Hamish Langfeldt

 

Hamish Langfeldt

Hamish Hermish Squermish
the whirling dervish
of a Cairn terrier
lives in Richfield in a bungalow
with his family and toys and yard just so.
Muskrat-catcher, squirrel-chaser
Garbage-digger, clean-carpet-eraser.
Window-smudger, couch-napper
Snack-snatcher, leftover-lapper.
Sniff-sneezer, burr-sticker
Sock-shaker, face-licker.
Shoe-chewer, laundry-trouncer
Bone-begger, ball-bouncer.
Loud-barker, magazine marauder
Sound-sleeper, baby-guarder
for Little Miss Ellie
all bundled in pink,
who could do worse for an older brother,
I think.

Love After 50

Love After Fifty

If I am not being too forward, he says
Would you like to go for a walk this afternoon?
This is the blue and gold October day which follows
a good dinner.
They walk and eat apples and do not touch
and somewhere near the turn at the farthest edge
of the marsh she relaxes into knowing
I want this.
He is wearing a purple turtleneck.
The last of the sun spreads itself on the bench
where they rest
balancing each other
their chambered hearts held just outside their bodies.
The cooling shadows begin to ask a question.
Yes, he says.
Yes, she says.

 

Snow Job

 

He’s seventeen. Six foot one and 175 pounds, all lean muscle, unflappable, analytical and far more empathetic than I was at his age. Sometimes I see the same slight curve to his nose that he had as a small child. Back then, he craned his neck and tilted his chin up to see the world, to see onto tabletops and the kitchen counter. I thought it was funny that he never thought to stand on tiptoe, but he’s always been a kid who knows how to keep his balance. Now, of course, there’s no need for tiptoes. There’s very little he can’t see by looking straight ahead with his steady gaze.

It’s late January, 2006.  His first semester grades have just been posted, and I’m convinced he’s broken a promise. The deal was straight B’s, across the board, nothing lower. His first semester grades are a mix of one A, one B and the rest B minuses.

“A B minus is not a B,” say I.

“Mom, it evens out. I’ll have at least a B in everything by the end of the year.”

“But the deal was B’s, Paul,” I say. “It’s junior year. This counts. If you get at least a B on all of your assignments then you don’t have to worry about things evening out. What you’re doing now is letting things slide, then playing catch up to get back to a B. Don’t let anything fall below a B and you’ll never be behind. Isn’t that better?”

The conversation gets a little heated. He tells me I expect too much, he can’t do it. I tell him he’s smart, he’s capable of A’s in most classes and all I expect are B’s. He points out that we’ve had this same conversation for three years now and he’s always brought up his grades by the end of the year. I have to admit this is true. He reasons that the final grade is what appears on his transcript – that’s what matters.

“I’m a good guy, Mom. I don’t drink or smoke or cheat. I take care of the things I’m supposed to take care of.”

He looks exasperated, and torn between anger and hurt as he looks down at me. Then suddenly I’m looking down at him: he’s three years old, his floppy cornsilk hair flecked with pale blue toothpaste, his pudgy hands covered with toothpaste, too. He and a playmate have finger-painted the bathroom walls with Crest.

“Paulie – how could you? What were you thinking? Look at this mess!”

It’s the first time I’ve ever really scolded him. His lower lip trembles. Large tears spill from his wide blue eyes. He stamps a foot; toothpaste splatters across the floor.

“Pauwie nice boy!” he shouts at me.

I don’t remember if I did the right thing back then with two toothpaste-covered three-year-olds. I probably didn’t.  I remember being angry, and resentful that I had to clean up yet another mess in yet another room when other messes, other rooms waited.

But I know what to do in front of my tall son. I smile. I feel the tension leave my shoulders. I reach up – way up – to squeeze his shoulder.

“You are a good guy, Paulie. I’m lucky to be your mom. And you go on being a good guy in your own way, B minuses and C’s included. I wouldn’t trade you for anyone else. You remind me of that every once in a while if I forget, okay?”

“Okay, Mom.” He smiles down at me.

My children rarely learned what I thought I was teaching them. Instead, they came away from my careful attention knowing only, and surely, that the way they see the world is right. Thank god for that. It took me far longer than it should have to figure out that there are really only two things worth hoping my kids learn from living with me. First, how to take care of themselves – physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually, ethically, financially, intellectually. And secondly, how to treat other people.  If they can get those two things right, then everything else will follow.

They are grown now, the youngest in college this year, and the rest, self-supporting young adults. They know how to take care of themselves, and how to treat others. I wish I had realized sooner that staying out of their way and allowing them to become the people they were going to become anyway would have been simpler, happier, for all of us. My children did not need nearly as much from me as I so willingly and earnestly gave them.  They needed only my unconditional love, and the freedom to step confidently away from that.

I’m not the first to learn more about how to be a better human being from my children than I did from my parents. And I’ve learned the most from Paul, the child least like me. Things have a way of working out for Paul. Or maybe it’s just that he’s willing to be reasonably happy with the way things go.

 

A few weeks after the semester grade discussion, we had a snow day, a rarity in Minnesota, where a foot of snow is taken in stride. I let the kids sleep in as long as they wanted to. Paul had been up very late the night before to begin and end a paper on Jane Eyre. He’d done well on an earlier Jane Eyre essay but bombed the multiple-choice test. His extraordinary English teacher offered to give him credit for an extra essay. Her philosophy: he knows the material, and there are no Scantron tests in real life.

So there was Paul, sleeping off a research and writing hangover while his younger sister and brother were out shoveling the front walk and romping with the dog. I made a big pan of cocoa. By the time Paul finally got up, the cocoa was cold, our drive had been plowed and so had the street and we didn’t seem quite so cut off from the rest of the world. A mixed blessing with a house full of teens. Paul wanted to call all his friends over so they could do their NCAA team picks.

“Well, how about that English paper, Paul? Now that you have all day, could it benefit from a little of your attention?”

“No, Mom. I made sure before I went to bed that it’s as good as it’s going to get.”

I realized I had to believe him. I said his friends could come over at 3:00. In the meantime, I said, you and John and Suzy enjoy the day with your wits and with the people you find yourselves with. No electronics, no TV.  He headed to the kitchen to reheat the cocoa and get some breakfast. Half an hour later I found him in the basement, TV clicker in hand. I turned off the TV.

“Buster, you’ve lost your twenty dollar allowance this month. If you plug yourself into electronics again today, your friends can’t come over. Go outside. Bake some cookies. Play a game with your brother.”

He slowly pulled his long body off the couch. “Well, I guess I could shovel for Ms. Myers,” he mumbled.

Paul earned ten dollars each time he shoveled the long flight of steps at our neighbor’s house, a task he usually had to perform very early in the morning before school. It was the only time all winter that he wore a coat and boots. So he trudged across the street with our shovel.

 

He was back thirty minutes later, a little sweaty. Johnny followed him inside, pulling on his sleeve.

“She gave you twenty this time? Sweet!” said John.

“Yeah,” said Paul, putting the twenty-dollar bill in his wallet and grinning at me.

 

Of course, Paul didn’t look at this the way I did. I wanted to tell him that if he’d followed the rules, he’d have forty dollars. And he wouldn’t have had to work very hard for half of it. But he was happier with the twenty he worked hard to earn. The other twenty? He spent it doing what he wanted to do. Plus there was always the chance I wouldn’t catch him in front of the TV. Paul’s grin told me he regarded Ms. Myers’ bonus as divine providence. He left the house minus twenty dollars and returned with that twenty dollars restored through his own hard work. Who needs to get ahead when staying even feels just as good?

In the years since, our family has fallen apart and been put back together again, in a different format.  My children kept their equilibrium only because I gave them, and myself, enough room to wobble. I’ve learned that allowances aren’t necessary once they can earn their own money, and that grades earned in high school are not a reliable predictor of success in adulthood, and are no help at all in discerning character.  I’ve learned that video games and television don’t kill as many brain cells as I’d feared. I’ve learned that it’s essential to make time for NCAA picks, and probably not essential to look again at a completed task when I already know I’ve done the best I’m able, or willing, to do.  I hope I will laugh with toothpaste-covered grandchildren, and I hope I will never ask them about their grades.  I’ve learned that keeping my balance doesn’t always look graceful; that it can, in fact, be completely graceless.

If I am honest, I will admit that my children succeed as much in spite of me as because of me. They are beloved exactly as they are. In the balancing act that parenthood has always been, I wish I had seen sooner that that’s enough.

2007, rev. 1/11, 1/12

New England One

I work part-time at IKEA for health insurance for myself and my three college kids. Gotta love Swedish socialism — co-workers who work at least 12 hours per week qualify for reduced premiums on a really good plan. This tends to attract a fair number of artists, writers, and other freelancers, so the people who work there are interesting, and fun to be around. So are the customers. Usually. The store is across from Mall of America, so we get a fair number of people who wander around the showroom because it’s another form of entertainment after they’ve done the rounds of the shops, restaurants and bars at the Mall.

Sunday afternoon, late, I was cleaning up some paperwork at a service desk when I smelled cigarette-smoke-soaked winter clothing. A woman’s voice said to my back, “Look up a bed called New England One, will ya?”

Now, if you know anything at all about IKEA, you know that EVERY product has a Swedish, or Swedish-sounding, name. Dinera: stoneware plates and bowls. Effektiv: home office. Godmorgon: bathroom sinks, accessories. Etc. I was pretty sure IKEA doesn’t carry a bed called “New England One.”

I turned to the customer, said, “How sure are you about the name?”

I saw a woman about my age wearing a Baltimore Ravens jacket. She was swaying, her eyes were glassy, and underlying the cigarette aroma was the sweetish odor of someone who’s been consuming adult beverages for a good part of the day.

“My daughter wantsh a bed called New England One.”

I know enough about alcohol-impaired people to realize I wasn’t going to get anywhere with her if I tried a rational explanation of IKEA product names. I looked for the aforementioned daughter, or some accompanying responsible adult who might come collect her. A young woman broke off from a small crowd gathered in front of the big-screen TV in one of the sample living rooms. As on most weekends, some enterprising customer had turned off the loop of IKEA ads and tuned in a football game.

The young woman approached us, tugged at the older woman’s sleeve. “Mom, that’s not the name of the bed. I was trying to tell you that the Patriots won the game.”

“Oh.” The Ravens fan tried to focus on her daughter, then on me. She moved to lay a hand on my shoulder, and missed, started to fall. Her daughter caught her, set her upright.

“You’ll have to excooshe me. I’m really drunk.”

The daughter steered her away, kept apologizing to me, spoke kindly to her mother. “Come on, Mom, I know where the bedroom department is.”

And just like that, in an encounter that took about 45 seconds, I was back at a place in my family’s life that I’ve worked hard to leave behind. None of my kids felt they had to be responsible for their dad’s drinking. But I did, for a time. I minimized it, and covered it up, accounted for it in any number of ways without calling it what it was: a disease, and a person so incapacitated by it that he kept choosing to consume the very thing that was making him, and our family, sicker. My children and I learned ways of coping with an adult who was far less responsible than he could have been.

For two days now, I’ve been thinking of that woman, and of what she said to me as her daughter led her away. “You’ll have to excooshe me. I’m really drunk.”

You’ll have to excuse me…

No. I don’t have to.

 

Poems Come with Water

Poems Come with Water

Poems come with water.
Sighing against my ankles at the edge
of the lake
brushing over my ears where water rushes or trickles
at the dam.
In the rain
especially during an evening thunderstorm
watching from the porch.
In the bottom of the canoe pushing through windwaves
with two spiders. Once, at a pond where strings of frog’s eggs
undulated over passing fish. The poem was about a blue and white
china bowl.
Sometimes, alone at the kitchen sink
wringing a rag in soapy water
Words flow, tumble, pool,
syllables connect, commas appear and the poem
is hung on the line to dry.

9/05, rev. 10/11

April 27, 2003

April 27, 2003
Day 46, 5 days to Mission Accomplished

Dinnertime, twilight
at the end of the first balmy weekend.
John is nowhere to be found.

She finds his scooter in the road
at the bottom of the hill,
broken, blood on the pavement.

John is on his bed
white-faced, scratched and bloody,
an extra elbow in his left arm.

At Children’s
there are other families
whose kids have been injured by these first summery days.
John is given morphine. Everyone relaxes.

She thinks, why this?
He was outside all weekend
riding his bike, playing ball,
climbing trees, helping with yard work.
Speed, velocity, blunt force, sharp objects,
all the dangerous things.
He’ll do those things again
of course, in a matter of weeks.
But no scooter. No longer the scooter.

Sometime during surgery, around two a.m.
she remembers Iraq.
A mother and father sitting with their boy
white-faced and shocky
their options few
for reasons which must seem
wholly inadequate.
How is it, she wonders,
that they are sitting there
while we are sitting here
in the parents’ lounge at Children’s
drinking coffee from paper cups?

11/06, rev. 1/12

 

All good stories end badly

“All good stories, fact or fiction, end badly. We write to find out how to live before the bad ending happens.”

I’ve been reading Roger Rosenblatt’s new book on a semester teaching at Stony Brook, Unless It Moves the Human Heart (HarperCollins, 2011), and I keep returning to this passage. Good stories do end badly, but so far I’ve only thought about this in terms of mid-life dating.

 

 

From Mom

From Mom
– for Caroline, Paul, Suzanne and John

After
the soccer ball is put away at the back of the closet
and doesn’t move for weeks
and the dog has chewed all of the baseballs, and on the grass
are only dandelions,
and the garden grows untrampled;
when voices speak gently to each other, not straining to be heard
above the racket of electronics or sibling rivalry or just plain rudeness;

after you trade your backpack for a laptop or a portfolio
or (dare I hope?) a bigger pack for your travels,
when the driving manual is at the bottom of the glove compartment
under maps of places you’ve driven yourself
and all the paraphernalia I trip over bringing home the groceries –
shoes, skates, skis – have moved on with you

I hope you’ll know
our blessings come from what we contribute
and not from what we acquire.

I hope you’ll see a sky over you always
and know the love of God is eternal.

I wish for you a lifetime of travel
out of yourself
the chance to meet people and places and ideas
you don’t understand.

I hope you’ll know
that we are all human
first.
Every other label comes after this one
and means less.

I hope you’ll come back as often as you can
to what you found growing up
together, here, with us.

2002, 2004, 2007, 2011, 1/2012

 

 

 

 

 

In Class, Before and After the I-35 Bridge Collapse

In Class, Before and After the I-35 Bridge Collapse

This is the question someone asks.
This is the idea one wonders about. This is the idea another is sure of.
“An artist’s only obligation is to offend,” says an artist.
Tell the truth with love, we’re told. Tell the truth but tell it slant, another advises.

These are the constraints, boundaries, borders, edges, rims, margins, brinks, hems, limits, traditions, cultures, customs, laws we bump against, challenge, cross, shatter, test, provoke, dare, threaten, defy, dispute.

These are the circles around inspiration, interpretation, plagiarism. We drew them carefully with wobbly lines from holding the crayon too tightly, or not tightly enough.

Is this a Venn diagram?

Later:
This is the bridge that collapsed. These are the people who died.
This is the situation which renders such questions moot. Or does it?

8/1/07, rev. 1/11/12