Wednesday, March 23, 2011

the key to my heart

Here I am at the coffee shop again, trying to snag a few moments for myself. To remember what it means to be “just me.” I’m reminded of a game I used to play: what’s on your keychain? It’s always a good way to get to know someone—you ask them what’s on their key chain and they explain the items on it to you. You find out about their home, their relationships, their job. Sometimes their families or an old tidbit of sentimentality that opens them up to you a little bit more.

I have had so many different key chains in different seasons of my life. For my 17th birthday my father gave me a Louis Vuitton key holder. This key chain was lost, ironically, on the night of my first wedding. It is a perfect metaphor for “cleaving from one’s family,” I went from being the daughter of a wealthy family to a (too) young bride in an unhappy marriage, replete with a fiscally controlling husband who used money to “allow” me to do absolutely nothing that wasn’t expressly sanctioned by him.

The key chains that must have populated my life between my first marriage and leaving it and then leaving my next relationship as well are as far from my memory as that indistinct time in my life. It was a time when I did a lot of growing up and a lot of learning about myself, but I was in constant flux. Even at the time, I knew I didn’t know myself—wasn’t on the right path. These three years sit discarded like something that I outgrew. Like the brittle, peeling snakeskin one might find in a deserted canyon. Whatever keys I had at the time have relegated themselves to the lost past.

The next keychain I remember was the one I bought at the Grand Canyon as I drove across the country to San Francisco with only the few things I could fit in my Civic coupe. I had been praying for guidance in the months leading up to my move from New England—the break up with my boyfriend, the decision of where to move, the fear of being, for the first time, completely on my own. I had prayed for the wisdom to know God’s will, the courage to act on it and the strength to follow through. And I had heard Him, pushing me on to California where I didn’t want to be. Towards the decision that was illogical. Leave my job that I love? Where I was just promoted? Leave my huge, inexpensive flat? All of my stuff? The boy I didn’t really want to let go of? To move in with my sister and her family in their tiny San Francisco apartment and share a bed with my 2 yr old niece? But feeling that I should, even though it was the least favorite of all my options, made me feel that it must be something external—such as God’s will—that sent me on my cross-country drive. So I farmed my stuff out into three different apartments, scattered across two states, and packed what I could carry into my little car. I picked up my mom in Atlanta and we headed out to San Francisco where I hadn’t been since I was 9.

At a souvenir shop at the Grand Canyon I found a key chain that had a black leather thong holding a small pewter cylinder with the impression of a stylized bear’s footprint. On the back it said “strength.” And this is exactly where I was with my prayer. I had heard: (ok, ok—San Francisco). I had acted with courage (what—now?!? Ok, ok, I’ll quit my job and move all the way across the country where I don’t know anyone but my sister). And now I was relying on strength to see it through. But this keychain meant even more to me than that. Because at the time I had only my loose car key. No house key. Nothing at all that said where home was. And so, with only strength, I crossed the bay bridge and found my home.

I glued and re-glued the keychain for years as it fell apart through constant use. But eventually it was irreparably broken. Over my years in SF the key ring held keys to my sister’s apartment, and then keys to my own. Keys to the cafĂ© where I worked the early shift. Then, later on, keys to the bar where I bartended and cocktailed. Later, as I went farther up in the same company, I had a key to the register, a key to the safe, a key to the office. Keys to all the doors of the establishments. A key to Gordon’s apartment that I shared with him. Later, I gave the keys to the restaurants back and had, instead, keys to my office at San Francisco State University where I was teaching Humanities 225, and a key to the main Humanities office and a key to the graduate study room.

On our honeymoon I bought a keychain to replace the bear print in Burgos, Spain that was a miniature pair of castanets cast in bronze, with a crucifix engraved on the inside. They very quickly broke and were reattached again and again until they were finally lost. But the actual ring and the little clasp that had held the wandering castanets is the ring I still use to hold my keys.

A key to a new, 4 door Civic came along when we had Henry and when he was only 2 days out of the hospital, we sold the old Civic coupe that had taken me across the country and brought me to the neighborhood that would become my whole life.

And then, the SF keys were returned, and only the Civic key remained as Gordon and I moved back to Atlanta where my family is. The apartment keys that had been the mainstays were no longer there, replaced by the keys to our new Midtown apartment, my sister’s house in Atlanta, my parents’ townhouse in Buckhead and keys to the lake house in North Carolina.

Two weeks after Greyson was born, we gave up the keys to the midtown apartment in exchange for the keys to a fantastic little house in East Atlanta (thank you Rachel!). And a Honda Accord key added its bulk as well. We were so settled and happy in East Atlanta,

but change appeared again. The Civic key was given to the new owner when we sold it to get the cash we needed to move to Chicago. And here, a new keychain was created. It has 3 keys to my apartment on it. No car key because Gordon has the car during the day. And that’s it. And what does this say about me? That I live at home. That I exist there. That the only keys I need are the ones that get me into my apartment and that take me down to the basement where I do our laundry. These keys are attached to the same small brass-colored ring that originally held the castanets, but I’ve added a keychain that I found somewhere in a drawer that has a house in a silver ring. It has nothing to do with me: it’s a loaner from my parents that was given to them by the builder of their townhome. I put it on my key ring to give my keys bulk. Because they felt so small. Because they felt empty.

My sister accuses me of not “living” here in Chicago. Of waiting on the sidelines for the next place. Not putting down roots. Not shimmying myself into some sort of a niche. She’s right, I think. I throw out excuses and reasons and cold temperatures and lack of car. But, really, I haven’t worked hard to make a home here. I’ve closed myself off into our safe little apartment where I don’t have to relate to anyone. Maybe where I don’t have to fail? Don’t have to see an empty life? It’s as if, when I stay in my little cozy world with my beautiful boys, I’m in control, but every time I step out the door I’m dizzy with the directionlessness of not being home. Of not knowing where to go.

But maybe, just as in every other episode of my life, I just need to find the right key chain. Own where I am, and even who I am. Figure out what it means to be me, living right here in Chicago, not yet knowing who and what is going to be in store for me as my life begins to take shape. There is unlimited potential—there is an entire life to craft. People to meet and build friendships with. Journeys to go on that I haven’t even imagined yet. And as difficult as it sometimes is to realize, I really am home.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Maybe I need a rabbit-fur coat...

In Chicago it’s dark by 5pm: the sky a rich indigo with the street lights shining yellow above the icy streets. But later, the sky becomes a dusty rose against the black etching of bare branches. It’s quiet. Cars are scarce and the sidewalks are empty. There’s a bunny in our yard that leaves little tracks in the snow. It welcomed us here on a hot September day—scampering down the walk when we first pulled up to the house after driving 11 hours from Atlanta. And now, as I look up at the pink, glowing night, it huddles in its winter coat, nose twitching and small nubby ears perked at odd angles while I watch it from our back porch.

I’m here, as usual, on my small plot of land in Chicago. Where I was yesterday and the day before and where I will be tomorrow and the next day. I am house-bound; exceedingly busy with the tasks of motherhood and the running of our house. The small, mundane orders of the day are the ticks and tocks of my clock in this life I’m beginning to recognize as my own. I have always wanted to be a mom. I highly value the investment in my children that I am allowed to make by my decision to stay at home with them. This said, it can be trying. What happens to your identity as a woman, as an individual, when you become completely subsumed by another’s life. Or by the lives of three others, in my case. I am honored and I feel blessed by the opportunity and the importance of what my life is at the moment. But there is no worldly recognition or accolades for the stay-at-home mother.

I realize now what enormous confidence I have always drawn from how others view me. By my recognition as a thinker or student. By complements I’ve received about my style and my confidence. I never knew how reliant I was on these things—how they buoyed me up and held me strong. And now, as nothing other than a mother and a wife—how do you gauge successes? How do you take the measure of your days—calculate your worth in your own eyes? It can become a contest of how much you can get done—have you finished the dishes? Done the laundry? Picked up the house? And conversely, to have not done these things, to see your life as a battle lost because your tabulation in the banal doings of life has found you wanting, is a harsh blow to your valuation. Am I only this to-do list of mindless tasks? Mothering is the slow stewing of a complex sauce. And the results are out for many, many years. What is there to keep me going, I wonder?

My wise, beautiful sister said yesterday in her amazing blog, that “there is this one foot gap between our heads and our hearts- and there are lifetimes in that space. the head knows but the heart feels it- and the time travel between these two spaces can be tricky.” How true! And while my head believes in and knows the value of my day to day, sometimes my heart longs for a time when everything was simpler: when my life was mine alone. I’m hoping that my head can send a message of encouragement so strong to my heart that I will truly feel the contentment that I know is mine already, but that hasn’t been able to travel that distance—that treacherous path between the head and the heart. My life is so rich and so blessed, the things I gain from being a mom and a wife not only thrill me but make me who I am as well. But sometimes it’s hard to hear that.

And so, under this pink-tinged night sky, I stay as still as I can while the bunny watches my movements. It’s little footprints circle the yard seemingly at random—what does it eat? I wonder. But it finds something, surely. Rabbits have lived through Chicago winters since the beginning of time. I’ll be OK, too.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Ice Fishing

Here, there is silence. A thick covering of silence as white and heavy as the snow that carpets everything. Snow absorbs and mutes noises so that the world comes at you through a veil of cotton. The colors are bleached out like faded calico. There is nothing besides the white of the snow and the dreary bricks. But it is the silence that is most disturbing. Unnatural. Empty.

Life has different seasons. I am in a winter. The cold bare midwinter of Chicago, yes, but my own emotional winter as well. A time of fruitlessness. A time of suspended animation. A time of dearth. The landscape is monochromatic. The topography is flat. The branches are bare.

It’s hard here, in Chicago’s winterscape, to write and muse on life. Whenever, in Atlanta, I was stuck, I would simply head out to the front porch and look out over the tree line. Listen to the cicadas singing and the tree frogs croaking—the metallic unwinding of the Katydids. Or walk through the blanket of humidity and feel the tough, scratchy Bermuda grass beneath my bare feet.

But I must also remember that this blog was started in the spring. New growth. Budding leaves. The bearing of fruit. I must not begrudge myself this season of winter. Perhaps I should, instead, allow it to work on me. Allow my pulse to slow, allow my body to slumber. Maybe this is a time for reflection and cloistering. A time for incubation as much as for hibernation. Suspended animation, yes, but an active time nonetheless. When the lake freezes over, life continues beneath the ice.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Air Currents

There is a corner behind the door in my dining room where all the dust bunnies gather. No matter how many times a week I sweep, still I find them there: inert, fuzzy and gray. It makes wonder over the invisible drifts and currents of air that move through my space at constant. Small eddies and powerful riptides of a wind that must whisper past my messes and children and fast pacing, slippered feet. Whirlpools sparked into action by my passage as I return to the kitchen for another cup of coffee. Rapids and churned up turbulence every time Henry runs the length of the main hallway at break-neck speed. And Greyson, down in the dirty mix of it as he crawls from place to place, air and dust and moments swirling around him as he tries to figure out what the world means—as he begins to explore space and place and the ability to move between them. I wonder if we become bipeds, pushing and pulling our weak, chubby baby legs into a standing position, in order to raise our heads above the drifting currents of so many legs passing us by.

As I adjust to this move, I feel much the same. Trying so hard to pull myself to a stand. Cruising from thing to thing, always holding on, unable to support myself entirely. Losing my balance, learning to trust myself again. What would it look like if I could just be brave enough to exist in the turmoil of this moment in my life? To breathe deeply and acknowledge that moving to a new place is hard and stressful and will inevitably send me scrambling to relocate who I am and what everything means.

I swept today. The corner is clean for now. But what dust must still swirl and agitate in the air! It will settle again unto everything—lurking in corners and lingering on surfaces. I heard once that housework is like beading onto a string with no knot. My life feels like this lately, like a constant running to catch up, to be only as far behind as I was the day before. And while I want to make changes, to become something or someone better, I always feel the need to be caught up before I can begin to change. But as of right now, I’m going to approach it differently. I’m going to chip away day by day at what is before me and still try to find time for myself even if I’m not done with my chores. Or else, I fear, I’ll get lost in the mix. There’s going to be dust tomorrow in all the places I dusted today, and there will be more dishes on the counter in the same place I just cleared off, and there will be poop in diapers I’ve just changed, but I’m going to keep going on and I’m also going to find time to pray and to read and to write. And if there’s dust in the corner, if there are dishes on the counter, I’ll live with it. I’m still going to have to change the diapers though…

Monday, November 1, 2010

Jane's Take on Memory...

An excerpt of the musings of Fanny Price from Mansfield Park, by Jane Austen:

"If any one faculty of our nature may be called more wonderful than the rest, I do think it is memory. There seems something more speakingly incomprehensible in the powers, the failures, the inequalities of memory, than in any other of our intelligences. The memory is sometimes so retentive, so serviceable, so obediant--at others, so bewildered and so weak--and at others again, so tyrannic, so beyond controul!--We are to be sure a miracle every way--but our powers of recollecting and of forgetting, do seem peculiarly past finding out."

Friday, October 29, 2010

Faith Trust and Pixie Dust

Henry has learned his memory verse for the month in two days: “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid for God is with you.” I must take this to heart. For those of you who actually read this, if there are any—if anyone who ever read this blog is patient enough to check back every month or so when I’m able to put up a post—you must know I’m scared of this blog. Well, not the blog in particular, but I’m scared of imperfection. I’m scared of ever doing anything that isn’t exactly wonderful or amazing. And so you see my dilemma. I often hate that I haven’t written and sit down and write but what comes out is full of halting fearful starts that are doomed to imperfection and therefore doomed to be deleted.

Ironically, the only way that I will ever be able to get to the meat is if I do it everyday. Like exercise. Imagine working out for the first time in awhile and feeling really out of shape (because you are) and therefore deciding it’s not for you because you’re not good at it. That is how I am with writing. And it doesn’t help that I was once very good. It doesn’t help that, much like a person who was once very beautiful and is now getting older, I look back at my old writing from grad school, from creative writing I’ve done, and I stand, mouth agape, wondering who that person was. That person that I can no longer see in the mirror; that voice that I can no longer call forth. I remember a beautiful documentary by an aged French documentarian who, at different times throughout the film, would focus the lens on her hands and wonder whose they were-these elderly things. Surely not her own. This is how my life has become. Whose life is this?

On days like today, as I finally face the white freedom of this page—wanting so badly to run away, avoid it the way I have been—I worry about what my life is. What it has become. Or perhaps I wonder at my inability to reach into my days and pluck out something small and sparkly: a daily wisdom; an inspired thought.

Once upon a time…

Once upon a time, I was a brilliant student. My mind unlocked and unveiled philosophies and my fingers typed across the keyboard purely magical essays in record time. I would reread them later and not understand where they had come from—the insights, the words themselves. It was like a super-power. I would enter a trance like state, brought on by the mix of stress, caffeine, nicotine, too little sleep and too little food. I wouldn’t leave the house for weeks; my neighbors brought me food and cigarettes; did my dishes; listened to me read and reread every word. I never wrote drafts. I sat at the computer and the first paragraph of a 25 pg essay would take 5-6 hours. It was the most important part. It was like the way you throw a pot—the clay must be perfectly balanced and symmetrical on the wheel before you begin, or the pot will fall apart as you pull it up.

Once the first paragraphs were down, which might take 1-2 full days, the rest flowed out. Well, came out slowly. Word by word; brick by brick. It eeked it’s way onto the page. The process was that I had to reread what I had written, and then what came next would just follow, seemingly of it’s own accord. The essay felt as though it was writing itself, and my job was to listen very carefully and find the exact words to help it go in the direction it was meant for.

And yet now, I grab a few minutes to sit on a bar stool in my kitchen and attempt to cull something interesting out of my life to deposit here like it’s a savings account. And I find I’m over-drafted. There’s nothing left for this space sometimes.

But even in these moments, bankrupt as I am, I must remember Henry’s verse: be strong and courageous, do not be afraid for god is with you. And it’s the menial, petty days full of sticky little details that lack meaning that often require the most courage and faith…

a spoon full of sugar

I’ve begun a regiment of Homeschool Preschool. I love the cadence of the description. But what is preschool, really? It is learning artfully disguised as play. And I’m finding ways to incorporate learning into everything—like slipping a dog’s medicine into a hotdog slice.

And one of the easiest tricks I’ve discovered is that Henry’s a sponge. I already knew this—any mother knows that if their child hears a bad word once they’ll repeat it over and over and over. But I’ve used this to my advantage. While buzzing around the kitchen preparing lunch, I will say psalm 23 out loud 3 times in a row. I use every opportunity to sneak in facts about fall or the ways our eyes work (they just send images to the brain which is where they are decoded). Introduce new words. Make jokes about how funny our bodies are—the way that they work. Throw adages or nursery rhymes into everyday conversation and then explain them.

I’m sowing seeds. I’m dropping bits of information and inspiration ad hoc onto the soil of my son. Hoping they take root—rejoicing over the moments when I see them sprout up on their own.