Outbuildings

The property was maybe a forty-five minute drive from my grandparents’ house in the St. Louis city limits, but the contrast between the expansive country acreage and the tidy urban parcel led me to believe that we must have circled the moon and stars to get there. I can’t even remember the color of the outside of my dad’s Aunt Joan and Uncle Dave’s massive Victorian home, but I clearly remember the musty smell that filled me with wonder each time we entered through the parlor (no one else that I knew or even have known since has had a parlor). I remember the secret TV room where the teenagers hung out and where my sister and I spied on them from an even more secret closet that led somewhere that we dared not explore. I remember the velvet couches and the fancy swirling armchairs, the ceilings that nearly rose to the heavens, and Aunt Joan’s homemade dinner rolls that tasted just like the ones that pop out of a can. The best part, though, was the swing: a board suspended from somewhere above the clouds, attached to sturdy ropes that took me far beyond that patch of Eden.

I don’t even cry anymore when the chickens die; at least, I haven’t in a while. This morning, one of the young hens was lying in the roost with her neck twisted. I wondered what had happened as I carried her to the compost pile where she will be returned to the earth. I will never know. Disregard was probably not a very good name for a chicken, anyway. This year has hardened me in so many ways.

“I love outbuildings.” My son’s comment jarred me, mostly because I didn’t realize that he knew what an outbuilding even was, but also because I wondered if I had been thinking out loud. What is it about the sight of a tiny barn wood or rusty iron structure that compels me…and, clearly, my son…to want to know more, to want to venture inside, to want to be part of something that had been meaningful to someone else, however long ago?

If I could get in your soul, and you in mine, the mystery might cease to be. It must be fear of really knowing that keeps us from opening the smallest door.

A few years ago, a treasured childhood friend sent me a kitchen towel printed with a whimsical design, a map of Cape Cod, where her family has a cottage, along with an invitation to visit one day, when the time seemed right. I don’t think she would mind that the towel is now worn and some of the threads have loosened. A mirror to our days, time has weathered us. I hold her in my hands, though, with every dish I dry.

Uncle Dave had a shed on that Missouri property; it had probably been a garage at one time. I don’t remember him ever letting any of us in there with him, but from time to time, he would emerge from that shed, usually with a contraption of wood or wires or something else and there would be a softness about his face and an indiscernible music to his presence. He had been to his place, the place that filled him up.

The grandeur and mystery of that old house will forever be with me. Aunt Joan and Uncle Dave have been gone for years, and I can’t go back there anymore, at least not physically. Perhaps if I did, the magnitude of my memory would disappoint.

It has been hard for any of us to go anywhere this year. The safety of the issued stay-at-home orders brought some relief to me in those early days of the pandemic; I couldn’t go anywhere even if I wanted to. And I didn’t want to.

There has been sadness, loneliness, and loss. What has pulled us down, though, has left a wake of gratitude for simplicity and normalcy: for the rhythm of our earth’s seasons, for the little memories that beckon at every turn, for the everyday chores of tending chickens and drying dishes.

Perhaps we don’t need to go places to know that we have been somewhere. Maybe outbuildings look different to each of us. Maybe if we never bring ourselves to look inside, we’ll miss part of who we are.

Someday, though, I’m going to Cape Cod, and I think I’ll take my son along for the memories.

xoxo

I Like Your Pants

The elastic was stretched thin on the worn red cotton gingerbread-printed pajama pants. My second-hand find from years ago slipped dangerously low despite my bread-and-sugar belly. The chickens never seemed bothered by my fashion sense; they fluttered to greet me that morning as I delivered their feed.

“I like your pants.” My little son’s words jolted me out of my morning reverie wherein I was actually having coffee in an actual coffee shop with one of my actual friends.

He had come out of my bed (which he says he prefers to his, because it’s bigger, and also comfier) where he had been sleeping while I went to tend the chickens. “Thank you” was my simple response because I could think of nothing more to say. My pajama pants had been marked for the rag pile a while ago, but he liked them. He really did like them, I knew, because six-year-olds have not yet learned to say things to make people feel good just for the sake of doing so. They say kind things when they genuinely mean them.

Juliet was like that. She was quiet even for a cat, except when she was sleeping in my bed, breathing like a freight train coming right at my face. She must have thought that my bed was comfy, too. She did, though, have a particular way of making me happy…really happy.

She liked to stand on my paperwork, right in the middle of it, and park herself in my chair precisely when I was making my way over to sit in it. I could always count on her to sit with me (actually, right by the coffee pot) while I had my morning cup.

She also, though, appeared like a faithful angel in the aftermath of our struggles with mental illness, when the demons had retreated and we were left to assess the damages. She would always emerge, watching me, as if to say that I was going to be okay. And she would roll her eyes at the foolish antics of the rest of them, while she certainly thought about how nice it was, and I thought how nice it would be, to be a cat. Juliet was my quiet companion on the rough seas, the soft, white ball of fluff who appreciated every warm load of laundry that ever came from the dryer. She loved me, she loved butter, and she died on the kitchen floor last month.

It’s lonely around here, even with all of the people. I think many people are lonely these days, even when their best cats didn’t just die.

It sure is a hard, weird world these days. All of these meets and zooms are getting to me. I know I am not the only one. I would like to live life with my camera off, perhaps in the forest in my backyard, maybe close to where Juliet is buried. I can’t, though, because I have to chase my six-year-old around with his Chromebook. It’s my new job, one I got when I didn’t know I was getting one. At least he likes my pants.

I miss how things were before, when I missed how things were before that. I miss my tiny windows of time alone in my garden. I miss sitting with my people in Common Grounds, our downtown coffee shop. I miss the freedom that I didn’t even know was a thing. I guess we all do. Also, I miss Juliet.

I guess I can learn from my little son to be genuine and generous, too, with my words… To take a lesson from what is right before me, because now, that’s pretty much all there is.

I still have visions of Juliet. I expect to see her on the kitchen counter, scoping out the butter, waiting next to the crockpot, planning her next move. She’s not coming back, though. Things are going to be different from now on. The hole in the living room wall will be patched soon. The boys will grow older. I will get my time in the garden again. I don’t think we will soon forget about this isolation and how it has made us feel. And I think those old pajama pants are worth wearing at least a few more times. I just hope the elastic holds.

RIP, sweet Juliet❤️

Photo credit: Sam Ihm

Strip Me Bare

Last year, they were probably heard screaming through to the second floor of the clinic, and there were fights…battles…battles that they did not win. No one did.

A friend shared a link on social media yesterday, and I read every word, as often I do when this particular friend posts things. If she finds something worthy of her time, I know it will be worthy of mine. What I read was a post on the toll taken by the coronavirus from the perspective of writer and blogger, Helene Wingens; I have shared the link below. The words which spoke great truth to me were these: “Being the keeper of everyone else’s sadness and hurt (even if I am self-appointed) is heavy. So heavy.

Heavy, indeed. These resolute words were a painfully accurate summary of how I, and certainly many others have felt about what is going on around us these days.

As I read, my feelings took me elsewhere, to a place inside of me that evoked a similar level of exhaustion and fear, but for very different reasons. As with any art form, the viewer, the listener, or the reader will find meaning in its interpretation. We will make sense of what is before us from our own experiences.

I never liked getting shots, but what seems far worse is watching my children endure a similar fate. As a two-year-old, Elliott had to have a lead screening for preschool class. I was the anxious and fearful one: a young mother more than half my lifetime ago. I remember taking the stoic boy to Burger King after the appointment. My sense of relief must have been palpable as we ordered our Whoppers and as Elliott donned his cardboard crown.

For these years sprawling into decades of throwing my best effort into parenting children with trauma and mental illness, I have certainly tried to hold the sadness, hurt, fear, grief, and anger of my children. Often, though, it cannot be contained. It flows from me, as from my child, and we drift from one another through trials and misunderstandings, displaced anger and defeat, perhaps even to be washed away entirely, back to nothingness, where we are stripped bare of all that we have.

I took the three little boys for flu vaccines yesterday with the promise of not Burger King but Nerf guns from Target after the battle, which somehow was not even a battle. They knew. The magic of one child’s medical cannabis regimen along with new psychiatric protocols for the others might have a bit to do with how things went this year, but we made it through. Somehow, we have arrived at today. It wasn’t easy.

It’s just a short time here, really, to be full of so much that cannot be understood. Just maybe, we are not fit to try to understand.

Maybe there really isn’t going to be a watershed or a life-altering turn of events. Perhaps things will really begin to get easier. Perhaps we will get used to how things are, and for this they will seem easier. Maybe the hard things that I hold so tightly will not seem quite so hard anymore.

The littlest boy, equally brave yesterday as was his big brother Elliott some twenty-seven years ago, kept his bandaid carefully in place “in case his arm might hurt.” At some point this evening, he was ready to take it off. He asked for my help, because he was worried that it might hurt. As I stripped the superhero bandage from his tiny arm, I knew that then that the true healing could begin.

For my big kids, most of whom have historically cooperated with their vaccines, thanks for seeing me as more than I am, and for believing that I am worthy of your company. I will be ready when you find your way home.

Here is the link to Helene’s writing which inspired my blog post:

https://grownandflown.com/exhausted-moms-these-days/?utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=socialflow&fbclid=IwAR2wA_N9PJrFQlWZ56xBkvb4ahgk3KBBQziGbtsP16UYmF-_I6E3xZ4gUcE

A Piece of Crap

I had a dream that I lost little Gabriel, only he was somehow also Moses. We were at a medical appointment at a hospital. He was with me in the lobby, and then he wasn’t. I heard his little voice cry out, “Mama”, but just once. I looked and looked, but I had lost him. At some point, I had left the hospital, without my little boy. I was the very apologetic backseat passenger in the vehicle of an athletic coach of some sort and his child. My eyes would not open, though I was awake. I knew I had to get back to the hospital; that was the only chance I had to find Gabriel. I thought of his sunny curls and of how frightened he must be. Why had no one called me? Who was taking care of him?

I have been dreaming hard lately, waking to remember only what I hope were the most unsettling parts of the midsummer nights’ reveries. If we dream our fears, I should be scared.

At two or three in the morning, when my mind’s chaos had quieted, I woke to a small, gravelly voice. “Piece of crap. You’re a piece of crap…” I waited, having learned through vast experience that little beings might return to sleep if the house remains otherwise quiet in the dark of night. Sometimes, though, they speak again.

“Chocolate milk…” came the same voice, an hour later, a bit more intentional this time, and coming from the mouth of a tiny boy standing one inch away from my head. I had two choices at that point: I could creak down the stairs on tired legs to pour a cup of chocolate milk, or I could forget about anyone in the house getting any rest at all until sunrise. He’s persistent, that little one.

“I hate you, Mom,” he said as he reached for the cup through the shadows of the bottom bunk. After a few swallows he handed me the cup and, thankfully, returned to sleep, or at least to quiet.

Two nights in a row, I had served chocolate milk when they should have been sleeping.

Two days in a row, I had been called “stupid” by two different children, both mine. I could have retorted that I graduated fourth in my high school class of three hundred nineteen, but they would have leveled me with some sort of remark that, indeed, proved their points, and that I also knew had absolutely nothing to do with me.

I wear a mask to keep others from catching the bad things that may come from within. I can’t keep the anger from coming from the mouths of my hurt children, nor would I want to do this. Curiously, though, the youngest here wear their virus masks like champs.

We painted at the kitchen table as we often do during these long days at home. Moses called his artwork “a piece of crap.” Perhaps he didn’t think it measured up to that of his older siblings. He didn’t seem comforted when I told him how beautiful I thought it was, nor does he seem comforted when I tell him how beautiful I think he is when he has declared himself a “stupid piece of crap.”

Sometimes I feel like I am losing little Moses, to the depths of chaos here at home, to the familiar yet unslayable beast of mental illness as his childhood spins out of control. We can’t cover it up with a mask or otherwise. We have good people, and we hope that we are doing the right thing.

I don’t know if I ever found little Gabriel in my dream; I am not sure if he was really lost or if he was just away for a time when I had no control, no way to know. And I have no idea who that athletic coach was or how I got in his van, by the way.

In the end, I believe Moses will be okay, too. I believe that we all will be. We have our masks to wear and our collective wrath to unleash. The uncertainty of the darkness through the long wakeful nights always yields to the sunrise, which reminds us of the greater rhythm. And for those up before the sun, there’s always chocolate milk to make it better. I can hear your voice.

I have been dreaming hard lately, waking to remember only what I hope were the most unsettling parts of the midsummer nights’ reveries. If we dream our fears, I should be scared.

I Wish I Could Tell You

As a little girl, on my sick days from school, the best part of the day was the half hour when I could sit in my dad’s recliner in my pajamas and watch Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. I found great comfort in staring at the trolley while it circled the neighborhood, where I could pass some of my time with this great man who had so much to show me. He always knew the right thing to say to make me feel better.

After nearly thirteen years of fostering, we surrendered our license, which was somehow at once sad and celebratory. During that tenure, one of the greatest challenges lay in trying to answer questions which were essentially unanswerable.

“When am I going home?”

“When can I see my mom?”

“Will I be staying here forever?”

As I, too, longed for answers to these questions, I knew it was my job to reassure, to be honest, to share what I knew could be understood, and, often impossibly, to comfort, even when the words I could provide were not what the children longed to hear.

When our license capacity had been and would be at the maximum for many years, when our final adoption was made official, and when the many needs of our family made the decision clear (well, maybe not to me…), it was time to close our doors to fostering.

It seemed, then, that the questions might stop.

They didn’t.

I know that the hard questions came from the birth families, too, who had loved and lost so much. At the judge’s decision, the life long grief is hardly an answer.

My children still wonder when they will see their birth parents, why they cannot be with their first families, if they had always been loved, and whether they will really be staying with us forever…because the formality of adoption, for many, is not enough to answer those questions.

The state of our recent days reminds me of the challenges of unanswerable questions.

“When is this dumb virus going to be over?”

“When can I see my friends? When can I ride dirt bikes with Ray (our revered family friend)?”

“When is baseball going to start?” (I am in on this one, too, for sure).

“When can we see the big kids? When can we go on an airplane to California?”

“Are we all going to die?”

Am I actually going to be able to help them through this? Because, really, I have no idea. No one does.

I guess I can try to apply the fostering philosophy for handling these questions, too, and I will likely wind up feeling just as bewildered in my inability to really give them what they need.

The truth is that we don’t know what we need. No one does. I wonder if we ever will again, or if we ever even did. If only Mr. Rogers was still here…

As my children are tucked safely in their beds each night, the stars shining high over the forest, in this home where they will be welcomed forever, I can’t help but think of those who, even in this period of great uncertainty, have even bigger questions. Those youth in care and those who have just aged out of the system have the same unanswerable questions that I have heard many times, only now there are harder and more uncertain, even more foreboding questions. An uncertain future in an uncertain world is just too much to bear…and far too much to bear alone, wondering.

In the night, the claps of thunder shook me awake, but then I heard the rumble of the train in the distance, in quiet competition with a soft, steady rain that carried on through most of today.

The wisdom of Mr. Rogers advises us to “look for the helpers”. These days, certainly, they are not hard to find.

I wonder, really, how best to be a helper in these overwhelming, often lonely times. Maybe just doing our best to listen to those questions and worries, maybe just being there, is being a helper. After all, we can’t really go anywhere…

Once the rain had passed, it really was a beautiful day in the neighborhood.

Loss

It’s helpful, necessary, and smart. It’s good practice. Also, it’s terrifying.

There’s no more solace to be found in the garden these days. “Put them to work with you,” advise the well-intentioned folks who do not understand my reality of the transformation of a tiny farmer that uses a three-quarter-scale shovel to scoop compost into a wheelbarrow, only to turn (in the time it takes to pull two weeds) on a brother who had let his thoughts escape into words. I can only hope to reach the angry pair before the shovel strikes.

It’s the images of the masks which hide the faces; the hands, including mine, fitted with gloves; the grocery store carts topped with hand sanitizer and bleach as though a disinfectant sundae was on the dinner menu; the plastic shields intended to protect the brave cashiers who come to work so we can eat; and the heaviness of fear, both known and unknown, that’s terrifying beyond measure. Terrifying, too, is that we don’t really even know what we’ve lost.

Maybe I should have wiped down all the packages from today’s supply runs. I didn’t. Maybe I just needed another thought to wake me at two in the morning, when the boys are actually sleeping.

I had envisioned a brightly-colored piñata hanging from the tree in the sunshine, with my little line of children barely able to contain their excitement. It would be a treat for us all during this time of uncertainty. The box came from Amazon, but I told them it was a surprise for the next day. One boy became incensed; he didn’t like surprises, and he hated me. “Sorry! It’s a piñata,” I blurted. “I thought it would be fun.” At that, another brother announced that he, too, hated me, and pretty much everything, because I had ruined the surprise.

Next, there were cartoon-style clouds of body parts swirling through the air to the tune of an anguished choir. Maybe we should have called for help. That concept, too, is terrifying for so many reasons.

Come tomorrow, I will have to decide what to do about the piñata. It might feel good for all of us to take a turn at striking.

There’s so much loss going on all around us…so much on top of what’s already there, most of which may be hidden so deeply within that we cannot call it up. It must come on its own, in its own time.

It’s hard to know how to help my children through all of this, when my band of supporters must keep a social distance or communicate over a screen.

Maybe it’s like hitting a piñata, where finally all the beating and shaking becomes too much, and it just breaks apart. What it once was is lost. The masks and sanitizer will just help soften the blow.

I did manage to get some seeds in the ground earlier in the day. In about a month, my lettuce will be ready to harvest, and soon I will be able to transplant the seeds that we started inside. There will also be sugar snaps, beets, and carrots to follow. By mid summer, I hope that we will have stored our medical gloves and masks away. I hope for a lot of things. We all do.

We’ll try to record our piñata adventure, if it even happens. My guess is that everyone will be lined up and ready to take a swing. Even me. Especially me.