Thursday, November 19, 2015

In the cards

About ten years ago, when our daughter Courtney was attending the Aspen Music Festival, I flew out to see her perform.  I met Jordan Allen, a cellist Courtney had met in college. 

I am generally shy, it takes time for me to engage on deep personal levels with people I don't know well. But Jordan liked that I was a writer. His enthusiasm to get acquainted and trade artist stories was uncontainable. It took fewer than five minutes to hear about things which might have taken someone else years and possibly as many drinks to disclose. I loved this open, guileless young man immediately.

After Aspen ended, Jordan, who called me Movie Mommy, shared regular updates over the phone - the men in his life he hoped would make him happy, and the ones who would not.

Once, during a bleak stretch, Jordan asked me how anyone could ever know if real love, marriage and children were even in the cards for them. That conversation, more than any other, stayed with me. The only answer I could offer, as unhelpful as it was true, was time. 

Jordan joined the Madison Symphony Orchestra and got his life gig underway. His updates, less frequent but longer, kept me up to speed for a while.

A year passed, and then two, when I saw on Facebook that Jordan had become engaged.

I had no words that could convey my joy for him. And yet, later that week, didn't Jordan email me and ask me to write the reading for his wedding? Yes, he did.

And, so, with Jordan's permission, I'm posting my little contribution to the celebration of hard-earned love, which, yes, it turns out, is in those cards. 

For Jordan and Kyle
Married 10/24/2015

When real love speaks 

Inside our open hearts is a resting place, for what may be love.
Indeed, it travels in, what may be love.
It lingers there, haunting hopes, occupying dreams, igniting imagination.

Open hearts welcome what may be love.
It's always wanted,
There's always a place for it.

But when it leaves, what may be love leaves the heart as it was found
A work of art begging for detail.
A circle longing to close.
As empty as it is full.

And so, the open heart waits
and says...


Until eventually, real love watches
and says...


It doesn't look like anything else, real love.
It doesn't drift into that open heart and out again.
It doesn't thrive beyond your grasp.
It can only live in your open heart.
You aren't afraid of it.
You can't be.

Real love only answers the ready voices which beckon it.
It rewards those who coax it into the light.
It moves into the hearts which connect two people
and says...

I'm here.

Real love is one end and the other both, which close the circle
It makes you unable to recall the feeling before you were found
It defies your ability to describe it.
It is all you feel, now.
It is all you need to feel to do everything.

Occasionally, you will remember
when what wasn't love
 left you.

You may pray.

And real love will watch
and surround you
and say...

I'm staying

Monday, November 2, 2015

Grow Down

Moments after students arrive on college campuses everywhere, parents begin receiving alerts in their email inboxes that go like this:

"Nothing fights homesickness the way a thoughtful care package like THIS will from Mom and Dad." 

Or, "Don't let your college student be the only one who doesn't receive one of THESE fabulous care packages." 

Or, "Dial down the stress in your college student's day with one of THESE thoughtful care packages."

Thoughtful care packages are pictured ranging from the modest (cocoa packets and granola bars) to the extravagant: organic brain-boosters, gluten-free fruit and nut assortments,travel mugs, popcorn, energy bars, clothing, K-cups, trail mix, etc.

There is always an 800 number. There is always a deadline. There is always an extended deadline.

And what do you mean, your college student doesn't have a Keurig?

Get him one.

For God's sake. 

It's part of being a grown up to be thoughtful. It's part of being a parent to twitch with the feeling that every parent is caring more thoughtfully for their faraway student than you are.

In related news, the other day, I received a greeting card from my friend, Jane. On the front, it said:  "Don't grow up, it's a trap."  I like this message so much, I took everything off the refrigerator door and placed it there by itself.

In this spirit, and because Halloween was approaching, and because I miss our grown-up children most in the holiday months,  I hung up my writing for a day last week and spent most of it assembling a gift box for our college person and his housemates. 

They're veterans, all seniors. They aren't especially homesick, they aren't inordinately stressed. They're just young guys who have a growing awareness of the real world that will come with the spring, and a 24/7 appetite for fun - still. 

There was nothing grown-up about this box; the only healthy thing I sent was a surprise.

I lined it with a vinyl Halloween tablecloth covered with ghosts, skeletons and the word "boo." Inside I placed three dozen just-baked cookies, glow-in-the-dark wands with skeleton heads, several plastic spiders, and a gigantic bag of mini candy bars.

Then I went to Dunkin Donuts and bought four gift cards. Then I went to a card store and bought the most juvenile Halloween cards I could find, with pictures of cats, and pumpkins and witches on the outside and phrases like "Have a frightfully Happy Halloween" on the inside. I slipped a gift card into each one and taped a plastic spider to the outside envelope. I tucked these in last.

I brought it to the UPS store and filled out an address label.

"So, contents?" asked the clerk, who has sent things from me to this address before.
"Halloween items," I said.
"So, like candy and stuff?"
"Exactly. And some toys, too."
"That's awesome," she smiled.

I sent it off and drove home picturing these twenty-something guys as they unwrapped the box, laughed at the spider cards, ate the cookies and peeked at their surprise coffee cards.

"This. Is. Awesome," someone would say.

But, I'm pretty sure my experience was Way. More. Awesome. 

And, I'm pretty sure I will find new ways to grow down and find other grown up people to take with me. 

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

A bite to remember

"I told you.
Your hand was trying to kill you.
I had to stop it."

It's worth mentioning that if my sweet, loyal, writer-cat Gus can almost put me in the hospital, so can yours, whether he helps you write or not.

As most cat-owners know, but maybe, like me, choose to ignore, cats are hunters by nature. They can be the most playful beings around. They can be polite. If they feel like it, they can be trained to fetch, or come when you call them. And, if you don't want your bare legs ambushed by playful cats who are hunters by nature, they can be taught to go up or downstairs ahead of you. 

"Throw me a post-it toy."
Gus and I have an understanding. When I'm writing, his job is to nap on a soft blanket near my laptop under a little heat lamp that I set up. When he's bored, my job is to stop writing and make him a post-it toy, or a fort. 

I also know if I am in a conversation and gesturing, Gus considers this both an invitation to play and an opportunity to hunt. 

And this is where Gus begins to confuse himself with a cat 35 times his size, who does not have fresh bowls of kibble every morning, but is in danger of starving to death if he can't execute the cunning and stealth to bag his hand-prey.

And this is when Gus, like a soft little shark, will drift to where he can track hand-prey, his focus silent and serious, his dilated predator eyes on the prize until I lean forward and say, "Stop it, Gus. Go to your fort."
"How did you get in here?"

He's the best.

Last week, while my husband and I sat chatting in our living room, Gus appeared. I motioned him to the couch next to me where he flopped and began to bat at my hand playfully.  

And then he wrapped himself around my wrist and bit me.

"Hey!" I yelled, surprised. But now, Gus was crouched with his ears back, as if he'd taken his shot and now, it was my turn to be prey again. Instead, I dipped my fingers into my water glass and sprinkled him, saying "No! NO!"

Horrified, he fled the scene. Below the piano he crouched, staring at me, a hundred questions in his still-dilated, predator eyes.

This was on a Thursday. On Friday, a little area around the bite was red, but eh, I thought, he's a house cat. I worked at my desk and barely noticed it. 

The next day I was to fly and visit family overnight in Maryland. I woke many times that night, as I do before I fly, and also because it felt like I was wearing several rubber bands around my wrist.

By the time I was at my gate, my entire wrist was swollen. He's a house cat, I thought. How dirty can his mouth be? With a half hour or so to kill, I looked up "Infected cat bites" on my phone.

And discovered the following:

From Mayo Clinic: "...according to a new study by researchers at the Mayo Clinic, almost a third of the people who sought treatment for a cat bite had to be hospitalized. And of the patients who were hospitalized, two-thirds ended up needing surgery to flush out the bacteria and remove infected tissue."


I looked at my wrist. 
"Yes. They're talking about me," it said.

From WebMD:  "In some cases, a person who has been bitten by an animal may need a tetanus or rabies shot, antibiotics to prevent infection, X-rays, or immediate treatment at a hospital. Get medical attention if:
  • The bite is from a cat.
  • There are signs of infection.
  • You haven't had a tetanus shot for more than 10 years or you're not sure when your last tetanus shot was. 
I was sure my last tetanus shot was in third grade, after I picked up a chipmunk on a field trip.

I pulled my sleeve down.
I pulled my sleeve up.
I stared at my wrist.
Sleeve down. 
Sleeve up.

On the plane, spooked and sure things were becoming worse by the moment, I thought over my choices: Disrupt the entire family get-together with a trip to the ER which would take several hours and possibly end with a four-day hospital stay. Or, get hold of myself. Stop looking at my wrist, stop obsessing and wait until the next day. Visit a walk-in urgent care facility on the way home.  What's twenty-four more hours?

Problem solved.

Two hours later, I approached my host who happens to be a medical person and said, "Ha ha, interesting thing happened, I got this bite the other day from my cat who was just playing and—"
"Let me see it," interrupted my host.
He took a look, announced to the others that we would be going to the emergency room and told me that no, I didn't have to bring my bag. He'd come back for it.

At the ER, I told the triage person I had an infected cat bite and was placed in an exam room almost as quickly as I would have been after saying, "Well, first I had these chest pains..." 

The doctor  looked at it. "Oh yeah, that's infected," he said and calmly drew a large circle around the  area.

One tetanus shot and a prescription for oral antibiotics later, I was told that I was not only "borderline" for admission, but still a candidate depending on what happened on either side of that circle. 

It is a week later, the site is completely healed.  A more docile Gus is next to my hand, battling his hunter instincts as well as his memories I'm sure, of that humiliating water treatment. He looks as likely to attack me as he is to go down the hall and draw himself a bath.

I told him, it was a good thing I still think of him like this:

and not this:

and that, of course, all is forgiven.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Older women should be one thing for young mothers and it's not this

If I ever look at a struggling young
mother like this, I hope someone
will tell me to change 

my face immediately
At the supermarket recently, I watched a silent interaction between two women.  They were worlds apart age-wise; one was a seventy-something professional who looked formidable, the other was a twenty-something mother who looked like a good night's sleep would probably change her life.

I'd seen Mom already, moving around the store ahead of me, all business, cart full, kids looking like, if they were phones, they would be down to one bar. Dressed in a skirt and heels, I'm supposing she was employed outside the home as SAHM's only dress like that on TVLand.

The kids were whiney-crying until Mom had unloaded nearly half her cart and then, as though someone had said, "Okay, now!" the four-year-old girl lost it and the younger brother sympathy-lost it. The girl waved a bag of Doritos around which the mother refused to open while she waited to pay for the groceries.

I know this tactic. IF you keep it together and let me get out of here, THEN  I'll open your toy/snack/drink in the car.

And so, Mom wasn't budging. The girl's very loud crying only intensified, her face turned tomato-red, tears traveled down her cheeks and her glazed over eyes were half-closed with fatigue.  

"I want the bag...Mommeeeeeee...(gaspy sob)
"I WANT the bag...(hiccups)

And so on.

At first, I thought, it's four-thirty in the afternoon. It's the witching hour. It's time to pay the Doritos bill. Just give her the bag.

But I know too well that teaching children to anticipate and then cope with stressful situations is a long work in progress. Very often there are special rewards attached to specific goals. There are endless just-outs and next-times. How unfair to both parent and child if all that training must be put to the side, in the best place to practice it, only because people are judging you so harshly you can almost hear their thoughts.  

So I made funny faces at the girl, waved "hi" to distract her and tried to make eye contact with Mom to speak for everyone in the store and let her know we understood. But Mom, wasn't having it. Every muscle in her face was tense. Her eyes were fixed on the cashier.

The older woman, clearly not one of the everyones, wasn't having it either. Face twisted into a scowl, she sighed, fidgeted, and kept her folded arms across her chest.  Just loudly enough for Mom to hear, she hissed the word "chaos," and stared at her. Then she glared at the crying girl, lips pressed together in a straight line, eyes narrow.

At once, she looked at me and shook her head. I gave her a look to let her know I was on the other team.

Mom finished checking out and wheeled her chaos away.

The older woman rolled up to the register and said to the cashier, "Disgusting, ab-so-lute-ly disgusting. That we have to be exposed to this nonsense! This foolishness. This is why kids shouldn't be allowed in places like this," she said, as though she were not buying hamburger and paper towels but being robbed of an exquisite dining experience in an expensive restaurant.

"If I'd ever acted like that," she said to the cashier, "I would have done it only once."

"Uh-huh. Do you want the meat separated from the paper towels?" asked the cashier, which made me like him very much.

I made it to the parking lot in time to catch the mother as she lifted bags into the back of the car. The little girl sat in a car seat eating her Doritos. Her little brother was quiet and busy with a toy.

"Excuse me," I said.

When she looked at me, I could see that she was younger than I'd guessed. The deep stress lines across her forehead looked like she'd borrowed them from someone older.

"You know what?" I said. "You did a good job in there. I know how hard that was."

Her face relaxed. She looked like she'd cry. "I'm trying."

I've changed my own judge-y ways, but I know when I was a younger parent with a strong drive to raise conscientious kids, I would have been (privately) asshat-y had the mother handed the chaotic girl her Doritos. And, while in places "like this" I have only sympathy for the struggling parent, in high end restaurants where I've spent a lot of money to be free of screaming, nap-starved children, I've been judge-y indeed. 

But  in line that day, I remembered myself as I once was, and got a good look at who people become when they lose the ability to remember, who can't soften in their acceptance of others while they are hardening toward them. 

So today, I'll have a little patience with inflexible people and realize they might be struggling to find control in those intractable ways. 

They may be tackling much bigger issues than I am. 

They may be facing a trip to the store later with a tired toddler, and the kind of judgement that is so weighty, it makes it risky to even make eye contact with a stranger who's just trying to be nice to you. 

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

An extra-small story

With effort, with effort,  I will not buy this for Gus.
But I may need to buy an extra-small dog.
Yes, I am re-posting this because it made people happy and because I'm very, very busy this week trying to flirt with the New York Times again.  

But this week is the last time, I promise.

Here is an extra-small story that you'll like. Occasionally, I go to Petco-where-the-pets-go for the food that Gus, my writer-cat likes as well as filters for his fountain which he doesn't like as much as the faucet.
Usually I pick up a toy or two because I like to think he will be checking for this when I come home. Actually, I know that's not really true, which is why I didn't buy him a Christmas cape in December. 
With effort. With effort, I didn't. 
At Petco, people are allowed to bring their dogs on leashes because, recall, Petco is where the pets go.
The dogs are usually well behaved, some are better behaved than the owners who don't pick up their excited dog's doodies left in the path of cat owners like me. But I ignore this because it's not Petco, where the people go. 
The other day, a clutch of people stood with their leashed and sniffing dogs and chatted about God knows what, because I couldn't eavesdrop from the register. 
But nearby, closer to where I stood, a man the size of a shed crouched  on the floor before a display of glittery, bejeweled collars for "extra-small dogs." He frowned, chin in hand, picked up one collar after another, turned it over, tugged at it for give, put it back. It took a while (I let a couple of people go ahead of me), but finally, he chose a bracelet-sized, black velvet collar with pink sequins. 
With effort, he rose and headed to the register, still looking over his pick. He probably imagined his extra-small dog being excited about the purchase. Maybe he was recalling the dog's reaction to his or her extra-small Christmas cape. 

Even at Petco, where the pets go, people do little things worth mentioning. That one made my day.

Originally posted 2/13/15

Friday, September 11, 2015

Strangers in my heart

At times of transition in my life - after a marriage, after a move, after a baby, after a child leaves, I get lost. I don't worry too much about it, everyone gets lost, but I don't sit around and wait for it to pass either. 

When I'm  sure that no one is listening, I say right out loud to my God, "If I promise to do something nice for someone who's struggling today, can you do me a favor and send down a little clarity?"

Do I know who I'm talking to? No. I only know I have some belief in a presence bigger than my own, and I know that this deal works, as long as I follow through on the fee: let someone go in traffic, compliment a stressed out mother on her patience, leave a 100% tip for a struggling server.

There has not been a time when I've sought the ability to cope, wished for clarity or insight, or wished these things for others, that I haven't found, in a short time, without even knowing when it arrived, that some solace has found me, or someone I love. 

No lights flicker, no clouds stir, no thunder rumbles. 
The cat doesn't run under the bed.
Pictures don't fall off the wall.
There are no spooky voices.

It's just this: suddenly, I'm less judgmental and more forgiving. Hopeful and optimistic, clear-minded and peaceful. One of our children might get good news, change a bad path, recover from an illness. A friend might emerge from a stretch of bad luck to catch a break. 

I don't have a formal religion. But faith, I have. 

It's a many varied thing, faith. How it comes, how it stays, how it goes, who has it, what it looks like.

Since I opened my eyes  this morning, I have been thinking of all the strangers in my heart who lost themselves along with their loved ones fourteen years ago.

"This cross was made from remains
 found at the site of the WTC"
I wonder if for some, and if forever, faith vanished that day. I wonder if others drew upon faith or found it for the first time as they groped their way through that day, and all the days that followed. When I consider what it must have been like to look to the future and find a vast, colorless hole in its place, I wonder what saved them.  

To all the strangers in my heart today, I say this: I have asked my God to deliver you the peace, comfort and hope for the future that I sometimes ask for myself.  I've asked that the lovely things which somehow find me in the shadow of a sad moment, find you, in the shadow of your remembered tragedy.   
Today, you need those things more than I do and I have faith that they will come. 

In turn, with my kindest words, my gentlest heart, I will encounter every stranger today knowing, that any one of them could be you. 

(Re-posted from September 11, 2012)

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Us, again

In 2012,  our nest didn't empty but tipped over with the departure of our last two at once. It was a lot of things,  thrilling and disorienting, depressing and joyous to think of our house, empty. 
Drew, ready to go:

Honest people said, "It's scary, to be alone again."

"Pffft," I said. 

I was all about the glass half-full dammit, all about the positive changes we'd make. I reeled in the things we were, and folded them into the things we'd be. 

I understand now, that I didn't know what I was talking about three years ago.

I understand now, that those honest people were right. 

I understand now, that so was I. 


Two things happened this week that made me need to sit down. Sam turned eighteen, and Drew, only home from college until he found a job, found a job and moved out.

So, first, I am now the mother of adult children.  In those cheery, spontaneous conversations I start with strangers in line at the store, I can finally offer that, "My children are grown now, but when my son was that age...( here, I'll point to the toddler who is pulling candy bars off the display)... he used to slap me in the face when I made him sit in the cart."

Second, the last of the fledglings have flown. Nobody will live here again except for my husband and me. Things will change.

We'll use the space in the house differently - new office for him, new work out place for me. 

The laundry room, free of overflow clothes will be spacious enough for me to turn around without moving the ironing board. 

During those stretches when he travels, I will spend more time on my novel. 

We will follow through on all that we hoped would happen when we became this -   us again. We will plan things over the weekend breakfasts he prepares, a future of opening nights at Symphony Hall,  visits to kids in the near or faraway places where they will be filling their own nests.  

In our neater, quieter life, I expect I will notice how much has changed. I will think about how, after twenty-seven years of everything that happened, and everything that didn't, of long distance marriage and independence and individual growth, we are still climbing the same front steps together. I will explain observations like this, and probably compare our relationship to weather, or pool toys or paths in the woods, and if he thinks I'm tedious, he will be too gracious to say so.

That will be us, now. 

The fledglings four
While our family was in the making, I hoped we'd always be close as people, not because we were related and once lived in the same house,  but by choice. I hoped, that after they went in their own directions, our children would hunker down at home every now and then to connect with one another, by choice. 

I hoped they would know when too much time had passed and would connect via phone or text or FB messaging - by choice. I hoped that despite occasional falling outs, clashes of will, or silent stretches they would stay close to the people who would walk into traffic for them.

I hoped, after twenty-seven years of marriage, my husband and I would do the same thing.

Done, done, done, done, and doing.

Choices will pull at us at this time of  "my turn", and it is daunting to come back as new people to the ones who have known us forever. 

But it is liberating too, it is the only choice of many, to be us again.