Monday, October 26, 2009



I’m with T.S. Eliot: April is the cruelest month, forcing us back out of our cocoons like that, stirring us from our cozy hibernation. But I love, love, how October gathers us up and folds us in from the cold. Spring may be all about blooming and rebirth, but there’s incredible sensuality in the autumnal withdrawing and turning inward, too, yes, absolutely there is. Fall is my time of year, and I’ll take butternut squash over a damn peach any day of the week.

For a student, fall is the real time of rebirth and renewal. Summer was your hibernation – drawing back into your nuclear family, replacing poetry classes with minimum-wage jobs, sorting out what went wrong over the past school year and how to improve it. And (unless you’re one of the fortunate ones who got to spend the summer traipsing all over Europe or something) it’s September that draws you back out into your larger world of peers, relationships, and challenges. September can be shaky, but by the time October comes around you’re just managing to get your footing in the new context – just in time for that burst of fall color and crisper, colder air, which somehow heightens the whole “You’re gonna make it after all” sentiment. I don’t know how. It just does.


It’s strange how, as a parent, I find myself living in this school-year paradigm again. Although honestly I don’t think I ever stopped. Nearly every 12-month lease in every single-girl apartment I ever had began in September, and I’d unload my books and Urban Outfitters knick knacks from their boxes with fresh optimistic resolve. As the weather got colder and darker, on some level I’d be telling myself “Okay, this is where I’m going to stay for a while,” and I’d seek small comforts as if storing them away for the winter.

In Binghamton I used to take long walks through the old part of town by myself, past all the junk shops, sometimes stopping at one of the glorious old-school diners for a grilled corn muffin and no-frills diner coffee. In Philly I’d wander from the Schuylkill to the Delaware, pausing in shops to gather Suddenly Tammy CDs or cozy sweaters before strolling home, wet yellow leaves under my feet (and ginkgo berries. Oh how I don’t miss those one little bit).


Fall can be a bit more heartbreaking in Seattle, since it heralds the next nine months of rain. But there’s a kind of beauty and optimism there, too. We seem to spend our summers anywhere but home – visiting my family on the east coast, exploring the northwest mountains or beaches, spending all day at the wading pool. Fall summons us back to the comforts of home and routine. And fall means the start of a new school year for the kids.

Up until now they’ve always attended cooperative preschool, and the transitions have been pretty much seamless. Preschool meets only a few half-days a week, one of which is my day to work in the classroom. Separation happens in small, manageable doses. You get to see your child in action among their peers (for better or for worse!), and the teachers are so incredibly generous with their time. But this year, things are a little different.

Last month I dropped The Boy off for his first day of full-day kindergarten at the big public K-8 school. I’m not sure I was completely aware of it at the time, but I was an absolute wreck those first few weeks. I couldn’t focus on anything. I could barely even eat. I don’t know what was so unnerving about it, exactly. Maybe just the feeling that Something Big Has Changed. He belongs just a little bit less to me now, and a little bit more to this imperfect world. Which is terrifying.

But I found some comfort in the faces of every other parent and child in that schoolyard every morning, because each one of them looked every bit as shell-shocked as me. Some kids clung to their parents. One mom stood outside her daughter’s classroom window until a teacher’s aide came out and asked her to leave. A girl clutched her teacher’s arm and wept steadily, while a particularly clever boy decided to just make a break for it and ran out of the school building after the final bell. And there was The Boy, taking it in and swallowing it down, trying so hard to hang in there.

“He’s doing fine,” his teacher reassured me, looking weary after her first full week with the newbies. She showed me his special chair where he knows to sit if he needs a break. She acknowledged that he gets upset sometimes. But she said he’s been so good at knowing how to calm himself down, and so good at articulating his feelings.

I like this teacher. She’s warm, smart, and positively fearless about feeding frozen mice to the class’s pet corn snake. Best of all . . . she truly doesn’t see my son as a problem. Her attitude has been so refreshingly positive and welcoming. She speaks openly with a bright and helpful tone, rather than in the hushed and worried tones of some other teachers he’s had.

And I can see The Boy responding. Not only is he making friends and learning new things at school, but he’s excited and actually proud to be a part of his class in a way I’ve never seen before. He seems to feel safe there. He seems to feel like he belongs. It’s a little sad, but a little wonderful, too, to see how positively he’s responded to a teacher who knows what the hell to do with him. What a difference a bigger pond makes.

And now it’s October. The fall color on the school playground has been positively stunning this week. The Boy used to insist on going straight home after school, but now he and his sister love to stay and play for another hour or so. Looking up at all those vibrant reds and yellows on the trees, I have the strangest sense of school-year déjà vu. This could be my old college campus; those old waves of anxiety, peace, and delight have barely changed even when I’m not the student anymore.

And as I said before, October is that time of year when the new context is just becoming joyfully familiar. I don’t want to jinx it, but I think we’re there. Oh yes, there will be challenges upon challenges ahead of us, I’m sure. But I’m also sure that we’re on a good path.

Happy fall.

Saturday, October 17, 2009


Mere minutes from the Pennsylvania Turnpike, it felt like I was the last soul left in the world as I steered my way through the gloomy country night. If the Headless Horseman happened to sidle up to my old Volvo, I wouldn’t have been all that surprised. I was already feeling haunted, though it was entirely of my own making.

I just couldn’t bring myself to admit it to my mom over the phone that afternoon – after Josh left; after we’d spent the last 18 hours gazing teen-style into each other’s eyes, telling our stories, holding each other as closely as we could – I couldn’t bring myself to say out loud that I might be falling in love (at last!) with a guy who was about to move far away (again!). Because this was getting to be embarrassing. I’d been in this situation so many times before, it was beginning to look like I was doing it on purpose.

But I wasn’t. Really. Josh was my co-worker’s roommate (well, he was crashing on my co-worker’s couch, but I didn’t know that until later), and we met at a work-related happy hour at some brew pub in trendy Manayunk. I was sitting with another co-worker and his frat brothers, one of whom was picking a fight with some dude who’d set his beer down on our table. When I slipped away from the drama to join the first co-worker at his table, I found myself sitting next to this adorable guy with glasses, a Phish hat, and a smirk to match my own. Practically upon introduction, we launched into one of those amazing conversations that makes you realize how much work most ordinary conversations usually are. It was seamless. He was witty and warm. I swear there was an actual twinkle in his eye.

He was also about five years younger than me, but I barely registered that fact. Who knows where things might have gone that night if the situation at the next table hadn’t escalated to a fist fight, getting us all kicked out of the bar. I got on my train back to Philly and hoped he’d call.

But he didn’t. I agonized over it for weeks, wondering if I should ask my co-worker to give him my number or not. Then one day at lunch, during a lull in the conversation, I suddenly found the nerve. My co-worker was so genuinely delighted to help, it warmed my heart. He was sure Josh would be happy about it. He’d talk to him. And then he mentioned that Josh was moving back in with his parents in Cincinnati at the end of the month. Was that a problem?

Maybe I should have slammed on the brakes right then, but I decided to go the carpe diem route. And it was wonderful. Every moment with that guy was pure dessert – rich, decadent restaurant dessert. We savored every minute of each other’s company. We talked and hugged so much; practically memorized each other’s faces. We spent one miserably cold October night cuddled up in my apartment – a mostly-clothed, relatively chaste encounter, but easily one of the most romantic nights of my singlehood.

It was early afternoon by the time he finally left, but I could already feel the darkness encroaching. We had one week left, and then he’d be gone for good. Incredible sadness poured in. Somehow, my mom knew to call me at that precise moment. And even though I just wasn’t able to tell her any of this, I think she got a general sense of my despair.

“Come to the pumpkin party tonight!” she urged. It was going to be so much fun! Her folk artist friend Barbara hosted a fabulous open house every Halloween featuring her fall paintings and a house full of jack o’ lanterns carved by the local high school students. I’d been hearing about it for years, but never attended one. From my lonely Center City apartment, it seemed like a world away. Which is exactly why I decided to go.

So there I was, driving down a deserted country road on a pitch-black night, haunted by the impending loss of a love that had barely blossomed. Somehow I was able to read my scribbled directions and navigate my way to the artist’s home. And there it was: A big old farmhouse overflowing with gleaming jack o’ lanterns. Every window exuded an amber glow that seemed to warm the chilly black night, and I could hear the sound of fiddles (actual fiddles!) and general merriment within.

by Barbara Strawser
Painting by Barbara Strawser

Apparently, I’d just missed my mom singing folk songs with the fiddlers. Every room was full of paintings and conversation with an eclectic bunch of local artists, family, and art lovers. I found my mom and Barbara in the kitchen and set to work helping them peel and core apples to bake with brown sugar and raisins. Working late most nights, living alone in the city within a block of falafel and Mexican take-out places, I hadn’t had much use for the kitchen lately. But it was comforting to find that my hands somehow remembered what to do with a baked apple.

I drifted from room to room just looking at the paintings and occasionally chatting with someone about my job. Josh barely crossed my mind. I felt so blissfully out of context as I wandered the pages of this storybook landscape. As the evening came to a close, Barbara approached me. Was I driving back to Philly tonight? Could I possibly give her friend Sebastian a ride? Sebastian lived only a few blocks from me, and it would make driving through that Sleepy Hollowesque gloom a little nicer. I agreed.

Sebastian, it turned out, was a little on the haunted side himself. Way more than me, actually. He’d recently lost his wife to cancer, and it was all so raw and vivid for him, still. He loved her so much, he could barely fathom that she simply wasn’t there anymore. He wanted to talk. I’m not much of a talker myself, so that was fine with me. And as we drove back to the city, we turned the Halloween hitchhiker paradigm on its ear as this lonely, deeply haunted man spoke of his lost wife and his various thoughts and philosophies about it all.

She’d wanted a dog, he said, toward the end when there wasn’t much more to do but huddle up at home to ride out the disease. She’d wanted a sweet little lap dog to give her that uniquely canine rush of pure, joyful love that the grieving humans in her life just couldn’t provide. But when they went to the local animal shelter, the only dog available for adoption was a big, goofy mixed breed with a scraggly coat. And that was it. She fell instantly in love with that dog. “Honey, Honey, are you sure?” he’d asked. She was sure. So sure. That was her dog, and she poured every ounce of love she could spare into the big furry guy. Sebastian had never been a fan of big dogs himself, but he loved that dog still, as much as she had.

I drove. I listened. It broke my heart and renewed my faith in love and humanity all at once. It was right out of Wings of Desire or something. And then he asked me about myself. What do you say after a story like that? “Boo hoo, I just met this cute guy who’s about to leave the city”? Hardly. So I tried to answer his questions as breezily as possible, but I think he still got a sense of the sadness I’d been holding. “Life is process,” he said thoughtfully. I’m not sure if he said that to comfort me or to comfort himself. I’m not even completely sure how he meant it. But for some reason, I did find that phrase incredibly comforting, and it’s stayed with me for years. Life is process. Indeed.

Back in the city, we went our separate ways. And a few nights later, I saw Josh for the very last time. It was a Halloween party, appropriately enough, at my co-worker’s place where Josh was still couch-crashing for a few days more. He dressed as Waldo from Where’s Waldo. I dressed as Velma from Scooby Doo. (Neither costume was much of a stretch for us.) The party was hilariously fun, but I found myself a bit distracted and sad.

When it was over, Josh and I wrapped ourselves in a sleeping bag on the living room floor for our last night together. The next morning, we had breakfast at a diner with the other roommates. Then we returned to the house alone, put on a Cowboy Junkies CD, and got right back in that sleeping bag for one last afternoon of soul cuddling. Still in his Waldo shirt, he told me he was so happy we’d met. It seemed like he was going to say something more, but his voice cracked, almost like a sob, and he just held me. He drove me home in the dark, reaching over to grab my hand at every opportunity. I watched as his car disappeared into the night. Gone. As if it had never happened at all. And I was alone again with the rest of the city’s lost souls.

I suppose I’d hoped, maybe even expected, to see Josh again. He hadn’t been very forthcoming about future plans, and after all my years of dating I’d learned to tread lightly on such matters. I did send him one letter, but I never heard back. I kept a widow watch at the mailbox for about a month before finally letting go.

I tucked the memory of Josh away like a memento; the perfect jewel of our experience just dangling from a strong, simple chain. We never would have made it as a couple. He was only 23 and we weren’t that much alike, really, in retrospect. Him leaving right as we were beginning to grow fond of each other somehow created the illusion that it was this Great Love. But the fact is, all relationships start out with this level of intense early bliss. They don’t typically end right at the crescendo like that.

Sadly, the very best relationships end like Sebastian’s. One partner fades away and the other is left with an overflowing heart of memories, sorrows, and joy. Haunted. It’s his story that I always remember this time of year. The truest, saddest, most beautiful ghost story I’ve ever heard. And it’s his insight that gets me through the gloomy patches of my own. Life is process.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

“And You May Find Yourself Living in a Shotgun Shack”

October 13, 2001

I can’t believe our wedding was almost eight years ago. I’d love to regale you with all the hilarious mishaps, but the thing is . . . there weren’t any. It was deliciously perfect, complete with autumn leaves gently fluttering about as we walked down the aisle to This Mortal Coil’s “Song to the Siren.” We said our own vows under an archway of branches and sunflowers by a river in New Hope, Pennsylvania. My sister made our rings; my other sister gave the funniest, most moving, Oscar-clip worthy toast ever; and my uncle’s jazz quartet played on. Everyone important in our lives was there, from Mr. Black’s old grunge bandmates to his 90-year-old grandmother to our parents, cousins, and all the various best friends from each stage of my crazy singlehood. “Happiest day of my life” doesn’t even begin to describe it.

And then. Marriage.

In the beginning it was all beach trips and restaurants and joining the throng of bespectacled couples like ourselves at Scarecrow Video on Friday nights. Then one day, you wake up and this is outside your living room window, right where the driveway used to be:


No, I’m not speaking metaphorically. This actually happened. An 8-foot-deep, oil-contaminated, festering pit took up residence on our property. And, okay, it didn’t exactly happen overnight. But it happened pretty quickly, and at the worst possible time.

Our marriage had already taken a bit of a bruising from a little miscarriage situation, one after the other during that first year-and-a-half. But just when we least expected it, I got pregnant and the darn thing decided to stick around this time. We were cautiously ecstatic.

When my company closed its Seattle office and I lost my job, it felt like a blessing in disguise. I’d been waffling over whether to return to full-time work after I had the baby; now the decision had been made for me. We had some money saved up to support a single-income lifestyle for a while. And I’d have two months all to myself until the baby would be born. Everything was comin’ up Millhouse.

Sort of. Even with no job, there was a lot of work to be done . . . particularly on the “property management” front. We were having an incredibly rainy winter (even for Seattle), and our basement was flooding almost daily. Then, just when I’d lined up a contractor to install drains and a sump pump, our ancient furnace started going out on a daily basis. I kept calling the oil company to fix it. Finally, we discovered that rainwater was getting into the underground oil tank and putting the furnace out. And if water was leaking in . . . well, then, oil must be leaking out.

What happened next was a series of phone calls, questions, arguments, and procedures – the details of which I’ve mostly blocked from memory. I remember the removal of a frightfully decrepit oil tank along with a few tons of contaminated soil. And I remember struggling to make sense of all the information coming in, scribbling it over and over again in my notebook, trying to put it into some kind of order. As an amateur property manager, I was in way over my head. But I must have been faking it pretty well, because Mr. Black was always asking me questions and getting irritated with the answers (as if I knew what I was talking about in the first place).

What it all boiled down to was this: The contamination was extensive and predated our ownership of the house by many years. The company that removed our tank wanted to just keep digging and digging until the soil tested clean, but we’d blown through a significant portion of our savings to pay for the few tons they’d removed already.

Eventually, we would hire a geologist and an environmental lawyer and find a more efficient way to get it cleaned up. But during those first confusing weeks, with our savings dwindling and my due date approaching, neither of us was in a clear enough frame of mind to arrive at a good solution. Mr. Black wanted the previous owner to pay for the cleanup. I wanted to hide under a pile of coats à la Homer Simpson. Out of our league, frustrated, and scared, we fought like a sack of cats.

I’d like to say that the arrival of our son made everything all better, but anyone who’s lived with a newborn baby for even a few hours will recognize that for the damn lie it is! Oh, don’t get me wrong – we were amazed and joyful and madly in love with the little guy and all that good stuff. But there wasn’t a whole lot of sleep going on, either. We were in those clueless days of early parenthood when it takes both parents and a Dr. Sears manual just to change one diaper. And the crying. Oh, the crying.

Meanwhile the pit lived on, baffling all the friends and well-wishers who stopped by to see the baby. One afternoon I was standing at the window with my friend Ana, explaining the whole absurd situation for the umpteenth time, when we saw a large orange hamster slip through the chain link fence that surrounded the pit. It waddled closer and closer to the edge, sniffing.

Ana ran outside to divert the little bugger, but it was too late. We braced ourselves for the worst and peered into the bottom. No sign of the hamster. Before there was even time to look at each other helplessly, we heard children’s voices calling down the street.

“Daisy Mae! Daisy Mae!”

Gulp. I held my three-week-old baby close, hoping it would buy me some sympathy. As my neighbor and her two grandchildren approached, I blurted out my confession.

“I’m so sorry. Your hamster fell into our hole. Oh I feel just terrible. Please let me buy you another one. I’m so sorry.”

The grandmother, who’d been carrying Daisy Mae in her purse when she’d made a break for it, seemed suspiciously not disappointed by this turn of events. She just smiled and insisted it was okay, wouldn’t hear of me replacing the hamster. Meanwhile, her grandchildren pressed their faces up against our chain link fence, looking for their lost pet.

“Look! There she is!” one of them exclaimed. And there, swimming furiously through the pool of oily rainwater at the bottom of the pit, was Daisy Mae. We watched in amazement as she made it to the water’s edge, where she dug herself a little hole and huddled inside. What now?

Ana tried lowering various items into the pit for the hamster to crawl into – an old hanging basket, a bucket on the end of a pole. No deal. More and more neighbors kept coming over and trying different hare-brained schemes, but Daisy Mae wouldn’t budge. Ana called the fire department and the Humane Society, but rescuing a hamster was apparently pretty low on their priority lists. A few neighborhood cats hovered like vultures around the edge of the pit while Daisy Mae huddled tighter into her hole.

Finally, I called the company that dug the pit in the first place. I explained the situation and waited for the guy to tell me to take a hike. Instead, I heard him yell to a co-worker “Hey Bill, we got another pet rescue!”

Within a few minutes, Bill arrived at our place with a ladder, rubber overalls, and hazmat gloves. By now quite a crowd was gathered around our pit. The children had climbed our neighbor’s tree to get a better view. Bill climbed down into the pit, scooped up Daisy Mae and put her in a bucket, and returned to the crowd’s triumphant cheers. He handed the oily little rodent to the grateful children and their less-than-thrilled grandmother. Right about then, Mr. Black arrived home from work with a giant question mark over his head.

Yes, we were a long way from that perfect October afternoon by the river. It would be months before the pit would be filled back in; years before our soil would be clean and even longer before we’d reach a settlement agreement with the previous owner. Meanwhile, there were money problems, more miscarriages, and the uniquely terrifying challenges of parenthood.

With all we’ve been through, it’s hard to believe it’s only been eight years. Even though we were in our early thirties when we got married, it’s sort of like we’ve grown up together. We’re not done with life’s challenges, not by a long shot. But together, we learned how to do this “grown up” stuff at all.

We’ve come out on the other side still very much in love, but a little scrambled. Maybe a little wounded. Maybe a little more benignly detached than we want to be. But there’s such a strong, simple, understated fondness here. We simply belong to each other. We’ve seen each other bleed, cry, and suffer humiliating defeat; we’ve given each other our imperfect best; and we belong to each other. In other words, we’re family.


Sigh . . . look at those crazy lovebirds. Happy anniversary, honey.
Related Posts with Thumbnails