D.L. Mayfield

living in the upside-down kingdom

39.

(a verbatim conversation from earlier today with a toddler)

i want a tattoo.

you can have a tattoo when you are older, when you are 18 years old.

i want a tattoo TODAY.

do you want a tattoo like mommy does? of the tree of life on her arm?

NO. i want a Star Wars tattoo.

that’s why they don’t let 3 year olds get tattoos.

i want a darth maul tattoo. i want his face. would that be a good tattoo?

i don’t think so. i don’t think anybody wants to look at his scary face all the time.

i think he was mean when he was a baby.

you do?

i think darth maul was a mean baby. i think he punched the other babies when he was a baby.

laughter

MOM.

sorry sorry i know it’s not funny.

no it is funny. i think it will be a really good tattoo.

38.

today while we were out and about i realized my older child was looking rather bedraggled, just like she likes it. she was wearing sweatpants tucked into cowboy pants, an oversized coca-cola bear t-shirt on, her hair looking halfway between curly and straight. “wow, that’s quite an outfit” i said to her. “yeah, isn’t it zany?” she said matter-of-factly. later, she sat on our couch in front of the windows, our cat looking over her shoulder. she is reading the first book in the Baby Sitters Club series, the books i used to adore. looking at her i had such a strange sensation. I was looking at me, but I wasn’t. she is fiercer, louder, more anxious and angry, able to communicate, wildly intelligent. but i was there too—the round face, eyes lost in a book, cat close by, that thick hair wild. we are so similar and so different, so close and yet always yearning for more connection.

36.

Yesterday I saw a large dead rat on the side of the road as we walked to school. For a moment I was slightly pleased, wondering if that was the rat that ate and killed my tiny little cherry tree and my raspberry starts from last year. I steered my kids to the other side of the road, but when we walked back in the afternoon I forgot. In front of us were third and fourth grade boys, a pack of them walking home from school. They noticed the huge rat, splayed out face down. I prayed, quickly: Lord, let them leave it alone, please God please. But they didn’t. They picked up rocks and threw them at the rat as hard as they could, they kicked it, they squealed with delight every time they hit it. My daughter watched silently.

Today some kids threw cherry tomatoes in front of our house, not out of malice I’m sure, they just didn’t expect or like the tart taste so now they are a squashed confetti of bursts of tomato in front of our mailbox. I am surprised that my favorite bush in our yard is blooming, it’s fragrant white blossoms so fragile and gone in an instant. The tree in our next door neighbors yard also burst into pink flowers and is weeping them onto our charcoal grill. I am surprised by all of this because it is so rainy, it is so wet and miserable outside and yet spring is coming. I am surprised and I am annoyed. I have waited for these flowers and now I can hardly enjoy them, rushing back and forth with my hood up and umbrella out.

Today we walked the same way to school we always do, the rat still there. And I realized it wasn’t a dead rat after all, just a squirrel with a very bedraggled tail. I still take note of these things, of the creator God whose creations eat raspberry starts and throw stones at sad dead things. Surprise doesn’t always mean delight, but it still means we are paying attention.

34.

Today for the first time in over a decade i took a nap when i wasn’t sick. my brain is normally hyper-vigilant, always on guard (thank you, anxiety) but today I laid down for a moment while my son was sleeping and I woke up over an hour later, to the sound of rain and the gray sky outside my bedroom window. I enjoyed it for one full minute before I realized I needed to get up, wake up my child, get him a snack, go pick up my other child at school, then come home and finish the thousands of tasks I needed to do.

one minute. I took one minute to revel in the sleepy unconsciousness of having no responsibilities and no worries. one minute to listen to the rain in the middle of the day, and to only think about that. it was one minute of quite, groggy delight. one minute of being the child where i forgot who i was and who i needed to take care of.

32.

Today I went to visit and pick up our friend who stays with us once a month—an older teenager who has survived more than I could ever imagine, and who still maintains such a . . . teenagerness about them. She got a job and was working and I went to visit her and embarrass her like a true friend would but instead she turned around and broke into a huge smile and gave me a bear hug. The girl who very reluctantly answers my questions, who slowly peels the earbuds out of her ears at the table when I ask her to, the girl who is always rolling her eyes and making fun of me. She hugged me, right in the middle of the store where she is working right now, trying to save up for whatever this next season of her life will look like. I held up a 50% off bag of dahlia bulbs I was going to buy, showing off my bounty. “Why are you buying those?” she asked me. “You’ll just kill them like you have killed all of your other plants.” I just smiled, and together we walked out to my car in the rain. Sometimes it feels like my whole life is about trying to accept the gift of right of being honest with ourselves and each other, of accepting the reality of actually being in relationship with people who are very different from us. Of accepting the truth from a teenager whose keen eyes see everything, including the wilting plants scattered around our tired and lovely house.

29.

today i had a crown put on one of my teeth. it is like a tiny solid gold blanket, destined to keep my tooth safe and warm and cavity free for a good long while. my dentist polished it to a high shine, she sawed off little tiny specks of it to make sure it fit perfectly.

while she worked away on making the gold perfect i thought about a documentary i watched years ago, called The Finger of God, about miracles that have taken place at a church/organization called Bethel in northern california. years ago i watched that documentary and felt that same weird twist in my guts i always got when the charismatic was brought up: i want to believe, but i don’t want to be burdened anymore by the sorrow of unanswered miracles.

people in the documentary talked about gold dust falling on the pages of open bibles, of silver teeth being suddenly turned to gold. i thought about this while i was in the dentist chair, waiting for my own expensive miracle to be placed in my mouth. the finger of God is so mysterious to me, and i get why people want to chase it, understand it, control it. i remember what a mentor told me when i tired to process the documentary, how confusing i found the faith of people who believe God is present but that it all depends on our faith or our goodness, that everything really is transactional. my mentor just shrugged her shoulders when i mentioned the gold dust and the gold teeth, marveling at the bizarreness. “God is weird” she said, as nonchalantly as if she was describing the weather, and i never forgot that. God is so very weird, and this is a truth i need to clutch close to me especially when I could use a good strong deity to crush all my foes and to solve all my problems.

my dentist hummed along to the radio station (spirit in the sky, if you can believe it, i kid you not) and while she was placing the gold blanket on my tooth, she confided in me that she made her husband’s wedding ring out of old crowns her patients had given her. i couldn’t smile, but inside i felt delighted, surprised by loving weirdness yet again. satisfied, my dentist gave me the mirror to see her handiwork. there it gleamed, a miracle i payed for dearly, yet still could never have earned with my own two hands.

28.

the itch is strong today to pour out all the bad news today, but that’s not what this is about.

instead i will tell you that I went on a walk in my neighborhood this evening, and it was warm and muggy and spring-like, my hair softly frizzing and buds slowly forming. my daughter told me how good horses smell which reminded me intensely of what it is like to be eight years old and in love with and anxious about the world. i saw the old man with the white beard slowly strolling by in his electric wheelchair. i remembered how earlier in the day my son had showed me a lego contraption he had made, “kylo ren’s puppy machine.” “oh, does it make puppies? that’s amazing” I had said. “no, it’s not amazing” he had told me, extremely serious. “because they are monster puppies.”

i laughed just at that memory, and then while walking past a house i smelled melting votive candles so strongly i did a double-take just to make sure we weren’t actually in a cathedral, or that the house wasn’t burning down. i saw nothing, heard nothing; i just smelt the wax and the wick, i was transported to places that reminded my of prayer.

as i walked back to my house i tried to remember this. i continued to smell candles the whole way, certain there was something wrong in my brain. the whole earth is the lord’s, even the sad and the annoying and the broken parts. and always, especially, the amazing parts.

26.

today was a tie between:

1).

the van i saw stopped on the edge of the road, which made me fear there was something wrong, an accident. but the driver was outside of the van, holding up his cellphone to the sky. above him the largest bald eagle in the world swooped and glided on a terribly otherwise boring stretch of industrial road. i gasped because it was so beautiful and my children craned their necks to see but they couldn’t. i told my husband “that eagle has the largest wingspan i have ever seen.” my son in the backseat took a slip of a broken balloon and blew noisily into it, insisting he could make a bigger wingspan with a torn piece of plastic and his own sheer will. “isn’t it ginormous?” he said, holding up the broken balloon, and we all laughed.

2).

walking to the park after a busy day of friends and bake sales and parking lot carnivals. our neighbors across the street are one big family who bought two houses next to each other. today they were working on cars, pleasantly playing very loud music, most of it with loud bass lines and spanish lyrics. but when we were around the corner and i was marveling at yet another tree (because i am an old woman now and this is what i do) suddenly our neighbors were blasting “baby shark” and my children were shaking what the good lord gave them. later at the park an old russian grandma watched her two grandsons play and another family brought a bbq and were grilling up something delicious and teenagers had swarmed around the tiny skatepark and my daughter kept complaining that she smelled skunks everywhere (reader: it was not skunks she smelled but we have not told her about marijuana yet because she would be unbelievably self-righteous about it) and the sun was shining and i couldn’t believe that i get to live here.

i wonder if the more i notice the more i will be delighted. it seems like it is working out that way.

25.

today i delighted in skipping out on the last day of a fancy writing conference and instead worked in my terrible little garden and took my beautiful and irritable children to a park and napped with my husband and read a fascinating essay or two.

driving back from a dinner with very interesting and talented people (who were in town for the conference) i saw mt. hood and gasped aloud. i drive this stretch of freeway constantly, out to my neighborhood in the sticks of the city. and the mountain always surprises. freeways are so gray and dull and monotonous, which is why the mountain looming above it all always shocks me. tonight it was pale pink, glowing in the setting sun, the color of the cherry blossoms that are now in full bloom everywhere in portland. it delighted me but also filled me with that strangled sense of despair. the same sense i get when i’m sitting in an apartment of my refugee friends, of the quiet moments we have together. i feel the same way around them as i feel around mountains; they are the things i know i cannot ever fully capture with my phone, so i never even try. i wish you could see it, though. i wish everyone could see it all.

i think that’s why i write. i wish everyone could experience the despair and the delight of my life. i know this is an impossibility, but i think i will keep trying all the same, every once and awhile.

24.

yesterday i was at a big and fancy writing conference called the AWP. i will be there today and tomorrow as well. I felt awkward and overwhelmed, like i expected. what i didn’t expect were the synapses to begin firing away in my brain.

people sometimes talk to me about writing. i came to it later in life, as an extension of my missionary heart. i wanted to use my writing to convert people to my way of seeing this world it can be interesting and rewarding but mostly exhausting. i still so often think it is my job to change and even to save people. but real writers remind me the only job is to connect.

yesterday i listened to people talk and read about the weirdest and most beautiful things and the common thread is that a real writer is always making connections. between snippets of dialogue and glimpses of bald eagles and a terrible tragedy in the news. in one session i was daydreaming, and all of the sudden i had a new essay forming in my mind, a series of experiences that suddenly connected together when before they had just been troublesome and confusing and exciting memories. i started writing again, yesterday. the Creator God is the ultimate connector, the meaning maker; it is my job to try and pay attention as best as i can, and wait for the stories to start to make the tiniest bit of sense.

21.

(I know I am missing some days, I’m sorry! Life just comes at you fast sometimes).

I went to a bakery today to do some writing. I always feel awkward in restaurants that aren’t in my neighborhood. I am afraid of sticking out, and I am also afraid of being too comfortable in gentrified spaces. But this place was lovely, I found a tiny little stool and bench table right in the window, right in the sunshine. The waitress bustled around and tried to make me feel comfortable. She recommended the pineapple coffee cake and a cup of coffee, so I got it. She added a dollop of whipped cream so beautiful I wanted to cry. I felt very taken care of, my coffee cup never empty.

As I was leaving and paying my bill she asked me what I was writing. I didn’t know what to say. I was writing an essay about how I can’t speak in tongues but have spent my entire life wanting to—not exactly the kind of essay I imagine anyone wanting to read or to understand. Instead I told her that I normally write for publications and editors and readers but today I wrote an essay just for me. She smiled at me in a rather blank sort of way, like she was trying to understand. She told me to come back on Thursdays, because that’s when they have house made cheesecake.

I went out into the spring air and my favorite trees are bursting forth—Jane Magnolia trees. I wrote something just for myself that took 16 years to mature, 16 years of thinking about and coming to a realization that makes me just the tiniest bit more in awe of God and how God works in the world. Maybe it was the three cups of coffee, maybe it was the pleasure of writing down the truth. Or maybe it was just spring. Who knows, but today I received it for the gift that it is.

18.

Today at a conference for literacy tutors i went to a panel of English language learners who all shared their stories with us. The moderator was a woman who has lived in the US for 35 years, she is an educator originally from Iran. Someone asked the panel what surprised them the most about America. People said the health insurance system. How nobody walked anywhere. How nice people were, opening doors for other people. The moderator was thoughtful. She said when she first moved here she didn’t go shopping for clothes or shoes for two years. For two years she just wore what she had. Because in Iran you go shopping with other women—your sisters and cousins and friends. You don’t buy something without all of your women with you, telling you it looks good on you, that it suits you. This woman didn’t have that here in America, so she didn’t go shopping. One day she found herself in a large department store, crying because she was remembering how shopping used to be. A saleswoman came up and asked her if she could help her. This woman replied that she didn’t know how to buy anything alone. So the saleswoman helped her, and she ended up buying a pair of shoes. She ended up learning how to begin, again.

It is so hard to leave your country and everything that comes with it. The saleswoman, the people opening doors for others, all of the (mostly) gray-haired ESOL tutors at the conference today; today I was surprised by the little and big ways Americans have the capacity to welcome. May it increase and abound with every passing day, amen.

16.

God is a bald man wandering the hallways of the memory care facility on the outskirts of Portland Oregon, wearing an accordian. God loves to play the songs from The Sound of Music, especially the one about the lonely goatherd. God has wide eyes and a penchant for the oldies, he puffs out his chest and wanders into the rooms and hallways and lobbies, playing songs that bring memories to the ones who have so few left. God knows how to make people who are both very old and very young crack a smile. God knows how to yodel. God invented it, is the strange thing. Anyone who loves accordions and yodelling and people so close to the end of their lives must be good. That’s what I am thinking today, anyways.

14.

today all sorts of bad things happened (i need another root canal, an hour long crying jag from a toddler over the wrong amount of milk in his cereal, a meeting at the school that did not go how i had wanted it). i felt like crying for maybe five minutes, and then i didn’t. all of this is survivable, none of it is exactly my fault nor can i fix any of it with my own two hands. today i was surprised by this stubborn growth. i am getting better at failing, because i am getting better at thinking of myself less.

13.

today i was going to write a long and dramatic instagram post and it was going to hopefully end up being inspiring and hopeful or something like that. but before i could type out all the words on my little phone my son crawled up in my lap and inserted himself right into my space. he stared into my eyes, inches away. pretend i am a donkey and i am chewing gum really, really slowly he said, deadly serious. i tried not to laugh but it was difficult. i did try and pretend he was a little donkey with a little piece of gum. and i put away my phone, which is probably really all that he wanted. and i took it as a sign to not post on instagram for the day. i took it as a sign that God thinks all of the things i post on social media are bizarre and adorable. i took it as a sign to take that desire to connect with people and focus it on the one in front of me, cupping my chin in his grubby little hand.

11.

my grandma lost her words a few years ago. the years before that they were more and more jumbled every time we talked. we had been a part for many years but her and my grandfather moved up two years ago, very close to me, so i have seen her more and more.

it is hard to be around someone who can’t talk, who can’t communicate, but who you love. i remember her being a very strong and capable woman, always bustling about, never sitting down to eat herself but constantly serving everyone else. she fell recently and now she can’t get out of bed. she is in a place where there are other people with dementia, where she is surrounded by people who can’t remember who they are or what they are doing.

it is a hard place to visit. i am not very good at knowing what to do in the face of suffering, like so many. but my Muslim friend and neighbor taught me what to do with my grandma. My neighbor, Maryan, visited my grandma the other day with me and my children and my mother. Maryan had never met my grandma but I had talked about her often. i was afraid of what Maryan would think of us, would think of Americans who sent their loved ones off to be cared for by strangers. but she didn’t want to discuss any of that. when we got to the care facility Maryan went straight for my grandmother and clasped her hands in her own. she kissed her, looked in her eyes, and told her over and over again: I love you, i love you. my grandmother wouldn’t let go, my friend was her new friend, and the entire visit Maryan and my grandmother were a little enclave of mutual adoration. i told Maryan this should be her job, but she told me she couldn’t do it, that she would cry all the time. that is why you would be so good at it, i said.

now, when i visit my grandmother, i do what my friend taught me. Maryan taught me to look for the softest, cleanest bathroom and to put it around my grandmother’s shoulders, which are always too cold. she taught me to always hold my grandmother’s hand, to always look her in the eye. to give her as many kisses as she wants, to stroke her hair, to tell her how much i love her. i used to feel so paralyzed by my failure to be able to fix anything about this situation: my grandmother, her pain, her lack of ability to speak, the other residents lost in their own worlds of forgotten memories. but Maryan taught me that fixing the pain isn’t what we are called to do. all we can do is remind people of how loved and valuable they are in any way that we can. Maryan told me that when people are very old they are like little children. and like little children we are to love them, to look into their eyes and tell them they are safe and known and loved. we cannot fix anything. but we can connect, and that seems to me to be the reason we were put here on this terrible, wonderful earth.

8.

today my son was asking me to spell words while i tried to finish a book i was reading. i rarely am able to pull this off, but i try. he asked me to spell “i love you” so i did, but he told me it had too many letters. then he asked me how to spell “poop” and he thought that had the perfect amount. i was engrossed in the end of my novel, a modern day adaptation of pride and prejudice set in brooklyn in the throes of gentrification and the main family had just gotten displaced due to rising rents. i lost track of time and suddenly i looked up and my three year old son had a pen in his hand. “P-O-O-P” he whispered to himself in intense concentration, trying to mark everything he loved in the house with the new word he had just learned. when i finally stopped laughing, i gave him a bath because he had gotten marker all over his nose. when you love somebody, you love what they adore. i think i have a new favorite word. i think a good day is one where our idea of what love is grows just the tiniest bit larger, and sillier, than it was the day before.

6.

tonight i made pizzas from scratch, all of it. i even made my own sauce because i had no jars in the pantry but several overripe tomatoes lolling around, along with onions and garlic. i could not go to the store because one of my children woke up sick today, but they managed to throw up in a place that was not on me. this is a rarity in these parts. that is not the blessing i am going to write about for today, however, although it could have been.

tonight when i was making pizzas, forced to do everything the all-natural way, my sick child asked me to play a song she is currently obsessed with, the song Chicago by Sufjan Stevens. my husband introduced her to it, and she refers to it as their song and their album. i huffily pointed out that i was the one who introduced her father to the artist, and to that very song. tonight she sang along loudly and off-key to the lyrics that meant nothing to her but she loved them all the same. she thanked me dreamily for sharing it. we played the song again, and then the entire album. i stood in my kitchen and listened to music that meant so very much to me when i was younger and fresher and moved through the world as if i was in a cloud. was i happy or was i self-absorbed or was i impossibly sheltered? i am not quite sure.

i was surprised by how happy the music made me feel. not just the song Chicago, but all the songs on that album. i remembered seeing it performed in concert, before i had ever even met the man who would become my husband, who would give me these two beautiful children. usually nostalgia makes me ache for a better time, a time when i could have done more to save the world. but these songs just felt beautiful, and like they connected me to a version of myself that was worth loving, even though so much of my life and mindset now strikes me as decidedly off-key.

i stayed at home all day today. my life is often constrained by love, by sickness, by anxiety, by children, by neighbors. and still we make do with what we can. we remember who we are as best as we are able. we re-experience a song, beloved for many years, now by many members of the same family. and every once in awhile, we learn the happy surprise of accepting right where we are as being the exact place we want to be.

4.

today we went to a battle of the books competition, a contest organized by librarians. i was a helper, a volunteer. it was the first time in many years a team from our elementary school went. my third grade daughter read many good books and her teammates and her eagerly answered questions, competing against other schools. in one of the rounds the moderator was a formidable woman, the type of librarian you know will take no guff but will always help you get your right answer. this woman took away points when kids interrupted, she was severe, and i felt shushed in my very core. but i was also transfixed; there is something so intoxicating about watching someone do what they were born to do. to sit at a table in the midst of a classroom in an elementary school on a saturday morning, to read meticulously detailed questions about big thick books to children and make sure they don’t break a single, solitary rule. her fierce quiet stern joy was amazing to behold. afterwards i thanked her, and she was a different person. this is my favorite thing ever, she said. it’s like a sports competition for nerds! and she threw up her hands in the air. and i saw myself, and my daughter, in this woman’s delight at getting to be fully herself. even if it’s only one day a year, it means something. that is what i am trying to remember here. this all means something.

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