Monday, September 19, 2011

Interlude: A “Single” Caveat

Dinner was going fine. The stir-fry wasn’t the best meal I’d ever made, but it was edible. The sugar snap peas were still crisp, the chicken was a bit bland but still moist. The rice was perfect. We were talking about our day. I looked over to see my son with his face buried in his plate, eating it like a dog.
“James, use your fork. You can’t just eat by shoving your face into your plate, that’s rude.” It was said calmly, almost in passing because I knew he knew it wasn’t okay, and was positive he’d giggle and just stop. His actual reaction caught me off guard.
“FINE!” He yelled, throwing his fork down with force, tossing the food that was still stuck to it across the table. He then kicked the table leg, and sat back just as forcefully, crossing his arms in anger. For a moment my mouth hung agape. What had just happened?
“Woah! What was that? You know you can’t eat like an animal, are you seriously going to throw a fit when I ask you to stop?” I was incredulous but still calm.
I said fine!” He said, this time with a tone of absolute venom. He spat the words at me. I was in awe. He had been perfectly normal since I’d picked him up at daycare an hour before.
He was sent to the corner to consider how he should and should not speak to his mother, especially after she made a reasonable request such as “Don’t eat like a barnyard animal” and while there he proceeded to hit and kick the walls around him. When I told him to stop he yelled at me because “This is stupid!”
How did my evening disintegrate so quickly? I fought almost 3 hours worth of traffic today, worked an 8 ½ hour day in which I barely took time to eat lunch, came home and put away the dishes while helping with homework and making dinner. I didn’t sleep enough last night, and I’m struggling with a lot of my own stresses (such as custody and child support problems with Rich, fights with friends brought on by senseless gossip, and suddenly my mouth has decided to fall apart and I’m in a bunch of stupid pain because of it). I need a break. I need to sit and read, cuddle with my kiddos, maybe zone out on some television for the first time in I don’t know how many months. Instead I’m fighting a battle I can’t even understand against a young man who couldn’t wrap his head around what I’m dealing with even if I told him about it – which I wouldn’t. I’m exhausted. I don’t have the emotional or mental resources necessary to cope with him… and yet I have no choice.
As many dinners as I go to, or movies as I attend, no matter how comfortable I get with being on my own, there will never come a day that I won’t feel lonely while dealing with this. An evening like this is the very poster child for why single moms are desperate, co-dependent settlers. Eager to grasp onto anyone that will take them, no matter how ill fitting they might be for them, or for the task at hand. Nights like tonight are why my mom stayed with my step-dad long after the alcoholism took him over and he began to treat her daughter like a punching bag. I can separate myself from that desperation. I can feel a line within myself that I couldn’t feel before. I know the line is there because Ben came to me and asked me back, dripping promises of how well he’d treat my babies off his lips like so much honey, and I didn’t fall prey. I knew better. The line within me had been drawn and I knew I could do better. On one side is a life of mediocrity, settling for “at least I’m not scrambling anymore”. On the other side is striving, even if struggling, for a life of genuine happiness by holding out for something real for me AND my kids.
Knowing where the line is makes me feel stronger. Please don’t mistake what I’m saying here. The Project has caused me to go through massive shifts in my understanding of who I am and what I want. I feel like I’ve built a pretty strong foundation for myself in the last few months. I have a heavier grip on what I’m capable of.
Still… raising babies on my own? This will never be a Step. I cannot imagine going through a night like tonight and not feeling Lonely. I’m weary. I need a hug, and my hair petted. I need someone to do the dinner dishes while I sit with James and talk to him about why I wasn’t going to be able to allow that behavior in my house. I need to be tucked into bed early. Nights like tonight, I don’t feel like I’m doing justice to my role as Mom. I wonder if I’m doing right by these kids at all. Say what you will about it being my circumstances, about me doing the best in a shitty situation, about kids being resilient. Parenthood isn’t supposed to be a solitary pursuit.
For as far as I’ve come, tonight I’m Lonely.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Step 8: Slaying Dragons

A dragon from Meridian Park
How it took me this long to write this entry, I’ll never know. The same day that I went to Tutta Bella for my dinner alone, I also did this step, but I’m just now writing it. Who knows? Rich changed the custody arrangement with the kids for the 4th time in 2 years, and I have them full time now. This leaves grievous little time for writing. Or anything, for that matter.

As I said, I left Tutta Bella with but a taste awakened in me for ice cream. There was a simple and fast solution: just a few blocks away was one of the best ice cream places in the entirety of the world, Molly Moon’s Ice Cream. Molly Moon’s touts a lot of wonderful things. In addition to using only natural, organic ingredients in their ice cream, they also use only recycled, compostable materials in all of their bowls, cups AND spoons. I went to the original location in Wallingford (there are 4 in Seattle now), and waited in what is always a long line out the door of the tiny hole in the wall shop. Touting seasonal flavors such as huckleberry, they also had a chalkboard covered in their year round flavors which include not only stand-bys such as Vanilla Bean, Theo Chocolate and Strawberry, but also Starburst, Salted Caramel, Balsamic Strawberry, Honey Lavendar, and Ginger to name a few. My best friend had, instead of a wedding cake, an assortment of Molly Moon’s ice cream with a sundae bar. It’s THAT good. I opted for a large scoop of my favorite, Salted Caramel, and set out. 

Several blocks away is a park I call the Storybook Park (it is actually called Meridian Park, and it was introduced to me by my friend Katie who I’ll speak about shortly. She was married there last summer). The playground area is themed with decorations from classic fairytales like Snow White, while also having quotes from books such as The Secret Garden and Where the Wild Things Are carved into walls here and there. It’s a sweet park with plenty of benches. The sun was beginning to set as I got there, so I found my bench, sat down with my ice cream and watched the sky begin to change colors. Despite the coming dark, there were a lot of children there still. It was still warm. I had been sitting quietly in my thoughts for about 10 minutes when a little girl came running up to my bench and stared at me. I smiled and said hello. She smiled back and just stared for a bit. I wasn’t uncomfortable, this is just what kids do. I stared back. She was wearing pink pajamas with white polka dots. They were the zippered, one-piece pajamas. They probably had feet on them, but I couldn’t see because she was wearing red galoshes with polka dots of all different colors. The pajamas were filthy from playing in the wood chips.

“Are you having ice cream?” she asked. I nodded.
“I am, this is my dessert.”
“Did you get it at Molly Moon?”
“I did, have you been there?”
“Yes, I get honey lavender.”
“That’s a very adventurous flavor. Do you get to go there a lot?”
She nodded. “In the summer we do, but not in the winter because then it’s cold.”
“Yes, winter is more for hot chocolate and warm cider, isn’t it?” She nodded again. “You must like polka dots. You have them on your outfit and your shoes.”
“They aren’t shoes, they’re galoshes.”
“That’s true, they are galoshes.”
“Why are you sitting here by yourself?”

I paused for a bit longer than I should have, but she seemed happy to wait. She was leaned against the bench very near to me now, wiggling a bit but not impatient. The answer I gave surprised me a little:

“Because sometimes it’s better to do things by yourself than to do them with someone you don’t want to be around just so you won’t be alone.”

I’m not really sure where that came from, I’ll be honest. If it sounds well thought out at all, let me assure you that it wasn’t. 

She nodded, though I’m not sure she understood. I expected her to take off back to the playground after such a confusing, cryptic answer to a somewhat straight forward question, but she didn’t. She climbed up onto the bench and sat beside me. I looked around for her parent, caught the eye of her dad, who was pushing a sibling on a swing, and we nodded at one another in that parent language in which a single nod means “Is she bothering you?” and the returned nod means “No, she’s fine.” Her feet were dangling off the edge. We sat in silence for a bit, she and I. The sun set was turning the sky rich shades of orange and pink now. The sun itself was beneath the tree line now, but I imagined that could I see it it would have been that deep, hot pink color I love so much. I turned again to my temporary companion.

“Are you going to go to school in September?” She looked about right for Kindergarten. As I figured, she nodded. She had long, curly blonde hair. She pushed some of it out of her face, which was dirty from playing too. Everything about this kid made me smile. 

“I’m going to be in Kindergarten.” She reiterated. 

“Are you excited?” I asked. Again, she nodded. “Were you in pre-school last year?” She nodded again, then launched into a story about a boy in her class who was evidently quite rude as one time when she was on the playground with him she was playing with another girl and the boy came up and pushed her down for no reason at all and when she told the teacher the teacher did nothing, which seems really unfair to me. I communicated as much to her. She nodded, pleased with my empathy.

“I have to go slide down the slide now.” She said. I giggled a little and thanked her for her company as she ran away. I was finishing my ice cream now anyway. The dusk was casting a shadow over the grass and trees and people were beginning to leave. Soon I was alone and dusk was turning to dark. My empty cup sat beside me on the bench, my hands buried deep in the kangaroo pocket of my hoodie. I continued to watch where not long ago the sun had been setting the sky on fire. 

A little over a year ago, it must have been about May, my friend Katie and I had sat on this bench together and had ice cream from Molly Moon’s. Ben and I were new, and Katie was a very old friend of ours from high school, and she was one of the first people I had told that we were beginning to see one another. Her reaction that day on the bench was a gasp of pleasure, not only that we were together, but because the story was such a romantic one. People said that a lot, how Ben and I had this epic love story, a fairytale with this happy ending lurking so close around the corner. Ships passing in the night, love lingering over decades, etc. A hundred years seems to have passed since that day here with Katie, and the fairytale is long since over. To my left, a wrought iron fence adorned with apples (perhaps poisoned?) and dragons. To my right, the iron likeness of a candy house perched atop a stone pillar. I, and people like Katie, had turned Ben into my knight on a white horse, whether he wanted to play that part or not. When the illusion shattered, I suffered not just the broken heart, but the shattering of an entire love story that I had allowed to be woven in my mind. When we’re young, we are all princesses waiting to be rescued. How wonderful it seemed to be living that as truth, to have someone who wants to carry you away from it all and protect you from the dragons of life. 

I allowed myself to forget something very important: I’m not a princess, and this isn’t a fairy tale. I’m a 32 year old woman with two kids living in a duplex next to the highway, and this is real life with all its beautiful ugliness. No one is going to rescue me from anything, and I can’t even rescue myself. All we can do is live each day as it is, fight to succeed but learn to stand up and move on when we fail. I can live in the simple pleasure that while I spent that night alone, at least I didn’t spend it with someone I didn’t want to be with or who didn’t deserve to be with me. That is its own shining armor, I suppose. A heavy shield between myself and the lonely, distressed damsel I used to be. 

That’s not to say that love stories don’t exist, that they don’t unravel before your very eyes and cast light onto a future that stretches far into the distance. It’s only to say that I will remain anchored in reality, anchored to what I truly am, so that come what may I will have my feet planted in a foundation in which I’ll always be okay. Charming princes may come and go, and I do hope for that happily ever after, but I will ever be aware that at a moment’s notice, by heartbreak or death, life could rob me of him. I should always be prepared to happily spend a long sunset at the park alone with my favorite ice cream.
Saying it like that, it doesn’t sound like such a terrible ending does it? “And she and the ice cream lived happily ever after”?

*Sigh* Now my mouth is watering.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Step Seven: Fooding

I didn’t know until about 3 months ago that there was such a thing as a “foodie”. Have you guys heard of this? People who just love the hell out of food. They seek out good food, they learn to make good food. They see food as a kind of art, but in my opinion, food is better than art. Food affects more senses than art can. I mean, you can see art, obviously. Sometimes you can touch art, sometimes you can even smell it – paint and clay, they have a smell to them that permeates the senses. These added senses are why we art lovers yearn to go to the museum and could never be completely satisfied by just looking at pictures of a sculpture or painting online or in a book. If you classify music as art (which I do), then of course you can hear it too. But food can be beautiful, and you can smell it, and get your fingers dirty in it, sometimes you can hear it cooking, but above all you do one thing with food you can’t do with art – you can consume it. You can taste it, and it fills not only your senses, and it feeds not only your soul, it fills your stomach and nourishes your body. Food is better than art because you can experience it on every possible base level, and then it literally becomes a part of you. Of your skin, of your hair, of your fingernails and blood. 

In case you can’t tell from all this, I am evidently a foodie. So I wasn’t terribly intimidated by the prospect of going to dinner alone. I mean, when I first laid out the Steps all those months ago, it seemed somewhat ridiculous. Of all the Steps, dinner alone has come second only to going dancing alone as the Sep most commented on by others. “I could never do that alone.” “You’re so brave, isn’t that going to be weird?” But months have passed, and the Steps have come quickly, and it wasn’t so scary to me when I went on Monday. In fact, I’ll admit… some of the Steps sound downright boring to me now that I’ve tasted more uncomfortable fodder. Riding the bus just doesn’t seem all that impressive anymore. It doesn’t seem scary or awkward. I’m not saying I’m not going to do it – it’s a Step and I have to take it. I’m just saying… I’m not sure what I’m going to write about it when I’m done. I’ll probably write more about the weirdos on the bus than my actual reaction to any of it, because I don’t think my reaction will be all that formidable. 

And I have to say that of the 2 (that’s right, I said two) steps I tackled on Monday, neither was difficult. Not the way I had expected them to be. 

I went to Tutta Bella in the Wallingford district of Seattle. Tutta Bella does amazing authentic pizza and calzones. They also do pasta and salads. If you’re in the area, well worth the stop. There are 4 in the area to choose from. I walked to reception with confidence. As had happened at the sushi place, the hostess stared blankly at me, searching for the polite way to say “How many?” when it was obvious there was probably only 1. As with the last hostess, I saved her the trouble by piping up “Just me!” with a hearty smile. I had been hung over the day before, I had barely eaten, so I was starving and excited. I was seated right away. There was only one of me, so they didn’t waste a table with a view on me. I got stuck next to a pillar with an electrical outlet next to my seat. That was okay, I wasn’t here to be pampered. I was here for food. The waiter approached and I had already downed my entire glass of water. Have I mentioned I was hungover? I was still dehydrated and that water tasted like rainbows and happiness. You could see he was just as uneasy as the hostess had been. He wanted to ask if I was waiting for someone, but wasn’t sure how. I saved him as I had his predecessor, “I think I’m ready to order already!” I said. He smiled and nodded. He wasn’t sure how to handle me. I’m sure he was partly irritated that I was rudely taking up a table for two (there were no tables for one, oddly) with only myself, cutting the bill and therefore his tip, cleanly in half. I stuck with my delicious water, then ordered the Salerno salad to start. Romaine lettuce, soft balls of mozzarella, halved cherry tomatoes, thin pairings of fennel, fresh basil and seedless slices of cucumber tossed in a yummy Dijon vinaigrette. The salads only come in a size for two, so the serving was massive. I smiled when they served it, nodded at a dash of milled pepper, then began. The sun was shining on my little plate of salad as I began, bringing out the rich greens, reds and whites. The vinaigrette was pungent and tart, adding a bite to the sweetness of the tomatoes and mingling with the mild taste of the mozzarella. I smiled with every bite, I savored it, I closed my eyes and focused on the flavors on my tongue. All things I couldn’t have done with company. I would have been eating this food in hurried bites between large helpings of conversation. Which is all well and good, but this salad was really amazing and I was glad there was no one there to shut up. 

There was a lengthy wait between when I finished my salad and when my pizza arrived. It was tempting to lean heavily on my phone to entertain me: Tweeting, Facebooking, checking e-mail and texting. I opted instead to open up to the room around me. To the lights hanging from the ceiling, the chattering of conversations, the crying of babies, the laughter. I wasn’t with someone, but I was still here. I was still a part of the collective breath of that place, part of what made that room alive right then. Perhaps I was quieter and more still than the rest, but I was no less substantial than the baby happily gumming a chunk of pizza crust, or the man in his 40’s gesturing wildly as he spoke. The sun came through the window, beginning to cast that deeper, more golden color that precedes the impending twilight, and it warmed my face. I was alone but I was not unhappy. I was Alone… but I was not Lonely.

The pizza I ordered arrived at last: the Prosciutto E Porcini. As the name implies, the main toppings are prosciutto and porcini mushrooms. It had no sauce, just a generous glaze of olive oil, along with healthy helpings of mozzarella and basil. The crust is rustic; thin and chewy. The lacy sheets of prosciutto and fat slices of mushroom were tossed haphazardly around the crust, making each bite different from the last. I slowly, methodically, and with a contentment I can’t describe, made my way through every slice of that 14” pizza.  I smiled, I laughed, I got my fingers into it. I could feel the color going back into my cheeks. I could feel myself filling out. I loved the way my stomach felt – full and happy. People at other tables had been watching me since I had sat down, perhaps wondering why I was alone, wondering where my date was, wondering why I was smiling at no one for no reason at all. I didn’t even notice them now. I let this food fill my senses. I let this food be the art that it is. I let it nourish my body and my heart the way only really good food can. I washed it down with water and serenity. I must have looked like Buddha with as much peace as I felt. 

When the waiter came back, his response was a very genuine, “Wow!” Yes, I ate the whole pizza. I asked him for a box for the rest of my salad and without wasting breath on a separate sentence I asked him for a scoop of Nutella flavored gelato. I wasn’t going to be as big a tip as his larger tables, so I didn’t see much of that waiter. To some extent I understood, but at the same time it was a little disappointing to be a second class citizen because I was there on my own. I was literally not “worth” as much to him because of it. I didn’t let this damper my spirits at all as I slowly savored each bite of the gelato. It was nothing to write home about, really. Nice flavor, but not as creamy as I had expected, and the serving was much too small for my liking. Americanized gelato = glorified ice cream. Meh. 

Before I left, only one moment struck me with any sort of sadness. It was like the gentlest pressing of a bruise with my mind’s thumb. As I stood to leave, I glanced for a moment an empty table across the room. It was but a month before Ben left that I sat there with him over a pizza we shared, on our way to a wedding. Things felt like they were going well then. We were in good spirits, hopeful, happy. He had held my hand over the table and thanked me for my patience with his ambivalence about my children. He promised me that he was coming round, that he looked forward to that time when we would all be under one roof. He told me he knew it was slow going, but that he was happy – really happy. “I’m not going anywhere.” He had said. I glanced only briefly at the chair where he had sat. I wondered at that moment. I wondered at how far I had come from that day. As quickly as the moment came, it passed.

I walked out of that restaurant and into a warm day that was preparing to settle into night. The air felt good on my face, my body was at peace, and my mind followed suit. I was not caged. My life is not a cage. I put my face toward the sun and the shadows fell behind me.