A Way Out

A Way Out

I was already stressed by the time we got to the checkout line yesterday. 

It was the first time since the start of the pandemic that both boys and I had been to a store together, and standing in line made the afternoon feel like a holiday. We chatted with another middle-aged mom and a younger mom carrying a 6-month-old in a snuggly. The mundanity started to soothe away the anxieties wrought by a frustrated job search, financial worries, and waiting for further news of my mother who was in the hospital two states away.

The summer has been filled with the same stress that millions of people are feeling — job searching, isolation, illness, and, this year, a void. 

Circumstance has tied my life in knots, strangling my creative life. My garden has been a practical canvas of sorts, but, for most of July, my easels and my laptop (except during job searching) have been closed.  Lung pain made painting physically impossible for most of the spring and early summer, but lately a different pain has kept me from writing or painting. 

Mania makes me powerful as it burns out unpleasant details, but my depressions throw them into sharp relief with every disgusting reality glaring back at me. I see our planet melting. I see the powerful sacrificing the weak on the alters of profit, making me wonder if any lives — especially those as trivial as my own – matter. The clarity is painful, and the pain feeds on and expands my void.

Thing1 and Thing2 were waving at the 6 month old who seemed fascinated by their brotherly banter. Above their masks, I could see the other mothers smile. Covid-related cleaning extended the wait, but everyone seemed to recognize the preciousness of this bit of normal. 

Shouting from the cell phone section a few hundred feet away shattered the normal.  

At first we thought someone was arguing over masks, but Thing1 and Thing2, towering over the shelves in the checkout aisle, reported an argument between a group of shoppers and a manager.  A thud echoed through the store as someone threw something, and four men, one of them carrying a well-stuffed black garbage bag, ran toward the exit near the cash registers. Someone yelled to call 911 as a manager yelled at his employees to lock the doors. 

Realizing we were witnessing a robbery, I tried to maneuver my kids behind me and looked for the younger mom who was also looking for a place to escape or hide her baby. Thing1 and Thing2 have never witnessed or survived an armed robbery. I have. Knowing the prevalence of guns in this country and not caring how many phones or electronics might be in that garbage bag, I held my breath as the fleeing men got closer to the doors and the registers and prayed the employees wouldn’t be able to lock the doors. 


The men and the garbage bag barreled through the doors before the employees were able to force them closed. Cashiers returned to cashing people out as supervisors called 911 and tried to get descriptions. I asked the boys and the other mother if they were ok and noticed my own hand was shaking as I retrieved my credit card from the card reader. 

We left, and the boys focused on burgers more than burglary.  Adrenaline got me to the take-out place safely, but it also became a filter. Sometimes a story on the news will trigger a flashback to another robbery twenty-eight years ago when, lying face down on a beer-soaked carpet, I wondered if our assailants would shoot us in the head or the back before they left with our valuables. I’ll feel damp and my limbs will go numb, but, as I sat in the car, watching my kids eat and goof off, trading inappropriate jokes, I stayed with them. I stayed in the now. 

New blog post ideas started popping into my head.  As I started the drive home, I noticed, for the first time all summer, the layers of green and gold and white in the landscape. Suddenly the landscape – and life – didn’t seem trivial. 

I’ve navigated my depressions for years using cognitive lifelines, but responsibility to my kids, rather than creativity, is usually the first one I grab. Yesterday, our trip through the ordinary and the newsworthy knit those lines together and gave me a stronger way out of this depression.

Scars

Scars

The picture on the 27” screen had just switched to views of the Oregon area as Kindergarten Cop went from a loud, violent sequence to a more lighthearted part of the movie. The room was dark and shots of green hills and blue sky made the console TV look like a window to better places in the world than this house where I knew I should not be. I was thinking about grabbing the purse I had just bought at the Indian artifacts store in the mall and leaving when the front door banged open.

Afternoon sun poured into the hallway next to the front room making the mustard and gold shag carpet look clean for just a moment before two stark shadows darkened it purple. The shadows moved barely 2 steps before morphing into two very young men pointing guns at the seven people in the room. To this day, I don’t know the types, but I can remember black cylinders pointed at us as we were told to give them our valuables.

I tried not to look at one of the thieves as I handed him my purse strap. He took a wallet from the man sitting next to me next. Another girl at the gathering asked if she could get something out of her purse first, and, I knew we were all going to die.

Only an hour before this nightmare began, she had pulled from it a handgun to boast of the recent gift from a boyfriend. I knew I should’ve walked out of the party immediately. Now I stared down at the beer-stained shag carpet, realizing it might be the last thing I saw because i’d lacked the fortitude to do the right thing at the right time.

The boys/men unwittingly spared all of us shouting “No” and grabbed her bag. It took less than two minutes for them to collect our valuables, and then they told us to lie down on the floor. There had been other robberies in the area in the last few weeks that had ended with fatalities, and I wondered if it would be better to be shot in the head and die instantly or in the back and be paralyzed.

The boys apparently having chosen their target because they knew the house’s tenant was also engaged in criminal activity (the full extent of which I later discovered) and would not be calling the police, left without firing a shot.

Two hours later locksmith had made a new key for our cars. Knowing our assailants had my license and apartment keys, I drove to a friends house, and hid in their basement TV room for a month. For years I told no one I loved what had happened since I knew I was to blame for having stayed in the wrong place with the wrong people.

That was over 25 years ago, but those two minutes changed the trajectory of my life. They changed forever the way I dealt with people, with crowds, even with jobs. I stopped trusting anyone, especially myself. For years, every decision was made out of fear that sometimes metastasized into hate for the world. The Big Guy and the arrival of Thing moved me in a more positive direction, but I lost a lot of years and productivity to fear and hate.

I think about that impact every time word of another school or church shooting comes across the news. The people on the receiving end of this horrific violence have all been in the right place. They’ve been at school opening their minds or in their places of worship opening their hearts when some hate-filled person decides to take revenge on the world around him. And, as we have seen on the news, everyone in the presence of that violence is touched by it. It doesn’t matter if the bullets actually hit them, they will be scarred by them.

Some survivors, such as Emily Gonzalez, an eloquent and passionate advocate for the right of her contemporaries to go to school in peace, take of their post-ordeal trajectories in ways that become beacons of hope. My guess, however, is that even those with the strength to channel their pain into something productive will carry the wounds on their psyches for the rest of their lives.

Some scars may fade into tiny lines, blending in with those normal lines we all acquire. The psychic wounds inflicted on the children in this country may be increasingly common, but they are not normal. There are kids in war-torn and impoverished parts of the world who are acquiring far worse and more frequent wounds to body and mind, but that should not be the benchmark.

As I write, I’m watching 11-year-old Thing2 take apart an electronic toy to build a lightsaber. He’s at the beginning of his Age of Discovery. I know this is when his spark will be fanned into a flame. I also know he will acquire a few mental and physical scars over the next few years. That’s part of growing up. But, every day now I think about all the ways to protect Thing1 and Thing2 from the scars that should not be part of any childhood.

I know I’m in good company as more than one conversation with other parents over the last few years has evinced a common fear that any morning school drop off could be the last. We laughed nervously at what statistics tell us is our paranoia. Then a day after Parkland we heard news of a narrowly averted but similar shooting at a school two towns away. The conversations have since turned in earnest to school security, regulating certain guns and would-be owners, and even leaving the schools for homeschooling.

As I’ve entertained homeschooling for T2 and online college for T2 I realized my experience is still exercising its impact, trying to straitjacket their potential. That the fear isn’t irrational doesn’t make it less damaging to their futures, but I genuinely don’t know how to keep them from experiencing that fear while our country seems willing to normalize schools, churches, malls and theaters as war zones.

My personal feeling is that this issue won’t be resolved with a single magic pill. I don’t believe better school security or improved mental health support or better background checks alone will fix this, I think the answer will involve a combination of many solutions, but none of them will happen until we decide that all our children’s futures are worth working together.

A Journey of 5000 Meters

A Journey of 5000 Meters

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Diet-wise, this year is looking pretty much like last year and the year before – two pounds forward and 2.5 back.  There was one year where I did have diet success.  It was more of a lifestyle victory than a diet.

One spring about three years ago, I started a job with abysmal pay and benefits but lots of walking around the building.  I added a walk to my lunch routine.  An app junkie, I found a calorie counter and began controlling my portions. Summer progressed, and getting really serious, I started running.  With the aid of  another app, at summer’s end, I ran my first 5K with my sister and her kids.  It would turn out to be my only 5K.

That fall I headed into one of the periodic depressions that have plagued me since childhood, and I fell off the the diet and exercise wagon.  I fell hard.  Even with a better job with great people, pay, and benefits, I started spiraling down in early fall.  I knew the mental health benefits of daily exercise, but I could not get myself to run (after 40+ years, I’m still surprised that depression isn’t always rational).

This winter has been a lot like that winter three years ago.  Work was good.  Life was good, but every single day was a struggle to get out of bed and, once out of bed, not give into the temptation to dive into a permanent oblivion.

I plodded through winter, knowing the cycle would progress eventually and getting help when I knew I needed it.  I’ve been coming out of this curve for a few weeks, seeing pieces of the moderation and even the mania that will follow.  Spring is coming.

Outside, spring is here.  As with the last two years, sun has inspired thoughts of exercising again (dieting is a more distant goal).  Last Monday, however,  news of the Boston Marathon Bombing took all attention away from spring and diets and work.

Tuesday it rained.  The weather fit my mood in the aftermath of the tragedy.  It didn’t inspire running, but it became a good day for reflection.  Knowing little would change during the day, and that there was even less I could do to change things, I’d already decided not to gorge on news of the bombing.

The kids home for Spring Break, so working and keeping them busy helped divert me.  Thing1’s improved report card had won him back some forfeited computer time, and Thing2 embarked on a new construction paper sculpture.  We all worked quietly for a while.  Then, forgetting it was a rainy day, I accidentally broke the relaxed rhythm.

“Why don’t you two go outside?”  It was an automated question, timed, after all these years, to go off when children have been inside for too long.  “Go do something. You’re wasting your lives in here.”  Thing1, with the perfect amount of pre-teen sarcasm, quickly reminded me of the downpour outside.

Rebuffed, I lumbered back to my desk.  I sat down, my girth forcing air out of the seat cushion with a sharp whooshing sound.  I didn’t, as usual, automatically push from my mind the irony of a behemoth of a mom telling two wiry kids to get moving.  Today, I reminded myself, once again, that they deserved a mother who could keep up with them now and into their futures.

I shook off the irony and clicked on my email.  Then, despite my resolve, I clicked on a Boston webpage.  Pictures of Monday’s victims flashed on the screen.  Below, there were life stories of people who had been physically whole until the day before.  Then I saw a story of a school trying to raise money for the wounded.  My spirit lifted a bit as I found another story of a man who had never run a mile resolving to run the marathon next year to fundraise for the survivors. Through all the stories ran a theme of people trying not only to help but to live fully.

I got back to my email.  I’m physically whole, but I had to admit that I take a lot of my life for granted.  There are even some parts of it, like my health, that I toss aside very casually.

Wednesday morning I got up before the kids.  The rain was gone.  Without waking the boys, I slid on a pair of running shoes that hadn’t seen daylight since October 2010 and slipped out the door.  For the next 30 minutes I ran when my app told me to run and walked when it told me to walk, and there were times I had to stop.  I doubt I’ll be in that marathon group any year, but, chasing my acorn-squash shaped shadow through the woods around our house made me hope that I was taking the first steps of a better journey.

No Ordinary Day

No Ordinary Day

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Today wasn’t the perfect day to begin with. I’d planned a day off to spend time with the kids on their first day of Spring Break.  Instead, most of my morning was spent working, and filing and paying taxes.  The morning was gone in a heartbeat, but, even though I had squandered this day of freedom on busy work, something made it feel like the perfect day.

I’d finished a couple loads of laundry.  Dishes were done.  The sky was crystal blue, the kids were still excited about yesterday’s news that we were headed to Fenway to see Paul McCartney in July, and six-year-old Thing2 and I were heading out to the garden as soon as I checked my email for any fires from work.  And then the day caved in.

I sat down at my desk and checked my email.  I finished repairing a database for a customer, flipping back and forth between work and webpages while I waited for things to upload.  Nothing much was happening.  The gun background check legislation was front page along with fluff pieces on Tax Day.  I wrapped up my email quickly, hoping to go spend some quality time in the garden with Thing2.  It was only as I was shutting things down that I noticed the big yellow headline on the front page of Yahoo!

By now everyone’s learned of the bombings at the Boston Marathon.  Part of me wishes I had ignored the word Boston in that yellow strip and preserved what little was still perfect about this imperfect day.  Boston was our town once upon a time.  It’s where the Big Guy and I lived when we were first married.  It’s where we explored art and culture and each other.  It’s where we got addicted to Sunday brunch at the Freedom Trail Diner (since replaced by a shi-shi bistro).  It’s where, thanks to the Big Guy and the adventures our town offered just outside the tiny backyard of our basement apartment in the North End I learned to believe in people again as I left behind a life that had long been lived in fear since an armed robbery in another place and another life.

Now, as the sun goes down, Boston is under a shadow of fear.  The Big Guy takes things in stride, but I can tell he’s numb, as am I.  We haven’t mentioned this at all to six-year-old Thing2 (We’re still going to Fenway in July, and I don’t want his joy tainted by the fear of things that we can’t control).  Twelve-year-old Thing1 is much more aware, however, and I can see the news has him upset.  Like most of New England and much of America, I’ve been glued to the internet since learning about the lives ended and torn apart on what is normally a day for a city to celebrate itself.

Ironically, the internet has, for once, been a small antidote to some of my numbness.  Fred Rogers once advised parents to tell children in times like these to look for the helpers.  Today it’s been easy to see those helpers in their Boston Police Department uniforms and fluorescent jackets and vests, running toward trouble when they should be running away.  But I’ve also seen plain, ordinary people stopping to help complete strangers in all kinds of need.  I’ve seen a shirtless runners who must be exhausted after a 26.2 mile run stopping to help a man down on his back.  I’ve seen an ordinary man shielding an injured woman with his body and trying to resuscitate her.  I’ve seen pictures of everyday people cradling other everyday people, even though they must be terrified.

Boston may go to sleep tonight under a cloud of fear, but I don’t think it’s going to live under it for long.  One thing that city taught me was that nothing is completely safe, and, while you have to be vigilant, you still have to live your life.  Chaos tried to upend the city the day today, and I’m sure fear and anger will be part of what propels the search for the deluded person or persons who thought killing and maiming innocent people was an effective way to influence a country or a city.  But the fact is that it was humanity and courage that prevailed today.  We have the pictures.  And those pictures tell me that this town that holds so many memories and lessons for me and the Big Guy will not surrender its soul or character to fear.

from our roof

On the Street Where I Live

On the Street Where I Live

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It’s been four or five days now since a fertilizer bomb was detonated somewhere on the mountain across from ours.  While the local paper (two towns away) hasn’t picked up the story yet, it was a hot topic for many people at our local country store on Sunday.  Curiosity and concern were still high on Monday, but by Tuesday it was clear that fear was already losing its grip on many of us .

I’m still worried, of course.  Vermont isn’t at war as far as any of us know, so a bomb is not what we’re expecting to hear at eight o’ clock at night.  I am still waiting for some scrap of comforting information.  Even in the absence of information, however, I’m managing to find signs that this town (whose motto is ‘Whatever happens here stays here… But nothing ever happens here’) has managed to put a serious dent in my once Olympic-caliber capacity for agonizing over every potential problem.  There were two of those signs yesterday.

The first one had me trying to remember to breathe.  Mother Nature had been in her paintbox the night before.  After wiping her canvas clean with an inch of rain, she cooled things down.  Then, under cover of night, she brought out her fattest paint brush and daubed just enough white powdery paint over the mountains to cover but not completely obscure the trees and rocks.   I only noticed her work after I’d finished scraping the car and getting six-year-old Thing2 on the road to winter camp.  We scaled the long icy slope of our driveway, and then turned onto the road heading towards the horse farm at the bottom of our road.

The road makes a beautiful S-curve as we get closer.  A few isolated trees frame the rolling hills and the buildings of the farm perfectly, and a day doesn’t go by when I think what a perfect painting it would make.   Yesterday we hit the S-curve just as low purple and white clouds were skimming the powered mountains that rise up behind the farm.  It was breathtaking.  I forgot, for a moment, that we were late, that my foot was still on the gas, and even that a bomb had ever gone off on the mountain across from ours.

When I recovered my breath and remembered to slow down before we hit the more adventurous part of the mud pit we call a road, I drew Thing2’s attention to the scene ahead of us.  We slowly descended the hill, and the painting seemed to envelope us.  Thing2 spoke first after we had passed the farm.

“Can you believe we get to live here all the time?”  He asked.  I couldn’t, and all my recent mutterings that we should move somewhere safer to the middle of nowhere (redundant really) shattered like dust falling with the snow.

The second sign was more subtle, but when I finally saw it, was just as powerful.

The Big Guy went in the afternoon to Hubbard Hall, our local community theatre and art center in Cambridge, NY to pick up Thing2 at his winter break workshop.  Caught up in the excitement of viewing Thing2’s art projects, the nearly empty gas tank in the car slipped his mind, and they headed home. They were almost home when the gas ran out.  Fortunately, a neighbor spotted them quickly and brought them the rest of the way home.  The Big Guy borrowed my car to go get a can of gas for the vehicle still on the side of the road.

He was gone not five minutes when we heard a truck in the driveway.  Positive he couldn’t have filled up the car that quickly, we wondered who it could be.  Before I could get up from the kitchen table (my home office – very glamorous), Thing2 had gone into the mudroom to answer the door.  I had forgotten to lock the outside door again, however, and I suddenly heard a deep voice talking to my son.  It was another neighbor who had seen the car by the road and popped down to see if we needed help.  I told him we were all set and thanked him for checking on us.  Thing2 threatened to entrap him with endless cheerful banter, but the neighbor just smiled at him good-naturedly and waved goodbye to all of us.

I was not yet at the end of my work day and, forgetting to lock the door again, sat back down at the table to finish my shift.  Then the phone rang.  It was another neighbor from across the valley checking to see if we needed any help with the car.  I gave him the same answer, thanked him and hung up.   Before the phone touched the table, however, it rang again.  This time it was our neighbor at the top of our driveway who had seen the car.  I hung up a few minutes later, smiling and thinking that however loud one misguided kook might be, he doesn’t outnumber the ‘good guys’ in this tiny little town.

I realize it’s the same every city.  The ones making the bombs – regardless of their form – are the loudest, but they aren’t the majority.  They can cause havoc with your sense of peace if you let them, however.  I’m still hoping for news about our incident, but by the time the Big Guy returned with my keys, I had seen the second sign.  It wasn’t in the calls from caring neighbors.  It was the fact that, thanks to this town, I’m slowly learning to live my life without locked doors.