My mother would have been 68 years old today. 10 years ago, she celebrated her last birthday.
Her absence has transformed from a gaping. bleeding hole in my chest to a shadowy, peripheral thing. Ephemeral yet always present. Not always noticed except when it’s all I can see
My life is so different now than when she was here. The world seems so different too. Macro and micro. Those of us still alive have seen and survived so much since 2011. But I never cease being her child. I still foolishly seek her imaginary advice or approval. She is still the yardstick I measure everything against, especially my shortcomings.
I wish she could have seen me become a mother, meet my kids. Enjoyed retirement, and some years with less caregiving responsibilities. I don’t know that longing for the impossible serves me, but on this day I can’t help myself.
A line stuck out at me from Jenn Shapland’s recent (and excellent) work on the life of Carson McCullers
[He was] a writer who never wrote.
(In regards to Carson’s husband Reeves McCullers)
A writer who never wrote. A writer who never wrote. I would not want to be remembered that way, but I very well could be. I find refuge in language during certain rocky junctures but when the waters are calm I get lulled, I get lazy- as I recall- It’s a little difficult to remember, because recent years have been so challenging. My writing shelved not because of sloth but because I’m trying to keep the goddamn ship afloat.
Notebook scribbles. She was a writer of notebook scribbles.
My son is medically complex. My daughter is dynamic and active. My kids need me but I need this. So I will keep finding ways to arrive to the page, to express and explore and fumble and reach and keep doing whatever it is that we writers do.
Strava informs me that you biked 30 miles this morning. I can see the GPS track on my phone, a little blue line snaking around the familiar landmarks of my hometown. I imagine the hum of your tires as they rolled down streets I haven’t walked in 20 years. My old neighborhood. It is autumn now, the season punctuated by sweet decay as billions of leaves turn golden and crimson, then brown, then fall. You must have smelled it too, that pungency, as you sliced through the morning air on your way to work, the long way.
The fall holds no sweetness here, 2000 miles away. It is simply hot, and stays that way until summer finally relents and then suddenly it is winter. This won’t happen for another two months, maybe.
The GPS tracker shows me your morning route, my imagination ably filling in the gaps. It feels strangely voyeuristic since I know little about your life today. It has been decades since we since we whispered secrets to each other as our favorite lake sparkled like diamonds in the late afternoon sun. We held hands as the sun plunged below the treeline and the waters turned suddenly, ominously dark.
Yes, we had a favorite lake, how sweet is that?
I still hear the sound of your guitar cutting the silent, cold air, your voice a low whine, singing songs about deliverance. I hear a creek rushing, the one by your parent’s house, a low murmur in the darkness. We would meet in dimly lit coffee shops, were I would sit on velvet chairs and sip the sweetened drinks that you loved by candlelight. These are the memories that my heart hangs on to but the truth is always a little more complicated. We found joy, yes, but it was a disruptive, frightening joy that left me quaking in its wake. You would, in equal measure, elicit great big laughs from my belly, and unstoppable tears from the sting of small, cutting cruelties.
We were too young, we were too much. We didn’t talk for a long time, and then we did again, but not often, and in another era we would have eventually been completely lost to each other. But now there is social media, the invisible web of a thousand constant virtual connections, the platforms that call us “friends,” still, and perhaps we are. We certainly were, the lakeside intimacy long eroded away. These blue lines pull me back into the illusion of it, into the feeling created in the wake of knowing that yes, you biked 30 miles today. This is were you went. This is what you saw. And I keep watching from afar.
Money has been flowing like water through my fingers. An expensive month I could say, kicking a pebble on the ground with the toe of a dirty sneaker, and I wouldn’t be wrong. But I still feel like a failure. There were many months when the flow appeared abundant, and I spent and I spent. Some costs were unavoidable, others were simply for pleasure, to relish in the joys of the physical world. Now, savings gouged, I feel queasy. I could have done better.
My shoulders slump with the responsibilities of the middle-aged: it seems that everything matters more now. My choices impact not only my future and my partner’s future but my daughter’s as well. I say I desire fiscal responsibilty and frugality at home but I promptly trip over hedonistic roots and stumble on my way to a more free financial future and meaningful life. There is so much to want in this world. I want the pizza and beer. I want the coffee in a paper cup. I want the shoes. I want the bike.
But more importantly, I want peace. I want love. I want undisturbed sleep, I want to worry less. I want more time with you. I want more time with myself. I want to make fewer decisions. I want a healthier, safer world. These things are harder to come by. So I get the pizza and beer, the coffee, the shoes, the bike. But the wanting continues.
I am ordinary in appearance, but before baby I could easily feel beautiful, sexy. Not every minute of every day, but I had my mojo. I never struggled with body image the way so many other women seemed to. I appreciated how strong I was, tanned skin shining over the curves of muscle. My eyes were bright. There was a sway in my hips.
A prenatal yoga teacher shared with our class that dissatisfaction with body image tends to peak around 6 months postpartum. I guess I paid attention, but it seemed inconceivable in the early days, right after I sweated and growled and with a holler pushed out my very own 9 lb wonder. I felt like a fucking warrior goddess, a many- armed Hindu diety, weapons shinning, tongue lolling, dancing on the edge of the world. Hell yes.
I wasn’t able to stick the feeling, though. Soon, I felt dumpy, flabby. My self image plummeted right along with my estrogen levels. And I’m talking about feelings versus what the outside looks like, but I’m not the mama who “bounced back” after childbirth, whatever the fuck that means. 1 year later, overweight, overwrought, I certainly don’t look like I used to, but what bothers me the most is I just don’t feel beautiful anymore.
I know I am. We humans ALL are. My feelings have nothing to do with reality. But misleading as it may be, this feeling of ugliness matters somehow, and I wish I could shake it.
I know hiking helps. Dancing helps. Laughing helps. And nothing stays the same, so I know this feeling won’t either. But maybe this overstaying its welcome because I’m not done here, there’s something I need to learn or let go of or foster before this dissatisfaction can move on.
If I were to claim any part of her as my favorite, it might be her hands. They dance when she is alert, fingers waving,coaxing the air into becoming her own invisible instrument. When she is startled they bunch up into tight fists and she gives them a shake or two. Often a finger or five can be found in her mouth, shiny with drool. Lately she has started to explore the opening and closing of her hands. She touches fabric or skin or anything really, and her little starfish fingers joyfully leap forward only to immediately spring back to nestle her palm again. Open close, open close. And sweetest gestures of all happen during nursing, as more frenzied activity slow to sweet caresses. She feeds quietly, eyes closed and gracefully, ever so gently traces her fingertips along the outside of my breast, my sternum, my chin. The very light touch of her fingers, so tiny, not yet hardened by life’s labor, feels more like a brushing of butterfly wings than the touch of a human, but here she is, real and mine. 6 months after her birth I still check her breathing while she sleeps. You are okay? You are okay.
The annual reprieve is here- monsoon season. We desert dwellers look to the sky, to the dark clouds which form in the afternoon hours with hope. We need this, the nourishing rains, the plummeting temperature which follows in its wake. In an instant lightning rips across the sky, big fat drops kiss our face and we clap our hands in gratitude. Yes.
The desert hangs on to nothing, and water rushes and rushes, trying to return to the sea. It flows down alley ways and pooling only when contained. In a flood zone at the end of my street, the dusty embankement has given way to lush Johnson grass stands and puddles. But even in monsoon the water is not always enough.
I noticed the wriggling tadpoles after the season’s first big storm. The desert toad laid those fertilized eggs remains unknown to me; I’ve never heard their mating song at dusk, or seen one hopping around in the grass. But there they were, thousands of tadpoles in the seasonal water stand. Undulating and undulating, some of them clumping together, some perpetually pushing forward, on and on. Countless miracles, nearly in my own backyard.
But then things dried up. The puddles shrank, retreated. The tadpoles become a writhing mass in the small amount of remaining water. I prayed to the God of Rain to bless us thoroughly and quickly, thousands of tadpoles depended on this. I prayed to the God of Frogs that they may develop preternaturally quickly. My prayers went unanswered; yesterday they had evaporated along with the puddle, leaving behind only a greyish film in the center of a mud ring.
It made me hate the kind of world were thousands of beautiful creatures live and die in a breath. The waste, the injustice.
But then today the rain returned. Again the streets flowed, water pooled, and there are tadpoles once more. Well developed, survivors transplanted from other puddles perhaps. I watch them undulate with a renewed sense of gratitude. With a renewed sense of hope.
I am packing boxes, surrounded by dust bunnies, wrapping paper, and the odds and ends that baffle any sort of organizational schema. Should this be in the “kitchen” box, or the “buffet” stuff? Keep it or throw it? What did I need this for anyway? The animals pace, smelling domestic upheaval in the air.
Yes, it is once again time to move. I have predictably timed this transition for the hottest part of the year. Highs temperatures are said to be 111 degrees on Saturday.
Most pictures are packed away yet one photo remains, taped to the inside of my bookcase. A smiling image of my mother presses the infant me joyfully against her cheek. I look to her image as though it were an icon, Our Lady of the Uhaul, Patron Saint of Gypsies and Restless Humans Everywhere. She who loved this shit. She who couldn’t live in a house more than two or three years. Houses were places to leave your mark, and then leave. Enter, refurbish, enjoy for a time, exit. When she wasn’t moving her own family she was shuffling her mother around: Now, she needs a senior apartment! No, assisted living! A senior apartment with some assisted living services! No, something closer to me! And so on.
I pack and remove, unwinding my life in this tiny casita, a cozy abode with blue-green walls and saffron ceilings and windows, so many windows. The light streams in at all hours of the day and if you catch a beam just right in the winter it warm you straight to the core. When I arrived here two years ago I nearly wept with joy because it was so perfect for me. The person I was. The house I needed.
The promise came true. What was broken down and dead healed over and woke up. I grew into me here. My life is now as vivid as the paint on the walls.
And now it is time to go. I have a new chapter to begin, and it will be in a different house. One that can better shelter me, now that life has become so full. So bright.
The news detonates a dam, and the tragedy of another triggers a flood of memories. I remember the quiet that pervaded the house during my mother’s final days, even while streams of thoughtful friends and family trickled by with somber faces. The flocks of grey geese, a silent V slicing the grey skies above. The terrible disbelief that sets in after the final, jagged breath.
There are no words to comfort. Maybe I can say that I understand what she is going through. Afterall, I too have lost a parent, but everyone grieves differently. It is a lonely road, and she is a mother, she must carry on for another. The phrase “I understand” seems a bit inauthentic.
I can tell her that I’m sorry, because I am.
I can tell her everything will be different going forward, but how?I cannot predict. It is for her to discover. The truth will dazzle gradually.
What I can say, and what is the greatest truth: the only thing that knit me back together again was beauty. People, with their awkward hugs and concerned faces, tried to comfort me, but I was beyond reach. There is nothing that anyone could do or say.
But there was poetry. There were brilliant Arizona sunsets. There were songs that managed to fill a broken heart with joy and hope. There were mountains that touched puffy white clouds. There were birds, so many birds.
The beauty of the world can deliver you from her horrors if you open yourself to it.
I have become preoccupied with survival. The art of endurance, of strength, of balancing precariously between life and death and miraculously making it. I pour over manuals to learn and re-learn wilderness navigation techniques, insurance against getting lost. I do presses and pull ups and push ups in the rediculously-early morning, a rehearsal in pulling myself up and out of impending disaster. I lose myself in memoirs of surviving avalanches, plane crashes, sinking ships. I run down city streets to prepare myself for climbing mountains. I tie myself on to ropes and learn to climb on delicate foot holds, squeeze precarious handholds, and fall, when necessary, safely, gracefully. I practice breathing deeply, so when I feel fear building up I can just as easily let it slide away, the back and forth of waves crashing on a beach then being pulled back to sea. The study of survival is a preoccupation which eats up, in its various permutations, most of my free time.
My degree of obsession seems funny to me because I am already a survivor. I have fallen, bruised and bloodied, to the lowest levels and climbed back up again. I have lost myself in the darkest realms and found my way back to the light. I have worked through searing pain. I have made it, am making it, again and again.
Survival isn’t an endpoint, but a gateway. It only matters if there is a promise of life beyond the blackness of the rabbit hole. Every battle needs its prize. So perhaps these survival exercises I perform in relative comfort are more than preparation for future challenges. They help me relive the story of my life and unleash the wisdom loosely folded in the challenges and the failures and the victories of my past. In the consuming rituals of knot tying, trip planning, pushing and pulling and repairing and strengthening, I am reminded daily that I am a warrior, and mine is a life worth fighting for.
Anna’s Hummingbird, Boyce Thompson Arboretum, February 2014