My piece on worry is up at Thought Catalog!

9 Things I Learned Growing Up in a Circus Family

Fine, sorry, I misled you with that title. Trust me, you would’ve been disappointed anyway — it’s the nature of clickbait. But you’re already here, killing time at work or counting down hours at home, so just hang on a second. See, I’m frustrated too, in my own, impotent way. What I need is for you to read my words, cut through the flesh and boil down the blubber, oil the lamps and illuminate these crevices inside my brain, inside all our brains.

No, I didn’t secretly work my way through college as a high-class call girl, nor am I here to bestow the 18 Rules to a Happy Marriage. What I want to tell you is that once, driving in the car with my daughter, she scratched her head, examined her fingernails, and said more to the air than me, “I like the smell of my own dandruff. I know it’s weird, but I do. It smells good to me.” I want to shake you and scream that this is the fascinating stuff — not the dandruff, precisely, but the weird little secrets we tote around inside to keep life manageable. Because I understand what she meant, even if my specifics are a little different, and yours too.

When I submit a personal essay, hoping for publication, I’m aware as often as not that I may as well be hollering down a well. Where’s the hook? It’s just my story. But I’m sick of the fantastical; sick of distance. I’m sick of oxfords and rolled-up jeans, of hands proffering field-fresh flowers; I’m sick of inspirational quotes and do-or-don’t lists; sick of dreamworld photo shoots and filtered Instagrams. I’m sick of you, and god knows, sick of me, too.

In our crush to share everything, we’ve moved awfully close to sharing nothing, or at least nothing real. A personal story is no longer enough; we now require outsized versions of ourselves to entice an oversaturated, unimpressed, easily distracted audience. The quest for relatability has become something to sneer at, a sign of weakness. But while a story about someone’s date with a porn star may titillate, will it resonate beyond an initial read? I doubt it.

I remember a Granta short story I read years ago, before children, before social media became standard fare. The author, the title, the details, all irretrievably submerged, but still I carry this scene in my mind: a father, an ill-fitting diaper, a miraculous, one-handed dive to catch baby poop as it spirals toward the ground. What strikes me now is what struck me then: the utter believability of the internal dialogue, how, even as the excrement steams in one open palm, the father begins reformulating the story for later, how he’ll tell it, how his friends will receive it, the teary-eyed laughter over beers as he reenacts the save.

For me, this is all there is. What interests me is the intensely personal, the things we don’t talk about, the strange sense of accomplishment I get cleaning my youngest son’s face in the morning. How do you say, why would you ever say you’ll miss picking dried boogers out of another person’s nose? But there it is: “Blow — that’s not a blow! GOOD, that’s it! Here, look up. Now go eat.” The squeeze of the bottom, the kiss on the nose, the claim to another, dis-missed! The remarkable in the mundane. The remarkable is the mundane.

Take a look at Roger Angell’s “This Old Man: Life in the Nineties” for a recent, stunning example of the power of the personal. You won’t find any shocking revelations, no grand plot twists, only a life, but you will see your own reflection in the remembrances of a 93-year-old man. And you will click on this link, literally or figuratively, for years to come.

I keep circling back to basics — the shedding, secreting, excreting of all that’s unnecessary — how necessary the unnecessary is to my life. The sweaty neck of an 8-year-old boy, on tiptoe at the kitchen faucet before dinner; the stench of a teenage fart, trapped amid hysterical laughter inside a closed car; the oily hair and morning breath, the musky pits and oozing zits of careless youth; the dog’s fish breath, the slightly sour smell clinging to my fingers as I wipe eye gunk from his open, whitening face. I know it’s weird, but it all smells good to me.

Yesterday, cleaning up the back yard, I found a piece of perfectly patterned dog poop. I imagined tiny, overalled workmen, shouting over one another, “‘Behind you! On your right!” in Floyd’s bowels, engineering my daughter’s missing sock into an impromptu sausage casing, an intestinal assembly line charged with keeping flower, stripes, and colors intact.

It made me chuckle, and for a second I thought about taking a picture. But who wants to hear about the poop in your own backyard? I guess not most of us. So I scooped it into a bag, scoured the lawn for landmines, and moved on to the next pile.

We could debate the merits of “Silly Love Songs” (though we’re probably on the same side), but for anyone who’d argue the value of the arts, name one thing lovelier than the instant sound of a diving board’s bounce, the shouts and whistles and muffled pitches of summertime chatter; the smell of chlorine and suntans and vinyl-strapped poolside chairs; the sight of smooth, artificially-tinged water parting then folding back on itself to the rhythmic rise and fall of your dad’s submerged shoulders, as you cling to his neck, delighted, commanding him to ferry you faster, faster, into the deep end.

Sadie just “interviewed” me for school about her birth and the days surrounding, when she learned to sit/walk/talk, her favorite things to do, the funny habits and stories from her first 2 yrs. This process revealed that the mind of a mother w/3 children aged 3 and under is a lot like a gas station video camera on a 24-hr loop. I managed to watch over everyone in daily blocks; if nothing catastrophic happened, my tape erased and started over. Some things stuck: the crib in the hallway, a few impossibly sweet curls at the nape, quick eyes and elf ears and oversized front teeth, the sound of your head hitting the corner moulding that one time. My poor, sweet Sadie, I may not recall details, but I know you, an extension of my body, a contraction in my womb, a lactation from my breast, a protrusion on my hip, an expansion of my heart, an explosion of all things good and kind, light and new in my life. Ours is simply a survival story, and that’s worth remembering.

Sea of Life

Every year on this day, buried among the tributes and reminders, the images and remembrances, I count on at least two friends to post simple birthday wishes for their children. The lift I get from these messages is tremendous.

I’ve no doubt it’s difficult for the kids and parents in this situation to reconcile their private joy with the public pain of this day. Even twelve years out, I’m sure it feels a little disconcerting to celebrate a day most of us associate with solemnity, like walking your dog around a city cemetery path and bumping across a graveside service. You’re aware, of course, that this is the graveyard’s purpose, but somehow it’s still discombobulating, the realization that your daily, sunny, invigorating stroll is, for someone else, anything but routine, a route into dark and despair. But still, tugging on the other end of the leash is this awkward, undeniable evidence of life’s persistence, happy just to stretch four legs in the sun; to pause, breath held, as a bird or squirrel disrupts the tree’s rhythms; to rejoice in the smells and sounds and sights of the day.

The morning of 9/11, I was headed to Sunset Beach with my husband and two toddlers, the beginnings of a new baby already swelling my belly. We stopped for gas, waiting at the counter as a distracted store clerk fiddled with a radio behind finger-stained plastic. He said something about a plane hitting one of the towers, and we fretted for a moment there together, questioning each other, seeking affirmation that this could still be a terrible, odd accident. A mistake.

We drove on, tuning in to the radio for more details, and that’s when the day began unfolding, the world unraveling. My mother called my cell phone, highly unusual in those days, desperate for news of my oldest brother, who lived in the city. Proving instantly how little I’d processed, how resistant my brain was to incoming data, it had not yet occurred to me that my brother could conceivably NOT be alright. As this fresh new terror washed over me, I reached under my lapbelt and wept in silent apology for our still-forming child, overwhelmed by a sorrow bordering on shame for ushering her into this mess. My husband and I debated turning the car around, but decided a sparsely-populated beach might be our safest bet.

For years, my mother has waited and watched, hoping to see the protected baby sea turtles that seasonally hatch on Sunset Beach, to witness their precarious nighttime march to the ocean. She’s never managed to catch them, always arriving a day too late or going to bed an hour too early, but she’s seen the tracks in the sand, evidence that at least some hatchlings succeed in their mission. It’s a journey rife with hazard, riddled with pitfalls and obstacles; a sand castle moat, a littered plastic bag, an abandoned beach umbrella can mean the difference between life and death for these tiny, fragile creatures. Then there are the predators: digging dogs and rooting raccoons, clutching crabs and swooping seagulls. Finally, the hatchlings must contend with humans, with their trash and flashlights, their bike tires and fireworks, their carelessness and idiocy. We used to laugh, squinting and shading our eyes to read posted guidelines: “DO NOT crowd or attempt to ride a turtle.” But who can know the things people will do?

My brother in NYC turned out to be okay, and in the Spring I gave birth to a resilient baby girl. Gradually, we scoured the skies less and complained about things more. The glue would have to hold for now.

But always I remember what I didn’t know then: that when the world collapsed in an avalanche of sooty, sky-darkening sand, tiny little pockets of human joy still remained, could not be prevented from bursting upward into life, even as life crashed down around us. The human spirit insisted, despite terrifying odds, on making a run for it, on wading with intention straight back into this littered swirling sea of existence. The predators can never take us all. And I’ll be damned if that’s not worth celebrating.

Tags: prose 9/11

Pink and Dusty Jones

I’m guessing the “Pink” obituary I read this morning will go viral, but if it doesn’t, it should. It’s an odd thing to find an obituary immensely cheering, but I’d be hard-pressed to recommend a better cure for the Mondays than this family’s amazingly graceful, absolutely inspiring, achingly loving tribute to their deceased mother: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/07/grandparents-day-2013_n_3887074.html

I’d started my own day, post school dropoff, fuming behind a Monday morning vacuum filled with weekend-residual dog hair, goldfish crumbs, ponytail holders, and Lego heads. “Here I am again, taking on the shit work no one wants to do and no one notices has been done,” I said to myself, or quite possibly aloud to my husband, backing warily out the door to work. As the canister brimmed with detritus, my heart swelled with righteous affront. Certainly, I deserved better.

I plopped down on the bed and opened my laptop, and that’s when I came across Pink’s obituary. Pink, who viewed helping others not as a chore, not as a gift, but as a way of life. Now I’m not suggesting I should’ve been grateful to clean up everybody’s mess; I’m the first and loudest to decry any notion of myself as “world’s maid.” What I am saying is that Pink’s “Of course I’ll help. What do you need?” approach to life could take us all a good bit farther than the “Why is this my job?” attitude many of us catch ourselves embracing on the day-to-day. We’re not here to serve. But maybe we should be.

Which brings me to happiness. It’s fine to be happy doing things for yourself, for the ones you love. Go on vacation, get yourself those shoes, blow off an obligation and spend the day reading in bed, buy your kid that toy from Target. All great. But there’s something crazy beautiful about doing things for strangers, for people in whom you aren’t  necessarily required to sustain any emotional investment.

Take Dusty Jones. A few months ago, we rented a house on a busy intown thoroughfare while renovating our “real” home. One thing about living in different parts of the same city is that you soon begin to identify certain segments of town with its neighborhood “regulars.” I’m not talking about the folks who live in the houses and apartments surrounding, but the people who tend to be otherwise invisible to you, the strugglers, the stragglers, the life casualties. This is bad, of course, given their circumstances, but good from an eye-opening perspective, as it forces you to really see these damaged humans as exactly that — humans, who have suffered damage. You don’t pass them once, fiddling with the radio in your car; you see them two and three times a day, sometimes more. “Mmm, he’s off the meds today,” or “Oh good, looks like she’s had a shower.” Some are drug addicts, some are mentally unstable, some are both and some are neither. Some have places to go at the end of the day and some don’t. But all of them have routines, bad days and better days, individual quirks and distinguishing characteristics. Visible lives.

One day after school, Sadie and a friend stood on the front brick steps of our rental, amusing themselves by irritating passersby, hollering out quizzes with absurdly easy answers: “What’s 2+2? Free prize if you get it right!” As it became evident the “prize” was Cheezits strung on a dirty ribbon, the savvy people ignored them, while the softer ones laughed, gently refusing their “winnings.” After a while, the girls gave up and wandered inside, offering me the Cheezit necklace and agreeing they should’ve invited Dusty Jones to play.

"Who’s Dusty Jones?" I asked. They giggled and described one of the neighborhood regulars, a small, slight man, neither young nor particularly old, who regularly paired a leather vest and short skirt with fishnet stockings and lace-front boots. According to the girls, the back of his vest had "Dusty Jones" embossed in cursive, a detail I’d never noticed. They’d watched as he approached, but fallen silent as he passed by the house, too scared or shy to engage this unfamiliar version of adulthood in their childhood silliness. Their instinct was probably correct, but still it made me sad, the number of casual, critical human interactions daily, routinely, automatically denied the Dusty Jones of this world.

Every other year, our school takes applications from interested 7th and 8th grade students wishing to participate in a 5-night homeless immersion project. The ones who are accepted, along with a few adult volunteers, are given four dollars, a trash bag, and a piece of plastic to sleep on, then are pretty much turned loose to experience life on the streets for the better part of a week. There is no access to electronics, no parental contact, no comforts from home; even their shoes are exchanged for ill-fitting castoffs the initial morning. Neither of my own middle-school-age children applied, choosing instead to participate in the junior high musical (kind of hilarious, in its own fantasy/reality dichotomous way), but our close friends’ son hit the streets, a child I love plenty enough to worry myself sick about. 

While he was away, wandering the Atlanta sidewalks, the homeless situation took on a personal urgency it previously had not, a point not lost on me. I scoured the streets but never saw him, wondered if he was tired, or thirsty, or despondent. Would it be better or worse to see a familiar face in a passing car, to be reminded of love and people who care with no access to either?

I left to do errands on one of these mornings, noticing Dusty Jones in my sideview mirror, pacing in front of our house and muttering to himself. When I returned, he was still there, only now he’d settled on our front steps, sitting in a decidedly unladylike fashion, skirt hiked up and ballsack protruding from either side of his lacy underwear. I gathered a load of groceries and headed up the stairs, but he neither looked up nor returned my meek greeting.

I made it inside, which on another day probably would’ve qualified as an uncomfortable, small triumph. Today, though, I shook my head and laughed out loud, whispering, “Jeez, Dusty! Close the legs!” Then I went into the kitchen and made a turkey sandwich.

“Excuse me,” I said nervously, to his back. His head jerked, tense and defensive, his posture already assuming a defiant air. “Can I interest you in a turkey sandwich?” His eyes - blue eyes - registered the question first. Then the rest of his expression altered, forehead-down-unfurrowing like a cartoon, the low muttering voice turning high in a surprised “Sure!”

And that was the end of that. I found tomatoes in the grass, and the next few times I saw him he gave no sign of recognition. But it didn’t matter. I fed him once, and I know the color of his eyes. And that’s better than nothing.

So I’ll never be Pink. I’m selfish, not terribly so, just in the usual, pedestrian ways. But I tell you the truth, I do miss her today. And I will never, ever see Dusty Jones without feeling a slightly wistful ache in my chest, the kind you get running into someone from your past, smile fading as they struggle to come up with a name.

Tags: prose

Pompeii

For those of you with little children, I say this so that you might tuck it away, safe in some dormant brainfold, hopefully to rediscover years from now, welcome as a wadded-up twenty in an old coat pocket: the way you’ll act today winds up being okay, and so do you. You’ll still love your teenage kid, maybe even more fiercely than you do now while (s)he’s young. And yes, you’ll feel like shit for losing it, for cursing and saying things meant to wound, things you can’t yet imagine ever saying, not to this chubby-legged creature folded in close underneath your armpit, listening as you read, glancing up to gauge how to feel, trusting you to know the things (s)he’ll one day assume you know nothing about.

You won’t believe how ugly you can be, the disgust you will feel, the fury burbling just beneath your chest that sometimes spews out, Pompeii-style, threatening to freeze you both forever in this moment, curled up self-protectively or clambering for a way out.

But this day will not be an eternity, and you will escape into another, better day, where you and your teen, this long-legged creature stretched out beside you in the car, talk not at but to each other, savoring a shared sense of humor, struck by the other’s insights, glancing sideways to gauge how to feel, trusting each other to know the things we know nothing about.

Back to School

School officially starts tomorrow, but let’s face it, that’s just a formality, since Open House was yesterday, and both high school and junior high orientations kicked in today. This last week I’ve felt a heaviness, a low-grade dread, wondering how I’ll manage the homework, cross country, volleyball, soccer, tutoring, piano lessons, clubs, and volunteer commitments trailing the school year’s wake. I feel like the rookie in a war movie, hyperventilating behind inadequate brush as my company takes fire, knowing full well at some point I’ll have to nod to my husband and yell “FUCK IT!!!”, charging into the open, throat taut in eye-lolling, battle-crazed roar-yell, praying I’ll make it to the next temporary cover, Fall Break.

Ninth, eighth, sixth, and second grades; high school, junior high, and elementary at once; wispy mustaches and hormonal hysteria overlapping tomboy trash trails and sweaty-boy bathtime battles. It’s hard to imagine poorer planning.

You know that feeling when all the shit you’ve been not doing is about to rain down on your head? A good hint is the dream, where you’re walking your pet alligator on a leash (like Dali w/his anteater), and he’s kind of sweet, really, like your goldens at home, a little chubby, open-mouth-smiling when you rub his head and back, but of course he’s unpredictable, and you’re a little on edge as you board the school bus (your REM imagination is not very sophisticated, sorry), because you know at any minute he might eat that cute but delicious kid who’s asking if it’s okay to pet him. It’s not, but she’s already reaching out, and you feel the leash tense, and OH GOD SHIT here we go, ready or not.

California

It’s popcorn lodged between molars, a splinter slivered in your pinky. The dull resistance to an investigating tongue, the angry pulse inside a reddened fingertip. A tiny part of you, suddenly governing the whole.

Audrey left this morning on vacation with a friend’s family. She’s tucked in a row on a plane to California, wedged here, in this spot inside my chest. With every mile, she flies deeper into the cavity. But why say no to this 13-year-old, ready since the womb for LA, for Santa Monica, for Hollywood and Beverly Hills? Who could deny she belongs there, this girl whose head just last night emerged from a cloud of water vapor, hair thickly bunned, face smeared campily in green cleansing peel mask, calling from her bath to have the fridge checked for cucumber slices? There is nothing of me in this child, yet I’m always full of her. So we shop and we pack and we gossip, and I pretend her daydream, where she and Hollywood fall for each other, is not my nightmare.

A Taylor Swift blurb in the news, a One Direction display in Office Depot, a Hunger Games preview in the theater: for the next nine days, these are the things, so tiresome and silly, that will press her further into my gumline, drive her deeper into my finger, thrust her downward, toward the base of my swollen heart, where she will remain, blood whooshing around and around her, until I floss and tweeze and tug and she at last emerges, unscathed, brimming with stories and life, racewalking down the airport concourse toward home.

Arm in arm up the sidewalk when Sadie gasps, catching my elbow, her “No Mommy, stop!” halting me mid-step. I look down to discover a HUGE furry moth nearly underfoot, so stock-still I think surely it must be dead. Leaning in for closer review, Sadie and I both catch a slight body quiver, but our excitement dissipates as we realize its leg is broken. The two of us make a grim, silent eye-pact to do what we can to save it, or at least make it more comfortable dying.
We use a stick to try the slide-pick-up method, but the twig’s too thick, the moth’s grip too stubborn, as if it’d already settled on ending things here, on this miniature stretch of sidewalk, unable to face starting over elsewhere. We search around for leaves, but they’re all too papery to bear the moth’s weight. Sadie wonders if there’s anything in my purse, so I fish around, producing an apple-juice-stained envelope. We alternate prodding and protecting, one pushing while the other says “Be careful!” or “Not too hard!” then both pull back, startled, as the moth’s body begins quaking, violent shudder-spasms that somehow remind me of putting our dog to sleep, making me inexplicably sad.
Our moth is dying and I start to accept it, the stunned field medic giving up on compressions. “Maybe I should just step on it. Put it out of its misery.” I think, unaware I’ve said the words aloud until I see Sadie’s face contract in horror and disgust, shouting, “NO!!! Don’t KILL it!!!” The foxhole mate who will not see.
Just then, my husband Rick doubles back to find out what could possibly be keeping us. He crouches down, successfully swiping the moth from ground to envelope in one confident motion, resettling our fallen soldier on some ivy in one of those ankle-high fenced-in sidewalk tree plots, the best we can do given the circumstances. Rick walks on ahead as Sadie and I slowly follow, looking back over our shoulders. “I feel bad,” she says. “Me too,” I begin, “but at least he won’t get squoosh—” “Mommy! LOOK!!!” Sadie screams. “He’s FLYING! LOOK!!!”
And I swear it’s true, as big as a bird and as effortlessly high, until he’s cleared the building, levitating long enough for us all to see, flaunting and fluttering and flitting back and forth to a tall neighboring tree, like some sort of crazy Icarus/Lazarus hybrid, burnt the bright orange-yellows of the sun, crashed to earth but now risen — still rising — on the faith of one true believer.
“See, Mommy?” Sadie yells, bouncing triumphantly in place. “He doesn’t need a leg! He has wings!”
And in the moment, I don’t even care if they’re only made of wax.

Arm in arm up the sidewalk when Sadie gasps, catching my elbow, her “No Mommy, stop!” halting me mid-step. I look down to discover a HUGE furry moth nearly underfoot, so stock-still I think surely it must be dead. Leaning in for closer review, Sadie and I both catch a slight body quiver, but our excitement dissipates as we realize its leg is broken. The two of us make a grim, silent eye-pact to do what we can to save it, or at least make it more comfortable dying.

We use a stick to try the slide-pick-up method, but the twig’s too thick, the moth’s grip too stubborn, as if it’d already settled on ending things here, on this miniature stretch of sidewalk, unable to face starting over elsewhere. We search around for leaves, but they’re all too papery to bear the moth’s weight. Sadie wonders if there’s anything in my purse, so I fish around, producing an apple-juice-stained envelope. We alternate prodding and protecting, one pushing while the other says “Be careful!” or “Not too hard!” then both pull back, startled, as the moth’s body begins quaking, violent shudder-spasms that somehow remind me of putting our dog to sleep, making me inexplicably sad.

Our moth is dying and I start to accept it, the stunned field medic giving up on compressions. “Maybe I should just step on it. Put it out of its misery.” I think, unaware I’ve said the words aloud until I see Sadie’s face contract in horror and disgust, shouting, “NO!!! Don’t KILL it!!!” The foxhole mate who will not see.

Just then, my husband Rick doubles back to find out what could possibly be keeping us. He crouches down, successfully swiping the moth from ground to envelope in one confident motion, resettling our fallen soldier on some ivy in one of those ankle-high fenced-in sidewalk tree plots, the best we can do given the circumstances. Rick walks on ahead as Sadie and I slowly follow, looking back over our shoulders. “I feel bad,” she says. “Me too,” I begin, “but at least he won’t get squoosh—” “Mommy! LOOK!!!” Sadie screams. “He’s FLYING! LOOK!!!”

And I swear it’s true, as big as a bird and as effortlessly high, until he’s cleared the building, levitating long enough for us all to see, flaunting and fluttering and flitting back and forth to a tall neighboring tree, like some sort of crazy Icarus/Lazarus hybrid, burnt the bright orange-yellows of the sun, crashed to earth but now risen — still rising — on the faith of one true believer.

“See, Mommy?” Sadie yells, bouncing triumphantly in place. “He doesn’t need a leg! He has wings!”

And in the moment, I don’t even care if they’re only made of wax.