Wednesday, October 25, 2017

An Unexpected Anthem

The toilet makes a noise like a french horn when you flush it. Right at the end, when the bowl is refilling, one long, deep musical note is released. 

I didn’t notice that it sounded like a french horn until our oldest son joined the band and started to play one, and now when the toilet makes its groaning call at the end of its work, I often think for a moment that it is our son practicing in the next room.  I stop to hear the next note that will be produced only to realize, sheepishly, that it was the old, broken toilet calling out for repair or blessed retirement.  We shake our heads when we hear it, both hoping the sound will go away on its own without one of us having to get elbow deep in the tank of the old thing.

Over time it becomes, like so many other things, just one note in the symphony of our particular brand of domestic bliss.  It is intertwined with the real french horn notes being played downstairs in the living room, and with the constant vowel-y vocalizations made by our son with Down syndrome, the repetitive, unconsciousness “uh uh uh” sound he makes sometimes for hours at a time.  And with the high-pitched voice of our 3 year old, a relentless addition to the mix that vacillates between calling for our attention, making various demands, and singing Beatles songs, usually nailing the melody and butchering the lyrics with complete abandon.

The rhythm section is a layered piece: the percussive hum of the dishwasher is drowned out by the dog scratching on the back door, which is in turn drowned out by the sound of the ice maker spitting ice into a cup.  Doors slam, feet pound on the stairs, and the fall decoration on the front door is banged around by the wind as if someone is knocking frantically to come in.

This song has been played so long in our home that it wouldn't even feel like home without the endless, jarring symphony.  But some days I notice it more, like today when my own dear duet partner turns 40.  Yes, the big 4-0.  And on these days of marked transition, I stop and notice the music of our life together a little more, listen in a little closer to the sounds that make up our wonderful, chaotic little world.

When someone asked that sweet husband of mine how he was planning to spend the first day of his forties, he answered “pretty much like I spent every day of my thirties.”  Up to feed children breakfast, to pack bags, to make school drop offs, then off to swing by the grocery store, to return the library books, back home to put little ones down for a nap, to tiptoe downstairs and start on dinner prep, stopping to clean up the pile of legos left out.  On and on, the constant motion of parenthood, cleaning and cooking and holding and singing, kissing scraped knees and reading illustrated storybooks.  Scrubbing the singing toilet yet again.  Mowing the grass and chasing ants around the yard, never able to eradicate their infiltration altogether.

And I suppose some men might look at that decade of sacred work and fear that it lacked importance.  There are no awards won for the long days and long nights spent raising our family.  There are no raises.  No fancy titles.  More often than not, his best work is rewarded with a blank stare or a tantrum or a slammed door.

And though Sam has never thought that way, thank goodness, I can’t help but be reminded myself just what a remarkable life he’s had and what an unforgettable impact he’s made.  Every kitchen dance party, every letter and word taught to a tiny sponge-like mind, every telling and retelling of the Lord of the Rings.  Every first smile and first step he watched for me, for us, while I was away.  Every hand-crafted meal he’s served with love, every toilet he’s scrubbed, every bug he’s hunted down and killed because someone (okay, me) was afraid of it.  Every time he’s warmed my feet at night, or helped me climb out of a hospital bed after a c-section, or listened to me talk for hours and assured me yet again that it was all going to be okay.

We love to venerate mothers, and with good cause, but there aren’t many anthems written to honor men who give their lives to the work of raising a family.  You don’t see a lot of heart tattoos with dad written across them.  You don’t hear about many men's groups where stay-at-home dads can meet over coffee on a weekday morning.  Not a lot of poems thanking dads for their tireless work and selfless devotion.

Unlike the noisy artifacts of our daily lives, the great work that Sam has been accomplishing this past decade (and change) is a quiet, unheralded labor of love.  It does not come with fanfare but with a strange and rumbling symphony of lives in motion, movement after movement of the pieces of our family and our home crying out for attention, affection, repair, or assistance.

The old toilet in the master bathroom makes a sound like a french horn, and someone downstairs calls out for more milk, and the dog jumps off the bed with a thud, and the alarm chirps, and a door that needs to be oiled creaks open down the hall.  And it’s not enough, not nearly grand enough to celebrate the man he is, but it is an anthem of sorts, the symphony he’s been conducting patiently year after year.  It’s our own never-ending song that we’ve made and we are making, with him running strong and unbreakable through everything like the staff upon which all of our music is written.  I hope, even though it’s nowhere near the tribute he deserves, that he takes pride in the growing crescendo of it all, hope his heart grows warm at the unparalleled beauty of the sound, hope that the strange loveliness of the work he’s been doing reminds him that he never needs to ask where the years have gone or what he has done with himself these four decades.

For myself, I know the sound is sweeter on days like today.  Days when we get to celebrate a life well lived, days when I get to bask in the downright luxurious privilege of growing up and (getting a start on) growing old with my love.  I hear the noise of a hectic life, and it fills me with joy and with gratitude.  Rather than longing for the days of peace and quiet, I lean into the glorious cacophony of now. I dream of growing into each other more and more so that, as each little instrument in our rowdy symphony is peeled away, as children leave and dogs die and dishwashers get replaced with newer, quieter models, and as we’re finally left with just the music we make together, we’ll have held on so tight to each other that what began as a duet comes out as unison in the end.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Gone Beige

 We are becoming more beige every day it seems.  We bought a beige house with tasteful, neutral trim, and now we’ve even replaced the red car out front with one of those silvery-beige half-assed SUV numbers.  Not quite a sedan, not quite an SUV: a boxy beige number that just blends into the pavement and looks like what everyone else on the street drives.

Open the door of that beige facade, and you’ll find the entire house has been painted with the same warm and modern beige shade with grey undertones.  What can I say, the color matches everything.  Looks very mature and cohesive.  Great for the resale value. 

 On one hand, I don’t want to think the transition to beige is telling, that it speaks of an overall descent into the tedium of middle age.  But at the same time I can’t deny it was pretty much the highlight of my month buying that new beige not-quite-station-wagon that is now parked in front of my suburban beige two-story house.   Even though it meant sitting in a car dealership for five hours to buy that car, still it felt so much more exciting than my usual lazy Saturday afternoon routine.  I mean, it was the fruition of six months of online car shopping and price comparison, the result of a carefully cultivated list of car options, safety ratings, miles per gallon considerations, and a heated competition between features available on the base models of all the cars I’d been reviewing.  Finally, a winner was chosen, and I was going in for the kill.  In the end, I chose beige because the only other option they had on hand in my price range was black, and black just didn’t seem a wise choice.  Too hot.  Shows dirt too easily. 

But certainly our thematic transition to beige is not indicative of a slow descent into boring-ness.  Or at least it doesn’t have to be, right?  Last night, looking at that beige car on our beige driveway in front of our beige house, I was filled with the urge to run inside and paint something neon.  Well, not neon.  Let’s not get carried away.  But to paint something a bright and bold color, to splash a wall or two with emerald green or sapphire blue.  Or maybe, at least, get a few more throw pillows for the couch with some vibrant embroidery; that’s so popular these days.

This morning I drove my new beige car down a congested freeway with a few thousand of my closest friends, most of whom were also driving beige cars, wound my way into a grey parking garage, parked the car in an open spot, stepped out and jumped when the beep of the door locking reverberated off the garage walls, and then joined the walking throng on the way into the office.  The sky was grey, too, as rain was on the way.  It was Tuesday, but one of those Tuesdays with a Monday vibe to it.  Too early in the morning, too early in the week.

But last night, before I inwardly rebelled at the sight of the beige descent on our house, I had a few moments when I remembered what it was like to be bright and vibrant and lit up from within.  See, about a year ago, I started to feel the impending whitewashing of this beige season of life.  I started to feel bored and tired and maybe a little bit trapped in the drifting ennui of middle life.  I started to feel like I was suffocating beneath the weight of parenting and work and bills and the pressure of every moment of every day belonging to someone other than me.   I began to think that if I could not carve out a space and a time of my own, a place where I could be fully myself on my own terms, I would shrivel up and die inside; the beige would take over and coat everything that had once been remarkable about me.  Like a caged animal, I paced and watched, and when the tension of confinement rose to panic level, I threw myself at the strictures of my life, shoulder to the bars, head tucked and braced for impact.  I made one desperate attempt, one quick thrust, with the hope that it would be enough to gain purchase, to wedge open the encroaching closeness and give me enough room that I could breathe again.

In that moment of panic, I sent out a nervous and somewhat meager call on social media, inviting anyone I knew who felt like the beige was eating them up, too, to join with me in rediscovering the pursuit of creativity.  I asked all my digital friends who had any interest in making creative endeavors a larger focus in their lives to start a group with me, to come together and fight the beige as a team.  I envisioned a subdued group of thirty- and forty-somethings who used to make things, who weren’t ready to give that part of themselves up though they didn’t know how to restart those old engines, and also I dreamed that we would grow into an eccentric troupe of makers and doers, people invested in living above the level of survival, giving themselves to art and music and poetry in every spare second they scrape together.

Two women answered my call, and from the moment we met together for the first time, I felt like I could breathe again.  It’s hard to describe how reassuring it is to meet with other people also mired in this exhausting stage of life who are willing to stand alongside you and commit to not letting the necessary drown out the beautiful.  What’s more, every time we meet, I become more and more convinced that the urge to create, to seek beauty and to engage in the act of making it, is itself so very necessary.  In an often sad and twisted world, heeding that inner call to make something beautiful, poignant, delicate, or revealing feels like the ultimate act of survival.  It’s the loveliest embodiment of our fledgling hope climbing out of the chrysalis, bursting from the corners of over scheduled and overstimulated lives, and emerging into the beige world like a burst of color that lights up everything.  Nothing is more necessary to me at this stage of life than the ability to remember there is more to my existence than beige.  I need not create a masterpiece to find a place of blessed margin; I need only to engage in the act of creation itself.  Pen to paper, brush to canvas, fingers to strings: the method matters just as little as the mastery of the skill.  To make, to create, to be involved in the endless tradition of putting something good out into the world, that is the thing.  That is the end unto itself.  To find the creative voice inside and listen to it, to shake off the apathy and fear and just begin, that is the goal.

And so I am not afraid of going beige.  Not now that I am part of this little tribe of women willing to fight the apathy right along with me.  Our group has grown from three to four; perhaps one day we will be a proper tribe of old eccentric artists making the rounds of each other’s art openings and book signings. But for now, it is enough to carve out time to meet with each other, share a drink or a meal, tell each other what we are making or doing these days, and remind each other (and ourselves) that the perfect is the enemy of the good and that the trying is the thing.  Just start, we tell each other, and you’ve already succeeded.  And we toast our progress, and it burns right through the wash of beige, and then we go forth lit up and alive.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017


I am in countdown mode now, just two days until I go under the knife and fall silent.  After years of fighting with my voice, complaining about the unpredictability and asking doctor after doctor why my voice had lost its power, why I lost it so easily, why I sounded hoarse and raspy even on a good day, I finally got an answer.  A cyst had formed on my vocal cords and, although not cancerous, the little growth is something that must be cut out by someone with a steady hand and a lot of letters after their name.

The doctor said that he couldn’t tell me how long the cyst had been there, but I feel I can almost pinpoint the year as I remember when I realized I could no longer produce a yell with any reasonable volume.  I still felt like I was raising my voice, but the sound was muted, strident.  The problem has been building over time, but there was one particular day when I realized that no matter how much force I put behind it, my voice simply wouldn’t project across a crowded room.  Suddenly, I noticed how my words got swallowed by the space and the noise, and I bristled internally at the inability to make myself heard even as I admitted to myself that I had no idea why this was happening or what could be done to fix it.

For years, I mentioned the struggles with my voice at doctor’s visits, and I got a variety of answers and possible solutions over the years, all of which sounded reasonable at the time and even seemed to improve the issue for a while.  But the problem would always come back, and at some point I suppose I just became resigned to being someone whose voice was, and possibly would always be, muted.
~    ~    ~

I didn’t realize how soon I would start feeling resigned, how early in life I would decide to accept my current situation as the hand I’d been dealt, or how easy it would be to slip into complacency.  When I contemplate my near forty-ness, I generally think (as I often hear others say) that I don’t feel any different than I felt when I was nineteen.  That quintessential, internal me feels static and fixed, familiar and recognizable.  That which I consider my true nature does not seem to be fundamentally different than it did two decades ago.

And yet, I must admit that I have begun to see how the fire of youth has burned out of me in many ways.  At nineteen, I had endless hope for my path and my future.  Everything was as yet undecided, undone, the days ahead cloudy and unknown but perceived as ripe with shimmering possibility.  Who I was to become and what my life would look like were forms not yet chiseled from the rough stone of my young existence. 

And now I feel in some unspoken way that I have landed in the role that I once could only wait for and imagine.  My spouse, my children, my career: these things have all materialized.  I sense somehow that my interesting plot points have all already transpired, and I am simply in some extended dénouement that I will live out for my remaining years.  In the day to day existence, I don’t perceive my life as having lost the sense of possibility, but many times the way I behave belies a de facto surrender to the inevitability of my days.  It’s not that I believe my upcoming decades will be devoid of interest or excitement, but more that the formative period is over and my life has now gelled into its permanent shape.

I suppose this is why we worship the culture of youth in our books and movies and music: because youth has that glow of endless possibility that we believe expires once we decide on a path and begin to follow it.  At nineteen, a person believes she can be anything; but at forty, if she is a married banker living in suburbia, we all generally accept that it’s rather unlikely she will ever become a traveling poet writing her way across Europe.  Likewise, if we are short-tempered, we don’t expect to become suddenly patient; if we are slap-dash and sloppy, we don’t expect to become meticulous; if we are bookish, we don’t expect to emerge one morning as a flitting social butterfly.

Maybe we don’t stop making New Year’s Resolutions or trying to fit into last year’s pants, but in how many ways to do we quietly give up?  In how many small and seemingly insignificant ways do we decide to stay the path we’ve chosen instead of asking ourselves, or going after, the path we always wished we’d taken instead?  How many ways, through clinging to routine or the safety of inaction, do we let ourselves get stuck or become muted or decide we are less than we once thought we might become?  In big ways, but also in small, incremental ways that add up so slowly that we feel as if we wake up one day having decided to accept things we never consciously meant to accept.

~    ~    ~

I have always had a somewhat irrational fear of surgery (I say somewhat because they wouldn’t make you sign all those scary forms if there wasn’t at least some remote reason to fear going under the knife), but as I approach this procedure, I am wary in a new way.  The issue is fraught, I realize as the date approaches, with the weight of so much unexpected meaning.

You see, to get my voice back, I have to fall silent.  Once the doctor removes the growth from my vocal folds, in order to let the wound heal, I have to refrain from making any noise for one week, then I will be cleared to speak for just a few minutes a day for the following weeks.  Finally, I’ll be allowed to return to a mostly normal vocal schedule, but with a heavy cautionary warning not to overdo it for several months: don’t be too loud, don’t talk too long, don’t push your voice, don’t try and talk over a crowd.

So I watch the days tick down now, trying to plan how I will be a mother, an employee, a wife without the ability to communicate verbally.  And as that big X moves closer on the calendar, I cannot help but overthink the whole thing.  I mean, I can’t be the only who sees the symbolic existential dilemma inherent in being silenced, or who sees the isn’t-it-ironic twist of being silenced in order to get my voice back.

The silence looms ahead like a monster that will swallow my autonomy, my identity.  It lurks in my thoughts, approaching slowly and steadily, making me grateful for every word I can speak now, every peal of laughter I don’t have to try choke down, and every lullaby I can sing for my children.  I see my verbal communication suddenly as the gift it is, the intensely valuable tool I have been blessed with and also as the embodiment of my voice-writ-large.  I see the value of my voice as it relates to my capital-V Voice that is, in essence, my unique contribution to this world.

And this newfound appreciation makes wonder how I let myself grow so complacent that I simply became resigned to the loss of my voice.  How could that have become acceptable, something that I just explained with a shrug when someone asked why I was so hoarse all the time?  Why did it seem more natural to constantly apologize for being hard to hear than to launch a mission to find and remedy the problem in the first place?  Did I value my own voice so little that I was unwilling to fight for the chance to nurture it, to protect and amplify it? 

In fact, it wasn’t until the knowledge that I would have to become completely silent during the recovery that I realized how unsettling it has been for me to feel like I have been slowly losing my voice for years now.  It’s not a new story, I know, just another twist on absence making the heart grow fonder. But for me, the recognition of my own complacence was a barbed one, painful and entrenched, snagging other stinging realizations as it was raised into the light.  It has made clear for me that there are too many things that I have stopped fighting for, too many broken things I have stopped believing can be fixed. 

I think about it this way: there are some floorboards in my little existence that have been creaking for some time now, and instead of getting out the tools and settling in to fix them, I have simply learned to walk a jagged and circuitous route around the damaged areas.  Or I have turned their creaking into a song in my head and decided to think of that melody as the imperfect theme song of my days.  But what I have stopped doing is believing that the creaking can be remedied.  I have decided that my life is full enough of love and joy, that I have a lovely family and a nice life all-in-all, but anything more is out of my reach. 

Now that I have an answer about my tumultuous voice, and a plan of action to fix this one threadbare part, to soothe this one creaky floorboard, I am looking at this old house with a new eye.  What else have I been overlooking?  What other areas of my life have become muted? 

I wasn’t sure if I would ever be back writing here, but now I wonder if this space has gone the way of this same kind of gradual resignation.  I liked having a space to work out my ideas in writing, but somewhere along the way I let myself overthink the purpose of having a personal blog.  I got caught up in thoughts of performance, monetization, appeal and forgot the simple release of cranking out words and sending them out into the wild unknown.  There is fear there, and a certain rush, as your humble little creation is sent out into the world, and you feel as if a piece of yourself has been released and now sits waiting to be seen in all its earnest imperfection.

The oncoming sentence of silence has reminded me of my Voice, of the ways I once used it that have since grown muted, and of the value I almost forgot could be found in using it.  And it’s a value that is found in the doing, in the speaking and sharing and writing and singing, not in what accolades might come from the doing.  The magic is in those little everyday acts of rebellion where you refuse to let the monotony of life mute your existence, where you push against the apathy and the entropy to move upward, always steadily and intentionally towards something higher.  So here I take one step towards that goal, release one small part of me into the wild unknown, a humble and imperfect offering that feels in its own way like an act of reclamation.  I’m getting louder already.