Monday, June 13, 2016

Don't let them take your heart

It happens quietly, and slowly 
the way the spirit fights for life
But the spirit is only so resilient

The heart must act.

Don't let them take your heart

The fear that fills us
The sadness that slows us
The anger that devours us
The dread that comes with the first glance at morning headlines
Don't learn to expect the worst
Don't become less surprised

Don't let them take your heart

Shore up your faith in the humanity which connects us
Keep the capacity to grieve, to cry for a stranger
Don't let your spirit lose its fight

Don't let them take your heart.

When it seems unsafe to be where you belong
When it seems everyone might be a killer in the making or a victim in waiting
Remember that fear only feels like information
And that far more evil has been stopped than perpetrated 

Don't let them take your heart.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Now to then and back again.

Grief is heavy
If it slows your steps at times
It is  to remember who you lost
Without getting lost yourself.

Three years ago today, my brother Bill died.   
In the still fog of the days that followed, I wrote this  about grief

June 14, 2013

"I made you laugh. I LOVE when that happened." --Bill Cook (1960-2013)

Grief is a boulder in the middle of the room.
It can't be budged.
If you push it away, it won't yield
When you aren't watching where you walk, you fall over it
And it hurts
You can't pretend it isn't there
You can move the furniture to walk around it
But it still blocks your view of something
You can try and live in another room altogether
But you have to pass by it eventually to go from now to then and back again
Grief is like a boulder in the middle of the room
It doesn't belong there
You don't want it there
You throw a blanket over it
It feels too big for the room
Too big for your life
You cry

And finally, grief speaks
It says: I might be in your way, but I used to live in your heart
I am your memories
I am your loss
But I am what you cherished for a long time
I am trying to find a way back in
But you won't open it
You walk around me
You avoid me
Open your heart
And I will live there again

You sit next to the grief boulder
Because you understand
You need to fill that space in your heart
To feel whole again.
So you make a deal
You will honor grief
And grief will help you heal.

You let it in.
It feels heavy, hard to carry
But your view is clear
Your travel is unobstructed
from now to then and back again

Without that boulder in the way.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Everyone you meet could have a Frankie at home

This is not Frankie. This dog belongs to some friends
 and is here to help create the right mood.
I saw this on the internet:
Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always. 
Most of us read something like that and instantly think of people who really need to read something like that. 
Last week, while waiting to board a flight to North Carolina, I stopped for lunch in one of those places where you probably won't become ill, but would not order lobster salad either. There was no denting my mood. In two days, we would see the last of our four kids graduate college and yes,we are looking forward to the raise. 
I was feeling generous. 
A seventy-something server, trailed by a young trainee, greeted me and showed me to a table. She was chatty, with a familiar manner I always find endearing. She couldn't have been nicer to me. 
A man came in who looked like he'd just left a serious job or meeting. He was nicely dressed, fit, and carried an elegant brief with a Wall Street Journal poking out of the pocket.  In response to the server's cheery greeting, he quietly hung his coat over the chair and then said, "I'll take an iced tea." 
Next to me sat a diner who was known to everyone who worked there, in that regular customer or former employee way. My server greeted him with a hug and began to update him on goings on. 
She lowered her voice. "Hey. I had to finally put Frankie down," she told him.
"Aw, no. Really?" 
It was a long story, and at points in the telling, I didn't think she'd make it to the end. 
"And what do you think was the last thing that dog did, right after they gave him the stuff?" she asked.
The customer shook his head.
She leaned in. "He licked my face," she said. 
I prayed this how about that kind of comment would not fall sideways into a sob, because already, I was welling up.
When she brought me a dessert menu, I told her that I was sorry about her dog. "Aw, honey," she said. "Thank you." She leaned on the back of the chair across from me. 
"The worst part" she began, "worse than when Frankie went deaf and stopped walking, the worst part was when Jack,  the other one, didn't know where Frankie was when I got back. Wouldn't leave the door. Wouldn't eat. So, now I lost one and here's the other one, won't eat." 
Her chin crumpled. "I didn't know what to do," she said. "I was beside myself. So I got him a brother at the rescue. Ugliest little thing you ever saw." 
This brought a sudden, husky laugh. The serious man looked over, gave her an up and down look.
I asked how they were doing. 
"Oh. My God. Oh. My God. You should see. Can't be apart. One's big, one's little. They're both rescues." 
Later, she came back with the check and I left her a 100% tip because I couldn't help it. "You're the best example that a trainee could have. Thank you," I wrote.
I can get annoyed. I lose patience with people who drive 70 in the left lane or walk too slowly on the sidewalk in front of me, or talk without listening, or too loudly, or too close. I get frustrated when people don't seem to be acting like who they really are, or walk into elevators that are full with people trying to get off. I have to breathe when I'm behind travelers who won't move on people movers.   
But I've thought about the server since I saw that simple thing on the internet. 

I suspect that when Frankie was going downhill, there were probably times when my server didn't count her items before bringing them to the express lane. She may have walked into a building before she let the other person come out. In her work place she may not have gotten to a customer as fast as she should. She might have laughed more than necessary, to fill silence that might have been unbearable. 

And, I've thought about that well put together man too, grim and immune to a warm greeting, whose maybe-meeting might have been of a Frankie nature, over anything, might  have changed his life, and maybe not for the better. 
It won't always work, but I hope the ones who really should, like me, can remember:
Everyone you meet could have a Frankie at home. Be kind. Always.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

The most important question to ask and answer in a relationship - often.

A picture of heart talk.
I'm not going to be annoying and bury it five paragraphs down. And it's not "I love you," or "Do you love me?" because that is too sprawling and massive and hard to answer in a single convincing way, even when it's completely true.

In my opinion, the most important question to ask and answer in a relationship is: 

What do I mean to you? 

I think so for two reasons.

It is important because when it is unasked or unanswered, the person whose heart needs to know this feels like they're walking around underdressed for the weather. Some days are colder than others. 

And, it is important because it is the easiest one to answer. Examples of what someone means to you are everywhere, all the time. 

Words are best. But if you're awkward with heart talk, deeds are acceptable as long as they say:

Here's what you mean to me.

My husband is a consultant whose travel takes him away every week.  Because it clears his head, and because we aren't living in a maintenance free place, he spends some part of  the weekend staying on top of yard work. 
I help with "selected" projects, mostly ones that involve turning things on or off. 
Eventually we'll be working from home again, using our "I" statements when we get annoyed with each other. But for now, to be apart all week, and then engage in separate projects for any amount of time on the weekend makes things, as my mother used to say, "skew-gee" (unbalanced).  
It was my birthday recently. 
I'd asked for a new laptop bag but I really didn't need one. Between all of us in this family who have used them and then upgraded to others, we have laptop bags lying around all over the place. We keep them for the same reason people keep other things that have been replaced by much nicer things. You don't want them anymore but you never know. (What is the rest of that, I always wonder. You never know what?)
My husband handed me a wrapped box which was big enough for a couple of pairs of shoes and told me to guess what it was.
"I don't know."
I felt the box.
"A helmet."
"What kind of helmet?" 
I was still kind of wondering why it wasn't a laptop bag.  Gifts are hard to come up with after you've been with someone for many years and I'd handed him that idea. 
I opened it. It was a bike helmet. 
This made no sense. Years earlier, I'd surrendered my bike to one of the kids or gave it away because I didn't ride anymore, even though you never know. 
So, I said "Wow, this is really nice, the colors are great." 
He said, "It goes with that," and he pointed to the corner of the kitchen behind me where he'd leaned a brand new bicycle against the wall. 
I immediately got on it and rode it around the kitchen table.
Inside the house.
For about ten seconds, I had that feeling one gets when one races to the end of a dock knowing they will fling themselves into the air in only seconds. 
"Oh my God, I love it," I said.   
"I got it because I thought we could start doing this together," he said, "when I'm home."
He handed me a second gift, a book describing where in our state we'd ride. He shared thoughts he'd had of mapping rides around other things – places to stop and shop, gentle landscapes to take in. 
"I thought we'd start over by the Tech, and ride to that restaurant near Mountain Road, and then stop and have some lunch and then head over to..." 
He was as excited as I was.
When I was small, and felt bored or lonely from time to time, nothing was better than finding someone I wanted to be around and asking, "Wanna ride bikes?" You could spend hours in motion, feeling the rush of downhill speed, soaking in sun, or leisurely peddling while you talked elementary school politics. You loved so much about that freedom, but mostly, you loved doing stuff with someone you really liked, and who liked you back.

"I got it because I thought we could start doing this together," is what he said to me. But what I heard was:

"Here is what we mean to me."

It is the most important question to ask and answer for another reason and it is this:  the most important things we know, as sure as our own voice, are also the things we need to know again and again. 

It can get cold outside. Make sure your loved one has their coat before they leave.

And their helmet.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Dogs, cars, and a really good decision I made while applying mascara one day.

A chase dog getting ready to write the next book
I made a story for you.
A dog sits comfortably in a fenced yard where not much goes on, but little goes wrong. From where he sits, he has a decent view of what the other dogs in the neighborhood are doing.  
Occasionally, a car passes by and the yard dog watches as a neighbor dog rips and races after it, barking to wake the Gods, until the car is out of sight. 
The dog in the yard shakes his head, goes over to the fence and says to the chase dog who is on his way home, "Come here a minute." 
The chase dog approaches. 
"Tell me something," says the yard dog. "Why do you frustrate yourself, chasing something you can't catch?" 
The chase dog says, "Haven't caught. I don't know that I can't." 
The yard dog says, "You have a record of complete failure." 
The chase dog  trots across the street and says over his shoulder, "So do you." 
The yard dog shakes his head and goes back to his spot, where not much goes wrong.
The end.

Some of you know I've been working on, and submitting my novel for several hundred years.
I started it in 2008 and began submitting the first version of it in 2010. Then I went back to work full-time and left it on the desk next to the cat. Three years later, I came back to writing full-time but now my novel and I had grown apart.
My writer-cat Percy had died. My crazy, funny, muse of a brother had died. The last two of our children were leaving home at once. And now, my book didn't even look familiar to me. It just seemed as heavy as a memory, and not one of the good ones.   
But I'd come this far. 
So I put it on a diet and it lost three characters. Then I gave it a better central conflict. Then I decided one of the characters was particularly likable and gave him more presence. Then, because you never paint just one room in the house, I gave the other characters more presence. 
Which only made it gain the weight back.
I tried to change it's personality, but there were holes that I couldn't see and the charm leaked out. So, I listened to music that reminded me of when my book and I first met. I tried to remember the feelings I first had for it. We went to counseling and got advice, and I rewrote it. But then, it just looked like one of those strange looking homes that were probably nice before someone put on too many additions.
And then. 
One day, about two weeks ago, while I was putting on mascara, I started to see a story. I saw the characters, what they looked like, and the way they looked in a conversation. I saw them develop and the way their pasts moved them around each other like game pieces on a board. 
Writer-kitten Gus
"Holy crap," I said to my new writer-cat, Gus. 
I knew my characters would meet each other, and I began to see how they would react. I watched them talk to one another. And after a while, I sensed a problem brewing in their universe.
I began to feel for them, and I couldn't imagine how it would work out.
And then. 
I could. 
Don't be sad, but book 3 and I have decided to separate.  Some people I know would look at my submission stats and say it's too early to give up. Some would say, "I see where you're going with this." 
But I'm not quitting.
I'm not giving up.
I'm not sad.
And, I didn't fail. 
That part of my training is simply over. 
A picture of practice
And, there is opportunity cost. I won't catch book 4 without a chase, and I can't chase book 4 if I'm still begging book 3 to tell me what it needs from me. And I may not even chase book 4 at all if book 3 makes me too frustrated and discouraged to leave the yard. 
And so, that's it. I've stopped chasing book 3, and book 4 and I are in a relationship. 
I made this story in case you need to remember that failure, turned another way, can be seen as practice for success. 
Whether we're putting books we've known since they were wee little pages in the drawer, or ending a relationship, or leaving a job, or moving to a new state, the act of cutting our losses and leaving who we were is universally wrenching. 
Until it isn't.
My advice: free yourself of the old, free yourself for the new, let the writing begin, and tell your next story, because it's waiting.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Mentor Mummy

Mentor Mummy
My mother lives down the road. 
We get together every week for coffee or a glass of wine and trade stories of the week.
"Hello, Mummy," I say when I see her, and "Hello, Darling," she says in her elegant-Mummy way.

I check to be sure she seems healthy.  She checks to be sure I seem happy. 
She feels lucky to live this close to me, but I am luckier.
She has told me how important these visits are to her, but right now, they are more important to me because I'm taking notes.
It is the equivalent of a walk, a quiet drive, an hour with my own thoughts to spend that hour or so with my mother, because as true as it was back when I was sneaking into the bathroom to cut my own hair, there's nothing that travels through my mind that I can't say or ask her if I choose to. 
She feels lucky to have a daughter, she has said, but I am luckier to be the daughter of the least judgmental parent on the planet.  
As is the way with daughters and mothers, we have more in common as I age.  In her late seventies,  she's seen this movie while I'm still dealing with plot twists and new characters. And every so often, I miss something in the script. Maybe an exchange that raised my antennae, maybe an observation that made me circle back, maybe a throwaway I plucked from the pile of things that are easy to miss but should be noticed.
A comment, a facial expression.
Like a college professor or a favorite boss who loves to see what has become of a promising charge, my mother has done her hands-on and off parenting, and is happy to listen to me talk about mine. Many of our conversations start with, "Tell me what you think about this..."
Mummies don't retire.
They become mentors.
Our youngest child will graduate college in two weeks. My hands-on parenting days are behind me, and most of our children have not just left the nest but are feathering their own.
Some  parents describe a feeling at this stage of a job done, a giant project turned in. But I have learned from my weekly visits with Mummy that the longer we live, the more, not less we have in common. That if we talk less, we will probably say more. That the best conversations are about listening and not telling, asking not assuming, arriving by invitation and not force. And, most recently, that whether we live down the street from one another or on opposite coasts, it won't matter.
The best parenting years of all might be these hands-off ones, when the communication is easy and honest and the wish of one to know what is in the heart and mind of the other is the relationship's signature.
My mentor-Mummy is thankful to have me in her life, but with all my heart, I am more thankful for all these years I've had to be my mother's mentee, Darling.

Sunday, April 10, 2016


---Mark Twain 
Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.
---Mark Twain

There is no sadder sight than a young pessimist except an old optimist
---Mark Twain

So, which is it?
---Susan Bonifant

Nobody likes a Pollyanna. But that "optimism" adage is a little too much like saying if you're happy you must be kind of dumb.  Plenty of young people use their cynicism to avoid disappointment.  Plenty of older people expand themselves because they're optimistic.

I am thinking about age because next month, like last May, I will again, turn older than 50. I'm neutral on this, I was more upset at 49 about being almost 50. I know now how stupid that was, but I know now how stupid it is to dread any age. It insults all those other years that served you well, whether you looked forward to them or not.

Still, you can't help but take stock, consider your opportunity costs  and compare what you're doing to what you are not, and most important, why you are not.

My personal thing now is to say yes to things that aren't always comfy, but are sure to enrich my life more than they will inconvenience me. I've started to travel more, I've started yoga and I'm trading diet soda for club soda with a splash of cranberry. Next, I'm going to start producing more fiction, even if it's hard and complicated, and even if life hasn't answered all of the questions I have for it, yet.


Yet is a very powerful word.

Yet means a lot to a good friend of mine who is over fifty and has recruited friends to form a competitive ski team. They are coaches mostly, experts all, and thankfully at least one is both a patrol and a physician. They are all about the same age, but it is the appetite for play that they have in common. They call themselves "The Idiots," and wear shirts that feature intentionally misspelled words.

That's funny. That's even optmistic.

I have another over-fifty friend who recently received her certification to teach yoga. She looks like she did when I met her twenty years ago, but that wasn't her aim. She knows that age brings hardships, but that time brings healing, which brings gifts of peace for the soul. To accept the former, my friend teaches people to use their bodies to embrace the latter, and most of us can do it without falling over now. 

For everybody who doesn't reach a certain age and settle in to kill time, there is a place they have not yet gone. 


People who aren't healthy about aging, well, we see them all the time. It's older men who can't tell the difference between the interest and sympathy of a young woman they've hit on. It's women who grow depressed and desperate with every new line that doesn't disappear with a good sleep. 

Viewing ourselves like we come with expiration dates is bad enough. But I think it's worse that if only spared the ageist-culture hand mirror, many of us would not believe we have a shelf life at all.

A person can hurt their own feelings believing that culture knows more about their fate than they do.

Or one can follow the example of two people I know who have shaped their opinions of self around two things: what they do to remain vital, and knowing how to stay in their place which is wherever they wish to be.    

One is a relative who was raised in Europe where, she says, the elderly are not merely tolerated but revered. She has described family members who, in their nineties remain vital and  engaged and ultimately, are cared for by other family members who honor their wisdom and experience. Past seventy, she has an energy level thirty-year-olds would envy and she will likely remain an active tennis player well into her eighties.

Another one is my own mother, who, at nearly eighty, reads two books or more a week, follows a clutch of morning news experts, and of late, has become  outspoken on the political goings on.  We're more than twenty years apart but there is no opinion of hers, concerning anything I'm going through, that I don't value for its roots in simpler, more sensible times.

As I think about being over fifty again, I know that healthy people update. They know when it's time to exit or at least pull over and look at the map again. They don't quit, but recalculate. They change their minds, they honor new or abandoned passions and redirect their energies, because they are optimistic.

Mark Twain was brilliant, of course. He is my choice when people ask those questions ten minutes before a dinner party ends: "Who would you eat dinner with if you could pick anyone, dead or alive?"

Because, that optimism crack aside, Mark and I would probably agree on the subject of beholding one's own beauty and place in life, and just who is in charge of that boat that brings one there.