Sunday, July 25, 2010

partial answers


I'm looking for an answer. Or a question. 

I've been collecting them for years - Q&A, multiple choice, mix & match coordinates. 

I like questions and answers both - they offer different satisfactions, provide opposing pleasures.


A bird flinging out note after note, perched somewhere, in the moment. 

The perch changes.  The song does not. 

It's by this unrolling of its calling card that we recognize a bird, not just as itself in the instant,  but as an instance of the species, subspecies.  As if the repeating song were the unfurling of a spiral strand of DNA.


Sitting for the third time at the outpatient lab this week waiting for Fritz' mom, for the third day having driven her into the city.  Not quite the waste of a whole day though no other town-errands can be run as she will be tired, will need to get home as soon as we can.  Not quite a whole day gone.

And not a waste certainly.  But for the third day in five, this unavoidable, unproductive, undeniably necessary sitting.  Waiting. 

I've brought my own trashy magazine to read.  Vanity Fair.  There's an article about Angelina, of course - who says when asked if she'll do another movie with Brad something to the tune of Of course I love working with Brad.  But I am working with him all the time.  We're raising a family together.  That's the most important work. The writing is clever.  The gossip is the same. 

My mother-in-law has come in for bloodwork.  Nothing serious.  A base reading for the new doctor.  This is just part of caretaking aging parents.  Like listening.  Like making chat.   Like steering away from topics un-chattable.

YoungSon is reading about dogs while we wait.  A woman perches down two chairs away.  Her face innocent as a child's, simpler than a child's, chirupping towards us over the head of the well-groomed woman between us, "What's he reading?  What kind of dog is it he wants?  Do you like that bulldog?  I like bulldogs.  My sister Shelly she has a dog and he always wants to jump up on whoever comes in and one time, when it was Christmas . . . "  she giggles. 

I nod.  Try to respond without encouraging too much more of this spate of song.  But also try to avoid withdrawing, try to avoid denying kinship, try to remember how closely related we are.  

I recognize her song, this instance of our common humanity, this seeking comfort in connection.  The same song I sing here.  But I am tired.  Tired of listening to simple notes sung over and over - stories not in the service of truth or the exploration of a deeper understanding but just to be saying, Here I am.  Here I amHere I still am.

More, though, than that, I am tired of facing, day after day, the crumbling of that warm and kindly facade I've been living behind these many years. Tired of myself and disappointed with the way I fail over and over - this sad song I keep singing - the falling flat at that first, simplest, and yet so difficult part of the family motto Fritz and I agreed on some many years back. That simple and innocent commandment to Be Kind. 

In the waiting room, the sleek woman sitting between us - good nails, good hair, a scarf flung back over one shoulder - stands up, paces away, done with the chatter, the circular stories.  I recognize the irritation clearly on her face.  For a minute, part of me rises with her, tosses its own scarf back, shakes free.

The simple woman sings on, "Did your mother-in-law have to come fasting?  I had to come fasting.  Is she scared?  Where are you going for lunch afterwards?  I think I'll go to Cafe West.  It's here in the hospital . . . "

I nod, slick pages of clever unread words lying open in my lap. 


Last week I was away. Not exactly at a spa retreat but - change as good as a rest? - as cook, or rather sous chef and bottle-washer to an inventive, fastidious and accomplished all-natural cook - at Girls' Camp.

The plan had been that Eldest would come with me.  I'd had to make special requests, talk to people, get permission.  We thought it might be fun chopping side by side for a week together.

I had certainly been looking forward to it.  Middlest would be there as a senior camper - YCL, Youth Camp Leader - enthusiastic already over her small flock of younger teenage girls.  She'd be dropping in for hugs and quick hellos while Eldest and I talked for a whole week over our chopping blocks, one last week in this last summer before she goes away to college.

But the plan depended on Grandpa being available to pick up YoungSon each afternoon from Cub Scout day camp. And then, not exactly out of the blue, but almost suddenly, there was unfinished urgent business back at the old hometown. So Eldest stayed home to take care of Grandma, to pick up YoungSon in the afternoons.

And I went to camp without her, seeking an answer.


We pitched our tents next to the kitchen to save time stumbling from sleeping bag to stove and sink and chopping block.  We began at 6:30 or 7 in the morning until 10 or 11 at night and I never sat down except to eat, to pack baggies for lunch tomorrow.  We cooked meals and then we served meals and then we cleaned up and started cooking the next meal.

I had the small achievable challenge of providing alternate meals for our few Special Diets. My chicks, as they came to be called, showing up at the kitchen door for hot and frothy spiced rice milk when the rest of the camp had hot cocoa, for eggless blueberry pancakes or rice bread french toast (nutmeg and a pinch of lime and orange zest), potato casserole made with tofu cheese.

And I loved it. Mostly. Problems, personalities, cold nights and little sleep were all surmountable, hills to climb. Strengthening within themselves. And meanwhile, girls I've worked with in the past stopped by for a hug, for a smile, for quick sympathy. Needs easy to meet. And all day long talking with friends, our conversations companionably floating over our busy hands. The hours talking, the activity, the tidy and reachable achievement, the colors and scents of fresh fruits and vegetables as we chopped and minced: Cilantro and onion, red and yellow peppers and tomatoes, pasilla, jalapeno in the fresh salsa. The giving myself over to a master plan. The simplifying of self.

I came home with an answer ~  Industry! I could get so much done if I just gave myself to the writing like this. To the caretaking. To our simple meal-making. Just never sit down. Metaphorically. That's all it would take. I announced my plan for the coming week to the assembled family

"You do remember I have a doctor's appointment tomorrow afternoon? Will you still be able to drive me in?" said Fritz' mom.

"Oh yes. That's right. Well, the morning then. Bright and early, everyone? And the rest of the week." I back-pedaled, the way I balance on my bike at stop signs, trying to keep enough momentum that I don't have to put a foot down, trying to hover in a pause without falling over.

Morning comes, and a daughter finds me industriously! scrubbing stains from the carpet, "Can I get a ride to cross-country? Oh, and can we swing by the DMV so I can take the test for my permit?"

Of course.

And the afternoon and the morning were the first day.

Not unlike the second. Nor the fifth.

They also serve who stand and wait. 

Or sit, as the case may be.

And that was the first week of the rest of my life.


Neighbor Jane Payne said...

Emma, you're not riding alone today. Answers, answers, answers . . . I need some, too.

suzanne said...


John Romeo Alpha said...

The answering is foreshadowed by the asking. The more powerful the query, the more lengthy and subtle the answer. If you try to swim in the moon's image in a dark lake, you're going to fail fail fail and freeze freeze freeze, and in hypothermic doubt know that you'll dive in again tomorrow night because that might be the night it happens.

Emma J said...

What an interesting image - asking questions as a swimming in the moon's image. I will carry it with me today - thanks.

ArtSparker said...

I'm of the opinion, re disappointment with self, that questioning and self-doubt are part of real intelligence, living the divided lives we do. The giving over in camp and in the waiting room are similar, yes? There's a strange freedom that comes with it and a certain suspension of time.

Emma J said...

ArtSparker, I've been thinking about this strange freedom and hovering of time. Are they more similar than I had realized?

One renewed me. The other seemed to threaten erasure. I've been wondering what the difference might be?

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