Back to School

September 29, 2016 § 4 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.

 

 

Wild Kingdom

July 19, 2016 § 4 Comments

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I am in bed, reading, in a house I would call empty. I am the only human here, and my dog, Annie, is stretched out on the wood floor beside the bed. I am absorbed. It is Elena Ferrante. I have drunk the kool-aid this summer, and the book is due back in the library in two days. There is a waiting list. I only have about 100 pages. This is my plan for the night. Earlier today, I cut all but four of Annie’s nails. She was done with the pedicure before I was. That’s why she makes such a racket when she gets up, prancing around.

I am in Naples still, but I notice the sound. Then I see it. The orange and black snake that has been missing for a few days is wrapped around her legs. I don’t scream, but I drop the book and jump out of bed. Annie jumps into the laundry basket of dirty clothes in the corner. The snake slides under my bed. I call Jeff.

“Grab her!” he says, as if this is something I can do. I know that when he and the boys go snake hunting, they take a pillowcase, so I slip the case off my pillow and onto my hand like a glove. I keep an eye on the snake. She comes my way and I grab her. She is a liquid muscle. More like a fish out of water than anything else I might have felt. She is fast and unattached, constantly moving. I’m afraid she will bite me. The pillowcase has too high of a thread count for this. I am too scared that I will crush her with my grip, pillowcase or no. I have no idea where her snake organs are. She slips away.

Annie is way out of here, downstairs, safe on her bed. It is just me and Terra, the snake. I have chased her into Jack Henry’s room, where her terrarium is. Jeff was cleaning it, you see, and he forgot to weight down the lid. If you have read this blog before, you know that she does not like to be confined. She has explored the walls of two houses. I am on her side now. I want to set her free.

“Grab her!” Jeff says.

“I can’t,” I say.

“You can! You have to!

“She’ll bite me.”

“That snake is totally domesticated,” Jeff says, but she coils up in Jack Henry’s closet, looks at me, ready to strike.

“I am not going to grab her,” I say.

“With a table cloth?”

“No.”

“With an oven mitt?’

“No.”

Jeff and I are texting back and forth and calling. He is in a loud place in New York City. I am alone with the snake. Abandoned even by the dog. I am trying to catch her only because I love my son and I know he would be heartbroken if she got away. We’ve been through a lot together, Jack Henry, this snake, and I.

“Oh my god! She’s eating the mouse!” I say.

I should explain that since she went missing a few days ago, Jeff went to PetSmart. Jack Henry is away, so Jeff left a box with a dead mouse in it in the floor of Jack Henry’s room to entice the snake. She finds it and begins to feed.

“Oh! This is disgusting,” I say. “She’s like, dragging it away!”

“You’ve never seen this? It’s been going on in the house about every two weeks for almost seven years,” Jeff says.

“I know!” I say, “But I never had to look at it.” The snake is ambitious. She opens her mouth wide and at the same time wraps her body around the small white mouse. I leave the room to give her a little privacy.

“What do I do?” I ask.

“Go get the trashcan and put it over her,” Jeff says.

“While she’s eating? What if I piss her off? “

“She’s not pissed off, or she wouldn’t be eating,” Jeff says.

I run to get the trashcan and put it on top of her.

“Weight it down!” Jeff says. I put a brick on top. “Put your eight pound weight on top of that!” Jeff says. I do it.

I text Jeff a photo, just to be sure.

“Good job, Ms. Irwin,” he says.

I pour myself a glass of wine. It will be a while before I can get my mind back to Naples. The Wild Kingdom is just down the hall.

 

Biscuit Line

June 8, 2016 § 7 Comments

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It is early June and only now have the lavender Rhododendrons in my neighbor’s yard decided to bloom, something I’m used to seeing in April. The plants here are full and happy. They thrive on a constant cool mist and blossoms stick around for weeks, even the peonies, which are shed like itchy party dresses after a day or two of blooming in North Carolina. I guess there might be something to this whole “Garden State” thing. But still, even though it has warmed up and things are blooming, it doesn’t feel close to summer. Something’s missing.

I call Jeff in New Orleans and there is a loud buzz in the background. “What’s that?” I ask. “Frogs,” he says. “I had twenty-six tree frogs on the outside of my window screen last night. They’re everywhere. There’s a mama fox and three babies under my studio.”

New Orleans is chock full of life, it seems—Jeff even sends me pictures of the luscious crawfish and oysters he eats. This, I think, is mean to do to someone in the Northeast, where living things keep space between them.

I miss all of those creatures roaming around, even the bugs. Ok, maybe not the “Palmetto Bugs” or Camel Crickets, but I miss the sounds of summer in the South—the owls, the cicadas, all chiming in as the sun sets. Life is quieter up here. Maybe it is just slower to wake up to summer.

Jeff continues to send me pictures of his dinners and tell me tales of feasts he’s invited to. So now, my stomach misses summer in the south too. I vow to try to grow some “Jersey Tomatoes,” but I admit, I’m snobby about them. What kind of tomato could New Jersey grow that North Carolina couldn’t top? I long for my old garden, for summer below the biscuit line.

It recently came to my attention that my colleague from Nova Scotia knew nothing about this line. We are riding a train to DC and I wonder aloud if we have crossed it. He is puzzled. “You know,” I say, “the biscuit line: the line where McDonalds starts selling bagels instead of biscuits.”

“Biscuits? You mean, like cookies?” he says. I am aghast. Sure, he is Canadian, but he doesn’t know what a biscuit is. I have never met a human who does not know what a biscuit is. Our seatmates and I try to explain. “It’s savory,” I say. “And it involves a lot of butter.”

“Like a scone?” he asks.

“No. It’s soft and warm.”

“You eat it with gravy,” a woman from West Virginia sitting next to me offers.

“Gravy?” he says.

“Yes. I say. It’s delicious. I can’t believe you’ve never had a biscuit,” I say. “I’m going to have to cook for you.”

It’s these things, the ones I take for granted, that I miss the most– the abundance of life, the availability of comfort foods. Soak them up, people South of the Biscuit line. Soak them up.

Stocking

April 24, 2016 § Leave a comment

 

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I’ll admit it: sometimes this past year, I’ve gone into Trader Joe’s just to have a casual conversation with a stranger. The check outs are named for streets around here, and I can imagine it’s a real microcosm of this university town. It never fails, by the way—if you make eye contact with the beardy guy working the register, you’ll hear about meditation tips, somebody’s sister who moved to North Carolina, the virtues of baby kale. That kind of recognition of life’s ups and downs that is part and parcel of grocery shopping in the south is rare around here in the public world, and it’s enough to push me toward TJ’s– especially on cold rainy Sunday nights when the upcoming week seems a chore. I’ve often wondered what they do in the back of the store besides stocking, how they keep that glow year-round. They’re always so damn happy!

But  it’s finally real spring in the north. Dogwoods and everything. Redbuds! Maybe the check out guys just spent the afternoon outside, contemplating the end of the semester, the upcoming summer so far from the frozen foods aisle, floating in some green-brown lake near a cabin, or on an aqua and sand beach in California. Maybe they’re thinking of moving again, like me. Not across the country, just across town, but still, to a new and better settling place. Marking a spot for the next few years can bring a sort of calm and steadiness that might make someone think you’re high.

Sure, I know what I have ahead of me before I really get that Trader Joe’s happy: gathering my life full of stuff and picking it up, the whole weight of it, dragging it along a full mile or so, even if my feet and hands blister with the constant rubbing of skin against raw rope. But I’m ready. I might even get a few live plants from the vegetable aisle, put down at least annual roots.

By the time I leave Trader Joe’s this time, it’s not even dark. The days are longer and the sun is finishing its set across the parking lot in warm oranges and purples. Before I drive home, I sit for a minute in my car with the radio on, tuned to the blues show I’ve come to set my weekend clock by. May’s around the corner; summer stretches out in my imagination. And you wouldn’t believe the health benefits of baby kale.

Strategies for Happiness

January 8, 2016 § 6 Comments

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Let’s face it: winter in the Northeast is depressing. My co-worker keeps talking about how beautiful the winter light is. What light? I think.

He and the rest of the people in New Jersey were alarmed that on Christmas Eve, the temperature was near 70 degrees. “It’s not right,” they said. “It’s not like Christmas,” they said. I was ecstatic.

I might survive the sky darkening at four o’clock if it was at least warm outside. The mild holiday decorations in town didn’t lighten things up. They were too demure. But maybe “real” winter never would come!  Maybe it was all a hoax, that cold and snow thing that everyone warned me of. They seemed so disappointed that it hadn’t arrived yet. I slipped off to the warmth and long days of the tropics the week after Christmas, glowing with the infusion of sunshine, and thought I might be able to make it just fine through the “winter.” I was wrong.

Last week, the locals got their wish. The high was about 29 degrees. It was 11 degrees in the morning. I overheard a woman in the grocery store talking about how beautiful the day was. I thought schools should close. Everyone should stay home. Wasn’t that what the world was saying? Stay inside, make a fire, eat and sleep. Find another warm body to get next to. Drink a little whiskey. Don’t go outside where the air hurts. Wasn’t that common sense?

These descendants of Puritans, my neighbors, did not agree. “Layer,” they said. “There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing,” they said. The traffic kept streaming by my window, fast as ever.

“That’s a bunch of bullshit,” I said. “You don’t have to live like this,” I thought. I am not good at winter, or darkness, or cold of any kind. I am not good at layering or moving on as if nothing has happened.

I got a package in the mail from my friend Betsy, the first real live Manhattanite I ever met when I went to college. Betsy is best described as tiny, delicate looking, and tough as nails. She is the essence of New Yorker practical chic. The box she sent contained petal pink, thin silk long underwear and thick wool socks. When I thanked her, she said, “You have to find strategies for happiness.”

Now, wearing my long underwear and socks, I obsessively check online sites which monitor the sunrise and sunset in every city in the world. In Princeton, we are gaining a minute a day in the evening. Next week, we’ll gain two minutes a day, one in the morning and one in the evening. Presumably, that additional sunlight will add a tiny bit of warmth, at least.

There is something heartening about leaving work in the light, rather than the dark, even if that light is only struggling. There is something very important about having warm toes. The days will brighten. The new year has come. There is hope in silk long underwear and wool socks and friends who send them. There are seed catalogs, plans for summer, and warm bodies to get next to.

The Theory of Relativity

December 14, 2015 § 6 Comments

10845922_10205317812442787_1582362086976995622_n-1Five years is the time it takes/will take/ took for your infant to morph into a kindergartener. It is the time I worked at my last job, and then some. It is the time between my children’s births, roughly. It is the time it took to move me through space from North Carolina to New Jersey. It is also the time since my dad passed on/away/over, depending on your perspective.

Einstein, who lived here, where I live, maybe walked over the same path I walk to work at approximately the same time of day a hundred years ago and so, saw the light at a similar angle, said on a basic level, that spacetime is relative. Minutes stretch or collapse, depending on speed and light and the pull of the universe. So I wonder now, has it been five years like the five years the calendar marks? Or today, when the calendar is on the exact same spot, though there is no snow, only fog, is it the same day?

Here’s what I found about Einstein’s theory from Wikipedia, for what it’s worth: “The universe is expanding, and the far parts of it are moving away from us faster than the speed of light.” And so, I wonder if I am in the near or far, and where my dad is relative to me. All I know for sure is that on days like today, when time touches time, I think of him every minute of the day.

My sister Leigh Ann and I talk about the possibility of portals opening up—those times, like the holidays, when people seem to check out in droves—as if there is some shortcut path to some brighter part of the universe, or some black hole.

I’ve also heard that radio waves travel through time, get trapped in space, and can be heard, theoretically, on a wave that takes years to travel through the universe. I’m no scientist, but I love the idea. So, I am sending this song to my dad, his favorite—Maria Callas singing Ave Maria–which took me years to appreciate, and which now, takes me back to that snowy day, when time collapsed on itself. I hope he is listening: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j8KL63r9Zcw

 

Yonder

November 16, 2015 § 5 Comments

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It is June in North Carolina and we are packing up Jeff’s un-airconditioned studio—all of us sweaty and heat-irritated. I am sent to a corner to go through my things, which Jeff moved from our attic years ago. I find a box I didn’t know I had. I am supposed to be taping things up; instead, I open it. It contains momentos from my childhood that my sisters and I separated from my parents’ effects.

I am easily distracted by this box. It holds my first poems, many certificates, random photos and papers—my mother kept everything without judgment or priority. In the bottom of the box, I find a thin black book, oriented in landscape, with the words “pilot’s logbook” embossed in gold on the front cover. Looking inside, I see that on this same day, June 28, the year I was sixteen, I was flying.

I had almost forgotten this happened.I took flying lessons before I could drive a car. It was another lifetime. Those were some of my parents’ proudest moments. They flew, my grandmother flew, and now, I was trying it. I was an unlikely pilot, not a daredevil, but somehow, in the sky, I felt calm and in control in a way I never did on the ground. I remember that.

“You should do it again,” Jeff says.

“I want to,” I say, “But it’s so expensive. Maybe I’ll write about mom flying,” I say. I pack up the rest of the box, but I keep the book out. On the front page, it has my name in beautiful script. My mom must have gotten my sister Leigh Ann to write it. There is a list of dates and times I flew with Mr. Harris, his cryptic notes on what I did—arrows turning left and right, abbreviated words I don’t understand—for a total of 13.3 hours.

For our anniversary, Jeff and I go to a nice restaurant in Princeton. We are going to a play after, and I have bought him small things—just little gifts to mark the day. I think big gifts are silly when you’ve been married this long. Over dinner, he asks me how my book is coming, if I’m not almost finished. “Who knows if it will ever be finished,” I say. “But you’ll want to write about your mom flying too, right?” He hands me a manila envelope. Inside, there is a certificate for a flying lesson. Tears spill over. I can’t stop them. “Maybe this will help you write it,” he says.

I wait a few months before I call, partially because I am scared, partially because I want to pick the exact right time. In October, I realize that I won’t be with Leigh Ann on my parents’ wedding anniversary. We usually mark it by doing something they would like. That’s when I know. I’ll fly for their anniversary—except it’s Friday the 13th—maybe I’ll do it that weekend. I make an appointment with Mike, a faceless name I have nothing to attach to—and I watch the weather. There are winds this weekend, so I push the appointment back a day. It wouldn’t be right to die in a forty mile an hour wind gust. The night before, I sleep restlessly. I am nervous. What the hell am I thinking? Still, I made the appointment, and Jeff bought me the lesson, so I’m going through with it.

At the airport, a woman greets me. I take it as a good sign that there is a woman pilot here. Mike is what I expect: a heavy set older guy with an AOPA baseball cap and Costco jeans. He is exactly what I want. He reminds me of Mr. Harris, the quiet man who treated sixteen-year-old me as a competent, intelligent flyer. I tell Mike I have done this before, that I have brought my logbook. “Great,” he says. “Then I’ll let you do most of the flying. Take the left seat. I’ll sit in the co-pilot seat.” This terrifies me. I haven’t been in a Cessna 152 in decades, let alone flown one. “We manage the risk,” Mike says. “I’m planning to sleep in my own bed tonight.” He is calm, so I am calm. I will not die doing this today, I am sure.

We taxi and do the pre-flight check. Mike controls the throttle, but I pull the yoke. We rise. “You did the take off,” he says. I did. I feel the rush I last felt in a whitewater kayak, adrenaline—I feel every inch of my skin. I am thrilled.

Once we are up, I feel again that confidence that I am in control of the gigantic sky, above everything, only 2,500 feet, but still, from here it all looks manageable. Mike and I fly to the Jersey shore, just to the edge of the Atlantic. “Next stop, France,” he says. Instead, we turn right, down the shore. Mike is doing most of the flying, but my feet feel his moves on the pedals, my hands are still on the yoke. We find a waypoint-–a white water tower–and I fly toward it. “You have this too, right?” I say. Mike does, of course. Every time we hit a small bump of moisture, I let out a little gasp and Mike hears it over the headphones. “It’s normal, he says. Not a safety issue. You get used to it.”

My grandmother and my mom used to talk about how they liked to feel the air, but I don’t want something to push against. I remember too many trips in the back of a small plane, my mom negotiating thick clouds, my sisters nauseated next to me. I remember so much up here and time folds on itself. I focus on the leafless trees below, the faint outline of New York City in the haze to my right. The air smoothes for me and Mike and we fly back toward Princeton.

Our descent is a little bumpy and angled. That, with my stomach clenched, makes me nauseated. After we taxi in, I open the door as soon as I can and walk around on firm ground until I am stable. I get Mike to sign my ancient logbook. “Introductory,” he writes. I notice that without thinking about it, I am smiling wider and more easily than I have in years. I am proud and thrilled at the same time. I am who I used to be, but wiser: this is joy. Mike is right, it is the beginning of something.