My Childhood Home

Our smiles are as broad as the streets we amble down this sunny morning. They aren’t streets really. They are wide walkways, closed to traffic, and paved in perfectly uneven brick. Cobbled, except easier on the legs.

The spring sun warms our bare arms, and the tall palm trees that line every street in Los Angeles sway almost imperceptibly. It’s only when we stop moving that I feel a faint chill, so quiet under that happy yellow air I almost don’t notice it.

The bright busy stores beckon on the right, and on the left the farmer’s market lures us closer, promising fresh, tasty, fragrant… I am distracted by an exquisite array of tiny succulents, and gaze with pleasure at the rows of miniature gardens, green and orange and pink perfectly contained in glass spheres of every size. Safe and happy.

“I don’t know where he is? Wasn’t he with you?”

The words come to me slowly, muted, muffled even at first. They take a long time to reach me as I stand in the sun, and even longer to register in my brain, and finally my heart.

“Where is he?” Raised voices. Something like panic. I am anxious, and confused. Who are they talking about?

“Nicki. Nicki! Where’s Jed?”

“Jed? What? Why?” He was right… there. No, no… there. I know I saw him, newly seven and so curious, just a minute ago. Before the succulents. Long before. Many, many minutes before. Shit.

The chill is no longer faint. It is absolutely unavoidable. The blood freezes in my veins, and even as I spin around in actual circles convinced I will spot him any second, I wonder what will happen to our family without him in it. Who will we be? How will we be? WHERE IS HE?

Lost. He is lost.

There. Behind the palm tree. Doing ninja moves, or following a bug.

“He’s there he’s there. Jed. Jed!”

“Mom, I’m hungry. Look what I found. Is this a spider? And look, look Mom. I can jump from all the way up here. Look.”

My frozen heart resumes beating. The fine hairs on my arms relax. I hold his little hand in mine and turn my face up to the sun. I see the palm trees sway a little. We walk, all of us close together, down the cobbled street. Safe and happy.

***

Coastal Seascape With Red And White Lighthouse

Umhlanga Rocks, South Africa. photo: http://www.decharmoy.co.za

The Indian Ocean has always been my favorite. The waves are big and the water is warm, and it’s where I first learned how to swim in an ocean. My dad taught me: if the wave has already broken, hold your breath and go under. But for the ultimate thrill, jump up to meet it, before it breaks, and ride the swell. I stayed in for hours. Often I miscalculated and was dumped in a froth of saltwater and sand. Once I lost my swimsuit. I love swimming in the ocean.

It’s been a long time since I’ve swum in that ocean.

So many summers were spent on the shores of the Indian Ocean. The long eight-hour drive from our landlocked town, usually through the night so that we wouldn’t waste our first day of vacation, was generously rewarded with the first dazzling glimpse of the sea as we drove down the hill, so blue it was hard to tell where the sky ended and the water started. And the lighthouse. White and red and ever-present on the jagged rocks.

My mom made sandwiches with cold cuts and soft white rolls, and my dad developed asthma from running in the humid coastal air. Our striped umbrella was mostly easy to find in the throng, and we knew to find a landmark or two so that we could head in the right direction when the rough waves eventually tired us out. We used the lighthouse to gauge how far we were from where we should be . Often we vacationed with friends from home, and my sister was with me always.

We were young, barely eight-years-old, and while my blissful childhood memories are of hours of unsupervised ocean swimming and play, my rational parent brain knows that can’t be true. Eighties life was safer and simpler, and even more so during the hot South African summer at the beach, but there must have been a vigilance cast toward us that we were happily unaware of as we frolicked in the waves and munched our sandwiches on towels laid carefully on the sand.

My friend taught me to jump over the little waves as they broke at the shoreline. We held hands and shrieked as the water nipped at our ankles and we teased the frothy water as it crept back and forth back and forth. She dropped my hand, and headed back to the striped umbrella. Maybe she yelled over her shoulder that she was tired and was going back.

Maybe not.

Suddenly I was alone with the whole of the wild Indian Ocean before me, and it was no longer fun to jump over the waves. I was scared. I walked toward the striped umbrella but it was gone. Or maybe it was somewhere else. The colorful, busy beach I loved turned cold and unfamiliar. I walked and walked and wondered if anyone knew what I knew: I was lost.

What if I never found them? Who would I be? How would I be?

The waves continued to nip at my ankles and I think I was lost for a very long time. But perhaps it was only a few minutes. Someone found me wandering on the beach, and I was reunited with my parents and my sister.

Safe again. And happy.

Inspired by the prompt “My Childhood Home” by Linda Schreyer.

Writing My Way Up

RoarSessionsNixIt was an unremarkable October morning. Nothing to distinguish it from countless other October mornings, except I don’t think the sun was shining as it usually does in October. Gray, dreary. Unusual for October, but I didn’t much notice or care given that I was in a gray, dreary state myself.

I dragged myself out of bed that miserable morning, shuffled down the stairs, my flip flops barely leaving the ground (I do hate the sound of shuffling flip flops). I dejectedly made breakfasts and school lunches, and sent them out the door and down the street, with an audible sigh of relief. Dragged myself and my flip flops back upstairs.

I found myself, a few hours later, hunched over my phone hurriedly typing a Facebook message to a woman I’d never met and didn’t know. Still in my car with the seatbelt on, I frantically typed these words to this stranger: “…really enjoy your writing… wonder if you’d take a look… not sure… don’t know…”

Feeling very loser-ish and almost despairing, I hit send and unwrapped myself from the cocoon of the car. The fog was starting to lift. Just a teeny bit.

The day could not have been less wonderful. Less great. Less brilliant. It wasn’t even an ordinary, unremarkable day. It was a shitty day. They’d been going on for weeks, those shitty shitty days.

I longed to be somewhere and someone else. Somewhere I didn’t wake up in the morning and have to toast waffles and make cream cheese sandwiches and curse myself for unknowingly using the last square of toilet paper.

Somewhere I didn’t hate the sound of my own voice, pitched high with annoyance as I told them to “hurry up” and “brush your teeth” and “you’re going to be late.” Somewhere I didn’t hate the sound of their voices, as they nonchalantly chatted to each other, ignoring my constant, frantic reminders. Oh how I wished they would leave already!

I longed to be someone other than a mom, a wife, a nag, a caring friend, a woman trapped in this deceptively unfeminist time. Yes, you can have it all, if all is cooking and cleaning and grocery shopping and exercising and Target runs and teacher conferences and doctor appointments and endless carpools and mommying and losing yourself in the mind-numbing minutiae of every single day. A never-ending downward spiral of purposelessness and loss of self. All for you.

It usually takes a painful jolt when you hit the bottom to realize how impossible it is to live this way. And there’s nowhere to go but up once you’re at that dark, stinky bottom.

She wrote back, this woman I didn’t (and still don’t) know. She is a writer I admire and follow online, one who writes with honesty and truth about things I understand: parenting, living away from family, death, love, friendship. She is a writer and editor for a site I enjoy and wildly imagined writing for myself.

It was an unremarkable morning in October, except the sun was not shining as it usually does. And I had hit the very hard bottom.

Nowhere to go but up.

She was mildly encouraging, the anonymous editor, but very rushed and not at all bothered with my personal angst and insecurities, with my trepidations and desperations. She didn’t care that I was struggling to find my way. She didn’t care that I was a stay-at-home mom or that sometimes I didn’t eat for days at a time and always enjoyed one cocktail too many. She didn’t care at all.

And for once, neither did I. I didn’t care that she wasn’t attentive or full of praise and validation. I didn’t care that she didn’t respond to my email, or follow up or check in. The password she sent so that I could log into the site and publish my work was all I needed to breathlessly climb out of that wallowing pool of self-pity, to leap off that ledge of doubt, to write my own soaring way through this new somewhere I found myself.

And just like that, I was no longer a mom, a wife, a friend, a carpool driver, a grocery shopper, an unhappy woman trying to find her way in a dark and twisty labyrinth that has no beginning and definitely no end.

What I became in that moment was who I am today: a writer.

Originally published on The Roar Sessions, a weekly series featuring original guest posts by women of diverse backgrounds and voices, inspired and curated by the phenomenal she-power Jena Schwartz. Thank you, Jena, for giving me the space to Roar!

I See You

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Many minutes passed before I noticed her. She sat, still and quiet, on the edge of the bench. Oblivious to the post-class bustle around her. The toilet flushed. Someone sprayed deodorant. Doors slammed, a water bottle dropped on the concrete floor, and I continued my call at full volume. Everyone in the locker room that Wednesday morning knew that I would be having a massage, a deep tissue massage, at 11am. With a male therapist. Which was not my preference, but it was very last-minute and I would take whatever I could get.

Still she sat.

“Ohmygd. Jess* are you okay?” The scheduler had put me on hold for a minute. Booking a massage was more involved than I anticipated.

Her dark eyes looked deep into mine, as if there she would find the answer I wanted to hear.

“I’m having a really hard two days.” Simple. Honest. My heart ached.

I thought fleetingly about how she had looked when she walked into class earlier: disheveled, her top on the wrong way, still rubbing sleep from her eyes. I had helped her get her arms through the right openings before taking my spot in front of the mirror.

She waited for my response.

“What was that, sorry? Fifty or 80 minutes?” I repeated into the phone. “Hmmm, I don’t know…” I looked around the almost-empty locker room for someone to weigh in. The few women still there kept their eyes down. Nobody was interested in my dilemma.

“Eighty minutes definitely!” My eyes swung back to Jess. Her mouth was smiling (for me I thought) but her earlier confession hung between us, heavy and hard, like the aching lump in your throat that won’t go away no matter how many times you swallow. I know it wasn’t easy for her to admit to her difficult time… I’ve been there too, mired in the muck and messiness of snot and tears and sadness.

I felt like an asshole. Scheduling my massage, loud and bright for all to hear, voicing my preference for a female therapist, explaining my schedule… and now asking Jess, who had just bravely admitted to me her pain, whether it should be 50 or 80 minutes. Why would she care? But she did.

I don’t really know Jess. I mean, I know she likes to work out, I know her schedule is similar to mine (we often find ourselves in the same class), I know she likes to push herself through the hardest part of class (I glimpse her in the mirror, eyes closed, exhaling through lips pursed in determination… I know the girl in that mirror), I know that I like her. We say “hey how’s it going?” and “gees that was a hard class.” She wears tights and tops in matching shades of purple and green, and her monochromatic aesthetic appeals to my desire, my longing even, for order and decorum.

Thank G-d my phone call with the high maintenance massage scheduler was over. I wanted to give Jess my full attention, but it was 10.45am and I was almost due at my massage: 50 minutes (80 felt too indulgent and also I knew I couldn’t endure someone’s hands on my body for that long), deep tissue, male therapist (I had to get over this part – it would be fine). I was the high maintenance one.

“Jess.” I put my hand on her sweaty shoulder. She was still sitting on the edge of the bench and it took me a while to realize she was waiting for the shower and not simply staying right there for the rest of the day. Sometimes it takes all the energy you can gather just to show up.

Those dark eyes again peering into mine.

“I’m so sorry you’re having a tough time. If you want to talk, any time, I’m here. Really. I mean it.” I hope she knew I did mean it. I was still wearing my workout tights, the high-waisted ones that keep everything in and up, but sometimes I put my top on inside out. Or upside down. Sadness can be lonely, especially if it’s unexpected.

She squeezed my hand, told me she appreciated it. The shower was now free and I had five minutes to get to my massage.

I couldn’t stop thinking about Jess. I thought about her during the massage. I thought about her while I was driving, at the ATM, at the grocery store. I thought about her while making dinner, the barking dog and chattering kids vying for my attention. I was worried about her, wandered what had happened to make the last couple days “really hard,” and I wanted to help her. But I hardly knew her.

A few days later, I saw her again in the locker room.

“Jess! How are you?” There was so much more I wanted to say.

“Better,” she said. Her smile was gentle. Sincere.

Tell me what happened. Why were you sad? Do you often feel that way? Why then? Why do you feel better now? “I’m so glad. I’ve been worried about you.”

“Nicki.” Those eyes. Damn. “You helped me so much. Thank you.”

I had done nothing. Nothing. I had helped her untwist her top, and put my hand on her shoulder.

But those dark eyes had gazed with so much pain and sadness into my distracted green ones, and I saw her.

And she saw that I saw.

Inspired by a prompt from Linda Schreyer and this line from Rumi: “Look at yourself and remember me.” And by the song “The Less I Know The Better” by Tame Impala. 

This is a Finish the Sentence Friday post, where writers and bloggers gather together to share their versions of a completed sentence. This week’s prompt was, “I wish I’d known…” Hosted by Kristi of Finding Ninee and co-hosted by Kenya.

*Not her real name. 

The African Violet

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I bought the African violet
because it reminded me of my
Grandmother.
There was always something
growing
on the kitchen windowsill.
A violet.
Beans sprouting on a saucer.
An avocado pit in water.
She was always
planting.
Tending.
Helping things grow.
Seeds.
Water.
Sunlight.
When I bought this
violet
it was purple.
I’m sure of it.
Its single bloom
a deep hue
against the furry green leaves.
I smile every
time I look at it.
I remember her
windowsill,
sunny kitchen.
Afternoons baking.
Or weeding in the
garden.
I’ve always loved weeding.
Grabbing the encroaching
plant
by its neck and
yanking it out.
The key is to use a
single tug.
Make sure the
root comes out too.
Monotonous, satisfying work.
The purple petals wilted.
Dried.
Fell off the plant.
The leaves stayed
green and healthy.
I watered when
I remembered.
This bloom is
white, tinged with purple.
Still an African violet.
I smile when I look
at it.
I keep it close.
It reminds me of
my Grandmother.

This post was inspired by the prompt “Seeds” and written today in an online writing group with the magnificent Jena Schwartz. Jena encouraged me to play with line breaks: “No matter what words come, follow them to wherever they wish to be planted.” 

What Life Does

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This is what life does. It gives you four children, spread over eight years, and you wonder how you got yourself into this mess and if you’ll ever, ever get out of it and you pray to G-d to clean it up so that you can take a small break, just a breath really every so often, not even that often, but enough to take in small sips of quiet air untarnished by squeaky cries of “mommy mommy mommy…” And then one day you realize you don’t want it to be clean. You look up from the apple you’re slicing – “with cinnamon please Mom” – and see four faces, so different yet all undeniably yours, and you not-so-suddenly but very, very completely understand how much you love this mess that’s yours and oh please G-d keep me in it, just like this: slicing apples, spilling milk, “Don’t hit your brother,” school lunches and a new pair of shoes every other week.

This is what life does. It gives you a friend who gives you a mug. Olive green and cream, monogrammed with a swirly lower-case burgundy ‘n.’ It’s slightly rounded in the center and a little larger than usual, and is the perfect size and shape for holding in your two hands. You drink tea from it every single day, and every day you marvel at how she knew you always wanted that mug. Even though you never told her.

This is what life does. It wakes you with an alarm that sounds like loud crickets chirping in your ear. Rude. It’s still dark outside and you wonder, not for the first time, if you are certifiably crazy. It’s 5am and if you hurry you can make it to the supermarket and get your grocery shopping done before your 6am workout. That is crazy. But doable. And no fight for parking. It gets you in a dark, candle-lit spin studio with ten other women way before the sun rises and there is something warrior-like and badass about it. Maybe it’s not so crazy. The spin instructor is the perfect amount of inspiring and kick-your-butt and she urges you to “take ease in the recovery” and to appreciate what it means to “endure instead of push ahead or back off.” These are wise, essential words to hear at 6am… or any time.

This is what life does. It makes you smile and remember your grandmother whom you loved with all your heart. She was the only gran you knew who said “shit” and she let you stroke the soft, crinkly skin under her neck. She wrote you quirky, amusing letters which she would fax to you across the miles. Her fish ball recipe is included in one. You make them a few times but they will never taste as good as hers. Nothing will. And that’s okay. Life gives you memories of Granny Mary’s ginger cake and long, meandering walks with her on the beach, collecting shells. And a blanket that is over 20 years old crocheted by her long and knobbly fingers, the ones that look exactly like yours.

This is what life does. It hands you a book and says, “Read this!” So you do, and you are lost in the world of its words and images and characters and story, and reading is easily your greatest and simplest pleasure. You never want it to end and you hope that one day you will write a book that people will love to read as much as you love to write.

This is what life does. It holds you in a time zone on the other side of the world, far far away from the ones that you love. And no matter how hard you try to catch up to the time difference between you, it’s always too early or too late and days and then weeks go by without hearing her voice and your one urgent hope is that you get to talk to each other before the baby’s born.

This is what life does. It draws you to the scale day after day, weighing and measuring and calculating BMI and body fat percentage, and did the red wine and dark chocolate last night show up on your hips this morning. And what if it did? Would that be so terrible? And you know without a doubt that it would. It would be terrible. And the next morning you step on the scale again.

This is what life does. It presents you with every possible opportunity, affords you luxuries you take for granted like water and electricity and soap and Internet on-demand and TV and a car and easy access to any food you want and and and. And it gives others nothing. And when things go wrong for you, you say #fwp (first world problems) and feel bad and uncomfortable for having when most of the world does not.

This is what life does. It gives you a page and you write 800 words on it and you want so much to make a difference in the lives of thousands but all you can really do is make a difference in your own.

Inspired by the poem “Starfish” by Eleanor Lerman and by the prompt “What Life Does” by Linda Schreyer.