Travels in Siberia

Source: http://www.sxc.hu/photo/424158

Missing my daughters a lot today, so here’s one of my old favorites:

Emma, my 22-year-old daughter, has long dreamed of Russia. Its exotic onion domes promise delivery from the dull safety of her suburban upbringing. At last she is there, studying for a semester in St. Petersburg. It’s not Siberia, but the vastness that separates us feels like a kind of exile.

Thousands of miles and eleven time zones are not all that keep us apart; Emma has always required her space. Her penchant for privacy was coupled as she grew with a vigilance against usurpation. Once I made the mistake of lavishly praising a picture she had drawn. Emma savagely scribbled all over the paper, destroying her creation but also any attempt to appropriate what was hers. I often made such inadvertent incursions.

Eventually, I learned to heed the “No Trespassing” signs Emma posted from an early age. When she withdrew further into the interior, as every adolescent must, her natural reserve had already prepared me for the unrequited longing all parents must bear. Growing up is always an act of exile, a necessary escape from the soft smother of love.

My friend Leslie recalls when her teenaged son skulked away from their once-close bond. She said to him, “I know you need to do this, but I’ll miss you, and I’ll be glad when you’re back.” A decade later, he put his arms around her when she was doing the dishes, and said, “I’m back.”

Emma is far from being back, and I miss her. When I take the dog out at night, I look up at the sky and travel light-years to her through the star-strewn blackness. It helps to know we are under the same canopy.

Still, it is not enough.

I read in the newspaper that the writer Ian Frazier will appear at our local bookstore to read from Travels in Siberia. If I venture through the portal of his book, maybe I can sneak into Emma’s territory without tripping the alarm. My friend Roberta tried something similar. She hates baseball, but learned all about RBIs and earned-run averages so she could talk with her son throughout his adolescence. Their bond is deep, as is her grasp of baseball statistics.

Hoping to emulate Roberta’s success, I drive to the bookstore, buy Travels in Siberia, and take my seat. Maybe I will find Emma along the way, or at least understand her case of what Frazier calls “the dread Russia-love.”

Ian Frazier sports a middle-aged paunch, but he and Emma have a lot in common. For one thing, they are both lousy photographers. I am charmed by Frazier’s out-of-focus slides of dreary horizons, his low-key intelligence, and boundless curiosity. Frazier is infected with a fever for “the incomplete grandiosity of Russia,” relishing, as does Emma, its simultaneous greatness and brokenness.  I go home eager to travel the miles through his prose to my faraway daughter.

I feel like a trespasser, though. This is Emma’s journey, not mine, much as I want to accompany her. What if she needs the vastness between us now more than ever, and regards me as another marauding Mongol sweeping across the steppes? I do not want to force her again into scribbling out what she has created to protect against invasion.

But Frazier reassures me; setting out on his epic road trip across Siberia, he marvels at the absence of fences and “No Trespassing” signs. Encouraged that the unbounded landscape is spacious enough to absorb both Emma and me without crowding, I press on.

Commenting on the loneliness of exile in Siberia, Frazier writes, “Longing and melancholy worked their way into the very soil.” So it is with parents and children of a certain age. Standing now on the opposite end of a lengthening road that takes Emma farther and farther away from childhood, I feel the sorrow of exile as she goes down the road without me.

It has not been easy for Emma either. Her once-sure trajectory unspooled erratically as she zigzagged in and out of different colleges and half-baked plans. “All who wander are not lost,” I tried to reassure myself. But what if she could not find her way back? It looked like breakdown to me.

Frazier, too, encountered breakdowns on his journey across Siberia in a rickety van. Initially he fretted that it kept sputtering to a halt, just as I fretted about Emma. Over time, though, Frazier came to see the fits and starts as essential to the pleasure and genius of discovering what to do when things go wrong.

I have come to see the same about Emma.  Eventually I learned to trust that her breakdowns and detours were not so much obstacles, but the road itself that would take her where she needed to go.

Right now Emma needs Russia, with its convulsive revolutions. How could she not? It is every adolescent’s job to overthrow the tsar, and every parent’s job to surrender the throne. The old order gives birth to the new in benign or violent spasms, but there is no stopping the transformation.

Emma on the cusp is drawn to places in transition. Like Frazier, she savors crumbling Soviet-era housing blocs, babushkas hunting for mushrooms along busy highways, the ubiquitous trash. Russia, stubbornly insistent on remaining itself despite the homogenizing onslaught of progress, offers a bulwark as childhood edifices give way to Emma’s relentless induction into adulthood.

Siberia is no longer synonymous with the disappearance of exile. Frazier freely comes and goes after the Iron Curtain is lifted, and Emma, too, is less shuttered. In fact, she’s back. Not in the arms-around sense of Leslie’s grown-up son, but back from St. Petersburg and the need to keep us at arm’s length. Our mouths water as Emma describes fat dumplings stuffed with minced beef and onions. She is thrilled that Russians mistook her for a native. No wonder; her face, bright-eyed again, reflects her great-great grandfathers’, who fled the mother country in their own passage to adulthood.

We ask Emma to show us her photos, and she reluctantly obliges. My husband and I sit next to each other at the dining room table as she positions herself on the side. Emma removes certain photos before carefully placing each of the others at an angle where we must twist our heads to see them properly. We politely ask her to set them straight before us. She politely ignores us, allowing only an oblique glimpse into her edited world.

Emma’s pictures are terrible: A shot of sky with an onion dome in the corner, a kitten that’s only a speck in the foreground. They are as blurry and without context as Frazier’s shots of the endless horizon.

But they are hers. And she is ours again, if we let her set the frame.

*

Originally published In Underwired, July 2012

 

Dismantling Christmas

Christmas ornaments in boxes

The holidays are over. How do you feel about that?

*

When the doorbell rings for our tree-trimming party every year, we turn up the volume on Handel’s Messiah, ladle out hot mulled cider, and put our guests to work hanging the ornaments.

I’m the only one invited to the untrimming party. Soon Joni Mitchell’s Blue is blasting from the speakers as I bring up boxes from the garage and get to work dismantling Christmas.

But I’m not blue at all. I love taking apart the wooden train set and stowing away the brightly painted nutcrackers. I scrape melted wax from the mantel and toss withered cedar boughs into the fireplace. Scummy vases once overflowing with holly and white orchids get a good scrubbing.

Then I untrim the tree, from hand-blown glass balls to hand-crafted macaroni angels. It’s like unearthing a time capsule. Here is the rocking horse era, followed by the rise of the snowmen. Family pets are honored by an abundance of dog and cat angels. Crazily misshapen Santas record the preschool years, while “Baby’s First Christmas” ornaments round out the collection.

My favorite part is tossing the denuded tree off the balcony. Such a satisfying crash! Pine needles blanket the asphalt below, but I don’t sweep them up; the wind and rain will take care of the mess. Discarded Christmas TreeThis act of purposeful sloth thrills me as much as tearing out spent petunias from the garden at the end of the summer. Annuals and Christmas trees are supposed to wither and die, then get tossed. Unlike the perpetual nurturing demanded by children, pets,and perennials, limited care for ephemeral glory is the only requirement.

After all, it’s the dismantling that brings about the restored order and hope of the new year.

 

Santa-less

Santa

We had a lovely Christmas, but it’s just not the same without little kids. How about you? Here’s one from the archives.

*

No separate wrapping paper and tags. Not having to disguise one’s penmanship or remember whether Santa’s cursive slants left or right every year. Not having to remember that the girls can’t yet read cursive.

I guess there are a few benefits to Christmas with nonbelievers. But mostly it makes me sad that we no longer need to dispose of scummed-over cocoa and apples for the reindeer after the kids have finally gone to bed on Christmas Eve. (My brother trained his kids to leave beer for Santa.)

It wasn’t so bad when our eldest daughter grew suspicious about Santa’s largesse. In fact, she seemed more impressed that her notoriously cheap parents were the ones springing for all that loot than by the idea of a fat guy squeezing down millions of chimneys in the space of a few hours.

Plus, she was a good sport about keeping the charade going for the sake of her little sister—and parents. I remember spending Christmas a long time ago with the same brother who so cleverly customized Santa’s repast. His kids tumbled into the living room where I was trying to sleep, unable to contain their excitement a minute past four a.m. They spied the riot of plastic tunnels and the squeaky rotating wheel under the tree.

“A hamster!! Oh, thank you, Santa, thank you!!” they gushed into the darkness. Nobody had to prompt them into politeness. Theirs was a spontaneous outpouring of reverence.

Now politeness is about all we can expect. The girls are teenagers with exacting and expensive taste. They write out detailed wish lists while making it clear that my judgment is not to be trusted, that I shouldn’t venture off-list.

Then they are disappointed to get everything they want except the element of surprise. But their manners are impeccable as they dutifully thank us.

I miss Santa.

The Stranger-Danger Generation Goes Couchsurfing

dog on couch

Beware of men with cute dogs and couches!

My wonderful writing group, The Write on, Mamas!, performed at San Francisco’s Lit Crawl last weekend. Our theme was “Let Go Or Be Dragged.” As the mother of 20-somethings, I have a lot of experience with this. I read this piece (originally published in the now-defunct Underwired Magazine). What have you needed to let go of to avoid being dragged?

*

My daughter Ally is studying in Spain for the year, meaning she occasionally attends classes in between jetting around the continent. Recently she emailed that she and her friend Amy were off to Belgium, where they planned to save money by couchsurfing.

Parents lucky enough to dwell in a state of ignorant bliss might not know about couchsurfing. It’s no longer a euphemism for being one step away from living on the streets, but a new social networking sensation among the young. When Millennials tire of tweeting about revolution, they log on and find people willing to put them up for free anywhere in the world.

Ally was excited because a 41-year-old man had offered to host them.

I curbed my impulse to scream at her before alerting the State Department. Instead, I did what any normal mother would do: Googled “couchsurfing,” and immediately clicked on the “bad experiences” link.

First up was a Facebook page subtitled “The Dark Side.” It read like a plot-pitch competition for the sequel to Taken, a movie about college girls in a Paris nightclub who are picked up by cute guys. “Picked up” as in kidnapped, since it turns out the cute guys are really working for Albanian sex traffickers. Luckily, one of the abductees has Liam Neeson for a father; a former CIA operative who proves to all that he is not so much paranoid as prescient. And pretty skilled in dirty tricks.

Ally’s mother and father, alas, are not so skilled. Like a lot of parents these days, our talents consist of hovering and fretting about our children’s happiness. We belong to the generation that wouldn’t let kids play in the woods lest they stumble into the creek or an outpost of perverts. Our preschoolers’ circle time featured picture books about green, red, and yellow lights to inoculate them against stranger danger.

So like all good parents, my husband and I drilled Ally to run away from the hypothetical nice man with a litter of puppies in the back of his van. No, she declared, she would never go see the puppies, no matter how cute he said they were!

“How about a man who wanted to show you a litter of kittens?” I quizzed.

“What would be wrong with kittens?” Ally asked, perplexed.

Having reached the limits of generalized thinking rather quickly, it seemed pointless to expand the horizon of potential danger to include 41-year-old men with couches.

Particularly to a five-year-old.

Now the Stranger Danger Generation is all grown up. And going couchsurfing. Who says irony is dead?

I clicked out of the “Dark Side” and went directly to the source: www.couchsurfing.org. True, this is a bit like relying on Big Pharma for advertising failed drug trials, but what’s a mother to do?

Couchsurfing International’s motto is “creating a better world, one couch at a time.” The website* features a large map festooned with pushpins, creating the impression that you can track your far-flung child the way politicians track every last voter in every last precinct. “The World is Smaller than You Think,” proclaims a headline. This subliminal leap to Disney’s “It’s a small world, after all” induced a nostalgic trance, and I felt myself being lulled into a more trusting state. No matter that predators are equally skilled in setting up their prey.

As I read further under “Safety isn’t one-size-fits-all,” I encountered the same conversation about stranger danger that I had attempted years earlier. It wasn’t so much about puppies and kittens as checking references, trusting your gut, paying attention to the internal red, yellow, and green lights. This time, the target audience had the cognitive skills to make such assessments.

I recalled a service trip to Mexico Ally had made a few years earlier with a church group. Before our teenagers embarked, the minister tried to assuage parents’ anxiety about drug violence. “The world is a risky place,” she said. “I worry each time my own children travel to faraway countries. But then I realize that the far greater risk comes from never leaving home.”

Now as then—as with every stage of parenting–I had to swallow hard and trust in the universe and Ally’s judgment. From crib death to solid food to sleepovers to dating to driving to leaving home—couchsurfing was just one more thing on the list of stuff I couldn’t control.

Ally returned from Belgium an ecstatic and avowed couchsurfer. Their host had taken them ice skating, handed over the keys to his apartment, and prepared a feast of mussel stew.

Thank you, universe, for taking care of my daughter.

And thank you, kind stranger, for making her feel at home.

_______

* The website has changed since I wrote this a couple of years ago, so you won’t find the same verbiage or graphics anymore.

 

Commemoration

I wrote this two years ago, on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, and offer it again today. 

Candle in the dark

As usual, I went to yoga Sunday morning, the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Mostly I go for the effect on my muscles, not my spirit. But on this solemn day my yoga teacher lit a candle in remembrance, and invited us to practice Tonglen, breathing in all that is troublesome in the world, acknowledging it, then transforming it into compassion and peace on the exhale. After a few minutes, the class continued with its typical focus on backs, necks, and hips, or, as one member put it, “the usual overall soreness.”

At the end of the class, after the stretching and the Namaste, another member shared what happened to her Turkish and Egyptian friends ten years ago. They owned a restaurant in Manhattan, which they managed to keep open after the towers fell despite the chaos and lack of customers. Late at night three white men came in. They trashed the place. One of the owner’s friends managed to slip away and call the police. Soon the men who had destroyed the restaurant were apprehended and brought back to be identified before they could be charged.

“Yes, those are the men,” the owners told the police, who were eager to throw the book at them.

But the owners refused to press charges.

“This is a difficult day,” they said. “We understand their grief and rage. Let them go.”

Incredulous, the police did so reluctantly.

A few hours later, the three men came back with some of their friends, pressing upon the owners fistfuls of cash for the damage. The men helped clean up as best they could, and continued to come for the next several weeks until things were put right again.

Sometimes forgiveness is the most effective kind of justice. It is much more likely than hatred or revenge to spawn atonement. This is the lesson so often lost in our decade of fear and grief and war. But it is one worth remembering as we light a candle; breathe in trouble and sorrow; breathe out compassion and peace; and seek to ease the overall soreness of the world.

 

Subversive

Peaches

In honor of today’s news that the California Supreme Court has rejected another last-ditch attempt to revive Proposition 8, I’m running something I wrote years ago paying tribute to an unlikely pioneer in gay rights.

*

My bathroom houses a miniature library of periodicals, from the literary to the political to the lifestyle-you-wish-you-had-but-don’t. Sunset magazine is my favorite leisure reading for those private moments behind closed doors.

But not for the usual reasons.

My home improvement skills end with changing light bulbs.

I use the water shortage as an excuse to let my garden go to seed.

I am too poor for a kitchen makeover of $50,000.

And who has time to cook?

What I really love about Sunset is that it’s been quietly on the vanguard of gay rights for years.

Readers are just as likely to find Craig and Jeff and their golden retriever in the sun-washed kitchen of their lovingly restored farmhouse as they are Tom and Judy sipping chardonnay with guests on their new deck.

A recent issue features Janie and Virginia and their eco-friendly paint company.

As the reader drinks in room after room of sumptuous color in the photo spread of their Portland digs, it’s clear that these women are not just business partners.

While some fan the flames of bigotry and fear, Sunset quietly broadcasts that we are all the same.

Well, almost the same.

The couples in the glossy pictures just have more disposable income and fewer dust bunnies on their gleaming hardwood floors than the rest of us.

As I read in the privacy of my own bathroom, I think of how irrelevant it is what others do in the privacy of their own bedrooms.

Besides, Craig and Jeff, Janie and Virginia, Tom and Judy probably aren’t doing much of anything. Like everybody else, they’re too exhausted from hauling dirt and lumber around, not to mention cleaning up after all those fabulous dinner parties.

Let’s hope the sun is setting on ignorance and intolerance.

Meanwhile, I’m going to grab my magazine and fantasize about a better life to come–new kitchen cabinets, the perfect peach, and love and justice for all.

 

Resurrection

 

Resurrection plant

I’m not in the habit of paying much attention to those shopping circulars that clutter up the mailbox, but this one caught my eye:

Resurrection Plant

The House Plant That Never Dies!

Keeps “Coming Back to Life” for 50 Years

No Matter How Dry You Leave It!

 I’ve been in a pretty dark place lately, so my first thought was to question Resurrection’s insanely optimistic premise. Eternal Symbol of Hope & Rebirth!? All I could think of was why awful things we thought were finally gone just keep resurfacing: Bellbottoms. Whooping cough. Unfettered market capitalism.

Upon closer inspection, I saw that Resurrection wasn’t so much a plant as a plan to survive the Apocalypse:

NO Water?

NO Sunlight?

NO PROBLEM!

The plant, promised the ad, “’comes back to life’ from a dormant brown ball . . . It can survive a full 50 years without water or light.”

Resurrection’s appeal was growing. I, too, sometimes feel like curling up into a dry brown ball and lying low for awhile. Plus, I’m always on the look out for things I can neglect without consequence. Children, husbands, pets, bills—not so forgiving, except for the dog.

With Resurrection, however, once the Apocalypse or the dereliction of duty passes, all you need to do is add water.

So even though Resurrection looked like green plastic dreadlocks atop a cheap bowl, I took out my credit card and placed my order. If anything failed to satisfy, I could return it for my money back.

Which is a lot more than you can say about kids and husbands.

An unassuming mailer arrived a few days later. I tossed it onto the kitchen table and forgot about it. After all, the whole point was inconsequential neglect. It’s not like I’d sent away for baby chicks needing immediate revival under a heat lamp after a traumatic night with FedEx.

Eventually I got around to opening the mailer. Most of its contents consisted of advertising for various bunion cures. Clearly the target consumer craved relief from all kinds of suffering. Then came the box that held the real treasure—my Resurrection.

The bowl in which life would begin anew looked like one of those plastic domes on the super-sized Slurpees from 7-11, except without the hole for the straw. There was a small bag of what appeared to be kibble or, more accurately, kibble dust. Another bag contained a mass of shriveled threads stuck to something resembling a dessicated walnut. As instructed, I rinsed everything and added water. Then I sat back to watch life unfold.

Within minutes, a couple of shrunken fronds limply rose above the mass of what was starting to look like freeze-dried seaweed. I was hopeful. After one hour, if the picture on the box was any guide, Resurrection would look like the lettuce garnish on a platter left out in the hot sun. After three hours, it would rehydrate into its full-blown glory.

I read more about what awaited me. That’s when the first seeds of doubt crept in. The instructions printed on the inside of the box, the ones you can’t see until it’s too late, demanded that the plant and bowl be rinsed thoroughly, the water replaced daily for the first week. This wasn’t part of the bargain. But isn’t doubt always an aspect of faith?

I read on, only to discover that Resurrection “prefers” semi-shade and “prefers” to dry out several times a year. This was beginning to sound like an alcoholic relative intermittently committed to rehab. Or a houseguest who promises her visits will be no trouble, except she “prefers” eggs over easy and toast lightly buttered with her fresh-squeezed orange juice.

The instructions also advised, “Don’t be afraid of any mold you see.” I wasn’t so much afraid as annoyed, but, since practicing forgiveness was in keeping with the theme, I breathed deeply and went on with my day.

Several hours later, I took a peek, when full vitality was promised. Resurrection had definitely progressed beyond the seaweed stage. As the box noted, the plants resemble moss, and it did indeed look like the feminine hygiene products our ancient ancestors were forced to use before the advent of tampons.

Dutifully, I rinsed Resurrection and replaced its water daily for the first week. The only change was the growing mold.

“What is that thing on the windowsill?” my husband asked.

Instead of giving me a pass on neglect, Resurrection just screamed out a silent rebuke.

There is a time for everything, and it was time to put my experiment in the trash. Relieved, I slid the gelatinous mess into a bag and put it out for the garbage pick-up.

I’m glad to have a guilt-free windowsill again. Besides, now Resurrection has gone to a better place, with the plastics in the landfill that have also found eternal life.

 

 

 

 

Like Everybody Else

I wrote this just after my friends Ann and Joan got married  in 2008, during the brief window before California’s Proposition 8 was passed. In honor of enduring love, and of Proposition 8’s demise this week, I’m running it again. What has the Supreme Court’s historic rulings on marriage equality meant for you?

Hands in MarriageAnn and Joan got married recently. The brides were radiant in their silk tunics, silvery hair, and sensible shoes. After waiting 17 years to walk down the aisle, they’d earned their comfort.

Like any couple getting married, Ann and Joan vowed to love, honor, and cherish each other until parted by death. They could pledge this with more certainty than the average newlyweds, having already lived through so many years of for better or for worse.

Ann vowed to try not to throw things away. Joan promised she would try to throw things away. That’s what comes from being forced to wait nearly two decades for marriage. You know one another’s foibles so well that what used to drive you crazy now deepens your love. You know it’s precisely your differences that bring balance. You know it’s the trying that counts.

The brides spoke in honor of their dead parents. When Ann first revealed she was gay, her mother responded, “It’s about time you figured it out.” Ann quipped that her father would have loved to give her away to Joan, if she were the type to let herself be given away to anyone.

Joan’s family was less embracing. Her mother died when Joan was 24, fearful that her daughter would suffer terribly from a hostile culture. Joan knew her mother would be delighted that her fears had not come true, and that her life was rich with love and happiness.

Guests were invited to place a rose in a silver vase and share what this wedding meant to them. There was an outpouring of hope and gratitude and joy. By the end, the vase was crammed with roses of every hue.

I grew up dreaming of bridal bouquets and my bridesmaids’ matching sashes. I didn’t know what blooms would be in season when I married, or whether my color scheme would be driven by the daffodils of spring or the chrysanthemums of fall. But as a straight woman, I knew I could count on having a season.

Now there is a season for everyone.

Opponents to same-sex marriage argue that gay people shouldn’t be granted special rights. But what is so special about wanting to be treated like everybody else? It’s not just gays who benefit—it’s all of us. My joy in realizing my childhood dreams is enhanced because Ann and Joan are no longer excluded from having such dreams.

I also cannot imagine how, as some claim, same-sex weddings threaten marriage between men and women. My feelings for my husband deepened as I listened to the readings about love, friendship, and commitment that Ann and Joan chose for their wedding. A marriage that draws its strength from discrimination is not a marriage at all.

Surely Ann and Joan don’t really need the state to affirm their love and commitment. At 60-something, they can buy all the bath towels and appliances and flowers they want. They can even buy a lawyer’s time to secure most of the rights that straight couples take for granted. But without the state’s sanction, something is missing.

Now we all have what money can’t buy: Inclusion and equality.

At the end of the ceremony, Joan and Ann grinned through their tears while we all cheered and wept like crazy.

“This is something we never dreamed would happen,” Joan said. “We never imagined that we could get dishtowels and kitchen gadgets, like everybody else,”

At last they can.

And at last we can give them.