I Quit Forever

My four-year-old son quit swim lessons a couple of weeks ago. He had gone steadily through the month of July. On Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, while his older brother swam in the deep end, Stump sat on the side of the shallow end with four other preschoolers and waited his turn for the instructor to guide him through the water. The instructor was eighteen with an emerald green swimsuit, a ponytail of curls, and a bright smile. Stump loved her. He loved her so much that I was a little embarrassed about it. Anytime she asked who wanted to go first, Stump raised his hand and shouted “me, me, me!” Then he gazed at her with utter devotion, beaming as she supported his back and he floated.

Sometimes, at the end of a long day, he told me he didn’t want to go to swim lessons.

“You mean you don’t want your teacher to hold you in the water?”

“Oh wait,” he said. “I do.”

But then July ended and the instructors changed. At first I thought it might work out. His new instructor was also eighteen with a ponytail. But she kept insisting Stump dunk underwater when he said he didn’t want to. I tried to tip her off a couple of times. “He doesn’t want to dunk today,” I said at the beginning of a lesson. But it didn’t matter what Stump said or what I said. Each time she’d talk him into dunking and he’d be fine for the moment, but each time he walked away hating swim lessons.

We were halfway through August at that point, and I wasn’t feeling well. I’d been running a low grade fever that only came on in the afternoons. On a Tuesday, Stump told me he didn’t want to go—he just wanted to watch his brother swim. I also just wanted to watch his brother swim. I didn’t want to fight him. I said we could take a break if he promised to try again Thursday.

Promises from four-year-olds, I’ve learned, don’t count for a whole lot. On Thursday I still wasn’t feeling well—this fever, though mild, was persistent—and Stump still didn’t want to go. I was doing the math in my head. Three more swim lessons I’d paid for. What was at stake if we just stopped going? I’d feel chagrined about the wasted money, but I also wondered if these lessons were now only teaching him to hate swimming.

“So you just want to quit?” I asked him.

If I had known how immediately and deeply Stump would embrace that word—quit-—I’m not sure I would have offered it.

“Yeah,” he said. “I quit. I quit swimming lessons.”

That day, as we left the pool with his brother we passed a boy from Stump’s class. He had wet hair and wet swim trunks. Stump was in his dry clothes and sneakers. “We missed you today!” the boy’s mom said to Stump.

Stump lit up, delighted with himself. “I quit swim lessons,” he told her. “I quit them forever.”

“Oh, but you were such a good swimmer,” she said.

Stump’s smile didn’t fade. “Yeah, but I quit,” he said.

I worried that the boy in the wet swim trunks would now have his own ideas about quitting. (I had noticed he didn’t like dunking either.) I worried that I had just given this mom a new battle to fight with her own son, but this wasn’t on Stump’s mind. Apparently nothing filled him with more joy that the phrase “I quit.”

A few days after Stump quit, I learned I had pneumonia. I had spent all of August in a bit of a fog, moving through my world trying to keep pace. It wasn’t until the following week, once I started antibiotics and started to heal that the exhaustion kicked in. For the first time in a long time I couldn’t keep up and I couldn’t keep going. And so I had to figure out what things I could quit. I didn’t feel quite the same sense of joy about quitting as Stump, but I tried to draw from his determination.

I quit spending entire days on my feet, moving from task to task.

I quit getting glasses of water for people who can get glasses of water for themselves.

I quit thinking I would get anything done after the kids went to bed. I let the unfolded laundry pile grow and grow. I didn’t write anything.

I quit drinking a beer at the end of my day. I didn’t want it anymore.

I quit exercising. That sucked.

This week, I arrived at an in-between space. I can pretend to be well again. I can make it through a normal day of shuffling kids and dogs and picking up groceries and running to meetings. I can do these things, but my body nags at me insistently. It knows better. I take an ibuprofen. I drink a coffee. It’s hard to quit forever.

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Marking Weather, Forgetting Time

Lately, as a new approach to weekends, I’ve struck a deal with my kids. On one weekend day, they get to choose an activity. It’s usually something that requires money and coordination, like going to Chuck E. Cheese’s, or seeing Lego Batman at the Cineplex, or visiting the children’s museum—the kind of boisterous activity that you would only do if you are a child or supervising a child, the kind of experience designed to make children beg.

On the other weekend day, I make them walk with me. We’ve got at least a half dozen nearby trails that lead to the water. In the past, I’ve had a hard time motivating them for this, but lately, because it’s routine and because I’ve set it up as an exchange (your day, my day) they seem to roll with it.

And every week, once we arrive at the beach, I am struck by the same exact thing: They LOVE it here. They run around in search of sticks. They lift big rocks and watch the crabs flee. They descend into this kind of flow state where they can throw rocks into the water, one after another after another, and they don’t get bored. They are focused and happy. No one bickers.

If given the choice between a walk and Chuck E. Cheese’s, I’m pretty sure they would choose Chuck E. Cheese’s 98 out of 100 times, and yet they seem to have more fun on the walk. I think about how, just as Chuck E. Cheese’s is designed to appeal to all of their joy-seeking impulses, the beach was designed to appeal to all of their senses. Like, we could go to the children’s museum—we could pay $35 so that they can launch wooden boats in a water table—but Nature has already nailed it. There’s the soft sand, the logs to climb on and roll, the encroaching tide, and unexpected guests.

Last week, our Saturday brought us to a marina that sells soft serve ice cream for $2, a place where people launch boats and let their dogs run wild. Once we’d been playing for a half an hour, three friendly dogs stormed the beach. They were all different breeds, but all were black and white. One of them barked insistently at Smoke until he threw a wet stick over and over. Another one leapt in the air every time Stump threw a rock and this made Stump laugh uncontrollably.

When my kids grow up, wherever they land, I want them to know they grew up in the Pacific Northwest. I want them to feel it in their bones, to remember seasons of rain and breaks of sun, and the way Puget Sound spreads its fingers and holds the land. I want it to be a childhood of mossy trees and glassy inlets, a childhood spent throwing rocks in water, forgetting time.

Close-Up: The Face of the Fire

It’s twilight and raining when I leave in the van. I leave Smoke, my eight-year-old, standing alone in the field. (Kellie and Stump are inside.) Smoke’s got his winter coat on with the hood up. He’s holding a long stick and poking at the burn pile that’s been going all day. A sheet of gray smoke changes direction with the wind.

I’m leaving in search of hot dogs. Smoke’s been asking all day if he can roast them on the fire. All day I’ve told him “Sure—I’ll get those later.” Now I’m racing the darkness and I’m losing. The remaining daylight is dimmed by this thick blanket of gray-turning-blue-turning-black. The corner store has one sad package of hot dogs tucked between a basket of wilted lettuce and some string cheese. I don’t trust those hot dogs. I drive another three miles to the grocery store.

By the time I return it’s so dark that I can barely make out my son’s figure. Though it’s distant, I can discern the glow of the dying fire. I wade through thick puddles to make it there. I’m impressed that my son is still tending, unfazed by the dark and the weather. His concentration is steady. This is the same son who normally would spend the whole weekend indoors if I let him; the same son who, when I tell him that we’re going to the park complains: “But we just went outside yesterday!” This is the son who wants only to alternate between Legos, video games, books, and occasionally setting up a pillow fort with his brother. But this fire has now held his attention for hours.

We’ve lived in this place for two months now, and though we have land, we have mostly remained inside. We moved in the dead of winter; we moved through rain to get to school, and drove home in the dark. We’ve spent weekends huddled by the woodstove. We’ve read books and watched movies and baked cookies in our warm kitchen. But now, as spring slowly returns, we learn what it means to live on the land.

Earlier this week Kellie pruned the apple trees and left piles of branches. After school one day I insisted that my sons help me drag the branches across the yard and add them to the burn pile. Smoke protested: “But I don’t even know where the burn pile is.” I laughed at him. “I’ll show you,” I said. I recognized myself in him, getting totally stymied by some minor uncertain detail. Ten minutes later, Smoke was dragging branches when the rain returned. “We can go in now,” I offered, but Smoke declined. “I kind of like working in the rain,” he confided.

All I see now are glowing embers and thick smoke. The branches my son carried are turning to ash. My son spears a hot dog with a stick. He insists they are best when you set them directly against the glowing coals so they sizzle. He’s not interested in my suggestions. He likes ash on his hot dog, he says. He eats it in the dark, directly off the stick. When I ask if he’s scared of coyotes he says, “The fire makes me feel safe.”

Two hours later, after I’ve put his brother to bed, I cross the hall to check on Smoke. He’s been listening to Kellie read. She’s still reading. Smoke is lying on his side, turned away from her, so she can’t see that his eyes are closed and his mouth is wide open. I look at the clock. It’s 8:25. It’s been years—I mean literally, years—since Smoke fell asleep before nine. But he is worn out tonight from the weather and the fire. He’s asleep before bedtime not because he is sick, but because he is healthy.

Love Letter to a Crumbling World

Last Saturday, the day after inauguration, I woke before dawn and remembered who was president. The thought felt like an injection of lead through my veins and I lay awake wondering if the world might be ending. It was quiet outside and dark. There was no sign of anything wrong, but still I wondered if bombs could be going off in nearby states and cities and I might never know. I decided that, if this were the case, if we were suddenly at war, then at least I was in the right spot. My younger son, who had turned four the day before, had cried for me in the night, and now he slept next to me, his matted hair against the pillow. The bedroom door was open, and so I could hear my older son snoring gently.   I thought about the fields outside my house, and the swamps where hundreds of geese land and lift off every day. Somehow it felt like all of this might cushion me for a moment if the world were turning to ash.

As morning came and as my mind moved from dream-world to real-world I knew that I needed to march. I had spent the week hemming and hawing about whether I’d make it to the women’s rally. I told myself that I had valid reasons to stay home: My brother was visiting from out of town. I had a memorial service to attend at noon. I had been to a student walkout the day before and had told myself: one protest is enough. But, deep down, that felt like bullshit. “I’m marching,” I told Kellie as I passed her in the kitchen. “I’m marching for both of us and you’re watching the kids.”

Minutes later I stood over the kitchen counter with a Sharpie and a piece of cardboard. “What should my sign say?” I asked.

“Love Trumps Hate?” Kellie suggested.

“I can’t write that one,” I said. My brother and his girlfriend had now emerged from the guest room and were pouring their morning coffee.

“Why not?” Kellie asked. “Is it because you don’t want to use his name?”

But it wasn’t that, I explained. I just don’t take for granted that love wins.

My brother’s girlfriend nodded like she understood. “It definitely feels like evil is winning right now.”

A year ago, if you asked me how I felt about the word evil, I might have told you that I didn’t really believe in it. I might have explained that I thought that people were complicated, that their motives were often misguided. But now it’s 2017 and I seem to have changed my position on that. I believe in evil as a powerful force. I can already feel it tugging at the edges of my world.

We joked about a sign that would say Evil is Winning, but in the end I settled on Facts Matter. I scrawled it out in fat letters, dressed for the rain, and drove downtown.

I had no idea that the day would be so bright, that marching would feel not like an obligation but like the very medicine I needed: faces of friends and people I knew, faces of people I barely knew, faces of people I’d never ever seen. We moved, amoeba-like, one organism, from our capital lawn to the heart of downtown. Nothing changed because we marched. The president is still the president. Everything changed because we marched. We were one cell connected to other cells all over the world, and for those moments we were a united body, vital and thriving, filled with light and not dread. Light and not dread.

Through all of this—the first day of his presidency, the brutal week that has followed—it does feel to me like our world is turning to ash. Every time I check the news, our country has taken another step towards fear. I am filled with dread, and so, there is one face in particular I try to remember. It’s the face of my son on his birthday—it was also inauguration day. I’d been fighting gloom all day, but just before his bedtime we stuck a candle in a cupcake and gathered in the kitchen: me and Kellie, my two boys, my brother and his girlfriend. We sang to him, all of us standing, the birthday boy seated at the counter, and at the sound of our voices he glowed. I mean, he radiated light. His whole body was purpose, and that purpose was receiving our love. He knew how to take it in. He knew how to drink it. I keep trying to remember this because I know that I will need it. I will need to borrow his brightness; I will need to give it back.

I can’t promise anyone that this will be the thing that saves us. I can’t promise we will win or that we will be saved. But I do know this: Beauty persists. Joy persists. Love persists. They are all nestled there next to my anger, like ribs holding a heart in its place.

Some Things That Might Happen When You Move

You might, at the beginning, underestimate the work of moving. In the weeks that pass between buying a house and moving into that house, you might begin the process of sorting and packing. You know you haven’t done enough, but still, you might look around each room and think: that won’t take very long to pack. You will be wrong.

On the day you actually move from one house to another, you might be disturbed by the wreckage. It’s not that you expected things to be orderly. In fact, you’re the one who advocated for a move that would span several days. Let’s just move the beds, you said, and a few boxes of things we immediately need. Then we can come back and pack the rest. But this means you are left with a house filled with dust bunnies and all the things that have been hiding under the bed for many years: flip-flops and luggage and photographs you took in college. This does not look like a house that can be tamed. You might wonder how on earth this house will ever be clean and empty.

You might be impressed by how prolific the loose Legos are, and the k’nex and the marbles. You never stop finding them. They are in every single corner of every single room. You fill your pockets with them. They often carry dust and stray hairs. They are so prolific that one afternoon, as you are cleaning out the empty fridge, you find what looks like a loose blue k’nex piece stuck in one of the mounts at the back of the freezer. You will stuff it in your pocket with the other k’nex. Later, when you find the other blue piece on the other side, you realize that these are not k’nex but parts designed to hold a tray in place. You might feel foolish for a moment.

One night at the new house you might decide to make tuna salad for dinner. You know you’ve got bread, mayonnaise, and salad greens. You even know where the tuna cans are. You might not realize until after dark, when you’ve got the mixing bowl on the counter, and the mayo, and the pickles, that the can opener is still in the kitchen drawer of your old house.

You may find that packing is demanding work. Doing so invites deep existential quandaries, like: Why am I reluctant to get rid of this dress that doesn’t fit me? and Do I really need two ladles? By the end of each day you might be surprised by how tired you are. You might fall asleep next to your toddler, drooling in your clothes.

You may realize, for the thousandth time, that you and your partner have different attitudes about stuff. You would like to see 90% of it go away. It may be hard for you to decide which things to part with, but if someone were to do that job for you, you would thank them. Your partner, on the other hand, would like to keep things like cracked dishes that cannot be repaired. She would not thank someone if they secretly took boxes of her stuff to Goodwill. Not that you tried or anything. No really, you didn’t. Still, you will have to find a way to live with each other. You just bought a house, after all.

You might find that your hygiene standards change for the weeks that you are still packing and unpacking. Those pants that you painted in last week might turn out to be the only ones you can find. Go with it. One morning, you discover that they have worn out between the thighs. Don’t worry; no one will notice. You might rifle through one of the many garbage bags filled with clothing until you can find a hat that will cover your bedhead. You might wear your garden clogs everywhere.

You might discover that it takes only 10 minutes to set up internet in your new house even though the directions say to give it two hours. This small victory might be compromised when, on the same day, you spend hours battling with the brand new dishwasher. Though you got it to start yesterday, today it won’t. You press buttons, consult the manual, and still it won’t go. You take a break from trying, but can’t get it out of your mind. Why won’t it work? you keep asking yourself. Finally, at the end of the day, for reasons that will never be clear, you hit some magic combination of buttons and the thing runs like a Cadillac. Tomorrow you will have to figure it out all over.

You might be surprised by how fluid the word “home” is. In the days leading up to your move, you find it unimaginable. You will keep thinking that something will happen to prevent you from moving into the new house. It’s not that you don’t want to go, it’s just that your imagination is limited. Only two days after the move, you will marvel at how easily the shift happens. Sure, your stuff is in boxes. Sure, you still haven’t met the neighbors. But already this feels like where you live now. Your kids, who were anxious about the move, seem to barely notice that they’ve left something behind. Instead, they jump on their new beds and sit by the fireplace as if they have always inhabited this space.

This Year’s Darkness

It always happens on Thanksgiving week: the rain, the cold, and the darkness all descend at once. One week, it is autumn: I think about winter as a future entity, a thing that will happen to me someday. The next week winter has descended, like a gavel to a bench.

As I drive home from work, the twilight bends towards night, and the gray of the fog, the drizzle, the sheen of the road, the glass-smooth water on the inlet, blend into one dark blanket. I navigate my way home by following the taillights in front of me. It is dark now, I tell myself. I feel like I’m breathing deep, sending oxygen to my toes, preparing for the plunge into winter, for the ten long weeks of darkness before February brings a promising light, a long burning glow beneath the cloud cover.

This year the darkness is darker. I don’t need to tell you why.

(Yesterday on the drive home his voice came on my radio. He was shouting to a crowd in Ohio, boasting about how big he had won. “I can’t stand it,” I said, leaning my head towards the backseat. I didn’t want Smoke, my eight-year-old, to be taken in by his bravado. “Who?” Stump, my three-year-old, asked me. “I don’t even like to say his name,” I said. “Me neither,” Smoke solemnly agreed. “Voldemort,” I said. Stump accepted that answer. It was dark, of course, when this happened.)

I have a new favorite book: Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by the great William Steig. It’s for children, but it’s also for me. In it, Sylvester, a donkey, finds a magic red pebble and accidentally changes himself into a rock. He is immobile and, because he can’t touch the rock, he can’t un-wish his wish. It seems to be an impossible predicament. How will he ever return to himself?

Sylvester’s parents are stricken. They cannot find him nor can they find any clues about his disappearance. Many pages of the book serve only to mark the passage of time, in which all parties struggle to come to terms with their new situation. Sylvester descends into a long, deep sleep. Seasons pass. And here is my favorite page:

wolf-2

One day a wolf sat on the rock that was Sylvester and howled and howled because he was hungry.

This page is my favorite because nothing further happens with this wolf. He is not instrumental to the plot. This is his only page. He shows up, he howls in hunger, he leaves. He animates the story’s grief. The pads of his paws, through a layer of snow, touch the rock that is Sylvester. He will survive this season, but the season will require him to suffer.

Post-Election: All I’ve Got Right Now

On Sunday evening, Smoke and I found out that his friend Sam’s dog had died. He looked sorrowful for a moment, and then he set to work. He made a small gift out of things he already: three bouncy balls in a box. He stretched three rubber bands over the box so that it doubled as an instrument. And then he grabbed a piece of white paper, made a card, and inside that card he taped three pieces of gum. On the outside of the card he drew this picture: a dog with angel wings and a halo. The dog was chasing a truck that said, in large letters, “Ham.” It was, of course, a dog in heaven chasing a ham truck.

The next morning, I dropped Smoke off at Sam’s house before school. He ran up the stairs carrying the box. When Sam opened the door I could see that he was somber. His head hung low. I couldn’t see his face.

Later that day, I would get a text from Sam’s mother. It said:

Thanks to Smoke! Sam was a mess. Wasn’t going to school because he was too sad. Smoke made it all okay.

For the whole rest of the day every time I remembered the text message I cried just a little. I cried because I was proud of my son for being so big-hearted and earnest. I cried because I had already lost a night of sleep anticipating our elections and so I was feeling raw. I cried because some part of me was preparing for my own grief at the state of our world.

Also: I cried because I knew that it was the dog chasing the Ham truck that fixed everything—not forever of course, but for a brief moment, that a crude gift assembled with love had the power to pull his friend from grief, to help him get up for the day and move forward.

I keep trying to convince my students that the art we bring into the world—the pictures we make, the songs we write, the stories we tell—that it has actual consequences. It changes the chemicals in our bodies and guides our actions. I’m telling myself that now.

And so, in my post-election grief, I am holing up with stories. I am treating them as light, as sustenance. I am snuggling on the couch with Stump and Smoke and watching The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. I am replaying this life-giving Radiolab episode about Mel Blanc—the voice of Bugs Bunny and a thousand other characters. I am reading the poems that friends have been placing in front of my eyes. It is escape, but also it is medicine, a salve that allows me to re-gather my strength, regroup, and prepare for the fight ahead.

This is all I’ve got right now: It’s a box with three bouncy balls, three rubber bands, and three sticks of gum. It’s a picture I drew with a black pen on white paper. But I hand it to you with the intention that we can laugh together, or throw things, or make some boingy sounds, and meanwhile, deeper down, we are preparing to smash the patriarchy.

image: Infinity Symbol made from a Rubber Band by zeevveez, CC BY 2.0

On Living with Brokenness (and laying on of hands)

When I was twenty-one or so, I made a bad decision for my body. It didn’t seem like a big deal at the time. I had to purchase a bag for my books, and I chose a black messenger bag, one that I could toss over my left shoulder. The strap crossed my chest, and the bag—if I arranged it just so—landed on my low back.

I knew that backpack would have been better for my posture, but backpacks reminded me of elementary school, of days when every item I wore was up for deep public scrutiny, and nothing I owned was ever cool. Now that I was twenty-one, I was pretty sure that there was no way to make a backpack cool—unless you were already cool, which I wasn’t. And so I bought a black messenger bag, and sewed a zebra-striped patch of fabric over the brand logo, and carried that bag with me everywhere for years. I carried everything in it: books and notebooks and bottles of water; groceries and snacks and a travel umbrella. Because I didn’t have a car, I carried it up and down hills, from my apartment to the bus stop and back again.

Over time, that bag broke me in a few small ways, but I didn’t really know it. I knew that after a long day, my neck and shoulder were sore, but I didn’t think much of it. I’d rub into the soreness with my fingers and then I’d move on with my day. Now, nearly twenty years later, I think about that bag’s wide strap, and how it pulled against one side of my body, steering my vertebrae ever so slightly off course.

A year or so after I retired that bag, the muscles in my neck would spasm every few months. I’d wake up sore one morning and discover that I could turn my head to the right, but not the left. I saw a chiropractor, who often asked me: “Are you sure you weren’t in a car accident?” She would ask this before cracking my vertebrae back into place and sending me off into the world. After the adjustment, my muscles would let go, and for a few weeks or a few months I would be mostly pain-free. I saw her on and off for years.

Once I had Stump, my second child, I stopped attending to my damaged neck. I didn’t have space in my life for appointments, and so I tried to outsmart my body. Whenever I felt a muscle spasm coming on, I simply opened my bottle of Aleve. If I caught the spasm early enough, it would never take full hold and I could continue to drive and check my rearview mirror, to grade papers, to lift my kids, and to do all the other awkward bodily things that mothers do. For over three years, I thought I was clever. Who needs the chiropractor when you’ve got Aleve?

And then, in June of this year, I began to notice and new sensation: a tingle started at the top of my left shoulder, traveled down my arm, and landed in my fingers. It was distracting, not painful, but it grew more and more insistent. Every hour or so, the sensation recurred. Sometimes it came and went in moments. Other times it lingered long enough that I would try to shake it away.

Aleve didn’t touch it. I would take one and then another, but still the tingle traveled back and forth all day. I waited for my body to heal itself. It didn’t. It took me months to get around to asking my doctor for a referral. I put it off, because I suspected that addressing my haywire nerve might not be a simple endeavor, that it would require more than one or two adjustments, that to adequately heal I would need to commit some time and energy to healing. I was right.

My new chiropractor is not like the old one. He doesn’t crack my neck and send me out the door. Instead, he spent a full hour systematically testing the strength in all my muscles. He ordered x-rays and offered a diagnosis: bone spurs and moderate arthritis in my cervical vertebrae. He scheduled me for three appointments in a single week. The commitment is a drag; it interrupts my life. But the bigger challenge is this: each time I show up, I have to trust him. The exercise of trusting him addresses yet another broken spot.

“How’s this?” he says, as he locates a tense spot in my jaw. “How about this?” he says as he locates the spot at the base of my neck where the nerves pinch and send the tingle down to my fingers. “I’m good at irritating people,” he says. “Just ask my wife.”

In every exchange, my chiropractor manages to be at once gentle and caustic. “What the hell were you thinking?” he asks me, after he discovers my pelvis is torqued. I appreciate his sarcasm. It’s a smokescreen that creates distance between him and his touch. If he were only kind, or only gentle, I might melt. That would not be good for either of us.

Instead, I lie on the table and he places his hands at the base of my skull. “Press your skull into my fingers,” he instructs. I do. He pushes back. As we work with pressure and soft tissue, I wonder how that sentence sounds to him: press your skull into my fingers. Does he understand how personal that sounds, or how much trust he’s asking me to summon? Or does it sound to him the same way Take out your copy of the reading sounds to me?

In those moments I make a choice to let go, to let a near-stranger press his thumbs into the base of my skull, to let him turn my head ever-so-gently this way and then that way. Scenes from bad ninja movies run through my head—you know the ones where one ninja kills another by simply twisting his opponent’s head? That image comes through my mind, and then it leaves. I reassure myself that my chiropractor won’t kill me. (He won’t, right?) “Take a breath,” he says. I know what’s coming. The gesture is swift, but not forceful. He turns my head slightly to the left, and then pulls to the right. I hear the crack he is after, the sound of vertebrae rearranging, making space. I feel that space in my neck as I leave the office, but also in a deeper place in the hollow of my chest. My body has shifted from a tense and fearful thing to something roomier. For the moment at least I’ve become a being who is ready to receive care.

Image Credit: Spine by Katie Cowden (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Close-Up #4: Candy, Our Lord and Savior

I’m standing outside the bank, the door to the van wide open. Stump has his arms crossed and he’s staring me down. “I don’t want to go to the bank,” he says. It’s the hundredth time he’s said it. It’s the end of the day, and he’s a real mess. Moments ago he screamed and pounded on me as I carried him through the corridor of his daycare center. I have no idea why. Normally he runs through the hallway and beats me outside. Normally I have to yell at him to wait up. But today he skipped nap and decided that whatever we’re doing is not the thing he wants to do. “I don’t WANT to go to the bank,” he tells me again. If I could skip it I would, but I can’t. Today is the day we pay the carpenter in cash. The bank closes in fifteen minutes. She’s building walls for us; I don’t want to let her down.

My shirt is riding up and I’m sweating. I release Stump from his car seat, scoop him up, and pray. “Don’t you want a piece of candy?” I ask him. “Okay,” he says, and leans into me. He looks tired and pale, half-dried tears rolling down his cheeks. Maybe we will make it through this errand.

The candy basket sits on the welcome desk. The receptionist nods at us and continues to type. He sifts through the top layer of candies and asks me to name them: butterscotch, strawberry, lemon. He points to a peppermint that he spots through the weave at the bottom of the basket. I dig to retrieve it. I hope it will cure him.

Stump is perched on my hip, sucking away on his peppermint when I approach the teller. I’ve got a number written down on a piece of paper, but when I lay it on the counter, I’m suddenly unsure. “Shoot,” I say. “I’m sorry. I think I need to do the math one more time.”

“Take your time,” she says. I pull my phone out, choose the calculator function, and start typing numbers. I’m still sweating and I know she can tell. She gets that I’m frazzled. She plans to roll with it.

My calculator verifies the original number, and just as she is counting my cash—just as it seems that we are going to leave the bank without incident, I hear a sound. Something hard has hit the floor just below me. I look at Stump. A moment of silence ensues as he and I simultaneously figure out what has happened.

The peppermint has fallen from his mouth.

It has hit the hard tiles and shattered. Stump has already sucked off all of the red stripes, and so now it just looks like broken shards of white glass. Somehow I manage to bend over and scoop them all up in my left hand without letting go of Stump. He’s crying, sobbing, tears and snot streaming down his face. He was loving that peppermint. Like, really, really loving it. I can only imagine how it feels to be three years old and exhausted from a day of following instructions and fighting naps, exhausted from the drama of fighting your mom, weighed down by that sinking-tired feeling, that hungry-but-you-have-trouble-with-hunger-cues-so-it-just-feels-like-pain-feeling, and then you put a peppermint on your tongue. Your mouth surrounds it and you suck with all your might, and for a moment your whole body is focused on nothing but that sweetness. All is well.

Now his cries echo off the tiled floors and vast walls of the bank. The teller produces a bowl of candy. It’s an entirely different selection: Tootsie Rolls and Tootsie Pops, and gummies wrapped in plastic. Stump shakes his head. He cannot be won so easily. He tries to resist at first, but then he notices a small yellow box of Dots. Those will do, he decides. He holds the box in his hands. We watch the teller start over and count all the money. I continue to hold the candy shards in my left hand. I carry Stump back to the van and this time he doesn’t rail against me as I secure him in his car seat. He asks me to open the Dots.

In the front seat, I finally open my left fist to release the candy into an old coffee cup. It sticks to my hand and so I wipe it off with a baby wipe. I check to make sure that I still have the envelope of cash. I do; it’s a miracle; it’s in the front pocket of my bag. I start the ignition. I drive us home. I hear the sounds of vigorous chewing in the backseat.

image credit: Janet Beasley, https://www.flickr.com/photos/janetbeasley/8201584932

 

Close-up #3: Captive

Last night—the last night of my East Coast trip with Smoke and Stump—I set the alarm on my iPhone for 5:20 am, and picked up my grandmother’s autobiography. The book has heft—not because it is especially long, but because she wrote it in 1984, typed it out on a typewriter, three-hole punched the single-sided pages, and bound them in a thick three-ring binder. To read it, I must sit cross-legged on the bed and lean over so that I can carefully turn the pages.

In the chapter I read last night, my grandmother described her family’s move from Kansas to Montana by railroad in the early 1900s. She was a young child at the time traveling with her parents, baby brother, pet horse, a dog, and several cows. My grandmother rode with her mother and brother in a passenger car, while her father rode with the livestock so that he could tend to them. The journey lasted several days, and my grandmother describes what it was like to ride with her mother, who nursed the baby, who changed and washed diapers on the train, who relied on the workers to bring fuel for the wood stove, who cooked meals of oatmeal, boiled potatoes, and beans, and who offered my grandmother snacks of peanuts and dried fruit.

I’m writing from the airplane now, somewhere between Boston and Seattle. Smoke is playing Angry Birds on the iPad and Stump, bless him, fell asleep some minutes ago while watching a movie. I know that it would be logical for me to write about how easy we have it in comparison to my ancestors. We are traveling by airplane not by rail. We are not hauling cattle. My children have devices that keep them entertained. A flight attendant just brought me a cup of Starbucks coffee. But I am actually more struck by the ways my experience may be similar to my great-grandmother’s, how the details of travel and transport may change, but the feelings of confinement and dependency remain.

Our flight this morning was delayed by two hours. Every so often an agent would get on the speaker and tell us to be ready, and then twenty minutes later they would announce the very same thing again. Though I had roused my kids at six am, dressed them, and carried them to the car, we did not board the plane until eleven. Once we were in the air, my children complained that they were ravenous. They didn’t want the cookies I had packed; they wanted real food. It didn’t matter how often I checked the progress of the food cart. It took another hour for it to reach us at the very back of the airplane where we sat and by that time they had sold out of most of their options. (I would have preferred a meal of boiled potatoes and beans to the box of prepackaged snacks I purchased.) By then, Stump had decided to move to my lap and so I tried to contain our snacks and drinks to the small tray in front of me, to somehow keep track of the various wrappers my kids created, to contain our bodies, our crumbs, our mess.

As I write this there’s a two-year-old in front of me who keeps lying down in the middle of the aisle, and there’s a mom to the left of me who paces the airplane with a fussy infant in a carrier. (She just took a wide step over the two-year-old.) She won’t have to hand-wash her diapers in the airplane sink, but I did turn my head a while ago after noting the scent of baby wipes, and saw that she had laid her child across the seats to change him. We are in our own kind of cattle car.

That feeling I’ve had since waking this morning, this dread of having to move my children through tight and crowded spaces, to usher them up and down escalators, to herd them to the right side of any corridor, I’m sure that feeling was familiar to my great-grandmother Bertha  who cared deeply about propriety, about keeping her family safe but also organized and tidy. Even in 2016, with every imaginable convenience, that still feels like an impossible goal.

Image Credit:  Andrew J. Russell (1830-1902), photographer – National Park Service. http://www.nps.gov/gosp/index.htm, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=708221