Saturday, November 04, 2006

Come in, come in...

"If you are a dreamer, come in.
If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar,
A hope-er, a pray-er, a magic bean buyer . . .
If you're a pretender, come sit by my fire,
For we have some flax golden tales to spin.
Come in!
Come in!"

Shel Silverstein

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Creative Non-Fiction essay - Draft II: Holdfast

… life goes not backward nor tarries
with yesterday …

Kahlil Gibran


Reading today’s headlines or watching a breaking story on NBC requires some preparation and perhaps even a bit of courage. I do so only to remind myself that the best things in life are usually the most fragile. I want to stay informed rather then scuff my shoes on the sidelines, ignorant about what is going on outside of my front door. I used to only be someone's child, now I am someone's parent too. How do I explain to my son the reasoning behind a man shooting 10 young girls in an Amish town in Pennsylvania before he puts the gun to his own head and pulls the trigger? Even more difficult, how do I explain the immediate forgiveness displayed by each and every parent who lost a child that day? I’ve hardly ever had good answers for myself and could gloss over that, but I can’t anymore, nor do I want to. Everyday my son asks me a question that gives me pause and I have to think twice about the answer, lest I say something too simple or not simple enough. I want big answers, yet I don’t always understand what’s being asked of me.

I didn’t spend too much time thinking about the magnitude of work involved in taking care of a young child. This is not something I thought about when I watched the little square on the plastic pregnancy test stick slowly bring a second pink line into focus. I sat back down on the closed lid of the toilet, put my face in my hands and took a few deep breaths. I’m perfectly capable of handling this; I have a great family, lots of support, but god, what have I gotten myself into? There are some things a person can’t take back, this is one of them. I knew what my personal choices were and it would be none other then to carry this life safely in my belly until the time came for him to make his way out, but that was only a small piece of the picture for me. I have never been given such big news nor had my life so indissolubly altered for just $14.99 at the local pharmacy.

In the spring of 2003 my son Max was born and it was a quiet, simple birth. I say quiet and simple and according to a textbook on childbirth it may have been, but I was scared out of my mind the entire time. Never have I felt so out of control, so at the mercy of something else immensely larger then anything I have ever known. I wasn’t sure if I could take any more pain, but I also couldn’t quite figure out a way to make it stop. Is this what they meant by “natural” childbirth? That word has always made me think of something clean, fresh, gentle, perhaps even organic, not this feeling of being one contraction away from choking the life out of whomever is closest to my clenched fists. Why couldn’t we be more like the Olive ridleys sea turtles, which crawl out on the beaches of India, lay golf ball-sized eggs into a hole in the sand, then cover them up and head home to the ocean without a backward glance? Or the cuckoo bird which lays her egg in someone else’s nest, leaving them to take good care of her newborn chick. My favorite are the marsupials whose offspring are the size of a jelly bean. That can’t cause more than a slight tickle when they inch their way into their mother’s safe pouch, looking for the life-giving nipple.

A few weeks before I went into labor, a bit of wisdom was bestowed upon me by an all-knowing woman who was bagging my groceries. “Just remember honey, kids are so much easier inside than they are on the outside!” she said cheerily as she stuffed my peaches in next to my gallon of 1%. Thanks a lot. A pregnant woman gets an unhealthy amount of unsolicited advice when her belly reaches a size of noticeable girth. Somehow, you become public property when you’re expecting and it’s not until you are carrying around a small infant car seat that you become invisible again. A striking phenomenon is that people go out of their way to help someone who is pregnant from opening doors, to letting you cut in line at the ladies room. Not so once your child is on the outside. You might as well have a large plaque stapled to your forehead stating that you are very new at this, are most likely drastically hormonal and are also likely to take a very long time at whatever it is you are trying to do. People don’t wait for my parking space anymore when they see my child and I heading for the car and they never let us cut in line at the restroom. They just assume we’ll take too long.

Max wasn’t crying yet when he came out of his aquatic environment, that was still to come. Just a little guy wrapped in a blanket with a red stocking cap on his head who had quietly let the midwife weight and measure him while he stared at the overhead lighting. My psychology classes teach me about a phrase called “goodness of fit” which has to do with how well your inborn temperament fits with your environment, your family. Sometimes a certain combination of genes can sneak up on you, turning a situation into something far different than you expected. You get an outgoing child in a shy family or a quiet little boy in a raucous Greek family and this doesn’t always pose well for optimum human development. I’ve been lucky, Max seems to match my personality just fine, however he is more outgoing than I’ve ever been and he has so many questions. We might be out to lunch at a soup and sandwich café and he will ask the stranger sitting next to us, “What’s that in your chin?” referring to the piercing just below her bottom lip. If I have company over for dinner, he will ask my friend Cathy, “Why does Alice (our dog) have ten nipples and I only have two?” At bedtime, he might ask, “Mommy, what’s the moon say?” and I have to come up with an educated, imaginative answer that will hopefully encourage more questions just like that one. My answers are honest and truthful; I see no reason to throw dust on reality. Someone will someday and I’d like him to have the vision to see through it. I use words that a preschooler can understand and always stay positive, I hope this will last. A boy is great, but in the infinite wisdom of our government, a boy can also possibly be drafted.

The Anchorage Daily News has an article about what happens to the belongings of the soldiers who are killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are flown to a sorting depot where government employees go through these items, return the personal effects to the grieving families and give the army issue equipment back to the government so they can reissue it to the next one in line. As of the fall of 2006, almost 3000 US troops had been killed in the Middle East so far with no end in sight. You raise a good honest person, and they might take it upon themselves to serve their country, thinking that’s what you had in mind. Some think it’s the noblest thing you can do, others think just the opposite and the rest just sit back in silence, waiting for the war to be over. I can’t say what I value more, there is always the, “well, someone has to do it” opinion, but is that enough?
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
I once worked at an animal shelter that practiced euthanasia. I’ve loved animals since I was a little girl and thought this would be a great place for me to do my part. As a rookie, I started out cleaning cages and emptying litter boxes and this took up most of my shift. The pay was great, best I’d ever made and the other employees were decent to work with. After six months or so, I got to start helping out with the selection process. This involves walking through all the aisles of dogs, cats, birds, reptiles, puppies and kittens and deciding who gets to live and who gets put on the list. The list being the animals that are killed by lethal injection every Tuesday and Thursday morning from six to eight AM. This sounds cold and in a way it was, but when there are that many unwanted animals, and there were hundreds, we didn’t have time to bond with them all. The one animal that struck me deep down in my heart, I ended up adopting myself and that gave me the feeling that I was making some small sense of it all, even if I didn’t know quite what that was.

The first animal I ever had to inject with a lethal dose of phenobarbital was an elderly grey terrier that could barely stand up anymore. His skin was so wrinkled and dry that I couldn’t even find a vein and had to just sink the needle into his emaciated thigh muscle. The owner had brought him in, knowing that it was time and with her at his side, the old dog just slowly lay down and stopped breathing as I pushed the drug into his body. The owner cried and thanked me for being gentle, wiped her tears and slowly walked to the door, head hung low with the weight of loss. I had to keep going, on to the list of animals that were healthy, mostly young, just with no one to love them the way she had loved her faithful companion. If someone brought in a box of puppies, we usually had to kill all but maybe the cutest one, if we wern’t too overcrowded. The people who cry, “Murderers! How can you do this!” stand there with no intention of adopting all these creatures themselves. I’ve seen the “no kill” shelters and I’ve seen what months and even years can do to an animal that has no real place to call home, no bed to sleep on and no grass to roll around in. It’s like a person whose been in the prison system too long, after awhile it just takes it’s toll and you can’t be changed back into the person you were on the outside.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
I’m part of a generation that has grown up with headlines about babies being rescued from abandoned wells, space shuttles crashing into the ocean, Desert Storm, O.J. Simpson and the glove that didn’t fit, the twin towers in New York City crumbling to the ground after an unprecedented act of terrorism, tsunamis and hurricanes that kill thousands and now a war in the Middle East that makes no real sense to just about anyone I talk to. I have seen the kind of suffering that shakes a human being to the core, but I’ve only seen it on television. According to a a recent poll conducted by CNN, as much as 62% of adults nationwide oppose the U.S. war in Iraq and 55% think it has made us less safe from terrorism then we were before. As much as 66% disapprove of the way our president is handling the situation, yet the majority would like to keep our troops in the Middle East for as long as it takes. As long as what takes I wonder.

Of course, if your child is out there on the front lines, you want them to come home, the sooner the better. Some families are given good news, others are given a box with some nicely folded belongings, pictures, books and journals, possibly a video game or two. My son is three years old, but that’s only 15 years away from the possibility of him flying off to some distant shore to protect my freedom. Aren’t we, as parents supposed to protect our children? When did it get so turned around? Gas prices continue to increase, yet everyone still drives their SUVs while trying to figure out how to talk on their cell phone at the same time. I would guess that if people nationwide were given the choice to know what the price a barrel of oil sold for today or who the father is of the baby Jennifer Aniston is carrying, the majority would pick the latter, and she isn’t even pregnant.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
What if we’re headed for another Depression? Could Generation X and the Nexters, (people born in 1980 or later) handle such a struggle and could we do without our Ipods, Razer cell phones and 16-ounce triple shot, half-caff, skinny lattes with extra foam? I’ve never seen the shelves bare at the grocery store, what would I tell my son Max when he asks for more strawberries please and there just plain aren’t any, anywhere. Or fruit-flavored Mentos, his absolute favorite that I can use to get him to do just about anything, what happens if those run out? I want so much to keep him from harm and to know only the good in people. I know this is unrealistic at best, it’s just that this is the hardest thing I’ve ever done and I’m afraid I won’t know how to make the right choices when it really matters. Every year that goes by I’m forced to let go of a little bit at a time. From something as simple as having to buy a larger diaper size the next time I’m at the store to throwing the last pacifier in the garbage, it’s all just one small loss at a time.

Along with the fear that you are somehow, someway going to mess your kid up no matter how hard you try, there comes great joy as well. Why would millions of people all over the world go on having child after child if it were not for such huge rewards? Max has greatly opened my eyes to all the smaller things in life that I let slip out of my sights years ago. Seeing the world the way Max sees it without any judgment, preconceived notions or prejudice makes me realize just how much I’ve forgotten and I want it back. We are such a fast-paced society and if you don’t let your kids slow you down, you will do them, and yourself, a great disservice. I notice with a keener eye, the leaves on the white birch trees changing colors as they prepare for winter and fall to the ground. I notice the grey and white Canadian geese with their little banded legs, lifting off the soccer fields and flying in formation, heading for warmer weather. I now notice the bright red toadstools with their white freckles that emerge from the earth after a heavy rainstorm. I’m also much more careful where I step in case there is a slippery pink earthworm wiggling around that has been attracted to the wet topsoil. Cylindrical moose droppings have never been so fascinating until I saw them through Max’s eyes. The full moon is now a magnificent creature to behold when we are lucky enough to have a clear, cloudless night. I used to drive right by the occasional moose seen nibbling shrubs off the side of the road, now they’re cause to pull over and park just like a tourist, as Max and I watch in fascination until they saunter off to eat someone's precious lilac bush.

I’ve never wanted to make much of a mark on planet Earth until now. Being a role model to the most precious person I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing has motivated me to get off the couch and get involved. In the words of Jamie Lee Curtis’s latest children's book, “Shouldn’t it be looking back at the end that you judge your own race by the help that you lend?” I’ve been focused on my own life struggle for so long that I forgot how good it feels to help someone else. I used to be the center of attention in my life, but the spotlight has shifted and I perform for a different audience now.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
I watch the sun melt into the waters of Cook Inlet, the rooftops of grey condominiums blocking most of my view. My son sits nearby watching Dora the Explorer on my laptop computer. Occasionally he reaches into a box of uncooked Rotelle pasta, puts one in his mouth and breaks it between his teeth with an uncomfortable snap. I think about what Max and I can do for fun once his DVD is over and if there will be enough daylight to walk to the playground and back without flashlights. I think about what’s important in my life now and how much that importance has shifted and changed over the last four years. I have become a stronger person, but I have also produced something that has the potential to make me more vulnerable then I ever thought possible. I could be manipulated into doing just about anything if it were my son that was used as leverage. Nothing has ever had that much power over me before. What if I hang on too tight? What if I let go too soon? Things don’t always happen the same way in life. If I have loved and lost before, it doesn’t mean that I will love and lose again. It also doesn’t mean that I won’t, but for now, I plan on soaking up the love for as long as I can and dishing it right back out.
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