Thursday, August 30, 2007


Four years ago this summer, in 2003, I started to think I might be an adult. I was 36.

Sure, I had been married for a few years, I'd been teaching at the college level for more than a decade, I'd been a homeowner several times over, and I had two kids. But up until that summer, a big part of my self-definition had always been as "daughter." However, after my dad died the previous winter, and my mom started spending more and more time in California, deepening her relationship with The Other Man, I underwent a clear separation from the influence of my parents--a separation that many people go through during adolescence. For me, my parents had always been such good friends to me that I never saw them, metaphorically, from a distance; I was their baby, even into my thirties, basking in their attention and love.

But then my dad died, and my mom started transforming herself into someone entirely new (Exhibit A: the morning after she surprised my dad by having divorce papers served on him, she got a nose job; I remind you she was 67).

I felt as though somebody had put Baby in the corner.

Fortunately, my corner was bustling with matrimonial pleasure and the swirl of small children and the enlivening presence of friends and entertaining, so the diminishment of my "daughter" role felt okay. Things had changed. Things do that.

Thus, although I felt orphaned from my previous relationships with my parents, many good things emerged that summer:

--First, I had a really big, healthy baby who gave his sister an outlet for her desire to squeeze and wuv. At age 3, she already had two avocations: babies and clothes. She was already, and I strangle as I write this, a mini-Nicole Ritchie...although I daresay Nicole Ritchie is a actually a mini-Nicole Ritchie, and my three-year-old already outweighed the real Nicole Ritchie, so maybe she was a Big Nicole Ritchie. At any rate, our Girl surely doted on her brudder and her ponchos and her embroidered jeans.

--Secondly, with complete mercenary intent (read: I didn't really care what I learned), I was taking a couple more graduate courses, one online and one through correspondence. I did this to earn enough credits to move over on the payscale at work; we would be needing more money, what with having to feed our lug of a baby and keep his handler in ponchos. My strongest memory of these courses pertains to the online advanced grammar course I was taking; every time I had to take a timed quiz, which only lasted ten minutes, I would get to the second question, only to hear Wee Niblet start his predictable yowl. For about three minutes, I'd sweat it out and let him yowl, as I muttered, "Okay, so I'm thinking about generative and transformational grammars here, not about how my breasts are leaking milk onto the keyboard. Screw the baby. Ace the quiz." Then I'd give it up, and as the clock continued to tick down the minutes, I'd race upstairs, grab him off the bed, and then nurse him at the computer while I frantically finished the quiz. The pudgy little bastard.

--Thirdly, even though our house measured in at under 1,000 square feet, our willingness to entertain and our sense of hospitality were equivalent to Oprah's Santa Barbara mansion in size--we had fourteen bathrooms and eight our hearts. That June, during Duluth's yearly major event of Grandma's Marathon, we delighted in hosting out-of-town guests and filling the house with no fewer than 63 other random stoppers-by, many of whom were not the slightest bit interested in cheering on sweaty runners but, rather, who had heard the Legend of Jocelyn's Chocolate Dump-It Cake (frosting: melted chocolate chips stirred into sour cream, spread on top of the cake at least 1/2" thick). For Groom and me, happiness is a front porch piled high with piles of shoes and stacks of jackets, discarded there by visiting friends.

--Fourth, our backyard garden patch offered up a cornucopia of raspberries, and, as it turns out, picking raspberries is one of my avocations (that and ponchos). The canes had been untended until we moved in, and once Groom cleaned them up, their daily yield in August had me picking both morning and night. Naturally, a fridge full of raspberries demands that a cream cheese pie be made--and that friends be invited over to share in it, so long as they insisted on having "only a slice" and leaving the lion's share for us'ns.

Yes, it was a charmed summer, save for one thing.

The reality of my mother's new boyfriend also emerged.

It wasn't gracious or or fashionable or hospitable or raspberry-tinged at all.

When Mom and Beau decided to visit Minnesota to attend a high school reunion together, I realized this was my chance to affirm that I was still behind her, despite all the rips and tears in our relationship that had taken place with the divorce and my dad's subsequent death. I definitely wanted my mom and her "friend" to come to our home, where we could play out The Family Acknowledgement part of this new relationship.

Before their visit, I asked my mom what kinds of things Beau liked to eat and if he had any food issues we should know about and plan the menu around. The response was, "Beau says you should make a roast and potatoes. And he likes bread."

Um, okay. It appeared we were to put the recipe books away and just follow orders.

The evening of the meeting came, and, as the roast slow-cooked in the crock pot, we welcomed Beau into our home. He was chatty, which my mom liked in contrast to my dad. He was jokey though not funny, again a departure from my dad. He said, clearly and loudly, positive things about my mom, which my dad had rarely done.

And within five minutes, he had worked the words "Spics" and "Poofs" into casual conversation.

Indeed, he could not have been more unlike my tolerant father.

When the bigotry and homophobia emerged so easily, I was speechless. Then I experienced an all-over body flush, and not in a good way. Simultaneously, my brain started to spin around frantically, knocking against my skull:

"I can't just stand here and let him say those things in my house. I can't. It violates every value I hold dear. And he's saying those things in front of my kids, especially my impressionable three-year-old! This is unacceptable, and to remain silent would compromise who I am."

However, I did remain silent. In the midst of the tangled web of that previous year, with everyone in my family barely hanging on to anyone else, with so many misunderstandings and hurt feelings, this evening of deliberate acknowledgement of my mom's hard-wrought choices was huge. I couldn't see how to walk the line between my values and keeping my mother.

Hoping to compromise, I played around, internally, with ways to phrase my dismay to this stranger that my mother was thinking of marrying. How could I express my astonishment and upset in a way that wouldn't shut down our future as a family? (albeit one that would stand around awkwardly together at any rendezvous)

As I mulled over the options, Groom and I exchanged panic-stricken glances and then found ourselves, against our wills, distracted and entranced by the spectacle unfolding at the dinner table. See, not only was Beau racist, he was a bit of a pig. As he chomped on his roast and potatoes, he discovered he also liked the mandatory bread a great deal, to the point that he needed to eat seven pieces of it in quick order. Rather than asking that the board of bread be passed down to him from the far end of the table, though, he simply stood from his chair each time he wanted more, meat knife in hand, reached down the three feet of the table, across everyone else's plates, and speared himself a new piece. Seven times.

As it turns out, there comes a moment when awestruck silence is the best approach. We floundered through the rest of the evening, me with a hard nugget of sadness in my belly. In the past, I had been bewildered by my mother sometimes, but this was a new feeling.

This was disappointment.

I later asked her what she was doing with someone like that--pointing out that such language had never been used or accepted in the house I grew up in, that I had never seen bigotry tolerated from her before. My mother's response was that she just shut her ears when he started in; she didn't want conflict, so she said nothing.

This, in my view of the world, is nearly criminal. Yet I, too, had sidestepped conflict with Beau that night at our house. I had let it slide, in the hopes of some larger reparations.

Pretty quickly, though, I made up my mind that I wouldn't participate in the tacit support of his damaging views in the future. It just hurt too much.

Strangely, that whole episode--of being shocked by the new man my mom had chosen--ended up helping me understand her better. For her to abandon the values she'd lived by her whole life, just to have a boyfriend (her rationale for being with him, when I asked, was "He's a good kisser." I was very glad she was only acting sixteen and didn't actually have the eggs of a sixteen-year-old, or she'd have been pregnant within a month), well, it smacked of desperation.

Somehow, really getting how desperate my mom had been all those years, for affection from any male, well it softened my judgement into understanding. To sacrifice one's beliefs for a kiss--now that's tragic. That's lonely.

I did tell my mom how I felt and what I saw. Beyond that, it wasn't much my business. She was 68, had a new nose and a new boyfriend...and they were going to get married. In Reno. At a class reunion.

Shortly before the wedding, though, my mom called it off. She had realized that Beau not only kissed; he ranted. After extended harangues--she didn't order right at a restaurant one time, and she didn't put a stamp correctly on an envelope another time--Mom realized her stomach hurt a lot in this new relationship. Eventually, she realized he was borrowing a lot of money, not so much requesting it but rather telling her how much he needed. She also noted that he kept a lot of side relationships with other women brewing. So she called off the wedding.

Instead, she just shacked up with him in California. Rants continued. Money "lending" continued.

After more than a year, she moved out and got her own small apartment, Praise the Gay Dios! But they continued to date until just recently.

A couple of months ago, after they'd attended a bagpipe concert, Beau had a heart attack outside of his house, fell, and hit his head (something that's been known to happen after bagpipe concerts); as my mom dialed 911, he bled from the ears, and his lips turned blue. He died.

A few weeks later, another guy my mom went to high school with called. They've been dating now for a bit. The report is that he doesn't rant.

I haven't asked what kind of kisser he is.

Thus, four years ago this summer, the biggest thing to emerge was a need to be willing to renegotiate my relationship with one of the dominant people in my life. Continually doing that can be exhausting. But, heck, she attended every one of my piano concerts and cried in the audience when my Home Ec class had its fashion show. She could date David Hasselhoff and I, gulp, would still be there.

Mostly through email, though. A little distance never hurt anybody, especially when The Hoff is involved.


Wow. After all this typing, I'm a little peckish.

Pass the bread, woncha?

Saturday, August 25, 2007

"Family: Edited"

I went to a baby shower last weekend. Although it got a little woo-woo during the programmed portion of the event (a candle was lit in the center of the circle; we all held onto a long hank of yarn, one that apparently connected all our pulsing womanhoods into one larger life force; there were beads; there was sharing), I managed to stifle my desire to make a break for the door. This was a good thing, as conversation, once the compulsory estrogen communion was over, returned to an unorchestrated flow, during which Knocked-Up Friend noted that, because her IVF baby had been created quite deliberately, with the help of a village of medical types, and because the pregnancy was iffy, what with her being a fairly aged crone of 40, she hadn't shared news of her pregnancy right away...but when she did go public, she expected the world to gather around her in a seizure of delight, making continued hoopla at her feet for the remainder of her nine months of maternal glow.

What a shock it was to her, then, to finally publicly join the ranks of the preggers in a prenatal yoga class. She entered the room, secure in the knowledge that she was the cutest pregnant woman in Duluth, only to realize that there were 10 other equally cute pregnant women there, all contorted into lotus position. The following week, when she went to her first birthing class at the hospital, her illusions were further snapped when she stepped into a room full of another 15 really cute pregnant women, all of whom inhabit Duluth. It appeared that the title of Cutest Pregnant Woman, with all its accompanying bling, glory and ballyhoo, would have to be shared with every other damn big-bellied woman in the Twin Ports region. She would not, to her dismay, be the sole Gestational Goddess in town.

The same lesson was pounded home to me five years ago, in the summer of 2002, when I was pregnant with the Wee Niblet. His being my second pregnancy, and with a very charming 2-year-old scene stealer already living in the house, I wasn't actually under the delusion that I was the center of anyone's universe, but, still, I was imbued with that special pregnancy feeling that I carried in my womb a profound and secret joy.

Then one day, as we awaited the arrival of my mom and her sister who were driving to Northern Minnesota all the way from Rectangular States to the West, the mail arrived.

And in the mail was a personal letter. How lovely to get a personal missive in the age of postal-service-whore-as-pimped-by-direct-mail!

Strangely, the letter was from my mom, who'd been on her way to us for days. She must have posted it just before she hit the road.

Assuming it would contain her usual "I saw this little snippet in the 'Humor in Uniform' section of READER'S DIGEST and thought it would make you chuckle" contents, I carelessly ripped open the envelope.

The first sentence read "The topic of this letter may surprise, even shock, you." By the second sentence, the alveoli in my lungs filled with sludge, and breathing became difficult.

There I was, 35 years old, up the duff, about to become a child of divorce.

Naturally, my grades in school would slip due to all the hookey I would be playing as a result of my need to act out, a consequence of my feeling that my parents' break-up was all my fault, which would mean I'd probably be hung over the day I took my SATs, and I'd never gain admission into a spendy private liberal arts college!

Or, more accurately, what with my advanced age, maybe I'd start refusing to clip coupons, pay taxes, and shovel the snow off my sidewalk after big storms. That'd drive home to dear old Ma and Pa the depth of the damage they'd inflicted!

My immediate reaction to this announcement that my mother had filed for divorce from me dear da--and informed me through mail in the age of telephone!--was, "What if this letter hadn't arrived today? Mom will be here in an hour. Would she have gotten out of the car, sized up my body language, and then just fished around ('So, how's GrandGirl? Your pregnancy going well? Get any interesting mail lately? Great weather here by the lake!') until it became clear that I didn't yet know? And then, tomorrow, when the mail is delivered, would she excuse herself to the bathroom until the rustling sound of papers stopped, and the sound of bereft wailing began? Then she'd know I had read her note, and she could emerge from the bathroom, asking again, 'Get any interesting mail lately?'"

But I got the letter that day, just before her arrival. I started sobbing immediately. An hour later, when she and my aunt pulled up in front of the house, I marched outside, grabbed her in a big hug and said, "I can't pretend any niceties here. I just got your letter. And I'm so sad."

"I am too," she responded, falling into my arms. The rest of that night saw us on the couch, talking through this earth-shattering move she'd made.

To summarize my mother's feelings: my father was not an expressive or demonstrative man; for forty years, she had felt unloved; she had tried to communicate her distress to him, but nothing ever changed; she had decided she'd be better off living alone than living with someone yet feeling so lonely.

I got all that. What made for a delightful and consistent father did not necessarily add up to marital bliss. I got it.

During our couch therapy that night, I told Mom that no one could find her happiness but her, and no one could go after it but her. So she should do what she needed to do. I also told her I was sorry for the pain she'd gone through all those years and in coming to the Ground Zero that signaled her readiness to make things change.

We pretty much ended up having a nice visit.

And yet.

I felt broken for my father, a quiet, gentle Finn defined by his reserve and thoughtfulness. I felt broken for his lack of representation during The Airing of the Grievances. I felt broken because his health was dismal, and he was 67, and he now faced his Golden Years alone. Personally, I felt broken because I'd just discovered, waaaaaaaay after the fact, that the story of my growing up years was a myth--I hadn't actually grown up in a reasonably-happy, well-adjusted household but rather in a house of ache and missed connections and settling. Good thing I had been too busy watching re-runs of THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES to notice any genuine human pain loitering there in the kitchen.

And on some level, I was broken that the child growing inside of me would never bask in the heady collective adoration of Gampy and Gammy. He would never sit between them on a porch swing, or on a couch, encircled by their palpable affection. There would be no circles of love at all, just straight lines between individuals.

After my mother's visit, things got very sticky very fast. Mom and Dad continued to live in their house for another couple of months, until Mom moved into a little apartment and Dad into an independent-living home for seniors. We visited them during those last weeks together in their house, popping in on our way back to Minnesota from a wedding in Colorado. We brought with us a friend who was about to move to the Pacific Northwest, a friend who needed to outfit his new kitchen. And I'm here to tell you that, if you ever need to outfit your kitchen, stopping by the home of divorcing people is a pretty good strategy. They each are sure they need only one plate, fork, and glass. The rest? Friend can box up and take to his new life of friends and romance.

Staying in that house was tense. Awful. I didn't know who felt how, who had been a part of which discussion, who needed help, or who didn't want me to splinter a brave facade.

Then the news slipped out that my mom had actually been seeing someone else--not a physical affair yet, but an emotional one, made up of letters and phone calls exchanged behind my father's back.

Gentle readers, my parents were church people. They had, under the banner of heaven, judged others for moral failings. They had, in the way of organized religion, pulled self-righteousness around them like an L.L. Bean Barn Jacket (color: Sandstone Pyramid; size: Extra Large).

Don't get me wrong: my parents had always been tolerant, inclusive people, in terms of a worldview. But the soap opera aspect of my 67-year-old mother striking up a relationship with a guy she'd gone to high school with--and without ever telling my dad (that eventually became my job, when he questioned me directly, as did telling my brother and sister; my mother then asked what their reactions had been. Er, not so good)--was the most unexpected. Who knew our sleppy little hamlet of Pine Valley had been rife with divorce and infidelity and anger all those years? Suddenly, that summer, it seemed no one was without sin.

Well, except my dad, unless consistently trying one's hardest is a sin. In the middle of all the ensuing stone throwing--my mom towards my dad (she needed to do that to work up the courage to follow through and to rationalize her right to do what needed no rationalization); my mom towards us kids (creating wounds that will never heal); us kids toward my mom; in some instances, us kids towards each other--the only one who never picked up a rock, the only one who wished fervently that everyone would just back off the hail of pebbles, was my dad.

Even though he couldn't give my mom what she needed, he was the best of men.

Before my little family quit that tense visit in Montana, we spent a morning driving around Billings with my dad, having me added to all bank and legal documents as his new co-signer, since he would no longer have a wife. At the end of our trips around town, we stood in a bank parking lot, trying to find the right way to cap off seing each other in such a bewildering, foreign time. Before that day, I had seen my dad cry once before, at his mother's funeral. In the parking lot, for the second time, I saw, felt him cry, as he came into my arms, and I held him against my thumping belly. He sobbed and sobbed. So did I. So did the onlooking Groom. Girl pointed at birds in the sky. He sobbed on. Finally, all I could whisper in his ear, so conscious of his unflagging reliability, his dependability, his constancy, was, "You deserve better than this."

They each moved into their new, separate homes in early September. My brother, in the military and assigned to a base in Japan, flew home to help with the monumental garage sale and to march them each to a financial advisor. During that time, Mom took her new relationship to a deeper level. Dad, an extreme introvert, ate in a cafeteria, amongst strangers. He made plans to buy us a larger house in Duluth and to take over living in our smaller one, to ease our double mortgage plight.

Then, one night in November, he called 911, complaining that he couldn't breathe. That was the last time he lived in a home, such as it was there in the senior center, his "home" of two months. That was the last time he wasn't being ministered to by unfamiliar, clinical hands, save my sister's. That was the last day his life held anything like predictability.

For the next three months, he was in the hospital, being discharged only briefly to rehabilitation facilities before re-entering the hospital. As his lungs and heart declined, we had some close calls, a scary night of intubation and the doctor on the phone with me at 11 p.m., telling me to call my siblings.

But he recovered enough to still have hope of returning to a life of regularity. During all of this, I was unable to travel due to an impending due date, and my brother was across the world in Japan. Heroically, and I don't use that word easily, my sister single-handedly walked with him to the grave, using up all her vacation days plus some, driving and flying back and forth between Denver and Billings, sometimes twice a week. She may have her foibles, as do we all, but I'm never forgetting how capably she carried him for all of us.

Three months after he first called 911, my dad died. On that morning, at about 5:30 a.m., he was in his first full day at a new rehabilitation center, and he had called in a worker, a stranger, to ask for help turning over. In that action of turning over, his last gasp was forced out.

And that was it.

My sister was in Denver.

My brother and his family (my sister-in-law seven months pregnant herself) were in the middle of the long trip from Japan to Montana, having realized the now-or-never nature of his decline. I reached them by phone during their layover in Detroit and broke the news. I've never been part of a more horrible phone conversation, and I'll never forget my sister-in-law's voice in the background, keening, "What do you mean he's dead? How can he be dead? But we're so close." And over that, I heard the voice of my niece, my dad's first grandchild, then five years old, questioning, "Grandpa Don is dead? Daddy? Daddy? Is Grandpa Don dead? Daddy, is your daddy dead?"

I, having just given birth to Wee Niblet during the worst day of my life on January 17th, was in heavy recovery. And then the date of the worst day of my life changed. It became February 2nd, the day my daddy died.

So this man--who lived out his life a mere 40 miles away from the ranch where he had been raised, who taught at the same college for 35 years, who was a fixture in his recliner--died, alone, amongst people who had to check a chart to call him by name, in a room that had been home for 12 hours. That will always slice me in two.

My enduring grief over the nature of his death is assuaged a bit when I remember that, although he never saw the Wee Niblet in person, he did get to see pictures and did have a chance to tell me how proud and overwhelmed he was to have such a lovely grandson (and, in his typical generous fashion, he offered to send a cheque so I could hire some "help" during my torturous recovery from the delivery).

I don't know if there is a heaven, but I know now why people need the notion of one. If there is one, my dad is there, in his easy chair, listening to choral music directed by Robert Shaw, surrounded by photos all four of his grandchildren, photos that show them thriving and embraced by love.

Indeed, my dad didn't get his happy ending.

My mom's still working on hers.


So, you see, my second pregnancy wasn't at all about me.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

“Supersized Settling, With a Side of Fries”

In the car culture of middle America, the first months of a baby’s life see the infant toted everywhere, from grocery store to doctor’s office to library, all whilst strapped into a car seat with a handle; during this time, the most gratifying interaction a parent has with that infant is ahhing over a gassy smile or grinning at a gentle belch. And occasionally the baby does these things, too. Outside of the gratifying moments, the rest is just routine preservation—trying to make sure the baby hangs on to all ten fingers, continues to breathe, and sees daylight occasionally. During this phase of the child’s life, Baby is, frankly, just high-maintenance luggage.

That’s why Baby’s first steps are such a revelation and relief. Other milestones in the first year are lauded, of course, but rolling over is less monumental than walking because it doesn’t clearly mark a move towards self-sufficiency. Baby may master rolling over, but Mommy, with a deep, long-suffering sigh, still has to get the toy in the other room or retrieve a misplaced sippy cup. However, walking changes all that and introduces the most-used and helpful phrase in the household lexicon: “Get it yourself!”

Six summers ago, our Girl made the leap from infancy to toddlerhood. In many ways during June, July and August of 2001, we reveled in the summer of movement.

Virtually the same week Girl learned to walk, I drove five hours up Interstate 35, from southern to northern Minnesota, for a job interview. That day, I wore the same shirt I had five years previously, during the nearly-disastrous-but-pulled-it-out-in-the-clinch job interview I’d had in Spamtown, when I first entered Minnesota’s community college system. You might think I wore that shirt again because it had taken on some mythical status as my “Lucky Shirt.” Nae. I wore it again because it had loitered in the closet for five years, lolling about, hanging on to its crispness--leaving me free of the need to iron. Through such a complex process of wardrobe analysis, I decided how best to dress to impress.

The interview went well, and even though the committee had way too rollicking of a time as a mock “class” during my teaching presentation, I was ultimately offered the job. On a professional level, the move was a lateral one, but my new campus seemed vigorous enough to keep me engaged for decades to come. On a personal level, however, the move was huge.

Groom and I had been eager to move out of a humid, over-groomed, smallish down based around pig-slaughter and up to a city of water and natural green spaces. Duluth was the dream, and, thanks to my crisp blouse and formidable eye contact, we had achieved it.

In short order, we put our Austin house on the market; then, before searching out a place to live on Lake Superior’s North Shore, we embarked on a road trip to California, for a friend’s wedding.

California by way of Montana makes sense for those driving from Minnesota--and it affords an opportunity to stop for the 113th time at the money-trap that is Wall Drug, where the weary traveler can eat buffalo burgers, enjoy free water, and perch angrily upon the attractions.

With the Girl having proven her rodeo mettle, we hopped back into the air-conditioned car and zipped to Billings see my folks and brother, who had gone AWOL from his military life long enough to whiz home for a taste of my mom's homemade chicken noodle soup.

(the bathtub at my parents' house had been broken for years, so, with Girl afraid of the shower, we had to rig up a different way to soften and peel The Crusties off of her peaches and cream)

During this leg of the trip, we left Girl for the first time for a night without us. While Groom and I chugged up into the Beartooth Mountains for a getaway, Girl stayed home with my brother and parents.

And, hence, I learned that it takes no time at all to corrupt. In the 22 short hours of our absence, my family managed to introduce Girl to her first fast food, and I believe the sound of her brain shifting permanently within her skull at that seminal taste of French fries and ketchup was audible. Fair enough, though. Really, outside of driving home the meaning of “thinly-veiled dysfunction,” what better is family suited for than introducing unhealthy eating habits to one’s repertoire?

While Girl sucked the sugary red stuff sprinkled with salt off of her fingers, Groom and I participated in a true boondoggle up in the mountains: with no altitude acclimatization to speak of, we registered for a race that took place entirely uphill on the switchbacks of one of the mountains in the Beartooth chain. Groom, made of sterner stuff than I, ran the 8-miler straight up, while I settled for the more realistic 4.4-miler, telling myself all I could do was run as much as I could and then walk the rest (thinking I just might, at a leisurely, deliberate slog, manage to plod my way through the race).

I made it 98 yards, give or take an inch, before my lungs exploded in my chest. As the popping sound echoed away down into the canyon, my plod slowed to a pouting trudge, which then lasted for the ensuing 4.35 miles. At least my schlepping was broken up by the friendly chat of a college student who was working away the summer in the local touristy community. Having decided the night before to run the race, Student realized she’d neglected to train at all for the previous, em, 19 years, so she packed in one fierce and extended session of sprints alternated with endurance miles the evening before the race. If you need any further explanation of why she was huffing at the back of the pack with me, I can also tell you she was a smoker who stoically managed to refrain from lighting up until the finish line.

My finish line reward was a beer followed by a quick trip back to Billings, just long enough to snatch up our Happy Meal-addicted Girl.

Then we continued on road tripping over to Idaho before dropping south and cutting a shoulder into Nevada, ultimately ending up at pre-wedding festivities in the Yosemite region of California: hikes, swims, renting a house with a group of buddies. Then, en masse, we traveled to the Palo Alto area, where we witnessed, in a vineyard, the exchange of vows. To pass the time during some of the readings and songs, I pretended to be a character in the long-deceased television show, FALCON CREST. In front of me, they broke a glass under the huppah, but in my head, I was Jane Wyman’s evil sidekick, one with feathered hair and waist-narrowing shoulder pads.

On our way back to Minnesota, we spent a delicious couple of days zipping along "The Loneliest Road in America," a 284-mile stretch of parched road through Nevada. We camped in Great Basin National Park, at a site I remember best for having a pitch just steep enough that newly-toddling Girl discovered running by surprise. She was just trying to walk downhill, but suddenly her elfin feet were flying out of control, and then she whirred out onto the asphalt campground road, gaining momentum, cackling and giggling wildy the whole time. I missed a lot of her careening, however, as I too busy bending over, holding my stomach out of fear for her, trying not to shriek like a harridan, "STOP, CHILD, for nothing must ever harm you." Crouching and cowering, I managed to subdue my maternal fears, and then we all ate noodles.

The next morning, trying to fit in his daily run while making time on the road, Groom ran from the campsite, seven miles straight down the side of the mountain (karmically balancing out his mountain running efforts). When he reached us where we awaited him in the car, I knew it had been bad, as he broke the stoicism that typifies his Northern European heritage and bit out: "I. Don't. Ever. Need. To. Run. Seven. Miles. All. Downhill. Ever. Again." From him, that was a veritable wail of pain. His quads actively hated him for at leat three days afterward, even in the midst of lovely Utah.

Eventually, we felt a pressure, a need to make time back to Minnesota, in case our Austin house was on the very verge of selling. As well, we needed to seek out a new place to live in Duluth.

Quickly, we discovered that rents in Duluth are higher than mortgages, so we switched our search to buying a second home—and don’t all good Americans own at least two homes, whether or not they can afford it? We found a sweet little place, under 1,000 square feet, but couldn’t move in for six weeks. Thus, midsummer found us in interim housing, waiting for the keys and for the comfort that would come with what was surely the imminent sale of our Austin house. Because, although we really wanted to be good, over-consuming Americans? The truth is that we just wanted the one house; paying two mortgages would eat up 55% of our monthly income, after all, and now that she was walking, Baby would, periodically, need a new pair of shoes.

As the weeks passed, we eased into our Duluth life, and eventually I started my new job. The Austin house sat on the market. Our diet began to consist of a lot of rice.

A few more house showings, and the Austin house remained offer-free. Starting to notice muscle deterioration, we added beans to the rice.

Summer ended. Months ticked by. We continued to pay two mortgages. Realizing either rickets or scurvy was setting in, we scraped some pennies out of the couch cushions and bought a bag of dried apricots.

During the continued months of double-mortgage stress, there was, simultaneously, a glorious feeling of having truly come home in Duluth, in that small house. Whereas in Austin, our outings with Girl strapped into the jogging stroller had been greeted with bemused comments like, “Well, would you look at that chariot, Marv! Have you ever sent the like?” we were relieved to have found our own--to have spotted our tribe, our clan (one possessing both fire AND the wheel) on our first walk to the playground, when no fewer than three other baby joggers were parked along the edge. We approached the hurricane slide joyously, giving the other parents there the secret handshake of a shouted “trailmix-gorp!” followed by a clanking together of canoe paddles and a revving of Subaru motors.

Indeed, the lovely thing about this period of getting to know our new city was that it felt so completely like a place where we could spend decades. And for the first time since I had headed off to college, the idea of settling somewhere didn’t feel like a diminishment of possibility or a letting go of dreams. In this case, it felt like an augmentation, an actualization of dreams. Even though “settling” and “down” so often have negative implications, taken together and attached to "Duluth," these words felt more like “whooping” and “up.”

Of course, whooping it up over a bowl of rice and beans gets old, even when dried apricots have been stirred into the mix. Eventually, as our gorgeous Austin house went unsold, Groom, then thirty years old, nobly took on a paper route (he was up at 3:30 a.m.--riding off on his banana-seat bike, wearing his chest banner of scouting badges, toting ball of string, a stick shaped like a gun, and a frog in his pocket-- getting home a few hours later, in time for me to head off to work and for him to watch Girl. In no time at all, his ability to answer the telephone or complete a sentence was gone, but at least he had already completed a successful tour in Girl’s Lack of Sleep Bootcamp, so he knew how to function in a daze). With the addition of his paper route money, we even had chicken one time.

That was some ferociously-good chicken.

Twenty-six months after first listing our Austin house, each of us suffering from only mild hair loss due to poor diet, it sold.

To celebrate, we tossed a symbolic bag of beans into Lake Superior, bought a haunch of beef, and settled, even more deeply, into our deck chairs, napkins tucked under chins.

Naturally, next to her slab of cow, Girl had a heap of French fries slathered in ketchup.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

“Norris Geyser Basin”

Eight years ago, Groom asked, “So, will you marry me?”

The answer, of course, was “Yee-haw, Moondoggie!”

And later that night, I got pregnant.

…which means that seven years ago this summer, I was the hormonal, exhausted, dazed caregiver of a three-month-old baby. I spent that summer not in Eastern Europe or Iceland, but on the couch.

The phrase “three-month-old baby” is perhaps too spartan for something so profoundly, infinitely complicated. I mean, I knew babies. I’d been a champion babysitter from the age of ten; I’d worked the church nursery with my sister (14 howling babies left me unphased; getting peed on by a newborn boy with a wild and independent penis was merely cause for laughter and a quick mopping up; having a child barf in my face was easily filed into my pantheon of New Experiences); I’d been a live-in nanny in Boston during college; after that, I’d been a live-out nanny in Minneapolis and Billings.

In short, the babies could wail, the toddlers could tantrum, the preschoolers could manipulate, the school-agers could negotiate—all while I sat lolling in the corner, picking at a hangnail, losing at Clue, Jr. while dusting off a pacifier. No biggie, them kids.

So it was shocking when my own child whupped my sense of easy competency and healthy detachment. Who knew having my own child would jettison me into panic and anxiety and an irrationality like I’d never known? Who knew having my own child would alter me organically, at a cellular level? Who knew a damn kid could make every single day feel the length of an Ice Age, each minute on the clock frozen into an icicle that was then embedded into a slow-moving glacier?

And these were the good days.

In terms of personal revelations, I learned very quickly that I don’t excel at consistency in intense situations. I don’t excel at patience when every single one of my bodily orifices is dripping. I don’t excel at kindness or small talk or driving or dressing myself when I’ve not strung together two straight hours of sleep in months. To put it simply: if the world is ever attacked by a vengeful race of robots, and everyone is killed off except about 46,000 human beings, and we’re all relegated to traveling in space for months and months, constantly chased by the ‘bots, running low on food and water, assaulted with every kind of stress--DON’T ELECT ME PRESIDENT. I’ll have us all dead in a day.

In my defense, though, Girl was not an easy baby those first months. Sure, I knew babies don’t sleep much. I got that.

But, both anecdotally and in the literature, the nightmare stories of non-sleepers would go something like, “He’s still up three times a night!” or “She only sleeps two-hour stretches, and I’m desperate!”

Lily-livered wusses.

If it meant I would get a solid hour of sleep, I would have willingly had all my teeth extracted with a needle-nose pliers and then, using little more than my bloody gums, gnawed off my left arm (a true hit, since I’m left-handed); then, with my left arm strapped in next to me on the passenger seat, I would have gladly driven--one-armed--the 2,056.1 miles to San Francisco, where I would have, at a pre-set time and date with The Sandman, dropped my offering of flesh off the Golden Gate Bridge, into his waiting hands. And if I’d run out of gas during the 2,056.1 mile drive to San Francisco, be assured that I would have ditched my car on the side of the highway and started hitching, one-thumbed, my other arm tucked into my duffle bag, just to get there on time...if, if, if it meant The Sandman would honor his promise to hand over the gift of sleep to me and my Girl.

She really, really wouldn’t sleep. She didn’t sleep like nuthin’ I’d ever seen before. Her longest stretch of unconsciousness in the first months of her life was 45 minutes, and that occurred only if she was being held by an adult who was sitting upright on the couch. Oh, and before you try to bring any suggestions or superior experience to the table here, fair warning: I might have to rip your head off and spin it in a Cuisinart if you do (just a little lingering after-effect of the lack of sleep). Honest to Rip Van Winkle, we did try everyfreakingthing. Front, back, up, down, over, under, swaddled, hanging from gravity boots, with salsa, never on Sundays, toasted, and on roller skates--no matter what, she wouldn’t sleep. Occasionally, a cd of a waterfall fuzzing and burbling along, all placental-like, would make her eyelids droop. Momentarily.

Eventually, we hit upon a solution that would at least guarantee us our 45-minute stretches at night: I’d get her to sleep by holding, rocking, nursing her, and then Groom would, with all the gentle fluidity of Shields and Yarnell trying to pry their way out of an invisible box, ease her into her car seat. After that, strangely, out of some weird sense of propriety, we’d pick up her car seat and set it into her crib. And thusly, we would get our 45 minutes.

This deficit of REM sleep meant that neither of Girl’s parents actually knew his/her name anymore (I took to calling Groom “Bilko," and he called me “Swansea"), but at least she was still alive, and that was saying something.

Then the colic set in. We just about didn’t come out alive.

My strongest memory from that period in the year of our Lord 2-ought-ought-ought is of a white Ikea chair. I sat in that chair, sobbing uncontrollably, holding a screaming Girl. She’d only been howling for about a kabajillion hours straight, and we’d been passing her off to each other every ten minutes, so as to avoid the tension and frustration that might spiral into something ugly, like putting her in the deep freeze, and we hadn’t actually talked to each other for weeks, outside of hollering in the other’s general direction (“YOUR TURN! NOW!”), and we hadn’t eaten or slept, so, although I tend to manufacture a little drama in daily life, this wasn’t one of those times.

Next to me, my sobs overshadowed by Girl’s ceaseless wailing, Groom stood, despairing: “Tell me what I can do. Just tell me what I can do to help.” All my brain could squeeze out was some second grade math: “Colic lasts, usually, the first 12 weeks of life, and she’s six weeks now. I, *gasp,* don’t, *sob*, think, *choke,* that I, *squeak,* can make it, *snot,* ONE, *hiccup,* MORE, *hack,* WEEK...muchlesssixmore *collapse.*”

Fortunately, the fog of fatigue kept me hazy enough through those intolerable six weeks, and they passed. And as the summer ripened, she stopped screaming ‘round the clock--although she continued NOT sleeping ‘round the clock--and we got through.

It is a marvel to me, as I look back on that summer, that we took a trip to a family reunion in Red Lodge, Montana. There, altitude aided the fog of fatigue in numbing me to the point that I didn’t know better than to enjoy myself. Save for when my dear, legally-blind father took a tumble down the stairs in the middle of the night, trying to find the bathroom in the rented condo, it was lovely to have a baby and a love and to be in the mountains.

After the reunion, some of us extended the trip by heading to Chico Hot Springs (host to one of the best dining rooms in Montana; just a little FYI for the steak lovers in the crowd) and then Yellowstone Park. In Yellowstone, we tip-toed through a wee hike (a pale imitation of any hiking I’d done pre-motherhood, but passably fine)

and then tried camping.

“Tried” is a very important verb in that previous sentence. Think about it: camping, whether in a tent, in an RV, or under a tarp, entails sleep of some sort. And we weren’t so much sleeping at all, anywhere, much less in a crowded campground, on a cold night, when Girl still slept in her plastic carseat. Plastic gets cold in the mountains at night, and the magical alchemy of plastic + cold = return of colicky behaviors. At 4 a.m., having slept not at all, feeling bruised and woozy from going 6 rounds with an infant caught in a state of rigor resisto when placed anywhere near her "bed" in the carseat, I was relieved by Groom, who saved the night (and the Girl)--for not the first or the last time in our relationship. He grabbed the little body of diapered, howling pudge, told me “Now get some sleep,” and proceeded to drive Girl around the roads of Yellowstone for a few dark hours; ultimately, when she nodded off, exhausted in a way she’d never been before, Groom pulled over and parked in the Norris Geyser Basin, where he sat until sunrise, snoring and drooling in the driver’s seat.

To this day, there is no greater proclamation of my love for the Groom than to lisp those golden, backlit words: “Norris Geyser Basin.”

By spelling each other and just letting the clock tick on, we got through those intense first month’s of Girl’s life, the summer of 2000. Once she got a few months older, we tried the Ferber method of sleep training; after a week, Girl capitulated and started alternating 1.5 hour periods of screaming with 1.5 hour periods of sleep.

Did you read me? An hour and a half of uninterrupted sleep at a time. An hour and a half. It was sweet, candied bliss on a stick.

Relieved and excited that the daily pressure towards infanticide had abated, we exchanged the marital high five known as a kiss and, looking deeply into each other’s eyes, assured each other that the worst was behind us.

Three years later, we had Wee Niblet.

He slept--I swear to you on my down pillow--twenty minutes at a time.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

"Excuse Me While I Kiss This Guy"

To recap: in a series of summers as I hovered around the age of 30, I found gainful employment, emotional healing, and the constancy of my own two feet.

And then came the summer of perspective.

July of 1999 saw me savaging my credit cards, beating them and their poncey minimum payment threats into submission. My desire to travel KO'ed my fear of revolving debt, and I eagerly planned another trip, this one to hook up with my sister at the end of her second Peace Corps stint (her first tour of duty had taken place a decade earlier in Belize--hey, now there's a trip I haven't blogged about!--while her second one, which she was at the tail end of, had consisted of two years in the former Soviet republic of Moldova). She would wrap up her life there, in the land of crumbling concrete and mafia corruption, and then we would cross some borders together before she flew back Stateside and I added on a leg to Iceland, where I would rendezvous with a sassy galpal, The Chef.

While the previous summer had presented me with a romantic break-up that sent me wildly careening around my little world--randomly, hurtfully--for a few months, my equilibrium had gradually been restored through nothing more glamorous than getting up and slogging through each day. Gradually, the bouts of tears and the nights with no sleep became less frequent, then ceased altogether. Dry-eyed, I slept. Thus, when my grandmother died that winter, in the upheaval that followed, I had a few level days of noting, "Hey, I'm handling this. I think I might be fine after all."

This coming back to myself happened just in time, too. Had it not, I wouldn't have been ready for--cue the fanfare--meeting Groom. But I was fine, and he was more than that, and quickly, easily, suddenly, I knew He Was It. All of the uncertainties that had plagued previous relationships were weeping dejectedly out on the curb while I tooled around in my new Convertible d'Amour, the wind whipping up my Driving Scarf of Besottedness in cinematic fashion.

Life was lush with goodness. What better time to launch myself into some new places, perhaps for the last time on my own or with Just The Ladies? I was high-spirited, jaunty, zippedy-doo-dahhed beyond belief. All those little Disney birds that fly around and dress Cinderella for the ball? They'd set up permanent residence on my shoulders. (Which, if you think about it, made for a lot of bird crap on my Irish knits. But I was oblivous--too busy spinning in circles on my own little mountain top of bliss.)

And then I got off the airplane in Chisinau, Moldova. By the way, if ever you find yourself feeling too giddy and full of life? I'm going to recommend a visit to Moldova as the perfect antidote. As I waded through customs, having hefted my bag and self off the rickety airplane, goosestepped across a broken-up tarmac, and plowed into the barely-lit terminal, my efforts at talk and joviality with the impassive Moldovan guards were scowled down--it was almost as if they didn't realize that I was in love! And my hair was big and strong! And I'd tried a new kind of limited-edition ice cream before my trip called The Puck (a seasonal tribute to Minnesota's hockey culture)!!! And there were about a kabillion reasons to do the hoochie goochie!!!!

My first few minutes in Moldova went something like this:

Me: wisecrack. Them: stone-faced yet somehow condescending. Me: Maybe they don't speak English and can't understand my attempts at a light-hearted tone; yes, I'm sure that's it: they don't speak English! Them: "We'll need to see your passport now, Miss."

Hmmm. I suppose that if you haven't been paid in a year or more (but what would you buy with your money, even if you had it in hand?), and you have electricity and water for only a few hours of each day, and all natural sense of hope and joy has been systematically crushed out of your people for 70 years, well, maybe, possibly, the fact that I was excited about wearing new cargo shorts with five pockets (!!!) wouldn't strike you as cause for celebration.

But they were really cute shorts.

Once I settled into stoicism and gave myself over to the lengthy process of bureaucratic maneuvering that was getting through customs, I celebrated seeing me dear ole sis. Having mastered Romanian (one of the primary languages spoken in Moldova) as easily as she mastered Spanish as an adult, she would be the one to introduce me to post-Soviet life, a place of unremitting greyness and desperation.

A somber place it was, ten years after the Berlin Wall fell, marking the end of that socialistic dream. As I spent a few days with her in her apartment, I was struck by the absolute disintegrated-ness-avity-itude of the place, from the capital of Chisinau to the smaller Russian town of Edinets that was Kirsten's home (handy for her to have that Romanian language training in a Russian town. Thanks, Peace Corps for the foresightedness). Every aspect of the infrastructure was in disrepair, and the truth is that the human spirit is very much linked to its surroundings.

Here, Kirsten stands in front of one of the town's better buildings.

Edinets' main department store and its teeming shelves

There I am, havin' a blast in front of the Social Security building.

Honestly, the darkness, the coldness, the destitution--all could act as Dementors on one's soul. The place reeked of bleak.

But then...

...we went to the market, to visit my sister's Bubbies, the nice grandma ladies who would sell her a bunch of carrots and an egg several times a week. Their smiles, combined with the colors and scents of the place, counteracted the gloom. Who needs a full set of straight, bleached teeth with grins like that?

After a few days, after being feted by her friends, students, and fellow teachers (sidenote: the only way Kirsten, a teetotaller, had circumvented the cultural pressure to drink and drink lots had been to tuck herself under the protection of religion and claim to all who pressured her that she was a Baptist--thanks to Baptist missionaries, they are widely known in Moldova as dry and conservative types. So back off, Sergei! Put down the shotglass and leave her to her God! Just don't tell God or the Baptists that she's a big honking liar, okay? And that her sister, who does drink, is somehow not a Baptist, okay?) we managed to squeeze all of my sister's belongings into her suitcases and put a period on the sentence of her two years there. We eventually boarded a bus full of somber, downtrodden Moldovans on their way to Romania. During the first few hours of the ride, the air in the bus was dead, quiet, repressed.

Nervously, we all made it through the checkpoint at the Romanian border. And exactly one minute later, as the bus pulled into the relative freedom and possibility of Romania--of all places--the atmosphere lightened dramatically. You'd think the Beatles were playing on the Ed Sullivan show, the way those women pulled off their headscarves, the way spontaneous chatter and laughter broke out, the way everyone came alive. Romania, you see, was the place to go on vacation...the place to dream of living or escaping to. And, friends, if moving to Romania is one's brightest hope, then I'll not begrudge an addiction to some mind-numbing vodka.

We spent a few days in Romania, touring a host of mosaic-adorned temples (the nuns who oversaw them were no more impressed with my perky little cargo shorts than the airport guards in Chisinau had been; they took one look at my sister and me, with our whorish, heathen legs exposed, and tied us up in ankle-length aprons for the duration of our visit). When not touring, I was sniffing out Internet cafes in which I could reach out and cybertouch my To-Be Groom.

After Romania came Hungary, refreshing in its sense of progress, of "Westernness," as it took steps towards becoming a democracy--Holy Trump, but there were even billboards! Even more importantly, I had a moment in Budapest, down in the subway at a little food stand, a moment when I bit into the softest, warmest, butteriest, meltiest chocolate croissant ever created. Proust's waxing about madeleines dipped in tisane is a ghost of a sensory memory compared to me and my brief but intense fling with that croissant.

Next on the itinerary was Poland, where we would visit a good friend (She and I had traveled together in Ireland the previous summer, and she'd been a Fulbright scholar at my college before that; when I took her and her family to Yellowstone Park during her time in the U.S., an RV had crashed into the back of our Camry while her husband drove. Damn gawking RV-ers. Like the geyser wouldn't spew again in an hour. In short, my Polish pals and I--we were solid. Gdansk was mine). Part of our agenda in Poland, outside of tripping through Gdansk, was to visit the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Majdanek (outside of the town of Lublin).

And for that part of our journey, there are no words.

Shoes of the children brought to Auschwitz

Bunks at Auschwitz

The crematory

Breath was hard to come by in the concentration camps. In comparison, Moldova seemed a veritable paradise. To have offered the 6 million Jews, gypsies, and homosexuals who died the option of being settled amidst the crumbling, grey, dour streets of Edinets or Chisinau...there would have been no greater gift. There would have been no greater gift than a multitude of days with unreliable electrical and water service, than to enter a department store with virtually nothing displayed on the shelves, than to remain unpaid for a year or more. There could have been no greater gift.

As is the case with travels, the moments of greatest poignancy pass, and the itinerary compels. In Gdansk, at the apartment of my friend Kasia, we had the realization that Jocelyn's Sun-Kissed Skin is exactly the same shade as a bowl of borscht.

In fact, later that year, I cut up a hard-boiled egg, balanced it on my nose, and went trick-or-treating as Bowl of Borscht for Halloween. Nobody got it. Cretins.

After we experienced Krakow and Warsaw, the day to part ways arrived. Kirsten flew back to a land of too many lights, too much food, and too much money. I headed to a country of moonscapes, geysers, mountains, and the second-most expensive McDonald's in the world: Iceland.

What a pleasure it was, to travel with a laid-back, lively friend... work out the kinks at the Blue Lagoon... camp for days by Lake Myvatn, sucking up the 'round-the-clock midsummer daylight ultimately shrug at the vast beauty of it all.
The end result of these peregrinations--from the infirmity of Moldova to the purity of Iceland--was a feeling of history and interconnectedness and for the vitality of each and every life, a feeling aptly articulated in one of my all-time favorite passages of prose, penned by the American author Norman Maclean:

"Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs."

Upon my return to Minnesota, as I snuggled in my mounds of bedding, noshing on a stack of pancakes with my beau, the words that surfaced from our river were ones that would buoy me into the next phase of life:

"So, will you marry me?"

Monday, August 06, 2007

"Chicken for One"

Eleven summers ago, I got a job that paid a liveable wage.
Ten summers ago, I got over a broken heart.

And nine summers ago, I got confident.

That summer, I was back in love--with a new feller, someone intriguing and exciting yet damnably inscrutable and taciturn--ready to embark on the extended dance re-mix tour of Ireland, Northern Ireland, and the Isle of Man.

Unequivocally, I heart Ireland, so hopping a plane across the pond for six weeks was a pleasure. Moreover, when I hit 31, my crow's feet and I had a talk (Crow's Feet: "Caw, Caw. You'se a crinkled hag. Caw!" Me: "Listen, Ass-hat, I can easily put duct tape over you and claim it's some new mid-face fashion trend, so tread lightly"). Ultimately, after some squabbles and a few lost rounds with a bottle of Oil of Olay, Crow's Feet and I decided to start a skin-maintenance program...and where better to do that than in the misty, pore-drenching climes of Guinnessland? Plus, I had a good friend who was hankering to see the place, who was willing to pay, as well, for a mutual Polish friend to accompany us; too, I had a cousin who was keen to join the fray. The four of us women agreed to do the deed, spending various stretches of time together--on again, off again, depending on the locale and personal desires.

Whereas my trip to the UK the previous summer had been tinged with melancholy and the need for some self-esteem recovery, this holiday was, simply, purely, about joy. I felt strong, healthy and as though my life held at least seventeen kinds of possibility. Let the wind tousle my hair! I shouted. (...metaphorically, of course. Who would I have literally shouted that at? A flight attendant? Would he then have stopped the beverage cart long enough to run a manicured hand through my tresses? As if. Those attendants are way too self-absorbed to do me such a favor. It just wouldn't happen, so I must be metaphoricalizing. Catch up with me here, Mortimer.)

But lookie: the wind did blow my hair, even though I never actually said it out loud. The Wind Goddess, Mariah, must have read my wishes. Mariah also hosts an infomercial on late-night tv, in which she hawks her tarot-reading powers. Having financial trouble? Call her 1-800 line.

A rough cross-section of that vacation reveals

...tumbled castles

...a whiff of King Arthur (not the scent of decay you'd expect)

...hospitality from strangers whose walls dripped with history (but not, to my dismay, lager)

...and a terrific snog

Overall, there was much beauty on that journey: the sights, sharing a beloved place with friends, seeing a best girlfriend get married on the Isle of Man. And there was much that was stressful on that trip (suffice it to say, not all personalities mesh well, and it became necessary for some of us to part ways and recover a bit in separate corners before reuniting).

Due to the clashes, however, I stumbled into something I mightn't have chosen deliberately: traveling alone. Much is made of "women who travel alone"--I've seen whole tomes on the subject--but, in this case, gender wasn't the issue at all. Mostly, my solo week was remarkable because it was comprised of the minute acts of courage that any traveler has to muster when not buffered by the words, presence, and security of a partner or group. These acts aren't visible to any outside onlooker, not palpable to anyone save the lone individual. But what I learned that week is that once the protective layers of companions are shed, the lone traveler experiences a kind of vulnerability--and welcome exposure--that is a privilege.

Thus, even though I spent six weeks seeing and eating and moving from place to place that summer, the lasting impression I have of that time is actually of one rare week, when I hopped a bus all by my Big Brave Self, bidding my cousin adieu for that piece of time, and stayed by myself at a B & B in Killybegs, Co. Donegal.

Almost immediately, I discovered that being alone meant I was more approachable. When I'd been with friends, no native would approach me or strike up a conversation, but by myself, I was making friends in the line at the cash-point machine, having lingering cups of tea with my B & B hostess, chatting with farmers driving their tractors down the road. As well, I became very conscious of how much time I spent in my room (could have laid on the bed all day, finishing A Prayer for Owen Meanie, even as I cursed its saccharine hero), making sure I had a destination each day that would counter my natural inclination towards the horizontal. Perhaps most gratifying about that week were my forays into hitching; since Donegal is sparsely populated and bus service is irregular, sticking out the old thumb was the prime way to get around. Of course, I'd seen Rutger Hauer in The Hitcher some years before, so every time I emerged from a stranger's car, all my limbs intact, breath still in my lungs, the air struck me as redolent with four-leaf clovers, and my steps were positive boing-a-sproings of relief.

Heady with the sense of adventure, I explored the county, hiking the glorious Slieve League, buying hand-knit sweaters, popping in to witness a religious Blessing of the Fleet ceremony in a warehouse at the dock, fending off the advances of a gormless but lusty fisherman.

Occasionally, my stomach growled, a noise that intimated I might, at some point, need to eat.


And you know? That was ultimately the hardest part of the entire deal. I dodged the issue a few times by purchasing my lunch from a grocery, but eventually, as is my wont, I craved hot, cooked food. So I paced outside a family-friendly pub for some minutes before entering. Once inside, I eyed the bar and then eyed the tables. It was too dark to pull out my book for occupation. I would have to sit, alone, and eat, alone, staring at nothing, talking to no one.

I ordered the chicken. It came with potatoes.

Then, the next day, as I strolled past a different pub, music wafted out--excellent fiddle music. On a whim, I dodged in and worked obviously and diligently on my travel journal (first day I'd kept one!) until I was certain my presence wouldn't raise a hue and cry. Emerging several hours later, I felt as though I'd found my new home. Each night thereafter, I visited this pub, pulling on my pints as I listened to the most-lovely music played by the proprietor and his mates, easing into conversation with my fellow fortunates.

Within the space of seven days, I had A Local, knew some familiar faces around the village, and had gawped during an evening of dancing at my B & B hosts' favorite club (Just me and a hundred 55-year-olds, circling the floor in a waltz, the native ladies in their pumps, me in my London Underground hiking boots). Being alone had given me an entree no passport ever could.

This congenial time of personal expansion ended rather too abruptly, in truth, when my cousin decided to rejoin me in the next leg of my plans: to stay a week in Connemara in a small town called Cleggan. Resolutely, we aimed towards fun, even achieving some (despite an afternoon on the back of an Irish pony).

In Cleggan, and then in Northern Ireland at the farm of distant relations, and then on the Isle of Man, we had moments of great togetherness as we whizzed down the "wrong" side of the road in our rental, taking refuge in that small car when a herd of hungry cows surrounded us, licking their, em, cuds (and chewing their chops); we descended into hilarity rolling around the Giant's Causeway and mock-attacking at various ring forts; we simultaneously missed heartbeats when we realized we'd visited the town of Omagh in Northern Ireland three days before an IRA bomb in the main square created the higest body count of any during The Troubles. We found a common vibe, and I easily fell back into the comfort of companionship.


As it turns out, learning to forge ahead while feeling nervous and uncertain and alone was a tremendous gift. Nearly the moment I landed back in The States, before I'd even laundered my unmentionables, I was informed abruptly and ignominiously that the new feller was quite over me--had been for some time but was too passive to make the cut earlier (You know, before my trip, during which I then could have rustled up a little comfort in the pub or on a beach. The fecknob).

In the ensuing weeks, as I lay sleepless and agitated and profoundly heartsore, lonelier than I'd known I could be,

at least I had Donegal.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

"Busted in Ballyvaughn"

Eleven years ago, I started to turn my life around economically. However, my romantic life was still facing the wrong direction. It took another year for the About Face of the Heart to take place, for me to realize that I'd spent the bulk of my twenties in a relationship that, while fine and good on many fronts, would never fully satisfy. It was too full of emotional landmines (whoops! Triggered another one!) and divergent goals. Even though Boyfriend Of My Twenties had moved to Minnesota with me, and I appreciated that act of solidarity, things had to change.

Thus, one decade ago this summer, I was mourning the demise of my six-year-relationship. And the break-up? It had been long and exhausting and had pretty much cut me off at the knees.

Metaphorically speaking. I mean, I still had calves and feet. C'mon. What'd you think? That I shuffle around on my patellas? Imagine the horrid scraping sound that would make.

At any rate, after wading through a fair amount of extended emotional upheaval, there I was. Thirty years old. Overweight. A mixture of really sad and strangely buoyant simultaneously--certain I'd never find genuine, healthy love at the same time I was glad that new, better, love was a possibility.

So I started exercising; lost a little weight; realized the beauty of feeling free.

And in response to all this? Deeply and profoundly, I knew it was time to start making my credit cards flex their personal-debt-inducing muscles. It was time to get my wounded soul a passport, mix it up with The Ladies, and take a trip.

And so I did, mixin' it up, generationally, too. That summer, I spent three weeks scooting around Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man with my mom, her cousin, and one of my treasured girlfriends. Ranging in age from 30 to 61, we were dope, jiggy, and phat--ready to get down with the scones and the clotted cream. It wasn't exactly dropping acid at Ozfest, but it would suffice as a heartmender.

We giddy four hit the 40 Shades of Green that make up the Irish landscape with all the enthusiasm and eagerness of, well, a leprechaun on acid at Ozfest. We saw castles. We listened to music. We got a puncture in our tyre, fixed by a lovely man named Michael (Honest to St. Patrick, his pre-adolescent daughter put on her saucy skirt and amused us with step-dancing while we waited).
We saw theatre. We ducked into Stone Age tombs.
We enjoyed an entire 15 minutes on the Isle of Skye (last ferry of the day arrived and soon after was departing). We stayed with my excellent Manx friend on the Isle of Man. We applauded a sheepherder and his border collies.
We spent some days in Edinburgh during the yearly Fringe Festival, marveling at the talent unleashed. We, my friends, had our scones.

In sum, we rocked it--me and my companions, The Mothers, in their modest, knee-length skirts, with their sensible walking shoes, tittering at the hint of a brogue.

Sure, we had our moments of stress. One morning I hopped on a train easily, wearing my backpack, and then turned to watch my mother and friend try to board, only to see their big suitcases get hung up on a stack of bikes just inside the train's doors. As they futzed with their cases, trying to get through, the doors slid closed, and the train took off, leaving them standing, with very big eyes, on the platform. Ah, well, I mused. I guessed they'd catch up to me at the next stop. If not, I'd get back on a train heading the other direction and find them still standing there, trying to get their rolling suitcases to budge over a 100-year-old crack in the pavement. And traveling with a diabetic (my mom's cousin) who used denial instead of insulin was stressful, as well. Every night, after dithering about being unable to check her blood sugar levels, she would order a huge dessert and then start holding forth at the dinner table in fairly mendacious fashion, telling stories that, if not completely untrue, were unfair and mind-boggling. It was only after we put her on a plane home--and she had a stroke within the next week--that we realized she may have been having a series of mini-strokes as we traveled.

But overall, the trip rejuvenated my dented self. In particular, one night in a little village named Ballyvaughn did this girl some good. We checked in to the hotel there and then headed down to have dinner in the pub. Soon after we started eating, a charming lad--that evening's entertainment, in more ways than one--started setting up his microphone and guitar, chatting us up a bit as he worked. Amazingly, my mother and her cousin lasted through his first set or two before complaining of the ringing in their ears. Shortly thereafter, when Pub Stud took a break, he came over and suddenly transformed me into the star of my very own one-hour-television-drama by whispering to me, "Don't go anywhere, now."

Rooted to my bench, I sipped my pints until the last note died away. And only then did I go somewhere, in his car, to the beach, where I was reminded that there was life outside of that newly-departed six-year relationship, that I could still glimmer and shine, even at 30.

Naturally, while I was on the beach, doing my best impression of Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity at four in the morning, the fire alarm went off back at the hotel. Everyone scurried outside in their nighties and waited for the all-clear. And when my mom couldn't find me, she started to fret. Luckily, before she could rouse the garda to start a search for my corpse, even though there was no fire at all, my galpal jumped in with a suitably-vague excuse: "Oh, I think she left the pub with some young people. I think they were going somewhere together."

With that, me mum relaxed.

And out on the beach, with the crashing of the waves around me,

so did I.