In the news this week: Myka and James Stauffer, YouTubers who revealed that they’ve given up their adopted child Huxley, who has autism, to another family.   According to articles in CBS News and Global News, the Stauffers adopted Huxley from China in 2017–with the financial help of sponsors and YouTube subscribers–already knowing that he was developmentally delayed.   Huxley was subsequently featured in many sponsored (money-making) videos.  Myka used her experiences with him (and with her other kids) to give parenting advice.

To their disappointment, the Stauffers found that Huxley wasn’t as advertised.   They claimed that his developmental delays were much greater than they’d been led to expect.  The therapies they tried didn’t fix him, or didn’t fix him fast enough.   They revealed that Huxley had meltdowns, during which he harmed himself by banging his head and also sometimes harmed others in the family by biting and hitting.  All of these behaviors communicate (and produce) distress.

There’s a difference between a meltdown and a tantrum.  Meltdowns result from sensory overload, while tantrums have a purpose and are under more control.  That is, people can stop a tantrum once they get what they want, or once they realize the tantrum isn’t working.    (Tantrums can sometimes turn into meltdowns, though.)   Autistic challenges with communicating about needs or experiences are factors in meltdowns.  Trying to express yourself in a stressful situation can be like trying to send a text using a rotary phone.

The Stauffers added two babies to their family after Huxley, so the levels of stress and distraction in the house were heightened.   Myka kept the videos coming.  She showed Huxley’s therapies and treatments.  She proclaimed that he had helped her to “quit giving a damn about what other people think.”  Except it’s not that simple, is it?  The livelihoods of family vlogging YouTubers like the Stauffers depend on what other people think of their content, and their content is their children.   Without subscribers, there aren’t sponsors, patrons, or dollars.

In September, 2019, Myka made a video noting that she was “heartbroken” to reveal that Huxley had been diagnosed with autism.   This is a typical and understandable (and ideally, temporary) reaction to such a diagnosis.  There’s a positive side, though, to defining a child as on the spectrum.  First, the parent can gain a better understanding of the child, along with solid information on what treatments are useful to help the child develop.  Second, parents can be hooked into a support system they may not have in real life–other autism parents.

For instance, as a mom of someone on the spectrum (and on the spectrum personally), I would have been happy to give Myka advice on meltdowns.   Sometimes we had them daily for weeks (sometimes months) on end.  I would have told her to become a detective, finding the clues for when the barometer is getting low–they are always there if you look for them.   Then try to short-circuit things before the senses boil out of control.  If that’s not possible, make (or find) a comfortable place where it’s possible to shriek and pummel or curl into a ball, etc., without injury to person or property.  And then, always, the autopsy: once things are calm for a while, go back over the incident to find the flash points where a different behavior might have made a different outcome.   That’s the short-term crisis management part.  The long-term stuff–because this takes TIME, not just a year or two–involves the person with autism acquiring self-calming skills and communicating skills.  Then meltdowns don’t happen as much, and when they do, they aren’t anywhere near as destructive.  

I would have advised her that dealing with a child who’s different and having a tough time is not a matter of not caring what people think.  Side-eyes are always going to sting.  It’s figuring out how to have confidence that you’re doing a good thing in that moment.  Maybe it’s leaving your shopping cart behind while you get a raging child from the busy store to your quiet automobile, passing neighbors mutter about your parenting skills.  Maybe it’s stopping in the middle of the coffee run to walk and breathe with your kid.   Most important is to remember that these moments are a couple of frames, not the whole movie.

Huxley dropped off the video scene, and by May, 2020, he’d had been handed off to another family.   The Stauffers said that this decision was based on the advice of medical professionals that their home was not the best place for him.   Lots of tears–maybe a few of them crocodilian–were featured in the video where they revealed this development.  Of course it was a terribly difficult decision, one that had to consider all family members, not just Huxley.  Every child is different, and it’s impossible to assess in advance what taking care of any kid will be like.  Some people applaud the Stauffers for accepting their limits and making a decision that will presumably eventually be better for Huxley even though, with their platform, they will surely be criticized for taking this step.

I feel ambivalent.  I keep wondering what the Stauffers would have done if Huxley had been a child physically born to them.  Would they have given him up to a different family after a couple of years spent trying to fix him?   Even before the handoff, some videos where mother and father talked about “family time” after Huxley had been put in bed for the night hint that Huxley was always seen as an auxiliary rather than integral feature of their household.   Maybe the medical professionals they consulted were concerned about  risk to the child with the parents’ the growing emotional distance and frustration.

Poor Huxley, or lucky Huxley:  it’s hard to say.  I hope his new home provides him with support that will let him grow up happy and productive.  

As for the Stauffers, I’m sure they’ll continue to generate lots of content for the vlog.  

Wordsworth Street

Up early enough to see a reporter and crew, reporting on the protests surrounding George Floyd’s death, arrested in fiery Minneapolis on live television.  Other tragedies, national and local, are also on my mind. The dismal landmark of 100,000 official COVID-19 deaths in the US is just a couple of days past.   Last night, my town decided to cancel art, music, and phys-ed in the schools for the upcoming academic year, piling on the punishment for our children.   My journal’s open, but words are locked away.   I put down the pen, again and again.

I leave the house before seven, hoping that a rambling walk will organize my thoughts.   Daily explorations have both comforted me and fostered a kind of relaxed energy.  Spring doesn’t care about my problems and flowers with abandon.   Today the rabbits and birds seem to be sleeping in under a blanket of humid, still air.  I walk anyway, out of ideas.

I descend a hill, cross a big road–very few cars–and trudge up another hill.   Here’s   Wordsworth Street, a couple of short blocks that can be walked from one end to the other and back in five minutes.  This sparks a longer trail of thoughts.   The Romantic poets were my favorites in college:  Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Coleridge.   For a moment I’m back in the big chair in the student center, turning the crackly onion skin pages of the Norton Anthology.  When I need to rest my eyes from reading, I look out the window at an enormous weeping willow and beyond it to the long blue of Lake Michigan.   The brain allows just a flash of this pleasant memory, then jerks back to present horrors.

I pass houses with neatly manicured lawns and a few where the dandelions are high and baldheaded, where honeysuckle vines spill over a fence and onto the road.   Outdoor furniture in almost every yard: picnic tables, iron benches, porch swings, Adirondack chairs.   Areas carefully constructed to be comfortable spots to sit, relax, and enjoy coffee, conversation, a sunrise, a bird bathing, children at play…

A quote nudges, Wordsworth on poetry being born of “emotion recollected in tranquillity.”  Not sure that I’ve recalled it correctly.  I forget what my professor made of it and remember my 19-year-old self dismissing the idea, since people have made amazing poetry through good times and bad.  Tranquil’s never been a part of my personality.  The closest I get to these days is arriving at my house after a walk and seeing Capone mrrrwling at me from his window.

At home I look up the quote, which is from the Preface to Lyrical Ballads, and which (of course) in context proves more complicated.   Wordsworth’s entire sentence:

“I have said that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity: the emotion is contemplated till, by a species of reaction, the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind.”

He’s talking about the opposite of what I’d understood as an undergrad.  A writer has to tear down tranquility in order to compose, return to a raw response to the situation.   To relive that day the house burned down, the shock and fear.  But why the tranquility in between, I wonder?

Wordsworth continues:

“In this mood successful composition generally begins, and in a mood similar to this it is carried on; but the emotion, of whatever kind, and in whatever degree, from various causes, is qualified by various pleasures, so that in describing any passions whatsoever, which are voluntarily described, the mind will, upon the whole, be in a state of enjoyment.”   (Italics mine.)

There’s something ghastly, though admirably honest, about Wordsworth’s description of his compositional process.  I feel a guilty kinship.  You don’t just go back to the terrible feelings, convey them, make them into something compelling:  you enjoy doing it.  You take yourself out of the tranquil state in search of the endorphin hit as the right word hits the page.   But enjoying something is not in itself bad.  There’s something to be said for turning emotions into poems.  Or symphonies, or paintings.  Even…a blog.


O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend

The brightest heaven of invention,

A kingdom for a stage, princes to act

And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!

That’s Shakespeare in the prologue to Henry V.  Check out the picture at the top of this blog–can you see the Muse there,  in the top left-hand corner, making her fiery music?  

Minneapolis is burning.  I’m lightheaded from the oxygen in my room.  I mourn the people who begged for air, jammed under police knees or crammed in ICU beds, discounted by the despicable as being “on their last legs anyway.”*  Tranquility lies in ashes.  I touch the match to my pen and start to write.  


* The person who characterized COVID-19 victims thus is former Fox News presence Bill O’Reilly

Stepping carefully

It’s Memorial Day weekend, the unofficial start of summer.  Beaches and barbecues, fireworks, road trips, gardening, outdoor concerts, strawberry fairs, and parades.    All the things.  I’ll especially miss parades.

As a kid I lived near Washington, DC.  I saw quite a few big, official parades from  crowded sidewalks, holding tight to my mom’s hand, and I liked them, but I prefer local parades.  My town holds one on Memorial Day (solemn and relatively short) and another on July 3 (joyful and longer).    Even the Memorial Day parade, though, has a joyful ending, after a morning of music and speeches at the cemeteries: ice cream at the VFW hall.

July 3’s an evening parade, with fireworks after.  Main Street is closed to traffic.   People settle into their lawn chairs, buying balloons and stuffed animals, hot dogs, popcorn, ice cream, and strawberry shortcake.   Volunteers hand out little flags to be waved to anyone who wants one.

The parade’s pretty big and includes fire engines, floats, marching bands, dance and martial arts studios, local politicians in flashy convertibles, bagpipers, clowns, patient horses drawing old-fashioned wagons, and history buffs in Revolutionary War garb with muskets, fifes and drums.

My favorites are the marching bands.  I marched parades in high school and college and remember well trying to stay in line with my fellow clarinet players, the itchy wool uniform and white cotton gloves with the fingers cut out, shako strapped on tight, snappy white spats strapped onto shiny black shoes.  Knees up, left-right, left-right.  Playing “Don’t Rain on My Parade” while parading in the rain, hating the rain.  Wishing for rain on a long route under a battering sun.   Checking the street ahead for road apples.    

My band always wound up close behind a mounted group, or horses pulling an old-fashioned wagon.  Well-nourished horses always.  How to avoid a steaming, fresh, enormous pile while remembering the music and not breaking the line too much?  Some people in my line stepped straight and steady no matter what lay under their feet.  Their spats gathered stains and splashes.  Not me.  I would stutter-step, hop, skitter just a bit to one side, keeping my spats clean without missing a beat.

Sonny experienced his first parade on July 3.  He was nine months old, and we’d just moved here.   None of us realized that the top of the parade featured the fire departments of seven surrounding towns, all blaring their sirens.  Sonny didn’t react well to the noise, but a little ice cream and a yellow balloon calmed him down fast.

For four years he marched the parade with the high school band, playing trombone, dodging road apples.  I helped hand out water to the thirsty marchers.  Last summer–Sonny home from college before his senior year–we were both back in the audience, eating strawberry shortcake, chatting with our friends and neighbors.  Wincing along with a toddler with her hands clamped over her ears when the fire engines roared slowly past.   Clapping hard for the high school band as they march by.

This year, we’ll be watching our steps, hopping and skipping.  But next year.  Next year we’ll be at the parade, celebrating our community.  Entertaining and appreciating one another.

Pandemic diaries: reopening, phase 1

Sunscreen, face mask, head phones, sunglasses, hat, windbreaker, phone, and waist-pack with ID, keys, and vinyl gloves.   Ready for a morning walk, one of my favorite activities since I was a kid.  When I was nine, though, the preparation was not so extensive.   All I needed was to check that my shoes were tied.

I hope the streets will still be quiet.  This week is my state’s phase one of reopening.  Some classes of businesses (not mine) may start operations, with enhanced safety precautions.  Most of us are still closed or working from home.

The weather couldn’t be more perfect: cool and sunny.   On the major streets, definitely more cars are on the road, including more heavy trucks and pickups pulling equipment trailers.  Construction is a phase one industry.   Once I get off the major street and enter the enclave of the Robber Barons, the traffic subsides to a hum, and the air’s sweeter.  The biggest sounds become birds chirping, the leaves rustling, and my footsteps.

My suburb, being a proper New England town, has the obligatory Main, Pleasant, High, North, South, and Washington streets.  Plus streets named after prominent locals, and condo development streets with focus group-tested names, Woodbridge and Skyview and Royal Crest, etc.   Also we have some areas with related street names, such as trees (Elm, Oak, Cherry), birds, and…Robber Barons.

The Robber Barons streets form a loose rectangle up and down a hill, about a half mile long and maybe a quarter-mile wide, like an enormous Jazz-age Monopoly board.  I start with Vanderbilt Street and take a left on Morse.  I’m hoping vaguely that something about these streets will reflect their swanky monikers.  Maybe a mansion or two, or perhaps a fancy ruin or park?

I find quiet, narrow streets from the 1920s and 30s, no sidewalks, barely wide enough for two cars to pass abreast.    Smallish houses, lots of trees.   I turn onto the first north-south street, the long edge of the rectangle, Fitzgerald.   Not a robber baron, but a reference to F. Scott, so of the appropriate time period.   The road angles uphill, and at the crest there’s a heap of stones and rubble, before Fitzgerald continues and dead-ends a bit farther down.  There’s a house–split-level with dark brown siding–at the edge of the break, and across from it a patch of trees.  A couple of wild turkeys breakfast near a set of wicker chairs in the garden.   The male’s tail feathers are fanned out.  His lady friend stares at me without fear or evident surprise.  The view across the road must have been grand in the 1920s, a wooded hillside dropping gently to the vista of the Great Pond.  In the 2020s, an office/industrial park  has sprung up between the road and the lake.  Still, over the cement blocks of the U-Store-It Building, I can see a tiny glitter of sun on water.   

I take Gould, a short street, to Rockefeller.   Several other early-morning exercisers are on the roads, more than I’ve seen other days.  We do that thing that everybody does now–check your mask to make sure everything’s covered, then a nod plus a friendly finger wiggle.   We’ve disturbed some of the Rockefeller street canines.  Tiny dogs bark energetically to protect their masters as we pass.

I wonder what the (19)20s kids on Rockefeller thought about robber barons.   Probably nothing.  Probably they were too busy riding their bikes full speed down the street, or rampaging across the neighborhood playing stickball and tag.   Parents would be the ones with opinions about Rockefeller, the ones stressed out about their jobs and the stock market, just like my parents were worried about Nixon resigning and skyrocketing gas prices.   Those grownups would wonder at my walking down a street named after millionaires trying to find traces of grandeur.  After all, I don’t expect kings in Royal Crescent.

Harriman, a twisty, short street, gets me to Morgan, working back towards my starting point.    More small, neat homes nestled under big trees.  I pass a house with a trio of kids’ bikes on the front porch, neon-colored with plastic streamers attached to the handles.   These are the first bicycles I’ve seen–most are behind privacy fences, I suppose, or inside sheds or garages.  Forty years from now, I wonder if these (20)20s kids will be exploring on a beautiful spring morning, reminiscing.  I hope that they will remember mostly the games they played,  think of this spring as a weird blip in their childhood.   I leave the enclave and turn onto Main Street, almost busy now, and hope against hope that reopening will work.

Lilies: an attempt at acclimation

On Mothers Day and my birthday come the bouquets.  I love flowers as presents.  Nothing fancy, supermarket bunches are just as welcome.  If Dave asks for suggestions ahead of time, I always say flowers, a card, maybe something sweet, will be fine.  But avoid lilies, please; I don’t like the smell.   In times when Dave doesn’t ask, I find a way to mention the flowers I like, such as roses, a few days beforehand.

Frequently a lily or two shows up in a bouquet.  Dave forgets that I don’t care for lilies, possibly in the same way that I can’t seem to remember the rules of cribbage, one of his favorite games.  There’s only so much room in a mind.   Not a big deal, a lily or two.

My Mothers Day 2020 bouquet was almost entirely lilies, white ones, plus a little baby’s breath and random greenery.   The arrangement was gorgeous.  I found a place for it in the most ventilated, and easiest to avoid, part of our house: the dining room.  (We eat there only for big holidays.)  As lilies are toxic to cats, I put the vase on a shelf that Capone doesn’t usually climb on.

Lilies are hardy.   Nearly a week in, the arrangement still looked lush and as fresh as it had on day one.  The blossoms opened wider every morning.   Dave brought the mail in on Thursday and said, “Boy, you can really smell those lilies.”

“You got that right,” I said, breathing through my mouth.

How can anything be as beautiful as a lily?  The deep green of the leaves and stems, the delicate filaments dancers frozen mid-movement, the petals corridors leading into a fabulous temple, the gorgeous color shadings.  Every day they took the room over just a bit more, relaxing into the vase.  And every day I stopped in to the dining room just to look at them.  Breathing through my mouth.

How can something so beautiful smell like fermented feet?   Some people can train themselves to like things that they find yucky by repeated exposure.  That didn’t work for me with yogurt, lima beans, or Stevie Nicks, but none of those things is so beautiful as a lily, so I made a serious effort.  I stalked and sniffed, first from a distance, then moving as close as possible before lightheadedness took over.  I made it to a distance of 18 inches, one day.  

Meanwhile I researched.  Turns out I’m not the only one who’s sensitive to lily scent, and there’s plenty of advice on what kind of lilies to buy (some varieties have very little scent) and even on a kind of surgery you can do on lily stems to fix the problem, which is far  beyond my capabilities.  The only way out for me seems to be to acclimatize somehow to the odor.

Maybe I will desensitize myself someday, but in regards to this bouquet Capone took matters into his own paws.  He waited until we were watching and then jumped up to the shelf where he never goes and started nosing around the blooms.   I grabbed 13 pounds of cat while Dave stuck the flowers into the waste bin.

Bad kitty, I told Capone, scratching him behind the ears, his favorite spot.  He purred knowingly.

Hope Sinks

Maybe it’s just me dreading commercial breaks these days?

I watch mostly news, early in the morning, sometimes at night.  Gotta make sure I’m keeping up with all the bad things.  Then it’s “We’ll be right back…” and the nails get ready to scritch their way down the chalkboard.

Nature or nostalgic images:  children, families, Americana.   Sometimes a black screen with text.   A music track of quiet synth-orchestra strings-of-moderate-anxiety rhythms/circling piano arpeggios, ending with a solemn piano chord.    A pleasant, monotone voice burbling all the platitudes:  we may be apart now but we can stay strong together, and when this is over we’ll be there for you.

I-feel-your-pain ads:  I’ve had enough.   Give me the crazy dude fixing his leaky boat with tape, heartburn sufferers fighting giant tacos, and insurance companies trying to make me laugh with geckos and hyper-realistic Zoom meetings.

Emotional-support ads aim to remind me about the companies I’m not using during stay-at-home.  This is only partially for cynical and self-serving reasons.  If the country opens up and people still don’t feel comfortable shopping, gathering, vacationing, etc., the big companies sponsoring these campaigns are going to feel some pain themselves.  Not as much as my pain, I suspect, but some pain, nonetheless.

In the first month of quarantine, I didn’t mind the ads too much.  That’s back when when it seemed as though we were going through the painful middle and were headed for a hopeful end in the middle of spring.   Given how jarring it was to see traditional spots full of people hanging out together, eating and drinking, holding hands, etc., a switch to community-supporting messages was a reasonable alternative. Then we got ad after ad after ad of sunrise and babies, soothing music, and hopeful scripts, and I started yelling at the television.  Something to do while we’re still stuck in an ever-expanding painful middle, I guess.

Please, Advertisers:  you are much better at creating desire than reassurance.  So tempt me with something I can buy, try, or visit.  Not open yet?  Sell me anyway.   I want to hear about your thirty-fourth ice cream flavor,  must-have summer shoes, cool furniture, the movie coming soon to the drive-in theater.

No more hope and normalcy.  Who knows how long any “opening” of my area is going to last?  Sell me a reason to leave the house.

Wheel! Of! Inspiration!

Calliope, Clio, Erato, Euterpe, Melpomene, Polyhymnia, Terpsichore, Thalia, Urania.

Urania, Thalia, Terpsichore, Polyhymnia, Melpomene, Euterpe, Erato, Clio, Calliope.

Pick a muse, said the writing advice book.  For the fun of it and to add a little zest to your writing practice.

There are nine muses, all daughters of Zeus, the head god in the Greek Pantheon, and Mnemosyne,  goddess of memory.   The muses help inspire creativity for artists, writers, musicians, scientists, etc.  It’s fun to imagine them as a benevolent presence, ready to improve boring concepts.  (Of note: although I’m talking about nine muses here, there are several sets of muses, with varying numbers,  names, and back stories.  Also, the muses could punish as well as reward; I prefer to keep the ones in my imagination friendly.)

One by one, considered I them:

Calliope:  epic poetry.   I love her name, which is also the moniker of one of my favorite outlandish instruments, a steam-driven keyboard.   But the scope and scale of epics is beyond my ambition.  

Clio: history.   I love reading history and historical fiction.  I haven’t written any, though.  I did just have to set my novel-in-progress back a year to the summer of 2019–which feels like another millennium, at this point.  Somehow I doubt this would count.  

Erato: love poetry.   I’d enjoy being good at this.  Although I am not writing a romance novel, occasional scorched pages would be wonderful.  

Euterpe: music, lyric poetry.  Also flute playing.  I play flute!  Plus I like to write poetry.  But can Euterpe help when I’m stuck on plot points?  

Melpomene: tragedy.  Love to read it, hate to live through it, don’t want to write it.    

Polyhymnia: hymns/sacred music.  I have a church music job, but not sure how this would mesh with my ambition to write the occasional red-hot love scene.   

Terpsichore: dance.  I have two left feet, so probably not.  

Thalia: comedy.  Who doesn’t want to be able to make people laugh?  Comedy’s one of my favorite things.   Not sure I want to do it all the time, though.      

Urania: astronomy.  She’s probably better off attending to people with more scientific brains than mine.  I do love to look at the stars, though. 

How to choose?  I wish there was some kind of game-show or roulette wheel I could spin, with flashing lights and a segment per muse, maybe even a “spin again” or “lose a turn” option.   Then all I’d have to do was get the wheel started and wait.

The internet has thought of everything, as always, and when I googled I found quizzes that promised to tell me which muse was my ideal match.   Some of the quizzes wanted to know what brand of tennis equipment or makeup I preferred–an issue that seems to have been left out of the historical data about the muses’ inclinations–but all of them seemed confident they’d matched me well.

Here are my results: Euterpe, Euterpe, Clio, Euterpe, Urania, Euterpe, Thalia, Euterpe.   Therefore, Euterpe seems the best match, but what if I am struck by the urge to write an epic tragicomedy set in sixteenth century London?

 In the end I chose not to choose.   But if a Muse wants to swipe right, I’ll be here.  Seat of the pants applied firmly to the seat of the chair, pencils and pens to hand, document open, staff paper ready.

Land of Nope (and Vainglory)

Today’s a day that’s going to be bitter, at least for our family.  This would have been Sonny’s graduation day at U-Mass.

I’m not a big fan of graduation ceremonies, award dinners, etc.  Weird food, crowds, and social expectations.   Yet I was really looking forward to everything about this day:  the speeches, crazy traffic, the handshake and diploma, the photos of him in the funny outfit.

A college graduation was a far cry from the tense annual IEP meetings of yore.    These are meetings that set up yearly education strategies and goals for  kids with special needs–in Sonny’s case, autism.  Typically the meetings feature a parent and the team of educators/providers who work with the child, plus someone representing the Special Education (SPED) department.     Near the end of each meeting, after the providers had reported and the SPED rep had written up a list of action items, I was always asked “So, Mom, what’s your vision for your son?”  I would respond that I wanted Sonny to eventually go to college, get a job, and basically start adulting.

The SPED rep would dutifully write down my statement, while the rest of the providers sat in an uncomfortable silence, trying, not always successfully, not to roll their eyes.   Another parent who can’t face reality.    I would take in the disapproval and keep my hopes up anyway.

Dave and I had invested today with a lot of emotional weight.  It felt like a capstone for 19 years of Sonny’s effort–preschool through present–and our hopes and nudging.   The U says maybe there will be a commencement ceremony in the fall, but who knows if that will happen.   Spring break was extended by a week, so Sonny’s still finishing up this semester’s classes.  But today is Sonny’s graduation day.  

I ventured out to Target yesterday for supplies.  Depressing.  There wasn’t much in the store.  Target has completely abandoned the chirpy “Have fun on your Target run” vibe; the sound system is quiet except for sporadic warnings about social distance; employees and customers are masked.   The shelves are not bare, but not overflowing.  Still, I’ve cobbled together some stuff, because we’re going to have a surprise graduation ceremony tonight.

Dave has snuck Sonny’s high school cap and gown out of his closet.  I’m hanging banners and Class of 2020 signs.  We’ll hum “Pomp and Circumstance” as Sonny processes from the sun porch at the front of the house to the family room at the back. Someone will make a speech that’s a little too long, because what graduation is complete without that?  He’ll throw his mortarboard at the ceiling; we hope he won’t take out a light.  We’ll feast on takeout burgers and wipe our fingers on cap-and-gown napkins.  Then we’ll finish with some fancy ice-cream bars in Sonny’s favorite flavor, cookie-dough.  Today is a day that’s going to be sweet.

Decisions, Decisions…

When I returned to writing this winter, I aimed to reinforce this habit by combining it with visits to libraries, bookstores,  and coffee shops.  A couple of times a week, I stuffed my backpack with a journal, iPad, pens, and stickers (my inner 5-year-old has welcomed the emergence of stickers into grownupland and accumulated many packs of them).   Then I’d explore, returning with my notebook–and oftentimes my stomach–a bit fuller.

Yet sometimes I found myself feeling reluctant.  I wondered if my choice could have been  better.  Selecting a writing location came to feel like a bit of a chore.  I searched Google for possibilities.  Sometimes I lugged my backpack into the car and drove around aimlessly for half an hour before admitting failure and going, again, to Panera Bread or Starbucks.  Once I just drove and came back home (and didn’t write there, either).  Then came the stay-at-home orders and I wasn’t able to drive anywhere at all.

For the first couple of weeks of stay at home, I missed these trips, and these places, terribly.  Being able to move around a space, sit, watch other people.   Having that set of choices taken away was enraging.

Stay at home changed lots of things.  Friday nights, pre-pandemic, involved discussions about food type, familiar versus new restaurant, driving distance, likelihood of a wait time, and best route to take.  Nowadays we ask, do we feel like cooking?  If not, we pick between two local places to call for takeout.  I used to spend minutes at the grocery store staring at the peanut butter displays, trying to figure out whether I wanted creamy, crunchy, gourmet with honey and chocolate, natural, comparing calorie counts, etc.  Now I grab the biggest jar left on the shelf, which takes about three seconds.    Of course I welcome the opportunity to buy the occasional white chocolate honeycomb fancy pants peanut butter, but reducing my options has freed up time I didn’t realize I was wasting.  Also it’s stopped the second-guessing game in my head.

Probably time to reset my relationship to choices, and to things.  I saw some cute stickers in a YouTube video and went to the linked website to look at them; the site had hundreds of sticker books, sticker sheets, and sticker rolls, and a little “do you need help” box that kept popping up on the side of the screen.  I felt intrigued, but rapidly this faded into fatigue and anxiety.   So I clicked off.

I’m no longer upset that I can’t go out to a coffee shop, or a mall, or a bookstore, though I hope all of these places can reopen as soon as it’s safe.  For now I’m at peace with the knowledge that my biggest decision on leaving my house is whether to turn right or left at the end of the driveway.  I do sometimes have a route in mind–there are lots of side streets that I haven’t explored yet–but it’s not a choice that causes any internal agitation.

Thursday I went walking early.  I had planned a rightwards journey, but got about a block into it when the rain started.  I backtracked to the house,  retrieved an umbrella, and decided to walk leftwards instead, around a park with a little pond.   I got to see a bunch of nature:  Swan and his bestie Duck owning the pond, a flock of geese, and a pair of swallows (maybe? I’m not good with birds) doing a flight show the Blue Angels might envy, and a family of five deer–more deer than this suburbanite has ever seen together, at least outside of a zoo.     It was a beautiful experience.  The next day I explored the side streets.    That was beautiful, too.

Break’s Over

Morning.  I’m drinking coffee and surfing the horrible news headlines in my study.  Amanda doesn’t bother to knock.  She slumps heavily into the other chair and lets her backpack thump onto the floor.   She hasn’t removed her grass-stained sneakers.  All of this grabs my attention, but is calibrated to be just shy of the level where I could accuse her of an outright display of temper.   Almost 15; she’s figuring out the passive-aggressive thing.

Her ponytail is coming undone, and she has to keep pushing escaped tendrils of hair behind her ears.   Her arms and legs are pink with sunburn, except for a pale stripe near her right wrist, occupied until recently by a friendship bracelet.

“Forget your sunscreen again?” I ask.

“Couldn’t find it,” she says, and scratches absently.  “Is now a good time?”

“After I finish my coffee,”  I say.

“That’s what you said yesterday, and the other days.”

She’s mad.   The Amanda situation has turned out to be more complicated than I expected.   “Okay,” I sigh.

“What’s next?”

“It’s complicated.”

“You think I can’t understand?”

“No, but you can’t know this stuff ahead of time.”

She jumps up.  A recent growth spurt makes her t-shirt pinch a little around her shoulders.  “I don’t need to know exactly,” she says.  “I just want something to happen.”

It’s true.  For more than a month, she’s been waiting in front of the maze in the twilight, with that boy.  What happens next?   “I’m working out something great for you,” I say.

 “Is that so?  I see you doing a lot of stuff.  That blog.  Practicing your instruments.  Watching the news.  Nothing for me in ages.”    

Sneaky girl.   About 20,000 words in and every day I was adding more words, but not the right ones.  Stuck, I decided to stop for a think, maybe do some other projects while the back brain worked on stuff.   I developed characters and complications and back stories, but somehow didn’t get around to the story at my leaving-off point.  As Amanda’s begun haunting me practically on the daily this week, I think my back brain has had enough.  “It takes time,” I protest.     

Her eyes well with tears, but her voice stays controlled.  “I miss my life,” Amanda says.  “I miss my family.  Can you get me back?” 

In the stare down, I blink first.  “Yes.  Now let me get to work.”   

“Later,” says Amanda, slamming the door exuberantly on her way out.

I hope she’ll still be happy as her story picks up again.  I have complications in store, betrayal and danger and heartbreak and a home that won’t ever be quite the same.   My coffee’s done; time to get writing.