I don’t know why people seek out fortune tellers. Why would you want to know the heartaches that lie ahead, the assurance that life will take your spouse and body and dreams?
He will be with his family tonight, Doctor, when he goes home, the deathless man says. Why should I tell him that tomorrow he is going to die? So that, on his last night with his family, he will mourn himself?…Suddenness. His life, as he is living it – well, and with love, with friends – and then suddenness. Believe me, Doctor, if your life ends in suddenness you will be glad it did, and if it does not you will wish it had.
Not me, I say. I do not do things, as you say, suddenly. I prepare, I think, I explain.
~ The one quotable text from Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife I can’t recommend
We hope, with foreknowledge, to hedge our bets, if only mentally. We like to imagine that we can avert, if not preempt, the undesirable – in the least, prepare ourselves and explain it. But the suffering is bad enough. Do we really need to expect it, too? And the glad blessings? Will their surety really help us live differently? Halfway up the California mountain thirty years later, I look down at the girl I left behind on the other side of the country. I wish I could promise her the thousand joys she dare not believe, the love in unexpected places, friends and a mess of food around her table. I wish I could teach her to nurture herself, admonish her away from her follies. But far and past, she is out of my hands. And she is so frustratingly, so helplessly her. She won’t do it any other way.
Life hangs by a prayer but you take so much for granted in your unhappiness. You have community and, for all their sins, parents who cherish you.
Stupid girl. You don’t listen. You need to take better care of yourself. You eat too much ice cream. You can fool others and even yourself, but not your body. One day you will have to learn to eat, sleep, live all over again. These brick apartments suffocate you but one day you’ll mark your own path. You always do. You will drive through a painting of Montana mountain and sky, and survey the gleaming Pacific. There are many, many good people ready at the crossroads of your life to look out for you. I am sorry that life will become so unyielding you will stop singing for 10 years.
There’s a man waiting to find you. He wants to build you a new life and provide all you need. You don’t know the cost and gift of marriage. The walk down the aisle is just expensive trimming. Though he’ll disappoint you many times over, it’s that he chooses you everyday. You will squeeze and crush the heart he left in your hand. And in his eyes you will still be enough.
You will experience the power and genius of God. You will feel fingers and toes in your womb, touching you from the inside. Those hands and feet will one day come to refresh your grave, mark the place of your memory. She was here. You will put your baby to your breast in the rocking chair, seat of the highest office in the world. You will sing again. Sacrifice is a privilege, because it means a purpose greater than yourself. But you will embitter your child too, as your parents did you. The love of parents, our broken inheritance.
One day the lights will go out in your home and you will read to your men by candlelight. They will love the inflections of your voice.
I didn’t think people could change but you are proof. I’m proud of you! You will grow less rigid, softer with others, having learned how foolish you can be. Wisdom works backward. Your life will be a desert’s bloom, well tolerant of drought. And before the sun has set on your dreams, right here on the edge of this switchback, you will learn it is safe to stop hurting. Learn that you are more than your fears, more than your boy, more than your most unworthy moments, more than your achievements.
The loyalty of friends, the forgiveness of family, You will be wanted and needed. These are your gifts of grace. And the words. You will claim your place in a virtual world, a very real world, and somehow in all your struggles and humanness, make many people laugh and think. You will matter. Will it take 30 years for you to know it is All Right to breathe, to smile, to trust that life is worth it?
You’ve done well, my dear. Closing the wrong doors to love, choosing the right one. You will bring a beautiful, thoughtful boy into this world. And though life has knocked you flat beyond counting, you keep climbing. We will look each other in the eyes and I will tell you everything when you reach me.
His scream punched through the room where I was hiding for my life and sucked me cold out of sleep. It had just turned midnight Saturday and as the dream evaporated, I did not know I would rest again only after dawn. My son had woken – for the umpteenth time – in pain and spit his thick, cloudy cough into the waiting mountain of Kleenex. Tennyson cried, holding the ice pack down on his head, wiping at watery eyes. How much can a kid take? How much could I? Unrelenting 16-hour-shifts nursing him hand and foot and chasing down every possible remedy, days of aborted sleep. I was now battling the flu.
This thing that’s mowed him down unflinching in the face of the best practitioners and products turned out to be a seasonal pollen allergy. Which is why it stealthily flared all last month as the pollen count here rose, and let up the two days it fell. Spring comes early in Southern California. On the way home with the diagnosis the other day, I decided to grab some plants to filter the air in Tennyson’s room. We picked out a big, tall palm and a cute little guy who made us smile, a Money Tree. Ten minutes later on our driveway, Tennyson was clutching his throat, hands wet with desperate tears. His throat tightened and hurt. I was afraid he would stop breathing. OTC antihistamines didn’t work. Eucalyptus and peppermint oils opened up the passages. As it happens, he was allergic to the plants. How sad is that, being allergic to the Money Tree! And a virus came along to kick him while he was down, sending him flying off a cliff, making sure not to neglect his parents. I didn’t remember my boy being so sick. But reserves are not bottomless. It’s incredible what life asks of us sometimes.
Where’ve I been? I’ve been stressed, if that isn’t obvious. We’re behind in school. Testing for Memory Master lies around the corner. The TV network PBS is also doing a feature on our music school and Tennyson was to be at the drums filming next week. The best laid plans of mice and moms, see them wheel away like chaff in the wind. It will be hard to swallow those events passing us by. The little mister has missed every baseball practice and Saturday’s opening game. We’ve been so disappointed, but the email from the coach touched me deeply.
No worries. I hope he is feeling better. His health comes before baseball. We are praying for him.
I wish this man knew the gift he was giving me. I’m sure he inspires kids to love baseball and teamwork, but his humanity and ministry to me meant everything. He’s played professionally, but didn’t forget it was about people, not the game. It takes so little to help someone up. You persevere in hope but how long? And how, in the teeth of it going from bad to worse? Answers can come from the most unexpected places. Some background on this one.
Flowers don’t like me. I can’t seem to coax them to life. I’m sure they sense the Tiger Mom presence, accordingly suffer performance anxiety. Or maybe they become passive aggressive and decide to just wilt. It also doesn’t help that I forget to care for them. And so looking up from the dishes, I was stunned at the sight of the bold blossom on my windowsill. I had given up on the orchid that dropped all its petals some six months ago even though it was said to be only going dormant. How foregone it’d looked, stripped of promise. But here was a triumphant awakening, the white silk so fragile, so strong. My eyes smarted. How…under my watch? In the midst of this despair? The tenacity not only of life, but of beauty. The insistence of hope.
Goodness, is it only March? I can do this. Nine more months and I get to reset and wish myself another happy, hard year.
How many songs do you still know from high school? The old band – cooler than ice cream in its day – revs up the radio and you’re right back, lyrics sure after all these years. Which is why Holistic Boy learns a lot of things through music. He had the optional challenge of memorizing the first 17 verses of Exodus 20 in the King James the past school year and so I went to work. After writing the melody, I found the perfect male baritone (the voice of God), and recorded countless takes on the piano with Husband and Son on drums. The families in our homeschool community were given the best version to run at home. T and many of his homeschool friends learned it easily as we sang it a verse at a time in our weekly gatherings. The final stage presentation was open to anyone who wanted to perform it this spring, whether they had mastered it or not. Some who made Bible Master were too shy but I was so proud of the kids that night. We had five-year-olds up there. The 17th century diction and syntax were not easy but they got it.
1 And God spake all these words saying,
2 I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.
3 Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
4 Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.
5 Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me;
6 And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.
7 Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.
8 Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.
9 Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work:
10 But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates:
11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.
12 Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.
13 Thou shalt not kill.
14 Thou shalt not commit adultery.
15 Thou shalt not steal.
16 Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.
17 Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.
“There are no two words in the English language more harmful than Good Job,” intones Fletcher, the monomaniacal music instructor in the film Whiplash. Isn’t good the enemy of the best? Fletcher’s psychopathic devices sucked me right into the vortex of the questions I ask as my son’s teacher. How much do I push? And how? With the promise of Pokémon cards? There’s the drum student Andrew. His single eye upon Whiplash, the jazz piece he determines to conquer, he denies himself even the distraction of girlfriends. Would I have my boy bleed in the pursuit of excellence? Of course not. Except – the first time Andrew plows right through practice as the blood on his finger oozes from useless bandaids would’ve been cinematic cliché if he were Korean. Because falling short would’ve hurt more. So logic and genes say I should at least allow my son to bruise a little.
Last year when he was not yet eight, we went for the optional Memory Master challenge in our Classical homeschool program. Tennyson had to recite the hundreds of facts he had learned in seven subjects (English Grammar, Latin, History, Science, Math, Geography, Timeline of 161 events in human history) through four rounds of testing. Beyond the 1 mistake allowed per subject in the second round, he had to come through with 100% accuracy in the last two proofs. He was so close but made more than the 1 error in the second sitting. He had rocked the memory review games in class and the teacher told the director he knew his stuff. The director was willing to give him a chance at the next round of testing. I bowed out.
I could see he’d felt the pressure. From me. After some yoga out back under a full moon, his hippy dippy mother had suddenly shapeshifted into Tiger Mom (from New York, double jeopardy). She kept putting raw meat in front of him. Testing season came and I was my Old Self again, the one who unblinkingly had bled for grades at his age, the one who was now oh, ambitious for her son. On the cusp of the third test, I realized I simply should have started reviewing the material with him sooner. We were running short on time and though the potholes were few, we were cramming. I was drilling Tennyson in the little time remaining and overwhelmed, he got headaches and spilled tears of frustration. Sigh. He had bruised enough. I chewed the last of my raw lamb liver, the mineral taste and feel of flesh a sad memory in the swallowing. And in the privacy of my backyard morphed back into the California homeschooler who wanted to honor the sacred whole child and spare him the pain of that great modern evil, stress. What I really didn’t want was to get in – make the hallowed halls of Memory Masters – by the skin of our teeth. I could’ve kept pushing him and been able to applaud as his name was called in the awards ceremony. But I didn’t want to barely make it. I wanted him to own it. Mastery means mastery, not hope crossing fingers that he doesn’t slip in the testing. I loved how high we set the bar in the program, that we had such tall demands to aspire to. I would submit to them. And when my son reached for them again, they would be his without question.
So he went for it again this year. And he did it. He went up on stage recently, where one-eighth of the students in Kindergarten-Grade 6 received their Memory Master certificate.
I paced the material in such a way as to prepare him months in advance and by the time testing rolled around, the countries and their capitals, the math multiples and linking verbs, each continent’s highest mountain and the history of Western Africa were in his bones. I found myself at peace in the third proof where he could’ve lost it all – fingers uncrossed. After an hour-and-a-half, he came out of the room smiling. I had told him to enjoy himself and the teacher said yes, he had himself a grand old time. Two days later, he did the Hokey Pokey as we got ready to leave for the final test. So I’m not Fletcher. I didn’t throw chairs at my son to get it right. But Fletcher had zero tolerance for mediocrity (well yes, if you despise it) and that’s something to appreciate. I’m still trying to figure out just what it is Tennyson needs to give up while we uphold those standards but I can’t sit with the majority and tell my child he’s doing a good job when he can – and should – be doing an outstanding job. It wasn’t recognition I was after. At the most practical level, the journey was about nailing down a solid foundation of knowledge he can retrieve at will and use in the older years. But the process was really about self-respect. That whatever his resources and abilities, he discovers he can use them to extend into his outer world of possibility and turn it into reality. I love the scene where Andrew’s got it. He’s mastered the impossible Whiplash and, when he finds himself in the band competition, it’s a part of him. He sails through the piece, sticks dancing on the snare still stained with blood. His new reality.
Here’s a glimpse of what Tennyson learned this school year. I threw random questions at him from the year’s work for you. I am proud of him for keeping the joy and must say, of myself for not ruining it.
Math: Counting by 12s
What are the major groups of invertebrates?
Sponges, stinging cell animals, flatworms, roundworms, segmented worms, mollusks, sea stars, arthropods
What are the major groups of vertebrates?
Fish, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, birds
Latin Noun Cases
Nominative – Subject
Genitive – Possessive
Dative – Indirect Object
Accusative – Direct Object
Ablative – Object of the Preposition
First and Second Declension Noun Endings, Singular and Plural
A preposition relates a noun or a pronoun to another word.
About Above Across After Against Along Amid Among Around At Atop Before Behind Below Beneath Beside Between Beyond But By Concerning Down During Except For From In Inside Into
Like Near Of Off On Onto Out Outside Over Past Regarding Since Through Throughout To Toward Under Underneath Until Up Upon With Within Without
Tell me about the Age of Imperialism.
During the Age of Imperialism, the British established rule over India in 1858, and Queen Victoria was declared the Empress of India in 1877. Before his assassination in 1948, Mohandas Gandhi led the passive resistance movement, which helped win India’s independence.
Tell me about the Heian empire.
As the Heian government weakened in Japan, Shoguns began to rule and expelled all foreigners during the period of isolation. Circa 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry of the U.S. restored trade, allowing the Meiji to modernize Japan.
Some kinds of leaves and leaf parts?
Spines, needles, tendrils, bracts, bud scales, palmate
What are the four kinds of volcanoes?
Active, intermittent, dormant, extinct
What are the five major circles of latitude?
Arctic Circle, Tropic of Cancer, Equator, Tropic of Capricorn, Antarctic Circle
I caught crickets with the boy you would marry. “I’ll give you a quarter for the Queen,” I offered, and he dispensed the prize insects in glass Coke bottles. My cousins got to keep theirs on the fire escape but aghast at the sight of black crawlies in her home, Mom threw mine down the incinerator chute. I was so mad. T’s breathing had a restless purpose and he contrived guns from wooden clothes pins and soda can tabs. Who knew he would find and love my dear friend someday?
You were in a different class in elementary school but somehow I liked you. I was the bathroom monitor during lunch in fourth grade and we still get a kick out of the way I told the girls in line to get in size order – because you were short.
Even if I’d journaled the way we clutched bellies aching in laughter, how does one record the telepathy that provoked it? I could’ve noted all the times you found me waiting on the stoop of your building after school but the smell of your home, of worn leather couches that invited me to stay? I showed you how to make Jello and bake out of Betty Crocker. You taught me generosity. Whether from sugar or hormones or real profundity, we cried harder than we laughed. The peals of hilarity, tears and confidences – a million signatures of friendship. You saw the dumbest, boldest, smartest things I did and the words that spilled from my pen; were moved by the poem I published in the eighth grade yearbook but asked in high school what the point was to the vignette. We wore honesty like skin and tread a hundred thousand steps between your place and mine, passing apartment buildings that boxed in the sky when we looked up. And you told me to make something of myself. The encouragement, acceptance, breakfast and TV dinner rituals. They are the muscle and fiber of a childhood.
If I erased you from those early pages, I’ll end up with more emptiness than story. We didn’t expect to follow our hopes, heartaches, regrets to two lives on opposite coasts full of joys of family and the tiredness that is our inheritance as Korean moms. I could not have guessed your boy would one day walk the shiny halls into my science lab and think, eyes on the girl by the window, that his parents never felt what he has with such density. We are startled by time because we feel younger than we did when we knew everything at fourteen.
Voices in my house can be loud lately. Or hushed. Both scare me. I like a happy medium.
When my sister sits in the bathtub in the dark, she tells me she is reading. I am small, not stupid. No reading happens in the dark. And I sense pain coming off of her. At age six, I can smell pain like a bloodhound.
But today is one of those enchanted days. Magic will happen. We are not in the house with loud and hushed voices today. Instead, my parents and I go exploring.
The car smells of Amish country. Cherry pie and coffee. Cows. Cider, apples and cheese.
My parents sing in the front seat. I am still young enough not to cringe, to sing along to “Down by the Old Mill Stream” and “Shine On, Harvest Moon.”
My father drives over the hills, past the horses and buggies, so my stomach will drop and I will giggle on each descent. My mother plays the alphabet game with me. My name is Mary. I’m from Missouri and I went to the store to buy muffins.
When we finally arrive at the festival, my friend and I eat cotton candy and roll down the grassy hill. We listen to the music and brave the Tilt-a-Whirl. My world, at home, feels like a Tilt-a-Whirl. I don’t know why all the big people in my house seem to be spinning, hurly-burly. I don’t like it. But today, the Tilt-a-Whirl brings me a gift. I laugh instead of scream. It’s the same feeling but I know now it’s all how I let it in. My six-year-old self is learning, if only by gut instinct.
Tired from sunshine, running, eating, chasing horses, I fall sound asleep. I do not hear my friend leave the car for her front door.
I wake, softly and lightly, from the most delicious sleep. It is dark and the strongest arms I know lift me in the gentlest way possible. As I start to protest, my father whispers, “I’ve got you, Peanut. It’s ok.” That is all I need to know.
I smell no pain today. And I know neither voices nor Tilt-a-Whirls can hurt me—not now.
I wish the moment would last forever, as he lays me gently on my pillow and sleep comes again.
Kristine at candidkay.com