Straying From My Lane

I’m going off the road, I think, my heart pitching to the beat of a noise I can’t identify. “Knock, knock, knock, knock, knock”, so loud it drowns out all rational thought. “Do you hear this?” I shout into my phone, shoving it towards the window. “Yes, I hear it,” Bob answers, “Calm down so I can ask you a few questions.” I fill my lungs and the call is dropped.

The morning had started out normal, except that I’d noticed the rear tire on the passenger side was squishy. I aired it up on the way to work and saw it was down to sixteen pounds.

Bob and I are in transition again. We made a big decision one day last month and that night we slept like babies for the first time in a while. “We get to have another adventure!” I said the next morning. Bob grinned sleepily. “And this time, we don’t have to move!” A nation of two.

No lane traffic in Kumasi, Ghana

Transitions suck. I have trouble letting go. My tendency to overdo kicks in big time, and I cannot keep my nose out of other people’s business. Witnessing my struggle, Bob sends me an article.

I glance at the title and recall a conversation with Amy and Shelley. We take long, early-morning walks and talk about everything. We three are what you call “pleasers,” anxious to be of use, quick to over-commit, and liable at a moment’s notice to get all tangled up in someone else’s problem. Enabler’s Anonymous, we jokingly call our weekly outings.

Last week, Amy brought up the very same article. Staying in Your Own Lane is about accountability and Paris’s no lane traffic circle at the Arc de Triomphe. Okay, I think, reading the article. Advice from the cosmic sphere.

Now here I was, hands tight on the steering wheel, trying to stay in my lane as if my life depended on it. The Gum Springs Road has soft shoulders, steep drop offs, elevation changes, and a lot of curves. The car begins to wobble and I fear I won’t make it all the way to Performance Automotive. I notice a sheriff’s car parked at the Robeson Creek boat ramp and consider pulling over. I have never felt more like a damsel in distress than right now. But I keep creeping along, unwilling to admit my absolute loss of control to a stranger.

When I see the cell service bars return, I call Bob. “I’ll meet you at Johnny Burke.” I make it to our rendezvous destination and leap from the car.

My heart surges when I see the zebra-striped hood of Bob’s Mercedes wagon. He slides behind the wheel of the wounded car and takes off, faster than I think prudent. The problem is immediately obvious. The right rear wheel is flopping like a flounder. Gesturing wildly, I run toward the car. Bob gets out, crouches down, sees a big screw stuck in the tire, and then we gape at the two remaining lug nuts. He fishes the jack and lug wrench from the trunk while I stand by, useless and shivering in the suffocating heat.

We drop the car at the shop and Bob takes me home to bake cookies. Because we drive old cars, we are prone to making unscheduled drops. Years ago I started baking cookies to show my gratitude. When the problem is small, a loose gas cap triggering the check engine light or a flapping wheel well liner, they often say, “No charge Mrs. Armantrout.” “Are you sure?” “You just keep baking us cookies.”

The next day I return to the shop with a heaping plate of peanut butter chocolate chips. The owner smiles and asks, “How’s Christine?” “Oh, she’s enjoying retirement under a tarp in the back yard,” I say of our 1994 Ford Escort. We named her that after finding the lights on several times like the car in Steven King’s novel, Christine. “You have names for all of your cars, don’t you?” Pleased that he knows this I answer, “Yep, Oliver is the olive green Outback, and the white Mercedes is Blanche, an aging southern white lady who sometimes depends on the kindness of strangers.

And so I get back on the horse. I climb into Oliver and nose my way out of the crowded lot. I have heard the message loud and clear. Play your own part, don’t over reach, stay in your lane, and always check your lug nuts.

Faces I Remember

I was talking with my brother, Michael, after dinner last night and he conjured up an old face from way back when. He’d been visiting with our father, and Dad mentioned his long time friend. “Peter someone,” Michael said, and I grasped at his last name until it came to me. It was Curran. Peter Curran.

Even so, the minute Michael mentioned the man, Pete Curran’s face popped into my mind. They were in the war together, Michael informed me, which made sense because it seems that face has been part of my memory bank forever. Searching for my earliest memory associated with Peter’s face, I settled on an enormous house on the hill outside of Norvelt, Pennsylvania. We moved from that house when I was three years old.

Peter Curran was “a professor of mathematics at Fordham for nearly five decades”, according to his obituary in Fordham News. We moved from the Eastern Seaboard when I was sixteen, and I am pretty sure I have not seen him since. Yet, his face is still easily retrieved from my memory vaults.

Our ability to remember faces is astonishing, especially these days when no one can remember a phone number, or what they just finished reading on their Facebook news feed. I search my brain for the right word when I speak, and carry a notebook to record all the little things I think of during the day. One minute it’s in my brain, and the next it has evaporated.

I was sweeping the pine bark off the sidewalk at work this morning, chasing an errant thought, and a different thought popped into my head. Maybe we have trouble remembering things as we age because there are so many faces stored in our brains. Back in college anthropology class, I learned about Koko, a gorilla with an impressive vocabulary of 2,000 words. One piece of Koko’s story stood out. At 2,000 words, she was still able to pick up new words, but for every new word learned, she forgot an old one.

It is common knowledge that although our world is very different from the world of our cave people ancestors, humans have not evolved much physiologically. Our knees, unused to jogging and other extreme sports, break down with alarming frequency. We still crave sugar, salt, and fat. And we probably only have room in our brains for a couple hundred faces. Problem is, we meet thousands of people in our lifetimes, all of whose feature our eyes expertly scan and sock away for future retrieval. Survival depends on knowing the difference between strangers and our tribe.

Dad’s old army buddy died last April, a few days after my father’s 92nd birthday. I may have trouble remembering Peter Curran’s name, or much about the year I lived in Norvelt, or even what I had for dinner last night, but his face, a face I have not seen for close to fifty years lives on in my mind’s eye. I am certain both my father and I will be able to call up this face, and many others until we draw our last breath.

Disassociating

“It’s not them, it’s us,” Bob said, stepping from the shower on October 20, 2004. “We need to leave.” We had been living on Maui for four years. George W. Bush was up for reelection. 9/11 had happened, the administration had cooked up the whole “weapons of mass destruction” fiasco, and Bush had ordered the bombing of Iraq.

The recycling advocates we had thrown in with weren’t all that they seemed. In a telling moment, one of them scoffed at our frugal idealism, saying, “What we do here has no effect on the people of the third world.” The turning point came when some of our colleagues showed open support for four more years. Sadly, we began to see that they were not in the minority. The war monger actually had a chance of winning!

After Bob stepped from the shower, we thumbed through our latest copy of The Caretaker Gazette, and targeted a job on a tiny Caribbean island. We were packed and gone in two months. So, when people ask, “Why would you move from Maui?!” we inhale and say, “We left for political reasons.”

A couple of nights ago I dreamed I was dying. The sensation was not unpleasant and it came in stages. It felt like letting go. Kind of like when you sink into a tub of warm water. I could feel my life force evaporating, and things that had once seemed important were disappearing from my mental lists. I recall standing on a platform looking out over the landscape, big sky all around, and feeling my molecules dissipate.

When I told Bob about my dream he said, “You were disassociating.”

Up north in Pennsylvania, my parents are disassociating. This year my father wasn’t up to joining our annual family get together, and we weren’t sure my mother would feel up to it, either. At 86 and 92, their energy has dwindled to a low flame. Although my mother is still engaged with family, she is largely preoccupied by her schedule at the nursing home. When I call her on the phone she only has a few minutes because she is eating breakfast, or about to be weighed, changed, or put to bed.

When Bob and I were in town, I joined my brothers John and Joe for a short drive to one of their beloved mountains. We picked up three sandwiches and parked near a fire tower. Joe went to the top, leaping like a goat, while John and I laid out a picnic on the wooden platform. We ate amid the sounds of the woods, letting our thoughts drift into the trees.

After lunch, I climbed the tower, peering down from each landing, mostly as an excuse to pause and gather my strength. It reassured me to see my brothers down below, but I had mixed feelings about seeing them growing smaller and more distant.

Back home, Bob and I settle into our routine. We putter around the yard, mowing and weeding, growing food, cooking, and eating. We don’t have as much energy as we did when we first got here ten years ago. Back then we were in the thick of things, hosting potluck every Thursday, playing crokinole, and collaborating with our friends.

The neighborhood has changed. A few young families with children moved in. Haruka and Jason closed down their farm and went traveling. Bob started buying produce from the farmers market. Our next door neighbors walled off their borders, disappointed when their low ball offer on the farm was rejected. For a time there was a school and a healing center. Potlucks became sporadic and spontaneous.

I have changed. I don’t work as hard as I used to. I spend more time in our hammock, and not as so much in other people’s living rooms. It came to me while I was washing dishes the other day, that I am more of an observer than a player now. I walked off the playing field and climbed up into the bleachers. When I tell Bob my thought, he says, “That’s fine with me,” and we both smile.

Swinging With My Eyes Closed – family without expectations

Before I go to bed, I like to climb into our back porch hammock and listen to the day shut down. The sounds yoyo around my head while I swing, curved like a banana, eyes closed. Robins tweeting their single-note sign off, the buzz of hummingbird wars, the last big trucks of the day looming, then receding off to another town, and a mocking bird blee blooping to beat the band. Life happens whether we are watching or not.

The hammock slows as the crickets and cicadas take over, and my thoughts turn inward. A week ago, I was four hundred miles north sitting on a porch swing with my sister-in-law Darla, putting the final touches on plans for our family reunion. She had already done most of her cooking and had a big bin of picnic supplies sitting near the door, Bob was on pizza and ice, I had rented a pavilion in the park, and my brother John,had reserved the community room at my mother’s nursing home in case she wasn’t feeling well enough for an outing.

We had everything “well in hand”, a phrase fitting for Amish country with its horse carts and plow horse teams. Swinging there on the porch, the various elements of the event felt like a frisky team of horses. The people coming from far away, my frail mother, the nursing home staff, the ten grandkids, mics and amps for music, the lawn games, and ice; we hoped all would fall into place when the time came.

I sighed as we got up from the swing, prompting Darla to say, “No expectations!” And we made a pact. I told her how Bob often says, “Happiness equals reality minus expectations.” If you set your sights low, he explains, you will never be disappointed. Planning helps, too.

The next day Bob and I, John, Darla, and my brothers Joe, Mike, and James split into teams. My brother James and I would greet incoming visitors at my mother’s nursing home an hour before the reunion. Bob and Darla were in charge of setting up the pavilion. Brothers John, Michael, and Joe, Mom’s handlers, would get her from her room to the community room, and (fingers crossed – no expectations!) out to the park and back.

Brother Bob was the first of those driving in for the day to arrive, followed by cousins Grace and Brian and his wife, Maggie. Everything played out as easily as water flows downhill, each drop sparkling clear and perfect. Mom was able to make it to the park, its picnic tables laden with salads, fruits, casseroles, pizza, dips, and desserts. There were thirty-two of us, four generations, gathered to celebrate the miracle of family a few weeks shy of her eighty-sixth birthday. A niece most of us had not met made for a pleasant addition. Her young daughter was instantly absorbed by the girl gaggle. Darla watched in wonder, noting, “She and Lydia both laugh with their eyes!”

After we ate, brothers Michael and John and John’s son Brandon plugged in an amp for live entertainment. My mother has always been gifted, and although she chose parenthood over a career in music, she filled her days with song. Mom harmonized to the radio, sang in the kitchen, crooned us to sleep, and continued singing to us over the phone after we fledged.

Someone wheeled Mom over to the microphone and she began to sing in her soft, clear voice with Brandon on guitar, Michael on Ukulele, and John on vocals and harmonica. They had been practicing since Michael drove in from Colorado. When they picked up “Over the Rainbow,” I began to cry, and seeing my gentle niece, Charity, mother of six, I knew where to go for comfort. She hooked an arm around me and held me close. “I get a lot of practice at this,” she whispered.

After a few songs, we plunged into the Round Robin. I love this family tradition of speaking in turn about our past year, and telling the group what we are looking forward to in the future. In random order, (each speaker picks their successor), we heard from Mom on down to Levi, the oldest of her great grands, one after another pouring out their hearts. The themes this year were “transition” and “acceptance”.

A couple of the boys had been after Bob to start up a game of kickball and after a couple of “We’ll see’s,” it was time. “Will you announce it?” “Yes.” Do you need a mic?” “No,” and with his stage voice, Bob made a call for players. I soon found myself on the lawn, trying to remember the rules of a game I hadn’t played in fifty years, if ever. Three generations, spanning sixty years in age, from little Alex to me. As if this day couldn’t get any better, I thought, fumbling for a catch and laughing. We are never going to have this reunion indoors again.

Back in the hammock, I open my eyes. The sky is a dusty salmon and the dark woods are pricked with fire flies. I cannot believe how rich my life has become. A life rich in family and good health, spilling over with time, and absolutely devoid of expectations.

A Little Better – The Power of Incrementalism

An ambitious load

“That looks a little better,” I think, nudging a weed-laden wheelbarrow south towards the brush pile. It’s turned hot, and my ponytail is stuck to the back of my neck. My friends are staying cool inside their offices, and I remind myself I planned on leaving work a couple of hours ago. Fifty feet down Lorax Lane, I stop at another garden and step out from between the worn wooden handles. Might as well pretty this bed up, too. Only a handful of weeds.

A wheelbarrow a day keeps the weeds at bay, that’s my motto. I pluck out everything that doesn’t belong: henbit, chickweed, vetch, and sedge. Despite the sweat bee pestering my left ear, I am sure I’ve got the best job on this sixteen acre eco-industrial/beverage-district business park.

As property manager of The Plant, I pull weeds, and cultivate relationships by chatting people up: curious strangers, co-workers, tenants, their employees and customers, contractors, and volunteers. We talk about everything, from shallow to deep, and over the years I’ve taken note of conversational trends. For a while it was the lingering “so..” at the end of an explanatory clause. Then the word “goddess” began cropping up. And lately, ADD and OCD.

I’ve heard so many people refer to “their ADD” I wonder if Attention Deficit Disorder hasn’t become a national badge of courage. I can’t tell if they are bragging or complaining, if they are proud of their ability to multi-task, or if they are looking for an excuse for lack of follow-through. Either way, I can relate because I’m easily sidetracked, too. Others label themselves OCD, and a few have implied they think I suffer from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. They have a point. I do indulge my need to get things done just so.

Home grown roses

At home, I keep the same steady, yet fragmented pace. I’ll start to sweep the porch, then notice a weed, which reminds me to harvest some lettuce, and then to check the sourdough rising on the kitchen counter.

Bob and I are hard-wired incrementalists. We believe in the power of the small job. Because we find big jobs arduous and taxing, we prefer to tackle things before they balloon out of control. I’d rather haul the recycling in my car once a week than wait a couple of months and have to borrow a truck. Bob plants his garden one or two flats at a time, not all twenty at once.

While some glory in the occasional Herculean effort, I celebrate multiple daily victories as I chew through my list of small tasks. One bed mulched. Line-dried sheets. Tomorrow’s casserole assembled today. It makes me feel put together, in control, on top of things, and provided for. All tasks add to our quality of life: good home grown food, fresh flowers, and uncluttered horizontal space.

Despite prevailing evidence, I am neither OCD nor ADD. My pursuit of order is not a disorder; it is the essence of the good life. Seeing things that need fixed and fixing them right now is not a deficiency – it’s the opposite of procrastination. Losing myself in the minutia of everyday life is my path to nirvana. At the end of each day I sink into my heavenly bed, satisfied I’ve made a lot of things a little better.

Wake-up Call

The day before Mother’s Day, I’m dreaming the usual stuff, probably trying to set a table for twenty with five water glasses, or squeezing underneath a car in the parking garage, or maybe stepping from a floating dock to a boat bound for Belize, when two big thuds that don’t fit into the dream bring me to the surface. “That’s a wreck,” I mumble. Bob rolls over and says, “Guess I should go see.”

Outside he finds a shiny blue sedan parked on Fred and Reda’s giant prickly pear cactus. A young man paces their yard, cell phone pressed to his ear. “I fell asleep,” he tells Bob. The car is totaled and his family is on the way. With surprising composure, he says he nodded off on his way to work because he was up too late. “I needed a wake-up call,” he says. Bob considers the irony in his statement but decides not to point it out.

I ring the house next door, waking Reda.
“There’s a car in your front yard.”
“What?”
“There’s a car in your front yard.”
“I’ll tell Fred.”

Bob comes in for coffee, and when I see Fred through the window, I wander out with my cocoa. Fred is chit chatting with the driver’s aunt and uncle in our driveway. “Morning Fred,” I say, and turning to our guests, “Neighbors used to get together for weddings and birthdays, but nowadays we mainly see each other at car wrecks.” We smile.

Statistics back up my little joke. Earlier this month NPR’s 1A explored the trend towards isolation with The Universal Solitude of Americans: Loneliness on the Rise.

More than half of survey respondents – fifty-four percent – said they always or sometimes feel that no one knows them well. Fifty-six percent reported they sometimes or always felt like the people around them “are not necessarily with them.” And two in five felt like “they lack companionship,” that their “relationships aren’t meaningful,” and that they “are isolated from others.”

And what’s more, younger generations feel lonelier.

Members of Generation Z, born between the mid-1990s and the early 2000s, had an overall loneliness score of 48.3. Millennials, just a little bit older, scored 45.3. By comparison, baby boomers scored 42.4. The Greatest Generation, people ages 72 and above, had a score of 38.6 on the loneliness scale.

Fred and I indulge in the litany of Moncure Pittsboro Road Wrecks. He tells us about the car that crossed their yard and nearly crashed into their bedroom. I recall the day my friend got rear ended trying to turn into our driveway, and left in an ambulance. The aunt chimes in with her own horror story. Just months after their wedding, her husband ended up in ICU sharing a room with a passenger from the other car, and the driver downstairs in the morgue.

We replay this morning’s mishap by reading the scars across our ditch and driveway, one reflector gone, the other standing untouched. “He was airborne over here.” Fred says, looking from the ditch to the split branches of our juniper where the car touched down before coming to a stop on his cactus. “I’m glad he took out that cactus. It was sitting on a big fire ant pile.”

We are amazed that this young man is alive. “A perfect Mother’s Day gift,” says the woman, thinking of her sister. We embrace and hold on. “This is our wake up call to savor every moment.” The sun is coming on strong now. I walk up the driveway with an empty mug and a full heart.

Christmas in April

I watch the big truck backing towards me, standing under the red tips in our back yard, trying to ignore the disturbing scent of its flowers. Like Christmas in April, black magic spills off the end of the truck, filling the air with earthy musk. Mulch is a wonderful thing! Like furniture polish or a coat of fresh paint, it hides all sins and makes everything sparkling new.

A few wheelbarrow loads later, one bed done and one halfway beautified, I think, just one more, and my back groans. I’m in a race with time to get the mulch deployed as quickly as possible. If I’m quick about it, the weeds won’t get the upper hand and the summer will be easy. This is the time of year for pushing through, mind over matter. It’s the season of ibuprofen, liniment, and extra yoga.

I see why the tourists who stayed with us in Belize and Nicaragua said they couldn’t live there because they had to have their seasons. At the time, we didn’t get it. Bob and I chewed on it a lot and decided they were only talking about one season, spring. We figured they loved spring because it followed winter, that abysmal stretch of cold, dead months so familiar to northerners. Now, after the winter we just had, I see their point.

I have to admit, spring in North Carolina is glorious. It’s sleeping with the windows open time. Everything’s coming to life in the yard, peonies popping. Birds going ape shit, singing their hearts out. Especially the whacked out mocking birds, who evidently are the last to find mates and settle down. If they would just shut up for a few minutes, or at least stop repeating themselves and pretend to listen, the she-birds would flock to their sides.

But every penny has its backside, and the downside of spring is this: my writing life takes a huge hit. Spring is a gut punch to anything desk-related.

I did sit at my desk the other day long enough to put together my summer schedule. In an effort to encourage myself to write without adding undue pressure, I changed the word “write” to “Create!” If this doesn’t get my creative juices flowing, nothing will, I thought. Less than a week later, I pitched that schedule out the window.

I had the whole day to myself on Thursday, no social commitments, and could have spent hours crafting some great piece of writing. As it turned out I spent most of the day working outside. We had a long, crappy winter, and now I can finally get outside and pretty up the place. That $165 load of mulch is going to keep me happy for weeks.

After two (or four) wheelbarrow loads, I come inside, fish a couple of stray pieces of bark from my tank top, and wash my hair. I dry it with a clean, sun-kissed towel I just pulled off the line along with our pillows and bed sheets. It’s burrito night, and we are halfway through a good movie. Clean hair, towel, and sheets. I’ve hit the simple pleasure trifecta. Christmas in April, spring is the best!
 
 

Happy Mother Earth Day!

It is Earth Day Weekend. I open a new tab on my browser and find Jane Goodall’s 2018 Earth Day message:

Nature's Healing Spirit on AmazonInspired by my idol, I grab my copy of Sheri McGregor’s recently-published collection of essays, Nature’s Healing Spirit – Real Life Essays to Nurture the Soul and head outdoors. Written by an eclectic group of men and women, these essays celebrate the natural world while affirming our place in it. I am proud to be among the book’s authors, tickled pink that Sheri chose to include “My Friend Carl” in her beautiful book.

I soon find myself sitting in the tree house I named Sweetwater, a play place built at the edge of the woods behind our house before we arrived on the scene. Tacked between four sweet gum trees, this platform is perfect for creative introspection, something I need from time to time. A cardinal drowns out the swish of traffic out front and the drone of a propeller plane overhead. I am bathed in the jasmine scent of autumn olive, and can see the last of this season’s dogwood blooms. I settle into my lawn chair and pick a chapter.

Halfway through Kathleen Hayes Phillips’ Loving Stones, it occurs to me that Natures Healing Spirit is the perfect Mother’s Day gift, a lovely read for nature lovers of all ages, from active to house-bound. Each essay opens a portal between the man made world and mother earth, the equivalent of airing out the house on a spring day. Every story a reminder that, no matter what is going on inside, Mother Earth’s comforting arms are waiting just beyond the back door.

 

Wyoming Soap

On your way to John’s Italian Pizza, your heart begins skipping around in your chest. You try not to panic. You know it is not right to blame the jelly beans, but you keep returning to them as the culprit. You hope you can make it to the finish line. If your luck holds out, you will soon sink into the cushy recliner you paid $15 for at Habitat twelve years ago and watch another episode of Longmire with dinner.

You have been thinking about jelly beans since Easter Sunday. You retrace your childhood steps downstairs to find a chocolate bunny sitting upright in a sea of cellophane grass. You admire the marshmallow peeps, aware that many jelly beans are hiding beneath the glossy, green, waves. It never crosses your mind what those colorful pellets might represent.

Finally, you give in. You pull into the drug store parking lot and score a bag of half-priced jelly beans. And now you are feeling sick on your way to pick up a pizza, a special treat for a difficult week. You try not to heap stress on top of your general unease. You turn on the radio, searching for the perfect song. Stay between the lines. You are probably just thirsty. Sugar does that.

You do not know why you like Longmire so much. Soap operas are not your style. You think of what Bob told you about his grandparents, about how their soap operas took priority over their grandkids, and how you used to think they were using TV to escape reality.

The show is set in a fictional county in Wyoming. Walt Longmire, the local Sherriff, is nothing to write home about. The plot elements are predictable and full of holes. There is always a body, multiple suspects, a splash of sexual tension, a measure of distrust, somebody spends time in the jail cell that sits in the middle of the sheriff’s office, and someone always ends up confessing everything to Walt.

No one warned you that Walt, Vic, Ruby, Ferg, Branch, Cady, Henry Standing Bear, Matthias, Travis, and even Jacob Nighthorse, grow on you. No matter how bad the dialogue, or how deep the plot holes, you want to know what the characters will do next. You had no idea it would be so addictive, as irresistible as the sugar in those jelly beans.

You realize that you are using the show as mental floss. Washing away the cares of the day by immersing yourself in a story that does not even faintly resemble your own reality. It would be counter-productive if you were able to place yourself in their shoes. The more improbable, the better. You are self-medicating with sugar and TV.

Finally, you make it home with the pizza. Bob has pulled down the movie screen and hooked the laptop to the projector. Your heart has calmed down. “What will it be tonight?” Bob asks as you carry your plates to the living room. “Oh, I don’t know. A bear mauling? Maybe a drug overdose? Arrows?” You cannot wait to find out.

The Middle of the Horse

You might not notice to look at me that I’ve got a lot going on. Or then again, you might. You might catch me losing my balance. Or I may seem less compassionate, somewhat detached, distracted, and a little less patient.

And for good reason. My Mom and Dad are at a cross roads in their transition from independent to dependent. Opinions about what to do or what not to do are flying over the Ethernet, from IP to IP, bouncing off modems and cell phone towers. I’m on the phone a lot with my parents, my brothers and sisters-in-law, the nursing home staff, and retirement communities. Bob bought me a fancy fifty dollar blue tooth to pair with my little dumb phone. It fits perfectly in either ear so I can talk while driving, pulling weeds, folding laundry, and making scalloped potatoes.

Bob has been great, always willing to listen to the latest blow-by-blow in the Mom and Dad Dance, a dysfunction we brothers and sisters have been battling since Mom’s car accident eleven years ago. Mom was 75 and Dad, 86 when I implored them to put their affairs in order, draft living wills, assign their Power of Attorneys, and choose a retirement community.

My father made it known to all six of his children that his fiscal responsibility ended the day we turned eighteen and we were to move out and find our own way. No college for us. Most of us left home when we were seventeen rather than wait for the ax. In this way, he said, he would prevent us from shouldering the burden of their elder care. And although over the past eleven years my mother has been in need of appropriate housing and care, she has refused to ask for it, and Dad has not volunteered to open his wallet. They are still saving for their old age.

Like as not, I look the same as always. Strong and full of purpose, chopping greens at my kitchen counter, walking the neighborhood trails, showing up at community events, cracking lame jokes, and cranking along with my wheelbarrow.

You might not notice that I’m struggling to stay in the saddle, but I can tell. I’m not sleeping well. I’m having trouble getting started. I don’t feel like talking to anyone. My mind doesn’t want to stay on topic. Thank god for my To Do list or I’d just sit and stare at that bluebird on the pear tree, bright against the tiny white blossoms.

Dad and Mom, 2016

Dad and Mom, 2016

Stay in the middle of the horse, I tell myself over and over. Don’t lose your balance. Stay in the middle. It’s that easy. I feel the same as when I used to train green colts. Scared I won’t be fast enough to catch him before he blows up and throws me to the ground, and scared I won’t be able to get back up, that this time the damage will be permanent. You’ve got to lie with your seat, a trainer once told me and I never forgot it. Sit with all your muscles relaxed to reassure the horse that everything is gonna be alright. Nothing to worry about. Breathe easy with me, son, long deep breaths in and out. Lie with my seat. Every muscle so ready to spring into action that the synapses are already pulsing, yet relaxed.

It’s easy to be off-balance as my parents teeter from stable to unstable, from healthy to sick, from alive to barely hanging on. There are at least ten of us, the people I love most in this world, trying to ride this beast, all twisting this way and that, all doing our best to stay in the middle, not sure whether to ride hard or soft.

My biggest fear is not that my parents will continue making it hard for us to help them, or that my mother will die a painful death, because we siblings and in-laws have little control over how Mom and Dad decide to live out their the rest of their lives. All the hand-wringing in the world won’t suddenly take their fate out of their hands. They are both still cognitively alert and fully in charge of their finances and medical decisions. No, my biggest fear is that one bad wobble will lead to a fall and my relationship with my brothers and sisters or their relationships with each other will suffer irreparable harm.

So, despite feeling a little less “here” than usual, despite my desire to self-exile from everything, despite my fears that the Mom and Dad Dance will set off an avalanche that leaves my family buried in hard feelings, I need to keep on making those calls, answering emails, and showing up for everyday life. I need to behave as if all is well, lie with my seat, convey a false sense of calm to the beast I’m riding and usher us both, unharmed, into calmer terrain. No matter what happens ahead, I need to stay in the middle of the horse.