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Like Walking in the Dark

It’s night by the time we arrive at the camp. The office is closed and outside, beneath a single porch light, there is a piece of paper with my last name and cabin number: C7. R, my companion, has been here before. She picks up a map and traces it with her finger. We load our bags into a cart and wheel it along a dirt path.

Even with R’s flashlight, I find it hard to get my bearings. Small green lanterns mark the edge of the trail, but don’t offer enough light to illuminate the grounds. I can barely make out the edges of tree trunks, the outlines of cabin roofs. If I chose to be overwhelmed, I could be. Instead I choose to believe that our cabin will reveal itself to us eventually. I keep following R’s lead as she shines her light on cabin porches, trying to find the row marked C. Eventually, we do.

Though there are forty cabins, it feels as though we are the only ones here. The grounds are silent. The whole forest is still. I am walking through a world I’ve never visited before, a world that will be revealed to me once the sun rises. There is a magic in that.

*

Three weeks ago, Kellie and I bought a house. We’d been looking for a new home for more years than I can count. I can’t count them because we moved in out of looking; we moved from casual to serious to casual and back again. I’ve thought about writing an essay titled “A Tour of Houses We Almost Bought.” There have been a lot of them. Often we looked at a house and decided: “This makes sense for us. We should make an offer.” But then we didn’t follow through.

“I guess we’re not buying that house,” I’d observe a few days later.

“I guess we’re not,” Kellie would agree. “Should we?”

We were waiting for a feeling. We weren’t sure if that made us foolish or smart. I’m still not sure. But this house we’ve finally chosen is big in every sense. It is a big house on a big piece of land. It is wide-open pasture and a big-sky view. But, more than anything, it is big in what it will demand from us. Right now Kellie is giving her life to the walls and the floors, readying them.

In some ways, it feels like the house chose us, like what we were looking for all along wasn’t some practical place that would suit our collective needs, but a place that would challenge us to dream and grow.

I spend my days now flitting back and forth between work and one home and the next, chasing my kids around, delivering food to Kellie who is covered in plaster dust, wondering when I will find the time to put things in boxes, to actually organize us for the imminent move. I’m not sure when this move will happen. I’m not sure of anything right now. I feel caught in the motion of change, but mystified about what that change will bring, about what it will feel like to land in this new place, to wake up there, to make dinner there, to watch my children play there. It feels a little like walking in the dark.

image credit: ehoyer, Creative Commons License 2.0

What if America Kept its Promises? (some thoughts after watching the DNC)

It was nearly 10 pm PDT on Monday when I pulled up Michelle Obama’s speech on my computer. I was sad to have missed it in real time, but my toddler was finally asleep, and now the house was quiet enough that I could watch. I filled two bowls with ice cream and handed one to Smoke, who was reading on the couch. I pressed play and waited for the video to load.

I didn’t expect that Smoke would watch too. I thought he’d return to his book or complain that the sound was distracting him or ask me to put on a funny cats video instead. I was preparing to fight for my Michelle Obama moment, but it turned out I didn’t have to. Smoke sat there riveted, his spoonful of ice cream poised in front of his open mouth as he watched our First Lady in her blue dress. He listened as she described loading her daughters into a black SUV with the secret service on their first day of school. As she went on to say “I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves,” and described the feeling of watching her daughters run across the White House lawn, Smoke looked over at me and seemed to understand why I was pressing tears away from the corners of my eyes.

 

Smoke was born in October 2008, one month before Obama would win the presidential election. This means that President Obama is the only president that Smoke has known. “That’s our president,” I say whenever we hear him speak on the radio. I say it with a certain pride not because he’s never disappointed me, but because I admire him. I appreciate that he models grace under pressure, that he manages to articulate truth in times of grief, and that he is not too self-important to display a sense of humor. These are qualities I want my children to have too, and they are qualities I wish we could take for granted in our world leaders.

 

 

Last week, as my mother was visiting, Smoke came across a set of American flag stickers he’d been giving at the grocery store for Independence Day. His eyes lit up when he saw them. “I’m going to make you a picture for your office!” he said and ran into the kitchen. Twenty minutes later he returned brandishing this:

 

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“Wow!” I said, and then made the mistake of making eye contact with my mom. We silently laughed until tears gathered in the corners or our eyes. We laughed because of the utter innocence of it, because apparently Smoke hasn’t caught on to my feelings about America, which have always been and always will be fraught.

The America my son has seen is different from the one I see. To him, so far, America is just his school and his friends and his family, and a president his mom admires, though she occasionally shouts in frustration at the news. To him, America is a cartoon of Uncle Sam, the promise of liberty and justice for all, and fireworks on the Fourth of July. To him, Donald Trump is an unkind man who surely won’t win the election because no one would vote for a bully.

I want to have the America that my son thinks we have.

On Thursday night my sons and partner arrived home just as I was watching Hillary Clinton give her speech in real time. I hadn’t expected to cry, but then she came out in her white pantsuit and stood there, alone, on a podium that floated above a vast sea of bodies. Smoke took his place next to me on the couch. When HRC declared “I believe in science,” Smoke whooped along with the audience and for a moment I wondered if understood the layers of meaning implicit in that statement. Then I remembered he just really likes science. My own whoops and hollers were probably every bit as mysterious to him.

I keep coming back to what Michelle Obama called “the story of this country”, the story of progress that has allowed Barack Obama to become our first African American president and Hillary Clinton to become our first female major party nominee. My newfound right to marry is also a part of that story. But somehow, I keep getting stuck trying to convince myself that our progress towards equity is real and not an illusion. There’s a small but persistent voice in my head going: Really? Are we truly evolving towards justice? Or are we about to take an irrevocable step backwards?

This November will begin to answer those questions for me. I hope that Smoke can continue to love America. I hope that I can love it too.

Voices in the Wake of Yet Another Tragedy

I’ve been having trouble writing here lately. The last time I posted,  I was writing about the Orlando massacre. Since I posted that, there have been three more national tragedies, and still more international ones.  Adam Gopnik, in his most recent essay about gun violence for The New Yorker,  writes “The one thing we can be sure of, after we have mourned the last massacre, is that there will be another. You wake up at three in the morning, check the news, and there it is.” I don’t have words, but I wanted to leave here a collection of things that I’ve seen or read over the last few days, things that have helped me make some kind of sense of my world, or things that have at least spoken directly to my bafflement.

Roxane Gay, in an essay for Marie Claire,  asks us to examine our understanding of the word “ally”.

I am reminded of a conversation I had with Ta-Nehisi Coates in 2015, upon the release of his book Between the World and Me. When I asked him about allies, he said, “I think one has to even abandon the phrase ‘ally’ and understand that you are not helping someone in a particular struggle; the fight is yours.” I mulled his words over for weeks because they were so pointed and powerful. Those words began to inform the ways in which I try to support other marginalized people—making their fights my own because that’s the only way forward.

Black people do not need allies. We need people to stand up and take on the problems borne of oppression as their own, without remove or distance. We need people to do this even if they cannot fully understand what it’s like to be oppressed for their race or ethnicity, gender, sexuality, ability, class, religion, or other marker of identity. We need people to use common sense to figure out how to participate in social justice.

Vox ran this first-person essay by former officer Reddit Hudson that offers a compelling explanation of some of the dynamics at play in any given police force.

On any given day, in any police department in the nation, 15 percent of officers will do the right thing no matter what is happening. Fifteen percent of officers will abuse their authority at every opportunity. The remaining 70 percent could go either way depending on whom they are working with.

That’s a theory from my friend K.L. Williams, who has trained thousands of officers around the country in use of force.

Finally, in one of the most beautifully written essays I’ve read, Garnette Cadogan writes about “Walking While Black.” Cadogan writes about walking the streets in Kingston Jamaica, and transferring to a new world when he began attending college in New Orleans:

On my first day in the city, I went walking for a few hours to get a feel for the place and to buy supplies to transform my dormitory room from a prison bunker into a welcoming space. When some university staff members found out what I’d been up to, they warned me to restrict my walking to the places recommended as safe to tourists and the parents of freshmen. They trotted out statistics about New Orleans’s crime rate. But Kingston’s crime rate dwarfed those numbers, and I decided to ignore these well-meant cautions. A city was waiting to be discovered, and I wouldn’t let inconvenient facts get in the way. These American criminals are nothing on Kingston’s, I thought. They’re no real threat to me.

What no one had told me was that I was the one who would be considered a threat.

I’d love to hear about anything you’re reading that has shed some light on the darkness. Please leave me a link in the comments.

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Some Conflicting Thoughts in the Wake of the Orlando Massacre

Monday June 13: As I pull up to my son’s elementary school, my breath catches at the sight of the American flag at half-mast. It’s a symbol I associate with fallen war heroes, with uniforms and helmets. It’s also a symbol I associate with DOMA, and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and an unchecked AIDS epidemic in the nineteen-eighties.  They mourn us. My own thought startles me. They mourn us when we die now.

Wednesday, June 15: It’s noon when I learn that Senator Chris Murphy is staging a filibuster to insist that the Senate vote on gun control legislation. My heart leaps. Something is happening in real time.  I click on a link to open the live stream and leave it open on my desktop all day. I can’t get any work done while it’s playing, so I listen for three minutes at a time, pause it for a while, and then check in again.The filibuster isn’t boring; it’s not what I’ve been taught to picture: a man in a tweed suit wiping sweat from his brow and reading from the phone book. Instead, each time I open the live stream, I see senators delivering considered, impassioned words. I see Elizabeth Warren invoking the names of those lost in Orlando; I see Senator Dick Durbin tell his colleagues, “If you use an AK-47 to hunt a deer, you should stick to fishing.”

Late that night, once my kids are asleep and my house is finally quiet I go online and see that it’s still going on. Everyone in my circle is tweeting with the hashtag #filibuster.

I have it too; I have the fever. I stay up past midnight. For the first time in a long time, I feel hope for our government. I see our officials working their asses off to push through legislation that they know their constituents support. I read speculation about how Senator Murphy can hold the floor for so long without a bathroom break. I am brimming over with gratitude for all the senators who took the floor.

At the same time: I doubt. I read forecasts that a vote on basic gun control measures still won’t pass and, sadly, I believe them. I brood over the senators who vote nay on these measures time after time and wonder how they sleep at night.

Friday, June 17:  It’s raining as I scramble across campus in my black cap and gown. I’m on my way to attend commencement at the community college where I work. By the time I reach my seat the rain has stopped, but the dark clouds loom.

Our president opens with words about Orlando. He comes out to the crowd of thousands as a member of the LGBTQ community, and spends some moments reminding us of the legacy of hate that his people have faced. Our people. I notice I’m not breathing. Instead I am sitting there frozen, feeling like one vulnerable body in a sea of bodies. I wonder if I were straight, would I feel this exposed? I look around the crowd and wonder who is listening, and who might be rolling their eyes, looking at their watch, wondering why we have to be talking about the gays, about tragedy and guns, when they just came to watch their nephew or daughter or cousin walk across the stage and be handed a diploma.

Our college president invites us to honor the 49 lives lost as the bagpipes play Amazing Grace. The bagpipes. They seem to stutter their way into the song and for a moment the whole thing seems wildly absurd and I stifle a laugh. But then the music lifts, and the sun comes out–sudden and blinding and hot. I lift my hand to shade my eyes. It’s one of those moments where even if you don’t believe in God, you can at least understand how someone could. You understand how someone might think that there’s an order to things, that the world runs on grace and forgiveness, and that even in tragedy the light that we bring to each other somehow gets recycled.

 

 

When Children Bear Witness

This week I hit a deer.

One moment I was participating in the morning commute, driving with the flow of traffic, headed towards the onramp on a long flat stretch of road. Both of my kids were in the back seat. NPR was on. The next moment I was moving into something, I was braking, colliding; I was hollering Oh no! Oh God! Oh no! It took a moment for the rest of my brain to catch up, for it to name the thing that was happening. I have lived in the Pacific Northwest for twenty-one years. I have seen deer run down my street like neighborhood dogs on the loose. I’ve seen deer eating grass on the hillside next to the freeway. I’ve seen deer run across the highway make it to the other side. And just as often I’ve seen evidence of the deer who hadn’t made it, the stains on the asphalt, the road-kill. I’ve told myself that this was a thing I never wanted to be: a person who hit a deer. And now that’s what I was doing. I was hitting a deer.

Oh no! Oh God! Oh no! I kept saying, until Smoke’s cry interrupted my panic. I came to, and remembered that I was supposed to be an adult and in control. The deer had landed in the middle of the road. All of the traffic had stopped. From what I could see in the rearview mirror Stump looked stunned and Smoke had tears streaming down his face. “I wish this could just be a dream,” he said. I turned on my blinker and pulled into the breakdown lane. I turned off NPR. I didn’t know what to do about a deer in the road, but I knew that it was my job to see this thing through. “I’m so sorry,” I told my kids. “I’m so, so sorry,” I was saying it to the deer too, and also to the world.

In the seconds it took me to pull off the road, the deer had vanished, had somehow made it to the other side of the road and disappeared into the forest. Traffic began to move again. I stepped out of the car to assess my vehicle: a tear in the bumper, a small dent in the hood. A man with blonde dreadlocks in a pickup truck looked at me and then shrugged. I made a series of pointless phone calls. The Humane Society didn’t answer their phone. Animal Services told me they would help an injured deer in the road, but they would not go looking for one that had fled. My insurance company, after taking my statement, reminded me that I’m only insured for liability.

I haven’t known how to talk to Smoke about what he saw that day. I don’t want to push him to relive those moments if he’s already moved on. But on Wednesday, the day after the collision, I overheard him speculating to a friend about animal heaven and when I asked him why he was talking about that he answered very plainly, “the deer.”

As for me, I’ve walked around haunted, thinking about the empty space in the road where I’d seen the deer fall. How could she have made it to the other side? It wasn’t until Saturday that I finally realized that Smoke had probably witnessed what I had missed. “Honey,” I began, “did you actually see the deer get up that day?”

“Yes,” he said, and he went on to calmly describe what he had seen. What I wanted to know was had the animal managed to fully stand, and Smoke’s answer was yes, but she had fallen several times before she figured it out.

For the rest of the day I thought about what Smoke saw, that he had witnessed alone something tragic and grim, an animal so hurt she couldn’t find balance. I hadn’t seen it; he had. My own eyes couldn’t mitigate the pain for him.

This morning when I woke up, I saw that my niece had posted about a shooting in Florida. I didn’t want that to be true, and so I pretended it wasn’t happening. Two hours later at a friend’s house, this friend checked her phone and made a comment about 50 people dead. I didn’t want to think about what 50 meant.

By lunchtime I decided I would need to take a moment and find out what had happened. I told myself to wait until I had settled Stump down for a nap so that I could be quiet, but instead I just sat down at my computer and googled the search term “news”. I was mostly numb as I read about the mass shootings that had happened in Orlando at two in the morning, and then suddenly, involuntarily, my body absorbed some fraction of the truth of fifty people killed, and my face contorted and froze. That was the moment that Smoke wandered in. “What?” he asked me. For the second time in a week, I struggled to gather myself enough to make words. I told him that in another state fifty people had been killed with a gun. I wasn’t sure what to say or how to feel, and so I asked him, “Would you mind holding my hand for a sec?”

He gave me his hand. It was smaller than mine—but not much smaller than mine—and a little damp, and every time I loosened my grip he tightened his own until the seconds turned into minutes and he asked me “What state does Uncle Will live in?”

“Massachusetts,” I answered and quickly added: “That’s not where the shooting happened.”

When I started writing this post about the deer it was Friday and I had no idea that I would wind up here. One minute I’m driving, the next minute I’m colliding. One minute it’s Sunday morning, the next minute I’m sobbing at my desk. And just behind me, sitting in the backseat or glancing over my shoulder, I have this seven-year-old boy who is grown enough to see things I don’t want him to. And I don’t know what to tell him. I don’t know what to say.

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What’s Right in Front of You

On Monday afternoon as I turned onto a freeway onramp, a mother duck and her ducklings crossed directly in front of my van. Both of my kids were strapped in the backseat. As I hit the brake, I checked my mirrors, worried that someone might rear-end me. But strangely, even though it was rush hour, this particular onramp was empty for the moment. I put on my hazards and watched as the group crossed together, all of them unified in their determination. The whole thing took about eight seconds. As I drove off, I argued with Stump about whether or not I’d killed the ducks.

“You ran over them,” he insisted.

“No, honey, I stopped. They made it to the other side. If I had hit those ducks I’d be crying right now.”

Smoke came to my defense. “She didn’t hit them. I would be crying too if she did.”

When we got home, there was a box on my doorstep. Inside, I found a gift from my sister: two ceramic mugs that had been shipped across the country. The mugs were wrapped in bubble wrap, and the box was full of packing peanuts. As I sat on the floor admiring the mugs, Stump took two handfuls of the foam and threw them like confetti. Smoke laughed. Before I could intervene, Stump picked up the box and dumped all of the peanuts on the floor. My muscles tensed as I prepared myself to lift him and remove him from the scene. But then I stopped myself. In the world of a three-year-old packing peanuts are a special occasion. Since the damage had been done, I might as well let him enjoy it.

Stump and Smoke threw peanuts in the air. They rolled around on the floor. They stomped on them. I watched as a number of the peanuts broke into many pieces.

I stayed there, cross-legged on the floor, just watching. I am spending time with my kids, I told myself. It felt like a spinoff of last week’s mantra, Parenting is not hard. This wasn’t the early evening activity I would have planned for them, but it was the one they had chosen, and really it was no better or worse than a walk to the park or a romp in the backyard. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t thrilled about it; it only mattered that I was there, on the floor in the moment, half-grumpy and half-calm.

When their fun began to wane, I asked them to help me pick up the peanuts, and they did. (Their effort was a little lackluster, I admit, but it was something.) I spent ten minutes vacuuming the tiny left-behind pieces, and then we moved on to dinner.

All of this is part of a life strategy I’m trying to cultivate called Dealing with What’s in Front of Me. The mama duck walks in front of my car so I stop. My kid dumps the packing peanuts on the floor and so we play with them. I’m trying to move into the mode of responding to my world—and responding to it fully and with patience and zest—rather than controlling it.

I’ve been playing with this strategy at work as well. These days, when I teach a class, I try to remember to look around the room and breathe, to not just be a talking, disembodied head. Rather than planning six activities and working to move us through each one on a schedule, I try to leave room to let my students surprise me, and they do. When I ask questions, I try to let go of my own prescribed answer. On the days when I succeed at that, my world feels altered. I come home feeling connected to something that’s bigger than me.

I think about the mother duck and her experience of the freeway. I think about her standing on one side of the onramp, her babies lined up behind her, anticipating her next move: all that focused concentration. In the span of a single moment, the noise of traffic quiets just enough for her to go. Once she starts, there is no hesitation. She commits to that moment and to her own impulse. That trust becomes the thing that, more than any other thing, protects her.

Image Credit, Mother Duck and Ducklings: Carole Smith Berney

Parenting: what if it’s not so hard?

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Last week, while reading student essays, I came across a sentence that shifted something in me. It was a Tuesday morning, and I sat in my dark and quiet office. This essay told the story of a mother-son relationship, a relationship that had nearly dissolved once the author reached adulthood. It was a beautiful essay, and in the second paragraph the author explained that his teenage years had been filled with small transgressions and punishments, but none of these conflicts had ever threatened his bond with his mother because she had made it so undeniably clear that she loved him. “Parenting is not hard,” he wrote. The knowledge of her love was all he’d ever needed.

Parenting is not hard. That was the sentence. I underlined it in purple pen.

All week that sentence kept replaying itself in my brain, often during parenting moments that were, indeed, hard, like when Stump refused to get in his car seat at the end of a long day, or when Smoke was crying with disappointment because a friend had canceled a play date. “Parenting is not hard,” I kept telling myself, even though of course I know it is. The sentence was kind of like a flat round stone you might find on the beach, one that you can turn over in your hand and examine at different angles. Each time you hold it to the light, you might spot a new detail: a fleck of gold or a thin stripe of green.

Parenting is not hard. Each time that sentence plays inside my mind, I slow down a little bit. I breathe a little deeper. I enjoy my kids for who they are. I enjoy myself with them. My world expands. That sentence offers me distance from all the minutiae I worry about daily: the rash on Stump’s bottom and the fact that he still insists on pooping in a diaper; the fact that Smoke has giant grown-up teeth coming in behind the baby teeth and he refuses to wiggle them loose; that fact that I can get my kids to eat fruit but not vegetables.

Parenting is so hard that sometimes it is impossible to do it well. I’m pretty sure that this is true not only for me but for any parent who ever lived. No matter how much patience I cultivate, now matter how many strategies I try, I am not always the person I want to be. I harp; I complain; I storm out of rooms.

And so, it’s nice to shift perspectives, to turn the stone around. Parenting is not hard. All of those things I’m losing sleep over may not be the things that matter very much. They won’t be the things my kids remember in fifteen years. Maybe Smoke will remember that I let him stay up way too late every night so we could read together on the couch. Maybe Stump will remember that I let him cling to me in the mornings, that I carried him around the house with his arms around my neck, his long legs dangling from my hip. Or maybe none of us will remember any of these details, but instead it will all just be a blur of bodies sharing space.

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Earlier this week, when I picked Smoke up from school, I told him that I would have to leave after dinner to go to a parenting class.

“Is it about learning not to yell?” he asked me.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Is that something you want me to work on?”

“That’s the only thing,” he told me. “Everything else you do I like.”

The car was quiet for a moment as Smoke continued to think. “Actually,” he said, “I don’t  care if you yell. Can you just stay home tonight?”

“I already paid for the class,” I told him. “And also,” I explained, “I wish I knew how to get your brother to stop hitting people.”

Smoke considered this. “Okay,” he agreed.

I parked the car in the driveway, and began the process of unpacking the car, or feeding the dogs, of trying to assemble a meal that my children would eat so that I could leave the house again and learn to be a better parent. But I already knew that Smoke had offered the better lesson: Just love me. Do what you do. Don’t go to the class. Stay home.

Last Week: a list of small failures

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Last week I learned that April is the month that all of the area preschools fill all their empty spots for fall. This was inconvenient. My town has a bunch of small home-based preschool programs, and I had always imagined moving Stump away from his from his large daycare center and into one of these setting when the time was right. I had thought we’d simply know when that time had arrived and the right spot in the right place would present itself to us. Clearly I had failed to think it through. We had already missed all the open houses. We had missed the moment that enrollment opens and parents clamor for spots and lay down their money. We were competing now for arbitrary openings left here and there, or hoping to be first on a waitlist. This was failure #1.

Kellie was working in another state when this search began. I had to rearrange my days to schedule phone calls and visits until there were no moments left for dog walks or staring out the window. The hustle of running from appointment to work to appointment to dinner and dishes and bedtime amplified my super-limitations.

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I failed to notice an appointment in my calendar, and so I double booked.

I failed to make Stump pee before bedtime, and so he wet the bed in the middle of the night.

I had a nightmare about missing work, and then I risked missing work when I failed to get Stump to daycare on time.

The cutoff for morning drop-off is 10:30, and we had scheduled a visit at a nearby preschool at 9:30. Stump had clung to me for the first fifteen minutes while we watched kids play with play-dough and rolling pins at the table. He got up in time to rifle through a bin of seashells and two four-year-old girls accosted him when we broke one. “Oh that’s fine,” the care provider told them. “I don’t know why they’re being like that,” she whispered. “The shells always break. That’s what they’re there for.” I chose not to share with her that breaking stuff is one of Stump’s major skills. At 10:10 I said “We’d better get going,” and then time did one of those tricks where it bends in a loop. I asked the provider one last question and her answer lasted a minute or two. Then we discovered that Stump had wandered into the kitchen and found the open door to the basement. On the way to the car, Stump wanted to explore the yard which had a small play shed with a pirate flag and a row of logs for jumping on.

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Preschool Bunny who I failed to discuss this post.

By the time I got Stump in the car it was 10:24. We didn’t have far to go, and so the whole way there I was optimistic that 10:30 was more of a soft guideline than a hard deadline. We made it to Stump’s classroom at 10:34 and for once Stump was immediately happy to be there. Just as he was unzipping his coat, his teacher approached me and whispered that she had to follow policy. No 10:34 drop-offs. I didn’t know whether to feel mad or ashamed or sorry, and so I felt all three at once, and those feelings battled in the pit of my stomach. I whisked Stump away, his coat half-unzipped and he asked me why we were leaving. “Because Mommy was too late,” I told him. “Why are we leaving?” he asked again, not understanding.

Kellie had arrived home on a plane the night before and luckily-unluckily she was home for the day, caring for Smoke who was running a fever. I knew she’d been planning to clean the house, to sweep up all the crumbs and wipe all the sticky spots and fold all the laundry from the ten days she’d been gone. I knew that with Stump home now she’d be doing very little besides taking care of Stump. When I came through the door with him, I thought I perceived a look. “What do you want me to do?” I hollered before I scrambled back to the minivan and drove back to work.

In the grocery store, I swiped the debit card before my total had loaded and the clerk had to remind me to wait for the prompt. This happens every time. Twenty years of my life I’ve been paying with debit cards and still I can’t seem to get it right.

At home after dark, I knew I needed sleep but instead I opened my laptop and kept scrolling and clicking, scrolling and clicking, aware every single moment that I should be in bed, but too tired to summon the willpower to remove my eyes from the screen.

On Friday morning I failed to control my son at yet another preschool visit. The teacher was so quiet and collected and when she needed my son to do something, she spoke exclusively in “You may” statements, as in: “You may take off your shoes now,” “You may step away from the computer,” “You may help clean up these blocks.” This had the effect of paralyzing my own parenting because I do not speak in “You may” statements—I speak in “Hey” statements as in “Hey! Get away from there!” or “Hey! Clean that up!”—and so anything I said to my child sounded like yelling. And so, when Stump picked up a piece of plastic corn and pretended it was a gun, I said nothing and hoped the teacher would not be too offended. And when Stump dismantled a wall of cardboard blocks and then began to roll around in the mess he made, I said simply, “I think we will need to get going soon,” instead of “Oh my god! You are out of control, dude!”

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Once I had dropped Stump off at daycare and arrived at work—on time this time—I looked in the mirror and my reflection said it all. The night before I had fallen asleep with wet hair, and in the morning I had tried to tame it by brushing it into a ponytail. I had thought it was more or less safely contained. But no, my hair was frizzing and falling out the elastic in random pieces, some of them wavy and some of them straight. I was not passably put together, not even for a Friday.

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The thing about my hair is that it often tells the truth about me. Even on my best days, I have a wild cowlick that rises up in the back an announces to the world that I can never fully contain myself.  I’ve said this before, but during weeks like this I think of my fellow humans, especially the ones who manage to walk through the world in lipstick and high heels. For a while I consider how I might leak out through the edges a little less. Could I pull myself together if I tried? I think it would take a lot of effort and expense. It would require supplies like hairspray and depilatory creams. It would require personal trainers and professional organizers. And still, at the end of the day I would probably come home and discover that I had spinach in my teeth or that I had put my underwear on inside-out. So I think I’ll keep doing it this way, where I’m visibly frazzled and imperfect, where the emotional energy I have at the end of the day goes into accepting that imperfection rather than trying to will it away.

Hawaii4

A Scene of Changery

Before there was a change of scenery, there was the dream of a change of scenery. In September, as our summer ended, Kellie and I talked about Hawaii. We talked about jumping into warm ocean waters and hiking into Turtle Bay. I continued the dream by searching the internet one night while the rest of my family slept. If I could find us a space away from the resort scene and priced to our budget, then maybe we would go. It only took me a few clicks to find a little white house for rent on an 8,000 acre ranch. The photos showed green hills and rainbows, ocean views and horses and sheep. I showed the listing to Kellie and we booked it. Later, I showed it to Smoke to convince him that Hawaii was a place he wanted to go. For the months that followed, I sometimes clicked through the slideshow to remind myself of the place I’d eventually be. Just the thought of the hills and the warm air helped me breathe more deeply.

Before there was a change of scenery there were weeks of planning and packing. There were fluctuating airfares and impossible travel times. There was an impulse to cancel the trip if it meant a midnight layover in Anchorage or a 10 pm departure. There were the logistics of parking cars and renting cars and transporting car seats and packing toiletries and medicines and swimsuits and all the while feeling that, upon arrival, I would discover some essential item I’d forgotten.

The change of scenery arrives the moment I step off the plane and descend to the tarmac and my jeans are already sticking to my thighs. There are palm trees in planters just past the gate and Smoke has already put on his sunglasses. I have to keep Stump from climbing on the baggage carousel. We make a pile of bags on a patch of grass and wait for Kellie to pick up the rental car. My kids strip off their long sleeve shirts and climb along the walls, bare-chested. A pair of ladies with stiff hair make phone calls and give me the side-eye.

Seen from the beach: turquoise waves that climb and crest, and then stir up brown sand as they fall; off in the distance, whale spouts and whale body parts—the flash of a tail or the curve of a back; closer to shore, a scattered row of humans waits in that magic spot where the waves swell; some of them hold boogie boards; some of them dive into waves and come out the other side; some of them glide with just their bodies. On the shore my kids dig in the sand and wait for the ocean to fill the hole they’ve made. They throw sand bombs and bury each others’ legs. Sometimes they run off and for a long minute their bodies blend in with all of the other bodies and action. I run along the beach craning my neck, trying to see between the tanners and the Frisbee-throwers until finally I see the swim trunks I recognize.

Hawaii5

Seen from inland: vistas, storm clouds, araucaria columnaris. A wild pig with three piglets, all of them fighting to nurse. Wild billy goats and their families hiding in the scrub, bleating (we hear them before we see them). Friendly horses at sunset. A Hawaiian short-eared owl, soaring in daylight. At twilight another one swoops in front of our headlights and then lands at the edge of the road. It stands there, still and silent, and stares us down.

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The packing never ends. In the mornings we move food from the refrigerator to the cooler. In the evenings we move food from the cooler to the refrigerator. We pack towels and sunscreen and changes of clothes. We pack Benedryl and epi-pens in case of bee emergencies. I am constantly checking my purse to make sure my wallet is still there. I am constantly checking on my children’s skin for signs of sunburn. I know that I am supposed to reapply sunscreen every 90 minutes, but they are constantly wet and covered in sand.

Smoke, my older son, joins the line of boogie boarders on day 3. This keeps him busy and smiling for the better part of an hour, until a large wave sneaks up and topples him. The rocks in the sand scratch his back in several spots. He bleeds a little. Kellie helps him find his footing, wraps him in a towel, and sets him down in a beach chair, but he won’t stop screaming. “I hate this beach,” he tells me. I tell him we’re not going to leave just yet. He spends the next forty minutes pouting and writing in the sand with his toes in all caps: I HATE THIS BEACH. I try to laugh, but the truth is I’m uncomfortable. I also don’t want to be the parent whose kid complains about his Hawaii vacation. I don’t want to be the parent who berates her kid for not loving every minute of his Hawaii vacation. I keep quiet and let Smoke do his thing. Each time he tries to write his sentence, a wave comes and washes it away before he can finish, which is actually pretty funny. Eventually, he recovers. We leave the boogie board on the shore and jump in the waves together.

On the same beach Stump climbs the koa trees that grow at odd angles over the beach. It a good task for him—it keeps him happy but it requires supervision. Kellie and I stop packing our personal reading materials in our beach bags–there’s no chance of sitting for longer than a moment. Every day I repeat the following phrase in my mind: The Family Vacation. I say it to remind myself that this isn’t a personal holiday, but instead an exercise in intensive parenting, in togetherness. It’s not about rest or comfort or indulgence, so much as it is about building something, about offering my children a new landscape for their memories to hold, a landscape that we can share in future years. I had a chiropractor once who would tell me to “go to Hawaii” before she adjusted the vertebrae in my neck. It was her way of asking me to relax so that she could do her work, but every time she said it I pictured a pier just south of Hawi where the yellow tangs swim. Hawaii to me was not an abstraction, but a place in my brain that I could access. I want my kids to have those places too.

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At night, in the dark, I cannot find my way through our rental home. I walk with both hands out in front of me, reaching, feeling, waiting for my eyes to adjust. They don’t. I think I can make out faint shapes—a door, a bed—but I am mistaken. I run into a wall where I thought I’d find a door or a door where I thought I’d find a wall. The truth is simple: my body hasn’t learned this place.

When Stump is especially tired, he cries for the home he knows. As we drive on the back roads after sunset, he says, “I don’t want to go to our Hawaii home. I want to go to our real home.” I look out over the ocean at the scattered lights along the coastline and I look for words to explain how very far away our real home is, and what two more days means, how to help him understand that our real home is unreachable to us at the moment, but that we haven’t left it behind forever.

I never find words for this, and it doesn’t matter. Kellie parks our rental car at the end of the driveway and I carry Stump through darkness and into the house. His brother has beat us inside and already turned on the lights and we can find everything we need. We read one of the books I packed from our hometown library and he is asleep before I reach the last page.

DrawingS

Explaining Donald Trump to my Son

Last week I decided it was time to have the conversation. I wasn’t sure my son was ready—he’s only seven after all, but how do you ever know? NPR was on the in van. Commentators were analyzing Donald Trump’s ever increasing viability as they seem to do every hour of every day. As we drove to pick up Smoke’s little brother up from preschool, I sat there weighing the consequences. Should I talk to him about Donald Trump?

I didn’t want to give my kid information that would complicate his life on the playground. I thought about Smoke’s friends at school and the possibility that some of their parents are Trump supporters. From my own childhood, I remember how kids can so easily internalize their parents’ politics, how those politics can divide them from one another long before they truly understand what’s at stake in any given election. I remember how profoundly disorienting it was when, in grade school or middle school or even in high school (hell, maybe still), I learned that a grown-up I respected didn’t see the world in the same way as my parents. I would learn that a teacher was a lifelong Republican, and my brain would hurt trying to figure out how they could be so nice, and yet vote for a person that my parents had told me was the bad guy. Now that I am a parent myself I struggle to identify the line between orienting my kids to my values and indoctrinating them.

But Donald Trump has been haunting my thoughts after sweeping Super Tuesday. On Wednesday I watched this video, where a young African American woman was shoved, pursued, and harassed at one of his rallies, and the image ran on a loop in my mind. When I watch this footage, I see the same flavor of vitriol that I see in old footage from Klan rallies or neo-Nazi parades. It’s not that I thought this brand of blatant racism was dead, but I didn’t expect to see it play out so transparently at the rally of a leading candidate in 2016. I didn’t expect that a candidate who encouraged this would gain traction.

Some months ago a small part of me wanted Donald Trump to win the nomination because I thought it would allow Bernie or Hillary to win by a comfortable margin. But after viewing that video, I saw how wrong I was. Trump’s candidacy has already cost our country greatly; it has legitimized racism and hate. For me Trump has become more than a candidate I wouldn’t vote for—he’s become a cultural force that terrifies me.

I turned the volume down on the radio and said to Smoke, “Do you hear that they’re talking about this guy named Trump?”

“Who is he?” Smoke asked.

“Well, he’s this guy who’s running for president and I think he would make the worst president ever.”

“Why?” he asked.

“Well,” I said, and started in by explaining how a president’s job is to work with other leaders, to listen them to understand their perspectives, to make circumspect decisions to avoid needless war. “But this guy Trump is actually pretty mean. Like if someone disagrees with something he says, he just calls that person a loser.” As I said this I was struck by how literally true it was. “Loser” is Donald Trump’s go-to rebuttal. I wasn’t having to dumb this down at all to get a seven-year-old to understand.

“He sounds awful,” Smoke said. I had parked the car by now and we were walking towards the daycare center. A grin crossed his face. “Well at least no one will vote for him,” Smoke said. It was a logical conclusion, but I couldn’t let him believe it.

“That’s why I’m nervous,” I explained. “I don’t think he will win, but lots of people ARE voting for him. More and more people.”

“Are you voting for him?” Smoke asked me.

“No, I’m voting for anyone but him.”

“You’d vote for anyone but him?”

I thought about this. Certainly there were people out there who were as bad or worse than Donald Trump. I mean there were actual neo-Nazis. But of all the people who would conceivably run a presidential campaign, Trump was at the very bottom of my list. There is a person in my town who runs for City Council every year under the name Prophet Atlantis. I would vote for Prophet Atlantis over Donald Trump in a heartbeat.

When we got home that day, the sun was out and both of my sons wanted to ride their bikes around the block. As they put on their shoes and helmets, Smoke kept asking me questions about Donald Trump and politics. We talked about how women didn’t always have the right to vote, and how neither did black people. We talked about how weird that was, and how stupid that was, and how terrible it would be to move backwards rather than forwards. Stump, my three-year-old, half-listening in the background, did a crazy little dance and chanted “Donald-Trump-Donald-Trump-Donald-Trump.” For a moment I was comforted. One of my sons still knew nothing about Trump’s growing political power. To him Donald Trump was just three meaningless syllables he was hearing way too often.

Image credit: original drawing by Smoke. (Something about it just reminded me of Trump.)