Nothing Compares to You

Prince died two years ago today. His estate has released a previously unreleased 1984 recording of “Nothing Compares to You” to honor the anniversary of his untimely death. Later, Sinead O’Connor made it a big hit. I know because I listened to it often and with all the appropriate angst of the lonely and misunderstood.

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The world as I knew it in 1984 was a strange one, not quite an Orwellian dystopia but strange nonetheless. Of course, my view was limited by both geography and chronology. Our nation was nearly mid-way through a decade that saw significant backlash for the movements of the 60s and 70s, and hard-gained reproductive and workplace freedoms for women came under attack. Race baiting Reagan was elected and codified racist rhetoric with his war on drugs, which depicted an inner city crack crisis and the myth of the welfare queen. Reagan’s script was a sequel to Nixon’s and he performed it much more smoothly. Today, Trump is clumsily riffing on this tired rhetoric but finding success because the rotten fruit hangs so very low.

We had entered the preppy years and my rainbow suspenders became rainbow barrettes affixed to hair with a one-curl roll of bangs. Fashion went from outrageous, androgynous, and boho glamorous to tidy. Outside of my midwestern bubble Bruce McCandless ventured into space, untethered. Indian Prime minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated and Northern Ireland was in the midst of The Troubles. Brunei became a free state and almost immediately an exceptionally wealthy one that has evolved rapidly  in recent years from importing numerous sex-workers for lavish parties to instituting severe Sharia law penal code. In 1984 Pierre Trudeau, Canada’s long-serving prime minister took a walk through the Ottawa snow and then stepped down. Now his handsome son makes many Americans wish for a more northern location. At that time, We didn’t talk about Russia or Russian collusion; we talked about the USSR and the Red Scare. Divisions were wide and the Soviets did not participate in the summer Olympics, leaving plenty of room for Mary Lou Retton to vault into the gold medal and our American hearts. Patrick Swayze starred in the Cold War film Red Dawn before a few years later leading the problematic yet lovable Dirty Dancing.

Music charts were dominated by Michael Jackson’s Thriller and Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA. Quincy Jones produced a supergroup of artists singing, “We are the World” for famine relief in Ethiopia. In 1984 Bob Dylan was one of the least relevant group members, filling an awkward cameo slot among the stars of the day like Cyndi Lauper, Bruce Springsteen, and Michael Jackson. Kenny Rogers was there; somebody thought to call Kenny Rogers. Thirty years later Bob Dylan is one of the most honored members of that group and looking back at a career of many incarnations. Michael Jackson, the superstar around whom the song was arranged, is dead; Cyndi Lauper stars in a pharmaceutical commercial and Kenny Rogers sold a lot of chicken and bought a new face.

A woman of color was finally crowned Miss America and then shamed out of her crown. The recently dearly departed John Lennon was still releasing songs and part of Central Park became Strawberry Fields in his honor. The AIDS virus was discovered. The McMartin preschool case ignited a moral panic and kicked off an era of not trusting teachers and schools, an era that put us on the primrose path to Betsy DeVos. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was released, ushering in the PG-13 rating that was first officially affixed to the aforementioned Red Dawn. I saw Temple of Doom after school one afternoon – the first possible time to see it after its mid-week release. My friend rode the bus home with me and we changed modestly in the back from our collared school dress code shirts to our sweatshirts with the sleeves and collars cut off. In a double nod to Flashdance, we put the altered sweatshirts on over the school shirts and managed to pull our school shirts out of our sleeves.

In 1984 I finished 8th grade and started high school. The transition was, as many transitions are, hard. The guitar mass and granola Commonweal Catholic community to which I was accustomed was transitioning as well into one that supported Reagan and was galvanized around the issue of reproductive choice. A few years earlier my uncle had kicked my mother and her older sister (along with their children) out of his house on Thanksgiving Day due to their “baby killing” votes for Carter. He returned to the house and kicked their father out for righteous measure. When a friend and I were signed out of our Catholic high school during the fall of freshman year for the afternoon to attend a Mondale speaking event on the U of M campus, the school told our parents who called us in that our absence would not be excused. I saw hypocrisy and inconsistency and found that while absolute feelings about life beginning at conception were true for many, this position was also a way to have moral high ground without having to discuss any other issues. It was also a way to keep women in their place and punish sexually active women without actually discussing women’s sexuality. There was so much emotion for dead babies but the minute those babies were in this world, it was up to their “welfare queen” or “loose” mothers to feed and clothe them. If nothing else makes clear the punitive position of so many anti–choice advocates, this position does. There is nothing pro-life about it.

A few years earlier I cried when John Lennon was shot, cried when Reagan beat Carter, and when my parents purchased a new stereo, sending the older and bulkier turntable and receiver up to my brother’s room. The former two events more obviously evoke tears than the latter. Why cry over a new turntable? (And I cried hard.) I cried over all three for the same reason: change. I felt it. I felt the world around me changing. I saw it in my parents and my friends’ parents. I saw it in my own interests. I saw it in the downtown stores. The world was changing and with change comes loss and fear and sometimes that loss is huge and hard, as is was that night in December of 1980 when John Lennon died or on that November morning when I learned that a man I saw as kind, good, and just was being replaced by one that scared me. The turntable was emblematic of change though that winter break in 1980 when my family listened to John Lennon’s Double Fantasy over and over on the new turntable, I made peace with change.

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Four record albums from 1984 stand out in my memory. They are Madonna’s “Borderline”, Van Halen’s 1984, Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA and Prince’s Purple Rain. Honestly, for me Thriller was a side note. In writing this, I checked my memory. “Borderline,” which I only had on 45, was actually released in 1983. I assure you that it did not seep into my consciousness until 1984. Everything else was released in 1984. I didn’t have to look up the Van Halen album. (Thank you Van Halen for such a convenient album title!) Van Halen was the most short lived of the artists in my listening library. Despite my earlier love for Women and Children First and Diver Down (a cassette I wore out well), I was done with them before the year changed to 1985. The times they were a changing.

I was often in basement family rooms in 1984 because so many things happened in basement family rooms. They still do. I know this is true because my children are all teenagers and their friends have basement family rooms. Just today one daughter suggested that she and her friends had a preferred sleepover house because, “They have a basement.” Our crawl space is not a hangout hotspot. When I was growing up these family rooms were where we stayed up too late watching old horror movies that robbed us of our sleep days and weeks after. They were where we played Dead as a Doornail and Light as a Feather and Bloody Mary. Later, they were where we snuck boys in during sleepovers and played a weird breath-holding pass out game that some people said was a great “natural” high. It never looked natural and I never tried. Basement family rooms were where we spun records: Elton John’s Yellow Brick Road, The Who’s Quadrophenia, The SugarHill Gang, and the Dead Kennedys. I watched the movie Purple Rain in a basement family room.

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The album Purple Rain dominated my freshman year of high school. In addition to the changes that come with starting high school, a family member was in an inpatient program in Toledo, Ohio (the area Michigan gave up in exchange for the UP) and we drove there weekly for uncomfortable family counseling sessions.I had recorded Purple Rain onto a cassette so that I could listen to it during the drives, saving me from family discussion or my own thoughts. The album also dominated school. We danced to it, did cheerleading routines to it, discussed Darling Nikki in salacious whispers. Prior to Prince singing about masturbation, I had only ever heard the word uttered in a pejorative manner. I was a Vatican II kid in a liberal town so I never heard weird threats about the physically detrimental outcomes of touching yourself. Plus, didn’t only boys do that? I read my Judy Blume books and listened to my rock and roll but certainly did not grow up in a sex-positive culture. We had not even reached sex neutral.

My favorite outfit of 1984 was a denim skirt, anklets, low pink pumps, and one of my dad’s v-neck t-shirts. I rolled my hair into big curls and tied a bandana on my head like a headband. My style icon was Madonna and I completed my look with a stack of rubber bangles on one wrist and a vintage Mickey Mouse watch on the other. I believed I looked fantastic yet one day my theology teacher, who I now understand to be one of the best teachers I ever had, accidentally laughed out loud at me during class and apologized by explaining (also during class) that the ends of my pink bandana headband looked like rabbit ears. We never quite project to the world what we see in the mirror but that gumdrop fashion armor was the power posing of my formative years.

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I saw the movie Purple Rain at a “boy girl” party in a basement family room. A bunch of Catholic kids getting together to eat pizza and enjoy the marvels of a VCR on a small color screen. I don’t think I ever saw the movie again, until in recent years. I also suspect we watched an edited version of the R-rated movie, perhaps home-recorded from a cable station. Again, suburban Catholic family room. Boys and Girls.

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One day a few years ago, after literally spending the day in the emergency room, I came home to find Purple Rain on tv. Most of the movie had passed and I was only in time for that final scene. First, Morris Day and the Time perform and then “The Kid” comes out and sings “Baby I’m a Star”. I had lost a lot of blood that day as well as had horrible and invasive things done to me so that electric final scene, which brought me comfort and joy, became the whole movie for me. Weak and pale to the point of transparency, I submitted to my sofa and that performance with such complete surrender that in those five or ten minutes, Purple Rain became a better movie than I ever realized and “Baby I’m a Star” the best song ever written. It is. There are many well-penned songs among the annals of great American pop songs. Desert island decisions about music are quite challenging but now I know that tramps like us, baby we were born stars. It’s true. Just give it a listen and Honey, I know ain’t nothing wrong with your ears.

When Prince died, I was beyond shocked. I expected Lou Reed to die. Leonard Cohen was an old man. I’m not ready to talk about David Bowie. Tom Petty was a sad surprise. I am shocked that Keith Richards is still counted among the living. But Prince? Too soon and too sad. Unbelievable. I was not prepared. It seemed unreal. I think I listened to “Starfish and Coffee” and “Rock Hard in a Funky Place” on loop.

I get it. The painkillers. When I was still teaching full time life was blurry – for too long. Chronic pain and the sleep that it robs from you make everything blurry. You are taut, forgetful, irritable, emotional, and both feral and wounded. You do what you need to do to get by, to be you. Each afternoon on my way home from work I arrived at the light at the intersection next to Seminary Square Park. This is the site of the original Indiana University and now it is a homeless hang-out. There are always people draped about the park among the huge old trees. They filter to the bench by the street, argue at the corner, and walk up and down the few surrounding blocks to the nearby shelter and support center, pawn shop, Arby’s and Kroger. It is a scene familiar to anyone who lives in a city with a significant homeless population and opioid epidemic. Bloomington has both. I have never been oblivious to homeless people and have always recognized their dignity and worth. They are my fellow community members and I know that addiction is not criminal. Still, they have always been far away. No more. Each afternoon I sat at that stoplight, exhausted, hurting, mentally discombobulated, and did the math. If not for my learned persistence, my paycheck, my husband, my children, my health insurance. . .  there but for the grace of those things go I. If my resources and situation were different, would I be self-medicating in that park? Yes. Absolutely.

Watch Prince dance. Unlike another tiny man with bursting sexuality and a foppish and rococo fashion sense known for his dance moves, Mick Jagger, Prince could actually sing and dance. Go take a look at some of the scenes in Purple Rain or just pull some stuff up on youtube. That tiny man could move. He could really move. Those feet were fast and powerful yet light. Those hips. . . He had absolute control. Imagine moving your body in that way. Now imagine not being able to do so anymore. Of course you take the painkillers and you keep taking the painkillers and you keep moving those hips and jumping on those legs and you count on the fact that you’ve always had so much control. And then you have started dancing down the rabbit hole.

So in the wake of Prince’s untimely death, when the local University Cinema screened Purple Rain, I had to go. After all, wasn’t it about 90 minutes of “Baby I’m a Star?” Please know it was not. I talked a friend into joining and we brought our older daughters. I was excited to share this with them. Again, in my mind the whole movie had become that one, exhilarating final musical performance. The girls were now 15 and 16 and ready for some silly eighties nostalgia and some amazing music (certainly better than what the kids are listening to today).

I have a reputation in my household for making poor movie choices. I forget. I always forget that one scene. As we are watching, moments before something explicit or traumatic happens, I remember what is coming and I begin talking in chirpy little partial sentences. Look away! Let’s fast forward! Oh, I think a moment is coming you may not like! All three girls still like to bring up the “ after sex tractor scene” from Man in the Moon. I did not remember, or perhaps I never knew (Catholic suburban basement, VCR) the truth of Purple Rain. It is awful, just awful. So after our viewing I penned this letter to our two older daughters and their friend.

Dear young women,

I have been reflecting on our viewing of Purple Rain and I have some thoughts. I had not seen the full movie since the eighties and, true to form, did not remember a few, er, moments. I remember it wasn’t very good as a narrative piece but had great music and dancing. This holds true. In the thirty-odd years since I first saw it, however, I have refined my views on some things we all had to witness together last evening. When I was younger, these things were much more accepted as the norm. You are fortunate enough to be growing up in a more evolved world and I no longer simply watch and accept some things as the norm. Despite progress, I have a little advice to offer.

 

  1. If someone takes you out to the middle of nowhere, tricks you, humiliates you, makes you vulnerable, and then plays petty head games with you, they are not flirting. This is not fun. They are a creepy bully and you need to run in the other direction.
  2. If they do this on a motorcycle and without offering you a helmet, decline. Your brains are awesome. Take care of them.
  3. Domestic violence has no place in love, even in long relationships.
  4. If you are the kick-a$# guitarist in a band and the bully front man demeans you by asking you to simulate fellating him onstage and refuses to play your songs, quit. Start your own band.
  5. When you do start your own band, play real music. Don’t wear lingerie and a cape and sing “Sex Shooter”.
  6. If a feller or gal courting you invites you back to their place and it turns out to be an oddly decorated basement room below their dysfunctional parents, say no thank you. Go home.Take a shower. Read a book. You have better things to do and places to be. There are jars of food down there that were put up by a previous generation because nobody in that household has been preserving peaches. Nobody.
  7. If you find yourself in such a situation and this feller or gal strikes you, walk out that window and never look back. Do not continue pining for this deeply flawed individual. Hope they figure it out. Wish them well. Don’t stay. Don’t show up at their gigs and look longingly as tears stream down your face. Find another musical venue.
  8. If you are put in the position of choosing between Morris and The Kid, choose neither. Create better options. You can do that.
  9. Capes are not always practical and leather is not your best outdoor and lakeside wear. Choose comfortable, breathable fabrics. You’re gorgeous. Your bodies are strong and beautiful. You look good in everything. Also, it’s okay to wear earrings in pairs.
  10. If your drunken father says something melodramatic to your messed up mother and then tries to kill himself with a gun, don’t write a song with his words in which you and your band all gesture shooting yourselves in the head. Poor form.

 

Prince was an amazing talent and by many accounts, a nice guy. His music has been the soundtrack to many moments of my life. He had a rough childhood and was perhaps working through that by means of poorly acting a weird and uncomfortable story and punctuating it with phenomenal music. Hey, we all get to work our stuff out. So, let’s forgive him, listen to his music often, and maybe never watch that again.

 

Cheers,

Deirdre

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Bring a Little Water Sylvie

 

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As I was doing my Saturday morning rheumatoid arthritis exercise routine in the YMCA pool, I heard the first few chords of the intro guitar riff to Billy Squier’s “Lonely is the Night” over the speakers. I immediately smiled. Damn. Billy Squier from 1981’s Don’t Say No. It was never my favorite song. “The Stroke”, “In the Dark”, and “My Kinda Lover” were more popular with me because they were full of so much more sugary-grit bubble gum. This song was guitar heavy and was Squier trying to play with the big boys in bands like Led Zeppelin. If I wanted to listen to truly good guitar-heavy rock, I would have been listening to Led Zeppelin. I favored the most, however,  “She’s a Runner” from 1982’s Emotions in Motion. Full disclosure: I still do. I played it for my husband this afternoon and asked him if he recognized it. No. Could he name the singer? No. Shockingly, he was not ashamed to admit that he had never listened to much Billy Squier. “Well,” I told him, “that’s about to change.” He left the room. I enjoyed the whole song. Like Billy said, No resistance–it’s hardly fair / Call my name, honey–I’ll be there I’ll give in to you anywhere..so foolishly. I don’t even have to wait for it to come on the car radio. I will seek it out. True story.

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I began to love Billy Squier around 1982, the year after he released Don’t Say No, and stayed committed until about 1984 when he released an awful album titled Signs of Life. Also, my interests were developing in other directions. Judge me not for I was young. Don’t Say No and Emotions in Motion were perfect albums of the early eighties. Squier, with his curly locks (somehow not a perm!) and awkward yet liquid way of moving in leather pants and scissor-altered sweatshirts emulated his own idols: Freddie Mercury and Mick Jagger. My love of him was the gateway to my love of more talented and interesting sexually androgynous men that followed. This was coupled with my love of rock and roll that had evolved a step-up from say, Loverboy. Sorry not sorry Canada. So Squier was a [sexy] step in the right direction, though a rather light step for sure. Fortunately, I had a strong foundation already from my music-loving parents and radio dial cruising ways and I was only a few years away from finding my way to Madonna, Prince, and R.E.M., and before the eighties were over I had discovered Tom Waits and returned to Bob Dylan.

Over the pool speakers, Squier was followed by Journey, then Tom Petty, then Eddie Money. It may as well have been 1983 when I was hanging out at Vet’s Pool in Ann Arbor, feeling good in my one piece suit, certain that everyone there was impressed with my graceful and knife-straight dives off the diving board, and buying Hostess Snowballs at the concession stand because I was an independent woman with babysitting money stashed in my towel and my granola-making mom was not there to tell me I couldn’t enjoy the toxic bombs. For the record, I just made granola earlier this week and I have not consumed a Hostess Snowball since before one day in high school when we hacky-sacked with one in the rain on the front porch of Community High and it didn’t break down from the precipitation or repeated kicks.

 

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I never wore two piece suits, at least not until my twenties. Yes, it took me more than twenty years to become comfortable displaying the scars that mark my midriff due to life saving surgery at birth. (The upper part of my esophagus did not connect with my lower esophagus and stomach and there was an abnormal connection between my esophagus and trachea. So, surgery was necessary and happened immediately. Yay, it worked! I choked a lot and caught pneumonia easily. Breathing and eating created minor complications but for the most part I was a normal kid whose father occasionally hung her upside down and beat on her back until she expelled whatever was choking her. This is not the recommended method for dealing with choking but here I sit, writing this.)  I have two deep puckers near my belly button and one very deep one on my side. I also have a line down my abdomen, as well as a few other cuts around my body. The scar on my side was revisited when I was fourteen because it was so deep, scar tissue doesn’t stretch and I was growing. I lay on my opposite side one afternoon, fully conscious yet locally numb while a plastic surgeon “brought it closer to the surface”. When I was quite young and my friends and I would gather our t-shirt bottoms and loop them through the necks, creating halter tops, I displayed my scars. I was still in the free, body loving years of youth. Other kids would comment upon and ask about my “holes” or “extra belly buttons”. My baby fat and short middle made my scars look deeper than they do now. (Oddly, my middle-age-fat middle does not do the same.)  No one was unkind. They were just curious. Sometimes even funny. When I grew older a friend jokingly called me “Jesus” because of the deep hole in my side like Jesus’ piercing from the holy lance. Oh, Catholic kids can be hilarious! I was never hurt or upset but I did become self-conscious and embarrassed enough, as well as done with other children asking if they could put their finger in my “holes”, to give up on two piece suits for quite a few years.

I have always spent plenty of time in water: pools, lakes, rivers, and great salty oceans. My father fished; my family had a canoe; my mother had been a lifeguard as a teen; my family had limited money for entertainment – all of these factors added up to water sources being a go-to place for fun and relaxation. My mother was also smart and thrifty enough to know that expensive breathing therapies were better replaced with swimming lessons.

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As an adult my life has been one of pendulum swings, each period one of effort or recovery and very little time spent at equilibrium. Well, there’s now. I’m maintaining more equilibrium now. And so I have spent much time in water because water challenges and water heals. After a car accident in which my leg was burned on the catalytic converter I spent time soaking my leg in special baths so that the skin could be removed easily and as painlessly as possible. When my feet and ankles were recovering from multiple broken bones, I swam often. First, I simply walked figure eights in the water, learning to trust my feet again. In the late nineties, in the years following the broken bones, I swam frequently as a counter-balance to so much biking, walking, and running. I swam at the indoor pool at Welles Park in Chicago’s Ravenswood neighborhood, one of nearly 30 fabulous indoor pools maintained by the Chicago Park District. It was me and a regular group of older women in matronly and architecturally impressive suits and daisy-festooned swim caps in that pool. I was young and skinny and wore a red suit and black speedo cap. The ladies called me “the ballerina” because I always went through a series of water stretches. We would gather in small circles in water to our shoulders, treading, bouncing, hopping from side to side, and chat. For awhile there was a lot of talk about Monica Lewinsky and I listened rapt as they clucked disapproval at her for thinking HE would leave his wife.

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During both pregnancies I swam often – especially during the first when I had more free time. I credit so much buoyant movement, so much double-wombing, with making both natural deliveries fast and easy. Of course, my Irish heritage and ample hips also helped. I am all things: the Monty Python character dropping yet another baby, the Dickens character saddled with another mouth to feed, and the goddess warrior with a baby on one shoulder and quiver of arrows on the other. In any case, I can drop the babe and finish hoeing the row before the first nursing.

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And now, I am in the pool about three times a week and in the hot tub almost every day. My poor neighbors. Our back yard is pretty private but when the leaves are off the trees one or more neighbors may have suffered the sight of early morning or late night naked hot tub yoga. In water I am buoyant. I am mobile and agile. I am nearly pain free. The water supports me as my body goes through all the motions that are sometimes hard on land. I put a foam belt around my waist and run, and run, and run. I lazily swim slow laps from one end of the pool to the other in a meditative motion. I stretch and lunge and jump. And, if I do this a few times a week, life on land is easier. I am going to Zumba again. No more Saturday morning cardio hip hop to Nicki Minaj. No, I go to Zumba Gold (gold means for active older adults!) and I love it. Right now, we’re doing the Hustle every week and each time I twirl during the bridge, I am one of Charlie’s Angels. I feel that amazing, that light, that free. That glossy.

So when Billy Squier joined me in the pool this morning, it felt fated. A memory to provoke my memories. A voice to remind me what I once was and forever shall be. Somebody’s watchin’ you baby, so much you can do / Nobody’s stoppin’ you baby, from makin’ it too / One glimpse’ll show you now baby, what the music can do / One kiss’ll show you now baby, it can happen to you. . .

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Oh, Billy, so many things have happened to me. Life is full and wondrous like that. And now I’m more like one of those ladies at Welles Park Pool with gravity and my bathing suit battling for control and my own ballerina buddy in the form of my youngest daughter who swims with me on Saturdays as part of her own physical therapy. She has  to strengthen her VMO due to a ligament injury at gymnastics camp four years ago.

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Yes, that camp, that advertised REAL OLYMPIANS and was nestled deep in the heart of unmarked roads in Tennessee shall forever haunt my daughter, her friend, my friend, and me. We drove our daughters down to the middle of Tennessee the day after I had outpatient surgery and the morning after the night I saw Book of Mormon a few hours after leaving the surgery center. Those were all choices I made. Amplitude increase of said pendulum, I suppose. A week after that 14 or so hour round trip in which we dropped our young gymnastic team daughters off at the camp, we returned to pick them up. We found injured girls and an end of camp performance in a large, hot gymnasium pumped with loud pop music and narrated wildly by gymnasts that had clearly been blowing lines of cocaine for hours because they screamed at us like far too motivated motivational speakers from the eighties. Other than such memories, the knee injury is what is left from that camp. Neither girl is still on the team.

And so water heals us, moves us, blesses us, hydrates us. It is cleansing and mightily powerful. Water can move us or allow us to simply float. Back when I swam with the older ladies in Chicago I learned a few things and I am happily swimming in their direction with my own younger companion, whose name happens to be in one of my very favorite songs about water.

 

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Standing at the Depot

“I think the question I get asked the most is, well I dunno know, it happens a lot, enough that I would remark on it – a lot of people come up to me and they say ‘Is it possible for a woman to get pregnant without intercourse?’ My answer is always the same, I say: “Listen. We’re gonna have to go all the way back to the civil war. Apparently a stray bullet actually pierced the testicle of a Union soldier and then lodged itself in the ovaries of an 18 year old girl who was actually 100 feet from him at the time. Well, the baby was fine. She was very happy. Guilt-free. Course, the soldier’s a little pissed off.” When ya think about it, it’s actually a form of intercourse, but not for everyone. Those who love action, maybe.” – – Tom Waits

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I was in the YMCA locker room after my Saturday morning swim and as I stepped to the counter to comb and dry my hair, I began eavesdropping on two other women in the locker room. They were older than me, either one old enough to be my mother. They were tidier as well, than either me or my mother. One was talking about something she wanted to paint – a picture. She was having difficulty starting because she couldn’t decide what to paint. Then she said that she should just start and let God decide what she wanted to paint. Though none of my busybody business, this irritated me. It seems that this God must have a lot on their hands other than determining the direction of some old white lady’s hobby painting. The children in Syria, the threatened and devastated natural world, the teenage drug offenders in prisons, our local opioid epidemic, school shootings – these and so many other things things seem more important than the painting. It seems decisions like what to paint can be left to the mortals with the brushes.

Then I noticed that the painter’s friend was a woman I recognized. I met her one snowy weekday well over a year ago. I found myself with an unexpected day off because Southern Indiana closes schools at the drop of a flake. I braved the scattering and ventured to the Y where I was sitting on a bench outside the exercise room, changing from my snow boots to sneakers. This woman sat next to me and became chatty. I’m friendly so it was quickly shared that no, I had never before attended this particular Zumba class at this time because I was usually teaching during the day. She grew a sly smile when she learned I was a teacher and leaned purposefully toward me, canary feathers spilling from the corners of her mouth,  “Well, you might not like me. I’m for vouchers and school choice.” She guessed it. I might not like her. I had already learned a few things about her as she had about me. The little she shared or demonstrated included that she was retired, comfortable, white, from Florida, and grinning her cheshire grin at the opportunity to spar with a teacher. All this told me what I needed to know. My dislike for her was not because I suspected we would agree on very little. I like many people I disagree with. I like people in general. I would never learn how much this woman and I agreed or disagreed, however, because we would never talk at at length and explore nuance and complicated topics. We would never discuss school choice and whether it is racist or a solution to racial inequality. We would never discuss civil rights, equal opportunity to education, and the funneling of taxpayers’ dollars into private schools while draining much-needed resources from public schools and the vulnerable students who attend them. I knew our discussion would not go further because I am a teacher and I teach CHILDREN that common ground is the path to real communication. She began our conversation with an intentional cordial attack. I didn’t like her because on that snowy day when I took some needed and deserved time to go feel good in my body with an hour of joyful Zumba in the company of other unself-conscious middle-aged women moving to salacious pop lyrics, this woman decided that she was entitled to an attack. She thought her uninformed-by-experience opinion on schools was so important and my position as a teacher so unimportant that I should abandon the lightness of the moment and answer to her. So, she was spot-on about one thing – my immediate dislike.

And now I had to listen to her talk about God guiding her friend’s painting. Well, I chose to listen. Again, it was none of my business. I side-eyed the women from under the round brush that kept my poker straight long bangs from drying straight over my eyes and thought that God is too busy thinking about all those schoolchildren to think about where your friend decides to drag her brush. As I turned my weak portable blow dryer on my wet, lank hair I thought, We’re gonna have to go all the way back to the Civil War. These words, in Tom Waits’ rye and cigarette gravel growl go through my mind often lately.

When shows on Tom Waits’ 1987 tour were recorded and eventually released in the album Big Time, some of his ramblings were included on the album as well. In one particular anecdote, in which Waits mocks the idea of chastity above all else, he tells the tale of a stray bullet that, “. . . actually pierced the testicle of a Union soldier and then lodged itself in the ovaries of an 18 year old girl who was actually 100 feet from him at the time.” At the beginning of his silly tale of a sex-free, guilt-free, shame-free pregnancy he says, “Listen. We’re gonna have to go all the way back to the Civil War.” And that has become the voice in my head. Tom Waits’ junkyard grumble has become one of my inner voices. Seems about right. He’s not the devil on my shoulder though because you know there ain’t no devil, it’s just God when he’s drunk.

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Scholar and writer Ralph Ellison said in 1949 while speaking at Harvard that the war, “is still in the balance, and only our enchantment by the spell of the possible, our endless optimism, has led us to assume that it ever really ended.” This enchantment has been finally and completely dispelled by the current state of our nation. There is nothing enchanting about resegregating our schools, racially motivated murder at the hands of our peacekeepers, and open demonstrations of racial supremacy movements.

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I am not suggesting we have not made progress since 1865, nor am I suggesting we undo the progress that has been made. I am not suggesting that we fight the war again. Because, Damn. Read that Gettysburg Address. Honest Abe said it all. So, so many people lost their lives across five bloody Aprils, so let’s continue to bind up these wounds and move forward as one. Of course when he spoke those hastily scribbled profound words, the nation of freedom he was determined to preserve was a nation of white freedom.

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What I am suggesting is that we never stopped fighting and we need to finish this damn conflict once and for all because here we are again, right where we have been before. War is in the air but we don’t know who the enemies are. Mad tweets (which are no Gettysburg addresses) point and inflame in various directions. We seem to be looking outward when conflict is in our own degraded and divided backyard. We have a near-dictator president at the helm of a mightily powerful federal government and our political center is gone. Sounds like 1860.

When Grant and Lee sat down in Appomattox, Lee, genteel and noble conceded that the cause was lost. That is, the cause of fighting for a way of life founded on the ownership and brutally enforced servitude of fellow human beings. This was made explicit in multiple states’ succession statements, it was made explicit by Confederate leaders and it was made explicit in the Confederate Constitution. We can talk all we want now about the great pride of institutions and way of life. The institution was slavery. The way of life was based on slavery. There is no revisionist trope about states’ rights and noble dedication to home states that can erase the fundamental ideal of the Confederacy – inequality founded on race, founded on superiority and subordination.  Dignity even in defeat General Lee? There is no dignity in what you were fighting for, sir. Perceptions change. Facts do not.

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Ever since the war we have been playing that handstacking game. Centuries of handstacking. Palms slapping the backs of hands in a tower that keeps bottoming out. Just when you think you have your hand on top, somebody is waiting to smack you back down. The ideology of freedom and liberty that our country was founded on? Not for everyone. The 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments and the gains made during Reconstruction were countered by the 1876 Congressional deal between Southern Democrats and Republicans. The nation got Rutherford B. Hayes and the South got Jim Crow. We are all victims of the great compromise, though some of us much more so than others. Seventy-odd years later and Brown v. Board brought integration and inspired equal protection in other areas. As we approach seventy-odd years after that case, we have Betsy DeVos and vouchers looking to re-segregate our schools. If you can’t keep others out you get to leave. And the gracious, intelligent, and ethical presidency of Barack Obama brought us Donald Trump. Smack.

From that dusty day in April at Appomattox, we have been working around the fundamentals of freedom and unity. The compromise of 1876 was a workaround. All Jim Crow laws and ‘customs’ were workarounds. Plessy v. Ferguson was a workaround. The Klan was and is a workaround. Lynching, in its past and contemporary forms, was and is a workaround. Rewriting the war to justify decades of Jim Crow was and is a workaround. Raising statues of Confederate heroes is a workaround. Naming housing for low income African Americans for slave trader and Fort Pillow terrorist Nathan Bedford Forrest was a workaround. COINTELPRO was a workaround. Reagan’s rhetoric was a workaround. Prisons are a workaround. The phrase “Make America Great Again” is a workaround. 

The Civil War was certainly a mile marker. There is before and there is after. Before, we were a nation of producers, still largely agrarian, with slowly growing cities, an undeveloped and unsettled (by colonial Americans and white European immigrants) western frontier, and distinct northern and southern ways of life loosely divided by Mason and Dixon’s line. After, slavery was no longer legal and so had to be translated into other forms, just as did the integration brought by Brown v. Board, which declared separate is inherently unequal. Yes it is. I cried when I first stepped into the Supreme Court. I cried for the loss and suffering that permeated that room, the balance of wisdom and ignorance, the beauty of a system intended to protect individual liberties, and the righteousness that had at times prevailed. Yet, the freedoms gained in that room were not truly guaranteed outside the doors because we workaround. We set up polling tests and taxes, we intimidate and threaten, we instill terror, we build doors and walls, we use coded language, and we justify bullying behavior toward tired teachers dancing on a snow day because we believe that God is so much on our side that they care what happens with our brushstrokes. This is Christianity as a justification for old fashioned racism and it’s the the bible as a Ouija Board.

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Some facts were laid bare by the Civil War. There had been an economy and culture built upon the idea that some people are less than others. The fact that all people are created equal was laid bare for everyone to digest and this fact seemed to create several responses. One, has laid low until our current president empowered it to double down and embrace the misplaced supremacy and hate. The idea that bringing quality, equality, humanity, and basic human rights to others is somehow an offense that reduces the quality of your life is laughable. It’s not about you. We’re just not that into you. It’s about the fundamental rights of others. 

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So, yeah, we’re gonna have to go all the way back to the Civil War because we didn’t do it right the first time. I’m not just talking about Johnson scrapping Lincoln’s plan for Reconstruction. I’m talking also about the Emancipation Proclamation, which was a tactical move to make the war a moral war, not a moral move in and of itself. Just as crawling seems essential for child development, so is us finally concluding this war essential for our young country to actually move forward. We’re gonna have to go all the way back and solve what we never solved. And I have absolutely no idea how to do that and I’m pretty sure Tom Waits doesn’t either but I do know that we need to stop telling ourselves stories as far fetched as the anecdote that he told about the pregnancy, face up to the harsh reality that is the state of our nation, roll up our collective sleeves, get behind the mule, pray to our collective gods about things that really matter and recognize that we stole this land and founded this nation and we damn well better make it something good for all the people.

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Hello Daddy. Hello Mom.

I wrote this in April of 2015. This was not so long ago and yet eons ago. It was before the current co-opting of #MeToo. It was when electing Donald Trump was unimaginable and so he had not yet rolled the stones out of the way and empowered so much hate to crawl out and infect our nation. It is my story yet it is the story of so many of us then and now who live with both casual and significant wounds as we find our footing in this world. The Daddy and Mom the Runaways were screaming at were not necessarily directly their own as much as all authority and they are certainly not mine (both of whom have my love and gratitude).
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A couple of items entered the news stream this past year and weighed heavily on my mind, occupying oddly similar emotional places. Perhaps, because they have to do with, to borrow a phrase from the fantastically awful seminal eighties rock and roll film, Eddie and the Cruisers, words and music. Much of my life has revolved around those two things.

The first is the revelation from Harper Lee’s controversially published Go Set a Watchman that Atticus Finch was a racist. Yes he was. This is not news to anyone who read the beloved To Kill a Mockingbird and came to know his moral and paternalistic character. The second is that Jackie Fuchs (Jackie Fox) of the Runaways came forward with her tale of a hideous public rape at the hands of producer Kim Fowley. She was sixteen at the time. Both incidents speak of past and present that is so familiar. Both bring to my mind so many memories and so many unrealized hopes, not all of them immediate and not all of them my own. They also make me realize that geography, white privilege, and dumb luck have been to my advantage throughout my life. Finally, they strike me of the common banality of both racism and rape.

Maybe such banality persists because we are living in an era in which fighting against things causes discomfort and takes too much work; during a time when we enjoy a plethora of easily consumed comfort and all work too hard on a daily basis to afford our modest, yet constant, consumer comforts. Also, charges like rape and racism ruin things for the rest of us. A quick scan of comments following credible online articles on either topic gives evidence to this. The rape victim ruins the football game or the party and the victim of racist epithets and acts just needs to relax and “stop playing the race card”. Jackie Fuchs’ allegations, which are quite credibly substantiated, put a stain on the sexually charged persona of the teenage girl band and accepting that the Atticus of Watchman is the same as the Atticus of Mockingbird, puts a stain on a beloved, noble and moral father figure. Heck, it puts a stain on Gregory Peck’s white suit.

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I was born in 1970 into a world in which Richard Nixon was president, the Civil Rights movement was morphing into the Black Power movement and the women’s movement was colliding with the deep misogyny of youth culture embodied in anti-war movements and rock and roll. It was the year of the Kent state shootings, four years before a disgraced Richard Nixon resigned from office, a year before the Attica uprising and five years before the official end of the Vietnam War. Less than a month after I was born former SDS members gone underground blew themselves up in a Greenwich Village townhouse. It was also simply 1970, another year in which a young couple, once college students in SDS themselves, in a mistake marriage full of unrealized ideas and ideals, found themselves saddled with a second child. I was born five years before the Runaways formed. Four years before Patty Hearst was abducted and repeatedly raped (something that has become a footnote in her story and wasn’t even considered in her trial). I was born into  a time of seminal sexual liberation and forty-odd years later,  we still haven’t reached the conclusion that women can be sexual beings without being sexual game.

I was born into a family in which family legend has it my father was offered a spot with Blue Oyster Cult (then Soft White Underbelly) but declined it for family obligations. My father and his friends always had  guitars and my mother had a beautiful voice and was forever flipping records over on the turntable. “Just one more side.” Credibility of my own rock and roll credentials aside, I grew up surrounded by it. My best childhood memories include backyard guitar circles and potlucks. Lots of beards and denim and folk song singalongs with hand-churned ice cream, canned beer, and the sweet smell of marijuana wafting in the air.

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I know enough about child development to know that my early childhood shaped me more than any other time in my life so I am definitely a product of the seventies. My cultural and memorial  touchstones, however, all come from the eighties. So while I can harken a fondness for childhood freedom, glam rock, grit, the working class, long gas lines, wide hemlines, truly dirty and dangerous New York City, black power, a more fiscally conservative time, and Jimmy Carter, I can quote Footloose and Purple Rain and the Ronald Reagan of my youth is not the governor of California who went after the Black Panthers with full racist zeal but the soulless and amoral man who led the Iran Contra arms sales. I lead my life constantly confronting my own paradoxical impulses, informed by the contradictory economies of the seventies and eighties. One is frugal and one irresponsibly indulgent.

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Decades are about as defining as political boundaries. They are imposed on something that cannot be contained. In this case not land and sea, but time, evolution, cultural shifts. Like political boundaries, they do encapsulate something that becomes tangibly defined. Still, we can use the boundaries of decades to look at cultural shifts. The Days of Rage helped burn an era of peace and love to the ground and by the time of the 1970 Kent State shootings, myriad new factors were afoot. Drugs had taken hold. Strongly. People were really, really angry and beginning to see non-violent methods as futile. Across the sea, an IRA member said it best some years later when he said something along the lines of, if they will not listen to the force of our words, they will listen to our force. Stokely Carmichael began as a supporter of non-violence but one can only suffer so much hatred and oppression before one fights back.

Some people saw any work toward change as futile and simply focused on themselves. The freedom of the established counter culture looked pretty good to the younger baby boomers who had seen their older siblings join revolutions and they embarked on a decade of enjoying their own freedoms. Jim Jones led a group of hopefuls into the wilderness of Guyana and it really did seem hopeful: a beautiful self-sustaining mixed race community founded on kinship, love, and equality. Plus, in the footage of their origins the gardens are beautiful and bountiful, surely a sign of nurture and health so it is numbing that only a year later that community became one in which members gunned down outsiders on an airstrip and parents felt desperate and hopeless enough to take their own children’s lives. I am incapable of reconciling in my mind the lush glory of the gardens of Jonestown with the profound sadness of its end. The cutlass beans alone were bursting with hope. By the time the eighties hit, we entered a decade of massive backlashes and elected Ronald Reagan and started down a path that put us in a time when Bill Clinton was the best Republican president we ever had and Bill Ayers buys lattes at Starbucks.

The music of the 1970s departed from the folk-infused peace and love songs of the 1960s and the drug influences changed from the warm kaleidoscopic jangling prevalent in songs like Dylan’s “Tambourine Man”  to a more frenzied, angry sound sometimes tinged with a sexual violence. If Woodstock represented the love of the 1960s, Altamont represented the feel of the 1970s – the party had become perilous. The Runaways “Cherry Bomb” is a perfect example of such a song. It is appealing in its provocative form of FUCK YOU. Guitar riffs, distortion, raw lyrics, and a hard-edged androgyny all entered the mainstream music scene.

Racism, quite prevalent, tangible, and viral today was no less present in the seventies. In many milieus it was more accepted and some forms of it were not recognized. I grew up during a time when students and teachers subtly differentiated the “nice slave owners” from the brutal and bad ones. I learned all the acceptable, sacrificed dark-skinned saints: Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King, and Rosa Parks. Nobody mentioned Fred Hampton, and scary Malcolm X was just so angry! I also learned that the true heroes were white men like Abraham Lincoln and Atticus Finch. I was raised by liberals and they made it clear to me that racism was bad. We had black friends in both parents and children. One day though, I was at the Kroger with a family member and while looking at another family this adult muttered,  “Well that’s an interesting couple.” Dad was a very dark-skinned black man and mom was a very pale blonde white woman. Their child was a baby. The year was probably 1977 and it was one of the first times I came to recognize hypocrisy and the limits of one’s own beliefs. That is, when ideas collide with reality.

Growing up, I frequently wore railroad-striped overalls and my closest cousin called me Scout. With the Morton Salt Girl bob and bangs that I sported for about 25 years, it was a fitting moniker. Just as Laura Ingalls idealized and romanticized her harsh prairie existence, Lee idealized and romanticized the good in her small Alabama hometown, perhaps striving to elicit the paternalistic do gooding exemplified by Atticus in Mockingbird. Sometimes I think benevolent paternalism as a form of racism is better than real ugliness because it hints at humanity yet is truly uglier and more insidious in the way it maintains a slow boil rather than foments revolution. So thank you Atticus Finch for revealing your true Confederate Flag colors. Perhaps we needed more of Orval Faubus and George Wallace and less of your grace and courtesy. After all, Go Set a Watchman was the story Harper Lee initially wanted to share with the world.

While I have not greeted the discussion around Watchman with much more than a resigned shrug (of course given the opportunity to publish another Harper Lee book, someone is going to do so. Of course Atticus was a racist, a likable, noble, admirable racist, just like Robert E. Lee. And of course my white privilege and comfort have allowed me to love Mockingbird and the characters in it.) The Fuchs story briefly consumed me. When I first saw a news item pop up on Facebook I was about to get in the shower, carrying my Ipad into the bathroom to play some music. Instead I sat on the bath mat and read the original Jason Cherkis Huffington Post article as well as several tangential pieces.  Later, I watched Fuchs interviewed and read the responses of several of her bandmates. Why? I was never particularly a fan of the Runaways or Joan Jett. I was, however, also a Title IX generation girl. I didn’t break ground wearing lingerie on stage, drinking underage, and screaming lyrics at adoring and lecherous fans. I did fight the local newspaper until they gave me a route and then fought customers who protested having a girl as their carrier. I did grow up surrounded by rock and roll, wearing my brother’s hand-me-down Toughskins and my mother’s Jean Nate, and with a very open conception of gender roles and identity.

At the time of Jackie Fuchs’ rape she was a recently turned 16 and her manager rapist was well into his thirties. The rape occurred at a party and most of those present were teens – hopeful, aspirational, drug and alcohol affected teens. It was 1975, or the dawn of 1976. I know what it is like to be that young and hopeful, that full of so many ideas with no clear way to put them to purpose. For me, that was experiences such as lying in the back of a pickup truck parked at a canyon edge in Wyoming and watching the Perseids while sipping cold beer and feeling the electric tingle of proximity with the boy beside me. It was also drinking way too much Bacardi and Diet Coke during a high school theater cast party and having friends simply put me to bed in a guest room rather than take advantage of me. I have been in many moments of terrifying vulnerability and been saved only by luck or momentary good decisions that have resulted in more frequently having good memories to hold and stories to share rather than trauma to pocket or regret and shame to carry.

There were plenty of nights I experienced only tipsy and careless kisses, feelings of exuberance, and stories of brushes with danger. Only a few times did things become vaguely uncomfortable or slightly unsafe and most of the time life felt like it did one night when a friend and I were walking  to the cooperatively owned Del Rio Bar for a drink and she said that she felt like something was going to happen, she just didn’t know what. I had known that pregnant feeling my whole life, the feeling of being on the edge of something big. And things often did happen but because of who I was, how I was raised, my fears and low expectations, I just sort of kept looking for something to happen rather than planning and sometimes, things did happen. Fortunately, what happened was usually pretty good though oftentimes, not as good as it should have been. It was also occasionally frightening.

One late night I was walking home from work, carrying a rolled apron fat with tips, far too late at night for a young person to be walking home alone. Someone with a knife stopped and asked me for help. His build-up was brief. He asked me for money and told some classic story about a broken down car. When I declined to give him money because unrolling my apron and revealing my stash of singles seemed unwise, he said, “But all I have is this knife,” and pulled a blade from his pocket. A police car immediately pulled up next to us and saved the day.

I hitchhiked across Ireland when I was young.  Most of my rides were pleasant and kind. (Well, there was one French couple that I really irritated when I encouraged them to take a shortcut that wound up being unpaved and narrow.)  One fellow, however, was increasingly creepy and aggressive throughout our ride. I gave no indication of my deep unease and instead talked him into dropping me off at my hostel so that I could freshen up and meet him at a bar later. I had him drop me at a hostel other than the one at which I was staying and waited for him to drive away before I walked the ten or so blocks to my actual hostel, one less student-oriented and in a less safe part of town. I haven’t always made good decisions but I can think on my feet. Actually, as I was nearing my real hostel with my pack on my back, a car of two unarmed Dublin bobbies pulled over and asked me where I was going. I told them and they encouraged me to hurry along as night was approaching and I was not in the nicest of neighborhoods. If only they knew I spent my afternoon wondering if I was going to be raped and murdered in the Irish countryside. I never thought again about the bar down the street from my faux lodging and instead enjoyed a night at a pub closer to my hostel and woke the next morning to find breakfast was served in the basement. I enjoyed cornflakes in whole milk and soda bread with marmalade while listening to Highway 61 Revisited at high volume. The basement reverberated with the familiarity of Dylan and I loved watching the young Irish people working in the kitchen grooving to the anthemic American music with the same glee I felt in Galway a few nights later when a young  Australian man looked down at the Blundstone boots on my feet and asked me what, “An American girl in Australian boots is doing in Ireland?” I giggled and later joined him in a pub where, when we walked in, we encountered a group of young Irish lads singing the racist southern American  anthem “Sweet Home Alabama”. So many lines of convergence. What’s an American girl doing in Australian boots at an Irish bar with an Australian stranger listening to a racist American song and planning on returning to a situation in which she is sleeping in a room with strangers? Hoping for the right experience. Waiting for something to happen. Read More

Free Fallin’

When we encounter the sand path from the wooded trail, we immediately decide to take it. This despite the fact that it seems a nearly vertical climb. This despite the fact that my feet and knees hurt and I’m positive this ascent, the possibility of which makes me dubious, will do my joints no favors. But, there it is and so we shall climb it. We know Pyramid Point, one of our favorite spots in northern Michigan, lies upward, and this sudden strip of sand seems as promising as one of the sugary shortcuts on a Candy Land board.

We start to climb and both of my daughters, Frances and Sylvia, quickly outpace me. We finally reach a crest and I see that there are now choices: continue up the razor backbone of sand or cut right, climbing down a bit at first but then ascending by means of much more reasonable switchbacks. The girls choose the former and I the latter. I walk downhill, immediately dropping from their sights but they had not been throwing glances over their shoulders at me anyway because they learned long ago to count on the fact that I would be at their backs. We would rejoin one another at the crest. I moved slowly, enjoying the wind and sound of water, lost in my thoughts.

“Mom? Mom?!” My handle is called out a first and then second time. The second time in a much more urgent voice, filled with disbelief, concern, panic, irritation. It is as though Frances is on Everest and turned to see nothing but rope trailing behind her where once a hiking partner trudged. Oh shit, Mom’s fallen off the edge of the world.

“I’m here.” I assure her, “I just took a different path.” She is placated, though laughing nervously  at her moment of wondering what had become of me. In the slow minutes it takes me to join her at the crest I imagine the thoughts that raced through her 16-year-old mind. She is likely equally enthused and terrified. Eager to be the responsible caretaker and terrified to do it without me. Oh shit, Mom’s fallen off the edge of the world and the car keys are in her pocket.

Fortunately, I  brought my tall wooden cane, the one I bought when my feet were swollen everyday and I was teaching full time. It is actually not a cane but a staff. I considered those canes that the pharmacy sells. There were some exceptionally tacky ones: neon pink with leopard spots or purple paisley. Some had not simply a foot but a solid, four-pronged base. I may one day need one of those canes. It is in fact quite likely that I will but I’m just not ready. They feel like a permanent decision whereas my staff feels like an as-needed accessory. It is the reading glasses of my sometimes not so sure feet. The stalk of wood is an excellent climbing tool as I plant it and then pull myself up, step by step. When I reach the crest I can stand atop this dune like Prospero, gazing out over the lake and perhaps conjuring a storm. Don’t worry about me children, I’m just controlling nature.

When I reach the girls they ask if I am okay. I offer confidence and even mention that the dense, cold, October sand feels really good on my swollen and sore feet. This is true. It is numbing, massaging, invigorating. My sandals have been tucked into the back pocket of my jeans and my toes are quite happily lodged into the packed powder. They even feel a bit wiggly, something they rarely feel anymore. I feel good, happy, relaxed. I am also in a lot of pain and simply weak and tired. My daughters are smart and they know me. They know me well. Still, we all choose to together participate in a fiction we are willing to truth. Mom is fine.

They know me well because I have always been their keeper. Before I remarried and our family suddenly grew from three to five, it was, well, three. Their father moved to another state when they were only four and seven and most of their life experiences have been in the company of  the other two-thirds of our trio.  Our home was small, doors never closed, beds shared, and,  due to lack of childcare funds, just about everything done together . My daughters knew my intensity, my seemingly endless energy, my creativity and productivity, and my fierce love. They never doubted my strength or abilities. I once stitched Frances a small felt tube on a sturdy neck cord so she could carry her lip balm during the winter months. She came home from school asking me to make about 25 more because her friends all wanted them. She had a list of names. Time and energy were of no concern to her. She seemed genuinely surprised at any limitation I showed. Of course Mom can do that. I did not do that but I did stay up until the middle of the night doing many other things. I paid the bills, baked the muffins, mowed the lawn, wielded the power tools, sewed the Halloween costumes and doll clothes, dipped the cat litter, hid the Easter eggs, and in every other way assured those girls that I had it taken care of, that I was up to the task, whatever it was. And I was.

These pilgrimages to northern Michigan were something we did annually when they were little. Our trips are now more sporadic and we all love the sense of coming home they bring us. We visit a friend, a farm, my home state, and the lake that I love. There are hikes and dairy bars. Each summer of their younger years we piled into my old Volvo with no air conditioning, packing a  cooler full of snacks and books on CD and drove north. The drive took us about 11 hours because there were many bathroom and popsicle breaks along the way, but we all relaxed into it as we moved farther and farther north, away from schedules and school and our tiny home and daily life. When we crossed the border into Michigan we all cried out, “Woo-hoo Michigan!” It never occurred to the girls how bone tired those drives made me because we were having too much fun. I didn’t spend much time allowing it to occur to me either because I simply surrendered to the drive and the time with my children. I caffeinated steadily, leaning forward in my seat and slapping my own face when I felt myself fading. This trip, this October trip, is a chance to have another northern excursion before Frances grows up. She is a high school junior; Sylvia in middle school. Their stepdad and stepsister are visiting colleges during the fall break and this dividing of our blended family is not unusual. We take these moments to exist in what was. We all had these lives before we came together and we come together so easily and with so much love that the parting ways is easy and reuniting is celebrated.

The trees were beautiful driving up. It had not occurred to me that we would have such a colorful passage north. We are not intentional leaf peepers and for us these rich fall colors are a bonus rather than a purpose. No longer do we listen to children’s chapter books on CD but podcasts and shared music, which the girls tune in and out of with earbuds and their own musical choices. On this trip, we listen to Tom Petty songs, over and over, because he died only a few days earlier and took with him one of the voices of my eighties radio years. Conversation is balanced with silence and sometimes we share the music, all three of us singing along. I’m gonna free fall out into nothin’. Gonna leave this world for awhile.

It rained heavily as we arrived during the dark evening and we picked up food at the market and then headed to our friend’s tiny farmhouse. She is away, farther north herself, in the leap of land that is Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. We slept with the windows open and woke to farm smells and sounds. There were cows outside the bathroom window and horses in the sunshine at the pasture fence across from the porch. The girls slipped their feet into boots and stepped across the muddy drive to talk with the horses. I learned that it was chicken-slaughtering day on the farm and knew that I had to get us, my vegetarian daughter in particular, elsewhere for the day.

On the open dune I walk behind the girls, still feeling the bulk of my rubber Birkenstock sandals in my back pocket. They are the only shoes I wear these days and I have yet to make footwear plans for the winter. The girls are so very different yet so alike and they love each other as much as they irritate each other.  I try to not manage their relationship. I hear the bickering but I see and feel the love. I watch them descend toward the water. The waves slap rocks at the dune’s base and create a ripple of cold color and foam. The water’s edge looks perilous but the girls carefully pick their way downhill, around patches of dunegrass, toward the rocky edge. Please don’t fall because I can’t catch you. I think from my high and solitary perch. But I can or we wouldn’t be here. Despite my physical weakness and loss of self, despite my swollen hands and slow feet, I drove here with you and I climbed this dune with you, and I am watching over you as you sit close to the water’s edge and share this moment as sisters. I will climb down with you if need be. I will drive you out of these woods and feed you dinner and love you because I am the keeper of you; you are not yet the keeper of me.

The previous spring, after a year of confusing and debilitating migrating pain and inflammation, I was diagnosed with severe rheumatoid arthritis. I promptly contracted shingles and later in the summer was diagnosed with degenerative spine disease. In short, my body was quitting its primary jobs. Some days my hands hindered me from simple use: holding a mug, pressing garlic, opening a jar. Some days my feet swelled like potatoes and each step was painful. My shoulders sometimes did not allow me to raise my arms above my head and when my elbow was also inflamed, I had to manually lift my arm to a tabletop for eating or keyboarding. Simple tasks like brushing my teeth or hooking my bra became challenges. Sometimes driving a car was a really bad idea because my hands gripped the wheel about as effectively as the mitten hand of a gingerbread man. Candyland again. (Honestly, I hate that interminable game with no room for strategy or skill.) I was slow, far away, and in pain all the time. Inflammation squeezed my nerves and radiating pain that felt like fire ants crawling up and down my limbs kept me up at night. I spent the wee hours pacing out the pain or on our sofa, crying and watching old episodes of Law and Order. Oh, McCoy, you loveable fascist. Please lull me to sleep. Connective tissue hurt; big swollen lumps appeared on the top of my hands and feet. They hurt and then went away. There seemed no discernible causality between food, activity, inactivity, rest, medicine and symptoms. My body was a broken machine with electrical parts that glowed  and buzzed at unexpected times. I was the sick animal in our herd and my tangible weakness spoke of an uncomfortable instability. The girls wanted to help me as much as they wanted to ostracize me from the fold.

They weren’t ready for me to go careening off a dune, however, landing on the tree branches and forest floor behind us or the water and rocks before us. I was the driver, navigator, and banker of our travels. Frances drove part-way but it was highway practice for the relatively new driver. Heck, we weren’t even at the well-signed and heavily hiked Pyramid Point trail. Instead of driving to the trailhead parking lot and hiking the heavily trodden climb to the popular lookout, we drove into the wooded area and picked up a part of the long loop there, immediately finding ourselves in the beautiful beech and maple laden piney northern woods and headed for an open dune area less pristine than the lookout but just as inviting. On this cool and windy fall day the patches of scrubby dune grass and the wind-carved lumps and spines of sand created an interesting landscape. My car waited in the woods on the side of the road where we left it when we abruptly joined the trail until we came across the steep sand shortcut and now here we are, on top of a dune, in the cold wind.

Each of us has those things that make us, well, us and locomotion has always been one of mine. Since I took my first steps I have felt a strong wind at my back. I love the motion and rumination of walking often and for long distances.  Also integral to my sense of self is motherhood. Neither can be cleaved from me though how I employ both is ever-changing. Pain and limitations have not hindered the most important parts of parenting. I can love unconditionally, communicate effectively, listen, teach, care, pay bills, help with algebra, wrap gifts, make pancakes, make phone calls, and otherwise function in a parenting role. There is something else though that we three have built together, it exists among us and is part of each of us. We are makers and adventurers. We are producers more than consumers, and our small family was always a family project. We once drove west, following in the footsteps of Laura Ingalls Wilder. We made rubbings of leaves, one from every tree variety we could find in the Big Woods. We waded in Plum Creek, and camped in a brutal storm in Walnut Grove. We once ventured to Washington,  D.C., leaving on a Tuesday morning and coming back on a late Thursday night. I drove the whole way, straight through on either end. We ate peanut butter and crackers and walked miles every day. The girls were raised to be adventurers and were comfortable carrying their own luggage, sleeping in tents and cheap hotels, and riding long hours in the car from young ages.  I was the foreperson of this great project and now I am weak- limbed and low energy. I feel vulnerable, low ebb, old, and no longer up to the task. I continue walking across the sand.

On our return to the trail we find a fairy crown. Intertwined vines adorned with a few sprigs of greenery sprouting delicate white flowers. The full circle imagery is not lost on me. Here we are, girls, right where we started when you were little people: In nature, in wonder and beauty. Despite age, time, illness, and family changes we still find each other in this place and it is still as lovely, simple, and natural as this forgotten fairy crown.

Sylvia and I sit for awhile, scooping sand around our feet and being quiet with one another. Now is still their time to be children: and I refuse to fall down on the mom job – literally or figuratively. I am still their tether and my feet, swollen and slow as they are, are still firmly planted. I am helping them dig their holes deep and plant healthy roots and if at these still tender ages they think I have become unmoored then so might they. This is the job. It has been the job from the moment I met Frances and her helmet of heavy hair. The job requirements change everyday but the first and foremost of them is simple: be there. This presence takes many different forms and may be literal or figurative. The time will come for the burden to shift and the roles to change but that time is not now. I am not ready to be kept by my children and they are not ready to keep me. Because I am the keeper of you; you are not the keeper of me.

Just the normal noises