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The Week I Turned Fifty

Saturday: The Orientalist paintings of Ottoman artist Osman Hamdi Bey are my absolute favorites when it comes to puzzlin’. Each image conveys a snapshot of life from an era that now seems ancient but which, technically, only ended a hundred years ago — when my maternal grandfather was in his twenties. While some argue Osman Hamdi Bey’s paintings are revisionist, his perspective imperialist with regards to the outlying regions of Turkey, what matters to me is that his work is striking and captures very specific moments. I do love me a specific moment well captured. For the past few weeks, I’ve been working the edges and closing the gaps in my puzzle of Kahve Ocagi (loosely: coffee hearth), a puzzle I paid a nice man named Petr in the Czech Republic to send, thus putting temporarily to rest my anxiety about having completed all the Osman Hamdi Bey puzzles available for purchase in the United States. As the puzzle progresses, so does my obsession with its eleven shades of beige, its detailed tile work, its nuanced kilims. It’s good I don’t have a newborn, as that hungry babe would have to howl through the equivalent of “Bohemian Rhapsody” before I’d lift my head from this jigsaw.

Cup of coffee, you lazy bastard?

***

Sunday: My absorption in the puzzle is causing back pain, and my feet hurt, too, since I alternate between standhunching and squishing my tush onto a step-stool. The same way a masseuse or a hair dresser needs to be aware of body mechanics if he wants his career to last, I am finding that I need to develop new puzzling postures if I hope to be connecting pieces into my 90s, and what the hell else am I going to do in my 90s if not work on jigsaw puzzles and take up drumming?

Fortunately, Paco’s fencing class in the afternoon pulls me away from the lure of the flowered tiles. The kid isn’t feeling well, but he decides — in a noble decision doweseehownobleheisbeing? that emerges from the mist of a days’-long dramatic health sulk — to attend class. Incubating whatever crap laid his sister low a few weeks ago, he lacks energy, his throat hurts, and he thinks he might be getting a fever. None of this is obvious as he thrusts, parries, and bouts, his attention to detail apparent even as his system swoons. Front toe leading, knees bent, he glides across the wooden floor, back, forth, quick stepping with his partner in the give and take of the sport. As he sweats under his mask, assuring he’ll have a home-from-school fever by morning, Byron and I run and walk on the track that circles the class. Sometimes we stop and lift weights or stress our abdominals. Mostly, I spend the hour with one eye on my kid and the other on the crazy quilt of humanity that shows up on Sunday afternoons to use the track. For sixty whole minutes, my puzzle obsession recedes, only to rear again once we get home. I have to make myself take breaks to grade student work, to feign conversation, to watch an episode of The Great Pottery Throw Down (think The Great British Baking Show but with ceramics). Fortunately, Kiln Boy Rich is particularly charming on today’s episode, and Judge Keith pleases me by having a quick cry when he sees a contestant’s exemplary final product, so I manage to turn my back to the puzzle table. Later, much later, once the week’s grading is wrapped and everyone in the house has gone to sleep, I find homes for another ten puzzle pieces before heading upstairs to my other current obsession: The Turner House by Angela Flournoy

***

Monday: My phone has been broken for a month + a day, and the duo in charge of fixing it is proving so epically poor at communication and running a business that I’m happy to leave my Nexus 5x in their hands for as long as it takes for them to implode. In an alternate scenario, it could turn out that they hand the phone carcass back to me in a few more weeks along with a hefty bill and an apology that it’s still nonfunctional. Either way, these boys have me completely

Home sick, Paco enjoys the recounting of my latest conversation with the owner of the phone repair shop. Uncharacteristically, Owner Boy has reached out to give me an update on the status of my phone. His bowl of Fruity Pebbles must have been particularly satisfying this morning. What I enjoy most, as he details the new issues they’ve just unearthed with regards to the phone I zapped dead with boob sweat, is when he says, “And so we cleaned up the corrosion on the board. The whole process should have started with a moisture recovery.” Because I am the very soul of discretion, save for when I’m recounting stories to my family and on my blog, I do not tell Owner Boy that the day I dropped off my phone and explained the problem to Pony Tail Tech, he told me, “The first thing we’ll do is a moisture recovery.”

I do not tell this to Owner Boy because, a week ago, a few days after he’d hollered at me for calling the company to ask about my phone, he called to let me know he was tightening the screws on my replacement screen and that it could be picked up any time…except then he called me back again to ask if I could bring my charger cord when I came in since the phone was dead…except I had left my charger cord with them when I initially dropped off my phone…except Owner Boy couldn’t find it anywhere, but he was sure he had a cord at home that would work…except when I came the next day to pick up my repaired, charged phone, it wasn’t charged, and it was only when Pony Tail Tech came out to my car with me and plugged my phone into the cigarette lighter that he discovered it wasn’t fixed at all…and so that’s when they ordered another replacement screen…after which they discovered the screen wasn’t really the whole problem…because they should have started with a moisture recovery.

I do not tell Owner Boy he is the star of a narrative that opens and closes with the line “We should start with a moisture recovery.”

***

Tuesday: The day alternates between sitting and moving. Hell, they all do. But the shifts are dramatic, with Paco still home sick — a wan Victorian heroine on the chaise longue, his stays loosened, smelling salts on the feather-inlay hand-carved side table — contrasting with my commitment to a weekly long run. Glacially, I scratch out 11.36 miles (The .36 is important as it’s the part where I make deals with myself like “Just keep going until you get to the flag pole, girl, and then, if you really need to stop, you can”) before grabbing a shower and flinching at the red half-blisters left by my running bra, despite having applied a liberal swath of Vaseline along the underboob before heading out. Not incidentally, never, ever ask my phone about the traumas of Booblandia.

Legs tired, torso sore, I kick back during a global education committee meeting, particularly enjoying the part where I work in a three-minute summary of a novel I just read, The Association of Small Bombs, pushing it as pertinent to faculty who discuss terrorism with students. After the meeting, I dash to the optical store, pick up Allegra’s new glasses, stop at the grocery store for more of that delicious new Angie’s BOOMCHICKAPOP Real Butter Popcorn, and run into a friend in the parking lot. I know she’s a true friend, not mere acquaintance, because it takes no time before I’ve announced “women are exhausting” and she’s countered with “melatonin” and “moody.”

An hour later, during that rare window when we four in our family are all in the kitchen, hanging, debriefing, snacking, Allegra stands in front of me, as she sometimes does, angling for an extended hug. She will have to live another three decades before she has any inkling how much such embraces mean to me. After the release, we hook fingers and hold hands during a discussion about that evening’s band concert. She will be 17 next week — “You had me when you were 33, and now you’re almost 50, which means I’m almost 20, and none of that seems right!” — and already we know she will finish out her high school requirements next fall at the University of Minnesota-Duluth before graduating early. Already we know she will work and save money so that she can travel for a few months before college, wherever college ends up being. I am indeed almost 50, caught in the maternal half-held breath of “Every event feels like a ‘last’ at the same time everything feels possible.” Whenever I use the word “melancholy,” Allegra says, “At the end of our year in Turkey, when people asked how you felt about returning to the States, you always told them you were ‘melancholy.’ So even now, whenever I hear that word, I think of Turkey.” Whenever I hear the word “melancholy,” I think of my kids getting ready to fly.

At 7 p.m., the band concert starts. It is nearly one of her ‘last,’ yet I bend my head. Instead of staring at the far-away stage where my girl’s shining hair is barely discernible, I use a dim book light to read for an hour and a half, trying not to cackle out loud at Paul Beatty’s observational satire in The Sellout.

***

Wednesday: We drop Paco off at school a tidge late, confederates and compromisers in his desire to avoid riding the bus when he’s been oh-so-sick-hack-hack-cough-cough, and I have to clench fists to thighs to keep my arms from embracing the secretary in the school office who greets him with, “Oh, Paco, it’s so good to see you back. Are you feeling a little better, then?” There are 536 students who attend Paco’s school. PAY HER MORE.

Clicking our heels with kid-free abandon, Byron and I attend a boot camp class together, an hour that taxes and elevates in equal measure, an hour that rewards the peasant DNA which gifts me with the ability to hoist heavy things while being shouted at by an overlord, an hour where my husband and I literally yoke ourselves together with a strap and run a Spouse Yank around the track.

Yes, the Spouse Yank jokes are writing themselves, smutheads, and you’re very clever, aren’t you? 

After boot camp, as we drive to the bike shop to drop off Byron’s new tires for “truing,” the hero of my Every Spouse Yank drops an anecdote that makes me question if we know each other at all. How can he claim to love me and yet have kept this story to himself?

So.

One time, some half long time ago but maybe more like two years, Byron was in the locker room at the gym. And there was this guy. About 70 years old. Naked. Chatting.

As he held forth about, say, catching a particularly large walleye with his grandson, he casually lifted his foot onto a nearby stool, allowing his personal walleye a good dangle. It turns out he was propping his foot so as to improve air flow.

WHILE HE DRIED HIS PUBES WITH A GYM-ISSUE HAIR DRYER. 

He fluffed. He chatted.

AND THEN HE MOVED THE DRYER AROUND AND DRIED HIS BEHEINIE CRACK, TOO.

Huh.

I may be pushing the years, but still: I’m full of wonder. 

*** 

Thursday: Mike Birbiglia is this season’s “token white male” on an episode of the Sooo Many White Guys podcast. As I listen to him talk with host Phoebe Robinson about Don’t Think Twice — his film in which an improv troupe cracks apart — I consider the implications of striving and failing in front of witnesses.

I am walking, stepping over cracks, up curbs, over puddles; the cadence of my feet propels thoughts about the control that “fear of making a public misstep” exerts over so many people’s lives. Living guardedly certainly assures a person never appears stupid. If one doesn’t put anything out there, one can never be wrong. Yet. There is power in the willingness to look a fool. To be vulnerable in front of others requires trust — that the audience will be kind. Often, they are not. But when they are, the payoff is incomparable. As I walk, still listening, I think back to the try-hard wrecks that some of my writings, classes, and comments have been over the years and decide I’m glad to continue making public mistakes — because at least it means I’m working from courage, exposing vulnerability, trusting strangers, learning where and with whom I am safe. 

***

Friday: It’s a great week for logistics: Byron and I manage a second gym date, this one a “circuit” class of high-intensity activities that leave participants regretting that banana they ate an hour before. Himself is cramming the class into his lunch break, so I arrive early to set up our equipment and stay after to deconstruct our stations of risers, Bosus, weights, medicine balls, and mats. Dealing with props alone feels like plentiful workout to me, but I soldier through the actual class, as well, keeping my gaze carefully focused on the teacher, not my charming mate. Dude can run thirty miles and get stronger with each passing hour, but when he’s asked to raise his right knee to a steady beat, well,

he works from a place of courage, exposing vulnerability, trusting strangers, learning where and with whom he is safe.

He is safe with me. 

Some hours later, I snatch Paco out of school a bit early so that he and I can get to Allegra’s first track meet of the season. She runs a relay early on and then the mile quite some time later, which means Paco and I stand at a balcony railing for a total of three hours, looking down on the track, shifting from foot to foot, chatting with a neighbor about the tough crop of sixth graders at his school this year. It is during Hour Two that Paco announces, woefully, “I can tell my medicine has worn off.” Despite his fatigue and low-level pain, he makes it to the end because “I want to see Leggy run.”

***

Saturday: I am standing downtown, waiting to cross the main street, when a blue car screeches up next to me. It’s a sometimes-colleague, the mother of one of Allegra’s classmates, a woman with whom I’ve sat at big, round tables during sports banquets. “Where are you going?” she asks after rolling down the window. 

The answer is never easy. Where am I going? Well, in the next 25 minutes, I am going into that parking ramp down there, dropping my bag, grabbing my computer, walking to the library, doing a quick bit of work and saying hi to my staffing-the-checkout-counter husband, hoofing back to the car, jigging up to the gaming store where Paco has been playing Dungeons & Dragons with his friends, grabbing him, shopping for six things at the grocery store, getting a freebie birthday coffee drink, and driving home. “Where I’m going” is never brief.

In return, in a beautiful twist, she then asks me where she’s going. 

That is, she doesn’t know where exactly to find the school where her daughter has been attending an ACT prep course, and do I know? For once, I actually know where something is, and when I give her directions, it becomes clear we’re both interested in covering the same 100 yards in the next two minutes. “Get in!” she commands. “I’ll drive you down a block.”

The second my rump hits the seat, I am glad to be there. Cruising the downtown streets, this friend has been in high snack mode; Wasabi almonds and dried mango cover the gear shifter, and a container of peanut butter pretzels is open on her lap. “Have some!” she exclaims, gesturing to the front-seat buffet. And I do.

Previous to this random encounter, to this impulsive moment, to this intersection of “Hey there, you,” I have often enjoyed Wasabi almonds and dried mango, but my experience with peanut butter pretzels has been limited, perhaps non-existent. Deep inside me, something protective has always whispered, “You have enough issues, girl. These things could be dangerous for you. Maybe don’t open this particular Pandora’s box of temptations, ‘k?”

It is my birthday, and I am 50 which feels like 26, and I am doing 12 things in the next half hour, yet suddenly I am in a car, engaged in rapid-fire exchanges with a lanky blonde, eating my first peanut butter pretzel —

it is my birthday, a day of reckoning with past voices, winking away protective whispers, walking within and outside my skin, laughing at a full and changeable agenda, giving over to quicksilver trust, collecting colorful stories, embracing fancies, puzzling my way from edge to center —

and every last bit of it couldn’t be more wonderful.

—————————————

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Baby, You’re a Star

stars

At the end of each quarter at the high school, many students’ schedules undergo shifts. Maybe they switch to taking the required Health course, or maybe external pushes and pulls result in the order of their classes getting switched around. Sometimes, those pushes and pulls cause a student to be moved into the class of a different teacher.

This is what happened to Allegra’s schedule earlier this year, at the end of a quarter. With some consternation, she realized her new schedule had her moving from the tutelage of one Spanish teacher and into the classroom of another. When she reported this to me — and naturally it burbled out when she was upstairs, and I was halfway down the staircase, heading to the main floor — I didn’t understand what the problem was. “But I thought you don’t exactly love the teacher you’ve had? I thought the glacial pace, the lack of interesting content, and the feeling of being taught a warm, romantic language in a very Germanic manner — those things weren’t exactly making you thrilled about Spanish this year? So wouldn’t a move to a new teacher be a good thing?”

Standing at the banister on the second floor talking down to me while I craned my neck to look up at her, the girl clarified: “Yea, but in that class, at least I stand a chance of learning something. With the other teacher, the one they put me with for the new quarter, I won’t learn anything. It’s a move for the worse.”

Well, damn.

Fortunately, as we stood there, still staged for the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet, Allegra continued, “So when I saw my new schedule, I decided, ‘No, I don’t want this.’ The guidance counselors always say we can come see them with problems, so I went to the office, talked to a counselor, and now my schedule is fine. All my classes are staying the same next quarter, and I’ll have the same Spanish teacher.”

I hoped my face didn’t reveal my surprise. As a rule, our kids are so mild-tempered, so shoulder-shruggingly fine with almost everything, so averse to direct interactions — to the point that we can hardly get them to say hello to a person standing three feet from them — that I have trouble imagining scenarios where they have an issue and then deal with it. For the most part, they have made sure their lives don’t have problems because then they can glide.

I can’t imagine where they get it.

A day after Allegra got her schedule settled to her satisfaction, she was in Spanish class. At some point, she wandered up front to ask her Germanic romance-language teacher a question about the homework.

“Allegra!” the teacher started. “You aren’t going to be in my class next quarter. I was looking at the rosters and noticed that you’ll be switching into a different class.”

Well, actually, Allegra told her, I will be in your class next quarter.

“Oh, I didn’t know you’d gotten it switched back,” the teacher continued. “The other day, when I looked at my class list, your name wasn’t on it, and I noticed. I have to keep an eye on my stars, you know!”

Wait. What?

As Allegra, my Juliet, stood above me, recounting this moment, her face was a mix of raised eyebrows, happy smiles, and wonder. “I mean, she’d never even talked to me before, really, and I don’t actually speak up a lot in her class, so I had no idea. She thinks I’m a star? I almost left her class without ever knowing that. How come I didn’t know I’m a star?”

There, her words drifting down from the balcony, came one of life’s important questions.

How come I didn’t know I’m a star?

As the 15-year-old and I considered that bit of life, the part where we don’t realize we’re valued, I trotted out an old chestnut: the story about when I telephoned my dance teacher, from whom I’d taken ballet and modern dance lessons for nine years, to tell her I would be quitting classes. Although her instruction had been a significant part of my life from the ages of seven through 16, I’d hit high school, joined the speech team, found new interests. If something had to give, it would be dance — because it wasn’t like I was built for a career as a ballerina or was going anywhere except around and around in tightly pirouetted circles with those dance classes. So I called Miss June to inform her of my decision.

Even now, I am still processing her reaction. “Oh, that’s too bad! You really have promise as a modern dancer. I would have loved to see you pursue that!”

Much like my daughter thirty years later, my reaction was a confounded Wait. What?

From Miss June, I knew I needed to pull my tummy in. I knew I needed to tuck my derrière under. I knew I needed to pull my shoulders back.

But it was only when I quit that I found out what Miss June really thought. It was only once I was done that I learned the words that had been barrel rolling inside Miss June’s head.

It was only when Allegra’s teacher thought she was losing an excellent student that Allegra learned her teacher thinks she is an excellent student.

It’s human nature, the business of having a thought flit through the brain and then neglecting to voice it. Sometimes, we just forget. Other times, we don’t want to be overbearing or come off as false. Perhaps we are consciously holding back praise; we don’t want to give someone a big head, or we feel awkward, assigning formality to the casual, creating the weight of “a moment.” Bizarrely, to extend praise to someone can feel like admitting a vulnerability in ourselves, like a rook-takes-knight power shift. In some cases, sitting with a compliment rather than expressing it is a deliberate teaching tool — since confidence must grow from within. Most frequently of all, we just don’t realize how very much someone might benefit from hearing the words.

Ah, but if we flip that awkward moment of formality, cast ourselves in the recipient role, hand ourselves the telephone receiver and whisper, “It’s Miss June. She has something to tell you!”…if we remember what it was like to be 15 and to self-motivate and to aim high in a class driven by ho-hum instruction…if we remember what it was like to be 15, even in the best of circumstances…if we remember what it is like to be a person of any age at all, walking through life with only a thin layer of skin sheltering a vulnerable heart…if we remember the times when we were 19 and a grandpa at the bus stop sauntered by and called out “How’d you get so beautiful, anyway?” or when our fathers told us “People are drawn to you because you have an effervescence” or when our crying friends snuffled “Thank you. I didn’t know what I was thinking until you helped me see it” or our husbands noted, mouths full, “You bake the best cookies; you make them so that they taste generous”…if we remember those holy, transformative moments that embrace our vulnerabilities and hold them to the sun…

how can we ever forget, neglect, hold back when it comes others? How can we allow the stars among us to feel that they are shining only for themselves?

I cannot.

Thus, I want to announce loudly and for all to hear:

Allegra is turning 16 today, and she is multi-talented, quietly confident, astutely observant, admirably self-possessed, firecracker smart. The world is lucky to have her.

May there never be a question about my feelings for you, my beloved girl, mi amada estrella.


Allegra Collage

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I Didn’t Eat the Booger

It’s my birthday. I’m 49 today.

I’m also in the midst of recovering from shoulder surgery, in a semi-diminished state that has left me feeling grateful for many things on this day of taking stock.

Example #1:

Last week, Byron and I were standing in the bathroom, with him waiting to assist me in some small act, perhaps applying deodorant. He was waiting because I needed a minute to blow my nose. With my right arm in a sling system, I was blowing my nose using one hand. I am as good at this task as I am at running a six-minute mile. Just as I was starting to feel proud of myself for getting the Kleenex around both nostrils and for managing to emit some snot into the tissue, a bad thing happened.

A Kix-sized booger flew out of my nostril, dodged the tissue, jettisoned upwards, and landed with an audible splat upon my glasses lens.

It was a marvel, that thing. Bright neon yellow. Perfectly gunky. A rogue with great character.

Because Byron and I have been through childbirth together, a lively, glowing booger is hardly worth an eyebrow twitch between the two of us.

“Sorry about that,” I said. “I’ll just…”

“Yeah,” Byron agreed. “You’re going to need to deal with the actual booger, but once you get it off, I’ll be happy to clean your glasses for you.”

And he did.

Example #2:

Paco is usually very tired by the time he gets home from his school day. He needs a snack, something to drink, and a few gentle touches to remind him that he’s with us now — that the tiring world is locked away outside our doors. Often, this means I play with his hair or scratch his back for a little while.

A few days ago, he leaned in for a forehead-to-forehead hug. Although I have not been engaging in many hugs since the surgery, I enjoyed the feel of his arms around my shoulders. Quickly, though, he retracted one arm and apologized, saying, “Oh, no, that must have hurt you! I’m sorry, Mom.” Telling him I appreciated his solicitousness, I assured him that no one’s touch is more gentle than his.

“I’m just really glad it didn’t hurt you,” he almost whispered, looking relieved.

Example #3:

By the end of each day, my shoulder is aching, and I’m forced to admit that my energy is still on the rebound. At that point, there is nothing more welcome and comforting than sliding into the castle of pillows on my bed.

Last night, as I lay there, messing around with my phone and reading a few pages from a new book, Allegra got up from her chair at the computer where she had been plugging away at her homework and came over for a good night kiss. Before I pecked her cheek, however, she settled onto the edge of the bed to tell me about some of the career presentations her classmates have been giving in English class.

For the past several weeks, all the sophomores have been working on research projects focusing on potential future professions; this research culminates in a video that is then shown to the class. For Allegra, choosing a possible future career required a lot of thought and discussion — because the beauty of being a sophomore in high school is that everything is still possible. After talking through her interests and passions, she narrowed it down: she is genuinely excited when it comes to travel, cultures, and various countries around the world. Thus, I suggested she consider researching the profession of a Foreign Service Officer, someone who works and lives abroad, helping with visas, finances, tourists, expatriates, all the associated issues of an embassy. This suggestion and her decision were bolstered by the fact that she was required to do an interview with someone who currently works in the chosen job, and I have a high school friend who is a Foreign Service Officer.

Once I knew what my own girl was doing, I started asking what her friends were researching and what careers they were contemplating. Also, I warned her I would be eagerly anticipating updates about all the presentations given in her class.

So there she sat last night, telling me about the first couple days of presentations. A few of her classmates wanted to be teachers, and there were also presentations about being a meteorologist, and animator, a veterinarian, a physician’s assistant, a pilot, and all sorts of other options that made me want to go back and be young again.

As I leaned against the pillows, feeling the ache in my back relax, I watched her lovely face in the dim light, that lovely face that came into my life out of my own body 16 years ago, and I forgot about the phone in my hand, the book by my elbow, the painkillers on my side table, the plate of chocolate cake awaiting me as soon as midnight struck. All I thought about was how much life there was in her big, blue eyes, and how she was sitting next to me when I was aching, telling me about her day — because she knew it mattered to me.

Example #4:

A few days before my surgery, I received an email gift certificate from my best friend, Colleen. To help distract me from my anticipatory worry about the surgery, she had sent me an early birthday present: a hefty amount towards a pair of Fluevogs— shoes that are quirky, whimsical, well-made, and expensive. After tearing around the house to find Byron — to tell him of my excitement — I was surprised when his face only looked semi-happy at the news.

“At the risk of blowing my birthday present to you,” he said, “I’m just going to tell you now that I was planning to give you the exact same thing, right down to the same dollar amount.”

His disclosure in no way ruined my birthday present. Rather, it provided a delicious delight: to have both a best friend and husband who are so attuned to even my smallest desires, who are so thoughtful about who I am, is the very definition of a perfect gift.

Just as good: when I buy a pair of those shoes, I will smile with every step, thinking about how Colleen sponsored the left foot while Byron sponsored the right.

————————————————————-

On this special day of taking stock and feeling gratitude, then, I am thinking many things.

I’m thinking about how my glasses are clean.

Because I am loved and supported.

I’m thinking about how good a hug can feel.

Because the people in my life are gentle and respectful.

I’m thinking about how I am not lonely, and I have company in the dark hours when pain creeps in.

Because someone lovely takes a minute to sit on the edge of my bed.

I’m thinking about feeling seen and acknowledged and beloved.

Because those who have known me over the years show me that they understand exactly who I am.

When I was young, I would not have known how to ask for this life.

But here it is.

And it is so good, so full, that I can’t even have candles on my cake.

Because I wouldn’t know what to wish for.

ThwappyBurpday

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Bappy Hirfday to Me

SONY DSC

I turn 48 today, and, oh, the joy of it! Behind me are the days of wishing, hoping, longing, wondering. Here now are the days of loving, laughing, appreciating, and clarity. I’m in the thick of it, this business of a happy life, wanting to hug it all to me, hard, while it’s happening. There are things I still want to do, places I would love to explore, adventures I’m eager to have. And, of course, there are people I can do without, too many hours spent in windowless rooms, the agendas of dissatisfied minds.

But still. Even when I get a leg cramp at three in the morning that is like no Charley horse I’ve ever had, and I have to stomp around the bedroom, then the bathroom, jamming my thumb into it, eventually grabbing the side of the sink, bending over it, and lowing like a cow in labor–as happened the other night–I can’t fathom my fortune. Then it happens again three minutes later, and I can’t fathom my pain.

My leg cramped like a mother-plucking chicken de-featherizer because I had exercised so much, so hard, so well.

At least I have legs to battle.

I have a sink to grapple with.

I have water to regret not drinking.

I have fluffy covers to crawl beneath when I’m shivering.

And even when my ancient car suddenly starts doing a scary shuddering thing whenever I push on the gas–as it did a couple days ago when I was driving to pick up Paco from Pokemon Club–making me whisper under my breath, “Please, let me just get to the school so that my sensitive lad isn’t the last one there, waiting in uncomfortable silence with the recess monitor who agreed to stay past six p.m.” as I simultaneously plan how I’ll push the car to the shoulder of the road if it does break down, I can’t help but turn my face to the sun at a stoplight. Then the shuddering gains a companion in the form of a loud clanking noise, and I’m back to whispering “Please…”

I get to worry about my car breaking down because my life has been felicitous.

At least I have a car to make me anxious.

I have a son, and he gets to go to school.

I have a boy who is a boon companion, who has good ideas about where the closest auto shop is and who counsels me into doing an after-hours key drop.

I have a cell phone, friends to call.

I have neighbors who launch themselves away from the dinner table, saying “No problem. Be right there” when I send out an SOS about my deadbeat car and hungry son.

I have lungs and quadriceps that power me five miles uphill the next day when the repair shop informs me my car is fixed, that they close in an hour.

I have a credit card to hand over when the car repair shop presents me with a staggering bill.

I have a husband who got a new job, a darling of a guy who is proud that his income will help pay that bill.

I have a daughter who, as I start to grouse internally about the cost of “labor and parts,” asks, “Why don’t you join Instagram, Mom? You have that tablet now. If you join, you can follow me and see all my pictures!”

Indeed, it’s the stressful moments that slap me in the face and remind me of my good fortune. How can I think anything’s going wrong, when so very much has gone gloriously right?

Our first years are about developing.

Our next years are about figuring things out.

Past that, we have a time of learning nuance and gauging our course.

Then comes a period of growing, moving, settling.

And now: the season of gratitude.

I’ll take 48 for the win.

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A Forge and a Purse. That’s All We Need. Oh, and Cake. Plus This Candle. And a Bow Staff. A Unicorn.

The baritone saxophone doesn’t so much toot as blare. Rattle. Shake the house. When the boy is practicing, blowing all his lung air into the mouthpiece, conversation in another room is impossible. The floors vibrate; then he finishes a scale and calls out, “Playing this thing is loosening my ear wax!”

Recently, Paco turned twelve.

I want always to remember who he was at this stage of life:  sweet, sensitive, musical, bull-headed, mellow, clever, rules-minded, funny, soft, self-conscious, smart, observant, intuitive, sometimes anxious.

In other words, he’s exactly who he’s always been–only with every passing year, he’s less of a Creature Who Needs Tending and more of a Comfortable Conversation Companion. He just gets better.

All of the traits that were in him when he was two are magnified a decade later. The only difference now is that he accessorizes less when he sings his happy little songs.

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In the week before his birthday, Paco took part in two activities that illustrate the breadth of his abilities. First, he completed a day-long blacksmithing class, the foundational course in a series; six days later, he went purse shopping with his mother.

He could have handled either of these as a two-year-old, as well, but the parent in me was grateful he’d outgrown his clown wig phase before standing over the fire in a forge. Too much risk of a stray spark igniting a purple patch of whizzy curls before leaping cheek to smolder on the red nose. I’m also fairly certain the two-year-old Paco, had he been drafted into helping select a new purse, would have been more interested in choosing a shiny gold one with rivets, leopard spots, and a dangling whistle for himself than counseling his mother into the best choice of bag.

True confession: part of me wishes my twelve-year-old were still interested in choosing a shiny gold purse with rivets, leopard spots, and a dangling whistle for himself. We would use it to tote scones and bottles of mineral water when shoe shopping–and to signal each other when stumbling across a noteworthy find (Trumpet that whistle: Dansk clogs are on clearance!).

Alas. His interest these days is weaponry. That’s what led him to the forge: he wants to make a sword.  Of course, the road to a sword starts with a single step, in this case Blacksmithing 101, during which he learned to build and tend the fire before whacking at rods of rebar with a hammer for six hours.

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The day after the class, our almost-twelve-year-old was whupped. This was not surprising; one of the descriptors listed above with regards to this lad should also have been “low energy” or, phrased more gently, “easily sapped by activity.” He gets that from his mother. After a day of significant exertion, he feels run over; there is no quick rebound or shout of “Where’s the unicycle? I need a balance challenge!” Nae. This kid will need to lie on the couch for a good ten hours the day after effort, persistently promoting the nuances of his sore neck. He will sleep with a heating pad for two nights. He will accept ibuprofen and massages. He will nestle his brain stem on only the softest of fleecy fabrics. When the bathroom calls, he will walk gingerly, guarding his person against offending walls.

I feel this child. I am this child.

Seriously. One time I had a C-section, and from the way I still go on about it, you’d think the surgeon used nothing but a dull butter knife and her left incisor to cut me open.

Interestingly, the ball of blood and tears the surgeon gnawed out of me that day was this very kid, the one who’s just turned twelve.

When he forgets to moan, there is no one better. He works diligently at learning to spin his new bow staff, acting out Daffy Duck and Porky Pig’s famous “Guard! Turn! Parry! Dodge! Thrust!” scene as he twirls.

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He loves his softie buddies in the bed and invites them to read in the dark with him, using a head lamp to illuminate a Nate the Great or Rick Riordan book.

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And he goes purse shopping with his mother.

It was a spontaneous outing. I’d noticed that my year-old purse’s straps had worn through and were on the verge of giving way entirely. I figured that at some point I’d dash into my favorite store and seek out a new one.

That opportunity presented itself the night before Paco’s birthday. He and I–teeming with vitality and non-sore necks when I suggested an expedition to check out the newest series of Lego mini-figures–had driven to the shopping area in town and done some focused groping of various bags of mini-figs, attempting to discern which figures might be held within the mystery packets. More than anything, we were hoping to detect a unicorn horn; to turn twelve the next day while clutching a Lego unicorn would be, well, like being the forty-seven-year-old mother of a twelve-year-old clutching a Lego unicorn: THE APEX OF AWESOME.

Once we selected our bags of figures and made our way out to the car (“I’m going to open one now and one tomorrow on my birthday; since I’m not having a party this year, that gives me something to look forward to”), I noted that we were conveniently near my favorite store.

“Paco, I feel The Mothership calling. The computer chip in my brain that’s linked to the main hive is pinging and pinging. Can we answer its call? Do you mind doing a little more dinkin’ around before we head home?”

The immediate response confirmed his status as Best Playmate. “What are you asking? I LOVE dinkin’ around.”

When we got to The Mothership, he had no interest in wandering off and looking at things that might interest him. He never does. Always and forever, he would rather stick close. Better conversation that way.

Hip to hip, we entered the square footage of Purse.

“So, what kind of purse are you looking for, exactly, Mom?”

He posed a hard question–for the criteria are variable, so long as the purse speaks. It’s a love thing.

“Hmmm. Well, you know the colors I like. Actually, even though I don’t usually like oranges and reds, I could do them in a purse. I just would need to be careful never to hold the purse next to my face, and the only time I can imagine my face ever nearing my purse would be when I’m digging for a quarter, Kleenex, lip balm, bandaid, dental floss, car keys, phone, or wallet, so what I mean to say is no reds or oranges. Also, I really hate blingy stuff, and all the random hardware they like to attach these days feels painfully Try Hard to me. Let’s just say we’re looking for a classic purse without a lot of crap jammed onto it. Oh, and also: always remember that fringe is the devil’s work.”

Having processed my words, Paco wandered over to a luscious navy blue dreamboat and gave it a heft. “How about this one? Nope, wait: it’s open across the top, and you need a zipper so all your stuff doesn’t spill out.”

Carry on, small man.

Moving to the next navy blue bag, he noted, “I like the shape of this one, and it’s so soft. Do you need a long strap, or do you just want to wear the handles over your shoulder?”

Negotiable, kid. I won’t know ’til I see it. It’s a love thing.

Then he looked at the price tag. “Oh, no. I’m worried about the cost of this one. It’s pretty high. That’s why it’s so nice.”

Teachable moment: you get what you pay for, buddy. Sometimes, when a purse has nice shape and is soft, that’s because it’s well made.

“Okay, then,” he continued. “You should carry that one around for a little bit to test it out. Also, it’s the last one, and you don’t want anyone else to take it until you’ve decided.”

I clutched it to my chest and petted the softness, just as I had this boy when he was a baby.

We wandered to the next display. “Yuck,” Paco noted. “Beiges and whites won’t be practical. They’ll get dirty so fast. Plus, they’re boring, and you like fun. Keep walking.”

Moving to the clearance rack, our eyes were drawn to a bright blue bag, smallish, zippered-but-not-too-much. “Ooh, I like that one,” I got squealy.

“But isn’t it too small, Mom? Your wallet won’t even fit in it.”

“Yea, but I could use it when I travel and only want to take the essentials–some cash, a credit card, a Burt’s Bees lip balm, ibuprofen, and a unicorn mini-figure. Those things would all fit easily!”

I grabbed the bright blue purse and smashed it against the navy blue one. Cuddling two babies, I followed my young man.

“Hey, Paco, wait! Isn’t this one kind of funky? The flap is asymmetrical, and it has two different chains for each shoulder strap. That’s fun, right?”

I’d gotten so off track, my counselor had to turn and give me a dead-on corrective stink eye. His gaze burned into mine, laser-like, as he countered my whimsy. “Mom. No. This purse is red. Would you say it’s ‘classic’? Can you undo that button on the flap easily every time you get in and out of your purse? No, Mom. No.”

He was right. In fact, rack after rack, every time I tried to derail my original intentions (Jocelyn Superpower #47) and get excited about impractical, silly, or ridiculous, the last-night-as-an-eleven-year-old’s voice brought me back from the edge.

“When you put that one on, it juts out really far. You’ll always be knocking things over with it. Since I’m always one step behind you, I could lose an eye.”

“I don’t think you should get two purses. That gets too expensive, and how many purses do you take out with you each day? ONE.”

“You think that’s cute right now, but when you look at it next week, you’ll realize it’s ugly.”

“That looks like a dead lizard on a string. You can’t.”

“I don’t want to know someone who would carry that heap of sequins on her shoulder.”

“Look at the lining inside that one. It will rip by Tuesday. And it looks like barf.”

Then.

We turned a corner.

And saw.

The racks of green purses.

Green and I have a history. Green might actually be Paco’s father.

Exhibit A:

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Our steps slowed; our fingertips grazed. Green was promising.

While I soaked in the big picture, Paco went specific and started digging to a barely visible hook in the back. “Mom! Look at this one! Lime green! And you know how we feel about lime green!”

I helped him extract it from the tangle of purses. It was lime green all right.

“And it doesn’t have dangly junk or bling, either. It’s like a real purse. Would it hold all your stuff? ‘Cause, Mom? I think this is the one. This is the best one, right? Let’s look at the price. Hey, not so bad! You have to get this one, don’t you? No question about it! LOOK AT THE GREEN! Mom, we love it; don’t we love it?”

Fortunately, I’m open to lime green. Fortunately, it was a good size. Fortunately, it was a good price. Fortunately, it was well made. Fortunately,

even if I’d been on the fence, unsure if it spoke to me, not completely sold,

I realized that–on the cusp of my son’s twelfth birthday–this was a moment to tuck into my heart. The next few years will see him moving further away from me, separating healthily and painfully; he will always be my boy, but he’s about to become less and less my boy, more and more the world’s man. He will always be part of my pulse, yet I will miss him forever.

Rather than yielding to the wash of melancholy that threatened, I focused on what he was right then, in that moment, in The Mothership, standing next to the green purses, enthusiastically holding up his choice.

Almost as tall as I, this young man was sweet, sensitive, musical, bull-headed, mellow, clever, rules-minded, funny, soft, self-conscious, smart, observant, intuitive, sometimes anxious. And he was applying all of his everything to helping me with my cause.

There was no question. Even if he’d been holding up a red purse dripping with sequins and fringe gilded with seven gold chains, I would have bought it.

It’s a love thing.

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Thirteen Years Since the Blue Moon

You better believe I’m trotting out this old chestnut for its yearly airing. If there are any new readers out there, this’ll be a new one, but for many of you, it will be cause to muse, “Wow, another year’s gone by already?”

For me, I like to re-run it because then I’m motivated to update the photo gallery, and I really like having a place where I’ve collected pictures of my daughter in each year of her life, on or near her birthday.

Here:
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I got engaged and pregnant on the same day.

Even better, it was “Buck Night” at the local ball park, so I also got to drink eleventy dollars of watery beer on a humid July evening while feigning interest in an All-American sport.

You might be trying to forge a connection between all that cheap beer and my getting knocked up. Damn your clever mind. Does it never rest?

Suffice it to say, though, that pretty much all of my days since then have been anticlimactic. They’re all “go to work, read to the kids, sweat through a run, fold some laundry” and ever-so-rarely are they “get engaged, drink beer, get pregnant” kinds of days. I suppose, though, that a girl can only have so many splendid Whopper Days; otherwise, I’d have a whole lot of husbands, hangovers, and kids. And frankly, one or two of each is about all I can handle. Ask both my husbands. They’ll attest to my treating them with an air of benign neglect. Fortunately, they are a comfort to each other.

So, yes, from that sticky July day came good things. I still dote on my groom, and the issue of that pregnancy is just cresting thirteen years old (since I, personally, remember a lot from Age 13, this implies to me that I should start being nicer to Girl, now that the threat of lifetime recall is firmly in place).

It’s all good now, but the growth and arrival of our Girl weren’t as straightforward as her conception. In fact, Girl started out as two.

All I knew was that I was pregnant, and the hospital in our town would confirm that but would not have me see a doctor or midwife until the end of the first trimester. So I took some vitamins, ate a lot of Ben and Jerry’s, exercised, and dreamed an entire life for the child inside of me.

Until one night–the last night of that first trimester–when I got off the couch after watching some bad reality tv and went to the bathroom. After pulling down my shorts, I discovered the pregnant woman’s nightmare: blood. Lots of it. And when I sat down on the toilet, there was an explosion of more blood, along with many miscellaneous floating bits…of tissue.

My brain reeled, of course, and all I could think was, “This can’t be good. I’m pregnant, so this should stop.” At the time, Byron and I weren’t yet married, and he lived almost six hours away. I called him; he lurched out the door and into his car; then I called my friend Virginia, and she was at my house in minutes.

We went to the emergency room, where I spent a long, long time with my feet in stirrups. I heard words like “she’s dilated” and “tissue in the cervix” and “no heartbeat.” Virginia stood by my side, crying quietly into a Kleenex. My own tears ran down my cheeks into my ears.

After some time, I was told that it looked as though I’d miscarried. But, they told me, I was young, so future pregnancy could happen. And, they told me, a miscarriage is Nature’s way of ending a non-viable pregnancy. It happened, they told me, all the time.

But here’s the thing: it hadn’t happened to me before, and so I was ill-equipped to handle the absolute, immediate grief of losing a life I had already planned. Sure, I’d heard of women having miscarriages, but no one had actually ever brought that experience alive for me; no one had shared their experience publicly–and if there’s one thing I do, it’s find ways to process the world by touching the experiences of others. Yet miscarriage proved to be one of those last female taboos, one of the hidden subjects that no one acknowledged. So all I really knew was that I was in significant physical pain (I didn’t even know enough to realize a miscarriage is actually a mini-labor, with a contracting uterus and everything) and in even more profound emotional pain.

When, at 4 a.m., Byron finally got to me, we just cried. And the next day, and the day after that, we cried. A baby isn’t real to the world until it’s born, but it had become real to us from the minute that stick turned pink. Even more, the promise of a life we’d made together confirmed our rightness of being.

Some days later, we went to see the midwife at the hospital, to have her check my uterus to see if all the tissue had been expelled that night in the emergency room, or if I’d need to undergo a D & C, to “clean things up.”

As I lay there, again on a table, she palpated my uterus, noting, “There’s still a fair amount of tissue in here. If you don’t mind, I’m going to roll over the mobile ultrasound machine to see how much we’re dealing with.”

I didn’t want to see the remains of the babe, so I stared at the wall as she worked, not registering her words of, “Hmmm. I see a heartbeat here.”

How cruel, I thought. Why is she taunting me?

But. Then. It. Sunk. In. A heartbeat?

My head whipped to look at the monitor, where I saw a most-contented-looking little figure, reclining in the tub of my belly, a strong and regular heartbeat emanating from its chest.

My memory of the next few minutes is the feeling of Byron’s tears hitting my face, as he stood above me, and the midwife exiting the room, saying, “I’m just going to give you guys a few minutes.”

So my grief had prayed for a miracle–for the miscarriage not to have been real, for that pregnancy to still be happening. Suddenly, it was. Gradually, we pieced together that I had been carrying twins, and one of them had not made it. This, according to one nurse, happens more frequently than we know, but it is still a “once in a blue moon” event.

For the rest of my pregnancy, we called the kid inside of me The Little Gripper; I pictured it hanging resolutely onto the walls of my uterus by its tiny, soft fingernails while its twin fell out of me. Assuredly, I will never stop missing The Kid Who Fell, but mostly I can only marvel at the child who hung in there.

Today, March 31st, it has been thirteen years since The Little Gripper became our Allegra, twelve years during which she has emerged as reserved, smart, sweet, wry, amiable to a fault, Love Incarnate.


The Birth Day: Byron cries some more, as Allegra greets the midwife. Under the white sheets, once again relegated to laying on a table, I wonder how long it will be before I can have a bowl of Peanut Butter Cup ice cream.

And then time, as it does, moved on:


Girl Was One


And Then She Was Two


Same Dress at Age Three, But the Wheels Were New

Four Was Fun


Five Became Her



She Grew to Six (Plus Two on the Lap)


Then She Was Seven, Feeling Crafty


Eight Flowed Easily


Nine Popped with Color


Ten Took Her Places

At Eleven, Ancient Landscapes Broadened Her


Twelve Gave Her Texture

And now…

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…at thirteen, the owner of that braid positively glows.

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As the years tick by, I love her purity of character above all else.

Even when she was six, a wee first grader, her unalloyed caliber was evident. One night, at bedtime, her overtired Brother Wee Niblet (now Paco) cried in his bed, sobbing: “I don’t want to go to sleep, ever. I wake up in the night, and I am alone. I’m always alone. I’m never going to close my eyes because sleep is too lonely.”

We had already pushed the kids’ beds next to each other, strung the room with lights, played music on a CD player through the night, and tried everything to get him to appreciate sleep as an opportunity, not a burden. But no matter what I suggested that night, he cried even harder.

Then an almost-seven-year-old hand snaked its way across his bed and extended itself onto his torso. With all the compassion of two souls, Allegra said, “Here, buddy. Just hold my hand while we fall asleep. And when you’re asleep, I’ll just keep holding on to you. You know I won’t ever leave you all alone.”

Happy birthday, Toots. Every single day for thirteen years now, I have thanked the sky above for that blue moon.

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A Time to Every Purpose

In the last weeks of his life, I would talk to my dad on the phone frequently.

He was in Montana. I was in Minnesota. It was January, and at the same time his heart and lungs were deteriorating, my body was busy helping those same organs grow inside the baby I’d been carrying for more than 40 weeks. Completely, utterly, I was in The Middle Place, sandwiched between the start and end of life’s cycle.

When I was the baby, it was my dad who was in The Middle Place. I was born, and a few months later, my dad’s dad died.

Thirty-five years later, Paco was born, and 16 days after that, my dad died.

A time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance, indeed.

Because I was so heavily pregnant during his final decline, my dad and I didn’t have a face-to-face goodbye. I would talk to him on the phone, with him in the hospital and me laboring to breathe as I sat on the couch in our tiny house. Similarly, my brother was far away, in Japan, with his 7.5 months pregnant wife and five-year-old daughter. Five months before his death, my mom had filed for divorce and turned her attentions to a new boyfriend in California. Thus, my heroic sister single-handedly walked Dad to the grave as she cashed in all her days of leave and drove, again and again, the ten hours from Denver to Billings.

He was decency incarnate, my dad, and I loved our conversations on the phone. Although a quiet Finn by nature, he was an astute observer, listener, and question asker–skills that find special life over the telephone wires. We discussed his health, of course, but also my teaching, his grandkids, life in Duluth. After the traumatic delivery of Paco, when my dad realized we were struggling to cope, he asked a question–so charming to me because its phrasing revealed his farmboy roots: “Can I send you a cheque so that you can hire a girl to come in?”

He was a love, and yet his body was done. For decades, he’d lived with chronic bronchitis, asthma, diabetes, allergies, eventually a heart attack. By the age of 66, his lungs and heart were exhausted.

When we would talk on the phone each day, and he would tell me, his breathing more labored than mine, how much he loved seeing photos of his new, his ONLY, grandson, how much he loved seeing pictures of Allegra cradling the new baby, how much he couldn’t wait to see them both,

it was as though my opera singer father was engaging in a kind of overtone throat singing. There was his voice, but there was also a simultaneous rasp of air, sort of a thick hitch in his breathing, with every word. The sound was distinctive and ran, literally, as the underlying accompaniment to our conversations.

And then one day, after a few close calls, one involving emergency intubation,

he rolled over, exhaled, and died.

At that point, he was alone. My sister was in Denver attending to her job, about to drive back up to Billings. I was recovering from a C-section in Minnesota. My brother and his family had gotten on a plane in Japan the day before and were above Detroit during that last exhale.

He died alone.

There is a saddest story in my life, and it is that my dad died alone.

There is a happiest story in my life, too, and it is that my dad and I shared a birthday. Every year, come March 25th, we had Our Day. Even in his absence, March 25th is Our Day.

This week, this March 25th, he would have been 78 compared to my 46. For the first time in my recollection, I was sick on my birthday, largely bed-bound with the same virus that laid the kids low last week. First, there was a fever, then painful lungs, then a developing cough, then a vise-like headache, then a draining nose, but most of all, a complete lack of energy.

I spent Friday, March 22nd, in bed.

I spent Saturday, March 23rd, in bed.

I spent Sunday, March 24th, in bed.

On Monday, March 25th, my eyes flew open at dawn. Although I had been sleeping sitting up, propped by pillows, breathing was still work. In fact, it was the sound of my breathing that had awakened me.

The sound that pulled me to consciousness was like an overtone throat singing noise–a rasp, a hitch. I woke up thinking, “DAD. That sounded like Dad. That was Dad.”

Thusly, we started Our Day together.

Inside me, forever with me, the very breath I exhale,

there is my dad.

Family Dad

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Twelve Years Since the Blue Moon

Once again, I beg the forbearance of my long-time readers with this post, as it’s a re-run (but I’ve added new pictures at the end!). However, because it’s a personal favorite, I hope you’ll hang in there for a re-read…or perhaps for a first-time through.
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“Twelve Years Since the Blue Moon”

I got engaged and pregnant on the same day.

Even better, it was “Buck Night” at the local ball park, so I also got to drink eleventy dollars of watery beer on a humid July evening while feigning interest in an All-American sport.

You might be trying to forge a connection between all that cheap beer and my getting knocked up. Damn your clever mind. Does it never rest?

Suffice it to say, though, that pretty much all of my days since then have been anticlimactic. They’re all “go to work, read to the kids, sweat through a run, fold some laundry” and ever-so-rarely are they “get engaged, drink beer, get pregnant” kinds of days. I suppose, though, that a girl can only have so many splendid Whopper Days; otherwise, I’d have a whole lot of husbands, hangovers, and kids. And frankly, one or two of each is about all I can handle. Ask both my husbands. They’ll attest to my treating them with an air of benign neglect. Fortunately, they are a comfort to each other.

So, yes, from that sticky July day came good things. I still dote on my groom, and the issue of that pregnancy is just cresting twelve years old (since I, personally, remember a lot from Age 12, this implies to me that I should start being nicer to Girl, now that the threat of lifetime recall is firmly in place).

It’s all good now, but the growth and arrival of our Girl weren’t as straightforward as her conception. In fact, Girl started out as two.

All I knew was that I was pregnant, and the hospital in our town would confirm that but would not have me see a doctor or midwife until the end of the first trimester. So I took some vitamins, ate a lot of Ben and Jerry’s, exercised, and dreamed an entire life for the child inside of me.

Until one night–the last night of that first trimester–when I got off the couch after watching some bad reality tv and went to the bathroom. After pulling down my shorts, I discovered the pregnant woman’s nightmare: blood. Lots of it. And when I sat down on the toilet, there was an explosion of more blood, along with many miscellaneous floating bits…of tissue.

My brain reeled, of course, and all I could think was, “This can’t be good. I’m pregnant, so this should stop.” At the time, Groom and I weren’t yet married, and he lived almost six hours away. I called him; he lurched out the door and into his car; then I called a Best Girlfriend, and she was at my house in minutes.

We went to the emergency room, where I spent a long, long time with my feet in stirrups. I heard words like “she’s dilated” and “tissue in the cervix” and “no heartbeat.” My friend stood by my side, crying quietly into a Kleenex. My own tears ran down my cheeks into my ears.

After some time, I was told that it looked as though I’d miscarried. But, they told me, I was young, so future pregnancy could happen. And, they told me, a miscarriage is Nature’s way of ending a non-viable pregnancy. It happened, they told me, all the time.

But here’s the thing: it hadn’t happened to me before, and so I was ill-equipped to handle the absolute, immediate grief of losing a life I had already planned. Sure, I’d heard of women having miscarriages, but no one had actually ever brought that experience alive for me; no one had shared their experience publicly–and if there’s one thing I do, it’s find ways to process the world by touching the experiences of others. Yet miscarriage proved to be one of those last female taboos, one of the hidden subjects that no one acknowledged. So all I really knew was that I was in significant physical pain (I didn’t even know enough to realize a miscarriage is actually a mini-labor, with a contracting uterus and everything) and in even more profound emotional pain.

When, at 4 a.m., Groom finally got to me, we just cried. And the next day, and the day after that, we cried. A baby isn’t real to the world until it’s born, but it had become real to us from the minute that stick turned pink.  Even more, the promise of a life we’d made together confirmed our rightness of being.

Some days later, we went to see the midwife at the hospital, to have her check my uterus to see if all the tissue had been expelled that night in the emergency room, or if I’d need to undergo a D & C, to “clean things up.”

As I lay there, again on a table, she palpated my uterus, noting, “There’s still a fair amount of tissue in here. If you don’t mind, I’m going to roll over the mobile ultrasound machine to see how much we’re dealing with.”

I didn’t want to see the remains of the babe, so I stared at the wall as she worked, not registering her words of, “Hmmm. I see a heartbeat here.”

How cruel, I thought. Why is she taunting me?

But. Then. It. Sunk. In. A heartbeat?

My head whipped to look at the monitor, where I saw a most-contented-looking little figure, reclining in the tub of my belly, a strong and regular heartbeat emanating from its chest.

My memory of the next few minutes is the feeling of Groom’s tears hitting my face, as he stood above me, and the midwife exiting the room, saying, “I’m just going to give you guys a few minutes.”

So my grief had prayed for a miracle–for the miscarriage not to have been real, for that pregnancy to still be happening. Suddenly, it was. Gradually, we pieced together that I had been carrying twins, and one of them had not made it. This, according to one nurse, happens more frequently than we know, but it is still a “once in a blue moon” event.

For the rest of my pregnancy, we called the kid inside of me The Little Gripper; I pictured it hanging resolutely onto the walls of my uterus by its tiny, soft fingernails while its twin fell out of me. Assuredly, I will never stop missing The Kid Who Fell, but mostly I can only marvel at the child who hung in there.

Today, March 31st, it has been twelve years since The Little Gripper became our Girl, twelve years during which she has emerged as reserved, smart, sweet, wry, amiable to a fault, Love Incarnate.


The Birth Day: Groom cries some more, as Girl greets the midwife. Under the white sheets, once again relegated to laying on a table, I wonder how long it will be before I can have a bowl of Peanut Butter Cup ice cream.


Girl Was One


And Then She Was Two


Same Dress at Age Three, But the Wheels Were New

Four Was Fun


Five Became Her



She Grew to Six (Plus Two on the Lap)


Then She Was Seven, Feeling Crafty


Eight Flowed Easily


Nine Popped with Color


Ten Took Her Places

At Eleven, Ancient Landscapes Broadened Her



Twelve Promises More of the Same and the Start of Much That Is New

——————————-
As the years tick by, I love her purity of character above all else.

Even she was six, a wee first grader, her unalloyed caliber was evident. One night, at bedtime, her overtired Brother Wee Niblet (now Paco) cried in his bed, sobbing: “I don’t want to go to sleep, ever. I wake up in the night, and I am alone. I’m always alone. I’m never going to close my eyes because sleep is too lonely.”

We had already pushed the kids’ beds next to each other, strung the room with lights, played music on a CD player through the night, and tried everything to get him to appreciate sleep as an opportunity, not a burden. But no matter what I suggested that night, he cried even harder.

Then an almost-seven-year-old hand snaked its way across his bed and extended itself onto his torso. With all the compassion of two souls, Girl said, “Here, buddy. Just hold my hand while we fall asleep. And when you’re asleep, I’ll just keep holding on to you. You know I won’t ever leave you all alone.”

Happy birthday, Toots. Every single day for twelve years now, I have thanked the sky above for that blue moon.

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Drag Your Feet to Slow the Circles Down

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[audio:http://omightycrisis.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/12-The-Circle-Game.mp3|titles=12 – The Circle Game] ——————————————-

One year, when my dad’s birthday rolled around, my mom didn’t know what to buy him for a gift–he already lived under Montana’s Big Sky and possessed a lovely tenor voice, both of which made the case for him as A Man Who Had Everything. So she did as many a clever gift giver had in the past: she made his present.

She made him a baby, and that baby was me.

I was wrapped in a soft blanket and presented to my dad on March 25th, 1967. That day, I was zero; he was thirty-two. The day before, his own mother–born in a dugout sod house forty miles away from the hospital where I was delivered–had celebrated turning fifty-two. Thirty-three years and six days later, Baby Jocelyn would give birth to her first child, a Girl. From March 24th to March 25th to March 31st, the last week of March has always been loaded with birthdays in my family.

One of the many beauties of my life has been my status as Baby of the Family. As the third of three kids, I enjoyed the best of everybody: I was Mamma’s Girl, Sister’s Girl, Brother’s Girl…and, of course, as his special present in 1967, Daddy’s Girl.

As the years passed, we always enjoyed sharing a birthday. Naturally, Dad didn’t get feted the same way I, a kid, did. For me, there were party hats and friends gathered ’round and much-observed blowing out of candles.

But for adults, life is just life, including birthdays. I blew out candles; my dad went to work. Then the next day would come, and then the next week would roll around, and then it was April, and then it was summer, and then there was gardening.

Mixed in to every year were the birthdays of others, such as my sister below, turning twelve, much to my delight (CAKE!).

Then the summer would end, school would begin, and it would be fall, then winter, then a new year, more holidays, more birthdays, more life.

Always, my mom was there, my brother was there, my sister was there. My dad was there. We took road trips; we ate chili; we watched tv; we dusted the knicknacks.

Eventually, it was our birthday again. Eventually, I turned sixteen.

All words–all possible apologies–fail me as I try to make amends for the hair on that sixteenth birthday. Chalk it up to 1983 and the exuberance of youth.

I blew out the candles. I opened gifts. I wished my dad a mutual happy, happy day.

Cake demolished, we carried on. Back to life. Back to studying and practicing and visiting. Always back to music.

Here, Dad is all tarted up for his role in The Magic Flute. Is there really a dinosaur-lizard creature in Mozart? I was too busy frizzing up the back of my hair to pay proper attention.

A few more years passed, and I went off to college, where I was surrounded by new friends, foregoing even silverware on my 19th birthday.

As ever, March 25th was followed by March 26th, which then spun back into studying and dancing and lolling.

At home, in Montana, the music continued.

At some point during college, I became enough of an adult that Dad and I could share a cake on our shared day. I’d started from him, gone off onto my own, and come back to rejoin him with more deliberation.

Of course, as children do, I then hopped back in my car and drove away. For Dad, there was gardening, music, tv. Life.

I graduated and began my own career. And then my grandma, born on March 24th in that sod dugout on the prairie, died.

I sat next to my dad at the memorial service and pressed my leg against his, absorbing the shudders of his body as he wept. Later, in both the hollowest and most meaningful of gestures, I put my hand on his knee.

Then I got in my car and drove away. He taught. Gardened. Sang. Observed.

As the seasons went ’round and ’round, my brother got married and became a father. I became an aunt. My dad became–most joyful of things!–a grandfather.

With a few more spins of Earth’s axis, I, too, married and had a child. My parents’ joy grew.

But then we all would get in the car and drive away. He would dig in the dirt, watch his shows, look for coupons. Always and ever, there was music.

Sometimes, he and my mom would get in the car and come to us. His thousand-watt smile never beamed more brightly than when we was with his grandchildren.

My father has four grandchildren, but he only ever met two of them. He was in his final decline in the hospital as I gave birth to Paco. Fifteen days after that emergency C-section, Dad died, alone, still hopeful of a recovery, his heart and lungs finally giving out after years of chronic ailment. Two months later, his fourth grandchild was born.

It’s his not knowing his grandchildren as they grow up that slices me most. Now, a decade later, they are, to a one, intelligent and creative and funny and poised. His death at age sixty-seven means his most amazing legacy will never know what they missed.

Now it’s March 25th again, and he would be seventy-seven. This is my tenth birthday without my father. I am not maudlin or overly-sentimental about his passing. His death means he was alive.

That he was alive means I’m alive

and that Girl can spend all day holed up in her room with a book

and Paco can ask to play baseball at dusk.

Birthdays are, of course, our way of marking time, of slowing down long enough to take stock, of noting where we are in the arc of our lives, of taking a guess as to how much more we might still have in front of us.

Dad and I won’t share a cake this year. We won’t wish each other “insider” birthday greetings. I won’t put my hand on his knee ever again, nor will he ever again slide into the driver’s seat, snap into his seat belt, and put me at the center of everything by asking, “Where do you want to go?”

I was his most-original birthday present.

He was my gift of a lifetime.

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birthdays friends define us Girl they cut the music program

The Kids Are on Spring Break This Week, Which Means I’ve Been Playing with Clay and Moon Sand and Building Towers out of Blocks and All Sorts of Other Things That Aren’t Blogging–Which Pretty Much Explains Why This Post Is Heavy on Pictures

 

This punkin’ right here had a sleepover birthday party last Friday night. As of this writing (the Thursday following the party), I’ve almost recovered.  I’ll also attribute my slow recovery to the fact that Groom was out of town for a couple of days after the party, and during his absence I took the kids to see Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and, well, Paco processes stimuli pretty deeply, so he was up four times that night “because I just keep seeing bad pictures in my head.”  I was seriously sympathetic, as nothing plants bad pictures in one’s head as effectively as a film about the horrors of middle school.  By 2 a.m., the night of the movie, Paco and I were laying in bed, clutching each other, whimpering sleepily to the universe, “No more mean kids.  Stop teasing us.  I’m sorry my bike is dumb, and my clothes aren’t cool.  I won’t ever try to sit by you at lunch again.  Why can’t we all be friends?”

At any rate, after a couple nights of getting four hours of sleep, and since I’m no Margaret Thatcher or Octomom (both avowed “just give me a couple hours of nod, and I’m ready to rule the kingdom” types), my All Kinds of Everything were a bit out of whack.

However, Punkin’ Girl’s sleepover party was worth the resultant foggy head.  Not only was it terrific fun for her and her friends, but the occasion of the party helped me put more time into a burgeoning friendship myself.

And honestly, once the School Years are over, doesn’t it become increasingly hard to make deep, lasting, meaningful friendships?  Sure, there’s the bar.  You know, where you meet people whose charms become translucent in the daylight when all beer has evaporated from the skull.  And I guess it’s possible to make friends at work, but, frankly, I recoil from that idea–simply because we share an employer doesn’t mean I don’t want to slap you for asserting that homeless people are on the streets by conscious choice, O Righteous Colleague.  Oh, and there is always the possiblity of befriending a neighbor, as has happened in my adult life, but the honest truth is that a conversation with the neighbor often starts with Her Nice Self admitting, “I’m pretty obsessive about doing laundry” to which my only rejoinder is, “Uh, I’m pretty obsessive about Philip Roth and the heroic work of genius that is Fun Home by Alison Bechdel.”  After that, we lapse into confused silence, her craving her fabric softener, me craving my bookies. 

Thus, when a new, adult girlfriendship comes galloping out of the mist, it’s a rare treat.  Over the last few months, this has been happening for me.  Her name is Kirsten, and she’s married to my Great Life Pal Virginia.  You can probably see already how much we have in common:  we both love lesbians.  Kirsten is one, and I am an admirer of many–and not only for their cleverness in finding a life that gives them double the wardrobe for half the cost.  I also admire that they have found a life that assures them of a tampon in every cupboard.

Anyhoodle, Virginia is 73, and Kirsten is 37, and their May/December relationship is beautiful.  I’ve known for 14 years that Virginia is one of my bosom besties, but it’s only recently that I’m getting to spend enough time with Kirsten to love her, too.  Girl’s sleepover party cemented it.

…because, a few months ago, when Girl was first begging to have seven of her closest friends sleep over for her birthday, I had to cover my eyes with cucumber slices and say, “If I can’t see you, I can’t hear you!”  Internally, I knew I could probably go up to four girls without losing sanity.  But seven

Thank you, no.

However, Kirsten overheard this conversation and commented, “A bunch of ten-year-old girls?  Sleeping over?  That is SOOOO up my alley.”

Kirsten works in a high school for a program that aims to keep teens off drugs and booze.  For her, a sleepover with a passle of ‘tweens is like putting training wheels back on the bike.

Hearing Kirsten’s comment, I turned to her and said, “If you come do the party, then, it’s a go.”

I. had. no. idea. what. we. were. getting. into.

In a good way.

Kirsten, em, has lots of ideas…like how it should be a lip smackers (think kid lip gloss) themed party, and how she’d make a pinata that looked like a tube of smackers, and how she could set up her Wii with a projector, and how fun it would be to make and laminate a stack of lip smacker-Bingo cards, and how, once Girl said she wanted to host her party at The Lip Smackers Hotel, Kirsten would put together complimentary shampoos and conditioners and facial soaps for each girl’s gift bag…

and so on.

Plus more.

Kirsten doesn’t live in our fair burg, so she drove to Duluth a few days before the party, which was good, because it gave her time to learn how to use fondant when icing cakes that are designed to look like round lip smacker tins (in various flavors!).  It also gave us time to eat out, go for walks, buy shoes, and share stories of life traumas.

Because Girl wanted to celebrate with her friends, I got to make a new one.

So here are a few shots of the party:

The event began with guests being asked to check in and sign the registry at the Lip Smackers Hotel.  Once each guest had been issued her room key (which Girl made weeks beforehand), she was invited to partake in some resort games in the lobby.

The girls, when they’ve come over in smaller packs at other times, have often brought their instruments.  To them, playing together is the height of fun.  It is at this juncture that I’d like to shake my fist at the sky and curse the Duluth School District, an entity which recently announced that it is cutting all “magnet” programs in the public schools, such as the music enrichment program at my kids’ school.  We got Girl on a waiting list for this school when she was 18 months old.  The fact that most of the music will be cut starting next year makes me triply glad we’re pulling our kids from the district and booking out of here for a year.  I’m not ready to think about what we’ll do upon our return, but it might involve shoving a viola bow up a superintendent’s heinie.

Spontaneous ensembles surfaced throughout the evening.  You should hear their “Theme from Star Wars.”

For Girl, there in the orange and white (did I forget to mention that each girl came dressed in a lip smacker flavor, and then everyone had to guess what type of num she was?  Girl was Orange Creme), playing instruments with friends was her dream gift.

Pinata time out back…moments after this photo was taken, the skies unleashed torrents of rain and Berry Berry Burst lip smackers.

Paco takes a whack at the pinata.  Kirsten made it out of two Quaker Oats containers duct-taped together. 

That right there explains why I like her, ja?

Paco is remarkably supportive during gift opening.

All of you scary stalker pree-vert Interwebs types need to NOT see the name on these cakes…but they’re just so fabulous, and I’m so bad at Photoshop, that I had to put up this unedited photo of them.  Isn’t fondant rockin’?

Here’s what I want to shout, “Look, Kirsten, how happy you made our Girl! You own a piece of her now!”

Kirsten was worried about managing to break through the protective cake shield that is fondant…but the slicing went easy as pie.  Er, cake.

Girl wanted to play a packing game during which a blindfolded packer has one minute to fill a suitcase as fully and neatly as possible.  We went through multiple heats and got startling insights into some characters.  Just a heads-up to the world:  there’s a ten-year-old named Kiana whom you should hire for any precision work you might ever have.  However, as her employer you might also have to pay a substantial amount towards her anti-anxiety medication, as well.  Fair warning.

And of course, what did the audience do in between heats of the packing game? They diddled out a little “French Folk Song.”

In fact–and I was about to type here that “they went on to diddle until 3:30 in the morning,” but realizing the various ways that phrase can be construed, I refrained–the crew of them didn’t go quiet until 3:30 a.m.

They were aiming for 6 a.m., but since two of them were being picked up at 7:30 in the morning to go play in a basketball game, we insisted on some sleep.

At 2 a.m., I started getting threatening. And tired. Really tired. The kind of tired that makes one wonder where she’ll find the assertiveness to rein in a flock of giggling 4th graders.

Where?

Ah, yes.

In the form of a new friend. Kirsten drew upon her theater experiences and, sitting right outside the girls’ bedroom door, acted The Enforcer. Using a deep, strong, scary teacher voice, she called out “GIRLS! YOU NEED TO QUIET DOWN NOW!” every few minutes. Eventually, after 3 a.m., when the whole thing was distintegrating, she gave them:

“KIANA. AMY. EMMA. I HAVE ANOTHER BEDROOM READY TO GO, AND IF YOU DON’T GO TO SLEEP NOW, I’M PULLING YOU OUT. DON’T MAKE ME PUT YOU IN A RELOCATION PROGRAM.”

With that, the place fell silent, the cadre of friends abashed enough to allow sleep to overtake them.

And with that, my new friend and I, laying on our bellies in the hallway, collapsed into giggles

worthy of 4th graders.

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