Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Bike Widow

I’m a bike widow.  Perhaps widow is too strong a word as Ben is, thankfully, alive.  Let me put it this way, Ben is involved in a long-standing affair with a two-wheeled contraption.  It started before he and I ever knew each other.  They are very much in love.  It’s a little like Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles.  Which puts me, not unflatteringly, in the role of Diana.  I’m working on my shy smile.

He escapes the house, he occasionally escapes the state, even the country, to spend quality time with his gal.  They scale mountains, take in glorious views that can’t be seen by car, sustain dramatic, bonding injuries when they mistakenly fly into trees.   They go where he can’t go with me.  He is king of the mountain and she his trusty mount.

As we eat breakfast he covertly checks Strava on his computer, an ingenius website designed for cyclists to compete with each other without actually riding together - a cyber war of the egos, a high-tech pissing contest.  I awaken to the sound of the Tour playing on his phone.  “It’s the final mountain stage,” he’ll solemnly confide to my half-opened eyes.

Cyclist friends of his can’t get over that I do not ride a bike.  Okay, I do, occasionally, for transportation, but – and this is stunning - I’ve never been on a mountain bike ride.  For these friends, who know him as a U.S. Cup winner, a World Cup champion, this is a little like finding out that Netanyahu is in a raunchy liaison with the Pope.

He has his bike, his one pure passion, his one sure-fire happy pill.  I have my children, my writing, my deep friendships, him.  I run, I do yoga, I sew, all happily.  But is there one thing that totally lights my fire the way the bike does his?  Why, no.

I’ve been grappling lately with this question: How deeply am I living?  It’s no doubt spurred by my mother’s recent death – life is short, blah, blah, blah.  Probably also by my age – who doesn’t think these things in their forties?  Menopause is somewhere on the horizon, a death of sorts.  A friend made me a mixed tape (okay, CD) for my birthday and a song came on the other day that made me happy.  I was singing, I was doing a little car dance, I was, for the moment, fully in the present, feeling my body in the world.  I know that’s how Ben feels on the trail.

Ben has his bike, he has his work.  He has things beyond the sometimes mind-numbing sameness of caring for children and house.  My mother devoted herself to her husband and her children.  When my father died and we kids were gone she didn’t have much left.  The story is more complicated than that, of course, muddied by depression and eventual dementia, by extreme introversion and mortal psychic wounds.  But I can see some parallels.  I pour myself into these people.  I have a very fine mind, well-educated and thirsty, chemically unreliable yes, but intellectually sound.  I am extremely capable in all sorts of settings but in my dark moments it seems like all I do is plump pillows.

It doesn’t help that virtually every message I get from the outside world belittles the work I do. In the novel I'm currently reading, one of the protagonists, a forty-two-year-old, well-educated, deep-thinking housewife is termed (by another – jealous - mother) as “not a feminist” because she doesn’t have a job beyond raising her kids.  Reading this, I felt like I had stepped off a cliff while picking wildflowers.  Really?  I’m categorically denied feminist credentials because I don’t get a paycheck?  Because I don’t “work outside the home” (I guess in that definition carpooling and grocery shopping don’t qualify as work)?   I’d really mean more to the world at large if I dropped the kids at the Y and spent my day at an office?

A fellow parent, a dad, recently asked me, so well-meaning, simply wanting to know me better, what I do while the kids are at school.  I was completely stumped.  I fucking run around is the answer, picking up the four pair of underwear Lana discarded on her floor that morning, filling the fridge with food that the children just might eat, volunteering in loud and sticky classrooms, getting out for a run or a yoga class, shifting the laundry from basket to washer to dryer to basket, scrambling to catch up before I have to fetch the three-ring circus from school.  It’s all so boring, though, as a response, as an encapsulation of my life.  So sad.  Finally, at a loss, he managed, “Well, it’s good you have yoga,” which made us both laugh for its earnest hopelessness.

I love that Ben has something in his life that he loves, something beyond me and the kids.  I love that he’s fit; his body is beautiful.  Our prospects of a long and healthy life together are good.  But I’m jealous.  Maybe, though, I’m not jealous of the bike, that bitch on wheels.  Maybe I’m jealous of him.  Maybe I need to make room for something – or things – that make me feel alive, vital, that I’m living this day like it’s my last.  Something that is just mine, that has nothing to do with my roles as mother and wife.  Something that sets me free.

But in the meantime, maybe less NPR and more music, less Facebook and more writing, less talking and more singing, less running and more dancing, less indoors and more outdoors, less routine and more surprise.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012


My kids have never really been stuffed animal people.  Oh sure, the girls would go wild for some cute and cuddly chipmunk or lemur they’d spot at the gift shop at the zoo, beg and plead and carefully carry their new baby to the car.  They’d name it Sarah, snuggle it for the majority of the ride home and then it would join the legions of Sarahs that had come before in the many stuffed-animal-laden wicker baskets in the playroom.

Mae, largely unsentimental, does have Doggie, a small beagle-like creature that she received before she was even born.  That dog has traveled to Ethiopia, Alaska and New York City - where he was mauled by an overly playful Great Dane.  Panicking, I swiftly sewed the pieces of Doggie back together, frantically assuring Mae – and myself - “He’ll be fine, this will be fine.”  Somehow, through great will and fine sewing, he lived to see another day.  His ears are crooked and his nose is in a different place but he’s the more adorable – and adored - for it.

A couple of months ago, shortly after Mihiretu got his cast off his very broken leg, he took up with a large white teddy bear.  This bear had sat on the bunk above him for well over a year, it had been in our family for ten, but it wasn’t until recently that it was deemed important.

Shortly after he began toting the bear around the house, Ben asked Mihiretu if he had a name.  Mihiretu gazed at Ben like he couldn’t quite believe his stupidity and replied, “Teddy.”  The “duh” went unsaid.

Teddy is now a must at bedtime hours.  He is tucked in alongside Mihiretu, he must be retucked if Mihiretu (and Teddy) wake in the night, he journeys in the crook of Mihiretu’s arm into our bed in the morning, where he must be tucked once more.  If there’s a cuter thing than a sleepy, leggy, Ethiopian child hauling around a white fluffy teddy bear, I’d like to see it.

On a recent morning, Mihiretu, breakfasted and dressed, and Teddy, a captive witness to breakfast and dressing, ran into our bedroom at full speed.  They wiped out dramatically.  I dropped the mascara I was applying and ran to Mihiretu’s aid but he had bounced back up before I could reach him.  Teddy, however, was still man-down.

“Oh, Teddy,” Mihiretu squeaked in an even higher voice than usual.  “Are you okay?”

I returned to my eyelash grooming as Mihiretu cradled Teddy, crooning, “Teddy, did you bake yo’ weg?  Oh, Teddy, it gonna be okay.  Here come the ambu-ance –“ lots of Mihiretu-siren wail – “We gonna go ‘ospitle, Teddy.  Don’ worry, Teddy, don’ worry.”

Now this is not unusual behavior for a child I realize, but it is unusual behavior for this child.  This child who spent his first year with us angry and aggressive, a permanent scowl on his gorgeous face, swinging his fists at any opportunity, and his second year slightly less angry and slightly less aggressive, scowling and hitting perhaps only seventy-five percent of his waking hours.   To see him, at the beginning of his fourth year here, show any form of empathy, to a fantasy creature no less, to see him have some understanding of his own trauma around his own broken leg and our parental reaction to it, well, that was really something.

By tending to Teddy as his does, Mihiretu is finally admitting how he wants to be cared for, admitting that he likes the cuddles, the kindness, the nurturing, that perhaps he even needs them.  He is telling us that he is finally, fully, ready to love and be loved.  He’s so filled up he’s got some to give.  For now that love is being spent on a big ball of cotton batting and polyester fur but, hey, first Teddy and then the world.