September 5, 20(04)18

seashore
Photo by Johannes Rapprich on Pexels.com

Today marks fourteen years since my father died and I didn’t remember until my siblings posted it on Facebook. I never remember the date, but I do remember what I was wearing, where I was standing, and what I was doing in the beforetime —when I thought he was alive, though I mostly considered him dead to me. The moment I learned that he was dead to everyone I remember thinking I am holding a phone and wearing shorts and t-shirt and these things have touched me both when my dad was living and also when he wasn’t. 

Yesterday a very short flash fiction piece I was writing was published. I’ve written lots of flash and until this piece had not published any of it. (#rejections) The story grew from a memory I have of the place we went on vacation when I was kid. My grandparents owned a house in a tiny town on a huge lake that was rumored to hide a monster. My dad taught me to skip rocks on that lake, and my memories of him there are mostly happy.

I write about my dad a lot, mostly as a distant, hazy character, usually as part of some metaphor. Although he doesn’t appear in this story in a concrete way, although the story itself is dark, it brings me to a place where I remember him with love.

 

Check in, check out, check up

It’s been a year since I’ve written in this space. I had good intentions (like we all do) of writing more often, of making something out of The Waterfall Project. I had one more post to go last year, one more adventure to write about.

But I didn’t write it.

I wanted to talk about water and baptism and Julia Kristeva’s essay “Stabat Mater.” I have notes. I have drafts. It didn’t go anywhere.

But it is still scratching at me. Ideas about giving birth, abandoning my Catholic upbringing, feminism, and the way art and nature and motherhood connect and disconnect. I want to explore the connections between art and the eternal, the similarities in creating art and creating humans. I want to unpack the lyricism of Kristeva’s essay- why it made me cry, makes me cry. And how much the physical space between her analysis of the Cult of the Virgin Mary and her own experiences of birth and motherhood feel like a cavern and also like a comfort. A visual break of the two halves of a mother/artist.

What is it about the water that makes me want to write about birth? What is it about seeking these waterfalls that makes me think about language?

Why does this epistolary project pull at me so strongly?

I am putting words back in this space for the same reasons I started. For motivation. For archive. For exploration. I hope these posts, the ones that get finished, will someday be a place for S to understand…what? Love.

*****

Dear S,

Today you started fifth grade and so yesterday we said goodbye to summer by doing all of our favorite summer things in a row. A hike with the dog, a swim in the pool, a sunset stroll on the beach. (There it is again. Water.)

It was lovely. A perfect day of us.

And then I broke. You didn’t see it, I don’t think. But my ribcage cracked wide open on a sandbar in the middle of Long Island Sound.

We walked far out together, you chatting about Warrior Cats and me listening. You carried the water bottle and your flip flops. I held the towel, my keys, my phone. And then you dropped what was in your hands and stopped talking about the books and asked me if I would watch your stuff because you wanted “to venture out to that other island” by yourself.

Fifth grade marks the end of elementary school. You used the word “venture.” The sunset poked through the thick clouds in a way that made part of the sand look pink, even though most of the sky was grey. You are growing up and sometimes the world is beautiful and it is all too much.

Water. Birth. Change.

S beach island

The Waterfall Project: Roaring Brook Falls

:

“The world is emblematic. Parts of speech are metaphors, because the whole of nature is a metaphor of the human mind.”

“I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part of God.”

― Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature

Dear S,

You chose this trail with confidence on a day I felt uneasy.

Roaring Brook Falls was on a list we found online while waiting to see the chiropractor. This hike was just the two of us, on the Thursday that was actually your first day of summer vacation. The trail head is in a residential neighborhood, and the hike appeared to be short, based on the very vintage looking map a few feet from the spot where we parked our car.IMG_2274

I felt weird that morning because I had had one of those incredibly vivid dreams that happen right before you wake up. The dream was about your dad, and in it he needed help, and in it, you were grown and he was a child. I wrote the details down in a note on my phone; they seem incoherent right now, and the specifics will stay locked away until I can think them through.

We ate a small lunch in the car before we started our hike. You finished quickly and ran out to read the sign and decipher the map, while I ate celery sticks and Baby Bell cheese. (This is Day Four of my sugar free/ gluten free cleanse. I am a bit grumpy and I miss bread, ice cream, and doughnuts.)

We walked over a concrete bridge that cut across a pond (a reservoir, maybe?) and took pictures of the calm water. We looped around an abandoned tennis court- the vines creeping through the net and the weeds sprouting up from the cracks in the pavement seem like a too-perfect metaphor for leaving the residential and entering the woods.

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~~~
Rebecca Solnit has an incredible collection of essays called As Eve Said to the Serpent: On Landscape, Gender, and Art and I read a bunch of them at the beginning of the summer. The first essay in the collection, “The Bomb: Lise Meitner’s Walking Shoes,” opens with the line, “A sentence, or a story, is a kind of path,” and that feels like an epigraph for this waterfall project.* Solnit goes on to write about Thoreau’s famous talk-then-essay “Walking,” which describes Nature as a holy place, and walking as a way of “being somewhere, but not necessarily getting anywhere,” because walking is great for thinking. She points out that there is shift, though, in Thoreau’s words. In his praise of wilderness and celebration of the West, he is, contrarily, also applauding man’s technological progress, which, of course, is synonymous with destruction. “I must walk toward Oregon, and not toward Europe. And that way the nation is moving, and I may say that mankind progresses from east to west.” And here we are, you and I, walking through the forests of New England, not praising advances, but, in some ways, escaping the modern. Except that we aren’t. You play games on a handheld Nintendo while I drive our car to these trails. We have cameras and an iPhone in our pockets. And I am writing here, on a blog, from my laptop.

I feel a little like I am searching for Emerson’s transcendental moment, that old transparent eyeball that absorbs rather than reflects. I want to hike these trails and be fully with you, in the woods, exploring. And yet, as we’re walking I wonder- is it possible to absorb without reflection? It seems to me that Emerson must have reflected on all that he took in from nature in order to write his book. Perhaps then, like Thoreau, this waterfall project, or rather the writing about this waterfall project, is a looking back while moving forward. So far, we have been climbing up to look down.

~~~
Our red dot trail took a sharp right turn and the hill was right there, daunting, maybe taunting. We stopped a lot. I worried for a moment that we didn’t have enough water. There were more than a few times that we asked each other whether we should go back or keep climbing. I was grateful I stuffed extra cheese in my front pocket and jammed the bug spray in my back pocket.IMG_2285
There was a rest area marked on the map. A spot near a tree where the grass has been flattened and where you can hear more than see the falls. We rested there for a bit and left our walking sticks leaned against a big rock. It almost looks like it could be the end of the trail, but I knew that it wasn’t and we went on. And then we found it. It was dark and quiet, the falls tumbled cold and soft onto some flat rocks. We took pictures. You seemed anxious. You said you were ready to go home.IMG_2296

~~~
There are spots peppering the trail that whisper of youth. A massive stone fireplace near the base of the trail filled with charred logs, larger stumps in a half-circle in front, a few crushed cans of light beer on the ground. A narrow path that drops dramatically down to the water, where we heard the echoes of people laughing and splashing. And at the top of the path, where the falls begin to spill, a burnt-out circle, more ashes, a pair of underwear stuffed beneath a rock, a bottle cap.

When I was twenty-one I went cross-country with your dad. We had two-months worth of supplies crammed into the backseat of a Pontiac Sunfire, an atlas, and National Geographic’s Guide to National Parks. Your dad rode shotgun and I drove. We hiked The Smoky Mountains in Tennessee, Capital Reef, Bryce Canyon, and Zion in Utah, The Grand Canyon in Arizona, and the Redwoods in California. We were very young, perhaps reckless, and searching. There are pictures in a box in the attic and someday I will show them to you.

~~~
The hike back down was harder than the hike up. I taught you to walk sideways, so your feet and the trail are perpendicular. You held onto my elbow for stability, white knuckled, and I guided you as best I could down the dry dust and skidding pebbles. It was both exhilarating and scary, I think.

Once we skidded back down to the tree line and righted our feet, you relaxed. The trees were dropping seeds so furiously that it sounded like it was raining. The noise was distracting, or maybe it was attracting, because at that moment we were solely and acutely aware of nature. That’s when I noticed that our trail ran parallel to an overgrown gulch. A scar on the land created, maybe, by a glacier or running water that no longer flows. It was a deep cavern filled with tall grass and tangled weeds- evidence that something massive and perhaps destructive, had shaped the land.

When we got home we ate strawberries in the hammock. I asked you what you thought about our hike, worried that the tricky terrain might have deterred you from wanting to try any more trails. You swung your arm over the side, absent-mindedly plucking at the bits of grass that grow under there, and said, “It was kinda tough, but the reward was beautiful.”

 

*Solnit, Rebecca. “The Bomb: Lise Meitner’s Walking Shoes.” As Eve Said to the Serpent: On Landscape, Gender, and Art. Athens, GA: U of Georgia, 2003. Print.

The Waterfall Project: Southford Falls

 Southford Falls Pond

Dear S,

I assumed that somehow the Board of Ed’s website updated its calendar automatically whenever there was a snow day. When I checked it sometime in March, June 8th was marked with a star, so I told your stepdad that June 8th was your last day of school. Then he took two vacation days, June 8th and June 9th, with the idea that we would celebrate your completion of third grade and enjoy the first day of summer vacation together.

There’s a special reason he took those days, a reason that stretches beyond the simple fun of vacation days. Two years ago, after you’d completed first grade, you woke up in the morning, in our bed, because that’s where you slept, and sat up, confused as you watched M button up his shirt. I’m sure the sheets had left lines on your face, and I would bet that your hair stood on end. I know that your eyes brimmed with tears when you asked him, in your soft, little boy voice, “Why are you leaving? Today is the first day of summer vacation.”

The same thing happened the next year.

Your disappointment each time was palpable. It is hard to understand that the world does not follow the same calendar as elementary school. This was harder to understand because, at the time, I was in grad school and also on summer vacation. Of course the concept of him leaving every sunny day of the three-month stretch of summer was completely nonsensical to you.

And so, this year, he took those days off to surprise you. But this year I screwed up the dates. Your last day of school was actually June 14th.

We kept you home on that Friday anyway. And we kept our plan a secret from you. This year, on the morning of what was not actually the first day of summer break, you came into our room, bleary- eyed, hair on end, confused, and stood at the foot of our bed, because you sleep in your own room now, and with a slightly bewildered squeak asked us why we were still sleeping. “Is it…Saturday?”

***

Lunches were packed before noon. We stopped at Target before hitting the road, looking for sunscreen and a disposable camera. We found the sunscreen easily and had to ask someone where to find the camera. The guy behind the counter in the electronics department laughed. Disposable cameras are pretty much extinct. In fact, film photography in general is vintage, I think. But I wanted you to try it. I wanted you to capture these hikes in a way that will give you something concrete to look back on. I wanted you to learn about seeing something and capturing it through a lens and then having to wait to see how (or if) it comes out the way you’d hoped. I needed these images to be familiar, to be real, not on a phone, buried in data, stacked with intentions to print them but no real drive to do so. And I wanted you to have something that will remind you that when you were nine we had adventures and they were fun or challenging or beautiful or boring.

They only had an underwater camera and it was twenty bucks but we bought it anyway.

***

Southford Falls is about forty minutes from the mall where we bought the camera and I had recently found the Nintendo DS that had been misplaced in a bag of stuff that got shuffled back and forth between our house and your dad’s. You quickly reacquainted yourself with Pokemon as we drove inland to hike our first waterfall. Your stillness back there, in the back of our rustly old Jeep, your concentration, the way the tip of your tongue pokes out at the corner of your mouth, I know I should have been aggrieved by your penchant for technology, that I should’ve insisted that if we are going back to nature, you should unplug. But this time I don’t. You are beautiful.

***

My siblings and I weren’t allowed to have junk food very often when we were kids, and we certainly didn’t eat in restaurants. There were occasional trips through a drive-thru, clamoring kids anxious for the toys and cookies in our boxed Happy Meals, but any time we ate take out it was a very special treat.

Maybe I’m making this up, then. But I don’t think I am. After we pulled into the parking lot at Southford Falls, as you and M and I hopped out of the car and looked around at the pond and the field and the paths where I have been so many times before, where you have been twice before, where M has never been, I remembered KFC. Not the restaurant, but the time my dad brought the three of us kids (before Auntie Teesa was born) to this same place with a red and white striped bucket of fried chicken and a vat of mashed potatoes and a container of the too-peppery gravy that he loved. I think we sat on a blanket next to the picnic table, even though I remember that the picnic table was empty. I’m sure we stuck our feet in the cool pool of water on top of the rocky ledge where the first waterfall crashes and wiped our greasy chicken hands on our shorts.

*** 

Southford Falls is, in many ways, a collection of varying environments. There is a long pond filled with lily pads, where dragon flies hover and old men fish, which flows under a walking bridge before torpedoing over the rocky ledges of the falls. There is a meadow next to the pond that sort of swoops up the hill and ends abruptly at a line of dark and scrawny pines. That’s where the pavilion and restrooms are, in the clearing, away from the thickets of forest. The trail near the meadow, which runs next to the placid pond, leads directly to the watch tower.

We didn’t take that trail. We followed the water and then veered left up the hill. We made it to the watch tower, but it was harder than it would have been had we taken the traditional path. When you read Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” someday, remember that it is often misinterpreted. No matter which path you choose, you will think you’ve made a choice that has made all the difference. But the thing is, if you had chosen the other way, you would look back and say the same thing. Read the middle of the poem carefully- you’ll understand that the paths are the same and it doesn’t matter which one you choose.

***

The trail we took led us through the red-painted covered bridge. You snapped pictures of the graffiti etched and scraped into the wooden rails. The place where we veered left to find the tower was steep and lined with the gnarly branches of pink-blossomed mountain laurels. You lead the way and we stopped a few times, sweaty and thirsty, and I was waiting for you to quit. You didn’t.

We hunted for walking sticks in the dappled light of a flatter area that lead to the hill that lead to our destination. We found a tall one for M, one with a knob at the top for me, a shorter one without bark for you. Three bears in the woods, just right.

*** 

You were shocked and proud and awed when we reached the tower. I had forgotten how steep the steps are. On the floor, written in permanent marker, was this missive:

What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman

It is a slightly misquoted line of a Ginsberg poem entitled “A Supermarket in California.” I love this poem, though I didn’t recognize it right away that day. I will leave it here for you:

What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for I walked down the sidestreets under the trees with a headache self-conscious looking at the full moon.

In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went into the neon fruit supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations!

What peaches and what penumbras!  Whole families shopping at night!  Aisles full of husbands!  Wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes!—and you, García Lorca, what were you doing down by the watermelons?

I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys.

I heard you asking questions of each: Who killed the pork chops?  What price bananas?  Are you my Angel?

I wandered in and out of the brilliant stacks of cans following you, and followed in my imagination by the store detective.

We strode down the open corridors together in our solitary fancy tasting artichokes, possessing every frozen delicacy, and never passing the cashier.

Where are we going, Walt Whitman?  The doors close in a hour.  Which way does your beard point tonight?

  (I touch your book and dream of our odyssey in the supermarket and feel absurd.)

Will we walk all night through solitary streets?  The trees add shade to shade, lights out in the houses, we’ll both be lonely.

Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love past blue automobiles in driveways, home to our silent cottage?

Ah, dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher, what America did you have when

Charon quit poling his ferry and you got out on a smoking bank and stood watching the boat

disappear on the black waters of Lethe?

 

When we left the tower you had an idea. To leave our walking sticks at the bottom of the stairs in case another group of hikers wanted to borrow them. You arranged the three of them into a star on a concrete slab. sticks of three

Art.

Nature.

Motherhood.

The Beautiful and the Grotesque

I have not written in this space in months. Weeks flew by, filled with teaching, reading, writing elsewhere, preparing, planning, parenting, thinking. And now, on the precipice of a new year, I have this small swarm of thoughts. As I wait for the moment where I can change the date, as if turning the page on the calendar really propels us away from the things we want to forget, I write to make sense of things, and share them here to make them real.

I have three siblings and all we all of have children, so we have collectively decided that Christmas gifts are to be given to kids only. Every year, one of my siblings breaks that rule and I feel like a jerk.

We always chip in on a gift for my mom. This year we got her a record player. Her boyfriend is a wonderful man, and also a talented musician, so she is spending more and more time going to concerts and listening to music.

Before the record player idea happened, I was sitting in our newly finished office thinking about my family and holiday gifts. Our office is a room we have been converting for a little over a year. We knocked the shelves out of the closet in the tiny bedroom next to ours, took down its folding doors, sheet-rocked (for the first time ever), and built recessed shelves and side-by-side desks. We repainted every wall and bit of trim, covered the peeling brown ceiling with layer after layer of white paint, stacked my books on the shelves on the left and arranged M’s pop culture sculptures on the shelves on the right, hung some art on the walls and a new roman shade on the window. It’s beautiful and sturdy and we are still swollen with pride because we created this space with our own hands.

An old painting of my mother’s hung in this room when it was still brown-ceilinged and wallpapered. She painted it when she was in high school– two blonde-haired fairies standing atop a huge spotted mushroom. The grass is vividly green, the fairies’ dresses are pink and blue and sweeping, their facial features vague. I don’t know how I came to own it. It hung in the kitchen at my old house, and it’s in the attic now, and for a brief moment I considered gifting it to my brother or one of my sisters or maybe giving it back to my mother for Christmas. I thought it might be funny to start a tradition between us now that we are grown; perhaps we could rotate it. Every Christmas it would get wrapped and passed along, the receiver would display it for a year, and then give it to another one of us. Then I thought about how my mother would laugh, but probably secretly hate it.

Before school let out for winter break, S finished an art project he’d been working on for weeks. He nearly burst through the front door of the school with it clutched tightly in his gloved hand. His eyes were shining as he carried it to the car. The way he confidently yet delicately placed it into my ungloved hand reminded me of how a nurse hands surgical tools to a doctor. I examined it closely, the glaze still a little tacky, as he explained to me every step of his artistic process.

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It’s an incense holder in the shape of a hotdog. I have it displayed on the coffee table, protected from the new kitten by two large, heavy vases. Every time I look at it I get a little teary. It fills me with pride. Love. And reminds me of the beauty in creation.

My mother and her boyfriend came over for dinner on Tuesday night. It was odd and wonderful to have her as a guest, because so often it’s just her and S and me, a quick dinner of spaghetti while watching cartoons. But this night, with the holiday air still spinning magically, we set out a cheese plate and had wine, played music, lit candles. I made homemade split pea soup, M made salad with marinated artichokes and sliced olives, and we baked the kind of buttermilk biscuits that have to be popped out of a cardboard tube by pressing on the seam with the back of a spoon.

When we finished dinner, my mom helped us clear the table. She stood next to me at the sink, flushed from her second glass of pinot, and put her head on my shoulder.

“I wanted to have dinner like this for a reason. And there’s no easy way to say this, so I am just going to say it. My mammogram came back abnormal. I have Stage One breast cancer. I am going to see the surgeon on the third. Frank is taking good care of me. I am going to be fine.”

And then she hugged me around my waist and we blinked away the wells in our eyes.

After the table was cleared, we set up Apples to Apples and played with S until almost ten o’clock. We laughed, hard and often, and I never wanted them to leave. But S had to get to bed and the kitchen was still a mess and I needed to talk to my husband and I wanted to cry huge tears into the sink, so I waved them away into the cold December night.

As I write this out now, hushed, like a secret, I wonder if art and motherhood and love and fear and life and death and creation and destruction are always this tangled, simultaneously beautiful and grotesque, concrete and ephemeral, and delivered in a silent punch from a gnarled and knotty fist.

Spelling Hatred

bumpersticker_trump-1

S has spelling homework now that he’s in third grade. Every Monday he brings home a paper with a list of fifteen words and each day he must practice them with a new exercise. Monday he writes each word twice, Tuesday he puts them into alphabetical order, Wednesday he writes them in sentences. Thursday, while we eat dinner, I quiz him in preparation for the test his teacher will give on Friday.

So far, he likes it.

I remember my second grade Spelling class. Instead of a weekly piece of paper, we had a book. The cover was glossy and fuchsia, a color that is the perfect combination of hot pink and cool violet, and there was a picture of a Dalmatian on it. The contrast of the black and white dog and the bright background drew me in and I hated having to cover it with a paper bag cover. I peeled away the scotch tape on the corners so I could look at it. The pages of the book were glossy too, the typeface of the words wide and round, and although it seems strange to describe a font as friendly, it was. I loved it.

Each Friday we would separate our desks to take a test, much like I imagine happens in S’s class now. My teacher would stand at the front of the room and read down the list of words, carefully enunciating each one. At the end, we would be asked to write a few sentences, and our teacher would speak slowly, repeating each one three times.

Her sentences were simple. “Peter asked Sue how to get to the pet store.” “Who let the jet get wet?” And even though I could breeze through the week’s list of short ‘e’ words, I would always get tripped up on the words “how” and “who.” I would write w-h-o and then rub what was left of my eraser (I ate them when I was nervous) over the newsprint paper, leaving skidded tears along the blue lines, and then I would tentatively write h-o-w over the mess. No matter how hard I studied, I could not remember the order of the letters.

As we are inching closer to the election, more and more signs are being pushed into lawns, and I’ve noticed more cars are being accessorized with bumper stickers.

This weekend, when running errands, we pulled up behind a non-descript sedan with a Trump sticker. I felt the red-hot daggers of anger pierce my guts. I asked my husband, “Don’t you feel like people proclaiming their support for him are really just proudly announcing that they’re racist?” This man’s platform relies on hatred, racism, bigotry, and xenophobia. A Trump sticker then seems to be just as offensive as a confederate flag, a swastika, or a white hood.

I am aware that my question to my husband makes a sweeping generalization of Trump supporters. An almost-irony, since I am making a broad generalization about people who support a man who makes broad generalizations. And yet, here I am. I was a hardcore Sanders supporter, and although I do not agree with many of Clinton’s policies, there is a chasm between her and the man who suggested her murder, who berated a woman with a crying baby, who mocked a Muslim family who lost their son fighting in Iraq, who failed to denounce the KKK. Those who stand behind this man are either ignoring his violence and racism, or they are supporting it. And neither of those options is acceptable. (Here is a listicle for a succinct, yet thorough overview.)

Now, when I see these supporters on the road, in my neighborhood, or in my newsfeed, and when I hear them repeat their “Make America Great Again” slogan,  I find myself reverting back to old habits. I am nervously chewing on pens and my fingernails. And I am struggling over those two little words.

Who?

How?

Judging Books by Covers

OED1_2410787b

If my bones were tree trunks, they’d have thirty-seven concentric circles inside. This is neither young nor old, and often I feel it is both, depending on the time of day.

Imposter syndrome is a real thing, and as I prepare for my first semester as an adjunct professor, I am wavering between excitement and nervousness, and often I feel it is both, depending on the time of day.

For years, I have yearned for my very own leather-bound, twenty-volume, tissue-paper-paged set of the Oxford English Dictionary. Since they cost around $2,000.00, my more realistic goal became to someday procure a condensed, leather-bound, two-volume version, complete with magnifying glass. They cost about $300.00, a sum I cannot see shelling out for two books, no matter how delicious they might smell. I’ve pictured their spines facing outward, sturdy and thick, on a shelf in my office, where I can reference them as I choose the perfect word for a story, or prepare a lecture that will disclose a word’s long-forgotten etymology, making a century’s old poem ring magically to a student in the back row.

Last week I found a condensed set on eBay. It was described as being in “near pristine condition,” save for a few scuffmarks on the blue leather of volume A-O and a missing magnifying glass. And they were…only…$30.00.

The dictionaries were being sold at this unbelievable price because, somehow, they had been bound upside-down. I didn’t even bid. I clicked “Buy now” and paid for standard shipping and let out a little squeal of delight.

Last Monday, S stayed home from camp and we planned a day of errands and fun. Errands first, he accompanied me to my alma mater/ new job so that I could untangle an IT issue, get my new photo ID, and secure a faculty parking pass.

The first two chores were completed quickly, but then I could not find the room where I was supposed to grab my sticker. As I stood near the window where I vaguely recalled signing for a commuter pass years ago, and as my eight-year-old boy chatted away about Pokémon and where he wanted to go for lunch, a man asked if I needed help.

I told him I needed to get a parking sticker. I asked if he knew what room.

“If you have a minute, I’ll walk you over,” he said.

We waited for him to finish up at the window and then followed him, a man twice my age, wearing shorts and running shoes, through the hallways.

About halfway down the main corridor, he looked at me and said, “Are you registering for classes this semester, dear?”

I said, “No. I’m going to get my faculty sticker.”

However, I did not say it with the power that I should have. My voice failed to convey the disgust I felt at being called “dear” by this man who was, I realized, now my colleague, and who had, I suppose, assumed that I could not be on his same level. My feminist pulse had stopped beating in that moment, and something else, something bigger, took over.

I am not completely sure anymore what he said after that, something about what department he worked in.

At the end of the hall I thanked him for his help and then found the room by myself.

As I have mentioned before, I was a student at this school, and not very long ago, because I returned to college the month after I turned thirty, on a quest to immerse myself in the study of literature and the craft of writing because it is a place that has always felt like home. I was a mother then, too, pushing against expectations about what it meant to be a student at a small liberal arts college. I knew my reaction to this man’s question was not because I objected to the notion that I could be a student, but at his assumption that I would be a student. And, most importantly, that I would somehow be okay with him calling me “dear.”

I hate admitting that my hushed reply to his question did not convey any twinge of anger. My reaction was, I think, the result of years of internalized misogyny and my own chicken shit fear of confrontation. The bitter taste that rose up in my mouth the moment this man uttered this question triggered a fight-or-flight response in me. Push back on his comment, or smile and answer politely? And perhaps because I was already feeling somewhat vulnerable, even in such a minor moment, I lost my nerve. Flight won the battle.

As S and I walked the rest of the way down the hall and then joined the zigzagging line of other drivers, I kept asking myself, “Is my outfit wrong? Is my hair too short? Too long? Is it because I am having a late-summer, stress-induced skin breakout, detracting from my wrinkles and making my skin appear adolescent? Is it my sneakers, a little too big, too squeaky, too strange-looking because I bought them on sale from my favorite boutique, and they are rope-soled and biodegradable, but in no way practical or comfortable? Is my posture wrong? My voice unsteady?”

Do I look out of place?

I got my parking sticker and took S out for lunch and back-to-school shopping. We went home and set up the sprinkler and both of us ran through it, jumping and laughing through the freezing cold spray. We played chess in the sun and saw parakeets in the maple tree. And I continued to ponder the morning, wondering how many times I fluctuate between young and old me-selves, the sprinkler-dancer and the academic, the mother and the child.

I wondered why I wondered what it was about my outward appearance that made this man make assumptions about me. I wondered how I often I make these same assumptions about others.

My upside-down dictionaries have been delivered. And they are huge and heavy and awesome.

 

“I would rather be a bad feminist than no feminist at all” –Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist: Essays