insomniasurfkidsoceannight

The door must have opened first, but it was the closing that woke me, followed by the motion lights coming on. I stumbled out of bed to check the driveway. No one. The side gate squeaked open, shut. A car’s headlights shone through the hedge. My son and his friends had decided to get a middle-of-the-night snack, apparently. I returned to bed, listening for them to return. To fill the time, I started worrying. About teenage drivers. About the potential for drunk or texting drivers. About the kids in general. About the event I have tonight. About recent rough patches in a couple friendships. About making it through a long day of work, a busy night and leaving the next morning on so little sleep.

I should’ve gone downstairs and found my headphones, plugged in and listened to one of my relaxation apps. But I didn’t want to get up. Finally I got up and decided to write.

Sometimes I miss writing about surfing, repetitive as it was. Last time I went out was Sunday. The sky hovered mostly gray, sunshine promised, but not yet forthcoming. Waves broke on my face in the channel. My bootie has a hole and my wetsuit’s leaking, but the water temp’s been steady mid-50s, not too bad. My knees ache every day lately, but I caught a couple waves and did all right. Nick caught some and, as always, watching him fly along from the back triggered happiness. Most everyone in the water was a friend. The waves were head-high, slightly over, and mushy. I had to wait until they were almost breaking to get into them – good practice, mentally, taking off later than I’m typically comfortable.

A set came, larger than the others, maybe a foot overhead, maybe more. Usually I either get caught inside or somehow miss the set waves, instead observing everyone else tear them up while I linger pathetically alone on the outside. This time, I caught one. Dropped down the face, bottom-turned, back up to the lip, slid down – just an average ride on an average wave that filled me with exceptional happiness because that is what surfing does.

Rode to the beach, where Nick was waiting. We had places to be, so I ended on that successful note and off we went as the sun finally emerged and the day turned brilliant.

I wish those moments came to me in the midst of tossing, turning, adjusting pillows, sheets. Instead, the anxieties I keep at bay during the sunlit hours assault me. I remember when I would get up and check Nick’s blood sugar in the dark. For years, I’d set the alarm, sneak into his room, poke his finger, watch the drop of blood spread into the strip. Wait for the number. Either I’d be able to go back to sleep, satisfied that he was, for the moment, okay – or start the correction process, which might take hours. He’s been handling that himself, at his insistence, for a couple years. I don’t miss the interrupted sleep, but I do miss being fully informed, having oversight. I wish we discussed his diabetes beyond him reassuring me that he’s fine. I believe he’s paying attention. I know he’s not paying attention the way I want him to.

But since when do the kids do what I want them to? They’ve been teenagers, near-adults, adults for a while. So much letting go. It’s freeing in many ways, this relinquishment of control. What doesn’t go away is the worry. I remain shackled to that.

So here I am, coming up on 7:30 a.m., wondering if I attempt more sleep or caffeinate my way through the day.

I have a big deal Ocean Night tonight (see Lost Coast Outpost at some point today for a comprehensive post), then off to Outside Lands tomorrow. Life is sweet, yes? Even without the sleep.

 

 

From Pancakes to Parting: On Being Mom

Like the bed, this chair is not quite comfortable. I’ve stayed here before. It’s one of the many Santa Cruz motels retro-beach themed. I enjoy the throwback font on the sign and the place is clean enough, but it’s the price that lands me here. Upscale hotel rooms with their fluffy pillows, non-polyester bedspreads and fancy toiletries please me. A guilty pleasure. But I’m aiming for thrifty on this trip. I packed food. I did not order a glass of wine at dinner. My funds need to go toward ensuring K has everything she needs that I can provide before she jets off to Europe for the summer. That’s why I’m here. To spend time with her before thousands of miles separate us and to be Mom.

It’s strange how my mothering role has changed with the girls off in the world and Nick having one foot out the door. After two decades of almost always having a kid or three attached to me, I now move through the days almost wholly myself. People I’ve met in the last few years know I have children, but they’ve never known me as “Mom!” – I’m just Jen. They’ve never heard me bubble over with pride after a Little League game, never heard the panic in my voice when I called to say one kid or another needing rushing to the hospital, have no idea how good I am at making pancakes or that I spent a year as a “nacho mom” when Chelsea was in fourth grade. I appreciate that I never let my identity disappear into motherhood, but to see me without it is incomplete.

“You had Chelsea when you were my age,” K noted recently. She’s 20.

“Yes, and I had you when I was Chelsea’s age.” I rejoined. Chelsea’s 24.

It’s strange.

I was pregnant at 19. In my entire life as an adult, I was never not a mother. In the past year, Bobby and I have grown used to being the only people in the house. We cook less. Once a treat so rare we couldn’t even relax into it, now a night home just the two of us is commonplace – Nick crashes at his friends’ places often. The house stays clean, more or less. Especially since we buried our dog last year.

I miss certain things: reading out loud, giggle-filled hikes out to the beach, making pancakes. I do not miss the rebellious teenage years, the endless running late places, the laundry. I’m enjoying feeling myself emerge more wholly these past few years, although rediscovering and redefining oneself is not as simple as a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis. This era might feel a bit like I’m finally having the twenties I never had – and I confess, I envy certain freedoms younger women have gained, the confidence they have in their right to expect better from men, from careers, from their parents, the ability to be their own ass-kicking selves without apology, but it’s not like I need to suddenly get my party on.

Because I am most definitely not 20-something and I worked in bars through much of that decade anyway, so it’s not as if I missed out on going out. I saw bands. I had (still have) good times. I’ve always been rich in friends. I just had to accept certain types of responsibility faster because I had small people I loved depending on me to take care of them. That fact defined my life. It also defined my marriage, as did the ways in which our families judged us, as did the struggle to bring in enough money, to make a life with so few resources.

We persevered, Bobby and I, recently celebrated our 22nd wedding anniversary, 26 years together in all. Not every moment is quiet and peaceful. We still argue about bills sometimes. Or whether or not too much stuff is accumulating. (It is!) But overall, this new chapter has been quite agreeable for us – it’s an odd thing when the kids are no longer the focal point. A couple might discover they have nothing else in common. They might not know each other. They might not like each other – and without the distraction of who’s driving the kids, making dinner, planning the family’s vacations, with nothing to do except hang out, well, sometimes people end up going their separate ways. I’m relieved Bobby still makes me laugh, that I love his cooking and his happiness in his garden. That we look forward to going to bed together.

Oh, but the worry! The children may no longer be children, but I spend no less time squelching the fears of losing them. Since I brought Chelsea out of the hospital, realized how small and vulnerable my new baby was in the light of this huge, terrifying world, a part of my brain has been dedicated to making sure I never, ever forget the grip they have on my heart and all the ways in which they could be wrenched from me. Every news story involving children stokes the potential narratives. I am here in Santa Cruz because K is off to Europe for the summer between semesters. I’m thrilled for her – education and travel being things I did arrive late to – but the distance, thinking of how many miles will lie between her and us hits like something physical.

The children are part of me and now those parts are scattered. It’s impossible to feel whole. But I’ll help K find some boots and keep sending Chelsea texts and cards, and pester Nick with questions like, “Are you alive?” when he hasn’t come home by midnight. I will take K to the airport on Wednesday, hug her hard and wave goodbye as she goes through security.

I will drive away in tears, my heart asunder, make my way back up the 101 to home, where I’ll share the news that, “She’s off!” and people will smile and say, “Wow! That’s so great!” And I’ll agree. It is.

insomnia #21 aka 2013 Year in Review

If I were to make a list of things I’d most like to leave behind in 2013, insomnia would be up there. I blame the evening’s red wine this time, but the cause could just as easily be falling asleep too early with too much on my mind. It’s a horrible thing, thinking.

My arsenal of sleep aids – herbal teas and tonics, Tylenol PM, relaxation apps – are failing to do the trick tonight. Rather than lie in bed kicking my husband every time he nears snoring, I’m here in front of the computer, writing.

It seemed potentially more productive. New Year’s Eve. Why not take stock?

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January: Our sweet dog died, my younger daughter was detained in London en route to Ireland, I wrote my first Five Things, and a friend and I attended the Presidential inauguration.

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February: My older daughter turned 23, my husband and I relived the ’90s by seeing Soundgarden in Oakland’s Fox Theater, I moved into The Link and I went on an epic surf-work trip to Central Cali, the first of many excursions I’d take with my dear friend Casey.

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March: Spent another week along the central coast, my younger daughter turned 19 and I wrote my first (and so far only) cover story for the North Coast Journal.

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April: My first Five Things column ran in the NCJ, I tripped to Sacramento and Santa Cruz, and I helped coordinate a memorial service and paddle out for John “Moose” Mason, a man whose sudden death brought forth such beautiful tribute from so many people that I found myself thinking, “We should all be so loved” – and that we should all be so kind and good as Moose.

May: Some idiots filming an ad at Moonstone high-centered a Dodge truck on a rock, launching me into Surfrider mode and ending with me being named a “Humboldtian of the Week” on Facebook, a work trip took me to D.C., we attended my fabulous brother’s fabulous wedding in San Francisco, where I stayed on for a conference after – four hotels in 10 days.

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June: Traveled to Long Beach for work and some time with my older daughter, stepped in as the NCJ’s music columnist, spent Summer Solstice at Shelter Cove, wrote about the dead whale that washed up on my beach and was given a six-month layoff heads up.

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July: Played cornhole and bocce ball for the first times and failed at neither, took a vacation to Seattle that included a whale watching tour through the Puget Sound and a stop in Portland on the way back that included visiting a friend with whom I shared a room when we were 18 – and all the required reminiscing that implies, and wrote my favorite Five Things so far.

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August: Threw a most excellent birthday party for my husband’s 50th, was hired on to do part-time outreach for Humboldt Baykeeper and moved my younger daughter to Santa Cruz.

September: Played a small role in Humboldt Made’s big premier, guested on Sherae O’Shaughnessy’s Late Night gig, traveled with Casey to San Diego for the annual Surfrider conference, helped cover the arrest of alleged crossbow killers in Manila, helped clean up around a homeless camp for Coastal Cleanup Day and wrote about it.

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October: My kickball team raised $2,697 for Six Rivers Planned Parenthood and came in second in the annual tournament, Casey and Kj joined me for my second excursion to a foreign country, this one a long-anticipated trip to Manzanillo, Mexico, where we spent six days surfing, swimming, reading, drinking and eating tacos – best vacation ever – followed by a closer-to-home excursion to track gray whales and see humpbacks, a transcendent experience.

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November: My son turned 18, my friend Grant and I took off to New York for a week, where I stayed with my brother and his wife and celebrated my own birthday – 44! – at The Comedy Cellar, and upon returning home, my husband and I moved into the upstairs master bedroom after 11 years of downstairs living.

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December: Held what was likely my favorite Ocean Night ever, wrapped up my job with Ocean Conservancy, made plans for a next chapter with the Northcoast Environmental Center, tripped down to Santa Cruz to visit our younger daughter, reminisced about a time I almost died, and trekked up to Crescent City for an especially memorable surf safari due to cramming five people in a Honda CRV, finding fun waves under endless sunshine, a rescue by me of a person drifting out to sea, stinky sea lions, piles of fish and chips and hours of excellent conversation.

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In between and throughout all that, a million photos of sunsets, sunrises and various bodies of water. Also, surfing. My wonderful writers’ group. Parties. Music. Books. Movies. Food. The requisite ups-and-downs and various heartbreaks involved in being a human people who spends time with people. Most importantly, a ton of love and good best friends. I aim to transform this list of things done into something larger and life-useful at some point, but for now, what a reminder that I am a lucky, lucky girl.

A worst thing

There are many worsts in life. This was one of them.

I would never hurt a dog. I found myself repeating that fact out loud. To my children. To the guys who pulled over to help. To myself. I would never hurt a dog.

Seconds before the impact, we’d been glowing from an evening surf, Nick, Kaylee and I, waves and weather conspiring to keep us in the water through dusk. One more, just one more as the sky flared pink and orange, and the ocean shimmered in the sun’s last rays. We’d been raving about the session – So fun! – the three of us smushed in the cab of the truck, what a great surf that had been. We hadn’t all surfed together in months, schedules and temperaments not often aligned.

From the jetty to home is all of ten minutes, a sprint up the spit with a single stop sign interrupting the journey. I don’t speed – even if I were inclined, my truck trundles along on the slow side. But the limit is 55, far too fast to stop in time when two dogs bolt out of the darkness onto the road directly in front of you. I tried. I saw the silhouettes, the kids shouted, “Mom!,” I hit the brakes, I swerved. All these actions piled on top of each other so quickly it was as if they were the same moment. And then the thunk. I pulled over and we ran to the dog I’d hit as Kaylee called 911. The other dog had raced away.

Nick implored me to keep Kaylee away from the dog I’d  hit, but I had no chance. She ran over to it, hoping somehow it would be okay despite that horrible sound. I wanted a miracle as well – in my mind, as I caught up to her, we were already loading the animal into the truck, racing to the emergency vet. But the animal had been killed on impact.

I killed a dog.

I would never hurt a dog. Never.

Nick went off to search for the other one. Kaylee cried and said we had to move the body out of the road so no one else would hit the poor thing. The dog was larger than our old yellow lab we’d lost in January and black in a stretch of street with little light. The thought of picking up the lifeless body, dead weight like a sandbag in my hands, blood, there would be blood, horrified me almost as much as the vision of a car ramrodding over the corpse, splattering the insides across the lane.

And then the responsibility for the aftermath ceased to be mine. A couple guys from Samoa Fire pulled over to see what was happening. Through tears, we explained. They were concerned about my son’s safety – he had not yet returned, but as we spoke, he emerged from the darkness. No luck finding the other dog, he said. He expressed his worry about Kaylee again, frustrated that I’d let her experience the dead dog up close. I couldn’t stop her, I cried. I couldn’t stop.

The volunteers tugged the dog’s body to the side of the road. They reassured me. No way to avoid it, miss. I wanted them to be right. I wanted to think that I could have done nothing else, that underneath the circumstances, the outcome was inevitable. I replay the moment – dogs! brakes! swerve! – over and over.

I would never hurt a dog.

I love dogs. We had a dog for 14 years and I miss her almost every day. My son grew up with her. They were practically littermates. For all his concern over his sister, I know he’s horrified at what I’ve done. What I’ve done. In an instant I went from cool surfer mom to mom-who-killed-a-dog. That the collision was unavoidable is of scant comfort. We lose our children’s idolization bit by bit as they grow older and discover our flaws, learn to their great disappointment that their parents are merely human. We long to be superheroes. A superhero would’ve somehow brilliantly avoided disaster. A superhero would have managed to save the dogs, not kill one of them, scare the other off. I have taken an animal’s life, by accident. Someone, somewhere will miss this dog and I am so, so sorry. I miss the moment ten minutes ago, when life was perfect and hopes high.

A sheriff’s deputy shows up. We explain, again. He reassures, again. He hands me the front license plate he’d picked up from the road – the impact had knocked it off the truck. We shiver in our wetsuits. The men agree nothing remains for me to do. I should take the kids, go home, don’t feel bad. It was an accident. These things happen. There was nothing I could have done.

So, 2013, yada yada yada, Mexico

It’s been a while.

Between Facebook and once again writing regularly for the North Coast Journal, I don’t turn here as often as I once did. And since my children have – for the most part – grown too old to use as fodder and since I am no longer chronicling my surf sessions, well, what would I write about?

It’s been quite a year.

But aren’t all years? Not one year of my life has passed after which I thought, Oh, wow, what a nice, dull time. This one started with our wonderful yellow mutt reaching the end of her 14 years. The following month marked the termination of a decade-long friendship. An important family relationship turned inexplicably distant. My youngest child graduated from high school, the middle one moved on to Santa Cruz and college. In June, I received notice that my beloved job will officially cease to exist as of Dec. 31. Another friendship fell apart. The endodontist says I need two root canals and the dentist found nine cavities in my son’s mouth and I have no idea how I’m going to take care of all this when the insurance only covers a percentage in the first place and time before losing what little coverage I have is running out.

Insert obligatory #firstworldproblems acknowledgment.

Of course, a stream of good things happened, too – they always do, preventing me from sinking too far into self-pity. Foremost, my children are alive and relatively well. I reconnected with old friends during one visit to Long Beach, another to Portland and yet another to San Diego. We reminisced, as people do, about the crazy things we did – that trip to Ensenada where she ended up in the closet with my future husband’s roommate and I broke the top off a Cherry 7Up bottle in my desperation to quench my hangover-induced thirst. That time I was super stoned and pulled what I thought were eyedrops out of my purse, but it was lotion and I didn’t realize it until I’d squeezed globs on top of both eyeballs – a story that apparently never gets old in the retelling. Those days we stayed past close in the bar, too blown away by some great band that had played to stop drinking – or because we needed to vent about how shitty the band was and how annoying the NA crowd could be with their ceaseless demands for coffee refills and emptied ashtrays.

Despite differing political and social views, visits with family members were lovely and free of debate. My previous writers’ group stopped meeting years ago due to the demands of children, husbands, jobs, life, but the women who made it up continue to be on the other end of late night/early morning emails most notable for being pleas of Help! How do I cope with this crisis? How do I get through another day fraught with too much to do and people going nuts? They always have answers – or for the unanswerable, comfort. I needed a lot of that this year. My new writers’ group delights me. Who am I to deserve such an abundance of smart, kind, funny, creative people populating my world?

From the people I work with – at all my various endeavors – to the people who showed up for my husband’s ridiculously fun 50th birthday, I am, for lack of a less hackneyed word, blessed. (Thoughts on friendship distilled here.) My job, albeit ending, has provided a leg up in the world and experiences I never expected: Taiwan, for example, adventures in D.C., even more intimate knowledge of our coastline, a hand in creating concrete protection for it. Health care. Experiencing what being able to pay one’s bills is like. I’ll miss it desperately, sure, but future opportunities are promising and for the time being I’m still privileged to write, occasionally, for both the Lost Coast Outpost and the NCJ. Those days when keeping all the magic going threatens to send me sobbing into anxiety-riddled nervous breakdown, I can still walk out my front door to the beach. Life is so very much work and yet continually proves to be worth it.

And I’m leaving for Mexico tomorrow.

This trip will be only my second out of the country (not counting ill-fated teenage trips to Baja), made possible by the generosity of a friend with a house there and judicious use of frequent flyer miles. To say I’m excited is to say a hummingbird is bit of a speedy creature – my heart is beating faster than those wings with anticipation. I wanted my husband to come so that we could have a shared adventure, celebrate this dawning new phase of our lives in which our children are grown, but alas, his desire to avoid flying supersedes his desire to trip along with me to exotic locales. The consolation option is no less wonderful, however – lieu of romance, I have two of my best girlfriends accompanying me, both so easygoing that my only concern is now I’m in danger of being the uptight one. I’ve wanted to travel forever. And I’m leaving both cell phone and laptop behind, so ready to disconnect that keeping focus through the day seems nearly impossible. I have a stack of books. Oh, to read novels again!

I fear I’m too happy about this.

Sometimes I’m compelled to reiterate, it’s not easy, this life. It’s much easier now that I’m not working 60 hours a week between two jobs that still didn’t pay enough to cover life’s expenses, fun as they were. A living wage directly improves one’s world, no question. But a lot of struggling and stress existed between finding myself pregnant at 19 and finding myself landing a dream job 20 years later. (I’m always finding myself!) Even under ideal circumstances, raising children challenges the most patient of adults. Our circumstances were far from ideal, lacking in both family support and cash, our son diagnosed with an as-yet incurable disease. And I am not patient. But – to get hackneyed again – love keeps getting us through.

So I can’t write about my kids very much because they’re adults or very nearly. (Also – disclaimer – because I hope to contribute a column to the NCJ’s new “Offsprung” series, so I can’t go on too much about how, despite what a vast number of well-intentioned people say, having adult children does not, in fact, make a parent “done.”) The nearly-adult status of my son also means I can’t write about my son’s diabetes like I used to. For the record, it’s still scary. Scarier in some ways because he’s opted to take on more responsibility for his care. He now inserts his own sets, checks his blood sugar on his own even in the early morning hours. I have not stuck a needle in the kid for months. Hardly a thing to miss – but like all aspects of letting go of controlling a child’s life, one that brings anxiety along with the relief. Who will take care of him if not me?

And since, for the first time since I began surfing, I’ve stopped counting my yearly surf sessions, I have no obligation to chronicle them here – by permitting myself the freedom from tracking, I inadvertently did away with a steady writing prompt. Alas. I have surfed and not surfed. Weeks pass and I freak out and suddenly I’m zipping down the spit, truck loaded, blood racing, my need to be in the water as primal as hunger. I don’t do things for a while and then worry I’ve forgotten how to do them. Surf. Make pancakes. Read. Write a blog post.

Thanks for bearing with me.

Beyond Facebook sharing: On George Zimmerman Found Not Guilty in the Death of Trayvon Martin, in which I attempt to discuss race

I’m with friends, heading back from a perfect day at the river, the kind of day that opens blue and holds steady through the afternoon, hot enough to nudge a person into the water several times, but mild enough to allow stretching out along the sandy bank for an hour, snacking on chips and guac, sipping sweet iced raspberry tea, catching up on gossip and more serious matters until the water calls for diving in once again, the coolness pure pleasure – oh, to swim! That temporary escape of gravity’s hold, the sun, the river, the breeze, the smooth rock providing a launching pad for diving – fire, water, air, earth, all the elements combining to spill joy out across the scene.

And then, the ride back, laughing as the iPod shuffles Katy Perry, Cake, the Be Good Tanyas, the Dixie Chicks and Flight of the Conchords into a soundtrack by turns silly and sentimental. It was into this moment, passing through the brief cell service window in Willow Creek, that my phone lit up with a New York Times alert about George Zimmerman Found Not Guilty in the Death of Trayvon Martin. The words dulled my happiness for a moment, but before I could tap for more, we’d traveled out of service again and so I set the information on the back burner of my mind.

At home, I opened Facebook and Twitter, assuming links to the most relevant writings would be filling up my news feed. They were, along with the outrage – opinions pouring forth into the gaps between funny videos, weekend hilarity, Tim Lincecum’s no-hitter. I sought out Ta-Nahesi Coates, of course.

I read the smart stuff, the pieces that elegantly analyzed why we are still where we are when we are. I read re-posted tweets from Trayvon’s dad, quotes from his mother and thought about my own 17-year-old son, a white boy in a white town in a white part of California, whiter than anywhere I ever lived before – we have our own sort of lawlessness, a result of being rural, remote and economically dependent on an illegal product, but of all the things I worry about my son getting into trouble over, being targeted for the color of his skin has never been one of them.

I confess, I was once one of those people who said ignorant things like, “I don’t pay attention to what color people are! We’re all people!” In my defense, I was trying to find a way to separate myself from the casual racists of my hometown. At least I was a step ahead of the people who started sentences with, “I’m not a racist, but….” One year a race riot broke out at my high school. Some white boys, the story went, had jumped a black girl in the cemetery adjacent to the school, had carved the word “nigger” on her stomach. How much of that was true never came out, but what did emerge was fury and a desire for retribution, all of it erupting into lunchtime chaos violent enough to make the newspaper and cause the school to shorten the lunch hour and increase security.

I escaped that town to Long Beach, where folks of all different backgrounds, sexual preferences and ethnicities lived on top of each other. I didn’t have to teach my daughter about how “We’re all people!” because we lived it, bound together by geography and class. I still didn’t have a clue about exactly how insidiously racism pervades the lives of those targeted by it – and then the L.A. riots happened.

My neighborhood bordered the line between the “good” and “bad” parts of town. We didn’t see much firsthand, but a store a block away suffered vandalism and rioters burned the Long Beach DMV down. I couldn’t go to work because I worked at a bar and a city-wide curfew forced closures of late night businesses. Tension suffocated the city. Those few days following were the only time in my life when I had a conscious gut reaction to brown skin. I’m a girl – I’ve had many instances of instinctive fear of men and, sure, inadvertently walking through a bad area has concerned me, but this was a different beast, this fear.

I was on the bus two days after the riots. Three unsmiling young black men climbed aboard. Blacks and whites had just been at war and even though I was a conscientious objector to that battle, nervousness shot through me. Were they going to do something? They didn’t, of course, and I recall that feeling with shame that my good intentions were so easily dismantled – and I wonder if that’s how racists feel all the time.

When we, reluctantly, moved back to the desert, a temporary stop on the path to a better life, a prison had just opened on the outskirts of town, bringing an influx of black families with it. I waitressed at a diner in a neighborhood that, as my customers complained, “had gotten pretty goddamned dark.” I was poor, had three kids to feed, needed the tips, so I didn’t always speak up – I never indulged racist jokes or slurs, but I didn’t climb up on the soapbox as often as I could have either, didn’t initiate conversations about why the unfairness of our legal system has created a situation in which a disproportionate amount of those serving time in prison are of African-American descent.

They were old, these guys, and in bad health from living on chicken fried steak, so mostly I just looked forward to the day when all the racists (and misogynists and homophobes, etc., etc.) would die off and tolerance would bloom across the land.

Finally, in a Native American studies class at College of the Redwoods, an epiphany – or at least the beginning of one: the ignorance of saying color doesn’t matter. Like saying gender doesn’t matter. Notes on the culture of assimilation. That if I really wanted to do right by all people, especially those who’d been traditionally oppressed, abused and/or maligned, then I needed to listen to their stories, understand how our experiences differed, where they matched up, ditch the white guilt for something deeper, more useful. I still don’t have it figured out. Race issues are complicated ones, especially since issues and aspects overlap – race, gender, class, context, history.

But what I do know is that racism, overt or subtle, is always wrong. People with guns creating situations that lead to killing someone is wrong. A 17-year-old boy was killed by a man whose actions sprang from a place of prejudice and fear combined with too power in the form of a gun and the misguided “Stand Your Ground” law. Because someone opted to deliberately ignore common sense, common decency – instead channeled racism, vigilantism, accusation, violence, all the bad things combining until blood spilled out across the scene.

In the New Yorker, Jaleni Cobb writes, “Trayvon Martin’s death is an American tragedy, but it will mainly be understood as an African-American one.”

So what do we do? As individuals, as Americans? How do I, as a 43-year-old white chick, do more to eradicate these entrenched ways of thinking? Besides clicking “Share” and “Retweet”? Write Five Things To Know Before You Neighborhood Watch A Black Kid in a Hoodie? Is it presumptuous to even write this? I’m thinking out loud because I don’t know what else to do – and my heart demands something to be done.

I have no elegant ending.

On being done. And not.

I fell in love with the south wind again today. I stretched my arms overhead as it teased down the back of my neck, all warm, electric and promising.

We need the rain, everyone says, or the rivers will run too low to protect the life within, sustain the world without. I’ve yet to find myself at the river this season, sprawled alongside, book in hand, sunshine heat permeating my body, cell phone useless. I like to read until the heat makes me so dizzy the words swim and then I must, too, the shock of the cold water bringing me back into myself, reminding me how joyous it is to be alive.

I’ve been longing for a river moment the way I like to breathe and need to eat. The past few weeks, months, years – how do I say “have been hard” artfully and in a way that does not fall into complaining? Whenever I start, the awareness of how simultaneously lucky I am and how much worse so many people have it kicks in. Gratitude inhibits my ability to express myself. Like moms who haven’t yet learned to say, “Some days my kids make me crazy,” without adding, always, “but, of course, being a mom is the best thing in the world.” But being a mom is only sometimes the best thing in the world and some days I just want to stomp my feet and say, “Universe! Give me a fucking break!” Except the problems are mostly of my own making – overdrawn again?! – which is almost worse since I have only myself to blame and definitely better because at least with blame comes hope for change.

We are hard on ourselves, mothers. People keep congratulating me on being “done” because my youngest just graduated high school. As if I can straighten up, brush off my hands and say, “Yep, aced that.” I wish I could. The thing about “done” and parenthood, however, is you’re not. Sure, some things are easier. I never have to do that manic breakfast-get-your-stuff-together race to get there on time. Hallelujah!

When children grow into successful adults, we’re grateful to have wound up with such fine, mature decision-makers. When they struggle to find their way, every mistake we made over the years flares up in our memories. “If only I’d… instead.” And the thing about being “done” is all opportunity is lost. Whatever bad days I had can no longer be compensated for with cupcakes or a trip to the zoo. At this point, all I can say is, I tried. But I wanted to be perfect. I wanted to ace it.

I think my children will be fine. They’re smart, kind, funny and interested in the world. (And too old for me to write in detail any more.) But one of the frustrations of parenting is, you already have a road map. You’re like a crazy person on the side of the road waving this dog-eared and creased piece of paper. “Don’t go that way!” you’re yelling, as they zoom past you, intent on finding their own way, heedless of the roadblocks and dead ends that you’re trying to spare them. I already made all those mistakes, I say, but no one listens. At the end of the day, the only person who is going to learn from my life is me.

And so melancholy sneaks in. A few weeks ago, I spent time with my oldest daughter in Long Beach, where we lived together from the time she was six months old till she was almost four. She spent a week in the hospital there, riddled with croup. We’d trip around downtown for the free concerts and farmers’ markets. I’d take her to work with me during the day – I helped out the talent booker at a live music club while my daughter took markers to the backs of flyers and pulled gum off the bottoms of the tables when I wasn’t looking. But the club is long gone, razed to make way for a Best Buy. The interior design school that brought me to Long Beach, closed down. The Italian restaurant where I waitressed, pregnant with my second, an empty structure in which all traces of existence have been erased.

But the coffeehouse survived, as did our favorite café. Downtown renovation brought in a discouraging number of chain stores, but the up-and-coming artsy areas have solidified into something cool. My daughter has to find her own path, but her legs are strong and my love for her never yields.

I haven’t been to the river yet. But I did find myself in Shelter Cove yesterday with friends new and old, bright sky and sunshine warming up the beach so sweetly the girls wore bikinis and the guys trunked it on their surfboards. The waves rolled in all of waist-high on the best sets, but the best sets were also perfect and blue and beautiful. I caught a set wave and rode it to shore, where I flopped into the churning shallows to the entertainment of my friends. The remnants of the wave carried my board forth, parked it on the pebbly beach. I wiped sand off my face and dug it out of my ears, a gritty reminder that made me laugh.

I’ve been struggling to write, too many adjectives and no sense of story. I’ve been struggling, period, between the good times – the vagueness makes me crazy. What happens when I let the words out, however, is the thoughts streamline, the negative dissipates and my apparently innate optimism once again takes root. Hence, this.

Now I’m ready for the rain.

Thank you, President Obama

The clock edges toward midnight. Fifteen more minutes and I can check Nick’s blood sugar. Hopefully the carbs from the pasta, pie, ice cream and eggnog will have been properly mitigated by the insulin being pumped into his body. Usually I try to encourage fewer carbs and earlier eating at night, increasing the odds of getting a relatively good night’s sleep. For all of us. Today’s his birthday, however, so when he poured more eggnog, had another piece of pie at 10 p.m., I just smiled.

Tomorrow’s Election Day, of course, and, as we step through our fifth year of dealing with our son’s Type 1 diabetes, I think about how personal the presidential election feels this time around. Of course, it’s always personal – I’m a woman, I have daughters, I’ve spent a few years on welfare, I’m drowning in student loans – but the threat of losing the small, huge promise of the Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act provokes a reaction so visceral that I am unsure I can remain civil around anyone who dismisses it. Because repealing “Obamacare” is a threat. A direct threat to my son and our ability to provide the medical supplies that keep him healthy and alive.

When he was diagnosed, doctors ordered us ambulanced from the local ER to Murray Field. A medical plane flew us to SFO, where another ambulance greeted us, transferred Nick to UCSF. He was that sick. Restoring his health took almost a week. Six days of learning about a disease I’d barely realized existed. Six days of transforming him from a fading, skeletal boy back into one who could walk out of the hospital and into a new life in which, while he would never be quite “normal” again, with the right supplies, he could live as though he was.

The cost of that life-saving intervention?

I don’t know.

See, we had Medi-Cal for the kids at the time, so the cost was covered by that much-maligned government program – the one thing I didn’t have to worry about in the thick of facing the fact that my son has a currently incurable disease was how I would pay for all the care it took to save his life.

I do know his insulin pump costs $3,600 and his regular supplies would run about $800 per month if we had to pay out-of-pocket. (That’s not counting all the glucose tablets and Starbursts we need to keep around.)

After his diagnosis, those regular supplies – insulins, syringes, glucometer, test strips and glucagon – were covered under another government program, California Children’s Services. The government did a fine job of keeping that safety net stretched taut beneath us.

Then, three years ago, I landed a better job with private insurance, so now we pay $20 in co-payments for each prescription – an increase in our expenses, but an improvement in our social status.

But even with the miracle of private insurance, I couldn’t rest easy. I still worried about what would happen if/when my project-based job ended, how Nick would ever have health care again with such a pre-existing condition.

When the Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act was signed into law, making it so insurance companies would be forbidden to exclude my son, regardless of the diabetes, my chest expanded. My shoulders settled. I breathed a little easier. What I see is my government doing something to protect people, people like my son, my whole family, others in the same boat. Obamacare ensures that Nick will be able to get the medical attention and supplies he’ll need. Which means he’ll be able to not only survive, but thrive, to be the strong, smart, helpful kid he’s always been – and have a chance to grow into the good man he’s meant to become.

The Republican Party, with Mitt Romney as their representative, wants to take that away. (They want to take a lot away.)

For my son and all the other folks out there who saw their medical options blossom with the passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act, I thank President Barack Obama. I plan to show that gratitude tomorrow, in the voting booth.

 

(Updated Tuesday, Nov. 6, 6:37 a.m. for style. As a writer, I wish I’d been more elegant. As a citizen, I realize elections – and countries – are about far more than single issues. As an individual, I love this country, I love my family and I hope to find myself celebrating the continued path forward for both this time tomorrow. Or sooner would be fine, too.)

An exercise in gratitude

One night last week, I found myself setting the alarm for 12:30 a.m., then 1:30, then 2:30, then 3:30, then 5:30 a.m. Nick’s blood sugar hovered in the 300s despite my continued dosages of insulin, refusing to drop into normal range until that last 5:30 check. Why does this tend to happen throughout the night instead of the day? I don’t know. I was too tired to ask, “Why?” at the time. I am often too tired to ask, “Why?” these days; I just want to figure out, “How?” How can I resolve his blood sugar problems? Why something isn’t working is only as relevant as how knowing the answer will help me fix it. I am a carpenter these days, not a philosopher.

(I wish I was a carpenter – what a lovely, practical skill to have.)

The following day I was, of course, exhausted. Sometimes rallying to face all that needs to be done between 6 a.m. and midnight challenges me more than I’d like to admit. In my daydreams, I waltz through the mornings, salsa through lunchtime, samba across the evening and tango into the night.

(I wish I knew all those dances – what an exquisite way to live.)

Reality finds me more often stumbling, tripping over my words and slumping at my desk. I confess, I felt a little sorry for myself. Life felt too heavy. I hadn’t even had a drink and still I just wanted to lie down on the nearest floor and say, “OK, I give.” But as always, in my stupid, brilliant, complicated, straightforward life, the good happenings continue to twist around the bad, impossible to separate or ignore. So even as I spend another night awake at 3:30 a.m. because I needed to check Nick’s blood sugar, which was high, again, and because while checking him, he complained that his pump kept beeping because the battery was low, so I had to go find a spare battery in the truck, where I keep some emergency supplies, and throughout all this, my poor old dog lies on the floor without getting up because her legs went out yesterday and she’s not getting past it despite my hopes that she might just be really, really worn out from walking to the beach, and now I am likely going to have to make the call to have a vet come out and end her life because that would be the right thing to do if she can’t walk (right?) and I’m really not ready for that because she’s so sweet and I didn’t pet her enough or walk her enough and fuck, I was trying to get to the counting-my-blessings part of this.

Right, blessings. Despite all the above and other, less tragic, bad news, in the last week, I’ve walked out from my house four times to watch the sun, all fiery orange and ringed with red, settle into the blue-black ocean. Each time, the fact that I can walk from my house to this experience stuns me as much as the gold glittering from the horizon to the sand as the sun balances on the edge of the world.

I am awed. And in this same span of time, I’m hiked out from my house twice to surf and once to play Frisbee with Bobby and Nick on an afternoon so clear, windless and balmy I’d longed to transport everyone I loved to the water’s edge so they, too, could bask in the beauty. We winged the Frisbee around like we’ve done a hundred times and I could see our lives together stretch back, stitched together by perfect moments like these. I remembered a similar afternoon years ago – seven? eight? – with Nick zipping across the low-tide shallows on a skimboard as Sandy galloped alongside.

I still have a job I love, one that pays enough to cover the bills and a little more, keeps my family in health benefits. I have at least a half-dozen people I believe I can tell anything to and will still be loved, despite sometimes saying and doing stupid things. I had lunch with one of these fabulous people, last Tuesday, sitting outside at Café Nooner, eating my favorite sandwich in the sunshine. I took two others surfing in Crescent City yesterday, the only place on the entire North Coast that wasn’t sunny, where the wind stayed onshore despite predictions of off-, and they graced me by being not only good sports about the weather, but genuinely having fun. Even with all the fighting my family does, I never feel unloved. My body holds up. My husband finds me beautiful. His garden bursts with flowers and veggies, the backyard a testament to his devotion. The calendar attests to good times to come.

I worry about the dog, about Nick, about our daughters. Please let Sandy not suffer. Please let the children be happy and healthy and outlive me. I make my to-do lists each day, hopeful that if I get everything checked off, life will proceed in the best possible way. I never quite get there. Some nights remain particularly long, some days still bring bad news. In the midst of it all, however, some joy bubbles up. Good things happen. Exhausted as I may be, I can never completely despair.

And for that, I am grateful.

Parenting gets easier? Then why am I still freaking out?

It started when Chelsea turned 16 and people said how excited I must be for her to drive. We were in the thick of a challenging adolescence and at the time I worked at the Arcata Eye newspaper, which meant I saw every CHP collision report come through the fax machine. The knowledge that cars were death machines permeated my every work day. Facing the emotional wallop of raising an angry teenager left me raw and on edge nightly. The idea of my child behind the wheel was not exciting – it was horrifying. That so many people imagined otherwise made me realize how incomprehensible one person’s life can sometimes be to others. How even such a common experience as raising kids does not always translate to having something in common with other parents. That the greatest difference between having kids or not is the amount of fear that lives lodged in your brain, throat, heart, gut.

Of course, I tend to worry. Not everyone does. Some people are born with, or cultivate, this trust that God, the universe or some other benevolent force will “watch out” for their children. I assume they sleep well at night. I’ve considered turning to religion if it would help alleviate my insomnia.

Now that Kaylee’s 18 and graduated from high school, and Nick’s launching into his senior year, Bobby and I get a lot of, “Hey, you’re almost done!” Which I understand – and certainly, some things are easier. I am mostly confident that none of my children will stick keys into an electrical socket or choke on grapes if they’re not cut carefully into halves. I’m even mostly confident they’ll go off into the world and thrive. But this assumption that they’re grown and therefore I have less to worry about confuses me.

I do not feel less worried.

What I do feel is more helpless – my friend describes the shift as, “You spend all these years as their manager and then they fire you. The best you can hope for is to be hired as a consultant.” There’s an accompanying awareness that this is it. These years were the time I had to do things right and make up for things I did wrong. It’s too late to fix my parenting mistakes, which is so unfair because I finally have enough experience to raise children.

I would have lost my temper less, for example. So little sleep, so much stress, often translated into me snapping at the kids above and beyond what could have been called a “reasonable” amount. I don’t know where more sleep would’ve come from, but maybe I could have found ways to offset some of life’s seemingly relentless pressures.

Lack of money, for example. If I could redo things, this would be a big one. Not that I would’ve traded having jobs that allowed me to spend the most time with my kids, but I would have had a far better grasp on managing my money. I would have liked to be one of those people who managed to save a shocking amount of cash while working two waitressing jobs and never letting her kids go without. (I would still like to be one of those people who manages to save a shocking amount of cash.) You could’ve read about me in O magazine. I would’ve maintained a money tips website for several years, but decided to retire once all the kids were grown. Bobby and I would be planning our Costa Rican lifestyle about now.

(Note use of humor as a coping mechanism. I’m still trying to figure out the path connecting my daily actions to my dreams.)

The other, biggest, thing I’d fix is, I would’ve addressed and resolved the conflicts between Bobby and I sooner and more often. Becoming a mom, wife and adult simultaneously wasn’t easy; I was 20 when Chelsea was born, 21 when Bobby and I finally moved into the same place, 22 when we married. While I strongly reject all notions that only older, well-off women should have kids, I can’t deny being young and broke is inherently more challenging.

I was lucky – Bobby’s commitment to our family has never wavered – but being in love isn’t the same as being prepared. And I’m lousy at conflict, preferring to let things build up until something triggers a total freak out. I’d rather flee than fight. A lot of years were wasted in unnecessary unhappiness because I didn’t know how to fix what ailed us and was intimidated by the hard work and seeming impossibility of finding a solution. We still created many moments of joy with the children, but my dream of home always being a haven didn’t survive intact. I regret that. I know all families have their drama, but I wish I’d known how to spare mine from the amount of dysfunction I allowed to happen.

(This is the part where I note that if one compares dysfunction in families, we’re not too far off from the norm. I do not mean to imply otherwise. I’m only saying some things could’ve been better and I wish I’d been able and willing to make the changes then.)

Fortunately, none of the damage has been irreparable. Yet. But our children are always our children and with the pride and relief their independence brings comes whole new forms of heartache. The world may not be nice to them. In fact, I know it’s indifferent. Bad things happen all the time. But good stuff, too! I may not trust in the universe, but I muster faith that they’ll create their place in it. And hope the place they make brings them more happiness than sorrow.

I’m speaking in generalities now, which pains me as a writer even if some comfort is offered my mothering side.

Maybe I was wrong earlier. Maybe I’ll never have enough experience to have this raising kids thing figured out.

 

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