In the Still of the Night

I wrote this seven years ago. It’s on my mind again this week, as Allegra has left for ten days in Europe on a school trip. Every time I walk past her bedroom, my heart clutches. It’s dark in there. She’s not on her bed, listening to music. Her whiteboards of to-do lists are static. There are no carefully placed piles of clothes on the floor, one for each day that week.

It’s dark in there.
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Bedroom Border

It was 2:10 a.m.

As is often the case, I was up late. The day had been particularly fun, for — thanks to my aunt, who holds a yearly “Camp Grandma” at their lake home — we were kid free. My husband and I had ventured out that afternoon for coffee and pie, after which we enjoyed the rare experience of sitting in a movie theater. Later, we brought home Greek food and sat on the deck, eating gyros and spanikopita and drinking beers. To close out the day, we had a cuddle on the couch and watched The Colbert Report. At one point, we looked directly at each other. Two times during conversation, we completed full sentences.

During that day, we lived the fantasy of a long stretch of together time, just my husband and me, free of the clamor and interruptions of life with children. Since we were married only 4 ½ months before Allegra came along (so precocious was she — *cough cough* — that she only needed to gestate for 18 weeks!), during Camp Grandma we deliberately play out some of the time we didn’t have together before the onset of The Kid Years.

Beyond just wanting to get to know my husband (suspicion: I might like him), there is also the fact that, generally, getting my own self through a day is as much as I can handle. Adding small people into the mix shoves me to a place of overload where I’m chronically late, sometimes snappish, and frequently found holding Clue Junior, soccer cleats, and a dozen eggs, a look of befuddlement on my face. Indeed, I am the parent who waves jubilantly when her kids to go away for a while, allowing her the space and time to be prone, turn some pages, and fluff her hair. In the best possible way, time with my husband feels like being alone. With him, I can eat gyros and still manage to fluff my hair, and it doesn’t feel at all taxing.

So there I was during those days of Camp Grandma, relaxed and pipping and blissed out.

Then, at 2:10 a.m., after hours of reading Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn and being completely absorbed in a young emigrant woman’s feelings of loneliness in a new city, I finally stood up to honor my bladder’s kvetching.

As I stumbled through the hallway to the bathroom, my glance fell to the left, through the open door to the kids’ room, and suddenly, the rich contentment of that day fell away, leaving behind an unexpected ache.

That room. Usually a brightly-lit, tumbled, tousled visual cacophony of colors and textures, it startled me with its dark quietness. Empty. No shuffles, no classroom of Animal School laid out across the floor, no chatter, no thumps, no singing.

Frozen, I felt the emptiness more than saw it; without the kids in it, their room is a place of lapsed energy, a place without its people. Frozen, I felt the future more than the present; without the kids in it, that room will become an echo of previous times. Even after Allegra and Paco move out and launch themselves into active negotiation with the world, that room will always be the setting of so much of their everything. I will never walk into that room and not feel the impulse to give goodnight kisses, to pick up a slinky, to help find a glue stick. They will move on, but I’m not sure how my heart will.

Standing there in the hall, the wrench of anguish was startling.

A sliver of my heart shaved off and dropped onto the hardwood.

It’s one thing for me to feel exhausted and overwhelmed — to want the kids gone and then savor the vacation when it happens. Knowing they will be back shortly imbues the temporary quiet with liberation and celebration.

It will be quite another thing for them to be gone, permanently, of their own volition — because the world holds more for them than I do. Knowing they will be gone for the rest of their lives, with occasional popping-in over the holidays, creates in my crusty little heart an unexpected hollowness.

There will come a day when, instead of their following my every movement around the house, I will be the one tripping at their heels, wanting to carry their suitcases, make their favorite dinners, hear about their new friends. They will hold the power as I offer an adoration that seeks confirmation.

Fighting through melancholy there in the hall that night, I caught a whiff of my fifties, a decade when my kids will become adults, when I could end up spending many a 2:10 a.m. standing in the hallway outside empty rooms.

May I not be pathetic, as I offer to wipe their bottoms when they come home from college. May I not be pathetic, as I hold out Clue Junior and a slinky to them over the Thanksgiving turkey. May I not be pathetic, as I sleep in their empty beds at night, clutching a stuffed monkey to my chest. May I not be pathetic, as I try to carve my way into the edges of their new lives.

Standing in a darkened hallway in the middle of the night, clutching at my bladder, dabbing tears from my cheeks as I realized my children will leave me one day…

I was — just possibly — a little bit pathetic.

Briskly, I wiped my eyes, threw back my shoulders

and swept up the shard of my heart from the dusty floor.

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Dirty Ivory


Piano Border

As I run the wet paper towel back and forth, thin lines of dust — dark worms of motes and lint — twine into an abstract portrait of neglect.

By the time I get to Middle C, I have refolded the paper three times, burying the filth, wrapping my fingers in new inches of pristine fiber. After each octave, I refold, lazily hoping there is enough clean towel to get me to High C.

It’s been 11 weeks since I touched the piano; I can see my fingers’ absence in the dirt that I’m rubbing from white keys — up to black — down to white — up to black. Eighty-eight times the towel leaps a crack, heaves higher, drops lower, scours the terrain, plinking out an uneven, deliberate dirge of inattention.

A few minutes earlier, restlessly waiting for the next in a series of rain showers to blow over so that I could go for a walk, I’d plopped down on the piano bench. Put my hands on the keys. Felt the gilings of disuse.

There are a variety of books on the music rack, but the one on top is open to Beethoven’s “Für Elise,” that playful, flowing, mood-shifting bagatelle. In recent years, I’ve put countless hours into establishing a relationship with it. In recent months, however, I’ve put no hours at all into nurturing the connection between notation and my brain.

Even when I have been playing, I’m a slow and lurching child at the keyboard, hacking my way through the measures, taxing the patience of listeners with expectations.

After my weeks away, “Für Elise” is an upright, outright challenge. But I have a few minutes, and I’ve been missing the piano; as my shoulder has healed post-surgery, I’ve gradually inched back into daily activities — extending my hand to turn on the faucet, driving, washing dishes, scrubbing the top of my head with both hands in the shower, pulling off my shirt with two hands — and slowly added in hobbies that bring pleasure — cobbling together a jigsaw puzzle, playing frisbee in the yard with Paco, gardening, going to the gym. Yet I still haven’t gone near the piano.

My brain hasn’t had the space for it.

Sitting down on the piano bench signifies something. It means I’m feeling fine. It means I have surplus energy that wants channeling. It means my mind fancies a float away from the verbal, my ego is in the mood to giggle at my fingers’ misadventures, my spirit pirouettes whimsically, my spine hankers to represent with its best posture, my skin craves the tactile pleasure of rubbing against the smoothness of ivory. When I play the piano, I am reconnecting with my younger self, with the girl who, from ages 7-16, slid her way around practicing, who did well enough but never cared to push into her potential, who hated playing for others, who cried her way through recitals. At the piano, I am surrounded by my father’s echo, the faint reverberation of his elegant fingers striking a chord followed by a resonant “Ah-ah-ah-ah” —  the warm-up scales during private voice lessons floating from the living room through the slatted doors into the kitchen where I dug in the pantry, looking for a snack.

Dad Piano

As an adult at the piano, I am trilling my way through more than notes on the page.

Foreseeing decades of future diminishments through the lens of a painful, limited shoulder, I realize sitting down at the piano is meaningful. In that quick breath of a moment before I start to play, I am tense with the tenses: I am everything I used to be, everything I am, everything I will be.

I haven’t touched the piano in 11 weeks because I can’t be a shell of myself when I attempt “Für Elise.” If I am feeling wan, infirm, shadowy, the music will defeat me, and I’m one for whom music’s beauty is in the rise.

But then a rainstorm comes. I have a few minutes. I’ve been missing the piano.

And I’ve been feeling fine.

Pulling my clavicles together, positioning my elbows in front of my ribs, curling my knuckles, I scan the opening measures, realize the right hand will be a cinch: I play those notes in my head as I try to fall asleep. Preparing mentally for the left hand’s entrance, for handling more than one thing simultaneously, I examine the first three bass notes of the composition. An easy run. Starting with my left pinkie on a low A, I will roll upwards.

Spine ramrod, I begin. Five notes in, I hear Byron’s voice bark involuntarily in the kitchen. He’s talking to himself, has just exclaimed, “Oh, good!”

Later, he will tell me, “I was so glad to hear you play the piano. I’ve been waiting.”

In the moment, though, the kitchen exclamation doesn’t register. I’m trying to deal with the left hand’s entrance while keeping my right hand in motion.

I mess up.

Try it again.

Whoops.

Stupid bifocals. The notes look funny on the page. The keys aren’t where my hand expects them to be. Moving my gaze from page to keys is dizzying. Stupid bifocals. My glasses are stupid, but they are no excuse: I first went into bifocals the year I started playing piano, when I was seven.

Then. There. I’ve got it: the run of three easy notes. My fingers are clumsy, and a yell forms inside my skull when I recall that three easy notes, which weren’t easy at all, are only the beginning. As is always the case, once I start playing, once I engage with what’s in front of me, my heart accelerates.

It’s almost annoying that the first measure isn’t everything. Always, there’s more. The challenge keeps coming, flooding my synapses, snatching my breath — the notes flowing predictably, then unpredictably, taking me through repeats and new variations. I know this song intimately, but I’m so rusty it’s like I’m sight reading.

What’s coming out of the piano is terrible. Were he leaning back in one of the dining room chairs, sipping a cup of chai, dipping biscotti into its depths, marveling at the transformation wrought by his new cochlear implants, Beethoven would be hard pressed to recognize his composition.

What’s coming out of the piano is beautiful. No matter how leaden or inept, live music pouring out of an instrument revolutionizes the room. Textured, layered, raw, real, unpredictable, emotional — live music is tangible in a way that recorded never is. It affects us differently, materially, these notes being played by an actual person in an actual space. My terrible “Für Elise” enriches the air, smashes invisible tensions.

Without question, my terrible piano playing is gorgeous.

It’s significant.

It means I’m fine.

After a few pages of glitchy bumbling, I am overwhelmed. Exhausted. I’m fine, but with limits.

So I stop. I’ll be back soon.

But first: I need to wipe the dust off these keys.

If Beethoven sees this filth, he’ll throw a fit.

And my shoulder, even though it’s coming along, isn’t up to scrubbing splattered chai off the sideboard.

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Who’s There?

Hand KnockingThe knock on the door startled me.

No one had ever knocked on my door before.

Quickly, I wrapped up my phone conversation, telling my parents I had to go and would talk to them soon. Then I pushed back the dinged-up wooden chair I’d been sitting on – the metal glides shrieking as they slid across the bare linoleum – and tried to pull myself together.

Grabbing a washcloth and patting the tears off my cheeks, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. My face was blotchy, my eyes red. There was no quick fix for this appearance of misery.

Crying to my parents on the phone was not unusual during the summer of 1988. Crying to no one, lying on the lower bunk where a plastic-wrapped mattress crinkled beneath me, was also a frequent occurrence. I was renting a room in a fraternity house on the campus of Northwestern University, and my sadness was massively out of proportion to my circumstances.

In reality, I had it good. I was 21, healthy, about to enter my final year of college, working a summer job aimed at funneling my English major into that degree’s version of success. Drawing upon the connections of a college friend, I’d cruised into a position at a publishing house. Not only would I be getting an insider’s glimpse of the place where books were born, my resumé would be gaining a valuable boost.

As my vision of the summer came together, it thrummed with promise. I’d be doing interesting work updating travel guides; I’d have my pal Matt to hang with since he, too, had scored a position; I’d get the resident’s perspective of a famous urban center; I’d be seizing an opportunity that could transform my future.

Fortunately, I caught wind from a new co-worker who’d attended Northwestern, a junior editor named Sarah, that the empty rooms in fraternity and sorority houses could be rented during the summer months. All I really needed was a bed, a way to cook food, and some electricity for my tiny television set, so when a room at the Acacia fraternity was free for the taking, I dove.

When I reported my find to Sarah, she wrinkled her nose. In her faux East Coast Brahmin accent, she observed, “Acacia House is — hmmm — not one of the best fraternities. My fiancé was in Tau Delta Phi, and the girls in my sorority would never date anyone from Acacia. They’re kind of weird. Just keep to yourself there. Don’t buddy up with any of the guys.” I assured her there was no danger of my befriending any of the men from Acacia. Most of the rooms in the house were empty for the summer, with only a couple of the frat members hanging around the edges. “Good,” she said, patting my shoulder. “And if you have the chance to move to a different house this summer, do it. You definitely want to get out of Acacia. Yuck.”

Then, swiveling on her high heels, she turned back towards her cubicle. After a few steps, she tacked on a random afterthought. “Speaking of Tau Delts, I was telling my fiancé that a good measure of how well you’re doing is if your salary is equivalent to a thousand dollars for each year of your age. So: I’m 24. When I look at what I’m making here, that means I’m doing really well.”

She swiveled again and strode towards her work space. A second later, tugging down the puckering jacket of her suit, she halted and looked back. “Don’t you think so?” she wondered, surprisingly plaintive. “That I’m doing well?”

In many ways, Sarah presented a vision of my near-future. Like her, I could end up with a job in a publishing house, camouflaging my insecurities with an overlay of pencil skirts and pointy shoes. Pointing to a nameplate, a title, and a closet of button-down blouses, I could legitimize the money and time poured into college. Sarah was a reminder of everything I might become.

Witnessing her over-confident movements around the office, listening to her loud discussions about the value of a journalism degree and the importance of a strategic seating chart at a wedding reception, I wondered if I had it in me to become a Sarah.

I wondered if I even wanted to become a Sarah.

Although she was friendly to the newbies in the office, Sarah was irritating. Even more fundamentally, she made me sad.

Also depressing was the reality of updating travel guides. Eight hours a day, Matt and I sat in our cubicles and phoned the businesses listed in the previous year’s guide, quizzing each of them with the same list of questions: “Do you still take Visa? Discover? Mastercard? American Express? Do you still sell live bait?”

Walking out of the building at the end of the day felt like coming back to life. There was air that moved, natural light, people acting casual and real rather than Conspicuously Adult. After running a few errands, I would return to my empty room and watch Chuck Woolery host Love Connection.

****

To counteract the drudgery, I went out with a group of college friends. They were pals but not intimates, so during our evening of drinking, playing pool, and pawing through vinyl at a record store, I was determinedly my best self. It was thrilling, glittering, exhausting. At 2 a.m., I returned to my room and scrubbed the blurred mascara off my eyes. At the end of the hall, a door slammed.

****

One time, during a walk home from Walgreen’s, I spotted a crowd of protesters carrying signs. Chanting loudly, they were objecting to a theater’s showing of The Last Temptation of Christ. Inwardly debating the finer points of free speech, I returned to my spartan digs and set my new tube of toothpaste near the sink as I stared into the shadows and recalled, remotely, the invigorating energy of protest.

****

A different week, my parents came to visit. We ate out, explored the city, attended a concert. After their visit, waving at their retreating car, I felt my stomach growl. Grabbing my lone saucepan, I descended to the industrial kitchen in the basement. When the water hit a boil, I added half a bag of egg noodles and stood near the flame, breaking the silence by tapping a knife on the stainless steel counter top. Nine minutes later, mechanically, I walked to the double-door fridge, took out a bottle of Ranch dressing, and squeezed a few tablespoons onto the noodles. Upstairs, in my echoing room, I settled the bowl onto my lap and read the last few pages of Northanger Abbey while absent-mindedly lifting fork to mouth.

****

Midsummer, Matt and I took a weekend road trip to Kentucky to crash the home of a college friend. After long hours on the road spent gaping at the lush greenery between Chicago and Louisville, drinking too many beers and sleeping too few hours, I returned to Acacia House, whupped and drained. Tip-toeing as though someone might hear me, I stopped in the lounge to see if any mail had come. There was a statement from my bank, warning of overdraft. Burdened by bags, I carried the envelope in my teeth, worrying numbers in my head while digging for keys.

****

Every week, I went to the public library. I read all of Pearl S. Buck’s novels, all of Jane Austen, everything Wallace Stegner had written. I re-read Maude Hart Lovelace’s Betsey-Tacy-Tib series, a favorite of my youth. I wandered the stacks, seeking out layered, textured friends. Back at Acacia, I’d stack the books on the floor next to the metal bunk bed, building a protective tower between me and the desperate loneliness that saturated the floor and walls.

****

Frequently, when television and friends and visits and walks and warm food and stacks of books weren’t enough, I cried. I had thought all those things would be enough.

They weren’t. What was happening that summer was bigger than getting through the days intact. That summer was asking a question I hadn’t known I was posing, giving me an answer I was ill-equipped to process.

That summer was asking, “Is this what you want?”

More specifically, it pushed me to consider, “What if this is all there is?”

At the time, I didn’t hear the questions. But my gut felt the answers.

This was not what I wanted. This could not be all there was.

I didn’t want my nights to consist of loneliness in a bare, yawning room. I didn’t want my days to be packed with hours that dug a trench through me, like an adamant glacier. I didn’t want to use clothes and talk to cover an aching heart; I didn’t want to become a Sarah. I didn’t want to hang, too gratefully, on the occasional “events” that involved other people, only to crash into the depths of sadness when they were over. I didn’t want to avoid the mail because of the news it might contain. I didn’t want to use books as defense.

I wanted something Not This.

Unable to articulate even that much, I cried.

Then, one night, during a session of wailing to my parents, transferring my half-formed but fully felt anguish to them, there was a knock on my door.

After scrambling for composure, I opened it.

Standing in the hall was a well-tailored young man, his skin richly toned like the heavy oak door of the public library.

“Hi there,” he greeted me. “I just wanted to stop by – I’m in the room next door – and introduce myself. I’m Roger, a brother here at Acacia, and I was home most of the summer, but now I’m back for an internship before the semester starts.”

Haltingly, uneasy with the social niceties, I told him my name and why I was in Evanston.

Looking carefully into my eyes, Roger got to the point. “I just wanted to say that if you ever need anything, I’m here. I’m home each night around five, and so if you need anything, even to talk, you can just knock.”

Through the cinder block walls, he’d heard me crying.

He was being nice.

He was doing the right thing.

Dangling between awkwardness and gratitude, I thanked him and closed the door.

****

I never knocked.

However, after that night, some small thing inside of me shifted, and I was less chronically sad. Still, I was alone, and still the sound of a dropped fork echoed when it hit the linoleum, and still I relied on television and books to push back against the worst of it.

Yet it was different after that night.

Floating through the door during those few seconds with Roger had been a whiff of something I’d missed as I dumbly trudged from work to bunk bed: if I needed someone, someone was there.

At the end of the summer, when I returned to my final year of college, two revelations were fermenting:

What I wanted from life was Not That.

and

What I wanted from life was not only to surround myself with people like Roger but to be a Roger.

Now, almost thirty years later, I often unfold the example of his goodness, spreading it out before me, ironing the wrinkles flat with my pointer finger.

Certainly, when I channel Roger and willingly look someone’s crisis directly in the face, my reactions are more abstract than his. I type a message, rub a back, tilt my head sympathetically and murmur, “That must be incredibly hard for you.”

But inside my heart, in such moments of typing and massaging and tilting, I am replaying my memory’s reel of one hot summer night in 1988, when the sound of despair carried through cinder blocks, calling out for compassion.

I hear the knock.

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Preschool Pom Poms

Out of the cacophony of Facebook, good things can emerge. Tips, recommendations, friendships, support, connections, networking — all of these have come to me through Facebook. But my favorite Facebook moments happen when a thinking person uses the platform for storytelling. My friend Ellen is a master at maximizing the Facebook space for sharing vignettes and insights from her days. As someone who teaches yoga to children, she has endless material and inspiration. Below is one of her stories.

Every time I read her posts, I get to love her more.
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Today in preschool yoga we played “The Popcorn Game.” It basically involves me putting pom pom “kernels” in a pot, pretending to “pop” them, and then throwing them all over the room for the kids to pick up and put back in the pot.

Let me tell you, it is a thrill. Seriously. Most requested activity by far in every age group. The sentence I hear most frequently in class? “Are we playing the popcorn game today?” Some kids even peek in my bags, and yell out, to cheers, “SHE BROUGHT THE POM POMS!!” (Best $2.69 I ever spent!)

When I play it with big kids, they have to pick up the pom poms with their toes, no hands allowed.

But for preschoolers, it’s enough to run around without smashing into one another, to organize their bodies to gather the little fuzzies and get them back to the pot.

Today I took out the pot and the pom poms to the usual cheers.

Except for one little boy I’ll call Charlie. Charlie was sad and worried, remembering that last time, he “didn’t get any popcorn.”

It’s true. But it’s not because the other kids were grabby or hyper competitive. It’s because Charlie’s nervous system was so mesmerized, so overwhelmed by the mere visual WOW of seeing pink and green pom poms all over the room, all he could do was stand in the middle of the room, grinning with every muscle north of his toes. He. Was. In. Heaven.

Until all the popcorn was cleaned up and he hadn’t gotten a single pom pom. And then tears.

So today we had a pep talk before class. I walked everyone through the steps. Find a pom pom. Bend down. Pick up a pom pom. Bring it back to the pot. Repeat.

Charlie was still very worried. You could see the worry on his face and also in his sadly clenching and unclenching hands and toes.

The pom poms flew, and Charlie’s joy took over for a few seconds, dancing him up and off his mat and into the game. There he stood, pointing at the other kids, telling me in a very sad voice, “They are getting all the pom poms!”

“Charlie, sweetie!” I encouraged him. “Look down! There are pom poms right there, next to your feet! Get them!”

But his focus was on the other kids and on his lack of pom poms, and he had no extra brainspace to coordinate the next step.

“They have lots of pom poms, and I don’t have any.”

“Charlie! Bend your legs! Bend down! Touch the ground! THERE ARE LOTS OF POM POMS RIGHT THERE BY YOUR TOES!!” I coached him, in as gentle and patient a tone as I could muster.

Meanwhile, well-meaning, cheerful kids were closing in on his ankles, and…..GONE! Pom poms were all back in the pot.

Tears.

So we tried again.

And again.

And on the third try, with some help from me levitating a handful of pom poms halfway to Charlie’s hands, SUCCESS! Charlie put some pom poms in the pot!

VICTORY!

My takeaways:

1) The preschool nervous system is very much a work in progress, and some kids need LOTS of time to figure out what seem to us like the simplest of tasks. Kids need time and space and patience and for things to be broken down into the smallest steps.

2) Worry about failure can be so big that it consumes the resources we do have to see what’s in front of us, to take the next step, to see how close we are to success.

3) My next book will be entitled Who Moved My Pom Pom? I’ll have Charlie write the foreword.

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Seven Days

Day 1

In the space of 17 hours, my brain is packed with thoughts of race, discrimination, and the ambling drift of change. First, I hear the story behind a song Billie Holiday made famous,”Strange Fruit,” about the lynching of almost-three young black boys in Marion, Indiana, in 1930. After white citizens broke into the jail (the boys had been accused of murdering a white man and raping his girlfriend), two were hung immediately, but as the third boy, a 16-year-old named James Cameron, was being dragged to the tree to be killed, he pleaded for mercy — at which point someone in the crowd jumped onto the hood of a car and yelled, “He’s innocent; he didn’t do it.” The jarring sound of that voice saved Cameron’s life. He ended up serving four years as an accessory to murder even though the details of that event were never clear, ultimately being pardoned in 1993 by the governor of Indiana. Cameron died in 2006 at the age of 92, survived by a wife, three children, and a crew of grandchildren.

Some hours later, grading end-of-semester research papers, I read a student’s essay about the evolution of black women’s hairstyles — away from “trying to be white” relaxed looks into, nowadays, styles that actually work with hair that grows out instead of down; the essay is entitled “I Am Not My Hair,” and it is a firm, moving exploration of how significant the issue of hair is when it comes to acceptance of self and culture. From this paper, I learn about Navy Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Jessica Sims, a woman who wore her hair in tightly twisted locks pulled into a bun when she was in uniform. After nine years of wearing this style while in the military, she was told in 2014 to cut her hair or wear a wig. When she refused, her commanders processed her for separation for “serious misconduct.” It was in 2014 that the military adopted language that was later deemed “racially biased.” Between the passage of that language — which included prohibiting styles that were “unkempt and matted” (forbidding twists, dreadlocks and multiple braids/cornrows that were bigger than a quarter of an inch) — and its eventual retraction and revision some months later, an example was made of Sims. Her military career came to an end, and now the military countenances the hairstyle she was discharged for wearing.

An hour after grading that paper, I listen to the story of a Richmond, California, program that takes a revolutionary approach to street violence: once a year, the Office of Neighborhood Safety combs through both police records and on-the-ground observations and compiles the names of the 50 individuals in the city who are most likely to be shot or shoot someone. Almost invariably, the individuals who are flagged are African-American. Leaders of this program then approach those high-risk individuals and offer them an opportunity to re-direct their lives, if they agree to some terms. Essentially, the criminals attend meetings and receive a pay check for going straight. At the meetings, they are treated with respect, counseled about better options, and provided with strategies for avoiding the pitfalls of street life. They also receive anywhere from $300-$1,000 per month, depending on how successful they are at reaching their stated goals and following a “life map.” Absolutely, this program, aimed at interrupting the trajectory of birth>hardening>crime>prison/death, is controversial. Its framework is hyper-liberal. For me, I am willing to absorb the numbers, as reported in a Mother Jones article: “65 of the 68 ‘fellows’ enrolled in the program in the previous 47 months were still alive. One had survived a shooting and three had died. In 2007, when [the] program began, Richmond was America’s ninth most dangerous city, with 47 killings among its 106,000 residents. In 2013, it saw its lowest number of homicides in 33 years, and its homicide rate fell to 15 per 100,000.” Perhaps even more compelling is this summary from someone drafted into the program: “‘It’s just words, sometimes,’ says Eric Welch, a 25-year-old ONS fellow who was shot twice — the first time when he was 15 — before joining the program. ‘To me it ain’t nothing that I ain’t never heard before.’ But ONS kept after him, and eventually Welch realized the danger was real. ‘It was just like, “Okay, [they’re] saying this for a reason.”‘”**

Day 2

The second my foot hits the parking lot, a roll of thunder spreads across the clouds. It’s the hottest day of the year — with our neck of Northern Minnesota being the warmest spot in the nation — and I have spent most of it inside, grading research papers. Finally, late afternoon, I am ready to get sweaty on some nearby trails. But then the thunder. The torrential rain. Settling back into the car, I sit for 20 minutes, reading articles online, checking Facebook, texting Byron. He reports the storms will last a couple of hours. Giving up, I head to the nearby grocery store to pick up a few items. My favorite part of shopping is the unexpected buy: this time some Hawaiian Punch taffy. As I check out, the boy bagging my groceries stops, nearly says, “What ho?!” as he picks up the colorful plastic bag. “Wow. This looks so good. This would totally be an impulse buy for me,” he says. Yes, I assure him. Hawaiian Punch taffy had not been on my shopping list when I entered the store.

Day 3

Because an online student has taken a notion to yell at me about the grade she received on her final paper, I am not feeling social; despite this, I slap on some lipstick and earrings, and Byron and I head to a bread-and-cheese party. Our city is abustle with the Homegrown Music Festival, wherein musical groups perform in every restaurant, bar, and open space to be found. As a rule, we avoid this. But the party, this year, right now, today, we do not avoid. We love the hosts and have a hankering to see their cool, recently renovated downtown loft. As Frank, one of the hosts, gives us a tour, he starts with their shared office — a commodious, high-ceilinged space with eclectic art hung all over the walls. The room has a run-down, bohemian air; that slightly decayed vibe is seductive. Delightfully, long windows provide not only glorious natural light but also an endlessly fascinating view of the alley behind the building, a byway that is a beautiful crapshoot of a vista; one can expect to see a police car, a heroin addict, a runner, a skateboarder, or a lost college student wandering down the road between the buildings, skirting the eye-magnet of a metal door covered with graffiti that acts as a focal point for the officer worker. Byron and I have long played around with the idea of retiring to an urban loft, and this tour props that dream onto some beefy legs. Plus: I am moony about the idea of a shared office, wherein we each could have our own ten feet of desk backed by couches, surrounded by framed images and reminders of the world outside. By the end of the tour, I want to clasp my hands over my heart. Packing inspiration from the loft tour into a tissue-lined box labeled “Maybe Future,” I walk outside to where the eats are staged and pull a bottle of white wine out of a cooler filled with ice.

Graffitti Door

Day 4

Paco, Byron, and I drop Allegra at work and take ourselves to see the latest film in the Marvel franchise, Captain America: Civil War. I’ve had a couple nights of ragged sleep, so my mood is uneven. Two hours earlier, when I’d humped down the stairs craving a massive cup of coffee, my head hurt, my shoulder ached, and I spent some crabby time in front of the pantry door, snaking my right hand up the wood, trying to ease some of the stiffness and yap that had made sleep a touchy place. It was only when Byron announced, “I’m just really into Prom right now and want to talk about dresses” that I felt the first glimmer of hope the day might shape up.

Later, in the movie theater, my spirits perk even further when a 14-year-old girl, as fully 14 as she can be, plops down two seats away from me. I’m sitting in the dark, watching the trailers and trying to raise my right hand to the back of my head, further attempting to release some of the ache. As the 14-year-old settles in, though, all thoughts of shoulder and fatigue evaporate. For the next 2.5 hours, I watch both Avengers and seat neighbor with equal amusement. Sure, the teenage Spiderman provides lively enthusiasm, but he pales in comparison to the spectacle of the girl to my right. Removing her flip-flops, tugging down her mini-skirt, she treats several seats as a chaise longue — her feet on the seat next to me, her hip on the elevated flip-seat, her head on the armrest. Fully horizontal, more relaxed than if she’d been reclining in a warm tub of bubbles, she reaches periodically into a bag of candy, the crackle of wrappers louder than even the huge speakers in the Ultra-Screen stadium theater. Every 15 minutes or so, she abandons her recline, unfurls in a sort of  Twyla Tharp-inspired interpretive seat dance, turns my direction, and spends 30 seconds staring intently at my profile, not actually seeing me for me but, rather, assessing her audience. Then, satisfied I’m not going to steal her Starburst or jam my hand up her skirt, she melts back into the seats. Bare feet next to me. Hips on polyester seat cover. Head on armrest. She isn’t a fan of the Scarlet Witch or Iron Man. But she clearly is a huge fan of herself, this girl, and in a 14-year-old that qualifies as a superpower.

Day 5

A week ago, I returned to using My Fitness Pal to record every bite that enters my mouth. Six weeks of immobilization — even though I went for daily walks — has puffed me up right good. Every day last week, I weighed, measured, and logged my food; every day except one, I netted roughly 1500 calories of intake, once exercise was figured in (that is, I exercise so I can eat more — PLUS WINE). Every day, I ran 90-100 minutes and, later in the day, walked 30-45 minutes. Now, a week in to netting 1500 calories a day, thanks to doing 2-2.5 hours of cardio, I have lost A POUND. Yes, that is good. Still. A POUND. Is it any wonder I seethe when I read that pat advice to “Eat less; move more”? I eat five ounces of high-protein yogurt with three medium strawberries sliced into it for lunch each day, so you sure as hell can believe I would cackle evilly if I could do a Freaky Friday body swap with such holier-than-thou types. Yea, okay, Mr. “Eat Less; Move More,” take control of my corporeal shell for a month, and let’s see what you can do with this mess. I’m pretty sure our end-of-month debriefing will see you shamefacedly trotting out the words “genetics” and “metabolism” while begging for a return to your old body. Also: I can assure you that your old body has never had more fun than during these weeks when I took over. It doesn’t necessarily want you back, you unctuous know-it-all.

Day 6

I am starting to think I need a Lemonade intervention. I cannot stop listening to Beyonce’s angry, assertive album, can’t stop watching the movie — so many beautiful, rage-filled, muscular scenes. And the clothes. And the hair — what Beyonce is doing with her black woman’s hair in that movie is significant. Lemonade is the soundtrack to my end-of-semester grading. Juxtaposing a light trip down the scale with pissed-off sentiment, she sings “middle fingers up” as I open student documents. Today, I am grading final exams from the Modern World Literature class. They’ve had a week to work on take-home answers, not so much short-answer essay questions as long-answer essay questions. It is not unusual to receive 8, 10, 12, pages from a single student, especially from the smart, motivated crop of students I was lucky enough to score this semester. Also, it is noteworthy that at least 1/3 of the class uses the word “colored” when describing a black character in one of the stories; that is the word used within the story — which is set 60 years ago in South Africa — and many students internalize it as proper usage, peppering it throughout their responses. There is no end to teachable moments.

The final question on the exam is a softball, but it yields enthusiastic, important responses. In that final question, I ask students to reflect on the stories we read over 16 weeks and identify specific bits of cultural knowledge they gained from the readings. Basically, I’m asking them to identify and articulate what they have learned. In this era when liberal arts classes, literature courses in particular, are under attack for being irrelevant (“I’m going to be an auto technician/phlebotomist/web designer. This class is a waste of my time”), the responses to this final question assure me that there are few things more essential to the education of a fully rounded human being than the reading of literature.

Here are a few topics students identify as “new to me, thanks to this class”: the existence of detention camps; the tradition of foot binding in China; that Jewish people feel alienated during the Christmas season; that the U.S. is actually fairly progressive on GLBT rights compared to other nations; that women around the world lack equal rights; that there was a thing called Apartheid. One student writes, “I had no idea how difficult the Depression was for Americans.” Another student, referring to a story in which a teenage girl in India dares to smoke a cigarette in public, arrives at a profound personal revelation: “Reputation doesn’t define who I am, and I don’t have to please everyone.”

I have learned about many aspects to different cultures and how they affect an individual personally. This has not only opened my mind to the many practices and rituals of others, but also the struggles that they face. I believe that in understanding others, we must first learn about them. We cannot simply feel pain or understand their practice by simply looking at them, we have to learn how we relate as humans. Growing up in a small town, unaware of other cultures, races and views, I benefited greatly from these readings. I actually felt as if I was craving the chance to learn about these varying cultures, and seek a greater view. I find myself trying to educate others to see views from the other end, and finding compassion within ourselves to accept differing ways. This has not only profited my life right now, but I believe that it will further grow into understanding others, and wanting to learn about other cultures. In sum, this class not only furthered my knowledge about other cultures, but fueled my desire to learn even more. Sarah

I am grading. Beyonce’s voice taunts “boy, bye” while a voice inside my head pounds, “I want every auto technician to know about Apartheid. I want all the phlebotomists to know that foot binding perverted opportunity for thousands, millions, of women. I want every web designer to live in awareness of detention camps.”

Day 7

I grab my coffee and head to the living room. Eyeing the carpet, admiring the accumulation of lint and crumbs, I plop to the floor. It’s physical therapy time. Already, I’ve done my wax-on/wax-off exercises on the wall, pushing a folded towel in small circles both clock- and counterclockwise. Already, I’ve walked my fingers up the pantry door in the kitchen, trying to reach for the ceiling without letting my scapula do the work. Now it’s dowel time, hands-behind-the-head time, internal rotation time — and, as of the past few days, strengthening time. At my PT session earlier in the week, I was given the challenge of lifting a one-pound weight. Since I don’t have a one-pound weight at home, I lie on the living room floor, raising and lowering a can of corn, arcing it from my hips to a point above my face, above my head. It seems entirely probable that I might drop the can and break my glasses and nose.

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Inhaling, exhaling, arcing, I let my brain wander. A chuckle escapes my lips, which is better than pursing them tightly — the tendency when my shaking arm works the corn. The involuntary snort comes as I recall last night’s 2 a.m. reading. Thanks to a recommendation from my friend Tim, I have been reading the collected letters of Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being. Long a fan of O’Connor’s stories, I relish this chance to experience her non-authorial voice. She is so flipping funny. Every night, I laugh and laugh. She is wry, dead-on hilarious in her descriptions of the various farm families cycling through the land she and her mother live on outside Midgeville, Georgia, charmingly self-deprecating, appealingly confident about her talent. The letters range from the late 1940s to the early 1960s and reveal O’Connor’s stoicism about living with lupus and spending years on crutches. Admitting she primarily spends her hours reading and writing (when not tending to the peahens she raises), she notes the loss of physical ability has minimal impact on her days. If I break my nose with a can of corn, you can bet I’ll not be the slightest bit O’Connorish about it.

Moving my arm through the air, shaking, I snicker as I remember this passage: “…I have just sold the television rights to ‘The Life You Save May Not Be Your Own’ to what I understand is called the General Electric Playhouse. All I know about television is hearsay but somebody told me that this was a production conducted by Ronald Regan (?) [sic]. I don’t know if this means RR will be Mr. Shiftlet or not. A staggering thought. Mr. Shiftlet and the idiot daughter will no doubt go off in a Chrysler and live happily ever after. Anyway, on account of this, I am buying my mother a new refrigerator. While they make hash out of my story, she and me will make ice in the new refrigerator.”

Later, O’Connor writes to another friend: “…I have bought us a new refrigerator — the kind that spits the ice cubes at you, the trays shoot out and hit you in the stomach, and if you step on a certain button, the whole thing glides from the wall and knocks you down…”

Chuckling again at thoughts of a 1950s refrigerator entering a kitchen in rural Georgia, I let the can of corn rest on my hip.

That was 12 reps.

I’m done.


**The “Strange Fruit” and Richmond, California, stories came to me via the Radio Diaries podcast, a most excellent program

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The Creek Elves

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He doesn’t care that I’m running past him, earbuds in. From his three-foot height, perspective is a tricky thing.

Intending to slide by, I smile at the little boy.

As soon as his eyes meet mine, though, words fly through the gap in his top front teeth. A big boy at age six, he shouts: “I brwaught my sister to the creek to show her the creek, and we rode our bikes!”

Slowing to a molasses trot, I smile again — my heart genuinely feels the smile at the same time my public face, knowing it must be kind to children, makes the right move. “Hey, cool,” I reply, grinning towards his younger sister, all of four, who, gasping with excitement at the sight of her brother talking to a tall person, hikes her charming flowered sundress and holds up a single muddy hand, showing the tall person that she’s been busy.

“I this dirt water brudder.” Her lips move, the voice reaching me faintly over the podcast that pours into my ears.

Still, a four-year-old is waving her hand at me, so I wave back, slowing my movement to two inches per second. Part of my brain thinks, “Should I worry that a six and a four-year-old are by themselves at a creek?” while the other part reassures “Those noggins are still strapped into bike helmets that some bigger person helped clasp.”

As if he reads my fleeting consternation, the big brother in charge continues his information dump. Pointing, straight-armed, up the gravel road, he yells, “We live on Idlewild, and we came over there from Idlewild on our bikes, and there are two ways you can get to our house from here.”

My bladder is full; I consider asking him for specifics about main-floor plumbing.

“Two ways, huh?” I ask, still shuffling my feet, trying to convey that the runner lady has places to go. Yet, gad, an enthusiastic gap-toother is about to provide me with a map to the place where his Legos live. I surely do love Legos.

And I surely do love teaching kids lessons about not talking to strangers, which is exactly what they’ll learn when all their Legos disappear.

I pull an earbud out. All the better to hear him with.

“YETH, THERE ARE TWO WAYS TO GET TO OUR HOUSE ON IDLEWILD FROM HERE,” the creek host hollers. “YOU CAN GO UP THAT ROAD, OR YOU CAN…”

His arm remains outstretched, but he stops. This is hard. Two ways is hard.

“Okay, first you can either go up that road. Or you can –…” An invisible hand reaches up and scratches his head.

I am compelled to help Short Stuff out. “Can you maybe also get to Idlewild if you go on that road, right there?” I ask, pointing at the nearest street.

Attempting to win through volume, the brother corrects me. “NO. NOT THAT WAY. BUT THERE ARE TWO WAYS. ONE IS THAT ROAD. AND THE OTHER IS–…”

He stands, frozen. Yet the energy of adventure fuels him. “THERE ARE ACTUALLY THREE WAYS. IS WHAT I MEANT TO SAY. THERE ARE THREE WAYS. FIRST, YOU CAN GO ON THAT ROAD. AND THEN YOU CAN–… BUT THEN THERE’S A THIRD WAY, TOO, IF YOU GO OVER…”

In this election season, I am familiar with his impulse to cover confusion and ignorance with a flood of words. His parents, no doubt sipping vodka gimlets in deck chairs somewhere on Idlewild while their kids riddle their way home, must be CNN junkies.

The kid is flummoxed, but he persists, saying words about the third way. Street. Bikes. Go. Up. No. Down.

Behind him, his little sister twirls, admiring the flare of her skirt.

I love these kids. But a thin trickle of urine threatens my spandex. Inhaling deeply, I reach for closure. “So there are three ways home? You seem really sure of the first one, so when you head home, that would be the best one to take, right? When you have a couple of choices, but you’re unsure, it’s best to–”

The four-year-old interrupts me with a bellow learned from a gap-toothed master. “HE SAID THERE ARE THREE WAYS. THREE IS NOT A ‘COUPLE.’ TWO IS A ‘COUPLE.'”

These kids are going to be just fine.

Shrugging with defeat, I wave goodbye and turn towards home.

Wherever it is.

There are probably fifteen ways I could get there.

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Be Your Own Badass

I fear I am a one-note writer.

So many of my essays are expressions of gratitude — although sometimes I bury it deeply enough that readers simply think the piece was about eating pie (blueberry up my nose) or getting new shoes (don’t touch: MINE) or loving my kids (Have you met them? They will gaze silently, listen intently, disappear into a book, and two weeks later drop a devastatingly astute observation that reveals they got it.).

Often, I write from gratitude because it’s safe. No one will object to positivity and affirmation. No one will tell me I’m wrong or out of line or inappropriate if the point of a story is a happy glow capped by a heartfelt swoop and a wave of peace fingers.

When I skid into areas that are raw, challenging, anti-gratitudinal, people get uncomfortable. It’s the rare reader who seeks distress. Most folks object to a perspective that grates. So there is an erosion that happens: the writer edits her ideas before she ever edits the punctuation.

I write safe.

It chafes.

It’s okay if I point out my own foibles and tell stories in which I’m the dunce. However, the second others enter the narrative, they have rights, too. An uneasy tension between I’m telling my story and I’m telling their story crops up. From there, it gets murky and complicated. I’m just trying to write what’s in my head, and if my right to do that only extends to myself, then I’m hobbled.

Every time I sit down and stare at a blank screen, these are the things that are on my mind. Many simply leave others out of their writing: they crank out snappy anecdotes about the fungus thickening their toenails or make listicles of ways parents are actually toddlers. Others, and I admire their courage and ability, own their story and write all the things in their heads, consequences be damned.

There is also the cover of fiction. Elena Ferrante, an author who has deliberately chosen to remain private and unknown, has acknowledged that the only way she can tell her truths is behind the veil of fiction. “She writes with hard-won honesty about subjects that people don’t feel they can write about with their own identity,” says Megan O’Grady, one of the first American journalists to interview Ferrante, which she did via e-mail in 2014. “She writes about hating your mother or your child. She writes about betrayal and sex.” No one is completely sure who Elena Ferrante is, what she looks like, where she lives, and every time she asserts that writing should stand separate from the author, the public becomes more wild to pin down who she is — so they can better probe her fiction for the non-fiction behind it. Readers are desperate to correlate the fiction to reality.

No matter what, it’s risky stuff, the business of putting words to page.

It’s risky stuff, the business of feeling compelled, from a deep, pounding place, to put words to page and to know that most of the recipients of those words have never engaged in the blood-and-sweat process of writing their own stories. Unquestionably: I became a better, sharper, more appreciative and understanding reader once I started trying to figure out how to write.

Unquestionably, I have had personal moments of reckoning when readers have reacted to something I’ve written, moments in which it is revealed I’m an asshole. I have been an asshole; I am an asshole; I will be an asshole. What flummoxes many is this: I’m okay with being an asshole. When my assholery occurs, it’s not on purpose, necessarily. But I learn from the reactions; subsequent to the lesson, I hunker down even tighter. The reactions erode future content. I edit myself. But still: I am okay with being an asshole. At least it feels real, like I’m willing to caress something prickly.

All of this is what I’m thinking about as I run along Brighton Beach on the first truly warm day of the year. This is what I thought about the day before when I ran up Seven Bridges Road, blinded by sunlit diamonds dancing across the surface of Amity Creek. This is what I considered the day before that, running the streets of the Lakeside neighborhood, my musings skidding along the loose gravel lining the newly exposed sidewalks.

Recently out of an immobilizer after shoulder surgery, I’ve been easing back in to running. Some days, the arm swing results in ache and swelling; other days, it feels great. At first, I just walked. Then, eventually, I started trotting for a block or two. Now, wanting to grab hard at this phase of  “free” recovery — leaving behind those days of constant icing, help with showering, thanks when my kids snapped me into my seat belt, groans when I tipped from left to right in the night, frustration at trying to put a liner into a garbage can, struggles to pull up my pants, sighs at how hard it was to open a yogurt container, sobs at the sensation of my bones splintering as red-hot screwdrivers were driven into them — I am running and running and running, outpacing those fragile and tentative weeks.

To feel my feet moving, both arms swaying, is powerful, particularly as Spring hits the city. Sunshine makes my soul sit up straight; the water rushing over waterfalls dazzles me. I am propelling myself from darkness to light.

As I run, I listen to podcasts. My brain is pipping with voices floating into my skull and, always, with the voices that live permanently inside my head. I hear interviews, benefit from people explaining their work and lives, and, always, my thoughts veer towards the analytical. I think about people, their choices, their behaviors, their intersections with their communities. And, always, I have notes. Always, I have observations. I have probing questions. Always. It’s the downfall of analytical thinking: the brain tangles with endless angles.

Often, when I’m running and my brain has had a good perk, I take the ideas and pour them into an essay. Teetering on the line between extrovert and introvert, I need to express externally, but in selective ways. Writing cleans me vein-deep.

Except when my brain has been percolating on matters of raw honesty that would offend.

I can’t put such stuff into writing. I lack the courage, the cleverness, the ability to say all that I would say. It’s frustrating.

I can put such stuff into my husband’s ears. He is right for me that way. I can unleash with a torrent of “And why did he have to…? Plus, wouldn’t it make more sense if…? How is that the best…? Does she ever question…? Isn’t it weird that they…?” — and he, an analytical thinker himself, provides responses that couple emotional with intellectual without being defensive or reactive. He is not threatened by stripped-down perspicuity, something that can strike others as brutal.

Thus, the things I ponder the most deeply and with the most oomph float across oral turf, across the stovetop in a kitchen with a stool next to some spatulas, an ephemeral exchange with a controlled audience.

As well, they live inside my running head, a special space governed by rhythm and unconstrained whirls.

Every day, I am running.

Every day, I am trying to riddle out a way to write about all the things, not just the easy positives. I play around with scenarios of using a pseudonym, simply writing fiction and telling everyone they’re wrong when they claim to spot themselves, or going balls-out and alienating everyone I know. Then I laugh, only a little ruefully, at the appeal of that final option.

Every day, I am returning to myself after some months of struggle. In every way, I am working at increasing my mobility and range of motion.

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The sun makes the pine trees pop bright green, every needle distinct. The bright yellow of the sky illuminates the pebbles I carefully dodge because the single helpful thing the surgeon told me when I saw him a few weeks ago was “Just don’t fall.” The golden cast to the world energizes my cells.

As I hoof down the road, soaking up warmth and glory, I am ramming through frustrations. So many thoughts without a repository.

Left foot. Right foot. Left foot. Right foot.

The trees are a blur, the creek a reassuring burble. Finally, I am starting to feel strong and able again. Never will I be a fast runner; I’m not made for it. Yet I have been fortunate enough to get to a place in life where I don’t care how fast other people can run. All that matters is my own body, part of the landscape, witnessing the world from the intimate vantage of foot travel. It’s complete joy, this feeling of independence and control, and from my diaphragm a notion wells up: “I love being a badass for myself. I missed this.”

Left foot. Right foot. Left foot. Right foot. Arms swinging. The miles tick by.

I am so lucky. My body is working. My brain has bones, clutched in pointy claws, to gnaw on. The air is smiling.

Everything is a happy glow, a heartfelt swoop, a wave of peace fingers.

Just as readers would have it.

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Sloggin’ in the Rain

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I like to pretend that life is a musical wherein all the Best Moments are enhanced by atmospheric lighting and the promise of a standing ovation. For me, everything — from the making of pancakes to the folding of laundry — takes on a brighter sheen if it is accompanied by high kicks and jazz hands, all the better if someone emerges from the wings wearing crinolines or drops from the rafters strapped into a harness.

One autumn day in the Cappadocia region of Turkey, however, I was forced to concede that sometimes drama is overrated.

Three months into our whimsical sabbatical year of living abroad, my family had experienced stunning summer heat, but the change of seasons introduced us to a new genre of weather. That October, the stage had been draped with striking scenery: the skies were unrelentingly grey, with ominous clouds hanging overhead that unleashed into pounding sheets of rain which seeped under the door jam and soaked the threshold of the 400-year-old stone house we were renting. Contemplating this dreary backdrop, I was reluctant to explore new valleys and canyons around the village when I went out running, thinking that I’d rather venture into new landscape theaters on sunny, classically-autumn days and avoid the stark topography that smacked of Ibsen more than Gershwin.

Since the weather didn’t seem to be shifting, though, and my time in Cappadocia was ticking away, I decided to throw myself out there and break a leg.

Late in the afternoon, I headed towards the crumbling monastery outside of the village and navigated the warren of trails that zigzagged throughout the valley below. Humming, I took a left whenever the trail diverged. Eventually, I was beneath a panoramic overlook frequented by tour buses that disgorged French and Korean travelers in search of a photo op.

Soon, I realized the overlook tourists were noticing me far below them on the stage of the valley floor–a living, breathing part of the spectacle they’d been ogling, and I fought the impulse to belt out an echoing “Everything’s coming up roses and daffodils” à la Ethel Merman in hopes that my performance would be rewarded with a shower of Turkish lira, raining down from the appreciative audience.

At that moment, a long roll of thunder resonated across the valley, and the action began to rise. Looking up, I saw not stage lights but a black cloud moving with startling swiftness towards my mark. Just above the rapidly re-bussing tourists, the sky popped white with lightning.

There’d be showers raining down upon me all right, but it looked like my show had received the worst of reviews, and early cancellation was imminent.

Crikey. I was a half hour’s run from home, standing at the foot of a cliff somewhere in a confusing valley in the middle of Asia Minor, and the sky was roiling with noise and light.

I was shaking like an understudy who’d forgotten the lyrics.

Taking stock of the situation (dire), sorting through the options (limited), I felt panic dancing in my balcony. Before that moment, my greatest stressors had been adjusting to life in a dusty village, living next door to a donkey, learning to eat drink salted yogurt, and attempting to communicate without verbs. All of that seemed like ice cream at intermission, however, compared to the fast-moving blackness that hung over my solitary figure, threatening genuine danger.

Exposed and alone, I stifled a scream as a bolt of lightning burst from the clouds and connected with the dirt fifty feet away. Fear-driven clarity entered my mind. No one knew where I was. No one was coming to “save” me. No one and nothing on earth was going to fix this for me.

Quite unintentionally, I had been cast as the star of a one-woman show. Quickly, I decided that crouching down and balancing on the balls of my feet felt too passive, too much like allowing the scene to unfold rather than being an active player in it. Despite the cautionary voice in my head telling me to hunker down in the open until the worst had passed, I threw my shoulders back, inhaled from my diaphragm, and took charge of my fate.

Feigning confidence as lightning continued to stab down from the clouds, I ran well for the first few minutes. Even though my glasses were being pelted by raindrops, I could still find the trail. Minutes later, however, my vision blurred into nothingness. The raindrops hardened into stinging. My mood slid into alarm. My pace slowed. There wasn’t a jazz hand or high kick in sight.

A complete inability to see where I was going; a tragic sense of direction; clothes completely sopped; trails that had turned into rushing creeks; impulsive shrieking whenever lightning zapped around me; and a sky that had turned so dark that visibility was nil—all of these realities synergized into a single thought: “Keep moving.”

With less than an hour until dark, I hacked my way around dead-end trails and decided to believe that if I just kept trying, eventually I’d find my way back to something familiar.

However. The lightning was truly on top of me, and that created a danger bigger than dark. More than anything, I needed to find shelter.

In an irony so sharp it could have been scripted, I discovered that, in a region with thousands of abandoned pigeon alcoves, cave homes, lemon caves, and early Christian churches, I couldn’t find a single carved-out opening. If I could find the trail back to my starting point, it would take me only a few minutes to get to the ancient, crumbling monastery—an idea that roused my waning dramaturge and caused her to muse, “What a lark! Then you could tell people that you once sought shelter in a monastery!”

Early Christian monks didn’t know jack about signage, though.

As I kept running trail after trail, unable to find any overhang or refuge, I lapsed into a chant of, “One foot. Now the other. One foot. Now the other.”

Just as I convinced myself that dogged diligence would see me through, the Great Director in the Sky decided to kick up a frigid wind.

On the positive side, the onset of shivering meant being lost suddenly dropped much lower on my list of worries. Completely soaked and well into the second hour of running, I imagined my children introducing themselves to their future in-laws with a fraught summary of youthful tragedy: “My mother was killed by a freak intersection of lightning strike and hypothermia one day when she got lost in a wild valley in Turkey.”

Naturally, states of heightened dramatic tension always break, and it apparently wasn’t time for my grand finale just yet. The orchestra in my heart swelled as—trumpet fanfare!–the sky magically lightened, and the storm blew past, leaving behind only a gentle, steady rain.

I smeared my glasses “dry,” and after five more false starts, I finally happened upon the road leading towards the monastery. Soaked to the marrow, but with a song in my heart, I trotted the last fifteen minutes home, down the main street of the village. Each step squished loudly. My hair dripped rivulets down my torso. My pants refused to stay up, due to the weight of the water pulling them down. My shirt clung to my torso, providing show-stopping burlesque for onlookers accustomed to body-obscuring, layered clothing.

I’ve never before had a more rapt audience than I did on that long stretch from the monastery to the village square. At one point, near the taxi stand, I stopped and took a bow for three men who couldn’t believe the soggy apparition that had emerged from the raindrops. Had one of them not finally blinked, I would have been forced to burst into the chorus of “Sunrise, Sunset” to snap them out of their reverie.

By the time I made my way through the center of the village, the square was Standing Room Only. As had been the case for the previous two hours, I pointed my eyes to the ground and just kept moving…albeit with one hand holding up my sagging pants.

One foot. Then the other.

Nearing home, I considered the power generated from placing one foot in front of the other. Pushing back against fear, carrying on in the face of uncertainty, and moving forward blindly had brought me out of the storm; months before, these same abilities had given me the gumption to pack up my life and plunk it down 7,000 miles from home, in the midst of fairy chimneys, headscarves, and The Call to Prayer.

None of it had been easy. Much of it had been nerve wracking. All of it had been amazing.

A grin spread across my drenched face, and my free hand rose and pointed to the still-clearing sky. Fingers splayed wide, palm pulsing, I saluted the clouds with a triumphant jazz hand of joy.

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A Good Neighbor: Remembering Prince

I pull up to the high school — running late! — and park at the curb. It’s my first time driving since shoulder surgery, my first time behind the wheel in six weeks. I’m shaky.

As I put the car into Park, Allegra bursts through the doors of the school’s glass foyer and hustles to the car. Her face is impassive. Reaching across my body with my left hand, I engage the emergency brake. The car idling, I hop out and let the sixteen-year-old slide into the driver’s seat.

She buckles in, gives me a sideways glance to see if I need any help, and there, then, my question explodes: “Have you heard?

“Heard what? What do you mean?”

My face is red. I am sobbing. Again. I’ve been sobbing for an hour. I thought I could keep it together in public, but I can’t.

In front of the high school, my confused kid at the wheel, I melt down. Grabbing at my glasses, I set them on my lap while I wipe my eyes, cry some more, wipe again.

“Prince died. They just announced it an hour ago.” Saying the words sets me off once more. “He was only 57, and they don’t know what caused it, but they found him in Paisley Park, and…”

I dab at my face, give her a rueful grin, and say, “I’m a wreck. Obviously.”

Equal parts startled and shrugging “just another Thursday with Mom,” Allegra attempts to adjust to the news and my upset. Five minutes before, she’d been stashing books in her locker; she hadn’t realized that sometimes in life, you walk out a door and into someone else’s pain.

Rallying, my girl tells me, “I’m really sorry.”

I laugh a little while I’m crying, tell her I realize it’s weird for me to be so distraught, assure her that we can get going so she doesn’t miss her appointment.

For a quick beat, she is silent. Then she says it again. “I don’t know what else I can say, but I’m really sorry, Mom.”

I thank her, run my sleeve across my eyes, and the adult in the car adjusts her mirrors and pulls away from the curb. Six minutes later, the car is in a parking garage across from the orthodontist’s office. “Hey, kiddo? I’m just going to stay here in the car, okay? You know how to make your next appointment, and be sure you validate the ticket. I just can’t see people right now. Plus, I want to hear what they’re saying on The Current.”

For twenty minutes, I sit in the car, listening to the music that defined decades of my life, listening to grieving associates put words to the shocking loss of their idol, mentor, boss. As I frantically text with a slew of friends, my phone rings. I don’t recognize the number, but I answer it. It’s a particularly special college pal. Outside of a few emails exchanged each year, we’ve largely fallen out of touch.

But Prince died.

She had to call. It’s a short conversation, full of love and memory.

And then she’s off to a couple afternoon meetings, mopping at her eyes, and I’m sitting in a concrete parking garage, my brain a jumble of thoughts.

I remember the summer of 1984, when I was seventeen. At long last, Purple Rain had come to Billings, Montana. Giddily, four of us tittered in the dark theater — Prince! So hot! Seexxxxxxy! At one point during the movie during a particularly lusty solo during which Prince ground his axe into his crotch, I leaned over to my friends and stage whispered, with what passed for humor in that time and in that place, “I’d give anything to be that man’s guitar!”

I remember the dress my mom made me for a formal dance and how it HAD to be purple. With fancy sleeves and flourishes.

Family dress

I remember dancing at college, always dancing at college, to his songs, to covers of his songs, our sweaty bodies slamming into each other with abandon, clinking hips with my best buddies in the crowd, our arms raised to the ceiling.

I remember going to see The Jayhawks at the Fine Line in Minneapolis, and midway through the show, the energy in the room changed. Looking over my shoulder, digging my elbow into my pal Colleen’s rib cage, I gaped. There he was, at a table in the back of the room. Of course. He was always doing that — checking out the local scene, seeing what was happening in his city, scoping talent.

I remember dancing at GLAM SLAM, twirling under the lights, laughing with my friends as the room flickered red purple yellow. Then. A buzz. He was there. In the balcony. Watching the floor. Excited, joking yet almost self conscious, we hollered at each other over the driving beat: “WHAT IF HE WANTS US TO BE BACK-UP DANCERS?”

I remember a great regret: an evening of drinking at a Minneapolis bar, getting chatted up by a couple of fellas, and having one of them announce, “My dad is rich. He’s friends with Prince. I know Prince.” When we lost our minds and peppered him with questions, he finally said, “I can call my dad. We can go to Paisley Park tonight, if you want. I’ll have him send a car.” Dubious, guarded, wanting to give over to what felt like exaggerated claims, we watched him make a call. We hemmed. Hawed. Finally said, “Hey, how about a rain check?” Forever, I will bemoan my reluctance to get into a car with strangers.

I remember my husband saying that because he grew up a couple miles from Paisley Park, his family would hear music floating through their windows some nights, the notes soaring from parties and performances, the resonant glamour filtering into their workaday hours.

And that’s why I’m sitting in a parking garage, crying. The sponsor of many of my best times; the inspiration for thousands of my finest gyrations; the badass who refused to let his roots limit his reach; the source of my belief that magic wears boots; the genius who demonstrated it’s possible to be masculine and feminine, black and white, big and small, demanding and accepting, flirtatious and somber, shy and bold, controlled and generous; the artist who redefined self-definition and showed a Montana girl weighted with expectations, shoulds, and people-pleasing habits that it’s beautiful to live however the fuck you want — was gone.

Sitting in the car, digging through the glove box for a napkin, I also remembered something else, something more remote.

I was ten in 1977, and I just didn’t get it. Whenever I turned on the tv or looked at the newspaper — heck, whenever I walked into the produce section of the grocery store — there were all these people, crying and leaning on each other, blowing their noses. Some of them were in a state of hysteria; some of them were even making pilgrimages to a place called Graceland.

What the? So Elvis had died. I knew Elvis. He sang rock ‘n roll. He was famous for helping start it. Or something.

Whoa. Those old people were losing their minds. I mean, calm down already. He was just a singer, and they hadn’t even known him for real.

But now I get it: they had known him for real. Elvis did for my parents’ generation what Prince did for mine. That business of blowing the shutters off a battened-down house and making the unthinkable possible? Elvis did it, too, with his pompadour and swiveling hips. Three years after Elvis’ death, in 1980, a similar sort of collective outpouring happened when John Lennon was shot.

In each case, all those people leaning on each other, crying in public, telling stories about the man who’d changed their concept of the world, of possibility, of acceptable — all of them were comforting each other in the face of a very particular kind of grief: the sadness that rolls intimately through the individual heart yet is shared by millions.

We who loved Prince have been doing that this week. We’ve been sharing our grief together, publicly, in the process assuring ourselves we weren’t alone; we were part of a thrumming mass of love and adoration. So we share our stories about a man of greatness who, to the end, stayed connected to his community of origin. We come together to pay tribute to a complicated genius who was always, unquestionably, A Good Neighbor.

Later in the day on April 21st, after the orthodontist’s appointment, after school, after I’ve stopped crying and startling my teenager, I am given the greatest of gifts: a new Prince memory to treasure.

“Hey, Mom.” I hear my girl’s voice calling from her bedroom.

I’m hanging up some clothes, so I yip, “What?”

No answer.

“What is it, Leggy?” I try again, stuffing the hanger into the closet.

No answer. She always says everything best without using words.

So I do the thing called shutting up and listening.

And there it is. Spinning ’round on her turntable. He’s singing. He’s suggesting, “Let’s go crazy.” The track is full of all the vim and color and joy I ever hoped would pour into my kid’s ears.

Last fall, this same teenager had admitted, as we drove to a Taylor Swift concert, that she’d never really sat down and listened to the guy called Prince. On the spot, her cousin offered up her iPod. Driving towards Minneapolis, we listened to Purple Rain together, the car throbbing with guitar and falsetto.

When it was over, Allegra agreed. Yeah, that was good.

Some days later, I mentioned to my best friend, the same friend I elbowed in the ribs at the Fine Line when Prince slid into the room, that Leggy was getting into vinyl. That she’d recently heard Purple Rain. That she’d liked it. That it was fairly spendy to find a copy, even online.

True to form, this friend, this Colleen, said, “It would be one of the pleasures of my life if I could send that album to your girl.”

So, on that night when my heart is a fragile, vulnerable thing, the sixteen-year-old takes the album she received from her mother’s friend of thirty years, and she sets the needle into the groove.

“Hey, Mom.”

Then his voice.

And all the dots of my life connect in the most elegant circle, a closed loop with pulses of purple sparking in the middle.

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So Many Losers

It’s time to announce the winners of the book giveaway!

The winner of Girl Through Glass is: Linda Solstrand
The winner of Queen of the Night is: Jessica Rapisarda

I’ll be contacting each of you to get mailing information. Read in good health. Smear the pages as  you will. I recommend melted chocolate from cookie dough pops, but that’s personal preference.

As for the rest of y’all who threw your names into the ring but weren’t chosen, sorry you’re losers.

If it helps assuage your feelings of hurt at all, let me assure you: I am the original loser. Compared to my history of loserdom, you’re a g-damn winner.

See, my senior year of high school, a few months before I dropped out (you can read the story of that here: “Jesu, Joy of Jocelyn’s Retiring”), I was nominated to the royalty court for the Sweetheart Dance.

It wasn’t a nomination that resulted from a groundswell of support within the student body.

Rather, a few weeks before Valentine’s Day, the students in the National Honor Society met in the Latin teacher’s room. Our club had been tasked with selecting the nominees for Sweetheart Princess and Sweetheart Prince. Our votes would determine which of our classmates would get their names read over the PA system; which of our classmates would dress up fancy-like and walk around the gym at a special assembly; which of our classmates would be recognized the night of the Sweetheart Dance; which of our classmates might potentially be crowned and dance together in a spotlight, decked in velvety raiment; which of our classmates would be featured in the yearbook.

We’d been tasked with a mighty responsibility, indeed, we of the high GPAs and thick textbooks.

For all our smarts, it hadn’t occurred to any of us that we might nominate from within our ranks. Royalty was for the cheerleaders, majorettes, flags, and jocks. Royalty wasn’t for equation-solvers.

Yet our leader, the Latin teacher — a man who inspires me to this day, and not only because everything I understand about English grammar came from his class — looked around the room at the assembled nerds that morning and said, “Write three girls’ names and three boys’ names on the ballots in front of you. You may only write down names of members of the National Honor Society.”

WHAT?

For a full minute, I sat, absorbing the challenge. I’d been ready to fill in my ballot with the names of “popular” kids who had yet to be nominated for any other royalty court. Whaddya mean, nominate eggheads?

It was a radical notion, this idea that we — readers of Kafka! — could be royalty. It was exciting. It was scary. It was baffling.

Who to nominate? My gaze scanned the room. A few cheerleaders, majorettes, and flags dotted my vision, multi-talented types able to twirl, flip, and annotate. But a couple of them had been nominated for previous royalty courts already. Hmmmm.

What if I…what if I…what if I nominated my friends? Carefully, I considered my crew. Yea. Why not? Grinning, dazzled that the world had just become a place ripe with possibilities I hadn’t known how to imagine, I filled out the ballot with the names of my girls.

A few days later, the nominees were announced over the loudspeaker. Whoa, there was Char!! Oh gravy, and Amy, too! And, woo-hoo, Leigh! Hey, and Kim–such a nice girl!

Wait. WHUUT.

And me?

ME?

A wave of prickles, a full-body flush, started in my scalp and moved down to my toes. Had my life suddenly become one of those 1950s books, like the ones my mom kept on a shelf in the basement, about popular girls?

I was quickly disabused of that idea. Looking around the classroom as the names were announced, I saw annoyance, even disgust, on the faces of my classmates. I detected grumbles and heard one of the Honor Society cheerleaders apologizing to those around her, saying she hadn’t been given a choice, that she had to nominate losers.

Yea, that felt about right: to enjoy a nanosecond of elation before having it ground into a powder of embarrassment.

Fortunately, my friends and I went ahead and flowed with the feeling that being nominated was amazing. Already, at 17, I’d had years of fine tuning selective deafness. This time, I plugged my ears with the powder of elation-cum-embarrassment.

So we squealed. We made phone calls. We talked dresses. Our parents showed up in the gym to snap photos as we linked arms with the prince nominees and circled the gym to half-hearted applause. When the night of the dance arrived, we did hair and make-up together; we sipped from cans and glass bottles; we giggled crazily when we got to the high school.

And then the time came: the announcement of the Sweetheart Prince and Princess.

I knew it wouldn’t be me — not out of some false modesty. With all realism, I knew.

We nominees were corralled up the stairs of the gym, lined up along a balcony where a searchlight moved over our faces. When they announced the winners, Char and Jeff, the light froze on them, the winners.

In darkness, the rest of us gasped, yelled for Char, and made our way down the stairs to the floor of the gym, where we stood, watching Char and Jeff take their spotlight dance.

A few weeks later, the nominees reassembled at the studio of a photographer who would document for the yearbook our momentary rise out of the ranks.
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We were told to wear sweaters. Always sassy, perhaps hoping it would camouflage how unforgiving a fitted crew neck can be on those who are hearty of torso, I accessorized with a necklace borrowed from the jewelry bag my mom kept in her top dresser drawer. Another accessory I could have used was a smile that reached my eyes.

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Posing with the prince nominees was uncomfortable. “Squeeze closer,” the photographer urged, shoving our shoulders into the guys’ chests. Why, I wonder, didn’t the photographer note, “Hey, your collared shirt is bunching underneath your sweater. Also, don’t wear that sweater. You’re always going to benefit from flowy. And can we talk bangs for just a quick sec?”

The winners got their own page in the yearbook. We losers were cast as Everyone Not Paul Lynde on Hollywood Squares. I’ll take Sandy Duncan for the win, Peter.

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It’s one thing to be a loser princess. For me to have pretended for a solid week that “princess” could possibly suit was laughable. However, “loser princess” was a title I could sport with a hoot.

Then, a few months later, the yearbooks came out.

At that point, I learned a whole new facet of loserdom: being a loser who gets the wrong name plastered on top of her ignominy. Through human error or having some wisenheimer in charge of design, the yearbook tagged me as Kim Burris, my partner Tim as Cal Kunkel.

I still feel like I owe Kim an apology.

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I lucked out with my partner, a light-hearted guy with whom I was used to goofing around. Tim and I made light of it, calling each other Kim and Cal as the school year reached its close. Faintly, it occurred to me that humor neutralizes loser.

But then I’d look at that photo again, and I’d see that soft-faced, Aqua-netted baby wistfully playing princess, and it also occurred to me that eye-liner didn’t make me petite or cute or desirable.

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Getting a smile into those loser eyes was going to take some time. I’d need a change of venue — a trip to Oz. I’d need new peers — people who led with irony. I’d need road trips — in the car alone, finding my own way. I’d need to dance ’til 4 a.m. —  limping home, shoes in hand. I’d need to have my heart held tightly enough that it could be broken. I’d need to walk outside the circle of the gym floor before I could see how restrictive four walls could be. I’d need a few decades of casting about. Flailing. Landing. Unfolding. Navigating the extended arc of life and realizing “winning” is in the end game.

IyesFace

I look at that loser princess now, and I want to send a whispered message back through time.

“It’s going to be all right. Aww, honey, it’s going to be more than all right. For now, you have to stand in the dark, gasping with excitement for all the winners who aren’t you, but eventually you’ll find your spotlight.”

Iyes

I would like to assure those eyes, their flatness telegraphing “Help me,” that one day they will sparkle with droplets from gorgeous snowstorms, that one day they will laugh at kids and loves, that one day they will widen at the realization that the high school definition of “winner” is false, that one day they will fill with tears of astonishment at the compassion of others, that one day they will beam a smile at the cheerleaders, majorettes, flags, jocks, nerds, stoners, geeks, dorks, and princesses

because they are just so happy to see people doing their best.

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Not my mother’s necklace

So, yea, all you losers who didn’t score a book during the giveaway, just remember: it could be worse. At least you aren’t someone who was mandatorily nominated. At least you look good in your sweaters. At least your shoulder isn’t shoved into the chest of the guy who sits next to you in English class. At least people call you by your actual name. At least you’re winners in the ways that truly matter.

Hugs and love to all you losers,

Kim Burris

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