Tuesday, January 27, 2009

I went to Beautiful


The time is right
The time is right
I'm gonna pack my bags
And take that journey down the road
Cause over the mountain I see the bright sun shinning
And I want to live inside the glow
Yeah

I wanna go to a place where I am nothing and everything
That exists between here and nowhere
I wanna got to a place where time has no consequences oh yeah
The sky opens to my prayers

I wanna go to beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. . .

Beautiful, by India Arie


My soul needed cleansing this morning. Last night, I let it get dirty. Someone said ugly things about me, about me to my kid, and I let my temper overwhelm me. I said some ugly things about that person.

Someone told me that same person said out of line things to her, as well. As she shared her story, I struggled back and forth about providing support or staying out of it. I feared, rightly, that were I to get involved and provide support, I'd be unable to set myself aside and simply be a friend. I rightly feared that My Feelings would assert themselves, and that I'd make this as much about me as about her. My feelings, it seems, are still a little angry, or perhaps it is my social justice nerve that is aggravated. I was angry about these events---these current and past events that all seem to flow together with the ease of dirty oil skimming the surface of water.

I stared at the dirty oil, and let it pollute the whole of the water.

I let it get inside me, and flow out of my mouth: an angry, ugly black stream.

And so last night, I let my soul get dirty.

This morning I woke with a bitter aftertaste in my mouth, a terrible breath of shame that I haven't felt in so long. I woke with a sense of karmic retribution hanging over me. And, defeated, I began to surrender to it.

By the time I drove my youngest daughter to school, I realized I had drowned in the oil and shame, the morning above the surface, over my head.

We drove across the bridge, water on either side of us---and though we could not see it at all because of the thick fog, we believed it was there, we took on faith that objects remain static in our world, even if we can't see them.

That's when I realized that I had not seen these feelings in a while, but that didn't mean they were no longer there. I tossed up a question to myself: and so what can I do?

resolve it. peacefully. let it go.

After I dropped off my daughter, I went to the track and began my stretches for my morning laps. I felt my muscles stretch and warm, and I realized I've been neglecting my neck and shoulders. I incorporated some Lotus Link yoga stretches, and felt such a loosening that I knew I had been not seeing my own stress through the fog.

I did my laps, tuning in to my mellow and positive music---skipping the invigorating dance songs I usually prefer. I turned it low, and used the music as background, so that I spent more time looking and seeing. As I came around the bend into the straight stretch, I saw the birds.

Two or three flocks covered an open swathe of grass under the oaks. They pecked at the ground for seeds and bugs, and circled the young trees where park gardeners had been watering around the trunks. A noise, maybe my own plodding feet hitting the track, shocked them all into flight. They alighted on the branches, and some of the birds pecked at each other to gain control of certain branches.

I realized that since the hurricane, there are now fewer trees, and the remaining trees have fewer branches. It looks like less, it is less. But it's still enough. There are still enough trees, still enough branches.

Why did that blackbird peck so fiercely for that one branch? It's a short one, it sticks out, unprotected. Why that branch? Why such a ferocity of purpose to get that branch?

That's when it hit me: like some of those other birds, I'll always find it easier to fly away to another branch because I know there are enough, there will always be more.

But some people are more like the blackbird.

And, having been pecked, I would have flown away, but I'm tied to this tree, this branch, by tresses of obligation.

For a moment, I lost my ability to fly, and thus felt powerless, at the mercy of the blackbird. There is the core of my anger. The blackbird is wrong, there are plenty of branches. There is the first ring of my anger.

I can't leave the tree, and it can be a pain point to have to find a new branch, but...it is what I must do.

I let myself feel fortunate that I can believe that I will find a new branch. I let myself feel fortunate that I trust I will find a new branch. I let myself appreciate the power in me that i can fly, and find a spot to land. I let myself like this in me. I let myself think of it as a strength, not a weakness or flaw.

Then, I noticed the sun had come out and poked a hole in the fog and clouds, creating a crown of blue at the top of the sky. The blue slowly yet surely spread further across and down, the clouds and fog retreating to the sea. The unmuted and unfiltered sunlight opened up a fresh and crisp world.

new clarity. brightness.

Quickening my pace, I turned my face up to the sun and spread my arms wide.

I will let it in. I will let it in.

I walked on, feeling my own fog blow out behind me. I turned to look back, and saw the blackbird still preening on the won branch, keeping its neck and head high, working to keep its feathers from blowing in the wind. And I did not hate that bird at all, because she saw only one branch and had to have it. I understood, and looked at the other birds, back on the ground, hunting, pecking, eating, drinking, some flying up and surfing wind currents. That bird sat still on her branch. She seemed content to stare down from her perch.

I ran on, with a little laugh, birds off the tree in front of me coasting on warm air currents.

We flew forward, preferring the feel of the wind in our faces---in the sky open to our prayers, feet free of gravity. And she sat on that branch, and we were where and how we needed to be.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Falling and Flying

She is three, no four now, and she is running along a stretch of grassy lawn. Her feet flash over the mix of brown and green blades of grass and the skirt she wears---skirts and dresses only---peals behind her, bell-shaped. Her short hair, self-cut, flops beneath three bows placed strategically yet erratically on her head. She faces forward, never looking away to either side or behind herself. Her arms and legs pump fast and hard as she races to meet up with friends to play, big kids, who are waiting for her in the cul-de-sac. Except she never thinks they will wait for her and so she, the younger child, spends her life running to keep up.

I shuffle more slowly behind her, trying to gauge the right distance to stay back---enough forward to assuage my desire to protect and enough back to respect her desire for freedom and independence.

She has no idea I am there, but I watch her closely, not just for safety but for the remembrance of pure emotion I know she feels. She is unguarded, yet. Her joy at finding and playing with friends is open and flows like a wave over and through me. Her excitement about joining in the game makes my heart beat faster. That must be it; it can't be my pace walking behind her.

But it might be my fear when I watch this baby of mine, child of my body and heart, running to a future that I don't know and cannot control.

She reaches the corner and stops. Her body is still, frozen beside a tree. I stand quietly across the street, waiting, watching, wondering when or if I should step in.

You see, what she ran towards was not there.

The children were someplace else and the cul-de-sac was empty.

When her shoulders began to sag, I spoke up, "Persistence..."

She perked up, her relief in my presence evident; she wasn't alone. This time, she didn't have to deal with the emptiness and absence alone.

"Mom!" she said, running towards me.

"They're not there, they're gone! The friends are gone!" she said.

"I know, I wonder where they went," I said, my voice a little tight because our rule is that you don't move locations without telling me and now I wondered where Patience had gone. Patience, who has chucked the shackles of my apron strings as an unwelcome weight as she hikes her own path. I have to develop sneaky skills that allow me to keep tabs while she enjoys perceived total freedom, a state she has violated by breaking a rule meant to inflate my trust with confidence.

"I no...don't know," Persistence said, shrugging. She has begun being careful to avoid "baby" language such as "amimals" for animals and "no know" for don't know. But her faith that I can fix this situation is still absolute.

"Why don't we go see if our neighbor is home to play," I said.

"Okay!" she said, and slipped her hand into mine, skipping alongside me as we walked back towards our house. This time we kept pace and walked side by side. This time my stride was confident. This time I knew my place.

***********************************************************************************

In the park where I do my laps on the soft surface track there is a bench beside an oak tree. Next to the bench is a plaque with every parents worst nightmare on it. It is a memorial plaque for a boy who died when he was 18. His senior year, and mine. I did not know this boy, and once I asked my husband, who grew up here, if he did, or if he knew what had happened, but my husband was as clueless as I. Although I've read the plaque several times, it gives no clue about who the boy was or what happened to him. No hint as to why he never got to grow into a middle-aged man, as he would be now.

So I try to piece it together from the context, but I only end up with more questions. Did the family remain in the area? Do they still remain here? The bench, plaque and tree are well-kept, but perhaps that is park maintenance rather than loving family who still grieves. Was this park important to him? There is a playground and also an old rough swing on an oak tree. The swing is really just a big stick through a rope. I wonder if the boy did kamikaze stunt swinging there at that tree on that swing, with his friends, as boys will. Or did he die here? I don't know, that seems unlikely.

Perhaps it was in the water. It's a waterfront park, and the lake runs out to the bay here. I don't know whether he went voluntarily or involuntarily. Once upon a time, a guy told me a lot of teens in this town killed themselves that year. So I don't know.

I don't know how it came to be that this boy never aged beyond gaining the right to vote, but I do know that a mother and father lost their son, and their grief sits on a copper plate on a stone by a bench under an oak tree in this park. Perhaps that space was for them. perhaps his mother sat on that bench and stared out to sea, trying to undrown from the enormity of it.

How do you ever let go?

************************************************************************************

My little brother is three, no four, no three, or maybe four, and he is in the back of my car calling out the make and model of every vehicle on the road. I couldn't identify half of them. I'm in my very early 20s and we're running errands together. I'm buying some new things for my apartment and it's a hot and humid summer's day in Atlanta.

"Kudzu kudzu kudzu," we sing together as we pass a grove of dying trees choked with the parasitic vine.

"Shoot the hootch shoot the hootch!" we sing as we drive by the Chattahoochee River.

He resumes identifying cars and trucks, and I couldn't recount that for you if I tried.

But we're driving in my car, and he's gazing at the sky through my hatchback, which he loves. it lets the sky in my eyes, he tells me.

My brother is seven or eight and he's calling me on the phone crying because it has been confirmed: the schoolyard rumor is true that there is not really a real Santa Claus. He is devastated, his pride hurt because he feels fooled and his trust breached because we all lied to him. He wants me to pick him up from school and come to my house to be with me and my husband because he never wants to speak to Mom or Dad again because they lied to him.

I am sitting in my office holding my office phone. I hear the buzz from the cubicles outside my door, and I stare out my darkened UV-reflective window.

I ponder how to respond. I wonder how a very much bigger sister can be there for her little brother, because he is a child and I am an adult, one of The Adults who has perpetuated this myth on him. As an adult, I understand why we did this, why he is upset, and why he can't come to my house. If I were younger, closer to his age, I might help him run away, but I am not.

"You are going to have to go home," I say, "You are going to have to tell them how you feel." Then I told him I was so sorry, so lamely. I am trying to not wish harm to his classmates who brought him to this state. I am failing.

"I am so sorry," I say again, "So sorry this happened."

I do not know my place. I do not know what to say to him. I do not know what to say to my parents about this.

My brother is in his early twenties, finishing college, training to be an officer in the Army, and working a responsible job.

"A blackhawk has crashed [location redacted};word is no cadets on board, but 5 crew injured, at least 1 still trapped in wreckage," tweeted a friend.

Wow, I thought, that is where my brother is right now, but he wouldn't be on a Blackhawk.

I called my father.

"Your brother's not there," he said, "He's at Ft [redacted], or he's supposed to be. They were flying out today."

"Flying out today?" I asked, "Flying out on what?"

"Helicopters," my father replied and then, that moment, that's the moment it hit us: that could be the helicopter my brother was on.

"Just wait," I said, as we both tried to slow our hearts and dial back the panic to worried, "Just wait, my friend said it was four Guardsmen and an officer, that wouldn't be him. Why don't I try to dig up more details and you try to call him, okay?"

Unbeknownst to us, my father must have been calling my brother in the middle of the chaos. He couldn't reach him, and called back to say so.

"I'm sending you a link to a live ongoing news story. It sounds bad but I don't think it's him," I said, "Call me as soon as you hear anything."

Frantic time, thirty minutes, an hour, a day, a lifetime, I can't say how much time passed. I forgot to look at the clock.

This is the new normal, new normal, new normal, a part of my brain chorused behind all my wildly speculating thoughts.

My father finally called, "Your brother sent a text. He figured we'd be worried, and he said he's okay. He does know the people, and said it's a long story and he's busy so will call later when he can."

Could it only have been an hour? One hour of wondering?

I thanked God for modern technology that got us information so fast, and reassurance so quickly. I thanked God for this mercy, that my brother was okay. That today, it was not a sad story for our family. But then I remembered it is a sad story for another family. Another boy's name for another plaque.

The rock lump that had been sitting in my stomach ever since I learned of the accident moved to my throat, and my heart cried out for mercy for the injured and the killed and their loved ones.

My brother called later, and my father called me to relay the story. My brother, it seems, was standing near the helicopter, waiting for the next Blackhawk to carry him to his training exercise. he stood beside his gear, which included weapons, and the pilot gave him a thumbs up. He gave a thumbs up back, and the Blackhawk lifted up, maybe about 150 feet, and then it corkscrewed down, hard and fast. My brother and the others grabbed their gear and ran for their lives, pieces of the helicopter flying past them and pelting behind them. They then turned back, running to the crash site, intent on helping. Later they learned the fates of those on board.

He was not injured, my brother, but I think perhaps that he was hurt.

I do not know my place. I do not know my stride. I do not know the right amount of space. I do not know what to say to him.

But I will do my best, and at the end of the day, it is enough, I hope, that we try.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

It is what it is and other closure for 2008

The last few months of 2008 were a little mind-blowing in a "I'll let you know when I've finished processing that" kind of way.

Have you ever gotten busy and let your house go? You know what I mean...skip the laundry, dusting, cleaning, tidying, vacuuming and so forth and one day, walk in, notice the mess and dirt and think, "Holy crap, how did it get this big and bad so fast and where in the world do I start?"

Have you ever just backed out of the house and decided to find errands to run and a good excuse to eat out in order to avoid the mess and all you have to do?

Overwhelmed.

I haven't written much because I've been so overwhelmed, and had no way of figuring how to break it down and which one thing to tackle first.

The next thing I knew, the things I wanted to say had piled up on top of one another and I? had no time to get to it, but more than that, it was such a cluttered jumble in my mind that I needed to break it down.

Let's go back a few months...

I traveled this year! Oh how I traveled! All on my own! And I liked it.

I went to San Francisco, Denver and Pittsburgh. I met friends I know through blogging, traveled the political wheel with writers I respect and politicians I tried hard not to show too much awe to, and listened to our country's foremost experts on the current state of the environment and its effect on our health.

I experienced and took in so much I had to play it cool while my mind slowly digested how! freaking! amazing! my life had become.

I went on the radio. My words traveled through many channels to reach many eyes.

My kids returned to school. Patience exploded as a strong and interested reader with an even stronger penchant for science, math and art. Persistence picked up letters and concepts with a rapidity that I think startled and sort of frightened us both.

We got hit by a hurricane. Some were hit harder than us, and some hit less hard. Some businesses are back, and some are gone forever. It's hard to tell a sad story without sounding self-pitying or pitiable. It's even harder to tell this story without sounding angry or entitled. It's harder still to tell our story without feeling ashamed because some have it so much worse. We took on damage. If we do all that we should, we'll spend over $35,000. Insurance gave about $3000. FEMA gave exactly $0.00. So we're getting creative, seeking financing, trying to be conservative without being frozen, and working to make good decisions that help us recover from this. Most especially, I want to reach a better balance of helping myself recover and helping others who are in need.

My husband and I both flipped another year older and celebrated 15 years of marriage. That's right...fifteen. years. married. This officially means I am practically dead even in time with knowing and being in a relationship with him as long as I didn't know him.

Stop a second...what a concept.

The kids flipped another year older, and suddenly, for birthday and Christmas presents, I realized Patience had gotten so much more sophisticated this year, so much older, that I was stymied what to get her. I was no longer shopping for both kids in the "little girl" aisles. I got her speakers for her iPod, and we set up a CD player with her own stash of CDs in her room. Sometimes she retreats there, closes her door, and listens to music. Do you know what this makes me see? The Tween years looming.

Persistence, after having clung to the toddler-ness of being a toddler until the very last second, was suddenly All Done with the toddler years. By age she was no longer a toddler, and by mind, too. She was determined to be a Big Girl, keep up with Big Girls, do all that Big Girls can do. She wants to read, too. She wants to fix her own food, too. She chooses her own clothes, fixes hair, and makes her bed. She loves to play with friends, and her most important achievement right now to her is the ability to pump her legs and swing herself. Riding a bike is a close second.

And that means, officially, we have two children, one of whom likes to remind me that she is this close to being ten. What is the significance of ten I ask. That's the age upon which she seems to expect a Granting of No Longer a Little Girl rights. I hope I get some official booklet in the mail because honestly, I'm not sure what those rights might be. The right to get locked in an ivory tower, perhaps.

We were suddenly done with babies. At first, the freedom was liberating, but then I felt a wee bit of that sting of emptiness.

People seemed to sense this---both the being done with babies and my sting---and they started asking about more kids (because two isn't enough? or we can't possibly be satisfied with children of the same sex?). They do this despite my age, my health, and my infertility. And for the first time in a long time, I have felt the sharp bite of Being Infertile again. No, no there cannot be a "last minute baby" for us.

By November, when I went in to see my general practitioner for my annual physical, I realized what was happening: I was feeling the youthness of my life edging away and I was feeling my age.

I turned my head to gaze at a poster on her wall. It read: If you took typewriting classes in high school, it's time to see an internist.

Holy crap, I thought, that's me! That poster means me! My age group!

That cemented it for me.

I'm getting older. My kids are getting older. My cats passed on. My dog's schnoz is graying. So is my hair, and my husband's. The youth portion of life? Has ended.

It had been coming on for a while, this feeling.

In San Francisco I demurred away from some late night running parties...I had to get up early and needed my sleep. In Denver I let some events pass by. In Pittsburgh I listened to some other people talk about oh-so-very-much that they do and I thought, that's cool for you but me? I am in a simplify mode. I am in a focus mode. I am in a triage my priorities mode.

To what end?
I ask this a lot lately.

I've started looking at older people with an intense interest. Today as I did my paces around the track, an older man joined me. We crossed several times because he was slower and walking clockwise while I was speedy and counterclockwise. This seemed meaningful, hinting at some sort of metaphor. He carried on at his unhurried pace, unmotivated, uninterested or unable maybe to go any faster. He felt no pressure to do anything beyond what he came there to do, at his own pace. Meanwhile, I moved forward as quickly as I could.

I told my husband last night that I do this every day for three reasons: endorphin rush, to look damn good for my age, and to be healthy. "As long as I have my priorities straight," I joked.

As 2008 closed, the birthdays past, the holidays sealed shut and gotten through okay, I made that vow to myself, a resolution if you will: to get and keep my priorities straight.

A lot of what I've done the last year has been good and brought some incredible times my way. I'll never forget the amazing parts of 2008.

But some of it came at a cost, one I might not be willing to pay long term. A lot of what I do is so very, very competitive. It demands much, gives little but I do it because when it does pay out, it can be amazing.

I've been thinking a lot about how much I prefer my little locally-owned grocery store, and the little clothes boutique near it. I've been thinking about how I like little spaces, with concentrated and focused choices. I've been thinking about how maybe I need to apply that more liberally through other parts of my life: give myself permission to stick to the little, to my preferences.

So this past year I tried out different yeses and noes. Some were right, some were wrong, and this year I think I'll build on that.

Meanwhile, I'll be enjoying my children: Patience and her self-created books, where her writing is catching up with her art, and her new sympathy and understanding that reflects that her self is growing as much as her body; Persistence, with her sunny giving nature and love of fashion and books, the new care she applies to her independence, which she doesn't seem the need to fight for just as fiercely. I'll also enjoy my husband, because who doesn't appreciate the person with whom you can communicate with through grunts and gestures (and a little mind reading) when words (or cell phones) fail you, as they seem to more and more these days.

And I'll try to break it down, and bring out a little more, one at a time, again here.