Fear

It has been a while since I have posted. I try to only write when I have something to say. I often have the rumblings of a post floating around in the back of my mind. But it takes some discipline, not to meniton time, to put thoughts to print or a reader or two saying, “Where have you been?  I’ve missed you.” Well, the latter is enough to get me to sit down at the computer.

Waking up each morning, I roll over to look at a piece of art on my wall made by a friend of mine who died way too young. She was creative and funny and faithful and kind. The sort of friend everyone should have at least one of. The piece has her talented hands imprinted on a heart-shaped block of barn board with the quote, “Fear can hold you prisoner. Hope can set you free.”

I look to that on the mornings the weight of the world seems too heavy to get out of bed or the ones that the sun and sky are so brilliant, you just have to. Its message is simple. I wish I could say I live by it.  But I fight the fear demons as much as a cat hates water.  Fear keeps me from flying, hinders my spontaneity and prevents me from seizing courageous opportunities.

The older I get though, the more I realize that time is short and my only promised time is now. I know that in theory.

I had an “aha” moment recently when I had planned a drive to West Virginia. My husband and I have a house there in the land of my people. He always flies and because I hate flying and love the open road and can leave when I want, come home when I want and pack what I want, I drive.

But this trip due to circumstances beyond my control like my daughter moving in with her husband and three boys and a bad cold and a cracked front tooth and some other miscellaneous roadblocks, I did not hit the road in time to make our weekend trip. We were not going. Then out of the blue my husband called and said he was going anyway. Alone. To my happy place. So happened I was on my way to the Social Security office for reasons that will remain unnamed other than the fact that it involved some medical benefits and a Social Security card I had never updated from Nancy Kyle Noble in 1975.

I hung up the call and pulled the car to the side of the road.  Leaned my head into my crossed arms on the steering wheel and I had myself a crying jag, as my mama would say. I cried for all the craziness in my life and him going on with our plans without me. I cried just because I needed to.  I was due a good cry and hadn’t had one in well over a year. I self-indulged a few minutes, then lifted my head, wiped my mascara stained face with my t-shirt sleeve and did something I have never done.

I dove in head first without a bathing cap or first calling the coast guard.  I went for it with little thought and less preparation.  At 1:10 p.m. I called United and secured a seat on the 4:20 p.m. flight. Got home at 1:30. No shower. No make up. I packed and was at the door when my husband got home at 2:30 to leave for the airport. Four hours later I was on our terrace, sipping wine and grilling salmon, lake water lapping in the distance.

Spontaneity–check. Action gratification–check. Lesson learned–maybe. But I nearly broke my arm from patting myself on the back all weekend for my carpe diem moment. A sign that a normal daily occurence in most people’s lives should be easier for me.  I needed to up my “eye on the prize” quotient and spend less time indulging habits and emotions that hold me back.

We celebrated a two-year-old birthday party last night.  My son’s baby boy.  Looks just like him and can drain a three from his kitchen foul line just like him. This child is full of smiles and love and lives in constant motion. In the midst of tiny footballs flying and basketballs bouncing and wide-eyed candle blowing, in midst of this untethered joy, my son looked at me with clear green eyes so earnest they could make Mr. Rogers look like a wily card shark and said, “Have you called your oldest friend lately? How is she?”  Now I pride myself in being a pretty good keeper-upper with my best-loved pals from childhood to present.  I tend to be loyal to a fault. But this particular person, I have let slip away lately, my life a little chaotic and all. “You should call her, ” he continued. “Life is short.”

And then my son the two time cancer survivor, father of this cherub of a boy with another baby on the way, pulled out his phone and read aloud this passage from a book he is reading:

“You know my young friend, I will be ninety years old next year, and life is still a surprise to me. We never know what will happen next, what we will see, and what important person will come into our life, or what important person we will lose.  Life is change, constant change, and unless we are lucky enough to find comedy in it, change is nearly always a drama, if not a tragedy. But after everything, even when the skies turn scarlet and threatening, I still believe that if we are lucky enough to be alive we must give thanks for the miracle of every moment, every day, no mater how flawed. We must have faith in God and the Universe, and in a better tomorrow, even if that faith is not always deserved.”

He looked at me and repeated,” Even when the skies turn scarlet…We must give thanks for the miracle of every moment, every day.”

This coming from my miracle of a son who has beaten all odds to be sitting at this table on his son’s second birthday.  Always looking forward, not back.  No fears of “what ifs” just relishing every “what now” he experiences.

I always say our messages come from unexpected messengers in our least expected moments. On my grandson’s birthday, my son gave me a gift. A stop me in my tracks gift to lift me up and take me away.

And maybe, just maybe, even on the next flight out.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ain’t no quick fixes

Seems everywhere I turn these days, someone is offering a quick fix. TV, radio and now even Instagram (what used to be a sweet little picture sharing app suddenly has sponsors every other photo) are all filled with advertisements that offer a promise. Erase fine lines and wrinkles overnight, cure all ailments with one pill, financial security on three simple steps.  We are barraged with notions, lotions and potions that lead to inner peace or the fountain of youth. The list is endless.

My daddy taught me that nothing comes easily in this life. Nothing worth having or anything that will last. Hard work was his key to success. Period. No cliff note options in his parental teaching. Long hand and long days were his answer to most “how to” questions.

Growing up we went to church a lot, I mean three days a week a lot, where I learned that selfless deeds and the Golden Rule bring good things to your life. Not to mention maybe a ticket to heaven when the time came.

Our church had traveling evangelists come to Wednesday night prayer meetings every once in a while. They offered a quick fix for that ticket if I would only take Jesus into my heart.  These guys, with their slicked back hair and used car salesman plaid jackets, were not at all what I envisioned as a spiritual guide to my place in heaven. And the thought of putting a person in my heart, which I felt sure was a heart-shaped  box of Whitman’s chocolates, just made no sense. A strange man was not touching those brown pleated paper wrappers before I did. So, much to my mother’s dismay, I clung tight to the bottom of my pew when she tried to drag me up to the alter and accept that creepy snake oil prophet’s offer.

My heart was my heart and it would stay mine until I wanted to share it. Ticket or no ticket. I chose the long way over the quick fix. A decision I rethought when I saw my dad’s disappointed blue eyes peering down at me from the choir loft, his disdain amplified by his position on the back row under the gilded organ pipes. But I stayed put.  Heels dug in.

I think about my childhood lessons when the New Year rolls around.  It seems every year my resolutions are some version of vowing to be a better person. Kinder, gentler, more patient.  And every year, maybe, I inch toward that goal.  But it takes time. And hard work.  And perseverance beyond the quagmire of quick fixes offered on Amazon in a single bottle.

I’ve explored many paths for self-improvement and I have made some headway. But physical endeavors are easier for me to tackle than mental attitude changes. Personality flaws always seem to require extra effort.  And as my brother used to say, you have to stay changed in any area of your life for five years before anyone actually believes you.

Five times 365. 1,825 days. I’m 15 in with only 1,810 days to go.

Maybe I’ll delve into a box of Whitman’s and find the mocha chocolate cream on the first try.

Nothing like a chocolate fix when you are feeling stressed.

 

 

Oceans take me home…

I recently returned from our family’s now annual trip to South Carolina’s coast. We all made it, four grandsons included, for a week of clear blue, cloud-dotted skies and cool nights. Ocean temperatures just shy of tepid bath water. October beaches call to me now more than summer. Tourists are gone.  The beach nearly deserted with only a handful of umbrellas and chairs sprinkling the shore.  Most inhabitants cottage owners and a few canine friends.

Paradise.

Ocean vacations have a special lure for me as they were the only vacations, other than a visit to a cousin or two, I took as a child. And as a family.  My dad would save up all year for one week at the beach. My brother and sister and I all rallied for this event even into college days.  The chosen beach was always a day’s drive away.  God forbid my dad would get on an airplane.  And my mother’s box of children’s books, quilts, pound cake and pile of hats would never fit in a carry-on anyway.

No our treks to the shore were an event.  An event I looked forward to from the moment the sea and salt air and seagulls faded in the distance to the moment I could see and feel them on the horizon again. I got this same feeling when I drove to the beach last month.  Dad-like in my fear of flying and mom-like in my desire to have all the comforts of home whenever possible, my car was filled to the brim with beach towels, beach toys, beach chairs, pillows, porta cribs and a case of bootlegged wine.  All that I schlepped across six state lines over three days.

And as soon as I saw my first seagull and the southern mica began to sparkle in the asphalt and brackish water filled roadside waterways, my heart began to pound with childlike excitement at what lay ahead and the treasured moments our week would most certainly hold.

My mind drifted back to rides I had taken with my family.  Same roads. Same peach stands. Same cotton fields. I was transported to the backseat of the family Dodge sedan. My older brother and sister asleep, or lost in their own thoughts, on either side of me and I wrapped in my favorite blanket, cozy laying across the backseat shelf. Yes, that was legal way back then. Untethered children could slip under the rear window and watch the evening sky whizz by.

In the quiet of the car dreaming of our days in the sun ahead, I could hear the faint crackle of static on the car radio as my dad tried to pick up a station on the backcountry roads.  I was lulled by the sound of mom and dad’s whispers as they talked most likely about nothing more than our mileage or the next turn. But their whispers seemed intimate and reassuring.

All seemed right in my world.

As my eldest grandson once said, “We are all a family, all on the church bus together.”  Where he got that is baffling to me as he at that point had never been on a bus much less a church bus. But he is like that.  He articulates feelings with insights beyond his years. And that one is exactly what I felt at that moment.

At the beach, the family magic continued. We ate out every night, something we never did at home.  Children’s menus and placemats to color felt like Christmas to me. We spent lazy days on the sand. Watched my dad burn his knees as he always did and insisted he wasn’t, made sand castles, watched fisherman cast their lines into the surf.  Walked the shore peeking in fish buckets for a glimpse of their catch. Rode the waves, took outdoor showers and slathered apple cider vinegar on our rosy skin for those of us who admitted we had gotten a little too much sun. Try it. I promise you will be brown by morning.

Going to bed smelling like Easter eggs and waking up to sugar-coated cereal, peanuts in the shell and store bought cookies, all rarities at home, the hours turned into days and the week inched toward the dreaded Saturday that meant cleaning up, packing up and heading back to reality.

I hear and feel those memories when I am at the beach now. I could reach out and touch that young family, those sacred trips. I see my mom or my dad or brother, all gone now, behind sunglasses, lounging on beach chairs, sifting the sand for shells. I hear them in the pound of the surf.  I sense them in the soft breezes and star lit skies.  They are all there. In my thoughts, in the laughter of my grandkids, in the dinner table chatter over boxes of carry-in.

They live on in the next generation. That circle of life is a comfort to me.

And I feel that hope and reassurance most by the sea.

 

“What was the name of that dog you had?”

I have been thinking about a comment my brother made a couple of autumns ago. He said, “It’s fall with it’s heartbreaking riot of color. A short and poignant season.”

That thought was particularly touching at the time since he was fighting a cancer battle that we all knew, including him, he would lose. And it has stuck in my mind since, especially now that days are shorter and leaves are starting to change. He has been gone a little over a year, and this observation as well as many things he said, are bubbling up on my mind at times when I search my brain to retrieve them and others when they just show up unexpectedly.

But unlike that cousin of an uncle on your father’s side who shows up at your door out of nowhere and stays too long, I welcome David’s words with open arms and wish I could hold him and his thoughts closer. Have them both stay a little longer. Forever. Truth be told, I’d take an hour or even fifteen minutes.  A one line text.

Recently, I have come to understand something my mother used to do that I never got. In fact, I thought it was silly or even a little compulsive.  She would write dates and names of of those in the picture on the back of all her photos. Similarly, she kept copious journals of daily events, not long, in depth thoughts or musings.  But simple logs of a trip or a visit from an old friend or a book she read. Just normal daily stuff.  If a journal wasn’t nearby, she would jot thoughts on 3×5 cards she kept by the phone in our living room. Or if one of her treasured books was at her fingertips, she would tuck a favorite thing inside for future readers to enjoy or a grandchild to discover forty years later. Which happened last night when my daughter opened The Language of Flowers, one of my mom’s favorite books.

Little did I know, she was giving us a gift I wish everyday I could receive more of. The gift of getting a person back for a moment.  To catch a glimpse into their thoughts, their longings, their soul. I suspect she knew then what I realize now. She lost a sister and her own mother way too young and she knew. She suffered those losses and she longed for that one afternoon. She understood all too well that once someone leaves you, there will be hundreds of things you would love to ask them that seemed trivial or mundane when you had them there beside you day to day.

So in her subtle, or even subconscious, way she was leaving breadcrumbs to lead us back to her on the days we thought we couldn’t bear another day without her. Or wondered what she might say or feel about a profound moment or something as simple as flower preferences.

My husband lost his sister twenty five years ago.  Recently at his niece’s wedding it came up in conversation that her given name was Florence Buffington but she was always called “Molly”.  Neither he or his brother or any family in attendance could answer the question of why. His parents both are dead as well as most of their generation. So there we sat playing guessing games with how one gets to Molly from a birth certificate that reflected nothing like it.

Twenty, even ten, years ago it would have taken a simple phone call. A question asked while passing in the hall before breakfast. But our own worries and challenges seem to leave little time for idle chats with those we love most. And too often we get stuck seeing no further than our own mirror.

We forget to take to time to look, really look at those closest to us and ask them what’s in their hearts. What they hope? What they dream? Their regrets. Their favorite ice cream flavor.

There is no way of knowing what we will miss about someone most until they are gone. Or what we forgot to ask. After my grandfather died, I longed to hear his voice so I have saved voicemails I can pull up when my heart can take it.

Ask. Ask again. Leave a trail.

So that someday, some child won’t open a musty, dust-covered photo album and point to your face in a group shot and say, “Who was she again, mama?  What was her name?”

 

 

Life through my living room window

There is a question that has been plaguing me lately. Not really a question. Perhaps more of an observation.

When did everyone get so old?

Athletes like Jack Nicklaus, dashing princes such as Prince Philip, heart throbs like Robert Redford–even perkiest of perkies Sally Field–are over 70, some a decade or two more.

I watch current movies and the sex symbols of my youth like Jessica Lange are now playing grandmothers, not femme fatales. King Kong’s object of affection is now a Nanna?

Men I used to think of as the hot dads at elementary school spring sings now have a head full of gray and tote grandchildren to these events.

Most notably watching this slow progression to the grave has started through my living room window. For thirty years I have seen the same faces walk past my house to ride the morning and evening trains to the city from our suburb.

Folks who used to jog to the train bouncing by my house with backpacks now shuffle by, humped over dragging their ancient briefcases. Some park outside my house to save the half-mile walk. Same faces. Same people. Just an image and persona that’s older. Tired.

It’s as though I have watched Shakespeare’s Seven Stages of Man performed right out my front door.

Recently, we took our kids out to dinner for my son’s birthday. Being the hip mom that I am, I planned a pub crawl of sorts and at the first stop, the bouncer asked for ID’s.  Without blinking, I said I didn’t have mine. He gently patted my shoulder and said with a smile, “Don’t worry, we are letting minors in tonight.” He might have well asked to see my AARP card and offered me a walker. I knew I should have left my Ray Bans on a minute longer and taped my loose neck skin behind my ears.

I was standing in a children’s shoe department a few days later looking for Natives for my grandsons. (Natives are the new Crocs.) Their display is my least favorite merchandising idea of all time. They have each pair attached by cardboard hangers on long hooks off a pegboard with at least eight pairs to a hook. And the size you need is invariably in the back. So most often as you reach for your size, the entire line of shoes fall off to the floor or worse, the whole metal peg detaches from the wallboard and you are left with six pairs of rubber shoes dangling on the metal pole like you just played Go Fish for Keds at the county fair.

Anyway, as I reached for the size 11 , sizes 6 through 10 went tumbling to the floor, piles of colorful rubber rolling in all directions. I looked down and staring up at me was a miniature human no taller than my knee with saucer-sized blue eyes. “What happened here?” he asked earnestly, offering me a single capped toe orange shoe.

And I thought, “Man are you right, tiny person.”

What did happen here? Where are my babies and how I am shopping for grandkids?  Can tempus fugit  please stop? Or at least slow to a nice stroll?  Can I just take a deep breath before I am the face in old family pictures where the next generation asks, “Who is that again?”

I remember my mom saying in her 80’s that she looked in the mirror at a face that didn’t match the 18 -year -old girl that lived in her heart.  And maybe that’s the secret to aging.  Keeping your youthful joy in your soul.

It makes me think of one of my sister’s favorite quotes by Albert Camus:

“In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger – something better, pushing right back.”

Invincible summer. What a great name for a season.

 

 

 

Anger

I’ve been thinking lately about anger.  Where it comes from and who I am really mad at when it boils up inside of me. I just finished a 21 day meditation with Oprah and Deepak online. (Like Adele, last names not needed.) It was my third round of meditations with those two.  Since Oprah thinks she has reached enlightenment and Deepak appears to actually have, I thought it was a combo worth trying for a meditation neophyte like myself. The idea of stopping for ten minutes to breathe deeply and clear your head has always intrigued me, but I have also dreamed of being 5’11” or 21 again, so go figure concerning the general practicality of the thoughts that fly though my brain minute to minute.

Meditation I thought, and now believe, can bring a calmer, more reflective outlook on life rather than a knee-jerk reaction to events or people. And my quickest responses to upsetting situations is most often anger. What confuses me about anger is that it is seldom directed at the correct person or situation.  And often I realize, the person I am angriest at is myself.

As a child,  I was angry when I received Poor Pitiful Pearl for Christmas (not kidding, look her up: http://www.dollinfo.com/pitifulpearl.htm) when my playmates got Barbies. I was angry I wasn’t Shirley Temple after hours of practice dancing up and down our basement stairs and laborious, stinky Toni perms. I was angry I was number 11 in my high school graduating class when the top ten were featured in the newspaper. Childish resentments perhaps but I was angry nonetheless.

In therapy sessions sprinkled throughout my adulthood, I worked though some of those childhood slights and tried to heal my bruised inner child as Oprah and Deepak suggested I do. So now, I wouldn’t call myself an angry person. But maybe a closet resenter is more appropriate.

Like many of us, I resent unfairness, injustice, incompetent politicians and those who function with a myopic view, often no further than their own nose.

But on a day-to-day basis, I resent people and situations that don’t reflect my view of the world and how we all should act or interact. What I think should happen, how I think a person should react, how I want to remember my past and what I want for my future is not what I always find when my expectations meet reality.

When those two don’t match up, I am disappointed. And too often when I am sad or hurt or disappointed, I get angry. And anger, like failing to forgive, hurts you much more than the object of your anger. It raises your blood pressure, interrupts your sleep and makes you look much worse than the person or situation you are attempting to dress down.

Anger is ugly.  Spewing vitriol looks and sounds ugly.  And although harsh words often reflect a deeper pain, the message they send does nothing to heal or fix underlying feelings. In fact most often, they push the receiver further away. And give you a heavier load to carry in your backpack of anger and resentment.

Throughout my meditation experience, the underlying theme seems to always drift back to letting go. Letting go of expectations of others, letting go of judgment, letting go of the past, letting go of worry about the future. While meditating, my goal is to stay in the present.  The exact time and place you are in at that moment.  That is a tall order for someone who functions with at least an eighteen track mind where my thoughts always seem to be speeding and colliding and intersecting.

But I stop.  I make time.  And I try.

Deepak would say, and I agree, that meeting others where they are, rather than where you expect them to be, with compassion and hope is life altering. For me, putting that attitude into my everyday life would be a game changer.

I do believe that accepting life as it actually unfolds, rather than how you have planned it, keeps you in the present. Where the real stuff happens. Where the living is really done.

And offers a life of more joy. And less anger.

 

 

 

 

 

Gracie

Visiting by brother toward the end of his life, when he was under Hospice care, I found myself thinking as I  turned the corner to enter his corridor, “What should we chat about today?” It’s a weird transition to get to that point with family where, because of  the elephant in the room, we think ahead occasionally of discussion topics.

Not that the depth of the relationship is any different but with terminal illness there is so much medical stuff to discuss, that talking about the weather seems trite.  But heavier life/death discussions seem a waste of precious breath at this point.

So as I entered his room I said, “I got a dog.”  And my bother, who after recent treatment was functioning with half  his brain power which for most people would feel perfectly normal on a good day said, “A dog? Why would you do that?”  And I said, “Why not?” And he said, “Because it is a dog.”

We both laughed and I have thought about that conversation many times since my year-old Gracie entered our lives.  She seemed so simple and sweet and the perfect addition to our family when I purchased her.

We “rescued” her actually but as my husband loves to remind me, she is the most expensive rescue dog on earth. She was purchased as a purebred by a woman who mistreated her and then rescued and trained by a lovely woman who trains service dogs.  She’s actually head of the National Association for Service Dogs.  So when I “rescued” Gracie, she was a certified emotional support dog and came with a pretty big price tag. But who doesn’t need emotional support and with my brother dying, I surely did.

So I brought this dog home and all was well. She was my little bundle of grace that I needed at the time and by little, I mean eight pounds and a handful of ounces little, so how much dog trouble could she be?  As it turned out, rescuing a dog at eight months right before the holidays gives you little time to spay a dog. So when she went into heat, which in my part of the country is like saying you just married your first cousin, I remembered what my brother said and thought how “doglike” of her to go into heat without checking with me first.

I even went to the vet to discuss this heat thing, which we are now on week seven of, and the vet after my first question said, “Honestly, I don’t get these questions often.  Ninety percent of our dogs…”

Point taken.  Point confirmed that I am a hillbilly owner in a neutered world.

In this part of the country, we go to the anti-cruelty society for mutts. We don’t breed them. Dogs don’t just show up one day with a litter under the basement stairs like my childhood pet, Chips, did. I know, go figure. Male name. Female dog. No wonder my sweet mama was surprised by the pups. I’ve joked with friends that with all the “fixed” dogs in my neighborhood the only chance Gracie will get pregnant is if a coyote slips in the yard. Which God forbid they have been known to do now and then as we live near a heavily wooded forest preserve.

Which brings me to another interesting tidbit. The east coast has recognized a new breed of animal in the last decade or so. A coywolf. And no, I’m not kidding. Over a century ago, as wolves were nearing extinction, nature took it upon itself to preserve this species by having them interbreed with dogs and coyotes. All with similar DNA, this new “species” has produced enough offspring to be recognized as a newly evolved animal. Ten percent dog and the other ninety wolf and coyote, these coywolves run in packs, combining a dog’s fearlessness of humans with the open prairie instincts of a coyote and the woodland preferences of the wolf. Before you think just I’m blowing smoke, read for yourself.

http://www.economist.com/news/science-and-technology/21677188-it-rare-new-animal-species-emerge-front-scientists-eyes?fsrc=scn/tw/te/pe/ed/greaterthanthesumofitsparts

These animals are roaming closer and closer to urban settings and survive on rodents and small animals. Rodents, cats, squirrels. Small mammals as in little white dog. Like the one in my view, in my yard, off-leash as I type. Guess I’m two for two in flunking Rescuer 101. Fenceless yard.  Allowed heat.

Male dog magnet, fences, vet visits, coyote bait, tripped-over chew toys at every turn.

A dog? Why would anyone want a dog?

Because in spite of her messy little problem and her penchant for toppling wastebaskets and barking at the wind, she loves me best– completely and unconditionally. And on my lonely days when I miss my brother most, she finds a warm spot on my lap and licks my face if I cry.

That’s why.

Full Circle

I wait for blogs to come to me. I hope for them.  When I go months without one, I feel guilty as though I have failed my readers. That is silly, of course.  Really.  I am not your weekly anticipated op-ed or Anna Quindlen column.

But God, how I’d love to be.

babiesTonight I had dinner with old friends at a cozy local pub. Soon after we sat down, talk drifted to our grandchildren. And other friends walking by chimed in about theirs and iphones flew out, pictures were passed around, voices became more animated and joy was shared.

I thought.  Oh my.  We have come full circle.

One of the ladies at the table was a friend who used to hitchhike about the country. Alone and uninhibited. Blonde and happy and free as a bird. Male drivers, female drivers, pick ups trucks, semis–nothing daunted her.  Her baby pictures were the first to show up.  Hers were some of the proudest. From seventies liberated chick to grandmother. Just like that. A blink. A blur.

I ordered Christmas cookies this year, as I did last, from my college suite mate who was the sassiest girl I had ever met at that point in my life  She wore a kimono as her robe and sang like an angel in the shower.  She snuck boys up the fire escape in an all female dorm. I adored her spunk. Her cigarettes.  Her joie de vivre. She was exotic. And now she is back home with her beloved mama making hand-cut sugar cookies. She even admitted to me recently, she doesn’t like to “merge” on highways and often takes the backroads.

Another high school buddy, who had her share of uninhibited youthful escapades, makes sausage now. Like her daddy. And her grandfather. And probably his. She is the backbone of her community and works hard for clean water and fair trade and lends a generous hand to all those who need it. When the city’s main water source was polluted by corporate monsters for months, she and her Uncle Dewey handed out crates of free bottled water from her factory dock.

We all rebel in some way, at some time against all we needed, loved and believed in. And then, most often in the end, we do what we know.  We come back.  We come back to some part of those who loved us best. Who shaped us. Gave us the chutzpah to stick out our thumbs on a freeway or buy a pack of Winstons on the sly.

And if we don’t return, we miss it.  Even if the people that formed us broke our hearts or, intentionally or unintentionally, tried to take our souls. Messed with our minds or confused us. Inspired us to turn right when our hearts craved what the enticing left offered.

We miss that familiar sound of the familiar. And we come back.

It’s a good thing to come home to that intrinsic part of ourselves. For me, it keeps me sane. I often joke that I open my mouth and my mother talks. I view a situation in a way I never did before and I hear her voice in my head. I look in the mirror and remember her saying her reflection didn’t match the 25-year-old girl that still lived in her heart.

And now I understand.

I understand her unabashed adoration for her grandchildren because I have my own now.  I understand the joy of loving a child, a tiny human miracle, without the angst of making it perfect or changing its dreams. No desire to guide its direction in life. Just a heart full of boundless love and awe. Grandchildren are our gift for our own sleepless nights and driver’s license tests and “wherearetheywhenwilltheycomehomewhydonttheycall.”

They are our gift for hanging in there.  Through medical crises, marriage crises, death, disappointment, loss and renewal. These babies are a welcome tonic for the unsettling understanding that we are the older generation now. With few left to look up to and seek for guidance. But many to thank and look back upon with grateful hearts and a new understanding of how hard it is to do all of this gracefully.

Now it is our turn to be the guide. And sometimes just watch it happen.

Because that’s how people and traditions and families survive.  And hope remains.

We pass the baton to the new ones.  The next generation. Whether they are our own babies or students or neighbors, these fresh, innocent faces are who will bring on the future. Embrace it and love it. Mold it to make their own version of history.

And hopefully, occasionally, they will hear our voices in their heads.

Carpe Diem

david-for-paperWell I suppose I should rename my blog to a quarterly newsletter as the past few months might reflect that change in pace. But with fall in the air and grandchildren back in school, I find myself sitting at my computer. Hoping to return to at least a monthly entry.

The past year has been a bit of a blur to be honest. Both my mother and my brother died over the last twelve or so months, my brother six weeks ago. Losing your mother at 92 is life changing but a bit expected. Losing a sibling is another thing altogether. Especially this sibling.

David was a true individual.  True to himself and his own set of values. He spent everyday of his life with a lust for learning, living and taking it all in at his own pace. He didn’t waste a second of his life being bored. Carl Jung said, “The privilege of a lifetime is to become who you truly are.” It was as though David was born with that understanding and enjoyed the freedom to be who he was meant to be, at birth, by the stars, every day he lived.

Nothing he loved more than bantering with friends and family. He was witty with an uncanny ability to tell a story and laugh at himself as easily as the situation. He was entertaining and easily entertained by a broad spectrum of interests. A gifted English literature scholar, he was often voted Professor of the Year.

He was a romantic who saw the world in soft focus as well as full of truths and ironies. He could be a crusty curmudgeon who covered a soft and sentimental heart.  Never simple, often complicated, being around my brother was an adventure. Whether telling a story or living it, he pulled you in for the ride.

And ride we did over the past year.  My husband called it his farewell tour. David loved water. So we traveled to oceans and lakes for holidays and getaways.  We always had something on the calendar to look forward to.

David approached death as he did most other things. Head on.  Early in his diagnosis, when we all had this faint but persistent hope that the doctors were mistaken, we sat on my sister’s front porch and planned his funeral. Actually, he planned his funeral and I wrote his obituary.  I even read what I wrote and he listened and smiled. And added a line.

His memorial service was as individual as my brother including his love of literature as well as Doo-Wop music. A secular gathering, we had five songs and five poems. Starting with A. E. Housman’s  Loveliest of Trees followed by Maurice Williams’s 50’s single, Stay, profound simply in its title, we ended with the Ronettes singing Be My Baby. With Pavarotti and Shakespeare thrown in the middle for good measure. There was some dancing, some clapping, some tears and laugher. The event celebrated the life and personality of my one-of-a-kind brother.

David had an unflinching distain for any sort of authority.

He fought traffic cops, dress codes, deans, job interviewers, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, anyone who told him “no.” But death was an authority he could not defy.  But damn if he didn’t do an incredible job of trying.  When they gave him six months to live, he lived fourteen.  When they warned of dramatic side effects of treatment, he would have none of it.

He took his prognosis with a grace and dignity I am not sure I possess, but he certainly showed me how it is done. Part of his stoicism, resignation was that he knew, from the first test, that 50 years of smoking his Vantage Blues had brought him to this moment. But far beyond that, he dove in, took what was prescribed and with every fiber in his being, lived every second he had left. And lived it fully.

No self pity. No complaining. No “what ifs.”  Only “what nows.”

And he “nowed” the hell out of every breath he took until his last. Bald and too thin, he never lost his sass.  His sly grin, his sense of humor, his love of the moment always shone through.

Every nurse who cared for him was a little in love with him. He never lost “it.”

That intangible, beautiful, sometimes frustrating, always intriguing thing that was David.

I only heard him utter one sentence of sadness about his plight. We were sitting on the beach in Florida, a cloudless cerulean sky on the horizon and sweet, sea breezes rustling the palms. He said, looking outward not at me, “It’s much easier to think of dying in the bleakness of winter than it is at a moment like this.”

I miss him.  I miss him every day.  But he gave me something.  Something huge. He reminded me that life is to be lived, not worried about, over-analyzed and most importantly, it is not to be lived on someone else’s terms.

You only get this one chance.  One try at this living thing. And I am working on a shift.

A carpe diem shift.  More salt water in my hair.  No guilt for staying up too late to watch Dirty Dancing one more time on Bravo. Pushing on when fear holds me back.

Living as the authentic person I was born to be, the one I was meant to be.

I want to find her.  And live her unafraid so that when I come to my last breath, I can close my eyes and see all that I did, loved, dreamed of and hoped for. I want a parade of beautiful memories. Opportunities embraced. Failures accepted.

A life of carpe diem.

 

Holding tight and letting go

baby stauntonIt’s a funny thing, this life.  Full of ups and downs and twists and turns.  And the older I get, the more I feel I have little to say in which direction it takes.

As a kid, I thought it would be the opposite.  If I got good grades, went to church, brushed my teeth, came home on time, I had this illusion that I had some say in what would happen to me.

If I was good, life would be good.

And for awhile, actually, it worked for me.  I got my A’s, my teeth didn’t fall out and I was rarely, if ever, grounded. I was surrounded by good friends, my home was a safe haven. I had much more than food and shelter.  I had love and security.

Now forty some years later, I am fortunate to say I still have most of that. My teeth included, give or take an implant or two. But there has been a major shift in my thinking.

This world we live in is both fragile and solid, turbulent yet predictable. And I have come to understand it is all more out of my control than within it. Much to my surprise, that realization has been more liberating than frightening. Accepting that fate or God or something much larger than my little finite mind can imagine is at the helm, has started me on a journey of letting go.

I am trying to stay in the moment, with the joy or pain and just live it as it happens. Appreciating the present which is after all, the only thing we can really be sure of.

Since my last post I have been busy living plenty of beautiful moments.  My eldest had her third baby, her third boy, who melts my heart and lightens my days.  My son, who fourteen years ago I worried would not live to be married much less have a child, just had a son who shares his name and gentle disposition. This expanding brood is a gift.  And brings me peace and solace amidst the storm of the daily news.

My brother who was given months to live a year ago, just celebrated another birthday. He surprised his doctor and himself. We know he won’t beat this thing but he is showing me how to fight it with grace and dignity.

Moments. Savored moments in between the stuff we think is so daunting but in our hearts know is not. Too many days of rain or parking lot scratches on our car or Murphy’s Law lines at the grocery store.  Just stuff.

My son and his son and I had a spontaneous, quiet afternoon yesterday.  It was a rare day for Chicago summers. Clear and crisp. Little humidity for mid-July. Breezy verging on windy per the city’s reputation. We took a long walk in his neighborhood. Places we have never walked, just he and I, since he moved in three years ago. I knew it was a moment.  I relished it.  Every step.

And after a couple hours of walking and talking and stopping and cooing over his beautiful boy, a half block from his house, out of nowhere, without a snap or a crack or a bit of warning, a healthy huge tree limb crashed to the sidewalk fifteen feet in front of us. We were both taken aback. Startled out our placid little stroll.

We stopped and almost in unison we asked what was it that we did in those couple hours that put us twenty seconds behind that limb, not under it?  Was it the second pair of jeans I tried on at the 75% off sale, or when he insisted I step onto his knee to hoist me up to see over the picket fence of his favorite house in the neighborhood?

I looked to the heavens and said, ” Thank you, Mama!”  My agnostic son did not laugh or chide.

We walk through this world thinking we have some control and out of nowhere we can be stopped in our tracks. Or spared.

The now.  That’s what we have.  I’m trying to live there.

Staying there is my challenge. Unfortunately, it takes something within my feeble reach but something I often cannot muster up.

Self control.