Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Some Conversations

Some conversations you never forget.

"You’re fired." "We’re pregnant!" "It’s cancer." The smell of the carpet, the color of the curtains, the sound of a passing train become Pavlov’s bell and, thereafter, never just a smell or color or sound, but the conversation itself.

Earlier this week I had one of those conversations and Huddle House waffles will never taste the same.

It happened like this: It has become a tradition for Aden, the 7-year-old philosopher, and me to have breakfast at the Huddle House when he comes to Georgia to visit. On Monday morning we were sitting across the booth from each other, our waffles puddled with maple syrup, when I noticed him staring at his chocolate milk carton.

"What’s so interesting?" I asked.

"I’m checking the calories and stuff," he said without looking up.

OK. Was I reading milk cartons in first grade?

"What are you liking best about school?"

He stared off into the distance for a moment, his eyes squinted and his chin stuck out. "Math. I like all the math. I like all the stuff I’m learning."

I reached over the table to cut up the big slice of country ham he’d ordered.

"So, what do you think is the most important thing for a kid to learn?" I asked, sensing that I was about to hear something consequential.

"Reading. That’s the most important. But," and he paused, fork stuck in the air like a conductor’s baton, "I don’t like fairy tales."

I didn’t interrupt to ask him why. This is a boy who brandishes light sabers. This is a boy who thinks it’s funny that I am afraid of tiny little mice. This is a boy.

"I don’t like fairy tales because they always have a happy ending. It’s not like that." I felt my shoulders sink and curl forward. I stared into the guileless and unscarred face staring back at me and waiting to see if I would speak truth.

I took a deep breath. "You’re right. It’s not always like that."

He propped one elbow on the table and leaned his head against his hand. "Did you know Grandma?"

Yes. I knew his great-grandmother. "

It was a very sad day when she died."

A simple declarative sentence. A seven-year-old’s version of reality. I couldn’t have said it better myself.

There is a reason we cling to our children. They are our connection to what is real. They love without sorrow or guilt or regret. They remind us of who we wanted to be before we learned better.

My waffles had pecans in them. The sausage patties were too salty. The chocolate milk carton was brown and white. And the sage across the table from me wore a camouflage jacket and slip-on sneakers. I will never forget.

Copyright 2010

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Noticing Naked and Asking What If

A couple of years ago I came home one afternoon to find a sycamore tree, a skinny little, smooth-barked sapling, planted in my back yard. I'm not exactly sure where on the farm Daddy found it, but he and Mama knew in that strange way that parents know their children that I would want it.

It was about four feet tall at the time; it is now probably up to eight orn ine. (Sycamores, like children and credit card balances, grow quickly.) It is mature enough to have had, in the summer, leaves as big as the spread hand of a lumberjack, each one covered in tiny little bristles that made it feel like the velveteen collar on the pink corduroy coat I had as a child.

In November, when the color started draining out of the landscape, the leaves turned tea-brown and dropped languidly to the ground, curled at the edges, the lumberjack closing his hand into a fist -- whether in an attempt to hold on to the summer or to fight off the winter I can't say.

I also can't say when I first noticed that the tree was naked. I see it every time I walk out the back door to get in the car or take out the trash, but, like most people, I see without seeing sometimes. And, to be honest, I probably wouldn't have noticed its nudity on that particular day had not one leaf, just as I walked outside, lost its grip on the branch to which it had been clinging and gone floating down a river of wind across the yard.

There were still three or four tiny leaves left on the topmost branches, but the sycamore was otherwise bare. Its slender branches -- angled, not curved, toward the pale gray sky -- made it look exactly like the trees I had painted in my fourth grade snowscape, the one for which we used dark blue construction paper and white paint (as if we south Georgia children knew anything at all about snowscapes).

My chin rose as my gaze moved higher and higher up the trunk of the tree and, about halfway to the sky, I saw it: a next, a matted bowl-shaped nest, balanced in the cleft of two branches. I was tempted, but only for a moment, to try to get it down. Whatever birds had built it back in the spring or summer were long gone, their babies out on their own. They weren't coming back. It would have been no crime to take the next and put it inside with my other treasures.

But what if they did come back? What if they came looking for their home and it wasn't there? What if they were the last pair of whatever-birds left at Sandhill and without that nest they died?

What if? The curse of the evolved brain.

One of my colleagues asked me yesterday if I was making any New Year's resolutions. The answer was no. I'm hard enough on myself as it is.

What I am doing instead is trying to articulate what I've learned in the year about to end and what I hope to learn in the year to come. I haven't quite managed the former, but the latter came to me -- in that magical way that Truth appears in the guise of poetry -- as I was writing this column, came in the form of an e-mail New Year's wish from someone I know only slightly, in one line of a poem: "I want the labyrinth of what ifs narrowed/to a single, poignant sentence."

Yes. That's it. I want to finally locate, in my wanderings, the way to the center. I want to release, like the sycamore tree did its leaves, anything clinging to me that is no longer alive. I want to focus my attention and affection and appreciation on that which responds to my efforts. I want to be a single, poignant sentence.

And, on December 31, 2010, I want to speak that sentence and know that it has been heard.

Copyright 2010