I am visiting my father, who lives in a medieval town in Brittany, France. Almost everything is made of stone - it is easy to think no time has passed at all between the time Josselin was first populated and now. The predominant sound here is the River Oust, which flows for 200 miles from Brest to Nantes, and the mill wheel turning opposite my father's front door. Otherwise, stillness. There are barely any cars on the road. It is a foreign kind of quiet, really - it takes a few days to settle into after the bustle of travel and the environment of busy-ness and noise and action that Ive left behind me. It's a quiet that takes me longer to sip my coffee, and peel a tangerine, and walk along the canal path. It's a quiet that makes me hear every single bird and feel every single breeze on my face and consider the artful arrangement of cobblestones. It's also a quiet that keeps me up at night, thinking about life and death and the landscape of existence that hovers, real and metaphorical, between them. A quiet that makes me feel too far away and too close, all at once.
The last few days (strange, after all the warm weather), I've been craving trees. Specifically, their autumnal incarnations. Where I live there are too many cars. The houses are close together, almost touching. The town has cut so many trees down the main thoroughfare that the street feels naked without them. Yesterday's rain and wind blew down so many leaves of the scanty population of trees that remain, I wondered if I would miss the season entirely. And so this morning, an urge to find it. My mother's house is tucked in a town where the ratio of Nature to humans is in Nature's favor, and I always imagine going there when I need the kind of visceral confirmation that Nature offers, something about aliveness and perspective and feeling one's place in the grander scheme of things. And so, this morning, a rental car search, and train schedules, and bus options. Maybe I'll go and maybe I won't, but it's good to know there are options.
Today was unseasonably warm, summery. I wanted to retrieve my shorts from the back of the closet, dig up my turquoise flip-flops even though I wore them thin. I wanted ripe peaches, the juice trailing down my chin the way it used to when I was 5 and didn't much care about the stickiness. I wanted backyard baseball with my brother in New Hampshire, the bases made of tree roots and upturned rocks and fistfuls of hay. I wanted the sound of crickets, the chlorine sting of a pool. Instead, I played with alcohol ink and small rectangles of paper and drank iced coffee with a hefty splash of cream. "Art is the only way of running away without leaving home," said Twyla Tharp, and I was glad for the instruction and reminder today. In the bright sunshine of an October afternoon, I let myself run back to my shorts and flipflops, the peaches, the baseball, the crickets, the pool, and the girl I always carry inside of me peeked out and said Hello.
At tonight's gathering, the conversation turned, inevitably, to the election. The sentiments have become routine and familiar - an astonishment at the latest faux pas or indiscretion, followed my furious head-scratching as to the extreme divisiveness of this election season, followed by a kind of crushing sense of defeat that there are still people insisting on the superiority of their candidate despite blatant evidence to the contrary. We were all sitting around a fire pit, and after a few hearty offerings of my opinion, I stared into the flames. Despite my earnest feelings on the matter of the impending vote, it is all beginning to feel like too much chatter. In previous election years, I campaigned vigorously, making phone calls, even flying two states over to go canvassing door to door. Now, I feel like shielding my eyes and ears from the madness. As the time diminishes between now and Election Day, the heat is rising. The mud-slinging has intensified. The anger and deepened and widened. And I find myself holding my breath - I don't know how to fight this way. I don't want to fight this way. To tell the truth, I don't want to fight at all.
For about 45 minutes last night, I felt like I was losing it. I have no idea what brought it on, exactly, only that I was standing at the cashier line at ShopRite casually looking at the items the shopper behind me had put on the conveyer belt, and I got suddenly - and thoroughly - distressed. There were two boxes of confectioners' sugar, two six-packs of Coke, a large Entemann's crumb cake, some kind of Betty Crocker mix, a single banana, and one red onion. Immediately and for no reason that I could figure out, I felt the terrible urge to flee, and I don't just mean the grocery store. I meant New Jersey. I meant marriage and motherhood. I thought to myself, I cannot live in a place where this is happening, where people are eating THIS poorly. I felt the wallop of longing in my heart for the teeny produce shop two blocks from my old apartment in San Francisco, on the corner of Church and 30th, with its overflowing bins of bright, fresh fruit and vegetables and how they always tasted exactly like they looked. Not here, where flavorless grape tomatoes jostle with bland lettuces, where everything has an off-season that lasts for more than half the year. I LOATHE the produce aisle at my grocery store - all these pale ghosts of the real thing. Even the ginger root - meant to withstand a cold cellar - looks gnarled and bent as an old woman's thin knuckles.
So there I was, glancing behind me, like a modern-day Orpheus turning - against all warnings and my better judgment - back toward some elusive love. It didn't matter that I was buying a relatively healthy dinner for us and the boys. It didn't matter that the only pre-made item in my square footage of the conveyer belt was a fairly innocuous tray of mini corn muffins. Nevertheless, some kind of strange molting began, and by the time I walked in the front door of the house 10 minutes later, I was fuming. And 10 minutes after that, a battle was in full force - I was raging against everything I could. The function that dinner has turned into, and how it feels like my joy for cooking and eating is gone. The video games that my younger stepson plays for more hours than he should, losing himself to the screen and - once away from it - becoming an a-verbal animal of a boy. My mounting frustration that I didn't birth my stepkids, and didn't have a hand in raising them, and how utterly difficult it can be to align my personal values with their past and present tense. And then, behind this galumphing despair, a large and lumpy sadness that drove me - after a fight in the kitchen with Amy that exploded into smithereens - to the bedroom to block out as much as I could. As I lay back against the pillows, I tried to dismantle what was going on, tried to understand why this moment, of all moments, I was going berserk. It wasn't like something had happened.
And then, as I got quieter outside and inside, I thought about a Facebook post I'd read before going to the grocery store, a post from a woman who was commemorating the 10th anniversary of her son's death from a drug overdose. In her post, she was writing about how just 3 days before he died, she was convinced that he was finally clean after so many years, and they'd gone out to lunch to celebrate, and he'd driven off proudly in a used car she'd helped him buy a week before. That lunch was the last time she saw him, the last time she hugged him. Three days later, he fell into a black hole and never returned.
When I read this, I thought about my own brother, who might have disappeared down that same path but didn't...and hasn't. But there is a part of me that, if I tell the truth, is still holding my breath. And I'm wondering now if this was what took me down, this darkness and despair still occasionally whispering over my shoulder. The thought of this woman who did not believe her son was going to die from his addiction, and yet was forced to face exactly this. I wondered if this was the dread that followed me through the aisles of ShopRite and then all the way home again.
I am beginning to understand my need to be careful around certain stories. To recognize my own permeability and porousness. How I can't take everything on. How I can't take everything in. And I am thinking now of a friend's caution several years ago to make sure to put up an invisible shield against others' distress. To develop tools to safeguard our own fragility and vulnerability to wounding, even the indirect kind. I see, now, that those stirrings of distress at the grocery store - and the full-on despair that followed - might have come out of an intangible and emotionally unbearable stressor, that unfathomable loss that for years I found myself hoping and praying to avoid. And how, without the words and actual catalyzing event to experience that grief in full, how it nevertheless came rollicking out from the smaller, totally plebian and manageable stressors of shopping for dinner. How quickly they morphed into a sense of catastrophe and total loss of control. Because all I know is that from that cashier line, everything suddenly looked obscenely dark and weighty and impossible, and from there I desperately wanted to escape everything that even hinted of being a problem. Video games giving rise to a Neanderthal stepson. Two boxes of powdered sugar giving rise to the reason I should not be living in New Jersey. An argument giving rise to the reason that I should not be married, like, ever.
Thank GOD this spiral down the rabbit hole lasted only 45 minutes. Thank GOD my partner is someone I trust with my own demons. Thank GOD the asparagus actually tasted like asparagus. And thank GOD my brother is alive and healthy again, just a few hours' drive away, or a phone call, where I hear him talk breathlessly about all the good things he's doing, and where I can tell him how proud I am of him for everything it took to get him there, which is to say, right here, right now. Right here, right now.
I now live in a town with no fewer than 20 Italian restaurants. And yet, stunningly, good pizza seems elusive. It's like in the thrum of competition, any dedication to excellence has gone out the window.
I see how this is possible, living with teenage boys. I've unexpectedly gotten very attached to my own upbringing - something I didn't know I was and yet, now, has become plainly and poignantly obvious in light of this co-parenting adventure. There are things I cling to in a way I didn't when I was younger and kid-less, either because I didn't fully recognize how much they formed me or because I wasn't in an environment that so completely departed and detached from my formative experiences. I am realizing that the more I dig into the heels of my past and attempt to thrust my sepia-tinted stories onto the development of the boys' narrative, the greater my disappointment in the effect and outcome of these efforts. It is hard - really hard - to just let them be who they are, to allow that their trajectory is, in many ways, unattached to mine, that the things that matter to them look a lot different than what's on my particular radar. It is hard, in some ways, to realize that my history is completely unrelated to theirs. I waffle between being relieved about this and feeling like I have to work harder to impress upon them the value of the knowledge I've gained through my own family unit I sprang from. The lack of a biological connection between us makes for a strange geography sometimes as I gather and sort the lessons and meanings of my past. What can I introduce as a useful parable of experience? What is completely irrelevant and unnecessary? A few months ago, I made the startling, tear-inducing realization that the stories I've gathered from my childhood and beyond may end with me. Who is going to carry them forward? How and to whom will these be handed down? There are so many familial memories between my parents and siblings that have been woven into my self-identity, stories with a cast of characters we hold between us so seamlessly. But now what? Who will go visit Waynesboro, Virginia, after I'm gone and walk down South Bath Avenue and remember the backyard pizza party with Bea and Janet? Ah, back to pizza. Maybe in the attempt to fold my past into my present - or hold it up as some kind of guiding light (or, far too frequently, comparison) - I'm diluting the primal value of each reality. I still have what I had. And the boys do, too. And we are, I have to remind myself, making quite a few memories together. Maybe it's not the pizza of my imagination. But perhaps the flavor I have in my head isn't really possible. Who could eat such a rich slice, anyway, with all that cheese covering the crust?
And I can't believe how long it's been since I've put words on this particular page. Was it really the beginning of last summer? Where has the time gone? Where have the words traveled? Where have the stories found a landing spot? Lately - and by lately, I guess I mean this stretch of the past 8 months (to the day!) - writing seems to be eluding me. At least, the kind of writing that demands time to sink into. That asks for silence and space and reflection. It's not that I've haven't done any - I'm devoted as ever to my 10-line Tuesday practice - but the other poems and narratives and explorations seem to be jousting with the realities of keeping my head in the game of marriage and motherhood and a burgeoning business that tends to need a lot of email and spreadsheets and calendars to keep together. I can't remember a time when I've ever made so many lists. And yes, I could say this is a kind of poetry in itself. A narrative of a different sort. I have little interest in fighting the current at the moment, largely because it seems indulgent and luxurious and perhaps a little self-interested in a time when my attentions, frankly, are required elsewhere. Nevertheless - or perhaps, because of this - I've been toying with the idea of doing more intentional writing about marriage and motherhood and even came up with a name "Postcards from the Fledge" (as in "fledgling") for an ongoing sort of column, but I'm wondering if navigating that grey area between public and private is not something I need to do on a regular basis. Maybe just an article or two, a handful of posts. I want to write about banana bread as a peace offering to teenage boys. I want to write about my fear of menopause with a same-sex partner. I want to write about keeping it together when the kids are losing it, and managing the wild swings of the ex who is navigating his own manhood with his kids. I want to write about what it feels like to enter this particular fray in my 40s, and the push and pull of so many decisions and lifestyle choices and behaviors and beliefs that collide and weave in and out of each other and try to find a place to ground themselves. And maybe it comes back to this, one paragraph at a time, and not worrying so much about form or format or deadline or delivery. In any case, I'm here. I'm here. I'm here.
We are back, now, from our retreat, and settling into the usual and unusual suspects of parenting and housekeeping and navigating the current of the day. This morning, the youngest woke with poison ivy on the webs between his fingers. He left school early to go to the doctor for ointment and reassurance. The rooms are like a greenhouse, summer erupting into seemingly spontaneous humidity. Outside, the sky is thick with an incoming storm. The dog is resting on the couch next to yellow legal pad holding a list of songs I am learning to play on the guitar. There are the tiniest callouses on my fingers now, like a badge of honor for sticking with it. My legs are hungry for more bike rides, having gotten too much of a tease in Vermont, where we were rained out for half of our time there. No matter. We ate and created and rested well. We were surrounded by mountains and so much green. There were baby goats across the street, frolicking in a wide pasture. The drive home gifted us with a truly superb antique shop. I am happy for all of that. And so. June is hitting its stride. The boys, a week away from the last day of school. I am girding myself for the hubbub of their to-ing and fro-ing, and hoping I can hang onto some of the quiet anonymity of Vermont, those gently turning roads that promised a new view around each bend.
I'm learning to play the guitar. We are leaving for Vermont tomorrow. I've wrapped up two online writing classes. We are sending him to Montana in July. I have figured out how to juggle four balls, but I can't quite keep them in the air. We are successfully growing two tomato plants in the backyard, and the planters of basil and mint are brimming. I feel like I haven't written in ages, even though I know I have. We are making new friends who don't live in this town. I have started visiting estate sales once a week, and I've discovered that I love getting lost in other people's clutter. We have hired a business manager, and our calendar is filling up. I am trying to drink my coffee more slowly in the mornings, as if this will stretch the day out a little longer.
A new beginning, waving its little tentacles of hope and possibility. It snowed a good few inches here this afternoon, but I don't mind. I'm even starting to forget the silly, overpriced dinner I had last night on the Lower East Side. Instead, I'm thinking of the half-avocado I spread on a thick slice of bread when I came in out of the cold. The tidy sprinkle of seasoned salt. Like a little wink, a fluttery whisper of what the month will bring.
What it says on the mug given by a friend over the holidays. And this morning, the coffee a little on the bitter side. Feeling myself bristling. Edgy. Irritable. The cold, I am certain, is getting to me. The way the snow - pristine as it falls - turns dirty so quickly. How little I want to be outside when it's icy, then, slushy, then icy again. How I'm thirsting for green, for ambient temperatures, for that breeze that whispers summer isn't so far behind. The wildflowers I planted and placed by the kitchen window are stubborn. The stems keep climbing, reaching for more warmth, more light. Occasionally, an orange flower reveals itself. I am trying to pay attention. I'm trying to remember the soil - crumbly and deficient though it looks - nevertheless nourishes. I take another sip. I pour in a little more cream. I add in another teaspoon of sugar.
The long drive to Wisconsin. Two sacks of roasted coffee in Youngstown, OH. The surprise of a Jewish deli. Reunions. A concert in a 100-year-old barn. Three good friends, waiting. A single wood stove, enough to warm 60 people. Reading poetry in front of strangers. The sweetness of genuine applause. A writing workshop the next morning. A gathering of words. Passing around a bowl of stories. The first tears. The second. The quiet, reverent awe of listening. A supper clup in Galena, IL. Large, expensive steaks. Thick fries. House salad tossed with Ranch dressing. A giant dinner roll. Two perfect vodka gimlets. The welcome of sleep. The sadness of departure. A long drive through rain. An overnight at the border of Pennsylvania. Waking up to an icy parking lot. Another long drive. Rain and sleet and foreboding National Weather Service signs. Making it home. Unpacking. The first loads of laundry. The tumbling of teenage boys, and how quickly the attention turns to them and how quickly the four days we came from fades. The minor irritations. The impatience. The bristling edginess that signals re-entry. The wanting to go back, to go away. And yet, today, hanging up new artwork on the walls, the rooms changing, the view changing just like that.
The dread of a phone call I was certain would leave me interminably on hold. But no. A cheerful man on the other side of the recorded message, punching in punctually, answering my question without a trace of salesmanship or disparagement. And now, the paperwork is finally stowed under the desk with the other documents that mark the path of good citizenship, an accordion file of folders titled "Taxes" and "Insurance" and "Money." And now, there's "Health," emboldened by a Sharpie pen and the inch-wide thickness of a packet "Evidence of Coverage." On paper, at least, we're safe.
Our latest addition to home entertainment. We are hoping it will create some diversion away from all of the electronics and devices that seem to keep us spinning in our own separate orbits. We played our first matches tonight. The boys swore more than usual, but we laughed it off. We kept score, but swapped teams after each game, mixing us all up in a bubbly camaraderie I think we all need a few good doses of. Only the dog didn't seem amused, keeping her usual perch on the couch, waiting for us to come to our senses.
The boys complain we have no paper towels, but I'm not budging. Wasteful, I say, as they balk at the extra effort a cleanup takes. The temperature is dropping, and I feel my hibernation begin. It's not just an extra layer in the mornings. It's the way I feel myself pulling in, narrowing, keeping close. Yesterday, we brought the oleanders into the garage for the winter. The yard is bare without them. Sometime during the night, the wind overturned the wooden folding table. The cherry tree out front has lost all but a handful of its leaves. I have begun assembling a new book of poems. I am going backward and forward in history.
Radiant heating. Personal fitness. Clear the table. What's for dinner. Safe flight. Signature cocktail. Plus tax. PIN number. Almost there. Pick one. Why not. Sleep tight. Sweet dreams.
And the re-organization begins in earnest. Clipboards with yellow pads. Checklists. The plumber who came to check the leak. A quick Costco run, and a roast chicken for dinner. A video call to make sure the new online class interface is working. Evan to the doctor to get X-rays on a scrunched foot still bruisy and painful. And yet, despite the mechanics of this morning, I find myself a little on the dreamy side. Looking at real estate in North Carolina. Registering a domain name for a website about a project that feels so gigantic in terms of logistics that I don't have the mental capacity to understand it all just yet. Letting the hamster wheel of my imagination spin itself into a delirious little tizzy. The difficult conversation about Thanksgiving is mostly behind us. The jam-packed weekend has receded. The dog is snoozing next to me on this soft, grey couch I'm writing on, her eyes half-open as if in preparation for the mailman to come, or the boys to get home, or some other splash of activity that will lift her out of her repose and have her wagging toward the front door.
I feel tender from this latest retreat re-entry. Overstimulated. Like I can't get enough quiet inside of me. Or outside of me. Like I can't quite snap back into the present tense, which is careening with seemingly discordant narratives. One minute, standing in the meat aisle at ShopRite, paralyzed about what to make for dinner. The next, reprogamming the website and writing an email newsletter. The next, a conversation about the boys' grades. The next, anticipating Thanksgiving and the inevitable questions about where and who and what it will look like. And all the while, my mind a little doughy with the still-to-be-written: a 10-line Tuesday anniversary collection, a Type Rider II book, the poetry broadsides Liz is preparing for production, the live online writing class we are debuting next week and how it will all work. It is hard to hold it all, even when I feel so lucky to have so much at once.
My father, visiting. Pancakes and turkey bacon. Coffee. Another cup. A morning appointment at the dermatologist. Full-body mole check. The ride back home feels so long. Snow on the ground in Livingston. A walk toward errands - the bank, the post office, the grocery store. Seeing Shop-Rite through my father's eyes. The abundance. The variety. Fresh-made mozzarella. Bins of olives. How much more exotic and beautiful this town feels when I am showing it to those I love. Lunch. Grilled cheese and tomato soup. Already the light is turning. A soft glow. Blue and golden all at once. Amy & I at work at the dining room table, my father upstairs for a nap. There is a bloom just starting on the wildflower growing by the kitchen window.
I miss writing. I mean the kind that has me wrestling for hours, days. The kind where I barely stop to eat or sleep. The kind where I scribble on scraps of paper at odd moments - stopping for gas, say, or while I'm at the grocery store. The kind of writing that persists, niggles, teases, even torments. The days keep filling up, and yet I wonder if they only seem that way, and that in reality the space to muse and ponder and tinker and create is the same as it's always been. Or maybe it's that a new "real life" has intervened and a certain amount of focus on that has been necessary in order to recalibrate to the new content of marriage and co-parenting (to name a few!). And while I also know that to be in a constant state of creative intensity isn't optimal or healthy or even realistic, I find myself in a mild state of yearning for that old playground. But I think I know what I have to do. What I tell my students to do. Start small. An index card, 5 minutes, a single word, the tiny trail of a phrase that leads to who knows where. The willingness to not know. The patience of discovery. One day at a time. One paragraph at a time.