Late

I don’t sleep so well. Every other night, I find myself awake at odd hours to warm a mug of milk, stretch my hips or play racquetball with difficult thoughts to try and find my way back into slumber. Sometimes I succeed easily and wake up refreshed, other times it’s an all-night battle.

My son hates to be late to school. He got that from me. He also hates being in certain parts of the house alone.

I was dragging the other morning after a particularly rough night.  He was dressed and ready for breakfast, fully aware that I still had his lunch to pack. And he was impatient.

“Mom…. MOM,” he repeated insistently, agitating the carpet with his booted feet.

“I know I’m slow this morning, but nagging me isn’t going to help me go any faster,” I snapped.

I watched the tone of my voice sting his sweet six-year-old cheeks.  His nose twitched, his lip quivered and his eyes welled up.  One fat tear began to roll out of his eye.

I had him in my arms before it fell.  I picked him up, wrangled his legs around my waist and held him close.

“That’s the last thing I wanted to do,” I whispered to him, flashing on images of him being at school, doubting even for a moment that I love him absolutely; picking apart my coldness in therapy sessions as an adult.

“I didn’t mean to sound so mean. It had nothing to do with you,” I said. “Mommy is very tired and not feeling good. Usually when people sound mad or mean it’s because they feel bad, not because of anything you did. Do you understand that?”

His face was snuggled into my neck, moist and warm. I felt him nod.

“It makes me cry that I made you cry,” I whispered. “I am sorry.”

I held him there for several minutes, rocking his body back and forth. He stayed close, patting my hair. He calmed down much sooner than I did.

We were late.  It didn’t matter.

Related Posts:

Saturday night dragonfly

A dragonfly hovered strangely at eye-level outside my car window in August. I thought it must mean that my friend Joan was dead.

I was stopped at a red light. The dragonfly seemed to hang there for tens of seconds, inches from my face. Then it circled the car twice, whirling a Monarch butterfly in its tailwind over the hood as it swooped away and headed toward the river.

My son was with his father overnight — a new freedom that, for me, felt more like purposelessness. I had a bag of takeout food and no one to eat it with, no little boy to trade grins with and listen to, no one to wrap my arms around.  I looked north, where Joan lay unconscious at a hospice facility. I knew that her daughter was at her side, and that she wanted them to remain undisturbed.

I turned the car in that direction anyway, remembering the spacious rooms where my stepfather had stayed for a few days a little over one year before, the doors that opened to a courtyard so they could wheel the dying outside to soothe them with fresh air. I remembered the kindnesses of the nurses, the aide, the social worker and the spiritual counselor who came to our home; the suspended state that we lived in for two and half months as we watched him die.

It took a couple of weeks for him to let go of living, like watching an old flashlight dimming with episodic flickers of panicky light. We lived as though we were deep underwater, even after the day I saw the final dullness of his eyes, the slack of his jaw and heard myself say, after pressing my hand over his rough rib cage and in search of the faint heart beat that had been there an hour earlier, “I think he really is dead now, mom.”

Joan was the person who regularly pulled me to the surface during that time. She had warmth, a wisdom that sprang from her own intimate relationship with grief and a genuine faith. She gave these enveloping hugs and called everybody she loved familial names like baby, sweetheart, son and daughter. She had a way of saying exactly what I needed to hear, a way of helping me see that I could let go of the things I couldn’t control and sleep through the night after all.

As she moved toward her final stages, I had been out of town. She had already been in that unconscious, transitional state between life and death for days when I returned. I dropped off a letter for her and a note to her daughter the day before. “You are infinite,” I had said. Her generosity multiplied through her dozens of spiritual babies, sweethearts, sons and daughters in a way that gave her a kind of immortality. We who were loved by her reflected what she gave us with richness and brilliance, so it seemed perfectly normal to think that a dragonfly could be Joan.

I slowed down momentarily to look at the stately, house-like hospice structure as I drove past. “Was that you?” I said out loud. “Was it you, Joan?”

I didn’t stop. I headed to a park with a pond that was always bursting with dragonflies. I slathered on bug spray, then watched them skim the water, some stick-thin, some chunkier like elongated bumblebees, all iridescent, all reflecting light.

I was too apprehensive to eat anything but a few bites of watermelon. A little girl, maybe two or three years old, sidled up to me and tried to take my car keys. I can’t remember her face at all, but I do remember thinking that she was beautiful.  She touched the wooden mala beads that I had been praying with as she said hello, then went for the keys again. I tried to hide them. Her grandfather distracted her by suggesting they walk over to look at the ducks. They were actually geese, but it worked. My keys were safe.

I thumbed through om mani padme hum on my mala a third time, sending it to Joan as the sun set. Then I took myself to a coffee shop, where I sat and wrote with a pen in my hand and wished I could unknot the waiting feeling in my stomach. I watched all kinds of people on the street outside as they headed places, looking purposeful. I imagined having that kind of anticipation again – the kind you feel when you are on your way somewhere, looking forward, open to all of the possibilities.

Related Posts:

For Linda

I just returned from a beautiful memorial service in Loveland, Ohio, for my dear friend and colleague, Linda Sanders-Wells. Everyone there was invited to share their experiences of her. This was my contribution:

I first met Linda when she was brought to the helm of the storytelling project at KnowledgeWorks in 2006. (I was the Columbus storyteller.) Back then, we had these wonderful conferences, usually in Columbus, where the team of writers from all over the state was able to come together, share observations form the field and critique one another’s work.

Linda was lovingly tough as an editor. I remember one time when I turned in a draft to her and she came back at me with a list of questions and critiques, which ended with the comment “you keep slipping into the passive voice. That’s actually making me kind of angry.”

When I asked her why or how that could actually make her mad, she told me “you know the people you are writing about. You have developed strong relationships here and you when you talk about them it is clear you are passionate about the issues they face. The passive voice makes you sound afraid and you have no reason to be afraid.”

I have been a freelance writer and editor for a long time, which tends to be a very isolating way to work. I can’t tell you what a gift it was to have Linda tell me that she was angry with me, not because revisions are inconvenient, but because she sensed through my writing that I was feeling serious self-doubt. She believed in me, and she was indignant that I didn’t believe in myself as well. She wanted a good product, but more importantly, she wanted me to share her confidence in my abilities as a writer. What a loving way to be an editor, and a friend.

When we first met, my son Declan was still a brand-new person, and I would usually bring him along to the dinners we would all have together at our Columbus storytelling conferences. When you carry around a baby in a sling and are all dewy-eyed about being a new mom, a lot of parents you encounter out the world like to try and disillusion you with comments like “yes, well, he’s cute now, but just wait until he’s a teenager.”

I remember Linda leaning over to me after hearing one of these comments in a restaurant and saying “I don’t know why people say those things all the time. My daughter is a ‘tween and I don’t feel any less awed by being her parent now than I did when she was a baby. If anything, she just becomes more interesting and complicated and beautiful as she unfolds into her own person. There’s nothing painful about it  – it’s an honor to witness.”

(There were a lot of things that Linda might have been reluctant to share about herself, but her deep love for her daughter Abbie, partner Howard and their community of friends was never one of them.)

Throughout the friendship Linda and I were able to keep alive through this modern age of emails and blogging and Facebook, she constantly gave me permission and encouragement to be as sentimental and celebratory about the experience of being a mom as I felt. I marveled publicly at my son and the whole experience of mothering on my personal blog, which she would read, then leave me comments or send me emails that pleaded with me to remain unselfconscious about the fact that I love my son and the person he has helped me to become.  I plan to keep her picture up in my house and tell Declan about this unusual 21st century relationship, because I feel that having her as my friend actually made me a better mom.

Just this past August, another friend of mine — a woman in Columbus who I would describe as one of the great spiritual teachers of my life — passed away. When it happened, Linda sent me a note that said, simply, “My heart is with you. I’m so sorry about Joan, but glad you were able to have known her.”

In the last couple of weeks, I have found myself turning to that same thought about Linda. Even as a person who rarely got to see her face-to-face, I know that I am going to miss her dearly.

But I imagine her essential kindness and compassion as this warm glow in my heart. It is someplace I can turn whenever I lose confidence in my writing, start to get worried that celebrating my son looks too much like bragging, or if, for any reason, I am just not taking it very easy on myself.

I am deeply sorry Linda is gone. I am going to miss her terribly. I can’t even imagine the feelings of loss those nearer to her must feel. But I am so glad, and so grateful that I was able to have known her.

Related Posts:

Impermanent impermanence

So I took the better part of a year to complete the 12 Steps (for codependents).

I thought finishing them would crack my life wide open.

There were days when it did. My hope was enormous. My good feelings became at least as intense and vivid as my bad ones, and they rushed right in.  I felt like everything was about to start fresh – new work, a new single mom’s life, a windfall of new sources of inspiration.

But my life didn’t exactly crack wide open.

The friend that walked me through the 12 steps died. I felt myself stall.  I grieved for her.  I grieved for the person I thought I was supposed to be at 41 (again). I waited for the school year to start. I fretted when it did, inflating myself into human lifeboat for my son’s first grade transition. Meanwhile, several other people I care about have continued to deal with real things, like life-threatening illnesses and debilitating depression. I felt like I had no business worrying about the state of my ordinary things while extraordinarily bad things happened to others.  Other times I felt like my ordinary things are all I should be worrying about, because I’m right here and for now, I am breathing. If the last year or two have taught me nothing else, it’s that being here and breathing are nothing to take for granted.

I joked a lot with people over the last year that I had “a high-maintenance emotional hygiene regimen.” I read my meditation books. I went to my step study. I went to Al-Anon meetings. I started meditating more. I even built myself a better, healthier body.  I’m strong enough to hug you hard and punch you even harder.  (Cue Lifetime Channel for Women movie montage video with inspirational music.)  Give me the chance and I will. (Hug you, I mean. I’m not all that punchy.)

I thought I would write about shifts and struggles and steps and changes here more often, but I’ve been processing a lot of it out in the world, where I’ve grown much better at touching people, looking them in the eye when I tell them that I love them or what they mean to me.  A few of those relationships are a direct or indirect result of this place, or have been deepened by things I’ve shared here, so I’m grateful to it.

A friend asked me if all this work has actually made me happier a few weeks ago. The answer didn’t come to me until a day or two later.

“I used to think happiness was something I might be able to figure out how to sustain, but I realize that’s not possible” I told him. “Now, when I’m unhappy, I can see that I have so many more routes back to happiness than I used to. It’s not as scary to be unhappy anymore.”

My life has cracked wide open. It’s just not what I expected, thank goodness.

 

Related Posts:

Even kisses

We listened to a sleep meditation recording as he fell asleep last night, hanging on to me like driftwood.  As the faintest snores began to come out of him, I kissed his hair and tried to retract my arm. He grabbed it and kissed me on the wrist.

He always wants us to be even on kisses these days.  If I happen to shortchange him, he’ll yank on my arm, reach his hand toward my face and say “I need three smooches.”

A few nights ago, he walked on my back when I was achy, patting my hair when he was done, asking “is that better?”

I hugged him close and told him yes.

“You take such good care of your mom,” I told him. “Do you ever feel like you’re always taking care of me? Or do you feel like I take care of you?”

He snuggled into me, stuck out one arm and pointed his finger at my shoulder, bouncing it there repeatedly.

“You take care of me,” he whispered.

I was overwhelmed with relief. I just lost a friend who helped keep me steady over the past year and half. I know I have days when I feel awfully alone and uncertain right now. I work hard to take care of myself so I don’t get lost in those feelings. And my son feels loved and safe and taken care of. By me. What more could I ask for?

This morning I took him to the first day of first grade. We walked in to a quiet room with a big circle of children already cross-legged on the floor. He tiptoed in, put a card with his name onto it into the attendance basket, hung up his backpack and sat down with the group, looking around excitedly.

I stood in another part of the room with a couple of other parents who were snapping photographs and taking deep breaths. The joy on my boy’s face threatened to crack him wide open. He was so engaged in the newness of everything – the faces, the classroom, the whole, fresh ritual – that he didn’t see me wave and blow him a kiss goodbye.

My heart tightened a little, then let go with relief as I slipped into the hallway. He wasn’t afraid to be on his own. He wasn’t afraid to leave me on my own either.

And I know he’ll even up the smooch count before the day is through.

Related Posts:

Constructing immortality

I have become an aficionado of science documentaries; a connoisseur of Cosmos, a knower of Nova and a devotee of the Discovery Channel.

Because space remains the iron core of my son’s interests, I’ve been to the edge of the known universe and the inner spaces of the quantum realm hundreds of times (with the help of CGI animation).  For six years, I’ve lived with an almost constant awareness of the infinite without as well as the infinite within.

Thinking about all of that vastness, it is now hard for me to imagine religion at odds with science. My throat gets caught in moments when scientists reflect on things like the stardust that created us, the possibilities that lie within all that we don’t know and how fantastic and improbable humans really are.

A few weeks ago I was watching the Science Channel show Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman, which routinely takes on big questions that science cannot answer definitively. The season premiere  investigated the possibilities of life after death.

After circulating through heaven-like scenarios, the possibilities of existing without form or blipping into nothingness, one scientist, who had lost his wife to a brain tumor, declared that there is one indisputable form of an afterlife: memory. You and I are each a mosaic, he said, a swarm of finite characteristics and memories and experiences. And a rougher version of us — a portrait made up of thumbnail-sized porcelain shards instead of so many billions of pinpoints— is carried within all of the people that love us.

Having been through recent losses and facing new ones, this thought is like a nice warm bath. I think of all of the people who make up me, the ways that I fashion them into my own design. The first ones are obvious, living and dead. But those people I didn’t know all that well, yet still feel the loss of because of one moment of connection? This gives me permission to let that solitary moment glimmer. Those people I’ve perhaps known too well, who left me feeling damaged? Let me reach for the lotus growing out of all of that muck and flatten its soft petals.  That vulnerable person I just met today? Let me hold on to her, reflect her.

There is so much you are that I can carry. There is so much I can be that you can carry. And chances are that we’ll both do that whether we mean to or not.

When I hear about God, I have a hard time keeping myself from getting tangled up in his long, angry beard.  When I hear about science, I have a hard time keeping myself from turning up my nose at religion. Cynicism has sometimes made me likeable or funny at parties, but truthfully, it’s not nearly as useful as I thought it was.

A little over a year ago, I started putting faith in people, not knowing what they would do with it and not exactly caring anymore. I desperately needed to put faith somewhere. I stopped worrying about where. Now I find that it is alive and breathing all on its own.

I am the haphazard engineer of immortality for others and for myself. A scientist told me so. And these crazy ruins are among the most extraordinary places that I have ever chanced to visit.

Related Posts:

A note to my boy, who is six today

Dear Declan,

You are six today. Six!

That’s halfway to twelve.

That’s one-third of the way to 18.

You’ve grown so much this year. Taller. Wiser. Kinder.  More confident, and though I didn’t think it was possible, more curious. Aggressively curious, even. And infectiously thrilled by every new thing that you learn.

You wander around the house, wondering aloud, asking questions I don’t know the answers to, like “Why is Qatar so small?” Or quasi-rhetorical ones, like “3.5 billion years isn’t a very long time for life to take to evolve, is it mom?” (Props to Carl Sagan.)  You quiz me to find out if I know which continents use the most electricity, or sit up with a start, just moments after waking, and tell me “I just got what plasma actually is.”

On Mother’s Day, you explained how the Himalayas were formed to three separate audiences, how they are folded and getting taller every year. No wonder I got so excited when I found a DNA stencil at the craft store yesterday.

We’ve traded in bedtime storybooks for brief tomes about Silicon, Chlorine, Fluorine & Iodine, and Sulfur. Then you always manage to extract sciencey, psychedelic stories from my imagination in which you are the star (sometimes of the plasma variety) before you fall asleep.  Thankfully, you return to storybooks now and then when I grow weary of molecules. When there are pictures or short chapters, you do most of the bedtime reading.

All that, and I can still say silly things like “hey, my son turned into a pink punch balloon” at the dining room table, watch you peek over said balloon and say to me in earnest, “no mom, I’m right here.”

Earlier in the school year, you started asking me six times four, three times seven, nine times ten from the back seat of the car, using your fingers like the Montessori chains.  “I’m not sure if it’s safe for mommy to do math and drive,” I told you.  You kept testing my multiplication skills anyway.

A few weeks ago, you sat down at the dining room table with me and asked “what is 122 times 365?” I thought you were just seeing what I could do in my head, but you had a greater purpose. I leaned on my phone calculator for an answer. You repeated the number I read — 44, 530 — and looked thoughtful for a moment before you declared: “that’s how many days the oldest person who ever lived was alive.”

I am always a little stunned, although I shouldn’t be at this point, at the things you understand – like the kind of math you have to do in order to find that number. And then I’m a little sad, because I also understand why the length of a life might be of such interest to you. You watched your Grandfafa fade away last summer, and bravely read a book at his funeral.  The last year has taken us to a plethora of hospitals and funeral homes. You know I spend every Saturday morning with someone else who will be passing soon. You dive-bomb me with hugs and kisses the moment you sense any sadness.

Sometimes, I am overcome with worry around 4 a.m., feeling this is all much too much for you – deaths, illnesses, separated parents – all this while you’re figuring out how to keep your feet clean in the muddy world of playground politics. But we’re good about talking right now, you and me. We share and work through things.  We feel sad when we need to. We rebound. It feels like most of what we do when we are together is laugh.

I try to remember to stop and breathe you in the way I did when you were a baby, to breathe in these fleeting moments when I can still carry you, still snuggle you so that you can feel little and safe.

The real reason I imagine that you want to know how many days are possible in a lifetime is because you are busy calculating how to make each one count. And you do. You really do. More than anyone I have ever met.

Declan, I love you so spectacularly much that my heart can hardly stand it.

Happy sixth birthday.

I love you infinity,

Mommy

Related Posts:

I guess I picked the wrong night to fall asleep at nine

My mom broke into bedtime last night to deliver “good news and bad news” to me.

Apparently we are descendants of early U.S. settler Richard Treat, which means that we are distant relations of many historical figures I’m not all that fond of, including Samuel Colt (who popularized the revolver), Henry Ford II and (ahem) the Bush presidents. It’s no wonder these people have gotten under my skin so much over the years… they’re family!

This also makes us distant relatives of Thomas Edison, author Stephen Crane, Robert Treat Payne (a signer of the Declaration of Independence), actor Treat Williams and writer/playwright Tennessee Williams. Some good news there, indeed.

I really didn’t have time to process this as I was trying to get my son to sleep early for the last night of spring break. We were reading “Merlin’s Tour of the Universe” by Neil de Grasse Tyson (in which he pretends to be an omniscient visitor from the Andromeda Galaxy).  As I read the evening’s last paragraph, there was a joke about restaurants on the moon having no atmosphere.

“I don’t get it,” said Declan.

He knows that the moon has no atmosphere. but had no idea what would be different about a restaurant’s atmosphere than anyplace else on Earth.

“It’s a pun,” I said, and began describing restaurant atmosphere to him. He interrupted me when the switch went off in his brain: “Oh I get it, I get it. It’s an idiom and a pun.”

I lay there, hugging his soon-to-be-six-year-old body in my arms, wondering how long it will be before he starts correcting my grammar. This time next year? I fell asleep.

I woke up at 4:30, looked at my phone and found out that Osama Bin Laden is dead. I watched a recording of Obama’s speech and accidentally woke Declan up, who sat up and said, with a start:  “Morgan Freeman said that! He said dogs were escaping, the hills were falling down…”

I’m not sure at all what that means, but, like most dream statements, I believe it to be true.

So I missed the news and the social media frenzy because I was dreaming about lightbulbs. Since I am rested this morning, I don’t think I’ll turn on the news for a while.

Usually, when I think of September 11, 2001, I feel a catch in my left knee. It’s a muscle memory of the last time I visited the south tower observation deck as a teenager, when it was so windy we couldn’t go outside. You could feel the structure swaying. I remember how my body tried to compensate for that unsettling feeling.

Today I don’t feel that, but I don’t think it’s because someone died. It’s because it’s disarming news, and my inner Pollyanna would like it to be just that. Disarming. News.

“Life is all memory, except for the one present moment that goes by you so quickly you hardly catch it going.” – Tennessee Willliams

Related Posts:

Taxdog

Arrow came along about one year before my son did. A rescue puppy, he’s always been a bit troubled, and a regular pain in the butt. Since we only know that he was born sometime in April, we decided his birthday must be Tax Day.

He’s still a bit troubled, but he is so adored. He got belly rubs galore for his birthday, along with the loveliest serenade and a squeaky toy that Declan picked out because it resembles an atom.

Related Posts:

Smooching infinity since 2005.