The Sleep Between Snoozes

{I thought I saw you painting a house the other day. It’s ridiculous, I know, but I couldn’t look away.

The boys recalled a memory of you- but once it hit the air, it dissipated-  as memories always do.

We clung to this one, with a collective sigh and let it linger, strangely, none of us asking why.

Until someone turned up the music or shared a silly joke. We’re masters of distraction now, you know?  It is only on our silence that we choke.

I had a dream last night that you were here.  I ran into your arms and we fell over- laughing and crying.  I woke and ran downstairs. I dusted off and hung up your picture. There’s been a heaviness in the air -I think it’s time to reconsider…

I thought it would pass us over, as it has before, but things seem a little strange today and I find myself wanting to want you more.

You’ve been around here lately, haven’t you?  Returned from a battle with all the old players- demons and angels and monsters and men… You headed home leaving flames and dust behind you, hanging shield and sword beside you. You walked along a familiar path- tall grass and gentle rapids.  But you came home. You came here out of habit.

“Well don’t just stand there! Come inside. My mind’s made up – You’re staying for at least the night.

Come in and take a seat!  Close your eyes and breathe in deep. The table’s set. Dinner will be ready soon.

Take off your shoes and relax your gaze. There is only warmth and love in our space.

Be still our hearts while you tell your stories- of keeping us safe in other worlds and how there’s no need to worry. We’ll hang on every word with bated breath!  Oh! The kids will be so happy to forget your sudden death!  I can’t wait to tell them- ‘Boys! Look! Look who’s here!’

I’m sorry I’ve tried to carry on without you. You and I know there’s not another besides you.  Please come in and belong with us here. Please don’t leave again, I can’t live in that fear. You’re welcome to stay as long as you like. I hung up your picture, see? Everything’s alright….”}

I wrote this down a day ago and when I woke up this morning, I knew, ya know?

I fell asleep in the shadowed crook of your arm and when I opened my eyes, you and everything that was, was gone. I lumbered downstairs and remembered once more.  I know how this works, I’ve been here before.  I brushed away the tears and tried to move on.  I thought you would stay with us here where you belong.  First there’s the anger and then the regret. I can’t live in this place, I’d rather forget.

There’s no such thing as justice when you come in and take another piece of me. I took a deep breath and begged for you to just release me.

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Do I have it in me?

When you start putting the pieces together and it takes so long and you’ve crumpled the instructions up so many times that you can’t even decipher the words.  When you keep going, putting pieces where you think they should go, inserting parts from other projects and using chewed gum to hold them in place because glue costs $3.00 and you only have $10 for the week.  When you wake up in the morning and swear you’ve given it all you could and yet somehow find yourself back at it an hour later. When you know it takes blood, sweat and tears but all you have left is an exacerbated sigh.  When you ask your friends to tread lightly because the whole thing might fall, but they forget and it shakes under their careless feet.  When you finally look up and see your reflection but you hardly recognize yourself….

When you finish, will it matter that everyone you thought would stick around has long since gone and the only one to say “well done” is you?  Is your voice going to be encouraging and soulful enough at the end of it to make you believe it was worth it?  Will you be satisfied with yourself even when no one else cares?

I surely hope so because the crowd is dwindling and your candles have all burnt low. Time to quiet your screaming voice and save your energy  in case you ever build that fucking thing. Everyone else has left the building and the only conviction you have is yours alone. 

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Fit of giggles and happiness

This past week, my mom had the boys enrolled in a day camp a few miles from where she lives, an hour away from me. I had a whole week to myself!  I’ve spent the past year redefining what kind of parent I am on my own.  This week was a rare opportunity for me to rediscover what I like to do on my own-not as a mother, but as a woman. It took a few days to decompress completely and wrap my head around it.  I was still working but I had the evenings and mornings to myself.  It was glorious!  I went for runs, long strolls into town for no other reason than I could, swimming in the morning and at night, watched TV whenever I wanted, had friends over, stayed up late and ate left over pizza for breakfast, lunch and dinner. By Friday night, I could tell that my breathing had slowed down, my pace had changed to a sauntering stroll, my whole attitude was centered in a much more peaceful place. I had finally had a chance to completely recharge! It felt great!

I couldn’t have it all, though. Oh no, not this girl!  A full week going by without a problem coming up just doesn’t happen for for a gal like me.  Something always, always pulls me back and grounds me.  While the kids were away,  I ran into some serious car trouble that will likely leave us without transportation for at least the next few weeks. That combined with the fact that in order to fix it, I’m going to be completely broke (as in negative bank account, as in make the food last as long as we can) could have been bad. By the time they’d returned home on Sunday, I’d resigned all of us to a couple of weeks of biking where we needed to go.  While it was frustrating, to say the least, I couldn’t help but see the silver lining in all of it.  Maybe this was who I was now.  The week of recharging had changed me! Perhaps I’d been through so much lately that a problem with an actual solution was enough to keep the skip in my step.  {This wasn’t so bad.  I’m a peaceful, happy person now. I can totally make this work!}   When relaying my plans for the upcoming weeks to the boys, I found myself saying things like “We could really use the exercise anyway!” and  “It’s supposed to be fairly sunny for the rest of the week, why not enjoy the weather?” “I’ve been meaning to check out the various meals we can make using Ramen Noodles!” (I think there are over 100, btw!!)  Thankfully everything we need (my job, their camp, grocery store, etc.) is all within a  two-mile radius and we live in a town in which biking is a completely acceptable form of transport.  My peppy pep talk to the kids was met with long, blank, stares and a few grunts and moans, but I skipped right through it and moved along, using words like “team” and “bonding” and “namaste.” (No really- I bowed out of the dining room, while my younger son looked on amused and perplexed with his hands in prayerful pose as instructed, as I repeated Namaste until I was out of sight.)

As positive as I was trying to be, I admit, I had some seriously sobering moments of panic that could not, no matter what, be squelched. {What if we wanted to leave and go somewhere else for a weekend?? Everything outside of this place is at least 45 miles away!! What they hell was I thinking? I hadn’t even checked the weather! It could totally rain the whole time and then what?!  I pull up to work on my 5 speed, drenched and freezing all day and then have to turn around and bike 2 miles to pick up my equally wet and frozen children from camp?!}  But the most terrifying thought was: {What if this whole thing never ends and this is it?! This is how we get around now-the biker family….”there goes old widow Ashley and her poor children….biking through the snow…”}  The more I thought about it, the more terrifying the whole deal seemed to me. It wasn’t just the car, it was the financial worries and eventually every bad decision I’ve ever made.

So I stopped thinking about it. The reality was that we didn’t have a choice. This was just what we had to do and we could do it and feel good about it or we could do it and be miserable. I chose door # 1.

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Sunday night we were fortunate enough to accompany a friend to a small little theater situated at the edge of an enchanted old farm, with rolling hills and picnic tables and perfectly lined stoned walls.  It was beautiful and such a unique place to celebrate theater!  As we waited for the show to start, I looked around and wondered how we could possibly be upset about  obstacles in life?   We were so lucky to be in this little place!  I leaned back in my seat, grinning from ear to ear, so proud of myself for having chosen door #1!  This night was validation that good things can happen as long as you commit to happiness!  Ahhhhhh..  A quick glance over my shoulder to share this moment with the boys but when I looked over, they were gone.  Still calm, I thought “they must have gone to the bathroom.”

I scanned the length of the tiny barn, turned theater and found them blocking the entrance and in the throes of some barely audible, but clearly very intense battle over a sweater. People were skirting around them with annoyed glances at one another or requests for them to please move. All of which had no effect on them whatsoever. I couldn’t hear but when I squinted to get a better look, I noticed one had a cup of water and a crumbling cookie that he was clearly intending to use for ammunition against the other if the sweater wasn’t released.  The little one caught my eye just as the cookie hit his cheek and  let out a wail so loud that almost every head in the audience turned to see what was going on. They made their way back to me but it didn’t end there so I had to sit in between them.  It calmed down for a moment until a little hand made its way behind my back and slapped his brother’s head so viciously that a shout escaped.  Ordinarily I would have taken them outside and unleashed my usually very effective speech in which I threaten to rid my house of every electronic piece of equipment.  But we were trapped in such close quarters that I had to resort to whispering potential consequences through gritted teeth until the lights dimmed and a pianist began the play’s introduction. By this point I was so hot from embarrassment and angry from trying to control them in that barn that my bangs were stuck to my forehead and my mouth had never been so dry. I tried to find the brochure to fan myself off but couldn’t, which just made it worse. When I finally found it, crumpled up in my son’s sweater, I was so angry and frustrated at the whole situation.  I held up the crumpled remains of the brochure along with the sweater and with my lip stuck to my teeth and my eyes bulged out of my red face, I proclaimed to both of them, in a sinister, throaty voice :  “It’s mine now.”

I was clutching the sweater so tightly that my knuckles were white and my fist was shaking.  I held their gaze for a full 30 seconds.  My face must have looked completely psychotic.  Upon receiving my preposterous declaration and holding my alternating glare for as long as they could, it occurred to all of us how ridiculous this was. I looked like the Hulk, head moving from side to side, sweat pouring down my face, arm raised with a miniature piece of cloth hanging around my wrist. I had made one last attempt to hold my happy place together and all I had to show for it was a sweater and a crumpled brochure. The facade was cracking and we all knew it.  My older son bit his lip to stop himself from laughing as his brother’s hands flew up to cover his own mouth. By now, the curtains were opening and we’d all completely lost it. The first half an hour was spent stifling laughter as random parts of the play would remind one of us how ridiculous I looked.  All it would take was a sigh or twitch and we were, all three of us in stifled, uncontrollable, hysterics, heads down with the biggest smiles on our faces and tears rolling down our cheeks. We eventually had to excuse ourselves and return collected.  By the time the play ended, I was in the middle, their heads on my shoulders and we were breathing in sync, trying not fall asleep.

I don’t know how these next few weeks will go. I imagine much like the first few days. I foresee some unavoidable inconvenience and struggle but I hope those things are mixed with pep talks and great fits of laughter that lead to nights cuddled up on the couch together.  When we make it to the other side of this, I don’t want a trophy at the end. What I want is to be given another night like that. I want a chance once in a while to appreciate and savor the moment with my two boys.

By the time we left that old barn, turned theater, I felt like I had the richest piece of chocolate melting in my mouth and I didn’t care that the euphoria had allowed to me to laugh when the chocolate dribbled down my chin.

You can be whatever kind of boy you want to be

My 11 year old was walking around in my heels for about a half an hour. When I glanced over, I gave him an amused smirk and asked what he was doing. “What?! They suit me!” He proclaimed over the click, clack of wood heel on wood floor.  As he left the kitchen and headed toward the couch to play XBox, still wearing my stilettos, he threw an “I like it!” over his shoulder to which I replied, “whatever you need to do, man.”

It may seem like an offhanded response, but this was a careful reply and an attempt not to pay much too attention to it.  My first reaction was to tell him he looked silly and ask him to take them off. “Heels are for girls!”  However, it occurred to me that telling him not to wear those shoes contradicts the message I’ve tried to teach him up to this point. It tells him the ponies he played with when he was three, the easy bake oven he asked for for Christmas when he was four, and the general understanding that “he can be whatever kind of boy he wants to be” are wrong.  It tells him the Legos and trucks he likes are acceptable, but anything that comes painted pink and purple or requires a spatula or brush and and change of clothes are NOT for him.

I know it was just a pair of heels and really, it means nothing other than he was trying them out. But it opened my eyes to how easy could have been for me to confirm stereotypes and validate lasting gender specific prejudices. The confusion of gender in this country doesn’t exist because we allow our children to have options. The confusion about what it means to be a boy (or girl) in our ever evolving, yet frighteningly stagnant culture comes from a child knowing there are options and being told without reason or rhyme that they’re just not allowed to chose them.

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A Casualty of Death: Friendship and the woman I loved like a sister

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I have this friend…or had this friend. She was beautiful and spontaneous and alive with philosophy and theories and spiritual prose. We knew each other when our kids were really young…when we were really young, actually.  And we weren’t alone. There was a whole posse of us single moms-raising our kids on a dime, buying clothes from thrift stores with minimum wages from whatever-job-we-had-at-the-moment, having drinks at the beach while our kids played in the shallow waters.   By all accounts, this friend and I, despite the fact that most of our interactions/in depth conversations were had with a drink in hand, we kind of lifted each other up. We expected more from each other than the other single mothers our age.  Maybe we felt like we had made some bad choices along the way but we knew we were smart enough to beat the odds.  Maybe we thought that if “she did it, I can too” and that was all the reason to keep trying. Or maybe we were both just great pretenders….

Regardless, we had been through just about everything two friends could go through.  We saw each other love and lose it and love again. We congratulated each others’ children as ardently as we did each other on accomplishments, and we embraced when family and other friends were not as present or understanding.  Above all we always, always recognized the strength we had as women, as friends and as mothers to overcome whatever muddled situations we’d put ourselves in. We vowed to each other we’d rise to the top and not only achieve our respective goals but we’d look good doing it.

We had lofty goals and expectations for each other.  We would get nice jobs with benefits and feed our kids organic food from Farmers Markets and philosophize and talk about art projects. We would contribute in a real way to the community. We would travel and show our kids the world!  We would be old friends in wheelchairs chasing old men with canes at the Sunnyside Nursing Home. (We loved to joke about how that would play out.  Old and wrinkled but still young at heart. Chasing tail as earnestly as we had chased our youthful dreams.) We would be real, good, and true.  We would overcome together- Always, somehow together. Sisters of the slums we’d put ourselves in.  And perhaps that was the difference between us and the others. We had embraced the struggle. This path, for us, was somehow escapable because we were never really meant to be there in the first place. But the sad truth is that we never really made it out…not together, anyway. Somehow we failed at the end and it feels like something bigger than the death that tore us apart. Leaving her where she is, feels harder than watching him float away.  The man I loved died but the woman I compared myself to is still there is still there, clinging to that ledge.

This friend I had once was beautiful.  Did I say that already? Well it’s so true that it should be said twice. Her beauty radiated so brilliantly that I never really questioned her. Someone that beautiful and knowledgeable and charismatic could not possibly have malice or delusion. She was after all, nicknamed The Truth.  And that’s how I knew her once. True. Honest. Real.

After all those years together- those pee-our-pants laughs and “aha” moments, and cheers for each other and hugs and kisses for our children….. My dear friend became lost to me.  It could possibly be my fault and it could also have nothing to do with me at all, but she began to fade away the day my boyfriend died.

She held him for a long time. He was already dead, but they were sort of stuck together –her treading water, clinging to a ledge, trying not to give him up to the current, trying not to let him go. HIM- this dead man she clung to for a long time.  I think she held on for me. I think she held on for my children.  Because that’s how close we were. We would have done anything for each other.  Blood sisters. Prick our fingers, jump in front of a bus.  As long as you’re ok, I’m ok.  Best Friends. And we would have done those things because everything we had, we had struggled together to acquire.  So while my other son, a child she’d known since he was just a baby, struggled to find his way out of the current, with my dead boyfriend in her arms, a man she’d watched me slowly but surely fight to fall in love with, she prayed and begged God or the Universe or whomever/whatever she could channel.  She pleaded with the sky “not do this to her” and I have no doubt that her desperate, genuine pleas for my son to live helped him find his way out. There is not a moment more real and more true than her terror that I might not be ok if my son didn’t make it out. There is no other friend who could possibly have understood what the loss of my child -whom she’d essentially helped me raise-what his death -could have meant to me and therefore no greater plea I could have asked for than hers in those moments.

After Jason was taken away, minutes and hours and then days and weeks passed with our fingers intertwined.  Watching me through windows, across a room, through puffs of endless cigarette smoke, she waited there, treading water.  She was right there.  She was with me as I tried to learn to breath and crawl and walk and run again.  The honest moments, the tried and true friendship, the concern for our families and our goals and our sanity. The Truth was still there….but I think barely. Faintly.  She was holding on, but the rocks were starting to get slippery and her grip was beginning to loosen.  She was clinging to something that had quite possibly died a long time ago- something that was extinguished by the same water she treaded in. As we began to crawl out and away from the waterfall where he died, she was was somehow still there in those waters. Still there with him dead in her arms.

I don’t know what happened after the third month. It’s probable that the more I started to run from the ledge the further I ran from her, from my past.  It’s possible.  We were all changed. We were all running a little. Trying to make sense of it all in our own way, yet still- always, together. But there was something not quite right about her anymore.  She was so vigilant that she was almost paranoid. So zeroed in she was almost unaware of anything but those final few moments on the rocks and in the water. After seeing it was possible to lose something – someone- some life- every moment and every anchor…she sort of seemed to let it all go.  And I was so consumed by finding myself again that maybe I let her slip away.  She was right there but it’s possible that her Truth and mine no longer made any sense.  And you see, it’s equally possible that I had no choice but to let her fall behind.  There was no room for self doubt in my world. I was alone with two kids now. I couldn’t start my day without vomiting at the thought of it.  It was just me left to carry them up over that ledge and I had to trust that the direction I was leading them in made sense to me. I had to trust in my own truth.  And as I discovered what that meant to me, the more blurred hers seemed.

One day, she’d fabricated some story about me sleeping with her fiance. She’d said it repeatedly to me via text, but would never have a conversation over the phone or in person. It wasn’t true. Not even close to true. But I think she did it to get away from me too- from herself, from her past, her own truths.  She blocked me from her social media.  She cut me off, completely. This friend of mine, this sister, this truth I knew, told me to go away- made up a lie and I was forced to accept it.  And my need to mentally overcome this loss and rebuild my family took precedence over my need to clarify and shake her and smack her and TELL her to be ok- for us, for her, for me, for everyone else.  My need to survive this left little room to fight her while I moved forward.

She has become a casualty.  And it’s not because she couldn’t make it.  It’s because she’s violent and vicious and a liar and we’re all a little too fragile to make her understand.  The Truth I once knew, is now knotted and hurtful and cruel and angry and …. a lie.  How ironic. And the cruelest part about her now is that she stands where he lay dead in her arms and she thwarts every attempt we make to climb away.  She’s down there in those muddied waters, screaming and hurling mud at every one who passes by. Telling stories, fables to anyone who will listen.  Making claim to a person and their feelings post mortem.  She’s clinging to a ledge he would never want her to hold in the first place. She holding a solitary, painful truth in her hands and it’s slipping through her fingers and it is as fluid and dirty and real as the mud her treading, tired, feet will never touch. She holds on to this place and gnashes and gnarls her fearsome teeth.

I feel that as she held my dead lover in those final moments I will forever hold her dead truth. And because she held him and because I loved her once, one day- when I have my strength again- I will go where other people won’t.  I will go back there and unloose her wrinkled hands, and her tired, treading feet and I will calm her gnashing gnarls and I will tell her that she can do this. I will show her that I can and so she can too. Because she is only stuck there on that ledge.  This can’t possibly be my dear friend’s fate.  We will laugh about this and philosophize and dream in sync…this friend I had once.

My only truth now is that we all make it out together. And she’s still in there. So one day, I will have to go back.