What it is

I had to see my mother this weekend. It was her birthday. She’s a toxic presence so I have learned to limit my exposure. She’s a bit like radiation: a couple x-rays a year won’t hurt you (much) but prolonged exposure will cause problems.

The lunch was fine, as those things go, but I had no response to her me-centered, woe-is-me monologues or her fantasies. She says things she believes – for the moment – that I’ve learned are figments of her imagination. Perhaps she thinks if she says them out loud, they’ll come true and she’ll become a person who can do them.

She isn’t. She won’t.

At a time when I could really use a mother, a person with overflowing empathy for her first born child, I do not have one. Usually, I get by just fine without a mother. But, when I’m around her, I have to keep my secrets to myself. I can’t tell her how I’m doing. I know what’ll happen. Her pain is always greater and I’m supposed to sympathize with her. I’m supposed to not only believe her fantasies but wholeheartedly endorse them and offer to make them realities somehow. Bend over backwards to be punished. Thank you, ma’am, my I have another?

It won’t happen.

So, I have to roll up my problems, like one would a sleeping bag after a long camping trip, and store them away and create my own empathy, be my own mother. Normally, I can do that. On occasion, I become angry and sad that I have to. But there’s really no other choice.

Apart from writing about it. And sucking it up as I’m reminded often. Deal with it. Move on. Yeah, I do. I will. But first I’d like to have my own little fantasy, thank you very much, in which there are arms to fall into, in which someone will hand me a tissue and acknowledge how hard it can be, and how it’ll eventually be okay and ask if I need anything. Pour me a glass of wine, bring me a treat made especially for me. With no strings attached.

Oh well. It is what it is. The lunch is over and the portcullis is firmly back down between us for a few more months. Hard to fend off the emails but I’ve grown adept. It’s just a thing I have to do.

It’s not easy to be one’s own mother and the mother of others at the same time but that is my life. I am moving things forward in a positive, I hope, direction even if I’m forced to dig the tunnel alone.

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A Walk in the Park

Autumn’s not bad at the start. It’s still warm during the day. The trees are still lush. Sometimes I’ll catch the sound of a cicada that just won’t give up yet. Go cicada! Keep dreaming!

It’s only the slant of the sun that gives the season away. I see you autumn! You don’t fool me with your 75 degree days!

Since I haven’t fully started my new writing project and find myself at loose ends (plus the fact that because the temps are all up and down and in between, most libraries haven’t stopped with the crazy a/c yet), I went to my favorite local cemetary. I’ve walked there before but I’m trying to heal my feet and legs which I destroyed by accident at the beach this summer. So I drove and sat under a tree.

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The sky’s a really beautiful blue these days and the clouds are all wispy as if the fog I drove through this morning just pulled up stakes and floated up so as not to bother anyone. Sky fog. It makes me almost not miss summer. Almost.

I walked around a bit, first in the white cemetary (where I picked up a random silk flower that had blown off an arrangement) and then in the black one. They are owned by different churches and divided by a chain link fence. Which I suppose is fitting for Virginia and perhaps it’s no longer a race thing but just a property delineation.
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I’m sure if I asked that’s what I’d be told.

My favorite headstone is Missouri Jackson’s. She was somebody’s mammy once upon a time.
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And clearly, because this fact is prominent on the stone (there’s no ‘beloved mother’ or ‘beloved wife’ moentioned), she may not have had any blood relatives left when she died. There’s no birth date either. Did no one know how old she was? Or know when she was born? Even a guess? Perhaps she didn’t know. Perhaps no one told her. Perhaps her parents were slaves and could neither read nor write. Or, perhaps she’d known but hadn’t bothered to tell any of the people who witnessed her death, who buried her and loved her enough to have the headstone made. Maybe she was old as dirt and nobody thought it mattered. Or, maybe there’s a Bible somewhere with her name written in it. Or maybe it was lost in a fire. Had she married? Had children? Had she had life that had more good than bad in it? Dying when she did, it’s really hard to say. Perhaps she’d always been free but relegated to jobs suitable for a black woman of her time.

Each headstone is a story but Missouri’s the one I want to know.

I placed the flower on her stone before I left. I don’t want her to think she’s been forgotten.
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That Feeling

I’ve held on to anger for a long time. Anger’s been my friend. It’s showed me what I no longer have to put up with, it’s fueled the changes I’ve had to make and kept me moving in the direction of freedom. Anger wore the combat boots, the fuck-you t-shirt. Anger wasn’t afraid of tattoos (Anger loves needles) or driving really fast. Anger’s unfolded the road map and said, “Here. Here’s where you need to go. Let’s pick up a few friends and I’ll navigate! Beer’s on me!”

But lately, Sadness has shown up at the door. It knocks politely (we don’t have a doorbell) and waves as I walk toward the glass storm door. Would you like to come in? Now’s not really a good time. Sometimes, late at night, I’ll allow it to visit. As long as it’s gone by morning. Sadness and I like to have little trysts, little one-night stands. I noticed, when I spelled ‘tryst’ wrong that ‘triste’ is sad in French. Yeah. So I can say the word in two languages. Go me and my feelings!

I think, though, that once I’m alone – uncoupled, no longer cohabitating (the kids stay!) – that Sadness will show up unannounced and demand to stay a while. I’ll have to feed it dinner and offer it dessert. Possibly give it wine. We might sit at the kitchen table and discuss the situation over a bottle or two well into the night. I can only hope that it’ll give me the hug I haven’t had in years, and sympathize with my plight. Maybe I’ll even get a kiss. I’ve forgotten what that’s like: to be kissed, to be comforted.

To be loved.

Soon,¬†Sadness will be welcomed with open arms. I’m overdue in the emotional realm and I do have something to mourn. Something real. Something I thought I might get to keep to forever but life doesn’t always deal you a royal flush. Sometimes you’re stuck with a two that counters your pain with its own, a four that ignores you, a jack that snores¬†and two eights that can only be expected to do but so much housework before needing a rest. You have to give up whatever you put in the kitty and call it a night. You have to fold while you’re ahead, lay your head on the table (the table you get to keep; the chairs you’ll have to replace) and cry.

And Sadness will be there with a kind word and a warm arm across your shoulder. He’ll fill your glass up and wait until you’re done. He might be here a while. I think I’ll mail him a house key now.

The Back of Things Again

I think what I meant to say, and didn’t, because I am finding the act of writing in a blog exhausting before I even touch the keyboard with my fingers, is that the most interesting part of life for me is what you often don’t see if you only walk the same path every single day.

Was that sentence long enough for you?

It’s all well and good to walk on the approved sidewalks that instruct you to go in a certain direction with one or two destinations. You will get where you want to go each and every time. You won’t sink your heels into the grass, you won’t get your shoes wet or get lost.

But, you also miss about 80% of the rest of what’s out there. You might miss the unbelievably giant mushroom on the other side of that tree you don’t notice anymore. Because it’s always there so you don’t see it anymore. You miss an interesting aborted attempt at graffiti on the reverse side of a wall you don’t see because you’d have to walk against the tide, on the grass, off the dull beaten path of least resistence.

Where’s the fun in that?

The back of buildings are flatter and less “pretty” than the fronts but quite interesting for what they aren’t: showy, expected. They are covered in weeds and vines which might form patterns that remind you of a duck eating spaghetti with a trowel or a squirrel waving its tail or a ship sinking with the smoke from the last operating stack blowing this way and that. You’ll never see that if you stick to the sidewalk out front.

You won’t see what people throw away, what they no longer have a use for, because often the garbage cans are kept out of sight. Next to the alley, awaiting a brisk removal by the garbage man who sees a whole lot more than you might on any given day. He knows who treats their dogs kindly, who needs to repair their fence, who’s doing well – my god, look at that fancy three-tiered deck! – and who’s not. By walking along the back of things, you learn a lot more about people and you see the things people think they’ve hidden, you see the benign neglect. The pile of discarded cinder blocks that have formed a lovely mossy home for a family of skinks.

The back of things, the hidden angles, is where life is.

The Back of Things

I took a walk in my own yard this evening, if you can call a few acres of pastures a yard. I wound around the clumps of thistle the horses won’t eat and the piles of fairly fresh poo.

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I stopped and watched the clouds move across the sky.

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As I walked back towards the back yard – the part we use on a daily basis, the part without horses – I noticed what I often forget: that the back of things are usually more interesting than the front.

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As a child, alleys were my favorite places to play. You saw the neighbor’s yards, the things hidden from view. Stuff thrown away, neglected objects, decay. The country has a lot of neglect and decay and its no more or less beautiful than what you find in the city. You still have to walk to find it. And when you look up, you could be anywhere. Or nowhere at all.

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Dead Wood

As much as I love summer, autumn presents opportunities. Like pruning limbs and cutting back branches in the garden. Cutting out the dead wood is important to the health of shrubs and other perennials. The weather was beautiful yesterday and the annoying insects were at a minimum so I cut down the dead bee balm stalks (a favorite of the resident hummingbird I will miss seeing out my bedroom window; I hope he comes back next year) and then went to work on the wild rosebush that had been nearly consumed by grape vine. The more I cut, the more of the bush I could see needed more cutting back.

First, I simply wanted to clear away the brush and vines from the path of the downspout. Then, the scraping sound the limbs made as they moved across the vinyl siding drove me mad so the whole back side of the bush had to be eliminated. Once you get started on a project like this, it’s hard to stop.

But eventually I did. Things look much better now. You can really see what’s there, what remains. You can see what was hidden. The vinca can breathe a little freer now, as can the tiger lilies. The air can move around the trunk of what’s left of the rose bush.

And, of course, by prunning, you allow for regrowth. The bush can send out stronger shoots rather than those long desperate tendrils that clamber up to the sun and rub against other limbs causing sores and cankers.

The lovely thing about plants is that they come back. As long as you pay attention, they come back stronger than ever. I need to remember to add compost, lay down a cover crop, weed.

In the garden as in life, you sometimes have to cut out the dead wood to allow for new growth.

Where Things Stand

Things are broken down into a million tasks, most of them financial. Things are tiny chores and large errands where I’m always surprised to make instant friends with strangers on the other end of the phone or across the desk who say, “Ah. Yeah. I’ve been there.” And that one commonality smoothes the way, makes it all bearable. People instantly understand – people who’ve been there – why I’m a little frazzled, a little annoyed, a lot pissed that I have to extricate myself from a long-standing problem that might land me in the poor house if I’m not careful. But I’ll be there in good company. I am buoyed by the been-there eye rolls and sympathetic sighs; by the stories, long and short. that are either equal to my story or worse.

When I was pregnant, I didn’t want to hear those “worse experience ever” stories. They kept me up at night and introduced new topics of fear – maladies I’ve never considered to worry about. Could that really happen to me? To my baby?

But now, I like to hear that what I’m going through is actually quite common and maybe a tad boring. It’s not front page news or even buried on page 12 of section C just under the story about bear sightings. It’s comforting to know that it could be so much worse. I could be so much more….fill in the bad thing. These stories, even the brief sympathetic sighs that speak volumes, are my bedtime fairy tales, my tuck-in-the-covers stories. I’m grateful to them.

It’s very similar to being pregnant. Once you begin to show, you join The Club. It’s not always a comfortable club to be in and the worst-case-scenario people pop up more often than you’d like, but the smiles and nods and instant camaraderie you find in public places gets you through the day, makes you feel you belong on the earth. You are seen. Acknowledged.

This is a bit like that. You join The Club. You swap stories. You don’t show, you tell. But not too much because there are still many good reasons not to air all the laundry on the line. Just the towels and sheets and maybe also the pillowcases. It’s okay for the neighbors to see those.

The underwear you dry in the house.