Thirty Years in a Coffee Cup

IMG_3753 2I bet my future and measly graduate student savings on a coffee mug.

It was the shiny, inky indigo rim that made me walk closer. The potter added flecks of gold to the glaze that expressed, ever so modestly, as glittering stars against the almost black gloss that lined the inside of the mug and stopped just short of the flaring matte sky blue base on the outside.

It was a cup of night sky. The kind I had only seen at national parks or when lying on the beach in Maine at night, relieved and finding refuge in my glorious smallness.

There was no rational reason to believe that the mug would save me, but when I held it in my hands, I sensed its power. In that moment I felt on a purposeful course in the universe instead of drifting in the constant fear, insecurity, and loneliness that I had grown accustomed to as I dragged myself through graduate school after a debilitating breakup.

Clarksville Pottery’s original location was next to the import store where I worked when I wasn’t in class or biking. I had given my car back to the dealership during my first semester; voluntary repossession is what they called it. Carless, I often wandered into the pottery store during my breaks to look at the smooth, earthy housewares stacked on shelves and displayed in beautiful arrangements of potential domesticity.

I would trace the trails of the potter’s fingertips on the large plates and salad bowls with my hands. My world did not have lovely household items and homey touches; everything was raw and bare bones. Graduate school was the phoenix I had tied myself to this time and I was burning.

When I flipped the mug over, I felt the sting of the price tag in that place where desire, extravagance, and shame collide. I placed the cup on the shelf and walked back to work to finish unpacking items sent in huge crates from various places in Mexico.

This same scene repeated for several days until it didn’t. I picked up my cup of stars and brought it to the man at the register. He gave me and the item a glance over and asked if that would be all.

“No,” I answered, “I am interested in a set of eight.”

It was the only one of its kind in the store. The owner explained that he would have to contact the artist and warned that a small special order might take awhile. He went on to stress that there was no guarantee that the potter would be able to replicate the stars.

“There’s a lot of dumb luck in how the firing process works. You can’t just reliability conjure up a specific result.”

I would take my chances. The store owner kept my mug as the model for the other seven.

Four months and three cobbled-together payments later, I heard the message on my answering machine announcing that the set was ready. Before I left the store, I unwrapped each cup. None of the seven had the starriness of the original nor the balance of indigo to gold that I imagined. The owner had prepared me to expect the difference.

I made peace with my disappointment when I discovered the symmetry that each mug shared. There was a weighted uniformity that was unseen by the eye, but in my hands, it translated as a comforting heaviness. I could feel quiet mornings, meals with friends, coffee with lovers, even the laughter of children and the smell of wet dogs. It was all there in my hands, invisible but present.

The last of those eight mugs broke over a decade ago when it splintered against our porcelain sink. I kept a shard of the stars in my top drawer for years until I could hold its meaning in my heart and not stress over the jinx-it power of discarding such a powerful talisman.

I hadn’t thought of those mugs in forever until I stepped out of line at Anderson’s Coffee to pick up the unremarkable blue cup in the corner, the one with the shiny rim. There were no stars, and the shape was all wrong, but there was something about that indigo glaze at the top and the light blue matte finish at the bottom that made me remember.

I felt the lightning speed of thirty years spill over the sides with all the abundant messiness that has passed since I first picked up that cup of stars. The decades have been unruly and surprising, but never despairing and fearful like the tidy emptiness of my mid-twenties. I got back in line to order a pound of Sumatra beans, as intended, still holding the cup.

I had forgotten the depth of the darkness, those tiny seeds of expectation, the weighty hope, and all the random, infinite possibilities.

“There’s a lot of dumb luck in how the firing process works. You can’t just reliability conjure up a specific result.”

Eat Your Pie


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.

Planting a Winter Garden


A Texas winter garden is an odd collection of delicate leafy greens and weather-hearty root vegetables like carrots, turnips, and beets. There’s also cabbages, brussels sprouts, and broccoli, who like the more delicate salad bowl greens, do not care for the heat, but are far more capable in the cold.

Maybe it’s the New Englander in me who grew up with turnips and the like, but I think of root vegetables as my kindred spirits in the garden. I tend to be drawn to those with not so obvious treasures.

It’s not hard to be radiant rainbow chard, prolific arugula, or tender lettuce showing off in the tamed, affectionate October sun. They remind me of youth and fade fast when faced with minor fluctuations in temperature.

The root vegetables are more like the later decades of life. They soak up the same soothing sun but with practical, more industrious looking leaves.

Their business is inward as tri-colored carrots drill deep into the soil; purple collared, moonlight white turnips nestle and grow round; and beets, with their earthy redness, lay waiting, painterly, to stain finger and lips.

The picture is of the garden I planted this weekend at Sunshine Community Gardens

Note:  I haven’t written much over the last four months. Our summer was about integrating a long-awaited closure with many beginnings. My silence was a needed stillness to reboot and figure out our new operating system.

Almost Fifty


 ‘‘One day you will wake up and there won’t be any more time to do the things you’ve always wanted. Do it now.” – Paulo Coelho

Fifty is not the new forty.  Let’s face it, fifty is fifty.

While talking to other tail-end boomers and reading what the media and blogs tell us about being middle aged I find that there are four major approaches to turning fifty out there.

The first and loudest camp is the pro-fifty crowd. By listening to this group you’d think that middle age was just one big find-the-best-part-of-yourself fest. This group plans to never age or die. They eat kale, do triathlons, change careers and have great postmenopausal sex.

Then there’s the survivalist group. They definitely know they are aging and want to stop it at all costs. They also eat kale but on a restrictive life-extending 1,000 calorie diet. Many in this group gets an extra colonoscopy each year AND will tell you their triglyceride levels at a cocktail party.

On the flip side, there are those who have given up. They have lost their jobs, their health insurance and well being. This group of fifty year olds do not have a lot of hope. It’s a young world out there and it’s hard to find your way. This isn’t just an outlook but a social/economic/political issue.

Of course there are those who don’t give a damn and are just living their lives.

If we boomers are honest, we can recognized a little of each of these perspectives in ourselves. Much of the noise out there sounds a lot like whistling in the dark to me. I for one am not whistling. The tune I was trying to carry is being drowned out by the ticking of the clock. It’s not the biological clock of my thirties, this is the sound of mortality.

I know I am going to die.

At almost fifty, this line of thinking can leave me feeling like it’s over.  As a counter balance, I am fortunate to have many thriving friends and mentors who are Old. Capital O Old. Our culture hates the word, particularly middle-aged people. I use this word with the greatest of respect. If we are lucky the ultimate destination is OLD.

Ask any person in their seventies if they are living the new fifty and they will chuckle.

Standing here at the brink of fifty, I am fully aware, but not-so-accepting, of the fact that in a hop, skip and blink of two decades I will be seventy. One of my Old friends once picked up a comb and ran her thumb down the teeth, smiled and said, “This is how fast the time goes.” For me the sense of urgency is palpable.

I realize that I need to get off my lower-than-it-used-to-be butt and move a bit faster toward living. To do more, love more, make more mistakes, keep promises, show more kindness, make amends, take more risks, follow through. Let go of the hesitation and leap; to hear the clock as a heartbeat, a breath. A metronome for staying in the present.

When I tell people that I’m almost fifty, it is more often than not greeted with, “You’re at the halfway mark.”

More whistling in the dark.

If you look at statistics, I passed the top of the mountain about a decade ago. I’m more like at the timber line on the other side, going down.

Time is an illusion and the mountain analogy is too. In actuality we are all dancing from the most fragile, beautifully shimmering thread of the present moment. There is no solid mountain beneath us. There is no thinking, eating or exercising our way out of this predicament. It is universal. It doesn’t change if you are almost fifty, twenty or eighty.

When my friend Marcia knew she was losing her battle to cancer she organized a glamorous birthday party for herself. People came from all over the country. It was her pre-funeral. She didn’t hide it. She wanted to celebrate her life with the people she loved while she was alive and feeling well enough to have fun.

Marcia always said, “Nobody gets off this planet alive, so what are you going to do?”


I took the photograph at the Bastille in Grenoble, France.