discarding life’s accoutrements

As I pulled an empty dresser to the curb, along with unused shelves and a forgotten child-size art easel a deep sadness came over me. I am not attached to those items, or much of anything in my home – save stacks of journals, artwork I’ve collected, and the photographs chronicling my child’s life. The idea of sending almost everything onward is a relief, but the physical act of discarding items is psychologically hard. In their place sits an open space, a blank wall, a future of greater simplicity.

Over the last few months, I have been percolating on selling the home I’ve lived in for almost three years. By selling, I’d pay off all debt and create a nest egg for my daughter’s future. I’d let go of excessive space that I don’t use. Two rooms in my home went untouched for months, I leased out the space rather than let it sit barren. I don’t take up space with things. I have tried – the image of a cozy home filled with memories seems comforting. But the reality, things make me itch and feel overwhelmed. I want experiences and stories, not souvenirs made in China collecting dust. I want time.

I crave time. Time for me. Time to be outdoors, to know my child, to think, to travel, to spend with a future lover, to write, to simply be. I want to be released of the burden of more things that need my attention. But in the wave of letting things go, of resetting, there is a return of grief, dare I say, depression for the abyss of time that will allow me to be alone with myself.

In the last few years, I’ve worked so hard to understand me, what drives me, what I need / want in a partner. I have worked to break down walls and open my heart. I have worked to heal old wounds. I have learned to set boundaries. I have been challenged by new experiences and lovers. I have been tested to come to terms with the work I still must do. On occasion, I feel like I am making great progress. But that progress is simply another layer understood and life rips off layer after layer to reveal more work awaits my attention.

I had to stop cleaning because my mind / heart was racing with overstimulation, confusion. I stopped cleaning to write. In writing I find peace. In writing I work out confusion. As I began to write, more sadness wash over me. I typed through tears.

I am stripping away the nonsense of life. The acquisitions and trinkets discarded. A new wall sits bare and I am reflected back to me. I’m not sure how to say hello.

subconscious musings

As I slowly woke, I felt the warmth of my child’s weight against my upper arm. Her sleeping breath deep against the earliest moments of dawn. I began to turn, but her body felt too comforting to move away. When had she come into my room? My door was still closed. She never closes the door. Odd. Wait. She’s at her dad’s. I was beginning to wake fully. The dog had begun barking madly at midnight. Her dad brought her over? Did I not remember that? Why would he have done that? Now I was wide awake and confused beyond reason. Heart racing. I looked over my nest of pillows, but no child. Heartbeat slowed as I recognized it had been a lucid dream and she was surely safe at her dad’s place. Did she dream of sleeping in my bed? Were we subconsciously together?

+++

“The strangest thing happened. I think I am hearing things,” my girlfriend said as we had brunch. “I was in the back room and heard a Rolling Stones song, but there was no music playing. I checked all my devices and everything was off.”

“Do you think it could have been a neighbor?,” I asked.

“No, I went outside and silence.”

“Perhaps it was just a strong aural memory?”

“I don’t know, but I felt crazy for a moment.”

+++

Often I’ll think of someone, pick up my phone a few minutes later and see they’ve texted me. When I was a kid, I would pick up the landline phone to call a favorite aunt or my grandmother, but the person was already on the line. I’ve dreamt about people I haven’t seen in months and the next day had a chance encounter with that person.

I do not know what to make of such occurrences, but feel there is much beyond what we comprehend in terms of memory, intuition, karma or coincidence, and subconscious connections. We are sharing a planet with physical ecosystems, intertwined on levels, we barely comprehend. How can we begin to comprehend the internal ecosystems of our subconscious? We live through layers of noise, fear, and strange occurrences explained away by reason, but what is that world filled with connections that sit beside and within us? A world that is ours, but connected in moments of silence we have so successfully filled with distraction. A world shrouded by reality, but completely visible to our inner world. An inner world we have been taught to avoid for its brightness and clarity would overshadow the deeds of the physical.

 

art by tangmaelon

What! Why did you stop breastfeeding?

Moms are some of the loudest and most aggressive members of Camp My Opinion Is Best. Folks who haven’t had kids are often louder. While I was nursing my baby, I heard it all. When I mentioned I might wean at six months, I had mothers tell me I would be taking something away from my child (yes, in fact, my boobs). Later, I was told I should have weaned earlier because extended nursing would make her clingy (only til she’s a teenager!). Some said I was selfish for considering not weaning naturally (removing the boob clearly equates hiring a full-time nanny and checking out of my child’s life). Others said my kid wouldn’t thrive if breastfeeding didn’t end naturally (healthy children TOTALLY dive bomb toward malnutrition if supplemental nursing is ended). Before my child was born, I had plans to nurse for six months because that’s about when she would get teeth and no way in hell was I going to let her suck on my boob when she could chew food. Everyone has opinions on how to live your life, including younger you. I am here to say, “Fuck. That. Noise.”

After I gave birth all the parenting wisdom and plans I had preached were humbly destroyed by reality and experience. As six months barreled down the line I came close to a full breakdown over not wanting to wean my baby. I was so stressed over the change in my perspective that my supply rapidly decreased. I read everything I could about increasing supply. I ate fenugreek, nearly waterboarded myself with fluids, and may have tried living off oatmeal cookies, but my milk continued to decrease. In desperation, I called my best girlfriend’s mother who had nursed three babies and has been a NICU nurse for years.

With a firm, gentleness that comes only from years of talking people through stressful situations, she said, “You’ve given your child six months of breastfeeding. You’ve shared all the antibodies and nutrition and so much bonding. No one does it right or wrong. This is your journey. You have done well. Just hold your child close and be there for her. She will eat when she’s hungry. Your milk or something else. Your love is what she needs.” I cried. Within days, my milk was back.

++

Two years later, my Lil’bit was fast approaching 2 1/2 and we were still nursing a few times a day. At the end of a long day, bone tired from work, and another less than stellar night of sleep, I’d walk into daycare and she’d grin so big as to melt my heart. Then, her chubby little fist would raise defiantly into the air and the “milk” symbol would be wielded and she would giggle, “nana” (our word for milk). I had become her cow, my milk was free, and she wanted it all. Soon, I resented daycare pickup and made excuses to work late so her dad would have to deal with our milk tyrant. Of course, when I got home she’d squeal and clap, so happy to see me. And the raise that little demanding fat fist, and yawp “NANA!”

Finally, I was over breastfeeding. I didn’t care if I was selfish, I didn’t want to share my boobs with her anymore. I wanted to go back to being a woman who loved her child without  leaking, tender breasts adding to my daily exhaustion. I picked a date, New Year’s Day seemed poetic, and presented my boob warden with a shopping metaphor. I told her, “Oh wow. It seems “nana” is almost empty, like the orange juice carton. We have three days left.” I made the same declaration with two days. Then, on the final blessed day, January 1st, 2010, after she had black-eyed peas, but before our final nurse, I announced, “Well, this will be all the milk that’s left!”

She nursed, then pulled away and said “Go to store. Get more.”

I told her there are no refills. She looked up at me, sighed, “Read book.”

We read. We snuggled close. It was done.

Two weeks later, she timidly asked if she could nurse. I was so over it when we ended, that I didn’t think I would miss nursing her at all. But within days I missed the primal connection so deeply. I decided we could try a nurse. We cuddled up on the couch. She put her mouth to me, but had lost all instinct of what to do. Her big eyes sought mine. Her mouth rested on my breast. She waited a few moments, then declared, “All gone.” She climbed off my lap and toddled away to harass the cat.

The era was complete.

lost in translation

This morning, while I finished packing for a short visit to New York City, Lil’bit asked if we could please tour the abbey on the island. I was so confused, “What abbey?”

She declared, “Where people lived.”

“I still don’t understand what you are asking.”

“Where people went who were sick and people who worked there were mean and the lady snuck in and wrote about it,” she explained in clear frustration.

“Oh! You mean the asylum grounds on Roosevelt island. Yes. We’ll try to visit.”

“Try hard.”

My child, travel task master.

precipice of chaos

I held myself together with an modicum of finesse, on the precipice of chaos, for years. My recipe for survival begins with a large helping of total avoidance, mixed with random counseling sessions every few years, weeks liberally doused by loads of activities, a side of overcommitments, and a generous dressing of red wine and writing. The writing is how I work through everything I can’t express face to face. It has been great. This method has seemingly worked for years.

I feel balanced. I’ve worked through my issues. I am a walking success story for the self-help book of the month club. I can go on about being emotionally available, knowing what I need in life, my ability to say no and address my boundaries. I even say, nay believe, I have worked through my relationship issues. I declare that I am ready to begin a relationship with someone who has their life figured out as well as I do. I know I have done so much work. When I look back and compare MeNow to the emotionally non-verbal ball of sarcasm I once was, I am brilliantly well adjusted. Look at me, using all the emotionally healthy words. I am living well. 

++

One perfect spring afternoon while walking barefoot down the center of a local creek toward an undisclosed outlook with Frank, who had simultaneously frustrated and inspired me to be a better person over the previous six months, I saw a young copperhead snake swimming at the edge of the creek. It was about 18 inches and moving away from us. I froze and could barely breathe. Apparently, snakes in the wild terrified me so much that I didn’t even know how much I feared them. After several minutes of gentle coaxing by Frank, I asked one more time, “Is where we are going that good?”

“It is. Yes. It really is lovely.”

Finally, I put my shoes on and forced myself to move forward. One arduous step after another we kept moving. After another thirty feet or so he stopped and pointed toward a gnarly tree root system stretching into the creek, “There’s another copperhead.” I stopped mid-pace and looked, “I don’t see it,” I said as I felt my breath suck into my body and intense fear wash over me for a second time in less than 20 minutes.

“Oh, it’s there. See, in the roots. It’s bigger.” He didn’t mean to scare me. He saw beauty in the creature and couldn’t comprehend fear in me.

At this point, I saw a copperhead, approximately four inches in diameter and of unknown length, writhing about the roots. Wrapped around the roots of the tree, it appeared to be trying to get loose. I couldn’t move or talk. Internally coaching myself, I tried to use all the avoidance tactics and tools of self-conviction in my arsenal to push past the debilitating fear that had washed over me, but this unexpected natural fauna had blindsided me. There was nothing to do but breathe and that felt barely involuntary. With more coaxing from Frank, I finally walked past the damn snake who didn’t seem to notice we had passed. We made it to a beautiful rock outcropping. After triple checking we had an egress point that did not involve passing the snakes I felt reassured, and we climbed the outcropping and moved to its triangular edge. We sat about three stories above the creek, legs dangling over, laughing about how the people below us had no idea we were there. I was terrified, but he was next to me and I felt a quiet reassurance in his company.

Later that evening, as I rehashed the terrifying snake episode for perhaps the 10th time, this man I had spent the last six months getting to know said, with the kindest smile, “I never thought I’d see you afraid of anything.”

I completely lost my heart. I heard myself saying, “Not afraid of anything? I am always afraid. I’m terrified of screwing up my kid. I constantly feel like total fraud – soon everyone will stop talking to me and I won’t be surprised. People have started taking my advice, but it’s only because I’m starting to get silver in my hair. It’s not because I know anything, just that I appear to because I am Of Age. Every time I get in a car, I am pretty sure I am going to die. I always say I love you to my kid when I leave her side because I know I will never see her again. The word “good-bye” makes me feel like I’m going to vomit because it may never lead to another hello. I am sure when I get in a plane it will crash so I always kiss my hand and touch the plane when I board as a token of goodwill. I am certain I will freak you out at any minute and you’ll just disappear from my life as suddenly as you appeared. I decided a long time ago just to fake it til I make it and now I can’t stop. I will never have the strength I pretend to have. I am completely exhausted after I spend time in a group because I feel all the people and try to listen to all the things because I want to be there for everyone. I never have the right words when I speak so I write it all down, but am terrified to put my words into the world because that’s the me, in the dark, in the corner, afraid of the g-d damn snakes. Nothing will ever be right and I just barely stumble through my days by lists and notes. My brain never turns off and it’s exhausting,” but that was just two seconds of dread spinning through my mind.

Instead, my voice articulated, “Not afraid? Me? I am terrified everyday. I don’t have time to stop. I can’t give myself any choice but to keep moving forward or so many days I wouldn’t get out of bed,” tears had begun streaming down my face.

In that moment, I realized the falsehood of my emotional availability or stability. There I stood, in front of the man I was in love with, and realized the absence of my vulnerability. I hadn’t been able to tell him I was afraid of the snakes because I feared looking weak. I couldn’t ask for help. I hadn’t been able to tell him I was overwhelmed – daily. I couldn’t ask for what I needed beyond my preference for steak over chicken at dinner. And the kicker, until he made the statement, “I never thought I’d see you afraid of anything,” I was totally blind to the fact that I still lacked almost all vulnerability. Until that moment, I couldn’t see how much work I had left to do, to be where I want to be as a person.

++

Over the last couple years, people talk a lot about their spoons – how their spoons are full or they have no more spoons. As it turns, Spoon Theory is a metaphor to explain the utter exhaustion of chronic illness, but it’s been become a common expression for not having emotional space left to deal with one more anything. I had so many days when I ran out of spoons, but I couldn’t stop – so I ate life with a fork and then chopsticks. It looked all put together, but my laundry was a disaster. It’s not that I didn’t have spoons, it’s that my kitchen was wrecked and my spoons had been moved so they weren’t even available to be used. I felt like a baker in a kitchen where I had access to all the ingredients I could ever need, but the ingredients were all stored in identical packages and labeled in dream English. That writing that appears when you dream and you can read it, but then it’s not what it says. It looks right, but isn’t actually a known language. I had all the pieces, but everything was just off kilter enough that I was in a continual loop of uncertainty so I plotted a course and charged forward with hope that my momentum would keep me upright.

After the snakes, I refused to be that person anymore. I’ve been working for years to be well-adjusted, but it seems I was only living a bulleted list titled “A Well Adjusted Person Does The Following.” I had learned to be by myself, but I never did it with intention or focus. My life was unexamined, but that could not remain the status quo. I had to get back to work on me.

++

Over the last few months, I’ve actually spent time with me. Walking and sitting for long spells, feeling my emotions when they are difficult. I am moving words from journals to public space – perhaps one person will read my journey and not feel so alone. I am learning when I say thank-you I can feel appreciated rather than embarrassed. I ask my child if she had hardships in her day, because I want her to learn how to face them and not avoid pain. Then I give space so she might find her words. I linger in her laughter and encourage it, because for any pain our joy should be amplified. I’m learning to ask for help. If someone expresses a trouble, I am learning to sit with that and listen rather than tell them why their trouble isn’t really a problem, but somehow a strength. I’m learning that it’s ok to have fears and problems and hardships. I’m learning it’s healthier to have people in my world who help me to work through fears and problems and hardships than to simply wall off my pain from the world. I am blessed with so many of those people and I am working diligently to understand, appreciate, and grow with each of them. I am beginning to know vulnerability and it’s terrifying, but survivable. I am beginning to see the counters of my kitchen and may soon be ready to open the cupboards. Maybe soon I will truly be ready to share the nourishment of a healthy relationship, even through the chaos of life. 

(Artwork by James Bullough)

extreme co-parenting

This afternoon I will drive 238 miles to the beach with Lil’bit and her dad. It will be the first time in over three years that we’ve all been in the car together for more than an hour – significantly longer since just the three of us took a trip together. Over the 13 years we were together, we traveled more than most people I know. Even when flat-ass broke, we found a way to hit the road. When I took out loans for grad school, I included a travel budget. I could never be still, but I also needed roots. There was always somewhere to go – even if it was eight hour discovery walks through Brooklyn led only by a random choice of left or right at every 4th block. We often joked that we would destroy the Amazing Race tv show.

I still travel a good bit with Lil’bit, but day trips are the biggest draw. We can pack a lot into a day. The road keeps my gypsy soul soothed and she seems happier when an adventure is on the horizon. With Lil’bit there are no arguments about how I’m driving or what roads we are taking or when we should stop or for how long, except for her whining when we can’t stay longer at Buc-ee’s, she’s an ideal travel partner. But she’s also eight and still submissive to my whims. Her dad and I traveled well together, but in later years there was inevitably a squabble about something that neither of us could pinpoint the next day. But in a couple hours we will hit the road together again. This time, we will point the car south and drive four hours to a Texas beach.

Upon arrival, we will be greeted by the laughter and hugs of some of the most amazing people we know. My best friends will be there. His girlfriend will be there. Lil’bit’s favorite playmates will be there. Our community of burners is descending to the beach for the weekend, not just to play, but with a mission to clean up a three-mile stretch of beach. In the last year, over 16,000 pounds of trash was removed from the area. Over 200 Kemp’s ridley sea turtles recently hatched in the area and the restoration of the area has been applauded by local authorities. These “mini-burns” all have a theme, this weekend’s Summer Beach Cleanup is “From the Ashes.” Our center art piece (aka effigy) is a phoenix that will go up in fire and pyrotechnics on Saturday night.

I’ve no expectations for the weekend but to reconnect with good people, walk on the beach for hours, and let Lil’bit bury me in the sand. But I also believe it will be a weekend of re-birth. A weekend to recommit to my arts, my spirit, and my child. A weekend to burn off old wounds and long held sadness. A weekend to laugh. A weekend to purge resentment – to let go and start anew. A weekend to know myself better. It is a joyful and anxious adventure that I cannot wait to begin.

Racial America 2017

A four-year old recently announced to her mother, “I have white skin so I am special.” The mother, instantly horrified and confused, asked on social media how her child, raised in such diversity with equality minded parents, could make such a proclamation of preference? How does she explain to her child: It’s not about skin color? How does she open the conversation of racial equality with a four-year-old? She doesn’t understand. Her child’s daycare is diverse. Their friends are diverse. Why would, how could her child come up with this idea?

Even as the most liberal, accepting, diverse white community member you can be: actively listening and speaking up against racial inequality, leading your neighborhood in posting Black Lives Matter signs, talking to the police about non-violent communication, ensuring all the non-white kiddos get invited to your kids’ parties, pointing out possible cultural appropriation of Kwanzaa and Dia de los Muertos. Even when you do all that and painfully wince at your white privilege: You are still white. Painful as it might be to your liberal sensibilities, white America is special. It isn’t about what is right or fair, it is simply the current climate of this land.

Allow me, for a moment, to return to the four-year old’s statement. What she said is a fact of American life, observable by a four-year-old. Let that sink in:

I have white skin so I am special.

With storms there is often a last violent surge before the storm loses its power and passes, leaving bad memories, but a brighter future in its wake. This country’s race relations have been in a tumultuous storm for the last sixty years. We have made enormous strides toward equality and basic human rights to all. We have made strides, but we are not there yet. Often, not even close. Let it not be forgot, there are grandparents amongst us who can recall acid being added to pools to keep Black families out and lynchings along highways. This country and its Really Bad History is figuring out how to do things right, but it is nowhere near finished.

As good, common sense grown folk, we know our neighbors’ differences do not reside in the color of their skin. There is no difference, yet there is great discrimination. At this moment in American history, I choose to believe America is experiencing a last violent surge of its race storm. It seems, during the pre-cameraphone calm, we lulled ourselves with a post-racial campfire song of equality and a great fairness that was now the streets of America. As that fire was fanned with growth and goodness, the truth was burned away by a new technology. The streets were now being filmed in real time and the live feed revealed discrimination and a criminal hatred still burning. Now, the storm of America’s injustices pushes back with one more violent surge and we have to keep up the fight for equality or lose our heart. We are still broken. Race is still very much a divide.

Young children see people on TV, the politicians & talking heads. They see who is on street corners and who drives fancy cars. They see who teaches them and who cleans up after them. The children see who we talk to, where we share our time and voice, who we feel sorry for, who we endorse. The children witness our glances, hand wringing, our pop culture choices. They see who is cast as the criminals and winners. They know who is picked first in class to answer questions and who is thought to be best at sports. They hear the news and our deep liberal sighs of “wish we could do something” when another Black child is reported shot by a police officer. They hear the news when a Black mother is killed in her home. They see the video when a boy like their big brother is killed while wearing a hoodie and kept his hands in his pockets too long. A boy like his brother, except with Black skin so not special enough to live.

So yes, yes, that four-year-old white child may say, “My skin is white. I am special” and that child is stating a heartbreaking truth of America 2017.

As parents who say we want to be the change, we must embrace those statements. We must lean into the discomfort and fear that we feel when we hear them. We have the ability to embrace and shatter those statements, transforming those painful moments into sharing and explanations of equality. For our children, the effect of those words has not yet been locked down so we have the ability to destroy the fabric of our cultural divide and weave something new. But we must be active in our actions. Eliminating discrimination is not just about protests and liberally-appropriate posts on Facebook, eliminating discrimination is a slow process that begins with breaking down cultural misunderstandings and getting to know the people we discriminate against for who they are. If you know a person, they are not the shell and stereotype of our perception. When you begin interacting with people they become the people. We the people.

We must be able to see and call our children on societal bullshit that seeps into their (sub)conscious reality. We must get off our attention sucking devices and away from our televisions in order to watch and interact with our children. Take them to places to naturally interact with other kids – not simply curated play-dates. Go to public swimming pools and museums and open concerts with outdoor picnics in new neighborhoods. Make it a habit to visit libraries in new neighborhoods and go to story-time with kids that don’t look like your kids. Talk about the world and your experiences together. Talk to strangers, meet the people who share your space. Lean into the unknown and remove yourself from isolationism. Kids know when we create bogus actions to feel good about our cultural quota. Admit to our children that our culture is fucked and segregated. Do not paint it pretty. Let it be known our wrongs are only reason to do more and be more aware.

As white folk, we are a culturally designed special and we have a responsibility to use that special to bring the oppressed to an equal footing – to deconstruct the oppressor. If we are in a position to hire, we can refuse to review resumes with names. If we teach, we can encourage non-white children to excel simply by calling on them more often in class. When we walk down a street, don’t cross over if a non-white is headed toward you – instead say hello and keep on with your business. Don’t assume you know how to help. Don’t put yourself in someone else’s place. You will NEVER be in that place so instead ask and listen.

I feel like an ass for even writing the last couple paragraphs because I know I haven’t done enough to listen, to build bridges, to create the change I espouse. I believe it’s not too late to try. It’s not too late to try again and fail and try again.

To shift a touch, in February of this year, in Austin, there were several weeks of intense ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) activity involving raids and deportations. My daughter has a friend at school whose family all speaks Spanish, very little English. One night, my daughter told me, “I thought some of Lydia’s family might be undocumented. I asked her if everyone is ok. She said everyone has papers and gave me hug.” My child is eight. There is nothing she could do to help, but she reached. She said, “I hear your story.” That may be a place to start.

I want to hear your story. I want to try harder. Can we begin there?