Thursday, May 19, 2016

Invisible cities

Tonight L and the kids are in New York and I remain in Maryland.  The older kids spent the day with our former nanny and her new charge, who happens to live in our old building.  Our nanny sent photos of the kids in our old red elevator, an elevator I haven't seen or set foot in for almost a year now.  I think if I stood inside that elevator and smelled that old scent, like the kids did, or rested my hand on that old wooden handlebar, like the kids did, I would just disappear.  Also tonight, L met up with some of our friends for dinner at one of our favorite haunts.  Seeing their text messages to organize the evening felt almost ghostly, like looking back in time.

On the other hand, tonight I sat in Chipotle, with no particular place to be or go, and got choked up reading about the death of Alexander Hamilton. From Ron Chernow's biography:

Except for one heartbreaking moment, he managed to maintain his exceptional composure.  Eliza had not allowed the children into their father's presence the previous day, but she now realized that the time had come for Hamilton to bid them farewell.  She held up their two-year-old boy, Philip, to his lips for a final kiss.  Then Eliza lined up all seven children at the foot of the bed so that Hamilton could see them in one final tableau, a sight that rendered him speechless.  According to Hosack, "he opened his eyes, gave them one look, and closed them again till they were taken away."

Something I've thought a lot about is the place I'm trying to find here in Maryland.  L has done a better job than me of building friendships and creating a network of people around her.  I feel like the nature of my work is more isolated than before, and I feel like I so rarely find people in the same station of life, my age with a young family.  I miss our New York friends very, very badly.  In moments of gratitude and bitterness I've been thinking about people in terms of whether or not they are present.  I scowl and wish others were more present in my life, but what do I do to be present for others?

I have thought about things I can do to find my place here.  I should join clubs or something.  I should be a Knight of Columbus or a Rotary member.  I should make friends with the parents at the kids' schools.  I should also work out more.  I think it might be good to find a therapist, but all the therapists here advertise their services with gauzy pictures of their broad, moon-like faces, and they seem to be from another planet.

These days I can't bear the idea of going back to New York. I think it would just break my heart. I have no desire to assume the mantle of that old life: that old job, that old rent, that old sense of precariousness.  But there is so much to lament about the end of that chapter of things, especially when we are coming on to the first anniversary of our move and so much still seems to be suspended mid-air.  New York has become a ghost town and it's only been replaced with the faintest outline of this new world.

And then the ending of the final letter from Hamilton to his wife:

The consolations of religion, my beloved, can alone support you and these you have a right to enjoy.  Fly to the bosom of your God and be comforted.  With my last idea, I shall cherish the sweet hope of meeting you in a better world. 
Adieu best of wives and best of women. Embrace all my darling children for me.

Thursday, April 21, 2016


Last year's bunnies have not yet reappeared.

The groundhog fled to the woods as we neared.

The squirrels continue their race unabated.

The cardinals rest on the ground, satiated.

The stinkbug in the kitchen once released its blast.

Trapped spiders under cups return to the grass.

Bald eagles soar, long-necked geese alight.

Moths on the window show their bellies at night.

Mice in the ceiling are found one by one.

Lizards under steps dart out for the sun.

The snake in the fireplace never returned.

The dog across the water barks but is spurned.

Last year's bunnies have not yet reappeared.

The tick was found nestled beside the girl's ear.

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Alice's 6th birthday poem, annotated

Dear Alice, I'm so happy that you're six today
Having you as my daughter always brightens my day. (1)

I'm so proud of the girl that you are becoming:
Loyal and kind, smart, funny, and loving.

When I look at you, I see a bright spark
Bubba (2), you've got moxie (3) that can light up the dark!

There's no place on earth I would rather go
Than to cuddle up with you to read a book or watch a show (4).

When I'm with you I know we'll have a fun time,
Laughing, chatting, playing "Is that a good rhyme?" (5)

And just a reminder, in case you forgot
Always be kind, always learn quite a lot. (6)

When I see you on the school bus or having fun with your friends
I can catch a glimpse of the path when childhood ends. (7)

Sometimes I can even see the lady you'll become
Gentle, gracious, charming, a lot like your mum. (8)

Perhaps that's because you're a young lady of six
Not a baby anymore, but a child, wild and rich. (9)

You know I love you forever, which no one can deny
I love you forever, even if you give me roll-eye. (10)

Happy Birthday!

(1) I'm deeply ashamed that I had to rhyme "day" and "today" in the opening stanza. An inauspicious beginning.
(2) "Bubba" is Alice's nickname; Barrow's is "Buster." Josie's nickname is to be determined, but she will surely acquire one. 
(3) One of the Berenstain Bears books talks about "moxie"; Al had no idea so we tried to explain it.
(4) Usually HGTV; Al, like the rest of us, is a big "Fixer Upper" fan. Cooking shows are also good ("Top Chef," "Chopped," "Chef's Table."
(5) I'm really proud that the kids like to improve little sing-songy rhymes ("this is a song, I sing it so well, this is my song, I hope you don't smell"). I love that they can grasp the rhythm of language and reach for words that sound similar; they'll usually finish one of these ditties by asking, "Is that a good rhyme?"
(6) When the kids go to school, I tell them, "Be kind and learn a lot." 
(7) The first time I saw Alice board the school bus and drive off was a shockingly emotional moment. Even now I do feel a twinge as the bus toodles off with her on board.
(8) Al has these moments -- sitting with her legs crossed primly, when she rests an elbow on the table and gestures with her hand as she talks, when she shakes her head in mild exasperation or gentle humor -- and suddenly she is a young woman before my eyes.
(9) Another weak rhyme.
(10) Al's version of snotty teenage entitlement manifests itself in the facial expression we call "roll-eye" -- eyes rolled up, tongue hanging out of her mouth. Usually she does it in jest, but not always. (Barrow tries to imitate it but can't quite swing it -- he ends up jutting his forehead and looking upwards.)

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Imperfect contrition

On Tuesday I had planned to go to confession after work, in honor of holy week. I was late leaving so I didn't get to the church until later than expected. There were about ten people ahead of me in line. If each person takes five minutes in the confessional, that's -- holy crap, I'm going to be here forever.

Waiting in line my mind was all over the place. I felt obnoxious and snarky.  I studied the stations of the cross illustrated on the wall, occasionally checking my phone when my back was turned, waiting to hear the latest in a family text exchange.  It was warm in the church and I could hear kids playing outside, dogs barking. I was tempted to leave. I saw people I recognized from church and entertained sarcastic and uncharitable thoughts. I thought about the stained glass windows and what I'm pretty sure was a mistake in their assembly.  And I counted the people ahead of me, over and over, wondering who was taking so long and what on earth they could be talking about in there, occasionally feeling abashed when priest or penitent would raise their voice and I could hear snatches of their conversation.

Inside the confessional I still felt disengaged. I went to reconciliation before Christmas and I didn't feel like I had accumulated a lot of big stuff to get rid of -- my soul didn't feel as thick and slovenly as before, this was a mere teeth-cleaning of a confession. The priest was a little more stern than I expected, offering me very direct suggestions for things I should be doing to be a better person. I suppose I deserved that. The conversation went in some unexpected directions but I still felt off -- my head just wasn't there. He asked if I had said a prayer of contrition while I was waiting in line (I hadn't). He asked me to pray for the others who had confessed, because he had asked them to pray for me. I felt a little cowed at this.

I don't know. I am still returning to the rhythms of a spiritual life. I have been drawn to the mercy and compassion expressed and lived by the pope. The prescriptive elements, the instructions on what to do in my life, in the bedroom, in the realm of my family and other people's -- I just don't know.


In the words of a colleague, it's been a day. I called L earlier in the morning for a pep talk. Her friend was in town and heard L's end of the line; she was surprised at our midday conference, but such is our egalitarian marriage. Later in the day L suggested we slip out early and meet on Solomons.  Driving over the bridge in the late afternoon I could feel my cares slough away from me as the bridge arced over the water.  The sun was shining, gulls were in the air.

After I parked and approached L and the kids on the boardwalk in front of the restaurant Alice started running towards me, spindly legs flying, backlit by the sun. Barrow started chugging along too. We went in and sat by the water in the shadow of the building itself. I took B for a walk to the dock, hoping to spark his interest with the water and the boats and the mallards, but he just wanted to go back to the table.  Alice waved from the deck.  The kids gave us the gift of a pleasant evening, eating their macs and cheese, letting us talk and then sitting on laps and playing with the baby. It was a really good evening, a harbinger of the summer nights to come.

I thanked L for the gift she had given me. Driving back over the bridge my mind returned to the cares of the day, but now I felt like I had some mental scaffolding to keep my worries in their proper place. This too shall pass.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

A rough night at Chik-fil-A

I drove to Chik-fil-A right after work to meet the rest of the family.  I wanted to take advantage of spring break at work and the lingering spring daylight in the air to get some reading done.

There were dozens of other people ranging around the counter, desperate to order. I looked at my watch and decided to take a gamble: I ordered a milkshake to consume before the kids arrived and I would have to share. I sat down at a table and settled into a New Yorker article about teenage sex offenders (hard to focus on amidst the noise of kids yelling, people chewing, chairs scraping the ground). When the employee delivered my shake I hoped he wouldn't glance at my article and see an unfortunate word or phrase.

The restaurant filled with kids and families from one of the Christian schools down here.  Soon A and B came bounding in, with L hoisting J in her carrier just behind.  Shamelessly I pushed my empty milkshake cup away from me and got up to find a table for all of us. Reader, I littered.

We managed to secure a four-top such that I was sitting directly in the path of the sun.  A blade of light was stabbing into my eye as the thrum of people around us raged on. The kids were tired and fickle; B blocked the doors of the play area and A whimpered when it was time to eat.  My salad was virtuous but unpleasant on top of my hastily-consumed milkshake. I had succeeded in not sharing but I was paying a price.

A few minutes later -- after joylessly eating dinner, after the kids suffered around us, as the sun sat resolutely in my line of sight -- we left.  I went back to my previous table and retrieved my milkshake cup to throw away. I explained to the women sitting there why I had abandoned it and they laughed politely.

We staggered out into the Maryland evening. There are five of us now, L and me and three kids, the latest one, Josephine, born in November. She looks like Alice with Barrow's blue eyes. I walked L and the kids to the minivan -- also new; also, burgundy -- and packed them up and went back to my car. As I got closer to home I rolled down the window and listened to the music, work work work work work, the milkshake heavy in my gut, the money we spent on dinner frittered away. Inside the house the kids were fragile and irritated, always on the brink of crying or else fully over the cliff, but soon enough they would be asleep.  Three kids in a bedroom, the humidifier whirring, three warm bodies damp and restless in the night.