Entrée

You can know people and not know them.

At any given moment, things can turn a corner.

I know this is true.

Last week I had a birthday. Most birthdays are ho-hum affairs. A little extra attention from the family and a close friend but otherwise, meh.

This birthday came at me like a sudden summer cloudburst, raining down shock and awe in the form of a surprise birthday party.

On a weeknight. At a friend’s house. It was festive and fancy.

There was a Pinterest page devoted to the planning and execution of it.

Seriously, this is not the status quo for me. This, along with a few other surprise developments, are the exhibits to make the case that my life has changed dramatically in the last year. I’ve engaged with the real world one hundred fold in the last year. I’ve opened myself up to any possibility. I’ve allowed vulnerability into my life and acquiesed to offers outside my comfort zone. I’ve tried to put others before myself to be part of the “village” that we all like to talk about so much.

The results stun me at times. I’m still a fawn on wobbly legs most days, making the mistake of expecting from others what they cannot give. Some days I expect too much from the universe. On those days I see how my ego is still running the show.

The other side of this is that 100 percent engagement in real life means a major drawback in the online world. And it’s not just me. I scrolled through my blogroll (I know, that’s so 2005.) and many of my favorite, longtime blogging friends have vanished. They’ve moved on, vaporized, left behind polite but vague messages, given up, or reinvented their online persona.

While I doubt I’ll close this site, I’ve certainly scaled back. That’s fine with me. I never had the big numbers. I’ve made some amazing connections and that’s just bonus material. I need a place to write and this is it. If someone, or two, comes around and likes what they see, thank you. If not, I’m OK with that, too. I’ve learned that online engagement is an enhancement, a side dish, to the entrée of life.

And last week that entrée was a bizarre tribute to me and the community that holds me up. As bizarre as it is to even write that sentence, I accept it as the new normal.

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A summer in twenty sentences

Today, after almost a year of running, I finally clocked a 10:15 mile.

My goal is to run a nine-minute mile.

When I began, it took me almost 15 minutes to run one mile.

In July I ran my first 5K obstacle race and jumped over fire.

I trained for this by running at noon on 90-degree days and logging endless hours on the treadmill.

I rode my bike for many miles under the hot sun, through raging thunderstorms, at night, drunk (once; not so proud of that) and with group of spandex-clad, clip-shoed folks, who when you know them ahead of time are nice but sometimes are a bit snooty with those of us wearing cotton and lace-ups.

My husband says, based on the number of pictures I take of it, I should just admit I’m in love with my bike.

One thing I learned this summer is that the moment you let go of something it works out just fine either way.

Another thing I learned is letting go is not easy.

I edited a 75,000-word manuscript in June and July, which killed my interest in working on the memoir this year.

Doing the right thing rarely feels good, such as when I cancelled my trip to Colorado this summer.

I’ve decided the best way to write for future use is to document every joyful, painful, frustrating, interesting thing happening now.

The plot and hook will come later, right?

I am blessed with a great community of friends and supporters.

After three-year hiatus, we finally had a serious primitive camping weekend.

I met a very big owl deep in the woods as I was gathering firewood. We had a stare down, which still gives me chills when I think about it.

I had another standoff with a porcupine, which was nowhere near as spiritual.

I did not cry at my oldest daughter’s high school commencement ceremony in June.

In August, I found my first legitimate full-length, corkscrew-crazy, gray hair poking out of my head.

Then, I cried.

 

 

 

Reflections

I scan the crowded room for a familiar face. It’s a big room, outfitted with the type of couches and chairs that swallow you whole, heavily ornamented light fixtures, and emotionally neutral paintings. At the front is the box surrounded by floral sprays on stands. Nestled between blooms and leaves are little white cards delivering personal messages. Some of the bouquets have gold and silver script letters labeling the deceased: dear father, beloved husband, dear son.

Beloved. Why is that a death word? Do we ever say that in life?

Is it the flowers or the picture collages that make it hard for me to swallow? Here before me is a Cliffs Notes pictorial of the parts of a person we will miss: the chubby cheeks lacquered in pureed yams, the diaper-clad butt and dimpled knees of babyhood; the gap-toothed smile of elementary school portraits, the sand castles and sunburns of summer days at the beach; the parade of sports team pictures and scouting banquets; the proms and weddings; the chrome-wheeled muscle car parked in mom and dad’s driveway; cheesy tourist shots; hugs and kisses, suit-and-tie days, and, oh, that dear sweet first-born child. We gather like flowers the good parts that happened before the end days, when only scraps are left. Absent are pictures of the medical clinic waiting rooms, the son and daughter crying themselves to sleep, the unhealthy habits, the bar fights, the bad tattoos, the post-chemo haze, the last days in hospice care.

We die and if we are lucky, no, strike that, luck has nothing to do with it. We are born and we die. No one knows why the bastard molester alcoholic chain smoker lives to  100 and the selfless sweetheart is hit by a bus at 22. If we live our lives well, and by that I mean we give from the heart, and give all we have, and think of others before ourselves, and let our lights shine, we will touch lives. Maybe many lives. Maybe millions. Maybe only one. When it’s our time, maybe we blow out of here on a cyclone blast so powerful it brings our survivors to their knees. Not that we want to hurt anyone. But with loss comes pain. If you do nothing in life to make anyone miss you, you miss the point of living. The goal is to love.

And that right there was last Friday’s lesson.

Out of this world is another good person who touched my life and so many others. A person I’d long forgotten until I heard the news. As I left his funeral, I remembered another service many years earlier:

This time a small room, no bigger than a vestibule, with furniture slightly more stiff than the people. When I approached the survivors, I said what we usually say at these things. They said in return, “Don’t be sorry. We’re not. She was a miserable old shrew every day of her life and now she’s gone.”

Mortified, I didn’t know where to direct my eyes. I looked toward the full box of tissues on the table, the chairs which bore no weight, and the lone basket of carnations.  How could anyone say such a thing at a funeral? Eighty-something years on this rock and all she gets is an unattended wake arranged by duty-bound, bitter survivors?

Forgive me if I sound preachy; it’s not you I’m telling this to but me. As I hurtle toward 50 my biggest fear is that I’ve not lived enough, not loved enough, not done enough of anything with 100 percent of my self. I dole out small portions, saving the best for something in the future.

My second biggest fear is coping with the increasing frequency of funerals of my contemporaries. Apparently I am at that age.

LIfe and death remain a mystery to me. One is a gift. The other a lesson.

 

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Untended marker


My heart is heavy with ache sometimes in the summer, when memories of my maternal grandmother are as sharp as the juicy wild berries we picked from the overgrown lots near her home.

Summer memories are a mix of sweaty neon-colored metal cups filled with root beer floats; the hum of the oscillating fan perched atop her ice box; the creaking wooden swing in her yard that made our stomachs flutter; and the bulbous concord grapes dangling from the vine on the back fence.

The deep-purple bulbs fooled us into tasting them every time and then, repulsed by the thick skin and hidden seeds, we leaned over the wooden fence and spat skin and guts into the alley before she caught us. At a certain point in the season we moved into her cool basement, where there was a chalkboard on the wall and an extensive comic book collection to keep us away from the boiling pots on the gas stove. It was canning time, when grandma magically transformed those foul grapes into sweet preserves.

Tradition is the only explanation for the basement kitchen, a standard feature in my Polish/Italian neighborhood. Although my house did not have one, the hub of many a friend’s home was the basement kitchen, often ruled by a wooden-spoon wielding matriarch who spoke little English, stood about five feet tall, and was universally feared. My grandmother was one of those diminutive matriarchs guided by family tradition.

Although grandma probably never heard of the Confucian practice of filial piety, she devoted herself to ancestor worship. She lighted votive candles in church to pray for the sick and the dead, created alters in her home for the departed, dedicated Masses on death anniversaries, and much like the canning process, once a summer we accompanied her to the cemetery to tend to the family plot.

Edged in wrought iron fencing and shrouded by a forest of mature trees, the cemetery’s clipped green lawns and upright tombstones are an anomaly to the urban ruins outside its gates. On those summer mornings, before the full heat unleashed its wrath upon the concrete and brick landscape, my grandma coaxed us into her air-conditioned Chevrolet jammed with flowers, gardening tools, and a tin of cookies and card games to keep us occupied. She navigated those winding cemetery roads that rolled past rows of tombstones and mausoleums until we reached the right spot on the hill. There, grandma spread out an old towel, kneeled, and whispered several rounds of prayer before she began gardening. I waited, swatting flies and squinting against the sun, staring up at the spaces between the branches, where blue poked through dappled green, and wondered what it was like to be under the ground, inside a box.

We talked about the people under the stones, their lives, how they died, and how we all were part of a long, interconnected network.  This is where I first learned of the concept of a “half sister.” No matter how many times grandma explained the same mother, different father thing to me, I envisioned a girl sliced own the center, her bones, muscle tissue and guts exposed. That was no kind of sister I ever wanted.

Seventeen years ago this week, my father’s funeral procession followed the curves of those same roads, past the hill where my grandmother tended to her family plot, and stopped near a massive elm so tall it poked at the clouds. It occurred to me that every stone in this place was the bookmark to a story. I fingered the anti-anxiety pills wrapped in tissue that grandma handed me at the hospital a few days earlier. “It’ll help you sleep,” she whispered. I kept them in my pocket, the inner stoic smirking at my ability to rise above pharmaceuticals. I thought about taking them during one of these long days between death and burial. Would I fall asleep and remember everything?

I stared up at that big tree over the open grave, tilting toward the heavens, bearing silent witness to an endless parade of sorrow, and remembered all those summer afternoons swatting flies while grandma planted petunias and hummed to herself.

Following the graveside service, I turned my back on that tree and the hole beneath it. I got in my car and drove away. In 17 years, I’ve never been back. I think of my grandmother and her traditions. She rests under that hill, almost seven years gone.

I’d always followed the philosophy that our legacies are in our progeny, and the things we owned and created and sometimes neglected. My father doesn’t live under that plot in the cemetery, he lives in the starry night sky he watched with interest, along the river beds where he fished, in the travel journals he kept for decades, and the silly cartoon drawings that revealed his political leanings.

I stay away with the excuse that the cemetery is in one of Detroit’s most dangerous neighborhoods. Even with an armed escort, do I want to come upon that untended marker? Would the weeds and dust trigger guilt and a sadness I’ve tucked away for 17 years? Would I feel nothing?   Would I search for pills like those rolled in the tissue paper that I ultimately threw way? Would I wonder why tradition means so little to me?

 

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string of beads

A string of beads has a thread running through all the beads, keeping them together. What we need is a thread too—of sanity and stability. Because when you have a thread, even though each bead is separate, they hang together. When we have the teachings in us, stabilizing us, there’s a thread to keep our life together that prevents us from falling apart.

The thing is, either it’s clear and I write about it, or it is not clear and I write about it anyway. Sometimes I slip into a space so uncertain I cannot articulate what I’m experiencing. It’s as if I’ve pushed a mute button.

The past few months have been a blur of work, party planning, various other need-it-yesterday obligations, extreme heat and humidity, broken plans, insomnia, extreme exercise, and some really big steps outside my comfort zone. These beads of my life rattled and bounced on a string that stretched ever tighter. In the past week the frayed string snapped. That I didn’t totally fall to pieces is a testament to my faith and spiritual practice.

Sure, I hurt inside. When I don’t hurt I feel utter emptiness. I catch myself wrapping myself in false dressings, then embarrassed at the attempts, rip them away and start anew.

“You are going through a major energy shift,” I’m told by one who sees and feels things. Energy shifts feel like rides at amusement parks. Sudden rapid acceleration followed by jerking turns and clunky stops. Then the waiting, the interminable waiting. This seems unexpected considering all the accomplishments of late: I’ve had freelance work almost all summer. I trained for a 5K obstacle race and completed it. I’ve taken on some long and challenging bike rides. I helped plan and execute Girl from the West’s graduation party. I kept up with all my volunteer obligations and met all deadlines. I made a number of new friends. Shouldn’t I be elated?

Inside I’m shredded by terrible anxiety and an almost unyielding drive to take on something even more difficult (like a 12-mile obstacle race). All year I’ve pushed myself into situations (hello, class reunion) and people (those who will challenge me, who doubt my ability and I feel I must prove them wrong) who I’d otherwise avoid like a mosquito-infested swamp.

Something in me tired of being sequestered in an empty office, of interacting with the world almost exclusively by computer. I joined more groups, said yes to every invitation, and now? I cannot stand to be alone. I’ve nearly abandoned most of my social media accounts, remaining loyal only to this blog and Facebook.

I think about how on the physical level, with running and boot camp training and bike riding long miles I endured the physical pain of sore muscles for the goal of getting stronger.  I thought it would be the same on an emotional level. The thing is, even inflamed tissue responds to ice and anti-inflammatory pills. How do you build emotional strength? When you bear through the discomfort of situations you want to avoid. When you march through the pain of doing the right thing, even if it feels terrible. Nothing but time, self-discipline, and patience can heal emotional pain.

I’ve been told I live life with so much intensity. That such a quality either grabs people or turns them away. I’m drawn to and attract others who do the same, which almost always leads to trouble of some kind or other. A friend told me she’s disappointed in me because I continue to deny who I am to please others and in the process I end up hurting people because they view me as a game-player. I do not see myself that way. But, for the first time I think I understand how that could be the way I seem to others. In the process of this growth I lost that new friend, someone who could have been a nice addition to my life, but my inner battle to be who I am against who others think I should be, sent me running, hands over head as if bombs were bursting overhead, into my hidey hole. Is there anything worse than being accused of something you cannot even understand or see that you have done?

I’ve had some great, high moments. I’ve earned the respect of people I admire. I can take pride in those moments because I was honoring my true self. But it’s the humbling, raw moments that stay with me, when I’m called on my BS, my lies exposed.  I’m scared. What am I supposed to do with a “big energy shift”? Invent something? Save baby rabbits? Trade my life for the monastery?

Here’s the thing. I need to get back out there and not retreat into that hidey-hole, which is my habit. I need to be my best self, put forth my best effort, and rebuild that string, bead by bead. All is not lost as it feels on the inside. I’m just focusing on one particular bead lost, and not on all the collected ones I’ve earned right there at my feet.

They also hold value.

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Feathers

It’s funny how the blogging world seeps into your blood. On any given day, you might be walking along the pavement between gas pump and cashier when you come upon a ratty pigeon feather on the pavement. Instead of kicking it aside, stepping on it, or even acknowledging that a bird out there is less one feather or perhaps is a bird no more, you think of a blogger who celebrates feather encounters. You grab your camera and take a picture of a foot and a feather and post it on the Internet. That’s the kind of thing bloggers do.

The feather lightens the load strapped to this 102-degree day manifested in furry, sticky, dense air and the slow and weak sunset holding no promise of relief.

So I go home and take a cold shower and slick back my wet hair, lay down under the vents pumping cool air into the room, and ride on the big, scary wave that is life now. It’s not that anything terrible has happened. It’s that nothing is the same. Not one thing. And I have to be OK with that because like bird feathers, things don’t stick forever. They break loose and drift away. As I glide along the river toward sleep, I wonder if it’s possible for a lone feather to give me enough altitude to fly away for just a little while.

 

Full circle

Caricature of the graduate

I went to my 30th high school reunion and I didn’t get eaten alive.

Not only did I survive, but I also walked away with a smile on my face. That the smile was mostly vodka-induced and not steeped in reality is a story for another day.

In the three decades since I marched to “Pomp and Circumstance” and walked away from the hell of high school, I’ve had an irrational fear of attending any reunion.

For reasons I can’t quite articulate, I felt if I were to attend any reunion at all, the 30th would be the one. The reunion is no longer a one-evening event; it’s an itinerary from which you can choose your level of involvement. I chose the informal bar night. The price was right and I had an exit strategy tucked in my pocket.

Filled with enough false bravado to fuel five teenage boys at their first middle school dance, I sucked in my stomach, ordered a cocktail at the bar, took a deep breath, and stepped onto the patio.

I survived the abrupt halt of conversation, all heads turning, and the first of what would become the evening’s refrain, this time from the mouth of a busty redhead with a cigarette dangling from her mouth: Who are you? Did you graduate with us?  

It was at that moment that I realized how far I’d come. There was a time (in high school) that if someone said that to me it would have simultaneously pushed all my buttons, triggering anger, disappointment and despair. Now? Someone else’s bad behavior is a reflection of that person and not a measure of my worth. I answered her in a light and breezy tone with a smile on my face. She shrugged and turned away. Everything was OK after that. I am OK with me, just as I am. I don’t need her approval or anyone else’s to be here.

Sometimes being in a room full of people who remember snippets of you at your worst is more excruciating than helping jog the memories of those who didn’t know you at all. I gave up trying to convince one person that I was not goth in high school, just depressed.

Back then I didn’t have the maturity or perspective to understand that the extreme dysfunction of my family life bled into my social interactions.  I was angry and inappropriate. I used alcohol and drugs and outrageous behavior to cope. Every day was a struggle of fear, hopelessness, free-floating anxiety and self-loathing. My only friends were other social misfits or rebels. We spent most of our time as far away from our idyllic suburban landscape as possible, preferring the gritty neighborhoods of Detroit.

In the years since high school I’ve slowly overcome my crippling anxiety and shyness. I’ve come to understand that my past does not have to color my today. I’ve mostly accepted that I will never be a sunny blonde, long-legged, of the proper lineage, and have a button nose. I am me, good or bad, big nose, wide hips and all. Over the years people have loved me for it. Imagine.

I treated the night like a cocktail party of strangers with possibility. Here’s what I learned:

  • Very few people still look really good 30 years after high school.
  • Shared experiences are priceless. I didn’t have any with the people at this gathering. While I had great cocktail party conversations, there wasn’t a bond between us that erased the years and reduced us to hugs and laughter. I realized how much I had missed of mainstream teenage life.

Of course I had my people and our memories. They just weren’t at this partyI don’t know where most of them are in this world or if they are in this world. (In fact, a good number of them are dead; I had a phone call in April telling me of two deaths this year.)

  • I walked away a bit smug at all the free drinks bought by men, who as boys, would not give me the time of day, and who wouldn’t quit until they figured out why we didn’t connect in high school. What a fun guessing game.  I was a bit rattled that some of them were so forward until someone told me most of them were out-of-towners traveling solo and reunions are famous for the hook-up potential. Oh.

Reunions are a step back in time but they also are a chance to affirm — to yourself — where you are now.  I don’t spend a lot of time with people my age. It was good to see the familiar signs of latefortyness on those around me, to know that even if I wasn’t like them at all back then, we had some things in common now, if only because we are parents, spouses, have aging parents, underwater mortgages or fears of aging and death. No longer are we the future; we are dangerously close to being the past.

What pleased me most of all was that my exit strategy never left my back pocket. I stayed until last call.

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Essence

Nine years ago I fell in love with a little white ball of fluff with a big, black nose. I thought: That kitten looks like a teddy bear. I want that kitten.
That kitten did not want me.
Another one in the litter at the cat rescue we visited worked hard to gain our attention. He cuddled and purred and curled into our laps, mewing a plea for passage to a permanent home.
But this Teddy Bear? He turned up his little black nose at us and padded away, refusing our affections.
We compromised and adopted both kittens. They would be this blended family’s first official pets. The Twin Terrors — as we dubbed them since they were born on September 11 — were a constant source of joy and occasional frustration. The Teddy Bear bonded with the girls, particularly Girl from the West.

The cats were an interesting pair. We trained them to stay in our yard and rarely did they break the rule. Teddy, who remained aloof with adults, befriended the dog next door, forging a lifetime friendship in which one would arrive at the fence and patiently await the arrival of the other. They sniffed at one another and chased back and forth along the property line.
Three years ago we were heartbroken when the friendly brother suddenly went into liver failure and died. Teddy Bear paced the house, peering under furniture and behind curtains in a fruitless search for his pal.
Our remaining cat now goes through the same paces and clings to our side as we adjust to life without the Teddy Bear in our house. We lost him to a swift-moving cancer. Girl from the West’s graduation carries the memory of her beloved pet’s euthanasia only hours earlier.
I’ve written a lot here lately about pain. This might suggest life is grim for me. Not the case. It’s an even mix of joy and sorrow.

The essence of life.

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Up and down

I watched as a sizable limb cracked free from an elm and plummeted to the earth with a shuddering thud. It was a busy day in a fast part of the city. I think I was the only one to see it.  Who looks up?

Days later, standing on the sidelines of a bustling outdoor market, I watched a bouquet of  mylar balloons bob on the current until they entangled themselves on power lines. The resulting blast vibrated my ribcage and sent the overhead wires bouncing like jump ropes. Again, no one else saw it. I had to point up to several worried folks clutching their chests and looking around in confusion. Someone even called the police.

I don’t know what makes me notice these things. Perhaps some small movement, or a shift of air pressure, but at just the right moment, my eyes shift skyward. I’m a daydreamer, a thinker, and I’m prone to studying even the smallest of details. Sometimes I see things no one else does and miss the obvious.

The severed limb jarred me the most. Something about its limp form splayed in the parking lot, long green fingers enveloping the car next to it, seemed apologetic. I looked up at the tree again, to what seemed a healthy and whole entity. How freakish, I thought, and yet totally the way of nature. Unpredictable, deadly, awesome.

Then, the what ifs began.

What if someone had been in that car? What if a small child had run up to the parked car? What if we had picked that parking space? I’m always asking what if?

Sometimes I don’t see what’s right there. One of our cats has an inoperable tumor.  Just a few weeks ago it wasn’t there at all. One of my girls discovered it as a small lump and called me tearfully when I was in a meeting.  I dismissed her worries. What did she know that I did not? Today that smallish mass that felt like a gummy bear it is now a heavy rock crowding the cat’s pelvis. It grows and grows and there is nothing to be done, the veterinarian says.

Our finances are, as they have been for a while now, like a slowly filling balloon. Letting the air out of the balloon is a careful, discriminating process. Who or what will make the cut? Years before, when we had lines of credit, we maxed out a card trying to save this cat’s brother. All the IVs and shots we could afford, all the tests we could manage did nothing to save him.

Make him comfortable, the vet says. You’ll know when it’s time.

There are a few things on life support around here. Things that even a few years ago I thought were rock solid, like a tall, seemingly healthy tree with strong branches and full leaf cover. But inside, like a tumor, a slow rot devours the core. One day, which seems like all the others, something crashes within inches of your skull.

I’m wide awake, but I’ve numbed a part of myself to imminent loss, to the threat of loss, to upheavals. When pressed for answers I can’t give any. At the same time, I’m making flip-flopped choices.

I spent a month saying yes to every invitation I received at the expense of my yard and gardens and personal affairs. Why not? There’s always a reason to say no to living life.

I spent a month seeking my happiness. I loved it. I felt closer to myself than I had in years. Now, I pick up the rake and shovel, I prepare for another good-bye, rub the healing balm between my palms and massage what is fixable.

I’m easily bored. I’m also a bit of a thrill junkie. When things get boring — or scary — I need something to divert my attention. I had an old tattoo modified, made it about four times the original size.

I welcomed the cutting, stinging sensation. I can deal with this, I thought. This pain has a beginning and an end. I can breathe through it, manage it. The tattoo artist was young and good-looking and he bought me cookies from the bakery next door (because I admitted I hadn’t had much to eat that day.) It was not lost on me that although it was part of his job, he was leaning into me for more than an hour. Pleasure for the price of pain?

All week, the sting at the site, the healing throb and itch, kept my thoughts away from the inevitable. It’s the free-floating emotional pain, at sea without land in sight, that is unbearable. I’m not so good with that. Is anyone? Is that why so many of us don’t look up?

Who carries the seeds of a fast-growing tumor? What heavy limbs dangle over our dreams?

What can we do to make the most of every day?

Edenland's Fresh Horses Brigade
Edenland has resurrected her Fresh Horses Brigade meme. In it she asks: Who are you? I wrote this a few days ago while trying to make sense of recent happenings. It says as much about who I am as anything else on this blog.