The politics of divorce and death

English: Still shot from 1914 silent film, Sho...

Still shot from 1914 silent film, “Should A Woman Divorce? ” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Mom, you should talk to dad.”

This is Girl from the West — a young woman made tall by high heels, and made to look in charge with hair pulled into a tight knot atop her head — greeting me as I arrived. After a few minutes of small talk, she nudges me toward a man I barely see or speak to since our parting nearly 15 years ago.

So I inhale, exhale, square my shoulders and walk to the front of the room, wrapped in a little more insecurity than I would like. I feel a bit like a child summoned to the front of the class for tardiness.

In the hour I spend there, with my current spouse and Girl from the East nearby, I am not able to snare my ex-husband, because that is what it feels like, a hunting expedition. I try to part the sea of people between us. He keeps himself inside tight circles, enclosed in embraces and engaged in intimate conversation. It’s been our dance for years. Was he avoiding me? I don’t know.

While siblings, aunts, uncles and neighbors greet me, his longtime partner ignores me. I leave feeling a little confused.

It’s all so confusing. My ex-husband’s mother died this week. The woman who once was my other mother, who served as one of Girl from the West’s main caretakers through those precious and needy years, which also were in some part the divorce and single parenting years, the remarriage and second child years, and the polite wave and small talk at school concert years.  She did more for all of us than we probably deserved. I don’t think I ever thanked her.

What are the rules in a situation like this anyway? What are the boundaries?

Only twice in the last decade have I had this much contact. Six months ago we gathered under a park pavilion on a sticky summer afternoon to celebrate Girl from the West’s high school graduation. It seemed on that bright day that all had been forgiven. Six months before the party, I’d had coffee with her, when we came as close as we ever would to closure.

In the black hours before dawn when Girl from the West received the call, when she could not process the sudden death of her grandmother, who’d been ill but recovering, and between fretting about her making the long drive across the cold, dark city, I wondered about my role in all this. It seemed like a selfish, but necessary, thought.

In the end, I let my daughter write the role for me.

At the funeral, I sat in the back with the other ex-spouses. We attended all the rites, but kept to the sidelines. Silently, I thanked my first mother-in-law for her selfless duty. I asked for forgiveness.  After all, she cared deeply for my child and did so much to give her a good life. My ex-husband, for whatever I think of him and how distant we are, is now a man without living parents.  I acknowledged the gravity and inevitability of that, too.

At the end,  I finally connected with my former spouse. I stopped trying and it came naturally. We had eye contact, we embraced. He wept. I felt his pain. I felt a compassion buried for almost two decades. I discovered my own grief.

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Those secrets have to go somewhere, don’t they?

When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.   

— Frank McCourt


“Why are you so secretive about everything?”

My husband asks me this question all the time.

He does it when someone asks  “So, what’s new?”

He does it when I answer, “Oh, nothing …. ”

He wonders why I lock it all up and throw away the combination. Why I write anonymously. Why everything is in code.

My husband doesn’t wear a wedding band. He wears a decoder ring. For me.

So, why am I so secretive?

Conditioning. Culture. I’m Irish?

I wasn’t always so reserved with information. But a few blurt -and-regret incidents shut me up.

You learn through conditioned responses what’s acceptable to share with family and what needs to stay in the vault.

The way my husband and I react to new experiences in our lives tells the tale of our vastly different childhoods.

This past Sunday we tried something new.

Later that evening I heard my husband on the phone. He was giving his long-distance family a recap of the day.

This is so different from the way I operate.

Here is all anyone needs to know to understand my family dynamic: I had a grandmother who died before I was born. She died young. End of story.

Not until I was filling out adoption paperwork and had to complete several physical exams did I pry a bit to learn that my grandmother had colon cancer. That she was in her 40s. That she had been continuously pregnant for all of her fertile years. I don’t know if one thing has anything to do with the others. I don’t know if she could sing. I don’t know her favorite perfume. I don’t ask.

My father, who was the first-born of the brood, was just old enough to order a Tom Collins when this happened. I understood this was tragic. Not that he could legally drink. But that his mother was dead. My grandfather had a household full of children who needed a mother. This was not the era of  Mr. Mom. Apparently you picked yourself up and moved on. You did not dwell.

Dad never spoke of his mother’s illness or her last days. I once thought the information was withheld because I was young. Later I learned no one knew anything because it was understood that you did not ask. You waited to be told. If nothing was told, you accepted that. They were not told.

This approach has carried on for decades. Things happen in the family. Maybe you hear about them. Most likely you do not. People have married into and divorced out of the family without comment or announcement. People have life-threatening medical conditions and don’t tell their closest relatives. They die, allowing their survivors to uncover their deep secrets, begging questions that never will be answered.

Recently I learned someone in the family had a Facebook account. I asked this person to be my friend on Facebook.

“No, I’m not friending any family. I don’t want you to read what I put on Facebook.”

I’m not surprised.


* I wrote this post in May 2009. It’s still true. I’m reposting it today as part of Edenland’s Saturday writing prompt, Fresh Horses Brigade, which asks, why do I blog?

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Let’s go out and play

Girl from the East has a new best friend and it’s a boy.

They secretly became best friends in preschool, unbeknownst to all the parents involved.

The first blush of spring delivered news that Girl and Boy were now best friends. I remember my surprise because I’d never seen the two of them so much as look at each other at school. I considered it a passing fancy.

A week later, Boy’s mother called and said Boy just had to have a play date with Girl. So, we scheduled one. All went well. Many more followed. Sometimes we had to peel them apart when the play date was over. We declared their friendship “adorable” and “sweet.” At preschool graduation, we figured the friendship would be forgotten; Boy and Girl were going to different elementary schools in the fall.

The phone calls started mid-September. First, from the mom saying that Boy, who was sad, had written notes and colored pictures for Girl during summer break. Then, the dad, when I bumped into him at the grocery store, told me that Boy was begging to have a play date with Girl because he was worried that he’d never see her again.

Yesterday was the second big play date of the school year for these two.

I took Boy and Girl to a nearby nature preserve tucked along a small river twisting through a neighborhood. Indian summer spread its buttery glow over the forest, scattering orange and red confetti to the wind, stirring the hunt-and-gather instinct. Red squirrels with nut-stuffed cheeks scampered over the leaf and stick carpet and clambered up tall oaks, barking at us as we passed underneath.  Ducks paddled along the lazy river’s edge, following us with hope of a food reward. Boy and Girl, oblivious, ran races along the dirt trails, stuffed their backpacks with leaves, slid through muddy patches, threw acorns in the river, teased the ducks, found a grassy hill and rolled down like logs, then discovered a playground and played hide-and-seek until the sun cast long shadows across the lot.

I snapped a lot of pictures. I smiled a lot.  I thought about why these atypical pairings grab our attention. When Girl has one of her gal pals over, I think nothing of the hugging and hand holding and proclamations of never-ending devotion. When this happens with a boy, I add a heavy dose of my own romanticism and idealism to it.

Here’s the thing: Boy-girl play dates are so much easier to referee, at least for this mother of two daughters. They just — play. There’s no squabbling over who gets to wear the sparkly princess tiara during dress up or who gets the Malibu Barbie when they’re playing doll house.

This little slice of sweetness between Boy and Girl is different for me and it’s been a joy to watch. It’s a reminder that there are moments of pure bliss in life, when your legs will take you anywhere, when your eyes are open to everything, when wonder and adventure await around every bend in the path.

Go outside and play with your best friend.

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Blue autumn by MZ

I’m giving myself permission.

On Monday, I got up early, showered, ate a protein bar for breakfast, then escaped the city grid. The sky colored itself an achingly beautiful blue, the sun cast a soft glow on the slowly decaying landscape. I spotted several maples flashing flares of red. I drove an hour to what is known as the orchard region. Soon its quiet roads will clog with apple pickers and pumpkin, cider, and doughnut seekers. But on this day, it was still quiet except for the buzzing insects and bird calls and the crunch of gravel under tires.

I’d been invited to mountain bike on and around the orchard trails. We pedaled 22.5 miles along bumpy, unpredictable paths. I could have sailed forever through those sun-dappled tunnels of trees, along those fields rippling with corn and soybeans, the neat rows of fruit trees bursting with produce, the earthy woods and fields. I pumped my leg muscles until they ached to ascend the steep freeway overpasses and felt the flutter in my stomach on the high-speed rush of the descent into the woods.  Sweat trickled down my back. Wayward grasshoppers smacked my face. The sun baked my already browned skin.

It was wonderful. This day, this experience.

I felt freer than I’ve felt in years. This summer I started bike riding again after a long break. I found a bike at a garage sale. Found another for Girl from the East. Together her father and I taught her to ride. Now, all of us rolling along on wheels. It’s almost beyond description, the rush of wind in the face, the feeling of almost flying.

Amid the sensory rush, I felt a poke. It was guilt trying to ruin my day.

Guilt about being on a bike on a Monday when I could be home polishing my résumé, or taking an online refresher course, or over at Michigan Works! getting career counseling, or painting our peeling porch railings.

The hell with guilt. I flicked it off my arm like an errant bug and kept pedaling. Guilt didn’t belong on this glorious September day. In Michigan, a day like this in late summer/early fall is a precious gem. You do not waste it inside unless you have no choice.

I had a choice.

Why should I court guilt? I may not have worked full-time with a salary and benefits in five years, but I can assure you I’ve had no down time.

Here’s how it went. In 2004, my husband and I began the international adoption process, which signaled the start of two years of non-stop paperwork, turning inside out every detail of our lives for strangers to inspect, navigating inter-country bureaucracy, and unexpected stumbling blocks such as an angry ex-husband against the adoption and how it would affect our daughter.

Oh, there was stress.

Somewhere between then and 2006, I initiated a legal matter with my employer. Most of 2006 was embroiled in this legal matter. It was very stressful. So was the adoption. Then I was transferred to a branch office far, far away from home and moved to the night shift.

In August 2006 came our adoption referral. We began preparing for the arrival of a baby, for our trip to China.  We applied for travel visas. I prepared the final dossier with  the necessary papers for the formal adoption in China and the immigration process at the U.S. Embassy in Guangzhou.

At the same time, I learned the outcome of my legal matter. The arbitrator had ruled against me.

In October 2006, I applied for and was denied family leave. Bone tired of the legal system at this point and ready to go to China and start the new chapter in my life, I resigned my position. My last day of work was mere days before our flight to Beijing.

When we came home as a family of four in November 2006, my husband resumed his crazy-busy life, Girl from the West went back to her seventh-grade school year. I, quite shockingly and suddenly, was home alone with a shell-shocked baby, ripped from the only world she knew.

It took several months for the two of us to emerge from the fog of our days and nights.

Last Wednesday my girl, who was absolutely ready to begin this part of her life,  started all-day kindergarten.

“What do I do now?” I asked a huddle of emotional mothers at the first day of school coffee and doughnut mixer at school. “Go home and clean?”

“Yes. For now. Go home and clean and rest,” said a tearful mom.

So I did. I cleaned. But I did not rest. I felt guilty. I had no sense of where to begin.

Then it hit me: This is the first time in years that I’ve not had something large looming overhead, some oppressive deadline, or a constant demand for my attention and services.

I realize I need some time to get my bearings.  I need to feel freedom rushing through me like the wind.

I need to taste boredom.


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Pulled apart

Are these the end days of this blog?

I’m not sure what to do. I don’t even like the name. I regret ever putting “mom” into the URL. It’s a deal killer for some people, you know?

I do not regret blogging. I’m proud of what I’ve written here. I’ve met a few of you and it’s been a gratifying experience connecting a human being to powerful words. When I jumped in five years ago after trading my career for stay-at-home motherhood, I did so because I missed writing, being part of a creative team, being with grown-up people who collected paychecks.

I thought this blog was the start of “something.” I had hours to fill. I was lonely. I needed a focus outside of diapering, feeding, and housewifery. I thought writing about my life would be enough. It took a long time to make connections and earn readers. Sometimes I wanted to give up.

But, I persevered. Luckily some folks noticed, made me feel I had a reason to keep posting. I learned that blogging is like dating. Sometimes you’re hot. Sometimes you’re not. How many times have I developed a crush on one of you only to wake one morning next to a cold pillow?

Five years later, as I prepare to send my baby to kindergarten, as my oldest daughter spins farther out of the family orbit, as my husband and I figure out what to do with our 2012 plan to move to Colorado that will have to wait a few more years, my blog sits in the corner begging for attention and pressure builds to find something to do with myself.

I’m split. My head yearns for new projects, challenges, stimulation. My heart is heavy with the knowledge that my baby will be in the hands of the education system, leaving behind a silence in the spaces we occupied for a thousand or so days. My hands and feet itch to move about freely during the day without concerns of child care, feeding schedules, nap time, and never-ending messes. My nerves jangle with the upcoming projects and commitments to which I’ve already said yes.

Will I go back to work? To what? My industry imploded a few years ago. What remains are shards reflecting very little of what I knew, what I learned. I’m outdated. The debris of its ruin are fashioned into something new, something I’m not sure I really want to take part in anymore. I’ll need retraining, schooling, updating.

I’m torn. I’ve gotten to know my community and not just live in it. I volunteer. I’m thinking of joining the community farm. I’m part of a network of families and friends who hold each other up.  In spite of all my efforts to keep a safe distance — since we knew we were relocating thousand of miles west of here — I’ve opened my heart to this town and its people. My heart is no longer safe. Yet, another part of me stirs with longing to move on.

Right now my Girl from the East is playing dress up. She twirls on the hardwoods in her purple tutu and sparkling shoes, a magic wand keeping time to Sonic Youth. She’s enjoying her last days of spontaneity. I’m enjoying my last days of winging it as I please, too.

My heart all at once aches for the impending changes and flutters with excitement of the unknown.

Reading the various posts from BlogHer ’11, one of the barometers of this medium,  I feel I’ve steadily become irrelevant in a blogging world I never really fit into. I’ve yet to  brand myself (I did burn my forearm on the iron last week. Does that count?) I’m just writing, and anonymously at that, not selling, promoting, marketing or collaborating. Maybe I’ll come out of the closet.  In six months it won’t matter.  My custodial agreement expires. I can fuck the universe if I please and I won’t have to worry about answering to an officer of the court.

If nothing else, this blogging experiment, whether I keep it as it is, reinvent it, or put it away with the baby things, was part of my stay-at-home motherhood. I’ve created a historical record. And a few people actually took the time to read it. Thank you. That’s still amazing to me.  I didn’t find fame or fortune. I didn’t become a household name. Does it matter, really?

I’m torn. I’m split. I’m going in all the directions.

Thankfully, I know how to sew.


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Other people's kids

Photo via Wilmette Library History

I didn’t particularly like other people’s kids before I became a mother. That might sound odd considering I worked as a babysitter for many years.

Thirty years’ perspective has taught me that my own miserable childhood colored my view of children and childhood. I’d like to think I was a capable babysitter. If you paid me, I’d keep your child safe and entertained, fed and bathed. But on my own time? Shrieking babies and troublesome tots sent me over the edge. Once on a trans-Atlantic flight, I asked to have my seat changed because I could not bear six hours of a baby fussing and kicking at me while the oblivious parents thumbed through magazines and stared out the window.

Once I had my own shrieking baby who became a fussy toddler who became a quirky kid who then morphed into a mouthy tween, I understood. I changed. When you need milk and eggs and diapers, you need them, regardless of baby’s mood that day. You can’t always wait until you have a babysitter to take care of daily business.

While I may be deaf to the hounds of hell in Home Depot, I am not blind to the actions of other people’s children. Just yesterday I was at IKEA and had to speak up because the family seated in front of us in the food court thought putting two toddlers in a shopping cart and parking it behind them constituted child care.

At one point the drooling, whining little girl leaned so far out of the shopping cart she almost toppled onto my crepes. After I protested loudly but politely to the family, the father apologized and guided the baby cage on wheels to another table. Momma Mia, Mea Culpa’s post about an unruly school-aged boy reminded me of one of the most upsetting incidents I’ve ever had involving someone else’s child.

I was in college. My boyfriend and I lived in off-campus housing. It was a rectangular complex with a huge courtyard that held a swimming pool, lots of trees, gardens, and picnic tables. I loved to haul my books, some spiked lemonade, and my blanket down to the pool and study.

During one such poolside study session, I was joined by a 10-year-old boy. Despite posted rules against children swimming alone,  it was just the two of us. I think I may have inquired about his parents, noted the posted rules, and commented on his refusal to leave. Several times I looked around for a nearby adult, but none was present. I felt anger brewing inside of me toward whomever was in charge of this boy. How dare they assume I’d play lifeguard.

I tried to study. I sipped on my drink to soothe my nerves. I tried to ignore his splashing and shouting. Something tugged at my conscience and I looked up from my notes.  I saw one hand reaching out of the deep end of the pool, fingers curled into a claw.

I tossed my book and stood up. The boy surfaced, let out a little yelp, and went under again. Thinking back to the time when we were camping and my brother nearly drowned had my father not been nearby to leap into the murky depths and pull him to the surface and how my brother must have vomited a gallon of pond water before we declared him OK, I began to panic with the certainty that this boy was dying.

I let out a half-hearted, “Hey. You OK?”

I looked around for some reinforcement but the courtyard was deserted. I ran across the deck and jumped in the water. When I touched his back he surfaced,  smiled,  wiped the snot from his face, and started laughing.

He was faking.

I think.

I wanted to strangle him.

I grabbed his arm and pulled him to the edge of the pool. I made him get out.

I marched him over to his chair, told him to get his towel,  and then asked him where he lived.

Silence. Dripping water. Sniffling.

Where do you live? Which apartment is yours? Who are you visiting?

Drip. Drip. Sniff. Sniff.

I looked around the complex, scanning the balconies and walkways.

What the hell? Hadn’t anyone noticed this?

Like I said. I was not the nurturing sort. I needed him to go somewhere safe so I could get back to my homework. I coaxed him out of the pool area and toward the building manager’s office.  Just then a door opened somewhere above us. A voice shrilled from inside the threshold. Responding, the boy bolted from my grasp, flip-flops slapping, water drops marking a trail.

I never saw that boy again or ever found out to whom he belonged. I followed the quickly evaporating droplets to the second floor, but no one answered my knocks of inquiry.

What was I after anyway? An apology? A chance to rant?

Did that kid really fake drowning to get attention?

Did he have a medical condition/behavioral problem?

Did he speak English?

Was he lonely and bored? Did he have an inept caregiver?

I’ll never know.


The sweetest thing

During a much-needed mom’s night out with wine, food, and good conversation I learned that the A word and my Girl from the East came up with one of the families from our school.

Adoption arose as part of a much larger context, one encircling the areas of family resemblance, dominant traits, and individual uniqueness. It seems too complex for the preschool set, but now is the time when our children’s eyes open even wider to notice such things as tallness, blondeness, bigness, and differentness.

Specifically, the question of what makes boys different from girls, and how African-American kids in the class look different from the Caucasian kids led to how some families are tall and thin and some are short and wide and how some kids have two daddies or two mommies or some other defining trait.

“Like your friend, (Girl from the East),” the mother explained to my daughter’s playmate. “You’ve noticed she looks different from her mother. That’s because she’s adopted.”

“She doesn’t look different from her mom,” my daughter’s friend insisted.

“Well, yes, she was born in China. She is Chinese,” the mom continued.

“Noooo,” the young friend asserted, shaking her head. “She looks just like her mom.”

My heart warmed as I listened to this story.

That is the sweetest thing.

It never occurred to me that we could be regarded in that way, even if it is through the rose-colored lens of youth.

This is, of course, the portrait of our love for each other; we are blind to our differences. I think Girl from the East has my husband’s eyes and disposition. I know she has my penchant for perfection.  I don’t know where she ends and I begin.

When I look at my girl’s smooth cheeks, inky black eyes, and cupid’s bow mouth, I see our history reaching all the way back to that smoky, crowded government office in Nanchang, China, when I first accepted her slight form into my arms. Her long limbs, elegant fingers,  and thick, silky hair remind me of her birth family as none of us possess those traits.

It occurred to me that it has been years — years! — since anyone has asked any of us if we belong together. In the beginning, it was a constant affront.

And now, the court of opinion has grown to include  one very astute five-year-old.

That is the sweetest thing.

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Learn to Do Less

Too often we mistakenly believe that doing less makes us lazy and results in a lack of productivity. Instead, doing less helps us savor what we do accomplish. We learn to do less of what is extraneous and engage in fewer self-defeating behaviors, so we craft a productive life that we truly feel good about.

– Marc Lesser, “Do Less, Accomplish More

On my nightstand are five books in progress: one is a book I’ve been dying to read for a long time; another is required reading for a class I am taking; two more are great big novels that will take me months to get through; and the last is a recent acquisition, gifted to me by the author.

On my desk are paper-clipped clusters of material: kindergarten school enrollment; Chinese school applications; upcoming fund-raisers and programs; photocopied articles to be read at some undetermined date; catalogs with Post-it notes poking out, suggesting a wish list of sorts:, magazines; and at least three to-do lists in progress.

I have a family calendar on the pantry door in the kitchen. I have a planner in book form on my desk. I have an iCalendar on my computer desktop; our family shares a Google calendar. Just yesterday I synchronized the Google calendar on my new phone.

I have four schedules to coordinate: my teenager’s school and work schedule, which is wrapped around a custody schedule; my husband’s work, teaching, and travel schedules; my preschooler’s school, extracurriculars, and playdate schedule; and I have my own freelance and volunteer schedules to squeeze into the remaining 30 minutes of each day.

I have a basement full of junk (most of it not mine, but that is beside the point) that I wish to be rid of. Most of it is old furniture we are saving for the teenager when she goes off to college or whatever; but also there are boxes of newspaper clippings from my writer days (OK, that’s mine; I just don’t have the heart to shred or torch it.) and enough paint cans to build a formidable pyramid in my back yard.

My car trunk as well as my garage are brimming with stuff that needs to go to the recycling center.

I yearn for a streamlined day, a less-cluttered space. The problem is, no matter how much I attempt to organize my time, to dole it all out in bite-sized pieces, life has a way of rigging explosives to my planner and laughing as I scramble to rescue all the airborne pieces.

You know what’s so great about vacations and travel? The simplicity of it. Your life in a bag. Details like unmade beds, dirty glasses, and hair in the tub are not really your concern. Meals are a no-brainer. Your day is set up how you wish, and luckily with stretches of time to just appreciate the blue of the sky, the chirping of the native birds, and the crackle of gravel under your soles.  How, oh, how to maintain that feeling at home?

Daily life can become a blur of details, most of which are lost, along with the car keys, that bag of groceries, and the last sliver of my inner calm.

One book on the nightstand.

One calendar to direct my days.

One goal for each day.

Time to breathe.

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Photo by KevinT3141 via Creative Commons

I walked the tightrope for 24 hours, balanced between two undesirable outcomes: the sharp rocks of grief and despair on one side and a bubbling lava pit of anger and frustration on the other.

“We haven’t heard from (insert name of family member) in five days,” my mother said to me over the phone.

Family Member, or FM, left his home state on a Wednesday. His trip included a brief stopover in a state somewhere halfway between Point A and Point B. Between Wednesday and Monday, I called FM and left a voice mail message.

That I hadn’t heard from him didn’t give me pause. He can be like that. Plans are always lightly written in pencil.

But my mother thought something was wrong.

“It’s not like FM to be so silent on the road,” she said. “FM usually keeps in touch if there are delays.” I took her word for it. I heard the concern in the spaces between her words. I felt the tightness in her voice become a tightness in my throat.

I considered the situation: A person traveling alone across the country doesn’t show up on his arrival date. No one who has called FM has been able to reach him. Voice messages have not been returned.  I discussed these concerns with my husband and a close friend. What to do? We are not talking about a teenager or even a young adult. This is a middle-aged man who’s been trekking around the continent alone for decades. This is a person who has a history of disappearing and living off the grid on occasion.

I also considered two recent deaths of people we know who were about the same age. The most recent case involved a single man who lived alone. Through circumstances we may never know, he somehow became entangled in live electrical lines that had fallen in his back yard. The crazy part? He was an electrician. He would have known better than to pick up a live wire. Or, maybe because he was an expert he was overconfident. Either way, these tragedies played through my mind as I considered FM’s lifestyle.

Even veteran solo travelers and outdoorsmen and women run into serious trouble. To ignore our concerns meant precious time would be lost if something had happened.

Suddenly this thing took on a life of its own. Other family members and friends became involved. Two relatives made a drive to the family cottage to see if he was there. Calls were made to the state police and to his hometown police department. The more calls we made and received, the more this thing felt like a situation.

I walked the tightrope. Were we inviting trouble by flirting with its possibilities?

  • He’s fine. This is typical behavior. My mother worries so much about FM. I needed to ease her fears. Taking action felt empowering.
  • He’s an inconsiderate jerk, self-absorbed, probably met some hot young thing at a campground and has lost all sense of time and propriety.
  • He’s dead in a ravine.
  • He’s been robbed and beaten by roving criminals.
  • He’s at home watching movies.

I started thinking about the last time we saw each other, our parting words, if we were kind to each other.

The next day, as I worked my way across the taut line, sending dark thoughts to the background and focusing on the day ahead,  my cell phone buzzed.

“He’s OK,” my mother announced.

The outcome? FM’s phone service was spotty to nonexistent during his travels. Oh, and he decided to stay a few extra days at his stopping point. By his calculations he is only one day late. He is upset and embarrassed that we called the police. He thinks we overreacted, created drama.

Maybe. We had the best of intentions.

As for us, the worry warts? We are on FM’s shit list right now.  Likewise, FM is on our list, too. We think what he did was totally insensitive. One phone call could have prevented all of this. I know it’s tough to find a phone if you don’t have a cell service. But, it can be done. You ask. You offer to pay for the call. You get a roll of quarters and pump them into a pay phone.

In 24 hours I cycled from the brink of grief to a frustration so profound I had to disconnect myself from the remainder of FM’s visit.

How in this life do we balance caring enough about others to make sure they’re OK with respecting personal space and independence?

It’s a thin line.

Aurora made me do it

Photo by Jaredmoo via Creative Commons

It’s after 1 a.m. and I’m semi-lost. I’m also very sleepy and considering blowing through every red light in this shady town so I can escape its tricky streets that keep landing me in the same intersection. At the last red light, a low-rider packed with trouble and pulsating loud music pulled alongside my family wagon, confirmed this as a questionable, if not outright irresponsible, parenting moment.  I willed us, a car of two women and one young child, invisible.

How did I get here? Driving in circles through the maze of one-way streets in this downtrodden burg? How is it I’m watching the contents of several nightclubs spew onto the streets while keeping a peripheral eye on the vagrants weaving along the  curbs instead of gazing at the heavens above for signs of magic? I glance in the rear-view mirror to see my four-year-old slumped in her car seat, her bowed lips slightly parted in deep sleep.  What are my children doing out on the streets when they should be home in their beds?

Aurora  borealis made me do it.

That’s right.

It started out so innocently. A radio report that afternoon promised a rare view of the northern lights in Michigan. Solar flares and all the other magical stuff that goes into aurora borealis meant I could show my children something special on an otherwise boring weeknight.

I hatched the plan quickly: We’d go around 11:30 p.m. and just head north out of the city. I’d drive until I could see more than two stars.  I had a quarter tank of gas, my water bottle, my digital camera, my cell phone and my keys. Left behind: my wallet and my common sense. I drove with my window down and every so often gazed upward to see if I could see anything glowy or shimmery. That was my whole plan. It was the plan of a 12-year-old child.

See, some of it is based on the last time I answered the call of the hypnotic northern lights. I lived in what once were the outer suburbs. It was easy to drive an hour to a purely unpolluted night sky. Ten years ago I moved close to the city center. I’m lucky if I see ursa major in the sky on a clear night.

I love the northern lights. I love them so much, I lose all common sense to view them. I’ve only seen them four times in my life, which is probably more than most folks who live below the 45th parallel can claim. My husband has never witnessed their otherworldly beauty. Neither have my children.

My first sighting was as a college student.  I stumbled out of the student newspaper office well after midnight, red-eyed and wired on caffeine. I don’t know what made me look upward, but when I did, I had to rub my eyes and slap my cheeks a few times to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating on this brisk night. I knew northern lights were awe-inspiring, but I had no idea how much so until I stood in that empty  parking lot staring at the sky. Within minutes, other newspaper staff members joined me. We found a bench nearby and sat, shivering, watching what looked like giant celestial curtains puffing in the breeze.

Over the next decade I saw them three more times: in the outer suburbs of Detroit and twice while camping in northwest Michigan.  Each time the display was bigger, more colorful and dramatic than the last.

I react to the northern lights the way some people do to seeing the face of Jesus on a potato chip or when alphabet soup inadvertently spells your future spouse’s name. I am moved. Moved to stupidity.

I can’t help it. I realize that piling my children into the car in the wee hours of morning without a plan, with less than a quarter tank of gas, and ending up turned around in a dangerous town was not one of my shining parental moments.

Eventually I found the right road to get us home.

When we pulled into the garage and the automatic door rolled down, thereby restoring us to a sense of safety, a let out a heavy sigh. Relieved we’d made it home. Embarrassed that my promises of magic were duds. Annoyed that an hour’s worth of driving didn’t get me any farther away from the urban sprawl and light pollution. Disappointed as hell that I didn’t get to see those celestial curtains blowing in the breeze.