She was, I AM

I’ve been really busy. Like, crazy busy. It’s that kind of busy where I feel like people are calling my name from several different places, and I can see them, but I don’t know to whom I should respond first. My days find me turning my head in all directions, trying to see what is coming next. It’s disorienting and dizzying but also very, very good. I have not been busy like this in a long time. I welcome the chaos and the challenge.

It’s easy for me to slip under the warm blankets of complacency when I get busy like this. So I have finally trained myself not to turn the TV on as soon as the house gets quiet. I also have begun avoiding eye contact when I go out. I loathe creating small talk with people – It’s simply exhausting the whole ritual of, “Hi! How are you? I’m good, thanks! Yes, it is a beautiful day. Weekend plans? Not sure yet. I may drink several bottles of cheap wine and pass out while crawling up the stairs to go hurl in the toilet. You?

Why is that so wrong? It’s sarcasm…good-natured, jovial sarcasm. I mean, really…cheap wine? Never. Those who know me will see right through that one. And I have become almost expert at hurling in the sink when I know I won’t make it up the stairs to the toilet.

But I digress. And upset my mother, I’m sure.

Back to the business of being busy.

Many people have told me that they get tired just reading about my days. But to me an average day in my life leaves me feeling like I accomplished so little. For example, yesterday I washed, dried, folded and put away three loads of laundry. Not too shabby. But there are three more waiting to be washed, dried, folded and put away. Then I logged on to my part-time editing job and spend a three hours editing the HTML of the online courses that are set to launch in 6 weeks. I also re-read the issue of Harper’s magazine I have to analyze for my graduate program. Sounds nice, yes? Reading a magazine. Yeah. Not so much. Harper’s is like War and Peace in magazine format – it is dense, political, intelligent, confusing and pretty damn boring. Thus the second reading. I also walked my puppy. Twice. Our route is almost two miles. Then I checked email, replied to emails, read more emails, replied to those (working in an online environment brings many daily emails). Then I picked up the kids from their respective places of care and education. I cheated on dinner…Subway. I had a yen for a turkey and provolone sub, and little desire to go grocery shopping. Then homework with Ethan, then play time with Laura. Then one washed, teeth brushed, pajama-ed, read to, tucked in and kissed goodnight. Then the Thursday Wii battle ensued. Then I ate crow and supervised the washing, teeth brushing, pajama-ing and reading of the other one. After tucking and kissing, it was time to go back to work. It was time to write.

And here is where the last of my energy is allocated. For my MFA program, I am writing a memoir. It is a collection of essays about events and people in my life, and what I have learned from these events and people, and how they have both hurt me and helped me grow. It’s difficult because I have to take a harsh look at who I was and the dumb-ass mistakes I made. Memories are one thing, but to relive those mistakes, to put myself back in those moments is brutal.  But I do it. Everyday I sink myself back in time and be who I was.  Such masochistic tendencies are the bane of so many memoirists I know. We pick the scabs, poke the bruises and flex the sore muscles in order to feel the pain that must be committed to paper. We do this because we believe, deeply believe that our stories will let someone know that it’s okay to make dumb-ass mistakes.  And that they will show someone else that she isn’t the only frightened little girl, depressed teenager, cocky twenty-something, confused thirty-something.  We hurt so we may reach out to others with the hopes of soothing their pain, easing their confusion.

I write all day long…my head constantly churning and turning words and sentences. So as I am doing laundry, walking the puppy, editing courses, driving, helping with homework, playing, tucking, reading, I am also writing. At night, when it comes time to quiet my self as my house has quieted, I am ready to work.

Night turns into early morning, midnight having long passed. I have purged and edited and revised as many of the events from my past that I can handle, so I return to the confident forty-year-old that I have become, comfortable in my Real home, and thank who I was for being her so that I may be here.

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How Did You Get Here?

3 and a half year old child enters the room

“Mommy?”  “Hi, Mommy.”  “Mommy!!”

“Ungh?” “What?”

“My hung-gee.”

“So?”

“So. Can you get me something to eeeeeat?”

“What ever happened to the rule, ‘don’t talk to mommy when she’s

sleeping?’”

“Sorry, mommy. But my hung-gee. I want breh-fist.”

“Get a snack, I’ll be down later.”

“I can’t reach.”

“Tell your brother to get it”

“He’s playing Wii”

“What!?”

“I said, He’s playing Wii”

“Ethan!! Are you playing Wii?”

“Yeah, mom.”

“You know you can’t play Wii before 7:30!”

“Awww…but…”

“No! No damn Wii.”

“Can I…”

“Stop yelling. Come up here if you want to ask me something.”

“I want breakfast!”

“Me, too, mommy.”

“Ungh…OK…OK. hold on, I’ll be right down.”

Thus begins another Saturday morning.  The kids are up before six thirty (I really must get blackout curtains for their rooms), and I am desperately clinging to the last vestiges of peaceful, restful morning. My yoga alarm sounds, slapping it silent, I muffle, “fuck that, I’ll center myself later.”  My puppy and two cats aren’t terribly motivating either. The cats lazily lift their heads to glare at my imploring daughter, and the puppy yawns, thumps her tail on the bed a few times, then flops against me and falls asleep.

Extricating myself from the tangle of sheet, blanket, puppy and cats, I roll over and face the edge of my bed. I lie there, dreading the onslaught of chatter, questions, “mommy, looks” and “I pooped! Wipe my butts” that linger at the bottom of the stairs. But there is coffee down there as well. If I slash through the jungle, in no time, my Keurig will dispense tasty water, caffeinate it, and magically I’ll have lovely, revitalizing coffee.

How the hell do they manage to make such a mess in such a short time? My son is languishing on the couch in green, black and white plaid boxer shorts. His mop-top of brown hair is matted and bedded and looking just plain crazy (I really must take him for a haircut). He is surrounded by pillows, blankets, plush creatures,  LEGO pieces, books and he is clutching his Bee-bee. “Bee-Bee lives upstairs,” I mumble.  Ethan pops his thumb out of his mouth, “Oh-Kaaay, mom.” He reluctantly regards the blue and white crocheted blanket and stomps up the stairs to deposit Bee-Bee in his room. “Not on the floor, on your bed!” “Ugh! I know, mom! Sheesh!” At seven years old, he is testing attitude on me, seeing how much backtalk he can get away with. I’ll let him have a little…he needs to assert himself more. Laura smugly declares, “My Bee-Bee is in your bed, mommy!” “Thank you, Laura. That was very kind of you.” Later, I’ll find her yellow and white crocheted blanket on the floor of my room. She’ll blame its placement there on the cats.

Being mommy really sucks sometimes. It’s the little things – abandoning an extra hour of sleep, seeing the living room trashed minutes after the kids have been living in it, holding back the torrent of curses that push against my teeth when they piss me off. I smile wanly, reach for my coffee, and retreat to my deck.

I didn’t want to be a parent. I didn’t trust myself that I could be effective– I am a tad selfish. I can also be impatient. While those qualities can be tempered, it is with the trust issue I struggled. But my then-husband wanted kids. He declared this in front of my parents during a weekend visit. We stood in their kitchen, me listing the renovations I desperately wanted to do in the basement, he clearly disengaged from the conversation. When I confronted him about his lack of interest, he blurted out, “I want a kid!” The grandchild card was thrown. And me, the good daughter, knew what she had to do.

The first time I saw Aprill was via a scanned polaroid on my girlfriend’s computer. The first time I met her was in the parking lot of the townhouse complex in Falls Church Virginia where she was living. She came bopping out of her front door, trotted right up to me and said, “I hope you’re Annmarie or else I’m going to feel really stupid.” She’s a tiny bean of a woman – my height, five feet tall. Her hair and eyes are soft brown. Her top lip lifted like a tiny bow. She is simply adorable. Aprill was 20 years old when we met.

I met Rosie in a restaurant in Bremerton, Washington. We had exchanged photographs a week prior. She saw me as I entered and waved me over. As I walked towards the table, she slid out of the booth, “Oh my God! You’re so tiny!” she exclaimed, her six-foot, elegant frame eclipsing me. Her hair and eyes are deep brown, intense and kind. Rosie was 21 when we met.

I’m allowed a mere two sips of my coffee before my children come barging onto the deck asking for breakfast, asking what I’m doing, asking what we are going to do that day. I growl, or whine, “Can’t I get just a minute to myself? All I want to do is drink my coffee and wake up. I’m not even thinking yet,” The kids slink back into the house, complaining about wanting breakfast, about being still hungry. “Eat some fruit!” I yell after them.

The last time I saw Aprill and Rosie was in hospitals. Aprill gave birth to my son, Ethan on 30 March 2004 after a quick 8-hour induced labor. She ate a big bowl of spaghetti while I held my infant son for the first time. A strong friendship has easily grown between us in the past seven years.  We communicate mostly via Facebook, texts, and emails. She is in college, earning her bachelor’s degree.  When she has an essay assignment, she sends me the papers and asks for feedback. She is an intelligent, articulate woman. I revel in her growth as much as I revel in Ethan’s. Shortly after Ethan was born, I wanted her to go away. And she did.  Her absence wasn’t soothing, however; I missed her. When she had moved through grieving and healing, she returned, and I welcomed her lovingly.

Rosie gave birth to Laura on 28 December 2007. Laura was scheduled to enter the room on 15 December. Her arrival, a frightening C-section after days of hard labor, was nothing short of dramatic – a foreshadowing of the drama that is the hallmark of my daughter’s personality. Rosie’s mother, Julie, and I further developed our strong friendship after the birth. We agreed she and her husband, Virgil, would be called the BG’s, for Biological Grandparents. I speak to BG Julie often – she calls on holidays, sends gifts and cards (to both children), and emails when I send her pictures of Laura. Rosie is still moving, slowly, through her grieving and healing. She knows she made the right decision; but it is a loss. Rosie is not yet strong enough to contact me directly; she has begun commenting on photos of Laura posted on my Facebook page. When I text her silly videos or pictures, she will sometimes gently reply. Rosie kept busy after Laura’s birth earning her bachelor’s degree in education. I was flushed with pride when I saw the picture of her triumphantly holding her diploma, still wearing her mortarboard. BG Julie assures me that the pictures brighten Rosie’s day. I worry that they impede her healing.

Laura creeps back out onto the deck and plays restaurant with her assorted plates, cups and modeling clay. Her golden hair winds around her ears and slips along her round cheeks. Ethan tiptoes out and sits in the Adirondack chair next to me, lanky legs dangling over the edge, feet flopping impatiently. He is a skinny little bean, hungry always. They are quiet, respecting my need for a peaceful morning. I stretch my neck up and back into a deep arc. I expose my throat to the breeze and the warmth of the sun. I sit in yogic contemplation until I hear Laura laughing. Ethan is imitating me, my young yogi. I laugh at them laughing at me and we all laugh even harder. I lift myself, yawning and stretching dramatically, from my chair, “So, what did you two make me for breakfast? I’m starving here!”

 

The Long Answer is Your Story

I sat in the dark chapel, blurry-eyed and bone-weary from an emotional morning, waiting for the 12:15 concert to start. Earlier, as part of a writing exercise that asked us to explore the short and long answers to a question, where the long answer is your story, a classmate asked me, “What is it like to be a single mom? To work so hard for your family by going to school and working two jobs?” It was an honest question – one I ask myself several times a day, but I had yet to answer.  Our mentor rang her Buddhist Meditation Bell to signal the beginning of the short answer.

The concert began; the opening notes of Debussy’s Clair De Lune met me gently and took me to my children’s nursery. I played a classical lullaby CD for them during their fist couple years of life. Clair De Lune was in the middle of the CD, so I often heard the delicate notes late at night when it was my turn to drift off to sleep.

“Short answer, I don’t know how it feels. I’m on autopilot. I just tuck my head and get through my days as best I can.” I smiled weakly. The meditation bell rang gently, signaling it was time to provide the long answer.

The associations of Clair De Lune to my children as infants, to being married, to being a family are strong. Although I relish the pleasure of self-knowledge and have learned to cope with the pain of solitude, life was somewhat easier when I was playing the classical CD at night. I was young, my marriage was young, and the children were young. We had so much promise. Futures lay ahead pockmarked with possibilities. They were hopeful days.

“It sucks.” Began my long answer. I fumbled to my bag for a tissue because I was already crying. “It’s absolutely brutal.” I sobbed. “It’s not how I imagined my life would be. I never thought I’d get divorced. I never wanted to be divorced, but I also knew I was marrying the wrong person. But I still tried so hard to make it work. And I’m tired. I’m tired all the time, but I have to keep going because my children are depending on me. And people expect so much of me. And it didn’t have to be this way. My ex dumped 60 grand of debt on me – the adoption bills. He put all that on my shoulders. He walked away with no debt. I got slammed. I can’t pay my bills. I have to work two jobs even though that finds me still working at 2 a.m. when I’m so exhausted, I’m unable to form a coherent thought.”

Debussy’s familiar pauses and chords unhinged a latch, and discharged residual pain that didn’t surface during my classroom confessional. I lurched for my bag and unsteadily left the cold chapel. I felt crazed; anger and sadness and resentment made me dizzy. The memory of where I once was and the facts of where I am came together, finally, and took me down.  I felt drunk, disassociated.

The long answer came rumbling out before I could stop it. I blurted out facts I don’t talk about. Expensive cosmetics and well-tailored clothing have done a fine job of presenting me as put-together and well rested. Yoga and meditation taught me how to appear calm and centered and how to keep the gorge from rising to the back of my throat when I panic about all the tomorrows spread in front of me. It works. No one ever suspects otherwise, which was obvious as my group members sat in silent mourning, my words hanging like rainclouds. “Yay!” I exclaimed, breaking the spell of awkwardness. “This is fun! Thanks D–!”

After my outpouring, as we funneled from our classroom, my friend and classmate, Magin, said that what I did was great and that women need to be more honest about their feelings. I told her I disagree; she bristled. I explained, “When you are honest about your feelings, it isolates you. Sadness is a blockade between people.” She agreed.  She walked closer than usual to me as we left the building.

People are leaving the chapel. The concert has ended. It must be 1:00. I can’t bring myself to go to lunch with my merry band of fellow MFA misfits yet. I’m tucked away on the grass, near a large tree – I was walking to my Jeep, intent on going home, but I sat to think, and I stayed. From where I sit, I can see them walking towards the cafeteria. The tree shelters me from sight. Secretly, I want someone to see me, to come over and talk to me, to comfort me. I went somewhere I wasn’t strong enough to go this morning.  And now I’m tired. And I can’t ask for help.

A few deep yoga breaths will give me the spiritual energy that will get me through the rest of my afternoon. I’ll go to lunch, drop my bag on the floor by the table where my friends and I sit, smile weakly and say, “I’m fine!” Drama over. Let’s move on.

And I will, indeed, move on.

Promise

I can only promise myself that I will focus on what is…not what will be or what was. I have this moment, and it is a moment in which I choose to be fully present.

My son is sleeping a few feet from me. His allergy-labored breathing is the soothing metronome of my evening. I must remember to tell the tooth fairy that he is crashing in my bed tonight, so it knows where to find his tooth. A flash of lightening brings thunder that brings my daughter padding into my room. Son, daughter, puppy, and cats pile on and under sheets in my bed. I turn off my desk lamp and type by the LED of my Mighty Bright book light. Just because I don’t sleep, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t.

I spent most of my day crying from exhaustion after pushing through two weeks of 10-hour days in a writer’s residency at Goucher College. The residency ended Friday. Saturday I was still buzzing with the heady intoxication of new friends, inspiration and motivation. The hangover set in close to midnight.

My two weeks at Goucher gave me a solace I so desperately needed. I was surrounded by my “people” – fellow writers who ‘got’ each other easily. Writers who existed in a space where competition did not exist. It was a nurturing environment. I drank deep. My writing life had been shelved for nine years prior to this residency. The man I divorced was given his pink slip for many reasons – the most salient, his refusal to allow me time to write. Lance – as he shall be referred from here on – harbored resentment towards my writing life. He distrusted it as though he suspected an affair. Because I thought it my place, I demurred and resumed my position as faithful wife. Those were empty years.

My children were with my parents for the two weeks I was in residency. The house was quiet and clean. After the first week, I missed them terribly, so much that the phone calls became frustrating. I wanted them to talk and talk and talk like they do when they are home. But the beach and TV and dinner and pool were distracting. Meanwhile, happiness and loneliness fought for my own attention. With each day, loneliness won. Come Sunday morning, I was distraught. I crawled from my bed at 11:00 a.m., weeped through two hours of traffic on 95 North and ambled through the rest area food court in a stupor looking for my children. I sobbed when they saw me, jumped up, and tackled me with hugs. My parents were concerned for me, seeing my sadness so palpable. We said hasty goodbyes – band-aids are best ripped off. The car ride home was difficult for me. I was emotionally wasted and anxiety about maintaining my new life patterns were looming large. I focused on the chatter of the children to make the miles slide along.

Once we arrived home and began to unpack, make dinner decisions, clean up, mess up, and even argue a little, I came back into my own. My hinges have begun to come together. And now, late at night, during a thunderstorm, glass of wine almost drank, cats relocated from bed to my desk, kids curled around the puppy, I take the first tentative steps to recreating a writing life for myself.

“My insecurities are in all the right places. Have a look.” ~B. Wakefield

xo,
~AJC

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