The Golden Girl

For Rebecca

The family fears the birth
of the second child.
The disruption, the demands, the unknown.

And then, in a golden haze,
she appears.
And it is
as if she has always been.
In her sister’s eyes, her father’s voice,
her mother’s hands. They exist
because of her.

She is not new.

She, with a fury that her lungs and fists
cannot contain.
She, fast and frantic and
demanding more.
She, heavy with life and a loud,
loud, loud




Three days before, I lay on a blanket with two dear friends and watched fireflies disappear into the trees. Brandi Carlile sang a song about love–the kind of love I have with Jeff, the kind of love I have with my friends who have been with me at my lowest, my ugliest, my most defeated. I couldn’t count the fireflies, and I couldn’t count the number of people I could sing this song to. I felt so lucky.

Two days before, we scooped her up, weak and tired, and cried as they showed us the x-ray, her liver, the masses.

On the day before, we loved her. She couldn’t walk more than a few feet at a time, so we loved her wherever she was. I traced the faint silver scar on my hand from 11 years ago, when I tried to take her home for Thanksgiving. I held the end of her tail between my fingers for the first time in 18 years. We searched every corner of our phones and inboxes for photos. We couldn’t believe there weren’t more. We talked about what we’d do after. We made a list of the things we didn’t want to forget about her.

Cat by ruralpearl

             “Cat” by ruralpearl

On Monday morning, Jeff made the calls that I couldn’t. I spread the quilt on the patio and surrounded it with plants from her windowsill. We rubbed her ears and her feet, and the vet whispered, “so loved, so loved,” and then she was gone.

On Monday night, a firefly came into the house. I looked at Jeff with a face that said, “I know this is symbolism, and you know this is symbolism, but we both need it right now.” It bumped around the ceiling for a while before landing by the window, and I said, “I wish it’d light up.” And it lit up. Just then, and just once. And then it took off again, and disappeared.

Before we went to bed, Jeff went looking for it. He found it at the top of the stairs, where Maggie would wait for us to come home, and then to come to bed. We took it outside. I said, “Bye, baby.” And it flew away. I felt so lucky.

The Deserve Monster

I started therapy, again, two weeks ago. I believe in therapy wholeheartedly, and yet it’s taken me nearly a year to convince myself I needed it again.

The Whys are many and varied. The Who is a woman in her seventies who goes by Tess.

Already, after our second hour together, I know it will be good. Already, we’ve identified the monster.

It’s this word, “deserve.” It’s “earn” and “need” and “worth.”

I feel enormous discomfort when people say I “deserve” happiness or a pedicure or unconditional love or four days of vacation in the middle of the busiest season. I don’t know who decides what I deserve. Tess asked why it can’t be me that decides. And I don’t know why I’d be qualified; I’m the least objective person involved.

"Neither Swallowed the Other Whole" by loadedhipspress

“Neither Swallowed the Other Whole” by loadedhipspress

I can quantify the amount of money I think I should “earn.” I can quantify the number of hours over 40 I work in a week and I feel justified leaving that much early on Friday afternoon. But I can’t tell you I deserve my mother’s pride or Jeff’s wild love or my best friends’ affection or for any stranger to find me pretty, interesting, funny, or intelligent.

It’s the difference in grading your own multiple-choice test and grading your own essay test–only the essay was written with a warm, waxy crayon. You can make out most of it, but some words are just illegible. Sometimes you give yourself the benefit of the doubt; sometimes you assume the worst; sometimes a circle and question mark are all you can do.

To be continued.

The Things They Cherished

Before, the things they cherished were bought.

The pair of identical ladles they gave one another for their anniversary. The vinyl records of bands they’d listened to on their first weekend together. The frivolously expensive Japanese kettle she loved for watering her windowsill plants. These things, delivered in cardboard boxes in two days, guaranteed.

Now–after–the things they cherished were scavenged.

Coffee Cicada by Jeffrey Parkin

Coffee Cicada by Jeffrey Parkin

The cicada husks plucked from a rotted porch rail. The yellow flowers, the species of which she had once known, plucked from a burned trail and hung to dry in a Virginia lean-to. The letter tiles found in a pile of artifacts on the interstate, chosen not for their point value but for the initials of the lost. These treasures, found in the years since, cupped in the hollows of their hands for miles until, by necessity, they were home.

2015: Relax

When I was very small, sometime between my first word (“buh-bean,” which I only recently learned was because of a B-52s song, and not just because I really like butterbeans) and speaking intelligible English, I would often stretch my arms behind my head, cross my ankles in front of me, close my eyes, and say, “Ahh, I’m gakkin’.” I’m relaxin’. Think toddler on a beach chair, under an umbrella, mixed drink in hand.

"Friends" by Patricia Fabian

“Friends” by Patricia Fabian

That’s what relaxing was, to a 2-year-old–and now, to a 31-year-old. Relaxation is the kind of luxury that comes around once or twice a year.

I don’t think I’ve ever been “uptight.” Sure, I worry a lot, maybe too much, and I like having a lot of time to make decisions. I like to have control.

But I’m not the “let me speak to your manager” type. Usually, when I say, “that’s fine,” I mean it. These days, I often choose whether or not I’m offended by something, or whether I take it personally–like when I called the Jiffy Lube that had recently done my oil change to ask if the windshield wiper fluid was of the anti-freezing variety, and he snidely replied, “no, we don’t put anti-freeze in your windshield wiper fluid.” I rolled my eyes and hated the guy for the rest of the day, but didn’t take it personally.

But despite my best efforts, I find it difficult to relax. Even now, when my anxiety levels are well under control and I know how to breathe my way through a moment of panic, it’s not second nature yet. There are still times when I can’t properly decipher the look on people’s faces or the tone of an email, and my brain goes immediately to the worst-case scenario where they think I’m stupid, incapable, or crazy.

Deep breaths, my happy place, the best-case scenarios, real deep relaxation are always just over a wall–a wall that’s now only knee-high, but still a wall. Just over that wall, I imagine my breaths coming in and out, moving the air around me in swirls and wisps. I can visit my grandmother’s old house, the creek behind my parents’ house, or the sunny field at Merlefest whenever I want. I sometimes ask myself, “If I died right now, how would they find me?” and relax my muscles accordingly, letting my limbs and head drop, my face slacken, my whole body melting into whatever surface I’m on. I think they call this meditation, however morbid. I’m not ready to get so hippie-dippie with it.

I’m learning to relax, and so I’m making it my word for 2015. I want to spend more time on the other side of the wall. I want to remove the wall.

My word for 2014 was Grow, and I’m going to be honest. I sincerely hoped that the year would bring, in addition to a viable vegetable garden, a growth to our family. I had the announcement written in my head. “This is how our garden grows.”

And then, as you know, things changed.

Or… maybe they didn’t.

"Portrait of a Girl Reading a Book" by Charlie Corrigan

“Portrait of a Girl Reading a Book” by Charlie Corrigan

As usual, I didn’t realize how much meaning my word had until the year was almost over. I did grow. I grew, as a person, quite a bit. I grew more confident and more comfortable with my faults. We grew tomatoes and cucumbers and tiny eggplants that we never used. Our house grew by two little lizards who found us, and our chosen families grew by many people, some of them children. I realized recently that hearing “the book you gave her is one of her favorites” makes me happier than almost anything.

Jenni wrote me after my last post to say, “Your best friend and her children will carry out any postmortem wishes. You can leave it all to Elodie and Pine Cone–they’ll cling and marvel, because they’ll love you as much as I do.” And my little grinch heart grew two sizes.

The Baby Problem: Letters From Korea

Fair warning: This is a long one that I’ve been wrestling with for a while. And it’s probably not done. Thanks for reading, friends.

A wonderful woman died just before Christmas this year. Nana was my best friend’s grandmother, and she was one of those people who lived her whole life to make others feel comfortable and welcome. The eulogy her nephew gave painted a beautiful picture of her, but one aspect of it has stuck with me through the hectic holiday.

I didn’t have a lot of romantic family stories growing up, outside my parents’. My mom’s dad died when she was young, and my dad’s parents divorced when he was a little older. The how-they-met stories were beautiful, but laced with sadness.

Nana and Grandad, though–their love was one of those that lasts many lifetimes.

And that’s the part I can’t get out of my head.

"Green Armchair" by Jackie Lea Shelley

“Green Armchair” by Jackie Lea Shelley

Nana and Grandad wrote letters while he was in the Korean War, and Nana saved those letters, in a box by her chair, which sat beside Grandad’s for the 59 years they were married. She read them aloud to him, and when she died, she asked that the letters be buried with her. No one but the two of them ever knew what they said to one another.

And yet, they exist. Nana’s daughter Phyllis, her granddaughters Jenni, Crystal, and Nikki, they know they exist. Her great-grandchildren will know they exist. And maybe her great-great grandchildren, whom she’ll never meet, will know they exist.

Jeff and I have a lot of “us” stuff. There are the red notebooks we bought on our first weekend together, in Asheville, in which we wrote the many sweet things we wanted to be sure to remember. “This road keeps on going.” There’s the daily notecard diary I’ve kept for the last two and a half years–just a sentence about every day, but usually about somehing we did together. There’s a townhouse full of art we’ve created together.

I keep thinking about what’s going to happen to all of the “us” after we’re gone.

We’ve talked at length about kids. We weren’t sure, and then we met a few kids we really, really liked (and who really, really like Jeff). We realized pretty early on that we’d be awesome parents, and I had an intense baby fever for about two years. We had some fights about it. There was a lot of sadness on my part about the fact that some of our friends were ready–and we felt like we’d never be ready. We have debt. We have mental health issues. We don’t even have time or room or money to properly care for a dog. I hated myself so much–not only was I afraid I’d never be “good enough” for Jeff, I’d never be good enough for a child. I’d never be the mother that my mother was.

And then one day, it was just over.

It was around the time Jenni found out she was pregnant with her second, a co-worker announced twins, and my friend Megan was fighting (and writing about) crippling post-partum anxiety and a high-needs newborn. (I believe that every person who has ever had a child, a loved one with a child, even a passing glance at a screaming child or parent in a grocery store–everyone–should read Megan’s blog, Figuring Out Home.) At the same time, the fog of my depression had been steadily lifting, and I went days, weeks, months without wishing I could stop existing, or biting, or collapsing into panic attacks. Jeff and I were high on love for each other.

Suddenly, I valued the evenings I came home to Jeff and we didn’t have to report to anyone but one other. We had only to figure out what each other needed. We clung to each other. When one of us lost patience, we didn’t worry that we’d fucked the other up for eternity.

Finally, after a particularly crowded, toddler-filled day at the Natural Sciences museum, I broke down and told Jeff that I thought, maybe, possibly, kids weren’t for us. Maybe my ticking clock had stopped. Maybe we would be better as the cool aunt and uncle, in both the blood-related and choose-your-own-family kinds of way.

And we’re really, really OK with this, most of the time. We’re both in the somehow comfortable place where we’d be perfectly fine either way, with no burning desire in either direction. Al sent me this article by everyone’s spirit animal, Cheryl Strayed, and I’ve read it 18 times and cried at different parts every time.

"Anchored Ship" by sappling

“Anchored Ship” by sappling

I still worry about the ghost ship, but less. I worry about the standards, like reaching 40, 45, 50, and having regrets, and who will take care of us when we’re old. I soothe myself with thoughts of fostering, adopting, having lots of knee-high pets and nieces and nephews and huge gardens. I added 2% to my 401k contribution. I feel vaguely smug about being child-free, a feeling I hope will pass, but which is a hundred times better than self-hatred.

And then I learn about these letters from Korea, and I can’t reason away the pangs. I fear that all the “us” that we’ve accumulated will be shoved into garbage bags by a cleaning company. It makes me sad to think that no one will ever leaf through Jeff’s sketches and marvel at them the way I do. I fear disappearing. It’s hard to be an atheist and still want to live forever. We aren’t famous. Without children more-or-less obligated to, who will remember us? Who will tell our stories? Who will bury us with our letters?

The Art of Being Content

I recall being in college and overhearing my mom talk to a friend on the phone. She hung up, and I asked how her friend was doing, as I hadn’t heard from her in a while.

“She’s good,” Mom said. “She’s very content.”

Those two words, “good” and “content,” were competing in my mind, though. To me, “content” isn’t the same as “happy.” To me, contentment speaks of settling, of no longer wanting more. And when I thought of myself as an adult, as a real adult, I hated to think that I’d one day settle.

As a teenager, I read a book–the title of which I can’t remember–in which the lead character had a motto, “NBO. Never be ordinary.” Mine was, “Never be content.” Always seek more. More happiness. More excitement. Never be satisfied. Never settle.

And that was easy enough when I was young, because I was rarely wholly happy. My work, my partner, my home, my friends. And most of all, myself. They were never just right at the same time.

But I’m beginning to think there’s real value in contentment. Being content means being at peace–not just being happy for now, but being happy. Full stop.

I’ve been in such a rush lately. I feel things falling into place around me–my partner, my work, my friends, and most of all, myself–and I want more, faster. I want to be excited. I want to delight people with news of house, of marriage, of baby. I’m worried that by the time I do get to experience these things, nobody else will care. Or maybe that I won’t care.

And it holds me back. It’s kept me from painting the walls in our apartment for two and a half years because “we’ll just have to paint again when we move…soon.”

I have realized my “need” to pass these grown-up save points isn’t as strong as it was one and two years ago. Maybe because, as my mind heals, I give less of a shit what people think about us and our relationship. Maybe because I’ve rationalized away the necessity I felt–we don’t need to be married to be committed to one another, and we don’t need to own a house to feel like we belong in it. (There’s no rationalizing away this baby fever, though.)

Or maybe it’s because I’m finally experiencing what Mom’s friend was glad to have found a decade ago. Contentment. Happiness. Full stop. And it feels really good.