Sunday, November 13, 2022

Origin Stories


When my son Joe went off to college, I shut the door on his bedroom. Not just for a few days or weeks, but months. As teen boy bedrooms do, it needed some cleaning in there. Some decluttering. Maybe a bit of paint.

But I didn’t touch it. It would be easiest to say that work got busy, that I don’t like housework all that much, that I was respecting his space. Which are all true, but in ways that obscure another, more difficult truth– that really, I was hurt.

Joe was so eager to go to college and begin his adult independence that he spent the majority of his senior year and the summer after graduation firmly brushing off parental assistance and guidance. Not even brushing– at times he positively bristled with ferocity– that he alone would make the decisions, figure things out, do it his way. It was a long year of trying to stay out of his way when I could, and negotiating compromises when I could not.

By the time we pulled up to the curb in front of the dormitory in August, two hours from home, we were thoroughly irritated with each other. I managed a thin version of the cheerful enthusiasm expected of new college parents. It was mainly for show, for those volunteer students in school colors helping all the wandering freshmen move their stuff up flights of stairs. I trailed behind with an armload of blankets and frustration.

I explained to him, standing with the boxes stacked around us, that I wanted to help him NOT because I wanted to baby him, not because I thought he was incapable, but because this milestone was different for me than it was for him. It would be the only time that I brought him to college for the first time. When he next came home, he would be a different person. I wanted this last time to take care of my son. I wanted this time to say goodbye. Not just to the Joe he was right now, but to the mother I had been to him all this time.

He still said no to much help. I made his bed, popping new pillows out of plastic bagging. He sulked. I was angry and tried not to be. We walked across campus to get his student ID. Being out of the dorms helped, like it was part of our problem, or maybe just the stage for it. But lunch was over, his college program was beginning an afternoon of welcome to campus activities, and I needed to get back on the road.

“It’s time for you to go now Mom. Don’t call me.” I had to ask for a hug. He gave me one, but it was grudging.

This last week, finally, I opened the door to his room and began putting things in order. I opened the window and let in fresh air. I washed the bed-sheets, blankets, mattress pad, pillows. I sorted his clothes, finding plenty of outgrown jeans and shirts. Soon there were bags for donating lined up in the hallway. I discovered the curtains that had hung in his window since he was a grade-school boy were so sun-damaged, they were barely holding together. I carried them downstairs and stuffed them in the garbage can. For some reason, trashing them felt good.

I hesitated at his desk, not wanting to intrude on his privacy, but eventually deciding to at least dust and organize the jumble of electronics and gaming paraphernalia on the desktop, the stacks of books and other papers.

It was there that I found them. Yellowing and fragile comic books from my own childhood, mixed in with his own collection. I’d been a fan of the Fantastic Four, and there they were–Mr. Fantastic, The Invisible Woman, The Human Torch, and Thing. I showed my old comics to him once when he was in his tweens, hoping to make some kind of connection with him. At the time he seemed disinterested. I had understood– at twelve, it is hardly comprehensible that your mom could have ever been twelve once too. But, it seems, he kept them. It was good to see my old friends there, in among his own.

If you were an English literature college student in the 1980s, as I was, you didn’t get a diploma without a solid bit of Joseph Campbell and comparative mythology. For years, his book “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” held sway in collegiate lectures about fiction, folklore, and myth. Dr. Campbell told us that we humans, across time and cultures and distances, tell each other lots of stories. But in many ways, these stories are all the same. They’re all the same because we are all the same– we all want to be the hero of our own story.

Joe wants to be the hero of his own story. I’ve known this for a long time about him, when his autism made every day at school a struggle, not just with academics. He struggled to contain himself in a world completely engineered for the success of normies, and not at all for a little boy whose intelligence was like light shining through heavy branches–sparkling blindly at times, and then wind blowing, shifting in direction, shape, and intensity, sometimes shrouded completely. Or for a little boy whose expressions of frustration with a world who couldn’t understand him were often monstrous, heartbreaking, frightening to us and to him. Every day was like being presented with the same child, but under a new secret identity– new to us, and sometimes even to him.

As his mom, I saw him as his own superhero, Joe the Brave, who endured long years of struggling to succeed– and then succeeding– in an educational system that wasn’t designed for his brain or his behavior or his way of interacting with the world. Who never once said he hated school, or didn’t want to go. He was often far tougher as an autistic kid than I was as an autistic kid’s mom. And while that often meant that I felt like he was dragging me down the road as I struggled to keep my supposedly adult feet under me, it also meant knowing that if he could show up for himself, the least I could do was show up for him too, even if I wasn’t sure at times how best to help him.

In early grade school, Joe’s first favorite superhero was Batman, a superhero with no actual superpowers, a man with a tragic past who has to exist in the DC Universe as a flat-footed mortal, and make up for that lack using only his intelligence, his gadgetry, and his fighting skills. Later on, Joe’s favorite was Spiderman, who was an awkward, bullied, and outcast teenage Peter Parker before receiving the radioactive spider bite that superhumanized him. These days, he’s a fan of Venom, the symbiote anti-hero who may (eventually) use his alien superpowers for good, but only on his own terms. As Joe’s mom, I recognize pieces of his boyhood in his personal pantheon– feeling powerless, but making yourself strong anyway; being ridiculed without anyone knowing who you really are; having rebellious parts of you that you are not sure you actually want to control.

In the world of superheroes, everyone has an origin story. That fits with Campbell’s arc of the hero’s journey– they have to come from somewhere, before they go…out there. They have an ordinary, known world they have to shed and leave behind before they can become the kind of hero they need to be.

That is right where Joe is right now in his story. He’s crossing the threshold between his ordinary, known world, and answering the call to adventure. Heroes-to-be eventually realize that their origin story is not a complete one and that is why they go– they need to discover more about themselves and their real power.

What origin stories don’t always say, though, is how the people who live in the hero’s ordinary world feel about that call to adventure, that momentous departure. I thought about that a lot as I smoothed clean sheets and vacuumed floors in his empty room. This is the part of the story I can’t write; it belongs to him now. He will want, and need, other mentors that are not me. He will have trials and quests and triumphs that I can’t help him with, because he needs to know that he can do it on his own.

I’m proud of my part in this hero’s origin. I am in the process of learning to trust that he has the powers necessary to write the rest of his own legend. And I will patiently await the hero’s triumphant return. I know it’s gonna be a great story.

Tuesday, October 4, 2022

Waiting Out Empty


September is a soft and warm word for a soft warm month, and it was a good season to be empty. 

Just...empty. Not running on empty, or as in drained dry, or as in devoid of emotion. None of those things. 

More like empty as in absence of fullness. Absence of people that I love. Absence of happenings. Absence of thinking that I know things. 

Because I knew a lot of things about myself before I sent my two youngest sons off to college. 

I knew I spent years sharing custody with my children's father, giving me over a decade of intermittent training in having them out of my house, out of my view, out of my attention. 

I knew I never wanted to be that dreaded of all creatures, the "helicopter parent," who helps with freshman homework, emails college professors, and desperately clings to tasks that rightfully belong to their now nearly adult children. 

I knew I wanted a next chapter, one that perhaps belonged a little bit more to me than to my children. But it always seemed to me, year after year, that there were thousands of leaves to turn before we reached that particular page, that new direction in the storyline-- so I kept reading. Until now. I'm finding that I can't read any further. The aptness of my metaphor and my knowledge about myself have faded, running out like too little ink on dry paper.  

All of that knowing wasn't enough to prepare me for the large quiet space that opened up in my life when they began college, one at the "other" public university on the other side of the state, and another at a community college 45 minutes away. At first, that quiet space loomed like an entire undiscovered universe, especially in stark contrast to the short, noisy, and tightly wound days of packing and unpacking, driving loaded trucks, navigating two crowded campuses just days apart, and the rapid fire artillery of problem solving. Where do you get a bus pass? How do we get your window blinds fixed? How in the world did we forget toilet paper? 

The next chapter is here, now. There are no words on the page for me to read. At least, none that I can see clearly. Yet. It's an unsettling feeling. I have ideas, but they're struggling to form themselves into something coherent. That too, seems like part of the blankness I'm confronting. 

I spent the month of September letting myself be empty-- allowing it, and even sometimes insisting to myself that I sit with that nothingness for a period of time. Sometimes I failed, and attempted to fill it (poorly) with anxiety, insomnia, NYT crossword puzzles, crap food, and too much social media. Many other times, though, I found myself fully absorbed in the details of a simple action, pruning a houseplant, brushing my hair, scrubbing a saucepan, without my mind racing on some other unrelated concern. I realized how novel and uncluttered and undiluted those actions felt, compared to other times when my life was anything but empty. 

Now it's October, and I'm waiting out the empty. I know it won't be like this forever. I imagine there will be a time in the not too distant future where I'm able to put some words to the empty-- words like grief, change, transition, aging, self-realization, reflection, and respite. I realize I'm not ready to do that just yet, and that's okay. 

In the meantime, we've begun my favorite month of the year. We've danced our way through a family wedding, and are about to embark on a new adventure-- joy is a welcome vantage point to come to terms with, and begin to fill, emptiness. Eventually the words of the next chapter will become clearer. When that happens, I will write them down. Just like I have all the times before. 

Friday, July 8, 2022

The Work of Love Bends Little by Little


When I was the mom of four young boys, I would not have believed that a more stressful stage of my life was possible. Then, my first husband and I had knee-jerk moved into a suburban tract house, one that needed cleaning and paint and repairs, just in time to have the extra room for twins. We were living in Michigan, far away from the support of family in Iowa and Minnesota. We scrambled like mad until I ended up on bed rest to prevent pre-term labor. I languished on a sofa in the middle of a living room stacked with unpacked boxes, reading picture books to my four-year-old, who felt as un-moored as I did. The sofa was our little boat in uncertain seas--me, unborn babies, and preschooler, paddling along as well as we could with I Spy, Dr. Suess, and fitful naps.

I was a stay-at-home mother. "Tired" as a word, as an adjective, as a feeling, did not even begin to touch the reality of what I experienced after the twins were born. True, there was a profound lack of sleep as I navigated the world with two babies, then two toddlers, and somehow also got the older boys fed, hugged, and sent to school. I remember lying on my back every morning, looking at the ceiling and hearing the babies stir in their cribs. Knowing that in a few minutes I would clutch tiny toes still warm from their footed sleepers, a thing that gave me much joy every morning. Yet I was also taking deep breaths, wondering if there was enough. Enough energy. Enough patience. Enough time. Enough me. It was a time when the work of love seemed too big to even contemplate, let alone show up for every day. 

I have always remembered those deep breaths, those ceiling stares, those feelings of love and inadequacy, joy and worry, dedication and weariness, as a state of mind distinct to that period of my life. So it caught me by surprise to find myself as a woman of 54, contemplating another, different ceiling in a very familiar way. Taking those same deep breaths. 

I did not recognize the similarity until I took a week off work, and really a week off pretty much everything. The first few days of my vacation I woke up early, checked chores off my list in the garden, and went hard into my wealth of free time, sunshine, and dirt under my fingernails. While I enjoyed those days, they also weren't quite right. I'd just transferred my workplace tension to the garden, that feeling of being utterly behind and trying to "catch up." That feeling of having let things fall out of order because I am only one person. By day four I was back aboard my sofa-ship, this time minus the picture books, but still with the naps. It took that many days for my mind to surrender to some much needed nothingness, and to connect that time of my life with this. 

Eighteen years ago my babies were literally lifted from my womb. Now, we're doing it again, just metaphorically this time, though the labor pains seem about the same. Ben has acquired a dented old Subaru and my heart is somewhere up around my tonsils every time he pulls away from the curb in front of our house. Joe has chosen a college on the other side of the state and he was ready to go yesterday, while I make a pile of his future life in the corner of the guest bedroom-- bedsheets, shampoo, microwave popcorn. There's another pile for Ben, who'll be just half an hour away, and a third pile for older brother Noah, who's moving into his own apartment without roommates for the first time. And while we work to amass the goods needed for all these big life changes, the questions in my heart are also stacking up-- are they ready? What did I forget to tell them, teach them, show them? How much help is too much? How much is too little? Do they know how much I love them? How did 18 years disappear in an instant?

At the same time, I've been caring for an aging parent. You think your parent is aging gracefully (enough, anyway) until suddenly they are not. My relationship with my mother has always been fraught, a sum of her upbringing and mine, a sum that added up to disappointment on her part, and resignation on mine. But now the Irresponsible Daughter, the Rebellious Daughter, the Scatterbrained Daughter, is needed. Can she phone this doctor? Can she drive her mother to this appointment? Explain this lab result? Take out the trash? It turns out that I can, that I am capable in ways my Mother never saw in me. My sister comes all the way from Georgia to visit, to pitch some much needed relief. We exhange looks over our mother's head as she talks. Were those the words of someone just not feeling well today, or of someone on the threshhold of dementia? Is her refusal to do things the doctors ask of her going to be the hill she dies on, possibly in the realest of senses? We both know our mother is more vulnerable than she herself realizes. She still believes that she is our mother. My sister and I both know she is taking her first steps toward being our child, our dependent. None of us, I suspect, know what we're truly in for-- only that we are in for it, because it happens to us all. 

It's not just the morning ceiling meditation, the deep breaths that draw my current life into parallel with young motherhood. I too often leap from one mundane decision to another, from office email to pharmacy errands to dormitory registration forms to what to cook for dinner, every five minutes all day long until I simply don't care. one. damn. bit. About anything. I too often have short patience for small mishaps, firing off more curses than necessary for a dropped book, a lost set of keys, a slow traffic light. And oh-my-God, I miss my husband. He's right here, as always, helping with my Mom's yard work and teaching Ben how to change a car battery and remodeling our decrepit front porch. But we've had lots of missed opportunities to go on regular dates, to talk in the evening without the kids around, to even just go to the hardware store together. Right now we feel a million miles apart-- nobody's fault, only circumstances.

When I was younger I didn't, or at least couldn't, foresee an end to circumstances. Lost in my anxieties, a part of my brain tricked me into thinking I'd always be washing tiny t-shirts at midnight, taking wadded papers out of little backpacks, shrugging wearily as I vacuumed up Lego pieces. I didn't realize that the work of love bends, sometimes little by little, so that we barely notice it happening. Other times it bends sharply, and we are swung out of orbit, struggling to form ourselves to new ways of showing up for the people we love. Babies become college students. Tiny t-shirts become rugby jerseys. Stay-at-home mom becomes career mom. The daughter that disappoints decides to show up anyway. 

It's in the bendy places that we stress, we hurt, we grieve, we struggle, we fear the lurking unknown. I am sitting right there now, in the bendiest of curves in that work of love. I still don't know if I have enough energy, patience, or time. I still don't know if there's enough of me. I'll still continue to take deep breaths. But this time I'll consider that there's new ways of loving beyond this bend and the next one and the next. I hope I learn that new work well. 

Sunday, April 10, 2022

(Dis)lodging in Arizona


Sometimes, the only thing left is strong, sharp yank in another direction. Upend the norm, find the opposite, find thoughts so different from your own that it glues your feet to the ground while your brain tries to grow those first, shaky, tendrils of neurons around something....else. Not you, but you in a different place. 

That was Arizona in March. 

The trip started as something else entirely. It was a Christmas present to my Chicago Cubs fan husband; we planned to fly out for a fast weekend at a spring training game-- eat a few hot dogs, drink a few beers, sunburn our pasty Midwestern flesh, and run back home to routine and some more winter. 

Major League Baseball had other plans. The players strike canceled the game. But instead of scrapping the trip altogether, we ended up stretching it out on either end, packing hiking shoes, renting a car, and heading out in multiple directions from our hotel room in Mesa. 

When you spend much of your childhood and adult life in the Midwest, it's difficult to comprehend land that has value apart from the economy of agriculture. Row upon row upon row of corn and soybeans tends to brainwash your mind into thinking that if land can't grow anything you can sell, it isn't worth much. "You can't eat the view," an old farmer once told me, about wasting land on flowers and trees. 

It's a little breathtaking, then, to have your fields of monoculture, your soil-factory sameness, stripped away just by taking a few hours and a plane ride into the desert, a place so different from the plains that it might as well be another planet-- agave and prickly pear instead of corn and soy, saguaro and cholla instead of trees. 

I had needed that planetary travel sensation, that strong sharp yank away from everything I knew at home, knew with a tiresome and fretful familiarity lately. Too much time handcuffed to a laptop for a job that is taking too much out of me. Too much time in my corner of the sofa. Too much time walking from bedroom to kitchen to mailbox to kitchen again, looking at my own walls and floors. I needed something to interrupt the sameness of the days. 

In Arizona the sky is sharp, and clear, and the sun will have its way with you. The first couple of days Tom and I both drank water to the point it seemed to take up all our time, even though the weather itself was not warm. We acclimated. We had drinks (not just the water kind) on warm patios. We didn't miss the baseball all that much.

I re-learned important stuff. I remembered that talking with my husband is one of my favorite things to do. I remembered that I get carsick and panicky on mountain highways. We discovered the passport stamp book for the U.S. National Park System, and I was in eight-year-old sticker book heaven, filling it up with all our visits to the state's parks and monuments. 

I learned what a fresh flour tortilla tastes like, made by a woman who quietly rolled and cooked them, one at a time, outside the Mission at Tumac├ícori National Historical Park. I had never had one that had not come out of a plastic bag at a grocery store. 

I learned that history has weight. At Casa Grande National Monument, there are the remains of a house made by Sonoran people in the 1200s, mysteriously constructed with openings to align with the solstice and the equinoxes. These people populated the Gila River Valley for milennia, and then abandoned their villages and farms for reasons archeologists do not know. There was heavy energy there, made up of grief, and a kind of long waiting. A raven circled high up above the whole. I learned later that O'Odham and Hopi tribes consider the builders of Casa Grande ancestors, and the site sacred. I believe them. 

Things I have been doing:

Reconsidering what work setting is meaningful, healthy, and productive while reading this New York Times article

Buying gladiolus bulbs, the much maligned "grandma flower" of the past. I love them BECAUSE they are a "grandma flower," and remind me of my own, who grew them in her garden. They're in bins near the front door of every hardware store everywhere right now, and each new variety has me buying just a few more. 

Reading The Victory Garden Cookbook, an out of print collection of recipes based on the PBS television show. It's out of print, and I recently scored a replacement copy of one that got lost. It's a combination how-to-grow, how-to-cook book of vegetables, and it's been a real nostalgia trip for me to read and re-discover.