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framed

It’s that endless gray and deep cold of February that suggests there never was such a thing as summer, and there will never be anything akin to spring. All of that is a dream. This is the now. This is the reality in which we will live forever.

That is how it feels this morning at 7:30 as I drive my son to band practice. With just a half a cup of coffee in me and a bit of morning meditation to wakefulness, I notice the world.

Every day the same drive. There is the orange cat that sleeps on the back of the sofa in the picture window across from the school driveway, one leg stretched over the back. The speed humps, intended to slow fledgling teenage drivers on the side streets, are so covered in snow that they’re hardly noticeable. I pass another mom driving her son. I knew her back when the boys were in grade school, both of us recently divorced. She’s been married and divorced again since. Does she know that her right turn signal is on? The bare branches of oaks and maples stab at the sky, angry at their nakedness.

And there at the corner standing outside his half opened door in a robe is my friend the artist. He’s holding a small garbage bag and is looking ahead, not moving, as though testing the morning air and wondering at getting from the house to the curb, through the snow, through the cold. He looks like a painting. Not moving, draped in the fog of his breath, lit by the thin grey morning sky, framed by the doorway.

I take him in — the ineffable beauty — and drive home to make lunches, to shower, to wait for the plumber, to walk the dog. To carry on with this life.

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Sunday morning

In and out. Up and down. Noise and silence.

There is a pattern in the house that rises and falls with the kids. This morning, I came downstairs and Chris was on the sofa, drinking coffee and reading. We kissed. We talked. And then I started to make pancakes. He went back upstairs, and I was here with silence.

Last night, it was similar. I was downstairs alone – just me and John Coltrane – as I chopped and stirred, creating a soup. Happy in my space.

The first one down this morning was Bella. She was in a good mood, and given that mornings and Bella can be a crapshoot, I was glad. We hugged. She made tea. We talked about her painting. Once the tea was done, she went back upstairs to work.

Then came Tobey. As he often does, he started in with several items of business—scheduling and money questions. Then he sat at my computer where an old video of him doing a “review” for a Star Wars Lego set had popped up on my Facebook feed. It was from seven years ago, and he laughed at his mispronounciations – asking people to join his “scription” instead of “subscription” to a fledgling Youtube channel that never actually took hold – and also nodding to the wisdom of his younger self for recognizing that one of the Star Wars figurines was rare. “Yes, it was,” he says with pride. Even at that age, he had a knack for arcane knowledge.

Inside, I was melting at the little voice in the video. We never see Tobey, other than a single socked foot; he was careful to have the person doing the filming (probably me) focus on the Lego set. So, it is the voice where my maternal attention goes. A boy’s voice, not the baritone he is now. I can hardly remember that small person. Why didn’t we take more video? Why aren’t I better at documenting? But then I’m happy to just be here, with the kid who is now, rather than longing for the one who was. At one point in the recording, he makes a verbal tic, a tic he still makes today, and I remember it’s the same person.

The pancakes get done, two at a time, with Tobey flipping while unwilling to put the batter in the pan because it means touching the batter, and he is and always has been squeamish about such things (so much like his grandfather, it’s crazy). When they’re all done, he texts up to his sister and stepfather (a household practice that my mom finds absurd, but it seems to be to be the modern version of the supper bell). Everyone lands at the table and the talk goes to video cameras, because Tobey is making a film, and then to music. Tobey starts playing bands he’s heard. One is ska-punk and it turns out that Chris knows them from way back:  “Turn it up!”

And now the music is all around the living room. Tobey is dancing. Chris is drumming on the table. Bella is making more pancakes. One song leads into another. It’s good – a kind of pumping, loud, joyful music with sardonic lyrics – drugs are better with friends, friends are better with drugs – that are far from the Krishna Das and Ella Fitzgerald that I tend to listen to. I let it sink into me, and watch as both kids move and laugh and share stories.

Then Chris goes upstairs. Bella cleans her plate and thanks me for breakfast, before heading to her room. The song ends and Tobey leaves – he never says goodbye, he just leaves. I can hear him above me now, talking to friends via his computer.

I’m still here. At the table. In silence. A silence that is different than the silence of an hour before because of the joy-filled noise that penetrated it. I think that every practice of silence now is preparation for the silence that will come. Soon. I’ll have to remember to turn up the music now and then, just to feel it in my body and remember.

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Screwing up is part of the program.

Somewhere in the midst of cutting long sheets of plastic, duct taping them together, and then passing these sheets around another layer of plastic stapled to the rafters and walls of our garage, it occurred to me that it might not work. Our plan to save a thousand dollars (or more) by removing the asbestos insulation from two pipes, one of which is now leaking and needs attention from a plumber, might not be as failsafe as it had sounded the day before when Chris described it.

But now we were thick into it. We possessed several roles of plastic, a new staple gun, fancy air masks, long “farm chemical” gloves, topnotch duct tape, and several rain ponchos that were doubling as hazmat suits.

We were in that calm that comes with the storm, and we super on top of it. Every previous fight we’d had over something inane — like the hollering match we’d had while raking during one of our first years together — was gone. Instead, we were precise. We were focused. The situation called for marital meltdown, from the potentially astronomical bill to not knowing what the fuck we were doing. But in our quiet, plastic womb, we kept it tight. “Scissors.” I handed him the scissors. “Tape.” I handed him the tape.

It didn’t matter. Two hours into the project, Chris stood on the ladder with the plastic draping between us and punctuated the silence. “I don’t think so.”

I didn’t ask what he meant out of fear that my words might disrupt the carcinogenic fibers that he was trying to cut through at that very moment. In the online videos, the wrapping had just slid off into the plastic bag. So easy. It looked so easy.

“Don’t think what?” I finally prompted him.

“Don’t think it’s going to work.” He was motionless, still looking up at the pipe. Water was no longer dripping from it but was now flowing.

It would have been an okay moment for some expletives. But we stayed quiet. Nothing felt lost. Nothing felt dire. Or wasted. We’d tried. And that’s how things get fixed, sometimes improbably. Fleetingly, I thought of every space movie I’ve seen in which someone in the NASA control room suggests an unlikely fix. “Couldn’t she use the adhesive backing from her maxi pads?” It all has to start somewhere, right? Sure, we’re not handy. And of course it was a long shot.

We went upstairs and took long, hot showers and then washed our clothes on high with extra detergent. When I went to get dressed, I pulled on a pair of socks with writing on the insole: Screwing up is part of the program.

It’s all screwing up. Until it’s suddenly brilliant. Pollack screwed up. And Pasteur screwed up. Childs burnt plenty. And Jordan no doubt slipped. There’s so many pieces to each day, to each life that can’t be viewed through a prism of success or failure — it’s just the next thing. Try it. Who knows. It might be brilliant.

The plastic is still hanging from the rafters in the basement even though I sent emails tonight to the professionals to see just how much this will cost. Maybe they’ll laugh at the system we were devising. Maybe they’ll nod that we were on to something. It was worth the effort. That’s good enough.

 

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of saxophones and death

The night before I left for college, my dad came into my room and sat on the edge of my bed as a sort of final tucking in. I don’t remember being sad — after all, I was just moving into a dorm that was about a 20 minute walk from our house — but I was curious by his energy. It had that Parental Moment to it. And, indeed, he started by saying, “If there is one thing I regret …”

The opening statement hung in the room as my mind went through possibilities. I’d had a sometimes lonely but contented and unremarkable childhood, so I couldn’t image where he was headed. The best I could come up with was the lack of religious upbringing I’d had, though as a devoted atheist, it seemed an unlikely route for my dad to take at this late moment.

“I regret that we didn’t let you play the saxophone,” he said with earnest contrition. There. That was it.

It took me a moment to even understand that he was alluding way back to 5th grade when my classmates and I had a chance to try different instruments and begin lessons. I’d been interested in the saxophone, taken by its sound, its shiny and substantial golden body, and the intricate valve system. My parents countered with the flute. And that was that. No instruments. The tiny window into a musical future quickly shut by two non-musical parents whose tolerance for squawking noises and a somewhat hefty monthly rental fee were low. As a kid who had yet to discover Clarence Clemons–that would come in about three years–much less Coltrane, I didn’t put up a fight.

I told my dad that it was okay, no hard feelings, and went to sleep in my narrow bed for the final time as a child of that house. On the wall above me was a bulletin board still filled with ribbons and medals from the swimming career I’d abandoned several years before. The rainbow wallpaper I’d picked out around about the same time that I’d had my brief flirtation with the saxophone intoxicated the walls of the small room. Interview magazine covers were tacked to one wall. And the clock radio on which I’d listened to Casey Kasem so many times, especially for the New Year’s Eve countdown (I still recall the year I correctly guessed that “Silly Love Songs” would get the top spot), stood sentry on my little side table.

—-

This Monday I woke up across town in a king-sized bed on New Year’s morning. Outside, I knew it was frigid, but the sun was bright and strips of it fell on my face. I breathed in the year, the opportunity to begin again. Like a crisp sheet right off the line, the new year breathes me with possibility. As my mind started its slow awakening, the first firm thought that arrived was, “I could die this year.”

Whoa. Where the hell did that come from? It didn’t feel ominous or like a morbid prediction. Rather, it just felt real and possible and full of the short, sweet potential that is life. Death and the brilliant sunlight coexisted in my bedroom for a minute or two, and I held them with mutual esteem.

I am over 50. Not old, but not young. My daughter is teetering on the edge of leaving the house; I feel her practicing her wing skills with great trepidation and occasional moments of joyful expectancy. My grandmother is teetering on the edge of life’s end, and I feel her quietly wrestling with the heavy blanket of old age and memory loss that takes more and more of what she recognizes. We all teeter. We all consider what could be the first — first kiss, first steps, first drive, first dance — and what could be the last — last kiss, last meal, last words.

So yes, I could die this year. And I could learn the saxophone (which is celebrated in this single village in China). I could keep up my attempts at learning Spanish. Like the people in this video, I could stand on the edge of a 10 meter platform and stare down my fears. I could dance more. I could love myself better–perhaps even come to love my belly and the creases around my mouth, love myself into sweet stillness. I could see Yosemite for the first time. I could meet new people. I could sleep till noon in this giant bed. I could live without regret.

 

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Five Bucks

The gas light had been on for awhile before I turned into the weird little stop-n-shop off of Burlington Street. I go there often because it’s on my route, but I’ve hardly ever been in the store — just enough to know it’s pretty bare bones, with an emphasis on beer and cigarettes. When I had kidney stones a few years ago and had to go to the ER for the pain, Chris and I stopped in this lot on the way home so I could crawl out and puke near the cement retaining wall. “I puked there a long time ago,” he laughed as I got back in the car, “but for very different reasons.”

This is pretty much the sum total of my history with this corner gas station.

I was wearing an old stained winter coat that I wear when I’m going to the gym in case it gets stolen. I was trying to figure out how to press the lesser priced gas in order to fill my car, a red Toyota RAV. It’s a nice car — the nicest I’ve owned. I lease it because I was so exasperated by the unknown costs that accompanied an older car, but I’m still kind of embarrassed to have this shiny, new vehicle. It feels irresponsible in some part of my brain — a part that believes the narrative that you buy a car and pay it off and that’s how a “good person” does things.

I was struggling with the pump — I struggle with gas pumps frequently; they’re just not my thing — when two people came out of the store carrying a plastic bag and laughing loudly. I turned and smiled at them. “Merry Christmas!” the woman, who was African American and roughly in her 40s, shouted to me. I yelled the same back and gave a bigger smile.

“Nice truck!” the man, also African American and around the same age, said. “Can I take it for a spin?” We all laughed, though inside my car shame was kicking myself for ever trading in my dad’s old Volvo wagon. I was also trying to gage if they were a couple, something I do when I encounter a pair of people. I like to read body language and find clues that provides a backstory about them. I was deciding they weren’t, just as he cut off from her and started walking toward me: “Can I ask you something?”

Please don’t ask me for money. Please don’t ask for money. It wasn’t even so much that I cared if he asked, it was that it felt so predictable. The racial difference, the apparent socio-economic differences. For a moment, I wanted to be three random human beings who were in the same place and had shared a smile and a well wishing.

As the woman took off across the street without a word, I got a sense that she had a similar thought.

I wanted him to ask me about the fate of NASA. I wanted him to ask me for my grandmother’s cranberry fluff recipe. I wanted him to ask me if I’d been a Bulls fan n the day. I wanted him to ask me white or wheat. I wanted him to ask me if I remembered learning how to tie my shoes. I wanted him to ask me if I slept on my side or on my stomach or on my back.

“Sure,” I said, “ask away!” I kept smiling as I was also topping off the tank.

“You got any money?” Before I could reply, he started into a story about how they were visiting his sister and she didn’t want them to stay with her, so they were sleeping under the bridge instead. He gestured to the south and I couldn’t picture a bridge.

“Why doesn’t she want you stay with her?” I kept my upbeat voice, but something in me wanted to to know more. Something in me actually wanted to talk. “Her son is bipolar; it makes him uncomfortable.”

I took in his white coat, which was clean and didn’t really look like it had been hanging out under a bridge. When he smiled, I saw a front tooth that was brown all the way down to the root; it made me wince at the pain I imagined it caused. At a glance of his pants, I noticed a big stain — dirt? blood? ketchup?

“Of course,” I said, as I returned the nozzle to its original place. “Just a sec.”

In my wallet was a five and a one. Without hesitation, I pulled out the five.

There were many previous versions of me that would not have given this man this money — out of fear or disgust, out of cowardice or doubt about whether this was the “right thing.” And afterward I would feel shame with myself for hesitating and anger with him for what I would have deduced was a totally made-up story.

But today I thought:  there could be a sister. There might be a bipolar son. A night or two under the bridge doesn’t seem out of the question. There might be beer in the white plastic bag.  But the one thing in front me that I knew for sure was that rotten tooth. There was no making that up.  For that tooth alone — for all of my insured dentist visits and my son’s current orthodontia and for every tube of toothpaste I’ve ever bought, there was a desire to give him the money without any attachment of where it was going. Instead, it was a small acknowledgement of “hey, you looked me in the eye and asked me for something. I heard you – and here it is.”

A year ago, I’m not sure what I would have done. I went through a phase of carrying around bags of clean socks and granola bars in my car to hand to people on street corners who were holding cardboard signs asking for help. Once they were all gone, I didn’t replace them because often when I handed them to people and watched as they looked inside, I noted a combination of disappointment and disdain.

I know that I certainly wouldn’t have written this post. But this year has split open race for me and made it immediate and vital to understanding this time and place in which we live. Not that I have gained clarity about race; much more importantly, I have gained clarity about my unclarity. I don’t know shit. But I know that I want to talk about it – to listen about it – to watch it on screen and read it in books. I want to share space with people who look different than me and who’ve had radically different experiences of America; to hear stories from them and struggle together with the current mess that is our country. I want to be able to walk up to someone who looks different than me, and if I feel in need, to be able to ask for something and know that I will be seen and heard and, if possible, my need will be met.

Mostly, I know that hiding behind shame doesn’t do anyone any good. So five bucks was nothing. It was a piece of paper. And a chance for our hands to meet and for two people to be in the same place and share a smile and a well wishing. Merry Christmas.

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be & do (shoobeedoo)

I just finished reading a novel in which a character has lost his ability to speak — we never know why, nor does he seem to know. To simplify his life, he has no tattooed on one hand and yes on the other. Do you want coffee? Left hand. Are you angry with me? Right hand.

I’ve been attending trainings in TRE – trauma release exercises. These are a simple group of physical exercises that fatigue the large muscles of the lower body and help bring about a tremor in the body. It’s this tremor which all large mammals use to shake off trauma, and which non-human animals rely on without questioning to release trauma. Clever us, with our big noggins, we think ourselves out of these tremors and instead trap trauma in our body.

Anything that is too much, too soon, too little, too often can produce trauma. It needn’t be a car accident, a war experience, domestic violence. We all have trauma. And yet we harangue ourselves for it — not me, we say; or we swallow it down because it seems impossible to bear.

But the body knows.

Dipping the very tip of my littlest toe into anatomy … humans have efferent and afferent neurons. One of them carries information away from the  brain and the other toward the brain. The afferent pick up sensory information — a burn to the hand, a sour taste — and takes it to the brain — which then sends a reaction via the efferent nerves into the motor actions of the body — kicking, contracting.

Afferent nerves be. Efferent nerves do. We ride this never-ending ocean of being and doing. Most of it, we’re never aware of. It’s just happening at a level to which most of are deaf.

What is it like to slow down, even for a few minutes a day, and listen to these waves? Can we start to hear our own bodies dance between being and doing?

I’ve thought of having be tattooed on one hand and do tattooed on the other (don’t worry mom, I’m not going to), reminders that we are always gently shifting between the two. It is so easy — so culturally preferable — to do. Do the dishes. Send the emails. We are programmed from an early age that doing is what brings success; that doing is absolutely necessary for survival. But if an animal doesn’t rest and doesn’t learn  how to listen, it will quickly meet its end — whether through exhaustion or by not hearing the oncoming predatory.

Our never-ceasing doing puts cotton in our ears so that we cannot hear our own sensory information. We are shocked when we get sick because we weren’t listening to the body’s messages, even when it’s been practically yelling at us. We are so good at charging ahead and overriding the needs of the subtle body, living in the cacophony of our wired world. Too good.

It is not that being on its own is superior. Not at all. It’s that the two need to be in conversation. And how can they talk if one side can’t hear the other?

So my daily question right now – how can I enter those waves and feel the back and forth, the dance that is happening without any effort from my silly old brain? That’s the rich ocean I want to swim in.

 

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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.