Life Goes On

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On the morning of the first anniversary of my dad’s death, I stood at the kitchen window of my parents’ house that overlooks the marsh. I took a picture of the view just as I had done a year ago.

I scrolled through my phone to find last year’s photo. In a magical thinking sort of way, I was hoping to spot a difference between the before and after images that would reveal some profundity.

As my eyes moved between the pictures, I awakened again to the power of nature’s cycles. The inward, restorative season is never more apparent than in the middle of a Maine winter and yet I know with certainty that spring will return.

My mother and I had a quiet day together to honor my dad. We sat by the fire and talked, made homemade black beans and rice, took a freezing walk on the beach, completed my mom’s application for her first ever passport, and both came down with the flu.

Life goes on and in that simple truth lies both pain and rebirth.

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January 14, 2017

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January 14, 2018

 

2018 We’ve Got Your Back

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Two-thousand and eighteen will be born tomorrow and she is coming into a world that needs our help. There’s no wiggle room to make self-defeating and ultimately abandoned resolutions. Let’s shift from individual goals and focus more on BIG Love and Interconnectedness. I know that my list of intentions for the new year is a tall order but duty calls.

Kindness is a superpower available to everyone. Use it.

Give back and volunteer. It’s the fast way to get out of your head to see and feel the big picture. Put your feet under what matters to you and connect.

Love fearlessly. Look for the real thing and don’t accept imitation or drama.

Whatever your age, today is your prime. You always have something to offer.

Master your mind. You are just one thought away from another perspective. Ask yourself how you would live differently if you could erase all the negative chatter that rattles around in your head – then live that way.

Stay curious and gladly admit when you don’t know the answer.  Be solution focused.

Discipline is freedom. Most of life’s successes are based on showing up consistently.

Welcome 2018! We’ve got your back.

Endnote: The painting, The Lifesaver, is by the extraordinary local artist John Cruz. Please take a moment to discover his work. http://www.johncruzartist.com

 

The First Anniversary of My Father’s Death

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“She philosophically noted dates as they came past in the revolution of the year. Her own birthday, and every other day individualized by incidents in which she had taken some share. She suddenly thought, one afternoon, that there was another date, of greater importance than all those; that of her own death; a day which lay sly and unseen among all the other days of the year, giving no sign or sound when she annually passed over it; but not the less surely there. When was it?” ― Thomas Hardy, Tess of the D’Urbervilles

The first anniversary of my father’s death is in three weeks, January 14, 2018.

As a kid, I thought about death a lot. I would get that electric panic that the self sends jolting through the body when it contemplates its extinction. I would jump up and down or turn on the television to block out the dread. I was fifteen when I read the passage in Tess of the D’Urbervilles, where Tess contemplates the date of her own death, “a day which lay sly and unseen among the other days of the year.”

It stuck with me.

Every January, when I fill my planner and move my hand across twelve new and unopened months to add appointments and birthdays, I think of the quote.

I thought about Tess on the drive home from the hospice center after my dad died. It was a freezing Maine winter night, so cold that the snow squeaked when we walked outside with my dad’s body to the hearse.

The date of my father’s death had been revealed.

My dad had a handful of touch stone stories that he repeated often. One of his favorites was about how he spent his senior year at boarding school consumed with planning a post graduation, venomous diatribe against one particular teacher. Instead of a cathartic explosive finale, the story ended with a sigh and a tilt of his head.

“It all didn’t matter in the end,” my father concluded, “I crossed the stage, was handed my diploma, and it was over. Just like that. I shook his hand and left the campus.”

The story seemed silly to me when I was a complaining teenager, a waste of rage.

For much of our adult lives, my dad and I overtly and covertly struggled against each other. I visited several times during his slide into dementia, hoping for a neat closure that would finally make everything better between us – a moment that would erase a lifetime of scratchy discomfort.

During my last visit, I apologized for being a difficult teenager and thanked him for how much he sacrificed for our family. I told him that he had done a good job and that his efforts mattered to my mother, brother, and me. He looked surprised and then softer. He turned to my mom and asked, “Did you hear that? That’s really something. I did a good job.”

The exchange held for longer than most conversations but it was soon lost to his disease. Unlike my fantasy, it did not dissolve all the hard feelings that passed between us. Later the same day he looked at me with a familiar annoyed expression and I felt frustrated when he became argumentative in the evening.

Our dance continued.

By the time I arrived at the hospice, my dad was already unresponsive and we would never have another conversation. My mother and I were on either side of my dad when his chest jumped and his face tightened with his final breath. He fell back and suddenly looked younger, at peace.

On the first night when I returned home to Austin I dreamt that I was running through my parents’ house. It was ravaged by termites and about to fall down. I saw my father standing across the street in a park. He looked like he did in a picture that was taken with his best man a couple of days before he and my mom married. In my dream my dad was twenty-five, slender and handsome, wearing a madras shirt and pressed kakis. I told him that he had to leave the house immediately, that he and mom were in danger.

He smiled the most loving smile I had ever seen directed at me and said, “I already left, everything is ok.”

I bolted up. It was as real of a moment as any in a wakeful state. It was then that I knew exactly what my father’s high school story meant and the scratchy discomfort was gone.

 

 

We Are Not Here To Stay The Same

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The Amazon is not picturesque in the post-card sense of the word. It is too powerful and disheveled to be tamed into a crisp, tight, oversaturated shot. Mother Nature still rules and her restless, fertile forward momentum can be seen everywhere. The Amazon Basin is larger than Western Europe and Peru’s piece of it is said to contain the greatest biodiversity of any place on earth.

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Before I arrived, the pink river dolphins, sloths, and monkeys tugged at my imagination25074823_10107648490166277_1691024787625836166_o but when I sat still in the jungle it was the birds and insects that struck me as wondrous and new: husky, stubbled-bodied tarantulas waiting in webs; the purposeful industry of the leaf cutter ants; the silent childlike dance of iridescent Blue Morpho butterflies glowing in the sunshine; and the constant textured soundtrack of birds and crickets.

We landed in Iquitos, Peru, at the end of October, almost a year to the day from when I impulsively signed up for a yoga retreat at the Tree House Lodge led by my friend Erika. The decision came on the heels of an intense month of too many hours at work and houseful of cranky teenagers. I was hooked by the thought of being off the grid. I figured I could always back out. I let the trip lay dormant in my mind, not truly committing, until six months later when the June cancellation deadline loomed. I had to either buy a plane ticket or wimp out. I bought the ticket.

L1030621There were fourteen of us, all but two from Austin. Iquitos is an isolated island in the Peruvian rainforest that can only be accessed by boat or plane. The airport is what you would imagine, small and questionably maintained, with the jungle encroaching from every direction. The air was heavy with smells yet to be named and the busyness of insistent baggage handlers and motocab drivers.

The lobby reminded me of my kids’ elementary school cafeteria filled with disoriented tourists ranging from Ayachasca seekers to elderly riverboat cruisers, along with returning locals greeted by waiting family members. All the new arrivals peeled off clothing as the grey chill of Lima was replaced with jungle humidity and heat. Late October begins the transition to spring and the rainy season.

We were met by Orlando, the lodge guide, and loaded into a van that looked like an old IMG_4793school ice cream truck and began our two hour drive to the Port of Nauta. The colorful three-wheeled motocabs and scooters, piled with passengers, looked like battered antique tin toys and traveled in clusters. Once beyond the outskirts of the small city the traffic thinned but driving remained a creative expression with little concern for lanes or rules.

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Although we were all united by our individual friendships with Erika, only a few people knew each other. I could feel the group’s center of gravity forming as we drove past concrete block and stilted thatched-roof houses, markets, and children in uniforms walking home from school. There’s no separating the vitality of the place from the bright green messiness of the jungle and where the land is not wild the soil looks scarred and depleted.

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The Port of Nauta has an animated center of vibrantly painted concrete buildings
pressed to the river’s edge, with rust colored dirt streets, food vendors, shops and more motocabs. It was not until I walked out on the rickety dock and saw the Marañón River that I fully grasped how this region still belongs to nature even as corporate greed and poverty bare down on the Amazon Basin. The river looks at least a quarter mile across and has a sepia reddish brown monochrome like chocolate milk.

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We walked down uneven wooden stairs that swayed as we stepped and boarded a narrow boat that looked like the body of a wingless commuter plane. My hand disappeared when I put it under the opaque water. We traveled for an hour down the Marañón, across the Amazon River, and up the Ucayali before connecting to the Yarapa and arriving at our final destination.

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There are several small compounds for tourists along the tributary where we stayed but we rarely saw other travelers. The Treehouse Lodge is the only place where the rooms are actual treehouses connected by elevated walkways, stairs, and suspension bridges. The ten treehouses are encased in mosquito netting but open to the environment and the other-worldly cacophony of the jungle. Each has it own bathroom with a toilet, sink, and cold water shower.

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A round, two story stilted building serves as the common area where meals are served buffet style on the first floor and the second level is intended for gatherings with chairs, benches, and hammocks. The compound provides rustic comfort without compromising the remote jungle experience.  The lodge does not have wifi or cell phone service. The reprieve from my unacknowledged addiction to being connected made the space between my eyebrow soften.

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Each day followed a similar schedule of gathering at six in the morning for yoga, meditation and writing with activities and downtime in the afternoon. We were paired with two guides, Marden and Orlando, who immediately became part of our group and enthusiastically shared their knowledge of the jungle. We fished for piranha, learned about medicinal plants, scouted for birds, animals and caiman, swam in the Amazon River, and on our last day visited a local village. There was a discipline to the days but nothing was mandatory and we had the freedom to participate how we wanted.

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It’s against this backdrop that our group became a community, a camaraderie that changed me as much as the Amazon itself. We ranged in age from twenty to fifty-three with all decades in between represented. Whether we knew it initially or not, each of us arrived in the Amazon at some fork in the road with questions that needed time away from distractions to hear and feel the answers.

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The jungle is a continuously changing collaboration of rivers, sky, vegetation, and creatures. Looking from above as I flew over, there was a redundant sameness, but once on the ground I realized that nothing stays the same in the Amazon. There is a natural, effortless cycle of renewal and growth. The environment was like fertilizer, an accelerant for our questions, that oddly made the passage of time feel slower and more intense.

Erika is one of those gigantically hearted people with the rare ability to share her story and beliefs while maintaining healthy boundaries. She set a tone for each day that encouraged rest and introspection, along with a lot of remedial play and laughter.

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I was only in the Amazon for a week but it was the aliveness of the place and people that gave me back a sense of hope that I hadn’t even realized I had lost. The past can be a trap. I’ve been attached to a narrative that has resisted the future. The jungle reminded me that I have the tools, earned during fifty-three years of living, to move forward.

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It’s all in the power of letting go. The truthful silence of a blank page to create a more meaningful future and accept, with curiosity and open mindedness, the inevitable changes that will come.

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Like the jungle, we are not here to remain the same.

It’s easy to embrace change when surrounded by new experiences and people. However, in the two months since I’ve returned to Austin, I’ve remained committed to a new path. I’ve made three simple adjustments to my day that maintain my focus: a morning practice; reducing screen time; and reaching out to be more connected, even if it goes against my default mode.

My morning ritual includes a ten minute practice called the Five Tibetans, a collection of five yoga postures repeated 21 times each, followed by meditation, and then a stream of consciousness writing practice. Depending on time constraints, I can complete the routine in 30 minutes or extend it up to an hour. My morning ritual gives me an intention to hold on to throughout the day and a reference point to return to before bed.

Screen time is my monkey mind’s drug of choice. I have not been completely disconnected from the electronic frenzy for any length of time in over decade. I was surprised to find how easy it was to leave my computer and phone behind. My attention span needed several days to recover, to be able to lengthen and slow down.

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In my life in Austin there’s not much wiggle room in our busy family’s schedule. However, I’ve managed to recaptured hours in my week by limiting screen time. I’m writing again and feel less distracted. I have purposely cut back on my news consumption, too. I’m finding that I’m no less informed and if anything I feel more energized to get involved in the causes I support.

I went to the Amazon thinking that I wanted to be isolated and left alone. The sweetest surprise of the trip was our group connection. We had time to hear each other’s stories and develop fast friendships. The abundant laughter and encouragement buoyed us even as we struggled at times. I have nothing against social media platforms but the rapid fire pictures and quick comments are not a replacement for spending time with people, face to face.

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We are human beings and have evolved as communities and tribes. We are not designed to live alone in our computers and phones. I returned home with the commitment to be a more present mother, daughter, partner, and friend.

My visit to the Amazon was a turning point and the lessons I took back with me were not grand like the jungle. I do not feel like I have to make sweeping cataclysmic changes. Instead it is micro adjustments and the return to simplicity, kindness, and the warmth of human contact.

Within the collage of jungle sounds, the weaver bird makes a distinct call like an electronic plink of a stone being dropped into still water. While in the Amazon, the sound became a welcomed anchor, the recollection of which I can still feel in my chest and is a reference point for me to stay present and mindful that we are not here to stay the same.

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“Each day has a story that deserves to be told, because we are made of stories. I mean, scientists say that human beings are made of atoms, but a little bird told me that we are also made of stories. We are the sum of our efforts to change who we are. Identity is no museum piece sitting stock-still in a display case, but rather the endlessly astonishing synthesis of the contradictions of everyday life.” Eduardo Galeano

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Thank you Laura and Erika with OneYogaGlobal for organizing such an affirming and healing adventure. Extraordinary locations, exceptional teachers, and life-changing experiences. http://www.oneyogaglobal.com

Family Vacations and the Headlock

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I know there are families who travel well together. They move in unison as one organism in pursuit of meaningful time together. Our family, on the other hand, slams into each other like molecules in boiling water. Our trips are often prickly, loud, and always include more headlocks than expected during a vacation.

The first headlock occurred when our oldest son, Leo, was about ten. Leo ambushed my husband, Matthew, with the classic vice grip as he walked into the living room, beginning one of our longest-lived family traditions. It starts with the surprise headlock and ends in a wrestling match. Now that the boys are older, the contest is more focused between Leo and Eli.

Matthew, the elder silverback, worries about his neck – and losing.

The headlock appears at random, but occurrences spike when we are on family vacations. There are no off-limits places for this male-bonding behavior. It can occur while waiting to be seated at a restaurant or on the beach in front of bewildered normal families. I watch, horrified, while the girls record every moment for their snap-chat stories.

I’m a planner by trade. People actually pay me to organized events. However, when I think of planning this year’s family summer vacation, I’m paralyzed by the intensity of it.

My husband is already trying to opt out. He fears that his co-dependent bulldog, Otis, will die of a broken heart if he leaves him longer than a weekend. Matthew looks to the future and our impending empty nest. His ideal vacation plan includes a small RV tricked out with a satellite connection for his work and a custom, shot-gun seat for Otis.

Given our family’s collective temperament and the headlock ritual, vacationing together is a planner’s nightmare. Our kids don’t want to be seen with us but somehow they’re always making a scene.

Traveling with teenagers is an unnatural arrangement and comes at a time in the family lifecycle when tired, middle-aged parents and antsy teens both long for their freedom and space. And yet there’s something very necessary about having to learn to get along; to sow the seeds of a common narrative, a running joke, and shared experiences that form the stories that will be recounted over the decades.

Creating that narrative has to happen in real time and there’s only one take.

The best thing I ever did for my sons’ future relationship was to bring them on a three week road trip through Yellowstone, Grand Teton, and Glacier National Park when Eli was thirteen and Leo was nineteen. They fought and occasionally got along, but it was during those three weeks that their friendship truly took root.

So I will brave the boiling waters of our togetherness, the headlocks, the arguments and complaints, all the while reading RV catalogs and calling the kennel to check on Otis.

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PostScript:

My three guiding principles for a manageable vacation with teenagers.

1) Plan a vacation that allows room for each teenager to safely have time to themselves. Choose destinations where they can explore together and alone. Think twice about that camping trip that includes carrying a 30lb pack and sleeping in the same tent.

2) Don’t take every complaint about being bored or mad seriously. I used to waste a lot of time worrying and trying to prevent all forms of discomfort. Now I realize that it’s just the teenage mind ping-ponging from one thought to next, fueled by hormones and crushing self-consciousness. The same goes for the middle-age parent.

3) Give teens a couple of days to decompress and get used to the new schedule and surroundings. I have found that it take at least 48 hours for everyone to synch up and stop bitching about what they are missing.

Blog Posts from our National Parks Trip

https://daysinthefifities.com/2013/08/02/20-miscellaneous-things-that-i-learned-on-our-road-trip-through-grand-teton-yellowstone-and-glacier-national-parks/

https://daysinthefifities.com/2013/06/29/life-on-the-verge-road-trip/

https://daysinthefifities.com/2013/07/30/the-unexpected/

https://daysinthefifities.com/2013/07/06/absolution/

 

Alumni Magazine

Long term visioning and planning has never been my strong suit.  I’m not a plodder and tend to leap before I look.  Reading the news from the class of 1987 in my college alumni magazine is a humbling reminder of how productive the frogs are who plan for a few hops ahead.

Reading the class column becomes a blur of fabulous jobs, PhDs, throngs of uber-successful offspring, just finished books, and global volunteering stints.  How do they do this?  I admit that my focus can be a bit wonky but I have an impressive energy level.  I just don’t understand how some people squeeze so much from their 24 hours. The back pages are filled with frogs who must have an extra gene for planning their lily pad track.

As I put down the magazine and pour my umpteenth cup of coffee, I remind myself that people who report into their colleges thirty years after graduation are in a high-achieving micro-niche.  Most of us garden variety frogs don’t remember that much of college and have trouble with our next leap let alone tidying up our leaping image for people we haven’t seen for three decades.

I’m positive that no one wants to know that I’ve arrived at a stage in my life with my husband and four kids where I have found the time to shower regularly, garden a little, walk the dogs, prepare lots of meals, and herd my imperfect family through the day.

Matthew is fascinated by my alumni magazine in the way that you can become interested in a stranger’s story overheard at a restaurant.  He pulls the glossy edition from our mailbox and grins.

“Oh look, my alumni magazine has arrived.” He emphasizes the my.

We read it together and laugh, not at my classmates’ lives but at our fallible selves. Matthew and I have attention challenges at the opposite ends of the spectrum. When we operate together, we form a rather well-functioning unit.  I push him to leap and he reminds me to look.  We agree that together we might be alumni magazine worthy.

Several years ago I had an essay published in my alumni magazine where I told the story of how skydiving with my oldest son prepared me for dropping him off at college.  It was the only time I’ve made contact with my alma mater since I graduated.  Perhaps my classmates think I’m too busy skydiving to get a PhD.

https://ebreston.wordpress.com/2013/04/08/how-skydiving-prepared-me-for-my-first-college-drop-off/

Mother’s Day and the Bag of Shit: More in Common Than You Think

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Friday is our trash day so I get up early to pick up our two dogs’ business before the garbage truck arrives at our house. My daughter comes out on the patio and looks at the weighted HEB grocery bag and asks me about its contents with a hopeful look that perhaps I have brought her an extraordinary breakfast treat.

“It’s a bag of shit.”
“No really, mom, what is it?”
“Seriously.”

There’s an eye-roll and she returns to the kitchen to contemplate what to eat now that I have ruined her breakfast fantasy. I return to my task, hearing the garbage truck rumble, brakes squeaking, a few streets over.

It’s the Friday before Mother’s Day weekend. I think about my Mom in Maine, alone on her first Mother’s Day after my dad’s death, and then about my own kids.

Mother’s Day is May’s cultural emotional land mine, only to be followed by a second sucker punch, Father’s Day, in June. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to diss the annual Mother’s Day brunch if it’s a true celebration, but for many the day is conflicted, at best.

I think back to the bag of shit that I’m holding and the approaching garbage truck. And then it hits me – a thought, not the garbage truck.

Picking up the shit is the price we all pay for being able to love and care for other beings. You have to search it out because if you pretend that it’s not there, you’re going to step in it. Not only that, but you have to keep doing it until the very end of the line.

There are no perfect moms and kids, even if we all want to pretend it to be true on Mother’s Day. The reality is that what spans between unconditional love and the bag of shit is what it really means to be in a relationship of any kind.

So whether you love, like, or hate Mother’s Day remember to give yourself a break. Relationships are messy and there’s a lot of never-ending cleanup. But that’s the brilliant part of it too, because if you are alive and willing, you can pick up the shit.

Seriously.

Trumpet Vines Against Gray Sky

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Wild Love

Is not impermanence the very fragrance of our days?

Flare up like flame
and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness

Give me your hand.

– Rainer Maria Rilke translated by Joanna Macy

I’m not a practicing anything, but each year I design a DIY version of Lent for myself. The season arrives on the calendar just as my lofty, good-intentioned New Year’s resolutions fade.

The new year promises a quick fix while Lent is the real deal – transformation through disciplined action. It’s a forty day contract.

Prayer, fasting, and service, the traditional pillars of Lent, provide a container to hold my wandering attention span. There’s a nurturing austerity inherent in the rituals that helps me filter the distractions of everyday life.

Where I live, this penitential season is marked by the pairing of the natural expansion of spring – tender neon green leaves, noticeably longer days – and the measured restraint of deliberate choice.

I feel that true freedom, not the mindless kind that comes with passivity or the jagged edge of defiance, can only develop with discipline. It’s about finding balance through confronting the interplay between sacrifice and renewal, effort and ease, life and death.

Too often I’m like a fish jumping at every bait that dangles above the water – work, teenage drama, the internet, even happiness. We all know the feeling of twisting and flailing on the line, hook-in-the-cheek caught.

Most religions have a prescribed season to examine what catches us. A time to anchor our most spiritual questions back to the body, while simultaneously providing the discipline to tame our habits so that we can concentrate on a higher purpose.

It requires an often uncomfortable, committed, day-to-day effort that seems too big to make during the sweltering heat of summer or the reprieve of a Texas fall and winter. It’s spring where the overlap of Life and Death is the most visible.

The acceptance of duality is at the heart of being fully human and ultimately gives us room to renew, forgive, love and eventually die.  As my friend Erika says, “We are not here to struggle, nor are we here to stay the same.”

We come spinning out of nothingness,
scattering stars like dust.  – Rumi

In memory of my father 12/15/1939 – 1/14/2017

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Eat Your Pie

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During the past two weeks since I watched my father take his last breath, I have been powered by the frantic metronome beat of Live-Now-Faster. I have thrown myself back into work, political outrage, my daughters’ gymnastics and dance competitions, and tying up the loose ends of our year-long house repair project.

But when I wake at 4:30am to start my day, it’s then, in the quiet morning peace, that I think about the pie.

In the hospice where my father spent his last twelve days on earth, the kitchen is partitioned off from the vistors’ common room in a similar fashion to restaurants where diners can sit and watch food being prepared. Although sequestered in his own space, anyone can observe the cook go about his tasks of making meals for the patients who are still eating, and the homemade cookies for visitors.

He is a tall, sturdy man but has a gentle, Downeast Maine quietness and does not readily make eye contact or engage in small talk. As I make my mother’s tea, I covertly take note of how he is carefully wrapping pieces of pumpkin pie on plastic cafeteria plates.

A hospice volunteer pushes open the swinging half-door that separates the visitors’ area and the kitchen and stands next to the cook. She comments that he doesn’t usually make pumpkin pie. He tells her that room 107 wants to eat only pumpkin pie, as he wraps the last piece.

There are six pieces of pie on the table.

How many times did the man or woman in 107 say no to a piece of pie because of some unfounded fear that eclipsed their freedom to enjoy tasting the sweet, nutmeg earthiness of a favorite dessert?  How many times did some regimen for self-improvement gobble up the thrill of being alive?

As you can imagine, sitting at my father’s bedside for six days gave me an uncommonly long pause to think. I saw my father’s face soften as the emotions of a lifetime left his body. He grew oddly young, like a blank state. Our choices shape and contort the body. Every time we betray our finest impulses we deform ourselves, both inside and out.

I want to let go of the maddening monkey-mind chatter that convinces me that I must be better, that I must do more.

None of us are extraordinary. I felt that with certainty as I watched the soft animal body of my father struggle to live and then stop. All that my father accomplished vanished into the nothingness of the past on every labored exhale. In the end, our legacy is measured by how our presence makes others feel, and how freely we are able to love and let go.

Although my dad died at 8:45 in the evening, it’s the cold, steel gray day that came before that is my reference point of time and place. That morning, I had been thinking of Miami and its hustle, warm white sand, blue raspberry water, and old men in tee-shirts, sitting on stoops, holding small dogs, loving their breathing, heart-beating lives.

Eat your pie.

We waste so much energy trying to cover up who we are when beneath every attitude is the want to be loved, and beneath every anger is a wound to be healed and beneath every sadness is the fear that there will not be enough time. When we hesitate in being direct, we unknowingly slip something on, some added layer of protection that keeps us from feeling the world, and often that thin covering is the beginning of a loneliness which, if not put down, diminishes our chances of joy.It’s like wearing gloves every time we touch something, and then, forgetting we chose to put them on, we complain that nothing feels quite real. Our challenge each day is not to get dressed to face the world but to unglove ourselves so that the doorknob feels cold and the car handle feels wet and the kiss goodbye feels like the lips of another being, soft and unrepeatable.

― Mark Nepo, The Book of Awakening

I took the photography from my parents’ kitchen window, at Goose Rocks Beach, Maine, on the morning of the day that my father died – January, 14, 2017.

Make Your Dog Proud

img_0970I woke up this morning and greeted the last day of 2016 as I’ve spent most of the year, exhausted. I’m physically, mentally, spiritually, parentally, and politically kaput. New Year’s Day, with its promise of a clean slate, is usually my favorite holiday but 2017 has me nervous. So I’m giving myself a low bar this year and dedicating my energy toward healthy preservation. This year I aspire to be more like our dog Opal, not to be confused with our anxiety ridden, butt-biting English Bulldog, Otis.

Be-More-Like-Opal 2017 Resolutions

Be nicer to my family
Opal does not complain, needle, or find fault. She enthusiastically appreciates her family but is more measured with strangers. It’s not that she doesn’t play well with others, she just has her love priorities straight.

Stop striving for happiness
Opal lives in the present moment and meets the day as it unfolds. She does not grasp at the past, worry about the future, nor elevate one state of being over another.

Embrace the discipline of ordinary
Opal is a minimalist and a connoisseur of simple pleasures. She never compares lives with other dogs or wonders if she needs to find her purpose. Each day she delights in her usual kibble, routine neighborhood walk, and ever-continuing skirmish with the backyard squirrels.

Accept my body, aging and all
Opal doesn’t mind her graying muzzle, her middle-aged spread, or that she can’t always make it to the couch on the first jump. At best she’s got six years left on the planet and she’s not going to waste her time thinking about whether her legs are too short or if Otis thinks she’s cute.

Own my emotional baggage
Opal came to us with a history we will never completely understand. Over the eight years that she has lived with us, she has worked through most of her issues, except for two. She continues to reactively pee on carpet and cowers when we put on her leash. Recovery and evolution are life-long. Rescue Remedy for Pets helps. There’s a formula for people too.

Rest
Opal is an excellent napper and yet always has energy for a new adventure. For my entire life, I’ve viewed sleep as the enemy. This year I vow to find my own Opalesque rest-work-play ratio.

Give more hugs
Opal experiences love tactically. I need to shrink my New Englander, WASPy comfort zone and hug more. Life is too short to have a big personal bubble.

Bark more and stand up for what I believe to be true
Opal is a world-class barker when she feels that her world is being threatened. It’s clear that barking will be required in 2017.

That’s all I’ve got – a tepid, worried, tired welcome to the New Year. Be gentle with yourself and kind to others, all others. Make your dog proud. The bar is low, your dog is already proud of you.

 

Dread Drives a Peach Colored Limousine

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Stuck in predictable afternoon traffic, I creep-and-stop my way across town. My daughter’s recap of her day mixes with my mind chatter. I look out the passenger side window and see a long peach colored limousine two lanes over. Not a bright, bold, spring peach but a barely-there, prom pastel peach. My stomach tightens and my scalp buzzes.  

“What’s wrong? Are you ok?” asks my daughter.

“Yes. Just thinking.”

The sound of locking doors, clicking in unison, triggered a chemical reaction through my body. It was a high voltage shock that electrified me with a survival instinct that I had never felt before.

Fifteen minutes prior, I had walked out onto the street, a little past midnight, in an unfamiliar neighborhood on the lower east side. It was early fall, and the warm afternoon of my arrival had turned cold and windy.

I worked for the babysitting service at Barnard College. Cab fare was mandatory for late  jobs and I could almost double my money if I took the subway home. As a broke student, I looked for jobs that were as far away from campus as possible. I never felt scared in the city, and taking the subway was no big deal.

That night was different. I was tired, the streets were unusually deserted, and I was wasn’t dressed for the cold front that had blown in while I was babysitting. I decided to take a cab.

The streets were quiet and there was not an unoccupied cab in sight. My uneasiness grew. I thought about returning to the apartment where I had babysat to ask for help. Instead, I shook it off and decided to find the uptown subway entrance.

The limousine slowed behind me and I heard the window come down. It was a glossy cream colored limousine, but it looked peach in the glow of the red traffic lights. There were no passengers, just the driver.

“Where are you going?”

“110th and Broadway”

“I’m going that way for my next pickup, jump in the front seat. You never will find a cab this late here. Come on, hop in.”

He was slender, elegantly dressed in an olive green suit. It had a sheen to it that looked like taffeta. I don’t remember his face. By the time I stared into his eyes, I knew it wasn’t going to matter to me what he looked like. I was either going to escape or die trying.

I told him that I felt uncomfortable and that I wanted to get out. I tried to open the door but it was locked. He stopped talking.  

The raw, initial surge of adrenaline leveled out but my ears were still ringing. The fear had morphed into dread and moved from my lower belly to a place under my ribcage.  

We were driving up 6th Avenue and I saw Central Park. I knew I could not let him drive me into the park. I had three city blocks to get out of the limousine. The automatic locking mechanism was in the console between the driver and passenger’s seats. He rested his arm over it. Hyper-assessing my situation, I was sure he would grab me if I reached for the button.

The traffic slowed. I don’t know why or how it happened. The moment is like his face, a blur, but I remember the action. His arm lifted and he looked away for a second. With one hand on the door handle and the other smashing down on the button, I pushed open the door and jumped out. I ran between cars to the sidewalk and watched the limousine dissolve into traffic, like nothing happened.

No screaming for help, no police reports. I waited until I couldn’t see the limousine, hailed a cab, and went home. I folded the experience into myself in the same way the limousine continued down 6th Avenue

I should have known better, I told myself.

Since the election I’ve had a sickening queasiness that has settled up under my ribs. I haven’t  been able to put words to my feelings until I saw the limousine over my daughter’s shoulder.

Dread. The same dread that I felt thirty years ago.

The misogyny that’s been exposed during the election feels so dangerous, so close, and so familiar. Those minutes in the limousine were my crash course in the dark underside of power and dominance.  As a teen and young woman, I had absorbed the subtle and overt sexist norms as background noise. An acceptance, that in my mind, if I played by the unspoken rules, would keep me safe.

Have we, as a nation, not evolved over the last three decades?  

Irrespective to individual political leanings, how could WE elect a predator, a self-proclaimed Pussy-Grabber, as the President of the United States. It sounds harsh and crude, but those are our President-Elect’s words, not mine. The election was  obviously not just about gender but how can this one fact not be a deal breaker for the most influential leader in the world.

It makes me wince. How do I explain this to my daughters and sons. How do we explain this to each other?  

I’m left feeling stunned and numb, like my twenty-one year old self standing alone on 6th Avenue. I will not understand my way past this outrageous disconnect or hide in a safe narrative of good deeds and kindness, as has been suggested ad nauseam. These are just baseline standards for being a good person, not a solution.

This time I know better. I will not be silent. I will not retreat.  

 

My Summer Lecture Series

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As new parents we all pledge never to utter a disparaging remark to the sweet child angelically sleeping in our arms, swaddled in their first baby blanket. You promise yourself that only encouraging words will flow from your lips to their ears. You will never scream, red-faced, “Because I said so!”

With less than seventy-two hours until the beginning of a new school year, I will put away my summer nagging-mom-lectures and pull out of moth balls my more academically oriented annoying-words-of-wisdom series.

Before I box up this year’s summer lectures, I’ll share my top five.

1. Do something other than sleep or look at a screen.

I first recount how when I was young, kids their age were expected to live outside in their free time and entertain themselves – and free time came after chores and a summer job. Parents gave their kids a bag of beef jerky and an apple, then pushed them out the door. If you were lucky they gave you a pack of matches. Look at what electronics have done to this generation. How will they survive the Zombie Apocalypse?

2. I’m old, please don’t waste my time.

Do the math, I say. If I’m lucky, I may have twenty-five to thirty good years left. I ask them, with my best disappointed parent face, if they think that I really have the time to hear the 367th raging debate about whose turn it is to sit in the front seat. I have found this to be my least effective lecture. Thinking like teenagers, several decades of mom lectures isn’t something they want to stretch out. They don’t mind if they shave off a few of my last good years with their constant arguing

3. I know I’m embarrassing, that’s my job!

I have come to embrace that I’m an embarrassment and everything is my fault. I mortify my teenagers several times a day, purposely, with the things I say, do, and wear. That is when I’m not cooking dinner, driving them somewhere, handing them my credit card, or helping with a problem.

4. You’re driving me crazy with all your meaningless teenage drama.

This lecture is almost always given using my outside voice. It usually takes place in the car, so technically I’m outside. Of course, I worry about scarring the kids with my outburst, so it’s followed by an apology, which also sounds a lot like a lecture. By the end of the apology no one in the car knows what I’m mad about anymore and the bickering stops. All is quiet but it’s not a victory, because now they think I’m crazy and embarrassing.

5. Do you think I’m your maid?

This is also an ineffective lecture because yes, they do think I’m their maid. Is it really that difficult to start the dishwasher, put more toilet paper in the bathroom, or close the cabinets without the sneer and the eye-rolling? Again, how will they ever survive the Zombie Apocalypse if the washing machine confuses them.

 

I took the picture at JuiceLand, Austin, TX

Dance

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Look, I really don’t want to wax philosophic, but I will say that if you’re alive, you’ve got to flap your arms and legs, you got to jump around a lot, you got to make a lot of noise, because life is the very opposite of death. ― Mel Brooks

I was an only child for my first decade of life. It suited me well as a content introvert. I was the kid who preferred bike riding solo, stomping through the woods alone, or making forts for one in the dunes at my grandparents’ house in Maine.

Even though I was always in motion, I was not athletic, graceful, or team oriented. I ran cross-country but never pushed myself. I spent my teen years too self-conscious to truly commit to any sport and spent way too much time hating my body.

In my early thirties I became a jock, although still preferring solo sports like running, biking, and weight lifting. It was the first time since childhood that I listened to the voice that reminded me that movement is my preferred medium.

My twin daughters have always been physical. From their first tumbling class, they were both hooked and continued on to competitive gymnastics. A couple of years ago, after an injury, G switched to competitive dance.

The worlds of dance and gymnastics are often called out as breeding grounds for negative body issues. Fortunately, I’ve found the opposite at my daughters’ studio and gym where healthy body awareness is the norm.

Somehow my daughters and their teammates have managed to deflect much of the numbing photo-shopped perfectionism that screams at them from every screen, billboard, and magazine. I give a lot of the credit to their coaches who emphasize creativity, strength, and discipline over size and shape.

By my early teens, my body was an enemy to battle rather than a partner, beginning the unconscious unraveling of the natural mind-body connection. As I entered middle age, I believed that I had patched that relationship.

The co-owner of my home yoga studio has a welcoming smile, laughs easily, and wears her body effortlessly. She incorporates what she call a shaky meditation in ALL of her classes. About thirty minutes into a traditional practice, she switches gears and leads the class in enthusiastically dancing around the studio.

Yes, in the middle of practice.

The first time it happened, I thought it was a one time thing and awkwardly went along with the group. The second time, I was so annoyed that she interrupted class again – to dance – that I wanted to roll up my mat and go home.

I love her yoga instruction enough to begrudgingly tolerate the dancing. Eventually, I realized that I wasn’t mad but afraid.

Afraid of looking stupid; afraid of being too old to dance in front of strangers; afraid to come to terms with the fact that I wasn’t as comfortable with my body as I had thought.

Another reminder that life is about re-working the same issues over and over. I’m still not thrilled about the shaky break in practice but I’ve made it a tool of discovery.

I’ve learned four simple truths:

1) The relationship you have with your body will be the longest, most intimate relationship of your life. Treat your body like a trusted friend, even when it’s injured or ill – especially when injured or ill.

2) The thoughts that you feed your body are EQUALLY important as the food you choose. Self-loathing and body shaming are akin to living on Twinkies and Big Red.

3) When you find yourself holding your breath, or breathing shallowly, it’s like losing the internet connection between your mind and body. Most likely you’re checking out of the present moment. Explore why, with curiosity, not judgement.

4) Remember that for most things in life, we’re all just one inhale and exhale away from a new perspective.

There are no prerequisites needed to reclaim your body except for an appreciation for being alive. You do not have to wait to be thinner, stronger, or more flexible. You do not need special clothes, take a class, or find a guru. You do not need permission.

Dance.

Road Trip Therapy

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“My therapist and I even have a joke about it: shit is truly fucked up when I start threatening to take a road trip.”  ― Chris Gethard

There’s a Monster Zero Ultra in one cup holder and a 32 oz coffee in the other. An empty, crumpled coconut Donettes package is balled up on the floor between the seats. The girls are asleep – one stretched out in the back of our rented Ford Focus, and the other is curled like a Pillbug next to me.

I’m beginning my twelfth hour of driving on our road trip through Colorado. We began in Denver and made quick stops in Steamboat Springs to see a friend and meet her young son, and then Glenwood Springs to swim in the world’s largest natural, hot springs pool. I have a little over an hour before reaching Telluride, our final destination. The Ford Focus strains to make its way up the mountain road at fifty miles an hour.

I’m in heaven

My first real, non-parent organized road trip was with my cousin, Susan, and Kirsten, the Finnish exchange student who lived with her that year. We drove from Ithaca, New York, to Washington, DC, during spring break. I was sixteen but didn’t have my license yet.  I lied to my cousin, who was not thrilled about driving, about my limited experience behind the wheel.  Susan let me drive for most of the way each leg while she and Kirsten slept.

I learned to drive on that trip.

It was the combination of getting away with something that I shouldn’t be doing, along with the self-mastery of a daring new skill that imprinted on me a life-long need to keep moving and the unwavering belief in the curative powers of a road trip.

I have never had a strong attachment to any one place and seldom return to a location I’ve already visited. The world is too big and interesting to waste travel time and money on repetition.  A road trip is the ultimate, liberating vertical leap out of routine.

Up until the time I married Matthew, almost twenty-five years ago, I was a chronic geographic Houdini. When we meet, I was months away from a move to Alaska.  Back in those days, a spontaneous change of scenery could fix just about anything.

Slip away, no goodbyes, and off to a new life.

It’s been close to three decades since I’ve disappeared to somewhere new, but that doesn’t mean the urge has left. It’s just under the surface. To this day, I think about escape plans like other people play word jumbles or crossword puzzles. I have a brain full of blueprints of lives imagined.

It’s just a habit, a mental exercise.

My husband does not share my restlessness and his hardwiring has him happy to stay put with our kids, animals and the internet. Although he respects my wanderlust, he prefers that when I travel, I take at least one of our kids as an insurance policy that I’ll return home – sort of like an alcoholic might take their sponsor to a cocktail party.

Matthew and I did not create easy children and much of our parenting time is spent refereeing or just yelling – it’s a fine line. Our four kids don’t travel well together and we have long-ago determined that the family vacation is over-rated.

I know there are plenty of families that vacation well together. But for us the combination of strong personalities, age and gender differences, varying sleep patterns, eating requirements, and interests, along with Matthew’s need to be connected to work is just too much for one little old family vacation to carry.

Instead, we divide and conquer and lately the tactic translates into a road trip for one or two of the kids at a time.  I’m my best parenting self on road trips.  I remember what it’s like to enjoy being around my teenagers and they remember that I’m not just an old, embarrassing drill sergeant.

Every family has their reset button – game night, meals, sports – and for us, it’s the road trip. It may not be cheaper than therapy but it has a far longer therapeutic half-life.

 

I took the photo as I began the drive into the mountains to Telluride.

Ten-thousand Hours and Then Some

IMG_9035There are 8,760 hours in a year. Twenty-two years of parenting translates into 192,730 hours. That number reflects only the hours logged since nurse Lonny handed me our first child, Leo, without compounding the hours from the three additional kids we added to the mix during the same time period.

My combined parenting hours accrued, thus far, for our twenty-two, sixteen, and twin fourteen-year-olds totals 578,170.

Now, I realize that I was not actively parenting each and every one of those hours, but as all parents know, once you take the job you’re never really off duty.

Herein lies the rub. Unlike most endeavors, my ten-thousand-and-then-some hours of parenting have not earned me a higher rank or a corner office. Most of my adult life has focused on raising children from birth to young adulthood and yet I do not feel like an expert or master of anything.

The teenagers currently under my care remind me that I’m actually growing exponentially more embarrassing, stupid, and irrelevant everyday.

On the other hand, my oldest son, who has flown the coop into the wide open space of adulthood, texts me often with kind words of praise. We have long since negotiated a path to a mature, mutual respect and friendship.

These, and the many conflicting data points I’ve collected during my time in the field, have led me to characterize my parenting style as that of an ill-equipped but optimistic shepherd.

The kind of shepherd who goes out to pasture on a stormy day without a raincoat because of a hopeful certainty that the sun will come out and the skies will turn blue.  

Soon realizing the disconnect between years on the job and parenting expertise, I patched together four everyday directives that form the guiding cardinal points on my shepherding compass.

  1. Listen to the Universe.
  2. Be solution-focused.
  3. If truly lost, stand still.
  4. Listen to the Universe.

It’s not a mistake. Listening to the Universe is such an critical part to finding my way that it’s both the North and South poles on my compass.

There have been plenty of times as a parent that I have not walked the talk but I’m always steady in my preaching of these cardinal points. I regularly quiz the kids, call and response gospel-style, on the four most important lessons that I’ve taught them.

As Leo gets older, he plays along and replies in half-hearted agreement. Eli, our most analytical child, thinks it’s all bullshit and is certain that we do not exist in a talking Universe and questions my mental health. The girls roll their eyes in disgust and beg me to never mention the Universe in public or in front of their friends.

That being said, there are moments when I see the glimmer of indoctrination.

Last week I picked up my daughter from school to drive her to dance practice. In my ever-increasing ineptitude, I brought her the wrong, apparently see-through, leggings. It was too late to go back home and get her to the studio on time. It was a trivial problem but the situation soon veered off into a moment of teenage drama.

I was about to launched into the #4 combo on my standard parenting lecture menu, Get a Reality Check with a side of shame. Instead, I listened to the Universe and stopped myself.

The car was quiet. My daughter huffed, sighed and scrounged around at the bottom of her dance bag and pulled out a dark colored pair of tights.

By this time, we’d arrived at the studio. Without looking at me, she announced that she would wear the tights underneath the see-through leggings and got out of the car.

She took a few steps and then turned and walked back toward me, but this time with a sly smile on her face. I rolled down the car window as my daughter uttered just two words, solution-focused, and then gracefully spun around and walked away.

Can I hear an Amen!

I took the picture at Milton Reimer’s Ranch Park, Dripping Springs, TX.

 

Too Old for the Egg Hunt, Too Young for the Minibar Piñata

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Our family has gone to the same Easter party for twenty years. It’s the one constant in our seat-of-our-pants holiday celebration style. Matthew is special-occasion challenged and I’m not a fan of repetition or ritual. The Easter party has given our kids their one glimpse of a normal, predictable holiday, but with an unconventional old-Austin style.

Our mushrooming, morphing city still loves its tired out, over commercialized tagline of “Keep Austin Weird.”  The Easter party was started when the slogan really meant something and continues to be a time capsule of the alternative, artsy, hippie culture that was dominant in Austin when I arrived thirty years ago.

The invitation came from Jan, one of the party’s co-founders, when it was just Matthew, Leo, and me. Jan had been Matthew’s professor and mentor when he attended  the University of Texas.

Leo was three and we had just moved back to Austin from Minneapolis.  Although we made a few life-long friends and tried our hardest to fall in love with the Twin Cities, our three-year stay ended as an unrequited affair. The culture was too buttoned up for us so we high-tailed it back to Austin as soon as there was an opportunity.

It was our first Easter after the move and the joyful, colorfully chaotic, loosely organized, pot lucking, egg hunting, bubble blowing, piñata bashing, cascarones smashing party punctuated our decision to move back to Austin with a giant exclamation point.

Fast forward twenty years, three more kids, and nineteen more Easter parties. We never missed one year.

The core group of steadfast, every-year party goers are a decade or more older than Matthew and me. We have watched their kids grow up and return with their children. Over the years people appear and disappear as life’s circumstances dictate, but there are always new faces and families with young children. The party is a welcoming, evolving organism.

We may periodically bump into our Easter friends during the year but our primary interactions are at the party, making the event an affirming celebration of renewal and catching up.  It’s a refreshing pace of communication to actual hear the telling of a year lived rather than to gawk at sanitized snippets on a Facebook page.

About Valentine’s Day, one of my kids will ask about the Easter party. They invite friends and help fill eggs for the hunt and come with me to buy big bags of spring-colored cascarones. Finally the day arrives.

The party begins with a pot luck and Jan at the head of the serving table making her famous french toast. When it’s time to hide the eggs all the hunters have to go inside while the adults scatter candy eggs and cascarones throughout the yard.

The kids are let out of the house in waves, by age group, but within minutes it’s mayhem. The three glitter covered, extra-hidden, money eggs are the big prize and on every kids’ mind.

The egg hunt is followed by two piñatas – one filled with candy and surprises for the kids and another filled with what can best be described as the contents of a minibar for the early twenty-somethings.

Over the years I’ve noted that the thirteen and fourteen year olds begin to opt out of the egg hunt. Instead, they congeal to form a sulky, bored-looking mass at the side of the lawn, nervously looking at their phones or wandering off into the neighborhood.  Once this occurs, this age group does not return the next year and will not step foot on Easter party grounds again until they are old enough for the minibar piñata or have a child of their own.

I watched Leo peel off and then Eli.  Last year when the twins were thirteen they still stormed out of the door with big smiles on their faces to look for eggs. Things were different this year. Although they arrived with enthusiasm, I later found Georgia, Lila, and their friend sitting on the curb as the kids bolted out of the house. They sheepishly ask me if I would take them home.

Sigh. Too old for the egg hunt, too young for the minibar piñata. Easter as I have known it for twenty years is now over.

However, the circle of life continues. Leo, now in his twenties and minibar piñata approved, texted me from Oregon on his spring break, the night before Easter, to ask if we were going to THE party.

Like a salmon going upstream, the Easter egg will eventually roll back to the basket.

Gerald and His Army of Clones

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When we moved to our current home, nine months ago, it was clear that the grounds were possessed. Not by a gentle spirit or malevolent ghost but with a stalker-alpha squirrel with a distinctive tail. The squirrel became so familiar to us during the first few weeks of unpacking that the girls figured they should name him.

Gerald.

Like many super-natural beings, Gerald is omnipresent. We’re sure each squirrel sighting is Gerald because of his unusually shaped cat-like tail. Not following normal squirrel seasonal patterns, he never stops digging up his stashes or burying new treasures in every square inch of our yard, including potted plants. The ground around our house is dimpled with Gerald’s handiwork making it look like the hood of a car after a hailstorm.

He only stops to taunt our slow-witted, hyper-protective English bulldog, Otis. Although he never succeeds, Otis attempts to climb Gerald’s tree which ends with Otis on his back flailing his short legs and wiggling his odd pig-like body for the embarrassing eternity it takes to flip himself over.  The squirrel watches the struggle and then he’s gone.

Gerald lacks all fear of humans, too. We have a sliding glass door with large windows in our dining area that looks out on the pecan trees that form the boundary with our neighbor’s yard. Gerald lies outstretched on his stomach on a branch that is center stage to our view, creating a platform for him to have visual access inside our home whenever he wants. Rarely does a meal go by without Gerald joining us at some point.

Recently he has upped his surveillance and we’re sure that he has created clones to help him with his mission. The clones look and act like him except for the distinctive tail.  Gerald is their leader.

He has become more brazen in his tactics. Gerald, flanked by several of his minions, stands in what looks like a runner’s start on the wall that follows our entrance way and watches me walk to the front door. The wall puts the squirrels at eye level and only a foot or so away from my head.

The girls think he wants to be our friend. I know differently since I have met his gaze. Gerald has a look that warns me that it’s not out of the question that he and his clones may take me down.  Just last week I found Gerald standing on his haunches in the potted plant next to our front door, pecan in mouth, giving me the stink eye.

I don’t have a tidy ending for this blog post. The story will have to be left open but with one request. If I go missing, check the grounds around our house – surely that’s where Gerald and his clones will bury me.

All Partings

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When my friend let me know that she was moving to Virginia, I looked away from her email, and remember feeling like a cloud of confetti spinning earth bound, flood lights accentuating the sparkle and separation between each piece.  

I’m not talking about the small paper-punch-cut-out confetti in cascarones but the big rectangular pieces that are used at political conventions or for a hero’s homecoming parade.  The kind of confetti that dances slowly and effortlessly to the ground, and for a minute or two makes the air come alive with movement, temporarily giving shape to what was once invisible.

In my thirties and forties I spent most of my time and effort collecting rectangles of identity to create a tightly pixelated sense of self. Those were the decades that screamed at me to try harder to keep it together and find a center of gravity within that could  hold all the pieces in orbit.

As I move through my fifties, I feel the accumulation of each beginning and end, the arrivals and departures, and all that happens in-between, blow past my edges, making room for more space, like confetti being shot from a cannon.  There is no center of gravity, no solid core to grasp.

I need more space to question and be reverent, to forgive and be forgiven, and try to fall in love with the world again, and again, and again, despite the fact that we will, as the Buddhists remind us, lose everything and everybody in our lives, including ourselves.

In my mind’s eye I see my Virginia-bound friend in my paper and mylar cloud. I breathe in her remarkable capacity to help others and sense of justice. She taught me to care more. Her note ended with the hope that our paths cross again. We all say that to the people who have mattered when we say goodbye, but it often doesn’t happen.

I was listening to a man who studied with Tibetan monks and he told me that his teacher described his life’s practice as the loving preparation for all partings.

The loving preparation for all partings.

Inherent in the statement is loss, but it’s loss turned upside down with the offering of a solution to the sorrow surrounding the impermanence of our time here on earth. If we are mindfully preparing each day to let go of the people and things that we love, then we will, by the nature of the task, be living in the present moment and attending to our lives with kindness and love.

It’s a mantra I use a thousand times a day to quiet my mind’s chatter in order to return to the breath.  Too often I choose to run recklessly, hand in hand, with my petty grievances and feel the constriction of my dense, pinched ego who wants to preserve itself at all costs.  

But there are other moments, also, when I am like a confetti cloud and can simultaneously be the empty space and the twirling rectangles,  feeling the stillness of floating back to earth for a brief and eternal moment.

For Marcia

“You have to remember one life, one death–this one! To enter fully the day, the hour, the moment whether it appears as life or death, whether we catch it on the in-breath or out-breath, requires only a moment, this moment. And along with it all the mindfulness we can muster, and each stage of our ongoing birth, and the confident joy of our inherent luminosity.”  Stephen Levine, A Year to Live: How to Live This Year as If It Were Your Last

 

Contract with the Universe

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This past weekend I felt too old to be raising three teenagers.  I have fifty-two year old nerve endings that are frayed from twenty-three years of parenting.  I’m vulnerable to the unpredictable, but frequent, teenage emotional eruptions that occur around me. They make me skittish.

My oldest son has moved from being a man/teen to the twenty-something stage of life.  He has come full circle and is pleasant company, sincerely asks for our advice, voluntarily does the dishes, and can be home for a month without one tense moment.

I thumbed my nose at my advanced maternal age designation when I had Eli at thirty-five and the twins at thirty-seven. Like everyone in their thirties, I was still a little delusional about the inevitability of getting older. I had no vision of what the fifties would feel like or how raising teenagers accelerates the aging process.

The girls are fourteen so there is double the drama and constant confirmation that I’m embarrassing, irrelevant, and mean.  For self-preservation’s sake, I am resurrecting a coping mechanism from my repertoire that had been previously reserved for our disturbed second Rottweiler Oscar.

Oscar came to live with us after our beloved first Rottweiler, Toby, died. If I were to diagnose Oscar using the DSM-V, the standard criteria for the classification of mental disorders, he would be labeled as anti-social.

We were warned. When Oscar was just a cute fluff-ball of a puppy, he would growl and fight our vet when he rolled him on to his back.  The vet said it was not a good sign and we should think about putting him down. Of course we were horrified at the suggestion.

Instead we “managed” his personality disorder for the next eight years. He had medical problems too. In the first year, Oscar had double hip replacement for his dysphasia and abdominal surgery to remove his undescended testicles. A few years later he grazed the arm of a child who hit him with a stick and was then quarantined for rabies.

Oscar had a few good qualities, the most important being that he was a noble friend to our German Shepherd, Maude, who was heartbroken when Toby died.

By the time the girls came along, Oscar was a grouchy old dog with painful hips and a disdain for creatures that were smaller than him, including my twin daughters.  At this point we thought about finding him another home – putting him down was not an option for Matthew. Ultimately, neither of us felt like we could, with a clear conscience, pass Oscar off to someone else.

Oscar liked Matthew and Leo and tolerated Eli. He respected me as the alpha bitch of the house. He knew I would take him out if he hurt my girls. I was definitely not his favorite although most of the “managing” of Oscar was my job.

Since I have known Matthew he has held a non-negotiable belief that we make a pact with the universe every time we take on a pet that promises we will care and nurture each animal for its entire life.

In an effort to uphold our contract with the universe, we spent a fortune on a house-calling dog psychologist to help us with our crazy Rottweiler. She had a plan to de-alphatize Oscar and it actually worked fairly well. We trained him to walk away from the girls and he was allowed only supervised contact with them.  When the girls came near him, he would grudgingly move to another place all the while growling and baring his teeth.

Oscar did not transformed into a fun-loving family dog but he never bit or hurt anyone. We fulfilled our contract with the universe to love and guide Oscar for his entire life. When he had to be put to sleep after his lung cancer became too much for him, our entire family gathered around him on the vet’s floor to see him to the other side.

It goes without saying that I cherish my teenagers to the core and am honored and blessed to have these extraordinary children in my life.

But … there are moments while raising our teenagers when I have to remember that we made a contract with the universe.  It outlines the promise that we made to love and shepherd our obstinate, unpredictable, delightfully funny, smart and foolish, vicious and kind, wise and irrational teenagers into young adulthood and beyond. I will recognize them again when they come full circle and be in awe of the people they become.

It’s a great deal in the end.

The Bird Mask in the Back Seat

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It was my carpool night when I remembered that the bird mask was resting on the back seat where the girls from my daughter’s gymnastic team would soon sit. When I turned to check if it was still there, the fluorescent glow of the gym’s parking lot lights hit its eerily long white beak and hollowed out eyes in a manner that made me feel like a freak-mom for carting it around in my minivan for the last two months.

I’m embarrassed to say it’s just the latest move in my dance with the Medico della Peste, the plague doctor mask. Earlier that day I failed again to hand it over to the perplexed-looking person at Goodwill.

My son Leo brought the mask back from Venice when he went to Italy the summer after fifth grade. My friend Ilaria is from Milan. We met as founding members of the self-proclaimed Neurotic Mothers Group that spontaneously formed on our sons’ first day of kindergarten seventeen years ago. It was an oddball group of capable but anxious women, mostly first time mothers, that hovered at the end of the hall to compare worries.

Ilaria’s son and Leo became fast friends. By third grade Ilaria promised that if the boys were still good buddies at the end of elementary school she would take Leo on their family’s summer visit to Italy. I still have a clear memory of Leo’s only phone message from his Italian adventure bellowing out from an old school answering machine – “It’s Leo. Happy Father’s Day from Venice!”

Although the Medico della Peste is considered one of the typical masks of the Venice Carnival, its true origin dates from the 17th century and credits Charles de Lorme, chief physician to Louis XIII, as the likely inventor. He designed the mask and costume for doctors during the Bubonic plague that ravaged Europe, killing nearly two-thirds of the population. Plague doctors wore the protective dress when they visited their patients. Below is Charles de Lorme’s description of the full gear.

The nose [is] half a foot long, shaped like a beak, filled with perfume with only two holes, one on each side near the nostrils, but that can suffice to breathe and carry along with the air one breathes the impression of the [herbs] enclosed further along in the beak. Under the coat we wear boots made in Moroccan leather (goat leather) from the front of the breeches in smooth skin that are attached to said boots, and a short sleeved blouse in smooth skin, the bottom of which is tucked into the breeches. The hat and gloves are also made of the same skin…with spectacles over the eyes.

In 1630, Venice was devastated by the plague, losing 46,000 of its 140,000 inhabitants which likely contributed to the downfall of the Venetian Republic. Over the centuries the mask’s association with death has lessened and it has evolved to become one of the most popular costumes worn during Carnival.

When Leo returned, he placed his newly acquired mask on his bookshelf. A few years later it made its way to the back of his closet. I knew it was in his room but it was not until four years ago, when we moved, that I became aware of mask’s influence.

Anyone who knows me will confirm that I have a getting-rid-of-stuff super power. It protects me from being swayed by sentimentality or emotion on my mission to unburden myself and others of the clutter that holds them prisoner. My rule for stuff is simple; if the item is neither useful nor beautiful then it needs to find a new home or purpose.

The bird mask is my kryptonite. Since our move I have tried to give it away a gazillion times, sell it at garage sales, and send it back to college with Leo. The mystery for me becomes evident at the moment when I should close the transaction – I can’t.  It’s like the mask has me under a low-grade possession that doesn’t cause me any harm except for the fact that I cannot rid myself of the thing.

I’ve researched the Venice Carnival and the mask’s history in search of answers and scoured my motives to find the key to my release. I can’t point to a single rational reason why I cannot let go of the mask.

I know this sounds crazy but each time I’m at the edge of giving it away, I get this gnawing feeling that the mask is like a thread, that if released, will unravel my entire life. Maybe this is how hoarders feel about every item in their house.

So I’m stuck with the mask. It’s still in the back of my minivan. I’ve stopped explaining myself to the man at Goodwill because there really isn’t an explanation.  He just rolls his eyes and asks if I would like a receipt for the other items.