Beautifying the land

flowersWe move to a barren plot of earth where the grass is brown and sun-scorched.  Ancient trees with white and green lichens growing on the bark and dead limbs poised to break free and crash to the ground line the borders.  There are no flowers or bushes aside from a gathering of white and yellow wildflowers at the edge of the tree line.  Tough weeds that like shallow soil and dry conditions are the only thing that grow in abundance.  A thick layer of limestone is just under the soil, daring us to bring life to the impossible area.

The earth says no and my shovel agrees at the initial dig when I hit rock here, there and everywhere. Yet, we do not listen.  Instead, we get a pick-axe and bring in compost and top soil, plants and grasses. Busting through the rock and clay as beads of sweat drip from our foreheads and run down our necks, we refuse to accept the current state of our land.

Meanwhile, the baby creeps out from under his umbrella, off of his blanket and onto the crunchy grass after an orange butterfly.  

“Ahem,” the baby’s father clears his throat, stopping the baby in mid-crawl with the invisible power of a hypnotist.  

Orange wings flutter off towards the trees and the temporary spell is broken.  The baby resumes his escape attempt and is scooped up by his ever-observant daddy and only to be returned to the blanket.  His face is covered in dirt, turned to mud from the fountain of drool that drips from his mouth.  He smiles and laughs with his hands up in the air, conducting a silent orchestra with his chubby fingers.

He is a beautiful mess.

It is all for this muddy buddy that we accept the dare to bring life where there has only been rock and weeds.  It is for him that we see beyond the harsh present to create a lush future.  It is for him that we sweat and toil.  

We beautify the land for him and for those who follow, it is no longer about us. 

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Everyone snacks

deer

Just ahead of us, a sudden movement through the trees and bramble catches our attention.

We are not in the deep woods and the baby is strapped to my chest, so I am hopeful that we are not about to have an encounter with a bear.  Running with an almost twenty-pound baby would not be impossible, but it certainly would not be enjoyable for long.

I mentally sort through my self-defense options.  I quickly rule out the snout punch, karate chop, flying kick and sadly settle on leaving my husband behind as bait while we make our clumsy getaway.  Unfortunately, sacrifices must be made at times like these and he is about to be a snack.

Still peering through the shadows, my heart skips a beat.  It’s a big-eyed doe staring back at us with a newly born fawn, standing on spindly legs, nursing underneath of her.  I breathe a sigh of relief, we are all safe and the baby will continue to have a daddy.  

However, I am in disbelief that we have wandered onto such an intimate moment and feel very NatGeo.  More than that, I feel greedy and wish I had a camera to snap the image and save it forever, not that a picture could capture the heart connection that I feel with the doe or the beauty of the pair, and instead I settle on committing the experience to my unreliable memory.       

In another instant, the sweet mama is gone with her babe in tow.  I squeeze my little guy, wanting to share the moment with him, only to discover that he is fast asleep, dreaming his milk dreams.  

Animal Signs

armadillo“Watch out for that…” I trailed off and leaned forward, unsure of the nature of the mangled creature in the road with a long, scaly tail and a crunched, banded shell.

As a co-pilot, it was my duty to give helpful guidance like this.  Of course, my husband had different ideas about how I could be useful, like looking up directions on Mapquest instead of identifying the remains of roadkill.  

“There is no way that is an armadillo,” I exclaimed out loud to a sleeping baby and an uninterested driver.  He was focused on the road signs as he searched for the next turn on our housing search. 

“I think its right around here,” he muttered quietly.  He had an uncanny sense of direction, aided by an almost flawless memory, which left me free to focus on other more pressing matters.  

Meanwhile, I didn’t want to believe my eyes, but the mound in the middle of the road most certainly was a nine banded armadillo or “little armored one” as confirmed by a quick google search.  Armadillos are not only in the Tennessee area; they are continuing to push north as a result of the changing climate.  Watch out, Indiana, these little weirdos are coming for you.  

“Still no directions?” my husband asked, noticing that I was scrolling through my phone from the corner of his eye. 

“No, I’m afraid not.  I am reading about the new migration pattern of armadillos.  And by the way, they carry leprosy.  Fortunately, they don’t bite so the risk of transmission is low, but we might as well keep driving.  The dead armadillo is obviously a bad sign.”

He shook his head and drove on, exasperated from the lack of participation in the housing search, while also in acceptance that this was not the neighborhood for us.  Why ignore signs from the Universe?  We bought our last house based on the blooms of a beautiful magnolia tree, we knew we were going to have a son because of the whiff of pipe smoke, and we were definitely not going to live in a house on a street with the carcass of an armadillo in the middle of it.

A Satisfying Crunch

red waspHeavy boots clomp up the metal stairs.  The maintenance man is already irritated by the heat and the general nature of his job.  He would much rather be sitting by his pond with a fishing line in the water and a beer in his hand.  And yet, here he is…  

“You got a light problem?” he asks of the tenant who answers the door.  He wipes several beads of sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand and a salty, sour smell wafts into the apartment.

A slight woman stands in the doorway holding a fussy baby with fat cheeks and a troll like tuft of hair.  The baby is her only accessory, aside from a pair of rimless glasses.  She looks the man up and down; the tool belt and dusty boots are enough to verify his identify as he isn’t offering any other introduction.  She is hopeful that he is actually the maintenance man and not a future star of The Forensic Files show.   

Fortunately, there is a Louisville slugger bat next to the door. 

“Just in case,” her husband said with a grim nod as he leaned the bat against the wall when they unpacked several weeks earlier.  “You know we’re not in Indiana, anymore.”

Truth be told, the bat travelled with them regardless of the state from apartment to house and now back to an apartment, always taking its designated place by the door like an old, faithful guard dog with more bark than bite.  She steps aside to allow the man in and eyes the bat, unsure how she would swing it and hang onto the baby at the same time, but certain she could manage it.

She has a fresh confidence in her ability as a defender.  The day before, she hunted a red wasp that infiltrated the apartment and buzzed past the troll-baby at play.  She went after the intruder and crushed it with the ferocity and matching roar of a lioness protecting her young.

The baby is silent as he watches the visitor with big, bright eyes.  He feels safe in his mother’s arms, blissfully unaware of the danger of a stranger.  He snuggles in close under her chin, content to be held.

The man flicks the light switch with a grease-stained finger, only four out of the five bulbs come to life.  He leaves and returns with a ladder and a new light bulb.  The ladder groans with each step under his weight while the woman watches with the baby from the ground.  Neither one is very good at small talk with the man considering where to pick up another six pack of beer and the woman planning her attack if things got weird.

“So, what about the red wasps around here?  They’re everywhere and so aggressive,” the woman says.

He gives her a wicked grin from the top of the ladder, “Welcome to the South, honey.  Nothing you can do about the bugs down here other than get used to them.”

Ha, she almost laughs out loud.  A literal LOL.  And that’s where you’re wrong, she thinks, remembering the thrill of the hunt and the satisfying crunch from the day before.  She walks the man out with his burned-out light bulb and ladder in hand, locks the door behind him and feels a sense of relief.  She is a fierce mother who knows there is always something that can be done about a pest.

When Quitting Is Easy

quit

I was instilled with a midwestern work ethic almost from birth.  I washed dishes while standing on a stool, too short to reach the sink on my own, and folded laundry from a pile that nearly as big as me.  My first job was at 14, selling ice-cream cones and hot dogs from a beachside concession stand.  It was there that I was approached one day by a sweaty man with barbed wire tattoo around his flabby arm. He offered to “show me the world” and was quickly declined because I had other things on my mind starting with my next big job at a real ice-cream parlor.

My dedication to work continued through high school, college and beyond.  I was like a monkey swinging through the trees, always reaching for the next job before letting go of the last one.  Each one getting better with every swing forward, more money, time off and less of a commute.  Work gave structure to my life and a reason to get up each morning.  I was never without a paying job, sometimes two, since that first summer on the  beach.

Then everything changed a few short weeks ago with the birth of my son; he became my reason to get up in the morning and not just because of his screaming cries for milk.  I wanted to make him my top priority.  I wanted to be the one to change his diapers, to see his silly smiles in the morning, to revel in his presence and let him know how wanted and loved he is by his parents.

So when considering returning to work and dealing with crippling anxiety at the thought of my little boy in the cold hands of a stranger, I had to come up with a way to stay home with him.  I put my faith in the universe, quit my job and prepared to enter into an unknown realm of unemployment, days filled with infant care, and serious budgeting.   

He is now my full time, 24/7 job.  This new, non-income generating employment has actually cost me countless hours of sleep, an ugly scar from his c-section, and my entire heart in order to care for this being who neither walks nor talks.  He coos and giggles and flails his arms and our bond deepens every day we get to spend together.   I won’t be able to stay home forever, but right now, this day, this moment is all that matters.

Lamaze class

bb's

There were eight couples, paired off and uncomfortably sitting in hard-backed chairs against the wall with pillows and blankets at their sides.  A pile of brightly, colored exercise balls were gathered together in the center of the room, and a slender woman in dark, ankle boots leaned against a table at the front, presumably the Lamaze instructor. 

It was a good guess, as she was the only woman in the room who could still see her feet to admire those cool boots.  She casually rested there and I couldn’t stop myself from noting the flatness of her stomach.  It was a slightly concerning obsession that has worsened over the past few months, categorizing every woman’s stomach into flat, fat, pregnant or other.  

On the way to work, I saw a transgendered person and had to stop, not only because of the traffic signal but also the delay in my mental processing, and to think how to classify them into the system. Then the light changed and I sped off, only to remember just now that I never finished that thought.  

The woman in the boots was indeed the instructor and she shared that she had several children, naturally no less, in addition to a plethora of other important information about contractions, relaxation and dilation.  There was hope to return to normal, I mused in an unfocused type of way.  My belly can be flat again, someday, and maybe an active listener, too.

Throughout class, much like pregnancy so far, I had a number of assumptions turned upside down. Exercise balls in this new reality are called “birthing balls” and the he-he, hoo-hoo breathing is to prevent pushing too early rather than as a pain management strategy.  Apparently, pain management is left up to having a strong mental reserve and the promise of an epidural should the situation become too unbearable. 

There is still so much to do and learn that life feels overwhelming, and at the same time, I am grateful to have a little over three months left to prepare a nursery and practice my breathing exercises, to further perfect my classification system and to generally enjoy this downtime of idle musing before the world flips, yet again.

Incorrigible

father

The man’s voice is deep and crashes around the room like a rogue wrecking ball.  He is missing most of his teeth which makes conversation difficult, and asking him to repeat his words only results in yelling the same barely decipherable utterances again.  

A bald man with glasses pops his head into the open doorway and asks, “Everything ok in here?”

The man is pacing, he has a large presence and moves with a force that doesn’t stop easily or make detours.  He is a straight through the mountain, never mind the winding road that wraps around it, kind of guy. He stops moving and looks down at the man.

“Shoore ith, thank you ferry mush.”  

The man’s daughter is sitting on a chair, a softer and smaller version of the man.  She holds her purse on her lap and waves the little man away.  She knows how her father must sound from the hallway.

“Everything’s fine, it’s just my daddy acting up.”

The unwanted visitor nods at the seated woman, “You just call if you need anything.”

Something deflates in the visitor’s chest as he walks away, he is disappointed and dissatisfied.  He wants to be helpful and save a damsel in distress, but is once again thwarted by the damsel.  He wonders why no one wants to be saved, particularly by him, for the rest of the day.  

Back in the room, the man is gathering his personal things and dropping them into a plain canvas bag that cinches tight with a draw string.  Once he finishes with that task, he opens a cabinet door and peers inside at an assortment of supplies.

“Daddy, what are you doing?” his daughter asks.

Instead of answering, he goes onto the next cabinet.  He peers inside and is again displeased.  He opens a third cabinet and grunts with delight.  It is filled with an endless supply of Boost drinks in chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry flavors.

“Baby, gimme a bag.”  

“Daddy, what are you doing?”

“What? Do you want these?” He generously offers his daughter the cans of chocolate Boost held in both hands.

“No, those are not…

“Don’t tell me what I can and can’t do,” he says with amazing clarity, reading his daughter’s mind.

He rummages around in the first cabinet, finding a clear bag with a company logo printed across the front of it.  One by one, he unloads the cabinet of its burden and transfers the cans into his bag.   

“Why else would they be here?” he asks with a shrug.  

The woman shakes her head and laughs with a sigh, there is no point in arguing.   

“Right, Daddy.”  

As Above, So Below

as above

The screen door slowly opened with a squeak.  The hinges were reddish-brown with rust and curls of white paint peeled away from the wooden door.  A pink noise poked out and sniffed at the air; the nose was followed by the black and white body of a small dog.  The animal slipped the rest of the way out of the house and the door slammed behind it with a bang.

Scents of all kinds bombarded the tiny but powerful nostrils of the dog.  It looked left and then right, orienting to its new surroundings.  A squirrel watched from the branch of an oak tree in the front yard, holding a nut in its claws and waited to see what the domesticated creature would do next.

The dog took off in a beeline towards the edge of the yard, running with muscular strides, quickly drawing away from the house.

“Beanie!” a boy yelled as he pushed through the screen door.  He wore jean shorts and striped tank top; dark hair fell over his forehead and hit the top of his ears, in a perfect bowl cut.

He yelled over his shoulder, “Beanie’s out, again!”

A girl followed the boy through the door, letting the door slam behind her.  Bangs obstructed her view and she pushed heavy locks away from her nearsighted eyes.  She wore a faded pair of jeans, rolled up at the bottoms with a thin t-shirt.

With bare feet, the pair raced after the dog, leaving mashed grass and flowers in their wake.

“Beanie! Beanie! Come back!” they yelled in unison.

Suddenly the dog stopped and looked back, it waited for the kids to catch up.  Its sides heaved in and out and its tongue fell from its mouth as it rested for a second and then it took off again like a shot.

Chase me, shiny eyes begged as it risked a quick glance back at its pursuers.

The siblings laughed and resumed the chase after the dog.

An engine revved over the hill and a car appeared trailing a cloud of dust from the gravel road as it sped towards them. Screaming, the girl grabbed the boy with both arms, pulling him back from the road as the car flew past them.

The car intersected with the escaping dog.  They watched its body hit the front of the car and shoot off to the side of the road.  The girl’s heart pounded in her chest, she was still screaming.  The car sped on, never once hitting its brakes as the dog lay still on its side. Its life whiffed out in the same moment as the fleeting innocence of childhood.

Once gone, always gone.

 

Cancerous Growths

north korea

“Sure, I remember what you told me,” the old man said. 

His name was Tom.  He wore khaki pleated pants and a collared shirt; his clothes were clean and ironed but hung from his body.  They were meant for a bigger man, a man with more meat on his bones and vitality in his heart.   

He dismissed the woman, who also happened to be his wife and caregiver, with a weak wave.  Clearing an area in front of him, he rested his elbows on the cluttered table and held his head between both hands.  Blue veins ran across the back of his hands and down his arms.  Band-aides covered skin tears and puncture wounds, still fresh from the most recent treatment.  

Wanda crept forward silently in her orthopedic shoes and stockinged feet, bringing a grandmotherly smell cloud of light perfume and hairspray and powder.  She placed her hand on his forehead and her rings spun around, getting looser on her fingers as she also started to shrink with age and disease.  Her hand expertly registered two temperatures, fever and not-fever.  His skin felt cool and clammy, somewhere between fever and not-fever. 

“Get off,” he barked, lashing out as any sick animal will do in self-defense and looked up at her.  If he had fangs, he would have bared them at that moment and then scampered off to hide in the forest. Instead he had to settle for snarl of old, dull teeth, brown with coffee stains.  

She yanked her hand back with a “Harumph!” as though bitten by his sharp tone.  

“Do you remember what you told me?” Tom asked. 

Wanda nodded, “Of course.” 

No self-respecting wife would admit to forgetting a directive given to a husband. 

“You told me to cheer up because things could always get worse,” he allowed for a dramatic pause. 

Wanda waited, she was anxious and hopeful that something nice would come out of her husband’s mouth.  Perhaps something about how he appreciated her dedication and excellent nursing skills, and tolerance of his grouchiness and bad attitude. 

“So, I cheered up and sure enough, things got worse.”

Wanda gasped, that was the lifelong advice that she gave to friends and family, strangers and neighbors.  She said it out of habit; it was a reflex in her desire to help, to say something when silence prevailed and there wasn’t anything to say.  Now here it was, regurgitated and bastardized.  The cancer was killing more than her husband, it threatened to destroy the life they built together. 

Unless she could come up with another helpful saying to boost his spirits and refocus his energy.   

She gave a brave smile and wiped a tear from her eye, “No, things could still get worse.  We could be at war with North Korea.”

Movie Night in a pre-Netflix world

An empty wooden bowl stained a dark brown collects dust on the shelf amidst other useless trinkets and knick-knacks in the name of décor. I looked at the bowl without really seeing it for years when suddenly the bowl is overflowing with the colors and smells of a twenty year old memory.

The room is dark and warm with the summer air. The windows are open and dingy lace curtains gently billow with the night breeze.  It smells like fresh cut grass and gasoline and pollen and earthworms.  Three feet of rabbit ear antenna are connected to an old tv that flickers in hues of green and pink.

It is Movie Night in a pre-Netflix world. There is a stack of VHS boxes from which to choose the evening’s entertainment.  First up, Cujo.  Perhaps, not the best choice for two kids who are scared of the dark, loud noises, cauliflower and clowns.  Nonetheless, the tape gets pushed into the mouth of the VCR and starts rolling to a limited but captive audience.

We pass the same smooth wooden bowl filled with popcorn back and forth, each taking a handful. I let a piece dissolve and shrink on my tongue before taking on another for the disintegration process.  It’s a complicated and slow way to eat popcorn, for sure.

Baby Bird stops passing the bowl and instead holds it between his hands, entranced by the scene on the flickering screen. As a massive black dog lunges almost out of the set, Baby Bird screams.  He tips the bowl over his head and eyes, and like an ostrich with his head in the sand, he feels safe.  Popcorn rains down onto his shoulders and gathers around his little body, like the falling of dogwood flowers around their tree in Spring.  It is a beautiful mess.

The bowl is back on the shelf, a retired relic of the past. However, the memory is wily, not to be sterilized or neatly labeled and categorized.  Instead it disappears into the shadows of the mind with days of red popsicles, puppies, summer breaks, and Baby Bird who is thousands of miles away from his refuge under the bowl.

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