Sunday, July 1, 2012

RETAIN GRASP, REINSERT PIN


We were driving down the road earlier in the week when a small bomb of information went off in my lap, preceded by the signaling "can I tell you something?" which, these days, sends a surge of panic chemicals through my bloodstream and pushes my skull against the headrest. It was a here's-what-is-going-on-around-me piece of info that could have sent me through the roof. But all things being relative, I took a breath, stated I was not mad, and proceeded to explain why this was not something that "we" can be involved in. I was proud it was brought to me, I was proud she was proud, and I followed up with a few off-color comments throughout the evening, letting my opinion be known about both the company and the behavior while still cracking jokes. Don't be fooled. None of it was funny to me. It was a parenting tactic used in the vein of 'let's keep the data flowing, shall we?'

It does not pay for me to freak out, I have learned, which is not to say that I will not freak out five times before next, say, Thursday. And like I said, it is all relative. In particular, this little of nugget was relative to an A-bomb that was detonated (also in the car) three days earlier, of the variety that often requires sedation. I did freak out a little for that one, briefly, because it was both ancient information and gravely serious and I was just finding out now. It rattled me for a few days, and was thankfully tempered by my best friend's gracious receipt of my story-vomit. You know what I mean, ladies. The kind of thing girlfriends do for each other when something monumental has come their way without warning. You basically hold your hands out and prepare to receive a "download". It's a reciprocal act among the closest of friends and you must be prepared to do it in any location:  a restaurant bathroom, a coffee shop booth, a parked car on a quick store-run away from a barbecue. It is an emergency debriefing and you do not have to be able to handle it, you just have to pretend you can.

Mostly, however, when it comes to this stuff lately, I find myself walking robotically - mainly out of obligation - through the next activity and quietly imagining what I would love to have done instead. Cry, maybe. Scream like my hair is on fire, sure. In this instance, I would love to have gotten out of the car on the side of the road, leaned against it, and bent over to place my head between my knees to stop the dizziness. And maybe while I puked a little, wondered:  Why on earth is there never a witness to these types of moments that I handle the crap out of?!  It is not about seeking a pat on the back. Not at all, because I will not know for years if I am even doing this right. It is about someone close to me getting a glimpse of what I am made of from time-to-time (to balance out the fumbles, of course). For all I have mishandled in my life, sometimes it would just be nice to have a significant other witness it. And yes, there are perfectly good reasons why I am equally glad there is not someone to witness all of this, but my self-soothing daydream goes something like this: 

"Oh hon-…..…oh wow! I knew you were…….but I had no idea you can actually…..That was…that was…did you learn that in a movie?!  And oh my God, you didn't even crash the car! You were operating a MOTOR. VEHICLE. when she hit you with some really freaking heavy information! I totally would have run into something!  She's all, 'Mom, this blah blah blah, but I take the blame for this and that' and you're all 'okay, now let me explain why this is a problem, and it is not why you think'………..Babe, that's so hot! You're…wow.  Just wow. Can I kiss you right now?? Oh-…okay, not now? Ok. Yeah, you do look a little pale still……………..And YOU!  (turning around to the back seat) You are a good kid! Don't screw this up, because, you know, it was looking…..it was looking a little rough there for a minute…"     (For the record, no guy I know sounds like this…but anyway.)

This week got me thinking a great deal about the bomb blast moments in life, the grenades that fall in our laps on the most gorgeous days. And how no matter how they are handled, you can never negate the fact that they create a cleave in time. There is always a moment before and a moment after The Knowing that cannot be erased. We are almost always subjected then to a repeating loop, a split-second montage of shrapnel bits reversing to become a whole grenade. For some time after, there is that repeated pause, rewind, replay sequence that forces you to remember yourself in that innocent but now shamefully ignorant moment just before you found out.  Before that ugly fact, before that bomb. It could be a death, an affair, a firing, a miscarriage, an unexpected disagreement between friends, what have you. There is always that moment when someone could - if they had the power - reinsert the pin.  

Nothing, I think, is more cruel than the moment that repeatedly arrives with the first few mornings of fallout.  In fact, forget the moon landing.  Humans have really accomplished nothing of significance if they have failed to invent a pill to erase that bile-filled mental hiccup that occurs a few seconds after waking up….normal….normal….wait, there's something I should remember………Oh yeah.  That's it.  "X" happened.  The knowledge we can live with.  It's the forgetting and remembering.  Yes, Eli Lilly.  Get on that, would you?  

Coincidentally, I was already writing this when news of author Nora Ephron's death circulated and reminded me that she was a woman who wrote about bombs dropped in her lap. She made brutal situations funny but no less meaningful. In fact, I would probably not feel free to write in the voice of my thoughts (some of them anyway) had it not been for her. When I read Heartburn as a teen, a novel based on her failed second marriage, I had no idea how much of it would be mentally referenced later in life. One specific moment I am not proud of came to mind while recalling her dealings with her husband's cheating, but it made me laugh a little at the irony. It was in the raw, venomous stage of having just discovered a betrayal in my life when a statement, rocket fueled by anger at a million things, flew from my mouth: 

"Don't you know? If you ruin a family for another woman, you are supposed...to...TRADE...UP!"  

After it landed somewhere on his neck like the product of a good cough, I clearly remember thinking two things:  1) They don't mention anywhere in the scorned-woman handbook that uttering such ugly yet justified-in-the-moment statements only feels good for about 1/2 a breath longer than the last word spoken and then simply becomes a stain on your character; and 2) THAT line would have been hilarious…if this was a movie based on a Nora Ephron novel.  

So I have to thank her for planting the idea fairly early on that pain and comedy are not necessarily an acceptable pairing for every crowd, but definitely for the ones that matter most to me. The people who know that we cannot be expected to behave perfectly when bombs go off in our laps. I would also like to think that Ms. Ephron would appreciate an idea that came to mind this week while trying to discuss some sleepover logistics with a friend, just barely hiding a rough day on my face:

I really wish there was a 'human dashboard' option to switch brimming emotions to stealth mode.  You know, those frustrated sleep-deprived tears that threaten to bust through at the most inopportune moment. And the fact is, I rarely shed tears but Internal Crying would be so pleasant for everyone involved. By my design, they would be as unnoticeable as Kegel exercises. Yep. These are the things I think about while shrapnel is flying around me.  

I dream of the day I can stand in the produce section, assessing the ripeness of an avocado, while also having a damn good cry on the inside.      

Friday, June 15, 2012

TAKE ME TO CAMBODIA



Now that I have decided the direction I am going, I am still mulling over where I am from. Friends responded to the last post with their ideas of home and I identify with their overall feelings of safety, comfort, family, and wherever they feel loved. By those terms, of course, I still can't pick just one and that is fine with me now. With the exception of an unwavering loyalty in relationships, this sample platter-style of decision making is evident in pretty much every other facet of my life.  Picking paint colors can take an entire season, for example.  So it is not a surprise to me that it extends to a slightly morbid topic: if I have belonged to and loved multiple places, where would my final resting spot be?!  Right now, I think the answer is 'give me back to the places that have given to me'.  

I smile a mischievous grin at the thought of a cremator (crematist? crematory artist?) shaking his/her head in annoyance while evenly dividing my ashes among several - I don't know - baby food jars maybe, each labeled in Sharpie marker with their intended destination.  This sounds utterly classless, I know, but I figure if you sent me home in a fancy urn, I would just have to be divvied up anyway and it is hard to picture imposing that task on my family.  Even though I know it would turn into another episode of hysterical, laugh-til-you-cry (or pee) foolishness, you really can't make that a kitchen table event like coloring Easter eggs or decorating Christmas cookies.  "Canning Whitney".  Nuh-uh.  

I say: leave me in all the places my mind and heart wander on both my darkest and sweetest days…

Briefly:
Charlottesville….for saving me.  (That's for another time)  
Cabin Rouge, Clayton, and Lake Ozonia….Too many formative events and good times with precious people to recount.  

New Jersey:  I know what you are thinking.  Of course, Jersey!:  Home of landfills and professional body disposal.  But no. In New Brunswick, a couple of generations of "Greats" are buried in the city where many of them arrived and made a home in this country. My own New Jersey is a one of a few tiny towns on the shore where my extended family has spent summertime vacation for much of the last century.  Aside from the nearby tacky, Snookified, greasy food-laden amusement pier (that still sometimes widens my childish eyes with its flashing lights and rides perched over the ocean), it is rife with smells and sounds that bring me back to the sweetest family memories.  Sun-drenched days and sunburn chills at night, the clink of shifting ice cubes in happy hour glasses, crabbing at the bayside pier, kite-flying on the beach after dinner, and the distinct laughter of late family members in conversations I don't recall. Yes, when I go…take me back to my Shore. Take me to the sea.  

The North Country:
My hometown, in Northern New York. The place where I could safely play in the street with my neighborhood pals, tearing around on a banana-seat bike, or on roller skates, and constantly testing the bounds of healthy circulation, hanging upside down on the monkey bars for medically abnormal lengths of time. (Add a couple of major headers off the bike and that explains some things, no?). This is where I did many childish things like pretend - along with my friends - to be asleep on the lawn when the girl down the street headed our way. To anyone driving by, it looked like a mini Jonestown until she went back home and we were resurrected........shameful! Later, it is where I did grown-up things like drive and argue and make horrible mistakes. And it is where I attended a friend's burial in the pouring Spring rain...where Adam drove us out of the cemetery to a soundtrack of Annie Lennox and - I swear - the loudest thunder I have ever heard, directly overhead.

This was also the small town (one I still insist is a movie set at night) in which my childhood imagination gave way to what I now know is a more mature but permanently Piscean relationship with the world.  That is, one foot on the earth and one on the starry path most people dismiss or cannot see…a blindness I envy sometimes!  The older I get, the more adept I am at anchoring myself responsibly and realistically.  (It keeps the pragmatists happy at the very least.) 

So I guess it is only fitting that this would be where I came to an agreement with that glittery, perfumed half of my world view and learned to reel it in…to start giving up on some things, and some people.  That said, it is always going to be the place where, staring out on summer nights - just thinking - would occasionally, magically, give rise to an almost Shakespearean dream....the sound of real pebbles being thrown at my window, and a quick kiss goodnight or an embrace goodbye in the dark.  As the watch gears of each season turn and pause at familiar notches, this town reliably - enchantingly - slips into the same gossamer breezes, temperatures, and scents of those perfectly irreplaceable slivers of time…. The only things I truly possess.  This town, it turns out, hosts a million memories and echoes of moments like those.  Including the one that leads my ashes East.

Cambodia:  On the tough days, when I feel buried alive in a pine box with dwindling oxygen, my mind goes to places I love but, more often, to places I have not been…yet.  One of those spots on the globe that I am itching to travel is familiar to the man who was once the teenager throwing rocks at my window, and who has weaved himself in and out of my life for 25 years.  Everyone (I hope) has someone like him…someone with whom they share a sacred, centuries-old bond. He has: the voice that puts me at ease during marathon phone calls in the wee hours, an intimate blueprint of my half-grit/half-starseed personality, a rare and epic grasp of romance, and the wisdom to remind me a few years back that I already possess all the strength I will ever need.  Long ago, he gave me a paper Purple Heart he knew (well before I did) I would earn.  He knew there were walls to scale, moats to cross, and armed guards to slay to get to the warmest, most tender spot I'll possibly ever know in this lifetime: the place where my ear fits perfectly above my favorite drumbeat.  He was the man who sent me letters while fighting a war, now lost with the Purple Heart in a move. A more recent history of our ever-nebulous connection is not up for public discussion, but as I continue to grow up and reluctantly release myself (at least in my head) from the proverbial back burner, I have a new medal to replace the old one.  It arrived from the once war-ravaged country in the form of an early-morning phone call that bounced a gift of words off satellites and towers, and shot them past the walls, moats, and armed guards that now reside within me. They got through to where - as of today - no one else has ever been.  Now, I don't know what the rest of my life holds in terms of relationships, hardships, disappointments, and more spoken intentions left unfulfilled by those I love, but I will always know - always - that I was thought of in a remote place still rebuilding from the wrath of the Khmer Rouge, on a road paved over a nightmare.

I will make it - maybe even with him as our tour guide - to the gorgeous Angkor Wat, the temple on the postcard he so obligingly sent a few days later to replace the war letters. Sooner rather than later. But whatever happens, do save one last jar……..take me to Cambodia.  (And if it is not too much to wish, a teeny tiny part of me hopes that as my ashes are tossed, the hot breeze shifts suddenly and he gets a gentle little smack of soot in his eyes and mouth as payback for being eternally fickle and not closing the deal. I am pretty sure after he stops coughing, he will start laughing, knowing exactly what just happened.)  



LITTLE BABY BALDERDASH



"Ohhh, those things are not accurate!  You are not.  Don't worry!  I'm sure it's a mistake." 

I still grin when I think of my dear friend, Adam, doing what best friends do when you are scared shitless: deny the obvious, laugh mockingly at the truth, and completely dismiss the situation at hand as fluff.  

If we can replay scenes from our life and apply any cinematic filter we want - and I delight in the fact that we can - I picture him as a caricature of, say, British actor David Tomlinson (Mr. Banks in Mary Poppins).  Add a bowler hat and a pipe, and he is throwing out reiterations of feigned disbelief at what I was telling him, between puffs:

I'm -
    
      "Poppycock."

But I -

      "Claptrap!"

But seriously, Adam!

       "Balderdash…rot…moonshine…jive…tripe…drivel…bilge…bull…guff…bunk… bosh…eyewash…piffle…hooey…malarkey…hokum…"

Dude.  

      "….twaddle, gobbledygook, codswallop, and pardon my French, but that is nothing but a bunch of flapdoodle!"     

……………………..You done? I took two tests.  I'm definitely pregnant.  

So began the strange and gorgeous trip that has been motherhood, from which I have learned, so far…What exists as a monumental question on that first day of knowing you are carrying (or awaiting) the pea-sized start of a somebody, remains the same for all of your existence as a parent.  It is simultaneously the coolest and most nerve-racking thing about it all:  Who is this somebody going to be?  And not Who's Who "who", but what are the one billion and one things that will make up their personality, appearance, burdens, and victories?    

As a parent, you get answers to some of those questions incrementally, and some of them change along the way.  You are unwrapping a gift over and over, thousands of times throughout your child's life and always finding out more about them.  In fact, I often think that we get several versions of our children.  A collection.  I might have a brief thought of who my daughter was at a certain age and then suddenly realize that that particular girl slipped out one night while I was sleeping, visitable now only in pictures and videos; the newest edition taking her place.  I miss the other "ones" at times but I get excited for who is being revealed.  And now, love?  Who are you now?  

Early on, I realized that becoming a parent is not something that you accomplish, like memorizing a sonata or passing the bar exam.  It is a wild, wild rodeo and the ultimate act of faith in your own ability to stay on the bull, so to speak.  Scratch that.  To RIDE the bull.  Your hands will bleed, your spine will whip in ways it was not meant to, and you WILL eat dirt - often with an audience present.  Some days, you will be almost certain you have been gored in the keister by situations that arise.  I can tell you - without looking - you have.  And it does not necessarily have anything to do with succeeding or failing.  Luck of the draw, mostly.  You do your best and keep your chin up, but for heaven's sake, don't get cocky!  This is not a sport you ever truly master.

We have some say in the outline of who our children will become, but not as much as some people think, which is why I always laugh when parents try to narcissistically strong-arm their kids into being a copy of themselves, the person they wish they had become, or who they believe the world would approve of.  To the extent I am able, I say: Surprise me.  I am still working on me, little girl, so you might want to be you.  Within reason of course.  Please; nobody wants to raise a cute little future Charles Manson.

One Monday night, fifteen years ago (or 5 minutes ago, it seems), I had my daughter.   After some minor complications, they whisked her down the hall to clean up her lungs.  Thirty minutes of delirious waiting later, I watched her eyes shine and look around as her smiling father carried her into the room to put her in my arms.  I studied her face and hands in complete awe, then unwrapped her feet to see five toes dot the top of both.  It's you; you're finally here.  Who are you going to be?  What is our story going to look like?

The answers that have come so far have been both astoundingly beautiful and surprisingly painful, and that was perhaps the biggest shock about being a mom.  They don't tell you that in the books. Let's see: mucous plug, amniocentesis, cramping….ah yes, Chapter 8: Hang On To Your Heart.  Nope.  You have no way of knowing how very much it can ache to love someone in this way.  Side by side, it can make the pangs of romantic love feel like a cordial tip of the hat.  Lucky for the species, they are different varieties of love, neither less beautiful than the other.  Peonies and roses, Thailand and Tahiti.  

The greatest miracle of it all is that there is not one instance of parental heartbreak that could make me wish I had not become a mother.  To be honest, there are moments of  "You have got to be kidding me. I cannot believe I have to do this by myself!  This is not how it is supposed to be!"  And yet, I bet no one pictures their parenthood story accurately.  Whether it is a frightening illness or those uptight mommies in playgroup competing with you through their toddlers, you just have no way of knowing what lies ahead as the plot of your story is written, day by mysterious day.  

Still, I should have known my girl would have the tenacity to get through ours, and this is something I have to remind myself about.  Even the terrifying days on which we are not sure we will win against her sometimes paralyzing depression, there is a golden crumb of hope I cling to that goes back to the first day of her life.  The morning after she was born, she was sleeping on my chest when the doctor came to check on me.  She woke up, lifted her head, and turned in the direction of his voice.  (Oh shit, mama.  Look who is determined.)  The doctor blurted out, "Geez! I'm waiting for her to say 'hello!'".

Queue the black & white filter...

"Why, that's balderdash!  She's just a baby, doctor.  She can't possibly speak!"



FINDER'S KEEPERS




The deep glassy black middle of Lake Ozonia is one of my favorite places to swim.  So dark and cool, I feel such peace when I slip into it off the back of a boat.  Peace, that is, until ridiculous scenarios pop into my head that both terrify and make me laugh while treading water.  Giddy fear. The malfunction is this: as a kid, I watched a lot of movies I probably should not have.  Creature From The Black Lagoon in 3D stained my brain with the indelible image of an amphibious man-thing swiping at a woman's feet as she swam, never quite touching them.  She was completely unaware.  That is a brilliant seed of terror to plant, even for hokey vintage sci-fi.  

So, in any body of water, my imagination cannot run too wild as long as I can see my feet.  Be it a harmless fish, snapping turtle, or shark, if I am going to be grazed, eaten or maimed by something, I want to see it coming, dammit.  It is crappy logic, I know, but it is the shock and subsequent heart attack that would kill me first anyway, so at least give me a chance to process the situation for a few milliseconds and possibly alter the outcome slightly.  Maybe end up with a peg-leg instead of being sucked under the waves in one bite, mid-conversation.  

If any of this is a metaphor in my life, I guess it is this:  tell me what I am dealing with, and I can handle it.  Deception is unnecessary.  Just let me trust something again.  

Standing on the edge of the Kokosing River in Ohio last week for the first time in almost nine years, I was reminded why I used to spend so much time in it.  It is almost as clear as an Adirondack stream, not terribly deep, and to the best of my knowledge, non-combustible (in case you have heard the stories).  I can see down to my feet in it.  

Driving by that spot last May for the first time since we moved away, I had a very unexpected physical reaction.  It felt like a mix of intense déja-vu but more like time travel….not in the H.G. Wells sense.  Rather, the kind of thing that happens when circumstances align and take a crowbar to the sealed crypt of memories we unknowingly or deliberately keep in our heads.   

Two days prior to that weird spell, there was a very lucid dream, too.  It placed me in the location of an intensely stressful situation from almost two decades ago, where I could explore precise details of rooms I had not been in since.  Maybe it was because of everything I was shouldering at the time that I had run out of room in my head.  Or maybe, it was my weariness that left me vulnerable to rogue memories that had been jiggling doorhandles for years, trying to find their way out to fresh air and acknowledgment.  The mind, it seems, is not unlike that glassy black lake.  Taking swipes while you swim in contentment.

This time at the river, I parked the car.  Standing there taking it all in, I waited for the vertigo to pass until my head caught up with my body in the present.  It was a place I had packaged away in a big Rubbermaid tub, along with pictures and a shoebox full of broken china and glass.  My daughter, her brother, father and I would hang out there on weekends, starting when she was three or four.  Fly-fishing, swimming, and fossil hunting would occupy us and I would wade in with sneakers on to cool off, walking slowly on algae-covered rocks so as not to disturb the silt.  Somewhere along the line, while my stepson would pull his sister on a tube or they would crack rocks open with their Dad and find fossils, I started spotting pieces of old china and globs of bottle glass among the slimy riverbed.  The sea-green glass chunks were likely from the defunct bottling factory up the river, but the origin of the other bits I still do not know.  

So, summer afternoons in the river became a slow, meditative labyrinth walk downstream, under a bridge and back, reaching for the rare aberration that would sometimes end up being a long-submerged shard of china.  Score.  I suppose you could look at it like some kind of hillbilly treasure hunting but at the time I found it incredibly peaceful.  Hot summer days goofing off with the kids and their dad, my long-time boyfriend.  Over the hump of some past problems and a separation, it felt like we had finally reached contentment……..I thought.  

Looking back (of course!) there were other pieces I should have been picking up.  But that's the thing about trust in relationships.  You either give it fully or not at all.  And when the deception is so complex, intuition fails.  Reasonable questions receive reasonable (fictional) answers and life carries on, merrily, merrily…  

When that last summer ended, we all moved back to New York, and I soon discovered that our partnership was a Lifetime Network movie.  Yup.  Embarrassingly enough, it was a Melissa Gilbert - Valerie Bertinelli doozy, complete with the double-blind, double-life plot line played out over several years.  There was so much duplicity, I started jokingly wondering paranoid things like…"are there life insurance policies or cement shoes out there with my name on them?"  

These are the nutty but not completely unjustified thoughts that come to mind when you suddenly find that you were either a) hated so intensely, or b) loved so erroneously that you were not allowed the simple truth .  I could elaborate, but I have made a strict point of keeping our relationship's demise from blurring into our daughter's bond with her Dad.  They were once beautifully close and are working to get back there.  I would be a she-devil to get in the way of that, and if I am a fool for protecting it, well…add it to the list of mommy guilt.  

Resisting the urge to get in the Kokosing last week, I started walking along the edge once again looking down at the rocks in the water, trying to reconcile some things.  Mostly, can I still let myself cherish our little family's past-life and those summers there, knowing what I know now?  And to be clear, what I know now includes my acknowledgement that despite the fact I loved her father and we got along 99% of the time (as we do now), the absence of that ocean-deep magic love on both our parts is nothing you can ignore or hope away.  You can be comfortable and deeply familiar, but not in love.  That was my unintentional lie to both of us.  My mistake.

Just after I stepped over that shining silver turd of truth, I found a piece of china, pearl white with a crackled glaze.  A few minutes later in a deposit along the shore, a fossil.  All because of a quiet, mini panic attack in the car last year that pulled me back Friday to a really happy place I had tried to forget.  Wow. 

I think if you could buy a ticket for a ride through your own brain, it would put the herky-jerky acid trip of Disney's Space Mountain to shame… The mind is a magnificent, unexplored planet of secrets, tricks, and black and white facts, all of which can lay dormant for sometimes decades in biochemical mine shafts.  Existing, but forgotten.  

Of what we do recall, what can we rightfully take with us through the rest of our lives?  If it is a done deal, good or bad, send it to the dump!  Right?  I am not so sure anymore.  Maybe that policy is more of a betrayal than any crime in the relationship ever was.  Take whatever you want.  Finder's keepers.

As for trust, I still can't do it.  I will be keeping an eye on my feet until I find my way back to ocean-deep magic love and giddy fear.  From time to time, I spot it on the horizon.  And if on a whim I dive in, hopefully there are no more silver turds or cement shoes waiting for me.