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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fifteen Santa Clauses…

santas

Fifteen Santa Clauses…

Somewhere along the journey, it became very complicated.  The other day a friend shared something she had read, “In your lifetime, the average person gets 10 really good Christmases.” Isn’t that astounding?  How is it even factored? How does one research or gauge what qualifies as a really good Christmas?

Fifteen Santa Clauses…

To be sure the Christmases of my childhood are really good in memory.  The buildup, the lists, the baking, cousins, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and the soft glow of a candle in the window of your bedroom as you fell asleep each Advent night.

My mom loved to tell the tale of one of my earliest Christmas lists for Santa.  She was befuddled by the very first item: A Layaway Doll.  She called her friends, mothers of other girls my age, wondering if they knew of this doll.  They knew of Barbie and Chatty Cathy, and Teensy Tears, but hadn’t seen an advertisement for a Layaway Doll.  My mom was a Christmas pleaser – gift giving with precision was her thing – and she certainly wouldn’t ask me for clarification on the off-chance it would prod any suspicion of Santa Claus.

Her version of the story had my Dad walking into the kitchen one mid-December Sunday afternoon laughing with pride,

“Louise”, he whispered.  “The Layaway Doll she wants – Sears is advertising “layaway” for Christmas.”

“What does that mean, layaway?”, she was confused

“It’s a thing Sears is doing.  You put a down payment on something you want for Christmas, and pay in installments. She must have seen the commercial.”

This was troubling for mom, as it’s almost impossible for Santa to be precise with a doll that doesn’t actually exist.  She casually asked me why I wanted a Layaway Doll instead of Chatty Cathy.  My answer, “It’s a doll who has to wait for you, so it needs extra love.”

That Christmas morning my Layaway Doll was under the tree.  She was 3 feet tall, and loose-limbed, with blonde hair, and wore a pink smocked baby doll dress.  I named her Ella and loved her with all my heart.  An adopted child, adopting a doll one needed to wait for, to have patience for, who needed to be loved. Isn’t that something?

Fifteen Santa Clauses…

The best Christmases of my life, post-childhood, are easy to pinpoint. Being in love at Christmas is wonderful and I have been fortunate in my life to have that more than once, and hold hope that I will again, someday.  The best Christmases, however, are seen through the magic of your own children’s eyes, when they still believe in Santa Claus and are enraptured with the story of the Baby Jesus.  Those Christmas mornings when you have to wake at dawn because the excitement cannot be contained. After all the chaos of gift opening is over, and beautiful Christmas outfits are donned, you take your place in a pew and kneel to remember that all the hub-bub is really about one beautiful child born in a manger centuries ago. I wish I had known then how short-lived that experience would be.

Fifteen Santa Clauses…

The day before Christmas this year, my ambivalence had settled in.  I was feeling harried, crabby, and a little off my game.  I met three friends for lunch at a lovely restaurant.  I’m not sure my heart was in it, but we ate and caught up and soon after the final morsel was eaten, I felt the tap on my shoulder to move along. I had things to do, they had things to do and I was of a mind to just get on with things and maybe, just maybe, December 26th would hasten forth and this mildly disappointing Christmas season could be tucked away.

We paid the bill, gathered our things and I looked out the window and, honest to God,  saw a stream of Santa Clauses entering the restaurant. One after the other, in various states of costume, they came.  I did a double take to be sure my imagination had not swept me away.

“You guys, check out the Santa’s!” I directed my friends’ attention to the window.

“Oh… let’s get our picture taken with them!”

With that, I made my way to the bar, where each Saint Nicholas was filling up. I found an especially friendly Santa face and said,

“Well Hello, all you Santa Clauses! Would you do me a huge favor and have your picture taken with my friends and me?”

Multiple affirmative nods of white-wigged heads followed and the shenanigans began. One Santa gave his vocal approval in an authentic British accent.  I turned to his darling face, smiled and said: “It’s A Dickensian Christmas right here in Newtown, Connecticut!”

My friends and I gathered outside and found ourselves quickly enveloped in a sea of red and white on a beautiful Friday afternoon.

And there it was, that spirit I had been missing, by way of a crowd of Santa’s who picked this time and this place to enter my space. As we extricated ourselves from the photo scene, a Santa named Bob asked me to share the pictures by text.  As he put his number in my phone he said,

“We are Sandy Hook parents, and we’ve been doing this thing for 3 years.  Several of the people here lost their children.”

His remarks were so unexpected that I was dumbfounded.  I put my hand on his shoulder and said the only thing I could think of, “I am so sorry.”

He looked me square in the eyes, “Live your life.  It can be changed in an instant.”

And that was that.

I was unexpectedly alone this Christmas Eve.  Plans were made and then foiled.  A year ago, that would have undone me.  Tonight, I sat on my deck and drank a beer with my loyal Labrador beside me, and toasted to those Santa’s.  It appears they came to me in the nick of time.

Fifteen perspective adjusting Santa Clauses feels a bit like the work of the Holy Spirit.

Merry Christmas!

Of Mothers and Memories…

holy-spirit-copy

My mother passed away 11 years ago on Thanksgiving night.  I struggle to remember the exact date of her death.  The anniversary of it is inextricably attached to Thanksgiving.

She was diagnosed with Adrenal Cortical Cancer in late September. The following nine weeks are a confabulation of disturbed memory and racing recollections of traveling to and from Rhode Island.  Weekends were spent with my dying mother and distraught father, and weekdays trying to refocus on my family.  My children were so young that my daughter has little memory of a grandmother who loved her in a special way. She was the only granddaughter in the mix of boys. Grace was 6 years old on Thanksgiving night 2005.

When I cleaned my mom’s closet out weeks after her death, I found a stockpile of beautiful, expensive dresses, sweaters, and coats that would see Grace through several years of special occasions.  A corner of the closet was filled with precious items which surely cost too much.  My daughter was something of a life-size doll for both my mom and me.  Grace knew indulgence in fashion from the moment she was born.

After the whirlwind of wake and funeral, as I tried to settle into a life absent my mother, I received cards on a daily basis for weeks.  My father, in his heartbreak and with a slow shake of his bald head, would repeat this mantra in response to the outpouring of condolence, “People are awfully good.”

There was one such card that affected me more than any other.  I thought I had saved it, but could not find it, as I sifted through special things this week.  It doesn’t matter. While the words may be imprecise, the message is indelible.
My friend, Betsy, who lost her mom as a young woman, shared this sentiment (now paraphrased):

“When your mother dies, you lose your North Star; your guiding light.  For some time, you will find yourself imbalanced, your navigation will be off.  Regardless of your age, it changes your world.  It is only understood by those who are motherless.”

 
That beautiful letter moved into my soul the moment I read it on a cold, quiet December afternoon.  I was 43 when I lost my mom and Betsy’s letter was like a gift. Even in my incalculable grief, I understood that the death of one’s mother is an equalizing human experience.  In the natural course of living, parents pass before their children.  All of my friends and cousins who still had their mom’s, who sympathized, but could not empathize with the depth of my loss, would someday experience the same.  To be sure, I was imbalanced for quite some time when my mother left this earth.

In the last two years, I have attended too many funerals, watched too many friends and cousins say goodbye to too many mothers.  It feels like time to take a cue from Betsy.

My mother’s greatest gift to me was her example of faith.  She was an epic church goer, a Catholic from the tips of her toes to the top of her head.  I am not any of those things, but there is a moment I call upon when my own struggle is mighty.  My mom might say this moment was the work of The Holy Spirit.

Despite the fact that I had philosophical issues with the “Big C” Catholic Church, my local parish had been home to me.  I was a catechist and you could find my family, 6th row left of center, each Sunday morning at 9 am.  I loved the ritual of the Catholic mass. The predictability and familiarity of the liturgy were like meditation for me. Once my mother passed, church became impossible; the smell of incense or a single organ note undid me.  I vividly remember that first Christmas Eve, entering the church with my family, finding our pew and, as the congregation settled in, the choir led with “Oh Come, All Ye Faithful.”  Grief grabbed me by the throat and I let go of my 6-year-old daughter’s plump, impossibly soft hand and made my way out of the church with as much dignity as I could muster. The cold night air was a welcome relief, and I wept as I walked the parking lot for the hour it took for mass to be over.  The strains of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and my mother’s favorite Christmas Hymn, “O Holy Night”, wafted from the Church into the night air. Each note like a stab into my already broken heart. I knew then, that Church would never be the same for me again.

For two months following my mom’s death, night was my demon.  I battled through the daylight hours, but once my head hit the pillow, unsummoned tears would leak from my eyes and my mind raced around every detail of the previous months.  Exhaustion ushered me to sleep, but dreams of my mother woke me nearly each night.  I dreamt, not of my mother as I knew her, but of the diminished her, twisted with the pain of cancer that consumed her body.  It was as though I never knew her whole.  Her pain was a nightly visitor.

The first waking moments for those grieving are predictable.  It takes but a moment of consciousness to remember the pain that has been dreamt away in the deepness of sleep.  As consciousness nears, the ache rebuilds.  I woke most mornings of those two months willing fresh tears away.

As the world turned to a new year, a challenge I was not ready for presented itself.  My husband’s father had died the previous January.  He was a kind, benevolent, smart, wonderful soul.  A Mass of Memorium was scheduled on the anniversary of his death.  I could not fathom surviving it.  I wanted to summon the courage I knew I needed to do the thing I knew was right.  I spent the week before oddly “psyching myself up” to gut it out for him, to be an example for my children.  The night before, I crawled into bed and prayed that I could be relieved, Dear God, just once, of dreams of my sick mother.  I fell asleep that mid-January night, determined to rise to the occasion regardless of which visitors came to me in my sleep.

All I can remember of that night is that when I woke tears did not well, nor did bad dreams fly to my consciousness.  What did was this:

My mother and I walking the boardwalk of Weekapaug’s Fenway Beach, both of us carrying beach chairs in our hands.  The sun was high and the sand was soft and my mom looked lovely, in her skirted bathing suit and white cover-up.  We set our chairs down, side by side, and the waves were gentle and our toes massaged the sand.  That’s all I recall of my dream on that January night, and it is enough.

I believe that The Holy Spirit visited me that night.  That my mother sent me a message that went like this: “All is well with me, and you will be fine.  Go be who you need to be. Don’t worry anymore.”

And I did.  I went and honored my father-in-law in the way that he deserved.  Any tears I shed in the church were for the memory of him.

My grief did not end that January night; it remains in my soul.  My friend, Betsy, was right.  I lost my North Star when my mother passed.  I am not so sure, 11 years later, that my navigational ability has improved.  I remain a bit unsettled but feel as though I am finding my way.

I dedicate this writing to the women in my life whom I love.  Many of you have lost your North Stars.  Many of you have yet to.  In your grief or grief to come, I wish you peace and the surety that the Holy Spirit is present.  I have experienced him/her many times since that January night in 2006.  Listen for it in your sadness, be open to it in your grief.  What a lovely gift for a mother to a daughter. It is as precious as the perfectly smocked dresses my mother bought her grandchild 12 years ago. It is as perfect as a lovely, handwritten note from a friend that would resonate in my heart forever.