Shopping in Pajamas

August 27, 2015 § 4 Comments

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I have taught approximately 950 students in the past 4.5 years. Some are repeats, but still. That means, when you live in the same place you teach, you can’t go anywhere without being recognized. I have some talents, but they are limited. I can, for example, remember 120 students’ names each semester, provided they sit in the same spot for the first two weeks of class. It’s a visual/situational memory thing. Unless they have made an impression on me in some other way by the end of the semester, however, I unconsciously delete the names to make room for the new batch. But I always remember faces. Jeff did not teach as many students, but he got to know his students well over the years. In North Carolina, there was nowhere we could go within a 15-mile radius where we wouldn’t be recognized by somebody: no coffee shop, restaurant, or grocery store, at least. On my last day in Durham, we went to the Whole Foods, sweaty and disheveled from packing, and I ran into a student I hadn’t seen in a year or so. I remembered his face. I was grateful for his nametag. He remembered me. I smoothed my hair to try to look closer to my work self. He told me I’d made him like English, which may have been a fib, just because Jeff was standing there, but still, when you are leaving a place you didn’t plan to ever leave, you love everything about it, especially students who say kind things.

Now, that is gone. I could be anybody, just another one of the millions of people in the Northeast from around the whole world. Predictably, I miss being recognized as “Ms. Whetstone.” I knew who that was, what I was expected to say, even if I was embarrassed that a former student was scanning my tampons or cheap wine.

I am anonymous here for at least a few more weeks. on the upside, I could wear pajamas to the grocery with no shame if I wanted. Hell, slippers even. (Apparently, this is a thing. See the photo I found on the Internet.) I don’t have to make eye contact, much less conversation, with anyone in retail. Still, I must admit, I felt slighted when the guy who checked me out at Ross the other day told me the total due and turned away as he gave me my receipt, as if I was already gone– as if I was nobody. Not even a nod.

Jeff says he likes this, the anonymity of a new place. We haven’t even run into anyone in NYC—doesn’t that always randomly happen? We are individuals at the tail end of a liminal space—stepping off from the unknown to the barely known.

A week ago, I was on the way to meet a friend of a friend for the first time, and I heard someone call out, “Stephanie!” There are a lot of people with my name, so I just kept going on my bike, then I heard it again. I stopped and turned around. It was the one friend I already know in this town. It actually was my name being called, a great and wonderous surprise.

My invisibility cloak is slipping. Then again, maybe the thing never fully covered me anyway. Today, in the phone store, the young guy waiting on us observed, “Your accent is different than his (meaning Jeff). When he talks to me, his changes a little, like he’s travelled for business. Yours is stronger.”

“Where do you think I’m from?” I ask. I think I sound like I’m from Kentucky/North Carolina, but I’ve been placed anywhere from Mississippi to England.

“The South,” the guy says.

“You have a good ear,” I say.

I guess I never was totally anonymous. I’m just not sitting in the same spot.

Model Home

July 16, 2015 § 3 Comments

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In the spring, when we finally know for sure that Jeff got the job in New Jersey, we hire some realtors. We’ve lived in this house for 13 years, longer than I’ve lived in any other house, my kids’ whole childhood, and it seems strange to think that anyone else could live here. We claimed it as ours long ago with holes in the walls, worn floors, an aging paint job, an un-remodeled kitchen. “I don’t want to move,” Jack Henry says. “Me neither,” I say.

The realtors tell us we should re-finish the floors, paint the walls, install something called a vapor barrier under the house, lay carpet upstairs, “update” the kitchen, and spruce up the yard. Okay! We say, envisioning the bidding war which will surely come, the money we will use to move to a much more expensive area of the country. Piece of cake, right? Wrong. Very, very wrong. The painter, a sweet man named Leonardo (I kid you not) begins to dig though the work. He is punctual, methodical, dignified, and silent. Furniture must be moved, rooms must be cleared. We rush around, each night before Leonardo hits a room, rearranging and moving, removing the evidence of our lives. We rent a storage space because the floor guy, an Eastern European who has no time for humor, needs an empty house to do his work. We move everything out, including the dog, and move into a hotel. Floor guy is appalled to find that we will be moving back in after his masterpiece is finished. It is a masterpiece, by the way. The floors give off their own otherworldly golden light. Still, we can’t afford to stay in the hotel forever. I make everyone take off their shoes when they come in to see the improvements. We move a few mattresses back in, but not much else. Our lives move forward with work and school, but the house is in the way, or we are in its way. “Mom, I just need a surface to write on,” Jack Henry says. I tell him to use the kitchen counter until Elvis (again, his real name) and his crew show up to fix the kitchen. When they arrive the next day, they tear out the counters, so now, there are no surfaces for homework or cooking, and for one harrowing day when they change the sink, there is no water.

I blame Martha Stewart and HGTV for this torture. When we bought our first house, before Cole was born, there was no such thing as “staging.” It was clear that you bought a house to live in. There might be toiletries in the bathroom when you looked at a house. A kid might have left his socks on the floor. That was the good old days.

We are instructed to stay out of our house as much as possible. It won’t take long to sell, everyone tells us. We hear of houses that sold in hours, not days. We certainly do not expect weeks. Everyone is wrong. As soon as the house goes on the market, a heat wave hits. It is above 95 degrees for about two weeks straight. Maybe that is why it doesn’t sell in a day. No one can say. We dutifully eat out, make our beds first thing in the morning, wipe the sinks down every time we brush our teeth. Our 12-year-old dog, Annie, spends more time in the car than she ever has. As I drive around with my clothes in the trunk of my car and Annie in the back seat, head hanging out the window, I wonder what it is like to really have no place to go, not even a car. I vow to work with the homeless. I begin to fantasize about living in a messy house again.

My sister, Katie, comes to visit. “Your house used to have so much soul,” she says. Now, it is beautiful, but sterile, in a Southern Living photo shoot sort of way. We are at each other’s throats over things like leaving a cup in the sink. It is a model home, meant to help people imagine a perfect life, not meant to actually live in.

We visit New Jersey, and the house we have decided to rent. It is empty, but wonderfully wonky. It is not perfectly polished or staged. I can imagine my kids’ socks on the floor, an occasional glob of toothpaste in the sink. I can imagine making a messy meal in the kitchen and gathering with friends (at least my imaginary new friends) to enjoy it. By now we are aching to get to a place where we can relax, spread out, maybe even (gasp!) leave the dishes until morning. I guess we are selling the house our kids grew up in in all its glowing floor glory, but we are taking our messy lives with us. That, Martha, is a good thing.

Directly/Indirectly

February 14, 2015 § Leave a comment

I heard it on the news, and on Facebook, which is faster than the news. Then, I heard, maybe it was one of the women’s husbands, a domestic dispute, not because she was Muslim. Somehow, I don’t know how, that seemed more comprehensible than a hate crime on a very low scale of horrible to worse—a different kind of hate—which in itself says plenty about what we get used to accepting, moving on from. When I got to school, the first person I ran into was Ama. She had emigrated with her husband, but he was shot at the convenience store he owned in Raleigh a long time ago, and she had been on her own for many years. She had taken my English 111 class. She was diligent in every way. She had seen a lot, raised four children. She was Muslim. We said how terrible the triple murder was. I told her the husband theory. No! She said. That’s propaganda. She was 21. My son knew her. Her husband and sister were killed too–a beautiful family!

I went on to teach class, Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.” He said so many indelible things, like: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” I explained that to the class, but they knew what it meant. And then this: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” The truth of this echoed. A few students had claimed at the beginning of class that the reading was boring. I asked them to listen to the power of the words, still resonating after 52 years. The idea that we live in an inescapable network of mutuality has yet to hit home with many.

A few years before, I had had a fantastic student, a woman who wore colorful hijabs to match her outfit. She was planning to be a respiratory therapist. When we read “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” that semester, she told me she took it home and made her kids read it. We talked a lot in that class about tolerance, justice, and action. It wasn’t until the end of that semester that I found out her husband is in jail, charged as a terrorist. I had thought I knew what that meant. I found pictures of her on the Internet proclaiming his innocence, face covered, all but her eyes. I knew her eyes though: warm, kind, thoughtful. I didn’t know how to reconcile what she’d told me with what the papers said. I just knew that I was tied to her too.

After class this week, I found out that the man who murdered the young family in Chapel Hill was a student at this very school. My school. The administration sent an email. Part time student, they said, trying to limit the ties, but still. He could have been in one of my classes. They were required for his program. I wondered which of my colleagues had pulled that short straw. Though, when he had been in class, semesters before, would they have known? Would it have made a difference if he had read Dr. King? If he had pondered “networks of mutuality?” I was secretly glad that I had never met him, and wouldn’t have to second guess every word I had ever said in his class.

Like everybody in my community, I can’t make sense of  these murders, this terrorism. Over parking? As if that’s understandable, as if it’s not about hate? I wonder if I ever took this man’s spot in the parking lot outside my building. It would have been legal for him to have a gun in his car. Would he have shot me, my hair a wild mess, uncovered?

So this is community college. This is community. The single garment of destiny: Muslim, Christian, Jew, Atheist. All in the same place, walking through the same halls. “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” How do we make sense of senseless violence? of hate? How do we reconcile this in one small building, one small state, one world?

Tone and Burn

February 9, 2015 § Leave a comment

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I’m taking a fitness class called C-Fit “Tone and Burn.” I thought it might be a good way to start the year— you know, out with the old and in with the new, trading muscle for fat. I wanted to see a difference. Each Monday, I lift weights and run and jump and lift weights again. The first night after the class, I woke up with my chest burning at three am. I was also starving, but I knew better than to eat in the middle of the night. The muscles (who knew they were under there?) were calling out for some kind of relief, but when you can’t even really say where that pain begins, just that it is filling your chest and calling you from sleep, how can you fix it? You breathe until you go back to sleep.

My kids are buff, especially the younger one who does karate. In our dining room, at night, he flexes without a shirt on, admiring his physique in the reflection of the bright light on the windowpanes, the night outside a black velvet backdrop. Jeff and I are in awe of him too. His muscle is the result of years of discipline and dedication at karate class. He has special push ups named after him. It is this confidence I’m going for, more than the actual muscle and fat loss. I want to feel strong.

I haven’t been writing this blog, or much of anything in the past several weeks. It looks like 2015 is bringing a lot of changes to my life—new people, new places, hopefully new work—and I had to sit with all that for a while. Now, I’m ready to build all kinds of muscle, to make something new.

I asked my son what he thought about maybe being in a new place. He thought, then got practical: “I’m smart, kind of good looking, and I play sports. I’m good at making friends,” he said. “I’ll be fine.” I am trying to borrow his confidence in redefining himself. I want to have his honesty, to own what I’ve come this far to get. It goes against my upbringing, against the culture for that matter, but I can recall Jack Handy if I need to. I guess teenagers have to do that everyday. There’s more excitement to it than fear—more thrill at admiring newly developed muscles.

I am now able to tone and burn without waking in the middle of the night starving and in pain. Well, maybe with just a little pain and hunger. Change must be felt, I guess.Pretty soon, I’ll be ready to flex in the dining room window.

Late Night Grocery

October 27, 2014 § 1 Comment

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My mom visits me in strange ways. For no reason, out of the blue sometimes, she’s with me, watching, wanting to be in my life. She always liked to direct, rather than act. Sure, it’s psychological, but I feel her. In remembering her, somehow, I conjure her. Last week, in the grocery store, she was riding shotgun in the cart. I’m a practical person. I make a list, then I forget to bring the list, but it’s in my head. That night, my mom was making decisions. I let her have free rein.

First: In the produce aisle, we are not interested in actual vegetables—they’re so, well, green, but we want champagne dressing. My mom, you see, was an expert in condiments and was never very interested in vegetables, except the occasional artichoke with lots of melted butter, and maybe some Romaine. I tasted champagne dressing way before I ever tasted champagne. Bottles of mustard often fell out of her refrigerator in crazy defiance because they had been so confined in the side of her refrigerator door. I make Mom skip the horseradish mustard this time.

We want chocolate, of course, but that is both of us. She wants the one with chili in it. Nothing could be spicy enough. She wants to feel it. We skip the meat section. She always thought it was strange that I went vegetarian in high school, but I rarely saw her eat anything but a carb. We hit the chips and crackers because that’s dinner.

Ooh! The bargain basket! Here we find all kinds of treasures. It’s not that she wants the bargain–that’s me. But she points out the purple eye shadow for $1.99 and the bacon bowls. Yes. A bacon bowl is what you think it is, and it comes in a box. That’s why it’s in the bargain basket. I don’t even eat real bacon. But she wants it. Just to see. I pick it up, consider its comic value, then toss it back into the basket.

The wine aisle? She always had a special fondness for Stag’s Leap, or maybe it was Frog’s Leap—I can’t remember—doesn’t matter, I guess. She really wants the pricier one.

In the bread aisle, we see a man with a prosthetic leg, wearing shorts. I look away, but Mom pulls me back to look. There is a color photo printed on the plastic calf of the leg: a little girl with blonde curls, smiling. I can’t stop looking at it, even though I know this is rude. My mom would go talk to him, ask if the girl was his granddaughter. Why would he have a photo on it, if he didn’t want you to look?  she says. I walk past him, but now I can’t look away from the leg photo. I don’t ask the questions she’s prompting me to ask, I just get a loaf of whole wheat and leave the man to choose his bagels.

By the checkout, I really feel that Mom is there in the lonely late night Kroger. We unashamedly look at the gossip mags, consider the candy, buy a pumpkin on the way out the door. When I get to the car, though, she slips away into the night, no doubt on a hunt for wasabi mustard.

Joiner

October 10, 2014 § 1 Comment

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Joiner

I’ve been thinking about the verb join. This is what Webster’s Online Dictionary says it means: a. to put or bring together so as to form a unit b. to connect by a line c. to put or bring into close association or relationship d. to engage in e. to come into the company of f. to associate oneself with.

I’ve never been a joiner in the sense of d, e, or f. I was born into a team of five sisters. That’s enough. I don’t need to commit to any other group. Jeff says I missed out by not playing team sports, but had I been a point guard, I doubt I would have ever passed the ball. I hated when the teacher made us do group work. If you grow up in a group, you learn to fend for yourself, to desire your own company. Squeaky wheels and all that. A friend who also grew up in a family of five says he doesn’t like to share things now because he shared everything growing up. I get that.

Jeff was born to be a camp counselor, a team captain. He really believes that more is merrier. I think it’s just more. Maybe it’s because he grew up with only one much older brother. Maybe it’s because he wanted a tribe to roam the woods with. I always wanted to set myself apart from my tribe, alone in the woods, until I joined him.

Lately, I’ve been joining people in the sense of a, b, and c above. I’ve been marrying my friends. Not that way. What I mean is I got to stand up in front of them and officiate twice this year. I’m a reverend, according to the Internet and the state of North Carolina, the state of Texas, too. My friend Lauren was a little worried her North Carolina wedding wouldn’t be legal, but she married a man, so when we turned in the license, the lady at the desk only asked if she wanted a copy.

It is a privilege for me to join my friends, to help seal their deal with each other in front of their friends and family. We come together today to join this man and this woman (or this woman and this woman or this man and this man). Coming together to join, to become a part of, to come into the company of, to associate with. I’m all for that, now that I know you can join someone and still be alone in the woods from time to time.

I can’t imagine my life without my group of college friends, friends from other parts of my life, the family Jeff and I have created. If I connect them all together, they are a web, a net—that still leaves me space to breathe. I can see how anyone would want that. I can’t imagine being told I couldn’t have it. I believe in joining, in unions, and I’m thankful that very soon in North Carolina and in most of the country, I’ll be able to join anyone who wants to come together so as to form a unit with anyone else.

Easy Birth

August 13, 2014 § 1 Comment

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I called my dad to tell him his first grandson had been born. He wanted to confirm the gender. You see, I’m the fourth of five girls, and my sister had two daughters, so my dad was incredulous that I’d actually given birth to a boy child.
“I’m sure,” I said. “It’s definitely a boy. Definitely boy parts.”
“Well, it’s good you had an easy time delivering,” he said.
Easy? That’s not the word I would have chosen after ten hours of labor and some stitches. Should any birth be described as easy? I just expelled a person! But my dad was an OBGYN. He knew better than I did what could go wrong, how long labor could last, all the complications I could have had. It was a miracle I’d had this healthy baby boy.
“Relatively easy, I guess,” I said.
“What’s his name?” he asked.
“Oliver Cole.”
“Ollie!”
“Um, “ I said, thinking of Oliver North, “We’re going to call him Cole.”
This was yesterday, except not. It has taken us over seventeen years to get to this point. And now, I won’t see my boy every day, or every week, or even every month.

For the last month, I have felt a strange combination of excitement/joy and total despondency. I wanted to know the name of this, a word for the feeling, so I took a page from my kids’ book and Googled it. “What is Bipolar disorder?” was the first hit. Exactly. I want to send away the person I’ve been protecting for almost 18 years. Elated and bereft. Schizophrenia, maybe? The Halloween decorations in Costco almost made me cry the other day because Cole won’t be here in October. Stupid, I know, but I was feeling, as my friend Laurie says, “all the feelings.” Forget about the grocery store. It’s a fucking minefield. I stocked up on Nutella. For medicinal purposes.

My dad is gone. I can’t impress him with the fact that his grandson is going to Harvard. I can’t tell you how much I want to say that to him—to prove all sorts of things that don’t really need proving. He would have felt justified, so to speak–hillbilly doctor’s intellect finally validated by the one of the world’s pickiest validators. Me too, somehow. Face it: we live through our grandchildren and children. I’d love to tell my dad, whose letters from Eastern Kentucky University to his mother said a lot about laundry and how he thought he might could scrape together enough money to get home for Christmas break.

So, this weekend, we will head up to the frigid North—why would anyone live there? You don’t have to be cold all the time. Who ever heard of Spring coats? But still. There are so many books and people who love them there. So many people whose bodies are just carrying cases for their brains–my boy’s lost tribe.

Jeff says I should imagine the quiet—no large, gangly human clanging around the kitchen for a midnight snack. No one banging out Maple Leaf Rag on the piano for hours and hours on end. Lord knows, I have yelled enough for quiet and just a little goddamn peace! So many wishes and fears come true.

This is the real birth into the world. We got him an ID card (he still doesn’t drive), signed him up to vote (absentee, we need him here!) and got his lost debit card reissued. He’s a grown up to strangers, capable of the intellectual thought of the ancients, but incapable of making his bed, buying groceries, etc.

Nobody asks you if you kick ass at breastfeeding, once your baby can eat. After awhile, no one can even guess whether you’ve given birth. I have a lot of obsolete skills. Gave birth just like in the textbook, the midwife said. Easy birth, she called it too.

There’s no visible sign that someone is going missing from your life, having the time of his life, becoming a full person in the world, filling you with all of the feelings at once. Except for the slight smear of Nutella above the lip.

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