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twilight

Walking my dog on this cold evening as the sun dimmer switches itself from white to grey to azure and finally, as I write, all the way to black, I remember yet again a moment that has stayed with me for nearly forty years. A moment of twilight and early winter. A moment when I recognized a coming loneliness that I hadn’t expected.

Downtown Iowa City. Getting on the city bus to go home in front of Stephen’s Mens shop where my dad bought his suits. I’m in junior high school and just starting to take the bus and branch out on my own.

School got out at 3:15 and so I’ve been downtown with friends ever since. Maybe at Hardee’s where we hang out. Maybe traipsing through stores, revisiting records albums and Shetland sweaters.

I pay my 25 cents and take a seat, placing my backpack next to me. It’s twilight and the fierce cold of real winter has just arrived. I’ll have a too-long (for me) walk from where the bus drops me off to my house. Dinner might be waiting or my parents might be out at an event. We might watch Hill Street Blues, or I might hang out alone in my bedroom listening to the radio and doing homework. Chances are good that a lot of the night will be spent alone.

Sherry Dalrymple gets on to bus and takes a place in the back row. She’s wearing a hooded sweatshirt, not really enough to keep out the cold. She’s in my grade but we don’t speak. We’re agreed-upon not friends in that quiet way that 13-year olds just know. She’s tough talking, gum smacking. And yet in the quiet of the bus, it’s more obvious; this non-friend silence is amplified.

As though arriving on cue, I am acutely and suddenly aware of the unbearable loneliness of the moment . A Hopper painting. A Springsteen low ballad from The River. My friends are not there. My family isn’t there. Just this cold, too-bright bus. And someone I know but don’t know at all. All of the early-teen freedom that has seemed so exciting and full of possibility lands with leaden insufficiency. I have a glimpse of what it will mean to no longer be at home but to have nowhere specific to go. To not belong any where in particular.

The cold surrounds me tonight as I walk my dog through the little playground where my kids played as toddlers a decade ago. I was often lonely then, too. Arlo and I cut through the growing dark, and I nod across distances to the girl on the bus and wonder if Sherry Dalrymple remembers that evening. If she, too, sensed the coming grip of adulthood. If she too feels the coming of winter.

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healing

“I’m not sure I know what healing looks like,” I tell Kathryn over coffee. “I always think it should be visible, that it should be quite evident. Like a wound healing right in front of one’s eyes.” I imagine the Virgin Mary appearing over scar tissue, a sort of spiritual sci-fi movie.

A few minutes later, I tell her about the project I’ve started writing about Not Enough:  “I have an entire character figured out. I know what she sounds like, what she looks like. I’m working with an illustrator.”

Kathryn’s eyes widen and flash. “That,” she is quite emphatic, “is healing.”

We take a Lyft to the studio for the final morning of our workshop. For five days, we’ve been moving with a group of thirty people. Dancing, yes, but also crawling, running, rolling, growling, pouncing, and abiding in stillness. Most of us had only met on Wednesday, but on Saturday, after completing nearly two hours of uninterrupted dance, we sat in a circle and shared how safe we felt. How seen we felt. How held. “You’re all my new best friends!” one woman beamed, “And I don’t even know most of your names.”

This is healing. Placing my hands on the shoulders of a woman who must have twenty years on me and looking into her brown eyes which move from grief to impish joy in a flash. Passing a man who is thirty years my younger and reaching out for his hand, which he gives to me like a sweet and simple offering. Watching a woman dance a crooked dance while another swoops to the ground and then to the heavens in a gesture she probably hasn’t made since childhood – if ever. Sitting and feeling the pulse of the music and the feet traveling, circling around me; taking the reverberations into my being. This is healing.

They are not all strangers to me. One woman attending the workshop is a friend with whom I’ve fallen out of step. We haven’t seen each other in months, and since arriving in this newly shared space we’ve been circling each other, coming closer and then stepping away. It’s its own sort of dance. We thaw a bit and then pause. A hand on a back. A shared laugh. We try on the possibility of reconnection, like slipping on a pair of pants found in the back of the dresser—might they fit again?

This morning, arriving in the corner of the room to put away my things before the dancing began, there she was. I put my hand on her shoulder as a greeting. She turned. I pivoted. She angled. A moment of awkwardness – are we moving away or closer? Like a kiss on a date, there was a moment of wondering are we doing this? And then our bodies came into contact and melded into each other, a fierce embrace. The anger, the hurt, the shame, the regret, the craving of the heart pushed us closer into one another. My tears fell on her neck. I love you I’m sorry I love you thank you I’m sorry I love you … a mantra began to find its rhythm.

My heart flew up toward the skylight and beyond, a Chagall painting. The weight of grief I’d been carrying for nearly a year evaporated. This, I know without hesitation, this is healing.

 

 

 

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fortunately…

Did you ever read Fortunately, Unfortunately, oh, you children of the 70s? It was written and illustrated by Remy Charlip, an impish genius who I’ve written about before. In this book, the boy is trying to get to his friend who is in a different city. As he travels he has good luck — a plane appears at exactly the point he needs one! — followed by bad — the plane breaks down in midair. There’s a misplaced pitchfork, a sea of sharks, and a tiger along the way. The child’s fear-closet version of bankruptcy, cancer, and divorce. There’s also a soft tree and parachute, which are like the arms of a friend. In other words, it mimics the up and down waves of happiness and anxiety that so many of us live in.

Most of us have bobbed in this ocean for most of our lives — just some with higher pitched waves. Lately, though, I’m noticing a different rhythm. Most days as of late, I wake up with dread. A sort of, “Oh shit, here we go again,” feel. A knowledge that I’m going to open my phone and the world is going to come in with all of its fresh and rampant horrors. Trump will have fucked up yet another thing. A new species will have disappeared. Another shooting. A bigger fire. The loss of a friend’s parent. An Amber alert.

I lie in bed and long to go back to sleep — to sink down into the seaweed quiet of my deep dreams where lately my father has often been visiting me. I want the softness of the sheets, the warmth of my husband’s still body, the knowledge that my kids are curled up in their beds nearby.

My getting up is often too quick. It is harried and not at all gentle to body or heart. Staccato! Showers. Making lunches. Rapid fire toothbrushing. It’s not pretty. Certainly not kind. I’m shot into the world with a sense of necessity.

Once there, nearly every day, I am reawakened to magic and purpose. I reconnect my heart to the work of Today, which feels increasingly to be helping people arrive in their bodies and also moving my community toward a dialogue about our schools.

At the moment, I’m in California at a conference. It doesn’t seem to matter that I’m removed from my daily routine; I still experience this steely regret at waking, a dread of the world. But two days ago, I walked through a student-led farm and learned of a Wiccan garden and visited little dome houses that had been built by students in the early 70s and are still lived in by 19- and 20-years olds who are wrestling with justice and beauty. Yesterday, I went on a tour of the Sacramento river basin and saw a seemingly forgotten area penned in my highways that is a home to thousands of migratory birds. I had dinner with a woman who teaches art education in Virginia and we laughed about absurdities and shared hurts, even though we’d just met.

I long to wake up with love and readiness for the world, but that’s currently a tall order. Each morning, I have to climb over the ever growing trash pile of junk news and deep wounds before I can see the trees and some blue sky. Every day, fortunately, I find that it’s worth the climb.

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son

“In many ways, large and small, as we live our lives, we find ourselves confronted with a brute fact about how little we can know about our futures, just when it is most important to us that we do know. For many big life choices, we only learn what we need to know after we’ve done it, and we change ourselves in the process of doing it. I’ll argue that, in the end, the best response to this situation is to choose based on whether we want to discover who we’ll become.” – L.A. Paul

I listen to the screams of baby Thomas travel across Dearborn Street through my opened window. I came down at 7:20 am, awakened by the cat who wanted food. Noticing the soft rain, I opened the house to take it in, a much needed succulent sound after weeks of cicada-filled dryness.

My own baby boy is already up and out — over at the football stadium picking up trash with the rest of the band (a bizarre fundraiser in which the university pays local kids to pick up some pretty nasty stuff, including used toilet paper, drug paraphernalia, and even a dildo). He’ll come home to practice his trumpet for jazz band tryouts, finish his application to be an LIT at camp for next summer, do geometry homework, and watch more videos about the upcoming release of Destiny 2.

When I walked into his room last night, he was sitting on the edge of the bed — the dog behind him, the cat curled up on his chair — strumming his electric guitar. He played me the opening of “Sweet Love,” and for a moment, as happens so often these days, I did not recognize him. Just for an instant: Who is this man-boy? Just for an instant: Where is my son? And then I arrived back in the land of the 14-year old, a stuffed sloth at  his feet, an old Star Wars poster on the wall.

He is incredibly smart, often knowing more about a specific subject than I. Yesterday, he laughed (kindly) at my lack of understanding of Cassini and Saturn as we oohed and ahhed our way through the final photos. He knows so much, and yet he is challenged to rinse out a dish, forgets how to make eggs (despite having been taught multiple times by his sister and me), has no concept of time. He needs me and he doesn’t. When I recently considered a job on the west coast, we talked about how it would be for him if moved, leaving him to live here with his dad. “I’d just want to be sure that I saw you every, like, three of four months.” I gulped back sadness, but then remembered the above point —  no concept of time.

We moved into this house 14 1/2 years ago when I was eight months pregnant with Tobey. Bella was already two, and I imagined her coming down the front stairs some day in a prom gown. I don’t care all that much for prom and its like, so I’m not sure why this future image was so alive for me. But I never imagined my yet born child (who I was utterly convinced would be a she named Frannie) as anything other than a baby or a toddler in this house. It never occurred to me that there would be these large feet and bigger shoes, or shaving gear and loud smelling deoderant, or electric guitars and amps filling our space.

I watch him leap into new forms routinely. He is ever new. And then he comes and hugs me and is exactly him. When he was two years old and I went to California for less than a week, he gave me the best hug I’ll ever receive in this lifetime on my arrival home. I become again and again a new being as mother, as individual through sharing space with him. His hyperspeed change provides a subtle mirror that I, too, am changing. If he is Cassini, darting about on multiple missions, I am more Saturn – solid and yet alive with possibility. His arc will keep moving further away, but the coming back toward home will be all the sweeter.

 

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fig

e0c7abad31d1ae47c5467d656f23807a--botanical-drawings-botanical-printsWe had a fiddle leaf fig plant when I was a kid. It was in a big ceramic crockery pot that my parents no doubt found in their antiquing phase of the early 1970s. Once I was old enough to have chores, I’d clean its leaves, gently stroking its leathery leaves with a cloth to remove dust and bring back a shine. Those same leaves would get blighted and turn red and then brown and fall off. It was a spindly plant, never full or vibrant. But as an exotic guest in our home, we couldn’t ask it to leave.

In one photo, I am in a green velvet dress with our large grey cat Sam squeezed onto my small lap. My dad is next to me, sporting a mustache that he had for about a nanosecond and which suited him not at all. The room looks spare and not very used or friendly. It was the era of the living room that stood waiting for guests, waiting for formality that never arrived. In the background is the fig, an awkward sentry from another place.

Which it was. Or its ancestors were. Fiddle leaf figs are native to Western Africa’s rainforests. In that warm, moist climate, it grows into a towering tree, which flowers and bears edible figs. The thought of our plant, scrawny as an elderly uncle, fruiting would have astonished me. Just as it didn’t occur to me that there was once a farm where our house on a cul-de-sac, sat nor woodland before that. Just as I never thought that my parents had lives before me (at least not of interest), nor my grandparents before them.

I remembered the fig recently when I saw one on a neighbor’s back porch. They probably take it out ever summer to enjoy the warmth before it has to go back inside and try to eke through the dark and cold of winter – an effort with which I empathize completely.

I sometimes feel like our old fig – out of step with my natural rhythm. I sense how my body and heart want to live; I intuit a timing that makes sense to my day, the kinds of activities that nourish me, the kind of light and weather in which I grow to my hardiest. So many of us don’t live as we’re meant to. We stay potted in some foreign soil, trying to make the most of the scant fertilizer that’s known as the weekend, or the bits of reprieve on the back porch, aka vacation. And then we force our roots into the standard position. We let our leaves grow less shiny, less vibrant.

What happened to that fig? My mom might remember. It didn’t make the move from one house to the other in the 80s, I’m pretty sure. If it was sold or given away, it could still be alive. I like to think that it made its way to a more temperate spot – carried in the back of a U-Haul to California – and is permanently ensconced in someone’s lush backyard under a crazy thatch of bouganvilla with a lemon tree nearby. The smell of the ocean wafts in on a morning breeze. Someone sits with a cup of coffee, a book resting on the table, a writing notebook open and a pen crossing steadily across the page.

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So many paths

the_mapYesterday I climbed rocks, farther and farther up the path, then scrambled for a view down into the Taylor River canyon. I’d say it was a bird’s eye view, but above me, a hawk floated ever higher, never once flapping its wings as it rode the wind beyond the mountain’s peak.

Today, I’m sitting at my kitchen table with a few bills – the only thing worth saving after I separated the wheat from the chaff of ten days of mail. The tea kettle is on high – something wrong with the starter keeps clicking and won’t let me turn it down, so that will be one more call to add to the list I started at the airport that includes the dentist and the hair cutter, the high school and the fence guy. I’m going to sit here and nurse my tea as long as I can because the next thing will be to deal with the cat poo I found last night in my 2 AM stupor and couldn’t be bothered to pick up. Now, I’ll need to be bothered.

Unbothered was the theme of the trip. Unbothered to do much other than rearrange the van in the morning and stare at a map over a cup of lukewarm coffee. Unbothered to do much other than decide where to place my foot next on the trail – which rock looked steadier. Unbothered to make any decision in the evening other than to close my eyes.

Could I be less bothered? By the cat shit. By the wake up call to find the login and password to Powerschool because it’s registration day and we need it now. By the list of things to do at work – people to call, meetings to set up, articles to write. None of which feel to have much significance beyond the doing.

I think of the people I met on the trip and wonder at their paths. The woman I talked to at the diner who owns a pot dispensary with her daughter. After her daughter dropped out of college and tried California but came home broke, she asked her, “What are you passionate about?” “Weed, mom.” So mom used some of her retirement funds and bought a dispensary. They work there together (“It’s great mother-daughter time!”) and are making a go of it.

There was Troy, who I sat next to at the Beanery in Gunnison as we also talked to Lori, who was washing dishes. Lori had owned a brewery; now she helps her best friend out at the Beanery. When I asked how old the coffee shop was, she pointed to the young man working the register and said, “I remember looking at the stick that showed his mom was pregnant with him in the back room right after we opened. So I guess,” she squints her eyes and looks toward the ceiling, “twenty years.” Troy had been a working artist, but he discovered a knack for finding gemstones and now he’s a “miner,” traveling through southwestern Colorado and down into New Mexico and California looking for aquamarine and other stones. If he digs up a half dozen or so good samples a year, it’s enough to squeak by on. He has Medicare and has used it three times – times when he really needed it – but he figures that will go away soon with all of the BS happening in Washington, and “I’m not getting any younger!” He’d helped to hang the paintings of an old friend on the coffee shop wall – they were mountains done in thick paint with a hallucinogenic quality. I spied one that was only $90 and bought it on a whim. “That money will really help Joe; he’s been hurting.”

There was the guy hosting our last camp site. He’d come out from New Jersey – promised a job by a friend after he’d been evicted from his apartment. He seemed to have only a bike and a tent, despite being a solid half hour by car from anything remotely civilization-ish. There were others – snapshots – the woman who’d driven down from Boulder to sit in the Cottonwood Hot Springs for hours on end, positioning herself so the water dripped on the crown of her head. The woman smoking outside of the laundromat in Buena Vista who got locked out of her car and called who I thought was a locksmith but ended up to be her grandfather. The guy in Steamboat who struck up a conversation only to discover he’d graduated from the University of Iowa ten years ago and said it was the only place other than Colorado he’d ever want to live. The cashier at the Safeway who said she had 4 jobs and hadn’t had a day off in 43 days. “But I choose to live here,” she says before I can register ire at her situation. “It could be easier, but it wouldn’t be here.”

So many stories. So many paths. None of them unbothered entirely, but some less bothered. Some chosen with a conscious compromise:  benefits – no so much; adventure and beauty – full on. “Normalcy” – not so much; time with a family member – yes! And sometimes these choices backfired. Other times, walking the spine of the dragon led to peace.

I could do that. That’s what my friend Mary has said for the past few years as she’s considered retirement. Greeter at Walmart. Pourer at a winery in California. Apple store employee. Volunteer at daycare. To each, a recognition that indeed, “I could do that.”

It’s reassuring to see the myriad of other paths, and to consider them as real options – opening a restaurant, starting a moving space, getting trained in trauma. None a cinch. Each one would entail watching my feet carefully, choosing the right rock, testing my weight. Each could include a bad fall with sprains and bruises – or worse. And each would include unspeakable beauty.

My tea is almost gone, so that means I need to go clean up the mess, start my day, finish the summer, and move into fall. But I linger over the trip, feeling it move inside of me. Stars fill my head, rivers gush through veins, craggy ledges in bones, paths appear under one foot and then the next. Take a step.

 

 

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complicated

In the middle of a hollow just coming to life with the vermillion lace of spring, we entered the museum. A stunning building that sits on water – a squared off circle of a footprint hovering above a damned up stream, Crystal Bridges in Bentonville, Arkansas, is that perfect museum that can be encountered fully in half a day. Not so much as to exhaust, but enough to satiate and nurture.

There were fastidious oil paintings painted in Brazil in the early 1800s of birds and their nests. There was a stunning wave that invited me into the frame, to subsume my sorrows and baptize my aching heart. A Whistler woman all in black, vertical against a black background, her velvet dress and pale skin glowing. Many rooms over, another woman, this one in a cream colored dress on a white background, lying down with her black pumps pointing upward, as though she’d collapsed onto the horizontal frame. Sisters more than a century apart, one upright and the other sideways.

After the tour of the permanent collection, the invitation to continue to the singular special exhibit, Border Cantos with photographs by Richard Misrach and instruments created from objects found on the U.S./Mexican border by composer Guillermo Galindo. In the three rooms of this exhibit: sorrow, shame, horror. Immense photographs of gaping beauty – the desert rising from the Pacific to the mountains, an unforgiving expanse of hope and despair, dotted with an improbable and absurdly fractured wall. At times the wall is tall and insurmountable. At times it is a series of x’es that resemble the barriers created by the Germans on the Normandy beaches. Other times it is a riddle from a fairy tale – a single panel of metal standing in the middle of the arid spectacle, a ridiculous gesture to nothing.

Heartbreaking and mysterious effigies created out of agave stalks and old clothes. A blue plastic barrel marked “agua” that humanitarian groups placed and filled, only to have border police shoot holes in it. And in the last room, a backpack that the photographer found in the desert filled with a pair of yellow boxer briefs with cartoon characters, a bottle of cologne, a tube of hair gel, a bag of chips. It’s what my 13-year old son might take if we had to leave home in the middle of the night. Just around the corner from this, human-shaped targets riddled with bullet holes.

I was at once deeply shaken and thankful. That this exhibit was being shown at all, much less in a state that went 61% for Trump, seemed amazing. How could these photos and objects not change people’s minds about the absurdity and human damage of extending a wall? I wondered about the so-called founder of the museum, Alice Walton, daughter of Sam and Helen, second wealthiest woman in America.

I’ve carefully avoided Walmart. The first time I was ever in one was about 7 years ago during a family vacation to Wisconsin when the weather turned cool and the kids needed sweatshirts, and I think I’ve been in perhaps one other since then. The art, the beauty of the building and its thoughtful setting, the free admission, and especially the final exhibit all made me willing to reconsider Walmart and to wonder about Alice. So, standing outside of the exhibit, I looked her up on Wikipedia.

Complicated doesn’t begin to describe Alice Walton:  Twice divorced – the second to her swimming pool contractor, she shows horses and famously bids on art at high-level auctions by phone from horseback, contributor to Republican candidates and conservative lobbying groups, she’s had several DUI charges and hit a pedestrian and killed her. And though she founded the museum, some detractors argue that most of the money for it actually came from the Walton family foundation, to which she doesn’t directly contribute.

My stomach roiled when I read about the pedestrian. And yet I can’t deny that the art nourished me. Certainly these artists didn’t ask to have their work purchased by this person and to be brought to this particular wooded gulley in northwestern Arkansas. The boy who once owned and wore that backpack could never dream – if he’s even still alive – that it’s currently displayed in a museum whose founder gives sizable sums to the exact people hell bent on keeping him out of this country. And yet that backpack and its haunting presence is a breathtakingly human gesture, a reminder of how obscene it is to believe in borders. Its voice, mixed with that of Alice Walton’s, sings a hymn to what a truly bizarre age this is, one beyond reason, where human stories of life and death mingle in very unexpected ways.