Courage Lessons

September 5, 2019 § 2 Comments

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I am taking flying lessons at the local airport, the one with the “Learn to Fly Here!” sign, and I love it. I’m also terrified. I was driven to do this because my mother and grandmother and dad all flew, and I’m writing a novel about women pilots. I also took flying lessons when I was sixteen years old, and when, according to my ancient student pilot’s license, I was 107 pounds. That was a long, long, time ago. Many pounds.

I try to schedule my lessons in the mornings, so I don’t have long to worry about them. By now, I am comfortable in the plane, I trust myself to do the pre-flight, the take-off, straight and level flight, but I am at the point where there is a real possibility I could solo soon. That’s right, take an airplane into the sky, fly it around, and land it ALL BY MYSELF. Or fail to land it. You see where the fear comes in, right?

For some reason, I trust my instructor, Steve, implicitly. Like, with my life. When he calmly asks me to try a 45 degree steep turn and says, “Do you feel the g-force pushing you into your seat?” I nod, while pulling back on the yoke for dear life. “That’s like 1.4 g’s,” Steve says. “Actually, that’s too much bank. You’re closer to 60 degrees.” I roll gently out of the turn, and he is still placid as a lake. 

He pushes me to try slow flight and power off stalls, but I chicken out for the power on stalls, which require a steeper angle. Turns out, I like altitude and speed. I hate slowing down and descending. We switch to practicing navigation instead. Each lesson, now that we are practicing maneuvers, I go up nervous and come down exhilarated. I hate roller coasters, but for you who love them, it’s a lot like that, but you get to be totally in control. The control part is my favorite. The fear of death, not so much.

I wish that I were as brave (or at least had as much bravado) as the teenage and twenty-ish boys who are my cohort. I tell Cole, who is 22, this. Actually, I ask him if it isn’t stupid to spend a lot of money on something that scares you, that may not have a practical use, that requires constant money and time, that is, as Steve says, “a perishable skill.” 

“I can tell you love it,” Cole says. 

“But then why am I scared?” I ask. 

“It’s like courage lessons,” he says. “So that’s totally worth it.” 

I do feel pretty badass when I’m floating in the sky, looking left toward New York City and right to Philadelphia. I do feel a thrill when we take off and a relief when we land. I did not expect this to be such a psychological and emotional test. It feels like the equivalent of years of therapy. I have no choice but to trust myself, to be confident that I can do whatever needs to be done, that I am the real fucking deal. Courage lessons. I like that. Maybe it’s worth it after all. 

 

Transitions

August 22, 2019 § 7 Comments

imagesThis summer, I have been in transition. No, not that kind of transition. I have been preparing for the change in my house, for my baby leaving for college, for having to decide who I am when “mom” isn’t the first way I think of myself. I’ve done it before–sort of. My oldest has graduated and moved back home for a few months here and there, but now he’s getting ready to leave soon too, for graduate school in another country. This time, the change feels more permanent. 

Jeff says we should be excited–that we’ll get to do all the things we used to do, you know, twenty-three years ago, before our oldest was born. “What did we used to do?” I ask. I seriously have a hard time remembering what it was like to not have kids. I mean, I have memories from that time, but I don’t remember how it felt day-to-day, probably because I didn’t realize then that I wouldn’t feel that way again for another twenty-three years.Was I lonely? No, I don’t remember that. Bored? Definitely not. But then, I had my whole life ahead of me. I was still relatively new to the adult world. Anything could happen. 

For weeks before the big day–the trip out to the midwest in a mini-van packed with the requisite comforter, shower caddy, etc., etc., I could feel it coming. It was not unlike the last trimester. I had alternating waves of preemptive grief and parental pride; I nested, cooking huge meals that my youngest would only have a bite of before he zoomed out of the house to meet another friend. Jeff and I felt a little paralyzed. As parents, when your kid is getting ready to leave town, you come behind the girlfriend, the friends from high school, the friends from middle school, everybody else. I tried to focus on my own work, to practice my new life, but it didn’t really work. My head was fogged. And I didn’t want to leave the house for long in hopes that he might come home and hang out for even a minute or two. I know, I sound desperate, and I was, kind of. I was desperate to hold on to my kid, to my life as I’ve know it for more than two decades. 

In labor, transition is the hard part. It hurts the most. That’s where all the birth horror stories come from. But then, the baby comes out, and your body is flooded with glorious endorphins, and you have this perfect, tiny creature in your arms, and everything’s a miracle–pain, what pain? You’d do it again without thinking. Would there be endorphins once he was out in the world, launched into college, away from home for months at a time? Would he come home for the summers? Would I still turn my head in a store any time a kid yelled Mom

Let me advise you now that if your child picks a school that is fifteen hours away, you are wise to fly, and yet, we drove. I wanted to spend that time with Jack Henry, trapped in the bubble of a van for one last bonding time.

For the first four hours, he slept and sulked. He had stayed out for a long late night of goodbyes. He had left his first love. He was a little scared, though he would never admit that. 

We stopped in Pittsburg to pick up the guitar he had lent to a friend who had moved there with his family right after graduation. It was on the way, he could see the friend, and he would need music. He perked up. 

By the time we reached our mid-way stopping point, near Columbus, Jack Henry was excited again. He took a shift driving. He talked about what was ahead. He played the guitar in the back seat. We finally arrived, checked out the city, and slept in a hotel near campus. 

Move-in was like summer camp on steroids. Groups of confident sophomores cheered for us as we pulled up to the drop off. I’m talking whoops and hollers. Where should we park? Jeff asked. In lot one, a confident sophomore said. Jack Henry started to get back into the van. You stay, I said. We park. He looked confused, but stayed. As we made our way back to the dorms from the parking lot, it dawned on me: he has not imagined this yet. Intellectually, he knew that we were leaving, that his new life was beginning, that he would be living fifteen hours away and did not yet know anyone, but he hadn’t followed through with picturing it. I’m a little wide-eyed, he said. 

After his room was arranged, his dorm t-shirt donned, our campus tour complete, we got coffee. Do you need anything else before we leave? Jeff asked. When are you leaving? Jack Henry said. Now, like right after we get you back to the dorm.

He was a little wide-eyed. 

We did leave, and I teared up, and we drove and drove and drove the two days home, with a stop in Dayton. I resisted calling him until we were almost home, in Pennsylvania. How’s it going, I asked. Great, he said. I played basketball, and I emailed my advisor, and I have to go soon because I’m having dinner with my suite. It happened that fast. He started his new life. I’m excited for him, for me too, really, but I have to admit: I’m a little wide-eyed.

Pennies a Pound

October 4, 2017 § 6 Comments

 

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It is a gorgeous September day, and I have found out that there is a “pennies-a-pound” flying event not too far away in Pennsylvania. I have mentioned this to Jack Henry, asked him if he wants to go with me, to ride in a small plane for the first time for “pennies-a-pound.” “Maybe,” he says, and I scour his vocal tone for the slight uptick to the maybe that means “Yes, that sounds like fun!” or “No. Please stop talking to me.” I think it is the former, but I am not certain. His tonal language is as intricate as Mandarin these days.

Later, when I have all but given up the idea, Jeff tells me that Jack Henry has told him about it. He wants to go. I want this so much, even though I’m not sure why, but I know that the more I say I want it, the more it will become undesirable to a sixteen-year-old. I wait.

The day of the event, I ask Jack Henry again if he wants to go, that I am leaving in thirty minutes. He says yeah without hesitation. This is a huge endorsement.

We drive the hour and fifteen minutes to the Pennsylvania line and then some, along the outer boundaries of Philly, toward hills and past two nuclear power stacks, to Pottstown, where the tiny airport sits hidden in a shallow valley.

I am a little nervous, I admit. I have never met these people. I have only ever flown with instructors, my parents, or professional pilots–put my life in their hands. For a minute, I worry that I am leading my child to great danger. But right now, he thinks this is exciting and cool, so I go ahead as if I don’t have a care in the world.

The hangar that usually holds two twin-engine planes is now also full of old white people, mostly women. It is a world I grew up in, so I am not startled, but it is not the world Jack Henry knows or expects. He is a little taken aback. This is my 1980s in a nutshell, preserved and aging white feminism. Still, I see my parents in it, and I miss them desperately.

My mother flew, my grandmother flew. It was something women in my family did. Yeah, my dad flew too, but he didn’t really count. It was my mom’s thing. She was a 99, just like Amelia Earhart. Just as much of a heroine.

When I was sixteen, at my mom’s insistence, I accumulated thirteen hours of flying time with Mr. Harris, a short, portly, red-faced, gentle soul. He was more patient with me than I deserved. He treated me like I was an adult, a fully capable pilot. In the late 80s, I’d say this was a radical act–Mr. Harris’s respect and my belief in myself. More importantly, it was my parents’ proudest moment of me. In the pictures of this day, their faces prove it.

After my six months as a pilot, things went south for my parents’ finances. A lot of things went south in their lives. This was the end of my flying career and of their glory days. But still, they had given me a view of the world most people never get to see. I’m not much of a driver. Flying is different. It is you and the plane and the sky—minimal and free. It is total control in a new dimension. It is power.

So, Jack Henry and I weigh in. The “pennies a pound” is no longer exactly accurate. We pay dollars, but still, way less than the fuel and maintenance would cost. Way less than a lesson.

Our first pilot is a woman, Linda. She is blonde, with my mother’s ice blue eyes. She has a newer plane, and she wants to be a mechanic, now that she’s retired. She yells, “clear prop!” turns the key, but the engine flags. She tries two more times—nothing. It is the heat, she says. Fuel injection engines like hers don’t like it. Linda is clearly embarrassed and slips away to find us a new plane and pilot.

She calls on Bob, from Paris, Tennessee. Bob is maybe in his early sixties, thinning hair, wire-rimmed square glasses with sunglass clip-ons, pot belly, tan socks with not quite dress shoes. In short, he is my dad’s doppelganger, accent and all. Same sense of humor that no one laughs at without also cringing.

Bob flies a 1980 Piper Saratoga. This is the twin of the plane my parents would rent to take us on trips when I was a kid. This is almost identical to the plane my sister Jenny threw up in the back of on Easter morning in 1984, after we had eaten our whole basket full of candy, including the multi-colored jelly beans, and taken off for Fort Lauderdale. It is hard to separate the smell of vomit from the memory. Still, it is somehow nostalgic, and I am on the verge of tears.

Now, I sit in the way back of Bob’s plane–the third row in the tail. Jack Henry is in the co-pilot seat and hears everything the tower says. He communicates with Bob. I have my own silent communion in the back seat—my parents are here, they must be, I can smell them in the heated molded plastic; I can see them in the instrument panel, hear them in the sound of the prop. My baby is in a plane with all of us.

Bob flies us past the nuclear reactors and through the valley. I feel a bump or two. My grandmother would say she didn’t like to fly when it was totally smooth and she couldn’t feel the air. Jack Henry doesn’t notice the bumps, doesn’t know any different. The sky is bright blue and it is hot in the plane. Sweat drips down my back. After about twenty minutes across the green hills, we begin to descend. Going into our landing, Bob banks the plane nearly ninety degrees to the right. It feels like the plane is sideways. “Jesus!” I let slip from the way back, unable to restrain my fear, but Bob can’t hear me. We land and Jack Henry has been bitten. The legacy is complete. These women pilots who could be his grandmother, Bob, so much like his grandfather, have led us into the sky together. I feel like I have done some duty, that this is a rite.

On the drive home, I think of my mother, what she would have been doing among those old white women in t-shirts that say “Fly Girls Forever.” I imagine her in the pilot seat instead of Bob, or my father there with Jack Henry as co-pilot. My past lives in the sky. Maybe my future does too.

 

To Dust

February 28, 2017 § 6 Comments

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It is six years to the day that my mom was found dead, and I still have some of the afterglow of the trauma. You’d think it would be gone if you followed the American model of mourning and had never lost anyone close. The rest of you know. The sad seeps through my day, and I don’t care that it is Mardi Gras and don’t want to go to the party—after all, this is New Jersey, and there will be no costumes, and on a Tuesday, no drinking after 10:30. We have work tomorrow.

But tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, and I remember that my mom was way into Lent and Ash Wednesday. And what you remember after someone dies becomes them.

I ask my kids what they remember of her. They both give the same answer: She had a bag filled with change and she gave them all the quarters. Cole, who studies such things, says generosity sticks in the mind. Jack Henry was nine, so lots of quarters were a big deal. A soft blue Crown Royal bag full of change is what my children remember of their grandmother. She was pretty smart. They think of the gift, forget the rest.

My mom was raised sort of Baptist, but went to Catholic school, and became Episcopal as an adult, so that’s what I was raised as. I remember the ashes, smudged on her forehead. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. The darkest of days, after the pancake supper, dust. I remember going to school. You weren’t supposed to be embarrassed, to look in the mirror and see the dark smudge. You couldn’t wipe it off.

Nobody said, um you’ve got something right here. It was a remembrance. And I am not religious. Maybe on the tiniest edge of spiritual. I believe in ashes, of course. To dust I will return. I believe in forty days in the wilderness, at least. I believe in confusion and trying to make sense of the world. I remember the fog of trying to understand death. Sometimes it is good to have a real mark on your forehead. And then you are supposed to give something up. I know about this.

Good Night, Irene.

February 1, 2017 § 4 Comments

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I was tempted to say good night to Irene, my check out lady, as I left the grocery late on a Tuesday night, but I figured in her 50 or so years, Irene had heard that plenty and might get a little annoyed. Instead, I asked her about the noise, the jack hammering into the customer service counter that was pulsing down my spine.

“Does that bother you?” I asked.

“I’ve got the headache,” she said. Irene did not elaborate.

She figured I’d know about the headache. I did. She kept scanning my groceries.

“Any idea when they’ll be finished?” I said. “Every time I come in here, they’ve moved everything around.”

Irene shrugged. “Tell me about it,” she said.

She endured my many brought-from-home-bags, but insisted on double bagging my meat in plastic, as if to say, Plastic Island will engulf us, whether you bring those or not. Do you really want chicken blood on everything? I had confidence that I could make it 3 miles and into the house without the chicken package exploding, but Irene did not, and here, I deferred. Irene had seen a lot.

In the magazine rack, Us featured the “first family,” which is to say, the Trump children from all the marriages. One of them was pulling another by the necktie, in a jovial way. I hadn’t thought they’d be featured in magazines, but they are, as some kind of Brady Bunch that spans forty years. Of course they are. Still, I thought the necktie thing might be subversive. On another shelf, the paper screamed about the insanity of Bannon.

It could have been the chicken blood that nearly brought me to tears in my car once I’d returned my cart to the “corral”; maybe it was the plastic bags. Right now, anything could do it.

The world was going to shit, and still I was buying groceries. I regret not standing up about the plastic bags. I worry about the necktie. I wonder why I am here on a Tuesday night, when I could be doing anything else—some small thing to resist.

But we all need to be fed. My children can’t wait. Nobody’s children can wait. That’s why I’m here. Why we all are, I suppose.

Irene was here last week, and I figure she’ll be here next, when our food runs out again. She works nights, despite the headache, the constant blast of unpleasant noise, the disruption with no apparent end. I’ll have to too.

Ratatouille, or How I will Survive the Next Four Years

January 13, 2017 § 1 Comment

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I think I will survive our horrible political reality, this return to the 80s, the 50s, the 30s. Here’s why: I can outlast anyone. Not in a staring contest, or a fitness workout, but I can outlast just about anyone in a sheer test of will. My dad found this out the hard way.

It should have been easy. In two more years, I would declare myself vegetarian and a liberal. I would have had to eat the whole pot of Ratatouille on my own, just on those grounds. But this was before that. This was the late eighties, when things like croissants were new and different. Quiche and pasta salad were all the rage.

My dad fancied himself a gourmet cook. I did not fancy him any kind of cook. Truth be told, now that I cook, he used way too much oil and he was a fan of too rich food. He wasn’t often home for dinner, but when he was, he went all out. So, this night, it was ratatouille. If you have seen the movie, but not had the dish, let me explain. Ratatouille is a French vegetable stew. It involves eggplant, zucchini, and tomatoes. Now, it sounds perfect on a cold night with good bread. But then? I refused to eat it. And once I refuse, I do not budge. Ask my children. Grit, not bull headedness, I choose to think.

We sat at the table, his Kruschev to my Kennedy. “We will sit here until you eat it!” he said. We sat. We sat. My mom quietly cleaned the kitchen behind us. She usually let the dishes soak, but this was a prize fight: the old stubborn man against the more stubborn daughter. We sat. The stew grew cold. The cold war stewed.

Eventually, he said, “I’m going to put this in the freezer,and you will eat it later.” I would not. He put the bowl in the freezer and with quiet glee, I slipped back to my room. I never ate that ratatouille. It sat in the freezer for months until someone threw it away. I can sit quietly and resist. It’s in my blood. I won’t eat this stew.

Back to School

September 29, 2016 § 5 Comments

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It is late September, and it is”Back to School Night,” which this year I know means a night of high school for parents, but last year, I thought was “go follow your kid around and say hi to teachers night,” like we did in North Carolina, like civilized people do. Here, in New Jersey, I am expected to be in class alone at 7—pm, thank God, not am—and follow my son’s schedule in a compressed way through the maze that is his much-added-on-to school.

I am on time, but only because we live across the street. I look at all the other parents and think that I don’t look as old as them, but maybe I do. Probably I do, because we either gave birth or adopted in 2001, just before 9/11, before the whole world got a little harder. Still, some of them are so gray! I make note of the fact that I am not yet gray, like those old people. I also am not as put together as the men in beautiful suits, minus the tie, the women in capes with asymmetrical hairdos, some of whom are actually speaking French to their children because they really are French. I am also not as dumpy as the thick women in sweat suits or the former football players, who still fill up the whole hallway. Of course, this is not about my son, because, when you’re in a high school, well, you’re in high school. I’m not the only one who is keeping track.

Here, in this ivy-league town, people are on edge about college. I can feel it. I hear it in the way the father in the Algebra 2 class raises his hand to ask about the grading. I hear it in the way the parent in English class asks the 23-year-old substitute teacher, filling in for someone on maternity leave, if there will be a visiting writer this year. She, um, isn’t really like sure? But she is totally into English and books, and wears short boots with her mini-dress, so I love her because I know she would totally let me sit at the lunch table with her.

I stick mostly to myself, except for the one other parent I recognize, Stephen, in my band class. I wave at him too much, then act a little aloof to make up for it.

I am wearing a black dress—duh—and short black boots. Ok, they’re rain boots this time around, but they could be combat boots, and in my mind, I am still Ally Sheedy in the Breakfast Club. I keep my green raincoat on, for protection, but I keep the hood down, to show I am open to meeting new people.

In Chemistry class, the teacher is the cool, hip guy. He only cares about learning, not grades. While he is talking, a skinny girl with green hair walks by in the hall. She catches my eye. “A dollar,” she says, pointing to the brownies she is selling. “It goes to help feed kids,” she says. I want to talk to her, but I shake my head no and look back at the teacher, afraid that he will call me out. She would shun me in the lunch room anyway.

Gym class, well, you can imagine. We are in the bleachers and they—all seven gym teachers and coaches—are sitting in a row on the gym floor. They have a microphone. I don’t know where to put my feet with the big rain boots, the bleachers are so narrow. By the time I figure it out, the main gym teacher lets us go early.

In Japanese class, I want to stay longer. There is going to be an exchange next week. There will be meditation for fifteen minutes each class. The people are a little odd, but geeky too. They want to succeed, but in a creative way.

The bell rings and I find my way out of the building. “Do we have to go to homeroom?” I ask a woman rushing down the stairs, but she ignores me, or maybe doesn’t hear me, so I find my way back—out the door, across the street, home, where my son is waiting to hear about my day.