adventures from the homefront, COVID-19 edition, episode 16: protest ants

I don’t hate ants. When I was a kid living in California’s central valley, we would get lots of those tiny little garden ants in the kitchen.  Some mornings I would come downstairs and flip on the light, and the counter next to the sink would be absolutely blanketed in them. They moved about in thick waves like those weird flocks of birds.

Fine, I looked it up, because I think “weird flocks of birds” doesn’t capture the image I’m going for. Here’s what I’m picturing:  STARLING MURMURATIONS.

Only it was ants.

After the initial terrors, I learned to just sweep the ants up with a sponge and wash them down the sink.  Sometimes a few would manage to crawl onto me during this ant-ocide and I would get jumpy, but they were so little and helpless, really. In the battle to the death, I was victorious every time.

* * * * *

Once I came downstairs into the kitchen, bleary-eyed in the early morning, and stepped on what my mom called a “water bug.” This was a euphemism for “oh sh** that’s the most enormous cockroach I’ve ever seen.” I felt that nearly-2-inch-long creature squish under my bare foot; I heard the sound of its exoskeleton crushing, and I felt the warmth of its goo. I screamed and hopped into the adjoining room, arms flailing meaninglessly. I calmed down by making “ew ew ew” sounds in diminuendo, as I hopped to the bathroom to wash my foot off.

This is an aside, but I offer it as some context for my eventual relationship with ants.

* * * * *

When Anthony and I bought our first home, it was on roughly 19 acres of woods on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. We got it cheap, a good-sized modern timberframe kit-build with two bedrooms. For the same amount of money, we could have purchased a tiny, badly-appointed one-bedroom apartment/condo in a mediocre neighborhood in DC, where we worked and lived.  We decided to keep renting in DC and buy the house and big land instead, as a weekend getaway.

Since the land was basically wooded wetlands, we shared the space with a lot of creatures — skunks, possums (one lived under our back porch for a while), snakes, frogs, wolf spiders, birds, squirrels, raccoons, deer, mice, the usual.  We also had a lot of mosquitos.

This was when I learned that I have a terrible allergic reaction to mosquito bites.  After many bouts of cellulitis big and small, including a few that required oral antibiotics, I asked my doctor: how do I prevent things from getting this bad? He answered, verbatim, “Don’t get bit.”

Thanks for nothin’, doc.

So this is when I started wearing a lot of DEET whenever I went outside. We also consulted with Anthony’s father, an organic chemist who had made good use of pesticides during his life. He recommended malathion, sprayed not just on the cleared yard around the house but also on the foliage of all the trees nearby, as this is where the mosquitos would likely rest and lay their eggs.  He further recommended we spray for 4 weeks in a row, early in the morning, to break the cycle of life.

What can I say, it was the 90’s and we were in our twenties.  The first week we went ahead with the spraying. I don’t know how much poison we used, but we covered a good acre of land. We felt sick for a couple days afterwards, and that was disturbing.  But we are nothing if not persistent. We bought thick rubber gloves, tyvek suits, and double-canister asbestos-style rubber-gasket masks.  We suited up and sprayed the hell out of our yard for 3 more weeks in a row.

Sure enough, the mosquitos were much better after that.  Probably lots of other creatures were also “better.”  We definitely didn’t have many ants.

* * * * *

We’ve learned a lot of things since those years, about birds and bees and ecosystems and the art of not using products that require us to wear tyvek suits and gas masks to avoid feeling ill.  Nowadays, I mostly only spray water and the rare gentle fertilizer and I mostly don’t use traps or poisons  – but we’re not righteously bound to false perfection.  I keep wasp spray around to kill nests, I inoculate the land with milky spore to kill the dratted Japanese beetle, and every few years Anthony sprays the lawn to kill the creeping charlie, typically on a day when we are literally leaving for a several-week vacation.  We do things with vinegar, and I have a little flame thrower that I’ve been itching to use.  Otherwise, we live with what comes.  This creates moments of bug-based crisis, but honestly, we don’t have many pests in our house.  Spiders seem to take care of most everything. Except the ants.

In the spring every year, around this time, ants return to our kitchen.  I’m not sure where their nests are – maybe in the crawl space right below the kitchen, maybe under the stones on the patio next to the kitchen, maybe in the walls? I try not to think about it too much.

The little ants tend to stick to our counters and kitchen desk. I can’t blame them – thanks to the kids, there are always tempting treats to be had, often sweet and sticky.  These ants look like the wee ones of my California childhood, but they do it Wisconsin style – sparsely populated, stubborn. I find individuals here and there, rather than big swarms, and I kill them with a press of a finger.

When I was little, I would watch my grandma do this and wonder how in the world she could use her bare finger to squash a bug. Gross. It didn’t occur to me to feel bad for the ant.

Now that I’m over 50, killing a living creature feels bad. But I do it because I’m practical. I can’t have ants roaming happily on my kitchen counter, and I have no way to inform them of this fact except through their deaths. So I smash where I find.

At least, with the little ants.  The big ants are another matter.

The big ants come to our kitchen garbage and recycle bins, which hide behind a pull-out cabinet door. We don’t know how or whence they arrive.  They just appear in our bins, and more rarely on the floor or counter.  These ants range up to about a half inch in length, I kid you not. I swear they try to make eye contact.  They always surprise us when they first show up.  Anthony or I will pull out the kitchen garbage slide, and LO! 15 ants are crawling around in the garbage and recycling. It is really, really creepy because they’re so big.  I can’t kill one of those things with my bare hand, it would make crunchy noises and be gooey.  Even stomping on them with a slipper often doesn’t result in immediate death.  They’re tough, they fight for life, and they suffer to the end. It makes me really sad. 

Since I don’t want to spray poison, we’ve taken to using diatomaceous earth. This is not actually earth.  It is instead the grey powdery ground up fossils of some ancient little sea creature, and it has a variety of uses. As my brother Mark says, we’re so lucky these creatures lived 5 million years ago so that we could someday use their tiny little bodies to control ants and clean swimming pools.  A life of meaning after all, for the little empty-headed diatoms.

D-earth apparently is very painful for tiny little ant feet. I don’t know if it injures them to the point of death, but apparently it’s like walking on ginzu knives. I do know that I’ve observed ants coming up to the D-earth, touching it, and turning tail to run. I could almost hear them yelling, “ouchies!”

D-earth is also completely non-toxic. I read that some people use it as a dietary supplement for dogs. Which is weird, but I don’t judge.  What I do is, I spread a thin but extremely unattractive sprinkle of the powder along the counter edges where ants typically travel, and on the edges of the cabinet frame that holds our garbage and recycling bins.  After I do that, it takes a few days for the ants to become less numerous, and then we’re able to survive in our kitchen without having raised hackles every time we open the garbage.

It’s not perfect, but it’s a compromise I’ve learned to live with. If I see a big ant on the floor or a counter, I’ll smash it with something at hand – paper, slipper – and I’ve learned to live with the guilt. It’s better than listening to Nick and Jesse hollering at me all day long.

MOM THERE’S AN AAAAAAANT.

MMMMOOOOOOOOOOOM THE ANT IS SOOOOOO BIG!!!! KILL IT PLEEEEASE!!!

OH MY GOD I DON’T KNOW WHERE THE ANT WENT, MOOOOOOMMMMYYYYYYYYY HELP MEEEEEEEE.

* * * * *

In the early summer, we get an ant bloom in the living room.  These are medium ants, not as big as the garbage-monster-ants. So, not quite as scary, except for the wings.

The flying ants seem to happen as some sort of a hatching.  Suddenly they will arrive, in the course a day or two. I’ve never tried to count them, because there are too many. They crawl and fly around the living room, starting at the big window. Within a week or so they’re all gone or dead. We bring out the vacuum cleaner and clear their corpses. Do over in 12 months.

* * * * *

What I’ve learned from ants is that being relentless is both an admirable and an irritating quality. Ants just keep going and going, en masse, in community with each other, year after year.  The carnage Anthony and I inflict on them doesn’t even make a dent.

As I sat here at my kitchen desk, typing about ants and occasionally extending a finger to kill one, a remarkable moment of synchronicity arose. Jesse was nearby, doing her government schoolwork, and she literally asked me this: “what does it mean that JFK was the only president who wasn’t a protest ant?”

This led to many giggles, a tiny amount of education about religion and pronunciation, and a couple drawings. Our house is full of protest ants.

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adventures from the homefront, COVID-19 edition, episode 15: soundbites

What’s being said in my house doesn’t seem any more crazy than what’s being said by Wisconsin’s legislative and judicial power-holders. Here’s a sampler from my home.

* * * * *

Try to kill him with a helicopter! Try to kill him with a helicopter!  [long pause.] Yeah you killed him. Okay cool.  I’m still on my hunt for toilets, by the way.

Deadpool with a mask on just killed me.

* * * * *

I’m too fat to take my meds.  See? Drinking water makes me feel so fat.  THIS IS ALL YOUR FAULT.

[In a screaming whisper:] Your father is in the basement trying to record classes!  Please stop yelling! Stop it now! Stop it!

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAGGGGAAAAAAAAH

[Now yelling:] BE QUIET BECAUSE YOUR FATHER NEEDS US TO BE QUIET.

* * * * *

[Nick makes farting noises for a long time.] You know what it’s called, mom? Realistic butt scratching simulator.

* * * * *

Mom, what is multiplication.

Nick, stop.

Multiplication defies reality!

No, multiplication describes reality.

What? No, multiplication defies reality! Because some things you can’t multiply, like babies!

MULTIPLICATION IS A HUMAN CONSTRUCT. JUST DO YOUR MATH.

* * * * *

Mom. Can I file a law soup against the president?

* * * * *

Wanna ride a skateboard, mom?

No.

Why?

Because I don’t want to die.

I ride a skateboard.

Even I rode a skateboard when I was a kid.

Then why aren’t you dead?

* * * * *

The Golden Gate Bridge is a Suspicious Bridge.

* * * * *

[Anthony, focused on the Nintendo switch, thumbs busy:] If I’m gonna play any more of this game with you, I’m gonna need a beer.

Now THAT’s the dad I wanna play with!

* * * * *

[Jesse sings to the theme song from Lion King:]
It’s the ciiiiiircle of liiiiiiife
and death is inevitable.

 

 

 

adventures from the homefront, COVID-19 edition, episode 14: petty guilt

Since the coronavirus shutdowns, I’ve been having a tele-session with my shrink every two weeks or so. The first time, I did it while I was cooking dinner and the kids were wandering around and the dogs were barking. That was distracting.

I’ve refined the process and now I get shrinked while sitting in the car in the driveway, chatting with the doc through my AirPods (apple’s fancy wireless earbuds), staring at the garden and touching random things in the car, or rubbing my face weirdly, my head lolling back against the headrest in a way that would be entirely inappropriate in polite company. I have to admit, I think I may prefer this to showing up at an office and sitting on a soft dust-mite-filled sofa that smells faintly of other people’s perfumes and butts and takes me to OCD code red. I also don’t have to shower for tele-health.

This week, I said to Dr. G (that’s what I’ll call him) that I feel like I have nothing real to complain about in this COVID-19 era.  I hate wasting his time in these strange days.  All my concerns are petty and non-existential and selfish.

I have claustrophobic panic attacks in a mask, while I shop at Whole Foods. Millions of families are starting to look at food pantries to source food for free. One out of five American kids doesn’t have access to enough food.

Some days I go crazy about my kids following me around; I just want to be alone. All around the world, people are trapped in quarantine in their homes alone, desperately lonely and in need of support.

I feel displaced from my basement desk and computer, because Anthony has necessarily taken it over for his income-generating job, and I’m displaced at the kitchen desk as well because of my kids schooling from home, and I have to wander around looking for somewhere to plop myself with my laptop, and it just makes me grumpy. Some people don’t have homes anymore, let alone a portable laptop.

I have sensory issues with my hair and it’s just driving my batty; I could sure use a haircut.  My regular stylist has had no income for two months.

I desperately miss my elderly mom. I worry this pandemic won’t end until it’s too late for me to see her again.  For nearly 300,000 people in this world, it’s already too late.

The only really big thing I’m coping with right now is a strong feeling of guilt.

Dr. G did The Shrink Thing:  “Why do you think that is?”

Sigh.

Side benefit of tele-health: he didn’t see my eyes roll up in my head.  Very rude. I said aloud, “I don’t know.”

We’ve been at this long enough together that Dr. G seems to know I like to go home with something to work on. He also knows I’m not lacking for ideas. When it comes to psycho babble, I’m a random idea generator.

He paused just long enough and went on. When we have strong persistent feelings, they’re usually an indicator of something else.

He paused again. I random idea generated. White guilt? Well, half-white guilt. Elite liberal guilt? Guilt as a way to avoid other feelings of fear and grief? Honest, well-deserved guilt over having so much wealth and security and not doing enough to help other people? Guilt over not being able to be in California to help my mom and a brother who just got out of the hospital? Guilt over not earning any nominal income?

He didn’t say anything and eventually I stopped generating and waited for him to explain to me what’s behind my guilt.

He said, so that would be something good to meditate on, and try to figure out what’s behind the guilty feelings.

OH FINE, thanks for NOTHING! 

Sigh.

We went on to chat about these things, the feelings of guilt that have always nipped at my heels. Dr. G gave me the basics, of course, on the “guilty for all my riches” front: you worked hard for what you have, you don’t have to feel badly about having built a safe and secure life for yourself and your family, you don’t have to feel badly for being healthy, you don’t have to feel badly for making choices that potentially protect your mom from infection.

Yes yes, I know. But also I know that plenty of other folks have worked harder than me, they just didn’t have certain demographic advantages that made it possible for their hard work to pan out.  So I really can’t pat myself on the back too much for success.  There are a lot of other backs to pat too. It all feels pretty random. Yada yada.

Maybe my guilt is as petty as the petty things I feel guilty about.

Huh. I have my homework from Dr. G. I will meditate on why I feel guilty.  If and when I have some answers, I might let you know.

 

 

 

adventures from the homefront, COVID-19 edition, episode 13: new things I do

There are so many magical conspiracy theories about imaginary things floating through the ether these days, and also so many fresh ideas about how certain real things are actually hoaxes. It’s a wonder. I wish I had such wild imaginings. I would be much less bored.

But alas, I don’t actually believe that COVID-19 is a hoax, or that 5G is causing these illnesses and deaths instead. I don’t believe our hospitals are empty and the news is totally fake except for Fox and Breitbart. I don’t know about the efficacy of cloth masks, but I don’t think the lack of clarity is a hoax. It’s just science trying to catch up and people having no idea yet.  

But wouldn’t it be great if wishful thinking was effective, and we could just will away the things that really scare and unbalance us by declaring them hoaxes? Thanks to the unhinged people who are doing this a lot to assuage their panic about COVID-19, and whose voices are being incredibly amplified by social media and on-line news in recent weeks, I also think about it a lot.  

So that’s a new thing I do in the era of COVID-19:  wishful thinking about things that I wish were hoaxes.  Like, I wish garlic mustard was a hoax.  I’m so tired of weeding it. Can’t it just die off already and be gone? Hoax it! It’s not an invasive species at all! All the other woodlands plants that we’re told are being crowded out by it? They’re the invasive species. This hoax is brought to us by a conspiracy of garden weeding tool manufacturers led by… wait for it… CORONA Tools. Does that company name feel like too much of a coincidence for you? Yeah, me too. I’m not weeding garlic mustard anymore.  It’s probably hurting my immunities to do it anyway.  

I also wish the emerald ash borer was a hoax. We have about half an acre of woods in our back yard, maybe a little less.  Almost all of the trees are ash, beautiful old woodland ash grown tall and straight, towering at about 70 or 80 feet. A couple of them are really big in diameter too, just gorgeous old beauties. We’re probably going to have them all cut down this summer and autumn, and we’ll plant new saplings to replace them. I guess it’ll be fun to put in a mixed deciduous mini-forest, maple and beech and birch and such, but I’ll be dead before they’re as majestic as the current ash. It’s kind of devastating. I admit I have hugged the dying trees and cried.  But I have a solution:  hoax it! My ash trees only look dead, it’s a deep conspiracy of arborists, they’ve done something to make the leaves fall off and the branches look unhealthy but it’s fake! They just want to make more money cutting down trees! There is no ash borer! Fake News!

What? You identified the actual bug? The trees are actually dead? The emerald ash borer is a scapegoat! What’s really killing my ash are the 5G towers, not the bug! Tear down the towers, not my trees!

 * * * * *

There are other new things I’m doing.  

I sniff my toothpaste tube every day to make sure I can still smell it. I also open the jar of kimchi almost day to make sure I can still smell it.  It seems more sensible than seeing if I can smell the 2-year-old dried dill in the spice cabinet.  I also try to make Anthony smell the kimchi jar, and I query him. Can you smell it? Can you still smell it? He is never amused.

Speaking of spice, I’ve been putting extra spices in all my meals; it makes for a better test of whether I still have a sense of taste.

I find excuses to touch my family’s faces.  Loving strokes, hugs and touches.  Checking for fever.

I have anxiety attacks when Anthony’s allergies cause his sinuses to drain so much that he gags and coughs. This is not new, but I have a new filter in my mind.  I have anxiety attacks about my own asthma-like feelings, which I’ve had for years because of spring allergies. I hope that’s still what it is.

When Jesse says, “I don’t feel good,” my thoughts have changed from “she says that every day” to “please don’t be dying of COVID-19.”

When I’m bagging my 60-pound poodle’s stools during a walk and I’m overwhelmed by the stench, I’m grateful that I can still smell it.  

I am growing vegetables.  To be fair, I’ve been threatening to do this for several years. It’s just that now I actually have time for it.  We built two 3×6 boxes for raised beds and we’ve got a couple spots in our existing garden beds available for veggies.  I’ve got seedlings coming up under a grow light in our basement.  In addition to the rhubarb and raspberries we already have, if things go well we will have chard and beets and green onions and napa cabbages and hot peppers and tomatoes and green beans and onions and lettuce and radishes and some herbs and strawberries and asparagus.  

Apparently, being very ambitious is also a new thing I’m doing. If it doesn’t work out and I don’t do a good job of following through because I get bored and lazy, that will not be a new thing. That will just be the same old story of my brilliant mediocrity.  

 * * * * *

I do lots of new things in this era.  

I fall asleep with a dry mouth for fear of what’s to come.  Anthony and I have elderly parents. We are cautiously optimistic that they’ll pull through.  Anthony and I are in our 50’s and we have young children. We need to make it through.  I don’t know.  Existential dread takes on a new shape when you have young ones.  

Our economy is shredded, and I spend too much time pondering how it is that capitalism is so brittle.  Shouldn’t it be more robust if it’s so great? Shouldn’t multi-national corporations whose CEOs make 50 mill a year (plus extras) have reserves that allow them to carry on for longer than a month or two without a government bailout? What happens when the house of cards all falls apart, when people realize monetary systems are a pure mythology? Will my vegetable garden be enough? Will our kids be hungry someday soon, joining the 1 out of 5 American kids who don’t have enough to eat already? Will the ultra-rich ever come out of their ivory towers and show us some noblesse oblige, demonstrating once and for all that trickle-down economics isn’t also a hoax?

I wonder about whether Americans lead lives of meaning.  If what brings you out to a demonstration is your need for a mani/pedi, and not the need of your pedicurists to feed their families, is something missing? If the only way you’ll go to a demonstration at a statehouse is with a semi-automatic weapon in your arms, do you actually have courage of conviction? If the way people north of the Mason-Dixon Line express a sense of patriotism and commitment to our national republic is by flying the Confederate secessionist flag, um… ?

I drink too much.  I wonder if I’ll ever see my mom alive again. I make face masks. I stare at the kids for no reason. I worry. Worrying isn’t new I guess, but the intensity of it is.

I spend hours with Anthony in the yard. We’re clearing out as much invasive buckthorn as we can and cleaning up the woods so we can enjoy them better and have less mosquitos and tics.  We dug a muddy trench to drain the pond that forms in the woods near our house when heavy rains fall.  The ducks that visit will not be happy.  We drag large pieces of fallen wood (the emerald-ash-borer-hoax-addled young ashes are starting to fall on their own) around the land and get dirty. I dress in a black Spiderman t-shirt and pale blue long-shorts that come just to the top of my knees and striped hot-pink compression socks up to my knees and filthy hiking boots and march out to the woods to join Anthony. I pose like a runway model with a shovel. I giggle and giggle.  I think this is new and funny. When he’s done laughing, Anthony declares that it’s just like the old Carla.

What? He married a clown?

I guess being a clown isn’t new.

 

 

adventures from the homefront, COVID-19 edition, episode 12: birthday

Fifteen years. That’s how long I’ve been a parent as of today.

Frankly, it has been an exhausting fifteen years. It started so auspiciously: Jesse exploded out of my womb, gnawed successfully on me for gruel for five minutes, and felt promptly asleep.

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Shortly after, Jesse blossomed into her full glory.  All she needed, in order to be calm and content, was relentless 24-hour attention, along with an endless supply of unmitigated unadulterated untarnished unbounded unconditional unhinged love.  

If we failed, we got some version of this, which could go on for hours.
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But if Anthony and I were present and committed, and if sleep deprivation didn’t deny us of all our base humanity, there was nothing more joyful than Jesse’s soul, shining through those eyes.
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When I thumb through photos of her early years, I also see hints of the darkness that exists alongside the joy, a certain haunted look that we couldn’t name yet as we snapped away with our cameras.

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We strapped her onto us, rocked her, slept with her, remained with her, and waited.  I guess we’re still waiting, though she doesn’t sleep with us anymore and she no longer fits in the baby Bjorn.

It’s all still here, the same little person who came to be in 2005 — the joy and the needs, the darkness and the light, the miserable sleep, the tics and courage, the anxiety and imagination, the derangement and pizazz, the sticky feelings, the deep intuitions about the ugly hypocrisies of humanity that inevitably lead her to the edge, the generous and accepting person who meets everyone where she finds them without judgment – and still waits for the wider world to offer her the same grace.

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Last summer my brother Mark took Jesse to an enormous corporate amusement park in Northern California. They came back with this snap of her in transit on one of the roller coasters.

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It’s a perfect depiction of how I imagine Jesse experiences life, every single day – in overdrive, overwhelmed by sensory inputs, trapped in a cage by terrible tics and self-loathing, in a seat by herself pummeling through a weird and scary universe, totally out of control but still hunting for the thrill that makes it all worthwhile.

* * * * *

Occasionally someone will ask me if it’s right for me to write about Jesse’s mental health journey, because it’s her story to tell, not mine. I understand, but in my shoes I also disagree.  I mean, I get her permission – though at some level, I’m sure it feels more like I insist on her permission.  But more importantly, it’s also my story.  For fifteen years, Jesse has been part of my story, as much as I’m part of hers.

Jesse is my muse.  Thanks to her, I’ve overcome deep layers of mental health stigma, and I’ve finally sought the supports I need to live a healthier life. Therapy has been life-altering and life-affirming. Mental health and disability education and advocacy have been empowering and have expanded my mindset in unexpected ways, trickling out into every aspect of my moral and political life.  I’ve discovered words and phrases like “radical acceptance” and “ableism” and “self advocacy” and “implicit stigma” and “self compassion” and “personal boundaries” and “crazy nation.”  (Fine, the last one I made up.) I’ve learned about the meaning and lack of meaning in labels.

I’ve been through a lava field of parental self-loathing and failure, and I’ve found myself coming out the other end emotionally more competent, kinder, more capable of grace, more resilient and stable, more able to ask for help when I need it. At 53, I can honestly say (without too much cringing) that I like myself, and I think I’m a pretty decent person. Definitely a better person than I was 15 years ago.

(Still grumpy, don’t worry.)

When I speak and write about Jesse’s mental health challenges, it’s not a cry for help, and I don’t think it’s disability porn. At least, I hope it’s not.  It’s a rumination to be sure, but mostly it’s become a call of gratitude. Jesse has saved my life.

Yes of course, I feel anxiety and stress about her future. She has challenges yet to overcome, and her road will be harder than it’s likely to be for a less atypical kid. Yes, I despair sometimes and act like a terrible parent.

But I can bounce back better now. I can shake off the dust and forgive myself and try again. And again and again and again, until Jesse can exhale. I’m learning to exhale beside her. I know that I have the power to model it for her, and I have to power to learn it from her. It depends on the day, which way that arrow flies. We are mirrors.

* * * * *

I know this is banal and simple, but there’s an old U2 song, called Bad, that hits me between the eyes each time I hear it. I have to dig deep not to ugly cry.  It’s become anthemic for me. It’s about heroin addiction, but like all great songs, it’s flexible. Some of the lyrics nail the space in which I live as Jesse’s parent, that desperate longing I have for her deep soul to find its way to safety.

If I could throw this lifeless lifeline to the wind
Leave this heart of clay
See you walk, walk away
Into the night
And through the rain
Into the half-light
And through the flame

If I could through myself
Set your spirit free, I’d lead your heart away
See you break, break away
Into the light
And to the day…
If I could, you know I would,
if I could, I would
Let it go
This desperation
Dislocation
Separation, condemnation
Revelation in temptation
Isolation, desolation
Let it go
And so fade away…
I’m wide awake…
I’m not sleeping.

* * * * *

Jesse expected little for her birthday today, what with her lack of active peer friendships and all the quarantining, but we did the best we could. I got her some makeup items she’s been wanting.  Nick made a treasure hunt out of clues on little bits of paper, which sent Jesse all over the house and yard until it ended in a birthday card he made for her. They were happy together. I made her donuts. Anthony sang her “happy birthday” about 20 times, announcing successive performances like rising burps.

When we asked Jesse what she wanted to do for a special outing, she answered without hesitating: go dip herself in Lake Michigan.  So we headed out to Kohler Andrae state park, her favorite spot for dipping-in-freezing-lake-water-in-early spring.

An hour later when we pulled up to the park gate, we learned that state parks are closed on Wednesdays for now.

Jesse flexed instead of fretting, this time. We discussed alternatives and quickly settled on a county park called Lion’s Den.  We drove back to the Den and spent solid time walking and rock-hopping up a stream. Jesse waded, her feet turning bright red with the cold, her face turning bright with the pleasure of fresh air and distance from humanity’s square walls.

Eventually we marched down and faced the lake. Jesse waded straight in, steeled herself, and dunked under. The water temperature is somewhere in the low 40’s at best. Dauntless.

That’s me screeching happily behind the camera.  You can hear her brother Nick muttering hopelessly in the background, “This is not a good idea.”

Maybe Nick’s right, but Jesse was happy. He waded in next.

* * * * *

When you’re fifteen, it’s so hard to know that people care about you. You want it and you don’t want it, all at the same time. You still need your parents so badly – especially when mental health challenges make life complicated – but you need your independence just as badly. Love starts to be bound up with sexuality, and it gets so weird and icky. It’s all such a mess.

It’s just as messy from my end, with Jesse. I don’t know how much she needs me until I’ve discovered that I’ve nosed in too deep or stayed too far away, after the fact.  Sometimes she’s totally dependent on me for the most basic things. Sometimes, I could be dead and it wouldn’t matter. She always surprises me.

Today at Lion’s Den, I grabbed my phone to take a video of my sweet, messy little maiden as she strolled down the trail ahead of me.  She took off when she saw I was filming, and I realized I was witnessing a metaphor.

There she goes, my child turning into an adult.  She knows these trails like her own house, we’ve been here so many times.  I’ve taught her everything I can about trail safety, and she’s learned even more on her own.  She’s safe as she disappears around the bend. She’ll be fine until I see her again.  She’ll come back if she needs me, if she can.

My heart squeezed tight as I put away my phone.

* * * * *

Having learned to ask for help, I am now shameless.  I sent out a call to many friends a couple days ago, asking them to reach out to Jesse for her birthday. And boy did they come through. Videos, cards, songs (one even in costume), poems, posters, gifts, [socially distanced] visitations, emails, calls. It rolled in all day long.

I don’t think Jesse understands what hit her, but she was happier than I’ve seen her in a very long time.  I know she doesn’t believe she deserves anything good, and she’d probably say it’s just because I asked people to reach out to her.  But that’s palpably false.  Someday I’ll tell her plain, when she’s ready.  What happened today is called love.