Nonfiction

An Assessment of Light.

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The women walked up bearing tote bags, their arms laden with carbon forms and child-things. They are sent to homes in pairs. The wisest among us know enough to feel scrutinized as soon as the women cross our thresholds. We carry ourselves as though we do not know just how much is being observed. One of them wields forms, solicits signatures. The other eyes my little girl and listens, with an ear attuned to difference.

Because she does not know them, she is reticent. They address her by name, and she hears them but does not respond. The women look up at my mother and me, where we sit at opposite ends of a down-filled sofa. “We’ll check her hearing as a precaution.” Since they have stationed themselves crosslegged on our living room floor, Story quickly intuits that they are there for her and they have been invited. She takes it all in: Ziploc bags with colorful wooden and plastic trinkets; a gym-like sack with a small plush Cookie Monster and an Elmo peeking out; a tiny generic bear, seated on our carpet with a tea set in front of him; and of course: the binders, the papers, the clipboards bearing sheets with lines and X’s. The spaces where Mommy scribbles.

While she watches the women, I remember to return her father’s call. It is ten after six in the morning, where he is. He first called at 5:30 am, his time. I was spooning cold cereal into Story’s mouth at record speed, my mind racing toward anything else that needed doing before the women arrived. I had been up since 6, my time, myself, pricked awake by sharp anxieties. “Can I just call you back when they get here?” I snapped, erasing his face from my iPhone screen as soon as he said yes.

He pops up there again now and says hello to the women. Both raise their eyebrows, returning his greeting. I’m reminded how often black fathers are assumed absent or under-involved, how difficult it is for social program workers to hide their initial surprise at a father’s engagement, how quickly they recover.

I have less interest in qualifying things these days. Father “absence” and “presence” will always be relative. It has never served me well to give either much examination. Most days, my mind will go no further than: he does what he can; he does what he can. The truth is: he cares more than I give him credit for. (Of course, this isn’t about credit.)

I prop up the phone so he can see and listen.

“Can you give the bear a drink of water?” one of the women asks.

All three of us — her father, my mother, and I — know that she won’t.

This is, in part, why the women are here. We are no longer sure what is a matter of ability or an act of will.

They have already asked if I’m on public assistance. No, I answered quickly, ashamed at the twinge of pride I felt. I am proud of too many irrelevant things: that Story has no allergies; has never had an ear infection; is too young to remember how many cans of formula I paid for with food stamps (about eight), too young to notice how foolish I’ve been to forgo WIC. And if I’m honest with myself, I am even proud that her father has cleared a morning to watch this assessment unfold on FaceTime. None of this means much, in light of why the women are here. But it’s what I have.

One of them has explained that the program is no cost to us, either way, but that if I were on assistance, the County could recoup some of its operation costs from the state. I wonder what mothers’ already thin resources are being further stretched to make this home visit possible. (Is anyone ever getting all that they need?)

“Give the bear a drink,” the child development therapist urges again. Story sits by the bear, looks at his empty place setting, keeps her dainty hands in her lap.

The women whisk her off to another exercise. The speech pathologist raises a three-ring binder, showing her a page. “Where’s the ball?” They have just played with a ball, hard and hollow, formed of translucent green plastic. It does not look like the ball in the picture. She does not point, even as her eyes train on the ball.

She knows “ball.” She knows 100 words or more, easily. My friend Kristen encouraged me to count them months ago, when I first voiced my worries. For a while, I kept a running ledger in the back of journal with the Eiffel Tower on its cover. I stopped at 92. I didn’t even count the articles: no a or an or the. No reaches.

The women haven’t heard any of the words I’ve counted. They’ve heard a single, quiet string of babble — and here, the speech woman perked up, jotted things down — but nothing so involved as “dinosaur” or, a newer phrase, her longest sentence, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to break it!”

It is a ninety-minute enterprise, and as soon as it ends I must dart out the door and race downtown for a radio interview. I can tell I’ll have to leave before they do in order to make it.

Maybe this is the problem. I am always darting off: into a book or a writing project, into a series of texts, a teaching assignment, into social media initiatives, most recently, into a romance, and always into the far reaches of my mind and heart, looking for the parts of myself that are still recognizable.

She is my true North, of course. I always turn back to her. But how often are any of us sure-footed? How often are we headed in the right direction?

I have been waiting for this day for months, and though I am not as often dreamy and expectant of ease as I once was, I thought the women would fix this. They would tell us how to get her to speak clearly, to babble less and enunciate more. For once, something would be simple.

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books lined up according to size, during independent play.

But speech, they break to us gently, is a symptom, not the core issue. They cannot determine, through this battery of tiny tests, how much of what we say is being understood. Perhaps she is isolating recognized words, but not grasping entire sentences. Perhaps she doesn’t answer or ask questions because she isn’t sure how to arrange what the words she knows. They tell us her play is too orderly; she is more interested in lining things in neat rows than in fashioning intricate worlds.

Were she hitting developmental milestones, in other words, she would not have just offered the bear a drink. She would’ve told us the color of the juice or charged him a million dollars for the privilege of dining in her castle.

It’s manageable, they assure us. The assessment, after all, was to determine how best to address her needs. They say that she is in a good place, at home during the day and surrounded by familiar faces who offer patience and love. They look warmly to her father’s face in my phone when they say this.

And she shows determination. Many of the children they visit run to other rooms when they won’t or can’t engage the women’s activities. Story stands her ground. She is brave.

I am late to the radio station. On air, I do not hear myself. The segment is about how single mothers “make it work.” But this is a topic on which I know too little, especially today.

Back at home, I hold Story close. We all do. I give my heart the rest of the day to adjust to the new light in which I’ve been advised to view my daughter. It is as bright as it’s ever been, as bright as the night she was born.

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Love and Language.

1.

First comes the absence of accent. You hear it before its loss registers elsewhere: a flatness, frosty and far, where there were once warm lilts and bends. Your voice was a carousel, your language a whirligig. It’s since sanded itself, become polished and practiced, indistinguishable.

You are hiding your truths in places you will not so readily find them.

It is easy to tell a man you love him, easy to mean it. But over time, it morphs in your mouth, its meaning multiplying, reducing, clouding. Something is always wanting, in the translation.

You are not clear when you articulate love, because you have never understood men as more than audiences. Perform for them, but keep them distant. Perform for them, but know when to leave, when to grant an encore. The performance must be evocative, but respectable. It must titillate but it must also offer insight.

You are less actress than apprentice. You cannot tell if he is on the edge of his seat or yawning. Men, in this way, are mysteries.

But this is beside the point. Audiences owe so little: attention, at best, and in short supply. The actress owes a world.

No, never view a man you love as something to be acted upon. You mustn’t perform. You will always feel you are earning a keep. You will dance till dawn for a bit of applause and feel empty, wanton, when he withholds it.

Women learn this first with inconsistent fathers. When they are with you, you wish to dazzle them — and you do. For as long as you care to, you do. Find his heart, his preoccupations, his passions. Become conversant in them. And you will be clever and interesting because, at first, you are the most flattering kind of mirror. When he is with you, you offer such forgiving reflections. He is younger with you, time has stood still, a judgment day feels far enough at bay that you’ve nearly convinced him he’s invincible.

But he is often gone. And in his absence, you are building calluses over your needs. First it will be hard and hurtful to articulate them. Then, you will not feel the need to do so at all.

What is love, if not knowing when to keep silent?

The beginning of new relationships is when your accent is heaviest. Love leaves your lips easily, and love on his lips takes a razor to every callus.

I want to know everything, you whisper. I want to tell you everything, he responds.

You hope to dazzle him, and you do. But soon, you will want your distance. And in the distance, the calluses crust over.

2.

My daughter’s speech is muddy, a mix of water and silt. It floats out, as if behind gauze or a veil. I understand her, sometimes, but less than I’m told I should by now.

I am not one of those mothers who begs and borrows and steals to acquire the trendiest literacy aids. I do not own an iPad. I believe in board books and conversation and sunshine.

She watches television. (And I realize, at this point in the reading, someone is sending me to the stocks or the noose in old Salem. But understand, at this point in the reading, that if my daughter did not watch television, I could not be writing this. If I hadn’t watched as much television as I did growing up, I wouldn’t likely have wanted to be a person who writes things down.)

Now that she is closer to three years old than two, I am told her speech should not sound like it is being sifted. She should be clear, responding to questions, asking them, forming simple sentences.

Because she is not in daycare, we have both been spared the intense developmental comparisons we’d find there. But whenever she does get to mingle among peers, I am concerned with her insouciant acquisition of language.

She is no loafer. Story is an empath, a firebrand. She is intellectually curious, musical, startling perceptive. She is creative, a gesturer. She cobbles her own expressive roads.

But she does not speak in ways that are easily understood.

Even mothers like me, neither tigers nor minimalists, know when to be concerned about their children. And for us, it is rarely overreaction.

I worry that she has inherited my ambiguities. I do not often know how to speak, either. Perhaps it is just that the words morph in her mouth in more literal ways than they do in mine.

But here is where that similarity ends: my daughter knows exactly how to love. It is not complicated. It is in the eyes, in invented songs, in laughter, in the folding of her bony limbs and skin around mine. It is all the kisses I give her, returned. It is alphabets and gifts of toys, constellations, saying hello to the moon, to her mama’s smiley-face mug in the morning.

It is not confined to the way her words are formed.

3.

Nearly a fortnight ago, in the basement bar of an East Village restaurant, I slid onto a stool, waiting for a lithe, sparkly-eyed twenty-something to transfigure an excerpt of fiction I wrote last year, in a fit of pique. She was first in a lineup of actors cast to read the works of writers, both established and grappling. I am the latter, of course, the non-resident only in New York for a few stolen hours, the sole writer featured without a published book to sell.

In Baltimore, it is easy to forget who you are. It is not so often affirmed. In New York, if you are literary, neither affirmation nor criticism are ever in short supply. You are among kinsmen fluent in the language of representation and publication, professorship and craft. You are among people who amass rejection and do not identify it as masochism, but as love.

I had never heard my work publicly read aloud by anyone besides myself, let alone performed. New York is the only place where I’d want to.

The audience waited for the first line, spoken by a seven-year-old twin to her conjoined sister: “Do you think Mommy loves us?” It’s a play on an age-old theme, a lifelong wonder. Are we allowed to interrogate love? And when we do, will we ever be ready for the result?

The girls are black, sharing organs at the lower torso. One is developmentally delayed, the other fairly precocious. In this scene, they are in conversation. It is difficult to imagine this going well. The actress is white and grown, her body positively un-twinned.

But the language is universal, her interpretation thoughtful and quiet. She draws the attention of our intimate crowd, pulls them toward the words, and for a moment, they are not my own, and she is no longer there. There are only the twins, those susceptible twins, and their questioning of a mother’s love.

My friend Shelly, who co-organizes the event, tells me witnessing this often makes writers as nervous as if they were reading their own words aloud. Indeed, it is a foreign thing to see something intended for silence enlivened. It is strange to surrender a sliver of an incomplete novel to a room, to see the way your own words land on other ears.

This is is what readers do all the time, Shelly reminds me. They take our words into themselves, add their own inflections, superimpose their experience. They gasp, perhaps chuckle, and occasionally, they call into question their loves.

It is risky to be let in on this process. Day to day, we understand the words we write as spores, floating out and off and overhead, but rarely touching down.

Here, I was watching cupped hearts catch them. I could see them sink into the loam.

I had my answer, then, about the way I communicate love. Mine is an adoration mapped with words. For the utterance of a loving word is the loudest act there is.

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