Friday, July 20, 2012

Sign From God?

     I wrote a week ago about how a stray Cheerio on the bathroom floor 14 years ago represented my trial-by-fire initiation into the chaos that is parenthood.

    Four days ago, I kid you not, I was teaching my 8:00 a.m. summer school class--a bit sleepy and tired from a weekend of rehearsal. I look down from the gray lectern you see pictured above and there it was.  A stray Cheerio.  In a college classroom.  My classroom.  Just hangin' out, you know, like Cheerios do in English department lecture halls.

     I've been too busy with my show to write, and in fact I'm running out the door now to perform, but as always, I remain supremely amused and befuddled.  Sign from God?  Random act of breakfast food?  Whatever does one make of such a coincidence?

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

What's Your Magic Mama Age?

     It all started with a Cheerio on the floor.

     Like a rogue wheel off a truck, one Cheerio had rolled away from my firstborn's highchair and somehow, somehow found its way into my bathroom, the one place of serenity I had left in a house covered in toys, swaddled in noise.

     Oh how I loved him--you know the feeling.  His serious face coupled with a comedic, constant drool from teething.  Those chubby baby cheeks that begged to be squeezed. I could not kiss him enough.  But what once was a house of calm respite after the storm of the day became, with the birth of the first child, a storm all its own of baby fury, colic, impromptu vomiting, and some weird-ass thing called Fifth disease that's totally freaky and perfectly harmless. Like all parents, I was thrust instantly into a world for which I was totally unprepared.  The more mellow among us thrive in these conditions.  I do not.

     So it was that the straw broke the camel's back.  One day I had run to the bathroom to pee (children love to start screaming/falling down/poking fingers in light sockets the minute Mom has to relieve herself, so new mothers learn quickly to pee like WWI soldiers in the trenches).  Rushing as always, I looked down, and there it was.  One lone Cheerio on the tile.  Tiny and round, a mocking testament that nowhere was quiet, no boundary stood firm.  How in the holy hell did it get there?  Oh, why ask?  Why not Cheerios in the bathroom and sippy cups in the fireplace?  How about a bra in the oven and a wallet in the bathtub?  This was the new normal, and I snapped like a twig.

     Parenthood takes some getting used to.  Ever notice how you hear babies crying in the grocery store, but their parents don't?  We learn to tune that stuff out precisely because of such Cheerio incidents.  We give up order, balance, and routine and surrender to chaos.  We can distinguish between 7 types of screams to know which ones merit our attention and which we can ignore even as the color drains out of your face thinking poor Timmy's bloodcurdling cry will be his last.  No, poor Timmy is fine.  He just can't find his sippy cup.  It's in the fireplace.

     Again, some parents roll with these changes a Cheerio across a house, apparently. Others of us freeze in the shock and awe.  But here is my theory.  We all have a magic age or stage for which we are best suited in parenting.  Anyone who knew me 14 years ago can tell you that the baby years were not mine, as much as I utterly adored my little pumpkins.  It was all so new and unfamiliar and scary.  Bathing a newborn in the sink? Are you kidding me?  Aren't there 18 ways he could drown?  And for those of us who need our sleep more than we need air, forget about it.  Lack of serious REM time turns us into Cheerio-dreading zombies for a few years.

     But for me, as they've gotten older, it has gotten easier.  Even in the teen years.  Yes, yes, mine are only approaching those years.  No one is driving yet so I know I'm tempting fate by saying this, but here's the difference--Language.  Blessed, blessed language.  I could talk till I was blue in the face about the dangers of stairs, but that didn't stop #1 son from putting #2 son in a cardboard moving box and trying to slide him down the basement steps.  However, now (and I know you're going to laugh here), we can reason together. 

    What?!  Reason with a teenager?  Sure.  Or at least try.  "Dudes, if I find Cheerios all over the bathroom floor, you'll lose your cell phone.  Capice?"  The clarity of that equation is as stunning as the situation is unlikely.  Now obviously the stakes are much higher at this age.  Cheerios are nothing compared to drugs, alcohol, teen pregnancy, or an affinity for "Jersey Shore."  But at least I have a fighting chance with words.  Or that's how I see it, because this feels more like my magic mama age.  I miss them as babies, but how I love them as pre-teens and teens.  We can laugh and joke and mock bad TV. We can talk things out.   No doubt many times words will fail, but then again we all sleep in till noon on the weekends.  Jackpot.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Fly Fishing and the Art of Fatherhood


     Any serious fisher knows that fly fishing is an art; any good parent will tell you that fatherhood is an art as well.  And no man embodies the intersection of these two arts like my own dad.
     My father, much like Hemingway, is a wordsmith and an outdoorsman.  He hunts, fishes, and ties his own flies.  He also recites poetry and reads some of the masters of prose, like Ted Leeson, Professor of English at Oregon State and author of the lyrical book, The Habit of Rivers.  Dad and I are reading Leeson together, and it is no coincidence that what Leeson says about fly fishing is true of fatherhood as well:

          "Still at sea, the salmon sense home rivers on the faintest dilution of fresh water and know its significance within the certainty of instinct.  But a fisherman must work to unravel the meaning, and finally fishing is only an argument, a studied drawing of inferences about undisclosed things" (Leeson 10).  

     Now I know at least part of the reason I became an English professor--it's in my genes.  Like my fly fishing father, I seek, in poetry, novels and film, to unravel meaning. It is one of my life's great joys.  And nowhere was this revelation more clear to me than two summers ago when Dad taught my sons and I how to fly fish in the sunlit rivers of Colorado.  Looping fly lines, rising trout, water dancing on the surface all dramatized their own poetry.  Tangles of a fly caught in branches, fish who leapt off the line--these, too, unraveled meaning as the kids and I learned patience and the gentle art of laughing at our mistakes.  Ever patient, Dad, who must have longed to hold the rod himself, instead changed the flies for us.  He taught us over and over to hold the line above our heads for a count or two before casting.  As we waded down rivers seeking ever elusive trout, he reminded us of 9:00 and 3:00, the positions 180 degrees apart on a clock-face that helped us envision the line directly behind us before casting it forth.  He consoled us when we lost fish, and how he cheered when we got one.  The "undisclosed things" we were really catching, though?  Love, patience, humility, tenacity, and joy.

           "The trout fisherman, however, is a fox, a tactician and strategist with a deference to contingencies and one eye perpetually over his shoulder.  He improvises, ad libs, thinks on his feet"  (Leeson 27).

     Doesn't this sound like a father?  What parent isn't a shrewd tactician and a wily strategist?  Aren't the best of fathers always improvising, whether they're teaching a daughter and grandsons how to fish, or navigating the toasting and dancing on that daughter's wedding day?  I can't imagine how many times Dad has had to think on his feet with me and my boys.  Whether I needed financial advice or the boys needed a grandfather to explain to them which fly best catches hungry trout, Dad has had to be ready for every contingency, every possible question.  As Ted Leeson says, the fly fisher's vest is "a succession of Plan B's in which there's always an alternative, always something to fall back on" (27).  In Dad's case, the flies were often hand tied by him.  His flies are listed in various fly tying books and sold commercially, which tells me that my boys and I are the descendants of a man who tests the field, improves upon it, and uses his skills to fall back on.  What better lesson can a father teach his kids?

          "Every angler is an expert in the husbandry of hope, doling it out one spot, one cast, one fly at a time" (41).  
Perhaps this is the strongest link between the two arts, fly fishing and fatherhood.  As a parent, I know I can't protect my children from pain and hard times, but I can instill, always in them, hope.  My dad has done this for me time and time again.  Whether the fish were biting or not (all metaphors apply), Dad tells me over and over that everything happens for a reason, that God has a plan, and that it's ok to improvise our way through life, hoping always to find the "undisclosed things."   When, after minutes or hours, the boys and I finally caught a fish, there was, in that simple act, confirmation that our efforts could pay off.  The fish provided, as Leeson puts it, "validation of its presence and your own."   To learn the value of our own simple presence....  The best fathers give that gift to their kids everyday.  I've certainly received it in abundance from mine.

     Happy Father's Day, Dad.  I love you.
     Enough writing.  Let's go fishing!


Saturday, May 26, 2012

Foxy Breaks It Down For You

      When Miss Foxy Brown (pictured above) and I take our daily walk, we never fail to stumble upon some great mystery, however small.  On today's stroll around the block, I was thinking of the lines of poet Mary Oliver when she wrote about her dog, Percy:

I Ask Percy How I Should Live My Life

Love, love, love, says Percy.
And hurry as fast as you can
along the shining beach, or the rubble, or the dust.
Then go to sleep.
Give up your body heat, your beating heart.
Then, trust. 

     Oliver always gets it right, and apparently so does her dog, Percy. I asked Foxy about this, and she seemed to be down with the whole love and trust thing.  Oh, and dog treats.  Foxy loves her some food. (She's a full-figured gal, and our daily walks are not only in service to daily reflection). 
     Percy says to love, and no one knows how to love this world more than dogs. So today I thought it might be nice to see the world through Foxy's eyes; as such, I give you a photo essay of sorts.  These are some of the things we saw in our brief one mile walk around the block.  We did not "hurry as fast as [we could] / along the shining beach, or the rubble, or the dust."  Instead, we tried to follow Oliver's charge to:

look down with...
golden eyes how everything
then settles
from mere incidence into
the lush of meaning.

...and this is what we saw:

A daylily "giving up its body heat, its beating heart."  

Foxy says it is good to "Be a little twisted," but then to pick up bottle caps in the road because it's not nice to litter.  And so we did after a good laugh.

Speaking of twisted, in the middle of this broken bottle near a water drain was a really lovely piece of coiled metal looking at home amid the twigs, brown glass, concrete and leaves.

aaaand sometimes you're walking along and you just find Jesus on the road...

Foxy knows that even the discarded can stand out with beautiful hues.

Where a driveway meets the street, some extra buttons.

Love, love, love.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Oh, Father Time...

     Tra-la-la...It is 3:00.  I'm home from the office early because my semester is over and I can now relax and maybe I'll sip some lemonade and just check Facebook and oh, look! How cute, my oldest child has posted something on his page: "I. Am. Now. In. High School."

     Crash-Bang!  That is me falling on the floor. No amount of pre-registration forms, no parenting manual prepares you for this day.  Where did the time go?  Oh let's just speed the plow, shall we?  Why don't we just sign up for his AARP card now?  If Father Time is going to be so cruel as to hurl our babies into the future at warp speed, then why not start those Senior Citizen discounts now?

     I know for him, time has moved way too slowly.  He can't wait to drive, to have more independence, and I remember that feeling acutely.  I remember when the word "year" was always preceded by the words "a whole." A year felt like...(insert eye roll here) forever.  Now I tend to think in 5-year and 10-year increments.  Probably not a good sign.

     But I promise you it was just yesterday, or it felt like just yesterday when he was getting ready to go to Kindergarten.  After I picked myself up off the floor, I promptly found two things:   
     1) His school photo album with year by year school pictures including this one from Kindergarten.  He wrote in the album that he enjoyed "reading and costumes."  Ha!  You don't say, future thespian.
     2)  A poem I wrote 9 years ago after attending the preview day for Kindergarten.  It was such a foreign planet.  I was bewildered by all of those children, moms and popsicles.  My baby was getting shuffled into some system, some machine that I knew would take good care of him, but something I knew nothing about.  Heck, I was still reeling from childbirth and now I had to adjust to school?  So I wrote this poem--really, it was yesterday-- but somehow the little boy in this poem seems to be going to high school now.  For the life of me, I'm still bewildered.

Kindergarten Enrollment Party

Slanting sunlight on playground and popsicles.
Kindergarten holds the mysteries
of exotic postcards or strange zoo animals.

Mothers hover.  Fathers flick
coats over their shoulders
like catalog models.  Everywhere
a cacophony of kids.

A pile of gravel calls them to conquer.
Girls who haven’t learned to yield
take the hill in skirts.  Boys hurl
pebbles at Miss Carr.
Finn finds his way from the fire truck
and scales the mountain
when no one else is there
and catches my eye in his triumph.

I see him, in a glimpse, grown,
doing the things men learn to do
like surveying a scene,
like setting his jaw,
like owning a piece of this earth for awhile.
Who can resist the fading 
afternoon light 
and those little fists?

I imagine him with boys
of his own. He looks like his father
used to when he was forty and starting to gray.
I feel my body start to slacken in age, heavier and tired
as he stands in his bright and certain future,
but then he bends to palm some pebbles
and places them on his head.
I don't realize he's making a crown.
All is see is his jagged crew cut
rough with dust, a firm chin
smeared in cherry stain. 
All I see is a boy with rocks on his head.
No mortar board, no snap brim fedora.
Just some silly rocks, a Garanimals shirt,
and the sly smile of Miss Carr
watching merely one of dozens of boys
do what they do with
no thought of tomorrow
at all.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Mother's Day, Part II

     Blame it on the fairy tales.  They got it wrong again.
     When you think of the word "stepmother," what's the first adjective that springs to mind?  Is it "wicked?"  It might very well be, and thanks to Cinderella and her lot, we have images of wicked women filling the role of the second woman Dad marries.
     However, on this Mother's Day, I want to tip my hat to all of the stepmothers out there.  There may be some wicked ones to be sure, but I, for one, was blessed beyond measure when my stepmom entered my life:

Who let me cover her face in blue eyeshadow, pink lipstick and bright red blush when I was 4 and wanted us both to be fashion models?

Who sewed me clothes out of fabric I hand-picked when I was a finicky pre-teen?  Who later made the window treatments for my first home?  Who sewed the costume for my son's play last summer?

Who was an extra on the set of the TV show, "Dallas," and took me to Southfork Ranch to meet her famous friends?

Who came to the hospital when I was 16 and very ill and brushed my hair for hours?

Who took me to London, Paris, and Berlin when I graduated high school?  Whose family in Germany embraced me as their own even though I hardly spoke a word of German?  Whose family still keeps in touch with me and my kids?

Who drove to Austin College for my college plays and, years later, drove to Birmingham for her grandson's first stage performance?

Who, when I called her completely out of the blue one morning in 1995 at 6:30 a.m., used her maternal intuition to answer the phone with these words, "Oh my gosh.  You're getting married!"

Who marshaled the troops of her friends for that wedding, arranging all of the reception flowers, making my veil, and hosting the day-after brunch?

Who was the one who sat up with me the night before, speaking the words that a mother speaks to her daughter?

Who has rocked both of my children to sleep countless times though she never had babies of her own?

Who has instilled in me and in them a love of animals that comes from years of taking in strays and treating my pets as her own?

Who has spent countless hours on the phone with me from Texas to Alabama, laughing, crying, or just passing the time as the miles stretch between us?

     She married my father because she loved him.  She had no children, but he had three kids when they wed.  She had to spend time with us when we were with him, but she did not have to love us.  She did not have to treat us as her own.  She did not have to mother us.

    But she did.  She always has.  

    There is something extraordinary in that kind of mother-love.  It is, for lack of a better way to put it, a "step" above and beyond.  

    Ich liebe dich, Helga.


Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Mother's Day, Part I

     Jesus helps my mother do her hair.  

    Has for years.  He's her personal Lord and Savior, oh sure, but he's also her bouffant-of-glory wingman.  Do you think I'm blaspheming?  Then you don't understand the crucial connection between a Texan woman and her hair.  

    But Jesus does.  And so, as she told me, He's by her side every morning as she wields her curling iron and some Aqua Net, careful not to spray it too near the attendant lit cigarette.  Mom smokes in the house.  Of course she does.

     "I don't have as much hair as I used to. I have to pray every morning to get it to do anything.  Jesus helps me."  Again, this I understand.  Hair "does" things, or it should.  In Texas, hair is a verb.

     Mother's Day has me thinking about Mom and about a few of the women who have been mothers to me, including my stepmom, who will get her own entry next, and the indescribable Auntie Em.  But today I got off the phone with Mom, who recently came home after a 4 week stint in a "skilled nursing facility" from a broken hip. For a woman who has had Crohn's disease for 30 years and has recently beaten cancer, the broken hip should have been the end of her.  Instead, she was released after a month with the doctors shaking their heads:  "You're some kind of miracle.  We just don't understand it."

     What they don't understand is her fierce resilience.  Mom chalks this up to astrology.  (And yes, Jesus and the horoscope co-exist very nicely on Planet Mom, thankyouverymuch).  Like myself, she is a Leo in western astrology, a Horse according to the Chinese.  Of course, she is a Water Horse and I'm a Fire Horse, so you can imagine the fun around our house when I was a teenager.  Anyway, whenever moments of strength are required, she draws either upon her Leonine heritage ("We're Leos.  What others call arrogance is just our natural superiority") or, when that fails, Scarlett O'Hara, her role model.  Don't get me started on the myriad times she slips into a fake Georgian drawl to assert some kind of faux Southern strength.  I remind her she's a Texan and to put back the twang.  We channel Elizabeth Taylor from Giant, toast Scarlett's pluck if not her accent, and return to praising our sun sign and the Son of God, who, Mom reminds me, "Is always there.  Don't forget it.  And don't feel like you can only pray on Sunday.  Pray when you're doing your hair.  Jesus understands."  

     When Mom was diagnosed with oral cancer a couple of years ago, it scared me but came as no surprise.  She started smoking in her "Mad Men" college days when the doctor told her it would help with her asthma.  "He said I needed to cough more to loosen up the lungs.  Of course, he was wrong, but what did we know?" she asked, drawing on a Marlboro Light as we discussed the big topics--God, mortality, hair-- sipping green beer on St. Patrick's Day at the American Legion.  The room was already starting to cloud over with a nicotine haze.  It was late afternoon, "Wheel of Fortune" was on TV, stepdad Ed was cranky because he wanted to watch "Gunsmoke" reruns. 

    "Do you think that maybe, just maybe, the smoking might have led to the cancer?" I asked, trying not to sound accusatory.

   Utter dismay crossed her face.  "What, child?  Of course not!  Smoking causes lung cancer. I have oral cancer.  Not the same thing at all."


    "So do you think you oughta try quitting now?" 

     "Are you kidding?!  For God's sake, I have CANCER!  I'm way too stressed out to stop smoking now!"  

     Never underestimate the power of denial.   And sure enough, after surgery, Mom was fine.  Then the broken hip.  A month later, Mom is fine.  Her hair is thinner; it won't tease up like it used to in the picture above, but she does it everyday.  It's not vanity.  It is resilience.  It is resistance.  It is never giving up the good fight.  This week I'm thinking about these eccentric sorts of strength and thanking Jesus for any amount of it that came down the pipeline to me or to my own kids.  I love you, Mom.