What I love about Jonah is that his big plan for Saturday is to go to Burger King on Friday so that he can get a paper crown and walk around the arboretum with his staff as King of the Forest (Gabriel has volunteered to be his trusted guardian). Downing a couple of greasy cheeseburgers is just the cherry on top.
She felt she had no plans, no thoughts; yet at some level, her mind and her body had taken action and catapulted her into this pool of stillness . . . She felt as if she were suspended between two worlds, belonging to neither. —from Astrid & Veronika, by Linda Olsson
I do love how, in my life, the right book comes around at just the very right time (the one mentioned above was given to me by a dear friend). And the books, they are hardly ever big and important, as some might consider such categories. If I were to list a few . . .
The Education of Little Tree, Forrest Carter
My Name Is Asher Lev, Chaim Potok
Assault on Eden: A Memoir, Virginia Stem Owens
Portrait of an Artist: A Biography of Georgia O’Keefe, Laurie Lisle
Kristin Lavransdatter, Sigrid Undset (trans. Tiina Nunnally)
I can’t and wouldn’t say that most of these books make my own favorite-of-all-time list (except maybe Little Tree—o wait, and Kristin Lavransdatter), but each has been vital to me as my person was shifting, recognizing, searching. Those times when life felt/feels too big or too hard or too lonely. When it seems as though I’m moving around, doing what needs to be done, but I’m doing it in a world filled with kinetic sand, up to my shoulders. I can still look around, but there’s a drag to every motion. A way of being in which every action is so very intentional.
Bet you can’t guess I’m in the midst of one of those times now.
I typically respond to my entry into this strange land in an intensely physical way. Let’s say I start weeding my flock of gardenias, azaleas, camellias, and roses. In 100 degree Alabama heat. For a week. Which I follow by multiple trips to Lowes for pine straw (let’s say twenty bales worth), which I spend the Labor Day weekend spreading. In short, I exhaust myself to the point of not being able to move, which is to say,
and not being afraid
but afraid some
of the same
vast girl talking to
Thankfully, errands and wilting azaleas and afterschool pick-up (as well as an infected toe) draw me back from the edge. I’ve only fallen in a few times over the course of a life. The important thing is not being so afraid that I deny the darkness is part of who I am.
“Fr. Sophrony, how can I be saved?” Fr. Sophrony offered him a cup of tea and after awhile replied, “Stay on the brink of despair, and when you cannot go on, step back and have a cup of tea.” (Mount Athos, the Sacred Bridge: The Spirituality of the Holy Mountain, Dimitri E. Conomos and Graham Speake)
Or step out into the hot Alabama sun and move the watering hose.
She was thinking about the book, about the continuous process of reshaping and reassembling all her ideas and plans. It was as if the book she had begun in another world, in another life, had been written by someone else. The words no longer had a connection with the person she had become. Here, there were no distractions other than those she carried within, and everything lay exposed. It was time to find new words. —Linda Olsson, Astrid & Veronika
Ok. Honeymoon’s over.
Readers of a recent post may recall me saying I wasn’t able to make a list of what I don’t like ’bout Bama. I’ve gotten over that hurdle.
I concurrently am fascinated and creeped out by the insect population down here: mammoth black grasshoppers and ants, moths,
fire ants, monster cicadas and their accompanying exoskeleskins, mosquitos mosquitos mosquitos, cockroaches (cockroaches cockroaches), spiders, millipedes, centipedes, shiny green metallic beetles, stick bugs, stink bugs, shield bugs,
and let us not forget lice.
I’m getting to know the school nurse pretty well. Third day of school I get a call. Won’t go into that one, but it was a minor deal and we’re all good. Three days later I get another call. She assured me it wasn’t an emergency and then proceeded to make small talk. Maybe that was her tell, now that I think back. After a series of pleasantries, she ever so gently led me into a discussion of head lice—that the boys were scratching in school, that Jonah had been sent to her to get it checked out, that she hadn’t found any at first on Jonah, that upon a more intensive search she did find live ones of various sizes, that nits had been laid and attached, that Gabriel was, at that moment, also being called into her office for a head check.
I hung up the phone and started the hot water cycle in the washing machine.
Of course I know that lice is almost a rite of passage when you have kids in school. I have since learned that Alabama (especially this time of year, especially this year in particular) is teeming with them. [I can’t resist the etymology here: Old English teman (Mercian), tieman (West Saxon), meaning to “beget, give birth to, bring forth, produce, propagate.” With lice, I’m learning that eradication is all about foiling the begetting.]
I have also learned that, on account of my sometimes-obsessive-attention-to-detail superpower, I’m pretty good at the whole process. There’s the cleaning, yes, but lice can’t live long without a live host, so there’s only so much that can be/needs to be done. I do a mean hair wash, come to find out. And when it comes to combing out the dead little suckers (post-pesticidal), I can part and section off and clip and comb with the best of them. I’m cursing the fact, however, that I cut my nails the very morning I got the nurse’s call, because mostly the only way to remove those damn nits is to isolate them to the hair strand they’re on and pull them off with your fingernail.
John’s exclaimed twice that I’m really good at the whole rigmarole. Thinks I should go into business. The closest lice removal spa (yes, that’s really a thing) is in Birmingham, and I hear it’s uber expensive.
Did I mention the cockroach that scurried across my sandaled foot in church this morning? I’m trying very hard to keep my #@*!-the-cooties reaction in check about now. But as I learned today, with roughly 10 thousand trillion (1016) ants in the world (That’s only ants!), how could it be otherwise? Avi Sternberg, in today’s New York Times Magazine article “King of Pain,” puts my ostensible predicament in perspective:
“The human conquest of earth is a recent and tenuous project; it would be more accurate to say that the planet belongs, as it always has, to the insects.”
Look at the time. Jonah’s due for his hair wash and comb out. I’m off.
These days I find myself quiet, nearly mute. New house, new life, same me, but changing. It’s a strange mix of change and continuity. While the beauty is different, it is no less striking. “Pastoral” by William Carlos Williams is the best way I know to say it. These photographs help, from my daily walk with Lucy Lou.
When I was younger
it was plain to me
I must make something of myself.
I walk back streets
admiring the houses
of the very poor:
roof out of line with sides
the yards cluttered
with old chicken wire, ashes,
furniture gone wrong;
the fences and outhouses
built of barrel staves
and parts of boxes, all,
if I am fortunate,
smeared a bluish green
that properly weathered
pleases me best of all colors.
will believe this
of vast import to the nation.
“Pastoral” by William Carlos Williams from The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams.
© New Directions, 1991.
I love Alabama. There. I’ve said it. So has Gabriel, just yesterday, before taking a step back and admitting that he probably doesn’t know enough about Alabama to make such a declaration without reservation (our interpretation of events, plainly). I concur both with his pronouncement and his restraint.
What I love: the sun. the sound of insects at night. the tree frogs that live around our house. the heat. the egret and the heron that live on the defunct golf course right outside our front door. the river. the dam. the pines. the elderly black women sweeping off their front porches each morning. the popsicle shop. the gardens. the curious glances people give Jonah and me as we walk Lucy. the way the rain pours. our house on a hill. our neighbors! the view of the grain elevator from our front window. the sound of trains nearby.
I’d make a list of what I don’t love, but it’s not so easily done. So much is strange and new. I feel myself adrift . . . not exactly disoriented, but nearly so. It is a curious thing to find oneself both firmly on course and unmoored.
The squirrels are super skinny. The birds have longer beaks and tail feathers. The grasshoppers are black, with red stripes. The cicadas are twice as big as I’ve ever seen. Sometimes it feels like I’m wading through the air when I walk out the door in the morning, or at night, or in the afternoon. I’ve started to drink my water with ice for crying out loud, and I find myself needing a nap each afternoon, promptly at 2. They say you can see baby alligators in the lake down the hill at night. What am I to make of it all? The Ruth in me finds herself a stranger in a strange land.
So much of the work of change is absorbing the new reality. People ask us how we are doing, how we are adjusting, what the new life is like. The new life is very much like the old life; the same irritations and propensities plague us and urge us forward or threaten to drag us toward our not-so-better natures. We are, on the whole, more sensitive, more defensive, less able to weather irritations. There have been angry outbursts and the stomping of feet and the flowing of tears. But the freshness of things here is a balm. We are discovering where to find our favorite pickles and creamer. We are delighted by the beer selection in a college town and are trying new brews. We’re a week into swimming lessons; we’re registered for school; we’re looking for jobs. We’re adorning our spaces with our favorite things and settling in. We’re cursing each time we hit our heads on the 5 ft. ceiling in the crawl space that serves as our garage storage (possibly the biggest adjustment: moving from a four-car garage to a complete lack of a garage). We’re installing a gas oven and setting up a coffee station.
We are here.
So when I say that we are moving to Alabama, I mean next week.
Let me backtrack. In February John was offered the position of directing the undergraduate creative writing program at the University of Alabama. After he returned from his campus visit, I had a sense he was going to get the job. I really did. But of course, that’s much easier to proclaim in hindsight. And there was part of me that kept thinking, it’s the University of Alabama. It’s not only a big deal, but it’s in the South, a place I know next to nothing about and have never experienced in any significant way (I don’t think Texas counts). I even dreamt he got the job—one of those true dreams that’s more real than waking. No metaphors or symbols. Like it’s preparing you for what’s coming. Being me, I cried. I started the grieving process straightaway.
I also, straightaway, proceeded directly to sort, toss, and organize. Everything. I began packing away what we didn’t need. We made plans to finish the many projects we’d started on the house. We commenced finding people to finish the drywall in the kitchen and to make kitchen cabinet doors. John painted. And painted. And painted. I cleaned out the garage and the attic above the garage and the basement. When we finally got the house on the market, we received a contract in four days. Honestly, I don’t know how people live in their homes for months while trying to sell. With two dogs and two boys I don’t think I could have lasted much longer.
In nine days the truck arrives, but I’ve run out of steam. Having lost Sophie the Blue Dog and regained the boys full time again, released from school, I’m moving around in a daze. I’m numb and hazy. Lucy Lou (our remaining mutt) and I hide out in my room in the morning as long as we can and stay up too late enjoying the quiet of the house. We are in a similar place, she and I. A little lost and wondering what to make of things.
Fortunately, the boys are out of school, and they are the best medicine for getting me up off my ass. Jonah in particular, who has the special gift (among many) of moving me out of despair and keeping me back from the brink, even as it sometimes feels he’s simultaneously pushing me there, is awaiting my entrance into the life of this day. He wants a list of chores. God love him. He’ll save me yet.
I’m not sure that I ever explained where the Blue Dog comes from.
I’m not certain I know precisely myself.
It has something to do with this very black dog.
Who, over time, became this quite old black dog, with beautiful white and silver streaks.
It has something to with the blue carpet in the picture, at the bookstore where I worked for ten years.
Something to do with the light and the shadow in the photograph’s composition, which is a reflection of how I have come to see myself.
I started this blog shortly after we moved to Ohio. It was a hell of a move. Jonah had just had heart surgery. John had a new job. Gabriel was five months old. A month before the move I slipped and dislocated and broke my long finger toe (if you have seen my feet, that description makes perfect sense), next to my big toe. We moved into a house that was and is so beautiful and full of promise and character, a house that needed a great deal of work. We poured ourselves into all of it, with all of ourselves.
So I wrote (and I started taking Prozac, and then something else, and then Zoloft), because I was losing it and because I have proven to be nearly incapable of making sense of my life if I don’t write it down. But it wasn’t enough to write it in a journal because I needed someone to read it. I needed someone to see my life, see me in whatever way they were able, through the light and the shadows I cast. Call it a testimony to my introversion.
And over time, the need to write remained, but I allowed the circumstances of my life to convince me that I didn’t have time to right (interesting mistake there; I think I’ll let it stand). And sometimes I didn’t have time, because I started edited books and I also needed sleep. But here I am again—with my need, knee-deep in loss, another big move ahead.
Sophie died a week ago.
We are moving to Alabama.
It’s good to be back.