Monday, March 30, 2015

I Could Be Someone

The house was painted peach. This in an attempt by its elderly fedora-wearing landlord to disguise its decrepitude. Cheaper to brush on a coat or two of paint than to address cracked ceilings and sloping floors. A genial man, the landlord, as I recall, but only if you discussed the weather instead of the state of his house. Cigar smoke enveloped him and augured his infrequent appearances.

The second floor of the two-story house was my home during my senior year of college. 287 Brook Street. I remember the wide-planked floors, the dirt- and dust-filled crevices between each plank wide and deep enough to hold dimes and pennies, lint and once, a jack. The floor had once been inexpertly painted white (I may have been bored enough one evening to scrape dried drips of paint up and off it with the nail of my index finger), but so long ago that it was now more of a bluish gray. My bedroom floor tipped towards the bathroom. I slept on a futon, but I had no frame, so the futon lay right on the dusty, nasty floor. There was dust everywhere, my sporadic efforts at cleaning so unrewarding that by spring I'd long since given up trying, or caring. I didn't have much in the way of belongings, but I remember vividly a red Sony clock. The casing of the clock was a plastic cube, very eighties and so cutesy that I felt not so much that I should be embarrassed to own or display it but that the clock itself ought to feel a bit self-conscious.

Spring of 1989, it was, and a month away from my college graduation. I was making studious attempts to avoid thinking about graduation, because I had no idea what I was going to do afterward - no internship or job lined up, nothing. My college relationship was still in play, though I didn't know then that it shouldn't have been; someone really should have come along and snuffed it out. So I had some idea that I would be living with my boyfriend, but where we would live wasn't yet clear, and what I would do to sustain or entertain myself even less so.

It was one morning in April that I awoke to the DJ from the college radio station, which I'd programmed to be my alarm. It was a brilliant spring day, cloudless and already warm. The DJ announced that he was going to play a new song, which had been released in England in the fall. I was beginning to get dressed when the first notes of the song played. I froze. I looked at my silly radio clock as if I could see inside of it to the singer. Tracy Chapman was singing "Fast Car."

I remained motionless as I listened to the rest of the song, and I thought, "I will always remember hearing this for the first time." I wasn't wrong. The song seemed such a perfect anthem to accompany where I was in my life, panicked, the unknown racing towards me and I wanting nothing more than to turn and run away from it. Now I know that "Fast Car" is about so much more than, well, me, and it refers to circumstances that my twenty-one-year-old self knew nothing about. But see, the twenties are a narcissistic decade. So when I heard,

You got a fast car
I want a ticket to anywhere
Maybe we make a deal
Maybe together we can get somewhere
Any place is better
Starting from zero got nothing to lose
Maybe we'll make something
Me myself I got nothing to prove

... I thought Tracy Chapman had swooped down to 287 Brook Street and spied on me until she'd figured out the essence of me, all I feared despite a laissez-faire exterior. Not only all I feared: all I wanted, too. What I feared and what I wanted were really one and the same, another truth revealed to me only much later.

And I had a feeling that I belonged
I had a feeling I could be someone, be someone, be someone

Twenty-five years later, I am well aware that "Fast Car" is about a drunk of a father whose daughter ends up working as a checkout girl, living in a shelter, and then later reliving her childhood by choosing a husband who drinks too much and never sees his kids. Perhaps Tracy Chapman would be offended to learn that once I personalized her song the way I did. I can't know.

But in April of 1989, I did know that Tracy Chapman sang to me through the tinny, tiny speaker of my radio clock, and suddenly I was not as alone or unmoored as I had been feeling.


I did not find a job after graduation. The first post-college year was as hard for me as I'd predicted - possibly harder. I would not know for many years to come what I wanted to be when I grew up. In fact, whether I know that now is debatable.

There are defining moments in a life. These do not necessarily precede times of great change or progress, at least I don't think they have to do so. If you're experiencing something and overlaid atop the experience is the running thought that this is important, this is memorable, this is more than what it seems, there is a reason. Hearing "Fast Car" for the first time - and maybe after all it was less its lyrics than it was Chapman's deep, yearning, honest voice - I was comforted by the notion that a stranger could reach my core, hidden so long that even I was hard-pressed to recognize it. I could almost believe that everything was going to work out just fine in the end, for me, at least.

And you know, it has.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Riding the School Bus

Come September, my younger son will climb three steep stairs with rubber treads and take a seat on his first school bus. He will likely look troubled, as he always does in situations unfamiliar to him. I will likely wave madly, even frantically, in a futile attempt to draw out his slow, thoughtful smile. I am still trying to make life better for him, while knowing that he's in for it, that one, he who feels everything with such intensity. He often looks stunned in photographs. This is no accident; the sensitive among us are frequently stunned.


Without fail, each September on the night before the first day of school, I could not sleep. Sometime around two in the morning, I'd creep into my mother's bedroom, and I'd will her to wake up. If my will betrayed me, I'd force the issue by shaking her. She was always surprisingly obliging at these times, and I'd slide into bed next to her. Though sleep was still elusive, I was calmed by my proximity to her body. But I was never calmed by her sleepily mumbled, though well-intentioned, questions meant to serve as therapy for the intractable problem of my insomnia: "What do you think will happen tomorrow? How bad could it be?"

It was not the fear of future unpleasantness that kept me awake; it was just plain uncertainty. I could not abide not knowing where my classroom was, who my classmates would be, what my teacher would be like. The unknown causes most people to feel nothing more than a slight and gentle sensation of pressure. For my son and me and others like us, it's not pressure but pain we feel.


For the last few months, my son has been trying to finagle his way out of riding the bus next year. His efforts at self-preservation are not lost on me. I ache with the knowledge of what he is feeling, what he is fearing. But I cannot oblige him in this. He must not learn the art of avoidance quite so young. Still, he breaks my heart.

So come September, he will struggle onto that bus. If he resists, I will have to give him a push past the baffled bus driver. And when the bus pulls away, I will be crying, not because my baby is going to kindergarten, as you might expect, but because I cannot keep him from himself.

written in 2007
republished for Jenn

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Digest This Vol. 1

Be moved, inspired, laugh, get angry. I share whatever makes me sit up and take note.

I'm not usually a fan of the graphic essay, but Ronald Wimberly's piece about skin color and ingrained bias is so clever and beautifully drawn to boot: Lighten Up.

When I was in graduate school, I studied memory and its malleability, which is especially troublesome in the context of our legal system. Douglas Starr's New Yorker essay synthesizes and extends the long concerning evidence about false memory: Remembering a Crime That You Didn't Commit.

I am in the thick of it, and Rachel Cusk illuminates the issues well in Raising Teenagers: The Mother of All Problems. An excerpt:

Adolescence, it strikes me, shares some of the generic qualities of divorce. The central shock of divorce lies in its bifurcation of the agreed-upon version of life: There are now two versions, mutually hostile, each of whose narrative aim is to discredit the other. Until adolescence, parents by and large control the family story. The children are the subject of this story, sure enough, the generators of its interest or charm, but they remain, as it were, characters, creatures derived from life who nonetheless have their being in the author’s head.

I want to buy Johanna Basford's coloring books for adults. Such intricate drawings begging for color. Now where did I put those Caran D'Ache colored pencils that I last used in 1980?

Let me know what you think of the inaugural Digest This!

Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Draw of a Dress

She dances in and out of my sight, especially at night, when I am in the otherworldly twilight between wakefulness and sleep. She's blonde, of course, and she has fickle eyes, today blue, tomorrow green, or even gray. She holds one dimpled hand up in front of her mouth when she giggles; it's a shy and endearing habit. All sweetness and light, she leaves a delicate and thoughtful footprint wherever she goes.

Now and then she can be intractably stubborn, but it is easy enough to distract her, and finally, to delight her. Her big brothers trip over themselves in their desire to show her the sun, the moon, and everything in between.

She wears this dress when she is three, and I never forget how she looks in it; she is a fairy, a sprite, an ethereal creature.

She is my daughter. I hold on to the dress long after it's too small for her, and decades later, when I am past old, I come upon it in the attic. With my fingers I trace out its intricate pattern. I bury my head in it but am able to catch only the faintest musty odor. There is no piece of her remaining in the folds of this garment.


She is Julia, and she waits for me on the other side of a door; I do not yet know which door. Perhaps it is only when I am close to death, when I curl my tired hands into my boys' warm and vital palms, that the directions I must follow to find her will open up to me in the way of a road map, bulky and awkward but finally reassuringly detailed. Maybe she is my next life's work. I will be grateful if that is so. Oh, do not doubt that I am content with how things are; I know that I am blessed to have two lovely and loving boys, gentle souls both. But there is room for one more. There is room for Julia, the girl in the sweater dress, the girl who visits me when I am most vulnerable, most receptive, most willing to entertain the idea of her.

written in 2007; republished on request, a request i am honored to indulge

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Everyone's Boy

I spent the start of this weekend annoyed. Annoyed by the disaster that is our bedroom, because my husband bought a flat-screen TV (without asking me if I might want it in our bedroom; no) and mounted it on the wall, which necessitated his building a shelf in his basement workshop so he could use the shelf to hide the unsightly cables dangling from the TV to the floor. And there was sawdust everywhere, tracked from the basement to the second floor and on the cats, who seem to have reveled in rolling in it. Annoyed by the cats, whom I found this morning in compromising poitions both - one in a frying pan licking up the remnants of last night's dinner, and the other on top of the fridge knocking down pill bottles and magnets and photos displayed on the fridge. Annoyed by my children, who had done nothing on Saturday but play video games, despite elder's SAT scheduled for next Saturday. Annoyed by their dirty clothes strewn in a line from the bathroom to their bedrooms. Annoyed by wet, mildewy towels on the floor instead of the towel rack. Just... annoyed.

But then I learned about this boy. This thirteen-year-old boy living just a few hours from us. Same age as my younger. This boy who read an email from his school containing a warning that he was close to failing a class, this boy who must have viewed the email as the last in a series of devastating events, or events not objectively devastating but made so by the immature workings of his thirteen-year-old brain. Who on Wednesday evening left his house without proper clothing just before a significant snowstorm and went no one knew where, where no one knew.

At first I was buoyed by the mass support of strangers helping Cayman Naib, strangers putting up flyers at the mall or actively searching wooded areas in hopes of finding him.

As I was drawn into his family's story my kids kept on playing their video games, oblivious to upcoming SATs or personal hygiene or for that matter Cayman Naib, whom I just now read that they found, and too late. He is gone. Over something or some things so small to me, but so large to him lacking the perspective that years of living will bring. Years now denied him.

Gone. Just like that.

And sure it could have been my boy -- or anyone's boy. But I can't go down that road too far before I get lost. Really, he's everyone's boy, isn't he?

So my house is a mess, and my kids are not making good use of their time, but I hear them upstairs, and they are laughing and joking with each other, and it's suddenly fine, all of it, because there is just now no email to set them off, no pain so great that they must flee the house as a stand-in for fleeing themselves, which of course they can never do, but they don't know that yet, and I feel so goddamn lucky I am breathless.


If I had bumped into Cayman, I would have tried to tell him, "Nothing is as bad as you think it is. Nothing is unfixable. Nothing."

I can only take my own unuttered words to heart, and try to make use of them, and for that, I thank you, Cayman Naib. And I hope that wherever you are, you are free from the sadness and doubt and fear that drove you away from us far too soon.

For Cayman, and Katherine, too