Friday, December 11, 2009

Well, you asked.

Forgiveness. It's perhaps the hardest thing a Christian is asked to do.
I can feed people. I can clothe people. I can give physical things quite easily. I have a surplus of them, as most of those in the U.S. do. And I'm considered among the decidedly un-wealthy. What I can't always give is that place in my heart, reserved for honored guests and confidantes. I can forgive a lot. You just may not get a chance to do it all over again.
Recently, I was talking with my children about "extraordinary forgiveness", which is precisely the kind being a follower of Christ demands. Extraordinary forgiveness is the kind that confounds nearly everybody other than the one giving it away. Usually, it is the one requiring it that is the most confounded. And out of that startling relief, a new understanding should emerge. A humbling understanding. An uplifting understanding.
We see examples of this in grand, sweeping ways - the Amish community forgiving the man who murdered their children, extending a loving hand to his widow or the parents of a murdered child lobbying against the execution of the murderer - but it exists in smaller ways as well. We just generally overlook it or it exists in matters so personal, unless directly involved, its sounds go unheard over the greater thrum of the world.
There are lots of things I can't imagine forgiving anyone for. To see someone forgive what seems to me to be unforgivable is evidence of what a human can do, when tested.
Recently, a certain famous athlete was revealed to be a philanderer. That particular issue is not really of importance here. Rather, it's the reaction to that issue. There are a lot of opinions out there about what his wife should do in this situation. I couldn't say, myself. I am not privy to the complexities of anyone's marriage other than my own. And even on familiar territory, I am often lost.
No, more to the point here is the public reaction to what this one wife will or won't do re: her husband's transgression(s).
I really shouldn't read any public commentary on the Internet. It just raises too many issues for me. Truthfully, I am a much happier when I don't know what [insert on-line moniker here] thinks about every.single.thing on the Internet. But like the tongue in a cavity, I often find myself poking around, even though I know I should just leave it alone.
Once you get beyond the idea that I shouldn't have even been reading the story to begin with, much less the comments and then, forgive me my trespasses, I ask you to ponder along with me about a much larger issue. Why would anyone believe that a spouse who forgives is a "stupid", "ignorant", "self-loathing", "just in it for the money anyway", "half-wit"? How could anyone *not* see the inherent strength required to forgive an unforgivable thing?
It's such an outrageous and super-human feat that, truthfully, it requires somebody big - like God - to back it up. To forgive someone is not just to nod your head in their general direction and go on with your life. To forgive is to invite them back to your table, even if they don't deserve it. Ever. It's to acknowledge that, "Hey, you've done something so bad, I should kick you out of the box seats in my heart, but I'm not." it?
The truth of the matter is that I am as confused about forgiveness as pretty much everybody else. Alongside the above statements, which I truly believe, I also think there's a limit to how much someone can possibly take. Let's say you forgive the unforgivable once or twice or 23 times, and then are asked to forgive it again. Do you? Can you? My grandmother used to say, "Jesus said to turn the other cheek, not to lie down and let them wipe their feet on you." And I agree with her. At a certain point, it becomes a destructive cycle, doesn't it? Let's set it up like this:
I trespass - mightily.
You forgive.
I do it again.
You forgive.
I do it again.
You forgive...again.
And, once again, there's me breaking your heart.
And you're coming back with all the love you've got.
And I chuck it in the bin.
You pull it out.
I toss it back.
And on and on, ad infinitum.
I could be wrong, but I don't think that's what forgiveness is all about. It's not the only part of God's bargain. Forgiveness, when taken seriously by the forgiven is a transformational act. When you hurt someone, when you misstep, when you falter, being extended grace is the moment you should experience some fundamental shift in yourself. It's an exchange. It's the restoration of trust, more than the mere absolution of guilt.
It takes work to forgive. You have to reach out beyond yourself and grasp at a new future, close your eyes and jump. Being forgiven, that takes work to. Maybe more. Because you have to reach out beyond yourself and be better than you've been. You have to realize the power you wield over others, pledging great awareness and care in the future.
And if the forgiven takes that forgiveness for granted, what then?
Because there are people in my life that I have forgiven, but on whom I have also closed a door that is not likely to be reopened. And I am just fine with that. In fact, I am better for it.
Parents are tough people to forgive, but believe it or not, I've forgiven mine. And not just for not letting me have what I wanted when I wanted it. I've forgiven abandonment, a little face beaten far too swollen to be seen in public for a few days, and well, lots, lots more. Just trust me.
Forgiveness, I think, is a two part process. To have a relationship with anyone, it has to be an exchange, even among parents and children. My son may say something really hurtful or disappoint me in some huge way, but when I forgive him, I expect him to keep up his end of the deal. And his end of the deal is to not do the same thing again, at least not immediately. He is 10.
See, a long time ago, when I forgave my parents for really committing the biggest wrongs ever experienced in my life, it was a quiet and private process. I didn't seek my father out to let him know I'd absolved him of all his wrongdoing. And I didn't tell my mother, either. I just let it all go and the walls I'd erected in my heart, I took them down. No one knew they were there. There was no reason to broadcast their absence.
Now, my father, I guess he gets a pass. I don't know him. He really couldn't be more absent than he already is. I guess he could be dead and therefore there'd be no potential for change in the future. But then, not really because that's just not going to happen.
But my mother, she broke my heart. Not just once. But over and over and over again. And every time, from a very young age, I just forgave it. People want me to forgive. I say, "I have forgiven." And my forgiveness, which cost me dearly, was disregarded and I was hurt again and again. And at a certain point, you just have to put your hands and shout, "Stop!" Don't you? Or do you?
Forgiveness is the most beautiful thing in the world. I struggle with it. Unquestionably.
And poor Tiger Woods' wife. I wish her luck. I do.

Friday, August 21, 2009

The Stars Are Making Pictures In My Mind That Look Like Me

Okay, okay. So, I've been using this whole blog thing as a kind of ad hoc talk-through-it therapy and a chance to write again and as a way of setting all my aging demons adrift on ice floes of their own so my little mental ice age can ease a bit.
Even the arctic has flowers. Or at least is has moss. Moss is nice. The summer came and I was sandblasted by 24/7 children and my once pock marked and rusted exterior is slightly thinner, but markedly smoother and the time for self-reflection is again upon us. Hoorah!
Gentle reader, I am one tangled up string. I think I get one thing settled only to find that there are knots upon knots upon knots revealed in its place. I'm an observer, really. With everything. Happy things. Troubling things. I am over here. You are over there.
I pick events up in my mind and turn them over, regard them, and then set them aside. That's how I process what I process when I process.
Mostly, I don't process. I plough.
I plough straight through to the end and I'm done and I move to the next and plough through that too. But I don't want to plough every minute. I don't want to end up having charged through my life, like it was long endurance contest.
Sometimes, I think if I just stopped for a minute (see me through this trite moment, please) and let myself be overwhelmed by life for just a second, if I stopped resisting it, I'd get washed away. On some days, that's liberating. On others, terrifying. Life, I think, is like this puppy at our feet and it's always there. It's always lolling about all tongue and tail and tummy, feet in the air, just begging us to reach down and touch it a little. Always undaunted at how inattentive we can be and always ready for us to finally cast our gaze its way. No matter how full our arms are, how full our heads, life is always there.
Until it isn't. And by then it's too late. Because when life dies, you go with it.
All of this because I have been thinking too much today about friendship. Truly. I am very fortunate to have a few good friends, found later in my life, that I know I can count on. They mean the world to me. But I had friends before them. And it's the before friends that have been making me so damn sad.
You know how some people have a great many romantic relationships and then later miss the people they once loved, but who they haven't see in years? I never had a great many romantic relationships. I never had the chance. I met my husband - thank the Maker - when I was really quite young - 13 - and from the first moment I saw him, he was the only him I saw. That is one of the great miracles of my life because he's still the only him I see and it's been 24 years.
In lieu of having lost loves, I have lost friends. There are people from the past that I would gladly have given my life for about whom I know nothing today. Some of that is by choice. More of that will soon be by choice. It is better for me when people from the past reside on a planet far, far away. Because otherwise, I get mired down in their glittering lives and start wondering why it is we grew apart when I felt as I did about them so sincerely.
Finding people on Facebook, the high school reunion that is never merciful enough to end, is no good for me. It starts a nostalgia train that can't even begin to get out of the station because it's got no wheels. A seriously flawed arrangement.
Acquaintances, fine. I probably like you better now. But if you were ever my "best" friend and somehow you're still alive and don't know the names of my children or that I have children or that I have three children, yeah, don't really bother. Because what did it mean? My listening to you?My loving you? My helping you through all your break-ups and fuck-ups?
It certainly didn't get me anywhere. I swear I have lived my life as upright and unbending as the Washington Monument. Not because I didn't need help ever, but because I'm not programmed to show it. Even with my husband, I am not always very forthcoming until I can't be any other way. In my young life, to waver was to fall. And falling was not an option.
I don't blame anyone for this. It's not any one's fault or responsibility. I am just realizing how one-sided I made all those relationships. I guess I was somehow waiting for them to come into the vast hall I was hiding in to search me out. But how could they really? When I was playing the vacuum and they were filling the void?
So, no hard feelings. No tears and recriminations. I doubt you'll even know it. I've done been gone so long. These are my own stars constellating. In your mind's sky, the pictures are different, ever-changing. Or they would be, if you'd look up.
With my friends now, I am trying to be more open. I am trying to share more. I am trying to lean, even if ever-so-slightly. I am trying to be humble and know that everyone must depend upon someone, even the unassailable me. I am trying to show my loves, lusts and failures. And remember that I am loved. Because, and there are four of you I am speaking to, I loved you once and you took it and gave very little in return, until you grew to expect it. And your lives when I look now, are a little less gleaming because you are over there. And I am over here.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009


*** I haven't written fiction (and shown it to anyone) for a really, really, really, really long time. This is a bit of a leap for me. The Unsinkable Jennifer. ***

Last year, when the Clatterbuck boy broke his neck playing football up at the high school, a group of neighbors clustered like grapes at the end of the sidewalk up to his house. They stayed there long after word had come that he’d reached the hospital and was in stable enough condition. They stayed after dark, long past supper time. The houses all along both sides of the street dark, as if everyone had gone on vacation at the same time. The whole neighborhood looked vacant. Except the Clatterbuck’s yard.

Children, too far past hunger to care, too close to bedtime to alert their parents to they’d missed dinner, whooped and whirled across the grass, jumping the landscaping and making a mess of Mandy Clatterbuck’s carefully sculpted boxwood borders. Every once in awhile, a reeling child would pierce the din of parental concern and the trespasser would be chastised before rejoining the melee.

The next morning, it looked like a miniature cyclone, not four feet tall, had gone through Mandy’s yard and her yard only. God’s eye is sharp, his aim precise.

I don’t imagine she cared. She was scarcely there for months, while Kyle recovered. It was slow going. There was lots of therapy, but Mandy is one of those people who manages life with grace no matter what is tossed at her. Be it poison ivy or personal catastrophe, she’d breeze through with a picnic and a remedy in her pocket she just happened to pick up the other day somewhere or other. Her mother was like that too. Stalwart. Dependable. As if they were goods ordered from the L.L. Bean catalogue. It was her mother that took over her house and straightened her hedges while Mandy was away. She held birthday parties for the youngers and school-shopped for the elders. One Saturday, she reglazed all the windows on the front of the house. I imagine she did the others, as well, but I can’t say. For the rest of it, my view was obstructed.

I never will forget that night, when catastrophe turned convivial in the Clatterbuck’s driveway. My daughter wanted to go out and play with the other children, but I wouldn’t let her. I found it ghoulish. I couldn’t imagine an event more suited for quiet. Here a child had been horribly injured, helicoptered to a hospital 100 miles away, and it was time for a weenie roast in absentia in the child’s driveway. We didn’t know yet if the child lived or died. It was like the accident was a light bulb, suddenly illuminating the darkness, and the neighbors, like moths, just caught the glint of it in the distance and rushed, in plaid shorts and halter dresses, to jump in the fray.

My husband rolled his eyes at my refusal and scooped our daughter up, all sticky with popsicle, and piggybacked her over there. He didn’t see the problem. But he grew up here. In this very house. My son, he stayed with me and watched from the window.

But I’m alone here now, watching. And this time the gathering is assembled at the terminus of my own driveway. And my husband and daughter are out among them again. My daughter has lost one of her pigtails, so she looks quite wild. Somewhere, I have an impulse to try to catch her to fix it. Somewhere, I see it as beautiful and begin to smile. Somewhere, I am irritated she always manages to lose one of each matching pair of everything. Sandals. Hair bows. Socks. Somewhere, I know I stashed another pack of cigarettes back before I pretended to quit and I want to go search them out between the towels or among the sheets, but I can’t go just now.

When I was a child, my grandmother’s linen cabinet was my favorite place in the world. I don’t remember how I figured out I fit in there, probably playing hide and seek, but once I found it, I never left my grandmother’s house without stealing away to hide in there. The cool cotton beneath my cheek. The smell of laundry soap and lavender and sun. One time, I fell asleep. I don’t know how long I was gone. But I woke up to an empty house and the far-off sound of someone calling my name.

It was my mother. And then my father. And then farther still, my grandparents. All from different directions and I didn’t know which way to go. It was evening and the barn swallows were cutting their precise paths through the air, grabbing up mosquitoes. And the bats appeared, with their leather wings trailing the surface of the pond down past the barn.

I was sitting on the porch when my uncle’s truck pulled up and my mother, whose face was quite wide, but whose features were arranged right in the very center of it, looked stricken, much more so than usual. I often wondered what happened, with such a large canvas, why God would choose to paint her features so close together they almost seemed to lay one atop the other.

But it was all okay because I was there. And quickly she smiled and grabbed me far too tightly and took me in the kitchen and made me cinnamon toast and told me all about how they thought I was missing, how I’d been gone such a long, long time. How Uncle Johnny was sure I’d gone down to see about the rabbits and how they waited on the porch for more than an hour and she kept saying, “Johnny, we’ve got to go see about her. She’s been gone too long.” But how nobody really got worried until Mamaw got worried. And then everybody set about to look.

But I have looked now in every cabinet and every drawer and under every bed and I cannot find my son. He is not in the basement or the attic and darkness is hanging around the corners of the doors and I still cannot find him. No one has seen him, anywhere. And my husband, travelling the neighborhood, calling his name, has acted as the beacon to the end of my driveway. And as every new gadfly appears, I know that is one more place my son is not.

We have summoned the police. We have given them recent photographs. We have watched their cars, sleek as sharks, slide through the streets on either side of our house. And I am not Mandy Clatterbuck. I have no magic picnic baskets or mail-order potions. I am horribly irregular. I’m not even sure why I am here. And my son, that strange little duck, who just seemed to appear fully formed, a grown man, in the body of an infant, is not broken. He is not waiting to be mended. There is no team of surgeons to reassure me. He is gone. There is just absence.

And I cannot lay my hand to his forehead and tell him everything is alright. And I cannot even give in to a full fit of worry because I keep just expecting him to pop up somewhere. I just keep looking at the bend in the road. I just keep watching the doors of the neighbor’s houses, waiting for them to open and him to appear. And I can laugh when he says he was only hiding somewhere and tell him that happened to me too once, when I was a child.

And telling him that story would be like a watershed for me. And we would move forward from this moment and I would be a better mother. And I would try to be what they needed more. I would comfort more. I would connect. Or at least I would try. I would try to wake up and not drift off out the window, awash in my own thoughts for an hour or more while the children wait for breakfast. I would hug them to me and ball them up tight. I would feel everything a mother should feel as it should be felt, when I should feel it. If only, just one of those doors would open, and out he would come. I would see his little round face, still sleepy, and realize he had his green shorts on, because when the police were here, I really couldn’t say.

Dear God. I would forgive everything. I would forgive every horrible thing. I would make myself supple and pliant. I would bend and find grace. I would venture out of my house to survey another’s tragedy on a mild summer evening if only it would just magically be another’s tragedy and not my own. I can’t have this kind of moment. I can’t have this happen to me.

What will I do? How can I go on from this?

I watch my husband. I have heard him explaining I am by the telephone, waiting for word. And ladies I don’t know offer to sit with me, worry I’m alone, but he reassures them I am where I need to be. But I am not. Even with today’s portability, I am a good three rings from the telephone. Maybe four. I figure kidnappers and hospitals and police detectives will allow me a few rings to answer.

And I punish myself for thinking these thoughts. He is not gone. And I am so selfish. I am so selfish. My son could be dead. He could by dying this moment and I am thinking wry thoughts about ransom and telephone etiquette. But then I say that it is only my surety that he is fine, soon to return, that allows for my sarcasm. This is what I do, constantly both berate and defend myself. And who can even answer a phone when one’s hands tremble like this?

And is this all real? All this emotion? Or am I only doing what I think I should? Am I only emulating other mothers I’ve seen on television movies about children who disappear never to return? It’s as if I’ve been humming along my whole life waiting for something to happen. And now it’s happening. And I want to go back to renegotiate the situation. But I can’t. Because God’s eye is sharp, his aim precise. And this whole plan has been planned so far in advance, without my knowing and the whole bitter lot of it has just been converging down to this moment, this wretched moment, ratcheting down and tightening until I am so very small and smaller and smaller, until I am the very universe just moments before exploding and I’ve only just realized all of this has been happening. And it all makes sense now, suddenly. And it’s clear. And here I am. I am the target, dead-center, the bullseye. And enjoy it because in the future, like stars, you’ll be finding bits of me in everything.

Monday, June 29, 2009

On the radio.

I can remember being a kid sitting by the window in my room, radio on, finger poised on the duo record/play button on my cassette recorder, waiting for one of my many favorite songs to come on so I could record them, capture lightning in a boom box, and play it back whenever I wanted. I could never quite get the whole song. My method was flawed, but it didn't dampen my enthusiasm for the task. I spent the majority of one summer (I think between 5th and 6th grades) honing my skills before ultimately settling on simply recording the end of every song and station break ready for what might be next.
I spent a lot of baby sitting money on blank tapes. So much that I probably could have just bought the majority of music I wanted, but that idea never occurred to me. Don't know whether I'm dense or just naturally thrifty. I lean toward density because despite the amount of recording I did and the number of songs I captured (Chaka...Chaka Khan...) I rarely, if ever, played back anything I taped.
Frankly, I think I just loved the radio. I loved the serendipity of it, the singular joy it brought when one of my favorite songs was played at the very moment I happened to be listening; when you had no choice, but to stop what you were doing, turn up the sound and sing really loudly because who knew when you were going to hear it again?
I still love the radio. I love NPR because I'm in my 30's and I'm supposed to, but for music, despite the proliferation of ipods and satellite and on-line on-demand music services, nothing beats a good radio station.
And good radio is really hard to find. Most radio stations gave up the love of music so necessary to ceaselessly put it on 24-hours-a-day in favor of airing a jangled auditory gee-gaw of gossip, traffic, sports and doofishness (trademark!). Nearly all radio is "talk" radio whether they embrace the moniker or not. What used to be bastions of local identity, culture, music and flair are now mostly all the products of marketeering and playlists generated based not on what people genuinely adore, but on what corporate record companies (teamed with whatever other merchandising/product tie-in/tatertot making groups) want us to buy. And well, that's just messed up.
When I was in middle school, the coolest DJ at the coolest radio station in town was my BFF's dad. He played what we liked. And I know that there were plenty of shenanigans going on (in the radio business. Would never dream of besmirching the rep of the awesome Wayne Fanning), but it was at least a bit more organic, more local, more about the listener, more human.
Satellite radio, although still made by people at some point, just seems to sterile for me to get into. When we had satellite television, we also got satellite radio by proxy. Even though I couldn't find a good radio station to save my life, I couldn't fall in love with radio on the TV. Very surgical and precise, neatly packaged in specific increment, I would never be surprised by a pea in my carrots. So specific were the genres, it would be nearly impossible to be surprised by anything beamed to my ears from on-high. And I'm the kind of girl that likes the random weed that pops up in the garden. That's where I find inspiration and why I've got wood sorrel in a pot on my porch. I'm willing to wager more imaginations are being dulled by satellite radio at this very moment than Nickelodeon.
Why aren't we willing to take any kinds of risks anymore? Why are so many of us so complacent, eating the same Lean Cuisine we could find in Terra Haute, Toronto, Texarkanna, or Taiwan, listening to the same songs we could hear broadcast in the same way worldwide as well?
There's so much to hear out there. Shouldn't we all begin by listening to as much as possible?
The good news is that some people out there are thinking and doing, not just bitching and grousing like me. In my neck of the woods, you can get local, excellent radio via WNRN. You can also listen on-line if you don't live in range. It's community supported, meaning that the listeners donate money (about that, it's coming, I swear, I'm just so poor right now, dude, for real...)to keep the station afloat, and while there are businesses that underwrite programming who get plugs every now and again, there are no commercials.
The best part of WNRN though isn't the lack of commercials or the wicked fund raiser t-shirts, it's the true love for music - all music - that pours right through the speakers and out the rolled-down windows of the car. Though primarily a modern rock station, you can hear pretty much anything a pretty much anytime. If you want a dedicated hour of bluegrass, you can hear just that at the appointed hour, but you're just as likely to hear an Old Crow Medicine Show song smushed between old-school Depeche Mode and something so new you never even heard anything like it ever before.
And the best part of all about WNRN is the responsiveness of the on-air crew. Hear something you like, but miss the station break, just give them a call. They'll tell you what it was, the album it came off of, give you a personal critique of the rest of it and wish you a heartfelt "good day!" all in about 17 seconds. And best of the best of all, if you're hearing just a little bit too much of something, say Aimee Mann whinging endlessly on about your having a lot of money, but not being able to afford the freeway, you can give them a call explaining that you will have to go find a puppy with cancer to kick if you happen to hear it one more time in a given day, and they'll take a wee break from playing it. Just for you. And just because you asked them to.
Not that I would ever have done such a thing. I personally love Aimee Mann. Really. Can't you tell? No irony there. At. All. Uh-uh. 'Til Tuesday was boss. Oh, shush. Keep it down now. Voices carry...even that shower-curtain-hook earring, dating an asshole at the opera video was right on. Who hasn't lived through that? Dude, if I could sing one to three notes max without ever moving my jaw, I'd *be* Aimee Mann myself...and gladly.
Life is bigger with real radio. Life is better, too. Why would we accept anything less? Even if we don't always like what we're hearing, it still gives us something, even if it's just the motivation to cross the room to turn it off for give or take three-and-a-half minutes. Come and join me in the magnificent joy of hearing the best song ever at 1:13 pm on a random afternoon when the mundanity of everyday tasks had gotten overwhelming and for a brief moment, the Universe turns her shining face to you, and you just have to stop what you're doing, turn up the radio and dance. Because who knows when it will come around again.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Wee peeps

Children. What good are they?
Always at your back, mouths full of something, usually fingers. Theirs or someone else's.
And what are their fingers full of?
Is it something intentional like snot or peanut butter?
Or is it an unplanned menagerie of dirt and sweat and hand sanitizer?
It's really impossible to say, isn't it? And which is better? Fingers slurped free of snot are better than fingers full of snot, right? At least marginally? Maybe?
No. I know. None are better.
There are a great many people who think the answer to Global Everything is negative population growth. Me, with my three children, I've had the word "Breeder" snarled about me by people with far too many pets.
I have.
I try to get angry about it, like David, but I can't really.
Some of us are meant to raise impossibly small dogs that run counter to any evolutionary imperative and some of us are meant to raise children (who, funnily enough, will grow up to comfort those who spent their lives raising anything small enough to fit in a teacup and also walked on a leash by running geriatric facilities with names like Papillion Acres and slogans like "You're Shit-zu can't wipe your ass, but we can!").
Maybe this isn't an appropriate topic for Father's Day. Maybe it's the most appropriate topic. Parenting is the devil's business, even God left it to someone else when it came to his own Son. So, for someone like me, who is spending the greater part of her life doing nothing other than parenting, sometimes, I get a little punchy.
Sometimes, I refuse to help my son get his arms out of his sweater. Even though he's all sweaty and as close to swearing as is possible for an eight-year-old who knows all the words, but has sense enough not to say them. Sometimes , I make him go in the grocery store with one arm going this-away and the other going that-away with a sweater holding him hostage because, well, an eight-year-old should not be befuddled by a sweater at all, should he?
And despite the looks I get from other, kinder parents, yes I do insist he help get the groceries, even if he is mostly strait-jacketed and ends up trying to kick a box of Ritz crackers into the cart because he can't use his hands.
I parent with ginger and lemon zest. Don't get caught by me doing something stupid. I will cancel a birthday party. But that's not as bad as David who threatened to cancel Christmas one year. Not the Jesus part, just the presents. I would never do that. That'd be like punishing myself.
At school once, in the lunch-line when Schuyler was in Kindergarten, I politely reminded one of her classmates not to spit on another person - me. He didn't listen and proceeded to do it again and again. Now, I am good humored and understand that children are, in fact, children and don't expect more of them than they can deliver, but only up to a point. Just as I was about to get pretty stern with the child, Schuyler popped in with, "You better listen to my mama. She won't hit you, but she will talk you down to the ground!" Never a truer thing spoken of me and how I raise my children.
I love them dearly, but daggone, it's a lot of work. A lot of thankless, repetitive, mind-numbing work. Perhaps not as much as raising show dogs, but I don't get a clicker or the benefit of hiding an old piece of chicken between my teeth for coercion. And I can't tuck my kids into a crate at night or lock them up in one in an outbuilding when I need to accomplish something or get some sleep. This now, is being written with a one-year-old playing base jumper from my shoulder over and over.
So, why now am I contemplating homeschooling the same child who can't escape a sweater instead of sending him off to fifth grade?
I dunno.
I love him?
I think he's neat?
I see him growing up into this young man and I want him to have the kind of childhood that launches one into greatness?
Even in a life free from the wardrobe-wonders that are the pull-over sweater and vest?
He's really a wonder, my Eli. He's so much like my husband and myself. And not in all the good ways, either. Even though he's still so young, I see emerging some of the same self-limiting idiosyncrasies I see in myself. I didn't realize, when he was younger, how important it was to my children to always try to be better than myself. And Eli's got a lot of self-doubt and also has my nasty habit of finding the coldest corner in the room and sitting there, so no one else has to. Like he doesn't deserve better.
I'm not really sure how homeschooling will help with that. And I'm not sure I'm not being selfish and just trying to grab at the trailing remains of his childhood and keep them for myself.
I love school. I think it's important. But frequently, with Eli, I wonder why he's having to jump through so many hoops he clearly doesn't need to. When you are spelling "Anachronistic" in 4th grade without having to look, you already know how to spell. Why spend more time on spelling? Why not do something else with that time?
Eli aced his 4th grade SOL tests, two with an emerging abcessed teeth requiring emergency surgery, and one the day after that surgery. If you can manage that, how truly challenged have you been?
But the school is still a school and has to function for the greater good of everybody. That isn't a bad thing, but for Eli, I want to try something different. Instead of always reigning him in, I want to let his throttle run wide open and see what happens.
How many people who have truly changed the world trace their different points of view back to time spent doing something different than their peers? I mean, there's Einstein and Twain and Roosevelt and Kahlo....and hundreds upon hundreds of others. It could be that their stories just haven't been written, but I've yet to hear story upon story about inmates who attributed their lives of crime to a year spent being home schooled or bedridden.
I want Eli to have the kind of break you can only get when you're a kid. I want him to dawdle and stare. I want to allow him to have the mind space to think and learn and create without limits or interruptions. I want to help him wrestle with and pin down those dogging demons I unwittingly sat on his shoulder now before they're dug in tight.
I want to give him the world. But I can't. I can only give him the opportunity to reach out and take it for himself; show him that he's worth it and worthy of it. And I'm just the person for that job, I think.

Thursday, June 4, 2009


Sitting here this morning, listening to The Pretenders, I realize I have not been entirely fair. David will argue with me about this, but I think that I do owe my father one very important thanks. Probably a great deal more, but right now, I am thinking of his record collection.
He didn't leave it for me. Rather, when he moved to NYC, he left it at my grandparents' house. There, it sat in a cabinet in the basement until I rediscovered it one day.
One of the few interactions I can remember having with my father was about Heart of Glass by Blondie. He was a big music fan and fancied himself a musician. Still does, apparently. It's not that he was any good, but he did have good taste in music. I think he had good taste in lifestyle as well. He was a young man in the early 80s, when there was so much good music, and New York City looked as glossy as it did gritty - just the right mix. And who exemplified this more than Debbie Harry? I think no one.
I don't remember how old I was, but I do remember him listening to the record in my grandparents' living room. And I remember standing in the doorway, listening. I really liked Blondie, the way a young child likes music. Like my daughter loves The Scissor Sisters, Weezer and Vampire Weekend. The lyrics of songs do not inform her life as much as they are informed by it. There are a great many things about which my 7-year-old has no idea. And those things are the topics of a great many good songs. She makes up pictures in her head to make sense of the words. I did the same thing.
I guess I was singing or something. I don't recall how it happened, but for just a moment, my father spoke to me like I was really there and like I mattered. He seemed slightly impressed. Maybe he thought I was something like him after all. I don't know. Maybe he realized we were actually related for a second and I just didn't appear from nothing to send his life skittering off track. I really can't say.
But he gave me his two Blondie albums. Maybe it's because, like any little girl trying to stand out to her father, I seemed awed a bit by him. If anything, that is probably what he liked best. Little children can make small grown people feel mightily important.
When he left for NYC, he didn't take a lot with him. There'd been this incident a few years before in which he threatened to kidnap me and never let his parents see me again if they didn't give him some money. It didn't go well for him. His parental rights were taken away, according to my mother, and I wasn't allowed to be alone in a room with him. Before that, he'd sometimes come take me to a movie. I can remember the previews of a movie I saw with him. A huge paper cup emblazoned with the Coca-Cola logo spun slowly on the screen, condensation pouring down the sides. That's what I remember, Coke. More often than not, he'd not show up and I'd sit at the end of the sidewalk of our house on Fairmont Ave. and wait.
After the "threat", though, even that didn't happen anymore. It's hard to sit now and piece all of that together. It was so long ago and I was a kid. I guess I was somewhat protected from the truth, but then, my mother wields her personal truth like a cudgel and no one is immune from its blows. Probably I knew more than I should have. Probably I struggled to make sense of it. At any rate, I didn't really see him anymore after that. Except that one time in my grandparents' living room, even though he lived in an apartment in their basement, until he left for good.
I don't know why he didn't take his albums with him. He left most everything behind. Breaking free, I think. Starting completely over. Reinventing himself into a person more to his liking. There were hundreds of albums left in the basement. My grandparents' kept them forever, because they were his and one day, he might come back for them. I knew that wasn't going to happen, but I was glad they were there.
I was like a mini-archeologist, in search of some previously unknown, forgotten people, sorting through all the albums, meticulously scrutinizing every inch of cover art. The Tom Tom Club. Talking Heads. The Clash. Elvis Costello. The Pretenders. The Police. It was years before I actually took one home and listened to it. For the longest time, the records, stacked in the cabinet smelling of cardboard and Ivory Snow, existed for me in every way except the one in which they were most intended.
The music became my father to me. Although I could not picture him or hear is voice (and still can't), I could hear the voices and sounds he chose to surround himself with.
And they were good. Any port in a storm. I took what I could get.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Panzer-man, Panzer-man, Oh You

I was reading an essay yesterday that said when you are a writer, even in times of great, personal tragedy there is an awareness that whatever the event is will work its way into your writing someday. This particular article centered around the death of the author's father and how he explored the unknown portions of his father's life after his death, learning much about him, but ulitmately coming up with more questions than answers.
This reminded me of the David Sedaris story "Repeat After Me" in which his sister swears him to secrecy about a particularly embarassing personal story only to have him include it in a story later on. Whenever I am faced with difficulty, I try to remind myself that one day, this will only be a story I tell. To me, this is very encouraging. The stories I tell tell a lot about me and it is very therapeutic to put things in that context. I often try to console friends in that way, telling them that this too shall pass and be spoken of later, probably with laughter.
The more I write - some things to publish here and some things not - the more I find myself compelled to write about things that are uncomfortable. Not so much painful, but just strange. Somehow, I find the oddities of my life fascinating. I look back sometimes and think, "Wow. How the hell did I end up here?"
I did not come from a very together family. My grandparents (my father's parents when I was a child and my mother's parents as a young adult) positively informed much more of my life than either of my parents, especially my father. I have had no contact with my father for the past 18 years, at least. Before then, what interaction there was was spotty and weird. I'm pretty certain he didn't want to be a father. And that's okay. He was young - 16 -, most likely gay, and viewed me as more a rival than someone to love and take care of. I've often said that my life is much better not having had a father if he was the father I was going to get. I truly believe this to be true and it is something I realized at a very young age.
Needless to say, I don't give my father a great deal of thought. He lived in New York City. I knew that. My grandmother - his mother - loved him very much, but she was very honest about him. She used to tell me, "Jennifer, my father was a son-of-a-bitch and your father is a son-of-a-bitch, but he's my son and I love him." Her way of loving people without making excuses for them taught me how to love people unconditionally and honestly.
By and large, it is a remarkably good thing that I had very little to do with my father; that he wanted very little to do with me. Sometimes, when I watch my husband with our children, I am glad that they have a father that is so loving and devoted to them, but I rarely regret that I lacked that. Going along in my grown-up life, trying to take care of my family and myself, my house and garden, I don't spend too much time thinking about anyone in particular, certainly not my father. So, you can imagine my surprise when trying to find a cousin on Facebook, I came upon my father instead. Top of the page.
"Huh?" was my reaction, coupled with this very strange teetering feeling, like swinging back and forth in the seat perched highest on Ferris Wheel. I had very quick thoughts about a potential life with him in it, not as a father, but as an aquaintance and a friend. In his profile picture, I saw my own face. My freckles. My eyes.
I think it must have been something like finding one's birth parents after a lifetime of being adopted. I know who my family is. This man is not it, but still that spark of recognition is a powerful one.
Like, being a piece of the Golden Gate Bridge misplaced in a puzzle of some botanical gardens somewhere. It's not that that is a bad place to be, it's just that you don't fit. And even if by some random dye-cut miracle you find a spot that feels right, the architectural nature of your image is counter to the rest of the verdant landscape.I think your father makes your place in the world. I didn't have that. I made my own place, shoved myself in wherever I could manage to fit.
You see, I never really loved my father. I never really felt anything for him at all. He was just there or not there. Maybe like a fellow traveler on the bus you see every day, then you don't see them. You notice the absence, but don't really wonder why they aren't there. My parents divorced when I was two and I had a series of step-fathers that didn't really want to be my father either.
My grandfathers have always been more father to me than anyone else. My grandmothers more mother. My father's father always sought to protect me from his son. The last time I saw my father, I didn't know he was visiting. I came through the door into my grandparents' kitchen with David behind me and saw someone I didn't recognize. It
was my father, oddly enough as he never came home. My grandfather got up from his chair and inserted himself between my father and me. My father turned and went down the hallway out of sight, but my grandfather stayed there, between me and the empty spot where my father had been. Normally, we would have stayed for hours, but we left that day. It's the only time I ever left my grandparents' house without one of them saying, "Don't go." It was strange, but I can't say that I felt anything.
The next time I saw my father was not at either of my grandparent's funerals, though he did visit Virginia one other time before either of their deaths. No, the next time I saw his face, his picture fell from my grandmother's Bible, just last summer.
It was a school picture. He looked to be 8 or 9. Because he really didn't have anything to do with me, no one had ever taken me on a tour of who he was. I had never really seen pictures of him and still, I can't tell you the difference, most of the time, between a photograph oh him or my uncle as children. But this picture, it was
definitely my father. He looked exactly like my son. And in that moment, I loved him. I loved the bits in him that became bits in me and later, bits in my very own children. I loved him because my grandmother had fiercely guarded her love for him, although he tried his hardest to kill the roots of it in her heart. She loved him how
I love my children, I think. And I loved that I learned that from her through how horrible he was. It was a small price.
When I found his Facebook page, it was like standing at a doorway at the edge of an abyss. I could jump and fall and hope I landed somewhere better or I could step back, close the door and walk away. Even though I knew I should close the door, I couldn't help but linger. I got brave and did an Internet search for his name. I saw his address and telephone number, his MySpace page and even read an autobiography of himself posted somewhere. It didn't include me and painted a very different picture of his parents than the people I'd seen. That hurt my heart. And after listening to a few of his songs on MySpace, I closed the door and walked away. What could have been wasn't and never will be. The sooner I remind myself of that, the better.
It's just that every now and again I get nostalgic. And nostalgia is always made up of things that are nice. I want to walk a familiar landscape, know people that knew people I miss, be in a group that when we laugh, it all runs together because we all learned to smile from the same sets of lips. I was abandoned by my father and abandoned my mother. I am adrift. Or sometimes I feel like it.
Until I remember my husband, my two sons and my daughter and think to the future and my vision of my happiest moments to be, standing at the front door with cars filling my driveway, rubbing the flour from my hands, opening my arms to surrender more of the love that made life worth living, without thinking about everything I went without, only about all the abundance I have.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Oh, what a terrible belly-ache when all we consume is plastic and fake...

We returned from Little Rock, Arkansas last night. My sister got married this past weekend. It was a beautiful thing. When people in love truly compliment one another, it is a pleasure to see them not only realize how well they fit together, but also to see them demonstrate that understanding by getting married - which is why everyone truly in love should be able to get married. But that's a post for another day when I'm feeling rancorous.
Today, I am feeling...yucky. It took two days to get to Arkansas and another two to get back. And I don't know if you know this about us, but we are not wealthy people. This means, we can't spend $100/day on food. So, the way home was spent cobbling together cold meals eaten straight from the Kroger bag. Don't get me wrong, today's still-digesting doughnuts (burf!) will be next week's fond memory, but today, they are still digesting.
We did have two splurge meals on the trip, though. One on the way down and one on the way home. Both were eaten at landmark eating establishments in Tennessee and both we had visited before - at least parts of us had. But one was a luxury and one was crap. Dualism, shall we ever escape your two-fisted grasp?
The Loveless Cafe in Nashville is a true treat. It's been there forever and is still a place well worth stopping. The biscuits are yummy. The people are sweet. And the atmosphere is eclectic enough to be interesting without stooping to country cliche. Yes, you may find an enamelware ladle on the wall, but it belongs there. It's not just tossed up with a candle and a cracker box to evoke a place that may have been, but never really was a la Cracker Barrel.
The Loveless Cafe has parlayed its stature as a well-known down-home eatery into all kinds interesting and worthwhile ventures. There's a thriving gift shop and on-line business as well as a great many shops surrounding the cafe in what was formerly the adjacent motel. There is even a new barn built to host events. All of these are examples of how the owners of the Loveless took what they had - a reputation for good food, an empty motel and an outparcel of land - and made the most of it. They didn't raze the building and build a big new, shiny structure and start making their biscuits from a mix straight off the Sysco truck. They took their uniqueness in the industry and branded it, making their identity in the quirk rather than eliminating it.
What started out as a family selling hot meals from their own kitchen to travelers has become a multi-generational business that still shines and becomes more of itself with every year.
Brooks Shaw's Old Country Store at Casey Jones Village in Jackson, however, yeah, they didn't do that.
I don't know what that place used to be. David went there once 20 years ago and remembers it fondly, but twenty is a lot of years and the shine's done gone off that apple...and it went about 19-and-a-half years ago. It just goes to show you can instruct your employees to answer the phone, "Hey, Y'all!" but it's kind of hollow if they follow it up by being asses.
Maybe it's just the nature of a buffet that brings out the worst in both people and food. When you can get all that you can conceivably carry back to your table, people tend to hover like vultures over a splattered opossum, snapping their serving tongs, grabbing up each piece of "Cracklin' Corn Bread"...not because they are hungry, but just because it's there and they can. No food - aside from Brunswick Stew and apple butter, both cooked outstide over a flame - tastes better out of a vat.
I grew up on country cooking. Some of my fondest memories are of my granmother's pinto beans steaming in a bowl flanked by a generous brick of her cornbread. I don't know which fat tasted better, what was floating in the pot liquor or what was soaking into the bread. It's not the milieu I object to, not at all.
I love fried green tomatoes.
I love fried okra.
In fact, I love just about anything that started off green and ended battered and deep-fried.
Mashed potatoes, all the better.
Did you say navy beans? I say, "Don't forget about me."
Turnip greens? Good Lord.
And I got to eat all of those things at the Old Country Store. At least, they rather resembled those things, but they didn't really taste like them and my gut was heavy with regret. Still is. And that banana pudding...well, it sounded good and that was about all the good that could be wrung out of it.
Brooks Shaw's Old Country Store is surrounded by a make-believe village built around the legend of a man that died a tragic death in a train wreck caused by the elevation of a timetable over the value of human life. And the buffet at the Old Country Store is a further manifestation of that misalignment in priorities. There, you can eat as much as you can waddle out with still in you. And you can buy as much faux-country-store paraphrenalia as you can hold, but when you stop and really think about it, did you ever really want all that? And did you enjoy it? Did it enrich your life? Or did it just fill you with regret and flatulence?
It's one thing when David and I, barely erect after a meal, say, "Never again." But when the children, 6 and 9, echo the setiment, then you know that was a dinner gone horribly, horribly wrong.
But then, the business itself was thriving. The parking lot was full and we even waited in line to get seated. (And doesn't that just burn you up? When you wait in line for something that's just bad.) And it wasn't cheap, either. And I may be a fat girl, but I am a fat girl who eats with the skinny people. I cannot for the life of me understand how any human person could return for seconds...or thirds...or fourths. Where I was totally overwhelmed by the sheer volume of food available on my one and only trip to the trough, David overheard a woman seated next to us complain to the waiter that there was "hardly anything on there" to eat.
When we left, our fellow diners, many of whom were surrounded by spent red buffet plates when we arrived, were still making the pilgrimage to the buffet and back again. And like I said, it is pretty clear to look at me that eating too much is something of which I am undeniably guilty, but damn. No one in the world needs to have five plates of "dinner" followed by every dessert.
To get to the eating area, you have to walk through the country store part of the Old Country Store. And I guess it's alright. It's full of stuff - a bunch of bulk candy and cookbooks and electrified lanterns that are made to look like they run on kerosene, children's plastic toy trains, pop guns and "hillbilly" crap.
There wasn't a thing in there that a person would actually need, which is what a real country store would have been full of. Unless you actually have a use of the bisected mug that reads, "Well, you said you only wanted a half a cup of coffee!"
It's like, in America, we've become an imitation of ourselves. We go to places with the word "Old" in the name and call it historical... as if that's how things ever were. Like the foods in the grocery store plastered with claims of the health to be aquired within, if they have to shout it so loud, that's probably because they are lying. The past was not rife with opportunities for gluttony or cheap, plastic crap from China. Food was hardwon from the soil and goods were dear, not disposable.
We fill ourselves up with bad food that should taste good if you look at all the calories, fat, salt and sugar involved, but it doesn't.We, however, are so duped we think it's tasty and end up with diabetes and heart disease. And what if we all just blew our minds a little bit and eschewed the white bread and baked our own from whole grains or made a commitment to authenticity in everything at home and abroad.
This is where Wal-Mart comes in, seductress that she is with her tantalizing prices and more-is-better philosophy. They've figured us Americans out and mass-produced a middle-class lifestyle of coordinating hand towels and soap dispensers that make those of us who are struggling financially look like we are doing alright, at least in the bathroom. And now, we're hooked on appearing wealthy with jack to back it up.
Hey, even though I didn't talk about gay marriage, it seems I got my rancor-on after all. Nice. I wrote through nap-time again and now need to vacuum around Willoughby. But that's alright. The dirt in my house is real dirt we came by honestly, the old fashioned way.
If you're out traveling Tennessee way on I40, do stop in at the Loveless Cafe. You won't regret it. The Old Country Store at Casey Jones Village? Do yourself a favor and just keep on driving. You've already been there a hundred times a hundred other places...and you didn't like it then, either.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The was that wasn't or how not to write a poingnant autobiographical essay on life.

I don't ever want to be pregnant again.
I'm sure that's not uncommon among women in their mid-30's with three children. But I really, really don't.
I just don't think I could handle another miscarriage. After the first, I thought that God wouldn't do that to me again. My theology was a little naive because He did, if He had anything to do with it all. A third time and I might just break apart, like a glacier into the sea. There'd be a great splash behind your head and you'd whip around at the sound, wherever you happened to be, but in time to see only bubbles and slosh or air where I used to be. And it'd be many moments later, after you'd continued on for a few blocks that you'd wonder, "Wait a minute? Where's Jenny?"
But I'd just be bits awash in the warming ocean, too small to recognize, too far away to see.
Aaaah, why am I writing about this? It's that damn Sufjan Stevens David got me for Mother's Day. I love the gift. I love things that make me think and smile and cry. I just don't want to open this box. I don't want to tip it over and let all that blood and all those tears and all that sorrow spill out.
What if I can't get the lid back on? And I spend the rest of my life in some disconnected, impenetrable bubble of despair? And even if you came to pull me out like a good friend should, my ear drums gone cotton, I'd hear you talking, but my brain wouldn't be able to figure your language out. And any attempts to pull at my person would be like grabbing at noodles, trying to get yourself somewhere.
Save yourselves, I say. It's a sticky, yucky subject. I may be strapped into this carnival ride through the Tunnel of Grief, but you don't have to be. Get out while you still can. Quick, before I throw the lever.

Too late? I'm sorry. Well, at least hold on. Keep your hands and feet inside the car and somebody hand me a Kleenex, will you?

Two years after Eli and eleven months before Schuyler, we lost a baby.
Fifteen months before Willoughby, we lost a baby.

And I cried and I cried and I cried. I still cry
With the first one, I can remember just being so devastated and sitting on the sofa saying, "I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry." over and over again. David with his arm around me, traveling his own interior landscape on which I could not focus.
I had a little cardboard jewelry box that had belonged to my grandmother. It had a soft cotton liner. The kind I remember pulling apart as a child, pretending I was God separating the clouds to see down below. We put all that remained in the box and had a burial in the back yard of the house we rented.
People, when you have a miscarriage, most people don't know what to do. Some look for fault. Some try to comfort you with the prospects of other future children. Some are resigned that "this just happens sometimes" or "it wouldn't have survived anyway" or "God's will". But because the baby was largely intangible, it's not an actual occurrence for most people.
Who knows if there was an actual baby? Maybe it was an egg with more ideas than real romance. Maybe it was just a fluke. Maybe there was nothing at all.
We knew there was an actual baby. I sat and looked at the tiny, tiny twist of umbilical cord, the deflated egg sack. And I put it all in a box. And David and I put it in the ground. Maybe that little heart never struck the first beat. Maybe no steps toward autonomy were ever made. Maybe that baby could never have survived, but it was our child. Our second child.
I was simultaneously honored at having been blessed with that good fortune, even if only for a moment, and then, so devastated at having it all just ripped away. And I apologized again and again. Oh, I was so sorry. Sorry for myself. Sorry for our child. Sorry for whatever I'd done wrong to make this happen. Sorry for every thought I had about how I wasn't ready for this next child. Sorry for the selfish blockade in my heart that filled me with one part dread for every two parts joy or vice versa, depending on the day.
How is it that such relatively short periods of time have such huge impacts on what remains of our lives? I know that if that baby had lived, Schuyler would never have been born. I would not change things as they are. But in that tiny window, that still smaller, budding flower informed more of my world than scarcely anything else I can
I thought so much about life. Eli and I found a baby robin, toppled from its nest, and rescued it, feeding it on the half hour until we could get it to a rescue volunteer. I was still bleeding from the baby I'd never hold or feed or know, digging other holes in ground looking for sustenance to pull out, rather than sorrow to put down.
And I realized then, though I've barely spoken about it since, that even though that baby wasn't with us for very long, that baby was also never hungry, never cold or alone. That baby was surrounded in love - my love - from the first divided cell to the last. And you can take your arguments about when life begins and have them at some other intellectual moment afar, because that little life we made, that I sheltered, for that brief blip in time most people don't even remember, barely a turn of the calendar, that tiny, inconsequential creation was alive. And I loved that baby and gave with everything I had. Until I was no longer relevant. And that's no different from any other child with me as a mother. I just hope next time, far in the future, it's me that goes.

And all that said, I'll take my welling eyes and my joy called Willoughby outside to put seeds in the ground. I'll watch melons swell in July and wear my regular clothes.
And another day, I'll try to sort out the rest of it. I'm not sure I'd manage more than a jumbled, keening wail. And that wouldn't make for much by reading.

Monday, May 11, 2009

I'm a liar. You?

(this film largely inappropriate for children and workplaces, but I adore it anyway.)

We have been waxing way Odysseus these days. Busy doesn't even begin to describe our lives. The regular Hallelujah-It-Is-Spring-Again! upswing of activity has been compounded (rather exponentially) by my sister's wedding and my eldest son's dental drama.
Really, all of that information is relevant.
Stay with me.

Last Monday, Eli, Willoughby and I visited the department of pediatric endodontics at the Medical College of Virginia a few hours away in Richmond. Last October, my normally cautious, rule-following 9-year-old, hoisted himself up by the arms between two desks in a moment of age-appropriate folly. All of this while the teacher wasn't looking, mind you. Of course, not being blessed with the Luck O' the Sorry, the desks came crashing down, bringing with them the aforementioned Eli, who landed squarely on his front two teeth.
They snapped.
He looked like an abandoned building when he smiled. He was miserable guilty. Bless him. We got him caps and the dentist who did the work told us that if he began having any pain, we should bring him back immediately.
'Round about March the pain began.
We got some antibiotics, some Tylenol 3 and a referral to MCV for further investigation.
So, last Monday, off we went.
MCV is a teaching hospital. Eli's dentist was a resident, about done with his schooling. Extremely nice, capable guy. Young and handsome and in to sharing secret handshakes with his patients.
Because the facility is set up for teaching and as a public health dental facility, the exam room had space for six patients. So, as our evaluation progressed, so did the evaluations of many other children all around us.
I am an auditory magpie. When I am in a conversation, that conversation is my world. But when I am waiting, I don't know how not to listen to what other people are saying.
So, all around me parents and kids were being asked the questions we'd already answered.
What is your favorite drink?
What snacks do you like to have?
Do you drink anything before you go to sleep? What's that?
Does anyone smoke in your home?
And all around me, I'm watching the faces of parents lying. You can tell the lie. The slight delay in response. The eye roll up and over. The stammer. That smile.
And they are doing this in front of their kids.
Of course, I come home to lament to David that what the world really needs is for people to admit when they have done something wrong and then, try to do better. And to do this in front of their children, rather than trying to avoid scrutiny by lying. Lying in front of your kids teaches your kids to lie.
If you give your kid a sippy cup of Mountain Dew at bedtime, just own up and stop it.
Jesus demands it.
If you're going to be a follower of that Way, then you have to weave it in to every action and interaction. It has to be inextricable from your life, even when it's your neck on the block.
Turns out Eli's mouth pain was perfectly normal and had nothing to do with his fall. We had it by the tail for about two months before it finally just disappeared with the appearance of a new tooth. Last Thursday, though, it kept him up most of the night.
I believe in school. But I think there's a whole lot to life that isn't school. This is why we get a truancy letter every year. If my children don't feel well or if we have something else important going on, they don't go. Friday, the school day saw Schuyler off to first grade and the sleepless Eli off with Willoughby and I to Roanoke to pick up a dress for my sister's wedding.
It wasn't what I normally would have done with a child home from school, but I had to get the dress. The wedding is insanely soon and as awful as I am, I don't want to let her down.
If I may insert another wrinkle, my car didn't pass inspection awhile ago and I haven't had the money or the time to get it fixed. Mostly it's the money part. The two weeks one gets to solve all vehicular issues and have the car re-inspected passed a long time ago. So, naturally, not having the Luck O' the Sorry myself, I got pulled over on the interstate a few miles from our destination.
The State Trooper asked me about my very faded rejection sticker. It started pink. By then it was quite anemic. I answered all her questions honestly....until...she asked if I'd resolved all the issues that got the car rejected.
She was trying to be nice. If I'd had it all fixed and not had a chance to get it re-inspected, I thought she'd probably just let me go without a ticket. So, I lied.
She asked me again and I lied again.
All with my two sons in the back seat. Willoughby wouldn't know a lie, but Eli? Eli's almost 10. He knows more of the deal than I do most of the time. And the funny thing is, I realized what I was doing and didn't stop it. I didn't just own up and say, "You know, my bad. I'm sorry. I will not make this mistake again."
Caught in the headlights, I took the easy way. Not the Jesus Way.
So, she takes my license and the sad, faded rejection sticker back to her cruiser and while we sat and waited, I started to cry.
I don't know that I've ever been so disappointed in myself. All of those parents from MCV floated, in succession, by my mind's eye. And I sunk down deep in my humiliation.
With my window down, the sound of the traffic going by was huge. Each car and truck passing left behind it a slap of air. That's right. I was being rebuked by the very atmosphere, so deep was my shame.
As the state trooper got out of her car to come back, a truck flew past, taking her hat off her head and flinging it down at the very edge of the road. She looked behind her, bent down to get it, and in that way the mind does, I saw a fast-forward version of a potential future. In that instant, I saw what would happen if by my avoiding my responsibilities of keeping my car inspected (pretty trivial on the responsibility scale) and my lying to her, she had gotten hit by a car going 70 mph.
And I thought about that as I watched that not happen and her approach my car, summons in hand. I though about her family. Did she have children? What hadn't she done in her life? Who did she love? Who loved her? Who was I to put her in that position. A nice lady, just doing her job.
So, I was really bawling by the time she got to my window.
And she was so nice about it.
And I was so not worthy of her kindness. Sitting there. Big old hypocrite liar. All teary eyed with my apologies; how I'd been watching the traffic and realized the risk I'd forced her to take to do her job. She told me it was okay, because that's what nice people do. I guess she thought I was upset at getting a ticket because she went on to tell me how I could just prove I'd gotten the car fixed and the judge would dismiss my case. I didn't even have to travel back there. I could just mail it in.
I drove away, my entry back on to the interstate made easier by the trooper making a way for me.
I thought she was a lot like Jesus in that moment. Looking at me, in my messy, rejected car and smiling anyway; still making it possible for me to have safe passage by risking herself, even though I was the one to be shunned.
And I wanted to be better than I am.
So, I apologized to Eli for lying. I told him it was wrong. I told him I wouldn't do it again. Because the really important stuff in life wasn't about avoiding fines and the scrutiny of dental technicians. It's about being honest and kind and sincere and of service. And I had been none of those things in that moment.
And I resolved to be more mindful. And more honest. Even when it seems like it doesn't matter, it always matters.
People who lie, who avoid, who steal, they are not the broken that I observe from high atop Mount Christian.
They are me.
I am them.
In Christ, we are all as one.
As a follower, it is to me be as Jesus. It is to me to look in kindness on those that struggle, knowing full well the struggle within myself.
It is to me to span the void. It is to me to remain humble; to never indulge in being self-righteous because there is very little righteousness in myself. Any indignation I feel is just a lie I'm telling myself.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Fundamental Breakdowns in Communication Are Fun

I got bee swarms and money trouble. A chick has disappeared in the laundry room and I'm hoping it doesn't fall out of the dryer, you know, dried. My house is a moveable feast of mess as piles and laundry baskets get shifted room to room, so I can feel like, in the space of one living area, I have accomplished something. And kabang-kaboom-kabap, I am also heartless, but not really. Just poorly informed, slightly judgmental and too quick to smack back, even when I'm trying to be more measured.
Oh, how often we can feel justified in coming down on another person, not knowing what the truth is. How easily we can be misled. (Honesty, for real, check it out.) I should be more sympathetic. I should be the slowest person in the room when it comes to conclusions and how quickly to jump to them.
I wish I knew people better. I wish people knew themselves better. I wish they knew me better. (I know what the next step in this progression is, something about knowing myself better, but I'm not going to say it. We're pretty familiar.) 
Where do the lies come from? Why do so many people dive so deeply into deceit they can't resurface? That isn't life. That's suicide with language, killing yourself with every word you speak. 
Sweet Jesus. And I mean that, completely. Sweet, sweet, sweet Jesus. 
I don't have a perfect marriage. But I have an honest marriage. Even when our gears aren't quite meeting up right and our talks are troubled, the ground is even beneath our feet. Betrayal makes a bitter, bitter heart; two bitter hearts, in fact. Add another for each kid in the mix.
Sweet Jesus.
Sweet, sweet, sweet Jesus.
Brew a dishonest tea, serve it as sweet, and you'll quickly teach your kids a different definition of life than you intended. Your every move, as a parent, informs your children. How you handle rejection, bee stings, torment, the truth, all of it, instructs them in how to be people; how to move through the world; what to look for in a relationship - spousal, professional or friend.
Teachable moments, all. And whether you're actively teaching or not, they're learning.

My problems - bees, dollars, dehydrated chicks, and mess - are no problems. They are fodder for funny stories, told later, over popcorn (except the chick part - that takes a special kind of friend). My life is the choices I make in how to conduct myself and who to surround myself with. And so far, I'm doing okay. 
What do you do when everyone's a villain and a victim of the other? I guess you can't pick sides, can you? And maybe that's better, drawing a circle in the sand around yourself, rather than wasting time with lines and divisions. 

Life is an inestimable joy. It is a gift, no matter who you believe bestowed it. Don't waste time gorging on refuse, when there is fruit to try. We all fall. We all break and splinter. But who do you want to be when you die? And how much time are thinking you have before you get there? And I'm not talking some afterlife, either. I don't care about some punch-card entry to Heaven on High. 
I'm speaking of the today. The now. 
The unexpected accident. 
The step off the curb. 
The hidden aneurysm. 
And you're gone. No time for teary apologies. No time to get right with your family. No gentle slope into death. Just WHAM. It happens. It happens to the good and the bad every day.
And this? This is the legacy? This is the last moments of you? 
Don't you think you're worth more than that?

Right now, the lives of so many people we know are in flux. So many of our friends are hurting and being hurtful. It's not up to me to sort it out. It's like a slo-mo tornado, ripping a path through the lives of people we love, and while we are screaming in horror for them to get out of the way, they are pouring gasoline and lighting matches...because what's a good tornado without a bonfire? 
Just make sure the kids have marshmallows so you can tell them it's a party. Maybe they won't figure it out.

(Damn. I am a heartless B, aren't I? Did I mention I have bees? And money problems? And a missing baby chicken? If it's dead in the dryer, I just hope it was a rooster. It's so hard to tell.)

Monday, April 20, 2009

The three most dangerous words in English. Perfectly safe en francais.

I say, "I love you." A lot. 
Awhile ago, my husband pointed out that while conversations between him and his family members nearly always ended with "Bye. I love you.", mine, with my family, rarely did. He asked me if I was afraid of telling people how I felt about them. I dismissed the notion pretty quickly, but went on to think about it...a lot. 
I mulled it over for a good long time before realizing he was on to something. I made the decision to change. I resolved to share my love more. And after awhile I found myself compelled to tell people I loved them all the time. 
As remotely as possible. 
Like, only if they couldn't actually immediately respond (voice mail) or if they had to respond in writing (e-mail and letters). It's not that I believe that everyone is ready to reject my love. I just don't feel the need to get that particular puck slapped back in my face. So, I'm forever sending notes and leaving voice mails for friends that simply say, "I love you. You are fabulous. I'm so glad to know you. You are worth so much more than you know." Because that's how I feel. And I figure, what real harm could it do? At the worst, some people might think I've had a bit too much to drink and gotten handy with the cell phone. Or that I'm rather sentimental and overly emotional and spend too much time on Facebook. 
I don't care if people think I'm an idiot for saying what's true. Some people never respond and others do write/call back, with thankyous and stories of how it was a welcome message on a bad day. 
That's all nice, but to be frank, telling people I love them is just as much for me as it is for them. A hug takes two people and both of them feel the warmth no matter who initiates the action. I am trying so hard to cut myself a break, to not be some old lady struggling with the same foibles that have slowed her down her whole life. So, if I can have room in my heart to love a whole host of imperfect beings, truly and from the bottom of my heart, there's the chance that one day, I'll look in the mirror and feel it, really feel it, about myself. (Ah, Jennifer, the self-serving humanitarian. Quick, someone tell Christopher Hitchens so he'll get of Mother Teresa's balls already!)
But it really all comes down to this: we have these friends who are having a hard time in their marriage. It's really rather heartbreaking. I want everyone to live in their own personal fairy tale, like me. They have been on my mind a lot. And I have been trying, in my own way, to keep them reminded that we care for them singly and together. 
I have been telling them that "we" loved them a lot. Behold the power of the pronoun. Loving as a group is much better than loving on your own (like synchronized swimming),  and a lot less threatening, apparently. My expression of individual love for one and not for the other has caused some serious hard feelings. And I am forced now to contemplate love and the expression of love as destructive forces as well as palliative and creative ones.
Does love have a bad side? Is there ever a wrong time to say, "I love you" to a friend, and mean it? I mean, Jesus loves you and that's alright. Why not me? 
As usual, with me in my little bubble of intelligent arrogance, my first reaction is to assume that the problem is not with me. And there is this nasty, niggling part of me that wants to fire off a hasty e-mail saying, "If you're so threatened by my saying I love the person you married and are now not so sure about, maybe you need to re-evaluate your own damn self instead of getting all snippy with regards a moi." But I'm trying to be better than that. I could tit-for-tatter any one of you to absolute shreds (tatters, even) ball-gagged and blindfolded. But what's the point in that? Life's more than "Booyah, bitch! Suck that!"  I want to be more than a pithy retort or witty rejoinder. There has got to be more to life than that.
While I might not be disposed to physical violence (85% of the time), I'd like to be nicer than verbally cutting someone off at the knees because, in a moment of personal crisis, they've rubbed me the wrong way. So, I'm thinking here. And thinking. And thinking some more. Taking a page from sister-in-law's book of wisdom and holding my sharp tongue.
I find myself wondering, "Did I actually do something wrong?" and "What if my saying, 'I love you. And I think you are worth it,' crossed some sort of line that married people aren't supposed to cross, causing the fight that caused the end of the marriage between a couple I really do care about (even though I find myself really annoyed with one of them now)?"
I could spend an hour telling you exactly what I meant, but why? I think it's pretty apparent, especially if you take a minute or two and look at the rest of my blog. It's basically all about love. Because isn't it? Everything? All about love? And what's ironic, is that the very person I told I loved is the one who opened that door for me. 
I have so scoffed at Jesus and Christianity and Christians. But this person is really the one that started the revolution in my heart that makes me really feel love for every stranger on the street. Maybe, though, I'm only supposed to feel it myself and not broadcast it. 
Whoops, I lost my footing and somehow ended up stepping in a whole lot of mess I didn't even know was there. It looked like solid ground, but the soil was thin, hiding straight swamp. And me on my cloud, floating high above it all, I'm not used to this sort of thing. 
I tell people I love them. I never thought there'd be fault in that. But there is apparently. Lover beware.


Monday, March 23, 2009

Willoughby's Plan for World Domination, age 1.

My son, Willoughby, has a plan. 
Apparently, he has heard the message of future scarcity loud and clear and in his chubby infant wisdom, he has developed a way to insure his future survival in the Land of Less-Than-Plenty.
Using the only powers of persuasion available to him (he cannot overcome his perpetual cuteness, after all.) - i.e. pooping - he has effectively disuaded a great number of childless friends and perhaps even the vast majority of Richmond from ever having children at all.
It all began one sunny Saturday in early March. Our family travelled to Richmond to see Dan Zanes in concert with a veritable caravan of friends in tow. Every cool person in Lowesville with kids was in attendance, I guarantee. 
Willoughby, unbeknownst to us, had been setting the stage for this performance by strategically not pooping for two days previous. A fact that I noticed, but did not find remarkable because he frequently does this sort of thing. Frankly, I always believed it to be involuntary biology. Even as a tiny, breastfed baby he would only poop once a day, sometimes even skip a day. 
This is why we christened his resulting overflowing diapers as "Poo-namis!". Even though David said we were going to hell for such a thing, I kept herding the children down that road because, really, when your baby lays down 47 cups of bright yellow poop in a diaper, you can do one of two things. You can lose your mind or you can just make the best of it by, in some small way, making it funny.
Needless to say, I really hadn't been paying attention to Willoughby's pooplessness. My attention had been focused much more on my recommitment to cloth diapers and my swearing off of any disposable diapering regalia, including the incredibly convenient "baby wipes". Earlier in the day, I packed up more Fuzzi Bunz than one baby really needs, 400 wash cloths and a wet bag to hold the soiled nappies and we were on our way. 
During the concert, Willoughby played his first card. He pooped. But a very manageable poop. Solid, well-formed. Easy to shake off in the toilet. No problem to clean up after. After this, whatever mindspace I'd been devoting to "Poop Watch" naturally shifted to other areas like holding W's hand for this 1,000th trip up and down the stairs and yelling at my two older children.
For Willoughby is a very beautiful child and also very good natured. You really don't look at him and expect that inside plots a true Machiavellian mind bent on gerrymandering the future population of the region in which he currently resides. He does not want you moderately affluent Richmondites, lured outside by the warmth of the coming spring, to reproduce yourselves. Those of you drawn to Careytown's shops and eateries; those of you who may raise future members of the House of Delegates, Senators or perhaps even Presidents; those of you witness to the biological spectacle that took place in the street on that day, I bet you are still rethinking that whole "having kids" thing.
Because when my child shits, oh, it is a mighty thing. 
First off, location. Pooping in a hard wooden highchair is a thing I can remember experiencing, but indulge yourself a moment and ponder it. Where does the poop go when your fanny is flush against a hard surface? Well, Mythbusters, it goes up the back and out the sides. Any pants-type item will disguise this migration, but upon removal, say it with me Careytown! "The Poop, she does fly!"
But once set free, it really just lies there on the sidewalk, doesn't it? Because it'd just be too convenient for the restaurant to have a changing table in the restroom and it'd have been too far-thinking for me to have brought along the aforementioned 400-plus washcloths as well. And in a pinch, any flat surface and cheap old restaurant paper towels will do, right?
Sort of.
A concrete bench in front of a vacant storefront (Thanks, Struggling Economy!) really isn't the best place to change a baby covered in shit and no, Sprite from the sippy cup isn't the best liquid with which to moisten cheap restaurant paper towels, either. But it was all going well-ish. I was certainly laughing.
Our friends were horrified. Score one for Willoughby. There's a couple that regardless of their future together (which we hope is long, as they are both lovely people), that I'm pretty sure W. cured of any baby mindedness. And when I needed more paper (More paper! More paper!) and had to run back into the restaurant for more cheap paper towels mid-change, Willoughby, pantsless, diaperless (but not sock- or shoeless), looked his Daddy in the eye and just pissed everywhere.
Because that's what you do when you're in Richmond on a spring day, when everyone is out shopping and enjoying the weather, and you're a year old and want to narrow down your future competition.

Monday, March 16, 2009

We are good. But we are not good enough.

I posted here awhile back about our intention to adopt our niece, Abigail. I spent a good chunk of last year trying to make myself relevant to her life, beginning with telling her my name. Where I started visiting her at social services, observed through a two-way mirror, we progressed to her having overnight visits at our house.
This was a big deal for our family. We are a tightknit group. We are all very much like each other and very, very different from everyone else. Some say that's snobbery. Notice, I didn't say we were better, just different. David and I talked to the children about what we were thinking. We all agreed it was the best thing to do. What better gifts can you bring to a child? 
Here we are. It's your family. Throwing it all out there because we want to pull you into us. We want...we choose you.
But after court dates and home studies and various other hoops, the greater court system of Lynchburg decided it was in Abby's best interest to stay with her maternal grandmother. And perhaps it is, after all.
I have been thinking on this really hard, like an ever-lasting gobstopper for the mind. And I am all the ways one would expect. I am disappointed. I am relieved. I am resigned. I am indignant.
Abby's grandmother is a nice lady. I don't doubt Abby will be happy and well-cared for. But I was ready to be her mother. And David was ready to be her father. And our children were ready to welcome her as their sibling, their familial peer.
I can't even begin to go into all the ways David feels about this. It would be insulting to him to try. So, I won't even attempt it. 
I guess it's not often that I really want something; that I really throw all caution and reason to the wind and say, "Yes. Here. Me, yes, I want that."
And I'm still sincerely trying to make sense of it, but I guess if nothing else, I can say of my family, we don't back down. When pressed, we don't flinch. My little band, we have hearts wide open and we'll always come through in a pinch.
Whether you need us or not.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Do I Look Fat In This? Wait! Don't Answer Because What I Mean Is, um, Do You Like Think I'm Worth It And Stuff?

So, I was reading my friend Scott's blog ( this morning and he raised an interesting question about honesty. Basically, how honest do you want people to be with you? Can you be honest and still be kind? Or does honesty inherently possess a brutality to it - a ruthlessness. Is being completely honest with a friend about something critical or unpleasant akin to jungle cat pouncing all fang and claw on a baby zebra? 
I got my first lessons in honesty from my mother. Before you get all, "Awwwwwwww..." and misty, let me say that my mother's definition of honesty has very little to do with truth and everything to do with her hyper-critical, completely off opinions about everyone and everything. Growing up with her was quite a bit like spending your formative years being informed of yourself by that kid in 3rd grade who absolutely lived to make you miserable.
When I was 9, I was in a dance review. I was really proud of myself in my sparkly suit and my big tuille hair bow and my tap shoes. I remember coming breathlessly off the stage all giddy, ready to just jump around and really be plain old happy with being me when my mother said, "When I looked at all those little girls up there, really, Jenny, you were the fattest one up there."
Boom. Right? Thud. From flying to flattened in two seconds.
Now, my mother was being "honest". She was sharing what she thought. 
It's just that what she thought was inappropriate and cruel. Without the ability to self-censor or realize how incredibly hurtful her thoughts and feelings were, she called herself possessing a unique virtue (and she still does). 
There are really beautiful pictures of me in that dance costume that I can't look at without wincing, feeling that echo punch in the gut. And although I know I was beautiful and lovely and deserved to be lovingly parented as much as the next kid, that horrible crash down is so much a part of who I am today. It's a large part of why I don't try so hard; why I don't want much; why I am unable to see myself as I really am; why I don't talk about how I feel; why I am so closed off; why my arms aren't as open as they should be.
To flip the coin, though, there are times when that level of honesty is good. When someone you love is trapped by a destructive relationship or drug abuse, when people are floundering, constantly choosing to do the wrong thing, a little ruthless honesty can be good. Everyone needs a good slap in the face once in awhile. But a loving slap. A "Hey-I-Really-Love-You-But-Have-You-Lost-Your-Damn-Mind" kick in the pants. Those people who can grab you up by the scruff of your neck when you're in the gutter peeing down your leg, those honest people, they are the ones that love you best. Because they are willing to piss you off to save you from yourself. They are willing to sacrifice their relationship with you so that you can improve yourself. But it's a fine line between lovingly packing a wollop and clubbing someone over the head. Very few people are willing to deal with the ramifications of that kind of honesty. 
But then, there's the honesty Scott was really getting at, I think. The honesty that kind of pops up unexpectedly; where you mistakenly open Pandora's Box without every realizing you had hold to the lid. When David and I were first together, I remember lying on the sofa talking to him on the phone and in my 17-year-old folly, I asked him, "What do you want?" thinking he'd say, "I want YOU, Jenny. I want to marry you and have 300 children and live my life for you and only you, you magnificence, you wonder, you essential beautiful joy!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"
What he said was, "What if I can't do this anymore? What if I need a break from this?"
Quite the anti-climax, there. Not exactly what I was after. And he didn't do anything wrong, even though it hurt like a bitch. He was just being honest. And he needed to be. What is a relationship if information like that isn't shared? Not hurled, but shared? If he had never uttered those words to me all those years ago, as much as it hurt, as much as I hated to hear them, would we be here today? Together?
Or would there have been some sprouting done by that acorn, ultimately breaking apart the sidewalk of our love? And at what point would that have happened? Before marriage? After? Before children? After? What would our lives be now if I'd never asked the question? Or if he  had chosen the safe answer?
The truth is not good or bad. It just is. And honesty is how we all relate to the neutral truth. I could have 100 different kinds of cancer and deny every one, but I'd still die. If I were honest with myself and others about them, it wouldn't change the outcome, but it would change me. And it would change those around me, maybe make life better by making it sadder. (Better Living Through Melancholia!) 
You really should never ask, "Do I look fat in this?" unless you're prepared for the answer to be, "Yes!". It's hard. It's so damn hard to extend yourself out there, blind to the opinions of others and yet, so very vulnerable to them. It's hard to struggle through your own feelings of inadequacy to muster up the courage to ask someone else, "Am I okay? Am I good enough? Do you think I'm pretty only skin-deep, because I know what's up inside and I'm pretty good in there? Do you like me? Do I please you? Will you love me? Could you? Just love me?" And I guess that's what we're all looking for; an honest answer to that question and also the reason the blanket notion of Jesus' love is so very appealing. Because, I tell you, it'd take the son of God to love some of those people out there.
But I don't mean you. Because you are okay. You are so beautiful. I do like you and you are pleasing in every way to me. How couldn't you be? I love you. I love you. I love you.
And I mean it.