August 25, 2016

Maine, 2016


In August, I have three priorities (aside from those associated with parenting):

1. Clean house: ready kids' school clothes, get supplies ready, generally clean until I feel like I'm actually in control of all the changes about to take place;
2. Get ready to teach another year of high school English;
3. Find the threads of the summer.

The threads of the summer: the stories about what we experienced, what we did, where we were. The things kids write about in their "What I Did This Summer" essays. The stuff we try to journal about, or at least, document on Facebook so that there's a record, somewhere, of What Happened, Once Upon A Time.

These separate events, if I look hard enough, are usually (or unusually) connected. Like an old professor repeated bellowed at me:


Find the narrative of your life. 

Sage advice, John Conlon. Artwork,  Starla Michelle Halfmann

It took me a while (okay, most of my 20s) to get it, but what I think he meant was that all that great literature we read and study and teach and love is based in life, and because we are alive, our stories are great too. Only no one can see the arc of the story. We have to look for it while we're living it.
A quilt isn't really finished until all of the pieces are fixed, and a pattern is revealed. It's our job to look for the patterns. Find out how it all comes together. 

I was in Maine, last week, vacationing in a beautiful beach house with two old friends and their families. It was as laid-back as laid-back can get with six kids (ages two to seven). People ate all day (well, my people ate all day). We lazed oceanside, watching each others' kids. We day tripped to those small, coastal New England towns that are impossibly homogeneous. We gave in to many requests for candy and ice cream. We laughed a lot. It was my kids' first time at the ocean, so to watch them play in the sand, build sandcastles, catch waves with their small boogie boards, bury each others' feet in wet sand, stuff sand in their bathing suits, watch their footprints disappear with the wash of a wave... well, you get it. Priceless.

But a small part of me was unsettled. I can sit for hours on a beach, but that wasn't the problem. 

I hadn't found a thread yet. 

Until today.

Running amok between meetings and errands, I checked my email. A guidance counselor at the school had emailed me and several other instructors assigned to two sisters who spent the summer watching their mother die. 

The email was in part to let us know that the older of the two girls (both of whom I've had in English classes) was going to graduate early and take fewer classes this semester. While I prayed that she will stay with me in Humanities, I can't blame her for wanting to be home with her mom as much as possible. The end of the email implied that death would be imminent, most likely this fall. 

I love these two girls. They are creative, mature, whip-smart, strong, funny young women, the kind you hope to raise (or that one of your sons will marry). That they (or any young person) must watch their parent die is colossally unfair. And yet: it happens too often. 

(When she was my freshman, the older sister emailed me some pictures of an 100-year-old quilt, a family heirloom, her mother had kept beautifully. They had repaired part of it, recognizing a narrative in the quilt. Recognizing that without the pieces intact, the story was interrupted, fragmented. We were reading a short story by Alice Walker ("Everyday Use") in which a quilt has been passed down between generations: from grandmother to mother to daughter. One daughter sees the quilt as something to showcase on her wall, like an artifact. The other hopes to use it on her bed when she marries the local boy, a farmer. Both know that the quilt's value rests in its irreplaceability. The pieces that make up the quilt, like a piece of the great-great grandfather's Civil War uniform and the grandmother's aprons, represent the family's survival. What 9th grader randomly--and excitedly--emails her teacher one evening because she's excited to connect literature with her life? This one did.)

When I nestled my youngest to me in a towel, his lips bluish and teeth chattering from those icy, Atlantic waters, I put my lips to his wet hair. Salty. I licked my lips. I kissed his face, slick with
sunscreen. His head rested against my arm, and I rocked him, realizing that this boy we'd called "the baby" was no longer a baby at all. His legs dangled over my lap, his toes flirted with the sand. Taller today. I looked up to see my other two kids splashing each other relentlessly, over who got the boogie board, and resolved to take turns surfing. A first grader, a second grader. How they got so big, so fast, eludes me. Their hands hung on to the sides of the board; their legs dangled behind, kicking. They squealed with each push and whoosh and ride of the wave toward shore.







I remembered the time my father tried to teach me how to body surf on our vacation to San Diego and lost his sunglasses in a gigantic wave. We jumped waves together for what seemed like hours. His cheeks were bright pink with sunburn. 

When he passed away, it took a long time for me to recall his vitality. We had watched him die. 

This moment with my babies, I thought, is what a vacation is for. 

My vacation was one of privilege. Expensive for us, but worth every cent. Because right now, I am watching my children, I am watching my children grow. That I get to watch my children laugh and fight and play and wrestle and be silly is a privilege of the healthy, the fortunate.
 How long we get with each other is a mystery. The tides beat on, dumb to our mortality, and we, to its infinitude. We collect tiny shells and pocket them to hope to catch a fraction of something that is so much bigger than we are.

The summer's threads come together, then, to build a tiny part of a long stretch of fabric. This one, this little piece, here. This one is the piece that made me stop and look and remember and be thankful. I'll call it Maine.


August 8, 2016

Passenger (Nonfiction)



This is my car, madam, wherever you wish to go. Backpack, passport, journal, hiking boots, antibiotics, and dollars: to you, I was these, from Delhi to Agra. After the Taj, you took me to a nearby restaurant for tourists like me. Rich girl, Westerner. You sat across from me, watching me order food with your chin on your hands. You refused to order, so I shared my meal, which you didn’t refuse. The manipulation wasn’t subtle, but I admired the technique.
I was nearly engaged to an American. You were betrothed to an Indian girl since her family promised her years ago. We passed aromatic dishes in silver bowls between us, hardly talking, but for a nod, a glance, head gestures I’d learned from tuk tuk drivers and the hostel’s proprietor. When I paid the bill, you flitted your eyelids and smiled, palms together. Thank you! Wifey! and you opened the back door for me, closed it after I sidled into the car, feet last.
On the day we got to Pushkar, it was my birthday, an already dripping hot morning. You dropped me off at the temple, and, having explored the dozens of its ancient rooms, found a path that wound up to the fortress on the hill. A young man in a tunic and jeans asked me if I wanted a ride up on his motorcycle. He offered no helmet, and I didn’t care. Because I could not stop for death, he kindly stopped for me. He gave me his card, in case I needed anything in Delhi when I returned from the north. When I told you this on the ride back toward my hostel, you were furious. I was only to trust you, only to ride with you.
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August 3, 2016

Eight Minutes, Thirteen Seconds



One child, our oldest, our daughter, is on the baseball field, our two younger boys are at the adjacent playground: one asks to go to the bathroom. I attempt to lure the youngest, the three-year-old, from the monkey bars to come too, but he is adamant to stay, and the other boy is holding his knees together and cupping his groin. It’s okay, my friend says, I got him, I can watch him. She is watching her young daughter, too, and in this moment, I just want to my five-year-old to make it to the bathroom to avoid an accident.
It is blazingly sunny, one of the first hot days of summer. The darkness of the bathroom is suddenly chilling. I wait outside the stall in case he needs help re-fastening his baseball pants. Mom, he says to me and anyone else in the bathroom, do you know that I had two popsicles after the game? One was blue and one was yellow, so wouldn’t that make green in my tummy? His voices echoes off the tile walls. We can hardly hear the screaming, yelling, cheering of the many baseball games in the park.
There is no soap to wash with, and I rinse his hands for him because he can’t reach the faucet. I rinse his hot, dusty face, and splash water around his mouth where the green popsicle residue seems permanent. I splash water on my neck and arms to cool off.
When we exit, we are strolling leisurely, and the sun feels so good on my face. It isn’t until we’re just feet from the playground when I see my friend waving her arms, frantic, yelling I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, and there’s no sign of our small, blonde child—I looked away for a second and he was gone—usually it’s his hair we see first, duck fluff I call it, I’m scanning the playground the parking lot the ball fields the playground my friend’s distressed face, she’s running through cars in the parking lot and looking under them, and I call 9-1-1.
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