The house was cold this morning when I rose. I’d been awake since three or so—sleep has never been a close companion of mine, especially in these last few years. I spend those dark hours sifting through thoughts and memories. Planning the day ahead and rehashing things I should have said or done differently the day before. Excessive wishing occurs. I suppose these hours spawn much of my writing and should be credited with the seeds of paintings, recipes, and essays alike…but they’ve also left me with entirely too many hours to flay the flesh from my own bones at times.
The stairs creaked as I made my way down by the light of the small Christmas tree in the entryway. The larger one in the living room, along with the lights on the mantle and across the top of the bar gave most of the first floor a soft warm glow despite the rather arctic hard flooring beneath my bare feet. I nudged the thermostat up, poured a cup of coffee (thank goodness for pots you can set the night before—almost like having a wife of my own--hot coffee ready at 6am is a marvelous thing), and stood looking out the kitchen window, the world icy and frosted white beyond the glass. The boys have reveled in the snow these last few days…I must admit I do not share their delight--winter makes me long for blankets and hot toddies.
I listen to NPR (national public radio) as I get ready every morning. I find it much more informative and less irritating than television with its persistent commercialism and tendency to qualify the “latest trend in socks” and “recipes for your holiday brunch” as “news.” NPR brings the Middle East into my kitchen, wars and tragedies as well as triumphs and joy—things which help me keep perspective. I fear there is a vast population out there absorbed only in the three square miles that surround them…
Throughout the programming, they often mention famous birthdays. Tidbits of interesting lives. Remarkable moments. Today, it turns out, is Stan Lee’s birthday. As the announcer read through several facts about the man, there was near reverence in his voice. It was obvious that Marvel and all of the magic contained therein had touched his own life personally. Spiderman Halloween costumes and Iron Man underroos, a full-color childhood of imaginary champions. As I traced the curve of my lashes with eyeliner, I found myself wondering at a life so….huge. Lee literally altered the world. He poured enchantment into the mundane, created heros with vulnerability as well as strength…made us all believe good would really win in the end and that no matter how desperate the situation, it was still possible to be rescued. (and this aside from contributing to an industry that encompasses movies and books and careers for thousands) Stan Lee matters. Running my fingers through auburn curls, I clipped the silver hoops into my ears and thought about my day ahead….
Would it matter?
Seven hours at the office, home to cook dinner, maybe a stop on the way for some new year supplies….nothing remarkable. At all. Nothing life changing for anyone. Don’t get me wrong, I know the boys will appreciate being fed and should I not stop for cheese and peppers, there would be no dip for the mancave sleepover planned for New Year’s eve….but do I matter? My tiny carved out niche in the world, three boys, an old house; a husband and one neurotic dog. I don’t change the world. Far from it. My presence wouldn't register two lines in the local paper, much less a birthday announcement on the radio given with admiration and awe.
It’s strange, this world. When I think of the larger pieces of the pie—the names known by all that fabricate and shape the direction of this never ending story we all live within….I cannot help but wonder at the power of the rest of us. Leading quiet lives in quiet homes, giving birth and laughing and weeping and quietly dying. Perhaps it’s just the new year, facing the end of last, resolutions and realizations and such. Perhaps I’m just tired today. Perhaps I need to be more intentional.
Crossing off the last item on yet another legal pad list, the black scratch across sunny yellow paper inordinately pleasing, I have shuffled another step closer to Christmas. I am indeed a most advanced addict of lists and all things enumerated. Don't forget and remember to and prioritize dammit! *chuckle* I am unsure of what birthed this undeniable need for organization within my soul--was it nature or nurture or just a knee-jerk survival mechanism kicking in after enduring traumatizing years with roommates and a first husband that lost their rent, their keys, and their jobs on a disturbingly regular basis. Whatever the case, I do so cherish my lists and the peace of mind that comes with them.
But once more, there is a yet....
So as is common in our dinnertime routine, I swirled the merlot in my glass, crossed my legs and leaned back in the one of the tall, deeply cushioned chairs that surround the dining room table. Watching the boys finish off piles of roasted green beans with almonds and feta, grilled chicken, and slabs of buttered bread, I asked, "So Brennan, what was the most fun you had all day?" He took a sip of milk, tilted his head while he thought, and then enthusiastically, "Oh, when I got to stay in and play on the computer with Kyle for recess!" I laughed, that boy and his computers! "And you?" I asked his brother. Sawyer finished his bread, considering. "In gym I caught seven balls during scatterball!" I grinned right back at him. My oldest redheaded son may not be the biggest of the three, but he's like a monkey when flying through the air and a cat at landing on his feet. The music played on, a piano holiday mix that I love, and Brennan looked at me, a question in his eyes.
"What's the most fun you had today mom?"
I chuckled, standing to pick up the empty platter and dishes, "Well, honey, I got nearly everything done on my list." He wrinkled his nose at me. "And that's fun?" He was clearly dubious. "Well.....um....." He stood to take his plate to the kitchen, shaking his head. "You should do more fun stuff mom." I gazed after him, unsure how to reply.
The boys had run off, returning to their pre-dinner activities. My husband was working late, so I put a different disc on to play, poured another glass of wine, and finished clearing the table. My kitchen is small--more so than you can imagine, trust me, and there is a lovely porcelain sink but no dishwasher to be seen. I stood, filling the basin with warm soapy water, watching the last of the light flee before the cloak of night beyond the skeletal trees. My reflection in the window glass slowly solidified as the sky darkened outside. And then it was just me and myself in the small room, hands submerged, the clink of dishes and the whisper of running water joining my thoughts for company.
Is fun the same thing as satisfaction? A delicious meal, the laundry done, floors vacuumed and pantry full...satisfaction, definitely. Contentment and gratification and peace of mind--absolutely. But fun? I dare say that I consider it part of my "job" as a home-maker to keep the house well-stocked in every way, but I rather dread shopping of any kind. There is no real "fun" to be had playing bumper carts with sale-crazed women and waiting in lines that seem more appropriate at an amusement park; and then there is the hefting it into the car and lugging it all home alone, a million trips back and forth.....but I do love that my husband doesn't have to run to the market when he's home, and that there is always another box of tissues and enough bread for a sandwich. I take pride in this, but I don't really consider it 'fun.'
I do delight in cooking, although once again it is perhaps more in the shining eyes and "Mmmmmm's" around the table that I find enjoyment. I revel in food and am thrilled that this has been contagious within our family--for his twelfth birthday, my youngest has requested my smoked salmon. Not pizza or burgers, but luscious pink flesh brined overnight and then slowly smoked with mesquite chips in a Japanese bamboo steamer....I do find joy in this. But is it fun?
And then there are the pleasures of the flesh. *slow smile* Warm skin and desire and the flicker of candlelight. The texture of soft hair, the scent of attraction....the taste of passion. While I think I will certainly place this under "fun," should I have "more" of it, I fear I might not accomplish much upon that list....
The dishes dripping quietly, the music faded away. My wine and I curled into the end of the leather couch, marveling at the golden glow of fairy lights and sparkle that is our Christmas tree. The nutcrackers tucked amidst the greenery on the mantle, the candles burning atop the old stereo cabinet that holds the television, its doors now closed. There is such fulfillment here, in the hush and pause after the list is done. But fun?
Do you suppose "fun" is a part of childhood? No, that cannot be true as I have friends that have sporting good fun on a regular basis. In the glimmer of the evening, I am left with just me. I think I will ponder this more. Face the possibility that I have let the responsibility and organization of adulthood consume too much of me....that I have forgotten to include 'fun' on my list.
I believe this Christmas, I shall re-write a list. Or two.
Leaden skies draped my world in dewy garland today. Even now, the rain is still sliding down the windows as the street lights flicker on beyond, their halos misty in the night. Christmas twinkles along the edges of my sight, the fairy lights draped across the bar, the holly piled high atop the china hutch, the buffet littered with half drunk bottles of wine and a dozen glasses among the poinsettias and candles. Our holiday bash crept up so quickly, my month of novel writing just ended and I had but a week to deck the house and bake the nibbles to delight; a week of ladders and lights and hanging the Moravian star. Ribbons that swirl and stars that spin in the pine-scented drafts...oh, how I love Christmas!
The house is so quiet. The first day without a scribbled list on legal pad yellow paper, each item crossed off with satisfaction and the last with utter exhaustion. The first day without a deadline except dinner--and bacon wrapped pork chops with lemon and sage make for patient mouths, willing to wait however long it takes. I curled up with a cup of cinnamon tea this afternoon and watched the slate coloured sky, recollecting moments of hilarity and joy during the party, as well as several of frustration and fatigue in that week leading up to it. Entertaining is a creature born of effort and organization; it dares you to reach higher, try harder, and do it while ever smiling.
I've been known to joke that I only entertain after dark as candle light is the most flattering, hiding the flaws and imperfections in this ancient house--thus every room is lit with their flickering glow. I passionately adore the character of the old and weathered but as I hung the wreath to cover the crack in the wall, tied the lights to hide the chipped mantle, dangled the ornaments from the dining room chandelier to draw the eye away from the unfinished mount, I was reminded of....myself.
The eyeliner to distract from the shadows that hover beneath, lipstick to cover the weariness, a smile to counteract the anger that can be read in the clench of my jaw. Baubles to glitter at my ears, my hair twisted and tucked into shape. Sometimes I feel I wrap and decorate myself much as I do a gift, only I am unsure if it is to prolong the surprise of the wonder inside....or to conceal the defects and disappointments. Each of us fights our own battle to accept ourselves, this I know. Under a barrage of advertising that encourages lifelong dissatisfaction and a hunger for bigger, better, lovelier and sparkly...thinner, smarter, faster...perpetual reckless improvement.
This holiday, our entertaining now done for the most part, I'm looking forward to quiet nights and peppermint spiked cocoa. Long afternoons in my painted clothing perhaps working on a new canvas, my hair damp from the shower, my cheeks pale in the light. I'm hoping to be more honest with myself...more realistic with my energy and time. More genuine with my emotions. Let us fight the rabid dog of commercialism and comparisons. Let us enjoy each other while resisting the unattainable myth of perfection.
Here's to unwrapping our souls...may we cherish what we discover.
Hmmmm, so just a few days past I gave notice to my preconceived absence, a month working on a novel anticipated to take up much of my free time. (wait, is there such a thing?) Yet then, there occurs the unexpected....the conversations which fuel the thoughts which lead me here.
A phone call. Someone close to me, separated from her spouse, fighting her way through a new world of two jobs and daycare and lonely single parenthood. Long talks in the past of ifs and maybes and might-have-beens....but now there is only...now. And she mentions that she recently asked him, "Why?" Perhaps the most important question--while somehow being simultaneously the most insignificant as it applies to life now because no matter WHY, we are indeed now...here. We clutch at the why to justify and explain and soothe the now that is here....when really the why is often a Ferris wheel of rationalizations that leave us blinking in the glare of fairy lights, unsure where the beginning or the end might be.
The why can be lethal. It can eat at you, endlessly gnawing at the edges of the reasons you once told yourself. The reasons that made sense. In this cake we are all baking--the life we are writing as we open our mouths and pen the words that sketch the picture within that we live...the ingredients matter.
Time. Dear God, the author of such, time is the blood of life. Giving time, taking time, putting aside time. The vampire that is the twenty-first century is poised, clutching the edge of your tattered calendar, fangs sharp and at the ready. Beware lest he wrench that which you love away.
Thought. Oh yes, acknowledge the power of the mind, for it stands between you and the emptiness that awaits just over there...just past uncaring and self-centeredness. Somewhere beyond "I didn't know" and before "I don't care" lies a terrible black swamp of "I forgot." O ye who have no ears...
And the most crucial of ingredients...
Ah, time and thought are excellent beginnings, the magnificent starters of the race. Look, their legs so long, their muscles strong....but do you know who wins the final lap?
Effort. The sweaty companion that doesn't sit down, doesn't rest. Effort is the one who takes the thought and makes the time. He pushes past "I'm tired" and "what now" and thrusts himself to the finish line of "it matters."
"He didn't really want to be married...it was too much work."
I shudder at the world I see being built around us. Where the tower of a lasting relationship is replaced by the motel 6 of convenience. Where it seems many would rather pitch a tent....than get dirty, scrape some knuckles, and lay the stones of a foundation.
It's not just her or him--this story has been written in the marrow of husbands and wives and children. It is not a matter of gender or age, but within the skin of us. I ask you today to just pause amidst the pulse of your life, the rhythm you've become accustomed to. Assess your time, your thought, and your effort.
November has arrived in all its amber glory; the market is bulging with fat turkeys and holiday advertisments are beginning to remind me how much more I have to do. Not to be thwarted, I've accepted yet more to be dished out on my shrinking plate. (heavens, what was I thinking?) Have you heard of NaNoWriMo? If not, go here. A novel in a month? *gulp* Most likely you won't see me again until December when I come up for air--but I didn't want to leave you with the heaviness of the last post so I was reading through some from days past and this one makes me laugh every time. Have a lovely Turkey Day all, kiss someone frequently, and I will be back soon....
HELL HAS ANOTHER NAME
Tuesday, March 9, 2010.
Previously: Best Friend calls to initiate contact. Frivolous discussion about said friend's upcoming trip to Florida; beaches, swimsuits.... lovehandles. "Um.....shall we go for a walk this week, to exercise a bit?" she says. " There's a park near my house with a lake."
"Sounds lovely! Tuesday perhaps?"
Now to be absolutely fair, BF did indeed casually mention that it was five miles. As I tear up about eight in twenty minutes on my stationary bike every other day or so, I thought very little of this.
I pick her up in my blazer, we are dynamically jolly on our way to the lake.
My, that is quite a lake, eh?
We arrive and park, stashing coats in the back seat as the sun is gloriously shining, warming the 43* air to a delusional "warm spring day." I glance about....the women in the parking lot are...a bit intimidating. Folks, I'm wearing jeans. And old tennies. A t-shirt with some bar logo on it and a sweater I often paint in--leaving it dabbed here and there with various pigment additions. These other women have apparently stepped out straight from Shape magazine. Glamorous athletic outfits with glowing piping and detail. Hell, they have matching shoes and headbands! (when did flashdance come back in? Oh wait--those are ear warmers...) They're flipping bouncy pony tails as they tuck designer ipods into tiny waistbands...I hate them.
Picturesque. Blazing sunshine glints off the ice, regal geese meandering through the grass, we stride; long steps and deep breaths. We throw back our heads and laugh, jaunting along, giggling at the construction guys that are actually getting into wet suits. (for some reason they were into the lake under the ice...um, insanity?) Nonplussed, we parade on. The clouds are so fluffy...
Slight wheezing. BF requests that I slow down. So thoughtless of me! Of course, my dear...I'm six feet tall and darling Ag is five foot foot three, completely unfair there. We notice the geese rather stink. We chuckle as we comment that every runner passing us looks to be in pain. Ha, ha, what IS their problem? Is that a hill? My goodness.
The chafing begins. Perhaps they could post a warning, "G-strings are highly unrecommended for long ventures." There was that awkward sideways step with a hop as I try to inconspicuously grab the string through my jean pocket. Ag: "Thats why they make active wear." Wench. "Who's idea was this?"
Oh. My. God. *gasp* "Is that the end of the lake?" Ummm....no. That's just where the trail takes off up the MOUNTAIN there and then bends to the right, circles around and then we have to go all the way back down the other side. Damn geese shit is everywhere! There is now a distinct burning sensation in my hip joints. I'm seriously considering hitching. There is a nice mother and children walking a sweet dog coming our way. We're passing. I smile....perhaps it was more of a grimace as she immediately put one child behind her protectively. Ag: "She's got car keys around her neck. You grab the keys, I'll take out the kids and we'll drive back to our car!" Sheer panic on the woman's face. I smack Ag, "Quit scaring the pedestrians!" In the distance I hear the woman say, "Now THAT is why you should never talk to strangers!" Dear Lord, we've become today's lesson in stranger danger.
I'm now serious about hitching. My right calf has seized. I joke about a ride and some pervy 55 year old man on a bench gets up, "Hey baby, I'll give you a ride." Ag: "Walk FASTER DAMMIT!" I consider replying. But I cannot breathe.
The parking lot.
I'm dragging a leg. Ag sounds like a thrashing grouper. We're nearly crawling and she says, "I know this hairbrained idea was mine, but I'm the crazy one in this relationship here--you approved it! You're like MANAGEMENT!"
This morning I can hardly move. I made it down for coffee...and nearly had a seizure trying to put my socks on.
Recently thinking on secrets...things known only by a few. Dark cabinets in the back of the attic draped with webs and dust, hinges rusted. There is something I've never put to print. Something that my mind skitters away from with frantic heaves every time my thoughts even stumble into the periphery of it. Sitting here, I can feel my pulse accelerate; stunning, the power of the mind. As I type, I'm not sure this will ever post. But perhaps it's time that at least here, within the safety of an October afternoon...sunshine and the smell of warm bread and the sanctuary that is today and a flat screen...I can write about what happened eleven years ago.
First, I ask that you take me seriously when I say this may not be for you to read. Sometimes a story can be a seed. Roots entangle and invade and suddenly there is a previously unknown fear germinating in the back of our thoughts. What happened to me is unbelievably rare. I cannot actually guarantee that it will not happen to you, but the chances are smaller than the dot of the period after the words `next to none.` However, if you or a loved one are anticipating surgery soon or there is a pregnancy currently in your world, you may want to click off and find something else to read.
In our world of medical miracles, there are moments of catastrophe.
I was pregnant....but this was so much more than that. I went to deliver my darling Brennan. (he was quite the baby, eventually to weigh in over 10lbs) Needless to say, things didn't progress well. The alarm sounded and I was rushed in to receive a Spinal (a regional anesthesia that numbs from the chest down) and wheeled off for one of those c-sections where the mother is awake, immediate bonding made possible by marvelous modernity. When I mentioned I could still feel the contractions, the darling doc reassured me it was only in my mind as he reached out and unobtrusively pinched my belly--I yelped and he jumped nearly a foot. The look of panic on his face terrified me....this wasn't supposed to happen.
Brennan's heart rate began to drop and the room exploded in activity as I was prepped for general anesthesia. There are two parts to anesthesia; the paralytic--which, as its name implies, paralyzes your body; and the amnesia drugs--the ones which put your mind to sleep. There are no actual pain blockers--they just put you out so that you are not conscious during the procedure and therefore, remember nothing.
No one knew...could have possibly known, my tremendous resistance to amnesia drugs.
I knew nothing about anesthesia. Nothing about surgical procedures in general as I had never needed such before...
There was something in my throat, I couldn't swallow. I tried to tell the nurse at my side....but I couldn't move. Not a muscle, nothing. And then slowly I became aware I wasn't breathing. Can you imagine such a realization? My chest wasn't moving, I couldn't inhale as hard as I tried, and yet....yet I could still hear everything? At this point my logical, rational mind added up the numbers--there is no way I can not be breathing and still thinking unless... It was at that moment, that I knew I was dying. It is immensely difficult to explain the difference between the words "think" and "know." If you are in the midst of a car crash, you might gasp, "Oh no, I think I'm going to die!" It's a possibility. But when it's a knowing....the weight of such is staggering. (I had been intubated and a machine was breathing for me--I had no idea) All I had left was to pray the Lord would bring a good mother to take care of my boys.
And then the scalpel slipped inside of my flesh.
I will never watch a horror movie that shows these types of things. Lying there while they pushed organs aside, peeled back tissue to slice through the muscle beneath to save my child. There was only screaming in my mind.
The average section takes 4-7 minutes to actually remove the baby. Mine took eleven.
Later, when I discovered that the doctors had actually known--I could hardly handle that thought. The moment the knife pierced my skin, my heart rate went through the roof--and horror washed over everyone in that room. They had to save my baby....and they knew I could feel it. As a doctor who's very life and breath was spent healing and fixing and preserving---can you imagine proceeding? They couldn't give me any more drugs as they would have gone straight to my son, but as soon as the cord was cut, they dosed me with the most powerful stuff they had.
I woke screaming.
Brennan was just fine. I was not. I was discharged within thirty-six hours regardless of my physical condition because the trauma of remaining inside the hospital was absolutely overwhelming. I had to escape the white metal bed and the narrow room that smelled of antiseptic and whispered of hope as small as the windows. I had to have the lights on all of the time. I resisted sleep to the point of madness.
Later I met with the anesthesiologist. She was Romanian. She was unbelievably beautiful. She wept. Her shoulders shaking, she told me it was the worst day of her life--her entire job was to prevent pain and she had failed me. I told her I held nothing against her. No one could have known, there was no fault. I cried the whole way home at the thought of her anguish.
I requested my medical file. It's in a box upstairs right now...when I got to the doctor's notes on the second page, I stopped reading. It's there in case I ever need surgery. I pray not.
Although I did meet with a counselor for a time, the real healing I found with chubby arms wrapped around my neck and blue eyes wide that looked into mine....how would that little boy's life have been different if I hadn't been there? I had an infant and a toddler, both of whom needed a mother; there was no time for me to curl up in a ball. Sometimes I truly believe the best cure to be the ritual and routine of simply living. Morning light led to breakfast which led to dishes and baths and walks in the park and learning how to hum again. Slowly my mind healed. I still slept with the light on. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder made a strange and difficult companion to motherhood. It changed me. Sometimes I wonder at who I might have been without this....for now I knew such things existed. I held longer, closer, tighter to my loved ones. Fruit was sweeter....the sunset deeper....the stars brighter.
Every trauma leaves it's mark upon us. But in the end, it's our choices that define us. Not the marks.
Like the way your fingers tingle upon the touch of a new lover's flesh...so my hands feel. Taunt with excitement, slightly terrified and more than a shade awkward. It's been nearly five months...
If you don't know the story of the red paintbrush, read the beginning of this tale here.
I was devastated. Even now my heart pounds as I think about that day. My hands curl slightly...that feeling in your stomach like you've fallen a great distance. One hundred and forty-nine days since. One hundred forty-nine days without unscrewing a tube of paint. A summer packed full of children and trips to the pool and long evenings spent reading on the front porch. Every so often I would wander into my studio...and breathe. Liquid sunshine, the smell of charcoal and paint and wooden canvas frames would roll over me like warm ocean waves. I would run my fingers over the soft brushes that waited patiently in the empty teapot....and quietly leave.
Truly it's unlike me to be so...cowardly.
But there it is. I was afraid. Oh, so robust of me to use the past tense there--because I am still afraid. It's difficult to explain the uncertainty that has taken root in my heart. Even with hundreds of canvases behind me....they were all painted with that brush.
School commenced and I found myself preparing for our annual bash, the Soup. (should you care, you can read about it here.) This is quite the undertaking as we open the entire house to guests--every bedroom, bathrooms, the mancave in the basement as well as the third floor library and my studio. You know how when you have friends over there's always a room you shove crap in and shut the door? We can't do that when expecting so many--which forces me to de-clutter and clean every scrap and nano-meter we live in. A tad overwhelming, but hell--I'm done cleaning till after the holidays!
The Soup was on the 13th....and a part of me cringed the entire evening as I was faced with the same inquiry over and over, "So what have you painted lately?" Ummmm.....nothing? Everything from early spring has sold so what was left on the walls was older; ones I don't like enough to hang or cannot part with for some reason or other. And mixing the chocolate chips into the pancake batter the next morning, (while sipping a delicious chocolate wine, I might add) I came face to face with the apprehensive artist now living in my home. She gazed at me from the reflection in the kitchen window.
Sunday and Monday were party-recovery. (dear Lord above, I am not twenty anymore) Tuesday and Wednesday I cleaned and cooked. And this morning I sent the boys off to school, tidied up....and pulled on my gear. Clothes ancient, covered in paint and ink. Dabs of olive green and ocher, cobalt blue and crimson; the rip in the right leg gaps a bit, framing the skin of my knee in a strange motley way.
It took eleven brushes...they felt wrong in my hands. I kept switching them, one into the teapot after another, the splash of water a harsh reminder of my neglect.
Later I sat, this painting staring back. It's not large, only 10 x 12 or so, and this is just the first stage. The part where I force my mind back into my dreams and attempt to pull them out and make them tangible. Sometimes I love my work best at this stage, for here they appear much more like real dreams...blurry, the edges undefined. From here though, my waking mind clarifies, delineates and eventually finishes the work. If I like it, it lives. If I don't....my, how I do love the magic that is gesso.
I feel almost as if I'm dating again. The alieness of these brushes....it's rather like taking a stranger home for the first time. Incorporating the foreign into the most intimate aspect of my life.
Starting over. Something the human race is renowned for. Our ability to adapt and accept transitions, to forge on after overwhelming loss. Relationships, marriages, parenting...new jobs, new challenges. Life after abandonment, disease and graveyards. I suppose my fear is really founded in my own selfish aversion to change. My comfort in how it was. Pathetic, really.
Some roads we find ourselves upon are not our choice. But each leads someplace from where we are. Here's to knowing I don't want to stay where I am....so one foot in front of the other.
As the years have ticked by, I've become rather shocked at the accumulation of secrets I have stashed away. Somehow I once believed that grown-ups were much more unconstrained. As a child, I suppose I had so many rules--endless, they seemed--that the fantasy of one day living in my own house, buying my own food, and staying up until dawn shredded the night with her glorious golden fingers....how beautifully liberating this would be! Ahhh, at last as adulthood enveloped my world, I became well versed in the tango between freedom and responsibility. These two dance partners swing you from one set of arms to another, back and forth. One's embrace light and fragranced with violets and spring rain; the other's fevered touch makes your heart pound with possible discovery, the bouquet darker...a musk of surreptitiousness and clandestine thoughts.
That which we hide. The silly and the desperate. What you really think or feel, what you wish....though my mother's voice echoes in my mind, "if wishes were fishes, we'd walk upon the sea." Expectations and predilections and longing. Appearances and impressions and the battle for authenticity in an increasingly two dimensional world filled with photoshop and spell check. Yet--I've found several friends who do indeed share all, tell all, reveal all. There is a certain...missing. These are the ones addicted to soap operas and talkshows well-stocked with melodrama and theatricals. Perhaps lacking in their own closet space they seek out other's.....then again, perhaps I am merely unaware of how deep their closet goes.
I've recently acquired a nightgown that I love so much I abhor taking it off in the morning. Some day there will be a knock at the door at noon and I'll pay for this.
I have gotten up after the house slept, crept downstairs and warmed a slice of brie....and ate it with a knife and fork. Cheese enslaves me.
I fantasize about making love in an elevator.
I paint to Damien Rice's "O" all the time.
I often eat ice-cream in the shower. Something about the icy treat while under a scalding waterfall is a sizzling contradiction. (I've also been known to take a Guiness in--the perfect ending to an exhausting day)
I have extreme nail-envy of several of my close friends who have lovely, long fingernails....with no work at all. *sigh*
I was once mistaken as a boy in my young teens when I had short hair. This has led to decades of long tresses, clogged drains, and wayward strands baked into cakes. I no longer bake cakes. And I will DIE with long, tangled grey hair.
Sometimes I think the most terrible things....they should make bleach for the brain.
I flip off my coffee maker when it's empty.
The sunless sky mocks me this morning. Whispering that it isn't nearly as late as the clock proclaims....that I don't have to get dressed quite yet. (mind you, it's not as if I'm lounging--I've stripped the bedsheets, done two loads of laundry, cleaned the kitchen, shooed children out the door with lunches packed and the appropriate paperwork signed and tucked into pockets, swept the steps, fed the dog, and set out the bread dough to rise...all while wearing my Marilyn Monroe nightgown.)
Of fairies and hobbits I am unsure, but I wholeheartedly believe in the alchemy of the kitchen. That wonderland of taste and scent, the kitchen is where I long to be. I cannot turn water into wine, but if you give me six hours, I can turn it into gold.
The simplicity of filling a pot with water, the slight slosh as you place it on the stove. The click of the burner and the whoosh as the gas catches--a few of my favorite things, these are. For they are the beginning. And sometimes, beginnings are magic.
My fingers slide along the bones of the roasted chicken, peeling flesh from their ivory lengths, separating tendons and sinews and skin. The naked carcass sinks beneath the water's surface, somehow reminding me of a grand ship in a rather warm ocean. Onions and celery and salt, bay leaves, plump cloves of garlic and inky black peppercorns swirl along the surface as steam begins to fog the kitchen window. With a soft smile I pause in the doorway. I'm leaving a simmering pot of water, but will return in a few hours...
And there will be gold.
Liquid amber succulence. The limp remains of the vegetables removed, their essence bled into that which will delight. The bones have given up their marrow, their soul...perhaps this is magic indeed, for how else does water become so nourishing, so heartening? Now with piles of chopped onions and celery, ribbons of carrots and rosemary pulled fresh from the porch, leaving it's mouth-watering scent on my fingers as I watch it fall into the pot. Twenty minutes and in with the mountain of chicken, a cupful of corn and cream.
The house is filled. Not just with things...but with promise. With music and herbs and the delicious heat escaping from the oven where the crust of the bread is slowly darkening. And this...this is the magic that began with a cold pot of water and a dark kitchen.
I love soup. I've quite literally lived off soup at one point. When your body is weak, it craves the liquid meal; when your wallet is empty, you can fill bellies with the odds and bits found in the back of the fridge after they've been souped. (yes, that's a word...well, at least now it is) With imagination--there is no end to the soups one can make. You take what you have....and add love.
Isn't this life? The odds and bits that are here sometimes by choice and sometimes by chance, they may not add up to the designer menu we intended. There was a shortage of lobster. But with time and heat and a handful of spice, a dash of salt...and love. There is soup. Sustenance and provision. Nourishment for the soul as well as the heart.
I burned myself last week. I've had a lot on my mind lately and gazing out the kitchen window, I got a bit lost watching the leaves fall like amber snow upon the lawn. There is something slightly bewitching about the sizzle of a roast; searing before it will be nestled into the pot, draped with onions and herbs, and left immersed in broth to simmer. Something snapped me out of my reverie and turning I reached for the metal tongs now left for long minutes in the flame...
Two inches of the flesh on my palm--the kind of burn that you almost hear before you feel. I must of made a sound as my son was quickly in the doorway. I stood quietly with my hand submerged in the dishtub. "Are you alright, mum?" he asked.
I smiled, "I will be."
For that is the secret, isn't it. No matter how deep the pain, how unbearable it seems as it scrapes and tears and breaks our bodies, our dreams....our souls. No matter the wound, there is the balm of time. The bandage of memory, the antiseptic of grace.
Funny how the physical pain fades so much more quickly than that of the heart. I've come to possess such a tolerance for corporeal injury as to constantly wear a smattering of bruises I've no idea how were acquired, scrapes and cuts that I'm amazed to discover when pointed out by the boys. These are merely the companions to a life of labor; refinishing furniture, installing floors, sanding ceilings precariously perched atop a ladder I'm certain holds a personal dislike of me. And then there is the treacherous land of the kitchen--knives and fire do not mix well with hurry and distraction.
I didn't want to look at my hand. To see it somehow makes it hurt more, doesn't it? Kind of like mulling over an insult or argument. I sprayed on the Bactine (I believe we own four bottles of this magic mist--even keep one in the car...this probably says something about our family), covered it with gauze, and returned to finish getting dinner started. Oh, how it burned. Seemed about to ignite the bandage, did it rage so. I bit my lip...tears in my eyes, though perhaps it was due to the onions I sliced.
Life goes on.
There would be hungry children lingering about in three hours and there was still potatoes to mash and laundry to fold and floors to sweep and.....
That second hand ticks....and the clock turns.
I wish there was a Bactine for the heart. Sometimes a single sentence uttered in anger lingers so long as to tattoo itself on the walls of my mind. I wish I was better at dismissing, banishing these things to the woods where they would be lost amongst the ferns and trees, so much mulch.
Then again, if I were, perhaps I wouldn't be as careful at guarding my own tongue. I am conscientious to an extreme, painstakingly so, of the agony unscrupulous words can induce. We all must live with the tragedy we cause....some learn from the past, some do not. I have made mistakes I care never to repeat. This tapestry of life is woven of a million threads.
We choose the colors.
It's raining today. The green of summer is fading, relinquishing life to give birth again in spring. As I type I can feel the pull of the new skin on my hand. The damaged tissue cracked and peeled, now replaced by soft pink flesh. Unlined still, its tenderness is a constant reminder for me. Not only to be more prudent where I choose to daydream, but that I am stronger than I sometimes feel. That healing is innate as much as of will....that new flesh, new hopes, new mornings await.
Inside of the dash and scramble, the glory and anguish, the blaze and murk of gloom - within this story we are writing as we breathe and love and hate and dream, are moments that define us. Much as ink on parchment....
The rasp of my charcoal seems loud in the room as I sketch the arch of the brow. Black dust drifts across her cheek, I blow it away. Bars of afternoon sunshine trace lazy patterns on the floor, shifting as the curtains billow in the breeze of the open window.
I am waiting.
Waiting is a hiatus. A pause. A breath held. I find few things tell me more about a person than watching them wait. The ability to wait with elegance is a component I believe supremely important to a complete childhood upbringing, it's the foundation of civilized life as we know it. Waiting to speak, play, ask. Stand in line, raise your hand, take your turn. Waiting, if carefully nurtured, gives birth to anticipation; delicious appreciation of the moment achieved. However, if not practiced regularly with self-control and discipline, it can spawn rage, frustration, and an acidic impatience rooted in self-centeredness that will slowly eat away at any joy you hope to hold.
For waiting is like the air. As the seasons and the sun and death and summer rain....waiting is inevitable. From the moment of conception, we wait. For dawn, we wait. For dusk. For first kisses and true love and bended knee, we wait. For winter's end. The bread to rise, the light to turn, the children to sleep....we wait.
What do you do while you wait? My mother told me once, never to pray for patience. For such a prayer was the unleashing of disaster in your life; the upending of plans and goals--messes upon hold-ups upon delays--all which would, in the end, lead to patience. But a lesson of cost, be careful. I've never prayed thus, but still chuckle with friends about one day writing a book titled, "Living In The Two Percent." For by golly, if there is a 98% chance that all will work out just fine....I am in the two. Every. Time. And honestly, my closest friends laugh, cringe a little...and agree.
All is not lost, however, for within the hospital stays and duplicate paperwork and broken plans, I have found indeed almost a....kinship with waiting. Perhaps it is that this world is endlessly fascinating to me. I can be mesmerized by the dust as it frolics on the wind and have spent an afternoon on my knees in the damp soil, taking pictures of the bleached skeleton of a tiny bird. The bones were like ivory threads, knit together with such artistry, such symmetry, their grace nearly took my breath away. Loveliness left in death's cold wake. I was waiting for the boys return from fishing that day; I never would have found those ossien beauties if I hadn't been stranded, time on my hands.
I've written some of my best work in the doctor's office. Composed poetry while in line at the bank. I carry pencils and charcoal in my purse, napkins and the back of old lists becoming my canvas when the waitress is lagging or the train late. I'm not claiming a passive acquiescence at all times, trust me--there is a storm abrew once in a while--but I find conquering my internal turmoil, my desire to demand and shout, to be strangely cathartic. Proof somehow, that I may not be able to control the world--but I can control my response to it. The way we wait defines us, much as my chalk defines the shape of her eye, the curve of her cheek. Within that exercise of the art of the wait, I find peace. Time I wouldn't have had to reflect, contemplate....time to ruminate and wonder and muse.
The art of the wait.
....I've been thinking about the patience
of ordinary things, how clothes
wait respectfully in closets
and soap dries quietly in the dish,
and towels drink the wet from the skin of the back.
And the lovely repetition of stairs.
The air is that delicious shade of amber when night hovers just beyond daylight's reach. The cool of the eve is wondrous after the scorch and scrape of August sun. Somewhere between a siren's call and the battle anthem of summer, the cicadas song echoes through the trees, reverberating in my mind as memories of previous summers flit and dart like a movie reel spliced. That sound accompanied my first kiss. My first heartbreak. There was the smell of funnel cakes and carnival lights and breathless anticipation... Tonight I sat on the front porch with my grandmother. She's visiting for a few weeks, enjoying the great grandsons while the weather is warm. Ninety-six years she has walked the earth...yet so small. Almost some strange humor as my six foot frame curls into the twin of the chair she seems childlike in, not even five feet tall. She's wearing long johns beneath her clothes; a bizarre and slightly odd commentary on the fragile straps of the gauzy sundress that barely makes me presentable in this humid heat. How age changes things. Oh, how it does. The light in her eyes is fierce, strong as her mind repeats the loops it has grown accustomed to. I believe the passionate moments--be them lovely or terrible--carve the deepest grooves in the records that play as we age. I wonder, as she tells me again of meeting my grandfather, my eyes tracing the lines that web her cheeks, the curve of her ear....I wonder who I will be, what records I'll play. For her, a widow with three young sons before she was even twenty, one of the records she plays was being desired by my grandfather despite the hungry mouths she brought along, "that wild Cates boy." His fast car swept her away, and his monthly check when he was gone in the service kept her afloat along with family. So much tragedy, so much hunger. Starvation for food, love, security....a time in history we, so blessed, will never truly understand. And now, so small, so weak...she tells me how the men still want her. I smile. I even smile with a wink and a chuckle and she grins back. She shifts in her chair, pulls at the sleeve of her long underwear, and shakes her head softly. She reaches out to stroke Hazel's back and asks when my husband, whose name she often forgets, will be home. Sometimes her persistence that "someone is out there" or that "he was looking at me" can be frustrating, life is demanding enough without adding in constant reassurances and appeasements. But I've begun to think that she clings to this idea because to fully admit that no one really "wants" her anymore, would be to somehow lose meaning...purpose. She wrestles with being a burden--yet in the same scrappy moment, I think she thoroughly enjoys the 'hand and foot treatment' she receives. She knows it not, but in a world of fragmented families, to be tucked in with a kiss, and have breakfast laid out each morning....I can only pray I am loved and cared for one day, as she. It's difficult at times, being stuck in the timewarp she resides within. My parents are stunning in the years of care--years of bacon and eggs, duplicate loads of laundry, 'please-don't-touch-that' and cleaning up the spills; the privacy they've sacrificed is beyond calculation--I fear at times my mum hedges on the edge of sainthood. This level of care isn't easy, but I enjoy the opportunities I have to give my parents respite as well as challenge my own family to the joy and discovery that it is to live with an elder. Lessons in patience, movement on shuffle, hours of quiet.
The crickets have struck up their serenade and the streetlights are glowing softly. She's begun to repeat herself, in that record-skip way she does, as I lead her inside for the night.
A strange summer, this year. The heat seems almost a physical threat; its blistered fingers wrapping about my throat with crushing force. An igneous embrace complete with stale, febrile breath, as if Mother Nature has finally burned out in a most literal sense. The scorch is wearing indeed, I now dream of rain and long cool baths (instead of aliens beneath the floorboards and vampiric neighbors, perhaps this is an improvement, yes?) I fear the tempers of the entire nation are on edge--the complaining, whining, and groaning reaches a nearly audible peak by late afternoon, even the residential pool has begun to evaporate as whimpering children look on. While this is somewhat predictable, what I have been surprised to observe, is a seeming landslide of irrational and risky behavior as well, choices that defy all intelligent reason, absurd sophomoric recklessness.
Is it a fever? Have the calescent fumes incinerated that part of the brain that pauses....calculating the depth of the water, before plunging off? I've found myself on several occasions with my mouth hanging open in shock, stunned into speechlessness. Flirtation with affairs and unemployment and bankruptcy. Negligent and mindless treatment of the major life stabilizers--those pillars that corner the foundation one lives upon. Not just careless driving, but damn near propositioning disaster--naked, down on one knee.
I have argued, I have warned, I have begged...and in then end, I frankly have been enraged by the simple selfishness that seems rampantly out of control. Please don't misunderstand, I can be queen of Land Selfish from time to time, we all battle our self-preserving flesh on a fairly regular basis, but I try....isn't that the key? Trying? I keep in mind, my pie. Yes, you read that right.
I have a theory about a pie.
Pie me. Me, the pie. I'm not particularly concerned about the flavor of such a concoction, but of the pieces contained within. For you see, I am not just Chantel. Being Chantel would be easy. (now that I think about it, perhaps coconut would be a good match...ahem) Being only Chantel would liberate me to eat and think and prioritize based purely on the tastes and whims that catch my capacious fancy! Ambrosial--but fairly unsustaining in the long run. This pie has other pieces. Sawyer's mother. Brennan and Noah's mother. Also in this pastry of delights resides Jason's wife, Don and Sandra's daughter, and a sister or two. But it doesn't end there. Smaller slices, mind you, but still substantial with crust and cream filling, are the Douglas and Duffy and Dieck's neighbor, Agnes' best friend, the Man Cave/crash pad Manager, and don't forget the annual Soup Party Chef.
When I choose. When I decide. When I risk. I am risking them all.
I am indeed Chantel--lover, painter, author and chef.....but my life is shared with many. We all are blessed to live in a world of immense choice. Every day the menu of life seems to grow larger. Beyond appetizers and mains and desserts, I swear we're in the process of creating cocktails and bites and nibbles. Choices topped with frosting and sprinkles. What we can do with our time and money and freedom is nearly endless, but it is imperative such is done with clarity. Consideration. There are moments when sacrifice is essential. When self-control may divide heaven from hell. Where ever you go, whatever you do....
I sit here alone. The undulating blackness sweeping across the sky before me like angry waves on a celestial shore. I've watched the neighbors dash for their doors, listened to slamming windows and calls for expedition, and all the while, sat still....my flesh tingling with anticipation. My breathing quickens, keeping time with my heart as the wind strokes my cheek and tugs at my hair.
With the first clap of thunder, I smile.
The boys have left for a week with grandparents, my husband working late....I relish this, this dark solitude. Hours before a natural dusk, the sky has dimmed, as if the day feared the slash of lightening's umbrage. The ink, as I write, is lit by glaring flashes of white, neatness lost in the uncontrollable glee that races through my veins.
I often wonder at the differences in the soul of the storm lovers and others. As I sit here I know there are windows open all over my house, but I mind not the damp sills and puddled hardwood I will find when I retire. Really, what harm comes from such? Yet so many at this very moment are walling off Mother Nature behind glass and wood and shade--I cannot imagine this. I delight in every aspect of the coming tempest--the mist that even now slicks my skin, the rumble of clashing masses, the pounding of aqueous fists upon the grass. It's all I can do to stay here, the porch lights swaying in the gale, and not run laughing through the deluge.
Sometimes I think there are those of us born with turmoil in our blood and thus are kin to nature's wrath. It's not something chosen and perhaps not inherited--neither of my sisters share this love of mine, yet I have vivid memories as a child, lying in the grass of a sunken meadow in the mountains, mesmerized by the lightening slashing into the rocky peaks surrounding me. So close, the electricity danced across my arms like ethereal spiders.
Turbulence and I have shared quarters, lived years together. Argued over silverware. From jungles of twisted vines to ones of broken concrete and rust, my life has traversed more than expected. Yet to ride the swell and crash of a life unquiet leaves one looking for rafts as often as glorying in the surging crest. I have spent years learning to cloak the battles that rage within me; decisions that others find simple, I dissect. Sleep ever evades me, leaving hours to fill. My beliefs and values clamour to be heard over the din of commercialized pandemonium and noise that engulf. Examination of the soul and choices made can be a bloody thing...enlightening, but tainted by that unmistakable ferrous tang.
Perhaps it is comfort I find, in the midst of heaven's assault. There is no other moment when the world seems quite as volatile, quite as out of control--anyone's control--as in the depths of a raging storm. However, with every breath drawn, we know this will pass. Every blizzard ends, every tornado calms. The devastation may be grave....but the sun will rise. Perhaps this is why I feel my internal hurricane slip away on the coils of humid air tonight.
My mind stills, soothed by the irrefutable evidence of endurance.
I recently heard the story of a woman who had been burned. The kind of horror that would normally end in death; it was past disfiguring...beyond ghastly. In fact, it had left ghastly somewhere in another state and drove on for days.
She lost her face.
Now this was actually a tale of victory. The strength of the human soul is astounding. I find myself in mesmerized awe of people like this--beings that seem to have hearts made of an interminable flame; they never stop, never relinquish, never surrender. I have faith that we are not given what we cannot handle; though in the moment, this may be a bare thread I cling to, a rope frayed and unraveled. There have indeed been days of anguish when I have whispered to myself, "today is just tomorrow's yesterday" over and over in order to survive. But survive, I did.
This woman, she did more than survive. She conquered. She rode side by side with Death and then laughed at his amateur antics. She was astounding. She was magnificent. She was beautiful--in every sense of that word--which floored me. We all know how a person's "inside" effects how we see or feel about them. Remember that really handsome fellow that made your heart pound--until you heard him berate the waitress and make fun of the guy in glasses? Suddenly he wasn't so handsome. Or that woman with the body of a Greek goddess....who turned out to have the mouth of a sailor and the mind of a Dynasty gold-digger? (Run, Forest, ruuuun!) Life seems often a play; we choose costumes....but the soul is eternal.
They had rebuilt her face. They tried so hard. Doctors with kind hands and kinder hearts had spent hundreds of hours researching and planning, removing skin here to put it there. Sewing and tucking, attempting the impossible. So calm, she sat there. Twisted scar tissue where lips should be.
"It took me two years to learn that I am not my body."
I have lain awake for hours, this running like a movie looped, in my mind. Her face, her body....the agony represented there that has taken years to overcome, entire months living floating in a saline tank. She radiated peace as if she were the sun. She was the embodiment of light and joy and serenity. She was beautiful.
I feel the entire meaning of life might be summed up in that one sentence. We live trapped within the flesh granted us and spend decades adjusting it. Shifting it to arrange the fit; painting and dyeing and cloaking it. All the while, we are granted opportunity after opportunity to learn the futility of this. We judge and assess and classify--on something as substantial as the wind. So mortal, so temporary.
You are not your flesh.
I tell my students, (I've taken on a college english class from time to time) that they must write. That all that is their soul, what they have ever felt or thought will be lost forever when they die, if they do not. That everything they've done and discovered and learned will not matter if they do not write. That they will eventually be forgotten, if they do not write.
Letters and words are the landscape of the soul.
It is here that I am seen, unencumbered. My children have my face etched upon their hearts....but you do not. You don't know the freckles on my nose or the tattoo on my ankle or the length of my auburn hair. For really, it does not matter, flesh so corporeal.
As I type this, I wonder how my life would change, should I lose my face. Every physical interaction would be altered. From the market to the bank to my marriage. Neighbors and strangers in passing cars. They would stare, survey, appraise me. But not here. Here you and I would still meet, linger...share. For here is it only the soul.
It was dusk. That magic that happens when the air seems to shimmer and glow as if Mother Nature were letting out her breath. The day's heat slowly bleeds away; the trees becoming silhouettes, black statues against a tangerine sky. Somewhere in the distance I could hear dogs barking and the laughter of children. Summer alchemy. That perfect blend of elements that seduces the eve to visit for a time.
Our front porch roof is rimmed with white fairy globes. Their gentle drape illuminates the hanging ivy and hummingbird feeder. Beneath are my potted herbs, rosemary and thyme and mint. A six foot tall avocado tree fills the corner next to the table I mosaiced last summer with blue and green glass, painstakingly broken by hand on a tattered kitchen towel while I knelt on the front walk. The antique playing board and chess set is to my right; my puppy, dear Hazel, at my feet.
I leave the lights on round the clock. Our home welcoming no matter if you're arriving for dinner or at midnight exhausted from the day; or awake before the dawn, sweet sleep forsaken you. I fear I dismiss the electric bill for peace of mind. Rather selfish of me, I suppose. What one is willing to pay for tranquility, hmmm?
It fluttered into view. On a crazy loop of a crashing flight, the moth fell heavily onto the back of my hand. I could feel the tiny feet clutching, a grip that might alarm if I wasn't so astonished. Its wing was damaged. The dust that grants their flight missing from nearly half the crooked appendage. It wobbled a bit, seeking better purchase on my flesh....and then lay still.
I don't know how long I sat there, my hand resting on the knee I had pulled up into my chair. The night settled herself slowly into the neighborhood. Softly she began to wrap the houses within my view in her cloak of quiet, nestling little heads to slumber beneath the stars. The moth, so fragile...clinging to my warm skin, somehow seemed desperate, even in its unstirring perch. Though perhaps this was just me...seeing myself.
Somehow for me, there is strength in anger. Even in the midst of betrayal and shock. Maybe it's because, though the storm is raging and the sky is black and I am forced to make decisions I never anticipated--I am still the one taking action. Though this may only be a desperate act of self-preservation, I choose.
Every relationship is a choice. Yes, emotions and feelings are grand, but we all know those days when it is simply putting one foot in front of the other, the plod of choice and commitment, rather than the merry twirl of flutters and desire. This is the day you get up with the flu and still make dinner...because the children must eat. When you haven't slept in 45 hours and you still go to work because the bills need paid. When words no longer have meaning, and actions are all that remain. Yes, somehow even in the stark trenches of choice, I find strength.
But then there is a moment...a pause. After you've chosen the plod--you've chosen to stay/try/commitment and vows and I meant them...regardless. Suddenly, after weeks, months of choosing....you realize the flutter has returned. With gossamer wings and delicate bones, that chrysalis of daily choice has metamorphasized into something else...become something more.
And in hope....I am painfully, staggeringly, vulnerable. The winds of hope can lift you to the heavens...and smash you on the rocks leaving broken bits and shattered ends. Hope moves the choices to another's hands. Pries the power from your grasp leaving you staring at calloused empty palms.
Hope paralyzes me.
The fireflies have settled in the trees, like God's Christmas lights out of season. I can smell the rain coming. I shift and with an ivory blur, the moth plunges out into the night. I hope it lands somewhere safe.
It finally arrived! June 17th, aka: Vacation Commencement.
(delicious shudder, chills on the arms...) I know, I know--be still thy
walloping heart! The whirlwind of packing; purchasing stacks of batteries,
vats of insect repellent, thousands of marshmallows. The roof rack was jammed
like a big dude in a speedo, the car rivaled a tin of sardines--my husband is a
packing GURU. Three monkeys buckled in the back seat--absolutely
vibrating with excitement. The dog (having been drugged for the trip) drooling like an irrigation faucet. Anticipation, expectations, palpable thrill!
We will be one with Mother Earth, bond with the forest, meld minds with
deer and fish and....well, maybe not the toads.
Things to Remember:
1. You must eat peppered bacon three meals a day. Rock. On. (What? My jeans
are tight? What else makes up for the 'squitos and bugs and mud?) Seriously,
when was the last time you ate a sandwich of grilled french bread, fresh tomato,
smoked hot pepper cheese, and piles of bacon....Y.U.M.
2. I live in sundresses for the summer months, even camping. As these are the...er, only...thing I'm wearing, having a lightening bug explore your cleavage resulting in squealing and unforeseen nudity will indeed get you on the "drive by often" list of the bikers camping a few spots down.
3. Sex in a tent involves explanations the next day. ("honey, there was a
spider....I screamed...daddy took care of it....") Thank goodness for separate
4. Bug spray can be considered perfume. (look for my new line,
5. Rum is not optional. Ever.
6. If no one sees you pull the daddy long legs out of the omelet....it
7. When you use ALL of your swear words on the dog at half past one in the morning as she is attempting to get into your sleeping bag, your children will repeat them in the morning and tell daddy to ground you.
8. ELEVEN loads of laundry after we got home. Is there some
kind of medal my kids could compete for in multiple clothing changes? S'more attacks, mud
wrestling, full-contact fishing--they can kill four pairs of socks/shorts in less
than 8 hours each.
9. A week unplugged....leaves you with 63 e-mails. Yeesh.
Every year when these escapades are conceptualized we must suffer from
temporary amnesia. Is it the pure oxygen from chemical-free greenery that spazes
my brain? Are the deer telepathically glamoring me? What exactly is in that
water? Then there was the "herb bread" we picked up at the roadside farm
I'm plotting out next summer already. Crazy.....utterly crazy.
I was standing in line at the grocery store. It was the middle of the afternoon on a sunny day...one of those lovely days when you can smell the trees, the lushness of newly mowed grass, even the clouds seemed whiter. I had filled my cart with roots to roast--turnips and parsnips and sweet potatoes. Fresh rosemary, a loaf of garlic bread, brie to wrap in pastry and bake. I arrived at check-out. Three lines open, two carts in each--throw the dice, right? I park. Now, I might add to this mental picture that the attached liquor store was having a tasting which meant I had three choices of merlot to sample as I waited...yum. However, it was very shortly apparent that things were amiss.
The cashier was in his early twenties. A bit scruffy, rugged around the edges; well mannered but needed a good meal. He was polite, nice, tired. The two carts in front of me....wow. Soon after my first sip of a dark californian blend, I noticed--she was swearing at him. She was the same age as he. There was a baby in the cart and she had a pack of WIC (our "women, infants, and children" food supplement program) checks in one hand and a cell phone in the other. She mocked him. It was so obvious he was new, nervous. She was that "pretty" that had paled, faded as if over-used too early to settle within her. Highlights a little too white, black eyeliner a little too thick, cherry lips that pulled back over viciously sharp teeth. She asked if he was stupid. She joked about his blush with the girl behind her who also had a stack of checks and an Access card.
His pain was palpable. It radiated from his reddened cheeks as he struggled to put the numbers in the system, calculate the credit, and scan the specific food. He cringed as he told her the juice she had chosen wasn't covered, and physically cowered as she raged at him. When it was all done and he had fed her checks into the register, she asked for four packs of cigarettes and pulled out a wad of $20 dollar bills to pay for them.
I gripped the bar of my cart so hard I knew I would have bruises later.
She sneered. She laughed with the girl behind her--this one also in her twenties, with two kids hanging on the sides of her cart and her belly stretched tight with a third....she swore. Language that made me gasp--actually out loud--so that they both looked at me. She tossed her cheese and milk carelessly on the belt, "What, you got a problem with that??"
As the previous director and executive director of several early childhood centers and preschools-- I was speechless. Dumbfounded. Outraged. I fumbled....me, with what I've done--the places I've been, I fumbled. I stepped back. At this point it had been 40 minutes. I'd watched four other people get in line behind me...observe....check out the other lines....then smile almost apologetically, and move over. I watched them leave. There was some part of my mind that was screaming for me to just SWITCH LINES! What the hell was I doing?! Just move over...
But there was a day. One day. A warm, indian summer that year, when a single mom with worn out sneakers, a cranky toddler and a hungry two yr old...she stumbled into the welfare waiting office four minutes before her appointment. She wiped the tears from her cheeks. She was horrified. Three months ago she was a stay-at-home mom. A wife.
That caseworker told me I was what she lived for--that I was someone who had worked since I was seventeen and had paid into this system and that is was a pleasure to help me when I really needed it. She was amazing. She took one of the most humbling....awful moments in my life and filled it with kindness. I have never been so grateful. So thankful. With that green plastic card came the ability to feed my boys meat. Doctor appointments and immunizations. I gave up selling plasma.
I have stood in many lines, wic checks in hand...cheese and milk and juice. I never fathomed scorning the person who's very taxes were paying for my meals. I stood quietly, deeply appreciating every mouthful of food, every gulp of milk.
Four months and my life was different. I signed a lease, a contract....I sold a painting, opened a center. I smiled as I hugged my caseworker and told her goodbye. I was done. Years have gone by. For every frightened mother that I have held, connected, and cheered on as they landed on their feet; for every proud and hungry parent I have urged in the direction of help...even when it hurt. For every moment that I have understood people who are struggling....I have been grateful for that time. There is no replacement for walking in a pair of shoes.
But what have we become?
How is it that there is a wave of people that ridicule those of us that work forty, fifty hours a week--god awful black, cold early mornings....late nights comforting your son because you missed his Christmas play to handle an employee emergency? How did this happen? I have LIVED the life of a "family supported." I have been there. Not for a moment....a single instant did I not know that the food on my child's plate came from the table, the paycheck, the taxes of someone who got up and went to work.
I raise my boys now. I watch them....watching me. How do I teach them this? How do we teach appreciation?
I believe appreciation is the child of "without."
The months going without the jeans that everyone else had in 7th grade--isn't this what makes them magic on Christmas morning? Hamburgers and chips and cheap pop--isn't this what makes lobster taste like heaven? Lonely nights render the arms of a loved one priceless.
Every day you sell plasma and give your kids mac and cheese for breakfast.....
Are there classes? A summer camp? How do you take a significant portion of our society and make them understand what it's like to do without....when they never do. I'm truly lost here. I stood in that line. For an hour. When I started unloading the lukewarm milk and brie from my cart, the cashier said to me, "If you're wic, get out of my line." I smiled gently. I wanted so badly to undo some of the carnage they had left behind. I told him he was doing an excellent job, that I was glad he was there to help me. His shoulders unknotted....he turned, watching their carts as they left. I wanted to tell him they weren't normal. They weren't what we were working for.
He and I...standing together on a warm spring afternoon.... wondering what the world was coming to.
It's been hot here, we hit the 90* mark today. In a rambling hundred year-old farmhouse that boasts of no artificial cool, this means I move slower. There is no running up the stairs or dashing to the front door when the bell rings. The laze of summer heat makes my limbs drowsy, as if the air is sweet honey and I'm swimming.
Ribs on the grill and watermelon. Long hours spent sipping gin and tonic, reading on the front porch with Hazel stretched out by my feet. The breeze, balmy and soft, ran fingers through my hair and brought the scent of basil and rosemary from the planters on the rail as it plucked at the strings of my sundress. Birds trilled, neighbors waved, I stretched and turned a page.
Dusk and kisses and freshly clean heads tucked into beds, the house quiets. As is my ritual each evening, I head up to the claw foot tub in the room next to mine, waiting for me. I delight in water, especially at the end of the day, it washes my frets away as well as the sweat from my skin. The smell of the night slips in through the open window...grass, cooling pavement, somewhere a bonfire burns.
Delicious waves sluice down my spine, I sigh, tilt back my head. Filling my palm with shampoo, I ponder the day. I'd chatted with our neighbors, chuckling over how we had "seen each other at our worst." From child temper tantrums to covered in sweat and paint; filthy from the garden, sick as hell once in a while. She mentioned that she loved how intimate our street was. That word has clung to me today.
The funny thing is, though our homes and lives are separated by mere yards, there are oceans of things unknown. While we've shared meals and walks and a slight disconcertion about the overly friendly mailman, they know so little of my thoughts...fears...battles and triumphs. In complete contrast, I take you, you reading this, everywhere in my mind.
Tonight there was a comment waiting for me that meant the world, made me well up with tears...warmth. I contemplate the words, turning them over and over in my mind much as I would relish a bite of decadent food. As the razor glides up the inside of my calf, suds ivory white against the sun-kissed skin...I think of you. I wonder at times, how vulnerable I am here in this electric world. How frank and honest. I have yet to be hurt here, though I'm sure this is more a matter of time than anything else, and so bare much....often.
My neighbors may share my afternoon, my porch.....but you share my shower. How has this intimacy grown so deep?
I've sat here, staring at the keyboard for over thirty minutes. I've typed two sentences. Erased them both. I am...stumped, feel incapable of communicating my thoughts. The precipice of a chasm, completely unforeseen, that snuck up and sucker punched me on a splendid sunny afternoon.
First, I should say that most of you may think this ridiculous. But to each soul is its own solar system, the gravitational force that keeps the balance....that which maintains. As varied as the fish in the sea are the suns that ground each of us. I went upstairs today to finish a painting. It sold quickly but needed a signature, a touch or two, and a wire. I remember the tumult of the night I'd previously worked on it; a thunderstorm, heartache and a sick child. Interruption and hurry and comfort and....
I opened the window today. Soft breezes scented with lilacs and the color green drifted into the room along with the distant sound of dogs and arguing birds. I flipped the stereo on, chose, pushed play. Hazel settled with a bone to gnaw in the patch of sunlight that pooled on the floor while I piled my hair up and tied it with a scarf out of the way. Humming, I filled the chipped teapot I use for water....and saw it. My brush.
She was shy, unsure. Timidly she stacked the paints and brushes on the scuffed black counter, blushing as she bungled it and tubes tumbled to the floor. He was older, totally "artistic," and oceans out of her league. He smiled and held up a brush with a bright red handle. "This is a really good one." It disappeared into the bag much as she did out the door, cheeks aglow, a checked-off class list clutched in a sweaty palm.
Twenty years ago. I had a tool box I used as my art kit. The little compartments and trays were perfect for charcoals and pastels, graphite, erasers and paint. I remember the smell of the studios in college, blank paper and raw promise. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. How does one find one's place, establish a root within a tangle of talent, and grow?
The years plummeted by, countries and oceans and lives changed. Do you know I painted the twenty-eight canvases for my first show in a windowless basement lit with three bare bulbs....and I was selling plasma to feed my toddler boys. My fingers rubbed the red paint from the handle, and forests fell upon fabric. I sold out.
Betrayal. Divorce. The red paint flaked and I composed skies and oceans and apocalyptic deserts. New love....ferns and sunlight and rivers of liquid hope. The equator leveled.
I didn't rinse it.
Twenty years, not a brush lost. And it was THE brush. Now stiff...rigor mortis. Bristles caked solid with forest pigment, the color of dark wet moss that drapes the ground, kneeling beneath kings and queens of bark. I was interrupted. I forgot. While I have dozens more, liners and fans and tapers and.....there isn't a canvas with my name on it that hasn't felt the stroke of that brush. The handle had warped to fit my fingers.
It's the only way I know to paint a sky.
Most mistakes can be absolved. Apologies and grace and even reparation made. The concrete can be replaced, right?
Do you know, as my awareness of the dependence I had upon this particular brush dawned, I have searched for years for another. Twelve stores....four states. I laughed it off, knowing--absurdly arrogant--that I never forget to religiously cleanse my tools, my fingers, the channels of my dreams into tangible reality. I am absolute. I am careful.
I am...terribly human.
I have purchased over forty brushes in the last three years trying for kin. Tonight I toast the final painting of my crimson brush. I actually sit here wondering if I can do the same with another. Perhaps that is madness to you, but hundreds of dollars trying to find one with the same grip, the sweep, the swirl and glide and hush....
In a day which held darkness and joy of such variety for so many, I am stilled by hairs congealed with neglect. Mine.
A older gentleman changed my day today. All by himself. In about two minutes. It happened next to the banana table, across from the avocados. I was rummaging around for a nice green bunch as those are the household favorites, and a cart pulled alongside me. I glanced over; he was in his late 60's I'd say, a little gray but neat and tidy in that comforting way I remember my grandfather being. He was looking at me. I blush easily and so, looked down. He said, "You have such beautiful hair. My wife had hair like that....have a nice day." He smiled, I smiled back. "Thank you." Turning the corner just past the bakery, he was gone. I picked out cucumbers and tomatoes.
And kept smiling.
It wasn't a good day. Full of my own doubts and accusations, fears and worries. The skies were black and it was pouring which makes my bones feel as if they're being twisted inside my flesh. Additionally, my heart has been weary as of late. Grocery shopping on such days leaves much to be desired, but three boys under 13 make it necessary lest you find holes in the woodwork and missing carpeting.
It was just one sentence. And I was smiling.
I've read several things lately about poverty and need around the world. Commercials on tv with starving children and beaten dogs. Unexpected suicides haunt the headlines. Sometimes it seems the need is an ocean....how can we, how can anyone make a difference in an ocean?
After my years in Guatemala and Mexico, I went to Philadelphia. While my time spent within the walls of orphanages and health clinics was amazing; nothing--not even those months on a rope and stick cot, the legs sprayed with raid to keep the tarantulas off in the jungle--nothing prepared me for the culture shock I was to experience in Philly.
We lived in an old warehouse on Kensington Avenue. The bad part of Kensington, under the El. (elevated train) Rusted razor wire ran in spiky loops across the tops of our fences and walls. There were four locks of various natures on the front door, three on the back, and a wrought iron grid over every window. Two bullet holes in the paneling near the television seemed to watch us as we watched it.
'Daily Bread' was the name of our soup kitchen. Lines would stretch out for blocks when the temperature dropped close to zero. Lines of broken hearts and damaged souls. To prevent the arrogance that comes with mission/outreach work, (and if you doubt this, a few hours with many "do-gooders" who do not keep this in check, will convince you) once a week we were all required to dress in our grubbiest, sans lipstick and scent, and stand in line among those we normally served. Pick up a tray, a handful of silverware, eat whatever was served. We sat, side by side, with the shattered. Crammed onto benches, my thigh pressed against one wearing jeans that hadn't been washed in over a month....and I listened to the wearer tell me he used to be a banker. Had a wife and two girls. There was a holiday party at the office and someone had brought a crack pipe...three years later he was eating scrambled eggs and pickles next to me.
The depth of this sore, this cancer, was overwhelming. Sometimes I couldn't breathe for it. This was here, in my country. Blocks on end of devastated people...and above us, trains of suit-wearers, new heels and leather briefcases. Faces looking down...looking, but never seeing. I remember confronting many of my own preconceived notions; the idea that if they really WANTED out, these people just had to work harder to get out.
Juanita changed that.
Juanita was a whore. An ugly whore. She went for just $5. Can you imagine? That's how much a rock of crack cost two streets over. One night there was banging on our door. We had a rule about not opening it after a certain hour, but there was a desperation in this pounding. I saw it was her...she had a black eye. I made hot chocolate.
The rest of the house slept as Juanita and I ate mac and cheese, watched Wheel of Fortune reruns, and talked. Somewhere near dawn she told me how she became a prostitute. She had been sold to a man by her mother when she was seven, And then given drugs to manage the trauma. Juanita never had a choice or a chance. I pulled a blanket over her after she fell asleep on the couch and I wept. Never before had my blessed and protected life seemed so terribly unfair.
Juanita stayed on my couch often after that. Once when she was high I had to turn her away, but she came by the next afternoon with a donut for me and apologized. We sat on the curb, cold sunshine on our cheeks and powdered sugar on our fingers. I told her I was scheduled to leave the next day. She smiled. Do you know what she said? "Aww, Chantel, you such an angel I knowed I couldn't have you all to myself. You got other lives to touch." And she was happy I was moving on. I wept again, my tears icy in the wind.
She helped me pack my boxes into the truck. She smelled like strawberry lip gloss when I hugged her. Juanita waved like mad as we drove away, the bald spots on her head gleaming in the sun. I waved back; hoping, praying I made some kind of difference in her life.
I returned to life as I knew it. A paying job, dinners at Taco Bell. However, I lost many friends. Even the relationships within my family were different. For I was not the Chantel that everyone kissed goodbye and joked with about living out of two boxes for so long....no, that Chantel didn't ever come back. I did. Humbled and bruised, with very different eyes. I'd seen behind the curtain and lost Peter Pan for good. Juanita had come to live in my heart in his place.
Since then life hasn't fallen quite so neatly in the rows I'd planned. It's unfolded with more creases....sometimes holes I've vainly tried to patch. But those years in some of the darkest and most challenging places--they changed the mother I am. They changed my art and my voice, the colors I see. They altered the neighbor I've become, they laid the foundation for the daycare centers I ran. They shaped the wife and woman that types these words.
That is what kindness does. It doesn't necessarily dry up the ocean, but it permanently transforms the mind and soul of the giver. And every life they come into contact with after. Kindness isn't about curing the disease, but changing a day. One day can alter the course of a lifetime.
Or just make someone smile, as they pick out cucumbers.