Shortcuts

Photo by Anna Blackshaw

When I was little I spent the summers at my grandparents’ house in Connecticut. Every other week we’d drive from their home near Hartford to the tiny fishing cottage my grandfather built in the 1940s on the edge of Bashan Lake.

One of the best parts about “going down the lake” was that my second cousins lived three cottages down. We’d spend all day building forts, hiding in the woods, and swimming, moving between their cottage and ours like they were swappable goods.

Up the dirt road from their cottage was a place we called “the Professor’s House.” It was nicer than the others, with a perfectly trimmed yard bordered by a straight line of cinder blocks to separate it from the dusty path. We often played near there, and it would have been easier to cut across this lawn than to walk around it. But we never, ever took this shortcut. My cousin Billy had told us about the day he took one step over the cinder-block wall; the elderly professor had come running out of his house shaking his fist and screaming for Billy to get off his lawn. I had recently read “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and the idea of a Boo Radley-type figure, rarely seen, chasing me down, was enough to keep me off that property every summer I was there.

After my son Rio was born five years ago, we started returning to the lake. Despite the passing of thirty years, the Professor’s house was still pin-neat, and the yard looked the same. I began telling Rio the story about my cousin and the Professor.

(I tell Rio two original stories every night after I tuck him in. It keeps my improvisation skills sharp, and it has become such a valued resource to Rio that taking away stories as a punishment is the one loss sure to make him cry.

It’s exhausting “being on” for a final performance after hours with the kid, but if I try to fake it, Rio always knows. In fact, just tonight I tried to skimp on one of my stories by telling him about the Bermuda Triangle; after I finished, he sat up in bed and declared, “That wasn’t a story! You just described the place! There wasn’t any ‘once up a time’ or anything that happened!” Soon thereafter, there was a laser beam coming from the depths of Atlantis that sliced an overhead spaceship in half.)

But back to the Professor. To keep things fresh, I started adjusting the story: sometimes my cousin would trip over the wall and barely escape the Professor’s grasp. Other times, the main actors were Rio and his cousin Milo, and they would run full speed to our cabin with the Professor hot on their trail. In the final rendition, the Professor finally finds Rio and Milo under a picnic table and ends up only wanting to offer them a cookie, after all.

Last summer, Rio and I saw someone down at the Professor’s house and walked down to chat. The man standing there was the Professor’s godson, and he offered me a beer as Rio ran down to play with the man’s teenage son on the dock. I told the man about our childhood lore, and he laughed, saying that the Professor was in fact very particular about his lawn. He called the Professor a “good man” but really didn’t say much more than that. I left a little disappointed that there was no dramatic end to the story; I’d hoped for some intrigue, some mystery, something about the Professor that was as monumental as the myth. But instead he was just a math professor from New York who liked to garden and come up to the lake on weekends. But in my story, he will always loom large; who knows, tonight he might come up with the math equation needed to transform flashlights into light sabers.

Holy Moments

I know it when they arrive. My heart is suddenly a meadow I am walking through. I don’t need anything except exactly what I’m doing. I don’t know when these moments will strike — they usually come by surprise, and I think my face probably registers slight shock, almost like an orgasm but different.

The other day I saw someone in the middle of such a moment. He was waiting for the bus on a late morning that had turned warm after several days of cold. As I drove by, he closed his eyes and looked up toward the sky, like a cat narrow-gazed in a slant of sunlight coming in through the window.

What still frustrates me is how many moments unlike these dominate my days: minutes that total hours that total years when I ride shotgun in anxiety’s car or roll around in bed with fear. Other times I just run away from reality and sneak into that spot I’ve found beneath the stairs.

But there’s a strange algebra at work. If I can catch my own tendency to compulsively reject “off” moments as unholy, I’m suddenly sitting on a hefty mound of holy. If I hold too high a standard on being “connected” then I risk being blind to the slivers of the good shiver.

And so today, almost feeling trapped in a house full of toddlers, I ran outside and they chased me and knocked me down and climbed all over me, their playful clawing so insistent and total that I let my guard down for a moment and snuck into the palace the sentry usually protects. So grand and spacious that chamber!

I remember when my ninety-eight-year-old grandfather died a few years ago, I was so busy worrying about my eulogy and my toddler son’s aversion to formality that I almost went through the whole service without really connecting to what was happening around me. But then it hit me in the bathroom, Rio on my hip, notes in my pocket; grief grabbed my neck and suddenly the tears came. My son asked, “Papa, why are you crying?” and I just said, “Because I loved him.” The way I felt it then — marrow deep — is life’s elusive, ephemeral gift.

The Kids Are All Right

Photo by Anna Blackshaw

The boys from next door always show up at the back door unannounced. Jack and Liam wander over like pieces of driftwood through the patch of bamboo separating their house and ours.

“Is Rio home?” they ask.

If he is and he hears their voices he comes running, abandoning whatever he was doing. In seconds they are outside, riding down the hill all three of them piled onto a tricycle or making a fort over by the weeping cherry tree or, if it’s hot, stripping down and jumping into the tiny inflated pool I have almost hyperventilated blowing up. Once I overheard Jack exclaim, “Let’s destroy something!” And they all whooped and hollered.

The point is, they play — mostly without rules, uniforms, toys, or structure. I watch them from inside and wonder where and how I lost this facility. I’ve sought that sense of play in everything from drugs to the Internet to sex to work. Cheap-ass substitutes.

And then they ask me to play. Their request is the nudge I need to leave the cell I sometimes sit in and surrender to their worlds, my own suddenly larger. I’ll never forget the feeling last winter when Rio and I jumped on a sled and raced with some other kids down the icy hill our street had become. As the cold air whipped across my face, a sudden, loud, and primordial yawp arose from deep inside me that indicated a true return to that particular childhood freedom. The moment was so large, adult anxieties had to no room to snicker and niggle. Children can sense this; I remember once a few years ago some kids I was playing with asked me, “So, where are your parents?”

Outside our house in Bynum, we built a big tire swing under the oak tree; at its apex a rider can rise to thirty feet above the ground. Sometimes, after pushing the kids till they finally say enough, I’ll ask a strong friend to push me way up there. I close my eyes, and there’s something about riding the slow but steady arc that flicks the worries out. It’s as if play rearranges my existential furniture.

I’ve fantasized about putting a sign out front that reads “Adults are free to take a ride.” But then I start to worry about insurance.

Quiet

Portrait of Carl and Lillian Sandburg by Edward Steichen

Carl Sandburg called it the “creative hush,” that holy place where the heart sings and the pen records. He found it at night, after everyone had gone to bed; while his wife and daughters slept he wrote in his upstairs office: poetry, Abraham Lincoln biographies, folk songs. At five in the morning he’d shuffle in his slippers over to his bedroom, hugging on the way his wife Lillian who was just heading out to milk her prize-winning goats.

There’s not much silence where I live. Bynum is quiet, but the acoustics in our old mill house produce more cacophony than symphony. House guests do not sleep in late chez Blackshaw-McKee. (Rio may chortle at your earplugs.) Annie and Rio both have the gift of the gab, and one generally knows where they are in the house, no matter what their activities. Rio has taken to busting out improvised rock n’ roll choruses while he plays, and Annie does a mean Ella Fitzgerald while cooking pasta putanesca. When Rio slips into bed with us in the early morning, he and Annie usually joke and giggle in a half-asleep state, me turning over and sighing histrionically, relegated to the outermost edge of the bed. The last time Annie was out of town, Rio came to bed as usual in the morning, nestled into her spot, and then said to me, rather formally, “Excuse me. Can we cuddle?” We did of course, but only after he relayed to me the dream he’d just been having.

Yeah, I get my quiet where I can. I read Rumi on the toilet.

But old Sandburg wasn’t so flexible. He needed his hush. He was 67 when they moved from Michigan to North Carolina. Lillian was sick of the cold northern climate, which proved difficult for her goats. She researched the best spot for raising her particular breed, settling on western North Carolina in a town called Flat Rock. Carl was fine with the whole thing as long as he didn’t have to change his routine. And so before they moved in, Lillian had the upstairs renovated so that it matched the exact layout of their house in Michigan. By the time they drove down, she’d had the contents of their entire house shipped and put in their proper place, down to the last book.

Carl wrote at this sprawling house until he died of heart failure at 88, winning the Pulitzer prize for poetry in his seventies. He said he only needed four things in life, maybe five: to stay out of jail; to eat regular; to have what he wrote printed; to have a little love inside the house and outside of it; and, he said, sometimes, to sing.

Rain

Photo by Anna Blackshaw

Rain always gets the cellos in me going. Something about the darkness, the limited potential of what one can do outside. And the sound of patterned drops falling on the roof – especially a tin one – is a song I slip into.

The other day, coming home through the downpour, marveling at how short the interval between the flash of lightning and the crack of thunder, I felt a desire to let it all go — to let my resolve trickle away like the water gushing down the gutters and spouts. I wanted to say forget it, why don’t we just eat junk food and watch bad movies and allow Rio to stay way up past his bedtime. Let me stop trying so hard to be constructive with the clay of life.

In this yen for an unraveling was a desire to surrender all facades and should-do’s and just be me. And the truth is that the unvarnished me is pretty messy: I love Annie deeply but am sometimes frustrated by the emotional whirlpools we fall into. I love my pistol of a son but am at times overwhelmed by the constancy of his needs. I am grateful that I am passionate but troubled by the days my fire leads to self-inflicted burns.

Still, I count this strange stew as a blessing – not quite happiness, but a lot better than emptiness. Numbness brings me the most despair. In that state, sadness, joy, and surprise are like distant artifacts I might view in a museum, my body safe behind the handrail.

To feel sadness, then, is an integral part of feeling alive, albeit with its sharp blades. Percy Shelley once wrote, “The pleasure that is in sorrow is sweeter than the pleasure of pleasure itself.” My translation: There is no pleasure like the slice of pleasure found in pain.

And this is why I love the rain. I remember when I was a teenager and it rained, I would put on morose music, shut the door on the world, and look out the window. The tears always came. Somewhere along the way I decided to flee from sadness, but I’ve learned to court her again. And there she is, after all this time, with flowers.

Remembering

Photo by Anna Blackshaw

My mother-in-law, Jay, is an incredible woman. At 82, she can still tap dance in front of a room of family and friends, play old standards on the piano, and delight in a blooming lily.

For the last several years she has suffered from Alzheimer’s. She still remembers who her children are (and most of her fourteen grandchildren; in-laws are tricky), but she has lost her short-term memory. It’s as if a reset button is pushed in her mind the second a moment has passed. She is continually trying to get her bearings: “What’s this place called?” (“This is the assisted-living facility where you live.”) “How did I get to your house?” (“We just drove here together.”) Because she instantly forgets what she has just learned, she will ask the same question perhaps fifty times in an hour.

Of course she was not always like this. She raised seven children. She went from PTA mom to PTA chairwoman to assistant to the mayor of Pasadena. For years she was a “field rep” for the city, priding herself on knowing the who, what, and when of every civic detail. Now, it’s as if she’s convinced she should still be playing that role but is unaware that she no longer has the facilities to do it.

There are times when her face seems to register the utter wilderness she inhabits. I’ve seen it when the room is full of her relatives, and she finally retreats to a chair after rubbing a baby’s head or hugging an in-law. A look of fear darkens her face, as if she’s thinking, “Who the hell are all these people? And who the hell am I?” I’m not sure I’ve ever seen terror illustrated so clearly.

But there is also a strange grace to her Alzheimer’s. Jay’s husband Bill died three years ago. Their marriage had been a rocky one. When I first met Bill and Jay in the mid-nineties, they were living apart; while she held down the Pasadena home they had owned for several decades, he lived nearby in a small bachelor pad. They would come together for holidays and visits from relatives (and he’d still come over faithfully to try and fix things around her house), but there seemed to be a lot of built-up resentment between them. To me, Jay always seemed mad at Bill for something, and he always seemed perplexed about what he was supposed to atone for.

With the onset of Alzheimer’s, it’s almost as if Jay forgot her resentments. With his physical health failing and her mental health diminishing, he moved back into her house. She started calling him “my Billy” and would often retell the story of how they first met, even if the details got murky. When they’d visit us she’d sometimes lay her head on his shoulder almost like they were high-school sweethearts.

Bill died of heart complications in a hospital bed the family had set up in the assisted-living apartment Jay and Bill finally moved into. As he lay there dying, Jay stroked his face and mourned the loss of this man she did indeed truly love. Somehow the forgetting allowed her heart to open up to that deep river of affection that was always there between them, even during the years when they seemed to argue more than agree.

The last time Jay came to visit us, I tried to prepare myself for the challenges  her presence brings. It’s hard to answer the same questions over and over. But if you tire and show your frustration to Jay, she gets hurt and confused, because she doesn’t understand why you’d be irritated with her — she literally doesn’t remember that she’s asking you for the thirtieth time how often you have to mow the lawn. To her, she’s asking for the first time, so why would you be bothered by such a simple question? To Jay there really is no recent past or near future. What’s in front of her refreshes every second, and fortunately what she’s retained through all of her trials is a certain joy in the simple beauty of the world. What she repeats are not complaints or snarky questions, but rather tiny moments of astonishment at what she sees.

We have a storage shed outside our house which the previous owner painted with huge, vibrant sunflowers. During her last visit, every time Jay looked out the window and saw the shed, she’d marvel, “Oh my gosh, look at those flowers! Did you paint those?” I’d feel the heat of irritation prickle under my skin, but then I’d see her eyes so lit up and reply, “No, Jay. The people before us did. They are beautiful, aren’t they?”

Is it truly so exhausting to look at those flowers again and again?

Rumors

I live in a tiny old mill town of 250 people on a river in North Carolina. My son Rio was born at our former home in Oakland, CA, but has grown up on the other side of the country in a place Tom Sawyer would’ve loved. There are few cars on the street, no fences between yards, and a river to throw rocks into.

Bynum is about half old-timers and half newcomers. The old–timers grew up in Bynum and worked in the now-defunct mill for most of their lives. The newcomers sport progressive bumper stickers on their cars, shop at the local co-op, and mostly work in Chapel Hill or Durham.

Amazingly, the two bodies have more merged than collided. We celebrate holidays together on the old bridge that is now shut down to traffic. We talk on the street and congregate every Friday summer night for an outdoor concert next to the old general store. I once asked my neighbor Ollie (who in his lifetime worked every job in the mill, he says) why the newcomers and old-timers seem to get along together so well.

“I reckon new people who moved here but didn’t fit in moved on out. The ones who fit in stayed,” he replied.

“What does to take to fit in to Bynum?” I asked.

“I’d say that if someone in Bynum asks you how you’re doing, they really want to hear your answer.”

A key part of the community’s connective tissue is undoubtedly Clyde Jones,  a mill worker cum folk artist who years ago reportedly had a vision of carving animals out of trees. He now spends his days chainsawing and hammering pieces of cedar into large wooden creatures, which he paints and calls “critters.” Clyde’s yard is littered with giraffes, aardvarks, and reindeer, and he has ensured that every house in Bynum has a critter for its front lawn, as long as you agree to keep it lit up at night. When he’ s not making art, Clyde is riding around town on his driving lawnmower, making sure everything is as it should be.

I once asked Clyde why he graces every lawn in Bynum with a critter, and he replied, “So ya’ll associate.” I took him to mean that the art gives everyone in town something in common, no matter their background or story.

This is all to say that Bynum has the same small-town values it’s always had, even though many of the faces have changed. What this means for Rio is that I hear about any community infraction he’s committed before he even makes it home.

Not long ago, an adult friend of ours taught Rio how to make a very annoying sound with his voice — “screech” would be putting it nicely. When Rio does it, people react, negatively, but he still screeches because he’s five and small and cherishes invoking strong reactions. Last week, I was at an outdoor concert in Bynum, and a fifth grader I know told me that Rio had been screeching on the bus, and that the bus driver had summarily assigned him to the seat right behind her as punishment.

That night, I asked Rio if he was still making that sound.

“No,” he lied.

“Well then how come Miss Beth made you sit in the front seat of the bus?” I asked him.

His eyes grew wide. He probably thought I was omniscient, but really I just live in a small town.