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For Amy, With Love and Squalor


Ruby was walking her five-year-old son, Cash, home, and we were keeping them company on the journey. I was pulling the kids in the trailer, but peddling so slowly that my bike was wobbling to maintain equilibrium. I was in happy conversation with Ruby; she’s an artist and a like-minded soul in this suburban enclave.

Children often point and smile when they see me riding around town. If I’m in a good mood, I grin back and hold my arm up high like a salute to the sky. If I’m feeling grumpy, I’m just annoyed that anyone thinks it’s unusual or worthy of remark to see a flower-bedecked, rainbow-striped retro cruiser pulling a trailer full of children down the side of a busy street.

And oh, this challenging winter and spring we’ve had . . . I can’t endure the struggle anymore! Day after day of glittering sunshine, crisp mild breezes, and skies so clear you can glimpse the purple snow-capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada mountain range in the distance, between the strip malls and rows of redwoods. Such hardship. Such complain.

I keep waiting for my teen daughter to announce that she hates me and the jangly sort of lifestyle that has formed around us in these lean times, or at least to be embarrassed by our shabby home and lack of car. It’s actually been sort of disconcerting, as she seems to not care at all. Maybe it’s because of the circle of support and friendship we have around us. We never find ourselves stranded without a ride if we need one, for example.

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So this afternoon, on this fine sparkling day, Ruby’s son asked, in the guileless way of the kindergartner: “Why don’t you have a car?”

“Because they’re expensive to own and operate, and we decided we couldn’t really afford it if we wanted to stay where we’re living.”

“No one really does that,” Cash said, in his lisp that’s an artifact of his toddler days, so recently passed. “No one doesn’t have a car.”

He paused, and Ruby had the grace to avoid filling the silence with embarrassed, polite excusing and correcting. “It’s actually kind of weird,” he said after some thought.

My children–possibly in a precocious desire not to hurt my feelings, which upon reflection gives me great parental satisfaction–don’t ever say anything like that; they’d censor the word “weird” from their commentary as naturally as we censor “stupid” from ours. I even press them sometimes, gently trying to goad them into confessing the frustrations and embarrassments that sometimes come with being a “poor” family. We review what we do have instead of a car: electronics we wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford, a biggish house instead of a small apartment, a yard where we can grow vegetables and swing from fruit trees.

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When I was growing up, it was forever in the most polite corners of suburbia, worlds of genteel middle class-itude, where no one leaves toys in the front yard, paints their homes controversial colors, or parks their cars on the street. (And I never knew curbs symbolized a certain affluence until I was an adult and lived in neighborhoods where my parents would mutter, “no curbs,” with some distaste.) I wasn’t even allowed to tack posters to my bedroom walls, which were always painted “Navajo White”–a blandly popular neutral–in an effort to maximize resale value. There was the ticking of a clock in the living room, its carpet ever striated with vacuum cleaner markings; you could hear it in the silence like a metronome.

For a few years while I was a teenager we lived in a leafy suburb of metro New York, on the so-called “Gold Coast” that borders Long Island Sound. I made a friend there, Amy Hendrix (no mean feat when you’re an outspoken, acne-riddled wearer of grandpa’s overcoat and unflattering vintage sheath dresses,) who was also a self-identified writer and social outcast. I remember the first time I went to her house. It was one of those experiences that, looking back, showed me what life’s potential held, and it wasn’t all painted in Navajo White and at a decibel that wouldn’t be heard by the neighbors.

They had a small artful sign decoupaged to their front door, made of letters cut from magazines: “criminals are not as intelligent as other people.” Amy explained that her sister thought it both wise and useful as a burglary deterrent. The parents let her glue it above the doorknob! On the front door! Inside, they had a giant black-and-white photograph over the mantle. It was a picture of the older daughter, who was possessed of the most phenomenal head of hair I’ve ever seen: platinum ringlets, wild and long, dancing around and above her head, down to the dip of her lower back. This picture was of her, clearly topless but discreetly posed from just below her clavicle up to that balletic face and hair that had its own life and will.

The only other art in the living room was a framed album cover, and walls and walls of bookshelves filled so that some had to be laid on top of the others. I couldn’t remember whether the album was of the Velvet Underground, Neil Young, Frank Zappa, perhaps? But since Skyping with Amy, I’ve learned it  that it was Bob Dylan. And couch-matching was of no concern.

In the dining room, they had painted the walls a deep bordello rose pink, and hung dozens of faded old portraits in dark frames, mostly of somber-looking men and women, looking dolefully at the camera. “Wow, are these all relatives?”

My friend and her mother made eye contact and snorted knowingly. Apparently they had bought the whole lot of framed photos –which were, of course, of complete and utter strangers!–at a yard sale, the same yard sale where they had bought this rather wild paint color. “See? We ran out. They only had one container.” The bordello pink ended three-quarters of the way around the room with some halfhearted W- and M-zigzag swipes, before giving over to the unattractive wallpaper they’d been attempting to cover.

I’d never seen any family make such carefree aesthetic choices. We’d lived all over the country during the course of my childhood; I had attended five elementary schools and two junior high schools in areas as diverse as Oklahoma, Florida, Texas, and New Hampshire. Yet still, my exposure had been limited to the sorts of families (“corporate transients,” my parents called them, our familiars,) who lived the sorts of lives we did, families where there were two cars, tidy garages, well-kept lawns, and tastefully-appointed homes. Families who moved often, as one does in the military, when promotions or new career opportunities arose, leaving the houses easy to empty, scrub down, and stage for sale as we kids stared out the back windows of station wagons awaiting the next application of Navajo White.

So, I hadn’t met any artists, until then.

I hadn’t met anyone who was bucking tradition, or flying in the face of convention. When I met this family I felt this strong “YES,” feeling inside me; it made me feel whole and thrilled and gave me a deeper sense of belonging than I ever remember having felt.

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One thing I’ve noticed since we, as a family, moved out of our tidy suburban enclave and “downsized” to a shabbier existence in line with our new-found financial straits: we are meeting and bonding with more artists, eccentrics, and cheerful outcasts. There is this feeling like we’re pioneers in a new sort of Wild West. Bartering is common, urban homesteading is a survival mechanism, and looking and acting “right” for the neighbors never enters the picture. Mostly, the neighbors are “weirdos,” too: underemployed engineers creating bike trailer modifications and popping up their welding masks to say hi, people giving over more time to their art than to their accounting ledgers, folks learning to monetize their creative impulses because that’s all we really have right now.

So today, walking alongside one of my dearest friends, I listened to her son’s un-coached commentary. He spoke ingenuously and without hostile judgment. Just this: “not having a car is weird.”

“Yes, but I think it’s a good weird, don’t you?”

Sleep for the weary/And dreams for us all/Rest your head on a pillow /And I’ll tell you a tale


412508_3138324459150_354613367_oSleep for the weary/And dreams for us all/Rest your head on a pillow /And I’ll tell you a tale

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.

 

We Are Totally Not Supposed To Talk About This AT ALL


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!”

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I’ll Take Your Halloween and Raise You a Thanksgiving


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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.

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Moving to Villa Villekulla


This piece  first appeared on my blog at shareable.net.

We were moving from Texas to northern California, under economic duress. There is something about driving long distances (as opposed to flying) that makes it easier handle the change from one environment to a vastly different one. In the course of your journey you can see the land swell and flatten, observe the terrain and climate change from curving mountainous roads to vast swathes of desert, and note the commensurate architectural adaptations. These are microhabitats, with each community and household navigating a different course.

We were leaving an exurban planned community that had seemed as desolate and unwelcoming as the lunar surface. When we arrived in the house we had chosen and rented by proxy, what was immediately surprising and thrilling to me was how urban it felt. Railroad tracks were a few hundred yards away from our small one-way street, and the corner strip of businesses included a mortuary, pawn shop, donut shop, and a narrow convenience store with two small aisles stacked high with Mexican pastries and cheap wine.

My positive reaction was short-lived. Although our house had a lovely rock facade, a deep and cozy front porch, and an apple tree whose blossoms were in full flower, when we went in, our economic downturn took a shift to the visceral. The walls were cheaply paneled, the aged carpeting was a matted and mottled light brown, the appliances were vintage early-eighties, and the windows either had rotten and water-logged wooden sills or cheap metal frames.

We sat on the decrepit spiral staircase (which looked hand-built by a carpenter of dubious abilities) and snapped a family portrait. Day One. Our faces in this photo are tired and apprehensive, the kids in a weary cluster at our knees.

Your home is wherever your bed is, and that very first night, we were all tucked into clean linens in our strange, new, small and oddly shaped rooms. But in the light of day, we still saw the funky junky-ness of this new dwelling of ours. There was a moist quality to the air, and a noticeable whiff of Dogs Who Had Come Before. Where once a balcony had been, there was plywood attached with foam goo forming a new “wall.” The backyard was shabby, with one side of the privacy fence leaning at a near forty-five degree pitch.

There had been a beige luxury to the house we lived in during affluent times. The carpet was so plush, you left perfect footprints squished into its thickness as you made your way (barefoot, naturally) across the room. There was a garden tub with large corner windows inside an expansive master bathroom, quietly humming central heat and air, and appliances with a heavy luster to them. The walls and ceilings met at right angles, with no softness or crumble to the plaster and drywall. Just the crisp reliability of a brand-new home and the suburban neighborhood in which it sat–gated, landscaped, predictable.

In the new/old house, creaky as a wooden ship, you can drop a marble in the farthest interior corner, and it will take a hilariously random path through the rooms, down invisible slopes and channels, until it finally clicks to a stop in the corner that tips deepest into the earth. And there’s even a basement, which is unusual in California. There are Christmas lights swinging from dusty cords down there, and the walls smell like soil and wet concrete.

One room is too small for furniture. But it is not a closet. It HAS a closet.

We added the magic little-by-little, as we went through this transformative journey from the comforts of what we had back then, and into our new, low-income recession life. Like the marble in the corner, we slid down . . . over . . . and through until we came to a stop and stayed. And that was when we painted the walls yellow–an acid citron, like the world’s ugliest crayon, because that’s the best kind of pretty. Against that went aqua furniture, and pink fabric in great swaths over the windows that don’t quite close. Red shag rugs, lamps from thrift stores, a multicolor dollhouse we rebuilt as a family. Silk monarch butterfly ornaments hang from mirrors and door frames, and cuckoo clocks from my husband’s German childhood occupy much of the wall space.

The man who owns this house is mostly a name on an envelope I mail every month. He has a beard and his eyes twinkle when he smiles. He remembers raising his sons in this house, twenty years ago. They kept rabbits in the backyard, and chickens like we do now. We eat oranges, pears, and apples from the same trees that they harvested and turned into jams and sauces.

Wild Bill watches over everything on our block. He’s the big, bald tattoo artist across the street, and a minor celebrity in this town. He leaves gifts on our porch: a fruit-picker, a pint of leftover soup, a wagon for the kids.

When everything is rough and ragged, the logical course is to festoon it with as much multicolor madness as you can muster. At least that’s my instinct. There was an untouchable sterility to the perfection of “success,” like if you made too sudden a movement, you’d disrupt the delicate balance that held it all together. The beige walls stayed beige, all rooms were regulation size, there were no chickens anywhere nearby, and a dropped marble made a small spiral and sat, solemn and as still as a stone on the kitchen floor.

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