Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Second Chance

Sometimes the time machine appears, magically, without my even calling for it and I am so grateful.

Yesterday the cell phone said I was running out of voicemail space, I didn't even know I was saving voicemails so I started deleting then scrolling backward, how many messages did I have? And I find Nora again from three years ago, asking me to pick her up at the Rock House after practice. Her voice is so pipped and high again, she is nearly chirping. I'm reading the Columbine book by Dave Cullen (against my greater instincts but the writing is so damn good and the structure is so marvelous -- how could he take all this horrific information and make sense out of senselessness but we will remember and know the victims now, thanks to his work) and he says the mothers could not stop hugging their surviving kids, even when that was no longer what the kids needed. I'll never erase this notes.

I can't sleep until the girls turn out their lights, I just can't, I feel anxious until they are out of their bathrooms and in bed and one night it was so late and I hear Nora get back up out of bed and I called out, "I really wanted to go to yoga tomorrow morning!" which was crazy but crazy is the name of the game in this kitchen renovation disarray with all the furniture and boxes and innards of the kitchen and living room shoved into the front dining room which except for the bedrooms and baths, is about all the rooms we have in this house. That night I was trying to sleep on the couch for reasons that are too complicated to get into and are extensions of the general insanity, but I will say it could be a refuge of minimalism in this mess, this tan and velvety piece of furniture left in the empty echoing living room.

Nora appeared at the top of the stairs, silhouetted against the second floor hall light and said nothing and I called out again, not in beddy-bye soft voice, oh no, I'm still shouting, "It's midnight! You should be in bed!" and she comes down the stairs without a word and stands over me and then says, "Can I sleep with you?" and my fatigued anger crashes down in ashes on the floor and I open my arms to her and she puts her head on my shoulder and falls asleep while I breathe in her hair and wonder wonder at my blessed fortune to have one more night with her precious self. My child, my dear child, returned to me from the abyss of sarcasm and annoyance and silence and locked doors and doubt that separates the mother from her teen daughter. Good night, good night, amen amen, thank you thank you thank you.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

I stood like a penitent, head bowed, hands clasped and low. I could see my chest and my shirt jumping from the heart beating within, jagged up on adrenaline and fear.

Go away, September.

Too many awful things to process, unsolvable problems I cannot fix.

Bad bad memories being dragging back into the light.

And dear Rebecca ill.

And Dave Smith's sudden death.

And a child sent away.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Spiderweb Summer

The Saugatuck rental house, the first of two on our August vacation, overlooked a broad expanse of Kalamazoo River wetland and had an outdoor shower on its north side. The morning was overcast but I still wanted that open air chill-hot frisson so I took my towel and the little travel bottles of shampoo and conditioner around the corner of the house. Overhead were trees trees leaves leaves green green and a spider's single persistent strand. His work gleamed like a cord and barely moved in the breeze. So strangely thick and strong it seemed that the next morning I was actually surprised to find it gone, as if I had forgotten that spiderwebs do not last more than a day.

"I'm taking the girls to my childhood vacation spots," I told a friend, "It's healing." Last summer Randy and I ventured into the Ozarks, not too far, but far enough to relive the hillbilly fun of Silver Dollar City. I had fantasies of picking wild blueberries with the girls in the Minnesota Boundary Waters but Campy Gatlinburg and the sleepy Smoky Mountains may be more our speed next summer. Now we were heading up to Crystal Lake where young Sally and I had a sandy idyll with her parents the summer of "My Sharona" and The Cars' "Let's Go."

Our cabin in the Congregational Summer Assembly family camp was a 110 year old Sears prefab with a pocket kitchen, original wiring and that sweet enduring smell of decades of woodsmoke. The current owner brought his three daughters here summer after summer since he bought it in 1959, said the printed history catalog of the camp next to the couch. The echos of the choir practicing for the weekend's production of The Sound of Music drifted up the hill. Every window was filled with the sight of enclosing pines but from the back porch where we had one lunch in our bathing suits, you could peek a sight of blue Crystal Lake through the trees. I could feel the happiness this place had brought its visitors and I could picture little ones scrambling up the built in ladder to the sleeping loft under the rafters and stepping down the steep winding stone path to M-22 and the beach beyond.

Are abundance and loss oppositional or can you entertain them both at the same time? When I took the girls to Gwen Frostic's studio, it was shocking how little had changed. Gwen has passed and the printing presses were still but the gentle clerk said they were only shut down for the afternoon. Here was the same wooden rail where I stood, watching the presses at work, but really thrilling inside at the glance I had caught from a boy in the shop who was not the boy who my stomach had been aching over since the beachside campfire at the Chimney Corners resort where I was staying with Sally and Aunt Joan and Uncle Bob. And this Gwen Frostic boy, a stranger, appears next to me at the rail and I'm rushing with girl joy and we talk side by side, watching the roaring presses for a minute and before he steps away to go away forever, he gives me a quick squeeze, an entirely welcome one-armed hug around my waist. But this was not the boy who liked me at the resort, this was a second miracle. TWO boys!? What wonders! I go from no boy to two in a single August week and it is only much later that I realize that my summer teen vacations may have been planned by the adults to avoid confronting the early August anniversaries of our family Hibakusha, the double bomb craters left by Chris and Nancy's deaths in the August 6, 1976 car accident outside Gravois Mills, Missouri. Now here it is, 42 years later and Nora is one year younger than Chris when he died and Mia is one year older and I take a photo of their playfully insouciant faces at the site of that unforgettable and cherished half-hug from an unnamed boy. And I placed another layer of goodness over the grief.

They will bicker and bitch on this trip, make up and go at it again. I will complain that they are not helping me pack up the car and they will drag themselves off their phones and down the hill to the parking spot with their loads of dirty laundry. We'll spend an afternoon at the ye olde farms of the Port Oneida Fair outside Glen Arbor and my heart will tilt at their few fleeting moments of scorn-free attention as the costumed volunteer helps them rub a wet shirt on a washboard, then squeeze it through the ringer.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Summer Tasks

Stitch. Poke the needle through the fabric, pull the floss taut to the knot. Wrap the thread around the needle three times. Hold the end tight, but gentle, gentle! Pull, pull the thread through its embracing self, pull all the way until a tiny tight rosette appears. Or a loose messy tangle. Either way, keep going because you have promised yourself not to waste time on cutting out the errors. "God hates perfection" said your embroidering mentor and so you go on, warts amid the precision, admiring the way your work maps the progression of your skill as well as your effort.

Peel off the dragon that Mia once wanted on her wall, piece by piece, a blue archipelago of sticker, each tiny piece its own island on the sea of the wall, sometimes an image appearing in the random bits, "Oh look, Mia, a dachshund!" as a silhouette appears. Know the painter could probably strip or sand this off in moments. Resist the urge to care. Make a mental note to reread "The Yellow Wallpaper" to compare the experience.

Weed. Embrace your banning of broadleaf herbicide and enjoy the sound of buzzing bees and the scent of clover as you search for the buried vines of creeping charlie spread across the yard. The long green tendrils are as narrow as a grass blade but tougher and you need to use two hands to keep the narrow stem from snapping as you hold with one hand, search with the other for the snaking path it has laid at the edge of turf and lawn.

Cull the Legos. Sort the toy boxes into a semblance of order, group by game and type, gather enough pieces of Playmobil and American Girl to pass on to another child. Revel in the excited chatter of the little ones who take it all away.

Pack. Empty each drawer, shelf and cabinet in the kitchen as we prepare for a total remodel. Toss as much as you can, sentimentality be damned except for the girls' artwork and those tiny ceramic mushrooms I made in Girl Scouts, the ones that sat on Aunt Ruth's window sill over the sink until my last visit when she urged me to take them home. Wonder if the new window you are cutting into the wall to place a sink beneath is an extreme effort to capture a childhood glimpse of four seasons as the warm water runs over your hands.

Love the days of incremental tasks, undertaken with faith in far away results. Keep going. Keep the faith.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Rando Summer Media Stuff

Something I learned from making Blue Apron recipes: Add salt and pepper at every step when you add a new ingredient. It adds so much more flavor than just tossing in a little dash and grind at the end. And when you're cooking, don't forget the thousands of Latin American families separated at the border. It may ruin your appetite but how do the meals of peanut butter on a tortilla or a still-frozen sandwich that detention centers are feeding the incarcerated children sound?

Wow, you won't believe this weird and amazing fact I learned from Time magazine -- did you know if you leave mushrooms outside in the sun for an hour or so before you eat them, they will become a great dietary source of Vitamin D? The effects become even more potent if you chop up the mushrooms before setting them outside. Who knew those little sponges could soak up more than olive oil? Who knew that some of the government contractors who are housing young immigrants are forcibly injecting them with non-prescribed medications to subdue the children? Who knew that an investigation by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting found that nearly half of the $3.4 billion paid to 71 companies that receive funds from the federal government to house and supervise immigrant children deemed unaccompanied minors in the last four years went to homes with serious allegations of mistreating children?

This may not be the most popular opinion this week, but I didn't really like the new movie Incredibles 2. We had just watched the original a couple of days ago before we saw the sequel on Father's Day and I was reminded how stellar the first Incredibles film is.  The story of an intact and loving family of superheroes sets so high a bar that even a valiant effort to recreate the magic cannot come close. Not that director/writer Brad Bird does not try really hard -- he keeps most of the original characters and their interpersonal relationships that we saw previously, but unfortunately just kind of cuts up the beats and pleasures of the first movie and re-arranges them like a toddler's blocks. 

The family fighting over who takes care of baby Jack Jack? Here it is again. 

The disembodied voice of Frozone's wife? The Incredibles 2 does the same bit again, but this time without Honey's power and humor. What a wasted opportunity to make a black woman an actual character.

Walking back into Edna Mode's living room under the bas-relief of ancient Greek warriors? Nearly the exact shot is repeated. (You would think au courant Edna would have redecorated already.)

Even the line "That's my girl" is said again in the sequel but played this time, it seems, just for old time's sake rather than to express any of the emotional depth and honesty we see in the original. When Helen uses these words to praise her daughter at the climax of the first movie, Violet has just made a force field to protect her family from Syndrome's exploding ship. In this context, "That's my girl" expresses so much: a mother's pride in how far her daughter has come to accept her powers, her place in her family and herself and an acknowledgement of how hard won that acceptance has been.

Watching this scene again, I can't help being struck again with the pain in Helen's voice as she watches the stupid evil big-haired villain flee with her baby. "He's getting away, Bob! We have to do something, we have to do something now! Throw me! Bob, THROW ME!" screams Holly Hunter as Helen and the raw panic in her voice feels like what mothers everywhere are feeling about this wicked administration, their brutal and racist policies toward asylum seeking families, and our helplessness in the face of the awful knowledge that babies, toddlers, small children don't know where their parents are and our government tore them apart without keeping records of where they are.

I know, I know, good sequels are hard to do. I do have a recommendation for a better sequel of sorts, a continuation of the themes and moods you loved the first time around: the FX series Atlanta's "Teddy Perkins" episode is a worthy follower to Jordan Peele's movie Get Out 

Sad-eyed Lakeith Stanfield, who sports the straw fedora and yells the title phrase in Get Out reappears in "Teddy Perkins," this time just looking to pick up a free piano. On his way to that innocuous errand he encounters similar strands of persistent dread, racial anxiety and social tension that Peele so brilliantly wove together in his Oscar winning film. You will not be able to stop staring at the Teddy Perkins character -- a creepy Michael Jackson-like recluse with a underlying sweetness. We kept rewinding to watch his scenes and when Randy told me who was under the makeup I could not believe it. Easier for me to believe is the fact that federal contractors are making millions off the abusive immigration policy that incarcerates families who desperately cross our southern border

Follow the money and see where it goes, says the song and I turn back to the gobsmacking Truth of Ibram X. Kendi. 

"Hate and ignorance have not driven the history of racist ideas in American," Kendi writes in his National Book Award winning Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. "Racist policies have driven the history of racist ideas in America....Time and again, powerful and brilliant men and women have produced racist ideas in order to justify the racist policies of their era, in order to redirect the blame for their era's racial disparities away from those policies and onto Black people....Racially discriminatory policies have usually sprung from economic, political, and cultural self-interests....Capitalists seeking to increase profit margins have primarily created and defended discriminatory policies out of economic self-interest--not racist ideas....The beneficiaries of slavery, segregation, and mass incarceration have produced racist ideas of Black people being best suited for or deserving of the confines of slavery, segregation, or the jail cell.

Racism isn't mean people; it's a profit machine that drives American industries.

Hiro Murai directed the "Teddy Perkins" episode of Atlanta and it was utterly cool to find out he's also behind two episodes of HBO's new so so so good series Barry, about a sharpshooter hit man trying to become an actor in LA. Bill Hader from SNL rocks the main character role and comes across somehow equal measures of terrifying, innocent, deadly, earnest and naive. The pleasures of this show go on and on: Henry Winkler's exhausted realist of a drama teacher, his respectful yet ardent wooing of Detective Moss, the hilarious cluelessness of the other acting students, the gentle Chechnya gangster with alopecia Noho Hank. Hiro Murai's brilliant direction of the episode "Do Your Job" creates a quiet massacre that turns melee and I can't help but think of his Japanese heritage and our country's shameful history of interning loyal American citizens of Japanese descent and our continuing and surpassing that history with the government-sanctioned evil happening now.

But you can't talk about director Hiro Murai without talking about his video for Childish Gambino's "This is America" and everybody's talking about "This is America." Or they were the week it dropped. Our attention spans are short and our heads our spinning. The news is whiplash-inducing from one hour to the next (Melania visits the children at the border! Is she a hero? Melania wears "I don't care" on her back! No, she's complicit.) Which appears to be Murai and Gambino's point in their video: Smile at the sinuous dance, groove to the beat, gasp at the violence. Rinse and repeat. Some call the dance a distraction, yes, and I will say it is also sustenance. The joy keeps us going because the unrelenting reality is that we are in a nightmare. The video is so perfectly attuned to the atrocity cycle of our country right now that it seemed to become instantaneously iconic. Now I'm jolted to hear the melody in a store (!) -- how can one separate the images from the music -- it feels like it's not even a song, but a fully realized work of art that I love but can't bear. Art is our access to emotions and situations foreign or far from us: it is our gateway to empathy. "It's Sophie's Choice!" we gasp about the news from the border and if a Hollywood movie, a music video, a television show is how we understand and prepare to fight an incomprehensible situation, please let us do so.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Thirteen Again

My oldest turned thirteen but that was two whole years ago and then I turned around and my little Nora suddenly had turned into a teenager too.

A long time ago the middle school teacher whose social studies class I had just observed told me, "sixth grade is Paris cafe society; seventh grade is Beirut" and it's not so much the new teens' viciousness that makes the maxim true as the stark contrast between the new rough tall now and that disappeared childhood that was here mere moments ago.

I can even trace the change to a single day. February 14. Valentine's Day, she buys a Walgreen's heart shaped box of chocolate and writes her phone number on a card. "You have to put your name on it, too!" I urge her and so does her father but she ignores us and slips it anonymously onto a certain boy's desk so he has to text her and ask, "who is this?"

(They don't call, they text. When I confiscated Nora's phone last week and told her she had to call her friends on the landline, she was all, "How?")

So Valentine's night I read Nora's and the boy's texts because that's my job and when he asks, "so I guess you like me?" and she says, "yes, do you like me," my heart crumbles down and when he says, "yeah, sure," I DIE. It's that brave impartial self-protective "sure" that slays me and when later after an even more awkward exchange he texts the word "oof" I'm jolted back in time because that's what a boy I knew would say.

Surprise, the young man Nora chose turns out to be kind and intelligent and gentle and when he surprises us at the front door one Sunday afternoon I am pleased, not pleased just because of the flowers he has brought our terrified girl (who just happens, in a perfection of awkwardness to be taking a shower in the downstairs bath next to the front hall when the doorbell rings) but pleased because this is the one rare night that I have actually made dinner rather than assembled leftovers or ordered in.

And when I invite him to stay and he accepts and praises the flank steak and roasted potatoes and leaves enough creamed kale and rolls for me, I am smitten. Not with the boy, but with my new role -- the girlfriend's mother. No, wait. The mother of the special friend.

After dinner in the kitchen they go into the living room and stand next to each other by the table, looking ahead, not at each other, talking and listening, talking, talking, so much he has to say to her, words spill out of him and she is "yes yes yes," who knows if they even know much about each other but to find a person who gets your weirdness and isn't scared or repulsed but drawn to you because of it not despite it. Ah. Aaaaah. I remember.

Nowadays she's as silly playful wise silent poised affectionate buoyant driven as she has ever been but also?

Thirteen. It's anarchic and precious. Tough and resistant. Sarcastic. The tenderness of twelve is just close enough to remember and also to wonder at how far gone it is.

She picks up the ukelele and in six days teaches herself Radiohead's "Freak" and a little ditty by
Cavetown called  "This is Home" that the whole family can't stop humming.

Often I am upset that I cannot fall in love but I guess 
This avoids the stress of falling out of it 
Are you tired of me yet? 
I'm a little sick right now but I swear 
When I'm ready I will fly us out of here 

Ooooo, I'll cut my hair 
Ooooo, To make you stare 
Ooooo, I'll hide my chest 
And I'll figure out a way to get us out of here