Sunday, June 14, 2009

"Gimme Some Inner Peace or I'll Mop the Floor With Ya" (October 2008)

First noble truth of Buddhism: Life is suffering.


Second noble truth: Suffering is caused by desire (or, in another translation, “attachment.”)

Double indeed.

This election has driven such a wedge between me and my sense of inner peace, I don’t know if I’ll ever get it back. I haven’t even wanted to breath mindfully since somewhere in the middle of the primary, and it’s gotten progressively worse every day.

More than any other election that I can remember, this one really hurts my feelings. Maybe all the elitist-bashing reminded me of the small-minded bullying I endured as a nerdy girl in one of those “pro-America” small towns. Maybe McCain’s cruel, derisive “health of the mother” air-quotes just jumped right off the TV and kicked me in my oft-miscarrying crotch. (And then “Joe the Plumber” virtually eclipsed just about any news coverage of McCain’s misogynist sneering. Even “The Daily Show” only picked up on it last night.)

But whatever the reason, I’ve become a woman obsessed. Gripping my computer, reading every scrap of news and polls I can find, letting my emotions dip and swell with every nuance. I don’t just want Obama to win; I want him to win the shit out of this thing. And I want that win to herald the birth of a new “silent majority”: a majority that turns its nose up at racism and divisiveness; a majority that embraces intelligence and compassion instead of shunning them as somehow anti-American; a majority that knows the difference between Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin; a majority that can’t be won with jingoism and cutesy winks and shallow characters called “Name the Occupation.” I want to have faith in people again. And I never, ever again want to live in a country that renames French fries.

I’m trying to take my deep breaths and be peaceful. I ask myself: Even if Barack Obama loses the election, as some articles suggest is still possible . . .does that necessarily mean we’ve lost all that other good stuff I was talking about? Does it?

I don’t know how to answer that. But it does make me question whether my “attachment” to all this is advisable.

I took my first tentative baby steps into Buddhism in the fall of the 2000 election. My beloved grandfather was dying and I was 3,000 miles away, unable to visit as often as I needed and getting disciplined by a small-minded manager when I did manage to steal away and be with him for a few days. (The last time I ever saw him. I will never regret it.) Besides the bitchy manager, I was surrounded by neo-cons at work who were rubbing their hands in anticipation of a Bush victory (which they eventually “won”). The world felt so simply sad to me at the time . . . sad and beyond my control.

I used to take long walks along the river during my lunch hour and just let all the ugliness loosen up and drift away into the scenery. One day, a brilliant yellow leaf swept slowly down across the black branches and milky grey sky, touching down right in my path. And the thought came to me in a single moment of clarity: I wanted to be a Buddhist.

Quite a leap for a long-time cynical agnostic like myself. But somehow it just felt unquestionably like the right choice.

I started with a Google search, of course. Did some reading, learned the basics. Then I found a Buddhist community (sangha) in town that offered classes for beginners. Next thing I knew, I was driving across town on dark fall nights to a rattling old house on top of a steep hill. It was too pitch-black at night to see the lake, but you could feel it in the breeze that fluttered the prayer flags on the porch, almost eerily. Inside the house was just as cold. I’d wear two wool sweaters and a hat and still find myself shivering through meditation, dropping spoons as we scrambled for tea in the tiny kitchen during the break.

The classes weren’t very well attended, but the people who did show up were nice. There were newcomers, like myself: A gentle brunette with a vintage BMW. An earnest, funny guy who reminded me of the Tappet brothers. And then there were the regulars: A deeply serious dark-eyed student from Missoula. A slim, perpetually distracted teacher who lived in the house. A hospice nurse who was so wise and insightful when we talked about my grandfather’s passing. I can’t remember an actual word she said, but I remember feeling as if the gloom had been lifted right out of me and replaced with simple light. Grieving is a strange time.

Just the act of driving over there and sitting in that room was a great comfort to me. It felt deliberate. Through the mere process of seeking peace, I was actually finding it.

Ultimately, though, my cynicism won out. For one thing, I could never fully embrace Siddhartha Gautama as an “enlightened one,” I must admit. I mean, come on: A prince walks away from his wife and newborn child to go meditate under the Bodhi Tree . . . that’s just male-angst bullshit at its finest. I think I dated that guy.

But even if I could suspend my 21st century sensibilities and ignore the clear sexism there, I couldn’t get past how this sangha was just as petty and judgmental of others as the Christians I worked with. Scoffing at all those fools going Christmas shopping at the mall. Shaking their heads sadly over those unenlightened folks who don’t take time to meditate. And the one that really stuck: the hospice nurse was glowing one day about these wonderful Catholic nuns she’d been working with. She was so impressed with their sense of peace and simple diligence. “They’re almost evolved enough to be Buddhists,” she remarked with the same amazement some people use to marvel over an “articulate black man.” Hmph.

At the end of the year, the group lost their lease on the house and classes were suspended until further notice. I went my own way, taking the best of what I’d learned there with me. Imperfect as it was, I was glad to have given it a try.

And imperfect as it was, I wish I could have even a fraction of the solace and quiet I was feeling in those days. It wasn’t complacency. I never stopped voting or writing my Congresspersons or expressing my opinion. But my mood didn’t depend on political affirmation, as I fear it does now. Perhaps that’s just a common symptom of campaign season. I certainly hope so. Because I can’t go on like this much longer . . .

Me, My Health, and Joe (October 2008)

Fun fact: Did you know that a miscarriage is called a “spontaneous abortion”? Iiiiiit’s true! More unfortunate terminology from the folks who brought us “incompetent cervix” and “lazy ovary.”
If you’ve read much of my ramblings on here, you’ll remember that I’m a habitual loser of pregnancies myself. In a moment of gallows humor, my mom and I were joking about it, comparing my body to that old “Seinfeld” bit about the rental car office. “Your body knows how to take the reservation. It just doesn’t know how to keep the reservation.” Sigh. It’s funny because it’s true.

I’ve always been an avid supporter of a woman’s right to choose. The pro-choice movement is what got me interested in politics in the first place. My first rally – my first trip to Washington DC, in fact – was the pro-choice march in 1989. I’ve voted for a pro-choice Republican or two. But, in another of life’s delightful inconsistencies, I’ve always regarded my own pregnancies as a “life” that began even before conception. I was in my early 30’s and longing for a baby. Every sperm was, indeed, sacred.

Thus, I found some unexpected common ground with a fundamentalist Christian co-worker of mine. Let’s call him “Joe the Marketing Communications Writer.” Joe and I worked together in a tiny, demoralized internal communications department in the regional corporate office of a big box store. (Cue theme music from “The Office.”) It was a suffering department in a thriving company, threatened with reorganization from practically the moment I took the job. Not the happiest place to be working. Joe was as adamantly fundie as I was adamantly lefty. We spoke our minds, often depressing and confounding each other in the process. But we stuck together, too. We had no other allies.

After nearly three years, the inevitable finally happened. Corporate pulled the plug on our department. I was lucky enough to find a job downstairs in the advertising department. Better pay, more interesting work. Joe, who was supporting a family of five, decided to go work in one of our stores just to keep his health insurance while looking for a better job.

But my time in the internal communications department wasn’t the only thing that was coming to an end. It looked like my third pregnancy was about to culminate in a third pregnancy loss. Mere days after a faint positive home pregnancy test, bleeding and spotting began. I sighed and braced myself for the worst (again).

But then . . . the bleeding just stopped. A blood test confirmed that the pregnancy was still holding on in there, slowly but surely. The nurse’s advice? “Don’t go out and buy a crib just yet. But don’t drink, either.” Great. Turns out you can be "a little pregnant."

So, during those last days of my job, Joe and I worked quietly in our cubicles while I hoped for the best. But on our department’s last day, I got the call. Blood tests confirmed that the pregnancy wasn’t developing fast enough. They suspected an ectopic pregnancy, explained that if I didn’t miscarry soon, it could be dangerous. I might need the dreaded “a” word . . . the, um, not-so-spontaneous abortion.

I hung up the phone and tried not to cry. Pro choice or not, I couldn’t see that little sack of malfunctioning cells as anything less than my “baby.” The baby I had a list of names for. The baby I’d been hoping against hope for, through a year of trying and through two other miscarriages. To choose to put an end to it . . . well, I would if I had to. But the irony was just too bitter to swallow.

I looked up and saw Joe. He was leaving early, coming to say goodbye for good on our last day of work together. “Are you alright?” he asked. I cried and told him everything. That’s right. Before I could stop myself, I told the fundamentalist Christian that I might be getting an abortion. D’oh.

He just looked sad. He asked quietly, as respectfully as possible, if the abortion was absolutely necessary. I said I really hoped not. But I added that the pregnancy simply wasn’t going to “live” one way or the other. And my health might be in danger. Joe nodded his head sadly, sympathetically. We just sat there for a moment. “My wife and I will pray for you,” he said. “Hopefully it will happen naturally.”

It honestly wasn’t as cheesy and patronizing as it probably sounds. Joe hardcore believed in that stuff; it was the very best he felt he could offer. And, because he was a real Christian to the core, he accepted my “health of the mother” explanation with kindness and resignation . . . as opposed to, you know, the sarcasm and disgust a certain presidential candidate recently displayed on the matter. Joe’s offer to pray for me felt very touching and comforting in the moment, and I thanked him sincerely.

We said goodbye. That was the last time I ever saw him.

Later that day, I got up from my desk and felt that familiar rush of blood. Oh good grief, not here. Good thing it was a Friday and most of my co-workers had left early. I went to the ladies room and peed out steady stream after stream of thick blood into the toilet, wiping up the cherry-red slippery blood with wads and wads of toilet paper. Unbelievable. Even Ally McBeal never had a workplace bathroom incident so demoralizing.

When it was over, I bought myself one of those diaper-quality maxi pads from the machine in the ladies room, cleaned up, and went back to my desk. I called Mr. Black and let him know it was over. Sad as I was, I was glad to be done with it. Time to let my body heal and move on to other pursuits. Would we try again? Would we cash it in and just try to adopt instead? Mr. Black and I would hash that out in the coming months while I worked my butt off at my new advertising job. We had some unhappy, uncertain times ahead of us.

So . . . that memory is what came rushing back to me last night when I saw the clip of McCain disgustedly dismissing “health of the mother” with sarcastic air quotes. And yes, I get that the sarcasm and disgust was probably intended for his opponent’s rhetoric, not for actual health of actual mothers. Or was it? Is that tone ever okay when you’re saying the words “health” and “mother”? I’m going to go ahead and say fuck no.

AND another thing: If it was so hard for me, a life-long pro-choice advocate, to face abortion for an extremely early and clearly unviable pregnancy . . . well, I can’t even imagine how hard it would be to face a choice like that late in one’s pregnancy term. McCain’s disgust makes it seem like we skip through a field of daisies, whimsically deciding to abort a late-term pregnancy because we’re suddenly sick of stretch marks or something. And I find that attitude beyond reprehensible. No adjective could do it justice. Walk a mile in my uterus, asshole, before you decide that the phrase “health of the mother” is worthy of such contempt.

Elitist, My Ass (September 2008)

“You know the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull? Lipstick!" – Sarah Palin

As the applause thundered throughout Palin’s speech, I felt like I was back in 7th or 8th grade again, trying to will myself invisible or at least tune out the taunts of my classmates. Ah, the Dawn Wiener years. And even though I’ve done my best to repress it, the knee-jerk physical memory of that time catches in my throat whenever I hear a crowd jeering in its victorious rejection of people like myself.

That pit bull line reminds me of a former co-worker who once described, with great self-righteous indignation, how she’d grabbed a woman by the shirt and slammed her into a wall because the woman had accidentally bumped into my co-worker’s small daughter at a crowded Wall E. Weasels. It also reminds me of my friends whose toddler bit an older child at a crowded children’s museum (through his jeans, no broken skin). The victim’s parents not only refused to accept their many sincere apologies and concern, they screamed at my friends and followed the family all through the museum, followed the mom into the ladies room, verbally harassing the parents, demanding their phone number and medical records, threatening the museum with legal action.

That, to me, is what a pit bull in lipstick looks like. Timid types like myself tend to reject these folks in the first place, and it’s not about elitism. We’re just not big on being a target for someone’s displaced aggression.

Earlier this year, my state was dismissed by a political surrogate as a bunch of “latte-sipping elitists.” And while I was tempted to just scoff it off, I had to think about it. I do drink lattes, after all. Maybe they were onto something. I’ve recently questioned my long-held rejection of my small Pennsylvania home town, realizing at last that adolescence is a train wreck no matter where you grow up, no matter how privileged you may be. As a shy, quirky, anxious girl in glasses, I would have been harassed no matter what.

But it’s a hard thing to unlearn. A small town upbringing may not have harmed me, but it really didn’t do me many favors, either. Teachers espoused anti-Semitism, homophobia, and creationism with impunity. A classmate’s tragic suicide was co-opted into an insensitive war-on-drugs circus. One American history teacher had us convinced that brutality to slaves was a myth. His reasoning? “Slaves were property, like a car. You wouldn’t beat up your car, so slave owners didn’t beat up their slaves.” Oh. Okay. But we believed it.

My parents were Vietnam-war-protesting Jimmy Carter supporters, bleeding hearts through and through. But the racism, the homophobia, even the sexism of the community still managed to seep in. It wasn’t that I consciously believed it. There wasn’t a speck of hate in my heart. But I’d learned to be complicit to fit in. In a town where supporting Walter Mondale made you some kind of a radical, I accepted without question that an all-white, straight community was Us, and assumed I’d never actually intersect with Them.

And thus, young Floor Pie packed up her paisley sweaters and went off to a small east coast liberal arts college.

I’d been an outcast nerd for so long. The Dawn Wiener years ended with junior high, largely because our high school tracking program finally separated me from my detractors. The meanest ones would still taunt if our paths crossed in the hallways, but we were in different classes and different lunch periods now.

But even as I was making friends and getting involved in theater and music, I was still quite the asexual oddball. I’d yearned for college, and when I finally got there it seemed better than I ever could have imagined. I met people who were creative and proud to be smart. They liked their high school English teachers too! They didn’t like Ronald Reagan either! They introduced me to Kate Bush, Suzanne Vega, and Robert Smith. I’d found my people!

Until I blew it. My farm-fresh ignorance cringingly revealed itself over the first few days, and the cool kids dropped me like the nerd I’d always been. There was a trip to Manhattan I wasn’t invited to, but found out about afterwards. There were times when I’d see them see me coming and they’d hastily duck out. Some were catty, some ignored me, some tried to be patient and still let me hang out, some were downright mean. After a few weeks, I retreated without making too big an ass of myself.

So there I was: rejected by both sides of the culture war, settling among the mainstream 80’s girls on my freshman floor to be their loveable token weirdo. It was more frustrating than painful, really. I could see exactly how my ignorance and over-anxious enthusiasm had caused me to forfeit a place at their table. Crappy as they’d treated me, I still identified with their intelligence, their pop culture, their whip-smart senses of humor and irony, their politics. These things spoke to who I truly felt I was at heart.

Thankfully, my social life, social skills, and political savvy improved over time. I found a happier niche with a merry band of alternageeks, and those years still have a special place in my nostalgia file. But I never reconnected with that first group of would-be friends. Sometimes I imagine they’re out there stumbling upon my Facebook profile or my listing in the alumni magazine. I can just hear them scoffing smugly to see that I’ve ended up a SAHM. “Sounds about right. That’s about all she was cut out for.”

Yeah, maybe I’m still bitter. But I haven’t let the bitterness trip up my (oh, forgive me) journey of self-discovery. I could have taken this college experience and parlayed it into the disgust for “liberals” or “elitists” that so many seem to share. But that wasn’t it for me. I had to suck it up, hang back a little and just listen and learn. Hate the arrogance, not the ideals. It would have been nice if those guys had given me more of a chance. But at least I still gave myself a chance.

Okay, we’re venturing into Afterschool Special territory, here. Turn the ship around.

Writing Blows (August 2008)

Two things:

Thing one…I’m 39 today. How did that happen? Oh well. Pass the cupcakes.

Thing two…I’m writing again. I feel like such a dork saying that. Obviously I’m writing again; I’ve been doing all my writing right here on Offsprung. No news there.

But dorkier still, the very sentence “I’m writing again.” Like that should mean something. The fact is, I’ve always gone through these fits and starts of feeling creative and competent as a writer, and in the end nothing really comes of it. Just a few self-important late nights and scribblings. Sometimes I actually finish a story, but typically I don’t. Typically life intervenes. Or my wavering self-esteem intervenes. And gradually I put the writing aside, only to come across it years later and cringe at the truly mediocre work and my poor misguided earnestness all over the pages.

Like anyone attempting creativity, I’ve had a fair amount of setbacks and self-deluding ego inflation. My college boyfriend and I fancied ourselves writers. We took a workshop together with this jaded, turtlenecked, sexy-sour Baby Boomer dude straight from central casting. He was so much more impressed with my boyfriend’s work than mine, which truly was okay with me. My boyfriend was an amazing writer. I was proud just to be sitting next to him. Really, I was.

It’s just . . . there was this one particular incident that happened in the class that’s really stuck with me over the years. Professor Jaded asked my boyfriend to read one of his stories out loud to the class as a stellar example of good short-story writing. My boyfriend’s story wasn’t scheduled to be shared in class at all, but Prof J felt it was so good that he didn’t want us to miss out.

It went something like this: There was this protagonist, a thinly disguised version of my boyfriend and all his loveable sad-sacky insecurities. And then there was the protagonist’s girlfriend, a thinly allegorized version of my unique ability to make him feel stupid and inadequate. And then there was Kate Bush, who magically appears at his apartment door for an unconditional Lurlenesque one-nighter, lifting his spirits and renewing his self-worth . . . until the next morning when his girlfriend Bitchy McKnowitall calls to smack his fragile male ego down again with her annoying competence.

Boyfriend read, the class admired, and I just sat there cringing in the glow of his genius. It was one of those situations that’s so morbidly embarrassing, you can’t even admit you were embarrassed by it. What got me the most was that Prof J knew we were a couple and surely recognized the characters in that story. He’d gone out of his way to make sure I’d hear my boyfriend’s story in his own voice, knowing I’d be sitting right there next to my him for the whole dreadful mess. Why? What sort of a sadistic fuck does something like that?

At the time, I thought Prof J. did it to put me in my place somehow. I believed he’d wanted to demonstrate how significant my boyfriend’s work was and how fluffy mine was by comparison . . . and how fluffy I was by comparison. I remembered this line from Franny and Zooey (that I’m going to misquote because I can’t find a copy of it anywhere). It’s about an English professor dreading having to read piles of badly-written stories about girls who move to the big city because they “Want to Write.” He actually capitalized it. Reading that line made me hang my silly wannabe-writer head a little, that’s for sure. Salinger. That guy kills me.

Anyway. I sort of suspected it was bullshit. But that day in Prof J’s writing workshop was a defining moment for me. I decided I really wasn’t a writer and would probably never be anything more than a writer’s girlfriend. I was kicking ass in my lit classes, so maybe I could at least be a professor or something. And from that point forward, that’s how I imagined our future together: my boyfriend as the artist, me as his adoring academic in the shadows.

Well. None of that came to fruition, obviously. We broke up senior year and eventually went on to other career pursuits. That same year, I fell into a ring of fire with Mr. K., another talented writer and male-angst-bullshit artist. We were in a poetry workshop together where I had the pleasure of hearing him read an incredibly moving piece about his ex-girlfriend. D’oh.

But he wrote beautiful letters for me during the course of our non-relationship. I kept secretly hoping to show up in a story, but never recognized myself even remotely. Until a few years later. We were just getting back together after a long hiatus, and he gave me a new story he’d written. He presented it with a huge disclaimer, insisting that even though this character seems like me and this situation is very familiar, it’s a fictionalization and please don’t be offended.


I read it. And I did not recognize a word of it. Not even close. The character was clearly a satirization of somebody. But it was nobody I ever remembered being, or even affecting. When I asked him which parts were based on me, he got kind of shy about it, sheepishly directing me to a moment in a sex scene. Something I’d supposedly done with him at some point. Okay. Sounded like something I’d do, I guess. But how sad . . . the one detail that finally made it into his story was something I didn’t even remember.

As time went by, I let my relationship with writing sort of ebb and flow. I gave up on academia after completing my Masters, tried to teach for a while, and eventually ended up in the wonderful world of corporate communications and advertising. There have been little bursts of creativity here and there. There have been more writer-boyfriends, but no one who intimidates me like those first two. I’m not sure if that’s because those guys were actually that talented, or if I’ve just gotten more discerning. A little from column A, a little from column B, I suppose.

I want to hide under the bed when I read my alumni magazine sometimes. All these people I went to school with – some of them were obvious superstars at the time, but some not – engaged in creative pursuits. And successful, too. Getting plays produced. Books published. Working on TV series. And then there’s me, Floor “Potato Cooking Housewife” Pie. How did I get here?

It’s my own damn fault, of course. I got too easily discouraged and gave up. I’d try to write and censor myself before I’d barely got the words onto the page. Or I’d complete a first draft and not want to ever touch it again. Didn’t want to do the work. My former classmates who are seeing their creative works published and performed have been working their butts off to make it happen. I don’t begrudge them their success. If that’s what I want, I should follow their example and focus on writing again. Just do it, etc.

But what’s worse than being some pathetic college girl trying to write? How about being some pathetic stay-at-home mom trying to write! I know how much I truly love my vida loca with Impy and Chimpy, and I’m so grateful to women like Anne Lamott and Ayun Halliday for taking the stigma out of it. But I still can’t sit down to write without feeling a little like Peggy Hill going to work on her “Musings.”

The thing is . . . maybe I really do suck. It’s very possible that my writing will never be anything more than competent. And even if I do write something fabulous someday, the chances of publication are not great.

So, okay. But is that a good reason not to do it anyway? Who’s read To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf? Who’s ready to hear me misquote some literature again? Because there is the best, most inspiring, most anti-Prof-J moment toward the end of that novel. I should have it put on a sampler or something. Lily Briscoe is finishing a painting she’d begun years ago, euphoric, finally deciding that it doesn’t matter if the damn thing hangs in an attic or gets stuffed under the furniture for the rest of its existence. It’s about process. The mere act of picking up a paintbrush, the mere process of expression, the attempt at capturing something’s enough.

Speaking of “enough,” my 39-year-old fingers are actually falling asleep as I type. And the kids will be up in a few hours, demanding Magic Schoolbus. I really should sleep soon. But I’m going to keep writing whenever I can find the time and energy. Because what the hell. Art is process.

Happy 39th Birthday to me…

The Groove Myth (August 2008)

I’ll admit it. Sometimes I blame my physical shape on the pregnancies. But in reality, I know my butt was this size well before I ever got knocked up. The c-section muffin top is new, but not the belly. I’ve always had a belly. I secretly loved my pregnant body because pregnancy is the only time a big belly is considered an asset. That gorgeous belly was tight, round, and ripe in those days. Bare in yoga class, peeking from maternity tank tops on the beach. It was a good look for me, and over too soon.

Now the pregnancy phase is over and I’m left with this heap of a late-30something postpartum body that’s actually only slightly looser and heavier than before. But the body image thing doesn’t concern me much. Clothes still look good on me. I can still touch my toes.

No, the big body change that’s been the hardest to accept is the complete overhaul in sexual functionality. My youngest will be two in December and I’ve yet to get my groove back – that is, I haven’t gotten it back in its pre-baby condition.

That’s not to say we’ve been celibate around here. There are numerous workarounds for my ebbing desire and patchy orgasmability, and Mr. Black has been more than game. Quantity hasn’t suffered much (considering we’ve got two little ones running around). Even quality has been perfectly cromulent. It’s just…well…this is not the sex of our twenties.

Sometimes it’s more like the sex of our teens: leaping for the brief window of opportunity when the house is ours, freezing at the slightest noise fearing all might be lost, prizing completion over leisureliness. Sometimes it’s total “business time” efficiency: scheduled beforehand, cutting into our usual Stewart/Colbert-and-snack time, sending us both to sleep before we’ve even post-cuddled. And sometimes, very rarely, the planets align and it’s blissfully reminiscent of the days when we had little else to do but lavish adoration on each other.

Or is that really what it was like in those days? Perhaps I’m romanticizing my pre-baby sex life, just like I’ve done with my pre-baby body.

Sex may have been more plentiful and energetic in those days, but when I was single it wasn’t exactly flawless either. It didn’t always function according to my expectations. It didn’t always match my partner’s enthusiasm or abilities. Even my special “skills” were more like parlor games, done less for my own enjoyment than to impress the partner. There were times when even my orgasms were more for their benefit.

I’m not going to rationalize it to the point where postpartum married sex looks like a party compared to those days. But I will say…much of the carefree-single-days sex was just as perfunctory, just as disappointing, and ended without a man in my kitchen making me gazpacho the next night. I’m just sayin’.

No, what’s missing in my life now isn’t the sex. It’s the sense of possibility. The anticipation. The yearning. The rush of pure delight when you realize you could take this cute guy home tonight! I have easily as many fond memories of flirtatious eyes across the bar as I have memories of whatever happened later that night. Some of my most sweetly remembered relationships are ones that were never consummated. Lust that could have been fulfilled but wasn’t, for whatever reason, just swims in the body through the shoulders, heart, stomach, racing like ice-water through my veins to the point where actual sex would be overstating it. You don’t see that too much in a married relationship.

Although…he is pretty damn cute feeding the cat right now. And even though our relationship has outgrown the sense mystery and yearning, there’s also a strong sense of it in our past if we bother to remember it. This is the guy who swept me off my feet at a friend’s party. This is the guy I cried on my kitchen floor for when he moved to Seattle. This is the guy who welcomed me to join him there, taking me simultaneously to new levels of adventure and commitment in my life.

The physical component of my sex-slump is temporary, I know. Once the baby is completely weaned, I’ll get my mojo back just like I did with my oldest. But this time it won’t be muddled with more attempts to conceive, miscarriages, or pregnancies. (We are definitely complete as a family of four.) Before too long, our youngest will be sleeping more soundly through the night. And if family history is any indication, I won’t have to worry about the big Change for another ten years or so. Things are looking up.

As for the intangible component…the absence of yearning? Well…we’ll always have Paris. Or Philadelphia, as the case may be. Mr. Black and I have grown and changed so much together, and this is all a part of it. We’ll never be new to each other again. We’ll never be unattainable. We’re free to take each other for granted, and sometimes we do. But we’re still in love. We’re still good friends, still deeply meaningful in each other’s lives. That’s got to count for something.

The Pennsylvania We Never Found (July 2008)

It’s ironic that so many of our vacations take us to Berks County, PA, considering how much time I spent planning to get out… As a ten-year-old poring over my encyclopedias, looking up all the different states, trying to imagine where in the world I might live and what my state bird might be. As a teen with no date to the junior prom, wandering through a cornfield and picturing those miles of green were Manhattan city blocks. As a college student drudging my way through boring summer jobs at home, missing this or that boyfriend, dreaming of the beaded curtains and candles we might use to decorate some future apartment. Thinking up names for future cats.

Now, well into adulthood and healthily established in my beloved Seattle, I find myself back home for a family visit and making that familiar left turn toward our old community pool. It’s just an unremarkable little blue rectangle in a field of dried yellow grass. Japanese beetles float on the pool’s surface, Toby Keith blares from the loudspeakers. But the kids love it! A pool is a pool is a pool as far as they’re concerned. Besides, it’s too hot not to swim and gas is too expensive for an elaborate itinerary of day trips.

So, I sit on a picnic table and watch my son and his cousin splashing gleefully while my toddler-girl snoozes in a patch of shade. I’ve never actually sat and listened to all the lyrics of “Courtesy of the Red White and Blue” before. Underneath the saber rattling, it’s kind of sweet in its own way. Reminds me of my 4-year-old’s straightforward and earnest solutions to everyday problems: “Mommy, why are we stuck in traffic? Why don’t you just drive right past?” And I feel benignly disconnected from this place, this scene.

Then. The radio station switches from country to one of those “music mix” stations, and Yvonne Elliman’s “If I Can’t Have You” blasts me straight back to the summer of 1978 with an unexpected surge of remembered optimism: the summer my family moved here. To our farm.

Just as I spent my youth dreaming of living somewhere new, my mother spent her youth dreaming of living in a hilltop farmhouse surrounded by horses and chickens. We’d moved to Pennsylvania for my dad’s job in the early 1970s and had been living in suburbia for the time being. Finding her childhood dream-farm was Mom’s mission. My parents looked and looked. Hopes would surge and crash as each new prospect didn’t work out. My sisters and I were hanging in there in suburbia, yearning for the idealized country life of our Tasha Tudor and Maple Hill Farm books, waiting for our dreams to be realized.

And one day, just like that, my mother found her farmhouse. It was a white stone house with a green roof on top of a hill, surrounded by an old orchard, woods, and fields. There was a barn and an old building that had been converted to a guest house, a huge willow tree on the lawn and an old-fashioned green water pump in front. She was in love. We all were.

We waited anxiously to see if it was really going to happen this time, hoping against hope. Just a few weeks before summer vacation, our parents closed on the house. Mom met us joyfully in the driveway, gave us the news, and gave us each a present to celebrate Farm Day!

That summer was all about the move. Mom packed boxes while the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack pumped in the background, forming my delightfully incongruous association with disco music and farm-related optimism. We said goodbye to our elementary school friends and wondered hopefully about our new school, where we’d take the bus instead of walk (just like the kids in our farm books). Maybe we’d grow our own fruit and vegetables! Maybe we’d have a horse! When our cousins all came to visit during that summer, we asked our dad to take a before/after picture of us all looking sad on our suburban lawn and happy in front of the farmhouse. We made up songs with titles like “Down on the Farm” and performed them for all the relatives.

That first year was a big adventure for us. We explored our new surroundings and marveled at the differences between country and suburbia – always with a positive spin in favor of country. We tramped through the woods behind our house and took rides on the back of our dad’s new tractor. In the winter, we’d huddle in front of the heat vents to read, channeling Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Our optimism remained, even as Mom was coming to grips with the unpleasant realities of country life: the insular, politically conservative community; the lackluster school; the aggravation and expense of trying to remodel a 100+ year-old home. More and more, it seemed, this farm wasn’t going to offer the “happily ever after” it had promised.

The one-year anniversary of our closing day came, and I asked Mom what we were doing to celebrate Farm Day this year. She just looked at me with such a sad, loving, “no such thing as Santa Claus” face. She didn’t need to say anything more. Farm Day was a myth. We all knew it. The sense of joy and hope had dwindled, the excitement had worn off. The stress was taking its toll on our parents. The kids at school were meaner than any Maple Hill Farm book ever led me to believe. By 5th grade, I had my face in those encyclopedias, plotting my escape.

For a long time, I held on to a “farm bring pain” attitude, seeking out an urban lifestyle at all costs. Looking back on it now, I think I was a little too quick to blame our subsequent unhappiness on the setting. Seems like no matter where we grow up, we come to associate our hometowns with the worst parts of our childhood and adolescence. But these things would have happened regardless of the town’s political and cultural climate; regardless of my parents’ homeownership woes. Come to think of it, my mom spent most of her childhood in Philadelphia. Seems pretty likely that her farm-love had similar origins. We romanticize the unfamiliar setting because it’s alien to our actual imperfect experience.

And the way I romanticize Seattle is not that different from the way my mom romanticized the farm. When I think of my day-to-day life, it’s probably not much different here than it would be anywhere else. Mainstream with mountains in the background.

And yet… those mountains. And that subtle smell of ocean in the air sometimes, those summer nights when the sun doesn’t set until ten, the misty spring rain, the evergreens, the sailboats on Lake Union, the murals, even the damn Space Needle with its eerie glow at night…somehow it all really does make a difference. Something about this setting feels particularly like “home” to me. I can’t explain why. Maybe my kids will love it too. Or maybe they’ll be plotting their escapes to New York or Santa Fe or Paris . . . or a hilltop farmhouse.

Red, White . . . Blue (July 2008)

Toward the end of graduate school, I thought I might end my “bad girl” days and couple up with a sweet friend who’d been pining for me. It was hopefully cozy for a while, but didn’t survive a long-distance summer separation. By late June, I’d rolled into dorm-bed with some alterna-mimbo undergrad. My sweet guy and I spent Fourth of July weekend breaking up. Sad talks on the beach, sad talks under the fireworks, sad silent drive home. Aimee Mann’s first solo album was out, and her song “Fourth of July” pretty much set the tone for that one.

And many others, it turned out. Some people have ironically melancholy Valentines Days. I have ironically melancholy Fourths of July. For whatever reason, my summer romances just couldn’t make it past Independence Day.

The following summer, I had high hopes for short-term thrills with a Borders clerk who played in a Grateful Dead cover band. I know, I know. But he had such a boundless capacity for joy, a great laugh, great make-out skills, and access to his parents’ beach house. Why the hell not? And I really liked him. But by Fourth of July weekend, this dude who’d been nothing but starry-eyed suddenly disdained me with a “get lost little sister” attitude. I spent that Independence Day watching fireworks on my roommate’s boyfriend’s roof, sadly acknowledging that Jack Straw wanted nothing to do with me anymore.

Another summer, I walked a dangerous line with a co-worker from a branch office. After years of phone flirtation and one Lost In Translationy business trip together, we were poised to have an affair. He claimed he was in an open marriage, and while I wasn’t naïve enough to believe it, I was selfish enough to pretend I did. We’d never so much as kissed, but we were ready to take the plunge. After that trip, I went home to Philadelphia and waited. Waited for a letter from him. Waited for news that he’d be in town for work. A week went by. Then two. Then almost three.

I’d just started a new job, my first corporate job. One day I happened to glance out the window in time to catch a flower delivery guy walking across our rainy parking lot with a comically huge bouquet of undelivered sunflowers in his arms. I froze. Somehow I just knew they were for me. Married Guy had once asked me what my favorite flower was, and I’d said sunflowers. I was brand new to the company and not on any distribution lists yet. The receptionist probably sent the flower delivery guy away. Thank God. I watched those giant sunflowers, their huge heads bobbing foolishly in the rain, and I knew it was never going to happen with Married Guy. The flowers were waiting for me in my apartment building when I got home. I composed my “thank you / let’s bee friends” letter and set out for a long walk to think it all through. Fireworks filled the sky as I stepped onto the sidewalk.

And then, just six months later, Mr. Black came into my life. Our Fourths were a little boring sometimes, but never heartbreaking.


Not quite one year into the marriage, and: What could this mean? My period hasn’t stopped in almost two weeks. The nurse asks if I’m using birth control, I reply no and tell her we’ve been trying to have a baby. The nurse instructs me to buy a home pregnancy test and call them if it’s positive.

Maybe I wasn’t naïve and hopeful enough to believe that Married Guy was in an open relationship. But I was over-the-moon naïve and hopeful about this. Somehow the two weeks of bleeding – not to mention an early miscarriage I’d had a few months prior – was not enough of a warning sign for me. I practically skipped with joy to the pharmacy, bought a bunch of home pregnancy tests, and thrilled as each set of double lines popped more positive than the last! Hooray! After eight months of trying and one early pregnancy loss, it was really happening! Who knew that two weeks of bleeding could be a pregnancy sign?

Well, I called the doctor’s office from work the next day to discreetly report my delightful news and await further instructions. But something wasn’t quite right in the nurse’s tone. And the questions she was asking…it didn’t seem like a conversation between a newly pregnant woman and her nurse. It seemed more serious. And I had to ask:

“So…does this mean I’m…pregnant?”

“Well…,” the nurse replied, “…it means…you were.”

Ah, crying at work. Watching those pink cubicle walls go all blurry as I fumble my way through the rest of the conversation. Who doesn’t love that? Lucky for me, my boss was on vacation and I had the key to her office. I slipped in, shut the door, and sobbed like a freshman.

Thankfully, we had Fourth of July off and I could do the rest of my crying in the comfort of our bedroom. And backyard. And couch. And bathroom floor. We tried to make the holiday fun, like it’s supposed to be. I remember hazily trying to pick out fancy deli foods at the natural foods co-op for a picnic. I remember drinking blender after blender of margaritas. I remember watching a “Daria” marathon on TV while Mr. Black went to a party. And when the fireworks started, I sat alone on our front steps listening to another drunken party down the street and watching glimpses of distant pinks and purples sparkling behind the trees.

And I thought about how far I’d come since breaking up with my sweet grad-school boyfriend under the fireworks. This would be another one of those summers. Never thought I’d be back there again. I had no idea, all these years later, that my summers of break-ups would prepare me for this. The losses were similar: loss of a relationship, loss of a pregnancy I didn’t even know I’d had. While it’s an actual, tangible loss in one sense, it’s really about the loss of hopes and dreams; the loss of an ideal.

And I wondered to myself, where will I be next year? Will I be sitting here on these steps watching the fireworks, but four months pregnant? Will we be filling out adoption paperwork? Or maybe even comforting a newborn baby who’s frightened by the noise?

I remembered my doctor’s comforting remark that I had a 90% chance of a healthy pregnancy next time. So now, the necessary months of healing were ahead of me. I had to go on and be hopeful again. I had to wake up and see the trees and the sunshine and the sweet blue eyes of my husband. Watch some movies. Drink some grapefruit juice. I had to draw on whatever wisdom I’d gained from the single days and hope for a similar happy outcome. We were on our path.

Happy Independence Day.