The Inside Out

Every night I dream of our children.

And every night our children appear as the kids from Stranger Things.

Mike, Will, Lucas, Duncan, and El in various configurations: buckled up in the back seat of the car we’re buying later this week (an ancient, boat-like Lexus), tethered into their life-jackets and snuggling in the bottom of the row boat we keep at the farm, tucked into their beds while my husband and I listen to music in the adjacent room. The music we listen to is live. A full band in our living room. Playing a made-up dream song that goes, “Where you learn to play that Zydeco? Hey Mami, hey Mami! Where you learn that Zydeco?” In my dream my husband and I clap and sing along. We sing and clap quietly, raising our shoulders at one another, conspiring. It’s a game: singing and clapping without waking the kids.

Why Zydeco? Perhaps because it’s Creole and scrappy—a mix of what’s at hand. And because there was a Zydeco band that sometimes appeared on Sesame Street to my child-self’s wonder and delight. Hey Mami: A ‘come on’ as in the Sylvan Esso song. But also, “Mommy.” I look it up. Google translate offers “Midwife” in Albanian. All of these. And what to make of the question, “Where you learn that”? Perhaps because this in the omnipresent question of adoption: Where do we learn to make music with what we find at hand (to create order out of the mess, to reap joy where seeds of sorrow were scattered)? Where do we as parents learn that trick? (What wells do we tap? How deep do they run?) And what hope do we dare have that our children will be able to tap their own wells, past experience, to that coursing goodness with its established forms . . . That they’ll be able to play along?

“My mom was in foster care. Her whole childhood. She aged out of it, was never adopted.” This from my friend Linna whose mother I know to be an extraordinary woman—happily wed for forty-odd years, with three beautiful children, rich in friendships, traveling Mongolia by train, painting the ocean in her spare hours. I am shocked. “I know. I always forget that about my mom. She’s such a good mom. I forget that she never had a good mom herself. Strange isn’t it? Like somehow she knew exactly what to do.”

I love the story of Linna’s mom. I am collecting stories like this.

Stories like this confirm my budding evolutionary Platonism: Good mothers, bad mothers, and sundry other characters burbling up archetypal from the genetic soup.

Budding evolutionary Platonism, a new way of thinking about the Kingdom of God poking through. One wishes it were just the Kingdom of God. But Hell pokes through too.

Why the Stranger Things kids? Perhaps because they are acquainted with the Upside Down, burdened by experiences that can’t easily be communicated. And because they are clad in the trappings of my own early childhood: turtlenecks and bowl cuts, envying the big kids with their perms. I see the kids strung out in a sequence from most-hurt to least: El, Will, Mike, Duncan, and Lucas. I love El. We all love El. El repeating the words ‘friend’ and ‘home’ and ‘compromise.’ El squinting at whomever, saying the words back slowly. El learning the words. (Meanwhile her mother looks at no one, learns nothing new by the words she repeats. Hell poking through.) El as a limit test. (I refuse to entertain El’s mother as a limit test.) Her rage, her self-righteousness, her risk-taking, her willing submersions into a dark puddled place no parent could follow. But we love her . . .

And Will. I turn to my husband, curl around his back. “You know how hearing is the first faculty? Like how fetuses respond to their mothers’ voices? Like how pregnant women talk and sing to their unborn babies? I feel like I’m trying to talk across this boundary, like I’m trying to call out to them, but they’re too far out, and I don’t know what’s happening to them, and I don’t know if they’re okay. I feel like Will’s mom stapling Christmas lights to the wall, trying to make this Ouija board that can reach them, out of paperwork and prayers . . . ”

“Babe?” He reaches around to pat my leg. I snap to and smile. “Not so much with hysterical Winona Ryder first thing in the morning?” “Mmhm.” “Sorry, babe.” We lie curled together. “You know what I should have told you?” “Hm?” “Just that the dreams themselves are so good.”

 

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In Answer and More

You observe that I have left the academy. (True.) You ask, “Any plans to become a public writer?”

Can one plan to become a public writer?

Plans to write.

(Plans to submit?) Plans to learn how to finish things first. Plans to pick up my pieces. And then: perhaps: plans to try.

My husband has a garland made of paper and string hanging above his desk. It reads -T-R-Y-. A hand-made gift from the woman he drove across the country with the summer before he met me. Her: tattooed all over, with an asymmetrical haircut, in an open relationship with a German girl based somewhere out west. Her: sly and unexpected, laughing with her mouth open, a black ferret with a velvet ribbon and bell around her neck. Her: a performance artist, working with women in prisons, staging protests in Oakland, sending serial-art mailers, making love to my husband, encouraging him to -T-R-Y-. Her: fighting the man.

When I read -T-R-Y- I think of the tried-for child.

Do you know the story of Tamar?

Tamar is married to Judah’s eldest son, Er. But Er is wicked and cut down by God. Tamar is widowed then, and still childless. In accordance with duty, Er’s brother Onan takes Tamar to wife. He has sex with her, but famously deprives her his seed. For this God cuts Onan down. Judah has a third son, Shelah, who is as of yet a child. Judah advises Tamar to live as a widow until Shelah is grown. Back Tamar goes to her father’s tent. But when Shelah is grown Judah fails to send for her. So Tamar disguises herself as a prostitute and sets herself in Judah’s path. Judah’s wife has died and his period of mourning is over. Not recognizing his daughter-in-law, he offers a lamb in exchange for sex. Tamar accepts, but demands his bracelets and signet and staff as securities. Judah obliges. She takes him into her, takes his seed and securities. (Leaves his servant to wander around afterwards with the lamb.) Three months later word gets out that Tamar has prostituted herself and is pregnant. Judah calls her to tribunal that she may be burned. Tamar is defiant. She sends him his bracelets, signet, and staff. And Judah rescinds his accusations saying, “She has been more righteous than I.”

The story of Tamar is the story of Tamar trying.

It is one of the stories I think of when I think of my generation of women. The men who ought to be ours take a long time to grow up. And when they are grown they are disinclined to marry. They are willing to have sex with us, but not to give us our children. (Modern girls cooing over how thoughtful he was to bring a condom, pick up the prescription, sit in the waiting room during the procedure.)  So our children, if won, are not the fruit of their abandon, but the spoils of our own stratagems, conceived by attrition or guile.

[I say ‘one of the stories.’ It is not the only story. But how is one to say anything if one doesn’t sometimes try to say something? One reason for leaving the academy: the sense that I had to be right before writing. Endless preemptive hedging, like taking leave of the King on a flat earth. His form forever visible on the horizon. Infinite hunched retreat.]

Striking, isn’t it, that Tamar doesn’t try to seduce the grown son, Shelah. She goes after the widower-father-in-law, Judah, instead. The sons’ father is at fault for not enforcing the rule. But deeper than that: The grown son will be busy making a name for himself, and should he want sex, he’ll have his own beauty to trade. The father’s beauty is past, which makes him susceptible to her beauty; his age is a debt. Nearing his second infancy, he sinks into pleasure, forgets himself in her, gives his seed and securities. In her arms, he turns child. And the child can be tricked, tricked into becoming a father. Meanwhile the grown son stalks about oblivious, finally walks off the page.

Plans to write. Plans to -T-R-Y-.

Plans to become a mother. One way or another.

My husband and I are trying to adopt through the state. A good thing to do. Though the goodness of the thing is obscured somewhat by the grinding bureaucracy of the state, and the sobering records of damage, and the rending grief that surrounds. Fragile hopes, small smiles. My husband and I pinching each other in the evening. “You ready?” “Are you?”

Our social worker writes, “Hey I need you guys to call your character references and have them email or fax me ASAP. Situation coming up. I NEED your file done.” She is not the midwife I would have chosen. Midlife midwife, plucking half-grown children from one shore and ferrying them to another.

My husband and I call asking for clarification. What does ‘situation’ mean? “9 year old boy, 5 year old girl. Can’t tell you any more than that. But I’ve got a good feeling. A really good feeling. I’m pushing for you guys.” Not the midwife I would have chosen, but as ferry captain will have to do. “We could be in court as soon as December, just need those references.” We look at one another. Pinch, pinch. We call our friends.

Why not write of Pharoah’s daughter raising the boy she found in the reeds? (Or Naomi, or Mordecai, or Joseph.) Why write of Tamar?

I suppose because I have been thinking about the shape of my life in the context of culture. It’s something like:

-Perhaps for women, culture is a step removed: A father-in-law rather than a father.

-Certainly I have loved the sons of my culture. And loving them, I have put myself under my culture’s protection. And [a conjunction that may or may not indicate causation]: I am childless.

-Perhaps there is something about adopting through the state that feels like playing a trick on my culture.

-Because my culture is one in which the child is a choice distinct from the choice to have sex. Which means my culture is one in which every child is implicitly asked, “By what right did the act that made you lead to your being here?” (“By what right are you here?”) Because the old answer, “By the will of God working through my parents’ desire,” will no longer do. Which means our culture indulges a fantasy of the world populated by children who could answer that question in some other terms: a world populated by the wanted, well-adjusted, sure-to-contribute, genetically sound.

-Perhaps I see my ache for a child—”In the body,” I try to explain to my husband, “like being afraid, like being aroused; a child cries in the crowd and I’m animal”—as an excluded remnant, and so a site of resistance.

-In no other way does my life resist culture. I am camped on the border. [Wondering if 9 year old boy likes books and the outdoors. Wondering if 5 year old girl will want to be held. Wondering what forms of affection 9 year old boy might allow. Wondering if I will know how to fix 5 year old girl’s hair. Asking, will I be able to hold steady for them? Will I skirt fatigue? Will I skirt resentment? Will addressing myself to the goodness of their being here help me to answer my own question, “By what right am I here?”]

-A trick: It doesn’t quite make sense (it’s not a perfect fit), but it’s as though I want to say to my culture: “See, together you and I have made this. (Here are my compromises to prove it.) And I claim them. They’re mine.”

Go Team (Pt. 1 of 2)

So what I hear you saying is that there’s this sharp binary: Team Red or Team Blue. And you feel like you don’t fit into either of those, or like you want to be able to move back and forth freely between them. You resent it when people assume you’re Team Blue because of the way you talk and dress, and you don’t like it when people assume you’re Team Red just ’cause you’re married and go to church. You wish there was some third team, or there were no teams; you don’t understand why we need teams in the first place.

This is a good joke. I like this joke. I smile.

I have been trying to explain why it drives me crazy that Jill Soloway wants to be referred to as “they.” In the process I have outed myself as perhaps not the straightforwardly progressive liberal democrat, social justice warrior, ally, and advocate my husband married.

Babe, you think I don’t know that?

Okay, but you’re party-line on this stuff. Go Team Blue.

I don’t know where I’m at on this stuff. Yeah, I think people should be able to do what they want so long as they’re not hurting anyone. Beyond that it’s a case-by-case thing for me. I don’t feel the need to make general pronouncements or stake a claim. I don’t need to know where I stand.

For this he gets googley eyes from me. Googley eyes mean: We are so different.

Babe, I think if Jill Soloway showed up for dinner you would make an effort to pass “them” the nutritional yeast. Actually I know you would.

He’s right. I would. Just like I would serve up a gluten-free meal made of organic plant-based foods with a generous dash of chia seeds. Lipstick, long hair, dress, and heels. Sign the Change.org petition. Play the part.

Well I don’t know if I would want Jill Soloway over for dinner. What she has to say about her work isn’t as smart as the work itself. In the interviews I’ve seen she’s so dogmatic, so flat. I like her work for the wrinkles.

That’s not the point.

You’re right. But the wrinkles are kind of the point. So these kids are suffering—really suffering—because their sex and gender are misaligned (or because they’re only supposed to have one partner and they feel like they need to have two). And we’re suggesting that the solution is for them to go through hormone therapy, surgery even, have sex with whomever and get a ‘plus 2’ at work functions and weddings. But what is that supposed to solve? And are we even sure we’ve got the problem right? I mean ‘gender,’ what is that? You’re born with a body—pick a body, any kind of body—and you’re in the world.

And you’re suffering.

Well, yeah, life is suffering. And I’m not saying we should go heaping it on. Like if some kid wants to wear a dress, whatever. Isn’t the standard moral code strong enough to prohibit name-calling and throwing punches?

And torturing. And raping. And stringing up on fences.

Yes, of course. My God.

But it doesn’t.

No, it doesn’t work that way. Immoral behavior doesn’t falsify morality. If anything it confirms it. That’s why it’s immoral. What I don’t understand is why we need this new political morality buttressed by a theoretical architecture in which sex-at-birth, sexual identity, gender identity,  and sexual preference vary independently while sexual practice is a free-for-all so long as people disclose their STD status. Who does that serve? The kid in the dress? The three-person partnership? The kid being parented by three people. Really? I don’t know.

I don’t know either, babe. But I think it’s interesting that you get so worked up about this stuff. Like you’re the one reading your way through the lesbian canon. And didn’t you watch Transparent in a single weekend? Why do think that is? What’s it about for you?

Good question. But he’s got to go back to work . . .

 

Life With Boys

Their toys look like erect and circumcised penises. The bubble wands absurdly so with a dorsal vein running the length of a long ribbed shaft and a helmet-shaped glans at the tip. There is even a little uretha-like sphincter where the plastic was poured & pinched off. The boys grip their bubble wands. “Blow for me,” they command.

I am sitting in the blow-up kiddie pool reading an essay by Kelly Jolley on Thomas Merton’s Cables to the Ace. The boys are in the pool with me, standing. They bend to load their water guns, nosing the water with their barrels and sliding the handles back. “What’s the rule?” I intone. “Don’t get your papers wet,” the boys reply automatically. They blast each other in the belly.

My papers get wet. But not very. It’s fine. Everything is fine. We are on my husband’s family farm in Northern Kentucky, gathered here to pay our last respects to Uncle Jim, and to clean out his cabin, his lean-to, and two sheds, to pull up the carpet where the dogs defecated and gave birth, to divvy up his paintings, and rewrite the deed. There is a red fox in the back woods, and Kelly’s essay is wonderful—moving the way thought moves through questions of how to recover a right relation with words.

“Who’s that” the youngest boy asks, pointing to baby Jesus on the back of page 19. I printed the essay on recycled pageant scripts at the church where I work before we left for the farm. This page features a woodcut of the nativity scene. “Who do you think?”  I ask. “Baby Gabriel?” he guesses. Gabriel is his big brother. “Kind of,” I answer: “He’s like baby Gabriel.” “Baby Bryce?” he guesses again referring to himself. “Like baby Bryce,” I say. His parents are not religious. No one in my husband’s family is. I wonder if any of the boys could identify the baby. Perhaps Taylor, the oldest of the second cousins at 16. I name the child, “That’s baby Jesus.” “Baby Jesus,” Bryce repeats. He points, “And mommy, and daddy,” then stops, “Who’s that?” “That’s a shepherd,” I say. I begin to tell him how shepherds tend sheep, but he has rediscovered his water gun and is blasting a partially deflated beach ball, making it bob and spin on the surface.

“Popsicles!” the boys’ grandmother, my mother-in-law, calls from the porch. She is dispensing individually wrapped popsicles in red, white, and blue. The boys thrust the popsicles through the sealed plastic membrane of their wrappers. My mother-in-law likes to be the bearer of sweet things. She gave them bowls of ice cream after lunch, and these will be their third popsicles today. “Just checking on you,” she calls out to me as the boys return to the pool, their mouths wrapped around the heads of their popsicles in sticky red, white, and blue o’s. I look up at her in acknowledgment and give a little wave.

She and I have the same exchange several times a day. “You’re not watching them.” “I am.” “No, you’re not. You’re reading.” “I’m doing both.” This morning she rejoined, “Well I guess it’s different when you’re a mother.”

Afterwards, in the barn, I vent to my husband, “I do watch them, but sideways. I don’t interrupt them. I don’t make them look at me. I let them get absorbed.” My husband nods. He is inspecting the tractor lift which got stuck in the last log haul. I exclaim, “How are they supposed to develop an inner life if they never have any privacy?” For this little speech I am rewarded with a smile and a kiss. I get the hint. I laugh. “I’ll be in the pool.”

Back in the pool Bryce asks “What’s that on your arm?” I inspect my forearms. “No, that!” he points to my armpit. “That’s hair,” I answer. “Why you have hair there?” he asks. “Because I’m a grown-up,” I answer. “Your mommy and daddy have hair there too. Your mommy shaves hers just like your daddy shaves his face.” Bryce stares at me, serious. His brother, Gabriel, is practicing swimming under water. “Watch me!” he demands before taking a deep breath and plunging. Bryce has a thought and brightens. “Daddy has hair on his titi,” he announces. He pauses for dramatic effect, “And on his butt!” He pretends to fall apart giggling. His eyes remain locked on my face. I smile warmly at him, granting permission. Under water Gabriel nuzzles my knees.

Later I sit reading in a lawn chair beside the pool. Bryce sidles up to me. He pokes the soft flesh around my hips before stroking the roll my tummy makes just below my belly button. I am not ignoring him. I am not interrupting him either. He presses his hands into my thighs, belly, breasts, climbing up into my chair. I do and do not yield to him, shifting only slightly without taking my eyes from my essay. He tucks his knees and lays his ear against my womb. I turn the page and let my hand fall on his head. His eyes are open. He looks out.

A Story As Narrated By My Mother

So my neighbor. Well, what? What to say about the man. He’s out in his side yard and I’m out in my driveway. Pure coincidence! I’m getting something from my trunk. And he says, “I saw you walking the other day. You walk a lot?” And I say yes. And, okay, I probably say something about the Saint Joseph River and the trees and the birdsong—I rhapsodize, because that’s what I do, but not because of him. But of course he’s there and he hears it. And well what should he say in response? He leans back on his hips, just kind of puts himself out there. And he’s got a big round belly. He says, “Yeah, I gotta start working out.” And what do you think your mother said? Well, I shook my head  and leaned in and said, “I think you look great.” That’s what I said, holding my hands up like I do, earnest chipmunk pose: “I think you look great.” Well okay. So it’s a couple days later and here comes my neighbor, ambling past my driveway window, and he’s holding a rake. It’s a high window so I’m only seeing the top parts of him, his head and the head of the rake, but he’s just kind of . . . well, twirling the rake. I’m thinking “Please, please, please don’t rake my yard.” Because he does that you know, mows my lawn or shovels my driveway—wholly unbidden!—which I’m grateful for because it’s hard and my shoulder hurts. But it also makes me feel geriatric. Like, “old woman shut up in white dollhouse.” And that’s sort of how I assumed it was. Like he’s thinking “old woman.” Except we’re probably the same age. Or maybe he’s a little bit older. Anyway he’s got this T-shirt—he was wearing it when I told him he looks great. It’s got one of those stick figures doing some activity, I don’t remember what, and under the stick figure, well what do you think it says? “Life is crap.” Just like that. So he comes twirling and I turn from the window and take a deep breath. And I go back into my romper room where I’ve got my stuffed llamas and the jewel tone christmas lights strung up and I roll out my beach towel because I can’t find my yoga mat. And here’s my beach towel which says huge in the exact same font, “Life is good.” And I stretch.

Shame

I am concerned for my soul. I hear myself over lunch and I am not who I want to be. I have not taken the care I ought. I have let my heart grow hard. Again. At thirty-three and a distance of several states, I am pissed at my parents. And it shows. I want to have a pleasant lunch with my husband and friend. I want to learn things. I want to be generous and curious and capable of surprise. But perhaps not as much as I want to have my husband and friend side with me against them: my parents. I tug the conversation in the direction of my pissedness: How horrible my parents are! And were! How sad for me! Poor me!

(And behind the “poor me,” a plea: find my edges and cut me out of here, a clean victim.)

I know people who have no concept of sin. I do not disbelieve them. I simply wonder at them.

In my concern for my soul I have taken to walking the high grassed levee that begins near my house and continues along the water treatment plant and compost facility, past trailer parks and industrial parks, until, crossing two highways, it lands in a recreational park with a pond and fountain, two playgrounds and a pool. It is guesswork—perhaps if I take my body for a walk, subject my senses in this way . . . A second guess: I am listening to a Librivox recording of Jane Austen’s Persuasion. I do not relate to Anne Elliot. She is too independent of her father’s silliness, too reconciled to her mother’s death. She is not inclined to wrath or envy or pride. She does not succumb to resentment and is justly self-satisfied. She is strange to me, but I enjoy her company and am glad for her example.

I rarely see others on the levee. A middle-aged couple in khaki shorts and polos taking quick, evenly paced steps, wrists rigid, elbows bent. Two women in black leggings and hot pink tanks, jogging, stopping, bending over their knees, straightening, walking haphazardly, stretching their hips before jogging again.

It is three miles from where the levee begins near my house to the park with the pond. I am just past the water treatment plant; the smell of sewage giving way now to the smell of rotting yard debris. Louisa Musgrove has thrown herself from the Cobb and cracked her head. Something is cycling toward me. I don’t understand. It has overtaken me before I see it clearly: The head of a large buck turned on its side and lashed to the front rack of a bicycle, its neck packed with bath towels, its eyes open. A smell. And a man riding the bicycle. I turn. The man turns, twisting his head over his shoulder. We lock eyes. I am afraid. I see my fear in his face. He is terrified.

I continue with my levee walks. I do not see the man again. Several days later I am driving a church bus full of tweens home from the waterpark. It is near dusk. We are just out of Possum Trot, still fifteen miles or so from the church and my home and the levee. To my left I see an emptied headless deer body lashed to the back rack of a bicycle. The legs are stiff. I can see inside the belly. The man is riding against traffic on the far shoulder. We are moving in the same direction. I overtake him without seeing his face.

In bed I ask S if he ever feels shame. He pauses. I clarify: I mean now, as an adult. He takes his time thinking. Finally he says, “Yes. A couple times. I’ve been ugly to my mom, impatient with her. I’ve teased her. Not in a nice way.” I search his face. He acquiesces, “That was a while ago. I realized what I was doing and I didn’t like it so I stopped. It was easy for me to stop. It’s been a long time.” We are quiet together. I know that he heard the same thing I heard over lunch—my pissedness at my parents and the pettiness of it. I know that he knows that I am ashamed of myself, that I want to be better than I am, that I do not find it easy to stop. “I am ugly like that so much more than you are,” I say. I  am not complaining. It is explicitly a comparison, but it doesn’t feel like one. No wrath, no envy, no pride accompanies it. He offers a small smile and pats my thigh. I know that he loves me. And I trust he will not contradict me. To contradict me on this score would be to lie and—because we are not in the business of lying to one another—to break faith. He says, “Well babe, you’ve got a fire in you.”