Common Sense and me

commonsense

My mother helped me navigate my life with her common sense-ical consistency and dismissed my natural impatience with simple wisdom, Don’t wish your life away.

She often reminded me that life was not meant to be easy, but, Stay the course, and things will work out as they are meant to.

Rather than plainly criticize me when I went about my young life with urgency, she applied idiom meant to remind me to slow down.  

“Well,” she’d say peeking over the reading glasses perched on her nose, one eyebrow slightly raised, “you’re busier than a one-armed paper hanger.”  

To which I might reply, completely missing the point, “Whatever, mom, gotta go.” and off I’d speed to fill my life with the kind busyness that has little to do with productivity.

It would take years to let that particular idiom resonate but, at 56, I whisper it to myself from time to time when busyness morphs into weariness and agitation.

Step away, be unto yourself, but most of all, breathe.

Last Saturday night I dreamt of a baby; a porcelain-skinned, nearly hairless, baby girl.  I didn’t hold the baby in my dream, she was just there next to me, her chubby arms dancing at nothing, serene and happy.  

As I made my coffee the following morning, I couldn’t shake that baby from my consciousness and I did what we do these days, I googled dreams of babies and two possible meanings flashed before me:  a need for affection or an impending life change.  

As I have ample love in my life, the latter made perfect sense.  

Last Sunday, the baby girl who sprung from me nineteen years ago hopped in a car filled with her worldly treasures and began her own journey,  nearly across the country. She intends to start a new life in Colorado. And, as is her wont, not in traditional fashion: work first, school second. After all, “Mom, it’s ridiculous to spend money on that when I’m still trying to figure out what I want to be.  I’ll take classes, but work is the best way for me to figure that out.”

Wait, wut?  That sounds oddly like common sense.

Just a year ago, she boarded a plane for Africa, returned home three months later for a brief respite, then off to Ireland for a two-month junket. In that time I marveled from a distance at her confidence and innate ability to maneuver herself. When she finally returned home?  Well…, I have enjoyed a companionable housemate for the last seven months. Sigh…

A week before she left, her belongings were either packed or vacuum sealed to ensure room in the car she made sure was given a thumbs up from her mechanic for a journey across the country.  She did not race about saying goodbyes, but rather carefully made time for the people whom she will miss the most. There were no anxious demands that this or that be done for her and, there was a small part of me that wished she needed me more.  She was well prepared for a major life change.

The night before she left, we took an early evening walk in my new neighborhood and meandered to the tennis courts, where a competitive match was being played.  We sat among the spectators and the former owner of my home sat next to us. He had not met Grace before and calmly probed her about her plans. The engagement between the two of them was sweet, and I faded into the background.  

At first, she only gave him the skeletal outline, but his interest encouraged a reflective conversation about seeking what you want in life. I listened as he offered her something beyond advice, follow your heart, work hard, just keep going, one day at a time.  I could nearly see his words seep into her.

Grace confessed to me the following evening, the same night I dreamt of that beautiful baby, that before that conversation with a man she met by happenstance, she had been feeling anxious, “I think I was meant to meet him, Mom. He calmed me.”

I understood why.  As I listened to him, I heard common sense.

As I said goodbye the next day, I was anxious and emotional. My baby girl?  Cool as a cucumber.

I write, not to share that I’ll miss my girl; that’s obvious and I am not unique in this change of life.  What most fascinated me is watching her “be”, rather than watching her become. It moves me to observe her welcome life with the kind of enthusiasm that only works when it’s wrapped in common sense.

I write with an awareness that the common sense my mother encouraged in me didn’t really find traction in my life until recently. It is likely that I will forever be a smidgen too impetuous and emotional for my own good.  

Grace was only five when her grandmother died and therefore never had the benefit of my mothers often lyrical counsel. I watch my daughter and wonder if perhaps the lessons of my mother, which too often passed through me, somehow made a home in her.

I suppose I’ll never know, but I suspect that the baby in my dreams was a bellwether of change in Grace’s life, as well as my own.  Of course, she’ll be back to visit from time to time, but Connecticut, I think, will no longer be her home. She has the common sense to know that we make our lives; that if we want one filled with color and texture, we seek it. It won’t knock on our door and beg us to join in, but rather will come to us when we are at peace with ourselves.

Applying common sense to the adventure? My mother would say, That’s as plain as the nose on your face.

My Ancestry and Me…

ireland

A funny thing happened on the way to Saint Patricks Day 2018…

Or, a funny thing happened to me on May 8, 1962…

I was born in Saint Paul, Minnesota and placed in a Catholic Charities orphanage. Within six months, I was adopted by a wonderful Irish Catholic couple who swept me away to the place I will always consider home: Rhode Island.

I was steeped in Irish lore from the start and my adopted lineage had a direct line to the Emerald Isle. I often selected the costumes of my childhood to incorporate the Shillelaghy (walking stick) of my deceased maternal grandfather. I still have, folded and stored, the Irish linens my maternal grandmother brought from the old country. I’ve no real use for them now, but can’t bear to part with their exquisite detail.

They were Barry’s and Murphy’s and I remember two great-uncles; one a policeman, the other who worked at the racetrack. They were immigrant stock, working class, and my grandmother Mary was their center. I loved the duplex she shared with Uncle Bobby and Aunt Rita until her death. I found comfort in the framed photograph of Pope Pius which hung in her living room, with a crucifix to its right. Sometimes, while she baked, she let me hunt through my deceased grandfather’s mahogany desk. In the lower right drawer was a yellowed newspaper, dated November 22, 1963, announcing the death of President Kenndy. The black and white photo of Lyndon Johnson with a solemn Jaqueline beside him as he took the oath of office was haunting. The death of President Kennedy affected everyone. The Irish took it personally.

My paternal grandparents were Toole’s and Coughlin’s and lived in what I thought of as an enormous house in Pawtucket. They were “lace-curtain” Irish; prosperous beyond the newer immigrants. My grandfather Frank was a gentle soul. After his afternoon walk, he enjoyed a cup of tea with saltines and peanut butter. Occasionally, I joined him. The fine Belleek teacup and saucer made those small moments special. My grandmother Clare was hearty and bombastic and when she hugged you, you thought you’d never breathe again. She had, just outside her bedroom, a bookcase filled with fine literature which included Yeats, Keats and the indomitable James Joyce.

I have no memory of not knowing that I was adopted. No grandparent ever treated my adopted brother or me differently, nor loved us less than they did my naturally born cousins. Indeed, my father often announced with pride, “Weren’t we lucky that we got to pick you!”

It was me, of course, who inherited the luck of the Irish.

I wore Irish like I was born to it, helped along by reddish hair and the broad freckled-face associated with Irish lasses. I’ve heard time and again from complete strangers, “Why you’ve got the map of Ireland written on your face.”

I can trip into a decent brogue easily and fancy myself something of a story-teller. Adopted children can’t really escape wondering about their backstory and I was thrilled when I realized, sometime in my teens, that Saint Paul, Minnesota is one of the few Irish enclaves in a state dominated by Scandinavians. I may not have known my birth parents, but there was one thing of which I was certain: I was Irish.

At 52, my heart was shattered. In an attempt to mend it, I went to Ireland for the first time with a dear friend. It is what we do when we are lost; seek something that might feel like home. While the journey to be wholehearted again would take years, that week in Ireland gave me the freedom to grieve. Ireland felt as familiar to me as the powdery scent of my Grandma Barry and as comfortable as the beautifully carved handle of the Shillelaghy owned by a grandfather I never knew.

Then again, a funny thing happened to me on the way to Saint Patrick’s Day 2018.

My daughter selected Galway, Ireland as the second half of her in-progress “Gap” year. I was tickled right down to my Irish toes. Before she left in January she told me that she had done “Ancestry.com.”

My throat caught and I stumbled, “Oh, well… hmm? I have mixed emotions about that.”

She waved me off, “Mom… I have a right to know my ancestry.”

I recovered, “Yeah, I guess. But, I don’t really know my ancestry. I was thinking about doing it, but now you’re gonna know first.”

She thought on that and said, “Well, I don’t have to tell you the results.”

And that was that. Within two weeks she was on a plane to Dublin and concerns about undiscovered heritage floated away.

Until, a few weeks ago, she called from Galway, “Mom, I got my results back.”

I was silent for a moment, but couldn’t contain my curiosity, “Okay, don’t tell me too much, but give me one surprise.”

I knew there would be muddle in the D.N.A but, with her father able to trace back to Ireland on both sides, I assumed there would be nothing too shocking.

“O.K, 15% Scandinavian!” Clearly, she liked that.

As for me, no surprise – between the history of plunderous Vikings and the Minnesota connection, Scandanavian was no head-scratcher. I could live with a little Scandinavian in the mix.

It was surprisingly easy to swallow and so I encouraged Grace to continue, “So, Ireland’s the largest percentage, right?”

“Nope, only 8%, mom.”

I am no mathematician and frankly, numbers make my hair hurt, but that percentage grabbed me by the throat. If my daughter only held 8% Irish heritage, and we know that her dad holds quite a lot, then my chance of actually being Irish?

I shuddered, then recovered before I egged her on to spill the beans.

After all, I did enjoy the Ancestry commercial with the guy who traded his Liederhosen for a kilt. Scottish – that had to be it! Scotch-Irish is a thing, right? Scotland and Ireland; kissing cousins!

I love the spirit of Scotsmen, all rough and tumble. I could adjust to being Scottish and there’s the great accent, and Highlands, and Sean Connery. I was ready to order a tam and look for bagpipes on eBay!

Across the bandwidth to Galway, I gave Grace permission to give the final reveal, “So, what’s the largest percentage?”

My rascally girl drew it out, “Well, it’s huge…”

“Okay…”

“Mom, it’s 65%.”

“Wow! What is it? I’m ready.” My brain was swirling with the Loch Ness Monster, shortbread, and Mel Gibson’s bloodied torso in Braveheart!

“Well, it’s a little surprising… Great Britain!”

Bollocks!

It was not what I wanted to hear. Not because I don’t enjoy the Royals. I do. I also had a surprising attachment to this year’s Oscar Nominated “the Darkest Hour.” But England, really? Controlled, proper, high tea, Great Britain? One of the great bonds of my former homeland and my current homeland is that both countries broke free of the crown. Ugh.

To all my British friends, I apologize. But gosh, that was disappointing. I suppose it’s complicated enough for adopted children to spend a lifetime guessing what they are made of. When you adopt a homeland, as I did Ireland, you sort of want the fairy tale to live on.

I also imagine that when I do my own Ancestry.com, and I will, that the results will differ from my beautiful daughters. However, it’s quite unlikely that Irish percentage will be north of her paltry 8 %. I will root that my new yearning for Scottish blood just somehow missed her. I’ll be sure to report the results to my readers.

In the meantime, I’ll take a page from my dad’s book. I’ll continue to own Irish like I was born to it. If challenged, I’ll announce with pride, “Wasn’t I lucky, I got to pick Ireland for my ancestry!”

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!

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.

 

 

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 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 the world.  I gave up a local tennis venue and regular supermarket. Short of moving away, I had little choice but to brave it. I did, one winter Wednesday night 18 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 nothing about me resembled mindfulness.  Getting through each day 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 weighty, oak, wrap-around bar whose equally heavy chairs invite you to sit for a spell.  On the far side are 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 thirty-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; 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 is reliable, too. The 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 memoriam.  They came and I traded my usual Stella for the Uncle Bobby preferred Guinness.  We toasted his journey, urged on by patient friends to share stores of him. Uncle Bobby would have loved my Wednesday 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.

Eighteen 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.