Yesterday morning, when the Supreme Court announced their ruling on same-sex marriage, I was driving to the airport with my wife. Kellie has been my wife for twelve years if you’re going by our personal vows, but only two years if you’re going by the state’s laws. If I had thought to turn on NPR, I probably would have heard the news, but instead I just stared out the window and commented on the lack of traffic.
Perhaps if I had listened closely at the airport I would have caught wind of this big story, but I was just focused on how hot I was and cranky, waiting in the 40-minute TSA line.
And once Kellie and I arrived in California, I didn’t plug in. We sat on the beach and stared at the water, enjoying the quiet. In those moments, I appreciated my distance from the world.
And so I was surprised when, at 9 pm, after settling into a cabin at the end of a winding road, I finally plugged in and discovered that nearly all of the profile pictures in my Facebook feed were covered in rainbows. “Something big happened,” I announced to Kellie who sat in the next room, reading. I had known the Supreme Court decision was imminent, but hadn’t dared hope for the best-case scenario.
“What?” she asked.
I opened a link to a story that explained the significance of the supreme court decision: all fifty states must now recognize same-sex marriages.
“What?” Kellie asked me again, and I opened my mouth to answer her, and tried for a while, but nothing came out. I could not speak because I was sobbing.
Kellie rose from the couch to come find me. I worried it looked like I had just encountered horrible news, that I had just learned of a friend’s sudden death, but still I couldn’t speak. “Oh my god,” I finally whispered. “It’s over.”
I thought that Kellie and I were done getting married, that not much could touch me ever since the repeal of DOMA, but my life and my heart felt bigger knowing that the whole country had turned green.
Kellie stood behind me, reading the news on my screen, and when we finished we clicked through the slide show. Our mirth could not be contained—we cackled and sighed until we came to the last photo: the White House lit in rainbow. “Fucking Obama!” I cried out, and I know it sounds like I was cursing him, but really it was the opposite. What gall, what spunk, to turn a Supreme Court decision into a full-on presidential party. Fucking Obama. Because it is one thing to soberly announce that the country will now acknowledge our right to marry, and it is another thing entirely to thumb your nose at the haters and blast the White House with color.
Do you know that feeling of being overtaken by a wave? One moment you’re happily body surfing, watching with curiosity as a wave takes shape and approaches, and the next moment—wham!—you’re underwater, being dragged across the sand by the current. You’re not in any real danger—the water is about two feet deep—but you are sore, and also: embarrassed. You stand up and look around to see if anybody saw that. You wade a little deeper and try to see if it’s possible to discreetly tug at your bathing suit and rinse some of the sand from your craw.
Dear Reader, that’s exactly what the second half of April has felt like. Here’s my best attempt to break it down.
I caught a cold and tried to ignore it. We had a lot going on (see #2) and so I told myself this illness would take care of itself. I continued to eat cheese, drink wine, to miss hours of sleep, to live as if I were feeling fine. And when, after a full week of this, the cold turned into asthma and irrepressible coughing, I just bumped up the dose on my inhalers, and waited for the meds to kick in. But that didn’t work either. Gradually, over the course of the second week, my asthma got worse, not better. I woke every morning coughing and gasping for air. The inhalers took the edge off, but they didn’t pull me out of illness. It turned out I needed a doctor, and Prednisone, and rest.
Kellie and I found a spacious mid-century house priced at the very upper edge of our price range. We’ve been on the fence about buying a house for years. We both want more space—we want things like a big room where the kids can mess everything up and be crazy loud and we can close the door—but the thought of a bigger mortgage makes us both tremble in our boots a little bit. We kept making decisions and then doubting those decisions; we took turns staying up all night; I spent an hour on the phone with a mortgage broker, and hours at the kitchen table with a pen and scrap paper and a calculator. Kellie and I kept calling each other at random moments during the workday to re-discuss the finer points until finally we decided to GOFOR IT!—and then, once again, we second-guessed ourselves. After hours of further discussion, we made an offer, and were amazed at how peaceful we finally felt. We went to sleep imagining our family spreading out in a house with two floors.
And then the next day we learned that we’d been outbid.
I had an essay go live that I was excited to share with the world—and within an hour of its release, I just wanted to hide beneath my covers. The essay was about the exhaustive decision-making process I went through with Kellie when deciding to have our first child. (See similar decision-making process as represented in #2 above. This is how we roll.) For a couple to negotiate different views on having kids struck me as a normal phenomenon, and it just plain never occurred to me that someone would read about that experience and judge me.
But twenty minutes after my essay went live, a commenter accused me of being emotionally abusive to Kellie, of coercing her into having a child. A whole thread of comments followed debating my character—was I totally reprehensible, or just a little bit manipulative? This was the real sneaker wave of April. I hadn’t predicted this reaction, nor could I have anticipated how totally raw and exposed a bunch of online commenters would make me feel.
To make things worse, the website where the essay appeared was set up to email me a notification every time someone commented. Throughout the day, I’d check my email and my heart would race each time I saw a comment notification. I held my breath and clicked on it, wondering what awful conclusions the most recent readers had drawn about me. It felt kind of like this:
Two days after the comments fiasco unfolded, my car started rattling. It began a half a block away from my house as I was preparing to drop off my kids and continue on to work. Though the rattling was undeniable, I tried for a moment to pretend it wasn’t happening. I asked myself if maybe I could possibly just keep driving to work?
The answer was no. Within the next half block, the rattling got progressively worse, and I parked on the side of the road to investigate. Was my car about to explode? Or maybe it was something simple—was my muffler dragging on the ground? No, but my front right tire was completely flat.
Kellie had forgotten her cell phone that day, so I was on my own. I left the car where I parked it and walked the kids a mile to the bus terminal downtown. This involved alternately corralling Stump and carrying him against his will.
Later that evening, Kellie replaced the flat tire and as she lowered the body of the car back down over the brand new wheel, it slowly became clear to us that the spare was flat too. I filled it with my bike pump and drove it directly to Les Schwab—which had closed. I left it to sit and deflate overnight.
When I came home the next day from picking up my car with brand new front tires, this had happened:
Actually, this one just turned out to be a cosmic joke. When Kellie came home, she fixed it in twenty minutes.
While all of this has been going on, Stump has been cultivating a superhero alter-ego. He’s reached that stage in life where he wants to be—needs to be—a superhero all of the time. He wants to wear armbands day and night, and won’t take them off for the bath. He wants to wear a cape over his t-shirt. To Stump, this isn’t about wearing a costume; he’s claiming his personal style.
In the midst of a sleepless night last week (see #2 & #3) I realized that this was exactly the way that I needed to see myself, that even though I’d hit a point where I felt tired and wounded and embarrassed and tired again, I needed to put on my armbands, put a cape on over my work clothes, cultivate my everyday superpowers, and surrender to my superlimitations. It was two in the morning at that point, and as I lay there I took stock:
Superpower: My body can heal itself.
Superlimitation: I actually have to slow down and help it.
Superpower: I am capable of radical oversharing. Lately, the more I write, the more it seems like this craft is about discovering the most revealing, vulnerable thing that I am capable of saying and then saying it.
Superlimitation: I am completely unable to control or even predict how that writing will be received.
Superpower-limitation: I’m the only one who can save me. On the morning of my flat tire, I called Kellie’s work office to tell her about the problem. “I can’t get a hold of her until the afternoon,” he co-worker explained. “That’s fine,” I told him. “I made it to work already.” “Oh, so you don’t need rescuing?” he clarified. When I got off the phone, I realized how badly I’d wanted rescuing all week. I wanted someone to make my asthma go away, to get rid of those critical commenters, to wave a magic wand and give me a new house that suited all our family needs without a mortgage. But at the end of the day, it’s just me in my sweaty human clothes lifting my fists to the sky like Superman, trying to up-up-and-away myself.
My partner Kellie keeps bees—a lot of them. Actually, she does more than keep them. She catches swarms, she cuts colonies out of walls and re-homes them into hives, and sometimes, when she gets a call about some honeybees living in a tree that the owner wants to cut down, Kellie drives on over with a chain saw, and comes home with four feet of the trunk—a ready-made beehive complete with a well-established colony.
We’ve got three of these trunk-hives on our property, and I’ve often tried to convince Kellie that she could sell one or two of them for big money—I mean, who wouldn’t want their own bee log? Of course, there’s no way to maintain the trunk-dwelling colonies. You can’t put on a bee-suit, break into the hive and see how they’re doing. You just have to let them do their thing. Then, when a colony dies, they leave behind a ready-made honey-smelling home for the next swarm that comes along.
Spring has come early in Olympia and for the last two weeks, whenever the sun comes out, Kellie’s phone starts ringing. People call because they have swarm in their yard, or they want to borrow a frame of comb, or they can’t tell if their queen is laying.
I’ve learned about bees by osmosis, from hearing Kellie on the phone and watching her suit up and go to work, but I’ve never handled the bees. Someone’s got to watch the kids, and even on the days when Kellie is capturing a swarm in our neighborhood, I have my hands full trying to keep Stump from running into the middle of the action. Over the years, my knowledge has expanded but my competence is limited.
This is why, last Friday afternoon, Kellie surprised me with her request. She had called me at work to let me know that she had a couple of swarm calls in a neighboring town and wouldn’t be home until after dinner. “When you get home will you look around the backyard?” she asked me. “One of my hives is fixing to swarm.”
“Sure,” I said. Checking is easy. I’ve come to love the thrum and excitement of a swarm as they depart their former home, followed by their steady silence once they’ve clustered on a branch. “But what do you want me to do if that happens?” I was expecting that she would explain to me where the nearest bait box was, but she had a different idea. “Catch them,” she said, like it was the simplest thing in the world.
I was as flattered by Kellie’s faith in me as I was bewildered by the suggestion that I would intuitively know how to guide a swarm of honeybees into a nuc box, and that I could do so with a toddler at my side.
As it turned out, there was no swarm that afternoon, but her suggestion haunted me through the weekend, and every so often I asked her a question to clarify what she had envisioned for me.
“So you really think I could do that?” I asked her.
And later: “You mean I wouldn’t even need a bee suit?”
And later: “I don’t get it. I would just shake the branch and the bees would magically settle in the nuc?”
“Yes,” she said, “or you can always scoop them out with your hands.”
I kept thinking about an interview I’d read with Ann Patchett many years ago about her novel The Magician’s Assistant. She explained that her impulse for writing this book came from her observation that spouses gradually acquired the skills of their partners. Over time, we take on traits of the person we’ve married. We can channel them, imitate them, become them.
I remembered this on Monday, when temperatures reached 72 degrees—swarm weather. I came home with Stump at lunchtime and put him down for a nap. The evening before, one of Kellie’s colonies had swarmed and gathered high in a fir tree, way up at the edge of our line of vision. She couldn’t catch it, but she’d been keeping an eye on the cluster, hoping the scout bees might discover one of her baited boxes. When I called her from home that afternoon, she asked me to go outside and see if they had moved.
I could no longer make out the cluster, but I could see dozens of bees darting around the same tree. “They’re going nuts up there,” I told her. “Is that the same swarm or a new one?”
“Can’t say,” she said, and instructed me to look in all the nucs to see if they had settled into one of those. I reported back that they were empty. I was disappointed. I so badly wanted to be the one keeping things under control.
Ten minutes later, as Stump still slept, I got curious and went outside again, but before I could make it to the back of the yard, I was distracted by a loud, insistent buzz. They were right outside the gate, thousands of bees darting through the light. Though I know that swarms aren’t angry, I find their motion and noise—which carries the volume of a thousand unified intentions—intimidating. I called Kellie again. “You’ve got a situation,” I told her. I cautiously opened the gate and stepped to the edge of the action. “They’re outside that log hive by the road.”
I was preparing myself to follow her instructions, to step into the role that she had imagined for me, the role where I wasn’t a bystander, but an apprentice, a fellow beekeeper. “What should I do?” I asked.
“Are they flying toward the log, or away from the log?”
“Toward it–Oh!” i said realizing that this particular log-hive had been empty for a while. Are they making a home?”
“You tell me. Are they going inside?”
“They are!” I said. I couldn’t believe it. “It’s that swarm from the tree? They’re moving in? I don’t have to do anything?”
Twenty minutes later, when Stump woke up from his nap, I took him outside to verify. The bees had settled into their new home and now just a few of them buzzed back and forth from the entrance. I was half relieved that the bees hadn’t required my assistance, half disappointed that I’d been denied my chance to rise to the occasion.
Later that same afternoon, after discovering yet another swarm in our cherry tree, I placed Stump on my hip and watched as Kellie tenderly scooped a handful of bees into the nuc box. Though dozens of annoyed bees darted past her face, the ones on her hand crawled quietly into the new home she had prepared for them. After repeating this three times, she climbed down the four-foot ladder, took off her gloves, and trusted that the rest of the colony would follow.
Now that I’ve seen how it’s done, next time, I swear, I’ll be ready.