The Wonky Tree of Possibility

They say that we are primed to notice what’s wrong, to anticipate danger, and to remember bad things and disasters. Life as a new stepmom is full of hard moments. I could fill pages with stories of rejection and misunderstanding and on some days it seems that my jealousy and insecurity in relation to my role in this new family knows no end. In light of all that, it has become especially important to stop and notice, and even look for, what is good, what is funny, what is kind and thoughtful, and something like love. This here is me carving out a space for all of that. I like to think of what I’m doing as cultivating the ground for possibility.

Last Sunday morning —at my husband’s suggestion— I offered to take M to the store to buy his Christmas present. (Step family experts say that shoulder to shoulder activities between stepmom and child are good ways to cultivate relationship that otherwise, by default, would always favor the bio-parent, often to the exclusion of the step-parent.) I felt very shy about asking, not wanting a rejection, but in the spirit of the first rule of improv — to always say YES, even if it’s a YES AND… — I went with it and asked. She said OK and I went ahead with that as a yes. 

On the drive to the store I said a few things but then did my best to let silences be there and not fill them in too quickly with questions or nervous chatter. At one point M filled in a silence all on her own and it took us down a lovely path wherein she told me about a short story they had read in school (she’s in 7th grade)— it was all about an earth family that moves to Mars. From what she said, I figured that the story is all about identity and labels and names, a subject of much interest to me, especially in relation to how my definitions and assumptions about something can limit me from seeing things as they actually are, or could be. Anyway, I let her keep telling me the story, every now and then making little interested sounds but all the while trying not to be too eager — know what I mean? Then she pointed out a shift in the narrating voice from the beginning to the end of the story and something about”third person omniscient”… Even though this had likely been a whole lesson in her language arts class she talked about third person omniscient so la-de-da and nonchalantly, I did my best to remain cool but could not help telling her how much I loved noticing the perspective in which a story is told, especially when there are shifts in perspective!, because it can let you in on so many subtle things without the writer ever having to spell them out for you. I asked her the name and author of the story, which she didn’t remember, and which she reminded me she never remembers, but after a couple beats she went on to tell me that she had the story in her backpack at our place. 

Later, at home, at some point she remembered(!) and brought it to me. And then we sat on the love seat together, she doing her science homework and I reading the short story, which happens, it turns out, to be by none other than Ray Bradbury. (I didn’t know this until the very end and kept thinking, as I read, Wow! This is one well-written story!)

So, that happened. And whoa but now I’m on a roll to remember what else not to forget! Here’s another that!

wonkychristmastree2016The night before, after picking M up from girl scouts, my husband, M and I went to buy a Christmas tree. We wanted the smallest one possible seeing as we will only be enjoying it for a few days and will then be away from Christmas through New Years, and so we picked, indeed, the smallest one, which also happened to be a little wonky in shape. But it was the one M liked and we happily went with it. Then Jeffrey bungey chorded it to the bike rack on the back of the car and we laughed and laughed about how funny it looked. And then we came home and WE(!)-in-caps-and-exclamation  made cookies and decorated the wonky tree. We didn’t have a star for the top so M made a snowflake star.

So that’s the story of our wonky tree.

Last night M and her big sister R (home from college) came over and we celebrated Christmas. Here is that tree. Not bad, huh?

wonky-tree

But quite possibly my favorite tree this year happened on a lark when M misunderstood her dad’s suggestion and staked a bunch of old books on top of each other. Like this. And I added a string of wee battery powered LED lights. It’s possibly my favorite tree ever and I don’t think I’ll take it down when Christmas leaves. Don’t you love it?

book-tree

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All the Dresses

A huge attic with all-the-dressesdresses and dresses and more dresses, all free for the taking, provided, only and simply, that they fit and I like them. So I try them. Dresses I thought wouldn’t look good, do, and dresses I would have been drawn to in my past, don’t. There are belts and accessories too, lots and lots. Everything is draped —at once beautifully and effortlessly— over wrought iron rods, hanging in old bureaus, or folded in dressers with drawers out and about in a stack or lazily left open.

I am not alone in this attic. There is this sense of women coming and going all the time trying on dresses. There are enough for everyone. The dresses are beautiful and one-of-a-kind in an odd —irreverent, maybe?!— and thrifted way. It’s about a new way of looking at things, with other women, warm and stylish and sparkly-eyed, to say: “no that’s not so great, but what about this here?” It’s like the style sisterhood of abundance and kindness, there simply for the trying and for the taking.

And how do I feel in this attic of All the Dresses? Worthy, dammit, I feel worthy. The kind of worthy you get to take for granted. The kind of worthy you can hang your hat on. Worthy without question. Worthy without doubt. THAT worthy.

It’s only now, as I write this dream out loud, I realize how often in real life I haven’t actually felt worthy. That makes me cry, but cry in the way of the words of that old timey song my husband and I heard on the AM radio in the car yesterday: “it’s so gay but in a melancholy way.” Happy-sad: happy that it happened and that somewhere inside me I must know it to be possible, and sad that it has felt so out of the ordinary. But there it is, Worthy, and there they are, All the Dresses(!), pointing my way home by way of this dream of plenty and of sisterhood and of belonging.

And then, channeling Stasia Savasuk (whose style school I recently finished and whose next school starts tomorrow) I ask:

“How do you feel when you wear Worthy?”

To which now, having been to the attic, I can say: Me, me, I know! Worthy is an old and spacious attic filled with beautiful and funky and one-of-a-kind dresses, there for the taking, provided, only, that they fit and that I like them. When I wear Worthy I hold my head high. I don’t hide. My voice is brave and proud. And my swagger is sassy. I belong.

And then there is me melting chocolate last night to make a mini fondue to dip all the things into —the potato chip, the almond, the… “whatelse?” I say it like one word, nonchalantly and out loud: “Whatelse?” And then, before I can take my next breath, there she is, unreachable before but next to me now with her 12-year-old eyes eager to find all the little things.

And that is how, somewhere between the length of a breath and the width of a wish, it starts: the chocolate-dipping of all the things: the potato chip, the plantain chip, the almond, the strawberry, the raspberry… Then she thinks of the fresh ginger in the freezer and I say we’d give your dad the surprise of his life and then we go ahead of course and make not one, not two, but three knock-your-eyes-out spicy chocolate-covered gingers to go with the cherry-coconut milk ice cream that is churning as we speak. And sure enough, he would yelp and sure enough he would jump up for a tissue to spit into because hot damn but ginger sure is a spicy wolf even when it comes dressed up in a chocolate dress. And then we would sit, the threesome of us in which I so often feel the odd-one-out, the one who doesn’t belong, but not tonight, we three on the couch we would eat our cherry ice cream with all the wee chocolate-covered things. And then she would say she is cold and then I would offer her a blanket and hotdamn but this time she would say yes —?YES!— to my offer and then she would even go on to say that it is soft. The blanket, that is, though who knows…

That happened. And after that I would fall asleep and dream of All the Dresses.

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The cat is my witness

Dear My Love’s 11-year-old Daughter,

You came to be with us for a week last night. You seemed happy, excited even, when you arrived, and I sensed you to be more comfortable and yourself around me. After supper –pizza!– your dad was in the kitchen cutting watermelon and you were in that little middle room by the huge chat noir poster. Right there, under the big cat’s watchful eye, I went to pass you and with barely the hint of something only possibly and distantly related to a thought, I let my hand touch your shoulder and then your hair as I kept walking, letting my arm and then my hand and then my finger linger as long as possible but only while still moving so as not to draw anyone’s attention –certainly not yours and probably not mine either– and then you, oh my god, you came along, the tippy tips of our fingers connected by some kind of wish-glue going on a year in the making until we were both in the kitchen standing by your dad. Hi!

That happened. The cat is my witness.

Later, in bed, I would start to tell your dad about it, and then stop short. (How he hates when I do that, and who can blame him.) Did it embarrass me that I would feel so moved by such a small tenderness, surely unnoticeable to anyone but me? Did it embarrass me like it had embarrassed me the countless times before when I’d reached toward you and you’d unmistakably pulled away? All The Literature would tell me that all of that is understandable, expected even, but The Literature had done nothing to comfort the something in me wanting more than anything to be family even while never ever wanting to force it.

This is me not forgetting. And this is me making space on the blanket of this cobbled-together mutty family, right next to all the missed connections, and just to the side of all my longings, and next to the bowl of a thousand tears, this: a touch, so come-and-go quick you might say it never happened, and the beat my heart skipped in spite of my best efforts at nonchalance.

You have no idea how much I think of you.

Signed,

Not Your Mother

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Smooth back my hair, I want to stay soft.

We took the canoe out on the pond last night. I had gotten off the bus just before Rosewood so I could walk down Belknap, our cross-fingers soon-to-be street. When I got to the pond, you were there already, as were several people on the banks just hanging out doing that pensive nothing one tends to do when sitting at the side of a pond in the evening.

I called out, though not too loudly, “hey there, can I have a ride?”

You’d seen me. You were already paddling toward me. Then you stepped into the pond to stable the canoe so I could get in and I threw in my bag and jumped in after. And you kissed me.

The air was warm and moist and smelled of summer. The light was low. You paddled and I sat facing headward, then turned so I could face you. In the background I saw that people had been watching us. Maybe they’d seen you carrying and setting down the canoe, strong and alone. Maybe they’d seen you go back for the paddles and life vests. Maybe they’d watched you put in and paddle out a bit to wait for me. And maybe then they’d seen me arrive and wave and you paddle back for me… One guy was smiling ever so softly, maybe wistfully. In any case, that’s how I’d have felt –sweetly wistful– watching us in the evening light on the pond in the air that smelled of summer.

Later, coming back close to dark, the just-waxing moon, the early-night air, the quiet water smelling of lake and of life… Most people who’d been on the banks of the pond earlier, gone home, or gone to wherever it is that people go when they leave a pensive pond. But on the island, on our island, on the island where you and I claimed a spot as our own last week in the clearing in the sun, on the island where M had, earlier that day, spotted a deer that you’d then named Otto, on that island last night it was hard.

Your eyes had kept darting to and fro and to and fro, supposedly looking for Otto, but in a restless kind of anxious energy. The whole time we ate you didn’t look at me, at least not with anything that felt like the lingering soft gaze of seeing, really seeing something, and I found myself feeling more and more lonesome and far away.

It’s hard for me when you’re not present and I sense you far away and distract-y… In those moments, it’s hard for me to find presence for myself within myself. That’s my challenge. I tend to want to go chasing after your presence. To get you back. I get tight. What people call “controlling,” but what is, more accurately, “scared.” Then I tend to withdraw in a hurt way and get hard and closed off, not only toward you but also, inevitably, toward me. After all, we do onto ourselves what we do onto others.

We definitely do onto ourselves what we maybe do onto others.

When I close off and harden protectively toward you, I close off to myself.

I’m still feeling the sting about what you told me Sunday about your conversation with M a couple months ago.

You’d told me in response to my saying, “We should go camping this summer with M!” I’d been excited hearing about the deer, about the unexpected visit to our island (your second trip in a day!), the sunbathing turtles, the red-winged swath-of-joy blackbirds… I’d been hopeful: hopeful about our new place together, hopeful about family, hopeful about the sweet and good moments and exchanges I’d recently had —and, truth be told, been collecting like stones in my pocket (I now had a little handful of them)— with M… Moments that felt tender, like wee shoots barely just popping out of the ground. Delicate, yet full of possibility. A sense of possibility to which I couldn’t help but adding happy stories and soundtracks.

Rewind:

You: Want to go camping this summer?

She: Mm-hmm!

You: The two of us or the three of us?

She: The two of us.

On Sunday night you said to me, “That must have felt like a gut punch.”

Sort of.

You’d noticed right away. I tried not to show it, but I could feel my heart sink the moment you said it. Like a tiny bubble had just burst. Ow. And just like that I felt a shell draw over my heart and watched myself retreat into myself even while I tried not to… Then throughout the evening I went from being somewhat alright and enjoying the game and our show, to feeling the sting, to thinking I shouldn’t feel hurt, always putting on the brave-face pretending it wasn’t such a big deal, telling myself I should be past this already.

That night, a nightmare. A tall bus with a new-in-town couple (who is looking for an apartment) tips over and I scrape my face on the pavement. I wake up with a cry. You are asleep.

“Go ahead, the two of you. Go without me. I’m fine.” I rehearse in my head.

Then, “Nah, I don’t need you anyway,” still in my head.

And then, from that place, I take the bus to work. “I don’t need your car anyway,” I think, again in my head.

“I walked everywhere before I knew you.” I think some more.

And then, “Your car is at your place,” I text, no longer just in my head, wondering if my text sounds as hurt as this part of me feels. Hoping it doesn’t, and hoping it does.

And then, as minds tend to do, my mind starts scanning for evidence of rejection related to family, showing me pictures of how M had turned and pulled away when you’d suggested I have a look at her hand, her sensitive skin, the eczema. And how, again, she’d turned away and brushed her long hair, her mouth set in determination to do it alone, when you’d suggested that I might help with her pig tails.

I see how innocent your telling me what M said was. How, sure, the conversation could have been handled differently, like how maybe it’d have been better not to set it up in that either-or kind of way, and how, maybe, given what the last month or so has brought us, it’d have been better not to tell me what she’d said…

You’re learning and I’m learning and we’re all learning, but it all feels so big and hard, especially to the part of me so much wanting family, including brushing a girl’s hair and kissing away the bits that hurt…

Is it possible to keep showing each other our softness?

Is it possible to show the tender or ugly or hurt or angry underbelly places? Not in a blaming way, but in an here-I-am-this-is-who-I-am-right-now kind of way?

Is it possible to bring the softness and trust intrinsic to the act of smoothing back and brushing hair to a girl who won’t let me brush hers?

Is it possible to stay soft when life feels hard?

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Wasn’t made for these times?

My love,

You asked for unfiltered… Here, the things I couldn’t say last night:

I feel bitter. I feel brittle. Resentful. Jealous. Paranoid. Probably I feel afraid, but it’s harder to get to that base layer of afraid. Bitter, on the other hand? Bitter is right there on the surface, the hard, hard surface. And I feel ashamed. Good people don’t go around owning up to bitter.

I want to smash beautiful things.

Last night, on the bathroom floor on your old comforters next to the lone pipe of heat, I noticed my thoughts. I knew they weren’t really true, but I was believing them anyway. I didn’t have it in me to do the inquiry I often find helpful (plus I find it hard to ask myself the questions in my head without losing track when I am upset ) but Byron Katie was there. In my mind’s eye she was sitting in a chair, calm as could be, near me. She was very much present but very much not in my face about it. She wasn’t even asking me the questions. She just sat there, with those kind and piercing eyes, not going anywhere. As if I was it. No one else, nothing else, mattered.

I said to Byron Katie in my mind: “Who will take care of me?”

She nodded ever so slightly and then, very slowly, said back to me: “Who will take care of you?”

I think the conversation about your finances had brought that thought right out to the front, although it had been hidden to me when we were sitting on your bed trying to talk, defensive and take-this-bull-by-the-horns-hard that I was.

Who will take care of me?

And then, still on the bathroom floor, “I messed up.” And right on cue, the mind brought what it calls its proof of failures:

Your Honor, members of the jury, I present you with Exhibit A: 45 years old and just making it. Exhibit B: 45 and no kids. Not even a one. Exhibit C: 45 and her monthly cycles doing sometimes-odd things the implication of which she doesn’t want to think about. Basically, your honor and dear jurors in the case of This Woman v.–

Versus what? This Woman v. her life? This woman’s actual life v. her thoughts about it? Thoughts that can be summed up as 45 and living, pretty much, month-to-month with short-numbered monthly cycles? This woman with a man she loves who is going through his very own endings and fears and insecurities, this man who loves her but can give her no guarantees of security?

Scared. Nothing to show for my life. “I messed up.”

I must sound like a broken record to you about so many of these things, and the fact that I must sound like a broken record to you makes me try to keep these orphaned and childless thoughts to myself most of the times they come up, but on the bathroom floor in the middle of the night, there they were.

decoupage creation

Shh. I put an ornament I made on the tree. (But don’t tell me!)

This morning I walked into my house. My housemates had already left and the house was empty. They had put up the Christmas tree last night, the Christmas tree I had told them, “OK, but do it without me.” I hardened at the sight of it this morning and then walked around choked up, then crying. Probably because I secretly loved it. Probably because I had, myself, been the one who had left me out of it.

When I stop trying to distract myself, when I stop getting or checking just one more whatever, when I stop from putting (or thinking of putting) one more thing in my mouth, when I stop from playing one more round of Solitaire, when I stop–

I could cry and cry and cry. Because I secretly love so many of the things I want to smash.

Sometimes I feel very sad.” When Kat Edmonson sings it, the record isn’t broken.

Love,

This Woman

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On this harvest moon.

You stopped by, asking for me, and I wasn’t here. You and May. Last night. Saffron told me. And tonight I could cry and cry.

You must be tired of hearing me go on and on about family. What a broken record I must sound like with all that wanting… All my forever wanting to hear someone say, with arms pulled around, “Ah, this one? She’s spoken for. She’s mine. She’s ours.”

“Are you my family?” I ask. “No.”

“Are you?”

“How about you. Are you my family?”

Something smarts about next weekend.

There’s a young girl, chin jutted out. (Probably the one you call Brave.) She says, “I don’t care. Go ahead. It don’t matter. Anyway, I have plans, yuh-unh. So anyway, I couldn’t have come with you anyway. It don’t matter to me. Nuh-unh. Go on. I’ve got my own. My family is coming to pick me up any minute now. Yuh-uh. So I couldn’t go with you anyway. It don’t matter to me. Go on.”

She likes to imagine that next week she’ll be able to disappear. Nothing drastic, just for a few days. Just to be gone. Not anywhere in particular, because surely the hollowness would go along if she were actually going to someplace in particular. This disappearing would be magical: not for permanent, not forever, just a few days.

She’s kickin’ dirt. Scabbed knee. Pig tails. Dusty shoes. Stopping now to pull up a knee sock.

Then comes now. How she’d climb the stairs to the top of the dorm roof. That’s where she’d go. Sometimes to get away from people upon people upon people who weren’t family. And bells. Wakeup bells. Breakfast bells. Lunch bells. Rest bells. Dinner. Bells and bells and bells. Hell bells. Sometimes she’d climb up there to look at the sky. The sky seemed so much closer than it ever had at home. Odd, that. Not that she’d ever really noticed the sky at home. But homesick makes you notice. And remember. Things you never thought you noticed, suddenly now they are a memory. Like the moon. This very same moon then, there, now, here. Would they be seeing it? Would you? This moon, maybe now, right now? Nah. They weren’t homesick, they were home. It’s homesick makes you notice.

Darkness would come on the roof, and with it, sometimes, stars. Sometimes she tried to speak, as if words would help her be, but air has a way of eating words. Such thin words, they all were, anyway, flimsy and gone before they even had a chance. Besides, it didn’t matter. There wasn’t anyone to hear and, anyway, there weren’t any right words for what was there. Not a single word in a single language she knew to say what the pit in her stomach, the lump in her throat, the hollow in her chest, were. Stupid, useless, good-for-nothing words, thousands upon thousands upon thousands of them, yet not a one that could say how it was.

This here is my try, for her, for me, for then, for now. On this harvest moon.

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Things I’d write if I didn’t have writer’s block

I want to write a letter. A letter to Charlotte. Charlotte Piper, the girl I never had.

I want to write about sensible shoes. And how tiresome they can be. Also glass slippers. And how much they can hurt.

I want to write about skin. The softness of it. Like on your arm that was around me on the couch in the dark when I cried and blew my nose into your organic shirt, the one I gave you but always wear.

I want to write about that mom in London, the one who didn’t have a crib. And how she put her baby in a drawer.

I want to tell Charlotte that I’d have called her Charlie. And that her drawer would have been the warmest nest there ever was.

I want to write about the bathtub. About how sometimes it has my back. Like this morning when I couldn’t sleep and I laid myself down in it with a comforter and a pillow and Byron Katie, the lady with kind eyes who loves what is. Even in a tub.

I want to write about how you asked me to tell you about what I was feeling when I cried and the best I could say was, “I am.”

I want to tell Charlotte that I’m not entirely settled on “Piper,” that quite possibly it’s just a passing phase on account of my Netflix binge on Orange is the New Black last week when I was sad and scared and had writer’s block.

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