02 February 2012

Photo of the week with words from the wise



Just to live is a blessing; just to be is holy.
-Rabbi Abraham Heschel



                                                 

26 January 2012

18 January 2012

Unsubscribing


Well friends, we are back to the clean slate again, aren't we – back to the famous month of starting over. While I like to think we can wipe our slates clean anytime we feel the need, this particular time comes every 365 days a year, and so impacts us all. Whatever your approach to New Year’s resolutions, I suspect we all feel an inclination toward some kind of resolve in 2012. Forming resolutions can be a lovely and meaningful ritual, working pound-dropping wonders for many. But for others, like me, resolutions can feel like a set up for failure. Though I am quite talented at list making, and on a second’s notice can whip up an impressive list of all that I hope to improve in my life, it would serve only one purpose: to pressure me into failure. To me, lists feel unforgiving. So when I resolve to do something (particularly a whole list of things) and then slip up, the list is burned at once as an offering for the to-hell-with-it gods – which ultimately means I am worse off than I started. That is to say, instead of cutting back on sugar, I might find myself consuming the entire bag of chocolate-covered potato chips or handfuls of peppermints. (Maybe this is my own special brand of psychosis, but somebody out there must relate…anyone?) Since this type of behavior does not serve me so well, in recent years my resolve has tended to be more organic.

The other day, in the spirit of a fresh start, I was clearing clutter from my Gmail inbox – mostly retailer junk mail. Though I do quite like the stores that send me these enticing emails – West Elm, Uncommon Goods, Garnet Hill – I find that their emails serve only as a distraction from satisfaction. With phrases like, Last chance to save and The clock is ticking, the emails also add an undue sense of urgency to my already super busy life. The other day, I was feeling just fine about my current bedding. But no sooner had Garnet Hill emailed me with a New Year’s bedding sale, did I find myself lost in a land of celestial blue, paintbrush flannel sheets and heirloom rose, sateen coverlets – which is to say— in a state of pure coveting. To add to my dissatisfaction, while I am busy convincing myself that I need new bedding (which I haven’t even the money for), I am wasting the valuable writing time I so covet – or at the very least – time that could be used to launder the neglected bedding already in my possession. I do so love shopping, and I seek it out plenty; I do not need it to seek me out. And truly, friends – in a consumer culture like ours, is it not challenging enough to claim contentment already? But I digress…

Call it a spontaneous New Year’s resolution if you like, but on this twelfth day of 2012, rather than purchasing new bedding from Garnet Hill, I took my mouse for a new walk, down to the bottom of the page, in search of that ever elusive word in a tiny-as-fleas font:  unsubscribe. And hear this – with a mere click I was free – gloriously un-subscribed. It was liberating – so liberating I had to do it again – and again – until I’d gone through every vendor in my inbox.

The experience was so empowering that I got to thinking…what else might I unsubscribe from in the coming year? Perhaps I’ll unsubscribe from the junk mail in the inbox of my head – from the negative voices that crowd my mind:  the I’m-not-good-enough voices, the what-will-people-think voices; those inner voices that threaten to paralyze me and the goodness that would flow from my life. Maybe this year, I’ll put myself on a mailing list of love – seek to send more love letters my own way. After all, the more we love ourselves, the more love we have to share with others. I suppose I could also unsubscribe from the negative voices that speak from the outside:  the voices of those who (because of their own negative voices, perhaps) would seek to discourage or belittle, insult or injure. Suppose I no longer allow those voices to rock the boat of my self-worth. Suppose I send those voices out to sea, wish them well on their own journey of unsubscribing. While I’m at it, I might unsubscribe from the collective cultural voices, with their expectations and definitions of success, which I often feel so degraded by:  to hide every gray hair, to shed every last pound, to eradicate every wrinkle, to perfect my wardrobe, to seek fame and fortune…Yes, maybe this year, I will unsubscribe from the mail of untruth – to any mail, whatever the source, that thrives on threatening my sense of satisfaction with who I am and the life I choose. Now if I could only click a button with my mouse. But alas, as I said before, my resolutions are of an organic nature, just like the journey that will move me toward them.

Happy resolving, dear friends – however you go about it.

15 December 2011

Parable of the Chocolate Croissant

 
The season of Advent is like a mother and child on a coffee date. Hand in hand, the sweet pair enters Elmwood Café on a frosty morning in Berkeley and stands before the counter in anticipation of the impending goodness. Before Mother even speaks the usual words -- What would you like, my love? -- the little love is hopping up and down on his toes, declaring in his highest, squeaky voice, I want dat one! He’s pointing to a perfectly plump, perfectly golden, chocolate-stuffed croissant behind the glass case. There is no hesitation in his voice, no doubt in his awakened eyes; he wants the chocolate croissant. Strands of fine, blond hair lift and fall into the air, as he continues to perform excited little hops. The mother smiles at the cashier, We'll take two chocolate croissants, please.

Choose a seat, Mother offers. There are sun-lit tables by the window, private circular tables in a dim corner of the cafe, but the child selects the brick red bar stools at the counter overlooking the bustling kitchen. The two wait on the stools for their morning chocolate. Just over the counter, stories of love-lives-gone-wrong circle over the whistle and whir of steaming milk and grinding espresso beans. Meanwhile, Mother’s little companion finds many things to do on the stool: he spins in circles, bottom on the stool; he lays belly over the stool, letting his limbs dangle down like a rag doll; he bridges his body across two stools and rests his silky head in Mother's lap. She gathers strands of the impossibly soft hair and twists them between her fingers. Moments later, when the pastries arrive, the child straightens his spine in the chair like a tree trunk and sits reverently before the treat.
 
The Mother studies the small blond creature at her side – this, of course, is the real reason for these dates. For to watch the child enjoy pastry is among the holiest ceremonies she knows. She studies the soft-bodied child, clothed in the turquoise, wool cardigan, his eyebrows lifted high over the two dark chocolate eyes. He looks the pastry over, tilting his head sideways to the right, then to the left. He is considering, she supposes, how to get to the real substance of the thing. How to get to the center of it all, she thinks…isn't it what we’re all trying to do?

The delicate treat is at last lifted toward the ripe plum lips and placed between two rows of tiny teeth. Busily chewing, the child glances in her direction with a mustache of pastry flakes. Mother imagines the pastry flakes melting into his tongue. For a long moment, the child sits still and quiet, as if pondering something carefully – a monk taking chocolate vows. Mother would love to know the thoughts in that three year old mind, but all she can do is wait and watch: his eyelashes as they lower and flicker with changing thought, his peachy little fingers fanned out, shining with butter and feathery golden, flakes.

The thoughtful boy makes another move, this time using his pointer fingers to tunnel into the pastry. The fingers disappear into the flaky flesh, and wiggle around in that hidden world. The woman wonders, What must it feel like inside that soft as-angels-world? All that pale light, those silky layers…a kind of magic. The little fingers emerge again and begin another approach, this time working to peel back the layers of pastry. The fingers  peel and fold, peel and fold. From his heavy mouth breathing, Mother can hear it is hard work. The child breathes this way whenever he is fixed on something; it is one of her favorite sounds on earth – the hymn of small, concentrating children.

After the patient toil of his hands, the chocolate center is visible at last. A bit hastily, the child lifts the torn apart thing to his lips and tries to get at the center of it with his tongue, but quickly decides that won't do. It seems the chocolate must be extracted. Again, the pastry is on the plate, layers splayed out in submission, and the determined fingers dig back in, this time pulling out the glorious rib of chocolate at long last. Without even a brief hesitation, the chocolate disappears into the wide-open tunnel of his mouth. The child examines the state of his fingers, in particular the amount of chocolate that coats his pearly fingertips and gives them each a good lick.

Mother breathes it in deep, the sacred, warm, coffee-bean air of this moment. Eyes closed, exhaling, she considers how to hold onto these moments. How can she keep forever the wildflower scent of her son's hair, his chocolate covered cheeks...if only she could bronze these moments in time like a pair of baby shoes; for she knows it is all as fleeting and fast as pastry on the tongue. But the moment is framed on the walls of eternity and she hopes that will be enough.


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You may want to check out the Elmwood for your own chocolate date -- and the VERY best hot cocoa.
http://www.elmwoodcafe.com/
And in case you can't make it out to the Elmwood, here's a little taste of it below: 
                                     

01 December 2011

Advent Reflections, Day One: Who's Jesus?

                                                                 
 “Mom, I don’t wike Jesus,” my three year old announces, having just wandered into my writer’s shack for a visit and climbed into my lap at the desk. Sometimes he escapes Dad’s watch.

“Really?” I inquire, studying his contorted face. His huge chocolate eyes are fixated on a three-inch, turquoise, wooden cross hanging over my shack doors. Of course, being someone who quite likes the fellow Jesus, I am a little shocked. After all, from every story I’ve heard, Jesus was a fine lad – loving, true, brave; he fought for justice, he healed the sick, turned water into wine; what’s not to like? So I ask him, “Why don’t you like Jesus?”

He climbs down from my lap, peers around the shack a minute, then just stands there like a cowboy, ready for a fast draw, wearing nothing but Spider Man underwear. “I just don’t wike her.” (I note that Jesus is a girl).

“Well, I like Jesus,” I say. "I think Jesus is quite nice.”

“Where is she?” he asks, glancing around, as if daring me to pull Jesus out of my desk drawer.

“Jesus is in heaven and…in your heart…in the trees, in the wind, and even in the sea shells,” I say, lifting the shells from my desk for him to touch. I'm making it all up as I go along, of course.

“She doesn’t live in the sea shells,” he says, like I’m definitely misguided, or maybe even an idiot. “She doesn’t.

“You don’t think so?”

He’s silent a moment.

He cranks his head off to one side. “Is she wittle?” 

“No…not really….well – big and little, I guess…because Jesus is everywhere in everything.”

Maybe it’s the red spider man underwear, or the dried up chocolate pudding around his cherry lips, but he commands such wonderful authority standing here, fearlessly stating his position on the lady Jesus, and furthermore challenging me to define God on a moment’s notice – an impossible task with any length of notice. 

Later I will ponder the significance of our conversation – how children not only say the darnedest things, but are such magical creatures, brimming with an inborn wisdom. Being a fan of God myself, of course, I hope my sweet son discovers the joy of a life with God; but I’m not concerned. I think we all shy away from things we don’t understand. It’s not uncommon for us to rashly decide we don’t like something simply because we are baffled by it…or because it presents a challenge to us or even frightens us. It is, after all, much easier to dismiss the things that scare us than to dive in and swim around in the messy unknown – so much easier to pass quick judgment. But rich is the journeyer who keeps asking the questions, even if she needs to keep a loose hold on judgment or fear along the way. Eventually, we ask enough questions to let go of what it is we were afraid of, and what it is we did not understand. And new understanding sets us free.  

Since God is a forever unknown, so mysterious, so beyond the scope of the mind with its tiny little compartments, my three year old reminds me to delve into the mystery of spirit life anew. He reminds me to state my questions and proclaim my thoughts in bright red underwear. He challenges me to figure out more of who Jesus is during this Advent season – and to eat more chocolate pudding while I’m at it.





08 October 2011

The Offering of Ourselves


Friends, I have taken a leap of faith. The preschool planets have aligned and we have found a lovely spot for our very busy, very social, very running-around-the-house-naked toddler. He is now spending his Monday through Friday mornings at a safe, clean, and positively adorable Montessori school …with cloth-covered snack tables, where children help themselves whenever they are hungry; with baskets of rolled up rugs, for each child to unroll and play upon in his own space; with pet canaries, barefooted teachers, and slippers on all of the children’s feet. Right off the bat, the school is more than I could have ever hoped for in a preschool.

At the same time, (see how the planets do align!) my writer’s shack has just been completed. And like the preschool, it is more than I could have hoped for, with its darling Dutch doors opening onto a garden of pineapple mint and sage, with its spa green walls and cedar planked ceiling. And my own poppy-red desk chair that calls me into boldness.  

Why then, when my three year old enters the gates of the school each morning, does it feel like he is dragging my heart along behind him – like a wooden pull toy without any wheels? My heart bumps along, feeling each uncooperative pebble, every uneven portion of ground, and gets wedged into cracks of earth along the way. The journey is uncomfortable, friends – even painful. 

If you’ve endured any kind of separation with children of your own, then you know precisely what I mean. The pain. The worry. The guilt. The doubt. The hope. And it’s all so much worse when you can hear the child screaming your name from the parking lot, as you climb reluctantly into your car on the second day of school. I’m killing him, you think, as your sweaty hands grip the steering wheel. But you’re not killing him any more than you were when at eighteen months, he cried in his crib at bedtime. Or when it was time to wean him from the watery milk of your breast. Or when he laid himself prostrate on the hardwood floor because you said “no” to ice cream for breakfast. And you’re not killing him anymore than you’re killing yourself, as you drive away from the sweet little school. But it does rather feel like you’re killing off tender pieces of yourself, doesn’t it? Like bits of you are dying. And bits of him are dying. I think this is because bits of each of you are, in fact, dying. Necessary bits – often referred to as the necessary losses of life…the ones that are ultimately good for us, even if they cause us pain in the meanwhile. It is often these everyday, necessary losses that lead us to the joy we so desire in our lives – the joy of finally completing a poem, say, or of sharing giggles with a new friend at the cloth-covered snack table.   

This time when my son and I will be apart from one another, as he goes out into the world as the separate individual that he is, learning to rise to new challenges, to gain confidence in adjusting to new circumstances, to build his own community, to work cooperatively in sandboxes and help himself to cut-up cantaloupe, is an essential time. He is exactly where he is supposed to be. But check this out: I am, too, exactly where I am supposed to be! The journey, you see, belongs to both of us. I, in the four walls of my writer’s shack, and he, in the four walls of his classroom, are figuring out what it means to be in new territory. How wonderful it is, then, to be in solidarity with one another during this time of transition.
As I enter these child-free hours, I am learning to rise to new challenges myself. I am learning to sit in my poppy-red desk chair and not get up every ten minutes for tea, for nibbles, or for whatever distraction I invent (and I invent many). I am earning to be disciplined in my work. And sometimes the work is hard, even lonely. It takes courage to write new words, and trust they will mean something. But I must do it. Nobody can do it with me, or for me. Nobody can even tell me how to do it. It is my fingers that must type the words I want to say. Meanwhile, my son walks through the preschool gates alone. Nobody can take those footsteps for him. He must be in the new classroom alone. He must place his shoes in the waiting cubby, all by himself. He must unroll his own rug, choose his own work from the shelf. We must – all of us – go out on our own to do the work we are meant to do. We may journey with one another in encouragement and empathy; we may be in solidarity with one another, journeying with each other in spirit. But nobody’s feet can walk the path we are meant to walk but our own.

As he readied himself for school this morning, my son and I shared this dialogue:

Mom, why do you have to work in your shack?
Because the world needs me, Henry...and the world needs you, too.
Why? Why does the world need you?
Because it needs each one of us. You will do your work and I will do mine. (It helps that in the language of Montessori, the word “work” is used to refer to the play that children do).

And it's true! The world does need each one of us to do our special work, as we are each a totally unique offering unto the earth.

Courage be with you as you offer your one-of-a-kind self to the world, my friends – in ways old and new. 

14 September 2011

Gifts From Beyond

I have not, dear friends, let my writer’s voice out to play much lately. That’s not to say I haven’t been working fervently to finalize the details of my splendid writer’s shack; it’s nearly complete! I have been occupied by other summer goodness as well:  train rides, poolside barbecues, mojitos, ranching it up in the low Sierras… but as the summer closes her doors, something else has been on my mind.

You may recall the blog posts of last summer when my friend Steven died (grieve posts, I call them). It isn’t as if the anniversary of Steven’s death snuck up on me, like an unexpected guest pulling into the driveway. Rather, it was the case of a slow, steady approach, like a car traveling across country; I could see it coming from miles away. And I was aware with each passing mile that it was headed toward me, this anniversary of pain and grief and loss. With each holiday, birthday, and for a hundred ordinary days in between, Steven’s death has become a more permanent part of the landscape of my life (oh how the heart wishes still that it were merely the landscape of bad dreams).
When July 20th came, I needed to tell someone, to say it aloud: This is the day he died. So I told Chad as we were steeping our morning tea. Wow, I can’t believe a whole year’s gone by, he remarked. Chad was surprised to learn it didn’t sneak up on me at all – that in fact, Steven has been with me all year long. Frankly, I am surprised, too, having been such a stranger to grief until now. I have been surprised by many things concerning death. While it’s true I cannot sit down to a plate of chicken and rice with Steven (his favorite), I am relieved to discover that death cannot rob us of a loved one’s spirit; that in fact, it possible to carry on a relationship with the dead, that spirit and matter do operate independent of one another – that in fact, my relationship with Steven feels richer than it ever did here on earth, informed by whatever grace, whatever joy, whatever wholeness now consumes Steven in his afterlife. In a sense, I can even have a friendship with him that did not feel possible before he died. I have experienced Steven's presence throughout the year in nearly inexplicable ways. I feel him watching over me, like a saint. Sometimes, I whisper to him my troubles, like prayers, and I know he listens.  

I am also surprised to discover that death has gifts to offer, should we find ourselves able to accept them.
The other day, The Times reported the death toll in Lybia as 50,000 over the past six months. No longer a stranger to grief, I find that I read now with the eyes of my heart. I think less in terms of numbers and more in terms of human beings. Instead of the common nouns of graves and bodies, I imagine the proper nouns of each body with a name, not to mention the grieving brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters. It seems to me a whole world dies with each human being – a world of love, passion, talent, joy, and beauty, just as it was with Steven. And I feel my heart being stretched and pulled beyond itself, in directions it has yet to go, expanding my capacity to love. And this, friends, is a gift. Because why else are we here, but to learn to love?

As we observe the tenth anniversary of September 11th, I think of the three thousand lives lost and the ripples of people who grieve those losses. What I feel keenly aware of, based on my own sense of grief, is that even ten years later the victims of loss are still grieving. While the moment of death might be an event on the timeline, grief occupies all of time as it stretches out to eternity. Strikingly, I know of six deaths in my very own town since Steven’s, and my response to each one has been tailored by my own grief experience. Where before I might have been too timid to act or even complacent, I now send a card, deliver a meal or care package, or offer a longer-than-usual embrace. I challenge myself to reach out when I know grief hides in the hearts of those around me. I think to know the experience of grief – its particular flavor on the tongue, the way it seeps into your very pores without permission, the way you can’t make your bed or even sleep in it, the strange restlessness that sinks into the depths of your very bones  – does bestow a gift: empathy. While it is always within our capacity to find sympathy for those who experience loss, empathy is hard won; we must first suffer to understand the suffering of others. And to be understood in the midst of suffering is medicine for the soul. While we may resent the means by which we gain empathy (and rightly so), in the end we are able to offer something valuable to a world all too familiar with suffering.

So as we move into fall, I take with me my unexpected gifts from Steven. And I thank him for not just who he was, but who he is in my life.  



09 August 2011

Meditations From "The Ranch"

That’s right, my friends, I am sipping iced coffee from a glass cowboy boot, gazing out upon a pasture of splendidly lazy cows as they stroll and nibble from acres of golden prairie. A 360 degree backdrop of the low sierra mountain ranges surrounds the prairie, as well as the house, also affectionately known as The Ranch, where our family enjoys dwelling for this dreamy week of summer. Hardly a sound out here, at least sounds as I know them in my usual life – cars, lawn mowers, sirens and such. Every now and again, the lovely owl hoots consistently from her tree across the grasses, such a soothing, primitive, wind-instrument sort of sound. Also, the shift of dry, delicious grasses in the jaws of cows, when they roam near enough for me to hear, and the swish of their hooves through the land as they pass on by. Hardly any movement, but for the occasional tickle of grass blades in the hot breeze, but for the black cow swishing her tail in a steady tick-tock rhythm as her calf sips from a willing, dangling teat. I can only imagine how hot the milk pouring forth from her body is, coming from that fur-covered Mama cow in this 98 degree heat. But somehow it all works together for good out here, uninterrupted, unforced, at an easy, natural pace, like the slow, lilting walk of the cattle herd, whenever they decide it’s time to actually move.

From the persimmon tree, whose trunk grows right up out of a hole in the end of the deck where I sit, a mysterious chorus of insects makes a mid-pitched rattling noise, like a hundred maracas might sound shaking from the high hills. Then, another vibration from the willow trees farther off, at a deep yet more soprano pitch; but this one comes and goes according to its own mysterious intervals, like a cuckoo clock – cicadas, perhaps?

In the near distance, where a huddle of cattle have been lounging beneath the graceful shade of a tree for the most of the day, sits a white trailer speckled with auburn clouds of rust. It rests in dry, golden grass like it hasn't moved for centuries – its stillness so insistent, its history rich, its presence such a persistent part of the landscape. It dares me not to move a muscle, as do the cocoa brown horses in pastures beyond a white farm fence, whose lean, reflective bodies have occupied the same sunny spot for at least an hour now.

In the pond to the right of me, just below the deck, frogs blip, breaking the water’s surface every now and then, just often enough not to be forgotten. So gentle and sweet, the little blips. Fish join in too, with their elusive bodies sweeping the surface of the pond's green water for a split, nearly imaginary second.

Out here, nothing fast, or pressing. Nothing loud or insistent. Nothing confusing or awkward. Nothing even too vibrant; instead, all things spilling out easily across the land in a slow, gorgeous array of muted hues of green and brown, everything making a beautiful sense – all things subtle but steady, strong but still…sort of like the landscape I desire for my soul.

18 May 2011

Away

(A reflection on my recent weekend away)

Lately words have escaped my belabored brain. In rare and brief moments, I have sat down to write, and alas: nothing. Even a teensy little haiku has been too much for my mind to muster…until now.

Put me in a modern bungalow on Inverness Ridge, left to stroll around in my panties with only the birds to see and the wind to whistle, and suddenly, I find my muse. Nestle me in a poppy-orange lounge chair adjacent to a wall of windows with a panoramic view of Tomales Bay, and it turns out I have something to say. Send me on a lush, eight-mile hike to the sea, through ferns, waterfalls, and bronzy meadows, and yes, lines of poetry do begin to occur to me. Nap me. Rest me. Surround me with solitude, and suddenly, I am rich with words.

The thing of it is, friends, I’ve been dried up like a raisin – by none other than the sunshine of life. It’s good stuff (well mostly) but Mama! I’m tired. Always somewhere to go, someone to be, something to do…I have reached a shriveled state. Squeeze a juicy little grape like me hard enough, and the juices run dry. It’s true for all of us. You’ve heard this story before: it’s your story, it’s your neighbor’s story, it’s your mother’s and your father’s story, your sister’s and your brother’s story. We all know the story of burn out. And hopefully, we all know the opera of relief that comes when we leave it all behind for a while – even just for a little while. And if you don’t, allow me to preach it from the Inverness mountaintops: there is value in leaving it all behind. There really and truly is!

How often are we thinking: If I could just get away for a while…And we don’t mean a bubble bath, do we friends? A Calgon break is all fine and good, but we’re talking about away away. We’re talking about the prayer-flag-draped caves of Tibet; we mean the wildflower fields of Australia; the canals of Venice; the castles of England; the au laits in France. We’re dreaming of away, and we’re dreaming big. Sometimes it’s a whimsical, passing thought we have while sipping tea in the backyard; other times, it’s a desperate longing – a need, really – like when we’re wiping down the middle son’s homework after the potty-training son peed on it, with the older son snickering in the background. Oh sometimes, fellow grapes, our dear lives are too much, aren’t they?

Inverness is not Tibet, but far enough away for now. Here, in this California haven of vast sea and meadow, of pine forest and cow-dotted farmland, I am many moons away from my usual life, afloat in a universe of renewal. While at home, my life with three boys provides moments of peace and solitude only found on the potty, here there is nothing to interrupt the forever quiet. Here I watch the hawk swoop and circle over the bay, moment after moment, breath after slow breath, and it is pure holiness. Here, the quiet is so quiet, it makes a peaceful drone, like an angel’s eternal sigh of satisfaction. Yes, here I wipe the counters clean, and lo, their pristine and polished state lingers for hours upon hours. Here, I saunter to the loo, and behold, friends, when I sit on the toilet seat, not a single drop of gone-astray urine awaits my relaxed little buns. No phone rings. Nobody knocks at the door to rouse me half-dressed from this orange chair. Nobody nothing nowhere. And even though it will all be different tomorrow, somehow, this time, here, now, matters.

So when you’re feeling done with your life, find a way to get escape it for a while, says the woman with the sun-kissed cheeks, waltzing with the wind on a stage of lime-green prairie. Says the woman with a new fire burning in her soul.

*I dedicate this post to my mom and dad, without whom such respite would not have been possible.

09 March 2011

Vodka and Snow


Yes, my friends, the evening was such that I set the clocks forward to trick the kids into bed early, and now I’m eating spoonfuls of Vodka and snow. No – for real. We brought zip lock bags of snow home from Yosemite weeks ago and it’s still in the freezer. So as soon as the older boys were done with their Lord of the Flies brawling routine over who took who’s damn Crazy Bones, (while I was rocking the baby to sleep in the room next door, by the way) I sent them to bed. I told them their behavior was so troubling, I’d need some time to consider the consequences carefully. But really, I just needed some vodka and snow. Topped with the sweet syrup of peace and quiet.

So when it seemed there was peace and quiet, when it seemed like their hot little heads were on the pillows for good, I headed for the freezer; and in three minutes flat I had concocted a Poor Shanny snow cone: vodka, lemon juice and raspberry Torani Syrup over snow. I know it’s Ash Wednesday and all, and for the record, I did go to church and get my ashes, but here’s the thing: I really think that God feels my sharp, piercing child-rearing pains, and that if God were here, He/She’d be like, “Where’s my vodka and snow?” and kick her feet up. I almost feel like God’s here with me on the sofa now, ready to watch some junk television, and commiserate with me. After all, I always tell my kids, “God is wherever you are.”

Anyhow, I am really super glad I set the clocks forward and don’t feel guilty in the least because five minutes into my frozen bliss, who should show up but little C in his Risky Business attire, (a pair of orange tight-ies and a tank top) wanting to know this: “Mommy, can we visit a fossil site sometime?” First I want really badly to laugh. I mean -- just the orange sight of him. Then, I want to say, “Are you out of your mind? I’m finally here recovering from the torment you inflicted upon me and you get out of bed after behaving like a savage to ask me when we can go fossil hunting?” But I crunch some more snow and inhale deeply – because that’s what I’m going to work on the for the next forty days…patience with the people I love most. After a nice long exhale I’m thinking about how sweet it is that he’s interested in fossils; that he’s not asking me to take him to see Lady Ga Ga live but he’s asking me if we can go searching the earth for fossils. And it warms me. It does. But I still need my Vodka and snow. So I tell him we can Google fossil sites in the Bay Area tomorrow perhaps, but that right now, he needs to get his bright orange buns into bed.

24 February 2011

Sir William's Revenge

My first morning home after vacation started out fairly optimal: I woke up early with the explicit goal of easing myself back into life here at home with some savory solitude. I brewed some lovely Pride of the Port tea, and curled up in some fleece blankets to read the Sunday New York Times (which had been delivered while we were in Yosemite). Just as I am totally engrossed in a story about the American couple taken hostage by Somali pirates last week, my seven year old son appears at the bottom of stairs with captivating news of his own: Mommy, Sir William went poo in my bed.

Clearly the cat has taken revenge – and it’s really too bad because I had just taken a renewed interest in him. I had just started brushing him, spraying him down with lily-scented, leave-in shampoo, and implemented some T.V.-watching petting sessions in the evenings. To be fair, I should come all the way clean: When we returned home yesterday, we realized (with a great degree of horror, I assure you) that we’d accidentally left the cat locked in the garage all week with no food and water. The garage door was supposed to be left ajar, so Sir William could go in and out as he pleased. And of course, we all swear we left it open. And maybe we did; maybe the wind did it. But in any case, Sir William of Clifton Way is royally pissed off and has exacted his revenge.

So, next thing I know, I’m trying to carefully remove Charlie’s bed sheets without spilling the poop piles, my body retching all the while. It’s a truly repulsive smell, exponentially worse than any diaper I have ever changed. I can’t clean the poop quietly; I am moaning and grunting and gagging all the while. Oh, ugh, I’m muttering to myself repeatedly, This is so disgusting. The two older boys are in the corner of the room, watching with simultaneous humor and horror. It is obvious they are being entertained. Before I know it, my sensitive gag reflex has been taken to its limits and I am fleeing to the toilet, throwing up my morning tea. The boys really can’t believe it all: James, she’s throwing up! Charlie says with a giggle in his throat. I know, James says, with a bit of excitement in his voice.

Back for another round of courageous poop swiping, nose tucked under the neckline of my pajama shirt, I finally manage to clear the bedding into a mound, and haul it all downstairs to the washer. Spraying poop spots with Zout, it occurs to me the cat has exacted his revenge rather masterfully; it’s nearly Shakespearean. Not only did he ensure that I start my morning by throwing up my tea, but he has me doing severe laundry penance. Already, as Sir William knows, I have seven loads of snow trip clothes awaiting me today; now, with a down comforter, a duvet, and a set of sheets, all smeared in cat feces, with any luck, I will maybe get to one load of snow clothes.

With the poop sheets soaking in an oxy bath, I head back upstairs to proceed with getting everyone ready for school. But as it turns out, there is, in fact, too much poop to continue with the morning. Mom, Charlie says, There’s more poo; it’s all over my bedroom floor. And sure enough, I spot four large islands of poop on Charlie’s hardwood floor – plus a little on the hallway rug. At this moment, my husband emerges from the bedroom – chuckling, arms open. Here, he says, as I’m collapsing into his arms, all pooped out, give me the paper towels. I’ll do the rest. Utterly relieved, I surrender the roll and head down to brew myself a fresh cup of tea.

All I can say is, Sir William I hope to God we’re even.

16 February 2011

Closet Croutons

At this precise moment of the day, two of my boys are crunching hot-from-the-cherry-red-oven croutons in what used to be my pantry but is now apparently a newly renovated, tiny private residence, occupied by my seven year old. I’ve even been asked to knock before entering. But I feel obliged to report a sweet sense of satisfaction with it all.

It’s not just my adorable, crouton-crunching hobbits; I’m also feeling like a kitchen wizard, having just rescued three-day old Grace Baking Company sourdough from the compost bin and transformed it into some magical, rosemary mushroom-sage croutons – which not even my two year old can seem to stop eating. Plus, the pantry fort tickles my heart; it’s a pretty captivating deal – decked out with a sticker-covered bulletin board, a Coleman lantern with rose quartz glowing on top, a lap desk, some wooden owls chilling in a giant abalone shell, and even a maroon Holy Bible with a peacock feather sticking out of the top of it. Add the two boys elbow to elbow, munching the croutons like they’re the last crumbs on earth, and it’s quite the splendid show. I would gladly camp out and admire the scene all day, hemming and hawing, like you do in Lassie reruns, if they didn’t insist on the door being closed. They are experiencing a private happiness in a private world. And as a matter of fact, so am I.

The song Sweet Pea by Amos Lee is now playing on Pandora and I can’t help but get a little groove on in my salty kitchen. Looks like the sunshine got her groove on too, and bumped the fog out with a swing of her hips so she could be out shining front and center. Forget that I’m still not exactly sure what I’m doing with my life. Forget I’m unpublished, or hardly writing, at that. Forget the undone writer’s shack, the composting dumps pile… Forget my rather gross wood floors, and all of my yawning existential questions; this morning none of it can swallow me up like it does on other days – because my house smells like a mushroom forest, and I feel like a peppy little gnome skipping through it. Also, with crouton crumbs melting on my happy tongue, how can I complain?

So here’s the thing that occurs to me: when these moments occur – these rare, sacred, savory little moments that make us feel satisfied all the way down to our toes – we must absorb them completely. We must savor these miraculous closet crouton moments because – and this confounds the mind – the same precise moment will never occur again. The distinct moments of our lives can never be recreated (try though we might). We can’t plan these rare moments anymore than we plan the weather. Our life moments fall on us unsolicited, and only once – like drops of rain; and once they’ve fallen, it’s up to us to incorporate them into our life puddles. Why? Because later, when it feels like a trail of mud and tears, when we’re wading through long, tedious workdays, when things are falling apart, when we’re sledging through the existential turmoil in our souls, we’ll need the memory of these herb-a-licious moments to keep us going.

Even though I really like it when everything feels all reggae and wonderful, when it all comes together like a fantastic Jello mold, I know it won’t always taste this good. Because that’s the way life is – all the splendid bites, all the sour bites and everything in between, all spread out together in one big universal potluck.

But whatever: today I’m licking sweet, sticky Jello juice from my lips, and admiring the mold.

01 January 2011

The Path Ahead

A new beginning is here, my friends. And a new beginning is always nice, isn’t it? Don’t we have a need for new beginnings? Every year, on New Year’s Day, we get a free fresh start. Consider the gift of it: a footprint-free path, never been walked upon, nor even breathed upon. It stretches far out in front of us, farther than the eye can see — like a world unto itself, this new path – entirely unknown: the new people we will meet, the unfamiliar places we’ll visit, the novel experiences we’ll have; even the new flavors that will dance upon our tongues are a mystery. And each of our paths are sprinkled with the glitter of possibility.

We anticipate the new, and perhaps fear it, as well. We wonder if the things we hope for will come to pass; we wonder if we will find a way to accomplish all that we long to. We wonder if the new chances we take will pan out. We wonder if we can finally be who we want to be. And for some of us, we wonder what it will be like to exist without the loved ones we lost in 2010 – in this, our first full year without them here walking the paths of earth with us. Instead, we picture them watching over us from another realm.

We wonder too if we can leave some things behind to roll about and finally be buried in the dust of yesteryear – the situations and relationships and other things that pull the life from our bones, the habits of body and mind that don’t enrich our lives, and perhaps some of the memories we’d simply rather forget.

Angling for a sneak preview of what’s to come, we find ourselves nearly blind. Being only human, we can merely speculate, imagine, and dream about the untouched path before us.

Deep in my hopeful imagination, on this first day of the New Year, eyes closed, I glimpse my path like this: a road made of silver streamers billowing out across a zillion miles of dessert.

The path is reflective: will mirror.

Will catch color in fire-red rays of sun.

Will sparkle * * * * * *

Will ripple wildly and shine

in sandy gusts of wind.

Will be found again when buried

in the inevitable sandstorms.

Will bounce the light playfully.

And above the path I hear music

--delicate but deliberate

like a triangle in the symphony--

punctuating my path.

Do you glimpse your path, my friends?

What do you see? Whatever the color, texture, and quality of your path in 2011, I wish you well as you journey boldly upon it.


26 November 2010

Doing What It Takes

Well, my friends...I have yet to kick the Altoid habit, but I am doing a fair amount of butt kicking around here. Not because I suddenly channeled my inner Yoda and am now adhering to all sorts of impressive, self discipline techniques. No. I enrolled myself in an online publishing class, so that Teacher Christine could kick my butt for me. And it’s working out quite well. In just three weeks, I’ve learned to write in three different genres for publication, as well as how and where to submit such pieces. I have been up until midnight on occasion, and cranky and snapping-turtle-like with the kids some mornings, but I do possess a new sense of satisfaction that I’m really doing something.

And here’s the thing about life, that I am finally grasping: we can do all kinds of wishing and praying and hoping and magical thinking for the things we want in life, but no number of dandelion seeds blown into the atmosphere are going to bring it all about. We have to work for it, my friends. (You’re like, Shanny—duh.. But guess what? We need reminders, friends—don’t we?) We sometimes forget that dreams come about by hard work. That Martin Luther King marched a gazillion miles for his dreams. We have to work hard. We have to read a stack of publications two feet high before we can actually write for them. We have to fall asleep with our laptops on our laps. We have to get up before the birds. We have to play more "Phineas and Ferb" for the kids so we can meet assignment deadlines. We have to bitch. And moan. And schlep around feeling a bit sorry for ourselves at times. And then pull up our bootstraps. And eat more chocolate – and of course, more mints. We have to negotiate our time, see less of our loved ones. We have to do what it bloody takes.

My friend Matt, a regular down at Sabino’s coffee shop, where I often write, is always repeating the same advice, as he stirs the sugar into his coffee: “Gotta do what it takes. One day at a time. Keep on pluggin’ away…” He sings it like a song. And I find myself grooving to the melody because it’s some of the best wisdom I’ve heard, over and over again. The life we want doesn’t parachute into our laps or land sweetly on a daisy petal like a floating dandelion seed. No, we have to suffer for it, make sacrifices. As my wise friend Joanna says, “Everything has a cost.” Nothing is for free; and if we think it is, we will only be disappointed. I still hope for fairies of goodness and grace to alight along my path, but my vision is enlightened by the acceptance of what’s required of me.

So what am I thankful for in the season of thankfulness (which is scandalously shortened by retail craze, as we are urged to practically skip the thankful-for-what-we-have season and move right into the getting season -- a whole new post, perhaps)? Well, my thankful list is ridiculously long, but at the moment, I am thankful for knowing it’s going to take crazy work to be a writer and a mother at the same time. I am thankful for my online class, Writing and Publishing the Short Stuff. I am thankful for my partner in life supporting me in this endeavor to complete the picture of my life – and for building me a shack to do it in. And for my boys loving me, even when I’m not a not-so-sweet Shanny-pie. I’m thankful for the people who share in my excitement, who cheer me on. For friends who think I can write and publish like Catherine Newman (Thank you, My Dear Mrs. Fenscik). For readers of my words, I am thankful. Happy Thanksgiving All, and if I may: Let's draw the thankful season out as long as we can.

02 November 2010

For You on All Souls Day


On this

The Feast of All Souls,

I feasted for you.


For you, I strolled vacant sidewalks slow,

absorbed October rays of sun.

I drank morning, Eucalyptus air.

I twirled the stem of a Maple leaf.

For you,

I wandered hand in hand with my son

into a sun-drenched Café;

I gazed long into his chocolate brown eyes,

rejoiced in his pastry-flecked cheeks.

For you,

we lingered over cocoa;

we wore whipped cream mustaches.

We giggled, wild, our mouths still full.

For you,

we strolled again, even longer.

We conversed with cats on lawns.

I listened to my son’s sweet meow.

For you,

we gathered up handfuls of fallen leaves –

fuchsia, delicate as tissue.

At home, we put them in a glass bowl.

We lit candles, and stood your photograph on the mantel.


I feasted all I could today

on this little life of mine,

for you.


*This poem is dedicated to Mrs. G and Steven Taddei -- two dear souls lost in 2010.

25 October 2010

Jedi Writer

Let’s see if I can name off all the stupid things I did today instead of write. First off, I tried my hair up three different ways: a twist, a side braid, and a low ponytail—none of which was the least bit captivating (I’m having a midlife hair crisis, for which I think the only cure might be the royal blue Bake Sale Betty bob I’ve been fantasizing about for some time now). What else? Oh, I bought several attractive, succulent plants at The Home Depot. Upon returning home, I ate a shameful number of Peppermint Patties – seven, maybe eight (I know what you’re thinking, but they were the mini ones). Also, I chewed way, way, way too much gum – like thirteen pieces (and there’s my first, public confession of the shameful gum addiction). And never mind that I have TMJ and shouldn’t chew gum. Not to mention, I’ve recently taken it up a notch, since I started wrapping Altoids inside pieces of gum and then chewing it all up together in one glorious, crunchy, juicy, flavor-packed mass. Let’s see…what else did I do? Oh, less exciting, and only slightly less shameful, was me on the sofa folding laundry in fake slow motion (also Grey’s Anatomy happened to be on the giant flat screen). Later, I ate leftover green beans and chicken, then made a cappuccino, then emptied the dishwasher, then crunched some more Altoids. I did try some earthy, green paint samples on the external body of the writer’s shack – does that count? But in the end, I did everything but write. And my head is hung quite low, good friends, quite low.

Somewhere around four in the afternoon, when I was on my ninth peppermint patty, the following thought came to me: I am a woman who says she wants a writing career; a woman, who, in fact, wants nothing more than to be a fully blossoming writer, with her creative petals facing to the sun…publishing articles, books, giving interviews with Oprah…but what am I really doing about it? And why, in the name of all that’s holy, am I feeling so stagnant now that I’ve finally cleared some space in my schedule for the pined-after writing life?

Maybe because I don’t know what the hell I’m doing.

Some weeks back, some friends inquired with furrowed brows about why I wouldn’t be teaching art at school this year. I explained I’d cleared room in my schedule to become a more serious writer. Oh, wow. Freelance? How do you do that? They wanted to know. And that’s when I said to myself: Holy Shanny! I don’t think I even know how we do that. I mean, I’m fairly confident in my writing skills, but entering the writer’s market…that’s a foreign endeavor altogether. Bringing home some bacon with my words…how do I even make my first penny? The truth is, I’ve been mothering so long, I don’t know the first thing about freelancing. It’s daunting. It’s new, and overwhelming. So instead, I eat Peppermint Patties.

To illustrate the awkwardness of the transitional phase I’m in, here is a conversation I had with my child’s teacher yesterday:

Me: I’m sorry, Mrs. G, but I decided not to be a weekly volunteer for the time being because I’m trying to work part time.

Mrs. G: Oh, what do you do?

Me: I’m trying to write for a living.

First of all, do you know how lame that sounds? And second of all, what is this business of trying? As our wise friend, Master Yoda says: Do, or do not; there is no try. But Yoda! I think Yoda would have no tolerance for my whiny, gum-chewing ways. He’d slice me up forwards and back with his giant, green lightsaber. Much of my time is wasted wondering why my career goals or passions can’t be more straightforward. Like, why don’t I want to fight fires or cure the sick? I confess to envying those with well-defined occupations, like my R.N. husband. Lately, I even envy my friends with work schedules, regardless of the nature of their jobs. I picture them in the still-dark morning, drinking their Joe, listening to NPR’s morning edition, then crossing the dewy grass to their cars in a pair of polished little work shoes, and speeding away to their work lives, where they have desks, coworkers and appointed tasks waiting just for them. They clock in; they clock out. It all seems like a much neater package than mine at the moment. I know what you’re saying: The grass, dewy or not, is always greener, Shanny. And you’re right. But I’m just trying to figure out which damn patch of grass I belong on.

I suppose everyone has changes they’d like to make in their lives, risks they need to take…big ones, small ones... But I’m curious – how long are we willing to stay miserable before we choose to make a change? How long do we feel sorry for ourselves instead? How long do we fantasize about who we want to be or what it is we want to accomplish? I mean, really – how many Peppermint Patties do we have to eat before we’re ready to get to work? I don’t know how long it takes to get a butt like mine in motion, but I have to thank you for listening, because I must say – all of this speculation about how long it’s going to be before I get myself going makes me want to do my hair up Princess-Leia-style and get out there and make Master Yoda proud (which, incidentally, might also solve the current hair crisis).

08 October 2010

Sweet Sweet Progress


Well, C has torn up the rotting section of the floor and hauled home the fresh wood for the new floor. We're on our way.

06 October 2010

The Shanny Shack is Back


Well my sweet and savory friends, I’ve decided it’s high time we get the writer’s shack in motion. Remember the writer’s shack – from my very first post, back in June 2009? The 10 x 10 backyard cottage, the “room of her own?” Well, talk of the longed-for land shack is back. For a little over a year now, this cyber shack at Parallel Light has served as a rather satisfying (albeit virtual) “room of one’s own.” But a lot has changed since that post in ‘99. I’m ready for more! Among other things, we bought our first home, and it came with, shall we say – the skeleton – of a writer’s shack, right out in the back yard. I can still hear my realtor when she stepped into the backyard, and called into the house, Oh, look, here’s Shannon’s writer’s shack! For five months now, I have stared longingly out the sliding glass door at this 9 x 8 dilapidated structure, fantasizing about its eventual colors and carpet…its possible skylights and windows and jasmine vines trailing over the frame…But it’s time to stop staring out the window, already! And it’s time to put my fantasies to rest and face the music that Nate Berkus is mostly likely not going to feature me on his show and send his construction crew out to the Shanny Shack (though I did submit photos of the shack and plead my case at nateberkus.com)! So, I have said to myself, Shanny Girl, let’s get this show on the road!

Maybe it was having a fellow thirty-six year old friend die unexpectedly over the summer that cause me to reexamine every minute of how I spend my time; to connect more seriously with my dreams. Maybe it was my friend’s mother, a fresh voice, pushing me not just to write, but to sell my work, to get somewhere with it – which, of course, has long been an aspiration of mine. Or maybe it’s just time for the next step in realizing the dream. Whatever the case, inspiration has struck and changes are being made to pave the way toward a real writing career. Already, I have advocated for scaling back on our commitments as a family. We are going to slow down so there is room for what’s important. Not only are C and I erring on the side of more sanity and downtime for our family in general, but it’s no secret that my career goals have been easily lost in family life, in extra-curricular activities, in volunteer work, various committees, and in Chad’s crazy twelve-hour work days. It’s a tricky balancing act, as you well know.

My first major decision was to take a sabbatical from granola. Bottom line: my passions do not lie with oats, but with words, and since neither one is very lucrative, I choose words. Next, we made a unanimous family decision to eliminate Boy Scouts from our schedule; something in the extracurricular department had to give. Finally, the most difficult decision of all was the one not to teach in the volunteer art program at school this year. I am temporarily suffering from the “guilties,” over not volunteering for the first time this year, and I keep asking, why can’t we have thirty-four hours in a day so I can do it all? But reality is undeniable and life has proven otherwise these past few years, and it’s time to live according to what’s real. As my friend J says, There is always a cost to the decisions we make. If something is added, chances are, something must also be subtracted to make the equation of our lives work. The changes above feel bold to a people-pleasing, do-it-all gal like me; but I am making them nonetheless. I make them in faith.

So, you’ll love this. This morning, I went out to the skeleton of a shack, and started tossing the miscellaneous crap we had stored inside (from our move back in April) right out the shack’s two double doors. There were chandeliers landing in the vegetable beds (woops), shelves slamming against the bricks, and cans of spray paint rolling down the steps. I think I looked a bit like a madwoman, slinging items carelessly into the yard (my two year old thought so – he stood there in his diaper, big furrowed brow, Mommy!? What-a-da-doin, Mommy?). Man, was he perplexed! But I had the fever! And I LOVE it when I have the fever, because I so often don’t.

Strange how the soul works, isn’t it? The way inspiration strikes…out of the blue and with no regard for things like circumstance – at least one of the three children has been throwing up at all given times since Friday, not to mention my husband is lying flat in his bed (when he’s not violently retching behind closed doors). And here I am, converting our backyard into a landfill, delving head first into this insanely large project… Furthermore, it’s – what is it – 95 degrees outside today? 100? Normally I detest such extreme heat; normally I turn positively bitchy in such heat…wilting, melting and all the rest. But this morning, I was governed by a force that overpowered all of my aversions to heat, and headed straight to the backyard right after a bacon and shredded apple sandwich to power me up (oh, you so need to make this breakfast sandwich –

http://www.oprah.com/food/Almond-Butter-and-Bacon-Sandwich). Anyhow, so I put on my special grubbies, slapped on my orange baseball cap, and charged out the sliding glass door with a bottle of ice water.

At first, I was discouraged, what with the ten thousand rat turds and spider webs, the unidentifiable insects, as well as something of a bizarre species of white mold growing in one corner of the shack; there is also a buckling floor and some water-damaged walls. But as I started tossing items out – baskets, buckets, brooms, shovels, shin guards and shelves…I started feeling empowered. Swabbing sweat from my forehead with my t-shirt every few minutes became a rather self-congratulatory ritual. Damn, Shanny, you're working hard! I said to myself. And I kept going until the shack was totally empty. And by the way, if you ever feel like you're not accomplishing anything, or getting anywhere with your goals, I recommend emptying something completely in 100 degree weather: it's utterly satisfying.

I have found that when something is vacant, a vision for it comes more easily – the shack, my schedule…I have found that space creates possibility. For the first time ever, the writer’s shack fantasy born early in my twenties seems possible. Staring through the open doors, I imagined all the possibilities of the shack’s identity: do I want a sassy shack, with purple walls, hot-pink shelving and a fancy gemstone chandelier? Or do I want to go with an earthy shack: sage-colored walls, cork board and jute rugs? The shack lovingly calls to me from its dusty, cob-webbed corners; it asks me if I am ready to furnish this place and move in with my writer’s ambitions. And I wonder…am I? Am I ready to fill the empty space I have created with the hard work that dreams are made of?

16 September 2010

Diary of Grief: Notes from Week Three

*This post is for Chrissy, who attended her mother's funeral today. From one grieving heart to another.

8/15-8/21

Forward

I wake up cold the day of the funeral, and wander to the kitchen wrapped in a blanket. Standing in the middle of the floor, I find myself baffled by the day, and oddly frozen. My usual morning routine escapes me – normally, I am firing up the espresso machine. Instead, I head over to the mantel and light the candles inside the lanterns: for warmth; for light; for something…

I am truly dreading the funeral, in a way I did not expect.

The fog hangs in the valley outside our picture window: ominous but accurate for the day of a funeral. I end up sipping some tea, nibbling some toast, but the restlessness in my gut overpowers any sensation of hunger, and hovers there like a hummingbird over a feeder: madly flapping in a single spot. I am aware that each passing minute brings me – brings us all – closer to the service. I imagine Steve’s family this morning…lifting their bodies out of bed, slipping into black clothing, the clicking of their shoes on the pavement as they head to their cars…and I am struck anew by what little control we actually possess in life. The funeral approaches whether we want it to approach or not; the red hands on the kitchen wall clock are oblivious, inching clockwise toward a time when Steve’s death will be spoken aloud, the reality of it acknowledged from a pulpit; where the life he lived for 36 years will be remembered; where the life that ended will be grieved by everyone in the room.

I ponder my dread over the funeral. Aren’t funerals supposed to bring closure? Aren’t they a means of saying good-bye? Maybe that’s just it: I don’t want to say good-bye. I don’t want to close the door on my friend’s life. So perhaps for me, and for many attending Steve’s service today, the dread is about the funeral making Steve’s death undeniable: we will no longer be able to fool ourselves using the tricky, intricate trap doors in our brains, in our hearts; no longer cling to the sliver of denial that suggests Steve isn’t really dead. Furthermore, there is the also the terror of the feelings that await me at the funeral, the feelings I will have to face. Forward, I tell myself: left foot, right foot, left foot, breathe, as my favorite writer, Anne Lamott writes. She says this is the only way miracles ever happen – by putting one foot in front of the other. And I think surviving the death of a loved one is a kind of miracle.

The breathing part of Lamott’s mantra has been especially hard, ever since Steve died. Instead of the even flow of breath, the air wants to gather like storm clouds and hover in dark corners of my body – suspended there. It seems I’ve lost my breathing rhythm and find myself periodically forcing large pockets of breath out in long, extended, often choppy, exhales. The moving part is hard, too. I feel frozen, rigid…stuck. Maybe I fear that if I move, everything will hurt. That if I even breathe, I will feel the pain. That it will vibrate through me like the clapper of a bell. And it’s probably true. But we must feel in order to move, and move in order to feel. This is how we travel forward from something potentially paralyzing. If we hold still, avoiding the pain, if we pretend it isn’t there, then we are unable to carry ourselves forward to a time when it will finally feel different – maybe even better. Not necessarily to a time when we don’t miss our loved one or when it doesn’t hurt anymore, but perhaps to a time when our breathing resumes its regular rhythm again. So in the spirit of moving toward a miracle, (a miracle of survival) I will get up and go. I will put on my purple dress and my black shoes. I will step down each of my porch steps, climb into my van, turn the key in the ignition, rest my foot on the gas pedal and go.

30 August 2010

Diary of Grief

Notes from Week Three: 8/8 - 8/14

I visited my therapist this week, a woman who has suffered more losses than many. She speaks of grief as an ocean wave. When you’re at the beach, she says, observe the pattern of the waves. I get her meaning. Grief seems to pull back a little, at times, giving relief, then breaks on the shore of your soul again, without mercy, when you least expect it.

A few days later, C and I are strolling barefooted along Pismo Beach, the children running in three separate directions across the vast expanse of sand. I have the peculiar sense that I am looking at the sky for the first time; it feels boundless and encompassing at the same time; so blue, so wide and so good. My breathing is easier in the salty air. And my heart feels freer, lighter, lifted somehow. Riding a gentle crest of the wave, perhaps.

On the beach, thoughts of Steve surface readily, since my fondest memories come from the beach house our families rented together all those summers. A memory plays: Steve and I are tanning on the beach, his skateboard propped in the sand near his head, the boom box playing George Michael. Another: Steve gliding flawlessly across the ocean shores on his skim board. The memories don’t gnaw too deeply, but instead seem to nibble at the edges of me, leaving me pensive as I walk the shores alone for a while, watching determined pelicans swoop down across the ocean’s surface, looking to satisfy a compelling hunger.

The next morning, at the hotel’s continental breakfast bar, a preteen, skater kid helps my six year old with his too-heavy tray; and for a second, the kid is Steve. It’s him twenty-four years ago, back in our skater days – his skater bangs, his skater Vans. There, at the table, with the bagels and Cocoa Puffs, I slip into a whirlpool of sadness. And it hurts all over again. The loss cuts across my heart at sharp, acute, angles.

Then: wild sobbing.

Just like that the wave has come. The wave has come, and crashed hard.

-------------------------

Later, after a trip into town for clam chowder, C takes the boys to the game deck, giving me some alone time with my laptop. At the desk in the hotel room, I write this poem:

Seeing

Sometimes, when

someone dies, you

start seeing them

everywhere—

their face suddenly

in every crowd.


You are

in a crab shack,

in Pismo;

he’s in line

in front of you –

his profile,

his hair.


And for

a split

of a split second,

you’re in a world

where this is possible;

where he isn’t gone;

where it’s all been

a universe of dream.

You’re in a world

where you can

touch him

on the shoulder,

where you can

embrace him

the way

you’ve so

desperately

been needing

to do.

18 August 2010

Diary of Grief: Notes from Week Two

Today, grief meant polishing off a one pound bag of peanut M&Ms, while driving in the minivan. I just kept reaching for more, with a robotic compulsion, that could, in retrospect, almost be considered comical: because I think I looked like a rodent shoving nuts into its cheeks, real fast-like. Anyhow, I got lost trying to find Wolf Camera, which I’ve been to a zillion times. The brain, on grief, doesn’t function as it should. I felt almost desperate in my mission, which was to scan photos of Steve for his family before leaving for Palm Springs tomorrow. I feel desperate to do anything for them. Anyhow, I drove like twelve miles in the wrong direction, and had to double back, the whole while reaching for more M&Ms. I think it was a message to grief, inhaling all that candy: stay the hell away from me today. I’m tired. After fourteen days, I’m tired of grieving.

It didn’t much work – eating all those M&Ms. I think they just got piled up on top of the grief. Not to mention, when I finally arrived to Wolf Camera, I feared I might vomit onto the scanner bed. But the man who helped me in Wolf was an angel with a gold front tooth and a Romanian accent. I’m sure glad these people exist: the-nice-just-because-they-want-to-be-nice sorts – and right when you need them. Right when you feel like you might come unglued and spill your insides out in every direction if someone so much as speaks to you in the wrong octave. Right when you’ve been lost for miles and might barf up a bag of M&Ms – that’s when you need the kind souls of the world around. You need that sort of grace in a time like this – extra kindness and goodness and love.

Speaking of grace – and kindness and goodness and love, friends of mine watched my three boys for three hours so I could go to Wolf without the entourage and so I could finish writing my speech for Steve’s memorial service -- which I also needed to accomplish before leaving for Palm Springs. When the family first asked me to speak, all I could think about was how I was going to sob through the whole thing, like hyperventilating and convulsing and the whole nine yards. But so far, just writing the words down has been the hard part. Hard because I got stuck in sadness, writing about dear old Steve. It took me all week, but I think today, in those hours of blessed solitude, I finally finished. And afterward, when I went to collect the boys, the same kind friends served up some homemade mac and cheese, which I found exceedingly comforting.

And tonight, we came home to the yawning, empty suitcases that needed yet to be filled with a week’s worth of wardrobe. And then there was the business of what the hell do you wear to a funeral? Do people still wear black? Is that passé? Is it required? Do I have anything black? So I googled what to wear to a funeral and the advice was all over the place, like, make sure not to show any cleavage and wear the deceased one’s favorite color. Utterly confused and too exhausted to make a sound decision, I called my friend, D, because the last thing I want to worry about when we drive in from Palm Springs the night before the funeral is what I’m going to wear. So D came over at nine o’clock at night (more kindness and goodness and love) and told me exactly which dresses in my closet were appropriate; she’s good at this sort of thing. Then, she looked me right in the eye and asked, “Which dress would Steve have liked?” And I knew immediately he would have like the plum dress, so I’m wearing that one.

It feels odd to be going on vacation, right in the middle of all this grief. I would not have planned it this way. But you don’t plan death; and least of all a death like Steve’s. So I'm heading out in the morning, with my family, and I think the trip will just become part of the journey: the arduous journey across the foreign landscape of loss.