You should be airborne

Today we reverse our roles. Alex has just rushed off with Wally to the sensory gym up by the park and then they'll meet the speech therapist outside. In the afternoon Alex has ambitious plans of taking Wally to the Bronx Zoo or to the Hall of Science in Queens. I hope they follow through on one of those or something else that will leave me here alone with books and lots of tea and coffee, banana muffins my friend Kristin brought over yesterday and apples we picked last week in Massachusetts. I love having the apartment to myself to play whatever music I want, wear pajamas, rush to find a certain line of poetry (right now I am thinking of reading books and taking down “useless notes” from Elizabeth Bishop, The End of March). It's so different from being alone outside the apartment. When I do get a day to work I usually take the laptop and go to a library. It's fun, but nothing like getting lost in the Baker stacks. Instead I'm lucky if I find a seat anywhere without people coughing on me and striking up nonsensical conversations. I feel bad saying this, but the vibe in the library near us isn't that great because it's sort of a homeless hangout. And I always tell myself that it's really bourgeois and terrible to be bothered by that, but it's not the halcyon scene one envisions in spending the day at the library. You have to be prepared for anything (Alex had a chair thrown at him once) and you share the table with people who are literally camped out. When I have enough time, I go to a different branch. Meanwhile the work I'm doing is to help people who, in Fitzgerald's words from a post a while back, "haven't had the advantages I've had." Yet sit side by side and do work with them? I’ll pass. There’s got to be some irony there, or at least hypocrisy.

I was annoyed just now with Alex as he went tumbling out the door with Wally fifteen minutes late. He was at the tail end of his signature departure: “Has anyone seen my keys?” (repeated with escalating degrees of hysteria – see earlier posts on Alex as Zen master). I can’t possibly be surprised anymore that he will go on this frantic search for his keys every morning. Yet I am. I’m in the kitchen pouring coffee thinking, “Seriously? Again?” When the question should perhaps be directed at myself. Seriously? You’re surprised again? (Once more Bishop creeps up, different poem, "Accept the fluster of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.")

I was annoyed that Alex was rushing and late when meanwhile I’d gotten Wally dressed and changed him twice and packed up his water and a snack and written down the therapists’ numbers and info. I think – if you can’t even leave on time with all that help, how could you manage if I wasn’t here? I guess what I mean is, how do I manage, every day? Or really, just wanting him to say: this is not that easy. Though he’s never implied otherwise. And for a much harder year he did manage Wally on his own while I was free and easy over at Barnes & Noble picking out which Obama speeches I liked best to include in our Words that Inspired a Nation book and DVD. When I write this, now, it makes me think of my mom’s mom Eleanor, who never felt appreciated and always started fights because of it. The underlying point seemed to be, “Look at all I’m doing for everybody and no one is the least bit grateful.” But the fight never got to the underlying point, of course. Instead it spiraled out into irrelevant minor and unrelated aggravations. Sometimes screaming and tears. That was different than the screaming here at Miriam’s, that none of the Jacobson sisters ever registered as more than a stern tone. 

At the Riordans, in the little red house by the beach we called “the cottage” because it had been their summer home before my grandparents renovated it and moved in full-time, the screaming rang in the halls, poisoned the air for at least another hour. Maybe all that would have been required to avoid it would have been one person saying, “Thank you Eleanor for getting up at 5 in the morning to boil the potatoes so that mashed potatoes would be fresh today and not simply reheated" (surely a sin in an Irish household). Or maybe that wouldn’t have mattered. Maybe the sins of the fathers just had to be visited on the sons. Centuries of inherited guilt over not suffering enough meant holidays and other happy occasions would always exact some kind of ancient revenge.

This morning I am going to work on an evaluation for a leadership conference for minority students. They are just about ready to start out, dreaming big dreams, taking the first steps necessary to reach their full potential.  My friends and I--more than a decade after graduation--are tired and less optimistic, more tolerant of compromise, happier in some ways, less so in others, re-evaluating what a statement like reaching one's full potential might mean. Fewer binaries, more gray. One friend recently said she had such grand plans for her life but would be happy now if she can be an okay mom. The last year has taught me what a grand plan that is, what a huge thing to reach for, how important it would be to achieve. I'll be happy if I can be an okay mom. I have to pause on that for a while. Set my sights on it.

Here are the lines from Bishop: she is talking about her "proto-crypto dream house" on the beach, which is how I always refer to the cottage our family sold two years after my grandmother died.

"I'd like to retire there and do nothing,
or nothing much, forever, in two bare rooms:
look through binoculars, read boring books,
old, long, long books, and write down useless notes,
talk to myself, and, foggy days,
watch the droplets slipping, heavy with light."

Whenever I read that poem I just sink into that feeling of solitude and space and empty surroundings that allow one's life to feel full. Today the Zen master is frantic and scattered. This morning I'm trying to help disadvantaged people and refusing to sit next to them. I’ll be glad, for the next eight hours or so, not to be tested as a good or an okay or a terrible mom. I'm glad not to be in that role at all, even though it's my favorite. In the poem, the proto-crypto dream house was boarded up. Our cottage was sold to another family. The house that was absolutely essential, at the center of our lives. Yet Wally was not even born the last time I stepped foot inside there, desperately searching not for keys but for something far more important – my mother’s wedding ring. Behind the curtains, in the heating grates, under the beds, in the closet, in the tea cups, carefully setting them back in their places on the shelf even though weeks later they would be packed up and taken away. 

I knew, in my sober and rational moments, that as cozy and lovely as our cottage was, with the fireplace and wooden walls and the porches and big eat-in kitchen, that other than the view, it was a modest 2-bedroom house, from an outside perspective an unremarkable place. But there was a time and an hour when it radiated like a cathedral in the late afternoon of clear winter days when the sun went down behind the river. With so little foliage to block the sun it came streaming in through the kitchen windows up through the hallway into the living-room,  melancholy and majestic. That luminous view, that light, " heavy with light"---with the sale of the Cottage that would have to be given up too. 

On the last afternoon I spent in that little red house there was this inexorable sense of doom fighting against that radiant light, this by-degrees-turning of hope into hopelessness with each new search for the ring, each new, "I know! It must be here..." that turned up empty. That wedding ring--that thing you cannot lose (“practice losing further, losing faster”)--would stay in the cottage, would remain there after we were gone, an offering. We left and went to get dinner. My mom tried to feel okay about it. We drank margaritas and enjoyed the marina. She wondered how to tell my dad.

Later that year my mom received a package in the mail from my cousin Katie. The ring had ended up in a bureau and been shipped down inside it to South Carolina, to the sister of the cousin whose wedding I missed just a month ago. On that long day in Newark Airport I read The More I Owe You, a novel about Elizabeth Bishop's time in Brazil--where Alex is from--waiting first through a 5-hour delay and then for an hour and a half out on the tarmac. The the entire time on the tarmac we were right about to leave, hearing the engines of all the other planes revving right by our windows. We watched the day vanish minute by minute, waiting the entire length of the time it would have taken to get to Charleston in silence with no word from the flight crew thinking--any minute now--only to be told finally that the flight plan had been lost but now they found it. 

Could we go? It was dark by then. I had missed the beach and the day with cousins and the rehearsal dinner but could I order a glass of wine, try to relax and not be too aggravated. No, it turns out, we had missed our opportunity. In the time it had taken to search for the flight plan (under the chairs? in the heating grate?) the captain had timed out and could no longer legally fly. We were heading back to the gate. "You should be airborne in just a few minutes" -- one of the greatest things anyone can ever say--turned out not to be true. Or rather, didn't happen. It was still true. The flight attendant had been careful to say "should" not "will". You should be airborne. At the time it had sounded so hopeful.

That whole day I spent reading The More I Owe You, which isn't a bad way to spend a day. I had thought I’d love the book, but it was slow and distant, passive and impassive, in some excruciating way like certain of Bishop’s more restrained poetry, but without the emotional pulsing underneath, being so carefully restrained. But I do wonder also if I disliked the book for the stupidest reason – because I read it on an annoying and disappointing day.

Fewer binaries, more gray. But the day--today--is not gray at all, it's beautiful bright sun. It’s open. It’s waiting.

Not too many hours from now, I will remark surprised --yes, still, after 34 years--at how dark it is out already. I will think about in the summer at this time we might just be making plans for the day. Someone might suggest we go to the pool, bring magazines and lemonade. We could take a hike, go to the beach, take a dinner picnic with us to the river in the evening where there are outdoor grills and lots of trees. In the summer there would still be the obligation to do things, to make the day worthwhile. The sense that you can’t have a glass of wine yet, you can’t take off your shoes yet, you can’t rub your eyes and enjoy that requiem moment of having made it through the day. In winter, the darkness relieves us. It tells us we have come a long way from that bright morning and we deserve to rest. We want someone to tell us that. I want someone to tell me that. To say, you have done everything you could today, you have tried as hard as you could to do your best work, to be an okay mom, to make connections, to speak honestly, to run faster than yesterday, to look at the sun—that tiny little star that it is--and say thank you.

View from upstairs at the cottage
On one of the last afternoons I spent with my grandmother Eleanor before she had to move to more intensive care, on a bright October day five years ago, I sat on the bed with her, reading poetry aloud. She was one of the few people I have ever met who could just be, who could be still, listen and gaze out the window, even long before she was sick, even when moments later she'd be furious over poorly-skinned potatoes. In her belief system she still had eternity, yet she got the most pleasure from the tiniest things. Maybe tiny pleasures were the only kind she allowed herself. For whatever reason, her guilt did not attend those moments of peace -- tea in the afternoon or watching a cardinal perched on the table outside. 

Tonight there will be my little niece Eliana writing poetry of her own. Rushing to the window shouting, “Look at the beautiful glowing crescent!” Telling others, "You don’t always want what you want". Saying, two years ago now, "The day was end and now I’m asleep again". There will be Alex, tossing his keys under junk mail. There will be some readers saying to themselves -- this post is too long, too long even to skim. They won't get all the way to the end. They won't get here, or be here, with me. What I think I owe you might not be what you think you want. "Retire now and do nothing, or nothing much, forever." Maybe infinity isn't such a bad fate. 


  1. This was so well written. As I read it (with my kids being baby sat for a half hour by the televsion...a precious, though questionable thing in itself) I felt the utter joy of reading such beauty, uninterrupted. I wanted it to go on an on.

    It reminded me of a brief e-mail that you wrote to me at a difficult period of my college life. I printed it and yet somehow lost the e-mail. They were the most succinct, motivational, poetic words that I had ever been given. I am feeling such an emptiness that I no longer have it or remember the exact phrasing. For a while I had it memorized, as a mantra. The basics came down to you telling me that the only thing that really mattered in life, the only salvation (for the state that I happened to be in) was to allow yourself to be vulnerable, to be open to feel the pain. For really, if you are not able to feel pain, sadness and all the other emotions in the spectrum, than how else are you to know that you are alive? It was really a simple Buddhist concept, but it was written so beautifully and passionately by you that it was one of my main inspirations to "face the dragon", as my therapist used to say.

    You have a gift for words and I am so thankful that you have found a way (many, I guess) to express that talent.

  2. I, too, was willing this post not to end because the words were so beautiful and so true and so meaningful. It brought me back to a conversation that my mother and I had just a few days ago in talking about what the future held for my 2 little ones. We were talking about the broader parental wonderment that we have produced these little creatures and yet we have no control (or very little) as to how they will end up and what life will deliver to their doorsteps. She told me that when i graduated from college she wondered if she had done something wrong that I wanted to stay close to home rather than venture cross country or out of country on some exciting adventure. She says that now she sees that she is glad that I stayed close and chosen the path that I have followed- that being leaving a teaching career to stay at home and raise these little creatures (just as she did when we were little). Sorry I'm rambling but the beginning of your post reminded me that we spend so much time worrying that the choices we've made aren't as valid as those of other people if they're not as exciting or filled with drama. Personally, I'm happy to be an ok mom (or an exceptional one on some days :-) and I now take comfort in that as I read about the crazy adventures that some of my college classmates are still pursuing in search of their true selves.

  3. My college roommate and I were recently laughing about how we would stay up late in our apartment, drinking coffee or boxed wine talking about our dreams...her as a stage actress and me as a playwrite. And we kind of joked we would have been better off getting the sleep instead of having all those talks....because we sure wish we had that sleep now!

  4. I feel like it's not okay that I have not answered these generous wonderful responses (except quickly, privately by email). I'm stumped, which makes me think I should be more understanding of people who read and don't know how to (or don't want to) respond


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