Thursday, January 31, 2013

To the Admissions Office at De LeSalle High School

One of my favorite people in the world, Olivia Louise, asked me to write her a recommendation for high school admission. Once I got done, I realized that I wanted to share it, because she really is a person worth knowing, and should probably enjoy a wider fan base than she currently does. So here goes:

I still can’t remember the first time I met Olivia. It’s as if she materialized in our house, went off to play Barbies with my daughter, and, in many ways, never left, thank goodness. Over the years, I’ve served her thousands of dishes of mac and cheese, gone to see her performances in school plays (always stellar), noticed when her teeth fell out, sympathized when she got braces and celebrated when they came off. I’ve ferried her all over town, to day camps and drama classes and in between one sporting event and another (she is seriously sporty). Olivia has spent a lot of time being a passenger in my car, and that alone is a testament to her strength of character.

The hands-down best times she and I ever spent together were when my daughter, who is six months older than she is, was already in half-day kindergarten, and Olivia, still a preschooler, would walk up to the grade school with me to pick up my daughter for lunch and playtime. Olivia would get to hold the dog’s leash, all by herself, and she would walk by my side, telling me what was on her mind. I loved, really loved, hearing what was on her mind.

A part of me, the big, dumb part, or maybe the hopeful part, believes that these walks happened just a week or two ago, and that Olivia is still waiting across the alley for me. All I need to do is walk up the cowpath she and Mary created between our two yards, help her on with boots and mittens, and we’re set for our walk up to school.

But of course this isn’t true. She is taller than me, and smarter than me (always was, I have to admit) and ready, now, for high school. Despite all those changes, she is still someone whose company I enjoy just as much as I did on what I now must admit were long-ago walks.

Last year, our family went to Beijing to visit my oldest daughter, who was studying there. It was an arduous journey that none of us particularly wanted to make, and one of the few things that made it bearable was that Olivia came along with us. The truth is, we are a high-strung, excitable bunch, even worse when we’re all together, or when we’re traveling, and Olivia calms us down. She is the still, strong center to which we cling, whether we realize we’re doing it or not.

It was a better trip, because of her – her clarity, her observations, her willingness to do crazy things like fling herself in a metal sled down the side of the Great Wall of China. It was an outrageous thing to do, and Olivia and I, both Olympic-class worriers, were probably equally afraid of such a stunt. We’ve both spent our lifetimes thinking about all the things that can ever go wrong, and then working very hard to prevent them from happening. The difference between Olivia and me is that I rode back down on the babyish gondola, and she picked up the sled and went down the side of the Great Wall. That’s how brave she is, and that’s one of the many reasons I admire her so much.

Three other reasons I admire her (and these are just the top-of-the-head ones, I could come up with dozens upon further reflection): 1) She sees everything, I mean everything, but she doesn’t feel a need to comment. She just knows, and that’s enough. And I know when she knows, and sometimes that's kind of fun and sometimes it's a little bit scary. 2) She has been through a lot, more than the fair share for an average eighth grader, and, perhaps because of that, or just because she’s wonderful anyway, she is one of the most resilient people I know. 3) She does not toss away her smiles and laughs for free; they must be earned. This makes me try even harder to please Olivia, and when I do – whether it’s by pulling the banana bread out of the oven at the exact moment she wants it, or by getting all the logistics right and getting her to the place she needs to be at the precise instant she needs to be there – I feel as if I’ve earned a medal, and it’s not in Worrying, but in something really worthwhile, Olivia-Pleasing.

In some ways, she’s been a grown-up ever since I’ve met her, and it’s been interesting to watch her get older and become more of a fit with her actual outside self. She was one heck of a wise five-year-old, and she’s a wicked-wise fourteen-year-old. She’s the sort of person who won’t necessarily get any smarter or wiser as the years go by, because that would probably be impossible. Instead, she’ll just become herself, more and more, and that will be an amazing thing to behold.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

I Miss My Mom

I’ve been volunteering on and off at the Crisis Nursery for more than 18 years. I’ve dealt with happy kids and poopy kids and kids with felonies in their future and kids who want to hear “Cat in the Hat” seventeen times in a row – in other words, the works. Some shifts are easy, and some are hard. And there is one thing they tell me that breaks my heart, every time.

It always happens the same way – never shouted, always secret. They whisper it to me, when no one else is around, as if it’s a longing so strange and rare that it can only be confessed in complete privacy. The child sidles up to me, or pulls down on my neck during story time, or leans in close to let out this great heart-held secret: “I miss my mom.” It is always said with urgency, and a measure of despair, as if admitting such a thing is to admit to a great and unfixable weakness of character.

It’s hard to know what to say in those moments. After all these years, though, I’ve got a standard routine that I trot out for just such occasions. “I know you miss her,” I whisper back, right away, aiming to turn that shame-filled confession inside out, to let it air itself in the sunlight, so that we both see it as the most commonplace desire in the world.

And then, because I’ve thought a lot about what it must be like to be a kid whose life is so fraught that a mom needs to leave for 72 hours, I list a few of  the things I can imagine my confessor might be missing the most: “When you sit on her, it feels so good, doesn’t it?” I ask, and I feel a little nod on my neck. “And she smells just right, doesn’t she, just like a mom should? And when you rub her clothes, they feel just perfect, don’t they?”

I usually stop there, because I always think that if I go on much longer, we’ll both cry. After my sensory tour of Momland, I always try my best Mary Poppins imitation, 90% brisk and 10% loving. “She misses you, too, and she’s thinking of you, and you WILL see her again,” I conclude. And then I introduce some new topic, usually my probably-stupid-but-helpful-in-these-situations color-changing wristwatch, which allows both of us to get our minds somewhere else for a minute.

This past week, the confession came from a bony little guy in an orange shirt, who whispered it in my ear as I was wiping peanut butter off his face. “I know,” I said, and I started in on my Praise of Your Mom routine, all while I was helping him clean up his breakfast things. I didn’t break stride, almost.

Even though I’ve heard it so many times, I still remember the first couple times it happened. In both cases, the kids were eldest siblings, trying to hold it together for the sake of the little kids, and that made their grief especially hard to witness. The first was a skinny little girl, maybe just six, at the nursery with a toddler sister. We were at the breakfast table, and I watched her looking around at all the happy kids, shoveling in Cheerios and loving life in a place with heat and beds and regular meals. She lifted a spoon to her lips, putting on a good show for the little sister, and then she just lost it. The spoon fell to floor, and her little hands covered her face, so that no one would see. Six-year-olds don’t usually do that; they want the whole world to know when they are sad enough to cry. But she wished she could stop herself, among all the other things she was wishing at that moment.

In what would become a long string of my many Crisis Nursery transgressions over the years, I broke the rule-of-the-moment, which that week was that we-must-all-sit-in-our-chairs-at-all-times. Screw that, said bad volunteer, and took this little sack of worried bones, with her limp hair and skinny lips, right into my lap. We sat there during breakfast, a modern pieta, and we didn’t say much. I rubbed her back a bit, and whispered what was my then brand-new routine in her ear, until it was time to get up for the next damn thing, and I had to let her go. 

And I remember that boy. He must have been just about at the age limit, almost seven, and there were two little siblings with him. Funny that I can’t remember them, but I can still see his face. I can see dark hair, and beautifully dark and deeply worried eyes. We were all playing some board game, something that allowed for half the pieces to be lost without affecting the experience, which is what all the games at the Nursery are like. As we were rolling dice and collecting cards and he just stopped and looked right into my eyes, as if he were the man of the family and he had to tell me this or die, about how much they all missed her. But he didn’t crumple up right away, not until I hugged him. And then he did, for a long time.

One thing I notice is that the kids never, ever say “I want to go home,” because home, for a lot of these kids, is a fluid sort of concept. Mom is the constant, at least as much as they can have one of those. When my daughter Emma first started coming along to volunteer with me, she was eager to read the kids’ charts, which we were told we could do. We did it exactly twice, and then even Emma, for whom too much knowledge is always just the beginning, had to stop. The shelters and the battering and the jail and the evictions … it was a lot to know, collectively, and we made a silent agreement not to do it anymore.

Instead, I try to spend my time with them in the absolute purest sort of now, with no knowledge of their past and the brightest sort hope for their future. Now you need your nose wiped. Now you need your shoe tied. Now you need to be restrained from smacking that other little boy. Now you need to sit on my lap while I read you a story, and then you need to pull my head toward yours, and you need to pour out the secret of your heart to someone who seems willing to listen, and to care.

I always listen, and I always care. And that, Sunday after Sunday, is all I can do, and I just hope that all I can do is enough, at least for now.

Friday, January 18, 2013

That Vision Thing

I spent many years of my life squinting, so when I started to go blind, it sort of snuck up on me. Several years ago, though, I began to realize that my eyesight was reaching Mr. Magoo proportions, and I visited an optometrist. It was one of those awful medical visits where what you assume is going to happen (“Everything is fine, you just need a new prescription, nothing to worry about”) instead turns into a series of longer and longer waits, with rooms and equipment that you didn’t even know were there. By the time I made it to the final consulting room and the doctor flipped open a thick file folder, I was ready for the worst.

My optometrist was a cheery sort, though, a firm believer in the “it could be worse” school of medicine. First she told me that I didn’t have a brain tumor or a degenerative disease. By the time she got around to mentioning that I had  advanced cataracts, which would require two spaced surgeries that would pretty take up most of summer, I felt like I had won the lottery. No brain tumor, yippee!

She hustled me out of the office, and I made it to the car before the reality sunk in, but by then I was the surgeon’s problem, not hers. And of course, she was right. It really is great to see, and once I got through the surgery, and the recovery, and that weird six weeks where I had one good eye and one bad eye, and the fact that I couldn’t do yoga for three months, I was happy. 

As my husband said, after mentioning my lifelong reading addiction and childhood fondness for gobbling up the latest Nancy Drew under the covers with a flashlight, I had probably used my eyes well over the average amount for a human, and they just ran out of warranty. Now I have new, artificial equipment, and while it’s not always as good as the original stuff, I’ve tried to cope with the ensuing difficulties.

The complications are like those in a twisted fairy tale, one where I manage just fine in the day, but become an old crone in the darkness. My new reality is that I am struck blind when I move from one extreme of light to the other – from, say, a well-lit hallway to a darkened theater. (That I would prefer to spend most of my life in a darkened theater is an irony that has not been lost to me.) I have already embarrassed myself in the Southwest High School Theater more times than I care to recall, designed as it was by someone who seemed to relish that dramatic switch from high to low light, plus a lot of small, unevenly spaced steps that seem to spring out at odd angles for the fumbling foot. I’m sure many of my fellow parents at school think of me as “that mother of Emma the cellist and Mary the actress, the one who secretly drinks and stumbles quite a lot.”

Another problem I encounter is that I have a very hard time seeing straight down, as when, say, I encounter a flight of steps. I have difficulty making out where the next step separates from the one before, a challenge that I felt very keenly last year during our trip to Beijing, a city which believes that one 20-watt bulb is sufficient to light any stairwell, and which seems to view banisters as a capitalist tool. When I returned from China with both my legs unbroken, I considered it a minor miracle.

As anyone who has any disability can attest, there are great big gaps for learning to grow, in between all those broken places. One of the biggest things I’ve learned is that I don’t really have a disability at all, just an inconvenience. I can still drive and read and write and walk the dog and do yoga, and that’s plenty of life for me. I have a deeper sympathy for the elderly and the lame. Whenever the lights go out, I’m one of them.

I do wish that what ails me didn’t feed so directly into my many anxieties, especially my desire to attract as little attention to myself as possible. That back-of-the-class mentality is in direct contrast to the stir I create when I’m creeping down to my seat in the dark, grasping at upholstery and occasionally somersaulting. I tell myself that it’s a great lesson in humility, but I’ve also learned that I generally hate great lessons.

My weakness teaches me plenty about other people, too. One thing I’ve learned is that everyone I know is blind, or deaf, or both. It doesn’t seem to matter how many times I try to offhandedly mention, “I might take some time here; I have some trouble with the darkness,” it’s pointless. No one gets it, everyone just sighs, loudly. If I had a crutch or a bandage, maybe that would help. But maybe not.

I worked on a project last year with a customer who had a groovy space downtown, a building with slow elevators and dim stairwells. My client, a wiry and brisk woman, loved to take the stairs two flights up and down to our usual conference room, which would have been fine if I could have seen anything after stepping out of her bright office space, which I couldn’t. My entire experience of the project seems to be tied up in my terror that I would move too slowly and keep her waiting, which she seemed loathe to do.

Mentioning the word “surgery” isn’t much of an option, because I invariably get the “yeah, I had Lasik, too” response. I will confess that I hate to utter the word cataracts, because it sounds like something that an 80-year-old would discuss. Still, I feel like I’m 80, sometimes, and I suppose I’ll be relieved when my body’s chronological age matches that of my eyes, and everyone expects me to dodder.

As the years have passed, I have come to dread my Minnesota winters, with darkness descending at five p.m., and an icy patch for every footfall. This year, though, I have received a winter blessing from an unexpected source – straight from Paris, actually. Our exchange student, Hugo, is, I have mentioned before, a large and sturdy fellow, one who played defensive end for the Lakers this season with a maximum of well, defensiveness. I once described the experience of hugging him as akin to snuggling up to a flying buttress at Notre Dame.

Thanks to Hugo, I’ve been getting through this winter with a little bit more grace. He offers his steady arm to me on every dark journey that we take together, and I’ve learned to cling to him with rare assurance. My family long ago lost patience with me and my snail-like speed. If I ask for an arm to lean on, they generally can’t stop themselves from pulling me along, just a bit. Come on, already, what are you, blind?

Hugo never pulls. He matches his pace to mine, no matter how slowly I need to proceed. Last Sunday, we were going to an AFS Potluck, and he was maneuvering me up a sidewalk that was flanked by incredibly dark and scratchy bushes, creating even more shade. I was worried about a patch of concrete that changed shades too abruptly. I stopped short. “Is that a step?” “No,” he said gently, and stepped ahead, just a bit, to show me. On the way out, after the dinner was over, I found myself stopping at the same place. My eyes would just not let me go forward. Here is what he did not do – sigh, walk away or yank at me. Here is what he did do – show me, once again, that I wasn’t going to fall down if I stepped forward. So I did.

During our Christmas travels, we spent an evening at the house of some college friends of my husband. The evening was more “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” than “It’s a Wonderful Life,” but whatever. (Those board games can get pretty nasty in Oak Park). I was tired when we left, and happy to see that letter jacket of Hugo’s in my peripheral vision. He held out his arm and we stepped onto the porch.

We took one step, and then I stopped, assessing a patch of ice and wondering if my eyes would tell me where my foot should land. I began to wonder if these people were Communists – the steps were as bannister-free and scary as Beijing. The husband of the couple began to heckle me from his spot at the front porch: “What’s the matter with you? What are you, blind? My mother-in-law goes down those stairs faster!”

I looked up at Hugo. Part of me wanted to turn back, to tell this sneering creep that I was, indeed, blind, and also, let’s face it, afraid of the dark. Perhaps I should have asked Hugo to trot back and offer him a Knuckle Sandwich, La Courneuve style.  But I just looked up into Hugo’s eyes, and saw nothing but patience, nothing but care. We could stand there all night on that step, and that man behind us could keep mocking me, but Hugo would not let me go.  And, knowing that, I hugged his arm more tightly, and we made it down the stairs, together.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

The Giraffes, the Christmas Display and the Soup Lady

I don't know how I became a Soup Lady, but it seems to have creeped up on me, like someone who starts collecting giraffe figurines and then has an entire house full of them, or those people up the street who have a one-million watt Christmas display that snarls neighorhood traffic for the month of December.  It started with one giraffe, with one lighted reindeer, and now look at it.

I've been hosting twice-yearly soup swaps for a while now, and I have written a couple feature stories that mention them, but something happened this past week that made me realize that I had, metaphorically, acquired a houseful of giraffes.

Fifteen months ago, I submitted an essay to This I Believe, a project whose essays and broadcasts are just, as my kids used to say about six months ago, the bomb. And then this past Wednesday, the first day back to work and school after the winter holiday, when everyone in this house woke up with a sour attitude and a face to match (me included), I found something nice in my email inbox:  This I Believe had published my silly soup essay on their site.

Was this honor accompanied by a hefty fee, or an all-expenses-paid vacation to sunny clime? Not at all, but it would be hard to tell that by the level of giddiness I was experiencing. I told everyone, really everyone, and now here I am, writing about it again. 

Here is the essay, in case you have any interest in reading even more about my views on soup, which I totally understand if you do not.  I feel that way about giraffe figurines, myself.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Radical Sitting

In most Asian countries, it’s impolite to point your chopsticks at another person. In parts of the Middle East, you’ll be offensive if you point the soles of your feet in someone’s direction. And at the T J Maxx store near Michigan Avenue, you’ll freak out the assembled shoppers if you sit down on the floor by the elevators, cross your legs, and close your eyes.

I know this last statement to be true, because this exercise in unintentional mass-freaking-out happened to me just a few days after Christmas, on our holiday road trip to Chicago. On that particular day, I was up early (before noon), and the teens, per yewzsh, as Mary says, were not. Nothing to do but walk, so we set off at as quick a clip as the large, shambling crowds would allow. Dick wanted to check out the menswear offerings in a couple stores. I said I’d go inside with him and wait. I never mind waiting (it’s such nice break from my usual “off hours” occupations of cooking, driving and grocery shopping), so I told him that I’d be by the elevators when he finished.

There were, I discovered, no chairs by the elevators.

No problem. I executed my standard old-lady-to-the-floor maneuver of backing up to a wall and sliding down, slowly, as if I’d been shot by a very old bullet. Legs crossed and eyes closed, I tried breathing for a while, and then I tried thinking of nothing. Then I started a few prayers, the ones I say every morning -- one Hail Mary for each of my dead friends. A prayer for my mother, a prayer for Joel, a prayer for Theresa … and that’s when I heard the crackle of a walkie-talkie right above my ear. I looked up into a pair of navy blue polyester-clad knees. It was the security guard, there to visit my little oasis of quiet in his bustling emporium.

“You okay, maam?” he asked, indicating that, in his opinion, I was very much Not Okay. I rechecked the perimeter of my sitting area. I was not blocking merchandise or the ability to make a purchase. I wasn’t plugging up any speakers, because Toni Braxton was wailing, storewide, just as loudly as when I had sat down.

I was just, well, sitting. But this guy did not seem pleased with the notion, and I think he suspected that I’d been praying, too. He kept looking at me out of the corner of his eye, like he expected me to shape-shift into his grandmother.

It seemed like a good time to say something respectable. “I’m waiting for my husband,” I tried. This seemed to mollify the guard. There was a man attached to me, somewhere, poor jerk, and that jerk might be piling up a large purchase right now, even if I seemed to have missed the basic purpose behind all this real estate – look at the stuff and buy some of it, for God’s sake. The guard jerked his head, once, as if someone was pulling a cord attached from his skull to the ceiling, and then he took off, his hip still crackling with radio waves. I wondered what he’d report into his walkie-talkie when he got out of my hearing.

I settled back, less easily. I hadn’t realized that what I was doing would attract attention or cause alarm. I am completely invisible most of the time, so those few times when anyone happens to notice me can be unsettling. I closed my eyes again. I’d run out of dead people, which happens if I have enough time to pray, so I started on Hail Marys for the live ones. I had just about finished with my roster of favorites, and was about to tackle the throat-closing, finger-twitching discomfort of praying for people who intimidate me, disapprove of me and generally make me want to crawl into a hole. I took a deeper breath and heard a rustle.

This guy looked nicer. I didn’t think he worked for the store, but when he asked me if I was okay, there was a professional crispness in his delivery, as if he were an off-duty EMT. Or someone who worked in a mental hospital, I suddenly realized. I looked up into his friendly eyes and repeated my story. He smiled, warily, but kept hanging around the men’s sock display, which was the merchandise closest to my elevator hideaway.

By now I was finding it hard to keep my eyes closed and pray. A lot of men suddenly seemed to be looking for socks. Hadn’t they gotten any good Christmas presents? It’s not much of a holiday without new socks under the tree, I mused, sending out some sympathy to these poor blighters, who all seemed to be examining each item with great care, as if yes, they were very interested in the difference between plush crew and athletic wicking, thank you very much.

I wondered, with a jolt, if they really were sad, sockless post-Christmas customers, or if they were undercover floorwalkers, there to make sure I didn’t try anything funny. I’m just sitting, I wanted to shout, but then I realized that this would be the behavior they’d been fearing all along. 

I tried to see things from their perspective. What if everyone just sat down, right where they were, and stopped shopping? I imagined how Michigan Avenue would look, with people dropped into place along the sidewalks, women slipping to the floor in dressing rooms, tweens releasing their hard-won skankwear in Forever 21, children ungripping the latest xbox slaughterfest from their grubby paws. It would be mayhem – quiet mayhem, but still.

This store needed me up on my feet. I was supposed to be flipping through the racks of women’s sweaters, trying on pair after pair of uncomfortable shoes, dragging my maximum-six number of items into the dressing room. People who are not actively checking out their nether regions in the three-way mirror are not people who are contributing to the local economy, and we know all where that leads. Well, I don’t know, to tell you the truth, because I never pay attention to those things, but I assume it leads to somewhere bad.

I saw their point. I thought I was just an old lady in a knitted cupcake hat, tending my inner garden while the world looked at socks. But they were right. I was a troublemaker, and instigator and Bad Example.

I started to feel uncomfortable from the mix of too much self-reflection and some very creaky knees. Just then, I saw my husband headed toward me, bulging plastic bags in tow.

The economy would survive. I would get off the floor and leave this store. I imagined my friend the security guard, watching me on a video screen in some back office and fist-pumping the empty air, relieved that he’d managed to avoid the paperwork and hassle of calling the cops on yet another wacko.

As the elevator doors closed, I glanced out at the men’s sock department, which seemed, suddenly, a bit forlorn. What this department needs, I thought, is a praying woman, just to make things more interesting.