The giveaway

The kid had already performed St. James Infirmary for Talent Show tryouts. Yet, we sat in the audience anyway. Maybe this year they were required to stay until the last performer had auditioned. His buddy was called to go home. And still we stayed. I sat on the back side of the lunch table, with my son and two girls in front of me.

The girl on his left kept asking questions. I’d see the dip of his head toward her, and then the deepening murmur of his response.

My god! I thought. We’re staying for a girl!

Again the dip of his head. More questions. More responses.

Forty minutes of children performing at the piano, on stage with hula hoops, dances choreographed to pop songs from two years ago. On and on. Still his head dipped toward hers.

Is there a better giveaway than the dipped head? The way one person seems to drink in the other. A face dipped into a pool of light. A gift still in its wrap and ribbon.

The next evening, we headed up to an after-school event. The kid had surprised us by asking to attend. He vanished after we fed him and reappeared a moment later with the girl who asked questions.

Marvelous.

The dip is also discovery, isn’t it? A kind of attention usually reserved for examination. For research.

I hope I never stop dipping to my wife. My head turned slightly to whisper something to her alone. To rest my forehead against hers for a moment and reinvigorate myself there as though love were a resource we need only bow toward. An attentive, curious supplicant.

My attention is entirely on you. You. With your questions. All of your questions. I will make it a habit to listen. To listen. And respond.

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Child

Years ago, my coworker had this sad, half-broken smile on her face when she told me that her 26-year-old son had survived for two years playing online poker because jobs were for suckers. “My son is a mystery to me,” she said.

And I had this terrible urge to grab her and yell, “Do something! Fix this!” Which means that I was thinking about my own relationship with my son, rather than her relationship with hers. It frightened me to think that one day my child might be entirely inscrutable to me. This child with a delicate scar across his cheek from the time his cat slipped off the roof of his fort, and scrambled for purchase. This child who listened to me say, last weekend, “My allergies are terrible, and I hate everything.” And responded with, “Would a hug help?” And when I blurted out, “Yes!” because I needed a hug more than anything, he jumped up and hugged me for a long time.

When I was 31, listening to my coworker’s story about her relationship with her son, I kept comforting myself with a story about how I was different. How I felt connected to and certain of my son in a way that I have always found miraculous. Improbable. Startling. The best and most astonishing joy of my life is my child.

But he is twelve now. And takes his job, being twelve, seriously. I have found myself, repeatedly, saying to him, “I don’t understand what you are doing. Why are you choosing this?” I have found him, careening over and over into my boundaries as he tries to develop boundaries of his own.

“Why would you do this?”

“What are you thinking?”

It is my job to model the values I believe in. It is his job to discern his own values. Sometimes, our jobs put us at odds.

And I catch myself thinking, “If he just chose this rather than that ….” Like a fixer. Like a person who knows better than everyone else. I’m sure people marveled at my choices (and still do) because they would choose differently. And sometimes I was wrong. But my wrongness was still mine. And worth whatever happened because I chose it myself. Messes I made were mine and necessary. Not just to learn, but to be. We go on, making and unmaking ourselves. Grasping, in our efforts, for things that are mysterious. The way I lived in my twenties made sense to me at the time as the best of my options. I would not choose those things now, which is quite handy, because I no longer have those choices to make.

“I don’t understand what he’s doing,” has become the motto of this phase of my relationship with my son. I find it a little scary. I find it exhilarating. I find that he is, as he grows and pushes, and grows and pushes, more himself. When my coworker said her son was a mystery to her, I was afraid that she really meant he was a stranger. I worried that a child could become so foreign that we might not recognize them. The way that my parents do not seem to recognize me.

But I forgot about the looking.

There it is, the scar on his cheek. There he is, the boy whose first response is to comfort me. He is there whenever I look for him. Working his shit out. Just like the rest of us.

“Why do I expect to understand him all the time?” I asked my wife last night. “I don’t understand anything. I keep looking around at the world going, ‘What the fuck is happening?'” The old fixer in me just gets anxious sometimes. I could spare you all this if you’d let me make your choices for you. I could spare you all this because when I was young, I threw myself against boundaries, too. Against and through them. Over and under them. Nobody could tell me anything. The whole world was filled with liars. People not brave enough. People settling.

At some point, I’ve made peace with not knowing. I just don’t know. I wonder. But I have no idea.

My life. My country. My neighbors. My future. My family.

I love them. But I don’t know what will happen.

And I have so much hope. And so much anxiety.

I have a fire that I let burn down to embers before I remember to search for more wood.

Outside my bedroom, the birds are singing in the tree nearest the window. They have been singing this entire time. My wife is asleep. The dogs, eyeing me, are wondering if they can press for food though it is 5 a.m. rather than 7 a.m. What is the worst that can happen? We will all tuck back in to the covers and wait out the last of the night. Or slip in to sneakers and walk through the neighborhood before anyone else.

Or.

Or.

Or.

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I just can’t decide how much humanity you deserve

In the new age of acceptable fascism, I guess the thing I find most troublesome is how familiar it feels. I stood in Dachau Concentration Camp as a child. I looked at all the photos and the ovens. I stood there as a five year old and have never been able to shake that feeling. I loved Germans. I spoke German fluently as a child. How could they have done this? Or stood by and let it happen? And the rest of us? Where were we?

I sat in a Southern Baptist Church in Arkansas for the last time as a young woman while the minister spat into the microphone that all the gays should go back into the closet with the other skeletons. I grew up around the kind of Christianity that refuses to acknowledge the full humanity of Methodists, black people, brown people, immigrants, Catholics, Mormons, rich people, anyone on welfare. Jesus, the list goes on and on. My family thought the KKK was horrible, but warned me never to go into the black neighborhood two streets from my grandmother’s house.

You can’t have fascism without bigotry. They are intertwined. And being stared at in a restaurant because I’m laughing with my wife hadn’t happened for a number of years, but man, when it happened this summer, all the hair on my neck stood up and I kept track of that guy until he finally left in a huff. How dare those queer people enjoy themselves in front of my family!

Finding and loving Mary, and being loved in return is the best of me. It’s neither a shameful thing nor an immoral thing. And you’ll have trouble arguing that Jesus supports you if you disapprove of my relationship when that is clearly not the case. I promise you, the Jesus from your book is a fan of me, and my love. He would eat at my table; he would hold me in his arms. He would stand in my wedding party and bless us.

Dude was a radical. A proponent of love and the impoverished. A warrior against the rich and the greedy and the corrupt. He did not dig the self righteous.

Do not be silent now in the face of fascism. Do not be silent. This is no time to let the most vulnerable be terrorized because you don’t like to feel uncomfortable. Fuck your comfort. Morality is not relative. What we are witnessing in America is wrong. And if we refuse to act, if we only watch and do not speak, do not organize, do not protest, then we have failed one another. And we have failed ourselves. You have to invest in seeing people around you as the other. You have to invest in that. Or you can choose love. A lighter burden. A better path.

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Do you have a maroon jacket?

There are only two people in the band who are under 70, and one is my son. He plays third trumpet, and watches the bandleader and the first trumpet for signals. You’d think he’d been doing this forever. Swapping out mutes, keeping time with his foot.

The first trumpet is 90. During the break, he tells me my kid is an exceptional young man. He shakes my hand as though we’d both been in the navy, and almost doesn’t glance at my tattoos.

“You’re counting two, but it’s written in 4!” the saxophone player had hollered at him during the first set.

“It’s written in 4, but you feel Dixie in 2.”

Yeah, bub. You feel Dixie in 2.

These old dudes can swing. And the kid, too. He can swing like a beast. He’ll be playing in his room, and shout out, “Do you know that one? Can you name it?”

And when I do, he’ll come to the threshold of his room, and say, “Do you know the lyrics?”

And when I start to sing them, he’ll join me. Yeah, kid, I grew up with swing. Jazz and blues and Dixieland. We could all agree on dance music. Marches. Waltzes. I used to Waltz in my room with my teddy bears.

“Have you heard of this song, Moon River?” he asks me. “It’s so beautiful.”

I start singing the lyrics and his face brightens. He sings, too. I mangle a couple of them. “You need practice,” he says.

I do. I need practice. And it’s all I can do not to dance during his. You feel it in two!

They tell him what he’ll need for the gig. “Do you have, by any chance, a maroon jacket? Or red? A red or maroon jacket?”

“Definitely not.”

“I think maybe if you just wear a white shirt, black tie, and black pants, you’ll be fine. Yes. Let’s do that. As long as you have the white shirt, black tie, and black pants, there’s no need for the maroon jacket. Or the red one.”

“Oh, good,” the kid says.

His first Jazz uniform. His first gig. With his first solos. Swing kid!

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So shines a good deed in a weary world

“What,” I ask my wife, “do you consider your moral imperative?”
“Be good.”
“That’s the whole thing?”
“Be as good as I am able in every situation.”

Be good.

We live in a time where “Don’t be evil,” and “Don’t be a dick,” fail to capture the range of assaults we face. It’s not enough to hold back from the worst behavior. We should be out there shining a goddamned light on the good and the vaginal.

Yesterday I kept thinking about this superhero: Super Queer. Her only superpower is goodness. Goodness is the whole thing.

Have you helped someone today? How have you helped?

It is time to seize our moral imperative.

Be good.

Stand in solidarity.

Fight.

March.

Make signs.

Persist.

Make phone calls.

Show up.

Be the toddler the world needs. Fucking resist.

Obey little.

Say NO. Shout NO.

Make yourself hard to manage.

Hard to lull.

Hard to herd.

Be good.

Be filled with love.

Celebrate every achievement.

And raise your goddamned fist. The world needs all of us. This tired world. Watch us shine.

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The dog alone in the house

The family had a house in upstate New York, and an apartment in the city. They left the dog in the house because he was such a bother in the apartment — shedding, barking, needy. He was left alone, and they paid a stranger to walk him twice a day. She said he cried every time he had to return to the house and be alone again.

There is a man deep in the Amazon. His entire tribe is dead, and when researchers stumbled upon him, they estimated that he had been alone for more than a generation.

We are communal, humans. We are like our pets. We need the company of one another. In the old days, it was for safety. One tribe to fend off another.

The dark is different when we are not alone.

I think sometimes I am not as smart as that dog. Not as willing to cry out against my loneliness. My isolation.

I need you, fellow humans. Even in my despair. And my joy. I need you around a dinner table. I need you to tell me a story of the thing that happened to you one time, many years ago. I need you at the fireplace. I need you in the office, with the coffee cupped in our hands. I need you on these snow-burdened streets. In the club, our heads nodding in rhythm to the bass guitar. Our hips urging us higher, higher.

In this cellular age, I miss you. Like a dog alone in a house. Like a man left in the Amazon. Like a woman nearby, overly fond of solitude, and not always wise enough to tell you. Happy winter, friend. Have you noticed how the snow bends the trees, and urges us to go slowly, to let the quiet be quiet, to stretch as insistently as ever toward one another?

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Collective animal

Maybe my wife’s snoring woke me, or maybe I really was trying to decide when I transitioned from third person to second. In graduate school, I discovered I could distance myself from the camera if I focused the camera on the girl. What is the girl seeing? What does what the girl does mean?

Twenty-one and the girl couldn’t even imagine the woman.

Or the woman’s first person narrative.

Look at the girl making choices.

In my thirties, I could accept the woman, but I gave her second person to experience the world. You wake afraid. You wake in anguish. You wake.

You did not expect to love her.

Second person is how I learned to have compassion for myself.

You are having a hard time, I would write. You are in love again, I would wonder. Is the question mark implied? You decide.

And then I met Mary. How would I write about her if I couldn’t accept the first person narrative?

Going back, of course, you know I’m oversimplifying. The first person asserted itself plenty of times. A character speaking definitively. I feel these things. I wonder.

Yes, yes. Let me tell the story.

Six years ago, we moved to this little house in the middle of a snow storm. It took hours of shoveling for me to clear the long driveway. The U-Haul got stuck and we had to recruit another truck and so many cars. We had pizza afterward, and my son was so small that it was literally half his lifetime ago when all of this happened. Mary and I weren’t even married yet. I was still trying to get back to the first person.

How does this happen to you? When you begin to resist the distance of the camera to the girl. When you refuse to wonder what the girl is thinking. When I refuse to let you stand in for me either.

How did love make me more certainly myself?

More brave.

How did love make me braver?

I’m the only one to tell you what love did for me. Aren’t I?

Love is how I figured out that resistance can include choosing yes rather than saying no.

Yes to kindness.

Yes to progress.

Yes to fearlessness.

Yes to beauty.

Love is how I realized how dangerous I am. The kind of injuries I can make. How my failures will resonate over years of conversations. How vulnerable I am at my center.

Mine.

I.

It’s a mistake, I think, to let anyone write the narrative. We are not the animal collective.

On my walk to work yesterday, an old woman with a small dog said that she wished me a lovely Wednesday, and an even happier Thanksgiving. The next old woman with a dog stopped and told me a story about the end of her job as an ER nurse. She had a brain bleed. “After 40 years, I just couldn’t react fast enough,” she said. “I was really good at my job.” For the first time, her dog crossed the sidewalk and let me pet him.

This is a whole country of narratives.

Nobody gets to tell us what our story is.

I wanted you to know. This day. Fraught or festive. Quiet or communal. I am filled with a dangerous love. A revolutionary love. We decide who we are. How we will resist.

I decide how I will love you.

And the answer is fiercely.

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Home before dark

When Mike Stock told us about the orange clay pools, we called bullshit because Mike Stock lied as habitually as the rest of us chewed gum.

“I’ll show you!” he kept saying.

And so a pack of us entered the woods that morning, behind the military housing at Fort Leonard Wood. The forest was quiet, with creeks, tree frogs, and small turtles. The summer after second grade, and my younger cousins were visiting for the first time.

We walked for hours, sated by the prospect of Mike having to own his lies. Adam still lived across the street then. We’d brought his little brother along, and my small cousin. They were both four, and neither complained. Not even as the forest climbed up and up.

We never worried about snakes here in the woods, though we saw them often enough in fields to the west. Mike and I found burned up garters on the ledge between our carport and our front door. They’d slept too long in the Missouri sun. Two summers later, we’d nearly step on a rattler in a field to the west. He’d grab me around the waist and run us back to our dirt bikes. I loved Mike like a brother. More than a brother. My brother was an asshole, and the only kid who complained as we climbed upward, clinging to trees to keep from losing ground. Nobody had thought to bring snacks.

At the top of the hill, the forest ended abruptly, and we saw orange clay pools in every direction. They were large enough to soak in, and we did. Throwing off our socks and shoes, and submerging in the warm water. We were orange as fuck. Clay in our hair, our nails, our mouths. We’d burn as the afternoon wore on.

Walking home came more quickly, though the small kids had had enough, and we took turns carrying some of them. A perfect day. We all congratulated Mike on being honest about a thing. Finally. At last.

Even as we walked home, we couldn’t believe our fortune. An entire landscape of clay pools. Next time, we’d bring lunch, and Capri Sun. Adam said we needed Otter Pops and his mom had some. That cheered us for the final hour of our walk.

The street lights hadn’t yet come on when we walked up the short hill to Adam’s backyard. His mom didn’t even greet him. She told him to go inside, take off his clothes, and wait for his father. She said he never should have taken his brother.

The rest of us stood there, watching Adam and his brother follow their mother inside, without a glance backward. No Otter Pops?

“Why’s he gotta take off his clothes?” my brother asked.

Who knew? Maybe she objected to the clay. We still hadn’t noticed the feel of the neighborhood. The panic. We walked through the alley between houses, and onto Gridley Loop. A bunch of parents were standing together on the street, which was odd. They turned as a group and started hollering at us. They went on and on. How reckless we’d been to drag tiny kids who knew where. How dangerous to vanish without a word to anyone. How could we have been gone all day? All day! Without permission!

When had we ever needed permission to walk? The summer days were ours until the streetlights came on. That was the agreement. And usually we were hollered at for leaving our tiny cousin behind, not for bringing her along. It was unjust. I said as much for all the good it did me. I can’t remember if we were punished. All I remember now is the marvelous day. The forest giving way to magic, as though we’d earned it with our labor. We’d walked ourselves toward magic. That’s what it felt like. The spell undone by returning home to angry, irrational adults who’d changed the rules on us.

We never went to the clay pools again. We’d been forbidden to go, even if we left the younger kids behind. Mostly we rode our bikes round and round Gridley Loop, watching for snakes, or played kickball in the street. Adam’s family moved away. Two different kids named Chip moved into the neighborhood with their sisters.

Mike and I were on our bikes together the day his dad ran up to us, crying, and said the family that was moving in next door had spent the afternoon looking for their youngest son. They’d finally found him in a heavy trunk, with a litter of kittens. They’d all suffocated; the child was four. It was their second day on the base in Missouri.

My dad was crying later when he told us about it, too. He’d only just met the parents to discuss their child’s funeral. I thought of my little cousin, that day in the woods. How we’d taken her without a thought.

Missouri. Magic and grief. Snakes and dirt bikes, and Mike Stock beside me. In our canvas Nikes. Riding like we could get somewhere.

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Library

If you were to ask me, “How can you love this world?” as I often ask myself, the answer would be, “Because Ann Patchett writes novels.” Sometimes it would be, “Because Alice Munro writes short stories.” And sometimes, it’s more specific, the name of a book I have just read, and how I stalled at the end — maybe with only seven pages to go — and decided that I needed to wash dishes, or do laundry, or take the dogs for a walk. But before any of that, I need to be still, with this book’s binding in my hands, in a strange kind of desperate prayer. Don’t end! and it must end! pressing through me with a languid energy like the slowing of a long train.

This morning, I read in the front room, surrounded by dogs. They follow me everywhere. No matter who is home. No matter what is happening. The dogs follow me, unless Mary is cooking, and then they don’t give a fuck about me. I am the favorite unless there is food. I want to tell them about the book I’m reading, but instead I rest it against my chest and look at the other books in the bookshelf. I’m searching for The Magician’s Assistant, the first Patchett book I read. When Mary and I began dating, I’d lent her my copy. She returned it, the front cover torn and dogeared, and said she wasn’t interested in Nebraska. It was like a blow. To return a book I’d lent in such a condition and to have refused to finish reading it.

I should have included that story in my wedding vows: I love you enough to overlook your shabby treatment of books in general and Ann Patchett in particular. Love doesn’t get bigger than that.

The dogs follow me to the bathroom, where I fill the tub with scalding water. The young woman in Commonwealth has just helped a famous drunk author to his hotel room. She could lose her job for this. For taking his money at the hotel bar and then helping him up to his room. But she tucks him into bed with tenderness. In Ann Patchett’s novels, the human condition is so sad that the only recourse is optimism. What better option than kindness?

I finish this chapter, touched again, by the way she writes about men and women. How failure is the middle of the story rather than the end. The end is something else, always. Something more.

What did you get out of this story? Everything. It was filled with everything. And I have only read the first third. The rest needs to last. Please last.

As I type, one of the dogs has her head rested on my thigh, and then on my arm. If you keep typing, how will you love me? What could possibly be more important than this?

I do pet her.

And I resist reading another chapter.

Make it last.

Stretch the beauty out as long as possible. Make the beauty last. Let it go on tomorrow as well. The story between us. Still unfolding.

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Lonely things

Here is Warsan Shire’s poem, 34 Excuses for Why We Failed at Love:

1. I’m lonely so I do lonely things
2. Loving you was like going to war; I never came back the same.
3. You hate women, just like your father and his father, so it runs in your blood.
4. I was wandering the derelict car park of your heart looking for a ride home.
5. You’re a ghost town I’m too patriotic to leave.
6. I stay because you’re the beginning of the dream I want to remember.
7. I didn’t call him back because he likes his girls voiceless.
8. It’s not that he wants to be a liar; it’s just that he doesn’t know the truth.
9. I couldn’t love you, you were a small war.
10. We covered the smell of loss with jokes.
11. I didn’t want to fail at love like our parents.
12. You made the nomad in me build a house and stay.
13. I’m not a dog.
14. We were trying to prove our blood wrong.
15. I was still lonely so I did even lonelier things.
16. Yes, I’m insecure, but so was my mother and her mother.
17. No, he loves me he just makes me cry a lot.
18. He knows all of my secrets and still wants to kiss me.
19. You were too cruel to love for a long time.
20. It just didn’t work out.
21. My dad walked out one afternoon and never came back.
22. I can’t sleep because I can still taste him in my mouth.
23. I cut him out at the root, he was my favorite tree, rotting, threatening the foundations of my home.
24. The women in my family die waiting.
25. Because I didn’t want to die waiting for you.
26. I had to leave, I felt lonely when he held me.
27. You’re the song I rewind until I know all the words and I feel sick.
28. He sent me a text that said “I love you so bad.”
29. His heart wasn’t as beautiful as his smile
30. We emotionally manipulated one another until we thought it was love.
31. Forgive me, I was lonely so I chose you.
32. I’m a lover without a lover.
33. I’m lovely and lonely.
34. I belong deeply to myself.

I have been, for months now, doing lonely things. Walking the dogs by myself, their leads rubbing my hands raw, their urgency something I hold back, or use to accelerate. How fast can we experience this walk? How quickly can we move through the trees? No, no, we’re missing everything. Wait. The day is already too much. Let’s just stand here for a moment and pee on everything.

I close the gate, and walk through the leaves, and want nothing more.

What has happened to my country? To the humans around me who cannot seem to pry their faces from their phones? Hunched over like the small illumination is keeping them warm.

Or it is me, alone, separating myself a little more from the compression of information? Data files. I have a pile of books to read, but I have to shake off everything to be able to sit with them, and read page after page. I have to retrain myself for chapters in the age of paragraphs.

Am I judging you? Do you feel judged? Was there a time, that you remember, when love was a solid thing? A conversation that went on so late that we found the chairs up at nearby tables. A broom nudging us toward the door, and the night, and home again to more solitude. Do you remember conversation?

I remember it like something that sank slowly in the the distance while I pulled myself ashore.

I feel my humanity less with humans than with my dogs. Though they watch every day for squirrels, and doves, and deer on the trails, they seem to crave an interaction with me above everything else. The pack. The family. The tending of one another.

I spent the summer preparing for a little less. So I won’t be disappointed. But it never quite works out the way I plan.

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