Love

Three days ago, thanks to my amazing sister and brother-in-law, I became an aunt for the first time.

I was reminded of the newness of it all– the careful cradling of the neck, the tiny arms through tinier sleeves and seemingly endless snaps and swaddles.  The newborn latch, (is he getting enough milk?  do I have enough milk? should it hurt like this?)  The minuscule nose– is it being squished by my swaddle, by my elbow, by my boob?  When did he poop last?  Which side did I nurse last?  Yikes- his nails are small and those clippers are sharp.  Should he have a pacifier this early?  Is nipple confusion a thing?  He only wants to sleep in my arms….

There will be countless more questions– some of the questions will have clear answers, most won’t, and some will even have different clear answers depending on the time and place.

When we visited today, there was a moment when the gaggle of cousins was corralled downstairs bouncing on couches and chucking remotes when I found a time to join my sister as she fed her new baby boy in the nursery.  She sat in the rocker and sunlight seeped gently into the room behind her through closed blinds.  I watched her nurse her baby and noticed how she was enamored, absolutely captivated; I sat in the nursery at her feet watching and there was no one in the room but them.  I saw how the previous questions hung lightly in the air, almost like floating words– until they evaporated gently into a mist and finally were gone.  And all that was left was my beautiful sister staring at her baby with a love so strong you could scoop it up in your hands.   And the questions didn’t matter anymore.

I still remember what someone wrote in a card after Cohen was born: “remember,” the mother of four grown boys wrote to me, “just when it becomes overwhelming, it will become fleeting.”  My sister has been ushered into an existence in which she will be utterly and irrevocably needed.  Just as we all are needed– to hold one another up and bear witness to the beauty that surrounds us.

And in this vocation, in this call to fulfill Need, you will likely find yourself empty, completely exhaled; you will have spent everything in this great exhaling, to find that the only next possible step is to breathe in again, to be filled, by the air that will be so thick with love you will taste it.

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The most important thing

Dear Cohen, Sophia, & Ellie- (and eventually Everett & Mae– when you can understand words and become more than just your “spark”)

I want you to know something– know something about yourselves, that is more important than being smart, being creative, being joyful.

I want you to know that there is an outside you and an inside You.  The outside you (here I imagine drawing a crudely shaped stick figure) is important because it is how we understand who we are and how to be part of the world. The outside you is most often created by what people say about you, and even what we say about ourselves.   Sometimes these things are good, happy things! “Cohen- great job on your spelling test!” “Sophie, what a beautiful picture!” “Ellie- you always bring the joy!”  But sometimes things people say can make us feel sad, too. “We are the mean girls- and you’re not allowed to play!” “Dude- you’re so slow you can’t play with us at recess.”  Maybe one day a sad thing might be “You did not make this team” or “You cannot go to college here” or “We just can’t be friends.”

But even though the outside you is REAL and important, there is something INSIDE you that is more important, something even MORE Real (how cool is that?)

Don’t forget the inside You. (Now, I imagine drawing a spark on the inside of crudely drawn stick figure.)  This You cannot change– for better or worse.  No matter how many times Mommy says “Great reading!” or a bully says “You can’t be my friend.”  No matter how many pimples are on your face or math facts are in your brain.  This spark won’t change.  And listen to this (this is really incredible!)– the inside You can watch the outside you when you are sad– and it will tell you, “It is okay to be sad, but don’t forget Me.  I’m in here, and I’m not going anywhere, and I don’t change. You can lean on me when you are sad and angry and happy.  I can help you feel those things because I am bigger than those things.”

The next time you are sad or happy- watch your tears and your laughter with your Spark.  Your spark is the lovely thing that makes you Cohen- makes you Sophie- makes you Ellie.  It is the Really Real- the YOU in you– that knows without words that it is Loved no matter what.

In many important stories, the spark is called Soul, or Spirit, and is as close as the air we breathe.

Thank you for being you,

Love,

Mom

The Koine Greek word ψυχή psychē, “life, spirit, consciousness”, is derived from a verb meaning “to cool, to blow”, and hence refers to the breath.
 

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Thoughts on lightness & joy

In the heaviness of life, there exists a lightness– and this lightness might be the secret to joy.

Snapshots of Lightness 

We have make-shift weather experiments all over our house because Cohen read a children’s almanac that said George Washington was interested in meteorology when he was a kid.  A cup is collecting rain in the driveway, a straw with a hunk of play-doh at the end has become a make-shift barometer, and notecards with ten-day forecasts are scattered across our kitchen countertops.****Tonight at dinner Jacob and I were talking about the 1960s and hippie protests and Vietnam; ten minutes into our conversation Ellie waves one hand wildly in the air (the other hand clamped on her mouth– a strategy learned in pre-school) and asks “What are dippies?” ****Cohen organized a mock-election for president of the “house” and we all had to write our “platforms” down on notecards and Sophie’s said “I promise to get Ellie’s shirt down for her on Mondays.” ***Mae and Everett knocked multiple decks of cards off a bookshelf, and they held the cards up to me like they were precious gems, like they were sparkling jewels spilling through their chubby miner’s hands.  They said”ahh” with their mouths and “look here!” with their eyes and I left the piled treasure on the floor in fear I would forget the cards’ secret value.

Do you ever feel happy, but feel like you’re not allowed to tell anyone? That by seeing the “lightness” of life you are somehow denying its inherent pain?   I feel that if I were to speak in the way I write, at best, I’m ignorant, at worst, a liar. I somehow feel as if acknowledging my happiness would make me naive, false, incomplete.

But ignoring the joy that comes from seeing the lightness is like a starving person watching another person who has access to food choose to be starving.  My not eating isn’t saving them, it is starving all of us.  I’m sitting there, staring at a feast, and choosing not to eat because someone else can’t eat.  Which means we are all STARVING, sitting there staring at the thing that can save us.

Never apologize for proclaiming to see what is right before your eyes.  If I cannot own the joy that is before me, how can I ever expect to bring joy to others? We don’t share happiness to prove that we’re superior, we share our own joy to affirm that joy can be found for all.

So this is what I see: If you are ALIVE you are now HOLDING what will one day be no more.  Even with your own kids grown, or no kids at all, you look up and you see the light of a star which at that very same moment– that light-hits-retinas-moment– might also be dust.


After school– papers scattered, babies unhooked from carseats, vanilla ice cream scooped into bowls for hungry kids.  I’m seven different places, deciding whether we should thaw the shrimp or call for a pizza, staring at the lawn that has turned into a jungle, taking Sophie’s temperature and making sure Mae doesn’t plummet out of a rocking chair.  Cohen asks us to read Scholastic News with him, and I almost want to laugh at the impracticality of it (it’s not even homework!) but I don’t, because he’s sitting there at the kitchen table, marveling at the length of whale sharks, and Everett has stopped crying because he’s found a basket of napkins to dump out, and Jacob has volunteered to read the final paragraph from an article entitled “The Tooth Mystery.”

“This story shows that you can find treasures anywhere” he reads, “even hidden in a pile of rocks. So explore and keep your eyes open. Who knows what you’ll find!”

 

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Hands in the dark.

I rock Mae in the dark, and I hear Everett roll over on his side to discover that I’m still in the room.  The mattress creaks as he pulls himself up, standing quietly to watch us, his chin just over the rail of his crib.  From her seat in my lap, Mae reaches up her hand toward Everett, and he extends his chubby, open palm toward her’s.  They mostly are trying to stay awake– I know– and I am mostly trying to get them to sleep– but I find myself guiding Mae’s hand toward her brother so their fingers can link. One’s fingers in another’s palm a few seconds before parting.  As long as the rocker is facing the crib, they do this again and again- stretch their arms out in the dark to find one another.  Sometimes their tiny arms flail and they fail, and I grab their hands with my own instead.  But usually, I guide their hands to find one another, because there is something that feels more right about that.

———

Ellie drew a sailboat for Jacob and a rainbow for Gaga and she wrote the word “hear” for me.  No joke– no pictures either.  Just four large, crudely shaped letters.  “Why did you write this?” I asked.  “I asked Gaga how to spell it,” was her answer.  “Hear.”  Simple enough.

——–

It was quiet in the nail salon; I was the only customer, Lynn the only worker, and I put down my phone to talk to her. I asked about her son, remembering a time he had been working with his mom, a quirky kid of about 11 who read me an entire puppet show he had written that afternoon while he helped scrub water basins and adjust settings on massage chairs.  I brought up the memory I had of him (the kid was truly endearing), and Lynn asked about my job teaching English and her concern for how her son (now an eighth grader) might not get into honors classes in high school.  “Did he take a test?” I asked. “Yes,” she said.  Then a pause. “But that was just after my mom died.”   She spoke quickly, her English broken.  “And he, he was very close with her.”  She tried to find the words to describe what we all know– the feeling of how difficult it is to return to an unchanged world when you have been completely changed by grief.  “You know, I cancel everything that week, and I not remember anything,” she says quickly, describing her own reaction to her mom’s death.  She goes on to tell me about how she knows he didn’t do as well on the test as he could have because it was so soon after the death of his grandma.

“Li–”  she says, (She never says the Z in my name.)  “Li, you know who I call about the classes?  Who I talk to?”  She hands me a pad of paper, “Li– you write down what I say.  Because, you know– I don’t want to sound crazy.”

Hear.  Write.

Maybe that’s what I’m supposed to do right now.  Remind you you aren’t crazy.  You aren’t crazy.  You have everything you need to know within you.

I’ll listen to my life and I’ll write some stuff down.

I’ll write about my life, which is in some ways your life, and it will be like two small hands  meeting in the dark- led by a larger Hand who could very well hold us fiercely in its grip, but instead releases us so we can hold the hands of one another.

 

 

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BSC!

It rained all weekend.  We didn’t do anything we should have done.

Instead, in an utterly irrational move, I spent a half an hour cleaning out the basement storage closet in order to get to my giant bin of old Baby-Sitters Club books.  Cohen read one a while back and was interested in finding more.  So I vacuumed up old easter egg candy wrappers and little styrofoam berries that had fallen off the Christmas wreaths and burrowed my way like some crazed mole back into the boxes of junk.  Behind the old wedding centerpieces and high school memorabilia box, I found the two treasures I was aiming for: a collection of the shiny, pastel-covered paper-backs by Ann M. Martin, and a couple of my own baby-sitters club stories (fan-fiction, baby!): first, Aloha Baby-Sitters.  I ran my hand over the plain aqua cardstock and I imagined my dad binding the pages together with his “binding machine.”   I still had the rejection letter I received from Scholastic Books after pitching the idea to them (though Ann would write her own Aloha Baby-Sitters a year later.)    The second: A Baby-Sitters Club Reunion, True Friends Are Forever.  This one was co-authored with my best friend, Marie (the ‘copyright’ notes a “Schmutteneimers” publication).  We had imagined what the BSC members would be doing ten years after high school graduation.  The plot included a major hurricane, a birth of a baby, and the return of drunken step-father.  We had predicted Internet chats in 1996.  Also holophones.

As I tenderly unpacked each of the books from the bin, stacking more junk (heirlooms!) upon the piles of junk in our family room, I recalled some of my favorite titles.  “Snowbound!” I squealed.  “I re-wrote this entire thing into a screenplay!”  The kids were all ears.  “We wrote the credits on a giant whiteboard,” I gushed.  “And there was this scene, where someone gets stranded in a car, and Kristy goes on a date with Bart and…”

“You’re like a trauma victim who’s suddenly remembering every detail from the scene of a crime,” Jacob said.

Cohen requested my story when he went to bed.  I read the entire thing.

IMG_0457

The 33 year old me didn’t organize her closet, mow the lawn, buy her sister’s shower invites, or check off anything else on her growing to-do list.  But the 12 year old me found a rapt audience 20 years after her first “publication.”  I’d count that as win.

 

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Poetry and baseball

dugout

 A small, six year old boy begins to don his catcher’s equipment for the first time; the gear hangs clunkily from from his tiny frame, the shinguards a bit too long, the helmet swallowing his small head like the unwieldy face mask of a medieval knight.  Jacob velcros the final shin guard onto the tiny catcher as the other boys run out to their positions.  “What if I get hit with the ball?” I hear him question timidly.  He stares at home plate, not following the other players out onto the field.

———

Yesterday afternoon was Cohen’s baseball game.  Jacob is the head coach and my dad is the assistant coach.  I get stressed out at these things.  Really- there I am, sitting on the sidelines buried in babies where no one even notices me– and this beautiful, annoying Mind of mine starts to notice all those EYES!   I’m nervous the parents will be judgmental.  I’m nervous for Jacob and if he’ll be able to pitch over-the-plate to the kids.  I’m  nervous that he will say the right thing, that parents will wonder if he’s coaching “right”, if he’s playing their kids  in the right positions, if he’s coaching too much or too little.  This stress is uniquely irrational: One- because it’s not me, it’s Jacob.  Two, because it’s first and second graders.  Three, because time and time again Life shows me that most people are good and decent when you get to know them.  But I worry anyway.  Those EYES!

Jump ahead 12 hours: Today we had Writers Day at Cary Grove.  Different authors and poets came to speak to our creative writing classes, and at the end of the day, nine student performers shared original poetry.  I was nervous for them– all of them– the students and the professionals– because didn’t they notice them??– didn’t they notice all those EYES??  I think they did notice them (hands shook/ voices stuttered), but they got up anyway; they stood on stage and they shared something they made.

Some of their poetry resonated with me, and some of it didn’t.  But you want to know what always resonated– what truth hummed– holy and sweet and invisible in the air?  It was this willingness to say: Look, here I am. I made something.  And I want you to hear it.

 “Have you ever heard of Captain America?” Jacob asks.  He’s kneeling so he is eye-level with the boy, and the small catcher nods.  “What’s his most important weapon?”  The boy stares at him.  “His shield, right?” Jacob says.   “This–” he holds up the boy’s glove, “Is like your shield.  And the rest of this is your armor.”  The boy’s glove is so big it’s an effort for him to hold it up, but he traces Jacob’s movements with his tiny arm, back and forth, back and forth, imagining shielding himself from any oncoming enemy pitches.

I’m still a little nervous, but I realize I don’t have to be.

Several batters into the game, there is a loud “thunk”.  A pitch has hit the tiny catcher right in the chest.  “You okay buddy?” Jacob asks.  There is only a moment’s hesitation, perhaps only a moment a mother would notice; then–a tiny “thumbs-up” pointed to the sky, and the game continues. 

So speak!  Our fear just might make another person brave enough to enter the game.

 

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Any afternoon

After school today I picked up the three youngest from my mom’s.  Everett was asleep in his carseat, his chubby thighs busting out of his “future Moline maroon” onesie.  Mae was all boogers and blue eyes.  Ellie did not want to pick up the big kids; she was in need of a nap (understatement).

I heaved one carseat up into the truckster (hoist-swing-plop), and my mom heaved up the other (host-swing-plop.)  The windows were down and the wind blew Ellie’s curls as we drove to the big kids’ school.  We pulled into our corner spot and I hoisted more babies.  Ellie ran ahead of me through the mud and the grass, close to the sidewalk but not on it.  She had a minnie-mouse shirt and red leggings and rosy cheeks.

I talked with another mom about the weather and the upcoming fun fair and waved to Sophie as she requested to be dismissed.  She bounded over to me, and I asked her how her day was.  She said “good” and quickly found Ellie flying on her belly on the swings.  Cohen burst through the doors after the second bell, flying at top speed, running at me and nearly through me.  We found our neighbor and I led the small child-entourage back to the car.  Ellie quickly entered full melt-down mode, upset that she wanted to sit in the middle seat, and refusing to let anyone buckle her except me.    She screamed and she screamed and I sang “There’s NO business like SHOW business” (because why not?)

I spied the gray of the mini-van in our driveway and I could breathe a little bit more because the gray meant Jacob was home a few minutes early and he could cover the remaining hoisting of carseats. (Hoist- swing-plop-hoist-swing-plop.)  Jacob chased Ellie in a circle around the house, limping and stiff-necked from pitching in Cohen’s baseball game last night.  He hobbled around and around as she darted this way and that, always just out of his reach.  “You should have seen it,” (he would recount to me later, shaking his head.)  Ellie fell asleep on me, her arms clasped tightly around my neck.

As she slept, I watched Cohen jump rope in the family room; he would try again and again, only taking a quick break to eat a left-over piece of birthday cake.  Everett pushed the door of the play pen open-and-shut, open-and-shut, and as he stood there marveling at the notion of a swinging gate, I marveled at the girth of his calves.  Once Ellie was officially asleep, I tested Cohen’s jumprope outside because I’ve always enjoyed jumping.

We made Everett and Mae laugh while we waited for dinner.

We ate tacos while Ellie slept and I asked Cohen if he had found his lost library book.   He said “yes” (pause) “in the garage” (longer pause) “on the toilet.”  And we laughed, because where else but here would that be true– really? (It’s true!)  Jacob gave the babies baths and I filled out fun fair forms, and math workbook forms, and reading club forms (I was DOMinating those forms) and felt productive until I saw the war-torn state of the kids bedrooms and I just threw in the towel.

Ellie woke up from her nap and ate cheese sandwiches and I read Horrible Harry, and Henry and Mudge, and Magic Tree House (a good line-up, I must say.)  I sang “busy day” to Ellie (half an hour ago) and she is still singing right now.  Everybody’s up.

We’re awake on this evening at the end of this afternoon, which could really be any afternoon– an afternoon that in a hundred ways will repeat itself, but will never be quite the same again.

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Mid-week reflection

Every time I write, I hear a thousand different voices.  The voice of the cynic who asks why I should be posting about my story when leaders are dropping bombs and people need to be fed and justice needs to be found.  The voice of the academic who chides that this line was overly sentimental and that line was too cliche.  The voice of of the the parent, the childless, the conservative, the liberal, the married, the single, the rich and the poor, the old and the young. There is even the voice of my future-self, whispering “if you only knew what you’ll one day know…”

There are always voices.  Not just for me when I write, but for all of us, all the time.  To ignore them is narcissistic, and to cater to them is weak.  What do we do with the voices?

For me, writing and sharing, if nothing else, is a process of chipping away at the ego, at the outer exterior whose facade says “thoughtful, intelligent, kind”– because most of the time there are no deep thoughts, most of the time I do not understand, and more often than not kindness does not come naturally.  But so what?  These traits– even though these characteristics are good– are the ego.  The outside Self.  The inside Self is not defined by depth of intellect or vocabulary, or even kindness and selflessness (or the amount of comma splices in this essay.)  The inside me– and the inside you– is Loved and Enough.  Plain and simple.

I believe we know the truth of “Loved and Enough” from infancy, but somewhere along the way, we forget.  It is something we cannot help but know in the beginning, as we only are because we are sustained by another.

I think we must start with Loved and Enough if we are ever going to deal with the voices.

I typically see this assault of perspectives as a a paralyzing curse, but what if- in some holy way– it could be a blessing?  What if we- in our fear that we are not Enough- are being crushed by the very gift that could bring Wholeness to the world?  How is it that we have turned what could very-well a super-power into something de-habilitating?  For the power to step outside of myself and see the world as you see it is the very force that will compel me to truly love you.

So I will write and I will share and I will live (and we all will live)- risking judgment from the voices, exposing our imperfections and ignorance, and trusting that ancient wisdom of “weakness becoming strength.” The story we celebrate this weekend– the Easter story- re-affirms this transformative power, telling us once and for all: Loved and Enough. And once we know Loved and Enough, we hear the voices for what they are– a chance to truly connect with the Other.

This weakness-turned-strength, little by little, without gusto or fanfare– is the force that will transform the world.

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Letting Life Speak

Today I am going to begin a new weekly writing tradition.  I’m going to practice noticing.  I’m going to, as Frederick Buechner said, listen to my life.    I’m going to try to let Life speak for itself, in an attempt to coach my eyes to see again.

——-

Yesterday we took all five children to a Brewers/Cubs game in Milwaukee.  I overpacked a small blue and black backpack, stuffing down diapers and extra clothes and formula.  I jammed three pieces of white bread and two bananas (just call me Betty Crocker) into a jewel bag and forgot bibs.  I changed and re-changed Everett and Mae, finding tiny old shoes that haven’t been worn since Sophie and Cohen donned them years ago.  They both kicked them off within seconds, but I appeased my need to control the situation by balancing the shoes in the carseat, telling myself they would wear them in the stadium, right?

After waking up too early to binge-watch Elena of Avalor, the kids were operating at less-than-optimal levels.  Fights ensued before we even wrangled them all into the car, Cohen furious that Sophie had “stolen” his seat. Amidst kicks and cries and wails, Jacob attempted to calm the temper of our eldest: “Buddy, buddy, just try and use some strategies to calm down” he said from the driver’s seat.   And then- without hesitation from the backseat: “I don’t LIKE STRAT-TEH-GIES!”– the words spilled from Cohen’s mouth, so loud and primal his voice rivaled the throaty grovel of a seasoned rock singer.  We laughed (because really, what else?) and ignored him (until we couldn’t ignore him because he was kicking Sophie’s seat). But then we ignored him some more and he got tired of being mad.

Our drive continued, and Jacob noticed his receding hairline in the rearview mirror and Ellie noticed the cattails in the fields outside.  I researched road trips on my phone and Jacob said “seriously?” and I’m proud that it only took me few seconds to discover the irony. With our destination 10 minutes away, GPS lost its marbles as we encountered new construction, and we marveled at the height of the crisscrossing ramps and swore and barked at the kids to stay quiet. But even with GPS off the table, we found our way (like people do).

Upon arrival at Miller Park, we squashed the babies legs into carriers and Ellie clutched my hand as we made our way up the escalator to our seats in the upper-deck.  We caught the opening home run on a TV just before finding our seats.  By the bottom of the first inning, Everett had pooped.  By the top of the third Sophie was whining for food.  I changed Everett in a stinky bathroom and noticed another mom waiting for the changing table.  She was kind and said “take your time.”  Ellie called out from a nearby stall that she didn’t have any toilet-paper and the woman in the next stall over slid her some, saying “I have a daughter her age, too.”

We gathered our free hotdogs and apple-sauce and made our way back to our seats.  There was a moment when Everett sat on my lap munching on his bread, when I slowed down and breathed in the warmth of new spring air.  The sun glinted off the west end of the stadium, turning everything beyond his little head golden.

There were requests for ice cream after cheering for the “cowboy” in the sausage races. We ran into an old college friend eating our mini-chocolate cones.  I was scarfing cheese fries (because a hotdog isn’t enough), and Everett was eating breadcrumbs off the ground.  We said we should get together over the summer, and I think we will.

We made our way back to the car just before the bottom of the 9th.  Ellie and Cohen raced across the footbridge, weaving their way in and out between the throngs of adult legs.  “They’re with me,” I would say to the onlookers, my own feet shuffling along, Everett’s head bobbing in the carrier.  The kids poked each other with an umbrella on the way home, but we didn’t have any tears (except from the babies.)  Everett bit Jacob’s thumb with his two little front teeth, which made Cohen laugh uncontrollably.  We ate spaghetti and then wiped spaghetti off the floor and picked spaghetti out of hair.  We fell into bed.

After all was quiet, I found myself in my darkened room. The windows were wide open and the summer-like wind was strong.  The stillness was broken only by the occasional, gentle snap of billowing curtains.  After my breathing slowed, I could also hear the faint sound of a clarinet playing, the wind carrying its melody gently from a neighbor’s window to my own.  The music lasted for at least twenty minutes; it changed– or perhaps revealed– the atmosphere in the air; it conjured a gentleness that could only be felt.  I fell asleep to Rhapsody in Blue.

Everything speaks.  Everything.  Tiny baby toes too small for shoes, a big brother’s indignant shoves,  swaying cattails and slightly cold hot dogs.  Fly balls and foul balls and home runs.  Summer winds and tired limbs, silence and song.

It all comes together in the marvelous symphony of what IS– each smell and sound and sight, each taste and touch coming together to create a life.

May we See.

 

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Losing Our Grips

I would sleepwalk through this morning.  The clouds would hang low in the sky, the air too warm for February.  I would see people in the halls, smile and say hi, hold doors open, nod my head during class discussions, squint my eyes into half-moons to indicate inquisitive thoughts.  I would stare at my computer screen, google doc after google doc, and I would make three loops to the bathroom to avoid having my face crash into my computer.

But in the middle of today, I was jolted from my somnambulatory haze.  Because today, there was a fire alarm.  I followed the crowds outside and found a small circle of teachers.  We hugged our elbows or stuffed our hands in our pockets to avoid the cold, shuffled back and forth in an awkward dance to adapt our bodies to the brisk February air.  We didn’t have our phones and we didn’t have our laptops.  The tasks and to-do lists we carried had been left back in the abandoned building, and all we stood outside with was ourselves.

The air woke me up, and so did the other people.  It was bright, and I bet they could see the zits on my forehead.  They could see the lines around my eyes and I could see theirs.  We talked about the weather “it’s supposed to hail tonight” (shuffle shuffle, hands in pockets, more dancing) and we talked about the upcoming afternoon’s obligations.  We talked about a project due for gradschool class (sniffle, shuffle, sniffle). And then the bell rang again, indicating that it was safe to return to the building.

Small conversations are kind of revolutionary for me.  I am kind of an anxious person.  Having your life be governed by bells is actually a glorious thing for a person who dreads small talk.  Awkward silence?  That’s okay, because the bell will ring in a minute, and it will be time to gather up your laptop and keys.  Too many tasks and deadlines? — no need to fret, because after all, fulfilling these duties is something I can control— I can hold my responsibilities in the palm of my hands, carry them in neat, manageable piles; I can master deadlines with to-do lists, check-boxes and hardcore multi-tasking.

But the system controls us by making us believe we can control it.  Thankfully, however, a fire alarm rings, the routine is upset, and we’re faced with real people.  People who must dance to keep their feet warm, people with zits and wrinkles, with eyes that are hollow or shining. People who have fears and awkward quirks and dreams and maybe some spinach in their teeth.

Any time you are brave enough to look someone in the eye, you lose a little bit of your grip.  Because you cannot control a person like you can control a task, you must surrender to what is instead of what could be.

I practiced the art of losing my grip tonight with my birthday girl, Ellie.  We sat across from one another at a small table in Dairy Queen, she sipping an Orange Julius, me wolfing-down an oreo blizzard.  Kids are the ultimate antidotes to the illusion of control– — they remind me that my incessant attempts to hold their behavior, their feelings, their future in my protective palms is futile.  What I can do is be present (which is SO FREAKING DIFFICULT)– I can bear witness to their joy and their sadness and they can bear witness to mine.

“What makes you laugh?” I ask Ellie.  “Jokes,” she grins, stealing a bit of my Blizzard.  “And what makes you angry?” I question. “When people steal my toys.” “What makes you happy?” She smiles, her mouth wide and her teeth brown from chocolate, her hair stuck out in untamable, staticky wisps.  “My family,” she says.

She finds my shining eyes, and I find hers, and we are tired and happy together.

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