It Could Be Worse

It could be worse.  I could, for example, be nine months pregnant and have just learned that the baby I am carrying has no heartbeat, but must be born anyway.  That would be much worse.  I am neither pregnant, nor is my baby dead, so I am, by all accounts, among the lucky ones.  As the narrator of one of my favorite movies, Lasse Hallström’s 1985 “My Life as a Dog” enjoins, “It’s important to have things to compare with… You have to compare all the time…You have to compare so you can get a little distance on things.”

Still, I am sick with Covid 19 (though, again, not too sick and so not too unfortunate), and I do have to pack to move two weeks from today, by myself, with two children and my seventy-three year old mother, two out of three of whom are also sick, just after New Year’s, for the—wait for it—thirty-seventh-ish time in my life.  Not quite once for every year I’ve been alive, but not far from it. 

Often, these moves were voluntary and appealing—boarding school! Brazil! New York! Paris! Honolulu!—but just as often they were not—a lease was up, my family couldn’t make rent, a relationship was ending.

It is hard enough to do hard things when we’re motivated, but harder still when we’re reluctant, or outright averse, as is the case for me just now.  When I moved into this house a year ago, I had hoped to be here for the rest of my life, or, at the very least, a very long time.  We were buying rather than renting, we were in love, we didn’t have jobs that threatened to take us elsewhere.  And I was committed, and believed that if I was sufficiently committed, for better or worse, that would be enough.

But here’s the thing: commitment, it turns out, is not an insurance policy.  All the commitment in the world can’t resurrect the dead, and, to paraphrase Bonnie Raitt, we can’t make someone love us if they don’t. 

One problem, however, is that we can try.  Unlike biological death, the incontrovertible quality of which most of us can’t help but accept, the death of a relationship has just enough ambiguity about it to render it torturous.  The educator and researcher Pauline Boss, who pioneered the concept of “ambiguous loss” in the 1970’s, describes them as by far the most stressful kind: Losses that seem arbitrary, or partial, or senseless, or avoidable; losses that wouldn’t be, if only.

I have begun packing books, the low hanging fruit.  They fit neatly into boxes and lend themselves to categorization.  Poetry, fiction, non-fiction, reference; women’s studies, art, coffee table, children’s.  But then I realize the shelves I’m taking them from are built-in, and I’ll have no place to put them in the new house, and I am defeated.  I remember how grateful I was when they were built, how impressed I was with my partner’s carpentry skills…

Before the Covid diagnosis, my father and sister and older children were to have come for Christmas, so I was going to try to leave the house in tact until the last minute.  We got a tree that fits perfectly in the living room, adjacent to the (non-funtional) fireplace.  The house is a brick Tudor built in the 1920’s and looks as if it were designed for such an idyllic holiday scene.  I had been looking forward to our first Christmas in this house all year. I remember when we first brought our young girls to see it, before putting in an offer, how they marveled at the heavy arched wood front door, the lion’s head door knocker, the stones steps in the porch light.

Now that no one is coming for Christmas, I’ve gone ahead and begun dismantling our life, though it breaks my heart that my five and fifteen year olds have to witness this and navigate the maze of boxes and packing materials instead of basking in the glow of the tree which, along with the oranges and cloves and gingerbread and hot cocoa, we can’t smell.  It’s as if Covid were engineered to deprive us of even the most modest pleasures of the season.  The baked goods we’ve made we can neither taste ourselves nor share with others for fear of infecting them, and so they grow stale on the counter.  Kind friends and colleagues have offered meal delivery, but we can scarcely bring ourselves to eat.

The nausea is a bit like morning sickness, and I am reminded of another occasion during which I had to pack and move across the Atlantic, from Honolulu to Charleston, while pregnant and with two preschoolers at home.  How ever did I do it?  Of course, that was fifteen years ago and so I was thirty years old, with all of the energy of a much younger person and so much less psychological baggage.

It’s true, we’ve accumulated a lot of books and bakeware and bedding over the years, but what really weighs me down are not so much the material possessions as the emotional ones.  How many times have I carefully wrapped up my hopes and dreams only to have them broken and battered in transit?  How many times have I told myself just this one last time, and then we’ll be settled for good?

We will be renting again, so can harbor no illusions as to the permanence of this move.  Hopefully, we can stay a year or two, maybe longer.  I would love to be able to see my youngest son through high school without another upheaval.  I have a job I feel good about and like the town where we live.  But this is not the life I wanted. I did not want to be alone. I did not want to have to work so hard just to get by. 

I feel like a child who is disappointed by a Christmas gift that cannot be returned or exchanged.  This is the life I have been given, and if my parents taught me one thing, it was always to be gracious in receiving.  I do not have to lie and pretend it’s just what I always wanted, but I do have to say thank you.  I do have to be grateful.  I do have to believe it was given to me for a reason, a reason I might not be able to fathom from where I’m sitting.  A reason that will be revealed in time.  A reason that may, like most, reveal itself to consist mainly in cultivating compassion for everyone else who is not living their best life, or “living the dream,” as my brothers like to say, compassion for everyone who is, instead, living a version of a nightmare from which they cannot wake, but doing so bravely, because they have no choice.  Chances are, this is a more typical human experience than any other.  Chances are, there are more people on the planet struggling and suffering than not.  Chances are, it could always be much, much worse.

open season


It’s graduation season, and my first born is 18.  My social media news feed is awash with photos of my friends’ children, many of whom I’ve known since birth or shortly after, in caps and gowns, or positioned behind podiums, delivering speeches.  These follow the flood of prom pictures, which themselves arrived on the heels of college admissions acceptance letters, senior recitals, athletic play-offs, etc., etc.

Having moved away from Honolulu, where my first two children were born, and from Charleston, where my second two came into the world, I am grateful to Facebook for providing this platform on which to watch the lives of people whose daily lives we were once a part of go on, and go well.  I am happy for them, genuinely and sincerely happy for them. And, as we all well know, there is a dark side to this window on the world or worlds we have known, a black mirror in which we see our own reflections distorted through the lens of comparison.  Compare and despair, as the saying has it.

My eldest child, assigned male and named Gabriel at birth, who now identifies as female and goes by Sasha, did not graduate from high school.  She left school after tenth grade to attend early college at Bard in Massachusetts and, after a year, left there.  Since then, she has been working at a Mexican restaurant, writing music, and undertaking hormone therapy for gender transition.  These have been full time jobs.

Similarly, her sixteen-year-old brother, Isaiah, has yet to make it through a grade of high school without failing one or more core courses.  The last two years were spent addressing his anxiety and depression, which may or may not be evidence of bi-polar disorder, with which he was, perhaps mistakenly, diagnosed last fall, exacerbated by having moved out of state and away from his father and friends at the end of his eighth grade year.  He, too, took and has been holding down a job at a pizza place, and rebuilding his social and emotional life in a new city, in a new body, the one of the young man he has become.

I don’t post pictures of them on social media much anymore.  Not because they are not beautiful and not because I am not proud, but because we haven’t had many of the standard photo-ops of late.  Their lives are increasingly their own, and they are immersed in them, rarely pausing to strike a pose and smile for the camera.  Instead, though neither has gotten their license, they are like drivers behind the wheels of cars careening headlong in the dark: their eyes are on the road, and all of their focus is required simply to hold steady and forge forward.


Of course I wonder where I went wrong as a parent.  By having children too young (I was twenty-five when my first was born).  By separating from their father when they were 7 and 9.  By homeschooling them when they were little or by going back to school and work myself when they were not much bigger.  What might it have taken to have helped them achieve the milestones everyone else’s offspring seem to be reaching?  And how much does it actually matter that they’re doing things differently, their own ways?

Sasha got a GED and a high SAT score, but seems disinclined to return to college any time soon.  Isaiah will try again next year to get through tenth-grade English, having aced his exams and so passed the rest of his classes.  It’s hard not to envy the valedictorian and his parents two doors down the street, whose graduation party was held last evening.  It’s hard not to believe they did something right that we did not, and that their lives will be easier for it.

But at no time have we not been trying.  At no time have I ceased to love my children with all my heart and to want for them the happiness and well-being that every parent wants, that we all want for those we love—and, too, for ourselves: I can’t help but feel for my own parents, who didn’t get to see me graduate from college until I was thirty-six years old, and have never yet been able to enjoy the peace of mind that might have come from seeing me financially and relationally secure.  After all, at forty-four, I am on the verge of another major separation, another move, another reinvention.  I wish desperately that this weren’t the case, for my parents’ sakes, for my children’s sakes, and for my own, but I also know they love me no less for it, nor I them.  Our love and our lives aren’t easily Instagram-able, aren’t easy, but they are ours, and we are one another’s, and I wouldn’t have it otherwise.

Perhaps you, too, have an unconventional family.  If so, I’d love to see your photos and hear your stories.  Norman Rockwell is so remote from the cultural lexicon by now that many may not even recognize the reference.  But societal norms and expectations still exist and still oppress us if we let them, or, at the very least, depress us.  So this is an invitation to own the images you’ve hesitated to upload, even if they look more like those of Diane Arbus, and to embrace them filter-free for who and what they are.  Only by exposing the complicated components of our lives to the light can they be destigmatized, and it is my hope in so doing to be a salve for others who may be struggling similarly with this season, or any season of their lives: wedding and anniversary season when you’re single or separated or widowed or divorced; baby season, which is year round, when you’ve tried without success to have a child or lost a child or when the child you have doesn’t look or act like a model for Baby Gap.  Vacation or retirement season when you may well have to work until the day you die.  The holidays when those with whom traditions were established are no longer around to enact them.  It’s all real. It’s all real life.  It’s all we have.


true companions: on books, begonias, and the wisdom of the aging



“Too tired even to choose

between jumping and calling,

somehow he felt absolved and free

of his burdens, those mottoes

stamped on his name-tag:

conscience, ambition, and all

that caring.

He was content to lie down

with the family ghosts

In the slop of his cradle,

buffeted by the storm,

endlessly drifting.

Peace! Peace!”

–Stanley Kunitz, “The Long Boat”

I wish I could pretend that I had never been one to have held the elderly in a kind of benign contempt, finding them dull and dulled, soft and worn as if from wear.  Worthy, certainly, of gentleness and compassion, but in a class apart from adults in their prime—engaging and engaged in worldly pursuits.  I even knew better, knew I should respect and revere them for their age and experience, but I didn’t really get it.

Of course, there were exceptions.  Exceptional people who managed to retain their passions and appetites well into later life, full, still, of fire and fervor, creative energy, sharp as knives.  (Little did I know that it was perhaps these who had failed to graduate, failed to achieve the chief task asked of us: that of securing a degree of peace.)

But the others, puttering in their gardens or garages, shuffling cards or knitting shawls, watching television or reading novels, nodding off at noon and again before nine, rising early to feed their cats and perform their seemingly neurotic early-morning chores–weren’t they all but lost to us already, having long-since checked-out of life’s more meaningful arenas, deaf to the music blaring there, as disinterested in us as we in them?

Confessedly, I felt the same way about the more boring of my classmates in high school, who have long since come to rule the world.  It occurred to me, at some point years later and years ago, that they were the tortoises to our hares, that they had known something I hadn’t and were the better for it, but somehow that never translated to the other unassuming, understated souls in my midst as time went on.  Like Chicken Little, I persisted in running around as if the sky were falling and it fell to me to prevent it, to catch it, or at the very least to interpret it and make of it art.

Granted, the sky is falling.  The ozone layer depleted, sea levels rising to meet it.  This is real, but this isn’t what I’m talking about.  What I’m talking about is all of the running around like chickens with our heads cut off, hell-bent on traveling the planet, mating, making babies and raising them, making a living, a name for ourselves, a difference.  No doubt these drives serve a purpose, even if that purpose is only to give us an illusory sense of purpose, to keep the whole human dramedy in theaters, season after season.

But what I’m only just beginning to realize (or hypothesize, distrusting my penchant for provisional “realizations”), is that those old folks, whom I’m ever closer to being (and more eager to be) counted among, are the ones who actually have something figured out.  Namely, that there may be no greater pleasure on earth than that of gardening, no greater wisdom than contentment, nothing more pointless and less worthy of their precious time and attention than all of our frantic, frenetic, manic efforts to do and be more and better and other than we are.


Stanley Kunitz’s “The Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden” is a revelation in this regard, as have been the growing numbers of my dearest friends and loved ones who are discovering the joy of tending the gardens they’ve been given, baking bread, and surrounding themselves with their most tried and true companions: the ones who reside between the covers not of their beds but of their books.  We commiserate, agreeing that we could have saved ourselves and each other all manner of heartache had we skipped the decades of sex, drugs and rock & roll and cut to the chase that is pacing the path in the backyard from the compost heap to the raised bed and back again.

This sense of solidarity, with the aged and aging, alive and dead, known to me personally or only on the page, has become sacred in the way that a sense of kindredness with other poets has always been for those of us who’ve felt indescribably estranged from society as a whole (and who hasn’t at this point?).  Alan Shapiro, in a recent lecture on Poetry and Friendship, spoke of “poetry (and the literary arts generally) as embodied intimacy, a form of connection and belonging.”  Which perhaps explains why I’ve come to take the deaths of beloved writers so personally.  (I wept convulsively for Jim Harrison, for Leonard Cohen, for Donald Hall just a few weeks ago.)  It is personal: they’re a rare and, literally, dying breed, and to lose someone whose work has made me feel less alone in the world is to lose a friend, in the same way that the throngs of others with whom we can’t begin to commune make us feel more so.

Maybe this, too, explains why, as our ranks grow thinner, we are apt to ally ourselves across species, feeling more akin to plants and animals, flowers and kittens, than to politicians and celebrities. Our needs are simple now, we say to one another: feed me, water me, warm me with your touch, let me bask a little longer in the last light and I in my turn will do the same for you.


wild things


Although after much deliberation we had it painted white before moving in last June, the hundred-year-old house was yellow when we bought it and so, when the neighbor from across the way came over to introduce herself bearing pictures of a black bear perched beside a pumpkin the previous fall, there was no mistaking: the porch in the photo was our own.  Thus when, a few weeks later, I stood on that same porch, my toddler and tween having just come back from a short walk down the street, we weren’t entirely surprised to see a bear, tagged with some sort of Victorian collar, bumbling toward us, then ambling away.


We did not, like a jogger we encountered once, wonder if we were hallucinating.  Still, it is somewhat surreal and vaguely disorienting when phenomena we know of only from lore become part of our first-hand experience.  And it was hard not to wonder: what if my children had lingered outside a few minutes longer? What if the bear had come between us? Or we between her and her cubs?


We’ve had several sightings since (though never again have the bears been clad): Coming back from taco night with three of my four children a couple of weeks ago, we drove by and stopped to watch one a few houses down, and then, one Friday morning, returning from an early grocery run with only my two year-old around 9 a.m., there he was in our driveway.


This one, collarless, was nuzzling his muzzle into the base of the big oak beside the living room window where our cat likes to sit and watch the squirrels and birds from behind the screen. Upon closer inspection, I later discovered the bear had likely been making a breakfast of a huge mound of ants I found disrupted there, before startling slightly at the sound of our car door and wandering off across the neighbors’ lawn and up the street.


I say he because he was big, with a shiny jet coat and a lighter brown snout straight out of a picture book.  My daughter and I were delighted, and neither of us at all frightened somehow.  He seemed entirely benign, I told Chuck next door and, reactionary that he has always seemed to me he said, “they always do until they kill you.”


~         ~         ~


That night, at nearly ten, I received a text message from my three older children’s father that read, “Just FYI am at pediatric emergency with S. (our seventeen year-old).”  Anomalous symptoms including nausea, head pressure, peripheral vision hallucinations.  A neurological assessment, lots of blood work, and finally, a diagnosis of an anticholinergic crisis, brought on by drug use.  Acute dehydration treated with IV fluids, observation.  But, we’re told, she should be okay.


I google “anticholinergic” and read the Wikipedia entry: “When a significant amount of an anticholinergic is taken into the body, a toxic reaction… may result. This may happen accidentally or intentionally as a consequence of recreational drug use. Anticholinergic drugs are usually considered the least enjoyable by many recreational drug users,[4] possibly because the side effects are so unpleasant and that they do not induce euphoria.  In terms of recreational use, these drugs are commonly referred to as deliriants.[5] The risk of addiction is low in the anticholinergic class, and recreational use is uncommon.”


Psychiatric evaluation. Social services interview. Discharge.  Follow up with pediatrician.  Steady improvement.  Every reason to be optimistic.

~         ~         ~


The following Monday, in the car on the way to a play morning with my daughter, I hear a BBC report on wolves attacking livestock in rural France.  Lambs found dead.  Then sheep.  Then a cow.  The farmers are outraged.  They want the authorities to take action and, if no one else will, they vow, they’ll take matters into their own hands.  Activists are equally irate:  They say it’s like leaving candy on a low-lying table in front of a child: The wolves can’t resist and can’t be expected to. The question has become: who needs protecting from whom?


At the play morning, I find myself wondering whether one of the caregivers there is a child’s mother or grandmother.  She is attractive, but graying, decidedly older-looking than the rest.  I hear the boy call her Mama and it’s settled. A few minutes later, we meet, and she volunteers that she is indeed an older mother, having gotten married late. Without hesitation, she adds, we must be about the same age, but, it turns out, she is two years younger than I am.  The boy’s name is Isaac.


At yoga later that afternoon, in downward facing dog, the young woman behind me, also inverted, wears a red t-shirt and, breathing deeply, I squint to decipher its print upside down: The strength of the pack is the wolf and the strength of the wolf is the pack, followed by a list of corporate sponsors for a university athletic department.


Kipling.  What would he make of this?  He who, I remember reading years ago, urged his own son to go to war, only to lose him, MIA, in the Battle of Loos.


~         ~         ~


Various samples reveal that the ground around our house has been contaminated by lead paint, though mercifully blood tests show that our daughter has not.  Still, after innumerable inquiries and efforts over the course of the year, the only viable solution seems to be to have the top three inches of soil removed and replaced with sod, which four home-schooled brothers with heavy machinery manage to do in two days.  The transformation is remarkable, and I feel compelled to explain to passersby that this was not a vanity project but a precautionary one; that I would not otherwise choose to consume the excessive water grass requires, though I can’t deny the pleasure of beholding the field of green, nor that of walking barefoot across it, nor of watching my daughter skip through the sprinkler’s stream which we must run and reposition three hours a day to keep the turf from scorching in the record-breaking heat.


~         ~         ~


Back in April, the Trump administration began prosecuting “as many border-crossing offenses as possible” resulting in immigrant children being separated from their parents, the former placed in government holding facilities and the latter in federal jails.  In what has quickly become an iconic image by the photographer John Moore, a two-year-old girl from Honduras cries out as her mother is patted down by a patrol officer.  In this picture, she looks uncannily like my own daughter.  Dark hair, round cheeks, something about her stature generally.  In another, taken shortly before, the mother breastfeeds the toddler, standing, as I have on occasion, in spite of her gangly form.


IMG_1832~         ~         ~


All of this comes back to me nights, as I lie in bed beside my little girl, listening to her breathe, the ceiling fan above us whirling.  The images become intertwined like strains in a symphony, each character represented by a different instrument as in Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf”: The wolves themselves; the sheep and the lambs and the cow; the bear; my addled eldest child; the neighbors; the aging mother; my daughter; the college girl from yoga; Kipling and his son; the Honduran mother and daughter; their photographer, the border patrol officer and, also, the heavy metals underground, the green growing things above, the water and the sound of the sprinkler itself as it oscillates and doubles back.  The music in our minds that suffuses our lives but cannot be reduced to a linear, logical narrative, only listened to, absorbed.


A poet I know recently remarked that we have less to say as we age.  Another poet wrote that, “There are surprisingly few poems about the complexity of long relationships. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that there are fewer poems about long-term relationships and parenting teenage or adult children than I need. Without poems to light the way, a path is even harder to discern and/or invent.”  Perhaps we have less to say because we are less inclined to draw conclusions; more reluctant to over-interpret or impose an order where there isn’t any. Perhaps what we can offer by way lighting the path is simply to describe it, in all of it’s symphonic complexity: the mile stones and landmarks, the pitfalls, the twists and turns, the creatures lurking in the dark and in broad daylight, the sun shining, for what it’s worth.




Assignment: Best Case Scenario


Imagine your ideal life, and what you would give (or give up) to live it. 

So many of us are struggling.  Frustrated and discontent, under stress and perhaps resentful; anxious—about climate change and environmental degradation, the devastation wrought recently by hurricanes and wild fires; the absence of gun control and regular mass shootings; racism and hate crimes; sexism and social and economic injustice; the ineptitude of our government in addressing any of the above.

Many of us are also suffering more personally: conflicted about our relationships; regretful of our pasts; concerned for our children (or desirous of children), their mental and physical health, their futures.  And then there are the even more immediate issues: over-scheduling and exhaustion; creative, aesthetic, and spiritual needs unmet.

I talk with friends and family and we vent and commiserate, listen and encourage.  Often I am sympathetic, but sometimes I am also impatient—with others, but especially with myself.  If I’m so unhappy, I wonder, why don’t I do something different or differently?  What do I actually want, and what is preventing me from having it?  What would I be willing to sacrifice?  What can I change?

Where politics and society are concerned, we can vote and protest and organize and be mindful as consumers and citizens in our daily lives, but beyond that, it seems, we can either allow ourselves to be made miserable by the media and things as they are, or can we, by force of will, resist, and persist, somehow, in relishing the lives we have, in honor, if nothing else, of those impacted more directly by these abominations.  Jack Gilbert’s “A Brief for the Defense” comes to mind:

A Brief For The Defense

by Jack Gilbert

 Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies

are not starving someplace, they are starving

somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.

But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.

Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not

be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not

be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women

at the fountain are laughing together between

the suffering they have known and the awfulness

in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody

in the village is very sick. There is laughter

every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,

and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.

If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,

we lessen the importance of their deprivation.

We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,

but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have

the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless

furnace of this world. To make injustice the only

measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.

If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,

we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.

We must admit there will be music despite everything.

We stand at the prow again of a small ship

anchored late at night in the tiny port

looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront

is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.

To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat

comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth

all the years of sorrow that are to come.


Where our relationships are concerned, we can redouble our efforts to be communicative and compassionate, grateful and appreciative, or, if they’re really that bad, we can leave them, but dwelling in dissatisfaction, too, seems blasphemous.  And this goes for our children as well: what if agonizing less enabled us to love—and endure—more?

With respect to dailiness, there must be a way to simplify, unplug, decline the incessant invitations to over stimulation, so as to have more time to sleep and move and be outside, and then try to recognize the work we must do as necessary to the sustenance of these lives and accept it as such, with fewer complaints, more fortitude.

This is my wish just now: not to change my life, but to be commensurate with it, as May Sarton once wrote.  To paraphrase Jim Harrison, we don’t get back the days we don’t light candles, take walks, read.  I don’t want to squander another minute scrolling through screens, sick with worry and remorse, while crisp leaves scatter themselves on my back deck and titmice and cardinals and squirrels skirmish over sunflower seeds, the yellow mum struggling to resurrect itself after the last days’ hard rains.


The Work of Happiness

by May Sarton

I thought of happiness, how it is woven

Out of the silence in the empty house each day

And how it is not sudden and it is not given

But is creation itself like the growth of a tree.

No one has seen it happen, but inside the bark

Another circle is growing in the expanding ring.

No one has heard the root go deeper in the dark,

But the tree is lifted by this inward work

And its plumes shine, and its leaves are glittering.


So happiness is woven out of the peace of hours

And strikes its roots deep in the house alone:

The old chest in the corner, cool waxed floors,

White curtains softly and continually blown

As the free air moves quietly about the room;

A shelf of books, a table, and the white-washed wall—

These are the dear familiar gods of home,

And here the work of faith can best be done,

The growing tree is green and musical.


For what is happiness but growth in peace,

The timeless sense of time when furniture

Has stood a life’s span in a single place,

And as the air moves, so the old dreams stir

The shining leaves of present happiness?

No one has heard thought or listened to a mind,

But where people have lived in inwardness

The air is charged with blessing and does bless;

Windows look out on mountains and the walls are kind.






in search of lost selves

imageWhat I consider to be the virtuous side of me believes that, as my new yoga studio’s slogan goes, “freedom (is achieved) through service,” but that is not always how I experience it. This weekend, for example, as I drove five hours round trip twice to deliver my fourteen year-old to and retrieve him from his father at the halfway point between our homes, in heavy traffic, with his sister alternately screaming and crying in back, low fuel and the “malfunction” light aglow on the dash, I didn’t feel particularly liberated. Nor did I as I parked in the third or fourth overflow lot and lugged the baby, two folding chairs, the diaper bag, snacks and water bottles past a half a dozen or more astro-turfed playing fields in the 80+degree late afternoon heat, still wearing the same blue jeans and heavy sweatshirt I’d put on when I got up at 6:30 a.m. to prepare for the first of my 11 year-old’s two soccer games that day, not having had a chance to so much as use the bathroom in between.

imageNor, for that matter, did I find it particularly freeing when the aforementioned toddler discovered, during lunch, someone’s leftover ant-covered cream-filled cake on the pavement beneath our table at a pizza place and, before I could intervene, decided to paint her face with the sticky goo it fell to me to attempt to remove in the public restroom, before changing, by my conservative estimate, my 20,000th diaper.*

Instead, I wanted to weep, and thought to myself, more than once and for more than a moment, that I probably never should have had children in the first place, though I had the first, at least, for the express (if misguided) purpose of devoting myself to meaningful service. For this reason, among others, it has never made sense to me to send my children to daycare or preschool, and I consider it a veritable moral duty to be as responsive as possible to their needs even as they grow, but I certainly don’t always find it enjoyable, or even tolerable, much less transcendent.

As evidenced by the fact that, 7 years ago now, when I’d been at it nearly 10, I couldn’t take it anymore and left. Of course, there were other, extenuating circumstances then, as there are now, but I recognize similar symptoms in myself—bitterness, resentment, depression, claustrophobia, rage—and it terrifies and confounds me, not least because I found the alternative equally untenable. During the five years I spent back in school and working full time, whether I was having great fun, as was the case initially, or wearing myself to the bone, as soon became true, I was racked with guilt for neglecting my children and could not for the life of me see my day (or night) job as truly meaningful (or liberating) service either.

My first thought is that these are the signs of the ego asserting and reasserting itself. Like a cancer sent repeatedly into remission, the ego seems to return with a vengeance, ever more virulent strains spreading faster than before, dis-ease with stay-at-home motherhood a sort of spiritual disease, but one which I think I ought to be able to overcome by force of will.

My second thought is that this kind of dualism—positing the Self against the self, isn’t productive and there must be another way. But what can that be? Gratitude comes to mind, beginning with the fact that, while I may not feel existentially liberated by the practice, at least I am at liberty to care for them. My children have not been taken away from me; we are not imperiled by imminent natural or man-made disaster; we are well fed and clothed and sheltered, have indoor plumbing and, I trust, clean running water. We can all breathe and move with ease, the latter something I will never again take for granted after a bout with severe immobility a couple of years ago.

And it is autumn: mornings I wake before dawn; the house is chilled and I light a candle and brew tea. I wash the dishes and the hot, soapy water is almost as soothing as a bath. My boys, though reluctant to rise and resentful of aspects of their own lives and mine, tell me they love me before they leave, and wear the cloak of white privilege out into the world as if under the protection of secret service agents unavailable to their black and brown brothers.

imageAnd their sister’s first smile of the day illuminates the room as does sunlight through the shades. All day she will play, propelled by her own curiosity and neuro-typical advantages, riding her Radio Flyer in circles on the deck, lining up her wooden animals in rows, rocking and cuddling her dolls and kissing them on the forehead as I do her when she brings me a book and climbs on to my lap to be sung a lullaby or six for the umpteenth time, oblivious, I hope, to the ambivalence in me that her older brothers have become all too acutely aware of: the impatience and fatigue; the desire to be seen, to feel attractive and interesting, intellectually engaged and engaging and as though I have agency in a way that I haven’t since before I became pregnant with her.

Why, I ask myself, do I crave these things? Why can’t I access, more often and sustainedly, that side of myself that is open and generous and nourished by nourishing and nurturing others? Why do I feel so closed and miserly and irritable and defensive, like some sort of traumatized animal? How can I get back to that place of humility and gratitude of which I have such vivid memories, although almost as if from another life?

When I picture myself happy, I’m riding a bicycle through the streets of Charleston. The sun is shining and my face is turned up toward it, my eyes almost closed, as though I could coast without having to look where I was going. I feel light. There is a breeze. I am smiling and breathing deeply. I am not jealous or angry, regretful or sad. I could readily give my last nickel or the shirt off my back to the first stranger who passed, trusting that all will be well and God will provide. I miss her, this other version of myself, this person who felt so safe and faithful. Oh, where are they now, the selves of yesteryear?

*6 diapers/ day X 365 days = 2,190 X 3 years (mine were slow to toilet train) = 6, 570 X 4 children = 26, 280 – 6,280 (yet-to-be changed or changed by fathers and grandparents, at most) = 20,000

and that was it

imageOn the morning my oldest child was to leave for early college, I scrambled to find a way to play video recordings of him* as a baby, as if by this means I could somehow stop the clock, turn back time, or conjure up the ghosts of those we once were before they moved away still further.

As a Christmas gift the year before, my father had converted them from cassette tapes to CDs, but we didn’t have a TV or a DVD player set up, and my current laptop didn’t have a disc drive.  I had to locate my previous laptop, then its power cord, then wait for it to acquire enough charge to boot, then wait for the computer to emerge from its coma and find a compatible app with which to play the recordings.

By this time, it was roughly 9:52 a.m., and my 16 year old and his father were hoping to get on the road by 10, drive six hours, and check into a hotel in Virginia for a nice meal and a good night’s rest before driving another six hours up to Massachusetts the next day.  Time was wasting.

My twenty month old, who shares my eldest’s birthday, kept pulling the plug.  My other two children wanted something or other for breakfast.  But finally, there he was: my first child, fifteen years ago, exactly the same age then as my last is now, on the sofa with his father, reading a copy of Dinosaur Dream, his eyes as dark and wide as his mind has since become, completing each sentence of the story from memory in a voice incongruous with so small a form.

I sat transfixed.  Where had this toddler gone?  How did we get from there to here?  It was like watching a car crash in slow motion and being unable to intervene, but reversed: in this case, I blinked and, in time-lapse videography, my first born had grown up.

God willing, this happens to everyone, of course.  I’m expected to be sad, to mourn the loss.  I will miss him while he’s away at school, but take solace in knowing how excited he is, how enthusiastic and passionate and ready.  I will write to him and call and ask to see his work and pictures and look forward to having him home for holiday breaks.  But what I will miss more, what I miss already, is that child at the age of one and two and three and four.  What I miss most is what I somehow managed to miss: it’s as if I’d been watching a movie and intermittently dozed off, but don’t really remember having fallen asleep.  I’ve gotten the gist of the plot, but parts are hazy, and if asked to summarize I might omit certain critical parts.

And this is true of my children’s childhoods even before their father and I separated and I went back to work. Even before they started spending significant portions of their days at school.

And of course it’s not just their young lives that went by in a break-neck blur, but my own.  My own father will tell you it was only yesterday that he was delivering me to boarding school at 14, or to college in New York City, or standing beside me at the magistrate on my wedding day.  And all the yoga and mindfulness in the world hasn’t changed this, doesn’t change the fact that time flies and, ultimately, we die.

And I don’t know what to do.  I don’t know quite how to be differently.  Certainly, I can try, with my daughter, not to repeat the mistakes I made with my three sons.  I can try to savor and be patient and grateful.  But that won’t stop daily life from being arduous sometimes, nor prevent the impulse, once in a while, to wish it away.

They were ready to leave.  In a last minute gesture, I packed up a Ziploc bag of assorted teas and my single-serving French press for them to take.  I walked them to the curb, gave them a hug, and they got into the car, then reached back out to hand me their empty disposable coffee cups from the previous day. With one in each hand, I sat down on the stoop and wept as they pulled away.  Then I went back inside and put the cups in the recycling, ejected the disc, and packed up the outdated Mac. And that was it.


*”He” now prefers the pronoun “She” and goes by the name Sasha, but given the retrospective slant of these thoughts, I’ve chosen to use the name and gender pronouns used throughout childhood.



imageMy father has come

to the rescue again: driven

twelve hours south

with a trunk full of tools—

power drill, pick axe, circular

saw—to help mend my broken



First, he hangs pictures—

art in the dining room, family

photos upstairs—then he builds

a compost coop of chicken wire

and two-by-fours for the kitchen scraps

I generate en masse, squandering what little

creative energy I have on chickpea soup

with chard, stone fruit crisp with cardamom

and almonds.


Then he plants herbs—

parsley, sage, cilantro, basil and thyme—

in a galvanized tub my mother scavenged

from the roadside; rosemary, mint

and oregano out front; marigolds

beside the spent day lilies; tomatoes

and peppers and citronella

in terracotta pots; Boston ferns

in hanging baskets, impatiens

on the porch.


Next he fixes

the ice machine, and I make tea

in mason jars to keep him hydrated

while he mounts outdoor lights

around the back deck, as if we might

entertain some day, celebrate.


Finally, he begins to rake

a walkway to the carriage house, fills it

with paver’s sand and three tons of granite

dumped in the yard from which we’re meant

to puzzle out a path, flagstones of all widths

and lengths and he, with one knee

replaced twice, finishes this and then begins

to break up the cracked concrete front walk.


He stays three weeks and scarcely

pauses—paints the fireplace, buys

birdfeeders—wakes early and studies

one particular tree, towering.



imagefalling in a field

by the French

Broad River.


Storm clouds


in bundles

of ink and bruise,

streaked with light.


Three of my four

children reunited,

the eldest catching fire-

flies in his cupped palms,

he claims, for the first

time in his life.


We take cover

just in time:


The sky opens;

flashes of lightning


sheets of rain.


Inside, thunder shakes

this new old house.


Lamps flicker.


I make nettle-

leaf tea and rub

my youngest son’s

growing legs

with menthol

and camphor.


All night

the baby turns

cartwheels in her dreams.


imageJune.  Nearly nine and still

light. For dinner: tomatoes

and basil on toast.


The baby asleep in her closet.

Silence except

for the lullabies of birds.


Yet another home

I didn’t anticipate–

the mountains as foreign

as the ocean once was,

as promising, as lonesome.


I pour a thimble

of wine, and pick up

a book.