We Cannot Walk Away

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Screen Shot 2019-05-17 at 11.04.22 AM.pngIt was 2005 when I started really writing. Prior to that, I would write longhand on yellow legal pads. That writing was more frustrating than cathartic as the words spilling out jammed and piled up in a lahar behind the damming slowness of my hand pulling pen across paper.

My children were babies still—Jeffrey was three years old, and Bean was one. Abby was yet unimagined. Not even the wildest fortune teller would have dared predict what was waiting, what choices would lay before me, what terrifyingly rapid rivers of agency, loss, sorrow, and change would need to be forged. There is mercy in not knowing.

Is it that way for everyone? Does anyone get the life they planned? I look around and I see people who seem to wrestle something that looks like control–but it also looks like it comes at a steep cost. David told me once that life simply is pain. We enter the world with pain, and every step of our lives, things must die for us to live–our food, our homes, our plans, each time we make a choice, one petal has to fall for another to bloom. We look away, because it’s almost too much to bear. But the truth remains. He meant it as a comfort, that we shouldn’t be afraid, that we can lean into it, as the kids say. I’m still trying to work that one out.

For almost two decades, the heavy matter at the center of my universe has been raising the children entrusted to me. Everything else radiated out in giant spiral arms from the gravitational pull of my personal galaxy, around which I built my entire adult life. Even in the midst of the dismantling years, the solo years, I was fortunate enough that I was able to maintain that core of stability around which all else revolved.

 This reality formed the core of my identity. (that’s big stuff)

Like the words that couldn’t flow freely onto the page because of my manuscript pen, I noticed a store of potential talents and desires quietly incubating and growing. I felt my need quietly rising to find an outlet as I’ve watched my children begin to build their own worlds, exert their will on their lives, and to forge ahead as their own competent people. It’s exactly perfect.

It’s also pain.

Because of course it is. Parenting is one of the things that if you do it successfully, you make yourself obsolete. Oh, of course my kids will still need me, but not in the same intense way. The boundaries of those relationships are fluid and we are moving from a parent/child dynamic towards an entirely different adult relationship.

This is why my starting law school this fall is such a big deal. I am willingly leaving the sphere I have so carefully protected and cultivated for most of my adult life. I am stepping back just a bit, and just a bit before I have to, in order to pursue something really big. I sought this out, studied, prepared, and pursued it—I am choosing this.

We made this decision as a family. Each of our kids has been involved in the process, and frankly, it’s been me who has been the most reluctant. Why? Because it’s change. It’s big. It’s scary. It’s allowing myself to trust that Jon and the teenagers have got this, and that they will function just fine without me at the center of the universe. It’s trusting that our family doing things differently will be okay, and that I will still have value, even as I let go of some of the boundaries that defined me for the last two decades. It’s imagining a future for myself that is wildly different than I ever considered before. It’s believing I am smart enough. It’s trusting that there is truth and beauty and value amid the pain of growth, as I gently set down one mantle to pick up another.

When I was agonizing over this decision, Jeffrey looked at me with a wry smile on his face, and said, “Mom? Stop it. We’ve got this. You’ve done a good job, and we’re ready.” He grinned bigger, “Besides, you’d kick my ass if I turned down an offer like you have. How is it any different for you?” He had me. Jon stood next to him, arms folded, nodding and smiling.

So. There it is. My own family holding up a mirror for me to see myself. They’re right. I’m sure it will be wilder, messier and, ultimately, better than anything I can imagine. It always is. Come along with me on a new ride?

Land vs. World

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I’m not yet prepared to sort thought the tangle of emotions that accompanied the shooting at my kids school last week while I was away (for the very first time ever!). I mean, the confluence of things happening all at once makes me think I should have bought a lottery ticket instead of taken a flight to Florida.

But Florida it was. And my, my, my…

Of course Florida is home to wonderful communities, indigenous people, and regular lives. One of the reasons I opted to join Jon—other than never having been to Florida and it being a 48-hour gig—was because a close friend lives there and I wanted to see her. She’s a regular person—a college professor, a mom, and a recent PhD. But that regular part of Florida? That part with real things? That’s not what I found in Orlando.

I’m sure there must be countless evocative think-pieces on the artificiality and sprawl nurtured and fed by the enormous monster that is the Mouse-centered tourist industry in central Florida. I maybe should have read them first, because folks…I was not prepared. Mile after flat mile of low-slung hotels in inoffensive pastel colors with Bahamian shutters surrounded by man-made lakes with a single fountain (mosquito abatement, I was told). I suspect it’s a different experience if one stays on the Mouse properties and is seeking the entire Experience. What I saw, instead, given that we were not there for that experiences, was stark tiers of privilege and class.

Orlando–at least the parts down near the parks, struck me as a perfect Potemkin Village. Nothing is real, it’s all artifice. Depending on your socio-economic status, you can buy the really pretty village where the curtain is meticulously cultivated and maintained, where you’re carefully protected and insulated from the reality behind the scenes. But man, does that come at a cost.  People who cannot afford that level of cultivation—most folks, I imagine—have to opt for whatever they can afford in an attempt to experience this fantasy, which will be on one of the outward radiating circles from the Mouse-eared epicenter.

Every restaurant was contrived. Every store was packed to the rafters with mouse-themed merchandise–licensed to be sure, but not the same as available inside the parks, because that would dilute the brand and violate the curtain. Outside this most privileged and expensive circle, there were the Plan B parks—some of which appeared to be very nice, but make no mistake, they orbit the center, not the other way around. Without the Mouse, even the nicest knock-offs wouldn’t be there. I won’t even touch the exploitive nature of parks that monetize sea mammals. Just watch Blackfish.

I think this is what happens when one moves from creating a -Land to a -World.

A Land is a nice place to visit and spend the afternoon. A World requires everything around it to sustain it. I’m not at all casting aspersions on the people who enjoy this, or who are employed and like their jobs. I’m simply noticing, as an outsider, what a strange feeling it is to be in a place that feels so completely unnatural.  As an aside, I am concerned at the caste system that seems to have sprung up in these parks—once up on a time, everyone paid to get in and everyone waited in line and everyone got to ride the same rides. Now, it appears wealth can buy access to shorter lines, earlier entry, more attractions, and a completely different park experience.

As someone who literally grew up in the -Land, I cannot imagine Mr. D sitting on his park bench waiting for his daughters and thinking what has happened to his dream was a good thing.

Anyway, Florida is weird. I saw an armadillo. I met a glorious white boxer puppy at the supermarket. We never did find any good food (but I know this was entirely because of where we were staying), but I did get to meet my friend for breakfast. I did get a two nights with my husband, which we spent hanging out in one of the several hot tubs at our pastel-painted bahamian-shuttered hotel.

And then we tried to get home.

(I know people are passionate in their love and defense of Disney, and if you love love love the parks and it’s your happy place, believe me, I understand. I just don’t experience the same feelings anymore, for a host of complex reasons—some of which I tried to share here—and that’s okay too!)

Nah, **** it

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There’s a laundry list of things I need to write about, but it’s like when a kid has a giant cake they don’t quite know what to do with or where to attack it. And it’s not necessarily a delicious cake. It’s a cake made of parenting wins and fails, testing boundaries all over the place, travel chaos, the uncomfortable lack of control that becomes more and more apparent as life goes on, life-changing decisions, standing on the precipice of a new act, and maybe even some actual laundry. Sound like a cake you want? Like so much in life, what I want isn’t necessarily relevant. Open wide.

To quote Jeffrey from last night, as Jon and I were on the last leg of a nineteen-hour travel nightmare trying to get home, “I don’t want to be Mom anymore. It’s hard.”

So here are the things I am ruminating on, and which deserve more than a small blip, but I’m starting out with a blip so I can bookmark these thoughts while they coalesce into something more substantive (maybe?).

  • Jeffrey had his senior portraits taken and graduates in less than a month. He’s been accepted into Utah State University. He’s seventeen now, and I am perplexed by the somehow constant and still fluid passage of time. It’s trite, but yesterday he was holding my hands and testing his little chubby feet in his first steps, and today he is 6’2″ and can easily pick me up with a giant laugh when I am annoying him while he gets his portrait taken. I haven’t quite figured out what to do with these things, and time doesn’t care about my fluidity, the constancy marches on.
  • For the very first time, Jon and I decided to leave the kids overnight while I accompanied him on a short (<48 hours) business trip to Florida. That’s it’s own post, and I think I understand the “Florida man…” memes now. But…
  • Within two hours of our departure, while we were still on the airplane, there was a shooting at my kids’ high school. Maybe you can imagine the full-body panic as I turned on my phone on the tarmac in Orlando and watched the horrifying notifications roll up my phone—but I hope you never, ever have to feel it. The next 48 hours are something I need to catalog, especially since I was suddenly stuck hundreds of miles from home and completely powerless. We’re all mostly powerless in so many ways, but nothing brings that home quite like not being able to get to your children. I have thoughts.
  • Then, in a desperate attempt to actually GET home, what should have been a less-than two-hour flight turned into a nineteen (yes, 19!) hour ordeal that included mechanical failures on the runway, over-sold flights, a plane leaking water in my lap from the ceiling (I have video!), failed standby attempts, requisite lost baggage, and even lightning strikes. It became a nightmare-ish comedy in which I had an epiphany about the absurd tragedy of life and the lengths to which we go to make ourselves feel like we have some control (over anything) but really…we just don’t. Laughter and human connection is all we have. That’s it. But it also happens to be everything.
  • I’ve accepted a spot in law school, and classes begin at the end of August. This is really happening. And, surprise surprise, I have thoughts.
  • Add Sane Gun Laws and Gun Control to my list of things on my law-school agenda. I can tackle IDEA, disability law, SpEd, and the NRA, right??

So I plan on unpacking my overnight bag, taking a long, hot shower, picking up Jeff’s graduation announcements, and mailing the last batch of peanut butter (I know some of you are waiting still and I’m sorry I’m a week behind–The stores are sold out!)

I know some folks still read here, and I’m planing on moving back to more long-form writing. I’ve withdrawn some from some forms of media, and I realize I really need the catharsis and practice of writing in more than 200 characters, though I also appreciate the brevity and humor those constraints have helped cultivate.

Basically, I’m back babies.

(It said ‘bitches” but then I decided to be more well-behaved. But then I decided, “nah, f*ck it.” That might be my new motto.)

For Charlotte, Whom I Love

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My former mother-in-law, Charlotte, died today. She went the way many of us hope to, in her sleep, and in her 90s. But I am rather shocked at the depth of the loss I am feeling. She was a deeply good woman who was kind and forgiving. She walked beside me, a quiet, unassuming but constant presence, through some of the hardest and most painful years of my life, and she was always there.  She forgave me my youthful pride, and she quietly loved us, through and after the loss of her son, my former husband, my children’s father. Her loss is being deeply felt in our hearts.

I humbly offer this piece I wrote about her a while back, when I realized what a gift she was to me, and to my children. If there is a merciful and loving God, then David was there waiting for her this morning, and she is wrapped in light and free of pain.

Our hearts are broken today.

I owe my former mother-in-law an apology. Years ago, back when life was safe and normal, and my then-husband was allowing me the luxury of staying home with my babies, I had a very unforgiving opinion of my then-mother-in-law. I’ve long-since revised that opinion privately (and to her), but it occurred to me I wrote some very harsh and frank pieces about my interactions with her, and while I have experienced the shift and nuance of that relationship changing, my written record, and what stands as a testament to my character, has not reflected those changes.

My MIL and I are very different people. Our life-experiences and generational perspective are worlds apart— and while that can probably be said of most women in our stations, here it’s particularly true. She had my husband later in life, and is actually older than my own grandmother would have been. It was easy for me to forget that she wasn’t of my mother’s generation, and actually had children the same age as my parents. It made for a complicated dynamic which I was not mature enough to fully understand. It’s likely I still can’t. But I at least wish to acknowledge my own complicity in what was so frequently a complicated and difficult relationship.

My MIL is a good person. Even when we seemed to be at cross-purposes, she was never unkind. She loves my children greatly, and has gone out of her way to always make sure they know it. When we’re young and have the hubris of still thinking we know ‘everything’ we can miss the subtlety of differing forms of expression. I made this mistake— a lot. Because my MIL did things differently than my own mother, differently than I would have, I felt secure in disregarding her perspective. I can’t imagine how frustrating this must have been to her, and I wish to apologize.

Throughout the colossal disaster of her son’s and my divorce, she continued, though I’m sure her heart was daily breaking, to reach out to me. It was actually in the painful shards of mutual loss of her son that I think I finally was able to see her as a mother and woman. Her continued kindness, despite my own howling pain, came to be something stable and reliable, and I am grateful to her for not giving up on me.

Now, nearly four years out from the divorce, and living across the country, we don’t see each other anymore. I still try and make sure she gets pictures of the kids, and I could certainly be better about having them call her. She still offers support and sends the kids cards and occasionally video chats with them. I’m grateful for her willingness to continue to help my ex-husband; it’s through her support that he is working on his recovery and able to successfully be a part of his kids’ lives, even if at a distance.

She has seen more than her share of heart-break, and as time has marched on, I have found my respect for her growing. I don’t know why some folks gets heaping piles of heartache in this life while others skate through… I may never understand. I am, however, deeply indebted and grateful to this particular woman, who has provided an example of compassionate love and forgiveness in the face of more than her share of tragedy.

I hope that sets the record straight.

Winter Wrap Up

Happy Spring! Let’s do a winter wrap-up before I start really trying to look forward.

It has been the cold season of brake-jobs for Jon and Jeffrey. Together they replaced the brakes on the family car, then Jeffrey, with Jon’s oversight replaced the brakes on Jon’s commuter car. Once that was done, Jeff moved on to replacing the brakes on his own car. It took a couple of weekends, some You-Tube videos, and a few seriously busted knuckles, but our cars all stop and also don’t make any terrible noises. Ordering the parts and doing the labor ourselves literally saved a couple thousand dollars, and we have a kid who feels pretty confident in his abilities and proud of himself.

Bean has started playing quidditch—I mean, Lacrosse. I was trying to describe it to someone the other day, and “quidditch” was I could come up with, drawing a total blank on lacrosse. It’s been a long time finding him a sport he enjoys; the chaos of team sports is hard for sensory kids, but this one finally seems to have clicked. He really genuinely loves it, and has been working hard. He also really loves carrying a big stick.

Kelsey turned 16 and Abby is getting ready to turn 13, which will bring our household total officially to four teenagers, two cats, one enormous dog, and two flummoxed and tired parents. Kelsey gets her driver’s license the same time Bean can get his permit. I’m not sure we’re ready for this, but that’s pretty much the story of parenting: You’re never ready.

It’s harder than I thought it would be trying to choose a law school. So far I’ve been accepted into three programs, am waitlisted on another, and haven’t heard yet from the remaining three schools. The clock is ticking on making a decision—I have until mid-April before I have to commit. It’s harder than I expected. There is one program I particularly love, but it has some real hurdles to our family if I take it. There is another that’s significantly more convenient for our family, but isn’t as appealing academically to me. I haven’t figured out what the right path is yet. It’s nice to have options. But it’s also a little scary.

It’s been a tough season for grief. This surprised me, though I feel like it shouldn’t. I think maybe that’s just the way it goes.

We picked me up a little inexpensive commuter car. After driving big family-mobiles for the better part of two decades, it’s pretty delightful to be in something small, fuel efficient, and zippy. She’s a stick, which is also utterly delightful, and which all children will now learn. I have named her Stella Blue. Abby will turn 16 when I’m graduating from law school, and I suspect Stella will convey over at that point.

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This might be burying the lede, but we had some wonderful news family-wise yesterday. Our extended family is gaining two new cousins, who have come to us through the foster  system. We are over the moon that these children, who we already love so much, are going to be adopted in and be our family forever.

Bean has some exciting peanut-butter and austin related news we’ve been working on for months, and I think next week we’ll be able to make it public.

If you read my memoir, The Burning Point, you might remember my first apartment, across the street from David’s white-painted victorian? I found an old picture, and you can see the piano-shop sign on the building next to it, and my first bug, Apple, parked in front. My apartment was the second story, the open window is the kitchen.

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Happy Birthday David

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The sun is very definitely in Pisces, and it feels like you.  It also feels like home to me. Of course it does, I can hear your laughter and see you pointing at me. I think it’s your laughter I miss almost more than I miss being able to talk to you. As the kids get older, there are so many times I want to reach for the phone, to get your input, your wisdom. I’m a little surprised to find myself occasionally mad. Grief is such a fluid animal. I know you didn’t leave on purpose, but dammit, sometimes I get angry that you’re gone. I recognize that’s about me, and is mine to deal with, but I also know you well enough to know that you’d nod and tell me that it was okay, feelings just are what they are.

Each night lately, the kids all gather in the bedroom with Jon and I, and I read a chapter of the book I wrote about us. Between the five adult-sized humans, the giant dog, and now two cats (did I tell you that? we added cats) the room is overflowing. Bean usually lays on the floor with the dog, while Abby and Jeff take the two reading chairs. The cats do whatever the hell they want, because they’re cats. All three of the kids wanted to read the book, but all three said it was really hard, and having me do it would help. Thus began our evening project. The best part is that we can stop, talk about what’s happening, and I can fill in details and answer questions, and they can discover their own memories tied to where we are in the book. It turns out writing is an excellent way to preserve memories. Who knew? There is a feeling of closeness and anticipation that I didn’t expect; three teenagers actually want to listen to their mom read every night.

It’s also allowed me to see how small a sliver of who we were that I’ve managed to preserve. But it’s better than nothing.

Remember how I said I was going to maybe focus on something more academic for the future? Well, I applied to law school. I know, right?! I’ve spent the better part of a year on it, but we’re in the home-stretch now; I’m getting back answers on my applications. It’s all theoretical until you get that yes… but what an impact that yes makes when it comes. So far, I have heard back from two of the half dozen schools where I applied. Both said yes. It feels surreal and I never imagined I could actually do this—I have some imposter syndrome crap to work through, but it looks like I’m going to law school. I can hear you laughing, saying give me a bucket, because of course.

Jeffrey is getting ready to graduate high school. That’s even more surreal than me going to law school. He’s nearly the same age I was when we met. He’s such a good kid, you’d be insanely proud of him. Just this week we got an email from is criminal justice teacher praising his character and recommending him for a scholarship. He’s interested in forensics and investigative law enforcement, and he was accepted to Utah State. I’m not sure any of us are ready for that, either—including him. But he’s also brave and has a very strong sense of self and who he is. He wants to do good in the world.

Bean has had quite a year. He’s become something of a minor celebrity. Through a series strange and weirdly modern events, he won a lifetime supply of peanut butter from a German grocery store chain. Because he’s Bean, he looked at that lifetime supply and told me we needed to share it. So he did. With the help of the grocery store, he had two giveaways for furloughed federal workers, and then he donated another 1800 jars to a local food bank. He shrugs off the attention, and keeps being Bean. He’s started playing lacrosse, and is enjoying it far more than football. Hey says there are no asses on the lacrosse team. I trust him.

Abby flies under the radar as much as possible. She made all-county band and is an alternate for all-state band as a 12 year-old. We didn’t find out until we showed up for the concert and looked at the program. She just kept telling us she had a band thing, but she didn’t think it was a big deal. (The two cats are hers, by the way.) She’s insanely talented at drawing, but her real passions is still in science. She goes to the high school with her brothers each morning for classes before heading back to the middle school to finish her day. She’s finding her grove and has a quiet Taurean resiliency about her.

Our tradition now is to celebrate your birthday each year with Hobbees shakes and papa’s papas. Tonight, Bean has a lacrosse game, so our birthday meal is being pushed to tomorrow morning instead. When we discussed this last night, the kids all felt you’d understand, and that you’d probably rather watch Bean play his game anyway.

There are times it feels like you’ve been gone for a lifetime, and there are times it still feels like yesterday. I hope you are occasionally able to be nearby, and that you can see or feel the kind, decent, beautiful humans our children are becoming. I often think about what you said after Jeffrey was born. You told me it wasn’t about us anymore. That, to paraphrase Kahlil Gibran, our children were the arrows we would launch into the future, and life was now theirs. You weren’t wrong. You seldom were.

We miss you. I hope you have found peace.

Tracy Leigh