Always Doing Something

Every species on Earth–past or present, from the single-celled microbe to the biggest dinosaurs, daisies, trees, people–must accomplish the same five things in order to persist: grow, reproduce, rebuild, store resources, and defend itself.  Hope Jahren, Lab Girl

I can’t remember many details of the last half of 2017. If I had to pick a color for that time it would be blue—a blue of anguish, undoubtedly. A bottomless blue you can fall or rise into, a losing blue. But not black, unless you count the blackness of anger, which I suppose I must. Still, mostly blue.

Blue has light in it. Blue is primary. It can hold things: grief, light, hope, flight, pain, sleep, dawn, heat, cold.

Blue can make things. With yellow it makes green—azaleas, camellias, pine needles, oak leaves, gardenias, dragonfly wings. With red it makes purple—the tiny bruise a week after a yellow jacket sting, the sun setting behind a bank of storm clouds, a single pansy blossom, potted by my eight year old for Mother’s day, that blooms again and again and again, blooming its life away because that’s what it does. As soon as I pluck the withering bloom it immediately begins to make another.

Labor Day served as a reset—blue and yellow—a pause between the routines of summer and autumn. A vacation to Gulf Shores was, if not the exclamation point, then at least an ellipses’ long pause, letting summer last a few weeks longer. We did it. We made it through this particular year.

I’m not sure what it is we’ve done exactly, what I’ve done. Worked. A lot. Months of library hours; at least 20 lawns mowed, weed eater eaten up; boys to school, boys picked up; weekend afternoons at the pool; nearly comatose evenings after long walks with Chunk, nights when I should put myself to bed but end up watching dark Swedish crime dramas while I nurse a martini.

Something’s been happening in these days that made months into a year. I still don’t have words of my own to put to it, so I will borrow words from others. The writer-scientist Hope Jahren brilliantly conveys botany’s mystery, giving it a kind of sense that translates:

There are a hundred species or so known as “resurrection plants.” These species are unrelated, but within each of them the same process has somehow developed. Resurrection plants have leaves that can be desiccated to papery brown shreds, feign death for years, and then rehydrate to normal function. It is their unusual biochemistry that allows them to do this, an accidental trait and something that they did not choose. As they wither, their leaves fill with concentrated sucrose, thick sugar left behind during the drying. This syrup stabilizes and preserves the leaves, even when they are drained of their green chlorophyll.

Yes. Perhaps something has been happening. I see through a glass, darkly, but at least I still can see. Because tiny resurrections are possible, have happened, will surprise me again.

Resurrection plants are usually tiny, no bigger than your fist. They are ugly and small and useless and special. When it rains, their leaves puff up but do not become green for forty-eight hours because it takes time for photosynthesis to start up. During those strange days of its reawakening the plant lives off of pure concentrated sugar, and intense sustained infusion of sweetness, a year’s worth of sucrose coursing through its veins in just one day. This little plant has done the impossible: it has transcended the wilted brown of death.

I may not feel led, but I have hope. Perhaps that’s why Chunk and I take all those walks. We are practicing, keeping our walking legs strong and our joy intact.

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Seeds

I’ve stopped counting the number of times I return to this space. This blog. This need. I’d say it’s been a hell of a year, but that’s old news.

I could make a list of things I’ve lost: Dogs. Husband. Ohio. Stability. Certainty. Windows I can open. Books.

I could make a list of things I’ve kept, things I’ve found: Friends. Rocks. Sun. Good work. Alabama. Dogs. Windows that are painted shut. Books.

A list of things I’ll never find: A swimsuit that fits and wasn’t made for swimming laps. Certainty. Sanity. Jeans I can breathe in.

I am reading Lab Girl, by Hope Jahren. She is a scientist and a writer, one of my favorite combinations. As is my way, what I read puts my life in a context I can’t find on my own. [She is writing about a tree she grew up with, that she loves, that has been cut down.]

Time has also changed me, my perception of my tree and my perception of my tree’s perception of itself. Science has taught me that everything is more complicated than we first assume, and that being able to derive happiness from discovery is a recipe for a beautiful life. It has also convinced me that carefully writing everything down is the only real defense we have against forgetting something important that once was and is no more, including the spruce tree that should have outlived me but did not.

Lab Girl: A Story of Trees, Science and Love, p. 36

My tree is my marriage. That’s the year it’s been. But trees make more seeds than can grow, each one “impossible and inevitable,” as Jahren writes. That’s a fine description of life. That “something so hard can be so easy if you just have a little help” is where I am now. That “in the right place, under the right conditions, you can finally stretch out into what you’re supposed to be.”

When the embryo within a seed starts to grow, it basically just stretches out of its doubled-over waiting posture, elongating into official ownership of the form that it assumed years ago. The hard coat that surrounds a peach pit, a sesame or mustard seed, or a walnut’s shell mostly exists to prevent this expansion. In the laboratory, we simply scratch the hard coat and add a little water and it’s enough to make almost any seed grow. I must have cracked thousands of seeds over the years, and yet the next day’s green never fails to amaze me. Something so hard can be so easy if you just have a little help. In the right place, under the right conditions, you can finally stretch out into what you’re supposed to be.

After scientists broke open the coat of a lotus seed (Nelumbo nucifera) and coddled the embryo into growth, they kept the empty husk. When they radiocarbon-dated this discarded outer shell, they discovered that their seedling had been waiting for them within a peat bog in China for not less than two thousand years. This tiny seed had stubbornly kept up the hope of its own future while entire human civilizations rose and fell. And then one day this little plant’s yearning finally burst forth within a laboratory. I wonder where it is right now.

Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.

Lab Girl, pp. 38-39

Christ is Risen Mary Karr

Gabriel convened a plushie meeting a week ago Saturday night (attendees had to bring their “yes” tickets as proof of invitation) to discuss our plans, each of us, for the following day.

His were concrete and Easter-basket driven: get up and have a special breakfast (pancakes or waffles count); wait for daddy to hide the Easter eggs; find the Easter eggs; come back inside and see what the Easter bunny brought (his belief in the power of the Bunny still rooted and strong).

J went next. J, with his grown-into, contrarian, slightly depressive (particularly as the day wears on) nature: Easter isn’t about a reedonkulous Bunny! I want to read the story about Jesus rising from the dead!

G proceeds to crawl under his bed, feelings hurt. John tells G that J has a right to free speech, and that we need to honor that. Come out, he says. Don’t get your feelings hurt. G crawls back out and puts his head on John’s lap. I admonish J for being mean about his free speech; we are in his bed cuddling as all of this unfolds.

My turn. I say that what G says sounds great. That I’d also like to read the Easter story, as this Lent has been a wash in many ways, particularly churchwise. [Birmingham is the nearest full-blown church (we attend a reader’s service in nearer-by Moundville—a church where the priest fell asleep in the Lord over a year ago), but the drive isn’t an easy one and I’m too tired to do it most weekends or with any regularity during the week. The church itself is on the rigorous end of the Orthodox spectrum, and I dread shepherding the boys through it, particularly since they’ve become accustomed to a much shorter reader’s service on Sundays. I only go to Bham when the boys are out of town or sick. So much for my parental and Christian responsibility for their spiritual formation. Epic fail? Perhaps. While I’m OK with that for now—gentleness and patience with myself being my self-chosen spiritual practices this Lent around—I acknowledge a change need be made in the near future).] In the moment, I don’t verbalize that last parenthetical. Instead I add I’d like to get up and have my coffee in my room and rise slowly to the day. Every one seems to approve.

Your turn Daddy, says G. I just want what you guys want, he replies. To the uninstructed reader, this may sound like a cop-out, but G’s cool with the answer, and considering I earlier unleashed my “I-feel-like-a-single-parent” diatribe on John just hours before, having taken the boys to a wondrous creek of a nature preserve by myself earlier in the day, I know he’s doing his best to do what he barely finds himself capable of doing. Suffice to say, I don’t know what it’s like to live his life, and best as I can imaginestand (my just-now-made-up word to convey how I try to understand his particular way of being in the world), surrender to our wishes is a spiritual discipline he practices quite regularly, willingly, and graciously.

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The day itself comes quietly and peacefully. The sun couldn’t have been brighter. All progressed as most all of us wished: coffee in my room (served by John), check; waffles, check; egg hunt, check; Easter baskets, check; Mediterranean pieced-together feast, check. We didn’t get to the Easter story until Monday night, but we aren’t known for being timely. In the afternoon the boys and I vacuum up the spiders in their basement hideout, followed by my sweeping up buckets of pollen-laden fallen leaves and dried up blooms. Late in the afternoon I finish reading Lit, a book by Mary Carr about her journey to sobriety, community, and, in turn, the Catholic faith. The book ended up being my unexpected but welcome companion throughout Holy Week. As Bright Week progresses, I turn to Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved by Beauty, by Kate Hennessy (Day’s granddaughter). Though I have no plans for such, I may yet end up a Southern Catholic of a sort, that being what’s available in this Tuscaloosa of an Alabama. My true home is forever Orthodoxy, but considering my Mennonite Baptist Methodist Presbyterian Episcopalian road trip so far, well, the Lord only knows.

Around here, Southerners like to part with a kind of conversational benediction. Rather than “Have a good day,” they up the ante with “Have a blessed day.” Maybe it’s simply that the novelty of it hasn’t worn off, but I feel a true intention in their words, like a prayer being said over me.

Blessed may it be.

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I Wish I Were a Morning Poem

That’s all, really. I wish I were a morning poem. Perhaps I am a morning poem.

“I Wish I Were Mexico,” by Beckian Fritz Goldberg

When my father came back from the dead he came back as a smell. He came back as a bus passing comes back as a cloud, fumy and genie-like granting three wishes. He came back as a seaside town. He came back as the great parlor of fragrance thrown open by coconut. Meanwhile the bus was winding past Taxco, the child hanging out the window on a mountain road wanting to throw up. And when the bus turned and held itself mid-air the child died and someone else got on with her life. That’s the one my father returns to because it’s so simple. You breathe. And the bloom of gin comes back like a tree.

Because, being a morning poem, I just am, as poems are. I move deeper than motherhood, beyond the public library circulation desk (new job). I forget to wrestle with whether or not we should put our child on drugs to ease his anxiety and stimulate his ability to comprehend and retain what he’s trying (so hard, he’s trying) to learn. I stop questioning the psychiatrist’s assertion that “I don’t see the autism diagnosis, at all.” I stop judging what I perceive as my husband’s failures. I hear the barge horn blast downriver, the train clacking loudly and quickly across the golf course that moves every day closer to wild. There’s Lucy, by the window, keeping track of me. She is a morning poem too.

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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

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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

The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh

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,

She sat
     still being
and not being afraid
     but afraid            some
of the same
     vast girl talking to
the gardenias.

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

They Who Rule

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,

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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,

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preying mantises,

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click beetles,

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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.