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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.

 

 

 

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Not Enough is Hungry

Not Enough is hungry. She keeps her tribe lean, stripped of the sweet nectar of story and praise song that can sustain a soul.  She wants her people to believe Dark Times are close at hand – just around the corner, in fact.

A gunman is on the horizon.

The flashing light is your own ambulance.

Don’t step on a crack.

Best to scrimp or even to mindlessly overindulge – a radical acting out that can be reprimanded, guilted over, and brushed aside – than to know you are securely Blessed.

Not Enough does not hold you; she would never caress you.

She prods and scratches, stings and kicks.

Her whispered fear messages fill the night, forcing your heart wide open to that which you cannot have. Out of reach. Too good for you.

Not Enough wears a gown of rags that she stole and begged for.

An apostle of Fear, she chants of dearth and prays to shame.

Grasp, she hisses, work harder. Go to bed with an empty heart so that your empty eyes can close and dream of the bee that enters you, buzzes into your hollow spaces, and creates a maze of thick sadness trapped in a crazy quilt of waxed hallways.

Do not Rest in the Bosom of Joy.

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god

When I was 20, I dyed my hair pink for the day, donned a crushed, burgundy velvet cocktail dress that had been my grandmother’s, and took my college boyfriend to a hotel on the edge of town as a Valentine’s surprise. The night is no more memorable than that: my hair, the dress, the stale room with its plastic cups.  I can’t even recall if we kissed.

Years later, when my kids’ babysitter – a girl who had grown up locally and who’s mom had worked with my mom – said, “I think I have a dress of yours,” I was surprised to see that same velvet dress. Neither of us could connect the dots exactly as to how it had ended up in her closet, but now it’s back in mine–musty and waiting for someone else to put it on and wear it with hope and panache. Someone who thinks just maybe love comes in a bottle and one day a year it’s okay to hope for something extra.

I still wait for magic. I wish I was over this lifelong habit, that I’d give up on it, just like that sorry-ass hair dye that faded within days. And yet I still wait for God to leap out of a stall at a roadside rest stop and pull me into a pool of shimmering light that will fill my every pore and make my breath feel at once tranquil and electric. And I hope that Buddha may be lurking on the path in the woods, ready to grab my hand and pull me aside, to open my eyes wider and wider until they almost hurt with the vibrant pulsating green love he shares.

I used to take a shower and fear Ted Bundy or Charles Manson would be on the other side of the thin plastic cover. When I had to close my eyes to rinse the shampoo, I’d be so certain that I’d open them to the sight of a face pressed near my mine – sour breath and maniacal eyes – that I’d jump when all I saw was tiles and soap dish.

I wait now for that moment of magic, that moment of grace – certain that it won’t come but also daring Life and every angel flying in her midst:  Bring it on, fucker. Bring it on. 

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the show

I am standing in my living room stretching, dancing, and just enjoying the stillness of an empty house. The shades are open, trying to coax in the small bit of sunshine that has eked its way through the cloud mass. These clouds have gone on and on and seem to have settled with the inauguration, as though they know: this is the new now. This heaviness, this colorlessness, this void.

So it is easy to see through the three front windows when he comes down the sidewalk. We are separated by the windows, the structure of the house, and a 4-foot swath of a gnarly vine that some earlier owner of this house had thought to be a good idea to plant.  He doesn’t see me as he walks slowly with an asymmetrical – arthritis in one hip? an injury? He is bundled against the cold of the day, which feels more bitter than the 29-degrees the thermometer reads (again – the weather reflecting the times?). In his hand is a red Netflix envelope, and he is walking – I can only surmise – toward the postal box at the end of my block.

Everything in this scene strikes me at once as pulled from an earlier age. The disc in his hand which is increasingly hard to find technology on which to play. The mailbox, which, in this neighborhood at least, is largely a place for parents with very small toddlers to take their children as an activity. It seems peeled from Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and dropped here as a reminder of an era when mailboxes were busy places, necessary places.

I continue my dancing stretch. I turn up the volume on Cloud Cult’s “The Show Starts Now“:  “I want to be the guy who lives in the moment, not so lost in my mind.  …Hold your breath for a better day, and you’ll never learn how to breathe.” My feet, slapping the wooden living room floor, march to my internal postbox, holding my outdated technology that only I know how to operate. It whirs in my heart, sending messages – some confusing, some hurtful, and others blessed incantations of love.