In which, for the first time in a year, a thousand firsts unfurl. Mostly, wrapping my arms around my firstborn, 1750 miles from where I spend most of my days…
It’s questionable whether sitting tucked in a dawn-lit corner in a faraway hotel, I can tap out too many hieroglyphics on this wee little keyboard, more fitting for the feet of an ant than for my fumbly fingers, but here I am, apparently so jazzed on the joy of watching my boys delight in each other’s company, not so adept at catching a night’s worth of zzzzz’s.
In this sweet swirl of days, so many frames have been packed in my brain, sleep has little room. There was the all-black-clad SWAT team rolling into downtown the night of the first anniversary of George Floyd’s death, when Portland once again exploded in protest with dumpster fires, fireworks hurled into the night, windows smashed, and graffiti strewn on block after block of marble, glass, or brick-walled storefronts. There are the endless miles of homeless camps on the sidewalks, spilling down embankments along the highways (and I mean right up to the shoulder of where cars race by at 70 mph), in the wells of dried-up public fountains, under the Chinese arch just outside this hip hotel outfitted with British soaps and sheets and “ethical organic” coffees to tuck into earthenware mugs inscribed, “99 problems. coffee ain’t one.” And, no, the juxtaposition, the cruel irony, doesn’t escape me. It’s a wrenching mix of utopia and dystopia here, and it seems to beg for answers to questions and conundrums that would vex a troop of MacArthur geniuses. But my firstborn is here for 16 months, and once my superpower shot kicked in and shielded me and all of us from the red-ringed invader, we strapped on our travel packs and made the trek to Stumptown.
Alongside the unsettling, there is wonder aplenty here, too, as the city seems to collect the curious, the kind, and the kooky. While I sip my ethical organic coffee and watch the sun come up, I’ll let my picture roll do the talking.
I’ve usually been a most reluctant traveler, a top-of-the-line homebody, one who frets in the days before departure about whether my tomato plants will survive without me, whether the pansies will droop, and in this case whether the wily skunk would move inside while we’re not watching. (Shawn the SkunkTrapper sent a text to let me know he was bringing in the infrared night-vision cameras he was borrowing from one of his fox-trapping jobs; I await word any minute now…)
But here I am, four days in, and relishing every adventure. Maybe in my doddering days, I will finally slay a few of the ghosts who’ve long vexed me. Travel can test us as much as it stretches us, and I’m in for the stretch, buoyed by the boys who animate my every heart beat.
Signing off from PDX. With love, always.
Anyone else out there a natural-born reluctant traveler? And if not, what words of enticement might you offer to those of us who’d do well to take a deep breath and put some miles on our hiking boots?
in which we momentarily leave behind the otherwise crushing worries of the world and the piled-high nail-biters of the day-to-day, and turn instead to contemplations of the wilds of suburbia. most especially the stinky ones….
a tale of one impregnable fortress and how and why it came to be…
he broke ground eight weeks ago, back before the last of the snows fell. he’d come quietly in the night so i took no notice. it was the tree guy who’d ambled into the back yard who first alerted me to his, um, efforts. “got something i need you to see,” the tree guy grumbled in that way that strangers sometimes deliver not-so-good news. then he walked me round the corner of the house, to the skinny walk that shimmies between our house and the next-door fence, and i saw a heap of dirt that someone must have shoveled there. i was confused.
“you’ve got a digger,” the tree guy pointed out. i wondered why someone would’ve tried to pile dirt in a heap beside the house, wondered if it was evidence of someone trying to break in through the underground, or rather to dig up some hidden treasure. (the suburbs, i’ve found, are full of surprises, so hidden treasure wasn’t exactly beyond the realm of possibility. heck, we had an across-the-alley neighbor who bought the losingest team in baseball and wound up winning the world series, so i’ve learned that anything can happen here in this strange neck of the woods.)
turned out, the heap of dirt was the former of my two choices: evidence of someone breaking in. or trying to anyway. but that someone didn’t stand on two legs; rather, it scampered (or waddled, depending on its mood) on all fours. my digger, it would soon be made known to me, was a striped and furry skunk. i wouldn’t have guessed between raccoon, possum, or smelly skunk, but i was informed by my tree guy that skunks are the ones who are decidedly notorious diggers, their front paws and claws as adept as any front-hoe loader.
and, mind you, this four-legged, cloud-spewing specimen was trying to dig not just anywhere but directly below the floorboards of the room in which i sit. RIGHT NOW. and all day every day. and late into some nights.
this room, once an old garage, was long ago tunneled with a coal chute, and the coal chute apparently makes for a cozy curling-up place for a skunk and all its kin. gender at this point remains unknown, so i like to think of him as Mr. Skunk, for if it’s a Ms. she might be looking to outfit this year’s obstetric ward, and i have no interest in being the chambermaid to a litter of smelly babies. no matter how adorable i imagine the little fur balls might be.
thus began the now-months-long escapades that have pitted me against the wiliest of the wilds; so far, the wilds are winning. especially if you measure in nights i lay awake listening for the telltale scritch and scratch. or the dollars spent at the hardware store fetching the latest in my litany of armaments.
i started with coyote urine, a curious place to begin, but i was following instructions of field experts. and when those who are fluent in these things point you to coyote urine, it is coyote urine to which you turn. in ample supply, mind you. i could only wonder how in heaven’s name one goes about collecting coyote urine, but i decided to trust the label and not go too deep in my picturing of that endeavor.
next up was a spotlight, the one i spiked into the ground, in futile hopes that it would chase away the night-prowling interloper. all i did was keep the night bugs awake. and spike my electric bill.
there was ammonia, too, as i was told it worked twice as good as mothballs in out-stinking the stinker. skunks, curiously sensitive to smell, apparently plug their noses and run for the hills when you douse a rag with pure ammonia and stuff it down their would-be entrance ramp.
for a few days it worked. but then the skunk dispatched with my ammonia-sodden rags, the light bulb burned out, and the coyote urine didn’t do a darn thing.
so i called in the Skunk Trapper, a lovely fellow i’ve come to think of as the fearless superhero of our dynamic duo — Skunk Man to my Robin — in this nightly endeavor in sisyphean critter catching. Skunk Man’s actual name is shawn and we text each other every single day, sometimes several times a day, with the latest advances or retreats in skunkdom. if you ever need a skunk trapper, check with me, and i’ll give you shawn’s name and number. he’s the A-1 best at pests here on the north shore of the great lake michigan.
so far, shawn has set not one but two traps. we’ve reinforced the side of the house and all but a narrow opening with cement and bricks (the last thing we’d want to do is permanently seal the coal chute before we were 1,000-percent certain no skunk was left behind, right beneath where i dangle my feet while typing). we’ve pounded in rebar spikes, nailed boards to the have-a-heart trap (we’re releasing him to the best woods around, so fear not, we’ve got this skunk’s best interests at heart here), and wrapped the whole thing in wire mesh and caging. i’ve hauled every heavy object from my garage: sacks of river rocks, sand bags, wire planters, metal buckets, even a 50-pound bag of fertilizer. looks like someone’s junk yard in what was once my soothing secret garden.
my beloved lifelong mate, away for weeks of this adventure (in new jersey attending to his beloved mother), came home the other evening, took one look at my rube goldbergian doings, and pronounced it “The Impregnable Fortress.” i do like the ring of that, makes it sound more upscale. someone else might simply call it “Junk Pile.” i’d not realized before that i’d married the man for his propensity for putting flourish to humble heaps. although he is the architecture critic. i now wear the pronouncement proudly. “may i show you my impregnable fortress?” i ask of any passerby. no wonder i get looks.
but back to the story, cuz it’s extra delicious in what comes next. the other night, shawn pulled out his best effort yet: on his way here to set another trap, he swung by the house, sliced a wedge of his sister’s taco pie, wrapped it in foil, and — voila! — he set the bait. he left a chunk of it on what amounts to the trap’s front stoop, and tucked the rest deep inside, hoping the skunk would slither in and the trap door would click shut behind him.
it worked! well, sort of…
night before last we caught something all right, and all the clanging woke up the next door neighbor who leaned out her bathroom window to ask if we were planning to keep the poor thing in the trap all night. i promised to ping shawn to see if he was in the midst of any midnight run, but alas, we had to wait till dawn. and that’s when brave shawn peeked inside and saw, not the wily skunk, but a big ol’ possum who must have a taste for taco pie. for shawn’s sister’s taco pie, specifically.
and once again this morning, there is digging aplenty but no sign that my impregnable fortress has been impregnated. once we’re 1,000-percent sure that no fur balls are furled inside, we’re hauling out the wheelbarrow and the cement. and that, i hope, will be the end.
and so it goes here in the heart of the heartland, where skunks outsmart the humans on a nightly basis. and where this critterly distraction has turned out to be something of a welcome diversion from the host of other worries piling high and mightily this long, cold spring.
while i cook up yet another ploy in my skunk-chasing escapades, i thought i’d leave you a recipe, should you suddenly find yourself hungry for a slice of taco pie.
if you’ve any leftovers, i am still deep in my efforts to catch that smelly skunk before he sets down impenetrable roots in my old coal chute….but for now, i offer you…
Should-You-Need-to-Catch-a-Skunk Taco Pie.
from the Betty Crocker kitchens…
1 pound lean ground beef
1 medium onion, chopped (1/2 cup)
1 package (1 ounce) taco seasoning mix
1 can (4.5 ounces) chopped green chiles, drained
1 cup milk
1/2 cup Original Bisquick mix
3/4 cup shredded Monterey Jack or Cheddar cheese (3 ounces)
1 Heat oven to 400°F. Grease 9-inch pie plate. Cook ground beef and onion in 10-inch skillet over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until beef is brown; drain. Stir in seasoning mix (dry). Spoon into pie plate; top with chilies.
2 Stir milk, eggs and Bisquick mix until blended. Pour into pie plate.
3 Bake about 25 minutes or until knife inserted in center comes out clean. Sprinkle with cheese. Bake 8 to 10 minutes longer. Cool 5 minutes. Serve with salsa and sour cream.
what tales from the wilds do you have to tell? have you built impregnable fortresses in your life, literally or metaphorically? and if so did it serve its purpose? (a question for contemplation only, especially if a metaphorical fortress…..)
this morning’s meander is dedicated wholly and heartfully to shawn o’hara, my skunk-chasing boss and ally. the best there ever was…….A-1 Pest Control in Highland Park. five-star best.
poor dear alexander had one. alexander, of one of the all-time best-titled tomes in the land of children’s literature. or children’s books, anyway.
poor alexander went to bed with gum in his mouth, and woke up to find it in his hair. he tripped over his skateboard while getting out of bed. and dropped his sweater into the sink — while the water was running. and then when his two best pals found a.) a Corvette Sting Ray car kit, and b.) a Junior Undercover Agent code ring in their breakfast cereal boxes, all alexander found was, well, breakfast cereal.
it was neither gum in my hair, nor skateboards, nor sweaters in sinks — not even the lack of a decoder ring that got in my way. but, it turned into one of those days anyway. like i said, we all have them. there’s not a one of us who skates through a month, or a year, or a lifetime without tumbling into the occasional pothole, or skinning our knees on the rough edges of daily existence.
and, so, i decided to cook.
cooking, following steps from 1 to 2 to 4, seemed like it might be just the thing to soothe me (and maybe the fact that i seem to have skipped right over 3, there in my count, led to the outcome i’m veering toward). hauling out cutting boards and chopping devices, yanking bottles of spice from the shelf, eyeing the crucifers i remembered to buy at the store, it all seemed like the ingredients i needed for a healthy dose of self-soothe.
it was all seeming swell as i gurgled the olive-y oil into the bowl, dumped in coriander seeds, apple cider vinegar, a fine grainy mustard (french, even!). i chopped cabbage into one-inch wedges, as instructed. i sliced a purple onion into rings. but i went clearly awry when i reached in the fridge for the chicken i needed to cook before its due date had passed. i must not have been paying attention (always a downfall), but the chicken i reached for was that swanky somewhat-newish thing in the poultry department, a thin-sliced breast. which translates to slightly-better-than-cardboard. no fat, no skin, no taste. barely any meat to the bonelessness. all the cumin, coriander, salt and pepper, could not make for taste. or anything close.
i swooped on anyway, following closely every step of the rest of the way. i pulled out my silicone pastry brush, slathered my mustardy brew all over the flanks of that cabbage. drizzled olive oil atop the onion circles. bathed my boneless hen in blankets of spice, as called for. i piled it all on a baking sheet (my cooking vessel of choice these days), and awaited the clouds of enticement rising from the cracks in the oven. it smelled mighty fine. and my terrible day was melting away.
but then the old metal timer clanged, and i pulled my tray from the oven. right away, those skinny breasts hollered “failure!” (i’ll even show you the picture; you can judge for yourself–>)
unwilling to surrender, i made a last-minute dash to the “farm,” where the last of the herbs haven’t yet been sheared to the ground. i grabbed a few fine handfuls of flat-leaf parsley, and did what any self-respecting soul in search of salvation would do: i let it rain bitlets of leaves all over my tasteless, rubbery, very thin breasts, the original meat with no point.
all of which is to say there will come days that leave us limp like raggedy dolls. days that, like my chicken, strip us to (or of) the bone.
and it is a good and wise thing to have a coterie of tricks up your sleeve for shoving yourself over the hump. no matter the stumbles and falters.
once upon a time i had no clue, really, how to make the hurt go away. or maybe, truly, it’s that once upon a time i never knew how to sit with the hurt, to let it be, to understand just how strong i could be, to find my way to the clear on the days when the fog was so thick and so dense, and the hurt was so much. it’s taken a lifetime — all the days up till now — to learn the few things that i know.
what i do know is that my terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day is behind me now. and it’s the next morning. and there’s leftover cumin-bathed slabs chilling in the dark of the fridge. should anyone care to swing by, i’m putting them up for the taking. not even the possums who prowl my back stoop are likely to take me up on my offer.
what’s your cure for a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day?
p.s. i’m not saying that chopping cabbage gets to the root of whatever it is that afflicts us, all i’m saying is sometimes we need something soothing to get to the other side, where we can begin to see through what hurts or what haunts us….
here’s another something i did this week, to leave you a wisp of the beautiful…..i was trying to hold onto a wee bit of summer’s bounty, by making my own potpourri. (martha stewart said to pluck the petals, strew on baking sheet, oven-dry at 250 for an hour.) it, too, was a flop (bad week for baking sheets at my house), as the glorious marigold and nasturtium and monkshood all turned a strange shade of bllkkh (variations in brown). so i started over, and decided to dry my petals the old-fashioned way: under the sun, strewn on my window sill. a work still in progress….
the little guy i love heads off to kindergarten (this was actually his “practice” walk to school): summer, 2006
i should have done this a long time ago. years ago. but, like many, many things in my life, i started late. was behind the average. way behind.
according to the centers for disease control, those fine governmental folk who track these things, the average maternal age for a second birth in the U.S. hovers just above 28. i was 44.7. i remember clearly the saturday afternoon when, knees shaking, i called my obstetrician to tell her the little white stick (aka home-pregnancy-checker gizmo) had just turned happy blue — i was, gulp, miraculously and against all odds and medical prognostications, “with child.” without taking a breath, my dear doctor rattled off the dreary stats: risk of miscarriage, 60 percent; risk of down syndrome, 1 in 32; risk of not surviving till the little bugger’s 18th birthday, 5.5 percent. (i’ve got 349 days to go….)
tell all that to the magnificent 8.0-pound baby boy born on august 8, 2001, at 3:22 in the morning, his big brother, father, and a phalanx of doctors and nurses (who’d rushed in the room when things got dicey) all in attendance. he and i plowed through every statistical obstacle strewn along the way. which is why his names, first and middle, mean “God’s gift,” (in greek), and “gift of God” (in hebrew). he was birthed — and named — in prayer upon prayer.
and now, all these stats-defying years later, said child is beginning his last year of high school this coming monday, which means this old house has entered official countdown mode. every step along the way, from now till the day we pack him up and drop him at some dormitory door, will come with modifier: “the last,” “the last,” “the last”….
what that means for me is that i dial up the savor knob, and even in the middle of a humdrum summer’s afternoon — while he’s ensconced in his little room at the turn in the stairs, and i’m chopping in the kitchen — i might just get a hankering to call up the stairs, and remind him for no reason whatsoever that i love him more than life. (to which he might moan “uh-huh” in humdrum reply.) i even find myself plucking inside-out shorts off the floor, smoothing rumpled sheets on his bed, and not minding one little bit because i know — full-well — that a year from now, i’d do anything to be able to pluck evidence of his presence off the bedroom floor.
i’ve lived — for the last seven years — with one foot in faraway-child mode, and one close as close could be. i know full well just how much that distance makes me ache. just the other morning, in faraway connecticut, i dried the tears as the shuttle pulled away from the curb and hauled me to the airport, my second-year law student disappearing behind the cars and trucks and light poles as the van turned the corner and i could see his broad shoulders no more.
like i said, i’m late to this. so late. plenty of my friends — from high school and from college — have long known grandmotherhood. know what it is to have the little rascals come for sleepovers. watch their firstborns cradle firstborns. not me. i’m still penciling in teacher conferences on my own calendar, making sure my rascal’s up and out of bed on the days the school bell rings.
i don’t know from empty nest. ours has not been empty in a quarter century. and we were married 27 years ago tomorrow. we mostly only know “nest accessorized with child.” come college shove-off next august, it’ll be the first time in 26 years that there won’t be another pair of feet clonking around the floorboards up the stairs. won’t be a soul to listen for as i lie there in the dark, awaiting the click of his key in the front door.
so until we get to that eery silence, that absence that’ll make this house an echo chamber, i’ll savor and savor and savor some more. my hunch is that i’ll be less cranky in this year to come. i’ll even relish smelly socks. and empty pie plates left overnight on the kitchen counter.
i know how absence feels. i know what it is to find myself in tears in the grocery aisle, because i’ve just reached for the something that i’d always thrown in the cart — but suddenly there’s no need anymore; the someone who always loved it is being fed by someone else now, someone in a college cafeteria. i remember full well how hard i tried to re-wire my brain, my being, to wrap my head around the notion that some kid i loved now dwelled hundreds of miles away, called home once on sunday nights in those first few months when he, too, was trying to find his place in this new equation called long-distance.
as always, i’m late to this. and i might be the oldest mama in his senior class. but gosh darn it, that only makes me wise enough to hold this year as if it’s the last. because, well, it is.
at the schoolhouse door: first day of kindergarten and a boy i love gets a shoulder squeeze from the very fine school principal.
how do you intend to savor this next whirl around the seasons?
a rare moment’s meditation on the slow road to school and back. before my pal sisyphus pulled the latest from his bag of slick tricks.
forgive the familiarity, but it seems we’ve been on most-familiar terms in the last 24 hours, so it dawned on me that perhaps it wise to befriend you. for reasons that escape me, you seem to have barged in this ol’ house, with nary a knock at the door. just, oomph! blew right in, settled down alongside me, tried to see what havoc you and your up-and-down ways might wreak.
you, my sisyphean interruptor, you must have run out of folks to mess with, so you decided to mess with me. there’s the dinner you burned, the pants you nearly set on fire, and in your latest attempt at folly, you must have decided it would be oh-so-charming if, after staying up till past midnight with the kid whose homework would not end and whose headache wouldn’t stop pounding, you first made him miss the bus. and then, just as i was thinking how much i didn’t mind the morning drive through the woods to the schoolhouse, and how in fact it stitched a dose of meditative calm into my daily rush, you dawned on the big bright idea that it would be hilarious if, when the kid hauled his backpack out of the car at the schoolhouse curb, you tugged at the pencil bag, the one that carries the calculator he needs for the quiz he missed because his headache was so awful. you kept it in hiding, of course, you sly little rock-pusher, you waited till the car was almost home, and then, in a fit of devilishness, you poked the pencil bag’s edge out from under the seat, just far enough so that when i saw it, i could feel that wonderful sense of heart reeling to throat. that’s when i pulled over and texted said kid: “do you need pencil bag?” to which he replied: “of course. why don’t i have it?”
and that’s when i made like, well, you, mr. forth-and-back-forth-and-back-forever-and-ever-amen!
i spun the old wagon back in the direction from which it had just come, and emphatically hit the gas. oops. lest the cops pull me over right here and now, let’s say i “gentled the pedal” that ties to the gas, ever so delicately hightailing from 10 to 40 mph. and that’s when i looked down, and realized that today of all days was the rare and unusual morning when i figured i could head out the door in my jammies, the ones with the tie-dyed dots all over the pants, the ones no fool would wear into that high school where high-cheekboned kids stay up late into the night perusing the latest fashion trends.
so, yes, you pulled a good one there. you must have been doubled over in fits of giggles, as you watched me leap from the car, lope up the steps, and weave through the teen-aged throngs to get to the window where lost and left-behind items are left. far as i know, those adorable kiddies thought i was just another silver-haired mama, decked out in my retrofit tie-dyes, adding to the daily pile of forgetfulness.
and before this goes on much longer, before you decide it would be SO funny to, say, let a chipmunk romp through the house, or bathe the old cat in eau de skunk, i thought i’d dash off this dispatch, this plea for detente, and see if maybe just maybe we could sit down for tea, negotiate a truce.
i need no more tearful outbursts. i’ve had it with smoke-billowing appliances. all i want, mister one-step-forward-two-steps-back, is a calm rest of the day. no speeding tickets. no sprained ankles. no fire department banging down my front door.
in fact, i’ll sweeten the deal: you steer clear of my path for the day, just this one measly day, and i’ll shoulder your load to the top of the hill.
but you’re on your own after that, mr. deja-vu-all-over-again, when per eternal order of the undergods, that nasty old rock bobbles back to the starting line. and you find yourself right back where you were.
much like the drill i’ve come to know as my own. ever since you so rudely barged in.
one of us took a tumble the other night. all one of us was trying to do was go to bed. but around here, in these disheveled days, you take your life in your hands any time you try to get from point Q to point Z. the poor tumbled person, he found himself skittering upon a pond of discarded papers. and old bulletin boards. and chin-up bars whose use has expired. and a few old campaign stickers from congressional races that didn’t quite turn out the way some of us had hoped.
it made for a terrible noise. the noise awoke me. and our resident little fellow, just sinking into a short night of sleeps, he went leaping from his bed to see what was the matter, what was the source of the fortissimo clatter. there the source lay. all asprawl. undaunted, or so he insisted. just a scattering of papers and limbs, soon rustled back into order.
i tell this tale because it’s illustrative, you might say, of the tumbled-up order (well, really, dis-order) that is the current state of awry in this house.
you can practically hear the ol’ joint moaning. the floor boards are letting out protest. long-shuttered windows, refusing to budge. nearly every available corner, it seems, is lost, under siege, is crushed by the weight of teetering piles.
we have piles of books from every era of a young boy’s growing-up years. and whole parades of paraphernalia from particular passing obsessions: we begin with trains and move onto baseball, then comes the film-camera chapter, swiftly followed by double bass/sound-recording, onto politics and rowing, then deeper and deeper into political philosophers whose first few sentences i can barely muddle through. if you were inclined toward archeological digs, you could trace the timeline of our firstborn’s obsessions — now on stand-by for storage or discard — as if the strata in metamorphic rock.
all of this to say that it’s NUTS AROUND HERE! (excuse me, i needed to let out a motherly roar!)
i’ve come to realize in the last week plus two days and 20 hours that, for the last four years, we’d existed in an artificially placid world around here (even though i wasn’t enlightened enough to grasp the relative serenity).
back then, when i cleaned the sink before tumbling to bed, it was just as clean in the dawn as it had been at midnight. when i dumped a barrel of apples into the produce bin, i could count its dwindling one-by-one. breakfast hadn’t become a three-pan production. and, heck, when i walked in the door, and lined up three unassuming pairs of shoes, they stood where i’d told them to stay, and never threatened to kill me by wolf-whistling a back-door convention of every imaginable combination of foot wear, all size 13 (or, in the unforgettable words of a long-ago seller of shoes on state street that great street in downtown chicago, a peddler who put measuring tape to the feets of my mate, and yelped, “man, you is past-noon!”).
ah, but that was then. back in the age of kid-off-at-college.
said kid, as you know, is now home. and gone is the calm, the unruffled quietude, that so soothed me. so essentially soothed me.
yes, yes, i love every ounce of the discombobulation. but, oh, it’s discombobulated, right here in these parts. and i’m always a bit slow to get with the program, so i need to untangle the knots and knead out the kinks in my nerves. i need to live in a suspended state of dishevelment, not mind that the only way down the stairs is to thread your way, ever so gingerly, between the piles of books that each hog a step. i need to double my allergy meds, what with the dust storm that’s swirling through room upon room.
it’s what happens when the carpet-ripper-outer arrives. and the painter shows up to slap a new coat of templeton gray onto the mottled walls in the bath. and bookshelves are cleared, and drawers are dumped of their fifth-grade detritus.
what just a week ago was a boy’s room, one decked out with a baseball-bat lamp, and a plush navy carpet, and the overstuffed chair i’d once bought for purposes of nursing a newborn, is now a post-collegiate den. one with splattered-maple floor, college-crest armchair, re-curated bookshelves, and, en route, a 1920s floor lamp procured via etsy — soon to arrive at the downtown greyhound station, where shipping comes at half the cost of door-to-door delivery (making for yet another urban scavenging adventure, i’m certain).
mere moments ago i was interrupted here amid my typing for a conversation that’s emblematic of the way the days are unfolding: said man, the one who lives in what we now refer to as The Studio at 522 (giving the appropriate marketer’s capitalization to even the lowly article, The, making it all seem swanky and swell), he paused by my writing room to display the morning’s dilemma, and to partake of some motherly counsel.
seems his running shoe has half-shed its heel, so he reasoned that rather than leaping out for a jog and risking its loss altogether, he’d try a bit of home repair before hitting the elliptical down in the basement. he was considering super-glu as quik-solve to the runaway shoe part, but then he realized he might spend the rest of his day glued to the round-and-round part of the shape-up machine. which led him to wonder, aloud, if anyone had ever shown up at the ER door with fitness apparatus attached.
all you can do — and i do — is laugh out loud. deeply and often.
it might be a week or so — okay, maybe a month or so — till we wrestle these piles into place. the attic — now stuffed to the gills — dare not collapse. and, sooner or later i’ll figure a way to have groceries by train car delivered.
and somehow (perhaps if i pray to the patron saint of chaos becalmed, or beg for celestial xanax to rain from the clouds) i’ll settle into the hum that surely will come soon as i catch up to the prestissimo that is now the requisite pace in these parts. these most decidedly discombobulated, deeply joy-filled, post-college parts.
some of you — my mother, for certain — might have predicted it wouldn’t take too long till i exclaimed that it sure had gotten noisy and messy around here, now that we’ve expanded the homestead’s population by 25 percent. so i’ve once again been utterly predictable. all i know is that it helps to deep breathe, and maintain a DEEP sense of hilarity. tumbling out the door for garden breaks is also restorative. but best of all is climbing the stairs and knowing that just behind the closed door at the bend in the stairs there dwells the kid i’ve so longed to have home, for even the shortest of whiles. indeed, for as short or as long as this lasts, i really and truly am thrilled beyond thrilled to absorb the oncoming, everyday tumbles and blows here in the land of dishevelment.
what are your tried-and-true measures for weathering the population transitions in your life, when someone comes or someone goes, most especially someone you deeply dearly love who arrives or departs with truckloads and train cars of stuff?
i’m typing this a day before i usually type. because tomorrow, friday, at this lovely hour, i’ll be feeling my heart plunk though my chest. i’ll pretty much be wishing i was anywhere besides where i’ll be: sitting in a grand dining room, with white-jacketed waiters scurrying like flocks of plate-bearing birds. knives and forks will be tinkling. i’ll be wishing that every wine goblet at every place was sloshing and swiftly being drained. i’ll wish for delirium to sweep across the room, and everyone in it to drift into ether-land. i’ll wish, quite frankly, to be knocked out myself.
it might extinguish the angst.
as the clock ticks toward 40 minutes after 12, i’ll be calling on angels and saints to lift me and carry me through the next 35 minutes.
you see, i’m slotted to get up, before a crowded dining room, in an old-guard chicago club, and unspool a few wisdoms.
which — if you know me even a wee little bit, this should come as no surprise — scares the behoozies right out of me. oh, i’ve been practicing a good bit of late. it’s what comes after you spend a few years sitting alone in a room, typing your heart out. all of the sudden, they (those faraway someones in the towers of publishing) glue all that typing together, put a pretty cover on it (in my case, a vase of what my little one calls “the dead flowers”), and then they make you get up and talk about those words. out loud.
which, pretty much, is my definition of living-breathing fear. it’s so far outside my comfort zone, i find myself dreaming of rocks i could hide under. examining closets for the extent of their “hide-ability.” my recurring nightmare, just before i wake up on the dawns of the days when i’m slotted to “book talk”: it’s me being toppled by tidal wave after tidal wave. complete with slimy sea shimmerers.
but then, each and every time i stand up — certain my knees will give out, especially if i’m teetering on the skinny little “kitten heels” my fairy godmother in book touring told me i needed to buy (“everyone looks at your feet while you’re reading; you need something excellent for them to look at,” she instructed, in no-fooling terms) — each and every time (so far), i’ve been overtaken by the intoxicant that swirls through the room. the one called love, pure and simple. i look out into a crowd peopled with faces i love, even faces i’ve never seen before, and suddenly i am soaring. no longer the terrified typer, but suddenly afrolic, to make up a word, one that for these purposes we’ll define as in the midst of frolicking. frolicking in waves and waves of laughter and tears and words tumbling on words.
but here’s the problem: i can tell, by the toxins that build by the hour in the hours and days leading up to every one of these podium moments, that i have clearly not inherited the microphone gene, the one double-dosed in my father, that jolly fellow above, the one who looks as if the mike is a plug that literally fills him with high-voltage current.
my papa never met a podium he didn’t love. heck, he traveled the world seeking out podiums. told us umpteen thousand times his fine little podium trick: just look out and picture everyone in their skivvies (that’s vintage 1920s talk for undies).
frankly, it’s never worked for me. i’m too scared to picture anything, let alone fruits-of-the-loom, and tattered stretchy sports bras (if my undies drawer stands as template for this).
so it came as something of a surprise — perhaps a hand reaching down from the heavens — when, a few hours ago, hard at work rinsing gunk from the kitchen sink, i suddenly was struck with a novel idea. one that in alllllllllll my years of being allergic to podiums and microphones has never before leapt into my braincells.
what if i pretend my papa is sitting there? smack dab in the very front row, all pink cheeks and twinkling gray-blues, drumming his fingers in that way that he did, that way i still can hear in my head.
what if i channel that jolly old soul who lived to tell a great tale, who wrung every drop of guffaw out of a punch line, who couldn’t care less how corny it was, long as it erupted the room in knee-slapping, tear-swiping, catch-your-breath laughter?
my papa lived to make people laugh. my papa lived to delight the ear with the tricks of his tongue and his tale-telling superpowers.
i’m a dialed-down version of my papa. what i’m aiming for, first and foremost, is to make it through alive. or at least not collapse in a heap, my little black dress and kitten heels the only discernible survivors. oh, i love a good laugh. i swell to it, like any living-breathing soul of irish descent.
but when i feel heaven and earth intermingling is when it’s so very quiet you can hear breath flowing in, flowing out. when you look into faces, rapt. maybe a tear, maybe streams of tears, messily making their way down cheek after cheek.
that’s the magic that propels me out of my seat. that’s the one and only reason i’m mustering whatever it takes to stand up and teeter on wobbly knees, wobbly ankles, curled-up toes: i’m aiming for the pulsing heart inside each and every one of us. i want our hearts — for as long as we can stretch it out — to beat in the blessed unison, the deep-down understanding that we all, every one of us, are searching for the sacred stitch that draws us together, that animates the whole of us, and lifts us to a plane of higher purpose.
and, maybe, if i pretend my papa is there, in the very front row, all dapper in his brooks brothers suit, the one with the buttoned-up vest, the one he wore on the most special occasions. maybe if i pretend he walked across chicago’s loop from the glistening tower where he typed for all those years — maybe, just maybe, the god-awful worry will melt away.
and i can pretend, tomorrow, that me and my dad are sitting alone in a very big dining room, and i am looking at him, straight into his heart, telling my very best stories, and unspooling a wee bit of wisdom.
miss you, sweet papa. see you tomorrow….
how do you talk yourself through the things that scare you to jitters?
dispatch from 02139 (in which this year of thinking sumptuously is slipping through our fingertips, certificates of completion are now collecting dust atop the dresser, and we are due to turn back into pumpkins any minute now….)
so, at last it’s come, and now it’s gone.
may 22. that once-distant spot on the horizon, that date we magically hoped might never come near, the date when all the fellows and their co-vivants would gather one last ceremonial time, circle around the astounding historian and president of veritas U, drew faust gilpin.
she would stand behind the podium, all 5-foot-8 of towering intellect, and she’d sprinkle us with final words of wisdom and blessing, deal out certificates as if a deck of holy cards, and then we’d file out.
the year of thinking sumptuously come to a sorry close.
if no mortar boards were tossed in the air (the suggestion was nixed, opting instead for dignified closing benediction), there were exhales all around: sighs of relief, whoops of joy. and there were inhales: disbelief. oh-no-what-now? how’d that happen quite so swiftly?
i, for one, am clearly in the camp of the muddled.
so topsy turvy are my insides, are the thoughts rumbling through my brain, it’s a miracle these sentences aren’t flowing out in parabolas and circles.
i am one big gunny sack of contradiction.
i am deeply grateful — and i mean prostrate, belly-flopped, on the cobbled lanes, for crying out loud — for having had this wollop of a whirl drop into our laps in the first place. and i am oh-so-sick that i didn’t lick a few more morsels off my plate, didn’t break out of a few of the ties that bind me, always bind me.
i am more than sated, yes, but hungry for so much more — in the book department, for starters. i am lugging home a 10-pound box of syllabi that i intend to read my way through, even if i need to live to 210 to do so.
i ache for home, for the friends who know me through and through and who understand the hills and valleys of my soul. i ache to be back in my not-so-secret garden, perched on the birdhouse bench tucked along the bluestone path. i imagine tiptoeing down my creaky stairs, turning the corner into my farmhouse kitchen, letting the cat in from his midnight prowl.
and yet, last night at fenway (the final final outing of the year, a trek to the green monster, washed down with a belly-ache of cotton candy, cracker jack, and a triple cracked off the bat of the reigning mr. red sox, dave ortiz), i was looking a few rows down at my beloved friend from south africa and i thought i heard my own heart crack at the thought of being an ocean and a continent away from her.
and what about the great white clapboard clubhouse that’s been the beehive of this blessed bustling nieman year? every time i round the bend, come through that white picket gate (past the nostril-packing lilac and the korean spice viburnum in recent weeks), charge up the brick walk and bound through the brass-knockered front door, i’ve felt more embraced than a girl should be allowed to feel (by the old floorboards and colonial panes of glass, i mean, a place that echoes with three-quarters of a century of journalism heavyweights).
and leaving behind the curator — the great good friend who somehow believed in me this year, even when i was quivering with self-doubt — i cannot stand the thought of not having her in my every day.
can’t stand the thought of days not populated with seminars and masterclasses, with shoptalks and round tables, with spontaneous eruptions of big ideas and wacky antics down in the clubhouse basement where the computers always whir and the fridge is forever stocked with cranberry-lime fizzy water, my emblematic drink of the year.
one marvelous fellow-friend told me yesterday that she felt only one thing the other night, after the certificates and the lovely dinner and the curator’s jaw-dropping act of handing out, one at a time, the perfect book she had deeply picked for each and every one of the 24 fellows. she felt “complete,” my fellow-friend said.
how odd, i thought, that i feel quite the opposite. i feel rather incomplete.
is it some quirk in my wiring that has me looking at this whole thing upside down? or is it simply, as i’ve said all year, that i’ve been catapulted into a somewhere i always imagined was here, but i’d not tread before: i am learning my way through the landscape of slow-acquired wisdom, and i see so long and winding a trail ahead.
there are volumes to be inhaled and boundaries to be toppled. there are trapezes i aim to grab, and training wheels i might take off.
i am, in a million ways, so very much a beginner.
and it’s a slow road, mustering courage and backbone.
and there are miles and miles to go before i finally sleep.
and all along the way, i’ll be whispering my vespers of deep and everlasting thanks…for this most glorious and forever year of thinking so very sumptuously.
photo above is my mate, “the professor,” ambling into loeb house for the lovely and heartfelt final dinner. once the home of the president of veritas U, the brick colonial manse is now reserved for truly special occasions — when funders gather with their pocketbooks, or, in the case of the empty-pocketed nieman fellows, for the final push out of harvard yard.
all things nieman now have ended, but we’ll haunt cambridge for another month as little mr. sixth grader winds up his school year, and we slowly say goodbye to this city where a good chunk of our hearts will forever dwell.
do you often find endings a whirl of up, down and sideways?
dispatch from 02139 (in which every horizontal plane seems buried under sheafs and piles of papers upon papers…)
you wonder — or at least i do, most often when dillydallying before diving in to some writing project that demands utter and undiluted attention — just how it is to grow up in a house where the smoke spewing from chimneys is that of words on fire. where the factory floor is littered not with scraps of leather, shards of porcelain, or snippets of fine cloth (respectable trades, all, the cobbler, the potter, the tailor). but rather everywhere you try to amble, there’s an adjective tossed to the ground. there’s a verb deemed too wimpy cowering in a corner. and there are reams and reams of blah ideas heaved over someone’s hunched-over shoulders.
it’s a veritable word trap here where we dwell.
at this very moment, for instance, the dining room table is awash in a banquet of fist-high papers, with nary an inch for a spoon or a fork. the back office is barred with “do not disturb” tape. only the claw-footed tub might be spared the detritus of the writing biz, the one that seems to be the family obsession, er, occupation.
alas, tis tough having been born a double-byline (we have two), the progeny of two souls who could find nothing more admirable to do with their lives than string words onto clotheslines and call it a day’s toil.
the boys we spawned, that other writer fellow and i, they’ve lived and breathed keyboards since the days they were popped from the womb.
they’ve guzzled mama’s milk to the tip-tap-tap of keys. they’ve drifted off to nap time, lulled by the somnolent shooshing of fingers upon alphabet squares. heck, early on, one of the duo played make-believe with a toy telephone, put receiver to his ear, and promptly proceeded to push aside his mama with a curt, “i can’t talk to you now, i’m talking to my editor.”
he was two.
talk about staring your sins in the face.
and so, as i’ve surveyed the landscape around this little aerie this week, i’ve the niggling sense that we might be drowning in words. one of us has hijacked the couch, the afghan, the dining table and all six of the chairs (the better to fan out those vertical files). the other has staked his polar-explorer flag in the icy back office, and, for warmer-upper reprieve, the cozy cove in the kitchen.
which, by my calculations, leaves the poor sixth-grade lad little choice but to hole up on his out-of-reach top bunk when he too decides to partake of the family biz, though in his case he much prefers inhaling to exhaling words. so that’s where we find him these days, when the smoke from the word chimney gets a tad too thick, when he retreats behind his curtainwall of great reads.
is it any wonder the boy is deep-breathing literary wonders at a clip never before clocked in his lifetime? in six short weeks, the once reluctant reader tore through the harry potters (all), then page-turned his way through “the hobbit,” and just this monday and tuesday zoomed through a brilliant tale aptly called “wonder.” (it’s by r.j. palacio, and it’s about a wise-beyond-his-years boy born with a severe facial deformity and his parents’ decision that it’s time to stop homeschooling and, in fifth grade, send him bravely and with much trepidation to ‘mainstream school.’ it’s a book that no less than the wall street journal described as “a beautiful, funny and sometimes sob-making story of quiet transformation”).
which is why one of my best to-do’s of the week was to be the reader lad’s fetcher, to mosey down the lane to the cambridge public library, sidle up to one of the world’s yummiest children’s librarians (and aren’t they all among the yummiest?), pick her brain, and waddle home loaded down with a menu of new word-fattened morsels. (see above.)
in theory, these weeks through here are the january thaw for the brain; in college parlance it’s the stretch known as january term, J term, or inter-term.
only mr. wordsmith and i have decided there’s no time for time-off in our one swift year, so we’re digging in deeper. he is toiling on a book, and writing yet another one in preparation for a class he’ll be teaching for the next two weeks. i am doing what looks like shuffling papers, but really it’s a wee bit more ambitious than that — and a thousand times harder.
so everywhere you go, there are alphabet keys and — shhhhh! — expletives flying. there are pages jamming the printer. and paragraphs clogging the brain.
it’s dense enough around here that i sat down this morning to ask the young lad, the one shoveling oatmeal into his mouth, just how it was to grow up in a house where the family business is words.
said he, “it’s kinda weird.” but then, deeply-versed in the editing process, he asked me to strike that first sentence so he could begin again.
“it’s kind of like everybody’s always picking up the phone cuz they’re on deadline. or running out the door to an interview. or they’re in their office writing like a madman.” [editor’s note: please do note the use of the masculine, madman, not madwoman, proving once and for all that i am not the only off-kilter member of this writing tag team.]
since the lad was on a roll, and had been asked to unfurl a few deep-held words on the matter, he went on with one more complaint before the clock chimed, “STOP, time to chase the school bus.”
that complaint was this: “there’s way too much attention to words. i’m always getting my grammar corrected.”
and so it is, young lad, when you grow up in a house of words, when you’d best not flub your me & him’s, nor your “i choosed the chocolates.” it’s a family sin, and one you’ll not escape unedited.
so sorry you were not born to cobblers. just think, you’d have holey shoes to show for it. instead you’ve nouns and verbs and subjective infinitives pouring from your ears.
poor, poor double-byline.
love, your wordy mama
what were the occupational hazards of growing up in the house where you grew up??
it appears that after you’ve dwelled under the same roof as moi for, oh, a few weeks, or, heck, your whole lifetime, you get used to the regular punch of the panic alarm.
might be the smoke billowing up from the stove. might be a critter whimpering by the backdoor, come lookin’ for a spoonful of sugar, or a wrap in a blanket. might be me reading the news, tears rolling down my cheeks. or might be a phone call, one that sets me to frettin’ and gasping.
whatever it is, you learn to take it in holy stride. “oh, that’s mama,” they mutter, “ridin’ one of her heart-yankin’ roller coasters.”
so it was the other afternoon, or honestly, it was inching into the dinner hour.
that’s when i up and shot from my typing room, where i’d been tethered all day, tap-tapping away on the keys. never mind that tummies were growling, the kiddies pining away for a plain simple supper. a cold boiled potato, in fact, might have been all they wished for.
oh, well. chalk one up for the department of children and family services’ checklist: mama abandons her kids, chooses the trowel over the cook pot.
why, with nary a second thought (save for the swift pang of guilt as i jabbed toward the pantry, called out, “how ’bout a pretzel?”), i slipped into my pink rubber garden clogs and shot into the beds.
over my shoulder, i let out a whoop, my way of explaining: “garden emergency! garden emergency!”
the emergency, in case you are starting to wonder, was this: the nice weatherman was forecasting, in no wishy-washy words, one of those hell’s-on-its-way scenarios, in which temperatures would shoot to a shrieking 100-and-something by daybreak, and my latest adoptees from the big-box nursery would be dead in their pots if i did not get them safely into ol’ mother earth, who tends far better than i do to her sweet growing things.
sure enough, when i got to the site of impending doom, where three wee delphiniums sat gasping for water, itching to kick off their hard-plastic pots and let out their roots, i hollered back for assistance. “yo, can i have a pair of hands, please?”
on demand, as i started to dig my delphinium trenches, the tall muscular man-child trod out to quell the commotion.
with nary the skip of a beat, he cranked up the full-throttle mockery, one of his signature charades in which he slips into voice, into character, and makes out like a visiting thespian, or simply an unsuspecting body-snatcher who slithers into the form of my firstborn. this time, he made like he was the surgical assistant, and i was the mad doctor, hooked on plant-booster potions.
all i’d done was ask–all right, it was rather high-pitched and panicky–if he could please pass me the osmocote, those wee little pellets i shake into every plant trench i dig. mere fat yellow bits–think oversized dandruff–they somehow manage to supercharge the roots of the tender green darlings, give them the boost they need to get growing.
as that boy-man stood serving my rat-a-tat pleases and thank-yous, passing me vials of root-booster, taking hold of the trowel when i tossed it his way, he whooped it up big time, mimicking my heightened state of emergency. with the flip of some invisible switch, he’d slipped into a riff in which i was some sort of garden-y addict (all dolled-up in pink shoes and pruners), and osmocote was my hallucinogen of choice.
wasn’t long till we both nearly buckled (or at least i did; he’s pretty good at not breaking face), our knees shaking from laughter, me seeing certain and clear my pure, utter foolishness.
it’s a beautiful thing, the gift of a child who sees through to every last one of your foibles, and loves you anyway. makes you see your quirks and eccentricities as part of the formula that makes you the wall-banger you happen to be.
God love the all-purpose balm that is laughter. God love those with the gift of shoveling it deeply into each and every day.
once the hysteria cleared, though, and my babies were settled in their beds, the rich loamy covers pulled up over their roots, i couldn’t help but notice that i do, in fact, think of my garden as a blanket of bliss that covers my slice of the globe.
i have, in fact, come to tend to each sweet growing thing as if her life depends, to some feeble degree, on my care and attention. and when, for instance, a once-dying fern is up and moved and springs back to life, i can’t help but breathe deep the satisfaction of life finding a way to keep at it anyway.
i don’t mean, really, to abandon my hungry children. it’s just that i’ve come to think of all the trying-to-live things in my life as part of my big moppy crew. and every last one, i hold quite close to my heart.
somehow i doubt i’m the only one with quirks here at the table (and believe me, the ones up above are merely the start of it). do you have one or maybe even two? are there folks in your world who’ve taught you that those silly things you do, you insist on, are really a part of the whole equation, and, like the soft spots in an apple (where the bees bumped into the wee baby fruit) just add to the overall sweetness?