The split-second story:
A peacock decides this driveway in suburban Florida is a good place to pick up chicks—er, hens.
“Oh, yeah,” he thinks. “She totally digs me.”
I was exercising.
I was in the bathroom.
I forgot to charge my phone.
We had guests over.
You just missed me.
The reasons I won’t tell you:
I was in the middle of a crossword puzzle.
I didn’t feel like talking.
I couldn’t find the phone.
My coffee had just reached the perfect temperature, and a moment’s delay would have ruined the whole thing.
Children were screaming at each other.
I wasn’t yet to the point that I was seeking an excuse to keep me from exercising.
I had peanut butter/honey/soapy water/bread dough/raw eggs/bodily excretions on my hands.
My four-year-old just had a mishap with glue, scissors, markers, paint, milk and/or library books.
We were doing homeschool and if I’d walked away, when I got back I would have had to search for my daughter until I found her hiding beneath the stairs or under a comforter, reading a book by the light of her headlamp.
I was stuck getting into or out of my sports bra.
I was writing a list of reasons I wasn’t answering the phone.
When I saw this week’s photo challenge topic, I immediately thought of this photo of my son on the playground near the beach in Saco, Maine, last fall. I feel a little sick to my stomach just looking at it, but he had a blast.
Grab your fleece—New England mornings are still chilly in May—and begin your walk at the oldest house in the neighborhood. This split-level made its debut just months before JFK was shot, but you’ve only lived here for three years, which means you have another seventeen years or so before you’re no longer considered a newcomer.
Turn left and follow the sidewalk up the hill toward the cul-de-sac that marks one of the farthest boundaries of your nearly two-mile constitutional. As you start up the hill, wish you had brought your sunglasses. The only thing you notice for about twenty feet is the frost and plow damage of the asphalt sidewalk as you try to shield your eyes from the sun peeking over the horizon.
Back in the shade, notice the oak tree overgrown with bittersweet vines. Imagine bringing your gloves early one morning and pulling the bittersweet, a sort of suburban yard version of the shoemaker’s elves. Wonder if you can be arrested for removing invasive plants from someone else’s lawn in the dark of night.
Halfway up the hill a line of raspberry bushes marks the end of the old section of the neighborhood. The power lines go underground and the modest split-levels, ranches, capes, and Dutch colonials give way to colonials that tower over treeless seas of green grass. These are your neighbors. These are people who wave to you when they see you playing with your kids in your lawn. Try not to be judgy.
Round the cul-de-sac and head back down the hill. On your left, notice a song sparrow noisily chasing a cowbird away from her nest. Take a moment to wonder why you think the cowbird’s method of perpetuating her genes is inferior to the sparrow’s and why you silently cheer the smaller bird on.
Notice that the neighbors on the corner have cleared out the poison ivy that used to mingle with their hostas. Wonder if they were able to do this without getting a rash.
At the street you see a golden retriever walking with his human companion. The dog turns to look at you, but the human does not. Don’t greet the human, but smile at the dog and then recall that smiling is a threatening gesture to dogs. The dog doesn’t seemed threatened, but stop smiling abruptly anyway.
The power lines go underground again across the street, but the houses stay modest. Wave at the homeowner adjusting the American flag in front of his house. Notice that the highway sounds which at your starting point sounded vaguely like the ocean if the person hearing it had never heard the ocean before now sound distinctly like highway sounds, with the roar of engines accelerating and transmissions down-shifting through the morning rush.
At the bottom of the hill, blackbirds graze in the dew-covered grass. Wonder where the rabbits are. Are you too late in the morning? Too early? Have they found a different spot to have breakfast? Will they return when the clover blossoms? Hear a rustle in the hedge; turn to look, but it’s just a squirrel.
Around the curve, notice scattered grass seed and strips of sod in the bare patches of the lawn of the house that had been on the market but is not now. Remember the elderly man who used to tend the little fenced garden at the top of the lawn; wonder what happened to him.
Turn left onto the street you think of as ending in a cul-de-sac but which is really a circle. As you round the circle, you are at the farthest point of your walk. Just past this circle is where last year you saw a large snapping turtle sunning itself on a driveway. You see no turtles this morning, just a house cat huddling in a flower bed and a neighbor getting into his car to go to work. Wave at the commuter; he will wave back.
Still looking for turtles, notice two long ears silhouetted by the sun shining through a patch of tall weeds: a rabbit, out for morning silflay. Slow to watch it for several seconds, but it doesn’t stir.
At the corner look up at the chimney of the house to your right. Last spring, a mockingbird perched there and went through his ambitious repertoire, complete with a very convincing impression of a car alarm. This morning, the chimney is bare. You’ve heard cardinals, sparrows, blackbirds, chickadees, and a northern flicker, but no mockingbirds.
Turn right at the corner. On the next stretch of road, two cars pass by and you see another commuter in his driveway. Wave at the fellow getting into his car but not at the drivers of the moving cars.
There are dog pawprints on the sidewalk, but you’ve not seen another dog since the golden retriever. Wonder where the dog-walkers are this morning. Feel a slight sense of superiority that you are out walking and don’t even have a dog.
Turn left and continue up the hill. This is the last stretch of your walk, and the section most likely to induce a sweat. A car approaches and stops in front of a house about halfway up the hill. The word “carpool” floats through your mind.
Look left and see a brown rabbit sitting still like a small lawn ornament in the middle of a patch of grass. Say, “Hi, Bunny!” just above a whisper, and then feel self-conscious about greeting the rabbit out loud.
Walk around the truck that’s parked on the sidewalk, past the storm drain that always smells slightly of natural gas but must not be any big deal because you’ve already called the gas company about it and it still smells like gas, then cross the street.
Your house is in view.
Turn into your driveway, climb your front steps, and as you open the door, brace yourself to argue your four-year-old out of having pancakes for breakfast.
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I walk along the red clay path past white dogwood blooms. My son spots a black and orange millipede. We stop to watch it cross the path and see a second one on the other side. My children gather rocks and throw them into the creek as I try to capture the splash with my camera. The scent on the air smells a little like sandalwood, but more than anything it smells like North Carolina, like the mountains that loom up to my left.
My mind tries out scenarios of varying degrees of ridiculousness that might bring our family here to live instead of Massachusetts. My spouse could teach at the college. I could join a writing group and maybe get my MFA. I look up homeschooling groups and flute teachers online. But I know we’re leaving the mountains tomorrow, and that living here isn’t something we can do right now. Or maybe ever.
My eyes sting and my belly feels like I’m falling, but I try to remind myself to breathe this place in, to be here now rather than missing it before we ever leave.
Back in town, street musicians—a ragged bluegrass band, a guy with a guitar and a brindle mut, a fellow smoking a cigarette while playing on a synthesizer—provide the soundtrack as we walk by book shops and head shops, art galleries and cafes. We stop by the gallery where the owner of the condo we’re renting works and exhibits her photographs. We talk about how much Asheville has changed in the eleven years since we last visited, which changes are good (an even greater commitment to green living and cleaning up the mountain waterways) and which are kind of mixed (lots and lots and lots of tourists who fill up the parking garages and restaurants but about whom we can’t complain because we’re among them and whom she can’t complain about because they rent her condo and buy her artwork).
We can’t stay long, though, because we’re meeting a friend for dinner, a friend from Salt Lake City we didn’t know was in town until my spouse bumped into him on the street. It’s just a coincidence, him being in town for work at the same time we’re in town for the first time in more than a decade, him passing our building at the same time my spouse was walking back from the ATM, but to me, this is just another bit of the magic of Asheville.
This is just what I expected when we planned this trip. The anticipation of this visit was what infused me with joy as we drove into town and what prompted my daughter to ask as we walked the few blocks to dinner that first night in town, “Mommy, would you be happy if we lived in Asheville?”
That first night when I could barely keep myself from jumping up and down with glee, my answer was an unequivocal “yes,” but now I feel less certain.
Even though I love this city and the mountains where my grandmother’s family have lived for nearly 300 years, even though I love the independent bookstore where the cashier invited me to attend a literary salon based around the book I bought and the Mexican-Caribbean restaurant where I ate transcendent fire-roasted tomato chipotle peanut salsa, would I really be happy here? Would the joy wear off? If I lived here, would the negatives start to overwhelm the positives? Would I start to hate the tourists and long for a quiet place where there are more playgrounds for my kids and where people don’t wax poetic about micro-brewed beer and locally-sourced produce? After a few months or a year, would I do like I always do and start looking for another, better place to live?
In a way it doesn’t matter. Because we’re not staying here. We’re driving back to Massachusetts and our sweet little split-level in the suburbs where we can open our windows and hear the chirping of the spring peepers as we fall asleep instead of live indie rock until 2am from the bar downstairs.
Written as part of the Weekly Writing Challenge theme, Great Expectations.
When my sobs subsided I steeled myself, and we closed the door on the birth tub and our home birth and entered a world of monitors and medications, threats and confusion. The triumph behind us, I could finally look into my daughter’s eyes; we were the first people on Earth.
Written for The Daily Post’s Weekly Writing Challenge theme, “Fifty.”
When I was four, after my brother Josh’s death but before my sister was born, I had a dream that a giant dog was running around our San Diego house. I could see the dog’s fur outside the window as it raced by, and I could feel the ground shake with each of its steps. I knew it was up to me to warn people, to protect my family, but I couldn’t reach to close the windows and no one would listen to me. When I woke up, I told my mom about the dream. “I felt so old, Mommy,” I said. “I felt like I was five!”
After Josh died, my dad came home from cruise early. A black car with white military lettering on the door dropped him off in front of our house. I ran across the grass and jumped into his arms, pressed my nose into his warm khaki Navy uniform shirt, and breathed in his smell of jet fuel, cigarette smoke, and Coast soap.
Later, the three of us sat at the dining room table. We just sat there, the silence buzzing in our ears. I tried to express the impossible reality that we had been a family of four but now we were only three. Into the silence I said, “Sometimes it seems like I can still hear the baby crying.” Or at least that’s what I remember saying. I wasn’t even three yet, so it’s possible it came out differently.
My dad carried me into Josh’s room and showed me the empty crib. “See, no baby,” he said.
My dad had misunderstood me. I knew the baby wasn’t there anymore, I just didn’t understand how that could be. I didn’t try to correct my dad because I could tell that my question had hurt him, and I didn’t know how to say it another way anyway. So I kept quiet and felt the chasm of aloneness widen around me.
I first remember feeling the aloneness the night of Josh’s birth when my mom was away and I was frightened and my dad was asleep. I felt it the morning of Josh’s death, when I stood with my mom in our pajamas at the end of our driveway, watching our shadows stretch long on the pavement, waiting for the ambulance. I felt it in the months after when my mom would fall asleep on the couch; I would blow air into her nostrils to wake her up. She said it was because Josh had fallen asleep and not woken up and I was afraid that the same thing would happen to her, but I just remember feeling alone and wanting her to be with me.
Even then I was trying to figure out the nature of existence. How is it that a baby—my brother—could appear and then just no longer be there? Where did he come from and where did he go? I knew he was supposed to be there at the cemetery where I wore my crocheted sailor suit and wasn’t allowed to pick the flowers. But how was he not with us anymore?
I had sat on the sofa with a pillow under my plump little arm and held him in my lap, had pushed him in his walker and made him laugh, had lain next to him on the living room rug and hugged him, and now he was no longer there.
More than thirty years later, I’m still trying to figure out how it’s possible that someone who is so firmly there one moment can be so thoroughly gone the next. With my own babies, I could feel the possibility of their absence even as I felt their warm weight in my arms. I can still feel it, and they’re a ways from being babies anymore.
I used to write about Josh a lot, but until my blog post last month about the night he was born, I hadn’t written about him since a high school writing class more than twenty years ago. In the weeks since I wrote that blog post, I’ve been looking back and it seems like everything I write is about him, or at least about the confusion and aloneness that I’ve felt in the wake of his life.
It’s possible I would have been confused and alone even if Josh hadn’t died, that this is just my temperament. I was so young when he lived that I can’t remember if I was different before his death. Whatever the cause, my earliest memories are of being confused and alone, and I think that this confusion and aloneness birthed my writing life even before I could read and write. There were things that I had to try to figure out, but because they were things I couldn’t talk about to my parents—the only people who’d known Josh and the only people I felt might have the answers—I had to try to figure them out alone. I paid close attention to everything around me, trying to pick up clues to the answers to my questions about where we come from and where we go, why we’re here for such a short time and what possible meaning there can be in this cycle of birth and death, joy and sorrow.
For more than thirty years, I’ve asked these questions—and, when I was too afraid, avoided asking these questions—in fiction and in essay, in my dreams and in my middle-of-the-night panic attacks, in my irascibility and in my taciturn pouts. I’ve asked and I’ve asked, and I’ve not found any answers. I’m not even sure there are answers to be had to these questions, at least not satisfying ones, but if there are, I feel sure that I can write my way to them.
And so I write.
From Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke (found in Elizabeth Andrew’s Writing the Sacred Journey:
Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.
Written for the Weekly Writing Challenge: Writerly Reflections (March 24, 2014).
One of my closest friends is in her 60’s. She and I have a lot in common in the way we think and in the way we see the world. She challenges me and grounds me and helps me to be my best self. More than any of this, though, I just love spending time with her.
The other day I thought, wouldn’t it be nice if Linda and I were the same age? If we could be in our 30’s together—or even in our 20’s (why not?)—and had all of that time to be friends? But almost as soon as I had that thought, I realized that even if it were possible, it wouldn’t work.
Even setting aside the differences in upbringing and cultural influences had she been born 30 years later or had I been born 30 years earlier, there is no guarantee that we would be friends at different stages in our lives. If 37-year-old Linda met 37-year-old me, would we even like each other? Would we have had any connection to one another at all? It occurred to me that maybe we’re friends at the exact ages that we could be friends, and it wouldn’t work any other way.
I started walking, so I’m told, when I was ten months old. I wrote my first novel when I was in eighth grade. I nearly left high school my senior year because I was in such a hurry to get on with things. Back then, I defined “things” as either being a circus clown or a long-haul trucker, and then whatever those things led to. Instead, I compromised and finished high school and went to college, where I overloaded my schedule and completed my four-year undergraduate degree in three years. I’ve always been in a rush to move ahead and to learn my lessons as quickly and efficiently as possible.
This was pretty much fine during school when there were clear milestones to reach, but as an adult I have trouble judging whether I’m ahead or not. Even though I’ve accomplished a good amount and learned innumerable lessons in my 37 years, I always feel behind.
But then the other day while I was meditating I had a “eureka!” moment. I know that while I’m meditating I’m supposed to just let the thoughts drift away like clouds or balloons or milkweed seeds, but this one hooked me. It’s this:
I’m in the right place right now. I know exactly what I need to know in this moment and at this age, and it couldn’t be any other way.
Although I get irritated that I didn’t learn some of my lessons at a younger age, that I’m not further ahead intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually than I am, I’m following just the course I need to be following.
Each lesson builds on the last, and maybe I couldn’t have known some of these things at a younger age. If I had fast-tracked those lessons and avoided some of the embarrassment and bad parts of learning them, I couldn’t be where I am now: mother to my specific, individual children, wife to my spouse, friends with amazing people like Linda.
Here is the only place I could possibly be at this moment. My only job is to live fully in this moment so that I’m ready for what the next moment brings.
Some pertinent thoughts from The Faces, who were wearing exactly the clothes and hair styles that they should have been wearing at that moment:
This post written in response to The Daily Post’s Weekly Writing Challenge: Golden Years.