The boy on the stage

June 9, 2016
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My son is what used to be called dreamy. A child with worlds inside him, and a narrative always mid-story. This week, I’ve been at his school every day. A band and orchestra concert. An afternoon of running to raise funds for the school. The talent show performance.

Last night, I watched the blond of his hair, cut skater style, swoop across half his face as he played Summertime on the trumpet. Each note held with a soporific confidence. And then at the end, he went big and blasted out the final three, high notes. Flawless. Later, we’d notice his shirt was buttoned inside out, and his shorts were ridiculous, and that just cemented the dreamy boy musician.

I don’t remember what I expected in those months toward the end of my pregnancy. I don’t remember how I saw parenthood unfolding. But I couldn’t have imagined this beautiful boy on stage with his trumpet. The notes like a cradle. For such a long time, you are the necessary jungle gym. Never more than an arm’s length from them. And then the circle gets wider and wider on the endless orbit between parent and child.

How is it like this? To love without disappointment. In parenthood, I expect to fail 2/3 of the time, and yet, I am never discouraged. How is that possible? How did it come to this point where I am a fan in the crowd? This boy growing away from me with each revolution, precisely as planned.

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June 5, 2016
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My friend, Matt, is telling us about a book he’s reading. How it traces narrative and memory as they develop into a sense of person. What is person? Can it exist separate from memory? Separate from the story we tell ourselves about our experience?

That was yesterday. So this evening I watched Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. My favorite film about memory. About how vulnerable we become without it. How could we possibly protect ourselves if we never get to benefit from our experience? From our narrative?

The truth is that we are drawn to people irrespective of our own sense of calamity. This person has some questionable boundaries. This person is a terrible communicator. This person is a familiar kind of reckless. Meeting this person when I am twenty-five is not the same as meeting this person when I am forty. Love from the beginning has to become something else. It has to transmogrify. The way that memory does.

I remember a girl from early days with nothing but good will. Before any suggestion of a single argument that will become the only argument. Before any dark patches. It’s spotless. It’s forming.

And even if you are familiar, I know less about you than I know about myself. And I believe I am capable of something different. So why not you? Why not both of us, together?

Love might be a person as well. The narrative stitching itself together scene by scene. The memory of the girl typing her story into the chat bubble can be earnest or silly or futile. How she was six years ago, is still informed by wherever I am standing now. Memory like a stone, skipped out from me. Or toward me.

Relational memory. I still tell stories about the dead. And the lost. And the transmogrified. They are as changeable as I am. Maybe those stories I was so certain of decades ago have taken on a new significance. Or maybe they’ve lost whatever significance I once convinced myself they had.

I don’t think memory is a stone, or a tide, or even a tether. I think it’s a story about some other girl. So close to me at times that I can remember how she speaks, how she fists up her hands if she’s walking on the sidewalk with a rush of footsteps closing in behind her.

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No ill will

May 17, 2016
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My father drops my son off to me on Sunday evening and tells me that my ex is in the hospital. A congenital heart defect, surgically corrected three times prior, is failing again.

“He’s coughing up blood,” my son says casually, before telling me what he’s going to play at the talent show.

My child the compartmentalizer.

We come up with coping strategies because they work. For a time. As long as everything stays in its compartment, all will be well. It’s when the various experiences and feelings and people start to escape that the trouble starts.

“Are you worried about your dad?” I ask the kid later.

“No.” We drive four blocks. He clicks the latch on his trumpet case. “But that doesn’t mean I don’t care about him.”

“Of course it doesn’t.”

I will tell you something it took me years to learn. There is a Venn diagram of co-parenting and the middle portion is entirely child. And the portion beyond the child, the portion marked OTHER PARENT, has nothing to do with me. What happens there happens to a stranger.

And so this experience for me has no framework beyond the central portion of CHILD. My child could lose a parent. He could. That is a reality. And that is the kind of trauma that no one can compartmentalize.

We’re in the middle of the story and no one can turn the page. Sometimes it’s like that. Stagnant. I used to struggle when everything went still. I used to thrash and try to throw myself out the window, or set the couch on fire. Give me something to do!

Now I wait for the page to turn. Imagining how the story will proceed, and finding myself invariably surprised. Because I don’t write this shit. Which is just as well. I’m more ruthless with my characters.


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May 11, 2016
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Our friend spent hours in our trees on Saturday bringing down dead branches. Afterward, you could feel the trees shake and stretch and stand straighter. He zipped up and down on his rope, sawing by hand and chain. We’ve dragged all the branches into piles in the side yard to be run through an industrial mulcher.

All week, I’ve been thinking about loneliness. About how we sit with it. Our loneliness. And we either try to distract ourselves from it, or we self-soothe with solitude. Either we fill the quiet with noise, or we chop wood, carry water. Our solitude can be filled with diligence. Piling branches. Resting our hands against the trunks of elms or locusts and remembering the magnitude. We get to live with these giant fucking trees. We get to live with the birds cruising through them. With the sunlight in their leaves. With the burning warmth of the salvaged pieces they’ve outgrown.

“These trees are like aliens,” our friend said. “I cut into one of the branches and water poured out on me.”

I showed him a spot at the trunk where water came out like a faucet. These trees that didn’t even creak in the windstorm.

It feels like worship, tending the dozens of trees on our property. And what is worship but the internal made external?

In Lab Girl, Hope Jahren writes, “The first real leaf is built using only a vague genetic pattern with nearly endless room for improvisation.” Like music, I think. Trees are like jazz, which accounts for their heavy lightness. This odd sense, as you walk through them, that the silence is telling. Or maybe that isn’t it at all. Maybe they aren’t silent. Maybe they are more apparent because I am silent. And listening.

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April 27, 2016
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I fell asleep, despite the dog howling in the neighbor’s yard, and dreamed of ramshackle farms – muck, emaciated chickens.
This illness brings clarity.
Outdoors now, as the dogs race up and back. I keep thinking of what Beyonce said about lemonade
bringing healing.
All my recipes served me better when I was not in love.

The bible taught me disobedience is the worst crime.
That word feels like armor, a sharpened
blade, fucking.
That word feels like girls – their skin
as dangerous as armies. That word disobedience is how I crossed to you.
In May. A bridge over the shoulder of your ruffled black blouse.
Sheer, a fabric of wrapped candy, barely containing your breasts, your tattooed arms.
Your skirt came to a strangled point at your ankles. Your black boots with heels for days.

What a beauty you are.
Never mine.
A proximate moon.
Or is that me, and you
a planet revolving?

Six years has made me less certain.

Does anyone still strain lemonade through a napkin?
Were our grandmothers disobedient? Is that what they gifted us?

An afternoon like this with my fever, and the sun,
and the languid dogs. Waiting here for you.

Maybe my love is defiance.
Vulnerable. Unshielded.
Maybe I strained because the seeds
seemed as extraneous as the rind.

I think I’ve had it wrong. So determined to see us
as circling.
As armored.
As ingredients.

Fever. Wasps droning. My skin burns as I wait for you.

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Where did she go?

April 25, 2016
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My boss’ mother-in-law died over the weekend in Hospice Care. Last week, he told me, “She’s just a super rad person. Vibrant right up ’til now.” She was 92.

My boss and his wife sat with the mother while she died. He described her breathing. What his wife said. How hard it was. And because we’re Irish, we made jokes about our sadness.

Isn’t it odd how the injury from death is in the same spot as the injury from birth? How you lift the newborn up and your chest breaks open and the wonder and grief are fucking radiant. They beat through you.

“At the end,” he said, “I almost didn’t believe it. That she was dead. I leaned close and almost convinced myself that her breathing was really shallow. My wife kept telling her it was alright to let go. And then she did and it was hard to believe.”

Wonder and grief and love. I feel radioactive.

Death is a powerful quiet. There’s this magnitude to memory. The edges get fuzzy and more resonate like we’re already admitting that the ways we were changed are now past tense. But it goes on resonating until we have no memories left. The person I am when I know of your death is in as much flux as the person I was at eight, imagining the ship falling off the edge of the earth with all the dead inside.

Your death goes on changing me. We’re in tandem with our sorrow just as we’re in tandem with our joy.

The morning was breathtaking through the window at his back. He told me his wife asked him for help with a crossword puzzle, and he said he just couldn’t think of words at a time like this.

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April 6, 2016
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Mary and the grandkid are working in the side yard when they holler for more supplies. “Mar,” I say, handing her the paneling, “she’s got a pair of scissors over there.”

“Yes, I told her not to touch the silver part and that she can cut away at the weeds.”

“She’s four,” I say, unnecessarily.

“Yes, Jill Malone. She’s perfectly all right. ‘Tesla, which part of the scissors can you touch?'”

“Only the blue handle,” the child calls back. “Don’t touch any of the silver!”

“Oh god,” I murmur, leaving the side yard.

The child plays happily, slicing weeds with a pair of scissors for an hour and half. She is never injured.

If you needed an analogy for the ways we exist in the world, this would be it. Mary allows instructive freedom. She showed the child how to use the tool, stayed close by and supervised the use of the tool, and all was well. I would never hand a child a pair of scissors to play with. Never. But later that same afternoon, the 4-year-old and I dug a hole to plant a tree. Same thing. Taught her how to use a shovel. Dug along beside her. All was well.

I almost cut the top of my finger off when I was eight. I’d been playing with my grandfather’s tools and found his fishing knives. Figuring I’d get in trouble if anyone knew, I bandaged my finger myself. When I was five, my parents took me, and my toddler brother, to Dachau Concentration Camp in Germany. I would never take a child to tour a concentration camp. Thirty-six years later, I can remember the photos, the ovens, the smell of the place. I’ve spent the whole of my life trying to explain what I saw there.

I’m grateful that they took me. I’m grateful I knew enough to bandage my own finger when I nearly sliced it off. Mary’s right. Learning to use the tool is more important than being protected from it.

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April 5, 2016
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We’d already been in the parking lot outside the auto-parts store for an embarrassing amount of time. That doesn’t take into account how long we’d been in the front yard removing the bent screws that pinned the old license plate before we’d even left home. Now, oil pooled in every direction, we crouched and stood and crouched, trying a number of different screws and bolts, slipping our thin arms through the front of the 4Runner as we tried to install the new license plate in the bizarre configuration before us.

The young man watched Mary on his way into the store, but didn’t say anything. He was young and blonde. His boots, untied, seemed several sizes too large. Minutes later, we’d resolved just to go home and attempt to do a more adequate job there, when he stopped and asked if we needed any tools.

“I just don’t think this is going to work,” I told him. “Tools or no.”

“What have you got there?” he asked, and lay down under the vehicle. In his sleek black shirt, it didn’t seem to matter to him that the parking lot was covered with oil. His hands shook. Was he nervous, I wondered. His wedding ring large on his finger. Was it alcohol, or palsy? His hands shook so badly he could barely hold the screw.

“I see the problem,” he said. “I just need to grab my tools.” For twenty minutes, he lay in the muck under our 4Runner and stuck his (luckily small) hands into the completely insane space allotted to bolt the new license plate in. “This is a locking nut,” he explained. I’d just assumed it was the wrong size.

It’s like this sometimes. In your frustration. The failed project. Someone comes and lies down in the oil and fixes it for you. And then he stands up, his hair so nicely combed back that for a moment you wonder if he’s come here from church, and as you thank him, he replies, “Take care,” and walks with his tool box back to his truck.

It’s a metaphor, I suppose. I am not old enough to be his mother, but that is the kind of love I had for him. His trembling hands. His nicely tucked black shirt. Those untied boots. I kept thinking of that Bishop poem. “Oh, but it is dirty!” “High strung-automobiles.”

“Somebody loves us all.”

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Stress monkey

March 18, 2016
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“It’s probably good,” I tell her, “I’ve never had a little dog before. Clearly I let Hazel get away with murder. Is she the most neurotic creature ever? No doubt. But she’s so adorable.”

“Like dog, like owner,” Mary says.

“What do you mean? I’m not neurotic.”

Mary. Staring. “Are you kidding?”

“How am I neurotic?”

“You are a catastrophizer on an epic scale.”

Is that a real word? I wonder. “How? How am I a catastrophizer?”

“Two weeks ago you were absolutely convinced we were breaking up. ‘Is this the end?’ you kept asking. No, Jill. No. It’s not the end. It’s a Saturday.”

This seems improbable to me. But who can say? The truth of a relationship varies depending on the angle. I may actually have been convinced that we were breaking up. And she might just be telling me that sometimes I’m ridiculous, which is undoubtedly true.

I can spend so much time in my own head, that when I suddenly look around, I’m alarmed by the situation. WHEN THE FUCK DID THIS ALL HAPPEN? It’s just as plausible that she’s absolutely correct and I am a catastrophizer (if such a thing exists).

At 4 a.m. on Wednesday morning, I woke with this crushing sense of guilt. Oh god! What have I done? My small, adorably neurotic dog climbed up my leg and across my chest to nuzzle my face while I tried to sort out what had happened. I woke Mary. “I had a dream I cheated on you,” I told her. “I kept hanging out with this chick and there were sparks and I knew it and I hung out with her anyway. It was awful.”

“It was a dream,” she said. “Your brain is just working something out. You’re OK.”

Later, when I told my boss about this, he started laughing, “You woke her?”

“Well, yes. I had to tell her.”

“But it was a dream.”

Says you, buddy. It didn’t feel like a dream.

Maybe there’s a lot of room between the walls of taking things too seriously and not taking things seriously enough. Maybe I should set up a comfortable couch somewhere in the middle of that room.

How many versions of ourselves are we? And how many versions with someone else? When am I most essentially myself?

I have no idea. It’s like telling my dog that she’s good and watching her tilt her head like she’s considering it. I may be good. I may be. It’s certainly possible. Let me think it over.

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March 17, 2016
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For the first time since we moved into our fixer upper, I don’t have a house project. This spring, all I have to think about is the garden. What would I like to plant? Where do we need trees? If we had chickens, could I walk anywhere near them without being terrified?

I’ve looked up plants that foster bees. Plants that can survive with little water. Plants that thrive when a woman can’t tell the difference between a flower and a weed.

I gather sticks in the side yard and am excited by the prospect of mowing. Of bringing out the hammocks. Of taking the dogs on trails as yellow flowers bloom.

For so long, I haven’t focused on beauty. Consumed, as I was, by maintenance. Shoring up this corner here. And that one there. I didn’t expect to find peace in all this quiet. And I didn’t expect the peace or the quiet to be this filling. It’s better than pie.

Is this how it is to be 41? All this work to enjoy a garden? Refusing to see the chainsaw as a metaphor when it’s clearly a tool. The branches scratch. The rake wrangles stones. There is so little art here, and so much beauty. Or maybe that isn’t it at all. Maybe the art here is entirely beauty. Another porcupine crushed in the road. Deer, watchful, as I make my way home. My little dog beside me protectively. As though I were the small creature in the failing light.

The woodpecker and robin scour the yard. The dead are dead. I don’t know why I keep thinking of my grandmother in her garden. Of the dogwoods in the South, or the spring floods. Let the thing be the thing. I am 41 in a place transforming. Or maybe I’m a woman standing next to some trees.

Or maybe we grow best in the quiet.

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