There are no words

IMG_5191The members meet weekly in a church hall. They practice giving speeches and speaking extemporaneously because at some point they realized this was a skill they lacked or a streak of potential that had gone unfulfilled for too long.

I imagine they go because they are tired of the palpitations, the queasy current of nervous electricity that shoots up the back of their legs when having to take the podium, or there hangs over them like a cartoon storm cloud the deeper fear of actually not having anything worth saying, their thoughts unformed or shapeshifting. They are failing to convey their points or they wish to exorcise their embolalia. Yes, of course, I am projecting.

I am sitting in a small row of chairs with a folder in my hands, an agenda written out to the minute, with all the members given formal titles for the roles they will assume, like the Introducer of the Welcoming Speaker. It is like a play about a play about a meeting and the ritual of the symbolism of the meeting. It is what makes city council meetings on television fascinating in their excruciating verbal obfuscation, the saying of that which is meant to convey politeness and procedural correctness when what you are feeling is rage or fear.

They are so welcoming. It’s even my title in the ritual symbolism of their meeting etiquette, where I am Welcomed Guest Wertis. I want to take that leap into the mosh pit of their hospitality, but at the same time something is holding me back, the fear perhaps that I would be under obligation to practice speeches I didn’t want to give or find myself stating, in week after week of Table Topics that, “I have no words.”

Good ideas are not at my beck and call in that way. Maybe it would be good training for the words, to roust them out and make them march in straight lines, not meander aimlessly, but this could be achieved by journaling exercises rather than by devoting the time to come to meetings and having this precise verbal choreography with people.

In spite of the time limitations, the Key Speaker runs over. The warning card is flashed more and more emphatically by the Keeper of Time in the front row.

Some of the Toastmasters have been in this together for a decade. I find this both touching and disconcerting. I had thought it was more like a course you took, where you solved your public speaking issues and moved on, but it is more a club where they take comfort in the rituals, a sort of fan group for an ideal state of a very certain kind of polite eloquence. They draw closer together through succinct personal revelations but maintaining a correct distance. Feedback is given not by name but by role. I thought the Master of Table Topics did a commendable job keeping time.  There are leadership tracks you can join, a progression of speaking accomplishments to achieve, wider audiences to be addressed regionally, internationally. Is this my show? Are these my people?

What if, during the meeting, an emergency happened and we were forced to stay in the church hall until the all-clear sounded, how long would it take for the formality to erode? Would the topic be correctly adjourned in lieu of determining the severity of the situation? What if someone is an unreformed circuitous talker? Would the group turn on him or her? I imagine pairs being elected to venture into the church basement in search of nuclear era snacks. If the situation were worse than we had at first imagined, how long would it be until the longest-serving members of the club revealed their true feelings about each other? Perhaps one person would throw down her knitting and cry out, “I’m tired of being so darned nice all of the time!” and made a run for it into a thick cloud of waiting poison.

The folder sits on my desk at work all summer, an unanswered invitation, offering the promise to be a different person, one who speaks with a firm but measured conviction on a variety of topics, who can turn a phrase like an unexpected flash of silver in the otherwise muddy creek of human communication where the cliches and the long winded preambles sway like aquatic weeds, the point falling like a lost lure into the silt. Weeks pass and I know that I should say something, thank you for having me to the meeting, anything, but the words just won’t come.

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Le_Petit_Prince_St_ExuperyI started this post in headphones one morning because the older daughter was having a bout of perseverative vocalization, and it gets into your head, all the phrases she has collected, the classmates’ Dr. Who voices from eight years ago, bird sounds, the sounds from wherever, it’s there like all of the conversations of Earth that travel through  space.

Also, my desk is in the hall and her father’s baseball podcasts can be hard to tune out. I normally use headphones if I am doing work with sound files that would disturb others, but people are not creating noise to communicate with me right now, they are in their own worlds, and I am in mine.

The cat jumps into my lap, reeking of Justin Bieber perfume, a Christmas gift the year that the older daughter liked the pop star. She realized at some point that he would never come here, that their love was only her love, lopsided, unrequited and doomed, yet she has rediscovered the perfume and emerged from her room in clouds of it. It’s what girls like to do, she informs me. How has the cat come to smell so strongly of the cheap, feminine scent of Someday? Just hugs? Are you sure?

I have taken notes about my daughter for years, notes to record the milestones of infancy, notes for teachers and therapists, family journal, notes for the book about one mother’s fierce journey, but then she has never asked me to tell her story and also it’s her story. Which is a question for anyone who sets out to write about anyone, even their own experiences in the context of living in the world with people, in the house with people: where does their story end and yours begin?

When the internet was young and we were just venturing out into the world of our daughter’s diagnosis we would stumble upon what my husband termed “angry autism dad” websites. These were before blogs as we know them today. They were an html-y collection of posts with links to government reports about concerns over thimerasol or links to university studies that hinted at possible causes that might, someday, lead to possible cures. Sometimes they were personal and recounted the small slights and injustices one encountered slogging through days filled with perplexing behavior from our children or insensitivity from adults from whom one would have expected more compassion. Fix this now, they demanded. Or, fund this study, stop the conspiracy. We were hoovering up information then. These men were the heroes of our strange planet. Vitamins, weighted vest, hair test, casein intolerance, leaky gut, PECS, environmental hazards, legal rights, insurance will cover six sessions in the course of a lifetime disability, read this, try that, ask about, a wonderful woman. Hope, hope, hope. Trust, trust, trust. Fight, fight, fight.

Diagnosis is, at first sight, a lonely planet. Some people and experiences are shooting away from you at the speed of light, but as some people pass from your life, others step in. I joined a listserv with more voices, more stories, less anger than the lone dad furiously accumulating research. Time passed.

Fast forward to the here and now. Our nieces are visiting for the week. We have put together a week of Cousin Camp activities. Last night we attended a kids yoga class at the place where the older daughter takes dance. There are many things you don’t envision for yourself as a parent, being a dance mom was one of them. The other girls at yoga are all friends from dance. Together, we represent a range of abilities, talents, chromosome counts, social skills, challenges and flexibility. I am the only adult participant, but this is a place of acceptance and my neck has been really stiff.

After doing tree pose, the instructor calls us all over. Picture a forest, she says. The trees are different sizes. They don’t stand perfectly still, they sway, some trees lean against other trees. She has us stand in a circle, one leg bent against the straight leg, arms outstretched to touch the fingertips of the people next to us. Being connected, she explains, gives each of us the strength we need to balance. And it works. We hold the pose together, in a circle, which gets us off our individual mats and, thinking or not thinking about the symbolism,  experiencing it anyway.

I didn’t ask the girls later what they made of this, if they even thought about it at all. Did they assume they were a source of strength to the others or did it surprise them that it was easier to balance in the group? An experience like that is a gift they will unwrap someday, in their own time. If I were to follow the conventions of the fierce mother narrative, I might end this post with a quote of universal wisdom from Le Petit Prince, or conjure up a vision of the older daughter standing tall in the forest of life, but I think it is enough to leave you in a yoga studio contemplating your own pose.

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Who are these people?

LR Grove StBefore I was born and before my parents had moved into the building where I grew up, they lived in a few other apartments in our neighborhood. They described these apartments and their idiosyncrasies with fondness, but also to shock a person with what people might put up with in order to “make it” in New York City: an oven door that when opened blocked the front door, a plywood partition that was all that separated them from their neighbors in the landlord’s eagerness to increase the number of units on the floor. The neighbors on the other side were a lesbian couple who argued and had affairs, providing more detail into the intimate lives of others than my mother had been party to in her North Carolina sorority house. I picture the apartments as being like the minimal set of The Fantasticks, which I was taken to one birthday, in a nearby lower-ground space, with air shaft windows which would have been covered over so you could not hear the sounds upstairs of dishes being washed in the sink, which was the way we did things back then.

My father liked to tell the story of how my mother had installed kitchen shelving and on the shelves placed jars of dried beans and lentils. He was impressed—how had she mounted the brackets?—and then alarmed by the answer: strong, double-faced tape.

They had a dog and cat with ESP, who would rush to the door when one of my parents reached the end of the block. In looking through the photos, I recognize the wicker lantern, but what happened to their fabulous white leather chair? A few photos and a lifetime of hearing the same handful of anecdotes do not provide much clarity into the murky past of your parents’ lives before you. The modern apartment in my father’s photos looks nothing like the one where I grew up, where the style of furniture was dark and Victorian and their possessions multiplied and grew to fill the space and a child took over their lives and turned them from young modern people into parents.

Am I the only mom who worries about burdening her children after death with journals and notebooks detailing my past? They do and don’t want to know these things and much of it will be of little interest because it will not succinctly answer the questions about the person I was who influenced who they became. It will not spell out that which they had only felt in their bones. At what point do I give these things a last look through and pitch them to protect myself from embarrassment and them from the banality and trivia of my own youth? What explanations of yourself do you owe your children? They may surprise you now and then, but at their core, you know who they are. Possibly none.

Our parents are always a mystery, their lives before you a kind of incomplete mythology. Even now, when my mother and I cover familiar ground in her past, there are missing details, entire storylines to be guessed at. On Mother’s (and Father’s) Day it is now a tradition to post a photo of the parent whose day it is on social media. An international day of paging through family scrapbooks and thinking back. The family resemblances of the two- and three- generation photos are striking. The day has been a stream of time travel, Kodachromes and black and whites, of mothers and babies, of our mothers as children or as young women before motherhood, in which, by our absence, we bestow upon them the gift of being themselves in their own right, yet still define and claim them in context: That woman, whoever she may be, is my mother. Even if they sat you down and said, I want to explain it all to you, you would still be looking for dissonance, your own truth. We were happy. There was always something. It’s my story.

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Life swap

IMG_4878First of all, know that these sounds are normal: birds very close to the house, the way our cat belts out torch songs of boredom in the middle of the night.

The car horns and sanitation workers you have in New York will be replaced by a throbbing chorus of cicadas. You may call a friend and hold the phone in the air. Just try to imagine, you will say, what I am going through.

When you tell your parents of your plan to take up residence in Alabama for three weeks, as our dogsitter, they fear for your safety in this place where anyone and everyone could be carrying a gun. Manhattan, the devil you know, has its dangers to be sure, but out there, in wild America, you can’t be sure of anything, only that you are an outsider.

Your mother reminds you that you are Jewish, that you might have car trouble, and that this is a place with storms and snakes. Or maybe they don’t know about the snakes. My daughter mentioned the other day that she sees them pop out of holes in the ground on her way to school. I don’t think I will tell you about the snakes.

My husband, who understands what people from New York City can be like, because he is married to one, emphasizes that people in the South are friendly. It is customary to nod or wave as you drive down our street or even speak to people in the supermarket. You ask me about this later and I confirm that it is true. You don’t need an exit strategy.

Even as I tell you that we live on a suburban street, I know that you are picturing a swamp, the only means of escape a rusted out truck with manual ignition. As you pull repeatedly on the clutch the cicadas drown out all other sounds.

As I write the instructions for how to look after the dog and where to find things, you ask questions I hadn’t anticipated. I am trying to tell you how to navigate my life while you are busy inventing your own.

In one email you ask if I own a mandolin and where to go to an open mic night to sing. I know where to find a cigar box banjo, but I am not even sure these are real questions. Since when are you a musician?

You clarify that the mandolin is for slicing cucumbers from the farmers market and that you have a fantasy where you will unleash your inner cabaret persona. You imagine a nearly empty nightclub—I am picturing a raucous table of missile defense engineers drinking Monkeynaut, a local brew, cheering you on. This is not a place where we celebrate loneliness.

You ask what to bring. How can I tell you? A bathing suit. A sweater for the supermarket. But maybe also a cape and a tricornered hat.

What time does the dog go to bed? You ask. Does he like to chase balls? The questions keep coming: ziplining, manicures, health food. I am researching a new life rather than instructing in my own. You are free from the burden of being me. All I ask in return is that you let me know how it goes.

This piece was written last spring in answer to a writing prompt of Operating Instructions. My friend did come here and became good enough friends with some of our friends that she returned. She could have been the only person in all of NYC to visit for New Year’s. She found the experience broadening in some ways and the experience of having to drive everywhere oppressive, which I think very few Americans get. People think cars are freedom, but if you have grown up being able to walk out the door and get anywhere on foot or public transportation a car is a big, needy beast with its own agenda. You have to negotiate with it to get anywhere. You have to pay attention to it and to “the road” first thing in the morning. She has drafted her own version of the experience, which I will share here as a companion piece.

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The Mandarin Counting Song or How to Be a Better Parent

2014-04-06 10.02.42Write it down

“You can go out with a guy without having to break into a zoo,” Loquatia tells Capricia at dinner the other night.

Was Capricia proposing some kind of monkey or large cat abduction to secure the heart of a classmate? Family mealtimes are full of these kinds of pronouncements, which at the time make perfect sense only you are laughing so hard you forget what they said, or you write it down and forget what they meant. Luckily Loquatia thought to scribble this one down the other night:

Me: “You can’t wear a turban to dinner.”
C: “But it’s to amp up my style for the Crusades.”

Don’t define them.

Capricia is being told off for something and her retort is “You never should have brought us here!”

“Where?” We are in the small family town that drew us to Alabama in the first place. We are lying on the lawn, still prickly and beige in early spring. We have arrived in the late afternoon to weather that is one planting zone warmer than home, the air almost tropical. We have laid ourselves out on the dead grass to enjoy the only sun we are likely to have over the entire weekend.

“America!” she responds, “Why did we come here?”

“You’re American,” my husband replies.

In a rare moment of simultaneity the girls both exclaim, “I’m not!”

“London is too expensive,” my husband counters.

“Well,” she says, “What about Glasgow?”

“Why,” we ask cautiously, “Glasgow?”

Be a good listener

“They have a good tube system.” And when she says stuff like this, unlike when she defines something as “a chimpanzee from outer space that you see only in your dreams,” she has credibility. If Capricia tells you that she has seen all of the videos of the London Underground, then you can bet she started a search for UK trains and found Glasgow and she knows about their transport.

After going over reasons why we won’t be moving anytime soon and reminding her of all the lovely people she has met and experiences she has had in America, it is Loquatia’s turn to talk.

She started writing down her grievances as letters to President Obama in the third grade, after writing once as part of a class project. He became a sympathetic listener when she did not like to go to Kumon math, and then when we made her move, and then, there were other things, but she can’t remember/won’t say/never mailed them.

Share an interest

Loquatia asks if I would like to write a post together on her style and beauty blog, but she rescinds the offer when she finds me outside photographing the magic soil mix I have bought. “It’s about beauty,” she says in italics.

“But you said it was about getting ready for spring.”

So I am on my own with my top soil and my blood meal. I scatter the ashes into the soil and feed our scraggly azaleas. What else is part of spring ? Gathering tax documents. Doing online medical forms for camp.

So I ask her to finish this post for me with what advice she would give to parents of teenagers to help us amp up our parenting style.

Be involved, but not too involved, at our athletic events.

Don’t be the mom with the whistle at the swim meet. Don’t smother us with offers of cover-ups and snacks, but also don’t be the parent who never comes to anything.

Don’t tell us what to wear.

Let us make bad choices in fashion so in a few years we can look back at photographs and see our mistakes for ourselves. Just don’t let us wear a full-length black velvet dress with brown stripes.

Don’t be afraid of us.

If we’re acting obnoxious, don’t let us get away with it because then we will act that way with our friends and none of us want to do your dirty work.

Don’t give us too much independence.

It’s nice being young and not having to worry about anything. We like to sit up front in the car and we look forward to getting our permits, but we miss the backseat and holding our parents’ hands when walking and not having to think.

Let us rant.

Sometimes we need to complain about our friends because if we say these things to our friends we will sound judgmental and mean. Sometimes we want advice, but sometimes we just need to sound off.

Be funny.

You’re funny. But don’t try to be funny around our friends unless they have similar parents because then it’s just sad.

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Day 28: I’m so not French

2014-03-02 11.35.39Ads like this are my weakness. I tell myself I could pull it off, this two-piece print ensemble, even though I know I wouldn’t be able to shake the feeling that everyone will think I am wearing pajamas, especially if I don’t wear it with heels, which I probably wouldn’t.

Someone in my family would ask, “Are those pajamas?” or, “Are you really going to wear that?” and so maybe I could get the top, just to prove that they can’t boss me around, but of course the idea with an outfit like this is the total effect, pajama-like as it may be.

This is why doing the capsule wardrobe project last month was, for me, arbiter of bad calls in my own closet, a relief. I moved most of the clothes to the other side of the closet and enjoyed the luxury of space.

Dressing was faster and easier. I rediscovered a 20-year-old jacket and a skirt with deep, not just decorative, pockets. I acknowledged my capacity for questionable judgement and I restrained my urge to buy printed things.

I had forgotten about this, but I spent my last two years of college in a capsule wardrobe of about seven items. Very unisex. Things wore out. Hems frayed, seams came undone, coins were lost in the jacket lining until the pockets wore out entirely. All the while, other clothes languished, unloved, worn a few times while the same favorite items were in steady rotation.

There are many ways in which the Americans are not like the French. First of all, they don’t dress with irony, as with the two-piece ensemble above. But I think a big part of it has something to do with how they view clothes in an entirely more three-dimensional way, that it is a form of two-way communication rather than self-expression, my/our perusal of print media and liking of a certain color or trend or idea. I will stand in front of a mirror and contemplate something, and have thoughts about it, as I did in the communal changing room of an Agnès B. in Paris last summer. I asked the woman I was with what she thought—she gave the ensemble a once-over and commanded, “Marchez un peu!” No, she shook her head. The skirt is stiff.

Maybe I’ve been hanging out in the wrong communal changing rooms, but an American would tell you to turn around, not to walk. We think about our self-presentation in a more static sense. It was a revelation. It explains the way French clothes can have annoying little drawstrings and ribbons hanging off of them. These are not for you, the wearer, but for others. You are not just dressing to suit yourself.

2014-02-02 08.04.58So, I didn’t buy the long black skirt or the jacket at Agnès B. I would love to have a grey or a black trouser suit that I could dress up or down, but it eludes me. It is in my fantasy capsule wardrobe. Yet I didn’t find the month of 33 items a hardship. Thirty-three items means you know your mind and you are in control of your circumstances. Four pairs of shoes out of maybe 30 or 40, if all footwear actually counts, can see a person through a month.

Sometimes I buy something like a red skirt because I wonder what it would be like to wear it. I imagine it will create possibilities. I love my red skirt but it is a troublemaker in a closet of more neutral things. You look at your clothes and it’s shouting, Me? Are you gonna wear me today?

Why would I wanna wear you? I should wear you with a neon pink blouse.

I’m thinking of getting together another capsule for April. I liked having the small selection of things that went together. But they don’t have to go together like pajamas.

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Wholier than thou

2014-03-19 17.40.45After opting out of the culture it has come to us anyway. We’re getting a Whole Foods. I am both overjoyed and rueful.

The younger daughter will be thrilled. She loves the health and beauty section. The older daughter enjoys the prepared foods and we might be able to find her flageolet beans at $20 an ounce.

This is a kid who in an interview for camp, where she is being assured there will be lots of food for picky eaters, asks, “Do you have vegetables?” (And this being America, the answer is yes, in the form of raw broccoli florets in the salad bar, like at school. Americans, as a people, see vegetables as something that are best liquified and disguised as fruit juice rather than something anyone would go out of their way to eat.) This is a kid who happily eats quinoa. We are very much part of the target market for Whole Foods.

2014-03-22 08.04.36What I am told is that when a big-time store like Whole Foods comes to a city like ours, they don’t ask what sites are available, they simply figure out where they want to be and the city makes the site available. They have chosen a location that means the end of a two-story office building I photographed about a year ago. A building with a name that is painted on the glass in gold, outlined in black. A building occupied by beauty parlors, but which suggests smokeDSCF5558-filled  accounting offices, with heavy, teal-colored adding machines.

It is exactly the kind of building I am always looking for, part of the city that time forgot dreamscape, in a city that is waking up and throwing the covers to the floor. Meanwhile, the Bad Wal-Mart will abandon its site for a building that is going up as we speak, the Enormous Wal-Mart.

Last weekend, I went out to Earth Fare, because we needed yellow lentils to make a Nigel Slater recipe. You can use red lentils, which are not quite as hard to find, but the yellow ones provide the nutty earthiness, which can accordingly be found at Earth Fare, which compared to the supermarkets near us might as well be Portland. It is much like Whole Foods, but too long of a drive to do often. The coming Whole Foods will be very centrally located. I can refrain from Earth Fare, but the Whole Foods will be hard to avoid.

I buy rainbow carrots, a piece of French cheese and the most right-on milk I can find.

My husband asks me to pick up charcoal and has a really negative reaction to what I end up getting, which is some kind of green briquette that is made out of coconut shells. It never occurred to me that these might impart a coconut flavor but I end up googling it (they don’t). But he is still affronted by them.

Fine, I say, I’ll take them back.

No, he says, that is a waste of time to drive all the way out there, for what, $14?

$7, I say.

Well $14 was about the most ridiculous amount I could think of, expletive deleted, revisits concept of charcoal made out of coconut shells.

It’s no trouble, I say. I’ll have to go back to for the deposit on the milk bottle.


I revisit the doomed building. There are a few hair places that still look operational. I stalk around it, peering into windows. To my surprise, the building door is ajar. I go in. There is a man cleaning out his office and a silent, angry woman with him, who won’t speak to me, saying she is just a client. His office is two small rooms and just heaps of papers. He seems unsurprised by my presence. He has only been there a couple of years. There are two imitation paintings on the wall, flowers, a harbor, and a half-full two-liter bottle of off-brand soda. It’s an accountancy office but no teal adding machine, just hideous grey fluorescence and paper.

2014-03-22 08.14.16In the corridor window of another… business?, are some hand-lettered signs. This is one of them. Have these been written in light of the eviction or do they just reflect the irony that catches up with all of us at some point?

Farewell, building, with your punning hair salons, your sadness, your philosophers.

Whole Foods, our people, have found us. Aren’t you relieved to be rescued? We have six times as many legumes as the supermarket and we bring you locally sourced biltong. Have we arrived just in time? Or is it too late?

Tread softly, Whole Foods. Just leave out a basket of rainbow carrots, a sourdough baguette, ethical shampoo, a selection of artisanal cheeses, some lavender-infused chocolate and wait for me to come creeping back in.

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