Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Invisible Distance

. . .surely grace flowed between us as we flung away certainty, and said yes to the unknown, out at the edge of light, where it ends, or becomes more brilliant. --Andre Dubus

I’m borrowing the title of this blog entry; it’s a title of an unpublished essay written by my Oldest Friend. The Dubus quote opens it and I thought it was fitting for my own story of migration. Something that’s been on my mind a lot lately as I see the end of school years looming ahead on the horizon and we can decide, without a need to consider anyone else, where to live. I was relating this to OF a couple of weeks ago and her exquisite answer was: “Would you really leave. . .after Beav graduates? I don't think you realize how rooted you might be there. No doubt the long winter has worn you down. I remember in Kearney having to cut all the spring flowers in bloom because of a freak late frost. I have read these lines over and over and my answer is simple.

I don’t know but I think. I think I want to find out what it means to migrate rather than run away. I want to see if the light is more brilliant on the edge of the unknown just like my oldest friend has done. Oldest Friend lives terribly far away from me but she is--in these ballyhoo technological times--a phone call, skype or email away from me. OF migrated a few years ago to New Zealand. A big brave move on her part. NZ is so incredibly far away so when I told her we would be visiting Cambodia early June I realized I would only be a quarter world away from her rather than half a world. She feels like people have forgotten her but she is never far from my thoughts. Now she is working on a PhD exploring migration. This process is an academic migration for her to and she is setting out in the wilderness of different disciplnes vastly different from the comfortable enclave of Creative Writing. We met when I was nine and she was almost eight. OF’s family migrated all over the world and now she herself is one prone to migration. Both our families had reluctantly moved to Albuquerque for the sake of Dads’ career. It’s just what you did in the 60’s and 70’s if you were climbing the government ladder. OF lived across the street from us and I’ll never forget the day she came over to see if I would like to play. Her mother had sent her over and when I look back on this; how ballsy of her to just show up. What if I hadn’t been interested in books and ballet and dolls? What if I had been some sort of Tomboy or a psychopath who tortured kittens? If that had been the case, our migration story would have never unfolded. She would have stayed at her house avoiding her mother’s vodka infused wrath, reading books and writing stories; while I played ball with the boys or hid in my closet safe from my sister’s mood swings, venturing out only to torture kittens. Divine providence for me, I loved to dance and make up stories and use my imagination over and above toys; as did she! OF made those three years on that wind swept and naked mesa bearable. Later, she made my early days of motherhood bearable and the last year of my marriage survivable. Once my sister and I were laughing about Albuquerque---that fake laugh-so-you-don‘t-cry-laughter--and Mom stepped into the conversation: “Oh girls, I think those were the best years of our lives! Your dad and I felt like we had made it!”
“Where the Hell were you living? Dad worked all the time, Sister suffered her first major depression and we lived in the middle of a terrible desert that was either too hot, too cold and always without fail, windy.” My mother’s cluelessness took my breath away. Since that time, one of my beggy prayers is the boys let me know just how crappy their lives are, if they are crappy.

I spent half a semester in a writing class exploring those years and how and I spent a year in therapy trying to figure them out. I remember telling my therapist it was like someone had taken an atom bomb to my family; Sister--in her defense--found herself dropped from a fairly backwards small town school in the South into a progressive school in the West. A recipe for rebellion that had the added flavor of the social upheaval of 1970 sprinkled all the way through it. But over and over again, the one thing that surfaced in both my writing and my therapy: OF was the anchor that tethered me. Rather, she helped offer me an escape from the terrible arguments between Sister and Mom; Mom’s own depression, Dad’s necessary absence, my own feelings I had been dropped into the wrong family. I know I was her life line as well; her family was in a greater disarray than my own. When I look back on those years, it makes me cry to think about OF’s own Mother and the losing battle she had with alcohol. J was such an intelligent and talented woman but she was sick and her sickness became the fulcrum of the family’s malaise. Being so young I was only becoming aware something was deeply wrong with her shortly before we moved back to Texas. A few years ago, I wept over the memory of an afternoon at OF’s house and J’s unspeakably humiliating behavior towards her children. I can’t remember what happened afterward this particular episode but I’m sure we left in a confused rush and tried to lose ourselves on the mesa: a place I hated because of its emptiness but loved for its refuge. The winter of 1971-72 was particularly difficult at my house: the arguments between Sister and Parents were at a fevered pitch; mom spent a lot of time on the couch. It was dark and snowy. One afternoon, I’m not sure why, but me and OF decided to walk into the mesa and were going to see if we could get lost. We walked away from our back wall (we were still the last street in the city at that time) and into the mesa towards the foothills. I remember stopping almost a mile from the houses, at the base of a road which ran from one side of the mesa to the other--Tramway Road--and still, despite snow that was blowing and swirling, I could see that stupid house. It was hopeless, I couldn’t leave them, and they would always be there in the distance.

Years later, I purposefully moved away from Them and yet I could still see and feel them in the distance. Always. That’s the amazing thing about migration. You take bits and pieces of that first family with you, no matter how intact or fractured it might have been. Just like the people who have migrated from us via death, they live with you. That home lives in you. I have a mesa that lives in me. Whenever I’m stressed or overwhelmed I dream about the mesa. Sometimes it’s the prairie outside of Lubbock and other times it is the mesa in New Mexico. As an adult I have learned to appreciate and embrace the inherent spirits of those vacant mesas outside Albuquerque and love the sage filled mesas of Taos County which have become almost a spiritual refuge for me. Hindsight has taught me it was a gift to live on the edge of suburbia because we had that magnificent wild place to spin our stories and create separate different lives for ourselves. We spent entire days in the mesa, exploring arroyos, catching horned toads and shouting into the wind. Before Albuquerque, my wild space was the Big Thicket near Houston Texas the antithesis of the vacuous mesa. I believe William Gass wrote an essay many years ago about the importance of wild spaces in children’s lives. I feel like a poster girl for such theories because I know spending the day in the woods or on the mesa helped my imagination fly. As much as I hate to admit it, rediscovering the mesa, albeit in Northern New Mexico, taught me there was a lot of there there. So much that I can’t stop writing about it or thinking about it or finding new ways to frame the experience of discovering the first member of my tribe: the woman who helped me mold my imagination; challenge the exploration of my gifts; and make me think about and learn from the Big Medicine lessons in our lives. Migration is Big Medicine.

I contemplate and dream about migration whenever I feel stagnate in some aspect of my life and sometimes its my children or my career that throws me into a rant about selling everything we own and leaving without a forwarding address to just get the Hell away from this place; ninety nine percent of the time I am that Thing blocking my path. Travel serves as migration away from the things which frustrate me about my life which is probably why “re-entry” is hard for me. Because when I get back: the same things wait for me. A career that no longer delights me and teenagers which are threatening to bleed my soul through my right ear. I have only myself to blame for these two things which makes it all the more teeth grindingly difficult to face all over again after two measly weeks away from my daily routines.

Sometimes migration, forced or voluntary, physical or psychic takes us to ourselves: our true selves; not the person Mommy or Daddy or society wanted us to be. That happened to me years ago as a young adult. But usually, migration is simple movement because in the immortal words of Buckaroo Banzai: “No matter where you go, there you are.”

Monday, May 24, 2010

Contrary to What My Family Believes...

...I ain't dead yet. No sirree DAWG! I iz alive and barkin' and beggin' for all sorts of head scratches and bits of food. The moms got me some new medicine a couple of weeks ago and I feel like a young pup! Hooah! as my boy would say. Good thing this medicine worked and it takes like hot meat from the outside stove because I was a gonner. Lemme tell you, I could barely move around for the coughing. I sure was gonna miss everyone, too. Me and my boy Buddy have way too many dogs to bark at, squirrels to chase, bunnies to nom and Magpies who need payback.

Mommy called the payback thing: Karma. So today I was taking my second after breakfast nap (I didn't say I was all better, Ima old dog with the Cee Ahtch Eff and need frequent naps) when all the sudden Mommy appears at the door with a treat! A treat!! Yeah! ThatiswhatIamtalkinabout Yay! If Buddy had been over we would be doin' chest bumps! But as I'm hoisting this old body up off the cool grass I notice a big bunch of sticks that reminded me of the time I moved the woodpile into the middle of the yard because that was a better place for it and I was bored when I was a puppy...good times...good times...anyhow, what was I talking about? Oh yeah, the big pile of sticks. So I decide the treat can wait and start ambling towards the sticks when Mommy starts screaming at me like she did when I had the little Not-A-Bunny-But-Like-A-Bunny in my mouth.
"Kipper get away! Get. Away. Now." she used her big mean Mom voice I hear when I've run away or one of my boys does something he isn't supposed to do.
Shoot, she always ruins the fun, doesn't she? Resistance was futile as she hauled me into to the house by my collar. Giving her the dying dog look with a little gack cough didn't change her mind,and making myself weigh as much as the mastiff down the street didn't work either. I don't understand Mommy, she gives me chicken skin, pop corn and crackers if I ask for them but she wouldn't let me sniff the baby birds in the nest near my favorite pee tree. Because I really just wanted to, you know, sniff them. It's not like I'm a cat and I've been told I have a 'soft mouth'. So I'm in the house and what's an old dog like me supposed to do? I got my favorite blue baby 'saur and walked from the front of the house to the back about eleventy million times hoping and thinking someone would lose their patience with me and just let me back outside. I was hoping Other Mom would come home and not see the big pile of sticks in the back yard and just let me outside so I could further, you know, investigate the situation with the fragrant birds. Didn't happen and no matter how hard I stared at the big window that opens, it wouldn't open.

Mommy talked into the little black box thing and found someone to come and take care of the birds and the nest. I tried to tell her I would be happy to take care of them but she wasn't paying any attention to me. Then told my other boy to take me upstairs when the doorbell rang. Upstairs? When the doorbell rings? That is so not my style or my job? My job is to make sure everyone who comes into the house gives me an ear scratch and possibly a belly rub! And this is the thanks a dying dog gets for his decade's worth of love and devotion. I have to go upstairs to bed and miss all the excitement. So I stayed put by the back door and was real quiet hoping I would become invisible. I was about to fall asleep when I noticed my two arch enemies poking their heads into the big pile of sticks where the little birds were! Those little birds belonged to my enemies! I had the perfect oppertunity to avenge the years of taunting and abuse I had suffered at their wings so I let Mommy know just how I felt and tried to say: "OH THE INJUSTICE OF THIS WORLD!! THOSE EVIL FOOD STEALING BIRDS THAT TEASE ME CAN PLAY WITH THE LITTLE BIRDS WHY CAN'T I?"

That's when Mommy leaned down and gave me an ear scratch while she explained Karma to me. "It's Karma, old boy, What goes around comes around...those naughty birds won't tease you anymore, now will they? Serves them right, losing their six children to bird rescue after the way they treated you. I bet they won't tag team your food and water ever again!"

I hope she's right because I'm feeling better but the old ticker isn't what it used to be and I can't be running after those pesky things. What a day. What a day and a half! I need a nap.

If you're in the 'hood give a holler over the fence and I'll bark back! For the time bein' at least. Can't keep this old dog down. Nope not the poison berries, the big moving car or the garage door or even the Cee Ahtch Eff with "pro-found card eomaglea"


Kipper the big-hearted dog and that ain't no metaphor, neither.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Mother's day

Yesterday was Mother’s Day and I had to work which really wasn’t any big deal because it wasn’t like Ward had thought to take Beav out and help him find something for me and Wally doesn’t have any money. Beav was busy all weekend with his Ultimate Frisbee tournament and Wally was just busy being nineteen. So yeah, there wasn’t a brunch missed or presents that had to wait until late last night. But they did call me while I was at work and even Wally’s friend--I’m electing to nickname Eddie Haskell--wished me a Happy Mother’s Day. Despite a lack of boy prezzies, the Universe gave me the gift of an unscheduled morning as Beav spent the night at Ward’s while Wally was at Eddie’s.

I didn’t bother to sleep in but instead got up after TG left for work at OMGyouhavegottobekiddingme o’clock; puttered around the house and then hit the yard after it was warm enough to forego a jacket and hat. Ms. A has reported to me we are going to have another summer like the last: damp and coolish. I can’t say I’m completely disappointed as it will just mean fewer tomatoes and the possibility of growing giant broccoli. The peas I didn’t think would grow are about three inches tall, too. My hot MILF friend suggested I find a four year old to plant them for me but I didn’t have to go to such extremes after all. Hopefully by the time we are home from Cambodia I will have peas to harvest. Today, I did have radishes, salad greens and spinach to harvest. It was pretty darn exciting to begin separating my little radish plants and discover six ready to eat. It took about five minutes for the serotonin to kick in and a small smile to spread across my face as I pulled the relentless little weeds which have poked their evil little heads up in my garden. I was almost giggling with joy as I separated the radish plants. Usually little jobs like that make me impatient and can lead me down a short path to Frustrationville but today it was satisfying to gently untangle the little plants, which threaten to choke one another, and replant them further apart so they can breathe and grow.

As I was sitting on the ground in the garden, gently pulling apart the plants and contemplating what I was going to do with all that Oregano and delicate French Tarragon, I realized how therapeutic creating my beds and garden had been for me last spring. I think working my hands in the dirt, turning soil, planting and tending my new perennials and shrubs last spring helped me move through the loss of my mother. My gardens aren’t a tribute to her and she didn’t really enjoy gardening all that much. We always had nice flower beds and well tended lawns but that was just what you did. She didn’t spend hours with seed catalogs or plant charts figuring out what would go where. Nor did we have a bounty of flowers to cut and bring into the house or give as gifts or tributes to others. The beds and the lawn were just what you did as part of taking care of a house. I’m not sure where I got this yin to garden and grow things. I’m pretty sure it was born out of the same duty I felt to this house. Only my duty turned to passion. Kismet. And a serendipitous event which probably saved my heart last spring and summer as I moved through the fresh and raw grief of losing a mother. I thought about her all morning as I moved from the garden to the flower beds. She would have enjoyed the salad I was going to make tonight and I know she would have offered suggestions for the tulips I cut and just sort of jammed in small bottles. Twirling her hands over and around them so they were arranged just so because she was gifted like that. Gifted in ways I’ll never be. Thinking about the gifts I didn’t inherit from her made me a little jealous and sad when she was alive. Until recently, remembering them made me feel lonely and a little lost inside. I must confess, when I do sit at the sewing machine if I ask for her guidance the sewing always goes better. Better. Not great. Not even up to a level of Ruth Mediocre. But much better than ripitout and startallover. Perhaps teaching myself how to garden, through trial and error versus classes and reading, has helped assuage the lost feeling because I’ve discovered my own gift, one she didn’t possess. Or even care to possess.

I am a planner but I couldn’t have planned this expansive gift of healing the yard and garden has given me. Nor could I have conceived who happy I would be with a new step-family my father has harvested by simply allowing his heart to grow and open as a result of his own grief.

Once again the Universe has proven to me the heart is limitless and there is always room for one more or three more or in this case about ten more people. Two weeks ago, we went to south Texas for a party celebrating Dad and Marcia’s wedding. What a lovely family he has given us, too. We got to meet, and in a small way, get to know Marcia’s children, grandchildren and her own siblings. It was also a chance for me to get to know Marcia whom my own mother loved very much. We spent most of a day, sitting quietly together in the backyard, a soft breeze cooling the sunshine for us as I asked her question after question about her family and her children and her life. Poor woman must have felt interrogated or like she was having to pass a test or something but really I was just curious and frankly hungry to know this woman who has made my father so deeply happy. I thought Mom’s death was going to be the death of Dad but instead he chose a path of renewal and rebirth. I wanted to become close to the woman who had the ability to do this. Again, hoping this gift of love and inclusion would rub off on me. Dad has become a different person with Marcia. There is a joie de vivre I have never witnessed in him which is what someone who has worked hard all their life should experience in the autumn of life. Another case for the existence of Karma.

The day after TG returned home I accompanied Dad, Marcia and our old family friends on a tour of the Franciscan Missions in South San Antonio. I tagged along behind them snapping pictures and gawking at old stones and icons. Being the only “youngster” on the outing allowed me to observe my father and step-mother. They reminisced about the many other times they had seen these places; each a separate lifetime ago, each respectful of the other’s memory, both secure in the idea they were making a new memory together which neither negates or trumps the past experience. Which made me realize it’s ok to love--and I mean love--Marcia in that place I had my own mother. It’s not replacing my mother or her memory but just adding to my heart.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Mall Rat

Beav had a Young Life thing to go today in Stepford so I took myself to Stepford Mall. I was really excited about going, too. To begin with it was a great excuse to NOT finish the laundry or clean the house or go to the gym. But it also felt like some sort of event. And it‘s not like I‘ve been sitting at home staring into space for the last week or so. Or shoveling coal in the mines. We spent a week in Texas looking at all sorts of wonderful things. And my return to work didn‘t make me want to hack up a lung or gouge my eyes out so I couldn‘t work ever again. I’m no stranger to the mall, I was there a couple of weeks ago buying something to wear for my stepmother and father’s party in Texas. And I can’t make some claim I don’t like going to the mall so I don’t shop. Wow! I can’t imagine the email Dad would send fact checking that statement. One would have thought my fourth hour class, senior year was held at the local mall. I enjoy shopping most of the time and I had such an air of expectation today because I was buying things for other people--not my kids people either--versus the painful process of trying to buy myself clothes. Once upon a time I was skinny and now I’m all doughy and middle-aged and frankly bordering on fat so buying clothes isn’t fun anymore. Besides that, all the sudden the clothes at places like Express or The Limited look trampy and the ensembles at Talbot’s are looking good. Today, a wave of depression swept over me seconds after I said: “ohhhhh I like that green dress” in the direction of a Talbot’s window display. I think this makes me officially old. I might as well get out the polyester pant suits, buy three packs of high waisted gramma panties and call myself done, right? Thank goodness Anthropologie has some cute things--palate cleansers as it were--that weren’t too precious or young and would look ok on an almost fifty year old. If the almost fifty year old weren’t bordering on fat. If the almost fifty year old could justify spending $158 on a cotton picque dress. If this almost fifty year old didn’t need to buy a silk sleep sack, waterproof walking shoes and a camera bag. I know that adorable little dress, which reminds me of something my mom would have have worn ro a barbeque in 1968, won’t keep the bed bugs off of me, protect my toes from ancient rocks, or allow me to easily access my camera in SE Asia next month. Two things I hate about being a grown up: the ability to prioritize needs and a sense of fiscal responsibility. Twenty five years ago? I would have bought the silly dress and limped through a trip with stubbed toes, prayed we didn’t have bed bugs in our hotel room and dined on ramen this week so I could have that dress.

This afternoon, I assumed the rest of the world is on a spending diet so it was an ugly surprise the parking lot looked like the day after Christmas. What the heck? There’s a recession on! Greece and Portugal just killed our stock market; we are engaged in two wars and Iran is acting goofy! Gas is about to go through the roof after a big accident off the Gulf coast! Why were so many people shopping? Maybe the weather? It’s May 2nd and we are still in sweaters and jackets with a threat of snow hanging over us, folks aren‘t working in the yard but pining after Ed Hardy shirts and shorts? I had plenty of time to think about all of this as I circled and circled and circled trying to find a place to park. I was thinking about the recession as I trekked towards the mall and remembered something my nephew (here after referred to as The Secret Squirrel) said about the economy: “When people stop buying all this useless shit they don’t need…that’s a depression.” The Secret Squirrel hit that right. But I did notice most people walking to their cars weren’t groaning under the burden of packages. While I’m hiking in from the back forty and spinning thoughts about Greece, junk bonds and the recession a young couple walked towards me. She was crying and hanging onto their toddler; he had a pained and defeated expression on his face, his body tense with anger, fists clenched as he swung his arms while he walked in long deliberate strides: “We are flat broke, that’s why we can’t do it. Broke. I don’t know what I can do to make you understand this. . .” They were dressed in modest and nondescript clothing and they didn’t have any packages or bags except a small Hallmark sack and it swung back and forth, a mocking and falsely cheerful footnote to their conversation. At first his tone and body language scared me but there was an air of reserve about him which told me he wouldn‘t hurt his wife and child. He wasn’t a big man but he had the bearing of someone in the military, muscular and cropped hair. I felt crushed inside: what if he was one of the many veterans who couldn’t find a job…Why the hell were they at the mall to begin with it they were so broke…Why are they so broke..Does one of them have a problem with compulsive spending…What did she want to buy? Was it for their baby?…They better not be buying Mother’s Day gifts because their mothers’ need to help them… Was she going to be safe in the car and at home with him?…My gut told me he wasn’t an abusive man but a man who was upset he couldn’t give his family all they wanted. My impressions and thoughts morphed into silent tears which spilled down my cheeks.

I had to sit on a bench before I started shopping so I could collect myself and have my daily menopausal weep. The young man’s desperate pain was not a foreign emotion for me; a knot of remembrance settled into my stomach and because I can’t turn the caregiver thing off, I wanted to rush after them, cramming all the cash I had on me into her hand; mumbling something about knowing what it‘s like to be “flat broke“. But I didn’t do it because the second after the impulse occurred to me, such an action felt incrediblely intrusive and ultimately embarrassing. So I opted for the Wayne Dyer solution: stopped what I was doing (except for the weeping) and imagined them both surrounded by a healing white light and then I prayed for grace and then I offered up one of those beggy Santa prayers: “Please God I don’t need a thing: give those kids everything they need and then some. Anything extra you had for me: send it their way. I have plenty.” I’m glad I didn’t force money on them because God can give them way more than the measly forty bucks I had in my wallet.

After I told God thanks for letting me treat him like Cosmic Santa, I dried my eyes and continued with my little shopping expedition: Borders (prezzie), Vickies (prezzies), Nordy’s (lippy for me) and Anthro (just for a peek, cuz I had extra time) But in each store I saw other people like those kids, while they weren’t arguing with one another they seemed a little tortured by those things they couldn’t have and going through the motions of enjoying the beautiful and amazing things at The Mall. The majority of the shoppers were joyless (except for the folks in the Apple Store). A few wore lost, vacant looks as they stumbled along their way. Brain’s numb from the excess of our world and the lifestyles of the White Suburban Middle-Class. In hindsight, it probably wasn’t my fiscal responsibility that kept me from buying an overpriced dress I don’t need but the sad and lost people cruising the mall on a rainy Sunday afternoon.