Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Treehouse Without a Tree

My BFF and I are making great progress on our commune.

I have secured my own house in her backyard.

10-year-old me is like, "FUCK YEAH!!"

38-year-old me is like, "Hey, remember this time last year when you bought a real house?"

10-year-old me is like, "IT HAS TWO WHOLE ROOMS THAT ARE MINE!"

38-year-old me is like, "It's 500 square feet."

10-year-old me is like, "That couch turns into a bed like a goddamn transformer!"

38-year-old me is like, "That's a love seat and not even a real couch."

10-year-old me is like, "We can ride our bike to the beach!"

38-year-old me is like, "You don't even have a bike!"

It all depends on the hour, really.

The goal is to keep the kids in one house for at least a year, while we move in and out as we figure out the intricacies of consciously uncoupling, as Gwyneth would say. It's either the best idea ever or the worst, which is kind of my specialty.

As I went to look at the place, my friend Lyn made a joke to the prior tenant that the only thing wrong with it was the neighbors.

She was a little old lady who loved the unexpected visits and joyful noises of four little kids. She said so, with a delighted smile, and told me she would keep the door open for their visits.

"Oh no. Not me. I'm buying an electric fence to keep them out," I told Lyn.

"They'll tunnel right under it."

I reminded the kids that Ms. Ashley really likes her naps so we'll work out a system. I suggested office hours or a flag.

I went to babysit them the other night and my favorite wrapped both arms around my waist and looked up at me with sheer happiness in his big blue eyes, a constellation of freckles across his pale nose and cheeks and said, "I can't wait for you to live in our yard, Ashley." And when I was done laughing at how hobo-like that sounded, my heart swooned in my empty-feeling chest.

Whose neighbor loves them like that?

I have a new favorite of her four hourly, by the way, always for a new reason. He's actually one of our reasons for being though. I held him after a swim event while she changed her older daughter into dry clothes. He was a chubby, happy baby with pale smooth skin and red curls and without thinking about it at all, I kissed him on his sweet little cheek and then recoiled in awkward horror about how many women would go absolutely berserk (understandably so) about some weird stranger smooching their baby. I apologized profusely and she was like, "Nah, it's fine. Who wouldn't kiss him?" And I knew she was my people.

They were so excited when I came to babysit because it meant I'd let them into the now vacant guesthouse. My mom bought me a beautiful bed with gorgeous girly linens and a pretty antique dresser and I was eager to put it all together and gaze upon its perfection.

Her just-turned-5-year-old twin girl, short cropped curls and wide brown eyes, looked at me and said, "Ms. Ashley, we're gonna make your house so beautiful! I'm gonna help you! My mama can make a bed so good and I'm gonna do it just like that, me and you, we're gonna make this bed. There's this thing where you can tuck the blanket under the pillows...my mama does it, I'll do it for you." She said this with big eyes and eager emphasis and I thought, "Yeah, we're gonna make this so beautiful."

I told her we needed a fire pit and she exclaimed with delight. "My mama's always wanted one! And me too!"

I told her to take her shoes off and she told me she hadn't worn any and I inspected her dirty feet and my clean carpet and she told me she hadn't walked through very much dirt at all, which seemed pretty reasonable. So we went in and smoothed my crisp white linens onto my very soft bed, and she jumped right up there to tuck that blanket under those pillows, feet first.

When I said, "Remember about your feet?" she said, "Remember how they're not that dirty though?"

And I did.

And they weren't. Well, they were, but left no evidence.

We spent some time thinking about where to hang a shelf before she agreed it just might not work in this space, and I could hang it in the closet for my bags if I'd like, that's what she would do.

I reminded everyone again that Ms. Ashley loves naps, and we will work out a really good system for visits.

"The new fun game is 'let's pretend I'm going to Ashley's house'" was the text I received a few days later.

And on my next visit, there were tiny Mary Janes on my door step, a marking of territory of sorts, or maybe a promise to have access to shoes next time, and my heart did that sweet thing again and I felt like maybe this could be home for both my 10-year-old self and my 38-year-old self and whoever would comes next. (I'm guessing my 39-year-old self but don't quote me on that because I don't know shit.)

Also, we're getting walkie talkies.

That's really the best idea we've come up with yet but I'm sure there will be many.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

To My Sons,

I'm so sorry.

I'm so sorry the life I had planned for you isn't going as planned.

I'm so sorry I stayed in this situation for as long as I did, and I'm so sorry I can't stay in it for longer.

I'm so sorry that your lives are being divided.

I'm so sorry I never know what to say or do next anymore.

I'm so sorry that you're more likely to remember how I burst into tears when I asked you to please not clink your spoon so loudly against the bowl today, and not that I was working every spare minute to build a business entirely reliant on my mental acuity and concentration at a time I have neither.

I'm so sorry that it's your friends providing the spring break memories that I used to live for.

I'm so sorry that I have to say "We'll see" knowing it's a definite "no" when neither of you ever ask for anything.

I'm just so sorry.

I know you're going to grow up and this will be the scary part of your story, and I wish I had been a better author of your lives so I could save you from it.

I hope one day we all understand, me included.

I hope you know that I have loved you ferociously even at my lowest or loudest point.

I hope one day you'll be proud of me.

I hope one day I can say I'm a really good mom again, with confidence I don't have right now.

I hope one day everyone will see that it was the only way.

But no matter what, I'm sorry.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Time Machine

I wake up every morning really scared, and if I don't pass out from exhaustion, I go to sleep that way too.

I cry every day.

I am realizing people are not who I thought they were, including myself, and learning things about my life I did not know.

I only put food in my mouth so I have an answer when people ask what I ate that day. And people ask. Every day.

I can only consistently respond to two or three people unless it's work-related, and only because I suspect they'd take some kind of action if I didn't. If you're waiting to hear from me, it's not you, it's me. For real this time. Sometimes it's you, but not now.

But, at the very center of my heart, there is a seed of happiness and I feel it straining to sprout each day.

And I know it's going to do it.

And I'm so excited for its progress that I am not as affected by the scared/sad/starving/solitude as I should be. I'm really proud that I can keep that little seed safe. I water it by trying to grow my business and make a new life, and I try really hard to make sure it sees some sort of sunshine each and every day, no matter how small or stolen that moment is.

I have a million funny stories for you -- little kid is killing it lately in true save-the-day fashion (he is often the sunshine for my seed), but it seems disingenuous to gloss over how things are going when I've packed you all along for the journey.

So, we're still on the Oregon Trail and no one has died of cholera yet (but little kid has given it a go with Strep twice now), and that's something to celebrate.

I'm something to celebrate. And I know that now.

So there will be funny stories again, and soon they won't all have to be prefaced with "Maybe I'm dying and IT'S FINE!"

The other day I asked little kid if he would go back in time and kill baby Hitler and without hesitation he said, "Yep."

"Okay, but remember, he'd be a baby. You'd know he was going to be Hitler, but you'd have to kill a BABY."

"I'd stomp it to death like a puppy."

"Like a puppy? Well, wait, that's --"

"I'd wear cleats."

"Uh, wow. Dude."

"It's Hitler, mom. You can't raise me to change the world and then be surprised I could stomp baby Hitler to death. I wouldn't kill a puppy unless it was Hitler too, though."

So. I don't know if I'm doing good at parenting or not, but there's that.

I think everyone other than baby Hitler will be okay. Probably.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Dear Dad,

Three years ago today I was still awake as dawn swept in and as I looked out at the soft pink sky and the fog rising from the lake, I knew it was the day that you'd get on the road again. For good.

And so I cleaned your room, and washed your hands, and googled what part of the Bible people read in times like this, and honestly, as I read it out loud to you twice, I felt those words were lacking and wondered if everyone faked comfort from them or if my soul had died before yours had left.

I'd spent a week at that point bargaining with God and everyone who has left before us, and was fed up with the lot of them by then. I was actually no longer on speaking terms with God at all, we were co-workers wrapping up a final project before going our separate ways; I resented him for not pulling his weight and my stuff was already packed.

And as Ralph Stanley's, Swing Low, Sweet Chariot played, my mom and I watching the news and chatting around your bed, there was a shift in the room and I realized you were getting ready to go.

You left to one of my songs and not yours, and it was My God is Real by Krishna Das. A parting gift and solid reminder.

But the real parting gift was one more year.

I didn't tell anyone because I tried once or twice and got knocked down with, "Yeah, subconscious is weird," and realized it wasn't a shareable experience. I also didn't want anyone else to mourn that it wasn't happening to them -- I am either intuitive or highly imaginative. I knew my childhood best friend was going to have a baby before she did, because her father told me so in a dream. I have had an extra conversation or experience with every person I know who has passed.

But you came to me in a series of dreams. I once woke to you sitting serenely next to my bed while I slept, like I had for you.

I had an incredible experience walking through rolling green hills dotted with tiny charming houses full of everyone I had ever loved as boughs of pink flowers swayed overhead and rained down from the sky all around me, and as I wondered how on earth I could be experiencing such vivid beauty, there you were and we walked together.

And I even got the goodbye you couldn't give me in life.

On the eve before a one year memorial for you, I ran into you in my dream while I was out having lunch. I could see every pore on your nose and stray hair from your mustache and you looked like the old you, not the cancer you. I had forgotten what that looked like. I was freezing cold and you offered me a shirt and we walked to a truck that had two little boys waiting inside, in white t-shirts and cuffed blue jeans. They looked like you as a child, and I think they were your brothers who were lost in infancy. It was your dad's truck.

I begged you to stay, to stop by any time. I explained how if you couldn't find my house you could go to the yoga studio and they would call me. I asked you to come back for your shirt. I told you that my kids would love to see you. I outlined my daily schedule.

And you shook your head sadly, glancing away with wet eyes, and said, "I don't reckon I'll be back around this way again."

I realized then what was happening and that I wasn't awake, and asked for a hug. It felt empty and I knew you were slipping away, and I told you goodbye and that I was so glad to have seen you again.

And that was it. The last dream and my parting gift. And my proof that God is real.

I miss you, but the loss of you helped make a new me -- one with faith and perspective and the good kind of grit. You made me twice in a way.

And you brought me back to believing in Something Else, and I can't wait to see you there.


Like a band of gypsies we go down the highway 
We're the best of friends 
Insisting that the world keep turning our way 
And our way 
Is on the road again

Monday, March 6, 2017

Flying Too Close to the Ground

My dad and I really only had three things in common -- music, politics, and a shitty sense of humor, and we disagreed on all of the above to the point of near fury at times.

When I was little I was force fed a steady diet of Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings and Ralph Stanley. His Kentucky roots mapped out our musical world and I resented it. No one talked like that or listened to that here, it was the epitome of uncool.

When I was a teenager and we really had nothing in common, we had The Rolling Stones, The Doors and Led Zeppelin. Snippets of conversation, nostalgia for his 70s concert-going days, relief at common ground.

Eventually I grew up and fell in love with all music (except heavy metal and most electronic crap) and appreciated his again. I'd buy him CDs as gifts, he'd ask if I heard Willie's new song, we went to a few concerts.

Once we even saw Willie together.

He loved Willie Nelson so much and for so long, both as an artist and an individual. He delighted in the idea of a country boy owing the IRS $32 million and Willie's bemused nonchalance about the dilemma -- he quoted some Farm Aid thing so often I can't believe I don't remember it.

As he lay dying in hospice, at a complete loss over the helplessness of the situation and the end of our limited common ground, I made him a playlist full of his lifetime of favorites, all appropriate and meaningful for the journey he was about to make.

He was in and out of consciousness then, and had difficulty communicating, but at some point in the middle of one lonely night, he either indicated that he liked it or I just knew that he did. I would sit with him around the clock, both of us wrapped up in those songs while we waited for his ride home.

We had him cremated in a "Roll me up and smoke me when I die" shirt, one of his Willie favorites, something I know he would have found hilarious due to our shared shitty sense of humor and our love of shock value.

It sounds cliche to say the music died with him but the way it used to make me feel did.

My relationship with music changed altogether once I left that room.

My relationship with me changed too. I've got some issues that may surpass grief that are related to that time and I'm working on it. Or almost ready to start. Kind of. I've recognized that I need to.

But that was 3 years ago, the anniversary approaching this week. It's been creeping up on me, hiding around corners and making itself visible in the corners of my vision, whispering that I'm still alone and still scared and still not sure about life, somehow dovetailing with my latest personal drama. I've been trying to think of how to delicately tell my friends that I might need a day to lose my shit in a way that would be worrisome without the warning, and I need them to let me do it, to not try to distract me or lift my spirits.

My dad was offered Willie Nelson tickets as a last wish situation, and the concert was canceled and he passed away.

And last night Willie was back and they offered to honor the tickets, so my mom and I went. I wanted to go because I know this is the last time I'll see Willie (his age gives me true anxiety, his death will be the demise of another piece of me) but I didn't want to go because I'm so tired of feelings.

We were having subdued fun in our seats when an usher walked up and leaned down by my mom and said, "Are you getting all of this?"

She turned to him, confused.

"I know you're recording audio, just want to make sure you're getting this."

She couldn't even figure out how to zoom in on the photo she took earlier. Her purse was in her lap, with her phone inside of it.

"Excuse me?" I said. "Are you serious? She is not recording anything. You have some nerve." He apologized and walked away. I thought of his snarky, smug tone and followed. We ended up in the alcove by the exit, his back against the wall.

"How dare you interrupt our evening to accuse my mother of that."

"I'm sorry."

"It's outrageous. My father died to Willie Nelson's music and should be here tonight, these were his tickets and you're walking around like the gestapo ruining it," I got more angry as I explained, until I was speaking in a low tone through clenched teeth and pointing at him, leaning forward into his space.

"I'm sorry."

"Her phone wasn't even out or on. What's your name?" I peered at his name tag. "Drew? So Drew, do you think my mother, who is in her mid 60s, is going to upload this shit to YouTube for profit, Drew? Muffled audio of 30 year old songs from her purse? Is that the concern, Drew? Is that what's worth ruining my night over, Drew?"

"No. I don't. I'm sorry."

"This is ridiculous that I'm having to do this. You should be ashamed of yourself. Are you?" He nodded, eyes wide. "Good, you should, it's gross." I realized he was scared and that I was taking too much pleasure in having a target for my extra emotions, that maybe I had even out-jerked the jerk. "Don't come near us again, Drew, and I'm writing a letter to your boss."

Drew found a new place to stand. I'm writing that letter next.

I returned to my seat angry, at Drew and myself for being so affected by his crap. Here was my chance to feel the music again and I was busy bitching out some old guy. I was just frustrated and sad and sick of everything including myself.

The concert ended and people began filing out but the band continued to play, and I took it as a sign that Willie would be back. I stood and acted like I was walking towards an exit near the stage (we were at what used to be the Philharmonic, so not a typical wild concert scene) and stood for a moment near the end of the second row like I belonged there before slipping past an inattentive usher and leaning against the stage.

And Willie Nelson came back, and started shaking everyone's hand. I was at the end of the line and was agonizing over whether he'd stop and whether I should try to get a selfie or shove the program at him for an autograph like others were doing.

And then there he was. Right in front of me. Willie Nelson, close enough for me to see every line etched into that beautiful face and every stray hair escaping his braids.

He grabbed my hand and I looked up at him and said, "I love you, Willie. My dad did too. You're what we had together. You're my everything," and he leaned down and put his hand on my cheek, looking into my eyes and cupping my jawline for a moment before letting it slide away.

I still can't believe it. I will never forget the feel of that rough dry hand on my cheek. I don't know if I'll ever feel that kind of incandescent joy again. My dad would have told that story over and over again until I was sick of it had he been there. I'm so glad I didn't ask for an autograph, I got so much more.

I felt the music and it felt me back, and it felt so good to feel.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Inappropriate Happiness

As previously mentioned, my friend Lyn and I went to see My Fair Lady at the theater recently.

My Fair Lady is three and a half hours long, a previously unknown fact that required us to order two drinks at a time in order to cope with the thought. We were also the youngest (and hottest) by a solid 20 years, just to set the scene for you in terms of nightlife and expectations of behavior.

She had a mysterious case of hives and was on a cocktail of medication, coffee, and champagne. I was just my current sad self trying to be decent company.

I slid down into my seat as soon as we got through the gauntlet of disapproving ushers who think 5 minutes early is late and two drinks at once is too many and succumbed to sleep, openly and without shame before the end of the first act, rousing only to sleepily join in on the occasional round of applause before sinking back into it contentedly.

I woke with a start at everyone laughing at something that wasn't very funny, the kind of polite laughter the audience supplies because the script calls for it, and noticed Lyn was cracking up as everyone else trailed off into the return to silence. I turned in my seat to look at her, confused and tired, and she was shaking with laughter, hand over her mouth, eyes filling with tears. No one else was laughing now.

"You're high on Prednisone. It wasn't funny," I whispered, kind of incredulous at her reaction, starting to chuckle at the shrill nature of her laugh and realizing it was going to get embarrassing within seconds.

Her laughter took on a truly hysterical quality when our eyes met -- in the old fashioned sense of the word -- a sobbing, out of control, breathless sound of pure joy and insanity.

Which made me laugh in a way I didn't see coming, resulting in a loud snort which made us collapse against each other and choke with laughter while hissing at each other to stop, calm down this second, because everyone was looking, and then the other one would go I know, I know, for real, yes, let's stop, and we'd continue to laugh.

And when we calmed down, I fell back asleep.

It was so rude, so unfortunate for the other theater goers, but damn did I need that moment of out of control happiness. I mean, they had 3 hours and 27 minutes of silence from me, it's fine.

"You're covered in hives and I'm going to die alone, but come look happy for Instagram," I told her as we took a selfie afterwards.

And we were happy and having fun, in spite of being uncomfortable inside and out.

I'm cat sitting for a friend this weekend and imagine if Tom Hanks from Big was a recently separated crazy cat lady because it's going a lot like that. I'm jumping on their trampoline and playing their video games and riding a butt scooter thing in circles across their huge living room and singing love songs to their cat and having a whole lot of fun doing nothing and napping.

And realizing that it's easier to find comfort and joy when you don't have expectations of how something will or should be -- from a night at the theater to life in general. It just is what it is (the laziest phrase in the English language) and the work might just be in making the best of it regardless.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Factory of Self

"You don't seem like yourself," they say.

"I don't have one right now," I don't answer.

The first draft of this post was a funny Ashley story of a night at the theater, of the two hardcore old lady ushers who banded together to try to force my best friend and I to behave and follow the rules, and how irritated I was at their audacity until I realized that would be her and I one day. Enforcing shit no matter how mundane, no fucks given, together against the world.

But then the bullhorn in my head keeps saying, "No! Announce your disappearance" since that's the real news.

It feels like there's a need to show you regular Ashley, to promise that I am okay, bleeding out and all. A friend once said that it was funny my social media was so beautiful when my life was in shambles, and I pointed out that there was no duplicity in that, I'm just good at finding the beautiful.

I am, too. I still have that. I swear to you that I could be dying in a gutter and I'd still stop to admire the sunset before drawing my last breath.

And maybe put that shit on Instagram if I could manage.

Friends are worried about me. And I hate that. I need it right now, to know that I'm loved when I feel that I'm utterly unlovable, but I feel it happening towards and around me, can sense quiet conversations of what to do about Ashley when there's really nothing to be done but to lean in and prop me up a little as I find my feet.

(A little. Not too much.)

And don't take it personally if I stand here staring blankly back at you as you try. And I won't blame you for not trying. I don't want anyone to worry.

But there is less of me. I've been disappearing for a long time, in bits and pieces of willing sacrifice, but I'm finally getting to the parts people can see.

My bright is dim. My career uncertain. My time with my loves about to be halved. My tongue rests in the place my lost crown stood. My car is most likely on its way to the junkyard with a bad transmission. My house might be someone else's guest room every other weekend. My breasts strain to reach the cups of my bra and my legs are long bleached bones lost in the skinniest of skinny jeans.

Sometimes I think my skeleton is finally trying to work its way out so there's no more hiding. I can see it there in my mind, encased in denim instead of skin, tricking people into thinking I'm like them until I undress for the day and reveal my monstrousness to the night.


And I totally see why you would. The skeleton thing is morbid as fuck. I'm dramatic, okay? You like that about me when it's funny.

But the reality of the loss of me is that I would not have room to grow without all of this new space. Now is the time to meet the challenge of sprouting in this foreign environment, like a weed through the cracks of a sidewalk.

I saw an abandoned concrete factory that had been transformed into a house the other day and as I was admiring its cavernous rooms, I thought that it would always feel empty and never like a real home.

And then I remembered that you could ride a bike, or do cartwheels, or keep a pony in there; that laughter would echo and a million people would fit inside. That you could keep every book you ever loved or wanted to read. That you could devote an entire area to the most kickass pillow fort in existence and leave it up forever.

Right now the empty space growing around me feels as vast and unfamiliar as the galaxy. But it also allows that much room for exploration and discovery and expansion and wonder, and so many fucking cartwheels.

So I am disappearing.

It's okay to worry but I will be back and I'll have a self with me again. There will be room in the new fort for you too.

And one day my best friend and I will lock arms at our volunteer jobs as senior citizens because we'll have the wisdom and experience to know that you'll survive not getting what you want.

Together forever against the world, you and me and everyone we know.