The little girl who loved as much as she could

Once upon a time, there was a little girl.

She was quiet and self-possessed, which was good, because she had a new baby sister.

She was pretty, and very bright. Her mother loved her, but her father took her seriously.

Her mother worked hard at teaching other little girls and taking care of the family because the father was very sick.

She had a favorite thing: A record that played the story of Snow White. It was the early ‘40s and not many little girls had records of their own which they were allowed to play whenever they wanted. Not many little girls were trusted with something both expensive and fragile.

Not many little girls had fathers who took them very seriously. And not many little girls had fathers who were dying right in front of them.

Perhaps our little girl knew she needed to store all of her father’s love and wisdom, every bit, enough to last the rest of her life and to pass along to her children and grandchildren. But that seems like a lot to ask of a 5-year-old.

Our little girl knew she wanted to help. Her father needed to be read to and fed and bathed. He needed to feel like a father to a little girl who needed a lifetime of love and wisdom given to her as quickly as possible. She took care of him and listened to him. He told her she was smart and loving and owned her place in the world.

Her father knew that it is never right to be afraid to love. Her father knew that beautiful things can’t last.

Her father knew that she was still a little girl and needed to enjoy her favorite thing, that record that played the story of Snow White.

She played it over and over, and she loved it very much.

And then one day, the little girl with the dying father realized that beautiful things do not last forever.

She realized that when something beautiful ends, it hurts very, very much. She was terrified.

The little girl with the dying father and the busy mother took her favorite thing, her record that played the story of Snow White, and she smashed it into little bits, because she couldn’t bear the waiting. She couldn’t bear knowing pain was coming, but not when it would hit her.

The little girl grew up to be a serious young lady, and then a wise old woman. She taught her children and grandchildren that it is never right to be afraid to love. She taught her children and grandchildren that beautiful things do not last forever, which is why you must be brave and love them while they last. She taught them that it is never right to hurt on purpose. She taught them never to break something beautiful because you are afraid to lose it.

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Updated Stages of Grieving for Middle-Aged Empty Nesters Who Get Dumped in Mid-February

  1. Feeling impossibly lonely
  2. Feeling old
  3. Feeling fat
  4. Losing a couple pounds from the combination of depression-related appetite loss and feeling fat
  5. Texting the former partner to ask which stage of the Kübler-Ross model texting the former partner all day on Valentine’s Day is (Denial. Definitely.)
  6. Social media blackout
  7. Declaring that alcohol exacerbates depression and one will not be drinking for a while
  8. Beer for dinner
  9. Social media withdrawal symptoms
  10. Drunk texting girlfriends and losing track of which conversation is which
  11. Declaring that it is time to really quit smoking because one is no longer hanging out with a smoker
  12. Crying every hour
  13. Chain smoking
  14. Deciding to meditate more
  15. Crying instead
  16. Deciding to take a free guitar lesson
  17. Feeling extra lonely after being blown off by lady offering free guitar lesson
  18. Deciding to take art class
  19. Discovering art classes cost money
  20. Insisting one is above ice cream, chocolate and potato chips (see Step 3)
  21. Insisting that staying on the same bowling team is totally fine, and meaning it, because bowling is fun, dammit
  22. Washing a bunch of clean clothes because they smell like the former partner’s laundry detergent
  23. Not being above potato chips at all (Try not to think about Step 3)
  24. Hanging out with partnered friends and noticing how sweet the private languages they share are, and being so very happy for them
  25. Writing wretched poetry
  26. Writing actually not so bad poetry, as near as one can tell, or not — because who actually knows anymore?
  27. Realizing that maybe one is not the only person who is bad at relationships around here
  28. Crying every two hours
  29. Soaking up the affection of the girlfriends who reach out
  30. Seeing the pained boredom on the faces of the girlfriends who have maybe heard this story one too many times
  31. Remembering one is actually pretty interested in one’s girlfriends’ lives and enjoying them talking about their tattoos, kids, cats, dogs, projects and other genuinely interesting things that don’t involve self-doubt and uncontrollable weeping
  32. Making it through the workday without crying
  33. Remembering one is not alone
  34. Tentative gratitude for having experienced a very big, very powerful love
  35. Real, strong, solid gratitude for tolerant, loving girlfriends
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Bond

I’ve been saving a hearthstone in a hope chest

Treasure gleaned from a home of boxes and empty pockets

 

Dwelling in possibility left my soul looking

For the space to build a house around itself —

A ghost in the negative space between traditions

Waiting for the seasons to link together and

Dreaming of rituals never witnessed

Afraid of plastic household gods

 

You hammered the hope chest and burned it as kindling

The old gods died and I smoked a hall pass outside

There are no gods but I sipped nepenthe in bed

Let’s build a fire hot enough to melt photos and walls and glass and bone

And my stone — One that burns off the old dreams with

Fire so high sparks dance over Olympus

The thread that holds the family is fireproof

Take the end I’m holding out to you

Carve new molds and cast new seasons

Rebuild with metals that flex and wood that warms

Fire in the mountain only skims the walls

 

And I will be your Venus but

I am also the hearth laid ready for fire

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But if you try sometimes, you might find you get what you need

Things I needed today:

  1. A hug
  2. A belly laugh
  3. An hour of silent meditation
  4. Kindness

Things I got today:

  1. A hug
  2. A belly laugh
  3. An hour of silent meditation
  4. Kindness

Sometimes, a day is challenging. What the hell are we all doing here if we don’t welcome occasional challenges? None of them was particularly serious. (Hello there, new job outside my comfort zone. Oh, hi, parenthood.) Nobody died! But I had a momentary lapse of coping skills, and needed to lean. Luckily, I was on my way to accept the offer to lean on a dear girlfriend.

Just in case, I stopped along the way to pick up a failsafe.

wine

And then I went to my friend’s dojo for a zazen session. I’m a former denizen of Quaker school. I loved silent meeting, man. At first, the group silence chafed 16-year-old me. And then it clicked, and I shed a lot of the anxiety and depression I was carrying for no particular reason. Since then I have loved — and craved — being in a quiet group of people who are all inwardly tuned into a search for peace and calm.

I wasn’t expecting instant healing. But sometimes when you aren’t looking for something it sneaks up on you sideways.

It wasn’t a perfect moment of bliss. Some of the 60 minutes took longer than others. The real net gain was not Buddha nature but rather a gentle reminder that this is an authentic place for me. Also, there was chanting. When I’m called upon to sing in front of people, my brain serves up self-consciousness with a great big ladle.

After the seated meditation, there was circle time. They called it “dharma sharing,” but that didn’t fool me. I know circle time when I see it. The assignment was for participants to share a vow made to keep in the new year. People spoke, even beautifully. One old guy quoted a poem: “Snow, sleet and hail. They are all different. But in the end, they’re the same water running down the side of the mountain.” Not sure how that’s a vow, but I’ll take it.

Ever do that thing when you know you will be called upon to speak before a group, and you lose the rhythm of the moment because you were trying to come up with something to say? I did that. The vow that brought me through the dojo door was one to myself to fight anxiety. And I was too anxious to speak.

That, and some more girlfriend time brought about the belly laugh. Have one at my expense. I don’t mind; I am content. Here, you can have a glass of this wine, too.

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I’m happy you’re happy

I’m a relentless optimism factory. I’m not sure how that happened, exactly, but I think it has a lot to do with having some very good things in my life.

I have two children — a boy and a girl. They’re smart and healthy and fun to hang out with. A couple times in my life, I’ve had really cool jobs. I have a new boyfriend who is smart, wise, gentle, emotionally available, creative and handsome. I have supportive parents who are educated, interesting and flexible, and they make it clear that they love me. I have the world’s best little brother. I’m reasonably healthy. I live in a happening town. I have a sweet, easy, adorable dog who — and this is important — doesn’t stink. I have sufficient mental health to function. I have wonderful, weird and witty and interesting friends. Heck, I have an iPhone. I’m a lucky girl.

The real luck here is I have a brain tuned toward gratitude.

Sometimes, I feel like complaining. Am I allowed to complain? I think in general people aren’t. Not really.

When my kids were little, if I complained about homework or youth sports or toilet training mishaps, I was admonished: Be grateful they’re healthy.

When I was going through a divorce, I said a few things about how sucky the whole process was, and how I was sad that the center of my life for more than a decade was going up in flames. Everyone was so surprised — and visibly uncomfortable.

When I had my first kick-ass post-newspaper job, and I griped about the workload, whined about boredom or said catty things about normal office things like loud chewing or slowpoke coworkers, I was admonished to shut my trap and be glad I was working.

Allow me to violate social mores: Screw that noise.

“Things could be worse” is always a safer bet than “things could be better.” We all know that. People blessed with a tendency to savor and be grateful tend to be happier. (My friend Ginny Sassaman can explain that better than anyone.) I just don’t think a clear-eyed view of where things are and what needs to be worked on precludes gratitude.

People learn to act tough. They learn not to discuss negatives. They learn to silence their complaints. Contrary to the evidence offered by my movie-watching habits, I’ve got two X chromosomes, so I see this from the female perspective. I don’t know why, and I’m sure there’s some super clever biological explanation, but I’ve noticed men fail to take women seriously when they sound like women. And the women I know sound very, very feminine when upset. Our voices get higher, softer and maybe wobble a little. So what if when I’m stressed I sound like your mom when she was about to cry — that doesn’t make it any less of a problem for the copy desk if the reporter won’t call me back. I learned to doggedly chase down whatever I needed at work without asking for help, because sounding like a whiny girl just made everything worse. Yay, me, right? Except working solo can yield sub-par solutions. (A legitimate complaint.)

It’s not like I think listening to complaining is awesome. My least favorite things on the Internet are those lists of things never to say: Ten things never to say to a parent, 20 things never to say to a cancer patient, a dozen things never to say to a single person … I get that the point is encouraging sensitivity, but it actively discourages communication.

A little complaining is, in my opinion, healthy. Remember all those studies that suggested Facebook makes us sad because it turns us into envious little cretins? That’s one good reason. Another reason, one I find significant, is that a complaint can focus attention. Worry may be useless, but figuring out what doesn’t fit and needs to be fixed is not. I’m not talking about blind panic, general malaise or whining so much as I’m talking about acknowledging what isn’t working. It can be a first step toward setting a goal.

But the real reason is that it lets people in. Sometimes that’s very uncomfortable. Complaining about a partner who almost invariably makes you happy can feel like a failure to honor the good times. Complaining about a job when you have unemployed friends feels insensitive. But letting the people we love know that sometimes the ducks stray from single file also lets the people we love know we need them. When I call my girlfriends to tell them I’m worried about my kids or freaked out about money, I’m telling them I’m human, I need them and that I’m a safe person to open up to. It’s hard to talk about our fears. It helps when someone you love and trust goes first, feels along the path a few feet ahead and promises to hold your hand when it gets steep. Friends, you know I’ll be calling you with my list, and I’ll be all ears if you have stuff to air. I’m happy when you’re happy, and I’ll be here when you aren’t.

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The smell of an orange

A couple of months into 8th grade, the English teacher, Mrs. Murphy, assigned an in-class writing exercise. We could write whatever we liked, but it had to be in some way an expression of a memory evoked by the smell of an orange. She explained that scent and memory are strongly linked, and oranges have a distinct and strong smell.

Well, I couldn’t think of a darned thing. I came up with exactly one orange-associated memory: Very recently I had shown my mother that I could peel a Clementine so that the rind came off in one piece. And, bonus, it looks like an elephant.

orange

That … doesn’t look like an elephant to me, my mom said. And then I saw it, and I was pretty tragically and totally embarrassed.

Thus, Mrs. Murphy got a smart-alecky essay about how I really couldn’t think of anything and boy howdy do I hope my life is full of exciting adventures with oranges ever present in the background, just so I could have something worthy to submit should that particular writing prompt ever came up again.

Mrs. Murphy had no apparent problem with my approach. I think maybe she could give as good as she got, because I got an A- on the piece, which was returned to me with a single comment.

“Ever heard of a semicolon?”

Now, when I dig my nail into an orange peel, I have years of memories of Christmas stockings and snack breaks on hikes. Christmas and hiking are my main orange-consumption times. But I always, always, always think of Mrs. Murphy. I hope she knew I appreciated her. And I kind of wish I could tell her I eventually learned how to correctly operate a semicolon.

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Truth will out

The older I get, the more willing I am to accept that I don’t know as much as I thought I did. Suggesting that all truth is relative is a bullshit cop-out. But it’s possible to acknowledge that something that looks provably true may turn out to be wrong.

My dad’s old joke that 2+2=5 for very large values of 2 gets meatier every year.

I know when I’m telling a perfect truth. The internal compass always points to true north, and there’s no doubt in my heart, whether it’s a declaration of love or a declaration of dinner being on the table.

Other beliefs can be flexible; political allegiances can tack port and starboard, sweaters can be worn one more time after all, and certain cats might be acceptable companions. We do the best we can with the information we have. We outgrow pants, romances and careers. Sometimes it hurts. Outgrowing a partner is awful. Outgrowing a favorite pair of jeans is right up there. But remaining open to learning is important, and the ability to see many truths in an issue, an artwork or an argument is invaluable.

But behold, this truth is immutable. It is empirically provable. It is a Real Truth: I have enough bottle openers. Seriously. Thank you all. I’ve got this. There are people in the world with capped beers. Next time you’re feeling generous, send one along to one of them.

Truly, I’m good. Thanks.

I did not buy a single one of these.

I did not buy a single one of these.

 

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