them psychological significance and he would laugh. With him things were systematic not symptomatic.
[Tweet theme=”basic-white”]He was the constant in the equation of my life that I found too difficult to solve.[/Tweet] He was the constant in the equation of my life that I found too difficult to solve.
With time and distance from my tumult I became more comfortable in my own head, no longer using men or hallucinogens to muddy my mind. I committed to therapy and legal drugs. I slept more. I began to recognize real numbers. I healed myself with eight hours of sleep, 100mg of antidepressant, four hours of yoga, two hours alone each day. Despite my growing time alone there was still lunch and breakfast, investing and house renovation recommendations. As we both entered committed relationships the threads from which our friendship was woven began to loosen. We had gotten into business together years ago when he was pragmatic and I was emotional. Now the sum of our relationship was rental income minus repair cost, multiplied by hours spent on management plus number of excuses we gave each other as our lives moved on and away from each other.
When I would get his text reading “lunch?” I was a town or two away, at the grocery store. When I made it into town and asked to meet for breakfast he was already in our spot with someone else. Years later I know how natural this is. I don’t know exactly the role I played for him…but I had found a new constant in my husband, and new mysteries in my kids. I was ready to flip the pages of my own to do lists. Despite this I was hurt and angry. As we dissolved our business partnership he was unemotional. I faulted him for this despite it being the very quality that had drawn me to him in the first place. I had expected him to act the way I would have…the fact that he was simply himself was disproportionately crushing.
Like most grudges this one was not really about the object of my upset.
When I am thoughtful, when I am kind, I know the break up was never with him. Our friendship had played the exact role it should have for our life stages. Our friendship was my one point of pride in a time of life I would rather forget. The person I was really angry at was myself. That young twenties version of me, with her highs and lows and drugs and sex and business and getting into other people’s business. I never really said goodbye. I never really told her why we were finished.
So I will now.
Thank you for the time you gave me away from time. I am not simply embarrassed by my lost weekends and sleepless nights. I needed them to stop the incessant measuring my life and ambitions that had been my nagging partner since childhood. I stopped being good and lived to tell the tale. I finally lost control and came out the otherside. Today I am less fearful and more steady. After a decade bouncing between tears and going on a tear I am finally settled down, literally and figuratively. I couldn’t have been this person without being her for a while. And I probably couldn’t have been her without the constant of my Monday morning friend.
It took a decade but I can look back at both of you and say thank you. And almost all the time I mean it.
A few seconds after I back tentatively down my steep, icy driveway (I moved here to get away from ice) and avoid the hazards of elementary children and their distracted parents at drop off I let out a big sigh. Once again no fatalities. A good omen.
I slowed to whatever is less than a crawl but still technically moving as the elderly couple took their morning restorative. As I did this a woman blew though a stop sign on a side street and sped past them. By “blew through” and “sped past” I mean drove the speed limit. But she really did run the stop sign.
“What the fuck, bitch?” As quickly as it came to mind it was replaced by an image of what might be inside the car. Maybe she was a middle aged mom who had driven for 3 days straight to see her children. She had just sat by the bedside of her stepfather and held his hand as he took his last breathe. This was the man who raised her after her mother disappeared, and he would have died alone if she hadn’t left her family to care for him. It had been a long, exhausting month full of acrid hospital smells and the sound of gasping retractions as this man had fought for breathe. In these weeks at his bedside he had talked about her mother for the first time in 20 years. It was a different kind of trial as the shadow woman came to life and the carefully created barrier between her head and heart cracked open as she felt her loss for the first time in decades. When it was all done she got in the car with red bull and bananas and hurried home to hug her own girls. Ready to fill the hole inside with love she would send to her girls. And maybe just a bit to her mother, wherever she might be. Just three blocks from home she encountered a dirty white SUV which was rolling along the road at a pace slower than her stepfather’s death…so she skipped that one stop sigh and got herself home to her girls in time to hug them before they left for school and she had to wait another 8 impossible hours.
Entering the coffee shop there was a guy three steps back from the counter. He was oblivious to how he held up the line of undercaffeinated people at his posterior. It was as if he was learning about hot beverages for the first time as he asked the barista question after question. The line of us became united as we shifted from foot to foot, unzipping winter coats which made us to warm in the coffee shop. Grumbling at each second he was breaking us away from his morning routine.
To keep myself from joining the mob behind me I imagined him a researcher at the hospital lab across the street. He had been working on a non-invasive treatment for spinal injuries since he left medical school in 1999. Last night one of his subjects had risen to his four furry feet for the first time. This man, whose friends and family consisted of the lab tech, the night watchperson, and 24, no…23 mice had stayed up all night watching the creature in wonder. 15 years later this very treatment will be one to get my friend’s son out of his wheelchair after a ski accident. He chose his drink and looked back, seeing us for the first time, blinking in the light of day.
Leaving the coffee shop I watched a woman walk up. She was juggling her phone and a 5,000 bag. She was dressed for a workout and her golden hair gleamed with 1,000 highlights. I kept my eyes forward, anticipating the nothing that she would direct my way. Instead her grey eyes sought out mine. “Hi” she said brightly “How is your morning going?”
“It’s going well thanks.” I told her as we were almost past.
You just never know. I need to stop with the judgement…sometimes people just can’t stop at every stop sign.