When, several years ago, we succumbed to unavoidable financial pressure and sold our only family vehicle to help cover the rent for awhile, it was my son, Zeke, the analytical type, the scientist, who wanted to run to the window to watch—solemn, stoic—as the new owners drove away. He was about five at the time.
“Are they going to bring back our Honda Pilot?”
No, Zeke. They’re not bringing it back.
Today, he asks me things like this: “The next time we make a turkey, can I watch it cook from beginning to end? I would like to do that. I’d like to watch it no matter how long it takes. That means you’re going to have to clean the oven window, and I don’t know how you’re going to do that, because it’s dirty in between two panels. So you should research. But I want to watch that. I like to watch the changes happen to things, slowly.”
He notices now, on the relatively rare occasions when we’re in someone’s vehicle together, that he doesn’t have time to take in his surroundings. Things pass too fast for him to observe and integrate. “The only things I can see better when I’m in a car are other cars. Instead of them just speeding by, it’s like they’ve slowed down. I guess because I’m traveling with them. So I look at zooming cars when I’m in a car, because they’re the only thing I can really see. They become slow.”
Zeke has always talked like this. He used to refer to people smoking cigarettes as “humans operating small smokestacks.” I think of him as a real-life equivalent of Charles Wallace from A Wrinkle in Time, better friends with his fifteen-year-old sister Rainer than with his peers. On our bike rides to school, we travel down one long boulevard we’ve come to call “weather street,” where back in late August we noted its late-summer status quo and watched, with little sister Molly, as the densely green trees and the short shadows they cast turned into the golden lens of early autumn. Our morning ride became more softly-lit and forgiving, with even small hedges and rosebushes casting long silhouettes like puddles beneath our wheels as we pedaled. Later, we took pleasure in the crunch of dry leaves underneath our tires, and avoided the carefully-made sleeping mounds at the curbs, representing hours of raking and optimism that no blustery day would carry the work away before green waste pick up.
We saw the change as autumn gave way to the parchment scratch of winter’s branches against a colorless sky. “It always comes after a really big windstorm,” Zeke said, when we rode to school one Monday amidst streets littered with the smaller branches and limbs from a weekend of near-relentless gusts. I told him that’s when autumn’s last leaves lose their grip, to which he replied, “that’s sad, but it’s okay, I guess.”
“Sometimes you have to let go in order for the next thing to come in, right?”
“Yeah, but what if it’s not better? Like, the leaves are leaving the branches just to be crumbly dead leaves. And a gray branch with nothing on it is what’s left behind.”
“Well, sure, but that’s the order of things. And that’s why they bend with the wind, see? They’ve got time to adjust before they let go of the branch. It’s not so sudden as all that. We’ve seen the change. They haven’t even been green for weeks and weeks now.”
That’s not to say Zeke’s okay with anything and everything nature has to dish out. He’s less impressed when things happen with alarming quickness. A couple times this year, we’ve been “blessed” with a most shocking and sudden fungal display in our yard, known colloquially as “dog vomit fungus.” The fact that it appears seemingly overnight—in addition to its profoundly repulsive appearance and consistency—is deeply disturbing to The Boy Who Likes Things Slow.
You can hear me extolling the horrifying “virtues” of the oddly instantaneous appearance of what looks, from a distance, like wet quinoa rejected and tossed out of a pot in in the middle of the yard, but as you approach seems more like tapioca pudding, and only becomes repugnant when the incongruity hits you. Wet tapioca? Soft, fresh, cooked quinoa? In the middle of the yard, in great quantity, at seven a.m.? We approached, in an uneasy darting fashion, and because this was our second-go-‘round with this, and because and I had been told what it was by my friend Nicole, who’s an admitted fungus enthusiast, we took a few extra minutes out of our morning to chronicle its appearance. I told Zeke to fetch a stick; Molly appeared with one instead. [And yes, it dawned on me later that despite my insipid comment in the video, the grass didn’t grow through it, it grew around the grass.]
But something about the suddenness of its appearance was unnerving to our Ezekiel. I tried to rally the native scientist within, but he kept making noises about saddling up and riding as far away from that hasty pudding as fast as we could.
“Just drop the stick and leave,” he implored.
“Why, Zeke?” I was shocked he didn’t want me to poke and prod more.
“Because . . . because it might be . . . unsanitary?”
Laughter all around. “I think that’s pretty much a guarantee.”
Nervously, from Zeke: “Let’s just go.” Black screen.
That’s where the video ends. I obeyed his request, because it came from the very root of who he is. He’s a boy who likes to take things in in his own time, and I am thankful for that, because whether it came before getting rid of the car or was a result of our having gotten rid of the car, it now makes him uniquely well-suited to our lifestyle of biking and walking everywhere. We are able to see small changes—both natural and man-made—as they occur. He enjoys watching new houses go up, and will comment on the roofing paper being rolled out, the stucco getting sprayed on. He likes watching people’s garden beds get seeded, grow into plants, bear fruit.
And so we take our notes, make our observations. And nothing need be rushed. Because in the end, I’m looking for any clinging crimson leaf left on the gray branch, and the last thing I want to do is leave a pile of dog vomit fungus for the child to integrate when he’s in no way ready to handle that.
. . . and thank you for making it possible for me to write for you!
Everything I’m about to tell you is true, except for two things: one, it wasn’t my grandmother (although I am part Cherokee, and I have had many sage grandmothers and great grandmothers.) It was my friend’s full-blood Cherokee great-grandmother, but it fit perfectly. Two, his name is.
“My Summer Ghost”
A ghost spent some time with me this past summer, and he lived in my computer. He knew my name, where I had lived in 1972, where my pain had begun. When he said his dad had been at Fort Sill I froze and waited, feeling a NO and a YES all together, it can’t have been?!
My Cherokee grandmother had warned me of this type of ghost, in her way. She had a saying, something like, “there are three types of friends. Those that are there for a reason. Those that are there for a season. Those that are there forever. Two out of those three will leave you before you’re ready.”
This man—my ghost–had skin brown as the good dark soil you never find in Oklahoma, where the dirt is red. Legend says the dirt is red in Oklahoma due to all the blood that’s been shed there. That is where my pain started, in my home . . . and where his started, too . . . my ghost. He came up on my screen and he said, “I knew you, little girl. I knew you when you were being hurt and started feeling very afraid of home, because I was the little black boy down the street whose father killed a man in our living room. My stepfather raped me throughout my childhood. I’m here to show you the path to climbing out and away.”
He had dreadlocks and wore a Buffalo Soldier hat his great-grandfather had kept, long stored, he told me, a source of pain that he reclaimed and wore with defiance. He smiled at me lovingly, and with a facial expression that held both pity and understanding. He told me the tears could keep coming if they needed to but they would have to stop sometime if I was going to be strong. If I was going to shed this baggage, this weight I carry around, if I was to be a Queen. He told me he had never spent a lot of time crying–that actually, it was something he rarely if ever had indulged in–but that he got into a lot of trouble, instead, in the years after he escaped from his abuser.
I told him that I always cry when I’m angry. Right then, when I said that, there was a long pause, and this was the first and the last time I ever saw my ghost cry. He told me, “I spent a lot of time breaking kneecaps for you, girl.” He put his strong hand to his forehead and his chest shook. I cried and touched the screen impulsively and told him I wish we could have helped each other back then, grasped small hands, black and white, and run far and fast across the tarantulas and bleached-white sidewalks, across the dry spiky grass, but to where? The farthest I went was on my yellow metal tricycle, riding slowly, steadily, along the long straight ribbon of concrete. How far can I go. How far can I go.
My ghost went far. He went to prison, eventually . . . for fighting his way out of this pain. Now he works for the poor and in need, around the world. He’s an innovator, a change-maker, raising people up with his strong hands. Spreading love and charity after a lifetime of pain and anguish. Whenever, during our computer screen chats, I started repeating self-defeating things, how the things that had happened had turned me into a broken person, and possibly a bad person, too, he’d get up from his chair and sort of hunch his back, slapping his thighs, shaking his head low and fast, eyes closed, singing this kind of crazy scat until I’d shut up. He’d ask, “are you quite done?”
When I’d cry hard about the burdens I carry and the boulder on my shoulder, he’d start to pick up all the furniture in his house, ALL of it–please don’t think I’m exaggerating–until he was this small figure under a catawampus collection of chairs, ottomans, boxes, busts of David, books, halogen lamps, “and let me get this here, too, let me add this, Corbyn, is this enough? What about this here? Wait, I can get one . . . more . . . thing . . . that enough, Baby? That enough? What else you gon’ add, Baby? That enough for you?” Then after I got a goooood long look at how silly and overwhelmed and unnecessarily burdened he looked, he’d stare me down good and hard. A long, quiet stare. And he’d start to put each item down, while never losing eye contact with me. Never losing eye contact. Just silence. Just those beautiful eyes and those wild locks, that black skin, that hat, while I cried with relief and understanding.
For as long as I can remember, as an adult, I felt like if I were asked to paint a self-portrait–the internal kind, how I see myself, not the mirror’s lie–I’d see a well-muscled black man with a snarl and tattoos, one whose fists are clenched and whose face challenges you to just Go Ahead, MUTHUHFUCKER, Try!
That’s who I call on when I need that feeling of invincibility, like none of it ever happened, the red dirt, the years of unpredictable anger and violence, of being afraid of your own parents, of your own home, the feeling of having no place that was safe. And in short time this summer, my ghost became my safety.
A text of “today is going to be a great day for you. You are stronger than what happened. I love you. R.” And that was like a sweet guitar strum in my ear, and my eyes would close and my head tilt with an almost drunken feeling of peace, just with those words. Because my ghost was there. He knew Everything. I could rewrite every hurt with his strong arms around me. I could paint a whole new painting, one where I didn’t hide behind bushes and under beds, where I didn’t cut huge bleeding sections out of the bottoms of my feet where no one would see, but where I could march, add to the red dirt, add to the red dirt.
I sliced these huge bleeding sections off my feet for years, and at night I would have to peel off my blood-soaked socks and throw them away. My mother had to wonder what was happening to all my socks. Periodically, I’d find new replacements–the kind that came in multiples, in a bag–laid on my bed without comment.
And yet there came a day when I wasn’t ready and he wasn’t there. He vanished, and it was if we had never met. All contact ceased. A DVD of a favorite movie I had sent to him came back marked “Undeliverable.” And the crying came back, and it came back harder than ever, because I wasn’t ready, and I thought maybe it was time, finally time for the hospital, that I had created my fantasy healer, someone who could make it all better, and I still don’t know if that’s not true. When I try to contact him now, he responds as if we’ve never met or doesn’t respond at all. He said a stranger is trying to stalk him, and that’s me, but I know because I REMEMBER HIM MORE THAN I REMEMBER ANYTHING ELSE IN MY LIFE. But he turned away from me, and it hurt like a thousand things hurt, it hurt me bigger than big, and I’m not sure if it broke me more than helped me.
That’s the thing about ghosts. They’re damned unreliable.
Oh! An oldie but a goodie. I remember then-kindergartener Zeke walking around slowly on Back to School Night with the magazine in which this appeared, solemnly holding it open to my article.
I was looking for something to cheer me, as I just lost a sah-weet summer writing gig that would have covered my part financially. <pfft.> Steering the schooner a different direction, avoiding rocky waters.
I’m forty-freaking-four years old as I write this in the spring of 2014. And NO, I’m not surprised by that. The years didn’t “fly by,” I don’t still “feel like a teenager,” I don’t “wonder how I got this old,” and I roll my eyes when people say, “I just don’t know where all the time went.” I allow myself to feel flattered when I’m carded for alcohol, and my pat response is, “I’ve been legal to drink since before you were born, young cashier-friend,” because they are almost all in their early twenties, at least at Trader Joe’s, where I get my fancy two- to three-buck Chuck. Once, at Grocery Outlet, a slightly older woman carded me. I quizzed her as I sometimes will, do I seem under twenty-one to you? Really? At times I think it’s because of my nose piercing and penchant for dying my hair blue or pink, or affinity for glitter-covered accessories. So as she considered my question, I was looking down, fumbling through my wallet, searching for my I.D., and when I looked up, we made strong and steady eye contact. (I’m good at that, I think it’s important.) It was then that she said, “oh. Oh. Now I see it. It’s in your eyes. I can see the life you’ve lived.”
I remember every cycle ’round the sun. There are whole epochs I’d just as soon forget, but no such luck. I do what I can to look better out of sheer vanity, not to stop the passage of time. I use the oil-cleansing method, keep my brows plucked, and treat/moisturize with some pretty-damn-potent AHAs (picture me dressed like Walter and Jesse in full hazard gear while I pour from flacon to beaker.) I buy the medical grade goooood shit you can’t get in stores, so don’t even ask, it’s like super serious and stuff. And sure, I soften my profile photos to flatter my visage. I’ll do it for you; I’ve got apps and I’m not afraid to use ‘em.
And of course during all this silliness, I’m charged with the raising of the first of my hunnert-summat babies, one of the most blessedly gorgeous teens I’ve ever lain eyes upon, who does not seem to be suffering through any sort of awkward stage, that lucky little sumbitch, my tawny balladeer Rainer, who is built like a Barbie who mated with a fairy and who also has the personality of a poetic, dreamy, musical drama geek who loves watching science fiction TV with her dad and reading, and who cares little for make-up and artifice, and she’s watching my every move like I’m supposed to be teaching her what it means to be a woman. No! Just no, because my high school memories (I attended the infamous Northport High School in Long Island at the time of the murder with the boulder in the center of town that was spray-painted “SATIN RULES!” and shopped at the–NOT JOKING Walt Whitman Mall) are fraught with a face so awfully, oozily, bumpily textured with acne I slathered eighties-era orangepink foundation from stem to stern and held my head down, long curtain of blond hair to cover, combat boots and black coat threatening anyone to say ONE THING, JUST ONE THING. I left after eleventh grade because none of us could take it anymore. Here is Rainer. Can you stand it?
But in real life, I don’t mind my crinkly smile lines, or as my youngest kids say, the way I look “crumbly all over.” I don’t mind my swinging boobs and “imperfect” butt and legs, the ridges that have shown up in my fingernails, etc. I DO mind the molars I’ve lost and cannot afford to replace, and if $6 or $7K extra just shows up in my lap (HAH), I CANNOT GUARANTEE I won’t run to get implants for the holes they’ve left that, when I smile widely, make me look like I did a dance with meth at some point. (Double Breaking Bad reference, go me!). But never, ever, any plastic surgery, even if millions came flying through my front door.
Molly says, “I’ll be old like you someday.” I say, “YES! Yes, you will be. And I’m not even that old. But I remember having everything feel and look soft and new and perfect. But that will change, Love, that will change. You will change, and each experience will etch itself on you. Have great experiences. Build your old woman.”
photo credits of two above images In Her Image Photography
And then sometimes I sing to her one of my favorite Michelle Shocked songs, “When I grow up I want to be an old woman . . . when I grow up I want to be an old woman . . . oh, an old, old, old, old, old, old, old, an old WOMAN. Then I think I’m gonna find myself an old man . . . then I think I’m gonna marry myself that old man . . . an old, an old, an old, an old, a really old man. We’re gonna have a hundred and twenty babies! A hundred and five, ten, fifteen, twenty babies. Uh huh, that’s what I said a hundred and twenty babies. We’ll raise ‘em on tiger’s milk and green bananas . . . mangoes and coconuts and watermelon . . . we’re gonna give ‘em that watermelon when they starts yellin’. Here’s what they’ll yell [then I imitate the harmonica solo.] In the summer we’ll sit in a field and watch the sun melt . . . in the winter we’ll sit by a fire and watch the moon freeze . . . me my old man and a hundred and twenty babies. Me my old man and a hundred and twenty babies.”
And one of the sexiest things about my husband is the way his eyes crinkle with smile lines when I truly amuse or please him (not so easy!) And the gray that shows in his beard, and how I get to be there for each new one that appears. And the other thing is knowing that long after those hundred and twenty babies finally leave our banana patch, I’ll be walking down to the end with that skinny fella, “dreaming of the pleasures I’m gonna have watching your hairline recede my vain darlin’ . . . watching your hair and clouds and stars, I’m rocking away in a sleeping car . . . “
Ahhhh, yes. I don’t mind growing old, because it means I get to do it with dang ol’ Larry Joe Hightower, Junior. The man I married with our wedding song the realistic and thus, incredibly romantic “Old College Try,” by the Mountain Goats. “But I will walk down to the end, with you . . . if you will come all the way down with me.” And when he dies, I’mma do the crappy pappy dance on his grave while I swig xx moonshine from a bottle in my tall boots and petticoat. I’ll cackle, “he finally GONE, goldurnit, YEEHAW!” And I’ll kick the dirt and spit. “See ya down in hell, darlin’! Save a spot for me baby!”
. . . and thank you for making it possible for me to write for you!
I have a complicated and confusing confession to make. And to top it off, it’s couched in a question of sorts.
I distrust laziness, yet I am bad at work. I’m a putterer. I don’t find it easy to sit still for a long time, much less meditate. I never became a pot-smoker because I can’t stand the couch-lying, cartoon-watching immobility it creates. I am a coffee fanatic–I’m all about the productivity-enhancing aspects of it.
Let me describe for you the perfect day, which is filled with cheerful industry: when the music’s loud in the house, windows and doors are flung open to the day, the kids are rowdy and happy, and Larry and I are T.C. of B., you know? Rearranging furniture and vacuuming the deep secret places, scrubbing everything to its factory setting, beating the shag rugs, whipping crisply cleaned cotton sheets onto the bed, hanging pictures, getting the good goddamn heart of everything flushed, purged, polished, and like that. When the house and yard have been preened to perfection, and the dinner’s cooking and the wine’s uncorked, THAT is a happy day. Shower the sweat off, put on cozies, paint my toenails, and look around–with peace and a sense of a job-well-done–at my tidy, pleasant home and garden. That trumps a romantic dinner out, partying, fancy dining, going to the movies . . . pretty much anything.
THAT, to me, equals time perfectly spent. I surround myself with things that amplify this interest, including checking out books on organization. Visiting websites on the subject is like porn. Pinterest is homemaker erotica, full-on.
I wouldn’t describe myself as a lazy person. You know what my hobby was for a long time? Lifting heavy weights. That’s right: weightlifting. (I like to think of it as a feminist issue, and woe be the woman who can’t put the full five-gallon water bottle onto the dispenser without calling a man over. That’s in the Rule Book For My Daughters–be able to change out the water without being a princess, but doing it with glitter-painted nails is encouraged.)
Living without a car gets eyebrow-raised consternation from my friends and acquaintances, still. People wonder how we do it, here in suburbia. How in the world we strap our kids into bike trailers and ride miles over hill-and-dale to take care of any and all errands. Rain or shine, in blistering heat or frigid cold . . . we are on our bikes, doing hard things. I even rode my three-speed cruiser ninety miles to Napa Valley while towing a hundred pounds, just to say I did it.
So here is my conundrum: why can’t I make days like the one I described happen more often? What is it about me that remains motionless by default?
I had a grueling job for almost two years, one that required punching a virtual time clock and toiling over a hot laptop as a comments moderator for a news website, to the tune of a 270-comments-per-hour quota. And I did it at a standing station, taking breaks to literally sprint to the bathroom or get a drink of water. At the end of my shift, my whole body would be tense from the effort, with sweat beaded on my brow and trickling down the back of my neck.
And now, I will stay up until three in the morning, either writing or proofreading or editing or pitching stories, relentlessly looking for work, and if there is nothing available that pays, I will do it for people who need it but cannot afford to pay, because WORK. And volunteering. And picking up trash alongside the streets of my neighborhood. What threatens me most? The grief of sloth, sleep in the day, closed blinds and too much TV.
But that is where I’m left: knowing that the simple work of life is what I take most pleasure from, but looking around me at piles of laundry to be folded and put away, mounds of garbage bags full of things to donate to charity, rubble-strewn floors, unmade beds, a half-painted master bedroom, and a backyard that is so overgrown that the grass has gone to seed and blows in the wind like a field of wheat. Adding to that is the fact that I know I function so much better when things are beautiful and organized; how it tempers my mental and emotional distress and makes me a more competent and capable individual.
I’m grumpy about this cognitive dissonance. I don’t handle it well. I get judge-y when I see people being outwardly lazy, like circling for the absolute closest parking spot. Yet why is it that I will run six miles yet I won’t bring a stack of laundry upstairs for five or six days of it sitting right in the middle of the dining table, inhibiting all ability to eat a civilized meal?
In short, WHAT IS WRONG WITH ME?
If you just look at what we choose to do with our time as being a simple effort-versus-reward equation, that should still equal me taking care of home and hearth. Every time we have one of those days–usually when we have visitors coming–I will at some point tell Larry how much I love cleaning the house, how happy it makes me to take care of this simple work, and to please remind me of all of this so that I do it regularly.
I’m typing this amidst piles of rubble, in a happy but decidedly chaotic house. It’s a good life, but one that could be so much better if I could just do what needs to be done.
I go back to work in a few days after psychiatric disability leave. I’ve been going to the strange little Indian psychiatrist in the broken-down office with the half-star on Yelp where I sometimes wait in the waiting room for three, four, five hours . . . who mutters to me about things unknowable, because I sense good in his heart, and because his small smile pleases me, and because he lets the tears roll down my cheeks and says, “Yes, Corbyn, SSRI meds might have blocked your ability for orgasms, for sneezing, for easy laughter or anger, even for crying. You’re doing all the grieving you’ve been prevented from doing for . . . what, a decade? Two decades? Likely more! For as long as you’ve taken them, your emotions have been on pause.” We talk about why the newer generation of medications I take now let me emotions break through, and that’s why I’m crying.
And even though he speaks of “the homosexuals” with something of a sad (but compassionate) shake of his head, I choose to forgive that (and please forgive me for that, as an active, “out,” bisexual woman with so many gay friends and family, because he is trying to love and to be professional, and follow the guidelines of his profession . . . and because his culture is unknowable to me, and his generation is also older and less-enlightened at times.) And even though my insurance pays for 45 minutes once a month for me to see him, he often sees me for two- to three hours every week or so, and he lets me cry in all sorts of ways. Deep wracking sobs, gentle tears rolling down my cheeks while we talk about the science of the brain. And I don’t know if I am getting this right because he speaks in heavily accented English . . . and so quietly . . . and I am partially deaf in one ear . . . but he speaks to me over and over of the chemicals that cause us to build neural pathways that are like broken Plinko boards that cause us to repeat patterns that don’t serve us. How we can rebuild and redirect those pathways through proper medication, rewriting our stories through new versions of old experiences with new and better outcomes, and through simple things like long walks, regular sleep habits, and charitable acts. Today he made me cry in a happy way (I do that, too, because what the hell? why not CRY,) while we chatted (yet again, because it’s his favorite story these days) about the teenage scientist who is busy perfecting a way to diagnose pancreatic cancer through a simple blood test.
I’ve lost fifty pounds since I’ve been going to him, because I guess crying out my pain and eating to stuff it away cancel each other out, once you get the pesky nutrition part taken care of–at least in my case. Food has become a tedious chore that I get out of the way, minimally. Then I get on with this work I am doing. A couple weeks ago, he said if I lose my job and/or my insurance, he will never stop seeing me–for free, and he will make sure I continue to get my medications even if he has to pay for them himself. That the wait is long at his office because he does this for others who cannot pay. After having lost so many friends to this illness I have and the person it turns me into sometimes, this made my body crumble in on itself and broke me down into a big ugly cry. To feel that protection, that devotion. Oh, and did I mention? My doctor has rheumatoid arthritis and his body is breaking down quickly. He confided to me he worries about leaving all of us behind.
I’m good at losing people. I can tick them off on my fingers: one hand, two hands, and where’s that other hand? I am able to disappoint dear and valued friends in ways that surprise even me, as I’m in the process of doing it . . . and even the most cool-headed and steady have bunted me over the highest, pointiest barriers. I’m good at breaking people down until they kick me the out of their lives. Today I told my doctor I’d been “pretending” to kill myself at my darkest moments this year. That I have asked my husband to just to let me drag the knife along my arms–and that I promise not to “really” do it, because oddly, for me (for most people?) my children are insurance against that; I shan’t leave that grief and that legacy for them to painfully process until they, themselves, finally die. They are reason enough to be here, and I won’t leave them, even though what they get right now is a broken version of a mother. I wonder how it feels for them to see me cry so much.
And to my comfortably-atheist self, he brought up “God” yet again: “you see, Corbyn, there are things that are the domain of God. God has given you a gift bringing life into this world! You had no control over that, that was from Him. And your departure from this life is His decision, too.” And I don’t know if I’m getting all of his words right . . . I often just kind of let his soft, Eastern lilt flow over me like an embroidered silk blanket. But the message was received. It is a sort of gift that I won’t leave this world of my own hand, and yes, that gift comes from my children, who came through me but are not of me. It just so happens I call that a scientific miracle, but in the end, it’s the same thing. Ironically, he says there’s no way the company that permits or denies these sorts of claims would never extend my leave beyond this point, for Major Depressive Episode with Suicidal Ideation and Generalized Anxiety Disorder. That diagnosis merits 42 days. 42 days is what you get. That’s how long Noah dealt with the flood, about. That’s how long he had to reckon with a vengeful God who wanted to fuck shit up on a global scale, so I guess I should be able to get my act together enough to sit at my laptop and click “Delete. Publish. Pass,” on behalf of the news website that employs me.
And my doctor’s wife (who helps in the office) said reassuringly, “well, Corbyn, you work from home. You can do this,” but the isolation is what kills a depressive. On this leave of absence, I’ve left this dark living room and gone out to my community. I’ve tried to be more of use. I’ve helped. I’ve socialized. I’ve connected. I’ve shared laundry-folding times with lonely new moms. I’ve spent time on the porch at night, drinking wine and laughing with people I’ve ignored for too long. I’ve steam-cleaned dog poop from a friend’s carpet. So in a few days, I need to figure out a way to bring my job out there into my world. It’s always about something stupid like the WiFi connection is too slow at the library, or I don’t want to spend money unnecessarily at the cafe. But that’s my medicine, I think–my town and the people in it. Just to be near them, to look at their faces and maybe smile and get a smile back. And if I get too skinny, someone please tell me, and maybe I’ll stop crying and start eating a little more food. For now, there’s still more crying to do. And climbing, and climbing. I’m partway up this rock wall and I look down to my small doctor, standing in a half-crouch in pain due to failing knees and shout, “belay?” And I see a grin through his beard and a raised arm holding a rope and a hear a faint, cheerful, “belay on!”
I’m grateful for garden gnomes, cuckoo clocks, climbing trees with gnarled branches, and moss. For coffee and chai, nutmeg and cinnamon. For citron yellow, magenta, map water blue, chartreuse, and a bright orange shag rug in the living room. For oatmeal, bananas, green smoothies, my husband’s Magic Meals, and enchiladas. For kids finding fennel and chewing the stems all day like Huck Finn. For lanterns hanging in trees. For all the libraries I have known and loved, which became my hiding spots and my fantasy corners and the places where I built myself. For Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers singing “Islands in the Stream.” I’m thankful for vintage lamps. For the freshly-brushed teeth. I’m thankful for tall glasses of cold water, and Mason jars of whiskey sipped with friends on the porch in the nighttime. I’m thankful for the pleasure of walking aimlessly. For thrift store velvet. For striped socks, picture books about witches, and for snow-capped mountains I can see from certain vantage points in my neighborhood. For the remarkable cities I have called home. For fireflies. For my chickens: Mary, Rhoda, Phyllis, Chamomile, Clover, and Hilda. For stacks of books on the nightstand. For Jitterbug Perfume and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. For low-watt incandescent bulbs. For patches on old embroidered denim. For star-printed fabric and pictures of the moon in all its phases. And I’m thankful for our wall heater that’s like a fireplace and a gathering spot for our family when we hear its click-whoosh. We meet there. I’m so thankful for them–my four, my loves. And our heat, and our home, which is strung with lights and filled with magic.
Dedicated with gratitude and deepest affection to my mentor and friend, the redoubtable Ms. Lisa Belkin
I was five, I was small, with hair as pale as milk, and I was about to become a graffiti artist. I was in Oklahoma, playing in our tidy, treeless front yard in a bare suburban neighborhood. I could come and go like that, there wasn’t any need for supervision in this place.
I was avoiding the grass on that particular day, because though it was always mowed and edged, it was angry grass, bristly and spiky but nobly drought-resistant, standing stock upright without the courtesy to bend or fold much as you walked on it. It was one of those days that’s so sunny that everything looks as bleached as chalk. I was near the neighbors’ yard, where they had a hedge that formed a small, cool dome that was the perfect size for me to crouch inside. Without much considering, I snapped a piece of a young green branch from that hedge. It hung on with the thin brown skin of itself until my small hands could work it back and forth enough to break it free.
The long walkway to the arched porch entry of our house was as bare as bone, perfect for rubbing wet green designs onto the concrete with the jagged edge of the small broken branch. Spirals, smiling faces, the word “Love,” the only word I could write. There was a bright sharp smell as I kneeled low, the sticky feeling on my fingers, and I remember noticing all of this as I regarded my work with satisfaction. I drew small pointed hearts all around. I did this by carefully making a narrow letter V and then topping it with the outline of a person’s bottom, that’s how I remembered how to do it. But I made capital E’s wrong for the longest time. I gave them so many horizontal lines in the middle they resembled a comb or a many-tined fork.
There was a throat-clearing my father, David, would make when he got home from his job in sales that meant he was going to have a Bad Night. It was almost imperceptible, but to my ears it was as insistent as that monotonous hoot the television would make when practicing for an emergency, and when he walked from the driveway it was there, and his eyes saw me but didn’t see me. I’m not sure if it was the writing on the front walkway or the frantic scramble I did, saying what I needed to say to try to scamper from his sight and his anger.
My vulnerability and fear brought a kind of red-faced rage forth from him, or maybe I was just the unwitting recipient and had no part in causing it, it was hard to tell. I was as still as a rabbit when it first senses it’s being watched. It didn’t matter that I didn’t know why he was angry, but just that I knew that he was, and that I was first in line, and that the next set of events was as sure and reliable as the heavy roll of a pinball sliding back into its ready spot. It was too late to either mend or escape, and as always I knew that if it had maybe been a non-throat-clearing night, things would have gone much differently. When he came home in a good mood, it was like freedom. Sometimes there would be a trip to 7-11 to get Marathon bars for everyone, or he’d put on the Cream record, or the Janis Joplin one my mom loved so much. He played the stereo loud enough that it shook the walls. When he was cheerful, he wanted all the neighbors to feel his loud, infectious joy. He was grudgingly adored. The type of person people called a “character.”
But this was not a stereo night, and there was nowhere for me to go.
I stayed as still as possible. My father’s face was purple-red, and it vibrated. You could smell this kind of anger he had. He stuttered when he screamed, and repeated words. I felt far away from this place and submitted; I would always submit. When he would spank me, it was a full-body spanking done in rage, and it was full of other things, pulling me to a place and holding my arms back. There was only this strange satisfaction that it had started and, having started, would end.
My mother could be nearby at these times, but would not hold or protect, or even provide comfort later. I remember the thin straight-across of her mouth, and the way her gray eyes seemed colorless to me. The feeling of having no one in your corner, when you are small and the person who holds such terror for you, who throws you and silences you so completely with fury, should be contrasted by one that will see your side and take it sometimes. If your mother, perhaps, would look at you with the soft eyes of an ally, and maybe back up your explanation for things, just sometimes — just once! Just once, to look into that enraged face and say “stop.” Stop.
I didn’t know things were different in our family, but what I did know was to fear evening time and weekends. Turning on the lights made it feel a little better, but the arrival of dusk would often find me skittering under the bed. No matter what other kids said, that wasn’t where the monster was. The monster smells like Coors, and sambuca, and cigarettes. The monster is big and furious and loves you sometimes, holds you in his lap sometimes, teaches you to ride your two-wheeler on those wide treeless streets.
“O.K., now quickly look down, go ahead. Do you see that shadow? That’s the shadow of a big girl riding her bike.” I risked it, for just a moment, darting my eyes to the left and down. There were no training wheels on my purple big-kid’s bike anymore, I could see that in the shadow. I could even see the vinyl streamers hanging limply festive from the handlebars, they were there in the shadow, too. This bike, these wide quiet streets, this sliver of father I could cling to, when it wasn’t a Bad Time.
A dad’s job is to teach you how swim a few strokes in the overly chlorinated neighborhood swimming pool, while your jolly baby brother crawls and bloodies his knees on the surrounding concrete, oblivious, drool and snot from nose to chest. My father’s handlebar mustache would turn up at each end, you could barely see the twinkling smile under the broom of it. Sweetly: “That was all the way to the edge without any help, that was just like a fish, Corbyn Lee.”
But on this day, all I wanted was to escape his view. I felt raw and unpeeled on the front walk, and kept picturing the jagged stick crayon that had started this mess — where was it now? In the after-hurting, I was almost calmed by the lingering hitching sounds that signaled the real crying was over. There’s a relief in the after-hurting, and I already knew about that at the age of five.
I had a bucket and a scrubber just the way anyone would imagine it, and I remember scrubbing the green markings off the concrete that seemed like hieroglyphs from a happier part of the afternoon. And for every day that there isn’t the throat-clearing, there’s a feeling of ecstatic relief that’s almost like love.