Posted in Nonfiction, Parenting

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

photo 1

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.

photo 2

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.

photo 3

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.

Posted in Faith, Nonfiction, Parenting

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.

Posted in Faith, Nonfiction, Parenting, Uncategorized



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.


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?


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.

Posted in Nonfiction, Parenting


“Am I a mean person?” I ask, in the minutes after he tells me he isn’t sure he ever plans to marry. But what I mean is: did our relationship break something vital inside you? Are you ambling through this hereafter, ever aware that a cog is rattling, that a filament has burst leaving all in the corner of yourself I once occupied hollow and dark? Am I supposed to be doing something more about this? I will put forth a truncated version of these queries just before we end our call. He will not know how to answer.

Now, he stops short but recovers quickly. “No.”

“You paused.”

“I was trying to find the right word for what you are.”

So am I.

We are two-dimensional to each other now, a collection of sounds and footage, electronic data across thousands of miles. The realest artifact left of those years we spent in love can be heard squealing with glee in the background of our calls or else parroting the few eavesdropped words she can clearly pronounce.

She is the only memento I’ve kept.

It’s all this shifting. Our transitions have been swift and our space so limited. Each encampment is heavier to fold into itself and transport; at every pass, more must be sloughed.

It has always been difficult for me to determine what is worth salvaging.

The word he settles on is eccentric. “You’re very particular. You get upset when people behave in ways that you wouldn’t.”

“That’s fair,” is what I say, though I’m not sure how ‘eccentric’ his example makes me. I think he means ‘idiosyncratic.’ The strangest things cause me internal combustion: being followed by a student to the lectern as I’m entering a room, before I’ve set down my briefcase or taken off my coat; wet footprints on rugs in a bathroom; someone else opening or polishing off food that I’ve purchased; being told what I should and shouldn’t share online; the expectation that I should forget a rejection, when its din and ache still ripple through me like an echoing chime.

I have been mean to him. We both know it; this is not why I asked.

He tells me that he’s comfortable now, that he considers his role as a father to be an honor and a sacrifice, and it is all so familiar, this rhetoric. It’s similar enough to the phrase he’s turned so often before, an idea that, perhaps, every single father must utter a few times aloud, in order to fortify himself for the work that lay ahead: regardless of what happens with us, I’m going to be there for our child. 

I wonder how fully he understands the way this falls on my ears, how clearly the truer sentiment presents itself in the hearing: caring for our child is a point of pride in a way that caring for you was not. 

In all its iterations, I believe it. But it never gets easier to hear, not even now, after we’ve heard and said so much worse.

“Everything is harder, ” he muses more to himself than to me. Then we talk about changing careers, earning certifications, making ourselves more financially solvent. The naivety is seeping out of our dreams, and we hear too little of ourselves in the other’s aspirations.

It occurs to me that this has become an exit interview of sorts, the last and loosest of our ends being tied. All of what I’ve hoped and feared is converging. The years-long work at repairing the rattling cog has finally been exhausted.

My lips part. There are other things I want to say: as co-parents, what we get isn’t so much closure as cauterization — we sear our pain shut to survive our shared duty; there is more than one way for a family to be “intact;” if given a mutually exclusive choice, children will opt for their parents to be happy rather than together; and I am ready — so far beyond ready– to be happier than this. I know you are, too, and this is what we both deserve. Then I’d whisper the confession that always cripples me: no matter how anemic the possibility, I would’ve held on as long as you did.

Next time, things will be sweeter. I will not be coy. I will not secret parts of myself away. I will not offer a man decades when days will do.

This is all I can predict of the next time. But I feel a great sense of relief knowing there will be one. This is not a grace we would’ve been so easily afforded, had we married. This, I suppose, is part of why we never did.

Posted in Nonfiction, Parenting

The Ripple of Reelection: Thoughts on Voting as a New Mother.

I am imagining a teenage future. In it, you are inches taller than I, your WNBA-length fingers hovering over the hologram-enabled screen of the latest palm-sized tablet. You are engaged in no fewer than six conversations, aside from the one I am about to initiate. I will not know by looking at you if you are ready to listen.

We will have this talk two years before you’re old enough to register. My hope is that whoever has taken office then will bear some cultural, ideological, or experiential resemblance to the man we re-elected last Tuesday. If she does, what I have to  tell you will seem less like a tall tale or a fable. If he does not and if your memory is less than keen, you may believe I’m romanticizing an invented past.

The truth is: when you were two, we voted for Barack Obama to reclaim the highest office in the land. I pressed a decisive finger on the electronic ballot screen, with you in my arms. You were as still and as quiet as you are when we first enter sanctuaries on Sunday mornings.

You have always understood when a moment calls for reverence.

By then, we had been standing in the hallway of a local middle school for two and a half hours. We were part of a serpentine trail of mostly brown bodies, a community very clearly comprised of members of the working and middle classes. The air around us pulsed with purposeful energy.

Though some complained at the length of the wait — projected, at first, to be three hours —  most were either patient, but steely, or bursting forth with optimistic banter: It’s good to see so many out, exercising their rights– and look at all these young folks!

The youth vote is cherished. Earning it makes us feel calmer about the imminent state of the world we’ll leave behind. An eighteen-year-old, regardless of whether she is won over by rhetoric, emotion, or careful study of each candidate’s platform, is a sapling in a marshland, a newly hatched chick in an aviary for the endangered. For the parents, the middle-aged, and the elders, you — more than any candidate or speech — are the hope of our nation.

I did not know this at your age. I’d heard it, but only as saccharine sentiment, as lyrics in a chart-topping Whitney Houston pop cover, as so much white noise amid the drone of my own angst. Even at 19, I could not be convinced that my participation was integral to the maintenance of a functioning democracy. But I still began to vote that year, like the dutiful descendant of a people once considered three-fifths human that I am.

It seemed a moral obligation, if mostly a ceremonial one, every ballot cast a pouring of libation for the brothers and sisters who are no longer here.
I wasn’t sure what it meant. Between the influence of the electoral college, the fact that my state rarely yielded close-call election results, and my general ambivalence about candidates and their concern for the needs of people like us, voting did little to make me feel less insignificant.

This changed, of course, with the 2004 Democratic National Convention, where Barack Obama, then a mere Senate candidate, delivered his iconic Audacity of Hope address. I suspect that, by these, your teenage years, this speech will have been canonized in history texts and delivered ad nauseum in youth oratory contests. But you will no more grasp what it meant to hear it in real time than I can ascertain how the marchers felt on the Mall, as the musings of Martin Luther King Jr. billowed around them like a baptismal tide.

For better or worse, politics that engage the emotions are most effective with the portion of the electorate whose attitudes most resemble mine. Political agents with the power to move you will always be able to compel you to act, even when you can’t entirely comprehend why. What moves you, however, is more a reflection on you than on them. And this election, this battle to retain incumbency, was a prime example of that.

Those moved toward the idea of a diverse and inclusive America, wherein citizens and lifelong residents can carve their home-shaped space, voted for progress and forward motion, voted with an eye toward an inevitably altering national landscape. Those wistful for the days of fewer liberties for all and a glut of power and wealth for those who’ve always held it cast their vote for the man who promised to redeem what they believed they’d lost. And more than in any other election during which I’ve been eligible to vote, the distance between those movements widened.

An hour after we’d entered the voting line, I looked down at you, absently smoothing wisps of your hair, and worried that you wouldn’t hold up for the slow march toward the school cafeteria.

But regardless of how long it took, you rallied. You played foot games with the elderly man behind us, got a cluster of first-time-voting teens to join you in a game of follow-the-leader. You peeked around my legs as though they were pillars and used them to hide your face from the family five feet back.

It occurred to me that, as a people, we have always known when to wait. Even when restless or resistant, we can intuit the import of tarrying. It  mean the difference between triumph or a trap.

Then, as has been the case with so many things in my life after you were born, my reasons for voting became crystalline. As we stood on that line together last week, I realized just how greatly what we were doing as a precinct, as a city, as a state, as a country would impact how you live, how you’re educated, how you’re employed, how much debt you’ll acquire, how high a tax you’ll pay for the life you lead, how you’ll retire, how you’ll view equality….

The ripples were endless.

Someday soon you will apprehend what it means to be American. It is to feel at once horrified and resplendent. It is knowing that your life is, in many ways, a summation of your country’s choices. Until then, vote for whichever reasons you wish. Wait until the revelations come to you.

Posted in Beyond Baby Mamas: Conversations with Single Mothers of Color, Nonfiction, Parenting

Beyond Baby Mamas: Take a Look.

You wait. You let yourself be carried off with the current. Slacken. Allow it to deliver you back to a shore. It will, when it wills. You open your ears to the cries of others. Seek exits; seek havens. Tell them not to twist; when they’re too weak to tread, surrender. You draw them maps and pray that the course you’ve charted is one that will not change. Be the landmark, the lighthouse, the buoy. Be whatever you can.

I’ve a litany of commands, of guidance. It comes to me in rations, like the drip of an IV. And it repeats. Be the landmark, the lighthouse, the buoy. Be whatever you can.

It’s been exactly two weeks since I launched my new online initiative for single mothers of color, Beyond Baby Mamas. It was just an idea, like the many that flash in my mind every day. But with every day that I move forward in executing it, I realize that its potential is far more vast than I imagined. Even that realization seems inadequate, as I’m fairly certain that I’m not yet aware of all the possibilities for mining that potential.

Here’s what we’ve done so far:

  • Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr pages? Done.
  • YouTube channel? Created.
  • Official website? Formed.
  • Weekly webcasts? Two recorded, one on the way this week.
  • Promotion? Here’s where we need to catch up. So far, we’re relying on word of mouth (and web, so to speak). Our FB page has 81 likes. We have 71 Twitter followers. Six people have subscribed to our YouTube channel, thirteen to our Tumblr. It’s a process.

After this post, you won’t see much about Beyond Baby Mamas posted on this blog. I want to distinguish that online space from this one, so if you want to be kept abreast of what’s up over there, subscribe or follow to that blog. I just want to make sure that anyone and everyone who subscribes to or reads this blog on a regular basis is aware of BBM’s various online presences. Are you connected with us yet? Do you know anyone else who should be? I’d love it if you joined us or let someone else know. Direct anyone who needs to know more about who I am to my BBM bio or more about the initiative itself to our frequently asked questions.

Thanks to everyone who’s helped get the word out, participated in panels, and been generally encouraging. It’s helped so, so much.

Posted in Nonfiction, Parenting

Jump at De Sun.

You have unassailable rhythm. This is a characteristic we noticed, even before you began to develop fine motor skills. You were three months old, and you could hit a drum with a mallet. You could keen your ear to cadences. The small cymbals of a tambourine shook under the strike of your infant palm. You hummed melodies before your mouth could form the ovals and planes necessary to pronounce lyrics.

Like so many children, you possess a raw musicality, a boundless curiosity in all instrumentation. But I also see an inkling of discipline in you, a commitment to practice quite unusual in two-year-olds. It is the rare day that passes without you asking to play your great-nana’s electric piano. Once you’re lifted onto the stool, it is difficult to coax you down. The praise you receive is too rapturous; the power you feel when the pads of your fingers elicit a chord is too intoxicating. We know that, if allowed, you would stay there for more than an hour as long as we were also there to laud you.

As your mother, it is my imperative to nurture this quality in you, even as it awes and unsettles me. My charge is to propel you toward each zenith for which you’re brave enough to press, while also making myself a nonjudgmental net to catch you when you fall. I mustn’t betray too colossal an expectation, too devastating a disappointment. Your pursuits are your own. Any joy or sorrow I feel as you set forth is mine to manage.

Increasingly, I am coming to understand the act of mothering as a cultivation of temperance. It is a holding-in-check of our most outsized expectations, a delicate calibration of all that we want for our children, all that they are capable of achieving, and all the moments when we each will need to accept a reality that resembles none of those possibilities.

But darling, you make this temperance difficult. How can I filter these bright beams of expectation when you glow so incandescently with promise? How can I allow you field of grass-skipping girldom, when with each day, you invent new reasons for me to spur you toward the sun?

It isn’t easy to wait for the coming years to unfurl themselves like a story quilt and reveal how you’ll evolve. But I will not anger God (or you) by rushing time. Its glacial inching is a grace. I will sip you slowly and relish each talent expanding. My every affirmation will be liberally and patiently seeded. I will make it my aim to know who you are, at any given moment, rather than to trouble us both over all the wondrous things I imagine you’ll become.

Posted in Nonfiction, Parenting

The Name: On Managing Long-Distance Fatherhood.

Over our bed hangs a picture of a Buffalo Soldier standing alone on a plain as a herd of bison clops its hooves in the distance. His face, leathered and lined, is grim but his eyes dance with premonition. He sees a country that will eventually open its arms and its institutions to his children and theirs. Nana hung the framed print in this room when it was just an extra lodging space for overnight guests. It was there long before my mother, the baby, and I moved in, long before I placed our daughter’s crib in storage and began to nightly curl myself around her, like an open parenthesis, in the twin bed beneath it.

After a few months of sleeping under the gilded plain and the buffalo herd and the stoic uniformed black man who my grandmother thinks is handsome, I forgot the picture was there. There were too many other focal points, not least of which were our gangly toddler’s limbs, as they struck at my organs in the night: her tiny heel an arrowhead prodding the skin over my spleen, her elbow a bony thorn in my side.

There were also the boxes, the books, the closets that were not wholly ours, all the nooks into which we’d slid every toy or folder or tote we’d carried in from the Midwestern life we left behind. There was the night air, as clingy and thick as the breath under surgical masks, and the sweat the bedsheets seemed to drink when we tossed and turned.

Somewhere in all these months of adjustment, as the picture was becoming invisible to me, it was morphing into something else for our child.

It was becoming you.

I can’t quite remember the first time I noticed this or under what circumstance she first looked up at the Buffalo Soldier and pointed. But indeed, she cast a gaze toward him, filled with adoration and pride. Then she turned to me and, with a voice so guileless and questioning I still tear up when I really consider it, she called your name.


It was a sucker punch, really, the pain only acute because it was so unexpected.

I was quick to recover that day, as we often are in the moments after something unnerves us and in the months before we’re able to fully process it. “No, sweetheart,” I tried to explain, placing a palm on her cheek, “That’s not Daddy.”

But she chose to hear only her echo. “Dadnee?”

“No, sweetie. Not Daddy.”

She shrugged and I stretched my lips into some small approximation of a grin. We had reached an understanding–or so I thought. But in the months to follow, you became more real to her, over our heads, and regardless of anyone’s protestations, her confidence that it was you in the uniform, fearless in the foreground of a stampede scene.

But this wasn’t the only place she saw you. At times, you were the front door, when she was in distress. She’d run to it, willing you to bound through and rescue her from a scolding. “Dad-nee?” she’d call, just loudly enough to be heard on the other side. You were in the couch cushions in the living room, when she burrowed into the crevices and recalled you sprawling there on your last visit. “Dad-nee?” she’d whisper into the olive grosgrain. And when she clapped her hands to her ears, and I followed suit, when she touched her fingertips to her forehead and watched me mimic her, she’d drop her hands, remembering the last time you did the same with her via Skype. “Dad-nee…” she’d murmur wistfully.

Neither you nor I could’ve expected it to happen this soon, and often, when I tell you it has, I sense that you may doubt me. But our daughter, barely conversant, with her lexicon of less than 100 words, is already articulating her need for you.

Because we have cultivated a relationship in which you are neither entirely absent nor entirely present, she is adapting by calling out to you in places where and at times when you cannot hear her. Improbable places. Unexpected times. Every instance bears out a different response in me: here, worry that she wants to escape me; there, an errant swell of inadequacy; now, a surge of anger that strikes hot and fast and quells itself just as quickly; then, an empathetic prescience borne of my own father-pining in the past.

But more than anything else, I feel studious–for in those moments, our daughter goes from girl to apotheosis of worship. I watch her call for you in the way that I should call out to God: as Father, as rescuer, as present when He cannot be seen.

This is the incarnation of God I understand the least. I have only been able to view fatherhood through the lens of my relationship with my own. It is amiable, it is deeply important, but it is also inconsistent. We talk, but not too often. We love one another intensely but don’t always find occasion to express it. We see ourselves in the other, but do not always know how to bridge the canyons of difference.

It is easier, then, for me to know God as a sovereign. It’s simpler to accept Him as a comforter, a confidante, a friend. When I talk to him, “Father,” is not the first name I think to call Him.

But our girl is teaching me what it is to feel confident that the heart of a father is always near, even when others feel uncertain, even when they’re trying to convince he is not who or where she thinks he is.

May she always remain in a space so clear, and may we never hesitate to join her.

Posted in Nonfiction, Parenting

Beyond the Carousel.

Then, at dusk, we empty into evening, a downtown restaurant at our backs, an army of dragon paddleboats bobbing on the brackish water before us, and you in your father’s arms. On the Harborplace steps, we part ways with well-wishing relatives, watching them recede in the warm, black crowd. Night catches all the day’s promise in a satchel of tawny sky, tossing sparkles of memory and hope high above us. I gaze out at them glittering on the water’s dark surface as reality takes hold: we are alone.

The sensation is rare and foreign. It is not often that we are nuclear: father and mother and child. It should mean serenity or a kind of relief that for moments–however brief–we are a convincing spectacle of togetherness. But I am on the verge of detonation.

I do not know what to do with my hands when you aren’t holding one, don’t know quite where to look, if not at the damp and dewy wisps of hair against your forehead, if not at the oversized molars that loom so large whenever you yawn or cry.

You are too far away, up there. High in your father’s embrace, you are taller than I am. Occasionally, when he holds you, your downward gaze is regal. You’re an heiress deigning to acknowledge commoners. You’re a starling in flight, bored with the bits of breathing color below.

I give you both a wide berth, walking several paces behind, and wonder if you are too young to believe that the grass on your father’s side will feel lusher between your toes, will grow softer blades and brighter buttercups.

Tonight you are two. I am thinking of the way you used to belly-crawl, dragging yourself across the floor of my old apartment like a soldier wriggling under trip-wire; the determined set of your jaw when you finally hitched yourself up on all fours; the wideness of your eyes the first time you tasted a teething biscuit; the way you wailed as those pearly rounds poked through the pink of your gums; how you burbled and hummed–how you seethed!–before you could voice your demands. There is little left of the infant in you; your every gesture now is precise, the features of your face settled and firmly defined. You’re still aren’t talking much, but you make certain that we all understand you. I see you now as you will be at twelve, as you will be at twenty.

But then, I am always so far ahead of myself.

Before long, I close the space between us, ready to reprise my role as a merry member of a modern family. I play it well. In lockstep with your dad, skirting the Harbor’s perimeter, I am thinking of the day when he’ll be gone. I am turning the words over like flash cards, studying to answer the questions you’re too young to ask: Daddy has to go back to work. But he’ll be back. Remember? He always comes back. In three days, these are the exact words I’ll say to you. You will look up at him and frown, climb from my lap to his, rest your head on his chest and listen, as though recording his heartbeat to be played back as a lullaby. I will blame myself, because I understand exactly how much I am to blame.

And I am angry already, exhausted, though no casual observer could detect it.

I am too busy grinning at your pealing laughter, too busy pretending the bond between parents is as effortless as the bond of daughters and dads.

This is your first trip to the Harbor. It pleases me to see that it dazzles you just as it did me, when I was little. Your mouth is agape, your eyes brim with awe, a silver tiara enhaloes your massive afro puff, and for a moment, I wish that the time-space continuum would still until your father and I learn to make optimal choices, until you are old enough to ascertain how much of all this is an act.

Unbeknown to you, we are searching for a carousel.

You and your father tend to ride them. It is a ritual that began with his first visit to us after we moved here from Michigan. I am always asked to join you, and I always decline. You need a tether to each other that isn’t me. Perhaps neither of you will ever know how much I enjoy watching you whirl when I’m not there.

It may be selfish to admit, but I prefer you to myself. I believe he does, too.

We walk the length of the straightaway, passing party boats, a sparsely populated Italian ice hut, a closed smoothie stand, before curving toward the place where we expect to find the carousel.

It’s no longer there–or at least we don’t see it. Up ahead, there are dense crowds of volleyballers, spiking returns under harsh, high light. The sand under their feet is littered with Newports smoked down to the nub, with hard pebbles of debris. We stop before reaching them, unsure how to proceed.

You are still a lit torch burning from the inside out, eyes still dancing as they take in the water, the people, your parents and their touching shoulders and their smiles that work overtime to hide artifice from the camera that captures us all.

But when you are twelve or you’re twenty, I will explain to you how difficult it becomes for adults to pretend. The ease of make-believe is only accessible to children. I will tell you how fully I tried to commit myself to the ruse, how even the hope felt false, how only our friendship and shared adoration of you was honest. But I’ll refrain from describing what it is to spend years lying slack at the end of a line, how every breath is painful as you wait to be reeled in and believe that the hook from which you hang is love.

When you ask about your second birthday, I will say you spent it luxuriating in your parents’ affection. And at its end, we all sat in silent wonder, each at unexpected destinations.

Posted in Nonfiction, Parenting

Crushes and Sundry: Advice in Advance of Your Second Birthday.

Beloved, as easily as if we were following a template of icing and gingerbread, we’ve erected an affectionate home. Lips brush skin here, as if it were canvas. I feel the daily tug of your arms ’round my neck. On occasion, out of nowhere, you place your palms on either side of my face and force my head forward so that we are eye to eye. You stare like a clairvoyant, hold my skull like a crystal ball, and kiss me square on the lips for as long as you see fit. Mmmwah! you exclaim afterward, wearing an expression that suggests you’ve just confirmed something for yourself.

It is not that you are loved; this needs no mouth-to-mouth reiteration. You feel love when I stroke your hair near the long, even part your granny has made. You feel it in the careful cornrows she weaves of your cottony tresses at night, hear it in our clicking, meticulous searches through a barrette tin for the perfect, color-matching clips to fasten to your ends. You are certain of it when you march up with urgent eyes and our hands stop, mid-motion, to direct food into your mouth rather than our own. And you listen with contentment to the melody of Ls, collect the uttered loves, stringing them ’round your neck like a strand of singing birds. You wrangle what’s left into a cage: love as a raging aviary. When that is overcrowded, the excess curls and crawls above our toes, wraps our wrists and stains our fingers: love as an intricate mendhi.

No, you needn’t kiss my lips to confirm my love–but you do it often, smiling secretly, knowingly, a punchline tucked behind your pucker. Perhaps you really are a seer; you understand that lips are to be read. In the blink of time between the buss and sound effect, you’ve ascertained a future.

Mine are the first in a line of lips you’ll kiss. A mother’s is merely the first of the many loves you’ll feel.

I will tell you this: crushes are the stones that skip seven times before sinking. They are never too heavy; they linger on a beautifully rippling surface. And when they leave your sight, any sadness you feel fades quickly.

Consider the older boy you met last week in Old Navy. He was four and alarmingly free, having broken away from his beleaguered parents and flirted his way through the children’s section, favoring brown girls with wrangled clouds of hair. I noted how close he got to the girl nearer his age, how he circled her, eager to impress, and how reticent her banter seemed by comparison.

When he lost her to the checkout line, he set his sights on you, bounding toward us with intense eyes and a delirious smile. This, you will find, is a tactic of boys at all ages.

Hi! he cried. Hi! you chirped back. He asked your name, asked your age, asked if you wanted to play. Hi, you said again, adding the string of nonsensical chatter you always employ back home. There was a pause when you’d exhausted your vernacular, and it was rapidly filling with the helpless disappointment that attends all language barriers.

Mmmwah! you declared, leaning toward him.

This wasn’t your first time attempting befriend an unfamiliar child with a kiss. You’d tried it on a tiny girl at the library and I’d pulled you gently back as horrified confusion rushed to her face.

This time, you tried something more intercontinental, opting for the cosmopolitan air kiss so popular in parts of Europe. This boy was similarly bewildered (but definitely not horrified), as I rushed you toward the flip-flop section.

When you’re older, I’ll assure you that it isn’t an error to make the first move but in the rare case when you do, it’s imperative you do not make the second.

The four-year-old we’d left behind caught up to us. He only looked away from you for a moment, and that was to turn his adorable face up toward me to ask in a tone both accusing and curious, “Where you going?”

I started talking to him like I would someone my own age. (I’ll admit having you hasn’t made my interactions with other children any less awkward.) But as I launched into a lengthy explanation about all the areas in the store we hadn’t hit yet, he was inching closer and closer to you. Before I knew what was happening, faster than I could react, he’d kissed your cheek.

Technically, it was your first non-family kiss. Technically, you and the four-year-old boy in Old Navy had just gone through an entire arc of courtship rituals in less than three minutes.

When you’re twelve, you will think I’m crazy, but this was a major McFly moment. In a flash, the future was now.

You will know your wiles early, will wield them with coyness, not cruelty. Men won’t be the mystery to you that they are to your mother. But seeing your own beauty as clearly as I do will not come as easily. It is simple for me: you are startling, the same as your father was. One minute, you’ve the stock cuteness all children hold. The next, at an angle, with a twinkle of eye or a baring of teeth, you are gorgeous in ways that will keep me up nights well into your thirties.

I am telling you this, my wondrous girl, because you’ll need to know it. In nine days, you’ll be two, and in what will feel like the space between sunrise and nightfall, you’ll be twenty. The rules do not change:

Be equal parts open and aloof. Do not falter in following your agenda; when you are valued, you are always followed forward. If an action is objectionable, protest then and there, but never pretend offense where there is none (you didn’t yelp at the kiss and because of that, neither did I). Mind your mother; more often than not, she knows of what she speaks. But above all, pay attention. Part ways when the time seems right, and do not think to tarry. 

The fact is that the time and the person will come from which you will never wish to part.