- Ring the bells that still can ring
- Forget your perfect offering
- There’s a crack in everything
- That’s how the light gets in.
- -Leonard Cohen, “Anthem”
- It’s been a whirlwind of a week. We’ve watched two kids graduate. Damon landed a new job. We are contemplating a move to a new state. We’re saying Aloha – hello and goodbye – to everyone we see, everywhere we look. And this ping-pong of emotions – from happy to sad, eager to melancholic, excited to unbearable, has left all seven of us Kirk’s exhausted and at a loss for words.
- I keep thinking back to the four times I’ve been in the hospital with a brand new baby. I’ve felt delighted, scared, shaky, rashy, giddy, relieved, nervous, and overwhelmed with every breath. I’ve held my baby, or babies, and thought, “Well, hello there! I’ve waited so long to meet you, little one! Hello, hello, hello. Aren’t you perfect? Yet somehow so ‘you’ already, not what I pictured at all! Isn’t that amazing? Now here you are, and I love you desperately even though I’ve only known you for seconds. I’m going to hold you forever and never let you go!”
- Then they roll you to a semi-private room where visitors appear. Pictures are snapped even while your stomach is manipulated and your IV adjusted. You attempt to feed your baby and are mystified by how unnatural it seems, how clumsy you both are together. You wonder how mankind continually survives the sheer turmoil and energy a baby entails. Until finally a night nurse appears at your bedside to ask whether to take your baby to the nursery for the night and you sob with relief. “Yes, please. Take her!” you gush, giddy and guilty in the same breath, practically throwing your fresh little bundle into her arms. All you can think of is closing your eyes, two hours of rest. “Good-bye, little one….Come back in a bit.” Aloha, baby.
- English does not contain one word that encapsulates all of these emotions as they wash over you simultaneously like a huge wave. No single word captures the feeling you have as you sit in the broiling sun waiting for your son or daughter to appear at their school’s promotion and someone’s thirty-dollar balloon bouquet twirls into the air long before the graduates have even appeared on the field. This happened this morning at my son’s school, while an entire sea of parents gasped in horror and watched the bouquet silently blow away. The colorful words, “Congrats! Graduate, 2011” bobbed in and out among the clouds like a child’s brightly colored sailboat peeking through the bubbles in the tub. “There they go,” I mused sadly. “What a sad yet cheerful sight.” I wanted to stand up and shout, “Who knew a balloon bouquet could be so prophetic? Whether we like it or not, long before we’re ready, our children are up, up, and away!” Aloha, son.
- The Japanese have a word that sums up these beautiful, yet imperfect moments where life engulfs us in a dizzying display of growth and decay simultaneously: wabi sabi. No word in English so succinctly acknowledges that nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect. And therein lies the beauty. The cracks are where the light seeps in.
- Life is full of balloons taking flight before we’ve let them go. Life is full of stops and starts, new beginnings and painful goodbyes. A commencement ceremony is the public acknowledgement of this. We gather together, under the broiling sun, with cameras and balloons and flowers, to say aloha, and make sure our kids know that aloha doesn’t just mean hello and goodbye. It also means love. And so we clap and tread water for just a moment, hugging them close before they go swirling away on a rising tide. Aloha, Wabi Sabi.
It’s official. I’ve hit a new personal low.
I’ve joined the high blood pressure club, of all things. For years I’ve ached to get out of the house, join a group of like-minded individuals embracing the devilish delights of life. I’ve intended to do this, day after day, from a snug spot on my couch. While all I really embrace is a rather devilishly divine tub of Ben & Jerry’s New York Super Fudge Chunk.
Now here I am at the doctor’s office, alongside roughly 68 million other Americans, trying to shake my new inner self-portrait: Chunkaholic. I remind myself to eat less, do more. Breathe slow, run fast. Sit up straight and just sign the forms, already! I silently chastise myself for not joining the mile-high club or Oprah’s Book Club instead. I squint down at my hands, swollen and puffy like crescent rolls straight from the oven (mmm..that sounds good!). I need reading glasses, too, after forty years of perfect sight. I have sudden bouts of insomnia. Worst of all, I consume too much caffeine, or so I am told after a cold, thin-fingered breast-exam. The veins in my legs throb as wildly as my heart as words like blood clot, stroke, arthritis, diabetes are lobbed in my direction. I want to scream. “I’m not playing this game, remember? I like to sit on the side-lines!”
But I’m in it to win it whether I like it or not. Waiting for my score. Finding out how I rank. Wondering where I go from here.
I eye each thin, young doctor who looks me over and makes these startling pronouncements with a large spoonful of skepticism. Have they had five children? No! I think I’m doing just grand, after all I’ve survived. They aren’t impressed. Not one of them claps when I brag that, clogged arteries or not, I can still do a cart-wheel. Mostly these doctors scoff at me in all my pasty plumpness. They measure and weigh my bits and parts, then poke and prod, only to finally size me up as scornfully as they would a Hostess Ding-Dong (mmm…that sounds good, too!).
My primary care physician cuts right to the chase. “Walking kids to and from school is not ‘exercise enough’ for a person of your stature, Mrs. Kirk. Neither is folding laundry or loading the dishwasher.” I’m told to take up exercise “for exercise sake” – pronto! Upon hearing this I rise from the medical slab in my rustly paper gown and lunge towards a bottle of prozac nestled in my purse. Dr. Mathews grabs my hands and sits me back down like a disobedient child. “Losing weight is accomplished by following a wondrously simple formula, Mrs. Kirk,” she says. “At it’s core it’s : calories in<energy output=weight loss.” She writes this down at the top of her clipboard then underscores it – twice. Then she rises and leaves the room.
I take off the paper gown. I swallow a prozac. I set the formula to memory. At home I vow not to purchase any more Super Fudge Chunk until I no longer see myself as one. I shove my little ladies into a sports bra, grab the kids, and head towards Bunny Hill. “Exercise for exercise sake!” I repeat maniacally in my head. I let my girls play at the playground while I attack the hill, running straight to the top ten times in a row. For each pass, I repeat a numbered slogan that captures my mood:
- One is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do…by yourself, Super Chunk.
- Two be fat, or not to be fat? That is the question.
- Three entails the beginning, middle, and end…You’ve got the beginnings of a double chin and your middle’s hanging over your back-end, Lady. Step It Up!
- Four…When angry, count to four; when very angry, swear. Piss Off, Chunkington!
- Five Guys Burgers & Fries. Off-limits until you no longer answer to any name resembling Fatsy McFatterson.
- Six degrees of Kevin Bacon. Mmm – Bacon!
- Seven deadly sins: wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony…that’s you, Miss California Super Fudge Chunk!
- Eight bits make a byte. Add drinks and dessert, and it makes a night.
- Nine rhymes with dine, which is fine, especially with wine.
- Ten….I need to take ten. Whew!
Completely exhausted, I sink onto the grass to recuperate. Eventually my breathing slows and I cease seeing spots. Instead the spots morph into bunnies. At the edge of each hedge, hand-sized furry brown Leporidae nibble and chew as eagerly as Homo Sapiens at a Soup Plantation.
As the sun sets atop Bunny Hill I realize it’s dinner time for one and all. “Can we get milkshakes at McDonalds?” one girl asks as we head home. I shake my head. “Nope. From now on we’re going to act like these bunnies. We’re going to nibble on carrots and leafy greens and then hop straight into bed.”
All three girls groan. “But milkshakes are better than carrots!” another whines. “And way better than green stuff!”
“Yes,” I nod. “But milkshakes lead you astray. They insert you into life and death games you don’t even realize you’re playing. Suddenly, with no warning, you’re walking around town like Miss California Super Fudge Chunk. And I don’t want any of you girls to end up Miss California, or a Super Fudge Chunk. I want you to be like the bunnies on Bunny Hill – constantly on the look-out for predators and eating from the Earth.”
The girls roll their eyes. At last Annalise perks up. “I know! We can get Shamrock Shakes. They’re a bit bad, but a bit good, too, because bunnies eat shamrocks!”
I admire this reasoning. She is right. Life is better when you can have it both ways – a bit bunny, a bit McFlurry. But one day you can’t. One day your score in medical terms is 40-Love and you are told the game might be over sooner than you think if you don’t get some fire in your belly and lob the ball back over the net.
And so, for today, I play. And I try to win. Because watching my girls skip down Bunny Hill against a back-drop of pink-tinged sunset is worth the effort.
My children have one week of school left. Hooray! This is our final weekend of homework before a nice, long break. All we have to do is study for two spelling bees; locate 12 different text books and library books and turn them in; study and pass six finals; volunteer at a park play date; register three kids for new schools; supervise one day trip to Knott’s Berry Farm; and attend two separate award nights and graduation ceremonies. Not bad for one week!
Obviously school is a lot of work for everyone involved. I used to be an elementary school teacher myself, back when my two boys were toddlers. At that time I began teaching second grade in Corona, California, and I was as eagerly optimistic, frightened, and naive as an eight-months pregnant first-time mother.On the Friday before school began, I briefly met the principal who smiled and shook my hand and handed me a big, blue notebook with all the district rules printed inside. “You’ll need to review this,” he said cheerily. Then he turned to go. “Nice to meet you, Mrs. Kirk. We’ll see you Monday!” Apparently that was all the inside information I needed to be a bona-fide teacher. Whoa!
I went home and spent the weekend making bus-shaped name tags and gathering books to read to my class and writing an introductory letter for the parents. I briefly glanced at the district rules notebook. I felt somewhat prepared but mostly just sick to my stomach.
Monday morning rolled around and I arrived at Promenade Elementary School early. I was given the keys to my very own classroom. Nothing prepared me for the drab, uninspired, empty shell of a room that I entered. Every wall was covered in black bulletin board paper with nothing on it. All the cupboards were locked except for one, which was empty. The windows were mottled and blurry and didn’t open. There were some textbooks stacked on the back table, language arts books, but nothing else. The teacher’s desk was basically empty as well. There was no stapler, no scissors, no paper, no pencils, no pens. There were no computers, no bookshelves, nothing. The only useful items in the room were some broken pieces of chalk left beneath the chalkboard.
After a quick, horrified assessment, I walked back up to the front office. “Excuse me,” I stammered to the secretary. “I don’t understand where all of my supplies are? I don’t seem to have any paper, or pencils, or crayons, or text books except for language arts…”
Pat smiled at me sweetly and swiveled around in her chair. She grabbed a big, black notebook off a shelf. “Here you go, honey, this is the district supply list. You get $200 twice a year to order supplies, and the order form is in the notebook. It takes about two to three weeks for the supplies to come in once you turn in your completed form to me.”
I looked at her aghast. “How am I supposed to teach for the next two to three weeks while I wait for supplies?” Pat shook her head sadly. “You’ll have to borrow paper and pencils from other teachers. Here’s some paper I can give you for today. And there are no math or science text books, just manipulatives. If there are no bins of manipulatives in your room I will try to locate some for you.”
I returned to my blank classroom with a meager stack of paper and some borrowed pencils, feeling defeated before the first bell had even rung. None-the-less, at 8:58am that morning, the school year officially began. I spent an hour getting to know my new students, and then, feeling lost as to what to do next, I told them we would take a tour of the school. We practiced lining up in two straight lines and off we went down the hallway. We traveled about thirty feet when I stopped. I had glimpsed the inside of another teacher’s room and couldn’t help but stare, mesmerized.
This teacher, Ms. Dallas, had the most colorful, enchanting classroom I’d ever seen. Kids artwork hung on all of the walls. Framed collages from her previous classes lined the top of her file cabinet. A painted bookshelf at the front of the room burst with books. Nearby sat a white rocking chair complete with an ABC stitched seat cover and a #1 Teacher pillow. But the object that took my breath away was the room-length map of the river Thames that stretched over her blackboard along with a life-sized plaster bust of Shakespeare that perched at the front of her room like a literary mascot.
As I took in the scene, I felt a wave of pity for my students. Here they were, stuck with me, a first year teacher with no supplies and no script and no Shakespeare bust. Mercy! Could we all transfer to Ms. Dallas’ classroom? As I stood there fighting back tears, Ms. Dallas motioned for her students to rise. While my students and I watched from outside the windows, her entire class performed the Pledge of Allegiance in American Sign Language!
It was all too much. I hurried my students down to the empty black top where we played an uninspired game of Red Rover. The rest of the day passed in a blur, as did most of that entire year, given that I had little guidance and even less gear to teach with. As June rolled around, I found myself amazed that I had made it through the second grade in one piece. I was truly sad to say goodbye to my students, even though I never could quite shake the feeling that what they learned from me was not nearly what they deserved.
On the last day of the school year a sweet student named Tiffany presented me with a home-made card. It was a big, cut out heart, and on the top she had written: To Mrs. Kirk -The Best Techer In The World! My eyes filled with tears. Never had a card been so apt, so illuminating, so perfectly able to summarize a performance. In school, just as in life, sometimes you are given treasure, and sometimes you are given trash. Tiffany made me feel like we’d both found a bit of treasure amongst the trash that year.
People who train to become teachers are buoyed by knowledge and compassion, both of which the world needs in greater supply. It’s a profession that deserves more support, not less. It’s a job that should entitle the holder to financial security and an esteemed place within society, not a white-knuckled, agonized ride on the fringes of poverty.
Because teaching is hard. Even for the best techers in the world.
“We had also once had an ebullient pig named Helen, who would come when you called her name and smiled like a dolphin when you spoke to her. And then we didn’t see her for a few days, and one morning over bacon and eggs, my brother said, “Is this Helen?” I dropped my fork and cried, “This is Helen? Is this Helen?!” and my mother, too, stopped eating and looked hard at my father: “Bo, is this Helen?” The next pig we got we never met and its name was #WK3746.” – Lorrie Moore, ‘A Gate At The Stairs’
This quote illustrates how hard it is to bond with something that has no name. Farmers understand this, apparently, but not so classical musicians. Why did the great composers of yore not give more of their works meaningful names? Oh sure, there’s Beethoven’s Symphony Number 5 in C Minor, Opus 67 or Mahler’s Symphonie No. 9. But I’m so much more attracted to something with a descriptive title – Debussy’s ‘Clair de Lune’ for instance, or Sibelius’ ‘Karelia Suite’, or even Holst’s ‘The Planets’. Composers like Erik Satie knew to name an odd little piano piece with an off-beat, charming name like ‘Truly Flabby Preludes For A Dog’. Now that I want to play – and hear!
It is rare to meet another person as enamored of names as I am. Most people don’t sit around pondering a words’ origin, popularity, or appeal. I do, quite obsessively sometimes. I might even be what’s called an onomamaniac – one who has a passion or compulsion for certain words or names and their supposed significance. And really, as a writer, this is not so strange after all, since names are simply words that have crystallized over time into titles. It’s rather like a biologist obsessing over proteins, or a chemist pouring over compounds.
As such I name everything. My car is Miss Messy. My home is The Mouse House. My children have long-winded, ‘pompous’ (according to my mother) names on their birth certificates. Now my sister is pregnant with her fourth child, and I routinely shout out a name now and again, just to see what kind of reaction all eight of our offspring give it.
The other day I asked, “How about Marco?” Each and every kid replied enthusiastically, “Polo!”
“What about Ivan?” I called out next. One girl wrinkled her nose and said, “Huh?” while a teen-age boy shot me an eye-dart. “Really, Mom? Like the ho?”
Nowadays children are named truly random things – Zuma, Moxie, Ptolemy, Dervish. But none of these unique names will be appreciated until the bearer is past high school, I guarantee. At heart, most kids really yearn to fit in, and if you ask any one of the eight kids I see on a daily basis, they will tell you to name the baby one of the top twenty most popular names of the day and be done with it.
This does not sit well with me. “How about Constantine?” I asked my sister’s son Noah yesterday. “That’s a strong name, and we can call him Keen as a nickname!” Noah scowled. “Auntie, how about a normal name?” he pleaded. “Like Tom….or Jerry.”
As of today this new baby remains nameless. Every time I throw out a name my sister gags and rolls her eyes. “Quiet, please. I’m going to be sick!” Obviously she has not bonded properly. I say we open up bidding to local companies willing to pay for naming rights, such as “Glennie’s Office Products”. If stadiums can do it, why not? As my mom always says, “Be a trend-setter”.
Until a winner is announced, or my sister stops retching, I guess he’ll be #92BN10102011.
Can you imagine a world without men? No crime and lots of happy fat women. ~Sylvia, by cartoonist Nicole Hollander
After perusing the news today, I think it’s fair to say that most men waltz through life having their cake and eating it too. Women merely lick the frosting and then go retch in the bathroom.
Powerful men like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Dominique Strauss-Kahn have both been accused of ‘boorish’ behavior towards women for decades. I love that word choice. As if raping, impregnating, harassing, or tieing up someone else for your sexual gratification is somehow just ‘uncouth’ or ‘ill-mannered’ of you. With both of these men, their ‘lapses of judgement’ have been documented more than enough times to establish a pattern. Even so, headlines still scream, “Could DSK Have Been Set-Up?” Um…no. Wise up, people! At long last these two men are having to come clean and step on the scales of justice.
Of course most men don’t have quite as much power as these two men had. Or as much money. And I don’t believe for a second that most men treat women in any sort of criminal fashion. But most men do have the basic luxury of simply being men. They are the bread-winners, the movers-and-shakers, the Lotharios, the ‘deciders’ of this world, as one such inexplicably powerful man once famously said. While women, women are supposed to bake the cake, serve it up, then shy away from eating a piece. We all know it stays on the hips forever.
In almost every circumstance, unless you are a man who is a governor, movie-star, lives in two different places, with two entirely different sets of ‘staff’, and two completely separate families as well, women’s lives are more hectic than their male counter-parts. Arnold really does skew the statistics here! In general, however, women are expected to do more, with much less money, than their male counterparts, each and every day. And this leads to worry.
Men worry on occasion – about particulars – while women just worry, period. Men only fret about their car running out of gas if it is happening at that very moment. Men do not hesitate to screech across three lanes of freeway traffic in order to catch an off-ramp. Men do not tense up if they are driving during a particularly fierce rainstorm, nor do they necessarily even slow down.
Women slow down even when it isn’t raining. Women slow down because they worry about everyone’s safety. They slow down because they are trying to remember all the things they have to do. They slow down to look in the mirror to see how they look while they are worried about doing all the things they have to do. They slow down to check on their wallet and their kids and the other cars zooming by, and to read the road signs so that they know where they are going, so they can look good while they worry about paying for everything they need to do.
Men operate differently. When a man has a child who is crying, he thinks, “the child is crying”. When a woman has a child who is crying, she thinks, “What did I feed her for lunch? Is that rash on her legs flaring up? Has she had a nap yet? What time did she wake up this morning? Do I have all the poisons put away, or did I leave ant spray on the counter? Goodness, her face looks puffy! Should I take her to the doctor or call poison control? Has she had a BM today? Maybe she just needs to sit on the potty! Where is a potty?”
This vast difference in worry levels is the same no matter where you’re at in the day. Take grooming. Men get out of bed, shower and shave, then leave. Rarely do they even speak unless they need to find something. Women fret and turn in circles all along the way.
“Which yellow? Mustard or butter? With the polka-dots?
She tied it on the teddy bear. Right there on the shelf.
She wanted you to take it to work, that’s why. Remember?
That’s just sand. From the beach.
Last weekend. Remember?
I’ll put it on my list.
Don’t run through here right now, girls.
I told you, it’s wet and sandy and the iron’s set up.
Young man, I said clean underwear!
Turn away, then.
If you don’t want to see me naked, don’t come in here while I’m trying to get dressed.
Yes, other people iron naked, too. I guarantee it.
Can you let me finish brushing my teeth before you do that in here, please?
I need to sign it right now? Where is it?
How do I sign it then?
Five dollars? Look in my wallet.
Stop crying. He’ll take Mr. Teddy tomorrow.
What is that? Right there?
Don’t step on it!
No, that’s not sand. Now where is the damn dog?
The whole time you’re doing all of that, you’re trying to find shoes that atrophy your feet, mascara that clumps your eyelashes together and makes them fall out, concealer to cover up the worry lines all over your face, and a bra that will hoist your little ladies up and make it seem like you never had all these damned kids in the first place.
While your man walks on out the door, leaving you there, screaming and half-naked, worrying about it all. Don’t even get me started on child-birth or pregnancy or society’s primordial focus on beauty at the expense of all else. I’m already strung out for the day. I contend that if Albert Einstein had been a woman, she would have had some serious plucking to do on those eyebrows before anyone would have focused any of their attention on her theory of relativity!
Of course, we do need men in the world. Who else would turn off the fire-alarm when it beeps in the middle of the night? Who would install World of Warcraft III on the computer, or figure out how to explain ‘mental telepathy’ to a four-year-old? Who else would tell your teenage son how to access the family bank account while Mom’s off in the back room having a nervous breakdown?
Truth be told, women silently think none of those things are all that important to begin with. A world without men, with no crime and lots of happy fat women sounds pretty darn good sometimes! Almost as good as a piece of cake. Or one of your kids bringing you a cup of tea and saying, “Mom, tell me – why did Mr. Rochester keep his wife hidden in the attic away from Jane Eyre?”
Yes, it’s great to be a man. Until justice crashes your party. If only justice weren’t so chronically late.
At one point in my life I had two small boys who were best friends, and a little girl. My sister had two boys, too, who together with my boys formed a motley crew. My little girl was the caboose on a long, lively boy-train, and I worried about how she’d make it up the mountain-of-life without a sister to push her along.
I decided, with infinite wisdom, to have another child. A girl. I was determined it would be a girl. A sister for Annalise. What it turned out to be was exactly what I wanted, and more. It was twins. Twin girls for Annalise. And for me. Boy, were we both in a for a wild ride!
To begin with, to be handed two babies at once is to be gifted with a lot of baby. Imagine bringing home two brand new cars on the same day. It would seem excessive to most everyone. How would you decided which car to drive on which day? What if the cars looked exactly the same? Got the same gas mileage? Which one would you clean first? How would you possibly choose between them? How would one manage financially, with identical, hefty car payments?
Today, my girls are almost eight years old. They look alike. They grow at nearly the same rate. They reach milestones at remarkably similar times. They are, and have always been, surrounded by the same voices, toys, walls, and influences as each other, day after day, year after year. Yet they are becoming very different people. Which seems incredulous to me, given that they are, on a cellular level, clones. Juliet makes daily lists of her goals and chores while Katriel makes puppets and sings in a quivery voice.
And that is where the challenge as the mother comes in. Because different people need different kinds of boundaries, encouragement, and love. And because life is just not fair. Ever. Even for two people who look exactly alike, grow up side-by-side, and burst into laughter at the same moment.
This morning Juliet ran into my room at six am. “It’s Brio’s birthday today, remember?” she cried excitedly. Brio was her cat – a birthday gift received two years ago. Brio’s sister cat was Zuzu, gifted to Katriel. The cats were twins, too – litter mates. But last year Zuzu ran away. Immediately I sensed this would not be a good morning for Katriel.
And it wasn’t. While Juliet fed Brio a birthday breakfast of dry tuna, Katriel wept. “I miss Zuzu,” she wailed, inconsolably. Juliet empathized with Katriel, but couldn’t contain her excitement at Brio’s big day. “He’s two now, right, mom?” she asked. “I’ll make him a little crown. Do you think he’ll wear it?” Katriel took paper and pencil and made a colored name tag that said simply ‘Zuzu’. She filled a bowl with dry cat food and put the little name tag on top alongside one unlit candle. This she set on the front porch, hoping against all hope that Zuzu would magically return.
I had no idea how to mother these two drastically different scenarios. I tried to console Katriel, all while helping Juliet celebrate Brio’s day without it becoming obnoxious. It was hard. One girl was clearly ‘up’ while the other was most obviously ‘down’. Which way should I head, upstairs or down?
Which leads right back to the basic dilemma. Life is not fair. Money and luck and opportunity are not doled out to one-and-all in equal amounts, no matter how identical your paths might be. The best I can do is spend my day trying to run upstairs and downstairs in fits and bursts, and make sure I pause on the landing long enough to shout loudly, so that both girls can hear – I love you, two.
Today was good. Today was fun. Damon and I kayaked around Dr. Seuss’ old neighborhood – La Jolla – the Jewel in San Diego’s crown. From Theodor Geisel’s former front yard – the Pacific Ocean – we traversed the length of the La Jolla Underwater Park, a protected marine sanctuary that stretches from the Scripps Pier down to the Children’s Cove. In between lies a protected kelp forest; seven wild, frothing sea caves; a upcrop of jagged, eroding sandstone cliffs; and rows of lean, lorax-looking palm trees.
La Jolla has always been a stunningly beautiful place. The wealth poured into the area over the past century has made it a world-renowned destination. But for all of the man-made upgrades – manicured lawns; million-dollar beach-front mansions; the esteemed Scripps Institute peering down like a wise, benevolent guardian from the hilltop above – Damon and I were still out of our element. Suddenly, we were on the sea, ‘ the unfathomable sea’, as Robert Louis Stevenson said, and I was apprehensive.
A kayak tour implies skill. Some athleticism. An adventuring spirit. None of which I’ve ever possessed. Endless veins of worry coursed through me as I tried to pull on my wetsuit. I would fall out of the kayak. Split open my innards on the craggy rocks. My sister’s inane fear of whales was a prophesy, and one of the mighty beasts would swallow me up like Jonah after all. It didn’t help that my blubber was as uncooperative as an unrolled sleeping bag, determined not to be crammed into the black, insulated suit. As soon as Damon succeeded in zipping me up the zipper split open spastically, as if capable of bursting into laughter all on its own. A bigger size was sheepishly requested, and retrieved from a room in the back.
Down at the water’s edge it was cold. Rainy, even. Jordan, our 22-year old tour guide, pushed us out beneath the gray skies and over the frothy waves with a laugh. ‘Relax, now. Have fun. Everything’s good out here. You’ll see.”
Damon jumped into joy immediately. “Woo-hoo!” he bellowed as our kayak arced sky-ward, over the breaking waves. I shot sea water out my mouth and spluttered, “There’s no whales, right?” Jordan paddled easily. “Not in this area. The kelp forest keeps out large predators, like whales and sharks, which is why there are so many sea lions here.”
Out beyond the break, I began to relax. The wet suit was holding me in, and keeping me warm. A cormorant caught a fish and ate it right in front of us. Sea lions barked and tussled with one another in the water not more than ten yards away. And that really was Dr. Seuss’ front yard right in front of us, the long, lean, lorax tree swaying every-so-gently in the rain.
We entered a sea cave and I was enchanted. “It’s just like the movies!” I thought. Then I reprogrammed myself – “No, Blue Lagoon is just like this!” Jordan took our photo with a waterproof camera and I actually felt a bit athletic and adventurous. And happy. We cruised over to the kelp forest and paused in the now calm waters.
Suddenly, with no warning, a sea-lion jumped out of the water, up between our two kayaks. It’s face was even with Jordan’s, and I saw him arch back in surprise. As the sea-lion splashed down underneath the water Jordan shrieked, “Holy Shit!” Damon and I gasped, too. Then we laughed. I couldn’t believe it. The sea-lion had emerged exactly as I had imagined the whale would, only I hadn’t been afraid. Rather, curious. “Is that really a sea-lion, right there in front of my face, checking us out?”
Sea lions swim silently at speeds of up to 25 miles per hour, and for this reason they are used by the US Navy to attach clamps to underwater saboteurs so that the suspicious devices can be hauled in for inspection. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/6653439/US-use-sea-lions-in-terrorism-fight.html What with their excellent underwater eyesight, as well, it is certain this sea-lion knew our kayaks were there. He was curious and keen to look us over – hence the silent, stealthy, “who are you?” attack.
This reminded me that we were in his yard, not ours. He had every right to check us out, didn’t he? The debate raging in La Jolla now is whether sea lions ought to be able to take over the Children’s Cove exclusively, or whether it should be preserved as a place for humans to swim and lounge. As Jordan told us with a laugh, “I don’t doubt who will win in the long run. The most protected animals in this sanctuary are the Homo sapiens.”
Adrift on the sea, I began to wonder: just who was out seeing whom? They say that possession is 9/10’s of the law, and obviously everyone would like to possess a bit of beachfront these days. But you can’t truly own a beach even if your house is parked there. Erosion and sea lions will still come a-knockin’. At some point a partnership of sorts must be arranged. If Damon and I want to pop down to La Jolla and cruise out into the water to check out the sea lions, we better be prepared to have them scope us out as well. If we want to stay married for nineteen years and kayak through the waves together, we better figure out how to row in synch. If we want to enjoy this planet, we better find a way to tread gently upon the Earth and share it with the rest of its inhabitants.
Today was good, today was fun,
A sea-lion met us in the sun
We rowed on by the lorax tree
Of Dr. Seuss, and you, and me
Yet now we’re tired, the day is done
Tomorrow is another one.
Another chance for you and me
To hold the hand of all we see
Today was good, Today was fun
Tomorrow is another one.
To share your yard, to share your tree
Good night, Dr. Seuss –
from little me.
“When Manuela arrives, my loge is transformed into a palace, and a picnic between two pariahs becomes the feast of two monarchs. Like a storyteller transforming life into a shimmering river where trouble and boredom vanish far below the water, Manuela metamorphoses our existence into a warm and joyful epic.” –The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Muriel Barbery
This morning I checked the mail, and inside amongst the ads and bills I found a tiny treasure just for me – a hand-written card from Monica. My dear, life-long friend Monica. The card was brief, just a jot to tell me she was in Chicago visiting another beloved friend Laura, and that she was pausing for a moment in a cafe’ to tell me, in her own words, how much she enjoyed reading the little red blog.
It was a sweet, simple gesture that made me smile. The front of the card was simple, too. It read: “to affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of the arts.” – Henry David Thoreau.
As I have always admired Monica’s intellectual prowess, this quote was quite a compliment! Throughout our school years together, Monica was placed in separate classes from me as she was ‘gifted’. I was often tested for the gifted program, but routinely found to be ‘main-stream’. No worries, though. Monica and I enjoyed each other’s company, and we met up at lunch, in dance class, or in one or another’s homes. We both were voracious readers. Monica’s favorite subject, even in fifth grade, was Thomas Jefferson. I had no idea who he was. I’d browse her bookshelf, mystified by ‘Ben Franklin of Old Philadelphia’ or ‘John Adams Speaks for Freedom’. Who are all these boring, dead men? I’d wonder. I read Judy Blume and Danielle Steele. She read ‘Heroes of the American Revolution’. On our first meeting ever, at a piano recital, the teacher begged each student to curtsy when they were finished playing. I had no idea how to curtsy. My guess was to bend over at the waist in a bow. Monica, in a home-made billowing dress, easily dipped her knee to the floor while tipping her head graciously low. She and her sister made a picture of such tender elegance, curtsying in unison, that my mom later told me, “I felt like a failure as a mother after witnessing those two girls!” It was as if Monica had grown up in Buckingham Palace, while I was raised in the seedy suburb of Clairemont, California.
Now, some thirty years down the road, for the symbolic queen bee of my childhood hive to curtsy to me, tell me that she enjoyed reading what I wrote – well! “La, Dee, Dah!” I cheered inwardly.
But more than Monica’s vote of confidence, I was touched by the simple token of friendship. Nowadays a hand-written letter among friends is a rare thing indeed. Monica works at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C., but travels extensively, and as such I have soundbites from her galloping her way through the wildest parts of the world. (All the thumbtacks on the world map hanging in her office highlight where she’s visited). I’ve had postcards delivered from a hut in Mongolia. A letter written in the moonlight on a boat moored off the coast of the Galapagos Islands. I’ve seen photos of her scaling the steps of Machu Picchu and traversing the wilds of Tanzania. I’ve kissed the Blarney Stone with Monica by my side, and dipped into her chosen entrée of Wild Boar Gnocchi at a posh restaurant in Vancouver, B.C. Whether I’m with her in person or spirit, Monica’s given me a ‘First-Class’ view of life, and it is an awesome improvement from Coach, most certainly.
Now, as I walk home from school with my girls, I clutch the little letter in my hand. My girls don’t ask about it. They are too busy telling me about their new class pet – a cage full of caterpillars. Their science theme is The Life Cycle and they are both eagerly awaiting the day their caterpillars morph into butterflies. Then they’ll set them free. As we walk and talk, I notice birds building nests frantically. The afternoons are staying lighter, longer. The world is morphing right before our eyes, I think.
And Monica, my friend who’s always transformed my life “…into a shimmering river where trouble and boredom vanish far below the water…” sent a little letter that changed the quality of my day.
Today I gave our dog Hazel a haircut. Her fur was matted around her cheeks and eyes, and I feared she couldn’t see. She was patient and obedient throughout, like any dog, but it didn’t help. I butchered her hair. She ran and hid under the coffee table as soon as I was done.
“What happened to her?” Katriel cried forlornly after school. “Why is she bald and zig-zaggy?” I told her forget the dog, hair grows back, right now we needed to go. To the library.
We met Cannelle, Jacob’s native-speaking French tutor, in the lobby and she whisked him away for ‘amelioration‘. The girls ran towards the computers and courtyard. I picked out a book and settled into a cushy chair.
The first three pages of A Spell of Winter recounted the death of beloved Uncle Joseph, back in Ireland in the late 1800’s. Joseph’s mother sat by her dead child for days while the community brought more and more flowers to try to hide the smell. Soon the entire town begged for Joseph to be buried, but the grief-stricken mother could not bear to physically part from her son. At last the townspeople forcibly shoved the mother into a closet, while two brothers rushed poor, stinky Joseph down the creaky, narrow stairs. Unfortunately they failed to navigate a tight bend in the staircase, and Joseph’s body slammed into the wall. With a sickening pop, Joseph’s arm broke loose and tumbled down the stairs, solo.
Well! This was quite a story. But just then I noticed two exterminators talking to the librarian. I lost interest in Joseph and his flailing arm and wondered what rodents were nibbling through these stories, too.
As I eavesdropped, a young mother passed, clutching a little girl and an infant in a chest carrier. Just as she crossed paths with the exterminators, she stopped and warned the toddler in a loud, shrill voice, “I need you to stop picking up dirty items off the floor and putting them in your mouth, OK, sweetie?” She said this as if she expected her toddler to agree whole-heartedly to the request. When the toddler did not, she bent down, her infant swinging precariously close to the floor, and shoved her fingers into the child’s mouth.
I realized all manner of humanity was on display right here at the library, if I focused on the present-day dramas and not just those printed on paper. One guy wore a t-shirt that read, “The Dear Hunter”. That phrase really set my mind to work. Was this guy searching for a smart, obedient spouse…at the library? Whoa! Or was the phrase more sinister? Might he be a sniper sent to kill someone else’s spouse? Hmm…
I wandered some more and spied an enormously pregnant woman engrossed in a huge tome at rest atop her bump aptly titled, HEADACHES. Alan Case typed earnestly on his lap-top, emblazoned everywhere with ALAN CASE, TARBELL REALTORS, ALANFORREALESTATE.COM. Groups of teens huddled together, texting and talking, while their books and laptops gaped open with such headings as AP Statistics; Human Anatomy; Neurochemical Substrate. One lady stared intently at The Polarization of Light. I noticed my own son laughing with Cannelle and gesturing wildly, like a true Frenchman might, albeit without a cigarette. My twins wore headphones and played ‘Phonics Frenzy’, while Annalise and Elizabeth walked by, silently wording numbers as they bounded around the edge of the library arm-in-arm, like Laverne and Shirley.
“What are you doing?” I whispered. “We’re adding up the perimeter! 522 feet so far!” they giggled.
I left them to it and walked over to the Computer Assistance Volunteer, a young guy with a nice smile. I asked him to tell me the craziest thing that had ever happened in the library. He told me about Cevdet, a Turkish man who had come in desperate to learn how to donate a kidney after having had his own son saved through organ donation. I thought back to Joseph and his wandering arm. “Were you able to help him?” I asked. The CAV nodded. “Yes. But it took a surprisingly long time to figure out how to donate a kidney!”
After an hour passed, I gathered up my children and drove home. I felt a renewed sense of optimism. Maybe Jacob wouldn’t flunk French! Maybe the world is a decent place. Maybe libraries will remain free, tech-savvy havens, where people intent on raising their I.Q. share space with stories that stay with you for a lifetime, sometimes.
Just like Hazel, my poor, shorn dog who greeted me on my return. I was reminded of why I adopted her last year. Her worded description did me in. Who can resist the phrase: Mainly Couch Decoration With Occasional Bursts of Pep.
That phrase is why I brought Hazel home. They’re the same string of words I imagine might be whispered about me, as I’m carted down the stairs and out the door for the last time. And they’re why I got up off the couch this afternoon and went to the library. For my Occasional Burst of Pep.
My mother Mary was born in 1938, on the eve of WWII. To this day, she believes that the poverty and panic felt all over the world at that time were actually bred right into her bones as she lay incubating. She claims her mother, my grandma Kathryn, was so poor and desperate during her entire pregnancy that all she had to eat were boiled eggs and coffee. Thus, when little Mary was born, she was already riddled with sickness and sorrow and a life-long aversion to milk, preferring instead straight, black coffee even as a small child.
My mother is seventy-three now, and despite her life-long struggles with maladies and melancholia, she is still going strong, still sipping black coffee. And if she’s not nestled in a Percocet haze, she’s still full of anxiety and advice, some of which I actually take to heart now that I’m a mom, too.
Here are the ‘Golden Rules’ of life, as gleaned from Mother Mary:
Be a trend-setter – If you have the nerve to ask, “How do I look?” be prepared for this answer. Even if you are a chubby, self-conscious teen-ager; or a newly engorged breast-feeding mother trying to stay in your top, this is the only response you’ll hear from Mother Mary. A response that’s wildly off-key most of the time. But one I find myself saying to my own offspring now. And meaning. Because the whole point of life is to get to the point where you don’t care if you fit in or not.
Speak Well, And Often – My mother was not keen on the art of listening. “So boring!” she’d cry, forlornly. What she admired were tantalizing talkers. “Somebody needs to say something! Might as well be me!” she’d laugh. “If you’re going to tell a story, make it interesting. And use correct grammar!” I grew up believing Mother Mary might actually have been a Native American spirit-girl in one of her past-lives. I had no doubt that she talked to a pirate hanging off the mast of the Jolly Roger each day as she drove to work. Mother Mary taught me that every person has a story to tell, even me.
Be Humble and Gracious and Worthy of Forgiveness – Mother Mary was in charge of all the Sunday School performances when we were growing up. On the day of one Christmas production, the manger that was meant to hold baby Jesus kept breaking. Right before the show she loaded my sister and me into the car and drove to Home Depot. We ran down the aisles until we located a single screw that would hold the manger together. Then we raced for the check-out line. But it was clogged with people waiting to check out. She pulled us two girls to the side and motioned for us to bow our heads. Covertly she whispered, “Dear Lord, please forgive us for taking this screw, but we need it for your little manger.” Then we ran out of there, the stolen hardware in her pocket. In the car my mother said, “Don’t worry, girls. The Lord will forgive us. He understands.” And then she giggled wildly all the way back to church. And we laughed, too, and believed what she said. Because that’s the essence of Christianity, right?
Play the Piano – This is just common sense. And good manners. And required ‘personal growth’ for a red-haired Scandinavian-American.
Be Prepared…to Change Your Mind – Back in the early 90’s, my mom needed a new car. My sister Lorraine went with her to pick one out. When they arrived at the dealer’s car lot Mother Mary walked straight over to the salesman and said, “I’m here to buy a new car. I want it to be blue and it must have manual window rollers. Don’t try to sell me anything with those new-fangled automatic buttons.” When the salesman tried to interject about the superiority of automatic windows, my mom cut him off immediately. “When I drive off the Coronado Bridge some day I need to be able to unroll the windows and swim on out of there, don’t I?”
The salesman eyed her, stunned. Very quietly he asked, “Why would you drive a brand new car off the Coronado Bridge, Ma’am?”
And without a moment’s hesitation, Mother Mary said, “I think about driving off that bridge every day of my life, young man! One of these days it’s bound to happen, and when it does, I want those manual rollers….Just in case I change my mind at the last-minute! Now let’s see what you have.”
The salesman closed his mouth and led her straight over to a light blue car with manual windows while my sister cringed with shame. Mother Mary bought that car on the spot. And nobody questioned her willingness to drive off the Coronado Bridge. Or change her mind.
Wear Some Lipstick! Her words on this ring loud and clear: “You have to wear lipstick. You just have to. It lifts up your whole face. And goodness knows you girls need all the lifting you can get!”
For my one and only Mother Mary, such wondrous words from ancient worlds bestow blessings and sweet comforts on you, this day and always:
Hail Mary, full of grace
Our Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou among women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb…