Like Water Through A Mountain

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOur house was built in 1913 and when Luisa and I had the main bathroom renovated, we had them tear out the tub that had clearly been installed in the 1950s and replace it with a claw foot tub we’d found in a store downtown, one cast in 1913.

That was 1999.

If you’ve never had an old claw foot tub, you can’t know the sounds one makes. I can sit downstairs and hear the shower and the particular hum of feet rubbing on the bottom of the tub, like a bow across strings in staccato. I can tell when someone drops something in it because it rings, a deep bass that is unmistakeable. Recently, Miguel was showering and I heard the sound of his feet sliding on that old cast iron, heard the low thump of something dropped–something smaller than a bar of soap because I know that sound well. When he finished showering, I asked him what he had dropped and he said, “The fingernail clippers.” That made sense–small, metal on metal, a different pitch.

And then I wondered when he had started to trim his own nails. It must have been some time ago because I don’t remember the last time I did it for him but I stood in the bathroom overwhelmed by this small milestone that had passed without notice. Before getting into the shower myself, I sat with the nail clippers in my hand and went to trim my own nails only to realize that I couldn’t because I had taken off my glasses and I wondered when that had happened, when I’d stopped being able to trim my nails without them.

We bought a claw foot tub in 1999 without knowing that someday, we’d bathe our tiny babies in it. We couldn’t imagine toddlers with soft, fine hair giggling and playing with boats and small rubber ducks and telling us stories with adorable lisps.

And now, we have a 13 year old son and our youngest will turn 10 tomorrow and the boats and ducks remain in a basket near the tub but the kids take showers now and the toys haven’t been touched in some time.

That day, as I stared at the tub, I thought about all we know about water and the way it can cut through a mountain in time, mapping its own course to an unknown end. Though I’ve always understood that power intellectually, it seemed mysterious and magical until that moment when I realized that time is passing and the courses of our lives are changing and yet we can’t always see it until the unexpected pulls our attention back from the details. We have been changed. The rush of water, the hum of feet, a deep bass that you feel in your chest–all of it leading us onward.

 

What Coming Out Taught Me about Compassion

When I came out to my mother in 1990, she paced and yelled and threatened to disown me before finally saying with a low growl, “I will never accept this.” She went to her room and slammed the door and I sat in the living room–shaken. My mother lived deep in southern Missouri on the Lake of the Ozarks and I had no friends there. There was no email or texting then and it was too late to call anyone that might provide comfort. It was probably the most alone I have ever felt.

I eventually left the house, went down to the lake, stripped my clothes off and slipped into the still water. It was a clear night and I floated in the water and stared at the stars. The quiet and the water and the sky held me, giving me time to think, to realize that I had little control over what my relationship with my mother might become. I knew only two things for sure that night–I was at peace with myself and I loved my mother.

We didn’t speak for a few days but I thought a lot about her during that time. She grew up working class and hadn’t gone to college. She’d spent almost her entire life in Kansas, a place not known for progressive ideas. Her world was so much smaller than mine. And all of this distilled down to a single thought–this must be hard for her to understand.

When we did finally speak, I didn’t argue and I didn’t flinch at her continued rants and insults, I said only this, “I know this must be hard for you.” She was silent and narrowed her eyes suspiciously, “It is.” I nodded, “I understand. Just know that I will never give up on you.” And I walked away.

That moment was a simple beginning and my ongoing compassion for her struggle changed our relationship forever.

She was there to strip wallpaper and paint when Luisa and I bought our house. She was there when Luisa and I had our commitment ceremony. She was there to hold and love our two children, to celebrate birthdays and holidays together.

She was there. That is the power of compassion.

I was not a saint at 21 when I first showed my mother compassion and I am not a saint now. Luisa and I strive to teach our children compassion and we talk to them about taking the high road and building bridges. But the truth is that there are days on the high road when I have my hands on a jackhammer and could easily flip the switch, days when I stand before bridges with a match and a gallon of gasoline.

Compassion is not always easy and not always without pain. It is work that requires patience and there is no guaranteed reward.

I don’t like the phrase Family Values because it has long been used against families like mine, wrongly connected to morality. But every family has their values and our family values compassion. If our son’s note is any indication, I think we’re passing that value on to our children.

10615482_10206359439687758_4561902915794451347_n

 

 This post was written as part of 1000 Voices Speak for Compassion. To learn more, visit the site or follow the hashtag #1000Speak across social media.

Even Children Get Older

IMG_2615

I began taking guitar lessons in the fall of 1976, shortly after I turned eight and just about a year after Fleetwood Mac released their self-title album that held the song Landslide. It is not surprising then that Landslide was one of the first songs I learned to play. I can remember sitting on a hard chair, holding my borrowed Yamaha guitar, while my guitar teacher scribbled the lyrics and chords on a tan piece of notepaper. I was too young to understand the lyrics but the melody and rhythm and emotion of the song touched me and, because of that, I played the song for years. I never mastered the precise picking pattern because I was lazy and content to play a version I felt was “good enough” though I knew the rhythm was off.

Zeca has been learning various picking patterns and every Wednesday, I sit in the music store where she has her lessons and listen as her fingers struggle to find the right strings in the right pattern at the right time. She makes mistakes and starts again, sometimes more frustrated with herself than others, and her guitar teacher encourages her while I sit with my phone and sift through emails and scroll through Facebook or read articles online. I don’t always pay close attention to her lesson, not because I am not interested but because I find that when I focus on her, I am drawn to things that are unimportant–the exasperation, the slumped posture, the sighs as her teacher asks her to play something again. Though I could have taught her guitar, I turned it over to someone else for a reason–because I knew that I wouldn’t have the patience to be the teacher she needed. So, while she strums and picks and struggles, I stay out of it.

Yesterday, she had her lesson and I listened as she played one of the picking patterns for her teacher and he told her he was going to accompany her but he wanted to show her a video first so that she could see how the parts fit together. He scooted closer to her, his phone in his hand, and the video began and I heard the unmistakable first notes of Landslide. I lifted my head and watched the two of them huddled together and then Zeca nodded and he set his phone aside and they began. No longer absent of context, I listened as the pattern my daughter had been practicing for weeks became the melody of Landslide.

I thought of my eight-year-old self trying to perfect the picking pattern and my nine-year-old daughter doing the same. I thought of a small room in an old house in Kansas City with two chairs and a music stand and this small music store in Minneapolis with the same and the distance between the two. I thought of the years and all the decisions–large and small–that brought us here and sat in awe of the strange and unpredictable circle of life.

And, though neither of them sang, the lyrics were clear in my head,

But time makes you bolder

Even children get older

And I’m getting older too

Ugly Kittens

IMG_2200

Several weeks ago, I was at the pet store with the kids and there were kittens available for adoption. There were two adorable black and white kittens that seemed to say, “Hi! What are you doing? It’s so great to see you! We love people and would like to live with you and bring our cuteness to your house!” There was also an orange tabby with asymmetrical markings and a bad attitude that seemed to say, “I hate people in general and you specifically. Please do not look at me as you are not worthy of my attention.”

Zeca and I said that if we could adopt another kitten, we would take one of the cute black and white kittens. Miguel said he would adopt the ugly orange tabby because he worried that no one would want it. Yes, he has a tender heart and that’s why I know that he’ll spend his entire life saying something like, “No! That’s not a hairless three legged rat with a growling lisp! That’s my cat!” to every person who visits his home.

This all came back to me today when I was introduced to Kitten War, a site where you vote on the cutest kitten in an endless stream of match ups. I voted for a few kittens and then realized how many ugly kittens there are in the world.

That experience inspired the following poem that was composed on Written? Kitten:

Ode to an Ugly Kitten

I see you, Kitten
With your fuzzy face and tiny nose and shiny eyes
Your tiny paws that claw at the heart
But I have to say -
You are an ugly kitten.
I didn’t think such a thing was possible
But you proved me wrong.
Now I am sad and also angry
Because you had only one job, Kitten -
To be cute.
And you effed it up.
I will now call you Disappointment Kitten
Because that is what now claws at my heart
You need to up your game.
You cannot rest on your feline laurels
And assume the world will bow before you.
Get on it.

For those who aren’t familiar with Written? Kitten, you set a word count goal and then you get a picture of a kitten when you hit that goal. I set a goal of 100 words and my poem came in at 112 and you know what happened? I didn’t get my kitten! You know what else happened? WordPress ate the first draft of this post! Kittens are trying to suppress the truth!