As The World Turns

My little sister won’t endure my spinning anymore, but she still pushes me (and her daughter) to spin faster…

My sisters and I were taught about miracles just about every week in Sunday school. A few loaves of bread and a couple of fish multiplying to feed 5,000. Jesus healing lepers, making the blind see, bringing Lazarus back to life. An empty tomb and a risen savior.

Once I hit second grade, though, I learned something that made me think the biggest miracle was a current phenomenon that, incredulously, nobody ever seems to marvel over—the fact that the Earth, the very ground we’re all standing on, is spinning at about 1,000 mph, and that means we are all moving, all the time, even though we can’t feel it happening.

My little 8-year-old brain exploded at the thought.

My sons and I were recently talking about this on an evening when the moon was a glowing crescent, the kind of moon that would cradle you as you sat and cast a line off its tip, and they asked what it looked like to the people on the other side of the world. So with the help of my frequent co-parent YouTube, we watched the trajectory and phases of the moon, and learned how the Earth spins on its axis. We also saw how “our” planet is moving around the sun at about 67,000 mph and our solar system is moving through the galaxy at about 515,000 mph, and how we’re along for those rides, too.

It’s dizzying to think about all that moving we’re doing as I sit here, still and silent, on my couch.

When I was a kid my favorite thing to do was spin. My favorite toy was my Sit ’n’ Spin. My favorite amusement park ride was the one in which you could spin yourself inside each rickety “cup” while the whole ride spun around on the metal platform. My favorite thing at the playground was a big tire swing, hung parallel to the ground. I would sit on it, preferably with my apprehensive little sister, and dig my toes into the sand beneath it, turning us faster and faster and faster until she begged me to stop so she could get off before she threw up.

I loved spinning. I loved seeing the whole world blur around me until the only things I could see clearly were my own limbs and the person directly across from me on the tire or the ride or the toy, their smile wild, their laughter infectious, their insides being tickled the same way my insides were being tickled.

Now that I’m older I see more clearly that apart from the same ride we’re all on together on this third rock from the sun, each of us is also spinning in our own orbits, following the unique trajectories of our lives at different speeds. We turn from darkness to light and back again, from helplessness to hopefulness, from love to loss, all the while bumping into or crossing through one another’s orbits as we go, trying like hell to straighten our paths, to slow down or speed up, treating others like they are moons to our existence rather than planets of their own.

And despite our best efforts at selflessness and compassion, the rest of the world often blurs so that we see only our own flailing limbs and persistent dreams. It’s human nature; it’s the desperate call of our fragile hearts; it’s all of us doing the best we can with what we’re facing at any given point in time.

I am amazed as I watch you all spinning, facing the darkness, feeling the light, waiting and praying and digging your toes into the sand to change your direction or speed or perspective. Navigating parenthood and marriage, failed businesses and failing relationships, addiction and recovery and illness and death and a hundred other things, some of them too dark to even imagine myself enduring.

This, too, is the same for the people on the other side of the world.

Gloria, a 21-year-old college student from Rwanda, was recently telling me about the lingering effects of the 1994 genocide in her country, a mass killing of 800,000 in a matter of 100 days. Half of her mother’s family and almost all of her father’s were slaughtered. Gloria was born three years later, but her life has been altered and defined by her parents’ pain.

“There wasn’t time to process their emotions when everything happened. They had to rebuild. They had to dig graves. They had to find bodies. There was so much to be done. So the assumption was ‘After we clean up, after we rebuild and get to a good place, then we can deal with our emotions.’ But that time hasn’t come yet.”

For those three months their lives had spun out of control. Terror and evil had flung them into chaos. And the ensuing nausea of persistent grief has since slowed their individual orbits to a crawl, their hearts adjusting to the dark side of the moon rather than pushing toward the light around the bend.

“Most of my friends are struggling to deal with parents who have been through so much that they don’t even know how to love anymore,” Gloria said with a kind matter-of-factness that broke my heart. “Not because they don’t love their kids, but they’ve seen some of the most horrible things you can ever think of, and the whole idea of love has died. The point of love can become a terrible experience.”

I don’t know how to process that level of pain and loss. I don’t know what I’d do if three-quarters of my extended family were slaughtered. Would the mere thought of loving someone wholly, freely again become too painful a thing to put into practice? How would I will myself to keep spinning at all?

Maybe that’s where the miracle comes in. We are all moving, regardless of whether we feel up to it. Despite our failings and our fears, when we think we can’t go on we actually are going on. When I sit down and sob, I’m still moving forward. When you close your eyes and breathe and pray for guidance, your answer is in the sunrise and the seasons.

The Earth turns. The gravitational pull of the sun spins us around it. The solar system glides forward, one jumbled mass of planets and stars and moons and heartbreak. How comforting to know that when I think I am alone in my pain, when I believe my pace is wrong or my trajectory is off, there is a part of my existence whose pace and movement is always a mirror image of yours, and yours, and yours, and it is perfect— just look at the sunrise and the seasons.

At 1,000 mph, we spin together. Nobody is alone. We are all on the ride, myself and Gloria’s mother, the addict I love and the friend whose wife just moved out, the woman who recently lost her dad and the mother who miscarried again and the father of four who’s battling cancer and the kid at the park today who’s pushing off on that old tire swing with all the power he’s got in his little legs. May he always be as confident and adventurous as he is right now. But if he ever falters, it’s OK.

He’s with us.

 

Your Song

I wonder what song will make my kids think of their mom after I’m gone.

Not even gone gone, just not in their daily lives anymore. When they’re grown and off to who knows where, what familiar yet distant strains of which random tune will come on in the grocery store and call me to mind, the way “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” instantly conjures up my mother, her permed hair framing her smiling face singing to me in the wallpapered kitchen of my childhood home.

I’ll be fine when you’re gone
I’ll just cry all night long
Say it isn’t true and
Don’t it make my brown eyes blue

My mind is a twisted mess of lyrics and people, and if someone laid them out in two columns, songs on the left and faces on the right, I could draw lines connecting them faster than my third-grader connects continent names to their land shapes on his social studies worksheets.

The magical thing is that they’re mostly hidden; I don’t make the connection until I’m driving home after dropping off the kids at school and “Fade Into You” comes on the radio. Then suddenly within the song by Mazzy Star there’s Amy, with her golden locks and gorgeous smile, from a friendship that was once so intense and all-encompassing I’m pretty sure we were closer to each other for a time than we were to our spouses.

I want to hold the hand inside you
I want to take a breath that’s true
I look to you and I see nothing
I look to you to see the truth

“Fade Into You” plays and I remember Amy and I sharing sordid secrets, boozy late-night talks around countless bonfires, road trips and sailing excursions and football games and baseball games and theater performances. Amy holding my hand while I wait in the ER in the wee hours of Jan. 1 for an X-ray on my separated shoulder, a crazy end to an epic New Year’s party. Me holding Amy’s hand a couple years later as she lies in a hospital bed, her eyes watering through another contraction. “Just breathe … you’re doing great … he’s almost here …”

I get home and send Amy a message, telling her of the song I just heard on the radio and how it had her face in the notes, and later I wonder whether my face is in any notes for other people. I wonder if there are songs they remember me liking, or songs that played when we were together, or songs whose lyrics somehow match the time we shared.

For some I bet it’s a band. I can see my friend Shawn’s face in a mental collage of parties and bars over the years from our college friendship and well beyond, whenever the first notes of “Black Dog” or “Ramble On” or “Traveling Riverside Blues” hit the room and he scans the crowd and points at me. “ZEPPELIIIIIINNNN!” he yells in a way only Shawn can, dancing toward me, swinging me around, his Zep buddy for life. I hope these days when he’s driving to work listening to some classic rock Pandora station and Robert Plant’s high-pitched wail bleats through the speakers, my smile is there with it.

And if you promised you’d love so completely
And you said you would always be true
You swore that you never would leave me, baby
Whatever happened to you?

 


When I pick up the boys from school Evan hands me a piece of paper. On it he has scrawled two song titles: “Beat It” and “The Final Countdown.” I smile. “This is for the ride,” he says. Their music teacher is always introducing them to new songs, which are old songs, and so we queue them up on the way to and from school and they marvel in the backseat at how I already know the lyrics to songs they just learned.

We’re leaving together,
But still it’s farewell
And maybe we’ll come back
To earth, who can tell?
I guess there is no one to blame
We’re leaving ground (leaving ground)
Will things ever be the same agaaaain?

I beat on the steering wheel and belt out the chorus to a song I never liked but right now sort of love, because this time it’s different, this time it’s ours. And then it occurs to me how possible it is that someday this could be the song. “The Final Countdown” could be the thing that brings me to mind, dear god, and for a moment I freeze, no please not this song, not something as cheesy as Europe’s poor excuse for a Space Oddity.

But we don’t choose these things, do we. It’s completely up to the way a random moment gets wedged into our memories, the way our subconscious finds a connection to a string of notes or lyrics that just feel like someone we love. Or lost. Or miss.

There are so many people I have loved and so many I miss, in so many ways. They are in “Respect” and “Tangled Up In Blue” and “You’re My Best Friend,” “Take Five” and “Budapest” and “The Greatest Sum.” They’re in “Get It Together,” “My Backwards Walk” and “The First, The Last, My Everything.” “The Beauty of Gray,” “Two Princes,” “September,” “The Aspidistra Flies,” “Call It Dreaming” and so many more. They are embedded in The Wall and Soulrocker and New Jersey and Everything Now and Nebraska and in the soundtracks to Pulp Fiction and Singles.

They live inside the music of Lyle Lovett and U2, The Killers, Paul Simon, Billy Joel and Uncle Tupelo, Muse and Edith Piaf and Bruce Springsteen, Kenny Rogers and Peter, Paul & Mary and on and on and on, and they will be in those singers’ hooks long past the day I’m not around anymore to hear them. Music is bigger and louder and stronger and longer than any of us, and it bears far more than we know how to hold and express on our own, thank god. All I can do is keep listening and, when someone’s face appears, smile at them, sing to them, send an intention of love and light in their direction and, whenever possible, reach out and tell them, like I did with Amy, that I see their face in the notes.

I bet that, too, is a nice thing to hear.

A few days after “The Final Countdown” car ride, Kostyn and Evan start up a dance party in the living room after dinner. They don’t go for Europe, much to my relief, instead opting for the not-much-better “Cotton-Eye Joe,” a ’90s remix of a folk classic. They pull me in and teach me the line dance they’ve learned to the song, and we tap, tap, tap our feet and spin to the left, spin to the right.

If it hadn’t been for Cotton-Eye Joe
I’d been married a long time ago
Where did you come from,
where did you go,
Where did you come from Cotton-Eye Joe?

It takes a few times for me to get it right, but that’s because part of me has pulled away and is standing off to the side of that makeshift dance floor marveling at how they’re choreographing the dance parties now, quite literally, instead of the other way around.

Our dance parties used to be carefully choreographed by me. Not the moves, but the timing, the setting, the props. I’d break open a bunch of glow sticks, get the kitchen and living room cleaned up, turn off all the lights. In the early months of separation, of two homes and split time, I was desperate to build traditions and make memories they’d remember as fun and happy. I wanted to give them the feeling of wholeness when we were all a little broken.

And man, it always worked. Jumping and spinning, they’d fly into my arms, first taking turns and then challenging me to hold them both, my arms and back and core straining to “Jump In the Line (Shake, Senora),” the dog repeatedly darting out of the way.

After we master the moves to “Cotton-Eye Joe” they choose “Beat It,” and then I pick another MJ classic, “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough.” Our moonwalks are sorely lacking but it doesn’t matter, we’re working up a sweat now as they queue up old dance party favorites like Maroon 5’s “Sugar“ and Eels’ “Hey Man (Now You’re Really Livin’).”

Have you ever sat down in the fresh-cut grass
And thought about the moment and when it will pass?
Hey man, now you’re really living

Now you’re really giving everything
And you’re really getting all you gave
Now you’re really living what
This life is all about

Eventually my attention is pulled back to the messy kitchen and dirty dishes, but they want to keep going. Kostyn is asking for a particular song but he doesn’t remember the words and I can’t place it based on his valiant attempt at speaking the beat. We try a few but he nixes them all, and my enthusiasm for the whole thing begins to sag.

“You used to play it when we were littler and we would dance. Before the last house we lived in.”

I search my memory for songs from their toddler days, before glow sticks and line dances. “’Thank God I’m a Country Boy’?”

“No, it’s a rock song. The guitar starts it like this – du-du-du-du-du-du-du-du…”

I squint at him, trying, searching, blank.

“That singer you love sings it too, with the band,” he says.

Singer I love? A rock song. Du-du-du-du-du–

“‘The ’59 Sound’!” I yell triumphantly. I dash to my laptop and search for it. The guitar starts – du-du-du-du-du-du-du-du – and then a drumroll spills in and the bona fide rock song crashes through the tiny speakers on my desk.

“Yes! This is it!” he exclaims. I used to play a video of The Gaslight Anthem playing this song live, and in the clip the band introduces Bruce Springsteen to come onstage and play it with them. That singer I love. We perfected our air guitars to that video many moons ago.

“You guys were so little then. That was in Palmyra, so you were about 2 and 4,” I marvel. “I can’t believe you remember that.”

But they do, and I notice their air guitars are still in tune. I smile then, realizing for the first time that maybe my face is in these notes.


Well, I wonder which song they’re gonna play when we go.
I hope it’s something quiet and minor and peaceful and slow.
When we float out into the ether, into the Everlasting Arms,
I hope we don’t hear Marley’s chains we forged in life.

‘Cause the chains I been hearing now for most of my life,
The chains I been hearing now for most of my life.

Did you hear the ’59 Sound coming through on grandmother’s radio?
Did you hear the rattling chains in the hospital walls?
Did you hear the old gospel choir when they came to carry you over?
Did you hear your favorite song one last time?

The Best Way to Lose Weight in the New Year

You can exercise
and watch your calories
and say no to dessert
and count your steps
and be diligent and vigilant
and self-castigate over cellulite
but
if you are like me
you continue to put on weight
year after year.
Because if you are like me
you are spending your life
dragging things behind you.

 

Holding onto old hurts.
Regrets.
Unfinished business.
The inner disappointment of untapped potential.
That time you drank too much and did that thing.
All the other times.
Insecurities, real and perceived.
Ideals you cannot reach but cannot relinquish.
The pain of not having been loved well by that one person.
The shame of knowing you let them treat you like that.
Anger.
Wistfulness.
Nostalgia.
Traditions.
Expectations.
The self-imposed prison of needing to be liked.
Religious rules and “truths” you were taught as a kid.
Contempt for the religious rules and “truths” you were taught as a kid.
Fear of death.
Fear of what will happen if you live the way you want to live.

 

If you are like me
you have so many small burdens
known only to you,
like invisible weighted plates tied together with nylon rope
that you drag dutifully behind you,
year after year,
the rope cutting into your skin
as you trample the ground you cover,
your heavy existence
leaving ruts and grooves in the land
where your footprints should be.

 

Next year,
if you are like me
you will try letting go of something.
Untie one knot
and keep walking,
glancing behind you to see
Anger
or
Fear of death
or
The false perception of not having been good enough
getting smaller as you go,
leaving it alone to rot into the earth,
still and useless and discarded.

 

That sight will embolden you and,
if you are like me,
you will try loosening your grip
on the whole damn rope.
Breathe,
and be brave enough to acknowledge
that the weights only exist if you want them to.
The burdens are perpetuated only by your fragile heart
And the mind that fights for you and against you.

 

If you are like me
you will keep inhaling
and exhaling
until you have the courage to live
without the weights
without the rope
without the destructive ruts created by your mind.
Maybe for just a minute at a time, at first.

 

And then you will realize the irony,
that dropping the rope
is harder than lugging it.
It is not a single freeing act but a repetitive exercise.
Drop the rope.
Drop the rope.
Drop the rope.
Over and over and through time and persistence
that exercise will help you lose more weight than you ever dreamed possible,
until finally you see only your footprints behind you,
unique and unspoiled.

 

Drop the rope.
Drop the rope
and step lightly, joyfully
into your
new
year.

Photo by Steve Shockley

The Hardest Thing Parents Do Is Compromise … With Time

Kostyn at 4, and at 10. Thanks, Time. Ya jerk.

The thing I do most often as a mother is compromise. And I’m not talking about all the compromises I make with my boys about sharing toys and breaking up fights and whose turn and which snack and we have to run this errand but we’ll get that for dinner, and I’m sorry this Friday you’re at Daddy’s but we’ll do movie night Sunday instead, and bedtime battles and who showers first and how many pieces of Halloween candy is the right amount.

All those compromises combined are nothing compared to the other ones, the harder ones I find myself making over and over, compromises between the demands and desires of two formidable opposing forces: My heart and Time.

And Time is a relentless opponent, a real bitch. She doesn’t match a parent’s heart stride for stride, she outruns it in a flash with no warning and no apology, just off to the races and you’re left there in a cloud of talcum powder holding an empty infant car seat with the soft bell thingy still dangling from the handle while you watch the baby who is now a toddler unbuckle the belt from his “big boy” seat and scamper out of the car practically on his own.

You’re amazed and thankful, and you love the growing independence and the “I do it!” You really do. And you mostly hated the cumbersome infant seat anyway, dammit. So you adjust. You choose to not think so much about the wide-eyed gummy smiles you used to be treated to when you opened the car door and unclipped that backwards-facing seat and he saw you again for the first time. Mama’s face! Here I am! The sun and the moon and the stars right there in one smile. Two.

You concede the intoxicating hit of Johnson & Johnson’s lavender baby lotion scent you used to get off the top of his downy-soft infant head because you have to, because there is no infant head anymore and there is no night-night lavender lotion routine. There is a dodgy, grabby 2-year-old now, full of discovery and testing limits. That’s what you get instead, that’s your compromise. And it’s great. It’s beyond great, it’s amazing, the way he spells out every sign you pass in the car. “S-T-O-P this spells stop!” his sweet voice sing-songs from the back seat, and you smile your sun-moon-stars mama smile at him in the rearview mirror, even though he is looking out the window at the world.

As a parent, you constantly give up something you loved more than you thought you would, something just weeks before you couldn’t imagine not having anymore, and you find the good in the new/bigger/older/different. You compromise, and you’re happy.

Then Time glances back at you with her sneering grin before sprinting ahead, and you both know another compromise is right around the corner, because it always is. Because that’s what you’ve come to understand about parenting. More than how to get them to brush their teeth or use the potty or mind their manners, you’ve learned most of all how to give up one beautiful thing after another that you will never get back, in favor of some other beautiful thing you will likely only have for awhile, too.

So you give up rocking him to sleep, feeling his milk-buzzed body sigh and go limp in your arms, but you get wondrous bedtime book conversations about how many animals could really fit inside a mitten.

You give up the efficiency of carrying him quickly into the store at your pace, but you get the milestone of him walking beside you instead, his whole tiny hand wrapped around just one of your fingers, his legs pumping fast to keep up.

You give up all the scrambling into your lap and snuggling he used to want to do, but you get all the impromptu puppet shows and block tower unveilings and “Mommy look at this!” feats of strength and creativity his busy little mind and body can manage.

You give up minding him and his brother in the bath, but you get a little time to yourself in the evenings while they help each other with showers.

You give up kissing him goodbye at school, but you get the swell of pride in watching him carefully hold his green froggy umbrella over the head of a classmate so she won’t get wet on their way inside.

The hand that used to be only big enough to hold one of your fingers grows to hold two, then three, then your whole hand, and then one day you realize you’ve somehow given up “Take my hand!” for “Look both ways!” And now you’re letting him look and wait and cross and be safe ahead of you, even though you’re right there, right there, your legs pumping fast to keep up.

It is wonderfully heartbreaking the way life keeps pushing forward.

Earlier this year my 10-year-old, Kostyn, stopped wanting goodnight kisses, then kisses in general. Hugs yes, kisses no. So I obliged, respecting his personal space and boundaries of affection. But he and his little brother knew I still kissed the tops of their heads late at night when I re-tuck them in one last time before I go to bed. I whisper “I love you” into their ears and pretend my words enter their dreams. It’s my thing, my compromise. And last week Kostyn asked me to give it up.

“Mommy please don’t kiss my head anymore, even when I’m asleep. That’s so germy. Gross!” he said, turning his face toward the wall and pulling the covers higher. As I contemplated the idea of just patting his head or simply leaning close to him from now on, something cracked inside me. It was one compromise too many, and my heart had had enough.

“No,” I said defiantly, like a child, not really to him but to Time, that bitch who was stealing my little boys from me every single day, replacing them with older, stronger, fascinating people I adore getting to know, but taking their little boy counterparts I already knew by heart.

Kostyn looked at me, his eyes angry.

“What does it matter to you?” I asked defensively. “You’re asleep! It’s just a tiny peck on the top of your hair, you don’t even feel it or stir in the least.”

“But it’s my head and I don’t want you to kiss it,” he said.

I was quiet for a moment, silently hoping he’d see the pain on my face and give in. He didn’t. “Fine,” I said, not sounding fine. “I won’t.”

I got up and left the room, then stopped in the hallway. I needed him to know that something could be fine with him and fine in general even if it didn’t feel fine to me. I took a deep breath and walked back in, sat down on his bed. He looked up from his book.

“It really is fine, OK? It’s just that this is hard for me sometimes,” I said, looking into his 10-year-old eyes and seeing his 4-year-old cheeks. I explained to him how I used to hold him and hug him and kiss him all the time when he was little and he loved it, how I used to know everything about him, almost like I was on the inside of him, because he was linked to me. He came from me. And now it’s different, and different can be even better, and what he wants now is perfectly OK, but it takes me a minute to adjust, to understand.

I told him I loved him and respected him and would always be right here if he wants a hug or a kiss or a question answered. Anything. I’m right here.

We hugged, and I left feeling better but a little broken, like I’d given up something without getting anything this time. This wasn’t a compromise. This was just one more thing I had to leave behind in the unrelenting parental march toward the future.

Then the next evening we were talking about our days, and I told them both I’d had some constructive criticism at work and was having a hard time with it, that my confidence was often easily shaken and I needed to regroup.

Kostyn, sitting on the couch with a book in his hand, looked at me with kind eyes and said, “Aww, Mommy, you can walk in the shadows, but don’t live there.”

His eyes got wide, possibly because he saw mine getting wide, and we smiled at each other. He blushed a little. “I don’t know why I just said that,” he stammered.

But I did. I knew it was Time, cutting me some slack with an easy point, a shot at the foul line for the elbow to the gut she’d given me the day before. She was helping to even things out a little bit. Just for now.

Thank you, I thought. There’s my compromise.*

So, I am giving up the easy affection of my oldest child from years gone by, and I miss it terribly, this precious thing I once thought would never end. But I am getting the wisdom of the ages in my own son’s voice, the unfolding of a beautiful mind right before my eyes. It is magical, and I will take it with awe and gratitude.

 

[*Plus, I still get to whisper “I love you” straight into his dreams. Please don’t tell Time. We parents need to stick together in this illogical race we desperately want to win but never want to finish.]