Letting Go of Graceland.

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In 1996′s Crooklyn, Zelda Harris (l) plays a daughter who doesn’t quite understand but deeply loves her father (Delroy Lindo).

The house was airy, small, like other old homes on side streets in northeast Grand Rapids: set on hills of uneven earth, floors of hardwood, walls my father had painted and trimmed in warm, thoughtful contrasts. It smelled of his soap and his cologne, of the dog he’d sent away in preparation for my arrival. By my early 20s, everyone took for granted that I was afraid of dogs, but my childhood cynophobia was starting to wane then. My father’s family had always taken it seriously — insomuch that I often stayed in their homes instead of his, in part to insulate me from the 60-pound breeds he preferred. When the terror seemed real — at some point, all dogs bared their teeth, gave chase, growled with unnegotiable menace, didn’t they? — I was grateful for their fastidiousness. But over time, all the special arrangements made me feel both guilty and quarantined. Over time, I wondered if the dogs weren’t an excuse for us to spend even more time apart.

The scent of fried fish or ground beef would commingle this air, but now the rooms were crisp and nearly antiseptic. My father loves to cook, his thin fingers skittering on the air over a skillet, drizzling minced garlic into it like rain. It is only after he’s done so that I can imagine any space I share with him as a kind of impermanent home.

I had been told before entering this house for the first time to expect my own bedroom. My aunt said it was lovely, just off the living room, and here it was to the left of the front door. She was right. The walls there were purple, because he knew it was my favorite color. The shag rug matched the walls and the bedspread was zebra print, a species I never would’ve imagined inhabiting a room I’d call my own. It wasn’t quite what I’d call my style, but in truth, I did not have a style. For years, I did not live in homes that allowed tenants to alter the colors of the walls or carpet. Instead, I made collages I rarely hung and slept under comforters I hadn’t chosen for myself. Though the room my father designed for me was not what I might’ve created for myself, it was thrilling to stand in, all the same. It was summer and sun soaked every inch of the space. I basked in it but offered a measured smile. “It”s really nice,” I said hoping I sounded pleased enough, impressed enough, happy enough.

He was between marriages. His first was when I was 20. I sobbed in a bathroom stall at the wedding. The marriage lasted just under two years; during it, I spoke to him on the phone maybe twice. It ended badly, but now that wife was gone and along with her a Great Dane my father had brought into the union and had loved at least as much as he loved me. She had convinced him to have the dog euthanized because its torn claw had bled onto her white carpet. In the dissolution he had also lost some of my childhood photographs. I wasn’t aware that he had been keeping any to begin with. It wasn’t that I didn’t think him emotionally capable; it just hadn’t occurred to me to ask, and now, before I could see for myself what he’d held of me and looked at during our long stretches of silence, they were gone.

The house was on a street called Graceland, and this was fitting — not because of any relationship to Elvis, who my father detested, convinced the crooner was a stone racist, but because I could already tell it was a landmark — a place fit for laughter and reconciliation, with a backyard just big enough to bury all our bygones.

I am accustomed to burial. I don’t remember anything that truly aches. It is all locked somewhere, entombed. I suspect this is why, even at my most joyous, I am also vaguely sad; my subconscious has been hefting a graveyard of suppressed memory.

1973's 'Paper Moon' features real-life father and daughter Tatum and Ryan O'Neal. His character spends the entire film denying he's her biological father, even as the cross the Dust Bowl running cons on country folk and warming to each other.

1973′s ‘Paper Moon’ features real-life father and daughter Tatum and Ryan O’Neal. His character spends the entire film denying he’s her biological father, even as they cross the Depression Era Dust Bowl conning on country folk and reluctantly warming to each other.

I don’t remember my father before I was seven. We lived hundreds of miles apart from the time I was four until I was 27. I saw him during summers. And sometimes I only saw his mother and sisters, even when he was right in town. He didn’t call or write much. Some years, I spotted Friend of the Court check stubs in my mother’s bedroom. Some years, I did not. I remember the amount of the checks; it changed. Most years, it was not enough to feed me for a full month, not enough to buy a prom dress or two full new outfits at the outset of a school year. It may have been enough for a sturdy pair of sneakers — on sale — and, perhaps, one dinner entree at a family-style restaurant — with a coupon. No one complained about this. I knew early the cost of such complaints. Some men were jailed. Others ran when they saw their children on the street. They blamed the mothers, blamed the child. The better men also blamed themselves. (The best only blame themselves.) But all this blame was far too large a barter for a few extra dollars in a monthly check.

We kept quiet, and I learned, like most children whose names appear in family court cases, that what a man spends on you is no measure by which to gauge his love. It is no measure of love at all. Men rarely spend much on me. I’m afraid to want it, afraid to accept it. I never ask. And if he does spend more than I can afford for myself, I offer to pay it back. The men I choose tend to accept that offer.

When I was little, my father spent years without consistent access to a telephone. He said he didn’t like them, but what I heard was that he didn’t like me. If he was fine not having a phone, he was fine not talking to me. I have come to consider time as the more telling expenditure. Those with whom you choose to spend yours matter most.

We are still horrible about keeping in touch. We both have phones.

He was only renting the Graceland house, but for the right long-term tenant, the owners would consider a sale. Against my better judgment, I fell for the place, with all its evidence of my father’s enthusiasm to enfold me in his new life’s sanctum. Me! who’d never had a room in a home where he’d lived in all my days. Sure, it had come after I was grown, in the aftermath of a divorce, but perhaps this was best. I was still young enough at 22 to learn what it felt like to be the kind of only child who could, at any moment, command her father’s undivided attention. Here, I could experience him at his least encumbered, his most hopeful.

Dad beams when he’s done something right. Puffed-chested and preening, he pretends in those moments that he is a man who never gets it wrong. His voice can shrug on a cloak of dismissive confidence. Of course. Absolutely.

But when the braggadocio has been rubbed raw, his voice can also quaver, his eyes turning glassy and brimming with watery hope. I’m sorry. I should never have. I won’t again.

He is an actor. I have seen him play any number of leads. Flawed, hulking men who scoff at and cheat on their understated wives, heaving the great sighs of fallen heroes, convinced the whole world has done them wrong. He has been Jelly Roll Morton. Walter Lee Younger. Coalhouse Walker. Troy Maxson. Audrey II. He can pitch himself into any posture. This is a skill that only serves to make his true feelings more inscrutable.

I stayed with him in the Graceland house for an uninterrupted weekend. We fell into our easy pattern of watching rented movies and movies on cable and movies in theaters. He prepared our ritual meals: taco salad, expansive breakfasts, fried seafood. I am always most certain he loves me when I taste the food he’s cooked for me. There is a care, a precision, but also something daring, untraceable, perhaps the singular spice of his hands.

Like many black men, he is an insomniac, nocturnal. On the rare occasions I stayed over with him, I wanted to match him minute for waking minute. We could stay up till 2 a.m. before one of us dozed; it was usually him. And I talked years into those minutes, all those missing months we’d spent apart. I wanted to make him laugh, to keep him current on who I was becoming and what I was accomplishing. I wanted to keep him. On those nights, I sounded most like my mother.

My mother’s voice is a marathon; she is talkative in a way that can be physically exhausting. As a conversationalist, I am more of a leisurely jogger. It is hard to keep up. I am not conditioned to listening or speaking at length. My father is much more like me; when a room has emptied of everyone but us, he doesn’t say much at all. He is comfortable with silence. I suspect he wishes he had more of it.

It’s rare and has been more recent, but I have seen him take off his outside self, the pelt of him that laughs raucously and recounts all the fights he’s gotten into and survived, the actor’s self. And I have found him in a chair, spectacles set low on his nose, peering at the pages of a thick trade paperback, wearing a frowzy sweater. In those moments, he looks ten years older than he is, but happier than I’ve ever seen him.

If I had known that he could be so much like me in that way, I would not have worked so hard to fill our silences. He did not need to be entertained. And I never felt that my performances were good enough, anyway. They served only to teach me another wrong lesson: you cannot expect your love for someone to reroute the trajectory of his life — and it is possible to be deeply loved by someone with whom you will always feel your wants hold too little weight.

Toward the end of the weekend in the Graceland house, my father told me he didn’t know how long he could keep it. He had lost a job shortly after renting it and the payments were beginning to overtax him. Oh, but it’s only a matter of budgeting! I said, sitting up straighter in my chair. We can do this, I thought (and may’ve said aloud; I don’t remember). If you want it enough, we can keep it.

I suppose I knew by the time I walked out of the house that this would be my only visit. I had had enough similar experiences with him to know what he would see fit to hold and what he would turn loose.

After the summer, he moved in with the woman who would become his second wife. I did not sob in a bathroom stall at their wedding. When I sleep in their home, it’s in a guest room next to theirs. Their two dogs are always present. I am not afraid. They refer to the three of us as their children. Now, they both cook. It is different, but nice.

I have long since let go of the Graceland house; I wasn’t there long enough to grow attached to it. But letting go of the glimpses my best moments with my father gave into what might’ve been a different life, what might’ve been a healthier relationship with him, is much harder. Years ago, we could’ve been capable of more. We could’ve coexisted in that quiet home where what we needed from each other stood a chance of being better understood. And if this had been so, it would be easier now for me to leave other men whose expressions of love feel delayed or intermittent. How hard it is has been to reconcile that which I once knew was possible with that which currently is.

And even this is a lesson: as long as there is life, new grace can be extended and accepted. But we cannot restore what has been left too long to rot. The rot must be discarded, its girders leveled and gutted. It is rigorous work that so many of us are less inclined to undertake in our advancing age. But say we do begin. Say we were to both agree to bruise ourselves, rebuilding again. If new blueprints are drawn, they must be rendered with steady, unflinching hands. Every need — space and time and true forgiveness — should be made more explicit and all that has been buried must be bared.

What Contraceptive Ignorance Costs Us All.

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^^ The adults in my life, on the issue of birth control. ^^

I was taught nothing of birth control. In the white-walled rooms of youth groups where we buried our noses in bibles and pretended the promise or memory of sex wasn’t palpable, we were not permitted to ask. And in our nightfallen homes, the flicker of TV-light dancing on the weary, work-ashen faces of our parents, we dared not bring it up.

I did not have friends who I knew were on it, did not discuss its dire need among the ones who were already smitten and surreptitious. I wouldn’t hear any of my girls openly, casually discuss it till we were in our mid-20s and even then, the possible side effects sounded terrifying: bloating and rapid weight gain, mysterious acne and blood clots, uncertainty attendant to possible misuse.

Contraceptives felt like contraband, something to be secreted away or shrouded in enigma and shame, if used at all. It would take years for me to truly understand the vital need for a woman’s vigilance around procuring it.

I had sex for the first time at 24, a week before my 25th birthday. A condom was used, and this set a precedent: one partner, one form of contraception, one party responsible for securing and using it (him). My first pap test was during that 25th year, with a black woman in a Midwestern city who did not press me on the issue of birth control. She asked if I was fine with condoms. I nodded meekly. Her lips became a terse line as she jotted this down in my chart. We moved on.

The same happened at my grad school clinic a year later after a pap. “You and your partner are welcome to explore any contraception you wish. Or none, if you’re exclusive and tested. It’s up to you.”

And so it was that I never saw up close the oblong compact I could gingerly open, looking down and comparing it to a theatre in the round: each compartment a tiny seat, each pill a fully paid ticket to bodily freedom.

No one told me there were springy bits of copper and plastic that could be positioned inside you for years, preventing all possibility of pregnancy. I knew little of the patches we could press to the backsides of shoulders or the sexiest curve of our hips, patches that withstood the daily pulse of shower-water and willed their potion firmly under our skin.

I was doggedly incurious and there were many reasons: the long-distance nature of my relationship made physical intimacy infrequent — far too infrequent to warrant the constant use of a contraceptive. And what would come of my body? Would it rebel, resist, reconfigure? Would I be labeled loose if the pills or patch were discovered by the women who’d never seen for to tell me they existed in the first place? Would an IUD lodge itself someplace precarious? Would I forget to use whatever I chose?

Would it fail? Would I?

I was not raised to prepare for premarital sex but rather for any number of punishments that could befall me in its wake.

Indeed, my pregnancy at 29 was considered, by some, to be some sort of handed-down sentence. Among those for whom discussion of birth control remains a hushed or silenced subject, conceiving you seemed evidence of a fundamental failing. And to the extent that it is true that I’ve failed at anything, it is at handing responsibility for my body over to a partner whose stake in its reproductive health is, necessarily, far lower than my own. It is at not investigating all the (then relatively unthreatened) options open to me. It is at leaving so many stones of knowledge unturned.

Contraceptive ignorance is far costlier than a prescription. It limits the conversations we can comfortably enter, armed with an informed opinion, an educated vote. And, to be sure, remaining willfully ignorant of the myriad roles of contraception — those far beyond the mere prevention of pregnancy, far beyond the myopic scope of stigma — makes us complicit in every legislative battle women and men are waging to retain affordable access to birth control and care.

Pretending we are not sexually active often enough to need it directly threatens the rights of those who are certain that they do.

Make no mistake, the decisions to conceive and give birth to you were entirely mine. No legislator told me I had to; I was not barred any preventive prescription I would’ve needed, had I made a different choice. I want you to grow up in a society where the same is true for you.

You are still so little. I am still so out of my depth. How will I give you a wide, unobscured berth of information when I am still cobbling my own knowledge together in bits and pieces? What exactly will we say when we whisper close, over cocoa, ’round issues of sex, reproduction, contraception, and faith?

I have time to yet to figure it out, but I am alarmed at how fast that time is dwindling. I am equally alarmed at how many of your options are dangling in the balance.

There is no way of predicting what, precisely, you’ll need. Every woman is a wonder, in her capacity to decide what is best for herself. And this, of course, is where we will begin. This is your God-given body. This is your God-given mind. This is your God-given will. These are the tools you must use to lay claim to your every choice.

Some of Us Just Want to Be Unbossed.

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Patriarchy wrings young women dry. It tells girls who were raised in households where men were not present that their mother’s ability to thrive in a man’s absence was not a testament to her strength but evidence of his rejection. When a mother internalizes this, her daughters are raised under a specter of spurning. Every action and word they witness is instructive: this is how to act when you are a woman and mother on your own: decisive, assertive, impatient, frustrated and curt, entirely confident and selectively cooperative. This is how to own yourself: be unapologetic; accept that it may mean remaining alone.

But a daughter raised this way may not immediately ascertain the appeal. She may be lured instead by the promise of men’s presence, by the challenge attendant to compelling them to stay. And she may act in all ways opposite her mother’s example to curry their favor.Learn to cook, she might note, not what you love but what he will eat. Learn to let a last male word — even (and perhaps especially) a foolish one — linger in the air. If it is foul, pretend not to notice its stench. Allow him its echo. The last word is a preservation of dignity. Women who shout down humiliate.

(But what of our dignity? What of our own humiliation?) 

*  *  *
I was ten when the only man who ever lived with us moved in. He told me, early and often — whenever I wanted to be heard, whenever I seemed to be more than an ornamental fixture of a marriage he barely wanted — that I was disrespectful or ungrateful for his guidance, provision, and presence. If I said: you are wrong; if I said: I’ve not done what you’re accusing me of; if I said: I am not who you’ve convinced yourself I am, he would take these words to my mother. If I brought the words to my mother first, he accused us of conspiring against him: peasants attempting to overthrow a king.

In marriage, my mother was bossed, her husband a man not given to ceding the final say. Over time, she learned to be meek. If peacekeeping meant to defer — or, as our churches taught wives, to submit — she would. But she had to contort herself to do so, had to twist like wet laundry to be left out in the wind and pretend that being limply pinned,  absorbing  her husband’s hot air, was a welcome aspiration.And sometimes when we were alone, in the quiet of a house for which he paid, she would tell me to throw the fight. Accept the charge. Nod at the accusation. You know who you are. It does not matter what he calls you. It’s his house. Let him win. 

Bossy. Boss. Bossed. None held much appeal. None were winnable.

I was not raised in the manner of girls whose anthems and aspirations instruct them to run things. I would not know where to begin, if I were told I should govern myself as though the world were a corporation and I, its CEO.

I was raised to know who I am but to keep quiet about it.

*  *  *
My daughter is months away from four. Every day for the past two years, I have watched her struggle to coax words up from her consciousness — where they seem to be quite clear to her — and out through her mouth, where they often sound garbled to the naked ear. Sometimes, she wails in frustration. Sometimes, she barrels through, happily chattering as though she is fully understood. And sometimes her expression clouds because she knows, looking into the face of the listener, that she is not.
I would never have learned the importance of raising my voice if I had not watched her wrestle so with hers. Her language is swimming upstream, but she calls out over the current. I will be heard, is what I always hear, whether I understand the words or not.

And I would not have understood being assertive if it had not become so essential to advocate for her. Regularly, I weave in and out of meetings, in and out of conversations, where her development, her hearing, and her cognition are assessed and questioned. It becomes ever clearer that managing someone who cannot manage herself requires an absence of ego, an open ear, a willingness to give oneself over to the study of what best serves her needs and her interests. This kind of leadership hinges not on being acknowledged as a boss but as a confidante, not as a superior intellect but as a constant student. We do not become assertive by telling others what to do; we do it by informing them of what we will and will not abide.tumblr_lyyqjuu3jI1qeoyjlo1_400I am an opter out of many discussions. Whether to embrace or repudiate the term “bossy” is one of them. But I know well the damage that is done when young women and girls are not taught to speak on their own behalf. I know what fighting to own oneself looks like and how terrifying it is to watch a woman go slack under the guise of submission. I have contorted myself for men who’ve seen no need to do the same. And I’ve worked for and with difficult, yet enviably self-possessed, folks of many genders.

It is always the better lot to own yourself, to carry your voice across the current, to insist that you should and will be heard. And it is often the better lot to be gentle — not only with others, but also with yourself. Label this however you will; it is an ideal way to live.

Let every man and woman who wants power pursue it, but not at your expense. Power isn’t the ability to make others bend to your will; it is possessing sole guardianship of your will. If you would be “bossy” about anything, let it be about how you will be addressed and defined. Let it be about who cannot enter your space with the intent to tamp you down. Let it be in the stead of those who have gone limp or shrugged off their wills and thrown them at the feet of someone they love. Let it be for those who have been treated as though they are incapable of governing themselves at all.

Some of us are best off calling ourselves unbossed. Like Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, we want history to remember us, not for the professional goals we accomplished or for ascending through ranks often dominated by men, but for the larger feat of holding onto ourselves in the process.

Our Slowly Recalibrating Ears.

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My daughter, age 3

I was hoping for something immediate; we’d put them in and every word she uttered would be comprehensible because she could hear the highs, the lows, the hisses of them, could distinguish the curling in of the lips around M’s and the baring of teeth for the N’s. And maybe the selfsame night, we would curve our bodies together like the twin-bed-sharing contortionists we so often become and have, for the very first time, an unconfused conversation.

You rush her along, her father insisted two nights before our audiology appointment. She’s only three. She’s a baby.

He is right; in my mind, I am rushing it all along — not just our daughter’s development, but ours, as parents, as co-parents, as individuals able to contentedly compromise. We still do not know how difficult all of this is for the other. Our feelings are passing ships. Afloat, alone, at the ends of our days, we are too busy nursing our private wounds to be beacons for one another.

The hearing aids are inconspicuous. The amplifiers, a deep indigo, tuck neatly behind her ears. The molds are translucent, two shades lighter than her skin; they curl around the cartilage and settle just inside the ear canals. Kim, the audiologist, urges us both to take turns pressing them in and demonstrates how to remove the batteries.

Both exercises take me two tries; her father does them by rote. Today, I am too ginger, a bit disengaged. Today, he is the one sitting with her in his lap, listening as though he lives with us.

This is his first trip to the audiologist’s office. It is my fourth. I am alone at the meetings with her hearing instructors, alone at her IEP meetings. He tells me, all the time, that I am not in fact alone; that he is also here: worrying, scheduling, purchasing, negotiating, budgeting.

But his here is too often metaphysical. He is here, but he resides across the country. He is here, but not in a way that allows me to remain asleep when our daughter wakes at 4 a.m. or to write when she needs a bath. He is here, but he cannot hear her when she asks for him, cannot discipline her when my patience is papery, brittle. He is here while ever urging me to uproot and move myself and our daughter there.

It is true that I rush. I am eager for that other shore, where this will be well resolved, but I do not wish to abandon my ship to reach it. Neither does he. These ships are tall, are sprawling. We’ve built them, for better or worse, apart. Our ships are all we have.

The batteries last just 7-10 days. Their strength can be determined in one of two ways:

1. Hold the hearing aid in the palm of a hand. Open, then close the fingers. Listen. If there is sound, not unlike a microphone’s feedback, the batteries are working.

2. Affix one end of an external tube to the part of the earmold that fits into her ear canal; hold the other end to my own ear. Say something. Listen. If I am louder, clearer, more distinct: the batteries are working.

She came home with the aids in her ears, and before long, my mother was teary. She had not taken discussions of buying them well, insisting that they were unnecessary, resolute about other speech and language methods we should try before conscripting her to what she felt was an ill and too-early fate. She just needs time, she would press. She just needs time.

But she was with me when the tests were run. We sat thigh to thigh while the baby was sedated, watched and waited in silence while the probes in her ears and on her forehead produced squiggles and ticks and graphs. We both heard the assessment, the recommendation: though this isn’t the type of hearing loss that will progress, it is also not the type that goes away.

This day was always coming. She just felt rushed along.

I, on the other hand, keep feeling like we’re lagging behind. Teachers have been asking for months when we would get these tiny devices. Her pediatrician has called me, questioning, pressing. Her deaf and hearing impaired instructors have called me in for meetings, have played sound files that simulate what noise sounds like in our ears compared to in hers. Everyone else with a stake in our girl has insisted: the sooner, the better.

When everyone wants to know when, it’s the mothers who are markers of time.

These decisions should ultimately be ours, her father says. Promise we’ll be the last word in making choices for our daughter. He is asking us to be noise-cancelers for each other.

We are, is what I tell him. But what’s truer is that, for now, these decisions are mine. I act as my own filter of what voices are welcomed in or canceled out. So often, I am hearing them alone. And explanations are expected, not of us, but of me.  He is the disembodied voice, enforcing via phone; I am the one who walks in through the door. Here.

It has never made much sense to me why he is not. But I’ve grown quite adept at pretending, at nodding my head as though it’s all coming in clearly.

She can take them out with one fluid movement. Mama, she says, extending them both in the cease of her hand. Ears. Maybe she thinks they’re an extra set, ears for their own sake, lonely for a body to befriend. Maybe when she hands them to me she is saying: these friends are beginning to bore me.

The goal is to get her to wear them at all times except during baths, naps, and bedtime. For now, she is primarily wearing them to school and when we are alone at home. A weariness befalls the house when she wears them with my mother and grandmother here. They do not like to handle them; they sneak skeptical glances. And in the hidden space where I am squirreling away private anxieties, their unease makes me question myself in ways that I cannot let on.

We are all being tested like her batteries. Opening, closing ourselves: waiting for feedback. I have no problem listening, but it’s my voice that needs to be amplified. If I am louder, clearer, more distinct, my daughter will hear what she needs.

Before, I imagined immediacy: her face lighting up, clear sentences coursing through her lips in streams. But now that they’re finally here, I can’t really tell what difference the hearing aids are making in her experience of sound. She never resists them. From the very first day, she has welcomed them — at least for awhile — without any protest at all.  Once or twice, with them in, I have heard her correcting her diction. It’s difficult not to make more of that than I should. I am impatient for witty repartee, for knock-knock jokes and endless questions, for clear, concise signals and measures that we’re truly communicating.

But this is a shifting that’s subtle. It cannot be rushed. Slowly, we are all being called to self-correct and all hoping, over time, that we will hear with more sensitive ears.

Resisting Motherhood.

It doesn’t feel as permanent as it should. I still linger at the window; I am still expectant (though of what, I do not know. Relief? Permission?). I’ve barely shaken the sense that someone left her here, some unduly trusting soul, trying to teach me something. On occasion, I anticipate that this someone will reemerge to reclaim her. The prospect doesn’t sadden me. We have never been apart long enough for me to miss her; in her absence, I feel raw obligation to return. And I do. I rush.

It is unromantic.

When this someone comes, to determine if her trust has been ill-placed, an inspection will occur, making clear just how many of my duties I perform not with particular joy but by rote. I mother because I must, not because I am given to throes of euphoria while doing so. This, I suppose, is common. But there is something else, equally obvious: I had been waiting.

I am glad that someone has come.

*  *  *

You need to make her be quiet. The neighbors downstairs will hear her jumping and laughing at this hour, and they’ll call DHS. DHS loves to take black children.

*  *  *

It has been 40 months. No one has come. It is possible, now, that no one will.

I fill the hours with embraces and photographs, kitchen karaoke and dining room dance parties. Frequent I love you’s. So many kisses. The aphorisms hold: being present, relishing the moment, slowing, rather than marking time — it all helps. But inside, a second skin is twisting against rope. Tightly bound, it is burning.

*  *  *

They are going to tell you medicate her, if you can’t learn to make her keep still.

*  *  *

Motherhood is an overlay, sheer and clinging. It obfuscates appearance, makes pre-child passions opaque, but it does not alter what lies beneath. What I cherish about my daughter is what I would’ve cherished, had I never become her mother: her boldness; her mercurial heights and depths; the scent of her freshly bathed skin; my nose in her parted hair.

I am still me underneath.

But motherhood cannot be peeled away. It wraps around, becomes a top-lying dermis and, over time, we are meant to forget its artifice. At times, the urge to lift it away from the skin begins to pressurize. There is too little air; there are too few opportunities for new breath.

Here is the truth that helps, that slices through this whaleskin and lets in a slip of light: children are not so life-changing. They are like many other things and persons adults acquire and decide they cannot live well without. Their needs are not so different: tenderness and tending. They are complicated bliss. They are blessing and barnacle.

But they are not all we are.

*  *  *

Maybe you, and your missed days of prenatal vitamin intake, lie at the root of this behavior, this delay. Maybe you need to be reminded, during your every resting, writing moment, of what you need to do.

*  *  *

It is best to pretend that I do not need silence, that nothing essential is eroding inside me without it. I smile in pinched ways that I hope my child and others understand. I am here. I find this enjoyable. No, there is nothing behind my eyes that is stricken with panic and wanting to run. If you see this, you are imagining it.

The first two parts are not lies. I am here. I do find this enjoyable. But I am also acting. This is a Method performance: I am always in character, always awaiting the time when it will be apropos to step out.

There are reasons: my only-childhood and its resulting inexperience with children; my summer transience, three months of each year spent hundreds of miles apart from home; the far-reaching tentacles of too much free and isolated time. And I am also too accustomed to things ending, especially the things someone I love has insisted never would.

*  *  *

You need to learn to do more. This — working, bathing, clothing, preparing foods, feeding, reading, entertaining, coming straight home, rarely asking for non-work time to yourself — is not enough.

*  *  *

A lifetime spent holding a part of yourself in reserve does not resolve with the birth of a child. We mothers are still entitled to unknowable parts, if we want them. We protect them by snatching time. Demanding it. Allowing ourselves to love someone other than our children — with ardor, not apology. Reading books that are not written on boards or filled with crude drawings of talking cows. Letting something extracurricular lapse. Listening to ourselves — and making sure that what we are saying isn’t always about mothering. Everyone is talking to us about being a mother; the irony is: we only get great at it by holding onto what we loved about ourselves before becoming one.

Mothering isn’t selfless. Quite the opposite.

*  *  *

I did everything myself, so no one had the right to criticize my parenting.

*  *  *

If you are an introvert, you will be reluctant to go out and away; you are happiest at home. But what you need now is counter-intuitive. Instinct says to envelop the child, make her as essential to your happiness as being alone has always been. This is a flawed approach. If you must be incrementally alone to feel whole, then you must find ways to be alone.

It does not matter if you will be harshly criticized; that is all the more reason to leave. Aloneness allows you to quiet even the cruelest critics. In silence, you must take hold of yourself, unbind the ropes and tend to the burning skin, the ancient skin, that which was with you before you were born. You cannot let it fester; it will bleed into your mothering. Something will always be pulling apart.

Mother, you must protect yourself. It was you that you watched for at the window. You are the only Cavalry coming.

How I Learned to Read My Daughter’s Mind.

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She is constantly telling me things, feeding a long invisible thread between us with beads of context completely lost, despite the fact that I am holding tight to the other end. It has begun to matter, the heaviness of the line, the ornate string of incomprehensible chatter. She looks with a narrower eye now, an intensity that’s coming with age: listen closer, this is important, decode it.

She is right; her lexicon is broadening. The words come out unclear, but she resolutely knows them. I should know them, too.

We are reading a board book version of Anna Karenina lately. Each time we visit it, she can identify more of what the writer asks: Where is the cloak? Can you also find the clasp? Where is the uniform? Can you also find the feather? Where is the parasol?

Feather, she’ll say in her gauzy way, like the words have all been thickly wrapped and bandaged. I am learning, too, to unravel packages of pronunciation, to preserve the sounds. Each new word is a figurine, a gift, set on a glass shelf of memory. She will say it again someday soon, and I will lift it out. I’ll admire, if not quite understand, what she means.

This is the girl at three, at school. It’s sudden, the shift in both temperament and awareness, like a lever pulled. Something inside her has opened. Something has opened inside us all. It is jarring, too, like the day after a parent marries and your house, once so still and known, fills with loud and foreign faces purporting themselves as family.

When she comes home, her classmates’ phantom muddied footprints tromp in with her. Those blank, timid, scowling, or curious faces I glimpse only at gymnasium drop-offs and pick-ups never seem far from her mind. She has tracked in a little world, wholly unknown to me: tempestuous, vibrant, sickly, and boisterous. I do not know which, if any classmate, she prefers, do not know what they do together on any given day. It’s her secret. (But is it witting or the work of all the words being held hostage?)

Two months into the school year, I am still matching quiet eyes and scruffy hair and backpacks to names on a parent-child dismissal sheet, still relying entirely on circled emoticons in a daily progress notebook to find out about how she felt about her day. The limits of language can make private investigators of us all.

This is what I tell the women ’round the conference room table, pens poised over clipboards, eyes and ears expectant. Her teacher is here, her speech therapist, and others whose titles I’ve already forgotten. They agree that they’ve seen great progress, that she is making more decipherable statements, that she learns well through rhythm and song.

“There’s one in particular she loves,” her teacher beams. “Whenever we sing it, her face just lights up.”

I nod knowingly. “I have a funny story about that.”

They lean forward in anticipation.

But the anecdote won’t contain what the moment held. I tell it anyway.

A few weeks into preschool, my daughter began singing a song — one it was clear she’d memorized, the first ever that I couldn’t decipher at all. It was the kind of thing for which I couldn’t have prepared. Music is our Morse code, our clarity, a call for which we always have an understood response.

I was surprised by my own helplessness, by how crestfallen we both were. She was already learning something I couldn’t quickly come to know.

“Yum, yum! Pee yew!” she’d chirp brightly over breakfast, from the backseat, in the bathtub. She’d rub her tummy or hold her nose; she’d wave her arms.

I felt so thoroughly locked out, shrugging in apology: “I don’t know it,” and she’d frown or stomp and a chasm would widen between us.

Here is the thing about toddler language-impairment; it opens an eyelet into which parents can peer at the long stretch of adolescence, where all roads converge at the epicenter of I don’t know.

“So I Googled it,” I tell the women at the table. “And I found the lyrics and a YouTube video. I’ve learned it, and we sing it all the time.”

The women are pleased. I have given them a succinct and satisfying ending. They lean back and laugh. One says she’s familiar with the tune herself and will have to seek it out. My daughter’s teacher invites her to drop in on her class.

What they do not hear — what I do not tell them — is that the moment I saw her face light up when I played the song and immediately began to learn it is one of my most triumphal experiences as a mother.

I do not tell them this was the moment I learned that the needs mothers meet are rarely as basic as they seem and how rare it is to feel like I’ve completely succeeded at meeting one. I do not tell her how motherhood occasionally feels, even on its easier days, like something else to survive.

It doesn’t matter. They don’t need to know it. And the truth is: I am pleased, too. How often are we forced to pay such close attention? How many of us can say we have learned, on some minuscule scale, to read a mind?

Mother and Daughter Defy the Time-Space Continuum.

She is in a cloche hat and chunk heels, one strap across each ankle, her calf-length dress all lavender fringes and lace. Defly, she waggles her legs in ways that make the guests all laugh until they forget how hard it is here, to be black and act citified. The flat has gone hazy with smoke; its wood floors scuff and rumble under those who’ve chosen to dance.

A quarter earned everyone their entrance, but contraband is fifty cent a cup. When the air grows warm and dense with corn-liquored breath, she counts the contents of her can. There is rent enough for three months.

You do not worry, in 1926, whether she’ll make it. You needn’t wonder what she’s working toward. Wit and resourcefulness go far here, and here, her sand-and-copper hair, glittery eyes, and throaty laugh can insulate her. White benefactors have not yet taken to flinging themselves from the rooftops of neighborhood Savings and Loans.

Ten years later, though, she would be uniformed, her smock itchy with starch and the color of storm clouds. At seventeen, she’d be languishing as a maid, lamenting that the renaissance she’d hoped to age into had waned without much warning. Even the white folks were hungry — and the ones who employed her were keeping their crusts. She would be six feet tall and underweight, a dancer but only when everyone else was away from the rooming house where she could barely afford her fees. Her landlady would knock nightly, demanding the two weeks rent she’s owed. Somehow the girl, weary-voiced and hair rollered, is able to charm her with solemn promises, down payments, conspiratorial grins. Her resourcefulness is still intact; her wit is a bit worn. Here, in the 1930s, she has to hide more of who she is.

Your hopes are higher when you find her in the ‘40s. It’s wartime and, because she’s used to working, because domesticity has always been a gig rather than her life’s goal, because she believes that our men have been forced into under-employment and marrying one would be akin to taking a second mortgage when she hardly qualifies for a first, she joins the war effort, paints fighter jets, develops a fixation on flight, flits to Paris for a pilot’s license. But there, she meets a dapper soldier whose elegance and acumen for aviation rivals only her own, and she marries him, because the man who disproves what you believe about men is a flight all his own.

She would begin the ’60s bouffanted, sneaking into the main floors of movie theaters for better glimpses at Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood. Danger would feel like something to court; she barely trembles at risk, barely flinches at the baring of billy clubs. On the theater’s first level, she is, of course, not wild enough to actually sit, but she is wily enough to become a shadow puppet. Her own silhouette flashing on the walls like she’s part of the moving pictures. Your daughter enjoys small subversions. She understands the keenest of all her injustices as balconies banishments and missing-paged schoolbooks. She is always reading, always watching. She knows when a law is worth breaking.

In the ’70s, she wouldn’t go in for white women’s feminism. She would be wary of connecting her politics to her underthings, her level of liberation to her libido. Free love cost black women too much, and she has always been a conservative spender. But she would write down dirges that render men and women rail straight in seats. Her hair is a perfectly rounded arc, meant to draw the eye to her face. Audiences would find many things there, but most all an otherworldliness. Pinned as they’d be to the melodies, they would miss what is true about artists: we are not after equity so much as immortality.

In the ’80s, her first car is a Delorean. Her first “I’m grown” haircut is asymmetrical. She does not sweat the technique, survives Reaganomics, mourns the death of Optimus Prime, shares your love of the film adaptation of Annie. There is little political about her, though she does sense the danger — new drugs and old policies — skulking just outside her periphery. As a black girl in a black town, where black people are not just allowed but expected to be middle class, her world — and her possibilities — feel open. Everyone around her is intent on becoming a Cosby.

The ’90s are the last decade you can bring yourself to imagine her. They were the last years you yourself felt safe. It was a false safety, you know this now, but she wouldn’t have known it then, not with her gele and her incense and her glove compartment full of De La and Tribe Called Quest CDs. Her college quad still would’ve felt like sacred ground whenever she walked it, and earning her degree — likely in fine or liberal arts — would not yet have felt like a toil in futility. You do not want to think of her after 1996, finding her first, real love in a chat rooms, entering the aughts importing all the wonders of breathable, tangible analog life into the slender flip phone in her palm, and finding herself, by 2009, constantly wondering if there is anything truly left to say, any new terrain to discover.

You certainly do not want her here, in the last quarter of 2013, where no one seems to value old Nigerian poets till they are gunned down in malls and everyone clings to the inevitability of mass shootings, when with empathy and openness, advocacy, medication, and legislative reform, so many of these tragedies could, in fact, be prevented. You do not want her watching her government give up on its citizens, in part to spite the black president whose election they still deeply resent. Were it up to you, you would will her to other times, before we knew what was to come for post-segregation black America. You would teleport her to an era where our fantasies of a free future were a clean and powerful fuel.

We are cynical now in ways that we can only be because we have reached an end. This is an “Are you happy now?” era of blackness, where even some of our own believe we’ve already overcome, where when we continue to fight, we are considered delusional: shadow boxers on crowded and bustling streets, hollerers in an online echo chamber. And I would rather you lived in a time before this technological revolution, before its bells and its whistles had built us a callus against the suffering beyond our shores (and the much of the heartache within our own borders) by reducing it all to banner ads and think pieces we can simply click away and forget.

I am afraid for us and our melting glaciers and the crumbling cliff’s edge toward which everyone is being pushed, the pit at its bottom rapidly filling with impoverished, unemployable bodies. We are becoming a nation that records and airs its citizens, burning their bodies and bursting through government barricades, begging for treatment and shelter and mental health care as its Congress bloats on self-interest, glories in its myopia, surfeits on its uninterrupted salaries, lifts food from the mouths of babies.

As your mother, it my job to imagine an improved elsewhere. I am supposed to chart a course that prepares you to survive even the bleakest of fates. But I have never myself imagined that I was see, so early as 33, as bleak a state as this. Perhaps we will recover; we have before. But it has become, for the first time in my experience here, quite possible that we won’t. This, dear child, is not hyperbole.
If you are alive on the other side, if we can regenerate everything we’ve destroyed, remember. Mankind may be meant to squander all its chances, every generation becoming more adept at readying itself to die off. But while we yet remain, we must live with an intent to leave the best of ourselves behind. We do this so that when future mothers begin to wonder when the most auspicious moments would’ve been for their children to be born, our now can belong to their narrative. We are knots for them to hold, touchstones on a seemingly endless stretch toward eternity. And that will always mean making the best of what is bleakest, believing that the idea of better will never be a thing of the past.

In Baltimore, Someone is Always Dancing — Even If Only on Graves.

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In Mount Vernon Place, we were once kept as slaves and not meant to meander in admiration of the grandeur around us. Being here conjures a blood memory, perhaps because so much of its historic loveliness has been preserved. I can almost hear the clomping of horse hooves, the transport of jangling chains. This weekend, I pushed the umbrella stroller you’re quickly outgrowing across an uneven cobblestone circle at the top of a concrete hill. We did this many times, while white tents surrounded us. Under each sat a writer or bibliophile, wearing the pained, but hopeful expression universal to sellers of wares.

I am bad about rejection, whether I am gently administering it or bearing its brunt, so it’s best for me not to make eye contact with anyone whose books I don’t intend to buy. I take too long to recover, spending months remembering the crestfallen, the maskers of disappointment, the overly cheery, “Thanks anyway”s. There is an art to letting people down easy, but I am more adept at pretending they’re invisible or prostrating myself to break their fall.

When the time comes, I expect that you’ll be more direct.

Look at them all, smile with empathy, let your gaze express how well you understand what it means to slice thin pounds of flesh and press them, fresh and bleeding, onto pages for public consumption. When you speak, do it in a voice that conveys how acutely you know that peddling their novels and research and sacrificed years at three-day festivals wasn’t part of their recurring writerly dream. And then, if you so choose, purchase or politely decline.

But, please — if you remember nothing else — swiftly move on.

*  *  *

Down the children’s lane, near a fountain encircled in green metal benches, a balloon sculptor attracts a small crowd. With his handheld air pump and a half-smock filled with limp, multicolored oblongs, he looks down toward the stones as he narrates each of his creations. He tells us, this ragtag half-circle of parents and small children, that he’s good at what he does, that his balloons are high-quality, that he can make over 150 animals and objects.

I can tell that no one else will retain this. No one else will wonder what he does when festival season is over, whether he makes his winter living booking birthday parties or takes special orders for wacky couples who want 150 different balloon centerpieces for their wedding receptions. I wonder how his craggy personality would translate at a Chuck E. Cheese or in the sprawling backyard of a pampered and petulant Roland Park child.

The balloon man, with his nondescript grey t-shirt and oversized pants, cannot seem to hold real conversations. He talks nonstop as his hands twist each balloon into something briefly magical, but his words aren’t meant for us; they’re marking time. He has not set a price. He is taking donations.

On Saturday, he bends you an elephant. On Sunday, he folds you a flower. You are still holding tight to the elephant on Sunday. He doesn’t let me finish explaining how fond you’ve grown of it overnight before he stammers that he’s flattered.

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I want you to be thoughtful, like your father and I are thoughtful, to seek the eyes of the people who can’t seem to meet yours. But do not expect to find anything there. Sometimes, an artist’s gaze is empty. Her eyes are not the windows to her soul. Soul is in the words or on the canvas or inside the balloons. You are taking it, bit by bit, whenever you read a poem or you purchase a talisman, whenever you listen to someone carefully consider a thing before he speaks.

Often, eyes are inscrutable, and souls are not windowed structures. They are not structures at all.

*  *  *

I have again grown weary of this city; Baltimore is as wrong for me as the first man I deeply loved, just as beautiful and as damaged. When I was younger, I would’ve stayed because I thought I had infinite time and because, once I have deeply loved, I do not know when to let go. But I am older and we’ve only returned because we’ve had to. There are things I have needed to reclaim. Baltimore has become a box of post-breakup belongings.

We are not supposed to be here. I cannot explain why except to say that this is another way that cities are like men: you know when you have nestled into the wrong one’s arms.

*  *  *

In Baltimore, when you fall in love, every cathedral comes alive; every rowhome raises its brow in wonder. No county or township forgets. And long after the love itself has waned, riding through the roads where it first rose and shone regenerates its memory. You may say this is true of any city. But it is only in the desperate and dirty ones, in the ones that are eroding, either under the wear of bloodshed or the veneer of gentrification, that this accessibility matters.

You understand with surety the power of love’s pull when it can still be felt in an undercurrent of carnage or unwelcome reinvention.

*  *  *

I looked too long at two women standing in a pink-plastered tent and purchased two books I did not want. Later, I bought two books for eight bucks each; the next day, they were reduced to five. This is all a gamble, isn’t it? Perhaps the old men on heroin, pop-locking in front of the soundstage, understand this best. Within 72 hours of this festival, our federal government will shut down. Our president’s authority will yet again be undermined. Thousands of employees right here in town will be in flux. But in Baltimore, someone is always dancing — even if only on graves.

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Baltimore, with its impenetrable neighborhoods and nonchalant homicides and its leaning addicts, is also full of flowering trees and trickling fountains and mansions, of men who have soaked themselves in what they believe is bliss while the rest of us bemoan the price of books and the obstinance of governing bodies. This has always been a city of unsettling lessons.

You seem happy enough in your stroller, wielding your balloons. This is not a weekend you’ll likely remember. I expect we will have left before you’re old enough to come here on your own. But before long, you will begin to sense what this city does to your mother, how it buoys and buffets and baffles her, why she always wants to beg it off. Maybe my life life here before you will become your own blood memory, beckoning from beyond future festival tents, when you can’t figure out why you feel so deeply compelled to dance.

The Wall and the Air: Meditations on Post-Poverty Life.

Hold the wall. Your fingertips should always graze the tile. It is unsanitary. Do not lift your fingers to your mouth or to your eyes. You could become infected; you could die. The walls underground are filmy with sewage, are coated in the filth of those who’ve died and who’ve survived. Survivors hold the wall. They do not allow themselves to forget where they are. They know that no wall is endless, that someday their fingers will again find air.

You will be hungry, often. The occasional mole person you pass will show you all the manholes, will tell you where the dumpsters are the richest. And you will decide whether it is worth it to breach these stark parameters and dive. This act will prolong your stay; but sometimes, the lengthier stay is the wisest. Sometimes the lengthier stay will be your last. You will determine whether or not you’d rather starve or eat what is surely the innards of rats, proffered in the thin skins of sausages. If you have a bit of money, you will count the costs of low-cost markets, of bread two days past molding, of fruit not just bruised but left to rot. Your children must eat when you will not. Try not to be ashamed of what you feed them. Humiliation does not kill as quickly as hunger. After they are sated, do eat their crusts.

When you are alone, when money is no longer your currency, when you’ve seen too few people with whom you might barter, when you no longer understand the function of days, this is when you are closest to the feel of nothing, to an opening through which you can grovel and claw, escape.

But it does not end with air. Freedom is never as simple as breath. Breath is a beginning. You have exited into the world of the employed, a world you once knew well and have forgotten. For so long, this has been a citadel on the other side of a sea. The underground has been neither a bridge nor a buoy. And here, you can no longer feel the walls.

Soon enough, a way, however winding, will become apparent. Employment is an invitation; depending on its type, it will arrive on filigreed parchment or on an inscrutable scrap. But neither the invitation nor the work will reacclimate you to air’s architecture. It will be the pay and how far you can stretch it. It will be how you behave, above ground, when there is nothing left.

You will remember how thoroughly forgotten you were when you were too poor to be more than cellophane to the people who now use expense accounts to treat you to lunch. You will avoid mirrors, because they portend a regression into your more desperate self. It is in the shabbiness of a too-worn dress, in the raggedy soles of your only shoes. It is in the hair and the skin and eyes — you swear it — that film that cannot quite scrub off. It isn’t permanent for people like you, up here, experiencing air. Poverty above ground is a different beast’s belly. Roomier. You can slosh around; you can wait. This beast regurgitates. And when it does, you will find yourself, at least temporarily, free.

But there is something wrong in a world where some live in constant fear of being swallowed whole while others remain blissfully unaware of the rampage. If you have ever been poor, if you have scraped to afford furnishings then found yourself hastily throwing them away in a sudden move to a city with more livable wages; if you’ve been down to a dollar, swinging wildly at debt collectors to stave off an overdraft fee; if you’ve begged for payment arrangements; if you’ve been denied a bank account; if you’ve eaten Saltines as a meal: you are at war; you are being hunted. And an estimated 80 percent of the people in this country are crouching and flinching and looking over their shoulders right along with you.

Someone wealthy will tell you it is peacetime. You are no longer eating entrails, so we are in recovery. They are wrong. It is neither the opinion of wealthy nor the condition of the world that will determine when you are in recovery.

Only when you are no longer so reliant on walls that you waste whole years building them yourself, only when you are no longer afraid of what may await you underground, only when, upon seeing a hand emerge from a manhole, you can kneel and clasp it and pull with all your might — without fearing it will snatch you down before you can lift it up — will you know that you’ve reached recovery.

Dovetails.

1.

The last time you were here, you left an open pack of tube socks in the trunk of my car. It’s still there, two weeks later. It will stay there until you return.

I often feel responsible for the things that remain when you leave. There are imprints of you where I do not want them and one beaming emblem of you I could not live well without. I am accustomed to keeping things safe till you reclaim them. I suppose I will continue to; it does not seem to do me much harm.

I can say this without animus now, but it is not always as easy as I lead everyone — including myself — to believe.

2.

Loving anyone other than you had long been an alien concept. Twelve years long, if we’re honest. We were only together for eight (nearly nine) but even when it ended — even during the pregnancy, when I hoped and I prayed that alone or reconciled to you would not be my only options — I did not truly believe I’d fall in love again. I would not let myself, not if this was how I’d feel at love’s departure.

But what could I tell my daughter of love if I could not remember its shiver? How would I hear her fawning first brush with a tremulous hand if my own palms knew only a craven kind of emptiness? How could we parse her first heartbreak if I never let go of mine?

3.

This is the supernova, the white burst, the back-pressed-to-wall, the unending kiss, the lips that won’t leave yours even to whisper, the words you get to roll on your tongue and relish the fact that they were once, just moments before, not your own.

You are holding them now. You are holding him now. And being held and being held and — Father in heaven — being held.

It hardly seems sane, for your arms to know an embrace other than your wriggling toddler’s, to know kisses other than the ones she sees fit to bestow, in boredom, in blessing, at bedtime.

And it isn’t sane, really, or sustainable. It peters as quickly as it popped, a fire in a lidded jar now. And this great, ghastly, heart-pounding, promise-eating love is swallowed up in air, in sky.

4.

Weeks ago, Father John, the eldest priest in our small parish, preached of love.

I wanted him to say something sense-making about women like me, alternately afraid and excessive, who understand love simply as being someone’s priority. I wanted him to tell me how such a low bar could be so difficult for some men to clear.

But I wasn’t entirely listening. I was thinking of all the things and people to whom I’d come second and third and sixth. I was wondering whether or not I was worthy of preference, whether it was fair or childish to expect to be preferred.

“You know that passage, that 1 Corinthians 13 that people like to read at weddings? That’s God’s love. Agape,” he said with a wave of his massive hand. I watched him shake his head, as if all we romantics were a bit misguided.

Father John moved on quickly; for him, this was just an aside.

For me, it was a lifeboat.

Someone else would find this alienating, this idea that we should not use agape love as a matrimonial blueprint because we could not possibly erect it properly and would feel as if we were failing whenever a window shattered. Someone else might scoff at the notion that we shouldn’t strive toward a perfect, selfless care for our fellow man.

But all I could do was think of my own loves: often impatient, sometimes insecure, disinclined to hope or believe all things, occasionally self-seeking, and certainly — if nothing else — susceptible to failure.

I leaned back in my seat, and I sighed relief.

5.

How do we do this? How does anyone do this?

6.

I used to believe I would never be rid of you because you were my predestination. Then I thought I could never be rid of you because of our girl, who looks back and forth between us, whenever we’re together, with calculating eyes.

You make moving on difficult, because you are a kind amnesiac: giving and grinning and hoping to catch us, even as we flutter on, mostly without you. For all your texts, your calls, your checking in, you do not remember — and sometimes do not even accept — what you are not here to witness. You will always believe that I am the keeper of things you happen to leave behind.

I am your safe deposit box. I am your cage.

7.

The other one was elegant, an autodidact, confident in ways I couldn’t imagine, calm in a manner that requires discipline not artifice. He was meant for a family — but he was not meant for mine.

Of all the things that are difficult to accept, this is perhaps the hardest.

He, himself a cage, a keeper of things left behind, always treated me like a bird who’d forgotten the grace of flight.

We who understand what it is to be a series of gilded, bloodied bars want nothing more than to bend them for others. We are the freers, even at our own expense.

8.

I used to be a woman of many compartments. But motherhood makes you an open space. Anyone you love must stand on your floor and face the things and the people you once had an inclination to hide.

There are no fallout shelters. There is no time to assuage hurts, massage egos. No strength for mediating others’ aughts, for carrying burdens larger than those upon which we’d already agreed.

Everyone’s interests must dovetail. Or else, the only door stands open. All are free to exit at will.