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.

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Nonfiction

Out There is a Garden.

Like a widower, like a prisoner, like an acolyte new to a nunnery, the mother who splits with her lover during pregnancy–or more acutely, because of it–is expected to sustain an extended season of mourning–of mourning and reverence and soberness. She will be watched, her next actions weighed and measured. If she returns to the fray too soon, she is a bad mother, dodging her new role as diaperer, doter, and dairy in order to don peep-toe stilettos and hit the stroll, wielding a clutch full of condoms.
It’s tricky.

When the casual observer spots this woman with an infant, he conjures a domestic life for her that includes a shared bed, nightly lower back rubs, a partner, because this early on–while the baby is still dewy and wordless, while the mother is still bathed in her miraculous life-bearing aura, while the father is still awed by his heir–this is simply implied. There is no uncomplicated way to explain the echoing loneliness, the cavernous absence, the awkward near-daily phone updates on their daughter’s development. At a time when her most intimate moments should be spent with her ex, at the rail of a crib, whispering over the shared triumph of getting their colicky infant to rest, the last thing anyone suspects is that she’s calculating the appropriate time to wriggle free of her billowy blouses and pull on the form-fitting regalia attendant to getting back Out There.

Out There, with its speed dates and hookups and earnest longterm courtships, is no longer her scene–or if she is me, it never was. If she is me, she is practically hermetic, all her previous relationships casual, unconsummated, or in the case of this last, the result of happenstance, fondness, and, later, inertia. Every man she’s dated–and there have been less than a handful–was found in the places she most regularly frequents: school, work, church.

She doesn’t know to meet them, otherwise.

Regardless, an unbidden desire to meet them has risen, like decomposing Lazarus improbably exiting his tomb.

She knows there is a link between this pining and her heart’s recently enlarged capacity for love. Love is emanating from her pores, insomuch that she runs the risk of becoming an unrepentant helicopter, hovering over her increasingly independent child, lifting her for hugs and kisses before she ever has the chance to offer them. She needs a reservoir for the runoff; a dreamcatcher for the excess; a man who makes more sense within the context of a world that has reimagined her as someone’s mother.

And, there–there is the other rub: she is someone’s mother now. This necessarily changes everything.

If dating was a house of mirrors before, filled with misshapen images of herself and her possible suitors, dating with a child is a house of cards, full of false starts and toppled attempts to balance a new identity with an old one.

She will need to reconfigure her banter, curtail her nervous laughter, meet eyes and match their fervor, infuse all conversation with clarity. She can no longer be one for ambling. There is no time.

It has become apparent to her, in these twenty months she’s spent alone, that as the mother of a one-year-old, she will be treated as though she is unavailable. And in so many ways, she is. The best part of herself has been claimed, the bulk of her time accounted for.

What can she offer a prospective paramour, other than leftover love, the slivers of time per day that her daughter spends sleeping, the occasional phone call at dawn?

She must grow more.

It is impractical to desire a garden she has no space or time to tend. But what is life without the wildness of flowers, the sustenance of fruit and grain, the lushness and full spice of the herbs? And what will she do with the love overflowing these buckets, if not use it to water a series of promising seeds?

Her season of mourning has ended. A partner is not so readily implied of a mother with toddler, as the one who conjures images of the madonna when she holds her swaddled babe.

Now, the wind has turned. The soil will yield to tilling.

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Faith, Nonfiction

Gilded

Days before our annual New Year’s Eve Service, Pastor Robinson absently asked me to pen a poem and plan on reciting it some time after praise and worship and before his sermon. Because I had very little sense of self-preservation, I agreed.

I did not tell him that commissioned art requires ample notice.

I did not tell him that the rapid-fire performance pieces I recited didn’t spring from my head fully formed.

I did not tell him what I believed then—that I couldn’t write poems for church services without spending time praying and hand-wringing and lamenting, without asking God if the often scathing criticism I snuck in by rattling it off too quickly for listeners to immediately process was actually okay to repeat aloud.

I did not tell him that that settled, Yes, I do believe I’m free to write and recite this; No, I don’t need to further edit myself sensation—the one I was so sure then was the presence of God confirming the words He’d given me—simply could not be rushed.

I simply nodded and agreed, then spent the next four or so days panicking and envisioning myself in a room filled with hundreds of sequin-clad onlookers with absolutely nothing to say.

Somehow, I managed to get a poem written. I printed it out and spent the remaining day and a half before deadline desperately trying to commit the piece to memory. I was always terrified to stand in front of the church to share poems. Though all writing is nakedness, poetry is nakedness on a JumboTron; and I always found it comforting to have a page to hide behind. I’d approach the microphone, unable to hear any thought other than, Just get it over with. Just get it over with.

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