under bridges of what’s to come

My kids’ shoes end up: in my bedroom, on the bathroom floor. As relatively tidy and supremely well-behaved as my children are, they are nevertheless creatures of comfort: discarding clothes before taking a luxurious hot shower, or slipping off shoes before crawling in bed next to me to cuddle. They leave off on their errands to game – I hear shouts! of laughter from downstairs – and leave their clothes here and there. If they were adults I was forced to room with, I would find it all very irritating. As it is, these mundane remembrances are a comfort to me. I know when they leave my home I will miss them so.

“Are you okay?” my son says, at dinner. We are the only two left at the table and he is helping himself to a third serving of pasta. I tell him Yes, I am just tired and he says, “Put your hand here,” indicating the table between us. His long hand rests on mine – preternaturally beautiful fingers, and long nails. Then, shortly: “I need this to eat,” he smiles, removing his hand and crossing his right over so he can still comfort me.

I am okay, sure – but I am mentally very tired. I am meeting once a week with a small business consultant. I am in couples counseling every two weeks; I take one of my children to therapy every other week from that. It isn’t as if I’m particularly worried in all these concerns, but they very much require a special focus on my part. I am still reeling from the kids’ transition into their teenage years – which is absolutely nothing like the dour, cynical predictions would have had me believe, but is nevertheless a sea change – and I am experiencing the sadness of finally, finally no longer having a family bed. My husband’s car is once again tits-up – and mine is on the last legs for its brakes. My mother is selling her home, after five generations of lives passing through the old Victorian. A family friend dies young and this brings up, for me, horrible memories.

Challenging? Absolutely.

There are many glimmers of goodness in this time. My older child is happier, a brief calm sea. They hold and hug and kiss me several times a day. The younger is a bit more volatile – a surprise, given his sweet nature – but I am gentle with him and he is good at coming to his sense and apologizing. And so, for that matter, am I. I put no small amount of concentration onto helping their father connect with them. He is gone for hours each day, after all, and misses the many opportunities I have.

On the turn of the dime it is absolutely fall, no longer summer. Even the warm days have a dampness and chill in the air. It’s incredible to me, as it was so very hot just before the break. Ralph finished painting the house during our driest spell. In a week or so I’ll pull all the summer clothes for storage and bring out my winter coats in preparing for the long, dark winter to come. As it will, whether we are ready or no.

a sponge dipped in vinegar

When I was thirteen, one evening during a week-long family reunion we went out as a crew to a drive-in theater. I remember what was showing – Bird on a Wire and Arachnophobia. (Great drive-in fare – and not films I’ve felt compelled to revisit later, either!)

The adults in the family smuggled us in. My brother, sister, a few cousins – we hid in the back of a pickup. The adults were probably half-lit, or at least they hadn’t thought it through. We underpaid, pulled into our spot, and everyone tumbled out. At that point the wary drive-in employees – probably teenagers themselves – came over and required payment for all attendees. I seem to remember it was a very near thing – we almost didn’t have enough. I remember we weren’t able to get snacks for the films. I remember worrying about this. Because I was a kid, and the adults in my life didn’t have their act together.

Today I wonder at my parents, aunts, uncles – that they could be okay with this sort of behavior. It isn’t that they were full of avarice or greed. My family was always the generous sort, and very kind. But I suppose like most other families, their morality was relative. They didn’t care too much about other people, when they wanted what they wanted. Most people behave like that at one time or another.

I’ve tried to raise my children differently. I never wanted them to see me take advantage. I didn’t want them to learn that way of life. Not just because it isn’t kind, it isn’t right, it isn’t fair to others. But because it’s a scraping way to live – always thinking of the next grift, hoping for a rescue, hoping to not have to be responsible for one’s share. Hoping things go my way. Feeling “cheated” when Life Happens. An acquaintance the other day – who found a large amount of currency but didn’t get to keep it – because someone else saw them pick it up. And the thing is, for just one moment (or maybe longer) this person thought that money SHOULD be theirs. Because they live life thinking they don’t have enough. Scarcity. It becomes a way of life if you’re not careful.

I don’t want to have that mind. I don’t want to grasp. I don’t want to live in a fearful state, if I can help it.

Today my neighbor shouted at me, as I walked to my car. When I went to see what the matter was, they seemed very upset. They told me our cats had been climbing on their (new) car, and had made muddy pawprints and scratched the paint. I listened, and responded with feeling – “Wow – that sucks.” They talked a little longer – angry, but not telling me anything new.

I told them, I am open to your suggestions.

To my surprise, this person had none. They hinted they would “make” me pay for a new paint job on their car, and take pictures of our cats. (I’m not sure why they wanted to do that, except they seemed determined to have a fight.)

They then told me my daughter had been rude.

This, perhaps, is the only moment I felt my own anger rise. My daughter is unfailingly courteous, and conducts herself with a calm that adults sometimes find threatening. My neighbor was obviously upset and resentful, and had allowed adrenaline and rage to get the better of their faculties.

I held my tongue at this slight against Phoenix, though, while I made sure to listen. Not to argue. I thought of the ten cats or so that aren’t ours, who roam the neighborhood. The ones who climb on our cars, and run around under the deck doing cat-things, and scratch up our stairwell, and kill little birds and voles. I thought to myself what my mind would be like, if I were to get angry about all this and try to find these neighbors out and shout at them. I thought of “townie” life – a neighbor on one side with a sad, neglected dog who cries out during the day. A neighbor on the other who lets their dog wander around urinating and defecating in the neighborhood.

I thought, What would it be like if I were angry about all these things?

I thought, What if I cared about something like a car more than my responsibility to all living creatures?

So, yeah. I can’t help my neighbor much. I let them know I would not consider it rude if they were to make their grounds less hospitable – to shoo the cats. In a neighborhood full of cats as ours is, perhaps a car cover or parking in the garage might be an intelligent solution. I did not share this thought, as it seemed my neighbor wasn’t ready to move past their anger, not at this time.

One thing I thought of: we can keep our cats indoors. I wouldn’t do this just based on someone else’s car, but we had been discussing already for other reasons. In fact, Phoenix and I had been talking about it this morning! So, when I went back over to my neighbor’s later in the day, I expressed my desire to have a harmonious relationship while we lived near one another, and my hope an indoor cat solution might work for all of us (note: they hardly seemed mollified at this offering). 

But, I said – “I’m not sure that will solve your problem.”

Because I can’t really solve my neighbor’s problem. Not their real problem.

But I am glad I don’t have problems like that, myself.

Not today.

Sir Digby

scuffing one’s toe at the abyss

Today my lithotripsy procedure was moved up a few hours. As it worked out, the family and friend who’d planned to accompany me – to give me moral support and to drive me home – weren’t able to be there. I got to check in alone, fill out paperwork alone, receive my IV alone, and be wheeled into general anesthesia without saying goodbye to anyone.

It suited me, to be honest.

Illness, accident, and then death: they come for us all. When I arrived at the hospital I parked my car in the sunshine and looked out over my beloved Aberdeen. Any time could be one’s last; I suppose when heading off for a drug-induced near-death sleep, it’s as good a time as any to appreciate these sorts of experiences. I wouldn’t want anything different. I am happy with what I have.

But of course – I woke again, and lived to see another day.

And now that I’m home, and the house is quiet, I’m thinking on how quickly life changes. We have yet another mama kitty here in our home, with her five (thankfully healthy) little two-week old kittens. My children are navigating teen- and preteen-life and there have been a few surprises: some pleasant, and some less so. My halftime job is heading into a period of intensity: Friday, a man screamed at me on the phone, for no other reason than he is a very unhappy human being and he thinks abusing a woman in the clerical field will make him feel better.

A friend of mine passed, suddenly, on April 27th. My heart still hurts over this one. Thanks to the internet, and a passionate community of friends, I have been able to trade stories, to see old photos, and to process the grief. It is a welcome experience. I need people. Maybe on the terms that suit me best, but I need them all the same.

Then home. And housework, laundry, filing papers, paying bills. And kitten handling and maintenance. Life’s a full time job!

Sir Digby

hurtling toward another muffled week of winter

Work has been hard, as I’ve been feeling ill. Pain comes and goes; today it didn’t start until the afternoon. But it must be taking its toll all day, as I’m considerably less energetic than I’ve come to count on. Now: lying on my back, temples feeling squeezed, lower back a dull ache and fire.

So today I fought to keep it together and to run the household. I’m only half-assing that for the most part. I can’t pay bills right now, so into the little wire basket they go. Sewing up my latest online tutorial, and the low-light in my basement studio and the deep cold (even though I wear a coat) is a deterrent. My kids ask for food and we put something together. My son hugs me – he’s over five foot tall now and will soon be reaching for things on the shelf that I can’t get. His hair still smells like sweet straw. His nose and cheeks still look like boyhood, when I watch him sleeping. Blond hair, caramel skin, against the white of the pillow.

Phoenix, she asks me about when she was born. I hold up my hands and remember how small she was. I remember holding her close. Funny, as the kids still put their arms around me and put their head to my breast. They will never not-remember how that feels, I suppose. I somehow lost that experience with my own parents. I have no memory of seeking them out in that way. Something got broken along the way, I suppose. But I always knew they loved me dearly.

The car has a light on, some kind of engine problem. We had a lovely, lovely person donate Phee’s tuition for this quarter – but soon I will need tuition for Spring. I am frustrated because I can’t seem to get the house in order. But – why should I? We have been down for the count. Ralph has been ill – he is also only a few classes away from earning his Bachelor’s Degree, which is kind of amazing, but it also means he’s working hard. In fact it seems everyone in the family is working hard on their projects. Family life seems never to stay in one spot for long. I am a veteran in that I don’t fear the future like I used to. But the present, the right-now, it seems to slip through my grasp as soon as I try to cling to it.

tryna catch a woman that’s weak

Shortly after I arrive home, the pain begins. It starts as a bit of a pinch, a bit breathless, and as usual I don’t really notice for a bit. But after about a half hour I come into awareness. So now: fright. The pain is rising, clashing, a small crescendo in my lower back – this time, on the left. The pain isn’t the hardest part. It’s the fear. I know how much worse the pain can get. I know it won’t kill me, but pain is my master. Pain like that, anyway.

By the time I am stepping into a hot shower – a futile distraction, a bit of comfort to my bones while my body runs riot and S-H-O-U-T-S! at me from the very within – by that time my hands are trembling. I am in a state of heightened awareness, of stillness. It has been about fifteen months since I’ve entered the hospital. I hope to stay out, tonight.

Out of the shower and I shakily dress myself. A hot pad for my lower back. I am shaking too much to type or text. I lie in the bed and gently rock back and forth, and shake. But maybe it won’t get worse. 

And this time, it doesn’t.

Today some good things happened.

– watching my son shoot baskets, dribble the basketball, his lanky frame looking more and more like his father, the man I met when he was a boy

– sitting next to my mom on the bleachers and trying to tell her about a film I recently watched. And singing, “Across 110th Street” to remind her

– my daughter showing me things that make her laugh, and make her angry, on her phone. My daughter climbing into bed with me tonight while I suffered, and telling me she wouldn’t leave my side until the pain was gone

– my husband at the oven, baking hot pita bread, and washing his hands then coming close to hold me

– the moon tonight on a drive on the beach Highway… lonesome and cold and bright as a beacon

it’s like falling in love

My son is tall; his coat from last year, a favorite, reaches the top of his hips and the sleeves end above the wrist. His hair is growing out from a short cut; in the morning, there is invariably a disturbed cowlick on the left side. I’ve taken to calling him “Tufty” and when he comes in close to hug  me, he is fast approaching my height.

He calls my mother this evening and – although I can’t hear her end of the conversation – it is obvious she is asking him on a date. Good; as Phoenix will enjoy undisturbed study time. She has a very hefty Biology book  – the sucker must weigh several pounds! – and today we discussed isotopes, radioactive decay, covalent and ionic bonds. The material is familiar to me but the last time I studied it was two decades ago! The rhythm of s and p orbitals, however arcane and antiquated in my memory, is nevertheless a familiar one because that long ago, that was my world.

So strange to be discussing quantum physics with my “little” girl.

I enjoy a walk with a mama and her young son; he is happy and scampers about, mindless and with a runny nose. Then he falls and cries; inconsolable. No one can carry him except his mother, who is heavy with another child. Eventually he calms and he carries his little stuffed bear in a blanket; we retire to his home and he shows me how he puts the bear down for a nap. I’m unsure if there is anything more beautiful than listening to a two year old putting together sentences – crude but, if listened to, easily understood.

The day draws colder; now, with my family and another neighborhood moppet in tow, we head for a lunch of hot noodles and then ice cream for the younger children. Home and Phee and I will hit the books; Ralph will eventually make dinner.

And to bed anon.

A good Sunday.

deschooling: not an all-or-nothing experience

[Ed note on terminology: Let us not pretend I oppose the existence of institutions of learning that employ knowledgable instructors providing course material either voluntarily or for a wage. This is absurd. What I mean by “school” for all my alt education writings is the following: a state-run institutional edifice where children are required to attend; also, the resultant culture that has sprung up in and supporting such institutions.]
Untitled

I’ve recently had the good fortune of receiving a moderate volume of calls, emails, and texts from parents who are curious about homeschooling and unschooling for their children. Part of the increased activity may be the small community ripple our thirteen-year old daughter made this fall when she tested into, and enrolled at, our local community college. Regardless of the factors behind this increased interest, I love the subjects of homeschooling, unschooling, parenting, and living with children. I am honored when adults and children alike trust me enough to share their concerns.

Today I’ve fielded texts from a mother to six who is trying to navigate her family’s first year of home- and unschooling. She tells me her family spent a year deschooling – living without books and curriculum – and now she’s worried, because they’re “behind”. She was feeling upset because in an online unschooling community she brought up these concerns and was told by members of the group that she “hadn’t deschooled yet”. This kind of thing can be unschooling-speak for: “you’re still part of The System! Bad unschooler, bad!” (Meanwhile those unfamiliar with unschooling are probably scratching their heads thinking – “What in the WORLD is ‘deschooling’?”)
 
Let’s think about my friend’s position for a moment.

Mani-Pedi

joyeux noel

The stress and pain of the last few days since last Wednesday’s unpleasantness are still with me. I can be patient; I can wait for the hurt to pass. And I usually find myself rather rueful at just how much I take things to heart. If anything, I am more sensitive as I age – even if I behave better than I used to. I have more self-discipline, I don’t say things I regret later. I behave appropriately in the moment. I am grateful for this.

And – I suffer. I suffer even when it seems everyone else is fine. I suffer even if I’m doing the right thing, and putting one foot in front of the other. This is just how it is. I pray. I meditate. I try to look deeply.

But – I am human.

Friday: I blow the last of our grocery money on a spa date with the kids. My son is ecstatic – he can’t believe the lushness of the services offered. My daughter – well, sometimes it seems she is more than two years older than her brother.

Mani-Pedi
Today the cold and damp weather did not deter us; Phoenix’s beau has joined us for the day and the two of them huddle together in comfortable companionship in the back of my little BMW as we motor through town. Christmas shopping – on a credit card – finding the last little bits and bobs for our gifts this year. The children are happy and they are loud; they are now near adult-sized so after a bit, Ralph and I send them away in the shop so he and I can have some peace.

Downstairs and the wrapping paper stacks, and gifts, and tags – Christmas cards to send out, and so many homemade concoctions simmering on the stove. Shea butter and goats’ milk soaps, and a syrup made with citrus zest, spices, fruit. Candies cooked up on the stove; I show my daughter how I do it, without quite instructing her or making her learn. No, just preparing the ground (as I’ve always done with her!), so that one day if she ever wants to do the same, the rhythm will be in her blood, and her fingertips will have confidence, if not practice.

My husband and son take the dog out for his last walk of the day. A hot shower, pajamas. Maybe one last sliver of sharp cheese, and crackers. It is gorgeous to have days off, now that I work again. Several in a row. Gift-wrapping and tidying the house, and soon the celebration with the family.

or, an encounter with another human being

Tonight I sit in a room sparsely-decorated, save for one white-flocked artificial Christmas tree. A woman plugs it in and the meager, tinny lights spring to life. Somehow a few dollars of cheap electronics, and I can feel my heart cheer, just a little.

The book in front of us, and the topic at hand, concerns the St. Francis Prayer. It is read aloud, and I listen as I have before.

A version:

Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace!
That where there is hatred, I may bring love.
That where there is wrong, I may bring the spirit of forgiveness.
That where there is discord, I may bring harmony.
That where there is error, I may bring truth.
That where there is doubt, I may bring faith.
That where there is despair, I may bring hope.
That where there are shadows, I may bring light.
That where there is sadness, I may bring joy.
Lord, grant that I may seek rather to comfort, than to be comforted.
To understand, than to be understood.
To love, than to be loved.
For it is by self-forgetting that one finds.
It is by forgiving that one is forgiven.
It is by dying that one awakens to Eternal Life.

A man in the room shares how he interprets the prayer. He’s an alcoholic, sober a month. He says to imagine the words like a fire on a cold night, warming the body. He enlivens the analogy and as he speaks, I discover I like that way of seeing it. Sometimes I am overwhelmed with anxiety, with anger or hurt. Times like this I can’t think my way out of the pain and suffering. But prayers, Buddhist texts – they help me a great deal. They are like that fire, warming me when I have little left to give.

The group disbands for the evening. Outside it is cold, damp – the beginning of a long winter. This man who’d shared so eloquently, he wraps himself up in his best winter clothes and sets off to wherever he lives, wherever he sleeps, on his bike.

My car is cold and the heater only works part of the time, so it’s pretty damp inside. A friend’s yearly Christmas CD – populated by irreverent parodies, horror movie dialogue clips, and Motown Christmas standards – provides me sustenance in the dark and cold. In some small way I am comforted by the modesty of my surroundings; the car barely working. The yard bedraggled in winter sogginess. The humble but absolutely blessed rite of making dinner. A late meal, curled up by our own fireside – not a figurative fire, either.

Tomorrow is the last day of work for a while. A weekend to recover the slings and arrows of the week.

And comfort? It dwells within; but we find bits without, too. Like a spark, to find its twin flaring to life in our own breast.

thus he does it of a winter night

When I was a young girl – I couldn’t have been older than eight, as we still lived in our bus – I received a pair of Smurf pajamas for a Christmas gift. I loved them – unequivocally. I don’t remember caring much about the Smurfs one way or another, as we didn’t have television and I rarely saw the program. No, what I loved were the colors, and the design: a graphic-printed white torso, cerulean blue leggings and sleeves, and crimson cuffs at wrist and ankle. Today I know the material was probably that horrible polyester that cheap kids’ sleepwear is made of. But then? They were my favorite garment. We were staying at some sort of RV park or camping site when we opened gifts, and Christmas morning I remember petitioning my parents to let me wear the pajamas throughout the day. They, being relatively loving hippie ilk, let me be. There’s a picture somewhere of me standing in front of a camper, hip cocked. Pleased as punch!

I remembered these pajamas quite suddenly tonight, as I stitch up the cuffs for a pair for my son. The pajamas I’m making tonight will be homemade, not storebought; the fabric, an expensive cotton custom print in one of his most dear video game universes. Most of the gifts we’ve slated for the holiday have been homemade – put into the works months ago, in some cases. We are making food delectables from scratch, and I am designing (and hiding!) something special for each child, and my husband. Ralph and I once again put together a special Christmas card; the cards and the selected deep teal envelopes sit downstairs at our crafting bench. Tonight, my husband and I will sit together by our fireside and wind balls of yarn to make – but, well, you never know who might read here.

Remembering my modest childhood, and the relative comforts we have today, I am reminded to slow down for the holidays. There are so many loved ones to thank, to gift, to shower with affection and recognition. It can be very tempting to try to rush through it all – to hop online and search for sales, or run to the mall in desperation. But instead, I refer back to my lists. I try to be cautious. I put aside tonight’s sewing – I’m feeling tired, and my eyes are fatigued from working so intensely at home and in my job. I take an early shower, and a late dinner, with my family – who are more dear to me than life itself.

It’s a time for introspection, and gratitude. A time not to let the house be cluttered but rather to keep it ordered and clean. A time to cherish the season, because we never know if we shall get another.