On Writing…

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“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.

 

 

From The Sublime To The …

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Joanne and I made a stop at My Wednesday Place en route to an epic Halloween Party several weekends ago.  We wanted to share our transformation with our bartender friend.  The mustache was the only sticking point. The damn thing just wouldn’t stay stuck.  When Alan made us laugh, it popped out of place.  That wouldn’t do, I planned to laugh all night.

“You two should paint mustaches on.  Do you have the eyeliner?”  This suggestion came after he made a valiant attempt to wrestle square patches of Scotch tape on the fake mustaches without success.

Eyeliner?   Eureka!  Joanne and I hastened to the bathroom and voila:  Two Charlie Chaplin’s replete with bamboo canes, bowler hats and unfettered by ill-fitting mustaches.

Earlier that evening, in the privacy of my bedroom, I slipped on the impossibly comfortable trousers I had found at Good Will; men’s trousers, of course.  What a revelation!  The waist did not taper and the pants hung on my hips without a tug.  The flaws of a middle-aged woman’s body disappear in trousers, no worry of middle section, or buttocks, or designers who try to convince you that you’re never too old for the skinny jean. Katherine Hepburn and Diane Keaton knew the secret of men-style trousers!

The white, cotton, men’s dress shirt felt clean and crisp on my skin, and the tweed vest, when buttoned,  gave me a hint of waist and bound my ample chest. No concerns tonight that a breast might peak out of a cup just because I danced. The blazer topped it all and slid on, its’silken lining a feminine secret stashed in a man’s jacket. Who knew?

Next came the shoes. When you select a transgender costume, the shoes are tricky business.  For $10, I found the perfect pair of barely worn size 8 ½  oxford tie black shoes.  Here’s a secret – with the exception of flip-flops they are the most comfortable shoes I have ever worn.  No wonder Cinderella lost that glass slipper. You could dance all night in men’s oxfords.

The makeup was imprecise, white base and smokey grays to evoke silent films and black liner, smudged around the lids to accentuate Chaplin’s forlorn innocence.  Rather than tweeze eyebrows into submission, Chaplin’s face called for us to add volume.  What a concept,  more hair, not less!

My night as Chaplin was pure delight. I danced often and my stride away from the band was downright jaunty! My feet never tired and the oxfords did not squeeze my toes. I gave no thought to my imperfect face or aging body.  It occurred to me, as I said goodnight to a wonderful evening, that, well… It’s a man’s world, baby!

Tuesday, we elected a new President.  Two elections ago, I supported Barack Obama.  I was taken with his countenance, soaring rhetoric and, yes, his hopeful vision for this country.  He has been imperfect, but I still believe he is a good man.  History will ultimately weigh in on his tenure.  I am old enough to know that snap judgments on a Presidency are pure folly.  The dust needs to settle before the history books are written.

I did vote for Hillary Clinton last Tuesday.

The day after the Halloween party, I saw a bumper sticker on a car in my hometown.

It read:  “Trump That Bitch.”

It stole my Chaplin afterglow

That following morning I was dismayed when a news commentator suggested this,  “If Hillary could just find that person in her, who got teary in New Hampshire in 2008….”

He trailed off.

“Well,”  he went on,”Her popularity soared after that.” 

Suddenly, my Ralph Lauren boots felt tighter.

I happen to come from a curious background which foils the political divide in this country. I was adopted at 6-months-old, and my Irish Catholic father was a dyed-in-the-wool Eisenhower Republican.  He loved Ronald Reagan and disdained anything Kennedy. He was a World War II veteran with racist tendencies, saved mostly for Asians.  He was a product of his time, having served in China and never forgot Pearl Harbor.  At his funeral, there were a surprising number of people of color.  My father calibrated over his lifetime.  He was not perfect, but he evolved.

Of this I am certain; he believed that I could accomplish anything.  My father saw no glass ceiling for his daughter. He was a Republican and I loved him.  He was a gentleman who respected women. At his funeral, I gave a eulogy.  It ended thus;  I will miss my greatest cheerleader.

Uncle Bobby, as well, eschewed liberalism and clung to Fox News.  He knew I was a Democrat, but approached our differences with respect.  He watched this presidential nomination cycle with great interest in the last year of his life.  He didn’t much like Hillary Clinton, but never spoke of her with disdain.  For a time, he liked Ben Carson, and then “That Kasich fella seems good.”  He said this of Donald Trump, “Oh, him? He’s a clown.” Then, he leaned forward and whispered, “He’s a cuss.”  Uncle Bobby found our President-elect distasteful. 

In my fifties. I have come to know misogyny more intimately, though its forms are as amorphous to me as Chaplin’s makeup and as stealthy as his fluid movements.

Misogyny: Dislike of, contempt for, or ingrained prejudice against women.

It can be hard to recognize. Sometimes it comes at you like a lamb, all soft and needy of nurturing, until you realize the giving is a one-way street.  When the jig is up, it moves on without compunction, like a parasite that has depleted its host.

Sometimes it comes as a labrador; a pal, a punch in the arm which anoints you as “one of the guys”.   Sometimes you get to hear the “locker room” talk, but be careful not to disapprove. With a wink and a smile, you might be reminded not to be too sensitive.   

In this Presidential election, misogyny came out like a tiger.  It was so obvious, it was nearly unbelievable.

It appears a lot of folks just don’t like Hillary Clinton or believe that she is  a “crook.” How  I wish I had not been so complacent before the elections.  I would have helped some folks out with a simple google search, and they could have unearthed in print and on video the President-elect’s quotes about women.  I would have told anyone who might listen to insert the name of their daughter,  wife,  mother, sister, or female friend.

If our African American President had said any of these things about women, I am sure he would never have been elected.  If Hillary Clinton had uttered the same kind of pejoratives against men I am certain she would not have been the Democratic Nominee.

My friends who voted for Mr. Trump are quick to tell me to relax, that this not a big deal. They tell me that it’s politics, a political divide between us, or that this is about the economy or a need for change. They tell me that he won’t be like that as President?  It’s just Donald, you know?  As though he is some irascible character in a prime time sitcom who just doesn’t have a darn edit button.

In 2016, I guess we still believe that boys will be boys.

They go round and round and round about emails and home servers in basements, and when they can’t quite drum up a character issue there, they pull out the big guns: Bill Clinton. It appears the  President-elect doesn’t have to take one iota of responsibility for his history of abhorrent behavior toward women. In stark contrast, Hillary Clinton has to be responsible, ad infinitum, for her husband’s egregious mistakes, for which he was impeached nearly 20 years ago.  She must be exhausted.

President-elect Trump now gets his chance. I love Democracy and everyone’s right to support whomever they choose.   I have not once protested the election of a Republican President, and I won’t protest this one.  

In the meantime, won’t you help me explain to my very strong, independent, opinionated 17-year-old daughter, why misogyny just didn’t seem to matter in this Presidential election? Let her know that respect for her gender isn’t part of the litmus test in Presidential elections.  Boys will be boys, you know.  Just a fact of life here in the United States of America. 

Life felt lighter to me just weeks ago, on a crisp, clear Halloween weekend.  I’ll find it again I am sure.  In the meantime, be patient with me while I try to wrap my head around a great disappointment.

A friend sent me this stunning Charlie Chaplin Clip which is pure irony.  Enjoy.

My Immigrant Experience…

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It’s not my thing to take on the topical.  I am a storyteller, an observer of my own space and hope that my narrative resonates with others.  A confluence of experiences this month urges me to speak to something topical.  I will give my story-telling best to the effort.

My condominium is spacious.  It is also dated.  For the past two years, it has reflected my harried, not quite right life.  Reimagining my space seemed an important step in reimagining my life.  And so, I began slowly.  Sage green was the interior color of choice about fifteen years ago.  The previous owners of my condo seized the trend and I decorated accordingly when I moved in 3.5 years ago.  Sage green was getting on my nerves nearly as much as the walnut woodwork which surrounded it.  I have a lovely staircase which leads to three beautiful windows, their light obliterated by equally dated vertical blinds in a faux light brown tweed.

Three years ago I tackled the master bedroom myself – and doesn’t it always seem a good idea to do the painting yourself?  Halfway through my forearm ached, and the biblical Joseph’s coat had nothing on my painting jeans. The light brown with a hint of gold never quite thrilled me.

I treated myself to professional painters this time and they came by van, led by their boss,  a local friend of the Italian Catholic variety.  The workers themselves were Spanish speaking Guatemalan’s, Ecuadorians, and Mexican’s. They did the real work of painting my large family room, grand stairway, upstairs hallway, and bedroom.  Immigrants, each one. perhaps I should whisper, “I’m not quite sure if they were all legal.”

For four days, I was surrounded by drop clothes, ladders, and cans of paint.  My friendly Labrador loved the company and picked up the new shades of gray walls and white woodwork on his tail, ears, and whiskers while accepting endless affection from each painter. My typical background soundtrack is Broadway, but suddenly the sounds in my house had a salsa beat and lyrics foreign to my non-Spanish-speaking ears. For four days, my home was filled with light, laughter, and chaos.  The six immigrant workers were focused, meticulous, and happy. Their interactions with each other were easy and loving, like a band of brothers.   Furniture was hidden by plastic and moved to the center of the rooms and I had nowhere to sit, but it didn’t matter to me.  These worker bees were worth every penny, not just for their good work, but the happy spirit they brought with them.

In an effort to really make some changes, I had offered up a heavy dark wood desk for free on a tag sale site.  It was scooped up quickly and when the new owner arrived to haul it away, the two of us tried to move it. Our effort was pathetic. With lightning speed, two of the workers put down their brushes and bullied the oversized thing right into the back of her car.  She tried to slip them a tip, which they declined with humble smiles.

There is a certain presidential candidate who, had he known the scene in my condo, might have tried to erect a wall around it.

That leads me to my other place of immigrant interaction.  Like most of us, I seem to find myself at the same gas station several times a week.  Often, just for a quick diet coke, or emergency can of dog food.  There are two workers there who know I am a regular.  The first, a twenty-something Indian girl named Suman, studies at the register when the place is quiet.  Over time she has taken to calling me “beautiful lady”, and that has led to sharing bits and pieces of our lives.  She discovered that I am a College Counselor, and often peppers me with questions about her goal of becoming a nurse.  Suman is hungry to improve her lot and achieve beyond her current station.  I found out recently that she has taken a second job at a local deli.  Her work ethic astounds me. Suman’s hours are long, her dreams for herself imbued with enviable hope.

Jahir is my other gas station friend.  When I walk in, I am always greeted with a sunny, “Hello, Ellen.  How are you today?”  If I have been away, he might say, “I’ve missed you, where have you been?”   He is articulate, his English lyrical.  He often arrives at the gas station around 5 am, though I might not roll in until mid-morning.  I have never known him to lack energy or civility.  His heritage was not immediately clear to me.  It did not matter and I did not ask. On one occasion I overheard him being teased by a local young man.  An American young man, who was not kind, though he thought he was clever. He found his fun in Islamic and Muslim references.  Jahir took it in his stride, offering a vague nod and half smile.  When the young man left, I asked him, “Jahir, is that hard for you?”  He smiled broadly, “Don’t worry, it doesn’t bother me. It’s Americans, no harm.”  I have since discovered that Jahir is Tibetan, a Buddhist.  Hmmm…, may I please have an ounce of his peace and restraint?

Last week, I saw him reading something at the counter and asked about it.  It was a Christian Pamphlet, which mused about the need for Americans to get back to Church.  While explaining the content, Jahir paused, and said, “I don’t know about that, but I do wonder why everyone in this country seems so angry?”  There was no aggression in his question, not an ounce of judgment or implied criticism.  Only thoughtfulness.  I replied, “I wonder the same thing, too.”

I am sure that Suman and Jahir are legal.  I know that someday they will find work better suited to their ethic and intellect.

I want them to meet my other immigrant friend.

Today, Andrei, the Russian I so often refer to in this space, will officially become an American Citizen.  It has been 25 years since he arrived here from the then Soviet Union.  Beyond his dynamic persona, Andrei is one of the smartest men I know.  He speaks four languages and was a linguist and teacher in Russia, after serving in the Army.  Twenty-Five years ago, when he decided to stay, he began the arduous climb so many immigrants must. I have never, not once, heard him complain about work.  I hear Americans complain about work all the time.  If I was punching someone’s clock, it’s likely I would be complaining, too.

I will not be present for Andrei’s ceremony.  He would like to do it as he came to it, alone.  Someone has given him an American flag for his lapel, which he will pin on his freshly cleaned blazer.  Directly after his induction as a citizen, he will register to vote.  I can see him now, in my mind’s eye; shoulders straight, serious of purpose, proud that he has made this great country his own through grit and determination. I am so very proud of my Russian friend.

I am out of my depth in answers to regulating immigration so that it works for the benefit of this nation. I don’t pretend that my opinion really matters at all. All I know is that the immigrants with whom I am familiar are an inspiration and inform my life in a very positive way. I also know, that unless we carry Native American Blood, we are all of immigrant stock.  Perhaps a good thing to remember when the rhetoric gets hot.

My Wednesday Place…

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I have a Wednesday place.  I didn’t choose it.  Candidly, I was sort of go along to get along at the suggestion.  I feared that a ghost from another time might make it a place better left alone. Not engaging ghosts is tricky business in my small swath of world.  I gave up a local tennis venue and regular supermarket. Short of moving away, I had little choice but to brave it.  And so I did, one winter Wednesday night ten months ago.

In the muddle of last year’s Rubik’s Cube of heartache and Uncle Bobby’s precipitous decline, weekdays felt no different than weekends.  Days raced and crawled into weeks and months and I had nothing in me that resembled mindfulness.  Getting through without dropping a spinning plate was all I could muster. I wanted to settle deep into my couch and shut the world away. Somehow, in the middle of each week, my world found its pace.

In the midst of The Januarys, my beloved, incorrigible Russian friend offered a midweek answer to the doldrums.

The place is not really the story.  It is dimly lit and there is a maze of rooms to navigate. At its center is a wonderful, weighty, oak, wrap-around bar whose equally heavy, tall chairs invite you to sit for a spell.  On the far side is a dance floor and small stage.  My only other time there was spent on that crowded dance floor celebrating a love unexpectedly returned. It left again before I even had time to catch my breath.

Like with people, I am not so much for flash.  I crave the comfort that comes with knowing something or someone over time.  I am skeptical of nouveau. The feel of a well-worn moccasin will forever outpace the thrill of immediate infatuation with anything, human or not.  Too many of us seek freshness. Familiar and flawed is where I find my bliss. It is where interesting lives.

As I walk in each Wednesday night, it is reassuring to see that the cracked window at the entrance remains unrepaired.  Damaged but not broken resonates with me. I am equally glad to see the faces that make the core of us.  There is Andrei, of course, the de facto center of our group.  I often only see him on Wednesday and he never disappoints in enthusiasm. When he has a story to tell, he animates in extremis, all talking hands and punctuated speech.

Tina is there, too. Blonde and beautiful, she embodies the elusive confidence of 30 somethings. I remember that surety in myself.  I love her bravado and candor.  She is Russian as well, and I laughed aloud one day while reading a text from her announcing our Wednesday place as “consistently inconsistent.” Those Russians love to craft their second language with cleverness.  She nailed it.

My Wednesday place began as we three.

My writer friend, Joanne, was a come lately addition. Intrigued by my unbreakable Wednesday appointment, she is now a warm staple;  like apple pie and a scoop of vanilla ice cream on a crisp Autumn night. She came just to see and hasn’t missed a Wednesday since.  Joanne trumps us all in warmth.

Dana, too, does not disappoint in commitment.  A mother of four, one doesn’t have to be prescient to know that she is also trying to find her life’s rhythm. One week she’ll grab the Karaoke mic, and the next she might quietly observe.  Mostly, I think she likes the promise of gathering with trusted souls.

Week by week our Wednesday place found its traction and others began to come, curious about our commitment to a well-worn place that promises little more than a finely poured beer.  The other cast of characters are “consistently inconsistent” in devotion. Some we already knew; some we are coming to know.  If life were a sitcom, my Wednesday place would have a continuum of guest stars, each one adding a different dynamic; their often unexpected appearances adding to the shenanigans.

The left corner of the bar is our weekly goal.  Unlike weekends, when this place is packed, Wednesday is rarely crowded. Still, commandeering the left corner is never a given, more like a gift. It guarantees a flow of conversation and the best angle from which to observe the usually mediocre, but sometimes spectacularly great karaoke which takes place in the vast space on the other side of the bar.  And yes, on occasion I lend my voice to the mediocrity. There have been epic failures like “Love Shack”, and a nearly acceptable rendition of “California Dreaming.”  The former all empty flash; the success of the latter owed to low register and subtle octave change. The B-52’s makes me edgy.  The Mama’s and Papa’s are comfortable personified.

Speaking of comfort, I have one more piece to add to the mosaic.  There is a bartender at my Wednesday place who is the most consistent of us all.  He is an Irishman with boyish charm; a peer for us in a place where a majority of the clientele need proper I.D. Over months, in small drips of conversation and revelation, he has become a part of us. He is an ear for the serious and the silly.  He has an intangible gift we all know, but struggle to incorporate. When he talks to you, you feel like you are the only person in the room, like what you might be saying is important.

While tending to his work, he always finds a way back to our corner. There’s often a wink or a smile emanating from his warm, comfortable face and that tells me that he “gets’ our motley crew.  Perhaps, I romanticize the place. If I do, he’s part of the fairy tale.  There is no satisfactory substitute.

My favorite Wednesday night of the many was the first after the death of Uncle Bobby.  I extended my reach to invite friends to join me in Memorium  They came, and I traded my Stella for the Uncle Bobby preferred Guinness.  We toasted his journey, urged on by my friend’s patience for stories of him.  Uncle Bobby would have loved my Wednesday night place and all the people who make it so. Like the brown plaid blanket he placed across his lap, he would have worn this place with comfort.

Ten months have passed since Andrei’s suggestion.  He could not know then that his intuition would help heal a heart that felt like shattered glass or sustain me through the difficult walk I faced with Uncle Bobby.  I have no idea how long the Wednesday night ritual will continue. Life seems so expansive to me now, so filled with limitless possibility, that I can make no promises.

But, tonight I will be there; comfortable and grateful for friends and an unexpectedly special place.

High Loft

 

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It has been ten years of mounting loss: my mother, father, marriage, favored Aunts and Uncles with children of their own, and finally, the dearest bachelor Uncle who belonged mostly to me.  The cumulative weight of it all stole my footing, left me imbalanced and tired.

The first thing I did once Uncle Bobby took his leave was make an appointment with the sea: to think, to write, to breathe.

As I write this, I glance at the Horizon of Napatree Point, on the southeastern most tip of Rhode Island.  I hear fog horns, and the clang of ship bells.  The tide is low and so the waves do not pound, but rather lap rhythmically.  I haven’t breathed this easily in ten years.

I was plucked from a Catholic Charities orphanage in Saint Paul, Minnesota at six months old.  Louise and Bill Toole became my parents and brought me home to Rhode Island; the smallest of states which boasts a remarkable 400 miles of coastline.

Serendipity and the sea began for me at a very young age.

My grandparents had a home in Weekapaug, a tiny hamlet of Westerly, just north of Watch Hill. I didn’t know, when I was a girl, what a privilege it was to be by the sea.

Summers vacations were spent running up, down and around my grandparents seven-bedroom, clapboard shingled house on the shore at Weekapaug. It had a long front stairway which led to a sprawling porch a few hundred yards from the ocean.  On a clear day,  you could see Montauk Point.

My days began at the beach and ended tucked in, sunburned and sleepy in a tiny trundle bed, studying the sea glass I collected after dinner from the stretch of rocky shore in front of the house.  Blue, clear, dark olive green, turquoise, and brown. I would roll the smooth, opaque treasures in my tanned fingers as I drifted off to sleep enveloped in crisp, clean white sheets. The sound of waves was like a gentle lullaby.

That family home was sold sixteen years ago, forced by the complications of an aging generation and the next dispersed with their own growing families. The concept of a shared “family” vacation home became impractical. The sale of High Loft was heartbreaking.

I drove by that beautiful place last week, like some Peeping Tom not wanting to be seen, but wanting to see how our home weathered the last sixteen years.  I had done this drive of reminiscence before, but never when the new owners were home. Sure enough, a gentleman walked down the steps to see my stopped car and I felt “caught”.  Rather than move along, I took a chance and rolled down the window.

“Hello, I’m Ellen Toole”.

It took him but a moment to make the connection and he grinned,

“Well, hello there! Would you like to come in and see the place?”

Frank and Clare Toole had owned that marvelous home since the early 1950’s. Their name had not been forgotten.

I parked and walked up those wonderful stairs, as I had so many times, and saw that the home’s name was still in place: “High Loft”.  Rather than go right into the house, I walked immediately to the magnificent deck and was amazed to see that the green and brown wicker rocking chairs so familiar to me had been re-caned to perfection, and the wrought iron furniture of my childhood was still in place. In the center of the deck remained a vertical beam, which serves as the center hold of a circular table, painted hunter green still.

I could almost hear the chatter and laughter of so many summer nights spent on that deck. In my mind’s eye, I pictured my imposing grandmother in a colorful shift dress, and my elegant, sweet grandfather in a seersucker shirt, his wire-framed glasses suggesting dignity.  My mother’s laugh flooded my senses and I could almost see my dad, sipping a martini on the deck of the home he loved the most.

Adults with proper cocktails and the requisite cheese and crackers around 5 p.m.  Cocktail hour was a signal to the kids that dinner would soon follow.

As well,  the presence of Uncle Bobby was sharp.  He would stop there on occasion for a cocktail before heading back to Providence after a beach day in Misquamicut.  Uncle Bobby was an in-law, not a Toole.  But Grandma Barry, Aunt Rita, and he were always welcome and memorable visitors to High Loft.  The Barry’s and Toole’s were a model of melded families.

I entered the house from the back screen door, my unexpected host pleased to hear my rambling narrative of memories.  Each room brought a smile to me, so much of the home completely unchanged in the intervening years.  It was purchased “as is”, and so the kitchen and pantry were a special delight.

I spied an old-fashioned, red-trimmed glass maple syrup server often used for Saturday morning breakfast, and the dishes, with a soft pink floral design, remained unaged. Glasses, shelves of them, were the same as I remembered.

We worked our way upstairs, by the tiniest lavette I’d ever known tucked on the first landing, and then upstairs to the bedrooms which were frozen in time. The same beds, bureaus, mirrors and chairs, refreshed with new coats of paint. While in my time I’d slept in each room but the master, I hastened to my favorite: the first bedroom on the left.

That room had two things going for it: a lethally soft mattress which enfolded even the slightest body and a door which led to a porch.  As children, my brother, various cousins and I would sneak from that porch and climb the shingled roof which hung over the deck.  From that perch the view of the Atlantic Ocean was unparalleled and during cocktail hour you could safely eavesdrop on all adult conversation.  Climbing was taboo, but we rarely got caught.  If we did, it was likely that my dear dad would be sent up to retrieve us.  He would, with a wink and a smile.  It was just the sort of shenanigans that tickled him.

I’m not the first to revisit a childhood home and won’t be the last.  Regardless of any reality I’m missing, my childhood memories at High Loft are sacred.

The current owner was armed with questions about our history there.  I answered as best I could, but have no idea of my accuracy.  I’m a curator of family history, but my memories have a gauzy film; a soft lens which knows the soul of the place better than its bones.

I was called to task recently by an old someone I used to know that one of my innumerable flaws includes being “privileged”.

I would guess they’re right:  an orphaned child from Saint Paul, Minnesota finds her way to a loving family with a magnificent summer home by the sea?

Privileged seems the right word.  In my world privileged equals blessed.

As I walked to the car, the owner asked me to wait a moment and he raced up the steps to return with a piece of stationary featuring a pencil sketch of High Loft.  The sketch was done by my Aunt Jeanne in 1990 and was somehow left behind.  He handed it to me as a gift.  He was the perfect host.

I wasn’t in my old home more than thirty minutes, but I left warmed by the grace of my host and the sureness I have that High Loft is well loved and its’ history, honored.

My visit was an unexpected gift;  a great privilege.

 

Pots and Kettles..,

petard

And, I fail….

Often, I fall short of my best self; disappoint my positive self-perception. I don’t need to be reminded. It’s fair to say I am my own worst critic.  I’ve spent much of this past week in communion with my flaws, in reaction to a comment about my competitive tennis piece.

Perhaps you’ll indulge me.

A comment from a reader called Pot and Kettle initially made me smile. People who know me, know I have a soft spot for idioms. How clever of a reader of mine to one up me with one?  As I read, it became obvious the commenter was a familiar someone. In cleverly crafted prose, there was the suggestion that in my recent blog I had hoisted myself on my own petard; an idiom marvelously imagined by William Shakespeare.

I was quick to understand that They were the kettle,  and I, the pot.  It was an accusation that despite my public persona, I am a hurtful person.

Suddenly, the reading of comments lost their pleasure and self-doubt grabbed my heart. The Catholic girl in me chafed with guilt at the suggestion that I might be a hypocrite, a phony.

So here’s my first confession:  I recoil at criticism. In writers’ groups, on the tennis court, in the face of my seventeen-year-old daughter, criticism raises in me, first guilt, then instantaneous defense.  I might have become an attorney, so adept am I at swatting away its initial blows.

But here’s the other truth:  part of my mercurial personality comes with the guarantee that once the hot white spotlight of criticism fades, I am likely to ruminate in it, dig and pull at it incessantly to understand its source.  I can say with surety that more often than not criticism settles into a place where I give it serious study.  It is my nature to reflect on the good and bad in me and here is the not so grand:

I can be, in no particular order, judgmental, sarcastic, opinionated, and sometimes clever at cost to others. Let’s add that I might enjoy some gossip and sometimes that swagger I love morphs into an unearned feeling of superiority.

I am guilty in all those things. I have wonderful people in my life who have none of those flaws, save the gossip.  It is my experience that few of us are immune to that temptation.

And that’s the thing, isn’t it?  All of us walk around in this human skin which makes being our best selves, all the time, uniquely challenging.

However, there is nothing I write that is exaggerated or spun outside my truth. I write from my soul and I do not employ poetic license or seek to make my mark in creative nonfiction.  As a writer, one might call me a personal essayist.  I am not imaginative enough for fiction. The facts within my stories have credence because, to paraphrase the stunning Broadway musical Hamilton, “I was in the room where it happened.”

I do not seek to hurt.  Even in the weakness of my soul, or when anger inhabits my heart, I never take aim at someone’s achilles.  If you see yourself in my musings and the reflection doesn’t flatter, well then, it’s likely you behaved badly.  It’s also likely that I sought to diffuse, or make amends sometime after the dust had settled.

You will not see Pot and Kettle’s comment on this page.  I suspect the source, but cannot verify. The commenter posted anonymously using a hijacked email address.

Here’s another truth: if I have something to say to you, I will say it with my ‘owned’ voice.  People pretty much know where they stand with me. Want to poke at me, challenge my veracity?  I’m open to discussion and pretty easy to find.

If you have something to say, own it.  And for goodness sakes, my blog is not required reading for anyone.

A final thought: Anonymity is the righteous domain of good deed doers and philanthropists. It’s best left to them.