The Kindness of Strangers

Homeward bound.
Homeward bound.

I was traveling at the beginning of the new regime. On Inauguration Day, I witnessed the protests at a different statehouse, one that had defended slavery and bore the marks of a broken nation. On Saturday during the Women’s Marches, I walked the red clay trails of a state park, marching with all in spirit. On Sunday, we arrived in New Orleans for a much-needed vacation from the burdens of a country already spinning out of control, and found ourselves in an emergency room.

My husband became very ill with a bad infection on the 8-hour drive, and so we checked into our hotel and headed straight to the nearest emergency room. What followed were three days of uncertainty and fear in a strange city where we’d never been before and knew no one. Three days of an endless stream of nurses and doctors and housekeepers and aides who spoke in odd accents, from all walks of life and every corner of the globe, with compassion in their eyes and caring in their hearts. Three days of hearing and seeing the city’s poorest and sickest soothed and treated along the ER bays and hospital wards. Three days of witnessing what the world is like from outside my comfortable little box. Three days of relying on the kindness of strangers.

After spending our entire stay in The Big Easy living moment to moment, the drug-resistant infection finally turned a corner and we were cleared to go home on a beautiful spring-like morning that the natives thought unseasonably cold. Everyone on the staff shook our hands and told us how sorry they were that we never got a chance to see the real New Orleans, to taste her food, hear her music, savor her spirit. They told us to come back and give their fair city another chance.

And we will. But I feel like we’ve already experienced her soul without ever setting foot on Bourbon Street.

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Waking Up

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The post-election Supermoon of 2016.

The morning after the US election, I woke up strangely calm. I didn’t expect that reaction. And then I remembered; I’ve been through this rodeo before. On a personal level. Ironically, or maybe fortuitously, I’d been studying our president-elect’s particular personality disorder during the months leading up to our national November surprise, trying to get a handle on the kind of panic and physical paralysis I experience every time I hear him speak on TV.

His rhetoric throws me back to my old childhood and even recent adult showdowns with family members who exhibit the same traits. In or out of therapy, I’ve used all the tactics that have played out on the national stage in social media and comment threads. Anger, denial, defensiveness, sarcasm, blame, finger-pointing, compliance, withdrawal, pleading, compromise, escape, negotiation, a blind eye, even an occasional proactive offensive — you name it, I’ve tried it. Some of them seemed to work, at first. But in the end, what little gains I’d thought I’d made were just illusions, part of the narcissist’s great charm in promising you the moon but vanishing before you come to collect at sunrise.

I have neither solutions nor cures to offer. As long as the narcissist is getting what he or she wants, there is no motivation to change. It’s a very hard addiction to break. But what I do know is this: that hunger for the spotlight can never be satiated. The more attention (negative or positive) that is fed, the hungrier the appetite. I can only imagine that the gnawing search for more must be a form of hell on earth. And while I must forgive in order to be set free from the vicious dance I participate in as a narcissist’s compliant partner or even adversary, I will not forget.

What’s at stake is the sanctity of life for all of us, narcissists included. The ones in my life have taught me the hard way that no matter what I do or sacrifice for them, it’s never enough. Instead of beaming all our attention on the insatiable ones, I vote that we focus on ourselves, the stars of our own reality shows. We may not determine our outcomes, but we can control our outlooks. Do we sustain healthy boundaries? Do we care too much about what others think of us? Are we doing what’s important or just marking time, filling up space? Are we aware of the lessons being taught to us, supporting us, warning us? Are we awake?

I, for one, have seen the enemy, and behind all the bluster and bravado, they look just like us. In fact, they are us. We all play our parts in this tango, whether we lead or not. And if one partner changes the steps, the other must react, one way or another. Sometimes we follow, sometimes we break apart. And maybe, just maybe, we find a new rhythm, a new dance.

It’s time to get to work.

When the Fog Lifts

Day 19: I Said Goodbye To . . .
Day 19: I Said Goodbye To . . .

This year I said goodbye to some lingering roles that had run their course: the dutiful daughter, perfect mother and overcompensating wife. This year the fog lifted from my eyes, and rays of my own turth blinded me with potential.

I’ve decided to participate in Susannah Conway’s December Reflections  photo prompts again this year. During this hectic and stressful season, won’t you join me in mindful reflection from life’s photographic window seats and contemplative comments that provide refuge from the madness.

Feathering the Nest

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You seem cold
so I pull out all I can remember
and rip this in shreds
to hang high like hope.

Soon, I notice the beginnings
of fear in fraying scraps from
a bathrobe you’ve forgotten
I gave you, the mother I miss gone
in a flutter of tailored blue trim, while
your memory’s soft batting spills
onto a crazy quilt of early crocus
chaos underneath.

The awful resentment in granny’s
faded remnants still swings too low,
blocking your chance to rise
above, her bitter view spun on threads
she sewed into your youth,
your marriage. And even though
I bend the branches down,
you can’t look far enough beyond.

Instead, you build on hard ground
with only heavy hurt,
using a muddled history
as nesting wattle over and over,
unable to see
your life in the trees.

NaPoWriMo #5

*A friend of mine had the idea to put her colorful quilting scraps outside for birds to use in their nests, helping to create spontaneous works of art in nature. I began to envision the memories evoked by suddenly seeing a piece of old clothing in a new outdoor context, which led me down a completely different path.

I’m writing a poem a day in April as part of NaPoWriMo’s celebration of National Poetry Month. We may be able to live without poetry, but who would want to?

How to Live or Die by the Outcome of the Game

  1. Position yourself as far away from the TV as possible.
  2. As an alternative, you can dominate the viewing selection by turning up the volume on repulsive shows like Hoarders, thus forcing fans to flee into another part of the house.
  3. Stock up on perishables to sustain you, since no one else will be eating until the final score, and maybe for several hours after depending on the injustice of the sports gods.
  4. Keep earplugs nearby in case of excessive screaming over a bad call by a vision-impaired referee.
  5. Become engrossed in a good book set in a land devoid of all competitive activities but that still offers a compelling plot line. (No Hunger Games, in other words)
  6. Sneak in a nap during halftime while fans are mumbling about strategy behind closed doors.
  7. Above all (and this is most important) always remove yourself from the premises during the last “five” minutes of the game, which could take anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour.
  8. Return for happy hour or unhappy hour, depending on the fates.
  9. Next Saturday: Do it all over again.

Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes

The vortex of Bowie. Or the end of my neighbor's PVC pipe. Take your pick, I'm flexible.

One of the worst parts about getting older, I have discovered, is not the gradual deterioration of body parts, the slow numbing of libido, or the downward slide of mental calisthenics, as distressing as all of that is to be sure.

It is the fear of impermanence, instability and nasty surprises. I, who have never blinked an eye over uprooting my household or completely renovating my persona, have been caught unawares.

It has crept up on me like Geritol in the night, smelling of aspercreme and denture adhesive, muffling my adventurous mojo in flannel and lap rugs. I have become stodgy in my habits and constipated about my future.

I am stuck.

So, in the spirit of the One Little Word project seen popping up around the blogosphere, I have chosen a theme for this year. As a caveat, I am well aware that the Universe can and will give you what you ask for. That is the point, after all.

The word? You guessed it.

But the Universe can be a fickle and mischievous mistress, and she favors tricks over plans at life’s cocktail soiree. In other words, I am asking for it.

That is, however timidly, the kind of party game I want to relearn at this point in my journey (notice my reluctance to actually say the word yet?)

Since I’ve already had my emotions pulled out from under me in December, it’s not like the energies need to be put into action. My sense of control light has been blinking uncontrollably for weeks now and I can’t find the manual.

Because there is none.

I like to think I’ve just misplaced it, a mere oversight due to the ever-shrinking menopausal memory, and that I’ll find it stuffed behind the fountain of youth any day now.

However, the one thing I can control is my reception of the one little word for this year. I can either fight it with an arsenal of glam rock wrinkle reducers and Ziggy Stardust age reversals, or I can invite it in for a cup of tea. Have a chat and see which way the wind’s blowing.

Okay, you can’t blame a gal for a little heads up, now can you?

Meanwhile, I’m renovating the attitude and putting my spiritual house in order. A little preparation won’t hurt.

And, you might notice that this blog looks a little different. It’s small change, but a step toward nonetheless.

Big Foot’s Got Some Brand New Vans

To me, these vessels are works of art, a masterpiece. I have wanted shoes like this forever. They speak to me of tomboys, denim and badass poets, classic footwear hovering on the verge of preppy. But not quite. Eventually, with worn heels and holes, they will smell of grunge band, fast times and flannel. There is something infinitely satisfying about wearing this symbol on the sidewalks of suburbia.

I have never been in style. Grocery shopping with my mom at our local A & P comes to mind, as I stared at the Dr. Scholl’s display in the same aisle with the hairnets and Legg’s eggs. I was 16 and lusting after those sandals with smooth leather straps (in three different colors!) and a neat center buckle. It seemed like everyone wore them, wooden soles clattering down the high school hallways and clacking nervously under classroom desks. I could only stand by as spectator, fascinated by how the teenage fashionistas kept those clog-like wonders on.

My mother caught me salivating and dismissed my dreams of finally becoming cool despite my bottle-bottom eye glasses and overall nerd status.

“They’ll hurt your feet,” she warned me and that was that. This from a woman whose toes were molded into torpedo points by those hellish heels of the 50s, a style providing countless numbers of foot surgeons with lifelong job security.

“But they are supposed to be good for your feet. They EXERCISE them,” I argued, reading from the box.

“They’re made out of lumber and a tiny piece of leather. You can’t wear those — your feet are too thin.”

And long. Size 10, to be exact. That’s all well and good for a 6’2” runway model, but my 5’8” frame only allowed me to be cast as the family’s personal Bigfoot (a term my father affectionately used for me).

Unfortunately, I possess the trifecta of podiatric woes: narrow, long and flat as a pancake. While my archless-ness might keep me out of a wartime draft, I would gladly endure boot camp than suffer the humiliations of a footwear gauntlet (otherwise known as the shoe store).

Ah yes, the dreaded yearly trip to the small-town shoe shop, where I would gaze sadly at a limited assortment of beautiful styles I could not wear. Right off the bat, my mother ruled out anything remotely cute or trendy, nothing with heels, absolutely no flimsiness or slip-ons allowed.

That left a few sturdy crepe-soled lace ups in geriatric browns and tans. If Velcro shoes had been popular then, I’m sure they would have come in a close second (nothing with flashing lights or wheels in the heels, however). Come to think of it, Velcro would have made the torment go a whole lot faster if not easier, as I sat tensely through the everlasting lacing procedure at the knee of the store owner, who had realized by this point there wasn’t one shoe in the entire store that fit me.

Yes, that’s right. While sitting amongst the piles of tissue paper and lidless cardboard boxes, after countless trips to the back, with me futilely pacing around like a caged animal while my mother pinched my toes, I always heard the inevitable proclamation of my shame:

We’ll just have to “special” order them.

I hate the word special. After what seemed like years, we returned to the scene of the crime for the prize I didn’t want. And the “specially” ordered size 10s wouldn’t fit much better than the store’s one pair of 9 1/2s, except that my toes weren’t as crowded (obviously my mother’s worst nightmare) and I could easily walk out of my new giant boats of leather without untying any laces, thanks to the narrow heels blessed to me by my grandmother.

Now, flash forward to the brand-new Vans, the cool ones here in black and white.

The ones I bought in record time after waltzing into the shoe section of a regular department store, zeroing in on the display model, quickly searching through the well-marked boxes, and finding just the right size (already pre-laced).

I tried them on by myself, no exhausted sales clerk hoping against hope that this trial of patience would soon be over, no mother following me around with her toe-seeking fingers at the ready, and no customer service associate painfully filling out an order form for my mythical pair of perfect shoes.

And the best part? They are a size 9 1/2. Either I have shrunk or American shoe standards have grown large. Oh joyous day, this means there are plenty of other big-footed gals out in the fashion wilderness. I am not alone.

And yes, Mom, I have plenty of room in the toes.

The State of My Union

Uh oh. Is that yellow snow I see?

This one’s personal, not political. I got to thinking earlier this week about the benefits of reviewing “the messes I get myself into,” otherwise known as my path. I believe it is prudent to be accountable every so often, to see whether life as I know it still works. For me and everyone else.

The Castle. Also called the Hair Palace. We’re down to a cat and a dog as our four-legged companions. (For the well-meaning — no, we do not want any more roommates right now, thank you.) With all my spare time and lovely empty space, you’d think the place would be spotless. Fail. I blame it on excessive shedding: mine, pets, and squirrels. Unfortunately, daily schedules don’t work for me. Only complete vacuum anarchy imposed by my spouse.

Mother Nature. Where others see only unemployment and stagnation, I’m digging the chance to stay home and watch the cold beauty of winter from my (relatively) warm kitchen. As long as I overlook all the yellow snow in the backyard. From the dog. (Why am I still hearing Zappa in my head?)

Art. Okay, those who know me, please don’t tell my mother. Yet. My mom and I have had a lifelong struggle over the making of art, to create or not to create. To keep or not to keep. She was an oil painter, I was a jack-of-all-trades, and guess what, my daughter lives and breathes art, starting from the moment she could hold a crayon. These days, I can only “do” art when it pleases me. And as long as I don’t become the pack mule of art supplies that I used to be, I’m happy to give it room on my plate. It may or may not appear on this blog in the future.

Hobbies. Dare I say it? A simpler life is opening the door to old pastimes. The new twist is that I can commit and be held accountable to online communities who encourage delicious projects in knitting, photography, writing and journaling. Maybe even cooking, but I could be pushing my luck there. Again, as long as I don’t rush out and buy the latest crafty gadget or gizmo, I can still be a minimalist and a hobbyist, mostly with what I already own. More on these in upcoming posts.

Facebook. It seems there’s been a lot of deleting and deactivating going on in the blogosphere. I’m keeping my account because a) it is private and b) less than 100 friends. And I know all of them, from one part of my life or another. I don’t chat. I don’t play games. (Sound like a lot of fun, don’t I?) I keep my wall posts down to one or less a day. And I’ve shut off most email notifications to control my clicking addiction.

Facebook (Again). For me, this social scene is worth every annoying privacy breach blocked, if only for the connections I’ve made with old friends who have been missing in action over the years. In some cases, we’ve reunited right before a major event in our lives, when we need each other the most. There will be follow-ups through phone calls, greeting cards and visits, but I can’t ignore the online synchronicities.

Astrology. I know, everybody’s been asking. If this is some astronomer’s idea of a joke, then I think they better revisit the whole Pluto debacle, too. My answer is that the shift in the constellations has been known since the first century and the old zodiac won’t work with 13 signs. I’m just amazed at how many folks who don’t believe in this stuff get all riled up when they aren’t Scorpios or other signs anymore. Maybe if Ophiuchus was the “football-bearer” instead of messing about with snakes, he would be better received.

That’s probably enough from my state of mind. If you’ve hung on this long, I thank you and promise fermented libations when you next see me. For those lost along the way, I can only hope they gleaned something useful and took it back to their own lives and communities.

Just remember: we’re all in this together.

Migration of the Collegian

Letting Go #14

Every fall, the young of our fair species stuff various modes of transportation with unnecessary materials that are deemed essential by teenage standards and begin the long trek to the halls of higher education, social advancement, community living and cafeteria food. There, said youth unpack what was carefully packed and strew their belongings on the front lawns of the chosen dorms, awaiting their turns to haul cartloads of the same unnecessary materials up many floors, only to repeat the process of cramming the stuff into a very small dorm room the size of most suburban bathrooms.

For years, we’ve watched this ritual performed by friends and neighbors from afar, and thanked our lucky stars it wasn’t us.

Well, this year . . . it was us.

It’s not like I didn’t try to prepare myself. As part of my “Nine” year of Letting Go, this was the BIG ONE in the overall forecast. But somehow, it just didn’t seem real until I was standing in my daughter’s non-air-conditioned dorm room with sweat streaming down my back after performing the migration ritual of pushing her entire world into about six cubic feet of space. At that point, I was struggling with my emotions. Part of me was proud that she hadn’t brought her entire bedroom for the year–she is not a very materialistic person and she takes care of her belongings. Part of me was excited for her–I couldn’t wait to plunge into the college social scene after living an isolated life on the farm during my high school years. And part of me just didn’t want to let go of the little girl.

I won’t know whether it gets easier as each child leaves home, because I don’t have that luxury of experience. This is our only one, and my husband and I get one shot at each milestone. There are no do-overs, in a sense. Now, I know that each child is different, and that if we’d had more children, the circumstances would vary as much as every cloud in the sky. Maybe the pain of letting go is just as bad during the next launch from the nest, but at least you know what that pain feels like from the last time. You know how you will behave. You will become familiar with it, like the attack of an unpleasant in-law or second cousin you have to endure occasionally at family reunions. It’s a necessary evil.

What I do know is this: after I helped carry armloads of her worldly possessions, set up the all-important bed, fan and TV, hauled back a box of her new textbooks from the bookstore, ate one final meal with her at an off-campus restaurant and stood in front of her dorm building to say goodbye, I did not sob and clutch her to my chest, or harass her with a string of warnings and dire predictions, or even insist on going back up to her room until she threw me out. In other words, to my great relief, I did not embarrass her (I think) or create a scene.

I gave her a kiss and told her to have fun. She has earned it. And then my husband and I took that long walk back to our car and drove home to an empty nest, because as parents of the collegian, we have earned it–whether we like it or not.

What They Don’t Tell You About College Orientation

Letting Go #11:

When the opportunity to participate in our daughter’s college orientation came up we thought, “Oh, wouldn’t it be fun to go back and relive our wild youth. Stay in the dorm overnight sharing a twin bed. Sneak out and drink beer. Break curfew. Play our stereos too loud (make that ipods). Hang out in dorm rooms with people we don’t know. Skip breakfast. Share the communal bathrooms. Arrive late to class (make that programs). Do something vaguely illegal. Ah, the college good ol’ days.”

What we got instead, was more of the same stress of preparing the offspring for THE OUTSIDE WORLD. Too many kids, too many nervous and pushy parents, too many rules, too many meetings, too many forms to fill out, too much money–not enough fun. It seems to be a recurring theme in the Y generation’s life experience.

When did the ritual of growing up become such a job? I have to say that the program was well-coordinated and the food was great. The air-conditioned dorm we stayed in was far better than anything my husband and I lived in even during grad school. I tried to have fun, I really did. But it was still a lot of work–even for the slacker parents that we are.

I came home exhausted. Maybe those college memories are way too rose-colored. Maybe my body was better prepared for that environment–back when my thyroid was functioning. Maybe I’ve blotted out all the paperwork and formalities of entering college in 1978. But darn it, I just don’t recall it being this complicated. All I remember is paying the bursar and making up my twin bed (regular size, not “extra long”), and doing my best to avoid the “Kool-aid” at the freshman mixer thoughtfully hosted by the richest frat on campus.

All I know is that this little trip down college memory lane sure wasn’t the wild overnighter that I pictured in my 49-year-old head. Gotta let go of this one in a big way. Let’s face it–nobody wants to see a middle-aged girl gone wild.