Requiem

My grandfather died in 2003, and if it were true that time heals all wounds his death is one I should be long recovered from, but I’m not. The missing waxes and wanes, but it is never entirely absent. This month, this year, I have missed him more than at any time since he left us.

We seem to be having quite a conversation about men recently, and perhaps that is part of why I am missing him. He was one of the best men I’ve known. My grandfather was, in many ways, a guy’s guy. I’ve seen photos of the strong young man he once was, and I know there was some turbulence in his youth. I know he had no trouble holding his own, at any time in his life. He was a tough man who spent his life doing physical labor, but he was also a gentle man who wrote poems to his grand-daughter:

Because his father, an immigrant from Germany, died in a construction accident when my grandfather was still a teen-ager, he was not able to pursue a formal education as he would have liked to. Instead, he became a machinist and welder and served our country working in the Bremerton shipyards during the second world war. Later, he owned his own small business, Ott’s Welding and Machine Works. He was a lifelong Republican and a devout Catholic. He was also the person who taught me about the injustices committed upon native people and black Americans. He hated Hitler and the tactics he’d used to gain and keep power. One of his favorite sayings was, “I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” This, during an era of so much protest against actions with which he likely agreed.

He also taught me much about how men should treat girls and women. I remember only one time in which his anger was directed at me. I made a face at the asparagus my grandmother had made for dinner, and both the words and tone of his rebuke were sharp. Later, he apologized for the sharpness and explained what had made him angry. He did not want to see my grandmother’s work disrespected. He adored her and viewed her as his partner in their business and home. They were always a team.

As I became a young adult and developed my own political views, we both became aware that mine were different from his. That never changed our relationship. We knew that despite our different ideas about how to achieve the kind of America we wanted, what we wanted was the same: a country with equal opportunities for everyone, in which who you are matters less than what you do. He taught me that it is important to play by the rules and to play fair. To be honorable and to have integrity. He never suggested, in words or actions, that I mattered less than anyone else because I’m female, or that any person mattered less than another because of their skin color. Those were not his political values, they were his human values, and he imparted them to me.

I know that many of the ideas and beliefs I had for decades about what our country is and how it works were, at best, incomplete.  I know there are things he never saw or knew about what has created and denied opportunities for all of us, but that doesn’t change the goodness he embodied. I miss him, and I miss living in a country where I felt confident that most people wanted those same things for everyone that both he and I wanted for them. Where I believed that our systems were strong enough to protect us from those who did not.

I know that my grief and sadness and feelings of loss for the man my grandfather was are all mixed up with those I have about losing the beliefs I once had about my country. The country he taught me to believe in because he thought it was what I know he was:  decent, fair, just, humane. What I wouldn’t give to be able to talk with him again, and to feel about all of my countrymen what I once felt about and for them. To believe in them–in us–the way I still believe in him and what he stood for.

I am my brother’s keeper. And so are you.

I’m thinking of my brother Joe on his birthday today. For two weeks each year we are the same age, but on New Year’s Eve he takes a step ahead of me again. In the back of my mind, all through my life, I’ve known that one of my roles is to be my brother’s keeper. It is only in recent years that I have been able to see him more fully for who he is in his own right, separate from me.

What we all wouldn’t give, those of us who know him, to have fuller access to the brilliant mind we have only been able to see at a glimpse. When Joe was preschool age, in a program focused on teaching such life skills as toileting and eating with utensils, his teachers one day realized he was reading. My parents credit Sesame Street and The Electric Company–as well as Joe’s intelligence–for that self-taught accomplishment. When we were teen-agers, he used to sit on the living room floor each afternoon and write a sports report on a manual typewriter, perfectly capturing the voice of sports reporters. He still reads the newspaper every day, follows politics, listens to religious talk radio (that one’s a puzzler for us), watches sitcoms from our childhood, and tunes into every televised game the Seattle Seahawks and Mariners play. He adores dogs. When we were kids, he taught ours to chase cars. Some of you might remember him running along the side of the road in front of our house, barking at cars as they drove past, our terrier mutt Fritzie at his heels. (The 70s were a different time, eh?)
 

Joe was not accurately diagnosed (with autism) until we were in our early 20s–which means that his entire formal education failed to address many of his actual needs or develop his intellectual potential. Academics were basic and played a minimal role in his schooling, which is outrageous to me now but did not seem wrong then. Joe was already 10 when we passed the law that guaranteed a free and appropriate education to all children, and I think my parents were grateful that he was in school at all.

While the shifts in understanding and acceptance of autism that have happened in our lifetime are wonderful to see, wondering how things might have been different for him and our family if he’d been born at a later time is a mental path I rarely travel down because it is too painful (and pointless). A lack of services and understanding have limited his life to a degree I can hardly express. The world is a dangerous place for a young, mute man who cannot/will not comply with social norms, such as following directives from police officers. My parents have done what they felt they needed to do to keep him safe in it. (Maslow’s hierarchy of needs for the lose.) 

It has long seemed wrong to me that Joe’s care has been primarily the responsibility of our family alone. I am my brother’s keeper, but Joe is his own person, with his own feelings, needs, habits, and dreams. (After “graduating” from high school–which meant only that he turned 21 and was no longer eligible for educational services– he told our dad that he wanted to go to college, “like Rita.”) Joe belongs to the world as much as any of us do. What happens to the Joes in our society who do not have a safety net of family? What happens to Joe if the one beneath him frays and cannot hold? How do we value and care for those among us who cannot fit into all of our round holes? Or any of them? How can we better support them in being their full, autonomous selves?

Joe is my brother, but he–like any of us–is fundamentally yours, too. We haven’t done very well by him, in many ways. Later today, he’ll be opening a dog calendar from me. It’s what I give him every year. He’ll hang it in my parents’ utility room and faithfully turn its page on the first of every month, and he’ll be happy to have it. He seems to love those calendars. It’s fine for what it is, but I sure wish I–we– could give him more, and that in the pages of the days in the coming year he might find, in addition to cute dog photos, a life with more independence, freedom, and connection to his fellow humans. I hope that, for Joe, as we are coming to know better, we can do better. I hope it’s not too late for the boy who was born too soon.

 

And so this is Christmas

There are the children’s ornaments, one to commemorate each of their years, turning the tree into a time capsule of their youth. And here are the cookies your grandma used to make, and the tablecloth your great-grandmother crocheted. As you take out of their styrofoam boxes each of the ceramic North Pole houses your father collected in the ’90s, remember how your son used to love them and was so good about not touching the reindeer and elves, even though he wanted so badly to play with them. He’s grown up now, and now the village lives here, in your house, even though he does not. Your daughter is, too, though she still likes to snuggle her pup (who’s turned into an old dog), and she still wants her apple cut up like sunshine.

One night, after the gifts have been opened and the stockings emptied and the logs in the fireplace lit, you’ll find yourself returning to the words of a Yeats poem that haunted you 30 or more years ago. Even though you are not yet grey, or even old (not really, not yet), you’ll understand them in a way you didn’t then, and you’ll wonder at the mysteries science can’t explain–how you somehow knew (when it seems you couldn’t have, because so many of the pages in your book were still blank and could, in theory or fantasy, be filled with any number of possibilities) that those words were meant for you, that for you love, even at Christmas (or especially at Christmas), would be a pacing thing that hides amid a crowd of stars.

All the light we cannot see

My girl is back, and the house feels right in a way that it hasn’t in months and months and months. I haven’t been locking my bedroom door before going to bed at night, the way I do when I’m the only one sleeping here. Every night when I turn the little knob in the handle, I know I’m being silly. I know that no one is going to break in while I am sleeping. I know that even if someone were to try, that flimsy lock would be scant protection from harm. I feel the absurdity all the more when I consciously choose to leave the door unlocked the first night Grace is home.

Maybe she will need to come in during the night, I think, as if she were still a little girl who might need her mother in the darkest hours of the day.

In these first days back, it is just the two of us here. She is home for break, but both of us are still working. She has papers to write, and I have an all-day training to put on two days after her arrival. Her first night, a Wednesday, is my first day of migraine. I push through pain and fatigue and that constant low-level hum in my skull that keeps me from the sleep I need to conquer the headache. Every Thursday meal is take-out.

Friday afternoon, after the training is done and I am officially released for winter break, she tells me to go to bed. “Only for an hour,” I say. “I need to get my sleep back on track.” Nearly two hours later she wakes me, and we order a pizza. “Tomorrow we are eating real food,” I promise.

The next day I am supposed to attend a work-related meeting, but that night I hardly sleep. I’ve been trying not to take any more meds–I’m already over the recommended dose for the week, and in the past year there have been some stern conversations with me about that in which words such as “heart attack” and “stroke” have been used–but I can’t stand the pain any more. I swallow a pill at 4:00 AM, counting on the odds to be in my favor, so she won’t have to deal with any heart attack or stroke while she’s here alone with me.

Later that morning, after waking again, I’m still in migraine fog, but the pain has lifted. I miss my meeting, knowing that if I go I am guaranteeing myself another night like the one I’ve just had, and I don’t want to play medication roulette again.

We have a slow day. I putter, picking up the worst of the week’s clutter. We talk. She procrastinates on the paper due by 9:00 pm. I take a shower mid-day and go to the grocery store, so I can make good on my promise to cook real food. I give her feedback on her paper, the way I used to do when she was in high school. She clicks “send” on it, and I make popcorn and we watch a movie, snuggled together with the dogs.

Sunday morning I sleep in–finally–and wake with my head almost clear. Daisy dog and I settle in with a cup of tea and Nina Riggs’s The Bright Hour, a memoir about living while dying of cancer. Riggs and her two sons are so young–she died before turning 40–that I can hardly stand reading it, but I do because the writing is so beautifully sharp, like sunshine on snow.

It is when she writes about wondering how to tell her sons that she is going to die, and I remember mine at the ages hers are in the memoir, that I have to take a break from it. During the year his dad and I were coming apart, Will had trouble sleeping. (Oh, nuts and trees, nuts and trees…) I would let him get out of bed and lie on the couch while I sat at the nearby computer, prepping for my next day’s lessons. When I was finally done working for the day, he’d be asleep. I would pick him up to carry him to bed, his arms gripping my neck as he breathed into it, his long legs dangling from my hips. I knew that in maybe less than a year, I’d no longer be able to carry him that way; he’d be too big and I’d be too small. The idea that there would be nights I couldn’t because we’d be sleeping under different roofs, that I would not be able to carry him because I wouldn’t be there, wrecked me. Reading now, this morning so many years from then, I can hardly stand to imagine all the feelings Riggs didn’t put into her book–or, at least, the feelings I imagine I would have had if, instead of a divorce, I’d been facing a terminal diagnosis.

I go to Facebook and distract myself with photos of friends, many from my own childhood. One has a son who just graduated from college. Others are cooking or attending parties or–more so than usual in this most wonderful time of the year–missing parents and grandparents who are forever gone. I see a message from my first best friend; we have both just celebrated birthdays. I reply, reminiscing about the time it snowed during our joint slumber party, and I feel myself choking up.

I miss her so. There are so many people I miss now. In response to my last post here, a cousin wrote, “I sure feel that I have missed much of your life.” Yes. Yes, we have missed much of each others’ lives. I remember the time she lived at our grandparents’ house, an interim stop on her flight from her parents’ nest. When I’d visit, she’d drive me to Baskin Robbins for ice cream and polish my nails, and we’d sleep together in her bed. I remember lying there in the dark, under the eaves of a house none of us can now go home to, listening to her tell me stories about her mother and her sisters and her fiance, who was living in another state for reasons I don’t remember, and I miss her and our grandmother and that house.

I think about the horribly corny movie Grace and I watched on Friday (The Christmas Prince), which we howled through because it was so full of terrible cliches. When the main character tells a child that her dead parent is always with her and never really gone, I think:  That’s such bullshit. Why do we tell each other these things that aren’t true?

I cuddle the dog, sip the tea, wondering when Grace will get up. I think about how I so often feel when I am alone in the house, contemplating what I assume will be my future, and how it feels so different now, just knowing that she is sleeping in the room beneath me and will soon come up the stairs, groggy from sleep.

I think about how I missed half the nights of the second half of my son’s childhood. About how I have missed  years of the lives of people I love. About how I am entering the third year of missing half of Cane’s days, and he mine. It is not enough to send cards or exchange Facebook messages or see each other once every few years. We need to share meals and errands and hugs. We need to carry each other to bed, whisper truths in our shared dark.

Unlike Nina Riggs, I am still alive, and I find myself wondering what I would want, how I would live if, like her, I learned on the night of winter solstice that my condition was eminently terminal–that I could not count on years in which to figure out what is essential and what can be–should be–let go.

I wonder why it is only in the not-something that I see so clearly what a something is. That it is only in my girl’s absence that I have seen all the things most precious in the life we once shared, and that it is only in her presence again that I am seeing the true outlines of all that my solitude does and does not hold.

There but for the grace of

“I was going to learn how to have fun, dammit…. I … was going to become someone who not only could LOL, but would LOL. Because I was going to lighten the fuck up and find inner peace…”
–From the About page of this blog

I come from a family of women who laugh.

Ours was riddled with abuse, addiction, and abandonment, but I didn’t understand that when I was a girl. What I remember most was the adults around me laughing, over everything and nothing. I knew, in a vague, abstract way, that some hard things were happening, but none of it seemed as if it could be all that bad because no matter what was going on in other places, when we were together everyone was laughing.

It wasn’t until my grandfather died suddenly of a heart attack, when I was just 16, that anything about this struck me as wrong. His death came weeks after that of a great-uncle, leaving both my grandmother and her sister mid-life widows, and instead of that of my bedridden great-grandmother, who told the grieving daughters caring for her that God should have taken her instead. As they gathered in the kitchen to make meals and plan another funeral, they did cry, a little, but still they laughed.

“How can they sit around laughing?” I demanded of my father, furious–with fate, with God, with my laughing family.

“It’s how they cope,” he said. “If they weren’t laughing, they’d all be falling apart.” I didn’t understand. I was falling apart, and I knew laughter wasn’t going to hold me together.

I always felt one of them, but also different from them, light where they were dark and dark where they were light. When I was a little girl, they called me The Judge, because I was so sober and serious (and judgey). “Here come the judge, here come the judge,” my grandmother and her sister would sing, just like Sammy Davis, Jr. on Laugh-In, cracking themselves up.

As I grew older, I came to think of us as a family of women. There were a few boys–in fact, I arrived at the tail-end of a cluster of them:  my brother Joe, my cousins Michael and Tom, and I were all born within the span of a year. But these were my mother’s people, and the women were the ones who remained constant. Many of my cousins had fathers and step-fathers who just weren’t there. When I was young, I didn’t know where they’d gone. I thought that when people divorced, the dads just left, permanently. It wasn’t odd or bad to me; that’s just how it was.

That many of us had been born to hurriedly-wed teen-age mothers was also just a part of the family landscape. It wasn’t anything talked about, usually, but it also wasn’t something hidden. That, too, was just how it was. One night, after Tom’s  wedding, we all ended up at a bar where the band played “Why Must I Be a Teenager in Love?” and  “I Could Have Danced All Night,” which were met with peals of snort-laughter as the women of my family named each of those who should have danced all night when they were teenagers in love.

As I got older, I came to believe my difference had something to do with fathers and delaying childbirth and staying married. My mother’s father, my grandmother’s second husband, was one of the few who didn’t leave. So was my own. My mother was a teen when she married, but she’d graduated from high school, lived on her own for a bit, and wasn’t pregnant when she walked down the aisle of her church on the arm of her father, who handed her to mine. I believed that difference had given me a leg up in life, and wanting to give that to my children kept me in a damaging marriage far longer than I should have stayed.

My cousin Shannon, sister of Michael and the next-born after me, was the daughter of one of the hurriedly-wed mothers who later divorced. When we were kids, Shannon was bubbly and funny and cute and fun–the opposite of me in almost every way–but my natural ally against the boys. She balanced the gender equation of those of us relegated to the kids’ table by our common birth year, for which I was always grateful. She died recently, just a few months shy of her 50th birthday.

I wish I could tell you that her death was due to an accident or a random illness, but it was neither of those things. I wish I could tell you that after we both became adults we remained close, but that’s not what happened, either. The last time I saw her, I hadn’t seen her for years, and her appearance shocked me. She was only in her late 30s or early 40s, but she looked years older. I could see the features of the pretty girl in her lined face, and she still laughed easily, but I could also see on her body the years of pain she carried within it. I felt shy with her, wanting two contradictory things simultaneously:  To both hold her close and to hold her at arms’ length–not just because I no longer knew her and she felt foreign, but also because I wanted her to be foreign. I wanted her to be not-me. I wanted to believe that my life contained nothing of whatever had done what it had to her.

I don’t know the particulars of much of her story, but as I worked to absorb the news of her death amid a cacophony of stories about predatory men, it seemed to me that one of the most salient facts of her life might have been that she was born into a marriage that began when her mother was a young teen and her father–a violent, abusive alcoholic–was an adult. Sure, he was young and (I’m guessing) immature and not all that many years older than the girl who would become his wife, but he was old enough to be a soldier on liberty. She wasn’t old enough to drive.

As I worked to absorb the news of Shannon’s death, listening to the torrent of words coming from all the people explaining and excusing and castigating and talktalktalktalking  about the Harvey Weinsteins and Bill Clintons and Roy Moores of this world, sneaker waves of grief and rage rose within me, waves of feeling that were painful in large part because having them felt like some kind of weakness or ingratitude or claiming of that which isn’t really mine to own.

I mean, wasn’t I the lucky one? My father didn’t leave and my parents weren’t mentally ill and I didn’t live in poverty and no one beat my mother in front of me or fucked me when I was still a child–all experiences in the histories of others in my family.

Still, as I worked to absorb the news of Shannon’s death, I struggled through nights of insomnia and days of migraine (those twin companions more constant than any man I’ve known) while my brain hamster-wheeled with questions about whether or not my third marriage (which isn’t even really a marriage) is going to survive or whether it should and why I cannot seem to build a life that can sustain any kind of lasting physical and mental health and if I could keep it together until my next therapy appointment and why, whywhywhyfuckingwhy is it that, when I seem to have more than so many other people in the world, this life so often feels unbearably bleak?

Here is the thing I’ve come to realize in the wake of my cousin’s death and the torrent of stories about men who prey upon girls and women–the thing I didn’t understand when I felt the instinct to keep Shannon at a distance and through all the years I worked so hard to escape the kinds of fates I saw all around me (but in important ways didn’t):  Their acts are choking vines that grow and grip and curl around all the branches of a family tree, blocking sunlight, stealing nutrients, stunting growth, causing harm to the entire organism. When I look at those of us descended from my grandmother and her sister, every one of us in my generation has lived a life marked by broken relationships, broken health, or broken children. Often, all three.

There is not one thing funny about any of this, but I can see now that the laughter I grew up with didn’t stem from obliviousness to suffering or denial of it, but was instead a means of surviving it. Laughter was the way the women in my family turned their faces toward whatever light they could find shining through dense canopies of pain; it’s the way they pushed their children toward that light and pruned back the tendrils reaching for us. It’s what kept them from drowning our roots in tears.

I come from a family of women who laugh, women who did everything they could to nurture the tender twig of a girl that was me, a girl who mugged for the camera with her cousin in their matching t-shirts, both of them all full of bravado and sass and joy, two points of light in a field of darkness who knew–at least in that moment–that they were safe and loved.

Godspeed, cuz.

 

 

 

Postcards

I have a room in my house set aside for creative projects. It used to be the bedroom of a child who can’t live here any more. I think I thought that making it a generative space would be healing in some way. That hasn’t quite been the case.

My words have dried up. I am interested in images, but I spend more time looking at others’ than making my own. I’ve thought often of Ira Glass’s words about how creative beginners have to struggle through a (usually long) period of producing stuff that doesn’t live up to our vision for it. He thinks we’re driven by a desire to create works that match our good taste, and that we have to understand that our work won’t, at least initially.

My grandmother is 100 years old. I send her a handmade card every week. Originally, I thought I would scan or photograph each one before I sent it–so I’d have some record of them–but I haven’t. It didn’t seem worth the effort. When I visit her, I see all of them in a stack on her kitchen counter. I guess I will get them back eventually, probably sooner than I would like.

Whenever I get them it will be sooner than I would like.

A blogging friend writes about taking photos to help her see the beauty in everyday life. I like this idea. My photos aren’t particularly great, don’t capture what I see–but they are enough to remind me of what I was doing and how I felt when I saw.

Maybe when I can no longer stroll through a farmers’ food coop in Chimacum, WA with my mother, a photo from a June morning in 2017 will remind me of how I felt and what I had when I once did. That will be good enough reason for its existence.

My grandmother knit sweaters when she was younger. She used gorgeous, high-quality yarns. Wool, not the cheap synthetic stuff. She taught me the rudiments of knitting when I was 8, but I’ve never made anything more than cotton dishcloths. When I was in college, I wrote a poem about her knitting. I called it her art. She gave me her knitting needles when she was done with them.

I want to take the time to muck around with images and words and paper and cloth and ink and yarn and thread, but I rarely do, other than when I make the weekly card. I cannot quiet the voice that says, Is this what you want to do with what remains of your “one wild and precious life”? And the one that says, “What are you going to do with your not-very-good art, anyway?” I don’t hear them when I’m making the cards. The images I make are not the point. My uncle tells me that the cards are a highlight of the week. He tells me this three times when I visit for an afternoon.

A Facebook friend I never really knew in high school posts his anguish one night over the death of a childhood friend, a musician who was once almost famous. Something about his words reflects like a mirror, and I write back. Later, he thanks me, and I respond that I know something of grief. Don’t all of us, once we reach a certain age? Doesn’t the exchange of words about that make us real friends?

When my son is leaving for Marine boot camp, I tell him that I will be cleaning up his room. “Just don’t make it, like, a sewing room or something,” he says. “You’re not gonna do that, are you?”

I want to say, “That’s not what cleaning your room is about. That’s not what it will ever be about.”

What I say is, “I already have a room for sewing.”

When I am done, the room is both his and not-his. I open the door every few days, wishing and not-wishing that I will see a tangle of blankets on the bed, dirty clothes on the floor, an empty chip bag on the nightstand. I don’t know why I keep opening it, but I do. Every time, it’s so damn clean. And empty.

It will never be my sewing room. I hope he knows that.

A friend I first met in a poetry workshop 32 years ago tells me to write whatever I want. He tells me not to worry about genre, or form, or making meaning for anyone else. He tells me to write–or not write–for myself, that it is time for me to do that now. He tells me it is OK if I’d rather grow flowers or make food than write. He tells me I don’t need to serve the world with my words. I don’t need to serve the world with anything. I have served enough, he says. His wife died last year. I worry about his heart, which is failing. Who will tell me these things if he’s not here to say them?

I go to lunch with my grandmother, my uncle, my parents, my brother. I look around the table, wondering when everyone got so old. I feel the engine of us shifting into a lower gear. I miss my grandma. I miss summertime lunches in her backyard, tuna salad on her homemade bread, iced tea in a sweating glass, bees buzzing among her flowers. I hate this Applebee’s, with its TV playing silently on the far wall, its too-big plates of pasta with gelatinous sauce, its air-conditioning that leaves all of us cold on a warm day.

On Saturday, a different writer friend posts on Facebook about how she misses writing. She says she is going to start telling stories again. On Sunday morning I am here, after making my weekly card, gathering the first of these words without worrying about genre or form or serving anyone else, in the former bedroom of the child who doesn’t live here any more. (I am tired of stumbling over what to call this room. What will it mean if I give it another name? Which stage of grief would that act represent–denial or acceptance?)

The world as we know it is ending, you know. No one’s going to save it. But here’s the thing: The world as we know it is always ending. Ira Glass tells us, “You’ve just gotta fight your way through,” and he’s right, but for the wrong reasons. Being creative is not about persevering to make things of good taste or to achieve ambitions. It’s about staying in the gorgeous struggle–and living to tell.

 

Taking the long way home

Twenty-five summers ago, I lived in a sweet little house in a charming old southeast Portland neighborhood. It was the first house I owned, bought not long after I married and started my first teaching job.

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It was only a few blocks from a park where I walked every day with my dog, Billie. The previous winter we’d gone to the mall one Sunday morning to buy a Billie Holiday CD (remember those?), but the record store was closed. The pet store wasn’t. This was before I knew about puppy mills. Before I knew the first thing about taking care of another living being. Or about making commitments.

That summer, Billie and I went on many walks, traversing up and down the sidewalks of our neighborhood’s tree-lined streets. I remember looking up into the trees, thinking that their branches looked like canopies. I wrote that into a poem I worked on later that fall, thinking that no one else had ever seen how trees looked like canopies. I didn’t know, then, that many people have seen canopies when looking up at trees that flank both sides of a street. These were so different from the trees of my childhood neighborhood, which was filled with Douglas fir and cedar. We had no sidewalks, nor any tree-lined streets. It didn’t occur to me that these new trees were common, or that my perception of them might be.

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I was lonely that summer. I had lived in that charming neighborhood less than a year, and in that city for less than two. I had spent most of those months working the long days of a first-year teacher. Although there were people at work I was friendly with, I hadn’t made any real friends, there or anywhere else.

My husband worked during the days and studied for the MCAT in the evenings. I spent my days walking the dog, working out to an aerobics TV show, sanding (probably lead-filled) paint from the woodwork of our 1920’s house (I didn’t know about lead-based paint then, either, even though I should have) while watching soap operas, planning dinner, and waiting for the hour or so I’d get his company when he came home. I made the uninsulated attic into the kind of private space I longed for as a teen-ager, not realizing that it would always be too hot up there in the summer and too cold in the winter, or that I didn’t need such a space because the whole house was my space. There was nothing I needed sanctuary from within its walls.

That husband–he was a smart, funny, earnest, kind, and gentle person who, like me, had no business getting married or adopting dogs. He was as good to me as any good person can be who is too young to get married. I was not as good to him. Or to myself.

Instead of facing the chasm within that my loneliness illuminated with blinding intensity, I ran away from it. I ran away from him, and our dog, and the house, and the neighborhood, and the park filled with geese that Billie loved to bark at. I ran away from all of it, too blind and scared to see that I had everything I’d ever wanted, right there:  a good person who loved me, a safe and cozy home, meaningful work, the promise of children with a man who would be a good father to them.

I didn’t know that many, many people had looked up into the same void and seen the same thing I’d seen, and given it the same wrong names I gave it.

*******

The weekend before last, Cane and I drove through my old neighborhood on our way to spend a late afternoon on the river. As I always do when driving through there, I felt nostalgic and wistful. The aftertaste of regret lingered at the back of my throat.

I thought of my house project, my recent fascination with small, working-class houses. My first husband and I bought that first house with the salaries of a first-year teacher and a lab tech. Although Cane and I both have equity in another home and advanced degrees and decades of work in our field, this neighborhood is out of our reach now, even if we could make our lives fit within its geographic boundaries. That is due as much to our respective (poor) life choices as to Portland’s gentrification, and we know the sting we feel is nothing compared to the pain of those whose communities are lost to them through the effects of systemic racism and other injustices. Still, it hurts.

As we drove through again on our way home, I thought about the home of a colleague I’d recently visited. Her lovely Portland house sits in an even more charming neighborhood, and it is filled with photos of her family. I could see how all of them have grown, together, through two decades or more. I imagined, briefly, the home and life I might have had if I’d faced my demons 25 years ago, if I hadn’t left that kind boy I married and we’d done the hard work of growing up together.

“I should never have left here,” I said to Cane as we drove back home. “I had everything I wanted, but I couldn’t see it.”

“Well, then, you wouldn’t have had your children,” he said.

“Oh, I know. I know. That’s what I always tell myself. But as my daughter reminds me whenever I say that’s why I’ll never regret marrying their dad, I probably would have had different children I love as much as I love them. I’d never have known them, so I wouldn’t have missed them.”

“You can’t know that,” he said. “You might not have been able to have any children at all.”

He is, of course, right. We can never really know where a different choice at a fork in our life’s road might have taken us. We always imagine the best-case scenario when we’re punishing ourselves for the choices we didn’t make but wish we had. In mine, I somehow get to have the same children I have now.

“Well,” I said, reaching for the hand of the smart, funny, earnest, kind, and gentle man who loves me now and takes no offense when I suggest that perhaps I should be married to someone else, “I know I wouldn’t be sitting here with you, so I guess I need to just get over all that.” I squeezed his hand, hoping he knew I meant it, hoping my daughter knows that any life I might have had without her and her brother would have been a lesser one.

******

On one my friend Jill’s recent, always-wonderful weekly list of Something Good, I found this post by Austin Kleon, about bliss stations. In it, he writes:

“It’s felt impossible lately not to be distracted and despondent. I’m trying to spend as much time at my bliss station as I can.”

Between events in the world around us and those in my own private world, I know more than I’d like to about being distracted and despondent. But what is a bliss station? Kleon, quoting Joseph Campbell, says that it is

“a room, or a certain hour or so a day, where you don’t know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don’t know who your friends are, you don’t know what you owe anybody, you don’t know what anybody owes to you. This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. This is the place of creative incubation.”

Kleon wonders if it is enough to have either a particular place or a particular time, and reading his words I realized that in this summer I have been lucky enough to have both:  Time almost every morning, and my own, dedicated creative space.

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Although I found solace in this space during the spring, over the weeks of this summer I have entered it only to iron clothes or drop off junk I didn’t want to take the time to find a real home for.

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I thought of another post by another friend, Shannon’s musings about how hard it can be to get started again after a creative dry spell.

I thought about how I have, right now, things I wanted for years:  time and space to create. I thought of all the times in my life I’ve been blind to what is in front of me, and how I don’t want to be that way any more.

I thought about how good it would be to spit the taste of regret out of my mouth.

*****

I went back to my old neighborhood, to take photos for my project. To take inventory. To confront my regrets. To see.

The old park, which once had a big, flat, grassy open field, swing sets, and a square, man-made pond, has been transformed into a natural wild space.

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I didn’t see any of the geese Billie used to chase, but a stream was home to delightful ducks.

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I walked the neighborhood sidewalks I used to walk with Billie, remembering the young woman I was 25 years ago. Trying to figure out how to forgive her.

I took photos of houses I might want to do something with.

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You can’t see the older woman sitting in a chair in front of the window, reading a book. But she’s there.

I left when I felt a migraine coming on. I went home and took a nap, grateful for the time and space to do that.

******

A few days later, I went into my creative space, wondering if I could cultivate bliss there. I pulled out my scraps of text about houses.

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I set aside a few that spoke to me, when I thought about my first house.

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I sketched it.

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That was enough for one day.

*****

I had coffee one morning with a friend who is also sending a child to college in a few weeks. The day my daughter flies out, she will be heading south with her husband and son in a car packed with the college supplies that have been accumulating on her dining room table all summer.

We compared notes on the unfortunate places we’ve been overcome by tears.

“I couldn’t stop crying in the detergent row at Target,” she said. “Another woman took a tissue from the box in her cart and gave it to me.”

We laughed.

“I’ve come to understand,” I said, “that as much as I’m crying about how I will miss her–and I will, terribly–I’m also crying over my own mortality.” She nodded. We struggled for words to capture what it is, exactly, we’re mourning.

“Their lives aren’t going to be about us any more.”

“It’s just gone so quickly. I’m not ready to let it go.”

“Our time has passed. It’s someone else’s turn.”

“And it’s too late now to do some things right.”

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*****

I saw my therapist.

“I don’t want to talk about how things are going,” I said. “I don’t want to talk about Cane or his daughter or my daughter leaving for college or what’s happening with my son. I want to stop dealing with the surface of things.”

“OK,” she said. “What does that mean?”

“Here,” I said, handing her a book open to a poem. “I wrote this maybe 20 years ago.”

A Map to the Future

You try not to despise her.
You know it isn’t really fair:
What more could be expected
of one such as she,
growing in the twin shadows
of anger and expectation?

She was the kind of girl who ran
to the edges of cliffs and jumped,
just jumped–
not because she was daring
but because she didn’t know
there were cliffs and once there,
jumping seemed the only option.
She was that blind
to her own geography.

You walk away
when you sense her
wandering through the dark
valleys of memory, wish
she could be forever exiled.
You can’t help but regret
all that she lost or wasted,
and you can’t seem to forgive her
for what she never knew,
want only to put that floundering
child away from you, forever,

do not see that you must
carry her with you
if you are ever to climb
from your desperate canyons
and lie upon the grassy meadows
that frame those gaping holes.

“It’s beautiful,” she said.

“I want to know how to do it,” I said.

*****

Last Saturday I returned to my bliss station again.

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That morning, my daughter found me there. As she settled into the corner chair, I stopped what I was doing. I sat on the floor, and we chatted for a good long time–about the election, and how different some things were when I was her age, and about college, and the effects of growing up with dysfunction in your family, and the meaning of life, and what kind of life she wants to have.

“My therapist told me the other day that it takes three generations for a family to fully recover from addiction, abuse, trauma,” I told her. “But it gets better with each one.”

It was just the two of us home together all day. I vacuumed the floor of her room, which she (and sometimes I) have been cleaning out for the past two weeks. It is still filled with her clothes, her toiletries, her scent, but it is empty of the things that made it hers. I did cry some, alone in there, but not the way I did the morning I took all the bags of stuff she no longer wants to the thrift store–her cheerleading uniform, her many school spirit t-shirts, the vampire series books she devoured as a young teen, the photo display thingy she wanted when we re-did her room a few summers ago, the pottery she painted over the course of many trips to visit her grandparents.

“Do you think we’re ever going to paint pottery again?” I asked her as she put those things in the bag.

“If you pay,” she said, grinning. I kept two small pieces and let the rest go. She thought I was being silly to keep them, that I should let go of all of them. Thinking of the clay monster I made in third grade that resides, still, in my parents’ bedroom, I told her that it’s good to be silly sometimes.

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After vacuuming, I thought about doing more of the things on my never-done to-do list, but she wanted me to watch Gilmore Girls with her, so I did. Somewhere during the second episode, I decided that I wasn’t going to do any of those things that day. I was going to just be, with my girl, all day long.

We might not get this again before she leaves, I thought, just the two of us alone for the whole day.

We puttered around a bit before going out to get pedicures. We had dinner at our favorite noodle place. We came home and made popcorn and watched Legally Blonde, an old favorite of hers. She deconstructed the feminist messages she sees in it. She left before the movie ended, to accept a last-minute invitation from friends.

I watched the end of the movie by myself, feeling the emptiness of the house settle around me. I didn’t let myself shrug it off my shoulders. The weight of it was uncomfortable, but I could hold it.

I thought about how I have, right now, things I’ve wanted for years. I felt grateful that the woman I’ve become is  stronger than that girl I was 25 years ago. That I knew it wouldn’t be nighttime in an empty house forever–that the next morning I would wake up to a day filled with light and the return of people I love, where I could enter into a bliss station and begin this post and keep working on projects with eyes that are becoming increasingly clear.

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Poem ©2002 by Bellowing Ark Press.

 

 

Closing time

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Pretty much every educator I know is a bit of a puddle by the time the last bell rings for the school year. Even those like me, who don’t have much direct contact with kids, are spent. That has never been more true for me than this year.

It occurred to me last week that the rhythm of the school year is all ass-backwards: We are ending as the natural world is blossoming and teeming with life. In the fall, when the rest of the world is turning inward and preparing for dormancy? That’s when those of us in schools are starting new, full of energy and life. Maybe that is why I so often feel discombobulated and out of synch.

I can’t speak for all of the other educators out there, but late spring is always a sort of sad, bittersweet time for me. It was especially so this year, with so many things ending. (I know, I know, I know:  All endings are beginnings. Spare me, please. If I know anything about grief it is that we have to feel all the feelings. I can hold both sorrow and joy in my hands at the same time.)

A few days ago I saw an idea I love and hopped on board with it, but the truth is that I’m too done in right now to do anything that looks like daily posting.  And I guess I’m not quite ready to turn outward yet.

I so appreciate those of you who are writing in your own spaces right now. Even if I don’t always comment, please know that I am reading. I just need some time to re-group. If I know anything else about grief, it is that we never stay in the same state forever.

Of seeds and waiting and blossoming

Please let me introduce you to Miss Rumphius:

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It is because of Miss Rumphius, aka The Lupine Lady, that I’ve always wanted to grow lupines.

She is first a librarian and then a world traveler, but after an injury she realizes it is time to find her “home by the sea” and fulfill the final prong of her 3-part life mission statement, which is to make the world a more beautiful place. She comes to do so by planting lupines.

I have always wanted to be like Miss Rumphius (well, at least since I first met her–which was probably 25 years ago), and it is because of her that I’ve long loved lupines.

Sadly, I’ve never had much luck with growing them. I’ve planted lupines numerous times, but they’ve always been a bit puny and nothing like the ones growing on the cover of  Miss Rumphius’s book.

Until this year:

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I have only this one plant, but isn’t it glorious?

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It’s struggled to grow for at least two years. Its leaves would come up, but it never flowered. I’d pretty much given up on it, thinking that, perhaps, I was just not meant to be a grower of lupines.

It’s funny how things sometimes grow and blossom when we leave them be.

Miss Rumphius plants a few seeds in stony ground, and they bloom several seasons later, after winter and then a spring of illness. Looking out her window at them from the confines of her bed, she wishes she could plant more, but her health prevents it. When she is finally able to get out again after another winter and spring, she sees that the flowers have spread, their seeds carried by the birds and wind.

It happens without her needing to do anything other than plant those few first seeds. And wait, and let things take their natural course.

I suppose it might have been well enough to leave it there, but she doesn’t. She orders bushels of seed that she begins to carry in her pockets, tossing them everywhere she goes. Some people call her crazy, but she just walks and flings seeds, trusting in the process.

Which, of course, is enough. Eventually, her flowers bloom everywhere.

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Like Miss Rumphius, I am ending one stage of life and beginning another, wondering what I might do to make the world a more beautiful place.

I suspect the seeds of an answer to my question have already been sewn, and that it will unfurl when I turn my attention to other things and stop waiting for its bloom.

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A friend told me this week that a watched peony never blossoms.

What about you, friends? Anything you’re waiting for?

Of tunnels and respite and light

2016-03-29 20.19.48Raising teenagers is hard. Combining families is hard. Raising teenagers in a combined family? Hard². Throw in some cognitive difference, some mental illness, some career challenges? You’ve got hard to the nth power.

Back when our children were younger and parenting time agreements with our former spouses were different, Cane and I had every-other-weekend mostly to ourselves. We used to joke that we didn’t understand why everyone didn’t get divorced, because it was so nice to have some grown-up time while the kids were being well-cared for by other people who loved them. It was the kind of joke you tell to help yourself feel better about things that hurt, but like all jokes, this one contained a kernel of truth.

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Last Friday it was not an exaggeration to say that we really couldn’t remember the last time we’d had a few days at home with no kids. It had been so long that we’d forgotten what it was like. We’d forgotten what we were like–just the two of us, at home, doing at-home things.

Last weekend, we got to remember.

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It was the first, glorious weekend of sun in the northwest, which may just be the most magical weekend of the year here. Flowering trees were in full flower, and shoots of all kinds were shooting.

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I got early morning time in my studio, which has become the happiest of my happy places.

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There were hours at the nursery and in the garden. We swept the deck, and cut back dead foliage, and planted onions and herbs and flowers.

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We hit up an estate sale, which prompted good thought and discussion about possessions and collections and how we’re spending our lives’ energy and the fruits of our work.

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We strolled through some favorite Portland neighborhoods so I could take photos of houses, for a creative project that is becoming my new obsession. (More on this in another post.)

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We remembered days when lying on a blanket in the park was the most luxurious of pleasures, so we stopped at a thrift store for a park blanket. We found a wonderful corduroy quilt and then took a short nap in the park.

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I also found there this perfect, tiny cup for a small cacti that’s been waiting for a home. Cups with plants might be another new obsession.

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We missed our children and talked about them a lot, but we also realized how much we’ve missed us–the us that made us jump onto the train of our life as a family.

There is still so much transition and upheaval and unknown in the terrain we’re traveling. We know that this weekend we were just coasting through the easy valley of a welcome and much-needed respite. I sometimes say that I wish I could fast-forward to the fall, when I know we’ll be in a different place with more certainty to it, but I’m trying to stay present and take as much in as I can during these last months of living with my children. Because we can’t know what’s really around the coming turns, I am trying to appreciate everything I have and cherish it right now, today.

Still, it was nice to see a flash of light at the end of my parenting tunnel, to remember an important part of why it is we’ve been working so hard to stay on the rails.

Hoping you are getting what you need in these first few weeks of spring, too. Would love to hear how things are going for you in the comments.

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