Jello for Gingers

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Twenty-five years ago I had a baby.

I was the first within my friend-circle to have a child, and I had had a miserable, job-losing pregnancy (Yes, that’s a real thing that happens to lots of women, not just me), and the night before my baby was born I went out into our tiny, little galley kitchen around 3 am to whip up some green jello.

But there, amid the hushy gloom, I failed to see the dishwasher door left ajar, covering nearly the entire kitchen floor. So I crashed down upon it, my hands thwacking onto the ground, my huge belly squashed tight against the linoleum, my legs straight out behind me, straddling the dishwasher door. If you happened upon the scene, you might think I was planking in some bad-ass, nine-months’ pregnant sort of way.

Yet I was not planking, I merely wanted jello. As such I lay there like a flailing fish, shouting for help, awaiting a rescue that never came.  Eventually I shimmied forward in the most inelegant of ways, somehow pulling myself to standing, deep-breathing there at the kitchen sink.  And in the silver light of dawn, as the sun made yet another optimistic go of it, I silently downed the whole bowl full of globby, gelatinous goo, blithely unaware what the new day might bring.

Eighteen hours later, there lay Jacob.

For no reason that I could ever discern my baby cried non-stop for four months straight. He peeled the skin off hot dogs before he’d eat them. He left his shoes behind at the start of a multi-state car trip, spending the remaining days and weeks barefoot in the backseat, busily drawing comics for his brother’s and sisters’ perusal, witty little tales of two overweight dragons which pepper my dreams to this day.

Jacob’s all grown up now, no longer needing me to feed him jello or worry about his shoes. He’s out and about in the world, a fine, fiery-maned man, comfortable in heels or heelies, both, devouring Sushi, singing his heart out in karaoke bars, footing his own bills. 

Yet twenty-five years ago, I myself was a mere twenty-five year old new mom. One determined that her little boy, her first baby, would see and do everything the world had to offer, exactly as the parenting books said he should and could.

But Jacob wouldn’t crawl. His first word was ‘shit’. Still, I carried forth, determined to make jello in the dark come hell or high water. Patiently and persistently I showed him the ‘correct’ way to grow and thrive, meet all those sticky standards society arbitrarily adopts then sets to stone. For many months I crawled around the wooden floors of our house there in Massachusetts, maneuvering day and night on my hands and knees so that Jacob could see just how it was done.

Friends came to visit, audibly laughing as I inched along in front of them. “What on Earth?” they’d exclaim. “What are you doing?”

“I want him to crawl. He needs to crawl. He should be crawling by now. I’m showing him how!” I’d say all this from the floor, completely unaware of my own folly.

Can you see the callouses on my knees?

Truly, I have done a strange job of mothering. I have fallen down on the job most every day, starting on that very first morning, twenty-five years ago today.

Yet somehow, miraculously, Jacob towers over me, upright and aloft despite never crawling even a scooch.

Manual, schmanual!” I say.

“Shit!” he replies, smiling. 

Here’s to you, Jacob –

and another silvery morn, another hearty go at it, whatever the day may bring! 

Happy Birthday!

Love,

Mom

 

 

 

 

Pissy

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When one of my sons was aged three or four he began waking in the night, shrieking and shaking from something we dubbed ‘night terrors’.

These seemed much more than just bad dreams. A shrill, blood-curling scream would waken me, breathless, night after night. Rushing to his bedside, I’d find my boy upright, gasping, shivering from head to toe. Often he was covered in sweat. Usually his child-sized finger jabbed the night air, pointing towards something lurking there in the darkness, some unknown horror that defied words or even shapes in the light of day.

No matter what I said to rouse him from this paralysis, my boy remained rigid, shivering, sometimes repeating one or two words, perhaps a phrase over and over. “It’s right there!” he’d shriek hysterically. When I’d press for more details he’d go cold. Never was he able to articulate what exactly he saw, nor how or why this phantom had appeared.

These night terrors happened every few nights for several years, and it was exhausting for us both.

After the first few months of the same scenario happening over and over, I discovered that if I shook my boy awake, gently, he’d eventually stop screaming. Next, he’d begin to cry. This meant he was now awake enough for me to drag him from his bed, lead him by the hand to the bathroom, force down his pajamas and instruct him to pee, after which I’d lead him sleepily back to bed.

Gradually, over time, I became sort of immune to this routine.

Until one night, maybe a year or two into these night terrors, when I led my boy to the bathroom, pulled down his long johns, and saw that even though he was still half asleep and crying, he had a stiff, little woody, so that his penis pointed straight up and out instead of down.

Not having much experience with this albeit normal phenomenon myself, I didn’t think too much about it. I certainly didn’t stand there and contemplate the what if’s. All I knew is that I didn’t want to touch it; normally I wouldn’t hesitate to put my hand down when he started to pee, to direct the urine into the toilet and not all over the seat or floor, say.

But this night I decided to leave things alone. Instead I merely instructed him sternly to pee, over top his crying and trembling. And as I waited for him to start, I leaned back against the shut door, closing my eyes. I felt comatose with exhaustion, fed up with the whole ordeal.

Then, surprisingly, I felt rainfall. Heard it, too. I opened my eyes to discover pee splattering everywhere in our tiny, L-shaped bathroom. My boys’ erect, little penis was shooting urine straight onto the back toilet wall and up overhead onto the ceiling as he wavered to and fro. The three tightly enclosed walls surrounding the toilet created a sort of ricochet chamber, so that the urine shot up, bounced sideways from one wall to the other, flew clear across to the bathroom sink, even trickled down onto my head.

“Stop! Stop!” I screamed, shoving my hand onto his penis in an effort to aim the urine stream down. No use. Pee merely catapulted straight off the backseat of the toilet, right back into my own boys’ face. Mine, too.

Now we both screamed, and my little boy, in great confusion at getting hit straight in the face with pee at 3am, turned clear around towards me, even as urine continued to spray forth from that mighty, little hose of his, arcing around our bathroom with a defiant swish not unlike a Palm Springs sprinkler head.

I find it almost incredulous how long male humans can continuously pee, and even a five-year-old is no exception. That night our tiny, little bathroom just rained urine. It was a pee-apocolypse; a whizz-blast unlike any I’ve seen before or since.

After the final liquid drop, I knelt and wordlessly removed my little boys’ soaked clothes. I neither reprimanded him nor ran away. Instead I silently fetched clean towels from the downstairs bathroom; grabbed an entire Costco-sized box of wet wipes. I scrubbed him up and down, and all around, while he stood in our carpeted hallway blubbering, swaying back and forth with true tiredness or horror, who knows?

At long last I had his hair wiped clean; his skinny little grasshopper legs tucked inside soft, warm pjs.  Silently I eased him into bed, then went to survey the damage.

I stood there, in the dark, speechless. I ripped off my nightgown. Naked, I surveyed the urine stalactites dripping from the ceiling; the floor puddled with body fluids. I stared at the walls covered in pee, studied the sink faucets sprinkled with tinkle-spray, all while imagining climbing straight into the car to drive far, far away.

Yet I did not flee that night’s terror. Instead I scrubbed the bathroom – walls, floors, sink handles and all. I shoved soaked, reeking linens into the laundry, starting my first load of the day at 4am. I showered. I may or may not have drunk a glass of wine in one, big gulp.

Then I returned to my still darkened bedroom where I ruefully, almost violently, eyed my husband, peacefully snoring, completely unaware of absolutely everything.

Gently I lowered myself down, not to sleep, but to contemplate my own lurking fiends: Could I make it even one more day without running away?

*******************************************************************

Surprise, surprise, I’ve yet to flee. I’m still here, still pissy.

Today I taught a class full of twenty boys and four girls. No matter what I said, the boys seemed bored, talkative, jumpy, combustible.

I thought about running away. I daydreamed about getting up, going to the bathroom, changing my clothes, walking out the door, never coming back.

Instead I begged those boys to quiet down, stop their screaming.

“WHO keeps on talking?” I demanded, my eyes afire with exasperation.

A boy sitting in the front desk smirked at me. “You do!” he exclaimed. “YOU keep on talking!”

And in that very moment it was as if I was five years old, being shook awake.

“Kristine, Kristine, wake up! This is all just a dream. A scary, crazy dream.”

But it’s not a dream. It’s a new day. Another dollar. Clean clothes, some wet wipes, a bit of wine, and we’ll try again tomorrow.

 

 

 

 

The White Quilt

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“The snow doesn’t give a soft white damn whom it touches.”  – E. E. Cummings

Often it is hard for me to set the daily minutiae of my life down into print. So very many things have already been put to paper, what can I possibly add that’s worth the weight?

(A podgy little mistress,
both maladroit and moody,
sat visibly cocooned in comfort,
there upon her booty…)

On days like today, even a first word, an initial sentence, feel impossible. My mind freezes, still and cold, mirroring the world outside.

I wander among the trees, pause beneath the gale, frozen with indecision. Is any of this important? After all, the trees bear their freshly added weight heroically, silently, why shouldn’t I?

 

Yet the animals, too, seem mute with indecision. Everything looks different on this day, for us all. Note the dog and deer here – they are completely blinded to each other’s presence. They stand impossibly near one another, naive to the mighty scene in which they roam.

As I walk our woods, snow tickles my cheeks, light as feathers. The blizzard swirls, off and on, on and off.  I wrap myself in blankets, nestled inside, molded within my pink-bottomed chair, staring out towards the trees. Curtains of icy pearls cascade from the heavens, yet when I step outside to grab one iridescent prism, feel its weight, tis nothing there, it’s gone.

Two weeks ago Damon and I went whisking into Seattle for a lunch date, visiting old friends, drinking new drinks, feeling both smiley and happy. Then Katriel called. She was ill at school, burning with fever, please come soon, she begged.

We fetched our girl and once home I went inside to tend her, bringing ice packs, ibuprofin, kleenex, gatorade.

Damon went outside to care for the barn animals. In quick order he returned, slamming the front door harshly as he came inside.

“What’s wrong?” I yelled.

I knew something was wrong. Damon never slams a door. Not ever. He shuts doors with a purposeful, painful quiet when he’s mad; an eager tug when he’s happy.

“Huck’s dead,” he called.

“What?” I ran into the hall. I looked at him and knew it was true.

Damon explained how he’d found Huck as soon as he’d opened the barn doors, bent awkwardly, painfully over the half wall, cold and strangled, his tooth still bound by the baling string it had caught on as he nibbled fresh grass over top the inside half wall.

“I’ve cut him loose and pulled him to the far end of the pasture,” Damon said. “But now I have to get in the car and leave for my gig. We’ll bury him tomorrow.”

“What about coyotes?” I wailed. “Raccoons? That mountain lion we saw down by the creek? I’m afraid animals will come and ravage him in the night!”

“They might. But I’ve put a tarp over him.” Damon pushed the hair off his forehead tiredly. He seemed shook. “That’s the circle of life, Kristine. We’re part of it. Huck is, too. There’s nothing we can do about this now. It’s getting dark and I have to go.”

So Damon drove away, to play his horn, and I went up to the bedroom, to stare out the window at my sweet Huckleberry Ben, now cold and lifeless under an ugly, plastic tarp. The sky became peerless while my mind whirled.

Then I knew.

The night before, after work, when I should have been out feeding the animals, I wasn’t. Damon was gone at yet another gig, Juliet was at Crew, Katriel was sick in bed, and I, well, I was bouncing around in my bedroom, sweating to ‘Bollywood Cardio Blast, Dance Your Way to Destiny‘. It was my first time attempting an exercise video in years and I had the volume way up, gyrating my hips while clinging imaginary finger cymbals with zeal.

But at one point during this Bollywood Blast, I heard something – shouts, muffled screams, something. I paused belly dancing long enough to call my sister, check that she and her kids were OK. Yes, she said, only the usual routine over here. I hung up and briefly listened for the sound again but heard nothing.

So back to Bollywood I went.

Now, in the icy stillness, I grasped that it had not been my sister making lots of noise far away. It had been Huckleberry Ben, strangling to death within our pink barn. 

I agonized. Why hadn’t I fed the animals, not even checked on them once? Why did it not register that one of them could be making that noise?

I thought the alpacas were fine to go one day without food – after all, the previous day we’d hosted a birthday party, wherein all the animals were fed excessively by gaggles of merry children.

Obviously Huck had been out there while I belly-danced, crying out, desperate for air, stuck with his head caught…maybe all night, perhaps longer. I ached, imagining him suffering out there while I danced like a loon, mere yards away.

“That was the first and only time I worked out this year!” I lamented angrily, pouring gin straight out of the bottle. “Why, oh why did I actually work out?”

The next morning, at dawn, Elijah appeared to shovel a grave. Our boy can dig like no other, and by afternoon he had lowered Huck gently down into his earthen bed. Once the last shovel full of dirt covered the mound, Elijah hopped back on the bus to return to college in time for his evening classes. 

I felt extremely grateful to him. Damon was gone yet again, Katriel was writhing with fever, and now Juliet was sick at home, burning up and barfing, too. None of us were in good enough shape to dig a grave in such frosted winter soil.

Saturday it began to snow. There were still left-over balloons from the birthday party the previous weekend, which the neighbor kids trailed as they marched out to visit Huck’s fresh grave. It looked like a scene straight from the 100 Acre-Woods – Pooh Bear and friends with the little orange balloon.

My tears fell like snow, coming and going, wetting my lashes, turning the whole world blue.

That weekend Katriel’s flu morphed into unabated bronchial spasms. After taking our miserable girl to urgent care, we sank into the hot tub to try to recover our morale. In the twilight, Damon appeared oddly green and pallid. I told him he, too, looked ill. Maybe we all did, after our terrible week, I joked. He shrugged and laughed, the snow melting tenderly down his face as well.

The next morning Damon awoke to tell me he was ill. Into urgent care he crept, where by nightfall they’d found a kidney stone, still lodged in his ureter tube.

That day and the next and the next, school was canceled. My girls rose from their sick beds at odd times to wander gingerly outside. Damon worked from home with his pain killers and medicine. My sister came over with her dog, Thimble, and we all milled cautiously about, wondrous with our newfound, visible fragility of health; the instantaneous freezing of daily happenings. 

Then Thimble, the happiest of all of us in so much snow, bolted away. Unceremoniously she snatched one of our chickens up into her mouth. With absolute glee this enormous Bernese Mountain/Pyrenees dog scampered over the snowfields at top speed, careening across ice patches, over logs, between trees, all while poor Bixley hung upside down in her mouth, gurgling the most sickening, bubbly sound of despair.

We humans screamed hysterically for Thimble to let Bixley go. “Drop her!” we commanded. Our shrieks only cheered Thimble onward. She leapt across our frozen pond, practically ice skating from one end to the other, Bixley gasping in her mouth, feathers flying everywhere.

At last Thimble approached the fence, thereby forcing a slow down. Now Bixley fell from Thimble’s mouth, landing head first in the deep snow. Sensationally, she flipped over onto her stomach like a hot pancake, then popped up, running straight into the chicken coop frantic and fable-ish as the still warm Gingerbread boy of lore.

I stood frozen in the snow, agape. Thimble was duly apprehended by my tearful niece, then led home in shame, while I nervously approached the coop, fearful of what I’d find.

Miraculously, Bixley was alive. A true survivor, she somehow stood, upright and breathing. Traumatized, she cowered in the farthest corner next to Pickles, the two lone chickens still alive out of the many, many we’ve had over the past three years. 

There’s no logical explanation for why a tiny chicken snatched by a dog such as Thimble should live to lay another egg, just as there’s no rationale to explain why Huck had such rotten luck with a fastened piece of baling string.

It’s simply the circle of life. The damn cruel circle of life.

Some live to see another day, and some do not.

No explanations bring solace.

No assumptions hold water.

Today, it snows.

Tomorrow, perhaps, the sun. 

“I wonder if the snow loves the trees and fields, that it kisses them so gently? And then it covers them up snug, you know, with a white quilt; and perhaps it says, “Go to sleep, darling, till the summer comes again.” – Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass 

 

 

 

“Are You Crying?”

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“Can you do it better?”
“Yeah, she’s creepy.”

“Ugh, this bitch again?”
“She scares me!”

“Mrs. Crack? Mrs. Crack?”
“Are you crying?”

********************************************************************************

I no longer sleep for more than three or four hours at a time. My hands swell, my palms turn blue. I’ve gone off bananas.

(I used to love bananas)

My hips throb, the skin beneath my underwear looks cross-hatched and puckered like a honey-baked ham bursting beneath it’s netted bondage. “I need bigger underwear.” I scold myself silently. “Granny-Pants, methinks.”

Sigh.

My hair has grayed. My chin’s been hacked, tampered with, duplicated in some twisted, Russian nesting doll scheme. My vision blurs while tears pool in my eyes.

“Are you crying, Mrs. Crack?” the littlest students wonder aloud.

“No, I’m dying.” I think ruefully.

Instead I reassure them. “I’m only smiling!”

Oh, how my teeth ache.

“Your last wisdom tooth here on the upper left is coming through!” the dentist states. I shrug. “It’s trying to.” I’ve had wisdom teeth brewing and bursting for the past twenty-three years.

(None of which I want pulled out, thank you very much)

Naturally I want to keep all the wisdom that’s due me.

I trudge to work each morning early, early, there in the frosty stillness, my bra pinching my shoulders, my too-tight underwear buffeted with pee-pads.

I enter each school repeating my mantra, “Smile, Smile!”

Yet the students sigh as I walk through the door. I am not their teacher, merely a teacher. Disappointment rebounds off their smooth, tender faces. It slides right off, down to my feet.

“Wrinkles are simply crevices where our disappointments dwell!”

I want to cackle this thought in a crazed, falsetto voice, like Meryl Streep in Into the Woods. Because it’s true, isn’t it? And levity becomes necessary when one’s presence is disquieting.

Regardless, I don’t say or sing anything at all, because here my inside voice is not sought. I use my teacher voice, instead.

One afternoon I find myself reading aloud to a group of sixth grade students. Their class novel is an intricate, twelve-person murder mystery that I am wholly unfamiliar with. Nonetheless, I enjoy reading, so I commence, liking the sound of my voice, the feel of the old-fashioned paper, the weight of the words wafting down onto all those blooming brains like so many strewn dandelion seeds.

Suddenly a boy raises his hand urgently, grunting, as if he needs the loo.

“Yes?” I pause to peer at him politely over the rim of my readers.

“Uh, I know you’re just a sub…” he begins, “but can you do it better?”

The question stumps me.

“Read better?” I ask, incredulous.

“Yes. Ms. Arlington reads the characters with their actual voices and stuff. So if Turtle’s talking, it sounds like Turtle. I mean, you’re reading and everyone just sounds the same…”

“Can you do it better?”  

“Well, Riott,” I remove my glasses to fix upon him a death stare accompanied by an enormous fake smile. “The truth is I actually cannot do it better. I am, as you noted, a substitute teacher which means, if I could do it better, I would be a full-time teacher. One with health benefits, a retirement plan, paid leave. So, No, Riott, Mrs. Crack cannot read better.

And with that I begin to read aloud again. With just one voice.

My own.

********************************************************************************

Meanwhile, far from me, down by the sea, Mr. Rafnel’s voice is disappearing.

A wise, old man, he can now rarely, barely find the words he so longs to say.

Or rather, his brain can’t.

Mr. Rafnel is my mother’s partner, and he suffers from Alzheimer’s. Bill can no longer dress himself,  prepare any food, find a chair without help. Thoughts and words circle about his mind as if ensnared within a great, thick fog, which only lifts now and again for a few moments at a time.

A former navy chaplain, at one time Bill Rafnel sailed all over the world comforting the wounded; he was a baptist preacher who grew up listening to his own father preach, a little boy secretly launching paper airplanes down from the choir loft mid-sermon. Mr.  Rafnel was a renowned weaver, his colorful art featured in magazines and showcased within the Weaver’s Barn at the Antique Gas and Steam Museum in Fallbrook, a repository of American craftsmanship which he himself began. An overwhelmingly friendly and patient guy, Bill Rafnel had a formidable intellect and a constantly curious spirit, and as such his hands were rarely idle…he was known to stretch leather to make his own spirit drums, or whittle pan flutes which he then lovingly played to his dogs.Bill4

Now here I am –  in town to visit and help, and on this day, Bill sits, unaware who his own parents are, even though he’s staring directly at their portraits. Bill3He has no recollection that the beautiful tapestries gracing the walls are his. “I’ve forgotten everything I once knew,” he says quietly – a moment of painful clarity.

Just then my mother passes by in front of him.

“I know her,” he says, pointing.

Then he looks at me. “I don’t know …”

He has no idea who I am. Nor do I anymore, if truth be told. Lately it’s as if I’m a whole new person. Someone with gray hair who rises at 5am and abhors bananas.

“I’m Kristy,” I say. “Mary’s daughter. Mark’s sister. I’m here to visit.”

“Hello,” he says, as if we’re suddenly meeting for the first time. “I’m Silly Billy.”

He waves hello to me then – grinning wildly, laughing like a little kid.

*****************************************************************************

A man from Hospice arrives early Monday morning to help Bill shower.

Bill wants no part of it.

“Never!” he shouts, clearly agitated. “President!” he rages, as if he is one and we should all back away.

Mark, my mother, the hospice worker labor to get Bill into the shower. They lather shampoo on his chest, over the top of his head.

But Bill shouts again, bolts out the door, flees, naked, down the hall.

“Please, Bill, we need to rinse you off!” my mother begs. Drama ensues in which several grown people try to get an old, sudsy man back into the shower, frantically rinse soap from his eyes.

Bill wobbles and yells, surprisingly strong but unnervingly unsteady on his feet. Angrily he shakes, muttering incoherent pronouncements.

Somehow, amidst this chaos, Bill is cajoled back into the shower, washed and dried, plunged into fresh clothes, till finally led to a comfortable spot on the couch.

Now he sits, stiff-backed and shivering, obviously agitated.

The scene is heartbreaking. My mother and brother are overwhelmed by the sheer physicality of caring for him. Daily they are left grief-stricken by his loss of ability, agility, agreeableness. And here I am, with no idea how to help this once bright, bold man, now seeming so scared and confused.

I go to the piano, open the hymnal, begin to play. Hymn after hymn I sight read, plowing my way through the liturgy.

After a bit, Bill begins to hum along. He knows most of these hymns by heart. Or he did. A preacher’s son, a clergyman by trade. I keep playing.

My blue hands now sore and stiff, I pause at the end of a hymn, holding the notes with just the foot pedal. As if on cue, a booming voice calls out, clear and loud, “And now, I’d like to say a few words…”

From his spot on the couch Bill begins to preach. “In the beginning…and then…and….”

These are the only words he’s able to find, yet he stares bright-eyed and smiling at his imaginary congregation. Quickly I begin to play again.

But it’s enough.

More than enough, actually, to lighten our load, ease the mind, soothe the soul. The purpose of a sermon, in a nutshell.

Bill and I sing a few more hymns together, both of us transported through time. I go back to that quiet, quiet girl of long ago; the one who loved reading but hadn’t yet found her voice; a mere dragon of a child, all scales and scorn, not yet realizing she might actually breathe fire. He travels to a small church in Iowa, to sit in the pew where a young boy sings with his most treasured possession – his voice! – so confident, so carefree – until running to bob his toy sailboat atop the waters of his father’s sacred baptismal font.

There in the living room on a warm Autumn day the two of us let our inner voices come out to play.

Loud and proud.

Riotous – nay rebellious, indeed.

Fully alive.

Not yet extinguished. Bill2

*************************************************************************************

“Can you do it better? 
No, he’s forgotten
Ugh, where am I again?
This scares me
Silly Billy? Silly Billy?
Are you crying?”

************************************************************************************

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dear Phil,

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Dear Phil, 

You’re hot!

Maybe a bit older and more formal than I expected…yet, fun!

 

Of course, I’m no photographer, but I can sure picture the two of us together…

*******************************************************************************

Seriously, though,

You were not my first choice, Phil.

(Nor my second, if truth be told).

I yearned for opulence, romance, waves…

An attractive accent, for a start.

Something nicer than a schlepped sandwich, for pity sake.

But somehow, LOVE, you won me over.IMG_8495

*********************************************************************************

Dear John, 

I can’t believe I don’t know your real name.

I really wish I did.

It would make talking about you behind your back so much easier. 

You may be the finest white male I’ve ever encountered on a park bench. I can’t get you out of my mind. To shout out the way you did, “Hello! Hello!” over top all that moaning and yelling, your unhesitating “Ladies!” offered like a lifesaver, there outside a stinky park crapper.

“Would you like me to take him in, help him go to the bathroom?”

Oh, John! To offer such services to a severely disabled man you’d never met…

Talk about brotherly love!IMG_8869

If a heavenly, bearded, man-deity truly hovers overhead, following our every move like an avian gangster, (remember, it’s lawful to believe anything you want here!), certainly the skies should have parted, raining golden confetti down upon your head, there outside the fly-infested loo on Kelly Drive.

I can’t believe I didn’t tell you how I felt right then and there.

You had me at, “Hello!”, John!

*********************************************************************************

Dear Ben,

You’re electrifying!

Seriously, you’ve made me look twice!

Let’s all hang together, shall we?

(But Poor Richard! Surely he can hang separately?)

I feel you watching me, Ben. I catch your twinkling eye everywhere.IMG_7580Clearly you’re a charmer! Chatting up the ladies, (obviously), but a few fine gentlemen, too.

I’ll admit I lingered where you once did dwell, Ben… (for a few months, sporadically, in between European bouts that featured plenty of lady routs). Your home seems well-to-do, based on the four reconstructed beams. And how delightful it was, to look down your privy!IMG_8856

Would you indulge in a drink or two (or thirteen) some night?IMG_7951

Please, Ben, send me a note, post haste!IMG_7957

***********************************************************************************

Dear Gus,

Your admiration for the human form leaves me speechless…But -!IMG_7118

I don’t mind telling you that I’ve never been willing to enter the Gates of Hell for anyone before you!IMG_7075

I feel you really know me, Gus, inside and out.

Still, I’m worried. There’s so many of us damned women fawning over your every nook and cranny.

I do love how you’ve encouraged us all to draw…to sit and linger near your body of work.

I just don’t know how to separate from you, Gus, we’re so completely entwined!

*********************************************************************************

Dear Tom,

I’ll never believe that all men are equally as capable as you! I mean – look at your handwriting! IMG_8540

I’m actually embarrassed to say too much, now, after you’ve spelled it all out for me like this. 

I’m just afraid I might crack under the pressure, Tom!IMG_8542

***********************************************************************************

Dear Phil,

I keep coming back to you.IMG_7377

You welcomed me like family.

You offered me food and drink.

IMG_8624

“Make that a double, ,Sir!”

You were fun and friendly, fancy, too…

 

All while displaying your NO BULLSHIT policy clearly at everyone’s feet.

Certainly, you had me viewing the past, and the present, with upturned eyes, Phil. IMG_8857

And what’s not to LOVE about that? (I’m already craving a re-PHIL!)

 

Meeting Misha

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It is a universal truth that other people’s dreams are seldom interesting and make terrible tell-aloud stories, yet here I sit, about to regale you, because believe it or not, I’ve just had my first ever good dream.
Since I first appeared as a plumpish, pumpkin-topped urchin here on earth, I cannot remember having any other ‘good’ dream. Every morn I recall plenty of nightly visions, yet these are always bizarre vignettes revealing mostly pain, frustration, and inane misfortune.
Take the night I dreamt every person was assigned a five word ‘descriptor’ phrase to be listed beneath their legal name – a preselected tag line for social media forays. Mine read: Designed to Repeatedly Offend You. Damon, of course, fared slightly better: Excessive Cheerfulness on Perpetual Display.
Decade after decade I have dreamt of having my fingers bit or sliced off; I’ve been shot in the chest; I’ve discovered on more than one occasion that I have a ‘dirty soul’; I’ve suffered, drastically and often, from ‘Inward Panic Syndrome’; I’ve cleaned up vomit infinitum; given birth to an albino-midget of indeterminate sex named Willie Joe; and come to regard the presence of whales as portents of disaster, same as my sister does.
Yet – for all of this, I can’t recall even one pleasant dream I’ve experienced over the past 48 years. Until this year. Now that it’s finally happened, I want to put it to paper so that my offspring might know – happiness did greet old, cranky Kristine, one memorable, magical eve, long, long ago. *********************************************************************
Upon waking from this miraculous event, I lay in bed, too overcome to speak or move. After a long time clutching the dream close, reliving each second, cementing every frame to memory, I sat up, turned to Damon, and asked, “Can you ever remember me having a good dream?”
Over top of his steaming coffee he peered at me freakishly, even as he gave it some concentrated thought. At last he said, “No, I don’t think so.”
I nodded. “So, I’ve never, ever woken you up one time since we’ve been together and said, ‘Listen to this, my love…I’ve just had the most amazing time without you but please let me tell you all about it!’”
He laughed. “No. Definitely not. All of your dreams seem sort of awful, don’t they?”
“No!” I screamed, truly elated now. “Not anymore! I’ve just had a good dream! A very good dream! My first one ever!”
Damon stared at me as if I were nuts.
“This dream wasn’t just good. It was great! It was…dare I say it out loud? It might have been utterly perfect!”
Damon laughed a bit, then slurped his morning manna. “OK, ok, tell it to me, already!” He sounded a bit more blasé then I wanted him to be.
“Well, I was on some sort of field trip,” I began, while he peered at me with determined, morning-ish stoicism.
“And there were other teachers there, too. We had all these kids, and we were in some sort of big auditorium, which was prettier than normal, with nicely paned, sunshiny windows. The kids were sitting criss-cross applesauce on the floor, happily talking, and I had no idea why we were there or what the field trip was about, but all the other teachers were young and pretty, and we all wore floral, kaftan-like dresses, and it seemed a nicer-than-usual way to spend a workday, so I sat there feeling just fine.”
“Uh-hmm…” Damon made little obligatory sounds while nodding encouragingly.
“Then, this rather petite but strong-looking man walked in and made his way towards the front, to the podium. And here my heart started beating so crazily,” I paused now and grabbed Damon’s hand away from the coffee cup to thrust it over my heart. “See…even now my heart’s jumping madly merely telling you about it!”
Damon looked at me as if I had lost all my marbles, then removed his hand before trying to mop up coffee splatters all over the covers.
“That’s when I realized,” I gushed, “that it was Mikhail Baryshnikov!”
I paused for Damon to hoot or holler or go all bug-eyed, but he did none of those things, so I continued right along. “Yeah, standing up there, in front of all the kids… it was him, the actual dancer, Mikhail Baryshnikov! He still looked 40 years old or abouts, you know, just the way he looked in ‘White Nights’. He stood there smiling with his famous feet pointed out in first position and absolutely perfect posture, and all that time I could FEEL his blue eyes sparkling at me from way back there behind all those kids and oh.my. god. I was over the moon. Mikhail Baryshnikov was our field trip!!!”
Damon laughed here and seemed a bit more appreciative, now that the dream was ramping up.
“I began looking around the room to see if the other teachers were freaking out like I was, and I realized, oh my word, none of these young teachers knew who he was! They were shrugging and whispering, giving little perplexed twists of their mouths, while the kids kept asking, ‘Who is that?’ I was so sad and embarrassed. Mikhail Baryshnikov was standing right there, and no one seemed to recognize him, with all his talent and mastery, that sexiness just sizzling from his eyes….”
Damon looked at me sort of startled, like just saying the word sexy about someone else was a sin or something.
“Anyways… I had the worst feeling. I was standing there not knowing what to do, trying to shush all those kids. Then, Mr. Baryshnikov began to speak, and I didn’t even grasp what he was saying, because my mind was just a blur. I was watching him intently while he stood there so poised and articulate and hell yeah, sexy. So finally he asked for questions and oh my god, NO ONE in the auditorium raised their hand to ask even one question…of Mikhail Baryshnikov!”
Damon now twisted his face back into polite concern but said nothing yet again.
“Knowing how deeply humbling and upsetting this must be to Mikhail, I raised my hand. And here was where the dream really started to be incredible…because he called on me, so I began to talk, but I was dynamite! I mean, I started off by telling him how much I admired him. Then I launched into how as a little girl I remembered being called out to the TV on a Saturday night, after my bath, when I was all clean and in my nightgown, and my mother telling me to sit down on the carpet, I was about to see something I’d never seen before. That this Something I was about to see was so beautiful and unimaginable that it would reignite my passion for what was possible for all mankind when people were allowed to express themselves through art.
And then, there on the tv, the ballet started, and it was my first ever time watching a ballet, and at last…there he was! In hushed tones my mother explained that the star jumping effortlessly towards the heavens – l’etoile – was Russian, a young dancer who had just defected, risking his very life for his art. Then, as we watched him leap and twirl, stretching those tights in ways I never imagined possible, I glanced over at my mom, awestruck to see silent tears performing their own adagio gracefully down her cheeks, so overcome was she by the beauty of Baryshnikov and the ballet.”
Damon nodded crazily, not too sure whether I was speaking in the past or present now.
“Then I told Mikhail how after the ballet my mother explained about Russia – the country, and communism, and what it meant to defect, and I, being only six years old, had never heard those terms or even realized there could be another country besides the USA. Mikhail’s dancing and presence opened my eyes not just to a whole new art form, but to a whole new world, one so much more complex and dangerous, mystifying and enchanting, than I had known about even an hour before….”
Here I looked intensely at Damon, to see if he was tearing up, as I was, by this emotional retelling…but, alas, he seemed quite steady and almost worried -looking, peering at me like that. “Wow,” he muttered, seeing my actual tears. “wow!”
“Yes, wow! And the whole time I was talking, I was calm and poised, and my voice sounded great – not nervous at all, and everything I said sounded poetic and worthy of his hearing! Best of all, Mikhail seemed genuinely touched by my reflections. At the end he wrapped it all up by saying something else, but I couldn’t even breathe by that time, all I could do was stare at his blue, Russian eyes. Then the event was over and hordes of kids rose up to shuffle back towards the busses, but I ignored them all and went right up to him, standing there in front of the windows all alone – no crowds of people, no celebrity handlers, nothing! I went up to him and he smiled at me and we were the same height, literally, eye to eye. I told him again how amazing it was to meet him and he thanked me for my words earlier and then he leaned in towards me and said, “Please, do call me Misha. Would you like to go for a drink with me?”
Here I looked to see Damon’s reaction but he was completely poker-faced. Or comatose. “Then I woke up!“ I declared dramatically.
“Is that it?” Damon asked cautiously.
“That’s all I need!” I exclaimed proudly. “That was worth the wait! Misha himself clutching my hand and asking me out…” Exhausted from the retelling, I sat back in bed, overcome again by the exquisiteness of the whole sequence.
“I can live the rest of my life happy now, knowing I was asked out by MIKHAIL BARYSHNIKOV!!!” I shouted, within the hushed house before my impervious spouse.
Damon rolled his eyes and rose from the bed, eager to start the day, while I sighed contentedly, clinging to the night.

Dreamy.

 

 

The Matriot

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It began with a Bald Eagle chase.

One frigid, February morn, just after dawn, I left home and took to the road, inching tender-footed as a doe along crisply frozen roads. Slowly, slowly I wound my way towards work, over long, empty stretches of winding, country lanes. Grasslands shimmered with frozen obedience, aiming their long stalks like crystallized swords towards the heavens. Frozen, gauzy landscapes loomed icy-cold around, as I, now tightly buckled into my motorized, movable box, inched forward beneath the bluing, brightening sky.

Suddenly, a bald eagle darted down in front of my car hood. I gasped and slowed even more. Then, a second eagle, bigger than the first, zipped behind, head-to-tail.  Whoa! The two spun and spiraled, neck and neck. They swirled over and around in tighter, smaller loops, the bigger eagle overshadowing the smaller one. I sat immovable in my car, watching wordlessly as the Flute Sonata No. 1 in A by Philippe Gaubert trilled maniacally from my radio’s speakers, accompanying this spectacle. Barely breathing, I watched as the two creatures flew straight towards each other, head to head, before the bigger one grabbed the smaller ones’ talons. There in front of me, they cartwheeled head over tail towards earth, locked together in a seeming death-dive. Miraculously the pair separated at the last moment, soaring skyward again, while I exhaled with relief.

As the pair roiled up and down in front of me in this repeating, dramatic display, I began to believe this a rape scene. I watched the smaller eagle careen away from the bigger one time and again, while an invisible thought-cloud popped overhead in my mind’s eye. #Metoo it screamed, as wild strings of exclamation points fell clunkily towards earth with unanswered despair.

As I projected my own fears skyward, the two birds swooped and soared overhead, while I stared upwards expectantly, like a prisoner peering out between the bars of her cell, waiting moment-by-moment for a miracle. Instead, the bald eagles forged ahead, leaving me alone on the road, clutching nothing more weighty than flute trills and wordless, womanly wonder.

As I continued on towards work, nothing felt the same. I’d already learned how cruel and torturous male butterflies were to females, often. I knew dolphins routinely raped and pillaged their females. Was this yet another version of a female’s sad, timeless story playing out again? Were all feminine creatures in every kingdom, big and small, doomed to daily domination?

That night I went online to read about bald eagle mating. I’d spent the day feeling unwell about what I’d seen; not knowing whether I had witnessed fear, frenzy, or simply fanfare. Yet my perusals online revealed the one thing I never imagined: the bigger eagle was the FEMALE. Yes, you read that correctly…when documenting bald eagles, scientists have found that it’s usually the FEMALE chasing the male!

This was no rape; no assault; rather, it was the female’s demand that the male prove himself worthy to mate with!

Suddenly this story needed to be revisited by me, from the beginning, with a whole new set of assumptions.

It felt implausible to believe that within this species, the female dominates, by demanding, leading, testing her would-be-mate. And who would believe that a national, symbolic treasure, once nearly wiped out by man’s obliviousness, could now bounce back and tout such a bold, shocking truth…that females wield the power! Imagine all those U.S. men even now, proudly driving around town with emblematic bald eagles, parading their patriotism…a word derived from patrios, meaning of one’s fathers; or power culturally passed on through males only…even as the very symbol they wield speaks of feminine strength.

The fact that I am a forty-eight year old resident of the U.S. and never knew this about the bald eagle, our national emblem – well, it’s laughable. And awesome. And a necessary symbolic reminder for us ladies living here, now, in the age of trump-ism. The female bald eagle is the woman totem we’ve been staring at and looking for this whole time, all while not understanding what she’s trying to tell us. She’s our own face staring back at us in the mirror, urging us to fly higher; to challenge the assumed status quo; to find male allies worthy of our engagement.

My mother often said, “Wear some lipstick…it lifts up your whole face! And for heaven’s sake, wallpaper a bathroom with a man before you marry him!”

What she meant by this sage advice was – test him! Put his feet to the fire and see if he can problem-solve patiently; take direction willingly; work with you as a teammate and equal instead of succumbing to demands, cruelty, even force.

My drive to work that winter morning late last week changed my life. In three-minutes time it presented me with a sobering grasp of my innate assumptions. It imparted to me a national symbol so significant in the fight for feminine empowerment that I will now smile whenever I see it on a truck or the back of a quarter; on the national seal or on the capitol building.

“Thus the eagle, full of the boundless spirit of freedom, living above the valleys, strong and powerful in his her might, has become the national emblem of a country that offers freedom in word and thought and an opportunity for a full and free expansion into the boundless space of the future.” – Maude M. Grant

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Mrs. Klank

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For the last three weeks I have been plopping myself down in various school classrooms around town, working as a substitute teacher. This, after eighteen years of staying home, being ‘mom’. Entering the work force is a challenge, of course, mainly because you must get up and get going so early. But the job I’ve returned to – teaching – is not all that different than momming. In either case you rarely get to sleep in. The pay is awful in both. And the benefits are limited – one gets ‘work with no obligation to put on bra or shoes’, while the other gets ‘summer’.

In many ways, these two jobs are essentially the same. The souls you ‘shepherd’ all day are gross and loud. Many of your charges pick their noses unabashedly while almost all of them whine incessantly, even if you’re literally just showing them a movie. The older kids stink, and the younger kids cry, and you forget when you’re not around hordes of children anymore how often and overwhelming just those two downsides are. Yet you tolerate these rascally little humans even as they shout ridiculous things at you, such as, “Mrs. Klank” or “Ms. Kick” over and over. You work hard to instill a handful of decent thoughts and inspirations into their growing psyches, even as you stealthily plan your next solitary bathroom break and heatedly scribble ‘Wild Turkey’ onto your ever-lengthening shopping list.

In the past two weeks, my notion that teaching is eerily like mothering has only solidified. Because mothering involves dragging your kids through society – schools, doctors, sports, music lessons. While teaching means prepping kids for leadership roles within those societies. Which all just goes to say that rarely do you mother or teach in isolation. It is a community you find yourself thrust into, not one you hand-pick for yourself. And for better or worse, you meet all kinds here. Mothers who swaddle their babes in expensive, linen breast-sacs until they are well-past three years old. Mothers who tell you flat out that your stair banisters are ‘filthy dirty’ as they stand in your entry-way, dropping off multitudes of kids for you to moniter. You’ll meet mothers who carry tiny dogs with them wherever they go yet don’t notice when their own child runs into the street; mothers who seem like they take drugs and most likely ARE taking drugs; moms for whom the word “no” has been supplanted from their vocabulary by “child-centered”. Perhaps even on the same day, you’ll meet other moms who thrive on order and execution and sincerely question you as to what type of bread you serve and when was the last time your family had a fire drill run-through? You will have awkward conversations with moms who want to confiscate your teen-aged child’s phone while they are with them, and then even more awkward conversations when you show up to a classmate’s birthday party only to realize it is actually a church rally. The list goes on and on but you get the point. Moms have to hang out with all kinds of other moms, and most of these ladies will not be your personal cup of tea, believe you me!

The same basic truth goes with teaching, but particularly so when you are a substitute. Every day you encounter vastly different set-ups and styles. There’s the classic ‘Ms. Ruler’, who comes complete with a Pier One sofa and mood lighting ensconced in one corner of her classroom. She’s forked out hard-earned money for different color-coded rugs for each activity; included picture-coded seating charts within the lesson plans; while her students are bound –  by blood, sweat, and tears, often – to Ms. Ruler’s ‘do’s and don’ts’ and that sneaky little second hand on the big, over-the-door-clock.

Then there’s your ‘Doris Day’ teachers (Que sera, sera…whatever will be, will be) who leave no sub plans at all; in fact, they’ve lost their attendance folder long ago; these teachers often have desks spilling over with old notes and stacks of books and papers, none of which are current or helpful in any way. There are no name tags anywhere within their magical kingdom, and a sharpened pencil is worth its weight in gold. These student’s whistle while they work, sing while they sum, and ‘line up’ at the door like a poorly-drawn amoeba, which then slithers down the hall eagerly consuming every other student it encounters along the way.

There’s ‘Mr. Stoplight’, whose entire lesson plan entails dire/overt warnings about particularly challenging students – Beware! Caution! Danger Ahead!

‘Mr. Bueller’, who schedules an hour and a half for the driest, most painfully dull lesson plans imaginable (i.e.; a six-page packet on the unpronounceable first emperor of china, sans interesting details or historical context… anyone?…anyone? ),

and finally,

Ms. Rainbow, whose every inch of wall space is covered with kaleidoscopic art work and inspirational sayings such as, ‘You did not wake up to be mediocre!’ and ‘Mistakes are expected, respected, inspected, corrected’. She’s penned, ‘Have fun and Enjoy their Spirits!’ in purple calligraphy atop your lesson plans, and reminds you to use ‘caring words’ to encourage students to finish up their papier mache’ projects this afternoon. “But by all means, if the sun’s out – CELEBRATE!”

Where I fit in to all of this I really don’t know –  what I can say with confidence is that every single teacher’s amount of time allotted for lessons is way too long for a sub…and that there is no possible way to predict what a student might say or do at any given time.

Take the day I asked one second-grade girl how to pronounce her name: Alallia. “A-Lah-Lee-A” she said, pleasantly. “Well, that’s just beautiful!” I gushed, thinking inwardly that I’d never remember that for a hot second. “How did you come by such a unique and exotic name?”

“My Grandma smoked a lot,” Alallia answered, rising from her desk and eyeing us all squarely as she spoke loud and proud, like a miniature Ms. America contestant. “She had a tube in her throat, so she couldn’t talk. Before she went to heaven she signed my name to my mom with her hands. Then she died.”

Thankfully the class was stunned into silence for several moments. Imagine what that poor grandma was most likely trying to sign – Help! Morphine! Pull the plug!  Well…the daughter went with ‘Alallia’ and on hindsight that seems optimistic and makes as good a story as any. However, I did make a mental note forthwith: do NOT ask students to explain their names (Sorry Tiger-Amari, you will sadly remain a nomenclature mystery).

Another day, after I had abandoned the boring but malicious Emperor of China in favor of a story on the sinking city of Venice, I asked the students to do a ‘quick write’ about one place they would like to visit, anywhere in the world, and why. A very sad boy (whose name was Tristan – literary magnificence!) raised his hand to share, which surprised me, as all morning he’d been a slow worker, struggling to keep up and stay on task, and in fact he’d broken down in tears several times out of exhaustion or sheer frustration, who knows. Anyway – he seemed to take to the ‘quick’ write concept (five minutes), thus he raised his hand, so I called on him to read his paper aloud:

‘As you all know, I have a depressive nature. To help me with this I think I should go to Canada. They say they are the nicest people in the world there. I would still be close to my house here in Washington, and I could eat pancakes, because I know they have a lot of maple syrup there. I think it would be nice to visit Canada and all those friendly people who smile a lot and maybe I would even like it there. I would eat a lot of pancakes if it is really such a happy place.”

Happy does not begin to describe my own reaction to this paragraph that contains within it the underlying essence of why one might continue to teach, instead of sailing away to a Caribbean island to slurp rum out of coconuts.

This last week as I sat in Ms. Ruler’s third-grade class on her unbelievable sofa that is nicer than anything in my own home, I tried valiantly to ‘teach’ a particularly needy student. This boy, Matthew, was tall and big and loud, and he had all the typical troubles of a very easily distracted, tall-big-loud boy, and so I had appointed him my personal ‘buddy’ that day, and let him do some of his work on the white board, and generally gone above and beyond to ensure that he did some ‘work’, to all the other student’s rightful dismay. At this point in the afternoon he was seated opposite another little boy, Jordan, who was rather frail, quiet, and polite; a speed worker who seemed to have none of the issues facing Matthew. Yet as I sat there between the two boys I noticed Jordan crying, very quietly. “What’s wrong?” I asked. Jordan wouldn’t answer. Matthew did, though. “He don’t have anymore friends!” he declared, matter-of-factly. “Something bad happened at recess, I don’t know, but no one likes him now.”

I tried to hide my shock at this frank summary, but Jordan woefully nodded agreement. “I’m starving, too,” he declared, Eeyore-style.

“Yep, he’s going to starve himself now!” Matthew yelled. “And he’s going to kill himself, too, because he don’t have any friends anymore.”

I thought I should nip this in the bud very quickly, so I said, “No, Jordan’s going to be just fine, Matthew. Jordan’s a strong, smart boy who’s having a sad moment right now but in a few minutes he will go wash his face and drink some water and come back and work with us here, won’t you Jordan, and after that it will be time to go home and Jordan will eat a snack and everything will seem much better.”

Jordan sort of shrugged, like ‘yeah, maybe. We’ll see.’

“In the meantime, Matthew, you need to start writing these words. Look at the next one there, it says astronaut. I think you could write that on your paper lickety-split.”

Matthew sank back into those beautiful sofa cushions with an enormous heave. “I can’t, teacher. My heart is too soft.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, anxiously checking the second-hand on the clock myself while inwardly screaming, ‘HOW MUCH LONGER CAN I GO ON BEING THIS PATIENT AND KIND AND WISE??? UGH!!!’

Matthew was tearing up now, too. “My heart is so soft because Jordan’s going to kill himself. And he’s starving. And he doesn’t have no more friends. It hurts when my heart is so soft like it is.”

Here I sank back into the cushions and had to agree with him. Teaching is exasperating. Momming is endless. Life is painful and slow and crazy and loud and stinky and blurry-fast and colorful and funny, too, but trying to deal with everyone’s ups and downs through all these minutes and hours is exhausting.

Mrs. Klank’s heart is too soft indeed –

even when there’s a Pier One sofa to sink into.

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Eve in Paris

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Not long ago I was in a tiny, antique-type gift store within a tiny, antique town I was passing through. As I wandered the aisles I heard this conversation between the owner – a middle-aged, sweater-clad, rotund woman sitting behind the counter – and her only other customer, a tall, coiffed, impossibly straight-backed woman with a penchant for animal-shaped salt and pepper shakers.

Owner: Our 35th wedding anniversary is coming up this Spring, and Duane’s offered to take me to the new Joanna Gaines store down there in Texas, or we might go to Paris. We just can’t decide…”

Customer: That store looks wonderful. I saw pictures of it on TV just the other day. I think they’re putting in a restaurant there, too!

Owner: Yes, Magnolia Market – it’s on my bucket list. It sounds like a dream. And Duane and I would stay in Houston for a few days, too.

Customer: You know, I’d get on a plane to Texas but not anywhere overseas these days. All those people are…well, there’s just so much violence over there!

Owner: Yeah, Duane doesn’t want anything to do with Paris. He hates Europe. But you know our Erika’s there so that’s why I thought maybe. But Duane says he’s happy to go to Texas. We’ve never been to Waco in the spring before…

These two kept talking on in this way, until I was forced to hastily exit the store in order to preserve my exploding brain cells. But right before leaving I paused at the counter to smile extra wide at the woman and say, “Excuse me, I couldn’t help but overhear, so please let me place my vote for Paris. It’s magical, truly. The enormity of the buildings, the grandeur of the architecture, the abundance of public art and sculpture, the bridges, the wrought-iron balconies, the baguettes…oh my, I’m getting swoony just thinking of it all. Even the doors are works of art! Choose Paris. I promise, even if you do nothing else, just walk the streets for a week looking at the store fronts and gardens and tasting the wine and all the cheeses…I doubt there’s anything remotely comparable in Waco.”

Here I trailed off, for the woman’s eyes had gone glassy while her hands tugged nervously on imaginary nubs all over her knit cardigan. Obviously she was trying to be polite but felt I was speaking in tongues (and criticizing Magnolia Market/Joanna Gaines on top of it!).

Well, time has marched on but that exchange replays itself in my head now and again like a scene from Groundhog’s Day, because obviously our country as a whole has endured this exact same conversation. Over and over we were given the choice – Paris or Waco? History, Literature, Art, Progress, Science, Architecture, Gastronomy, the Paris Climate Agreement, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity…or…Silos, Cotton, Humidity, Motorcycles, Snakes, Tornadoes, Shoot-outs, Mammoth bones, the Dr. Pepper Museum, Magnolia Market.

Surprise, surprise – we chose Waco! Woo- hoo!

So now I weep, quietly and often, while my friends and family who voted for Waco say, “Good grief! Stop bitching and moaning. There’s BBQ and big screen tvs everywhere here, excellent football, guns enough for every man, woman, and child…it’s going to be fine!”

If you are a person who says that to me, (while I mournfully remember that this was a choice we all had – that Waco wasn’t where they’d assigned us our prison sentence, say, nor was every other inch of livable earth space washed away in an epic flood) then you and I have NOTHING in common. Zilch, nada, nyet.

Because empirically Paris is better than Waco. You can argue all you want about Waco’s finer points – and there are a few – but it is not even a sliver of Paris. It does not bear even a cupped hands-worth of its beauty or history, it’s cohesion, enterprise, or scholarship. Waco as an entity has contributed very little to the advancement of human progress, except for Dr. Pepper.  And no pictures, facts, first-hand narratives or writings are going to change your mind, friends and family…you believe against all evidence WACO is the better choice we get it! But geez, listening to your rationale is as enlightened as attending a seminar on blood-letting.

And if you are a person who tells me to calm down because Waco was the pre-ordained, chosen choice, (yes, I know, your invisible man-deity told you so), then you and I have even less than nothing in common (that would be a negative number). If you believe that a man, from a culture that is so different from ours now that you in fact want nothing to do with it, told the very first woman ever formed not to eat a certain fruit (why???), and then that woman ate the fruit anyway (apparently it was forbidden because it contained knowledge, and you know, we wouldn’t want a woman to have that!), and now she’s sinned for all of eternity (a word and concept coined by man, coincidentally), well, clearly you are reading an ancient, biased, nonsensical tome.

Because Eve did NOTHING WRONG. She hurt no one. Literally she fed someone – women’s historic role throughout the ages! But in this case, a pretend man mandated an arbitrary rule for no known reason, which Eve then ‘disobeyed’. Nothing about this story makes an ounce of sense. It only serves to reinforce what a malevolent god God is, if you believe in that sort of thing. But if this is the story you hang your hat on, the story you process into a building every weekend to have told to your kids over and over, then you and I have infinitely nothing in common. Zilch, nada, nyet.

Because Eve, along with all women, took the blame for a non-crime. She committed a man-made ‘sin’ which she now must pay for, for the rest of time (Or until we collectively get a new book, or better books. Much better books preferably!).

On and on we go.

Down to Waco,

marching and bitching and munching that apple ALL THE WAY!

(PS – Seriously. We could have gone to Paris!)

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Sixteen Going On Seventeen

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Dear Annalise,

This year on your birthday you are far away, across the sea, and I miss you. I miss your smile and laughter, the sound of your flute drifting up the stairs late at night as I float off to sleep. Normally my escapes when feeling sad are booze, bubble baths, and books, but as you know we do not have a bathtub in our new house here at Kithnarra. And books – well, for the last few months I have been unable to read much, because my mind trips down winding lanes of whimsy, stumbles upon worry, then dead ends straight at weariness. So…booze it is!

Not too long ago I decided I better head back in the direction of books, at least part time. I picked up a book I knew I enjoyed, one I considered ‘fun and easy’, just so I might get back into the habit of reading without too much suffering. It was Bill Bryson’s ‘Neither Here Nor There’ – simple, short, funny chapters all about his solo journey around Europe.

Decades ago I read this book as a young, single woman and thoroughly enjoyed it. Back then I imagined myself someday visiting all the cities he listed, wandering from one chic restaurant to another, jotting down wise/witty notes on wrinkled napkins and moist beer coasters as he must have done. Now, two decades later, I read this book from the crook of my little house in the big woods, tucked into my great big, black bed – a tired, middle-aged mom who’d never made it to much of Europe after all, but whose first-born daughter was now off on her first solo trip to the Motherland all alone, like the youthful Bill Bryson of yore.

My re-read sputtered into stagnation quite quickly. For on page after page, city after city, there was nary a lady mentioned on this guy’s epic jaunt around Europe. Not only was Mr. Bryson travelling sans females, but all of the important, historical places he was visiting – castles, monuments, city sights…were filled with statues and stories of men. Pasty, rich, strategic, mistress-clad men, mostly. (For complete accuracy Joan of Arc might have been mentioned. But of course she was famous precisely for acting like a man. Gah!). Women were almost completely absent from THE HISTORY OF EUROPE. Oh, they were there alright, but jotted down unnamed, mentioned only as rather large, bosomy seat mates who turned out to be quite cushiony on long, jostling train trips.

So, my darling daughter, I never finished rereading that book. As you can probably visualize, I put it down, disgusted, and turned to wine. Because, let’s face it, the world refuses to recognize women very often. Not for womanly things, anyways. And for most of human history, women have been completely occupied by child-birthing and child-rearing and food maintenance, and there has been no time nor energy for women to occupy men’s spaces and rewhittle the world in their softer image.

On one of these nights, as I lay in bed and the wine took hold, I began to think that I would write my own book, about women – real women – who changed the world for the better, women that most of us have never, ever heard of. I dreamt I might travel to visit their birth places, follow in their feminine footsteps, but of course as soon as I started investigating the logistics of where to go and what to see, the word ‘folly’ sparkled with new life. For women leave little behind, except offspring. Women, historically, have never had the time, money, nor skill to write down even basic words to leave behind. Physically women mostly leave just dust, which is ironic considering they’ve spent their whole lives trying to wipe that stuff up.

But, Annalise, I desperately want your world to be one in which you can participate as a pivotal member. And I thought by shining a light on the women who so valiantly and painfully paved the way for women working for equality today, I might smooth the path just a bit, so to speak. So I began reading day and night, researching, compiling my own ‘binders full of women’ that piled up on my bedside table like actual props from a Saturday Night Live sketch. I noted down women who wowed me, women to whom I related in one way or another…women who whispered their stories into my ear like old friends, begging me to pass them along.

I read of women who scratched out rudimentary diaries on the plains while other women marched tirelessly through city streets, demanding birth control, voting rights, freedom; I read of women who worked their bodies into nothing but bones, or left their own children simply to raise money for bread; women who grew crops that had never been grown before; women who founded schools and took in the needy and unwanted; women who dedicated their lives to pursuing art and environmental preservation. All of these women, who nursed and toiled and organized night and day, day and night, with little to no booze, bubble baths, or even books to comfort them. Imagine!

And most nights as I read in the dark, I would tell your dad about these ladies, whisper their names out loud, there in bed, and he would ooh and ah and agree with me that the world should and could be a more balanced planet, where women and men’s words were heard and evaluated with equal vigor.

Then one night, as I lay in bed, I tried and I tried to unravel one woman’s story so that I could retell it, but I couldn’t, because this woman was a scientist – the first woman scientist to work at Bell Telephone Laboratories back in the 1940’s – and her story was so smart and sophisticated that it was just too complicated for me to understand. I grasped that she was a crystallographer and geologist, that she was a researcher who ran a program that studied the electromagnetic properties of crystals. But of course I didn’t really know what electromagnetic properties were. And I knew nothing about crystals except for the pretty ones that hung in gift shop windows.

I read further about Dr. Elizabeth A. Wood and her pioneering work with phase transitions in silicon and how she studied ways to change the state of certain materials through the application of electric fields. But how her work led directly to the development of new superconductors and lasers at Bell Labs was completely beyond me.

I turned to your dad, who as you know is quite smart, and also scientifically-minded. He was reading there beside me when I said,

“So…you know how I have binders full of women now?” He nodded.

“And you know that I am researching ladies that were downright incredible but nobody’s ever heard of them or built statues to them or chose them for their ‘extraordinary people’ high school research papers?” Yes, your dad nodded.

“Well, this one lady, Dr. Elizabeth A. Wood, was a geologist and crystallographer who taught at Bryn Mawr back in the early 1900’s.” I began.

“Uh hmmm,” he muttered, completely non-plussed.

“And I’m really not smart enough to understand WHAT she did, let alone the science behind it, but what I think, after reading what I can find about her, is that she is the reason for the lightsaber. You know, like in Star Wars? I mean, I think this lady must be the mother of the lightsaber.”

I thought your dad would laugh or whoop or do some big exclamatory gesture at this point, considering I’d now willingly brought up Star Wars as a topic of conversation after twenty-five years of marriage! But surprisingly your dad remained quiet, put his book down, and instead turned to me rather sadly. His face was a mixture of deep pity and reluctant patience side-by-side. “You do know, Kristine, that lightsabers are not real?”

“Yes…ugh! I do know that!” I replied, indignant. “But they are based on the notion that they could be real, scientifically, are they not? And this lady, Dr. Wood, studied the two things that make up the fundamentals of all lightsabers – crystals and lasers, right? And therefore, without her, I don’t think there could even be the notion of a lightsaber, could there?”

Here I was truly asking him, because as you know your dad is exceptionally smart in some ways that I am not, and Star Wars is definitely one of those ways, as is science and lasers and basically everything I was speaking of.

“No, no, no,” he sort of pity-laughed. “That’s not how light sabers work. They’re not just crystals and lasers…”

“Well, what are they, then?” I demanded, outraged. “They must be. Even I know that!”  (As you might remember, Annalise, I’ve seen ONE Star Wars movie to date, and that was enough to last me a life time).

I turned away from him then, insulted and upset. Not only did I know just enough to know what I didn’t know, but what I thought I might know was still dead wrong.

A deep quiet enveloped our bedroom that evening, as I lay there feeling disgusted with my ‘feminine’ brain. I was deeply ashamed that I was not smart enough to grasp these scientific concepts, and it physically pained me to think of myself as a walking stereotype – this womanly ‘less-than capable’ creature somehow. But then my eyes fell on my binders full of women, imaginary friends to me now, and I supposed all of those women had suffered this same feeling, in myriad ways, thousands of times, over the centuries.

Meanwhile your dad twiddled furiously on his Phobert (my name for his iPhone, as you surely recall) as I tossed those binders full of women onto the floor and began drinking big swigs of wine. I wondered if I should just travel straight to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s house there in Missouri to take photos of her little farm and perhaps the beloved corn-cob doll Charlotte and call this whole idea a wrap and be done.

A long time passed. At last your dad sat up rather straight in bed, turned to me with surprised, arched eyebrows, and said, “Well, Kristine, it turns out that according to the Star Wars Expanded Universe, lightsabers use a crystal that directs a laser back on itself to make the beam. So, you are actually, factually correct. That lady whose work in crystallography lead to advances in lasers was in fact the mother of the lightsaber!“

Dr. Elizabeth A. Wood

Dr. Elizabeth A. Wood

After that earth-shattering moment of course nothing changed. Nothing at all. And on this night, as I write this letter to you, everyone in our family sans you and me are off seeing the new Star Wars movie, which yet again fails to dedicate even a second of screen-time to its most enlightened mother-figure. Because Star Wars, obviously, is all about The Father. Who cares if our noble Dr. Wood remains locked away in the attic of human knowledge, sans any credit from the masses for being brilliant and truly light-years ahead of her time? (“Honey, you’re misusing the term ‘light-year’. It’s a distance, not a time period.” – Dad) This is the way the world spins for most ladies, Annalise – epic stories swirl round us, are sung time and again of heroic men, while we women must toil, birth, dream, persevere – all while singing our own quiet victory songs within our heads…songs which carry us on, push us forward, keep us balanced, step by arduous step. So – my birthday wish for you is that whenever anyone talks of Star Wars, anywhere, for whatever reason, sing out loud and mention her – DR. ELIZABETH WOOD. Talk about her. Tell her story. Because we owe her that!

And I want you to know that even though you are now sixteen going on seventeen, you are not innocent as a rose. Because you, you were named after Annelies Frank – a girl allowed to dream but only allowed to live for 15 going on 16 years. And when people speak of you, Annalise Kirk, and mention how you used to walk around the public library calculating the square footage of the carpets with your feet; or how diligently and ferociously you practiced and studied the flute even though you were years behind the other students; or how bravely you ventured off into a part of the world you knew hardly a thing about, on your own, at just 16 – well, I hope you mention your heroic namesake as well – who wisely remarked, ‘In the long run, the sharpest weapon of all is a kind and gentle spirit,’ because we owe her that!

Annelies Frank

Annelies Frank

Once you are seventeen you will return to a country piloted by Donald Trump and friends, so it behooves me to tell you that your life might indeed be viewed like an empty page, that men like him and his cohorts will certainly want to write on, but don’t let them. Write your own damn story! Speak out, march on, play louder, dream bigger, go farther. ‘Look at how a single candle can both defy and define the darkness’ (Annelies Frank) You are a citizen any country should and would be proud of, Annalise, and I hope you come home to a country that values your voice, your vision, your very feminine you, because we owe you that!

Seventeen years ago, an hour before Christmas Eve, I was so very happy when you were born healthy and a girl. And I am now so very proud that you have grown up to be not just a girl, but a smart girl – a girl who likes languages and formulas alike; a girl who wants to see the world first-hand even if it is scary and unpredictable and at times downright unappetizing; a girl who works hard at things no matter the rewards; a young woman on the brink – one who is not afraid to write down her hopes and dreams and then pursue them, whatever the next page may hold.

You are sixteen going on seventeen. Happy Birthday, my love!

Mom

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