Beyond the Blue Sky

We ride in and out of parking lots, trailer in tow (no longer filled with three girls, but prepped for groceries), in search of a Sunday where errands are as bright as a blue-sky Denver.

I am wearing my Florida Keys alligator jersey, black bike shorts, and green bandana. The questioning and judgmental looks I receive as we enter each store in search of summer sneakers, continuation dresses, and all the food a family can eat for a week, don’t phase me. They never quite have.

What phases me is the longing. The feeling of belonging I am always searching for. Is it found here, in this perfect peony in my backyard? Under my mother’s watchful (and ever-critical) eye? In the few friends who could commit a Saturday to spend with us?

We finish our errands in a few hours. Meanwhile Mythili has invited her new friend over, and they have, in the same amount of time, baked a giant cookie, made two containers of slime, scootered up and down the block, built three houses in Minecraft, and made the neighbor girl a part of it all. (When her mother dropped her off, she said, “I love your neighborhood. It’s so much greener than ours.” Later I mention to Bruce, “Isn’t it funny how I took pictures of her perfect historical Dutch Colonial just a couple weeks ago, wishing it were mine?”)

Isabella and Riona have new hair for a bright summer. I pull a trailer full of a hundred pounds of groceries, shoes, swim suits, and dresses until I feel the strain on my legs and the altitude in my lungs.

It is all so perfect, this day, this life. Yet… beyond the blue sky, there always hovers an insecurity, a doubt.

Why am I not worthy enough of your friendship?

Yet… how have I been able to maintain some lifelong friendships?

My BFF of twenty-some years calls me today to talk about parenting. The endless turmoils and trials of parenting. After the story, my stupid self can’t think of much else to say other than, “It never gets easier. Remember when you were so worried when he wouldn’t poop for two days when you stopped breastfeeding?”

Because no matter how perfect the peony, how blue the Denver sky, how happy the family, there are always clouds, always doubts, always wonderings of what might have been.

We pull them behind us in overburdened trailers, getting stuck on hills with dog walkers on one side and too-fast-for-the-bike-path-peddlers on the other. (“Did you see how Mama almost fell and dragged us all down with her when she couldn’t make it up that hill?”)

We carry them in the four chords of every pop song, in the sadness found in novels we somehow all connect to, in the stories of loss and wonder we share in secretive phone calls and late nights after too much beer.

We see them peppered in clouds that come from the mountains on late afternoons. In the heat that beats through and the rain that peppers our party.

Beyond the blue sky, there are always doubts and clouds and insecurities. But if we pedal hard enough, we’ll make it home. And there just might be a perfect peony waiting to greet us.

Are You Hungry?

My day begins before it begins. With a late-night text, a non-response, and a warning. With cats scratching me awake as the sun just enters the sky. With the complexities of parenthood that bring joy and turmoil to each and every day.

Me: “Hope you’re having fun! Please be home by 8:45 so that we can deliver the cookies to the food bank.”

Two hours later:

Two hours and thirty seconds later: “If you are not home by 8:45, you are grounded for a month. We have been planning this for three months. Please do not ignore my texts.”

Two hours and forty-five seconds after first text: “OK.”

Even as I type the words, I know they are too harsh. And when she cycles around the corner at 8:42 in the bright morning sun, her eyes puffy from lack of sleep, I just want to scream. She goes straight upstairs to change clothes. I bring her her Girl Scout vest, and she silently glares at me. She comes downstairs without wearing it, and I just about lose it.

The last words I heard her speak, after the flurried series of texts and phone calls the moment we arrived home yesterday, after my felt-like-a-migraine headache and hurried “yes” response to her sleepover, after I remembered, already under the down comforter, “You have to be home by 8:45 because we have to deliver the cookies,” were: “Why can’t the rest of the troop do it?” followed by a door slam.

The other three girls pile into the backseat of the Pilot, and I pile it into her. “You cannot have a phone if you refuse to respond to my texts. I’m taking it for at least a week.”

Her tears begin to fall.

“And I just can’t believe how selfish you are being right now. We are going to give cookies to people who DON’T HAVE FOOD. And you’re mad at me for making you come home from an unplanned sleepover at the time we agreed to go?”

“I thought—”

“You didn’t think. Why didn’t you respond to my text?”

“I thought it was just for information.”

“It was. But do you remember the last words you said to me as you left?” (I’m thinking of the pounding headache, the echo of the wooden door slamming). I remind her.

“If you can’t respond to texts, you can’t have a phone.”

Her tears swallow her words now. She swallows them in the brief moments between my harshness and our arrival. The others are already there, waiting for us.

We carry and roll the 43 boxes of leftover Girl Scout cookies into the school. Jacklyn is waiting for us, her heart so big that she practically offers a hug to each and every one of these girls she doesn’t know.

“We’re so happy to have you here! Let me give you a tour.” She points to a girl who is filling bags with loaves of bread. To the tables stacked with clothes. To the halal chicken she found especially for our Muslim students. To the shelves and shelves of canned goods. To the two hundred pounds of rice, the stacks of towels, the cabinets filled to the brim with more for next week.

A man enters, having seen the temporary “Food Bank” sign on the door. He is as small as my twelve-year-old, wearing glasses and a hopeful grin. She immediately welcomes him in her cheery voice, explaining that the food bank is for the students’ families, but he can surely have some Girl Scout cookies and a snack.

“Are you hungry?” She asks him. It is a question that all of us say every day, never even thinking about its weight. Its weight presses against me now as my oldest wipes away the last of her tears and smiles at him.

“Yes.”

Jacklyn hands him apples, the last box of Thin Mints, and before he leaves, he has an entire box of food in his hands because her heart is too big to say no.

Families trickle in, and it turns out I know almost all of them. The mother and younger siblings of Isra, who’s graduating this year after four years of being a shining star in my classroom. Her tiny sister, her purple niqab as bright as her eyes when she picks out cookies for each of her siblings. The father of Ana Maria, whose mother took time out of her busy life to help me improve my Spanish, who spent the day with my girls and I last spring break, who recently left for Mexico and risked everything, even walking, to get back here.

Jacklyn greets them each with a hug, a reference to their last visit, a cooing comment about their beauty, their students, the exciting availability of Girl Scout cookies. Her warmth bubbles up all around her, and I feel my harsh comments and my daughter’s shaky responses melt away into the reality that fills these bags with food and hope.

The girls busy themselves filling quart-size bags with rice, and Izzy perks up enough by the end of the hour to speak to me in a normal, and kind, voice.

Just before leaving, one of the newcomers arrives with a small black backpack on. Jacklyn knows just how to speak to a student learning English. Slowly. Looking at his eyes. Using gestures. She learns that he arrived by bicycle, that he lives near Monaco, and that his bag is too small.

“You just fill up two boxes for your family. I’ll get a pen. You can write your address and we’ll bring you the food.”

Before I can surmise the legality, I mention that we live by Monaco and will bring it ourselves. Moments later, it becomes clear that he is unable to write his address. I hold up my hand in a cross. “You live on Monaco, do you know the cross street, the street that crosses Monaco?”

His eyes brighten. “Iliff.”

We gather our things. Four girls and the food pile into my co-leader’s car. He helps me remove the wheel from his bicycle so two girls, the bicycle, and he can fit into the Pilot. As we make our way eastward, I ask his name.

“Donald.” (only when he says it, it sounds like, Doh-nol-d).

“Hello, Donald. That is my husband’s name!” (Riona snickers, knowing he hasn’t used that name since the moment he was born). “And that is our president’s name.” At this, even Donald snickers, because even he, newly arrived from Malawi, knows that it’s a joke.

Ten minutes later, we drive past our house. I point it out to him. Not because he’ll ever go there. Because I want him to know that, if he needs to, he can. We continue to Monaco and Iliff, and he is able to tell me where to turn, when to stay straight, until we arrive at the apartment complex and gather the food, the girls, and the bicycle out of the two vehicles.

We carry the boxes to the door, and Donald enters with one of the boxes. We set another on a chair on the makeshift patio, and three small children emerge. A girl not older than three tries to lift the box, which is easily as tall as her torso, and then a mother and perhaps a father, emerge from the apartment to shake our hands and send us on our way.

“Every Friday, Donald, every Friday you can have food.” It is all I can think of to say.

It is just past 10 a.m., and I feel as if I have lived a year in these few hours. We return home, and Izzy is her cheerful old self. No dirty looks. No retaliation. She runs to jump on the trampoline at the neighbors’ house. She plays on the hammock. She makes a smoothie concoction and even washes the blender.

We continue with the exciting Saturday of double income, three kids: a dishwasher selection, grocery shopping, fixing lunch, returning library books, visiting the local coffee shop, soaking cedar planks for grilling salmon, sitting on the patio to soak up the mid-spring sun. The girls spend the entire day outside and between their troop members’ homes.

I tell the girls we’re going skiing tomorrow, and the younger two plead their case to stay home.

“Only if you call Grandma on your own and stay with her.”

I haven’t taken Izzy’s phone away yet, and I go upstairs just before dinner with a proposition and a promise: while the younger two are at Grandma’s, she can keep her phone if she goes skiing with me. But when I enter her room, she is dead asleep, light on, with the kitten, and I can do no more than take a picture of the beauty of that moment.

I want to tell her it is dinner time. I want to ask her, “Are you hungry?”

But I don’t. She already informed me, mid-afternoon, that she was up till 4:30 because she wanted to spend as much time as possible with her friends since she had to be home by 8:45.

I don’t wake her. I don’t need to ask my child, “Are you hungry?” because I know she isn’t.

I am quiet for once. I am thinking about Donald, who told me he’d never ridden a bike in Malawi, and now he even knows how to remove and replace a tire, to navigate across town on a Saturday morning even though he can’t write his address, to ask for food for a family of six living in a two-bedroom apartment less than a mile from my $400,000 home.

Instead, I sit on the patio with Donald Bruce and my two youngest, underneath the blooming crabapple tree. We eat cedar-grilled salmon, rice, tomatoes, and beans. We fill ourselves with stories and the evening breeze. I do the dishes for the fiftieth time in the six weeks since the dishwasher has been broken. I don’t complain, because I hate to admit that there is some satisfaction in completing the task by hand, in seeing your work, in soaping your hands.

And my day ends before it ends. With a full belly, a full plate, and this family.

With Jacklyn’s kind voice so much louder than my own, asking, “Are you hungry?” and knowing that all of us are hungry for something.

A text. A bicycle ride. A ski trip. A bright moment in a dark day.

My day begins before it ends. With a late-night silence. A sleeping child. A dish rack full of freshly washed dishes.

And a hunger for a better tomorrow.

Call to Prayer

it isn’t church,
 but a Sunday morning sunshine ride–
 a line of bikes glistening in waning summer heat,
 with shout-outs as loud as a preacher who
 calls his parishioners to God:
 
 Bike up!
 Bike back!
 Slowing!
 Gravel on the path!
 Car up!
 Clear!

 
 the words trickle down the line,
 heated breaths repeating them
 so loud that even prairie dogs
 stand at attention to hear.
 
 and we wrap ourselves
 in blue-sky calorie burning
 led by a fast-paced 78-year-old man,
 just as forgiving for our
 missed turns and flat tires
 as the best of His missionaries.
 
 

Day Twenty-Two, Road Trip 2016

our cycle closes

 with a capital bike ride

and a pointed view


with paths everywhere 

this city has won my heart

even in the heat


where honor presides

through a symmetrical stroll

of fallen soldiers


DC mixes all:

museums, monuments, paths

marking past; future.


we find ourselves here

remembering our lost dreams

in these reflections

Day Seventeen, Road Trip 2016

finally the bikes
 double trouble, burning sun
 made for a slow ride
 


but cousin time rocks
 framed by wispy sand dune sky
 and genuine grins
 
 


crawfish, anyone?
 one last island shell cracking
 to salt our way home
 


and we saw gators!
 controlled, farmed, easy to feed
 better there than here
 

Day Fifteen, Road Trip 2016

everyone wins today
 with sleeping in and reading books
 and me fitting in a bike ride
 on the way to the movies
 (coastal views, zero elevation,
 heat seeping through my new
 jersey in a rushed attempt to
 meet the time schedule)
 
 and yet it hovers.
 my vacation.
 my vacation with friendly family,
 getting-along-quite-well girls,
 ocean views and coral reefs
 and the best lake swimming there is
 and …
 no happy hour.
 
 pedaling across those bridges,
 sweating steps in Savannah,
 making it through another day,
 a blessed, lucky day on this earth…
 and no drink to top it off,
 to melt the anxiety that comes
 with upcoming controversial family,
 the stress that will be DC in July,
 seeing my father-in-law slowly lose his mind;
 no drink to bring brighter to life
 the constancy of waves,
 to further open my mouth for all
 the thoughts i’m dying to share,
 (to pour onto the page);
 no drink to further relax my toes
 into this cushion of sand,
 my sore muscles into the clutch of alcohol,
 my mind from the weight of the world.
 
 and i say it again and again:
 There’s always a reason…
 and even on the perfect day,
 the life’s a beach dream vacation day,
 it. is. still. hard.
 
 it is why i pedal.
 why i write.
 why i drive 6000 miles.
 why i watch waves.
 
 because the need to escape is real.
 in all of us, no matter how picture-perfect our lives appear,
 it is as real as this view, this beach, these toes.
 
 but i made it.
 i made it through another day.
 and this poem is my happy hour.