My Daughter and Me…

zanz9

It was about a year ago, following a college visit trip to Washington and Oregon, that my daughter said a profound thing, “$54,000 feels like a lot of money for “I think I want to study developing nations.” Grace went on, “How am I supposed to know, Mom?  How can you know, if you’ve never been to one?”

It was three months ago when I said goodbye to that same developing girl on the curbside of Jet Blue departures at JFK. Tears escaped my eyes as she hugged me and then hoisted an enormous backpack on her shoulders and blithely announced, “See ya in 3 months.”  And she was off: San Francisco to Tanzania to Kenya to Uganda to Zanzibar.

When I got home, I went to Grace’s room girded to take on her post packing tornado.  But there were no remnants of a storm.  Rather, the floor which had been covered for years with discarded clothes was bare, and drawers perpetually half-opened, spilling out tee-shirts, were closed. Pillows were neatly set atop a comforter which spent most of its life in a billowy ball. Shoes, sneakers, boots, and moccasins were lined up like soldiers.  Jewelry hung from a metallic tree, and as I opened her closet door, which in the past was an invitation to horror, I marveled that before she left she gave hangers the respect they deserve.

On a chair in the corner were clothes she regularly snuck out of my closet.  They were folded with precision.

My girl was more than ready to hop on that jet to spend three months in East Africa.

I adjusted to her absence and utilized Facebook to try and document her Gap Semester. I think it’s fair to say that Grace has never appeared so frequently on my Facebook feed. I have been careful to avoid editorial comment in my posts.  I posted so that my friends, who have invested so much love in my child, could follow her travels; could taste a little of East Africa from afar.

I have something to say about pride and parenting and millennials.

Our children are the most celebrated generation in history.  Social media has made it so.  Or maybe it started with the bumper stickers in middle school, “My son/daughter is an honors student at…” Pretty quickly, though, Facebook turned up the volume.  I chuckle every late August when the march of pictures of so many children appear, from pre-school to college, with the narrative.  “So proud of …, first day of school.”

Wait, wut?  We are proud that our kids hop on the bus, or drive a car, or get dropped off at the only job they actually have; being a student?

I know, I know… Our parents took our pictures, too, which found their way to photo albums or in frames set in built-in bookcases.  They did not, however, make placards and march around the neighborhood announcing our every minor accomplishment.  And I suppose, those posts we see today are as much for those grandparents, aunts, and uncles who live in other states.

I know that there is a reasonable, other side in all of this. But part of me just wants to scream, “Stop!  What happens to them when the celebrations end; when they get a “c”, or don’t make the varsity, or curl into a ball with a broken heart, or meander down a dark path that breaks our hearts?”

Don’t get me wrong, I love to see those faces of innocence and wish I could suspend them in time.  But, the world waits for them and if they disappoint, that same world will pounce and tsk and whisper not so sweet nothings in criticism. I know because I’ve lived it.

The students with whom I work through the college selection and application process are most often high achievers by any standard.  The pendulum swings wide; they either believe they are indeed exceptional or, often, they think they are not quite good enough.  After all, there is usually someone better. Anxiety rules the day in my business and it is most likely why I am still in business.  I try to tamp down expectations in a viciously competitive college admission world for the over-confident, and put a little wind in the sails of those who don’t quite believe.  Anecdotally, the pendulum swing has widened in the last ten years.  Bumper stickers and Facebook and parent’s watching not only every game but every practice?

I remember an old friend of mine shared this the first time we spoke about his daughter, “She lives in the rarified air of the top achievers.  She amazes me.”  She was a sophomore in high school.  When she fell, the thud was deafening.

Pride in our children is essential, applying exceptionalism to them seems unfair.

Grace returns from East Africa tonight.  From afar, it appears that the semester was everything she dreamed it would be

In my documentation of her experience, kind-hearted people have written, “You must be so proud of her.”  It’s not really the right emotion for how I have felt these last three months.  It hints that maybe I think she is exceptional.

She’s not. Grace has magnificent strengths and glaring weaknesses.  She’s just a girl on the edge of becoming a woman. She’s a kid who thinks that maybe, just maybe, a three-month service program in Africa might help her figure out what her next step is.  College this year felt like something through which she might meander. Last spring, as parents announced their children’s college decisions on Facebook, I asked Grace if I could post her decision for a Gap Year. She groaned and with a classic eye-roll said, “Fine, but I hate when people talk to me about it.  They either think it’s heroic or I must not have gotten into college!”

And there it is in a nutshell: over the top praise or ‘gotcha’ cynicism.

Grace went to Africa because she has the privilege of financial comfort. She understands that the gains are more self-serving than world-changing.  She knows that the benefits of privilege are often choice and options.  Did my daughter change the world?  Of course not, but if the world reached her and she gained perspectives which inform her toward genuine compassion and humility then the choice was right.

She wrote this in a piece about her experience:

“Regardless of what we think of as constraints in our life, hijab’s, poverty, misogyny,

or even American excess, through education and the prompting to think deeply,

we can navigate the world and find happiness in it. I have loved

this opportunity to learn a global perspective on life.  This year has taught me something

 that was elusive for me in high school;

knowledge really is power, and whether in a classroom or through simple

 human interaction, being open to it is crucial to leading a fulfilled life.”

She comes home tonight. She will be exhausted, while I will be hungry for every detail.  I suspect that, within hours, clothing will be strewn across her bedroom floor and her dirty dishes will once again sit in my sink.

Three months in Africa is a step toward exceptionalism and, yes, I am proud that Grace navigated the three months with apparent joy.  True exceptionalism, however, takes a lifetime to achieve.  My beautiful daughter is all wrapped up in human skin and her exceptionalism requires many more years to marinate.

Rustic and me…

logs

The night before my intrepid daughter left for East Africa for three months we sat in my family room and checked off all necessities: passport, license, cash, stuff sacks, prophylactic antibiotics… the list was endless.

As I said goodnight, satisfied that there would be no panic when we woke at 5:15 am to head to JFK, Grace tilted her head as if in sudden discovery, “Mom, Thanksgiving’s going to be hard for you this year.”

“Aw, I guess so, kid. I’ll be alright.”

I was surprised on that warm September night that with a mountain of adventure in front of her she thought of me, at all.  It made me miss her already.

She went on, “I feel bad, Grandma died on Thanksgiving.”

Indeed, thirteen years ago, just past 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving night, my mother exhaled her last breath.  From that moment, Thanksgiving was never the same for me.  My world became untethered and has remained a bit wobbly ever since.

I looked at the beautiful face of my soon to be absent child and said, “Yeah, honey.  Thanksgiving isn’t really my favorite thing, but I’ll be fine.

And, in a strident, my kid is now an activist fashion, Grace waved her concerns away, “Actually, when you think about it, Thanksgiving is really only a celebration of the slaughter of indigenous Americans.”

Yup, my girl was ready to go; mentally prepared to find out what the great expanse of the world had in store for her.

I shared that story with a friend.  You know, the “take the bull by horns” kind of friend we all ought to have on our Board of Directors of Friends.  Without hesitation, she offered this, “Well, Greg, my mom and I go to Vermont every Thanksgiving. Join us.”

I knew this tradition of Jen’s.  Once the Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving’s morphed into too much effort and precarious family dynamic, Jen and her immediate’s turned the holiday on its head and treated themselves to dinner and an overnight stay at the iconic Equinox Hotel in Manchester.  I envied her freedom in this and now that I would be unfettered for Thanksgiving, the temptation of it propelled determination.

I found a cabin.  A remote cabin in the woods outside of Manchester where I could bring my Labrador and I grabbed it.  I threw a gauntlet at the feet of Thanksgiving and booked it for Tuesday thru Friday.  That’s right, loneliness be damned, I would write and hike and build fires and feed the rustic woman within.

Ugh…. If you don’t know yourself by 55, well…

My Labrador Seamus and I arrived just as the sun set in Manchester, and then added about 45 minutes to the four-hour journey as I drove up and down route 30 squinting to identify the beaver pond where I was supposed to take a left down a dirt road where my cabin awaited.  Beaver Pond?  The only beaver I could identify appeared on a Saturday morning cartoon of my youth.  Does a beaver pond look different than the other ponds I passed in the shadow of Bromley Mountain?

The owners may as well have said, “take a left at the cow” for what sense it made to me. My bladder inspired me while my impatient Lab panted in my ear and I finally took a chance on a promising dirt road.  The second house on the left looked vaguely like the perfectly photographed cabin from HomeAway and the key was in the right place.  Loaded down like a Sherpa, Seamus and I tumbled through the door and took in our home for the next four days.

Ah… HomeAway or VBRO or really any realtor can make a place look as charming as your heart’s desire.  The right angle of a camera and your Visa number is flying off the keyboard.

I was thinking Rustic,  the new millennium.  It didn’t take long to figure out that this was 1980’s rustic.  Really, it was a box of wood with exposed beams and a magnificent hearth that was promising, but when I spotted the antler chandelier, the decorative corn husks hanging on the wall, Indian symbol lampshade with a tear, and a coffee table wrapped in dead animal skin, I burst into tears. Through the haze of water, I noticed that there were no blinds or curtains on the main windows that faced Route 30.

Rustic? New millennium?  More Like Rustic Kathy Bates and James Caan in Misery!

Seamus was non-plussed.

I could turn around, hop in the car and head back.   I owned my life now.  I had options.

Then I remembered the pictures on HomeAway. There’s a bedroom somewhere; a magnificent bedroom and master bath with a Vermont-y comforter and enormous jacuzzi tub.  I scanned the square room and saw no door. Hmm…

Aha! There were stairs leading down.  But not your regular stairs.  They were split half-log that spiraled.  I gingerly headed down, while Seamus began to whine.

“It’s ok, buddy,” I implored as I reached the bottom.  “You can come down.”  Seamus would have none of it.  He turned tail at the top of the treacherous stairway and my dream of a beautiful sleep evaporated.

Here’s the thing about Seamus and me.  I am his human and while a bout with Lyme Disease ended his shape next to mine in my king size bed, he still slept on the floor by my side every night.  The magnificent bedroom on the lower level? Sleep would be but a dream with a whiney Labrador through the night.

I maneuvered my way back up the stairs, poured myself a glass of wine and thought,  What would Diane Keaton do?

True confessions; in the movie of my life, I imagine Diane Keaton as me: plucky, smart, and quirky with just the right amount of toughness and tenderness. One minute she is eviscerating a bad actor in her life with smart dialogue and the next she’s weeping over her laptop as she pours her soul out to her readers.

God, I love Diane Keaton!

I know she’d have a glass of wine and as I took my first sip, the phone rang, “Ellen, It’s Esther!  I wanted to make sure you made it to the Honeymoon Cottage safely.

Of course, the name of the homeowner is old-school Esther.

“Oh, Thanks, Esther, ” I said as a dabbed my leaking eyeballs

“Everything okay? We hope you love our home as much as we do.”

My defenses were down, “Oh, It’s great Esther.  Just lovely.” I felt a fake smile take over my face.

“Well, just make yourself a big old fire, take a nice jacuzzi and enjoy!”

“Thanks, Esther, will do.”

Diane Keaton, Diane Keaton….

Diane Keaton would make a fire.  Anyone can make a fire, right?  Sure, A fire would warm the freezing space up and set me in the right direction.

There was wood, lots of it, stacked outside.  I grabbed a pile of logs, brought them in the house, and placed them on the floor.  Firestarter? Kindling?  I know these rustic terms and I scanned the room confident that I could accomplish this one Vermont-y task.  Nope, nothing.  No sticks, no newspaper, no tools of the trade to be found.

Now the tears exploded out of my eyeballs.

I phoned a friend.  A fella I know in Vermont.  A rustic type.

“Hey, It’s Ellen.” The sobbing took but a moment to burst.

“Are you crying?  What’s wrong? Are you okay?

“I’m just…. I’m at my rental, and I can’t make a fire, and I think Davy Crockett lived here, and I hate it, and, I JUST WANNA GO HOME.”

“Okay. Umm.  I’ve never heard you like this before, do you want me to come down?”

“No, I’ll be fine,” I said pathetically.

“Good.  No kindling?  Get back in your car, go to the local store and by yourself a Duraflame log.”

Of course.  God!  Diane Keaton would have thought of that!

I chatted a little longer with my friend and found my bearings. Seamus and I hopped back into my Subaru, bought a box of Duraflame’s and the fire has been roaring ever since.

That night, I took the twin mattress off the daybed on the lower level, awkwardly dragged it up the spiral staircase and set it before the hearth.  Seamus has woken me each morning at about 8:15 with a lick and my eyes open to a sun-drenched room.  We hiked and cooked and my writing has been voluminous.

Yesterday, the very day my daughter so lovingly referred to in September, I met my dear friend and her family at the exquisite Equinox Hotel.  I met them in the lobby and clung to each of them as though they were the only humans I had seen in days.  It was true!  We stuffed ourselves with magnificent food and fine wine and Thanksgiving was good this year.

Seamus and I made it through and today we will say goodbye to our rustic adventure. I will leave a fine review for Esther, with a nod to the fact that while I think of myself as a Renaissance woman, I am not so much a woman of the North Country. However, I now fancy myself quite an expert of the hearth.   And that’s okay. Next Thanksgiving, we’ll try something new.

As for my brave, adventuresome daughter. She comes home in just about a month.  The fact that she cared at all about my Thanksgiving was enough for me this year!

My teammates and me…

winners

It’s not really about the tennis, you know. 

Sure, it’s a healthy hobby over which one might exercise unhealthy obsession.  But, on a brilliant, sunny, August Sunday afternoon standing on a hill overlooking a court in Holyoke, Massachusetts, it wasn’t really about the tennis.

Six of us had finished with mixed results in the deciding USTA New England Championships match.  We were Connecticut, they were Rhode Island.  My partner and I dragged our hot, sweaty, aggravated bodies off the court after a humbling loss.  We knew our top singles player had done the same in an epic battle.  Disappointment in ourselves was soon replaced by hope when we discovered that two of our courts had won.

So, there we were, deadlocked with the Ocean State team who sat on that same hill, adjacent to us, no less invested than we in the remaining match.  The final doubles court would decide who took the title; which team would advance to National Championships.

What a surreal memory.  It’s gotta be about the tennis, right?

As a team, we all play in a 40 plus league, and too many of us are of an age to play in a 55 plus division.  We battle all winter in our local leagues and we are good.  So good, in fact, that I can’t remember a year in the last ten that we didn’t qualify for district championships.  The summer is a march through playoffs.  First one on the block: 55 plus.  We are young for that category, most of us still in our fifties, often facing opponents a decade older.  Suffice it to say, our mostly older competition took us to the woodshed with great satisfaction.

So, forty and over!  Surely, that’s our sweet spot, right? On a baking August weekend North of Boston, we failed spectacularly.

And of all the unlikely scenarios, the team on the hill, overlooking the courts of Mount Holyoke, could taste a National Championship bid in the ridiculously competitive 18 and over division.

We are a team of women of a certain age.  Our youngest player is 42 and our oldest past the 60-year marker. While locally we see few players younger than 30, when we get to playoffs the kiddos arrive like clowns out of that tiny car at the circus. It’s really only a smattering of youngsters, but when you are called for your match, and the unlined complexion of a lithe young lady stares you in the face and announces, “Good Luck and have fun,” you contain this scream…. “Seriously?”

I am 5’8 and the exterior of my 55-year-old body looks much the same as it has for the last 20 years. The interior, well…ouch.  That would be the ligaments in my right forearm and the interior tibialis of my left leg.  I no longer hop out bed.  Rather, I gingerly place my feet on the floor and brace myself for ankle stiffness. It takes the morning walk with my dog before I am sufficiently stretched to feel whole again.

My sometimes partner, Loretta, is 5’2” on her tallest day.  On the court, she is a tiger and plays like she’s 5’10”.  We drew a youngster on the playoff journey.  A darling 22-year-old named Charlotte.  Oh, she was lovely to look at; tall, lean and my first thought was, “What a sweetie.”  I wanted to wrap her in a maternal hug.

Charlotte, on the other hand, wanted to take my head off at the net with a topspin forehand driven with the kind of power my aging body could never generate.

It was all slow motion as she wound up on a sitter and it was obvious that the open court was of no interest to her.  The rocket came so fast that I actually ducked and her ball kissed the baseline. While I  recoiled myself from a matrix like escape from concussion, sweet Charlotte pumped her fist.  I leaned toward her and glared.  She looked at me as if to say, “Is there a problem?”  I pointed my racquet at her and said, “I am old enough to be your mother and that was not cool.”  Charlotte was nonplussed and just games later went after my partner with such force that Loretta’s racquet was knocked out of her hand.

Within seconds, my Lilliputian Loretta, eyes barely visible under her orange warrior headband, strutted to the baseline, looked up at me, leaned in and seethed, “There’s only one way to handle this kid.”   I looked down, hungry for some nugget of strategy that would neutralize girl wonder and Loretta spat out this, “We beat her &%$# ass.”

And we did.

In victory, my petite partner jumped into my arms in a moment we are grateful was not caught on film

Listen carefully…  It’s hardly ever about the tennis.

As women, we give enormous time and treasure to our racquets and the fuzzy yellow ball. We are lucky to have the time and treasure to do it.  We would not do it if it were just about the tennis.

Here’s what it’s really about:

It’s about the teammate who methodically took apart a 20-something singles player under the glaring sun on that August day in Holyoke.  She had to leave before the final was finished because she has two beautiful daughters and a baby boy, just into his second year of life, who was delivered months prematurely. He has fought mightily through the difficult first year.  Ben is well.  Lillian had to leave to get to her kids.  Her story inspires me.

It’s about our Captain, who still waits for her youngest of five to complete high school.  In the meantime, with none of the break that most of us hope to enjoy, devotes two days a week to the care of her first grandson.  She does it with enormous generosity and love.

It’s about finding friends late in life who, without tennis, we might never have met. It’s about what you learn about others in small drips because you carpool together to matches, or sit in hot tennis clubs on playoff weekends, sometimes for hours, waiting for your match to be called.  It’s about the glass of wine or beer you share after a match, sometimes in victory and sometimes in defeat. These are the places we learn each other’s stories.

It’s about feeling comfortable enough in a group that if you happen to burst into song or dance suddenly, one or more of them will join you.  We never let each other look foolish alone.

Here’s the thing:  When twenty women, all over forty, become a team they share so much more than tennis.  Not one of us hasn’t known struggle: illness, heartbreak, disappointment, grief.  We worry about our children.   If we are lucky, we have elderly parents who need us.  Not all of us do.  Some of us enjoy wonderful marriages, others lost that gamble and wonder if they are meant to walk this life alone.  None of us have a perfect life, but on that tennis court, and in that car, and sharing that drink, we find a place to work it all out.

Eight of us stood on that hill overlooking the courts at Mount Holyoke College on a hot August Sunday and poured all our energy toward our teammates who found themselves in a grueling 10-point match tiebreak.  They may have hoped, but couldn’t be certain, that their match would decide the New England Championship.  As spectators, we were collectively anxious.  When Karen and Jill pulled ahead to an 8-5 lead, we could taste victory.  All sitting stood up and held hands, as though our communion could will them to victory.  They lost the next two points, at which point I barked, “no more holding hands, everyone, back to your original positions!”  The team scurried and those who were sitting before sat again.  Hands were unclasped and our girls won the final two points.

While Rhode Island spectators slumped, we rose, and cheered, and hugged.  Several teammates ran down that hill to the court to give the news to Karen and Jill that their victory sealed the deal.  Our Captain beamed as though this were no surprise to her at all.

And so it was, an unlikely extension of an extraordinary season.

Seventeen of us will share an enormous house in Surprise, Arizona the second weekend of October.  We will spend time and treasure to compete at USTA National Championships representing New England.  It will be our pleasure.

Don’t be surprised if the National Championships ends up not really being about the tennis, at all.

 

 

A Room With A View…


I found my way to the sea again.

In the shank of July, New England weather generally sheds its predictable, unpredictability and settles into heat and humidity in-land and glorious beach weather at the shore.

Go figure… on my week of vacation, the sea is angry and the skies? Well…dark and stormy. The air temperature is groaning to reach the low 60’s and the wind is making a mess of my perpetually chaotic head of hair.

This summer, each weekend since late June, save the 4th of July, I have competed to bring New England tennis championship glory home for Connecticut, only to fall short again and again. First at mixed doubles, then women’s 55 and older.

In sweltering hangars masquerading as indoor tennis centers, I battled ego, fatigue, and opponents who were equally invested in maneuvering a fuzzy yellow ball out of reach of racquet.

As I played, sweat poured from my scalp, forehead, armpits, and made a river in my cleavage. Vacation week on Block Island was a distant mirage. In the final day of constant competition, the anterior tibialis of my left calf began its’ weep. The tennis elbow which had kept me off the court for a month prior started to growl again. By the final day, my right forearm sent angry messages to lay my racquet down for a time.

Even in loss and pain, what fun it was!

Weeks of competition came to a disappointing close and I meandered to New London on a sunny Sunday, hopped the express ferry and in 75 minutes popped on my sunglasses and lugged my bags onto the docks of New Shoreham, Rhode Island. Tennis will be there when I return. I would not need my sunglasses again for days.

My dear friend and regular traveling companion, Jo Ann, met me as I disembarked. In a jiffy we were picked up by our hostess in her runaround, Island-ready Subaru. In a leap of faith, Jo and I had accepted the gracious offer to stay in her friends home; rent a room in a house with a view of the ocean.

I was happy to be ashore and thrilled to see the grey, clapboard shingled home of our hostess, as laughter wafted through the screen doors and onto the front porch overlooking the increasingly churning Atlantic Ocean. Bottles of wine and beer in icy coolers were there for the taking. As I entered the house the savory scent of ham and scalloped potatoes escaped the oven, tempting my behemoth appetite. Friendly faces of other ladies staying there welcomed me. Vacation looked promising and, as woman so easily do, we came to know each other’s stories long before sleep beckoned us.

Last year, I rented off-season in Watch Hill and lucked upon Indian Summer. Temperatures hovered in the 80’s, the beach sand was warm, as was the salt water in which I swam each day. To vacation in similar style would be out of my price range in the heart of summer. A shared house with a view of the ocean in Mid July? It gave me pause, but I thought it was worth a try.

As I climbed the charming wooden staircase and turned into our room tucked in the corner of the ancient home, I was reminded of my initial skepticism. I had to duck my head to avoid the short door frame and pessimism took hold.

Our room was charming for one; teensy for two. Jo arrived a day ahead of me and claimed the single bed by the window, as agreed beforehand. I was game for the air mattress on the floor. We each took a drawer and ½ . The air mattress stood on its end, leaning against the wall, and once we wrestled a twin sheet on it and laid it on the floor, it was obvious that an evening trip to the bathroom would be treacherous. Surely, I was weary enough to settle into a cocoon on air and give in to the lullaby of pounding ocean surf.

My 55 year old body protested. At 5’8 inches, the 6’ twin air mattress did not allow for the splay I enjoy in my king size bed; hands and feet met wooden floor throughout the night. A roll to the left or right meant floor met body. The ear plugs Jo provided to muffle her dulcet, evening tones were of little practical use; they popped from my slender canals.

No amount of focus could set me to dream and so I grabbed my blanket and pillow and gingerly maneuvered the floor space to escape to the downstairs couch around 2 a.m. I adjusted myself in the roomier space, and closed my eyes, only to tune into another symphony of snoring in the downstairs bedroom. Sometimes, sleep is but a dream.

As the rest of the house rose, so did I. I was agitated, tired, and wholly out of my comfort zone. I poured a cup of coffee and looked out at the still angry sea and wondered why I ever thought a shared room and air mattress would work? Then I checked my email. As happens sometimes, there was one that cleared my head and directed me to make a grown up decision.

Someone died. Not someone I knew, but the best friend of a writing companion I’ve come to know well. Robert’s best friend since high school passed away unexpectedly. His age: 59. Robert had recently shared dinner with him with the expectation of many more dinners to come. The inexplicable shock of death shook me from my martyred, sleep-deprived space.

The first thing I did was find my own room with a view.

The old me would have fought the tide; complained of discomfort but hunkered back down on that mattress resolved to make it work. The old me would have slapped a smile on it, but seethed underneath. As the week wore on I would be no one’s pleasant companion.

Someone died and I phoned a hotel and found a room with a view. Someone died too young and I put worry of money aside and packed my luggage, thanked my hostess, and checked into my own room with a view.

Perhaps, it seemed ungrateful.

Perhaps, I seemed like the Princess and the Pea.

But here’s a new twist: I don’t care.

I understand at 55 that mortality lurks around every corner. People die unexpectedly and the money left behind has no real meaning.

So someone else can take the mattress and share space with strangers.

Not me, not anymore. People die unexpectedly.

I hope you don’t mind, but I’ll take the room with a view.

 

For the love of women…

fitzgerald

I posted this F. Scott Fitzgerald quote on Facebook about a month ago.  I then posted a not so wonderful picture of myself.  It was the sort of picture I would normally see and trash almost immediately on my iPhone. But, on that day, I shared it and others began to share, too.  

Middle-aged women and few of my not quite there former students shared unvarnished, imperfect pictures of their beautiful selves.  It was a wonderful day in the not always productive world of Facebook.

I have unruly hair, an overbite, and imperfect teeth.  My eyes are a touch wide-set and now require glasses. I have contacts, but they are mostly uncomfortable. 

There are circles under my eyes and brown age spots that try to meld with my already too freckled face. My long neck is beginning to show signs of age; it’s  .skin not nearly as taut as it once was.

For a 55 -year-old women, my body is okay.  The broad shoulders, which in my youth made me feel masculine, now give me strength. I do have rather good posture, a nod to my grandmother who would put her pointer finger in the small of my back when I slouched as a girl, “Be proud of your height!”

I am thinner now than I was in my thirties.  But, at 5’8 inches, there are still days when I feel too gangly, too big, too much.   

Let’s not start with the wrinkles.

My breasts no longer stand at attention and there is a pouch where two babies made their arrivals by cesarean section and an appendectomy scar which followed shortly thereafter.  If I overindulge, I feel it at my waist first, then my buttocks.   I wish I had worn a bikini when I was a young.  I would have looked great, but I had no such confidence as a girl.

A man once loved me and thought I was beautiful.  And then, he didn’t.  I spent the next two years believing his words and felt haggish.  The power of a man’s opinion is quite something in the game of self-perception. For the record, he would not turn heads at the supermarket.  I thought he was attractive, flaws and all, until the end. I loved his soul.

My friend shared a marvelous anecdote many years ago.  She and her husband were in their master bathroom.  Each had a sink and shared the large mirror.  As she plucked the unwanted facial hair and applied cream to her eyelids, then stroked mascara and looked critically at her reflection, she took note of her sixty-year-old husband.  He was balding, paunchy, and sun damaged. 

He shaved, splashed water on his face, brushed his teeth and was done.  She told me, “Oh my God, I was taking stock of every flaw.  He may as well have snapped a towel at the mirror, pointed at himself and said ‘You, the man!’”

In my brief foray into online dating, I met a man for dinner; two strangers taking the measure of each other.  Fifteen minutes in, he interrupted me to say, “You animate really well.  In person, you are so much more attractive than your pictures.”  I think I said thanks but wanted to say, “Yeah, Pal, that would be my soul making its appearance. Camera’s don’t see the soul.”  

Ugh….

I pour this out, late on a Saturday evening, because of the news this week.  Donald being Donald, yet again.  

I am a liberal.  A Democrat.  It is existential. My cable news of choice is MSNBC.

I am smart and engaging and would not last a second on television.  Not with my flawed face.  Not a prayer.

Mika Brzezinski co-hosts “Morning Joe” and I have watched it for years. She is a stunningly beautiful Slav.  Her face is taut and perfect.  Her figure flawless, her legs the envy of a Rockette.

She shares the show each day with a posse of men. She is a smart, incisive, opinionated Democrat.

Joe Scarborough, a former Republican Congressman, is a sort of goofy looking Southerner, with a rash of brown hair, an oversized nose, and thick-framed glasses.  I have a soft spot for the contributing Mike Barnicle, a past his middle years, rumpled, thickly accented Boston journalist with a gap-toothed smile and face that shows the march of years.  Willie Geist is the young, up and comer.  He is a paste-y, well-heeled New York boy next store.

I would guess it takes those men about 30 minutes to prepare to go on television. Mika Brzezinski?  I think we know the expectation.  Women, no matter how smart, don’t get to be goofy or rumpled or paste-y on television.  See Fox, see CNN, see MSNBC.

Mika Brzezinski had a facelift.  Of course, she did.  If her looks don’t match her intellect there is little chance she shares the spotlight with men.  

How dare this President call her out on that?  How dare he personalize the news media? How dare he, when he should be working to advance this country, be so thin-skinned as to bark back when he is criticized by a morning cable television host?  How dare he hit a woman where it hurts?

He is an outrageous misogynist. He is a child, a megalomaniac and at his base, just a terrible man. So terrible, in fact, that this Democrat actually misses George W. Bush. Now that’s real news! 

Donald J. Trump has no manners and no respect for his Pennsylvania Avenue address.  It seems most of the country is just fine with that. And that’s the real kick in the pants; people I know defend him.

Aaargh…

In the Trump Era, I worry for my 18-year-old daughter and what this President’s behavior means to women of her generation. What does lowering the bar for misogynists mean for those girls who graduated high school this year?  How far does he set them back by sending a message to every boy my daughter’s age, that a women’s appearance is fair game for the President?

My daughter is objectively beautiful.  By that I mean, physically, in a lineup of her peers, she is stunning.  Unlike my chaotic mess of hair, she enjoys a color and texture that the salons would love to bottle.  Her skin is gorgeous and she carries her 5’9” frame with confidence. She rolls out of bed, beautiful.

She better. Despite the fact that she is also smart and passionate, in 2016 this country elected a man who has no respect for women.  I noted this in my piece about Charlie Chaplin just after the election, and even I am surprised at Trump’s inability to disguise his abject hatred for women.

So yes, my daughter will need all the confidence she can muster.  This President has, in short order, made it abundantly clear that women do not matter.  Those who support him in their silence, only strengthen him.

F. Scott Fitzgerald was one complicated fella, But, my God, he loved women. He loved Zelda, but, not for her beauty.  Fitzgerald loved her for her soul. It is the only part of any human that actually matters.

I would love to hear from my readers about the current state of affairs.  I’m done tuckered out!

 

 

 

 

On Writing…

socrates1

“No blogs?”, “Did you stop writing?”, “Too busy for your blog?”

I have been absent from my blog space for the last 100 days. And no, I did not stop writing. In fact, I have been writing at a breakneck pace for over three months. My audience shifted from the blogosphere to writers from all over the world.

When I entered a 100-day writing challenge, I expected to whip off a few blogs while churning out chapters of a book. There is an idiom for that sort of optimism: wearing rose colored glasses.

Here was the mantel set before me: 3,000 words per week, due by midnight each Friday. Because nothing has changed at my core in the last 35 plus years, come Wednesday the scramble began. I continue to be a last-minute crammer.

Some perspective:

3,000 words are double the count of a standard personal essay or opinion piece in a magazine.

The college essay limit is a paltry 650 words. As a College Counselor, I revel in prompting my students through the college essay. They approach it as though it were Mt. Kilimanjaro.

The average word count for the President’s State of the Union Address is 4,000 words. It takes a team of speechwriter’s months to prepare.

Five weeks: 45,000 words, and thoughtful critique of 750 pages of other people’s work. That’s about fifty pages per week and it was time-consuming. I am a better writer because of it.

I am often asked, “Why do you write?”

It’s a question I’ve heard since I started to blog and because I am writing a memoir. I suppose the subtext goes something like, “Why would you share personal details of your life?”

Aha…. good question!

I write to rumble with my life; to grapple with grief and loss. To find balance through examination of my soul. I write because it gets the swirling stuff inside of me to the outside of me. Once released it loses its power over me.

Before I reached middle-age I had no intrinsic sense of grief. My grandparents passed in the natural order of time, at ripe old ages. Those were sad moments, but they did not paralyze me.

My mother died when I was 43. On that day, the scaffolding of my life began to dissemble, piece by piece. Soul sucking, enormous grief became my constant companion. The losses mounted and eleven years later, as I prepared for the death of my dear Uncle Bobby, I began to write.

It helped.

Some people run, bike, do yoga, or seek therapy to manage life. Others paint, knit, sculpt, or get lost in their music. Some souls bury their hurt with a “move on” sort of bravado. They hold tight to the foolish notion that an unexamined ache will heal itself.

Wizard of Oz analogies are never far from my grasp. At 50, I found myself skipping along the Yellow Brick Road. In the wake of relentless grief, I found love and it was glorious. I smiled and sighed in the palm of it. It felt like home. The soul yearns for serendipity and for a year of my life I felt as though I had found it.

In my happiness, I forgot an important fact about the Yellow Brick Road; there is a Haunted Forest at its end and it is harrowing. One moment, I was skipping and laughing and, as I turned a corner, it took me by surprise. Before I knew it trees started heaving apples at me, and a witch appeared and tried to set my straw aflame. All the while, menacing monkeys ruled the darkened skies.

I ignored the caution signs posted along the way and that tormented me. It was my hardest grappling. Writing helped me find the answers.

When I look back at my early writing, written when I had lost all semblance of myself, it makes me ache for the me of then. When I reread early chapters of my book, I am astounded by my narrow perspective. I weep for the woman who allowed pebbles to cripple her.

I am rewriting from a new place where there are no heroes or villains. A place where I no longer try to forgive myself for what I did not know. Rather, I forgive myself for dismissing instinct; losing faith in my ability to navigate.  I forgive myself for accepting less than I deserved and allowing another to judge my worth. As a friend implored me then, “You don’t have to set yourself on fire to keep someone else warm.” Indeed.

In remarkable fashion, at the nadir of my sadness, another man inserted himself in my life. I scrambled to rise to the arrival of my 88-year-old Uncle Bobby. I had no idea that in his weakening I would find my strength. The eighteen months I spent by his side exhausted and restored me. He became my muse, and the writing of it made the hard work of elder-care bearable.

My articulation of the universal experience of love and loss resonated and that moved me. It was a great joy to write about my Uncle, to give voice to his history. I felt like his personal curator and it was an honor to capture his remarkable spirit in words. My journey with Uncle Bobby helped me find my writer’s voice.

More than therapy, friends, or even Uncle Bobby, writing escorted me out of The Haunted Forest.

I write to rumble, to figure, to navigate.

During the 100-day challenge, other rumbling writers encouraged my story through constructive critique. They inspired me with their own dedication to the craft.

One wrote to me, “We have little in common. I am a 35-year-old bachelor on the other side of the country.  Yet, when I read your chapters, I find myself contemplating my own life.  I want to read your writing with a glass wine and my feet set on an ottoman.”

There is a writer who does the same for me. A dog-eared copy of her collection of essays, This Is A Happy Marriage, sits on my bedside table. Ann Patchett’s soul is present in her writing.  She is achingly honest and when I read her work, she feels like a friend.

I write because I hope that one day, on the night of a full moon when sleep is but a dream, a struggling soul will reach for a dog-eared copy of my book on her bedside table… and not feel so alone.

 

 

The Old Man and The Sea… Of Women.

 

suffragettes

I seek to understand.  I try to make a rational argument, but responses are irrational and facts are muddled and dressed up as truth.  So, I walk away. The fact that I was a participant in the Women’s March, an eyewitness to history, seems to mean little to those determined to diminish it.  Apparently, those who had the audacity to walk are extremist, anarchists, and, naturally, angry. Those positioned to pounce and pick from the comfort of their home appear to have the inside scoop.  Peaceful demonstrations reimagined:  Anarchy!  Fox News told them so!

That wasn’t my experience on a sun-drenched Saturday in Key West, Florida, as I walked with three thousand plus along Duval Street, chanting, singing, smiling, hugging and admiring.  I walked alongside a red trolley, seated within were extraordinary men and women, most on the north side of 80, whose aging bodies made the walk impossible.  They carried signs, and some wore silly hats. They all looked alive, purposeful, and grateful that they found this moment, late in their life, to exercise the rights the Founding Fathers gave them: peaceful protest. It was a meaningful moment in time which they thought might never be realized as their lives look to the twilight.

I spoke with an African American woman grinning from ear-to-ear with her best friend.  Her tee-shirt said, “I Am My Ancestor’s Wildest Dreams.”  My God, that’s a sobering, wonderful thought, isn’t it? It was not lost on that beautiful lady that this great country, in the Bill of Rights and Amendment’s to the Constitution, gave her the right to this day, to walk peaceably with her sisters and brothers along a palm-shaded street on the Southeastern most tip of the United States of America.

Young women, many with their husbands beside them, marched pushing strollers.  Most of the children were girls, the daughters for whom they dream big dreams; that the world will not threaten to dismiss them because of their gender.  Maybe, just maybe, those baby girls will grow up in a world where this conversation is spoken in a nod to history.  How I wish my own girl had been with me.  She wasn’t.  Rather, she was wielding a lacrosse stick in an indoor pre-season league preparing for her senior season.  Title IX at work.

In Key West, Los Angeles, Washington, Paris, Stockholm, San Francisco and throughout this great world, women gathered and welcomed the support of men in The March.  I had friends marching in Washington, New York, Hartford, Phoenix, and Omaha.  All of them reported joy, empowerment, and an appreciation that we live in a country where such a thing remains an inalienable right.

Key West is an interesting place.  This is the first time I have been to the Keys, and as I write, in the near distance, I see white caps dancing on water whose shades of blue seem to change with each gust of wind.  My view of that vast Atlantic is disturbed only by majestic palm trees and thatched palapas where weary northerners lounge, desperate to re-energize on a late January day.

Key West belongs to Ernest Hemingway.  If there ever was a man’s man, it would be Hemingway.  He was a big game hunting, deep-sea fishing, safari-loving, bombastic man with the soul of a poet.  It took me years to appreciate his writer’s voice.  He had none of the grandiosity of my favorites: Fitzgerald, Austen, and the brilliant Oscar Wilde. My literary palette has matured with age, and I now find Hemingway’s direct, simple, potent narrative powerful.  For all his surface bravado, Hemingway had a fascinating perspective on women.  Despite his traditionalist view of them, his women were strong, complex, and clearly important in his personal and literary life.

From the book “Hemingway and Women”,

“While Hemingway was certainly influenced by traditional perceptions of women, these essays show that he was also aware of the struggle of the emerging new woman of his time.”

As I marched in Key West, I imagined Ernest sitting on a Duval Street Veranda, in a rocking chair, cigar in one hand, and a potent Bloody Mary in the other, fascinated by the scene that played out in front of him.  I imagined Ernest Hemingway, with a nod and great guffaw, shouting out, “Have at it, ladies!”  I think Hemingway wasn’t intimidated by women, as much as he was bewitched and besotted by them.

Ah – but it’s not the early twentieth century.  It’s the new Millennium and so I’ll return to my thesis: I’m trying to understand…

Perhaps the most off-putting accusation about the March was about violence and broken glass at a Starbucks in Washington DC.  Please don’t muddle the facts.  That despicable act happened Friday during an Anti-trump incident that was not part of the Women’s March.

Regarding demonstrations, the people’s right to participate, and the charge that the President’s supporters would not have marched had Mrs. Clinton won the election?  A tweet from the President on November 6, 2012:

trump

Would I have preferred that Ashley Judd control her rhetoric?  Sure.  Do I wish the same thing of Madonna?  Yup.  But what about the magnificent Gloria Steinem, Scarlett Johansson, America Ferrera, and Michael Moore, who reminded all of us to stay involved in the process, be doers, be dreamers.  What about all the organizers throughout the world who have no celebrity cache, but pulled off one of the greatest, most unexpected, most peaceful mass Marches in history.

I’m proud I was part of it.  Those who stayed home? Maybe save your rhetoric for the things you show up for?

To my friends who share my perspective, here’s a thought that might surprise you. I wish, for the love of Pete, that those who supported the March might tone down the oratory and banish base language from their social media.  Rise above it, use your intellect to state your case. Don’t take the bait. We have a responsibility to elevate the conversation with thoughtful, factual discourse. I believe our better angels possess a better vocabulary.

One last thing which might seem small, but here we go:

Mr. President, when you walk the walk of Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Reagan, Bush, Sr. and Obama, maybe you could give some thought to the gravitas of the Office of the President of the United States of America.  Is it too much to ask that you button your suit jacket?  A little respect, that’s all we are asking for.