Alabama: Ohio version

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.





Blue Dog Gone

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.


© Ze Bernardinello

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.

And then Jonah was diagnosed with autism.
And then I was diagnosed with PMDD.
And then I very nearly had a nervous breakdown.

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.



“Mom, can I have a break?”

I have become the Lego-Nazi overlord. How did this happen? O yeah. In my attempt to control what I have, at various times, perceived to be the Lego takeover of every hard, flat, potential working-space in my home I have enforced a strict timeline concerning use of the kitchen bar for Lego projects (which currently includes a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle transmogrification set, purchased with rolls of quarters, nickels, dimes, and pennies—O, so Many pennies—that G and I spent Saturday afternoon pilfering from John’s change bowl, counting and recounting, and packing into several dozen paper tubes).

But the kid is six. And while he has this rather grating habit of shrieking, grunting, and stomping at the ground instead of coming to find me and using discernible words to tell me he needs help, the kid is six. And Lego sets can be tricky to get right, especially when they try to do too much, like transmogrify a skinny guy in a white undershirt into, um, this:


Seriously (as J likes to say), how can I compete? The Lego takeover shall carry on, even as I surreptitiously if accidentally, of course, vacuum up the odd hand, lightsaber hilt, or chewed up pair of Lego handcuffs.




The Hollow Land

Great old-marketed-for-a-new-audience-book I discovered (thank you New York Times Book Review—you are becoming a dear friend of mine): The Hollow Landby Jane Gardam.

The short, connected stories in this young adult fiction revolve around two families—the Batemans (a well-known London family with connections and a journalist patriarch) and the Teesdales (longtime native Welsh who know their land, every glade, bell, and legend). The youngest members of both—Harry and Bell—recognize in each other a ken and, over the years, set out on the adventures of boys who lived when boys roamed free without the fear of “stranger danger.” Never you mind the occasional jaunt down an abandoned mine that (not so surprisingly) collapses and traps them until (miracle upon serendipity upon miracle) Bell’s grandfather thinks to look where no one would.

Over Christmas holiday Bell comes looking for Harry to go on an icicle ride. Harry has no idea but follows along, game as he is.

With the sudden changes ’round here—icy rain to freezing cold and snow, icicles I have no idea how they came to be and fall—I wish I could have been along on this particular adventure, to see how a waterfall stops falling, mid-fall.

from “The Icicle Ride,” in The Hollow Land, by Jane Gardam:

IMG_9034-1Harry climbed up the steps of stone in the wall and put his miserable blue hands in the sopped gloves on top of it and dropped down into the scrunching snow—and deeper than Bell, being smaller, nearly to his waist.

And there round a corner to the left where the beck fell sheer, stood high as the sky a chandelier of icicles. Hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds of them down the shale steps of a waterfall. There were long ones and short ones and middling ones and fat ones like an arm and thin ones like a thread. They hung down from up as high as you could see and down to your very wellingtons. And not only water had turned to spears of glass but every living thing about—the grasses, the rushes, the spider webs, the tall great fearless thistles. You could pull the tubes of ice off the long wands of the loose-strife. You could lift them off like hollow needles. You could look right down them like crystal test tubes. You could watch them twist like fairy ear-rings. And as the sun reach them they all turned at once to every color ever known—rose and orange and blue and green and lilac—and Harry and Bell watched them until the sun slipped down a little and left them icicles again.

“It don’t happen often,” Bell said. “Once before I seed it when Grandad brought me years back—your age. It happens when there’s a temperature change—very quick. Snap-snap. It freezes sudden. Turns them all to ice in midflow. All the grasses an all—just as they’re standing or bending.”

“Just like a spell. Like The Snow Queen.

They stood on.

“Can we pick some?”

They began to pick. Not very bravely at first. It seemed a sin to spoil it. “But it’ll all be gone tomorrow,” said Bell. “Grandad says they don’t often last a day.

They took the tips off the rushes and pulled. They broke off the water icicles like peppermint rock or toffee. They took all thicknesses and laid them carefully in the snow. Somewhere they found in a pocket some bits of John Robert twine to bind them and parceled together a heap of the thickest. Then Harry collected some of the very fine threads in to his hands and they slowly climbed over the wall and walked, not feeling the  cold at all back down the road.

Ah, the snow day

IMG_8950“Did you know that dog poop is shaped like a heart, except in a brown way? And what I mean by a ‘brown way’ is, it’s poop.”   —Jonah, overheard having a conversation with his brother, prior to which they both were shouting “Diarrhea! Diarrhea! Diarrhea!” (Someone please tell me, whose idea was it to make the word “diarrhea” so fun to say?)

So begins another snow-day morning.

I’ve already yelled twice. My idea of a snow day (coffee by the big front window, quiet, a book, staring out at the world in silence) and my sons’ idea of a snow day (iPad! Sledding! Running maniacally around the house chanting “Diarrhea! Diarrhea! Diarrhea!”) differs considerably.

Saturday, I practically barricaded myself in my bedroom with Jonah’s Pinkie Pie in response to such mania, intent on making some sense of the pony’s tangled mane and tail. (And let me just say, they don’t make My Little Pony hair like they used to. Someone needs to give those ponies a moroccan/argan oil treatment.) Making a braided rope of her long pink tail, I revisited my desire to do girlie things with a little girl. I have never wished that my boys would be otherwise, but there are days when I wish they were just a little less manic bruiser, a little more coloring pages and tea parties.

But what the heck am I saying? I was sitting on my bed braiding the hair of my eight-year-old son’s My Little Pony.

I’ve been thinking about what makes for a day. Is it ticking off the internal list of tasks I keep for myself? Is it getting the laundry done? Is it the book by the window or clearing the driveway of snow? Is it making dinner and fixing other people’s sentences? Is it taking the dogs (and myself) for our walk? Is it the killer margarita my husband makes? (Yes, it is most certainly that.)

Of course it is and of course it’s not. It is also only a way to measure time. A day is not a failure or a success. It’s more like a place, to attend again, over and again. To make the same hundred choices a hundred times over and every so often (I hope, dear God) to make a choice that moves me closer to the habit of love, stepping me back from that infernal internal checklist. It is writing another post like this, about attending and paying attention and moving closer to love and asking myself why I write it and not having a particular answer and writing it anyway.

Because doing a thing over again and over and again holds a strangely-secret joy, which grown-ups forget to remember they can become.

As G.K. Chesterton says in his inimitable way:

Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.

–from Orthodoxy

And if you’re lucky (like me), or blessed, or whatever your words for it are, you’ll hear a few bars of that melodious song—“Get out of my penis! Get out of my butt!”—drifting up the basement stairs.

I kid you not.


(Better late than never, right? We are a week-and-a-half past G’s birthday, but that doesn’t make him any less five.)


It is cold, and we are here—home from school on account of it.

Lucky G to be born on such a cold day, to celebrate with a day off from school. We had to take the interstate to the hospital, on account of the ice that day, though I would have preferred the winding county road I’d travelled monthly, then weekly, to my prenatal appointments. But on that day I sang along to Rosanne Cash, making my way through the contractions (an understatement if ever there was) and trying not to scream at John every time he drifted over the rumble strip or hit a rough patch on that damnable strip of I-70 that runs from Columbia to St. Louis.

We were all finding our way through the best we could. Jonah was maybe the luckiest, still three and happily playing with his favorite sitter. John brought books and read while I walked circles in the hospital room, wishing I hadn’t drawn the old-school nurse, feeling sorry for the teenage girl next door, trying not to slap the three “specialists” who, trying to find a vein, made my other pain bearable in that moment.

And now here he is, five and chatty and stubborn and so sweetly loving. He and me, we don’t always see eye to eye because we’re both set on the thing we want the other one to do, or not do, whatever the case may be. With his dad and brother he can sometimes make a better match—his stalwart, pressing ways meet their give-and-take fishiness well; his sweetness always wins the day.


G: “I will help you Jonah. I will learn you how to play.”


J: “I don’t want you to turn five.”
G: “It will be OK Jonah.”




Spots and more spots

Spots and spots and more spots. Let’s see…strep, impetigo, more strep, allergic reaction (Lots of spots) to impetigo antibiotic (no more sulfa drugs for us, thank you very much).


In the midst of, both mutts escaped through the side gate—yes, it had been left open—and upon returning from their adventures, which most assuredly involved eating unknown carcasses and/or fast food litter, went all kinds of sideways in the digestive department over the course of the week. I won’t go into particulars here, except to say that I’ve never experienced vomit that smelled so much like diarrhea. Experience being the key word here, as I’ve spent a good few days on hands and knees with every kind of cleaner you can imagine trying to get the smell out of carpet. Unfortunately, fair Lucy the Grey cleansed herself of gastronomical distress while John and I were on a date at the movies and our equally fair babysitter didn’t find Lucy’s offering because, well, she was busy cleaning up another pile of the stuff off the dog bed. Being the explorer he is, Jonah discovered said carpet deposit in his stocking feet. And tracked it across the kitchen while yelling in disgust.

I have two words for you: enzyme cleaner. But not just any enzyme cleaner. Bac-Out. The stuff is a miracle.

In truth, I wish I could procure some kind of similar product for my brain, to get the stink out, so to speak. In recent months, I’ve taken to just about full-time copyediting and proofreading for various theological/philosophical/biblical commentary-type presses. I am good at the work, but for me to be good at the work, the work requires almost complete self-immersion. Meeting deadlines ain’t my cup of tea; I mean, they are so dramatic. They push my anxiety button, which is an area of my brain I like to avoid at all costs. Even if it means not taking risks. Even if it means failing to do the thing I know I need to do.

The work almost always means a great push at the end to meet the deadline; I invariably come out on the other side of it dazed, if not a little confused (and often hosting a head cold). My capacity for detail having been used up by the work, I forget things like turning off the spigot that is filling my glass with water; taking my child to the doctor for his check-up and immunizations; making my child’s lunch to send to school; sending my child’s lunch with him to school (fortunately, Jonah has charmed the lunch ladies, who seem to have taken him under their wing and bestow upon him piles of cheesy breadsticks).

Blue tongue

Granted, there is a kind of freedom in this obliviousness, a kind of freedom in single-mindedness. For as much as it exhausts me, the work is a simplifying force. As a tender of household, the multi-tasking can take me over. I know what Sylvia Plath means; there’s the sense that I’ve “Boarded a train there’s no getting off,” which is motherhood and womanhood and personhood in a nutshell. But the metaphor breaks down, as all metaphors are want to do. Aren’t we meant to stay on? Isn’t that what love does—keeps us on the train?

Did I say it feels like January? It is not. It is November. As a personal response/survival technique, I have swiped a phoenix charm with a bright blue turquoise stone in its belly from the odds-and-ends treasures John collected in a past life (I found it in the change bowl on his bookshelf). I have found a piece of leather. I have tied it ’round my throat. I have decided I will wear it to get myself to the other side of the cold grey. That blue in the bird’s belly will get me back; I know it will.

fall snow