I Alone Own This Body

The True Feminine

“I am not sugar and spice and everything nice.
I am art.
I am a story.
I am a church bell, gonging out wrongs and rights and normal nights.
I was baby. I am child. I will be mother.
I don’t mind being considered beautiful, I do not allow that to be my definition.
I am a rich pie strong with knowledge.
I will not be eaten.”

~
Anonymous                                                                                                                                               

I was in 7th Grade. Self-conscious, shy, and unsure. Trying to be nice to everyone so everyone would like me and want to be my friend. Insurance against others doing the worst thing middle school girls can do — “talk about me”. That was 1970s code for what we now call bullying. The whispers as you passed, overtly hostile stares, the cruel hierarchy of cafeteria seating. I worked so hard to stay under the social radar, not to be noticed, while at the same time wishing I was “popular.” In English class, my favorite class, a place where I felt competent and safe, I was walking back from the teacher’s desk in a room full of classmates I thought of as friends. Not all of them close friends, but certainly all known to me, and in my small town, known to me for years. One boy who was always nice to me stepped into my path, and said “You have big boobs,” with a direct look and such an air of giddy victory, such intensity of purpose, I immediately understood this had been planned. Perhaps he had drawn the short straw from whatever pressures of middle school tyranny he also navigated. Perhaps he volunteered as proof of his willingness to do anything to be part of his group. And maybe he was just an adolescent asshole. He looked into my eyes to drive home his dominance, to see my reaction, and my certain acquiescence to the male power he was raised to expect. First I froze, feet held fast in disbelief to the dirty gray carpet. The din of the classroom closed around me in a claustrophobic metallic cavern of overpowering clamoring noise. Then came the hot sweeping tide of humiliating embarrassment. There was laughter from his friends, who I thought were also my friends, and they tipped back in their chairs, one foot braced against their desks in easy arrogance, high-fiving each other. He looked at them, victorious. He’d just made a three point basket. All net.

I think it was a dare, but it doesn’t matter. I was hot and sweating and desperately trying not to cry. He looked in my eyes and instead of admiration for his strength, saw the pain he’d inflicted, and he flushed, and looked away, ashamed. His discomfort in no way ameliorated the damage he’d done. It has been four decades since this happened. I can still feel every single awful second of that encounter when I allow it, like picking at a scab. It was then, in that minute, in that classroom, in front of the friends who laughed, and the ones who kept silent, that I began to hate my body. Hate it for how vulnerable it made me. A bulls eye for harassment. Like every woman in every society around the world. A fellowship of shame.

Do I want to tell this story? It lays me bare in a myriad of embarrassing ways, even though it’s the story women everywhere share, and certainly mine is “better” than many, in that I was never beaten or raped. But I am angry that feel the embarrassment. And in the telling, why am I the one feeling exposed and sick with anxious shame all over again?

I’m in high school and invited to go on a trip to the Caribbean with a friend. We travel with her parents and a group of her father’s business associates and their wives. My parents trust them, happy for me to have this opportunity. My friend and I get on a shuttle at the resort to take us to dinner, but there aren’t enough seats for us all, and I alone am left without a seat. One of the men, a prominent executive at a local business in the community, says I should sit on his lap. I don’t want to, but I do. I don’t want to be the only one standing in the aisle. I don’t want to be a problem. I am always cooperative and a good girl, and I don’t want to stand out. And I am 15 years old. The whole way there he looks at my breasts and makes comments about me sitting on his lap. I am horrified but lack the confidence to tell him to stop. His wife sits mute beside him, looking straight ahead. It frightens me that she refuses not only to step in and stop him, but even refuses to see what is happening. I feel my face burning as I try to ignore him and pray for the short trip to end. I want my parents and to be back at home. I don’t want to be here with these people. I feel dangerously alone. But here I am. And I can’t leave. I am the one embarassed. And angry at my powerlessness. And so ashamed.

I’m working at an ice cream store the summer before I leave for college. The assistant manager is married and has a young son. He flirts with me and my naïveté. I’m flattered, and feel very grown up. He takes me for supper when my shift ends. I begin to think this doesn’t feel right, but don’t know what to do. I need the job to pay for my books, and I don’t have my own voice yet. I want so desperately to be older and confident and I feel his attention is the indicator of my worth. He kisses me, then tells me his wife doesn’t understand him and he’s thinking of leaving her. I know now I don’t want to hear this. He’s 38 years old and I’m newly 18. I don’t want to be there. I don’t say anything. But hope he will just take me home. Where it’s safe. And I berate myself for being so stupid and trusting. And I am the one embarassed and ashamed. Again.

I’m a first year student at a wide open and progressive liberal arts college. I feel empowered, surrounded by good feminist scholarship and a supportive and accepting community. I feel I’ve finally escaped the bullying sexist oppression of my small rural town. It’s snowing hard, and piling up on the ground. It’s a quiet night and I take my cross country skis out to be with the snow. There are some little boys from town playing in the snow. They throw a snowball my way, and I stop and throw one back. They run over and knock me down and one of them gropes me between my legs. I react with fury and hit him. The other two, I think unaware of what their friend has done, jump back and look at me, surprised. I call them fuckers and tell them to get away from me. The one who grabbed me laughs and they run away. The night is spoiled. I don’t feel safe anymore. I can’t believe this happened to me. I need to tell someone, to share my shock and to talk it through. But in talking to my friends, I’m ashamed. If I hadn’t gone out alone after dark this wouldn’t have happened. If I hadn’t engaged with them this wouldn’t have happened. So many ifs. And, of course, all my fault.

I am working as a waitress at a local restaurant between college semesters. I’ve been running and playing a lot of racquetball. The assistant manager also plays. He suggests we play someday, and I think that would be fun. I think we’re friends. Until I beat him. He gets angry, and asks me why the sweat pattern on my back is so “weird”. Where my sports bra lays against my skin, my shirt is dry. I realize there’s a perfect outline of it on my back. I try to deflect the question, but he asks again. Asking aggressively to embarrass me. And I am embarassed. Again. But this time, also angry. I’m discovering my voice. And limits to my shame, and I’m glad I beat him. I tell him I have to get home and I leave.

I’m married to my husband, and together we have two little boys. My husband values me and my abilities and tells me so often. He’s a life partner in the fullest sense of the word, and a devoted and caring parent to our children. I get used to feeling equal and that nurtures the growing voice inside me. At the same time, the social atmosphere is changing, and women are taken more seriously, mostly because we’ve demanded it. We go to buy a new car; manual transmission because it is much less expensive. I’ve never driven stick shift, so I sit in the back seat while my husband, and the salesman sit up front. The salesman talks only to David about purchasing the car. While David is test driving the car, I ask a question about driving with a stick shift. The salesman glances at David and laughs out loud. Then makes some flat cobwebbed joke about women behind the wheel. I don’t say anything, but when it comes time to bargain for the car, I do the talking, and his tone and the focus of his attention undergoes a noticeable shift. Had I the strength of my convictions, we’d have walked out and told him why, but I’m not that strong yet. I don’t feel entitled to that respect. I’m not comfortable owning it. And I’m ashamed for asking a dumb question.

I think my generation might be the last generation in which girls are largely raised to be “good” and “quiet” and endlessly accommodating, even if it impinges on what’s truly and rightfully good for them. It’s one thing to be generous. It’s quite another thing to allow someone to tramp all over you and say nothing, swallowing it and packing it down, and mistaking silence for strength. I’ve worked so hard for confidence in myself. To speak up for myself. Girls are the target of dress codes that limit what they can wear so boys don’t lose their minds and their self-control. Girls are taught their bodies are dangerous and tempting. Women are vilified for dressing provocatively, or drinking a little too much, and that becomes a convenient excuse for violence and assault. At the same time, the perfect breasts, the flat stomachs, and the smooth endless thighs of Victoria’s Secret models are held up as the gold standard of sexuality and appearance. It’s a confusing and frustrating dichotomy of supreme power and utter powerlessness.

I am asked by a male relative, with a dresser drawer full of Playboy magazines, to please stop breastfeeding my baby at the family dinner table in front of him. He angrily tells me he shouldn’t have to look at that. When I politely refuse to leave the table, I mention those hidden magazines and he erupts in white-lipped rage at me, stabbing the air with his finger in my direction. But why should I eat my dinner cold so his misplaced perspective and weirdly skewed aesthetic is reinforced? My body, imperfectly human, nurtured three little lives and fed them nourishment, physical and beautifully emotional, for them and for me. And for that strength and growth I am thankful. I hold that moment close as the point where it finally gains momentum and begins to turn around for me.

Do I want to publish this? I think I have to. It will worry my parents, distress them that they didn’t know this was all going on in my life, but I would say to them that I am alright, and I hid it well so they wouldn’t know any of this was happening — so no one would know. Shame is so powerful. It might embarrass my children. But I say to them, all of this happens to women all the time. That is reality they need to know. And while it was all painful — each and every bit of it embarrassing and sometimes frightening — it also made me careful, discerning, and gradually more confident in my own worth. I think that I unconsciously learned from it all by enduring. I hope I passed my perspective on to my children when they came along. My daughter is much stronger than I was at her age, and has undoubtedly faced down her own emotional and physical assaults with courage and insight, and even if not, if she has been plagued with doubt and shame of her own, she clearly has learned from it. I admire her assertiveness and her strong sense of her own value. My sons both treat the women in their lives with love and respect, just like their father does. I think it has turned out alright. But how much better would it have been to learn those lessons without such deep shame to overcome, wishing I realized it was never my fault to begin with.

I carried the weight of it all my life, like most women, and it’s only now that I am able to name it and reject it, and begin to come out from under it. But I still have to work to accept and like my body, let alone feel love for it. There is just too much working against that, beginning with the election to the White House of a man who brags about grabbing women by the pussy. Do men and yes, other women, devalue womanhood so much that a man like that, a malignant cartoon of misogyny, can be elected the leader of the free world? Apparently yes. Every day, women are bombarded, deluged, with messages telling them they are less than, and inconsequential. That they aren’t measuring up, and aren’t worth consideration. That they aren’t capable of managing their own lives and that white cisgender Christian men must make decisions about their children, their families, and the health of their own minds and bodies for them. That in return, they should sit down, be quiet, and be grateful that more rational male minds are there to decide and arrange things. That they are wanting and deficient, until it comes to sex. And then women must be available, and not just available, but enthusiastic, uncomplaining, grateful, maybe a little kinky, with perfect bodies and a horrifying proliferation of surgical remedies for simple human differences. Those women who dare to speak out against sexual assaults are almost always doubted and vilified, then condemned for waiting so long to come forward. It’s a terrible burden. And takes enormous will to refuse to shoulder it, and to instead celebrate a true freedom to be our best selves in all our glorious female diversity.

I still hate my body some days. But more and more, I also love this body. I love that it’s strong enough to run 20 miles at a steady pace, powering up long hills and striding out the miles, pushing beyond exhaustion to stretch my resolve and achieve my goals. I love that this body of mine grew and delivered three beautiful babies, that my breasts fed them and helped them grow. I love that this body, indelibly marked by the miracle of those three pregnancies and births is deeply and sincerely loved by my husband, and because of that, is a wondrous source of pleasure. And yes, there are times when I can finally accept a sincere compliment or an appreciative look without denying or demurring, because I work hard to be healthy and fit, and to embrace that emotionally. Every day I look in the mirror and tell myself, “You’re good. You’re so good.” Someday I will know it in my bones and believe it without question, but only then can I stop saying it. It has taken me so long to get here. And I, and most women, still have so far to go. And I am tired.

“Rose & Dine” at The Liberty Rose

The Liberty Rose Bed & Breakfast, one mile from beautiful Colonial Williamsburg, in this historic Virginia corridor, is a charming peaceful place to visit. The highlight for me, when I am lucky enough to spend any time there, are the gardens that cover an acre of wooded land. Secret places to sit, read, meditate, write, flowering trees that scent the air, and beautiful ground flowers and vines that compete for notice are everywhere. It is like a wonderland. I have been friends for several years now with Mike Farrell, the assistant innkeeper/cook/gardener there, and one thing we love to do together is cook and then eat delicious food. I was so happy to learn during my latest visit that the very first “Rose & Dine Dinner”, a special package which adds a gourmet dinner highlighting local meat, herbs, and produce to the traditional Bed & Breakfast offering of the inn, had been scheduled. The lucky couple, celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary, were very excited, putting their trust entirely in Mike’s choices for the 5 courses plus 2 amuse-bouches.

We started early in the day with an inventory of Mike’s extensive vegetable, herb, and flower garden. Noting what was in peak condition for cooking, we then made our way to the grocery store to pick up a few more things, and wound up the morning at The Cheese Shop in Colonial Williamsburg’s Merchants Square. We taste tested a few choices (we had to – really we did) and chose a washed rind cow’s milk cheese with a little bit of a bite, a bit of a tangy lingering finish on the tongue to serve as the bones of the cheese course, and a much stronger, smellier piece of soft pungent sheep’s milk cheese just for us, then headed back to the inn to begin cooking.

The first thing we do is caramelize fresh figs in a fragrant syrup of dark molasses, and red wine. These figs are fresh from the tree, and actually drip juice when their delicate imageskin is broken. Picked just yesterday morning after chasing one of the two fawns away who visit daily, waiting for ripe figs to drop, they are ripened to perfection. While we pick, the squirrel who also claims ownership watches proprietarily from a short distance away. In the kitchen, after they are washed, I slice them in half. The inside is a deep coral pink, yellow tinged with chartreuse surrounding it. They are sweet and soft and absolutely delicious. I scoop the fig halves up with my hands and then into the sweet liquid, and set it to simmering. It bubbles away for an hour or so, gradually becoming thicker and darker, sweeter and more fragrant, reducing down to a thick syrup, dark amber in color and complex in flavor. A shared taste tell us they will be perfect. I take them off the burner, spoon them into a bowl and set them aside to cool.

Mike’s task is to make the harissa for the beef. Harissa is northern African in origin; a wet spice paste, rubbed on the surface of the meat before roasting, made of toasted caraway seeds, smoked cumin seed, tomato paste, sugar, kosher salt, cracked black peppercorns, Sambal Olek, IMG_8850olive oil, powdered chilis, and of course whole garlic cloves. Much of the complex flavor of the harissa is due to the toasting of the caraway, and then smoking the cumin seeds in the pan with the lid on. The ingredients are all combined, and whirled together in the food processor. The flavor is deep and spicy and complicated, but open as well, asking For inclusion with something that balances it out. Like roasted meat. Like the local organic grass fed tri tip roast of beef that Mike has warming up on the counter. No marinade necessary. With the smell of the harissa in our noses, and the taste we are obligated to take on our tongue, we choose dishes and goblets, napkins and centerpiece, and make notes for assembly, timing, garnishing, and service of the courses.

Mike and I love to cook together. We read each other so well. We both know what needs to be done, and when, and can jump in and do it without any discussion, all our efforts oiled and geared to smooth accomplishment of the end goal – wonderful food – something we both understand and venerate. We taste and inhale and adjust and augment and try to bring it all forward as far as it can go. Until the next time. When we try to take it farther, after evaluation and research and reading and most importantly, eating and tasting anything and everything. It’s a wonderfully enjoyable mission to which we have devoted ourselves, and we both find joy in working on this together. And we laugh. And we drink wine while we cook, and we dance around the small kitchen, sliding by each other, avoiding collision, moving pots and hot pans from oven to burner, rapidly chopping spices and kale and onions and other ingredients, bringing good and interesting food to the level of a gift for our guests. I’m honored to be a part of this inaugural dinner.

The first dish we prepare is a little starter of cold dill soup. It’s a hot day, and this is just an introduction to the rest of the meal – both the flavors and the ambience we hope to provide. Mike waits until the last minute to cut the fresh herbs from the garden. imageThis small serving of soup meant to be picked up and sipped directly from the delicate handmade Colonial Williamsburg “bullet dish”, smaller than a cupcake paper. We hope this little informality encourages our guests to relax and enjoy their anniversary, instead of feeling that they must be stiff and formal, even when the table is beautifully set, and the food beautifully and carefully presented. Food should be enjoyed and we hope they will as much as we do. The chilled soup is garnished with a fennel flower, still warm from the garden sun.

As I’ve learned while watching my son, a chef who has served huge groups of people complex dishes with wonderful organization and attention to detail, you don’t rest once a imagecourse is served. As soon as our guests are enjoying their soup, we assemble the cheese course. Long thin slices of the cheese are arranged on a plate, and the caramelized figs spooned out over them. A bit of the syrup dotted onto the plate. We garnish this course with some rose petals separated from the roses in the gardens. A rose integrated into the dinner seems entirely appropriate and a nod to the place where it is being prepared and served. We nibble on the rinds we trim from the cheese, and eat a fork full of figs from the pan, find the combination delicious, and then it’s time to prepare the salad course.

The salad is simple. We start with a base of baby arugula – slightly bitter, slightly nutty; a welcome cleansing astringency after the cheese and figs – some deep green baby spinach, trimmed segments of an orange dripping with juice, feathery shreds of locally gathered Lion’s Mane mushrooms, thin slices of baby sweet onions, and a scattering of purple imageconeflower petals from the flower garden. We want the components of the salad both to stand on their own, and work together as a whole, and don’t want it overwhelmed by an oily vinegar dressing. Mike asks for my thoughts, channels his good Argentine sensibilities, and makes a simple dressing of good olive oil, lemon juice, salt, and pepper, and I drizzle it lightly over the prepared plates. It’s a simple enhancement, and not a mask. A quick sprinkle of plum-infused toasted sesame seeds, brought back in our suitcase from a wonderful spice shop in Annecy, France, and the salad goes to the table. We eat a couple quick bites ourselves from the ingredients that wouldn’t fit on the plates for the guests – sadly, the oranges are gone – and agree that it is really good. And then we’re on to the pasta course.

In Mike’s late summer garden at The Liberty Rose, basil runs wild. And the logical conclusion when cooking from this extensive garden is to make a big batch of pesto with that beautiful basil. But at this time of the imageyear, how do we make that something special and new? Mike suggests a “Rough Pesto,” and I think that sounds perfect. We begin by roasting some whole garlic in the oven, and then lightly heating some olive oil. Once the garlic is roasted, I squeeze the hot golden cloves out of the skins. With a fork I mash the garlic and whisk them into the warm oil. It smells heavenly, and I set it aside to infuse. We toast whole pignoli nuts in the oven, and Mike heats olive oil in a cast iron skillet for the gnocchi. He buys his handmade gnocchi at the Williamsburg Farmer’s Market on Saturdays, and the difference in the flavor and texture from grocery store gnocchi is remarkable. He has already picked fresh Pesto Basil from the garden, and I remove the tiny leaves from the stems. Rather than boiling it, Mike pan sears his gnocchi in olive oil until it is hot and just taking on some color. It’s a good way to serve this course without enduring the heat of a big pot of boiling water on top of the stove, plus the flavor is different and much more interesting. Smoky, a little charred, and slightly nutty. Delicious. A handful of the hot gnocchi goes down on the plate. A drizzle of the garlicky oil goes over it. Some of the toasted pignolis, a scattering of freshly shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, and a generous handful of the Pesto Basil leaves. A sprinkle of coarse salt and a grinding of black Tasmanian Pepper, also courtesy of that magical spice shop in Annecy, a gorgeous Thai Basil blossom for garnish, and the pasta course goes out. We have made a third plate for us to eat, and there is no sound other than mutual “Oh my god”s when we tuck into it. I may never make pesto in the food processor again. The textures of the gnocchi, the crunchy nuts, the whole leaf basil and the salty granular parmigiano all work together to make us very sorry indeed when our plate is empty. Absolutely delicious.

While the beef finishes roasting and rests under a tent of foil, we serve the second little amuse-bouche. A bit of a break between the gnocchi and the meat course, it gives our guests a chance to sit back, talk a little, breathe, pour a little more wine, and relax, because the best dinner isn’t just about the food. It’s about being with others and sharing and connecting. Time must be given for that as well. We scoop out small spoonfuls of goat’s milk ice cream, also purchased fresh from the Williamsburg Farmer’s Market, and spoon a drizzle of Russian rose petal preserves over the top. The combination of the tangy sweet earthiness of the ice cream with the delicately sweet and floral flavor of the rose petals preserved in a light sweet jelly, garnished with fresh chocolate mint leaves is swoon-worthy and Mike and I inhale the little bowlful we have prepared for ourselves. Delicious, and not nearly enough to satisfy us. That’s why there is no picture of this beautiful little treat. We couldn’t wait.

The meat course is ready now for plating and serving. We uncover the roast, done perfectly medium rare, and slice it up. The harissa has made a crust on the roasted beef, and also melded with the meat juices on the bottom of the baking pan. I reheat that on top of the stove, breaking up the big slices of red onion, now caramelized in the meat juices, that served as the roasting rack, and add a slug of redIMG_8861 wine to the sizzling pan. Steam boils up as the wine flash boils and deglazes the pan. The smell is absolutely sublime, and the thick dark liquid now simmering in the pan will be quickly reduced, and spooned over the meat on the plates along with some of the roasted onion. We have already prepared and have set on the back burner of the stove a sauté of a chiffonade of fresh baby kale in olive oil, with garlic, onion, coarse salt, black pepper, vermouth, and pancetta. The vermouth and the garlic balances out and tempers the strong flavor of the kale, and the crispy browned bits of pancetta add a wonderful salty bacon-y note. The result is savory and full, and stands up well to the beef with the spicy harissa crust. We put a spoonful of the kale on the plate beside the beef. The final touch is a couple slices of fresh cold heirloom tomatoes, garnished with some of the Pesto Basil, and some ground Tasmanian pepper.

If you have only ever eaten red beefsteak tomatoes, or grocery store tomatoes, you owe it to yourself to seek out a grower of heirloom tomatoes (or grow some yourself) and see just how delicious a tomato can be. The flavors are so much better than those mass-produced tomatoes, no matter how red they might be. We have prepared a plate for us as well, and as soon as we can, we sample everything we’ve just served. It tastes amazing. And the response of the guests is extremely gratifying. Being told you have just served people the best and most adventurous food they’ve ever eaten, when they are also food lovers and seek out interesting and exciting dining experiences wherever they go, is deeply satisfying. Cooking for appreciative friends and family (or ourselves) is one thing. Cooking good food for paying guests is quite another. We are so happy they have enjoyed our work.

Because this day has been hot and humid, our guests decided to eat dinner inside, but with the setting of the sun, a small breeze has sprung up, and they have asked to have dessert and tea in the garden. The gardens of Liberty Rose, with little white lights strung over the low table and comfortable rocking chairs is the perfect place to end the day, and surrounded by the cool greenery of ferns, trees, and blooming potted flowers, they enjoy some moments of quiet conversation while we put the finishing touches on the dessert for the evening.

Mike has chosen a traditional Scottish layered dessert called a cranachan. Earlier in the day, hazelnuts were roughly chopped and placed in a mixing bowl along with two cups of IMG_8865grated bittersweet chocolate. Mike toasted organic steel-cut oats in the oven until it was golden brown and hot, and then added to the mixing bowl. As Mike stirred in the hot oats, a miraculous melting and melding occurred, and the bittersweet chocolate coated the nuts and the oats. We set it aside until this moment, when we retrieve the bowl from the pantry, and break up the mixture into crunchy clusters of nutty chocolate. Meanwhile, Mike whips heavy cream into white pillows, and then beats in crème fraîche, making it taste amazingly buttery and impossibly rich. A little whisky is folded into the whipped cream – a traditional part of the recipe – and then the components layered into a tall glass. The result, garnished with a big fat fresh blackberry, is absolutely rich tasting and delicious, yet light and satisfying. It isn’t overwhelmingly sweet, and is just right to finish off the meal we have served. We agree we will never eat whipped cream again unless it also includes crème fraîche. And whisky.

It was such an honor for me to be part of this dinner, part of the preparation, part of the celebration of a milestone anniversary for a very nice couple I didn’t even meet until just before dessert was served. Their gratitude and happiness was soul-satisfying, and the best reward for our hard work. The chance to plan and execute this intricate dance with a friend who feels the same about food and cooking and feeding people was so much fun, despite our bone-deep exhaustion. Food is primal. The connection that established between cooks and the people they feed has the potential to be wonderful, amazing, enriching. But the eating is only part of the experience. When you care deeply about food, the preparation of that food is a meditation. The serving of that food is a gift. The preparation of food, the sharing of food – that is the real celebration. I so look forward to my chance to dance this dance again.

 

 

 

 

Look In Her Eyes

img_2432

Her eyes are the deep brown of the Ethiopian coffee that runs through her veins with all the strength and sustenance that coffee is for that country. Deep wells of love and pain, sass and longing and empathy, with the unconscious knowledge of centuries of custom and tradition. She is firmly tied to those villages, that country, that continent. And she lives here in a new white world with her adoptive parents, centuries younger than the muscle memory in her DNA that she hasn’t yet consciously tapped into. When she was a toddler, adjusting to new life in this country, there was Ethiopian music playing in the house. She began to dance in that Pennsylvania living room with a distinctive tilt and swivel of her head that was distinctly Ethiopian. How could she know, if the lesson wasn’t already woven into all of her muscles and embedded in the deepest recesses of her young brain? It lay dormant, waiting for the stimulus that sparks all Ethiopian children to dance, to sing, to laugh with the same inflections, the same muscular twitches and flows that all those people before them, receding into the shadows of time beyond recording have danced and sung. It was miraculous. A moment of stillness and significance and deep cultural truth for those who will see it.

How can you adopt a child, especially from another country or continent, and not want them to know their beginnings and their heritage? At the same time, you help them assimilate into their adoptive culture with all the nuance and strengths and shortcomings that are part of that complicated package. Sometimes they look different from those in their new world, sometimes they feel different. Often one has everything to do with the other.

People, meaning well, say “She’s so lucky.” But really, she isn’t. Her eyes sometimes betray her grief; a grief she can’t yet name. She has always, from the very first, not even a year old, felt loss deeply and it colors every day and night for her. It is  helping her to frame the context for that loss that is the sacred charge of her adoptive parents. When she was a year old, Max, the gentle orange tiger cat, died. It was hard for everyone in this family that loves their pets like family. Weeks later, she sat alone on the couch, her beautiful soft fuzzy head, her giant black eyes brimming over with tears that traced two glittering silent paths down her warm brown cheeks. Her mother asked her to tell the reason for her sadness. “Max got sick….Max died.” Max was gone. Max left her. Like a mother. Like a father. Like grandparents, sisters, brothers, cousins. Like the air spiced with eucalyptus, the rich red berbere spice cooked into the food that was in the breast milk that briefly nourished her, like smoke from the fire that cooked the food, like the coffee beans ground in the stone mortar and boiled over burning charcoal until it rendered up its velvety essence, drunk with a piece of cold butter floated in the top and barely processed gray sugar crystals dissolved in it.

It weighs on her young heart that she doesn’t know, and probably never will know her African mother. Or father. Or grandparents. She sharply corrects her Ethiopian sister, when she talks about her African parents and grandparents, a wishful family she has constructed in her mind to connect herself, a tool for belonging and to make sense of this transcontinental shift in being, “No! Momma and Daddy are your mother and father. Nana and Papa and Grandma and Grandpa are your grandparents.” There is no arguing with her. She talks of going to Ethiopia for a visit the day after school ends, so her Momma can ask some questions, to find her African mother. Testimony to the trust she has in her Momma to take care of things. She assures her, after they find her mother, “I will stay with her for a couple of days, but then I’ll be back,” so she doesn’t hurt her feelings. Her little heart so hugely loving and sensitive to the hurt her longing to know might cause at 7 years old.

We have a life of plenty. Even the poorest of us have more than most of the people that populate this planet. It is hard to quiet our minds and our lives to hear what is elemental inside us over the din of acquisition, consumerism, television. But there are things that we all carry within us. Fear. Grief. Love. Longing. Commonalities we share with all other human beings regardless of place or color or culture. We must quiet ourselves and our privileged thoughts and emotions to imagine, to empathize, to acknowledge that we don’t know or own it all, and a young girl longs for a lost life she doesn’t consciously remember, but she knows it is an inseparable part of her. My instinct would be to try to cover up the bruises of that life; to try to smooth over and to erase the pain.To try to make myself enough for this little one’s longings. Her mother invites her to talk about it. She tells her, “I think about your African mother too. All the time.” That is selfless parenting at its best.

We are the lucky ones, but at what cost? There are times when our love for her seems almost selfish because she brings so much joy to us. And we worry. Is this love we have for her enough? That is the big and hard question. Because love her we do. With heart and soul and mind. And as she grows up, a brown girl in a white family that loves her without question or reserve, will that sustain her? When she comes to know on a personal level the feelings of the racially ignorant, the suspicions of the narrow-minded, the thoughtless stubbornness of some of the family who revere the confederate flag and don’t understand what all the fuss is about, will she still feel the enormous well of love we feel for her and her little sister? Will it strengthen her sufficiently?  Will it be enough? There is no easy resolution or clear answer. It just has to be. It has to be enough to be the steady anchor to sustain her seeking. To buoy her up when she feels the weight of her adopted world on top of her. It has to be enough. It is all we have.

image
Photograph by Tracy J. Cole

Be a Star (To Matthew)

Be a Star (To Matthew)

….From where you are
To where I am now
Is its own galaxy
Be a star
And fall down somewhere next to me….

Pretty Things by Rufus Wainwright

IMG_20160329_0001
Photo by Cora Lynn Deibler

You were afraid of us when we met you. I was newly off to college when my father was your professor. You were a student who played the piano with more power and technique and expression than any student of his I’d ever heard. That he’d ever heard. You yourself were nearly silent, and you held yourself in so closely, so controlled, so contained, away from the piano you barely moved. My father was always attuned to his students; to the whole student, not just the pianist in the student. He thought you needed a friend, and support, and he began to talk to you, and to invite you home with him for dinners. He was afraid you weren’t eating. He was afraid you were so desperately unhappy you might harm yourself. He began to talk to you, and my mother did too, even though you didn’t yet talk with them. Your trauma was deep, like a dog that’s been beaten over and over, and so comes to expect nothing more than more beatings. They spoke quietly to you and moved quietly around you. They offered you good hot food served in a comfortably untidy kitchen, lit by candles for evening supper. They listened to music and laughed with each other while they ate, and spoke to you, even though you did not yet feel brave enough to answer them. But over the weeks, as you realized there was no judgement of you coming from them, as you relaxed your shoulders and your back and you allowed your heart to open up just a little, they reached out their hands and drew you in and you began to laugh with them too. And your story began to come out. And you became, over time, part of our family. Because everyone needs family to love them.

In time, my father asked students who were having problems three questions: Are there problems at home? Are you afraid you drink too much or have a problem with drugs? And the third question, which was often the root to affirmative answers to the first two — Do you think you might be gay? What right does a teacher have to ask these questions of a student? This isn’t what their parents are paying him to do. Stick to piano lessons. But to the student who can’t form the words, even to themselves, it is a relief to have someone they respect and trust form the words for them and do so in a friendly way, with an offer of help with navigation of the new landscape. A relief to the student whose parents have sent them off to college and told them they can stay in school, that they’ll continue to pay for their education so they can have a livelihood, because they’re not cruel for Christ’s sake, but please don’t think you can come home ever again with that in your heart. You have a little brother or sister – who knows what you’d do to them, and what about your grandparents, what will they think? And the neighbors, and people at church, and where have we gone wrong and why why why are you doing this to us, never mind that you’ll spend eternity in hell. How can a child then show up for Christmas, begging to be let in?

Your parents were unequipped for life outside the narrow rural confines of their harsh and nasty Christianity. Your parents, from the tangled depths of their ignorance and confusion, their angry grief at the death of their lifelong assumptions,  made it known you weren’t welcome in their house. Their God told them you were evil and needed to change. And not just change, but repent, and repent with fervor. But they were wrong. They were the evil that damaged you from the get go. Your life afterward was a constant conflict of running away fast and hard, while also trying to find a way, any way, to fit back in. My father, not your own, taught you to tie the necktie you borrowed from him before a recital. My mother, not your own, fed you and hugged you. My parents, not your own, made sure you had money for groceries and someone with whom to talk over the decisions that have to be made in a newly blooming life. You considered changing your last name to ours. And we would have welcomed it, we loved you so deeply.

And how you bloomed, with your courage and determination, and my family as your touchstone. You traveled and met people, and lived in cities all over the country. You repaid my parents a hundred times over with your love and a soaring ride in a glider over Long Island for their birthdays.You took them to the Metropolitan Opera’s New Year’s Eve Gala with you; my father, in his tuxedo, and my mother, nervous she wouldn’t look right, in a black suit and black suede pumps. She wore diamonds in her ears and the pearl necklace she wore for her wedding. They saw Die Fledermaus sung on the most famous opera stage in the country, and at the elaborate dinner afterward, rubbed elbows with Tony Randall and Kitty Carlisle Hart. You brought us to your home in Santa Fe, and sent us off on a trip to the Grand Canyon, booking hotel rooms and steam locomotive tickets for the ride to the rim of the canyon because that’s what my children would enjoy. And we did too. But you couldn’t come with us because by then you were very sick, and had found out you were HIV positive.

And we were so afraid for you. It was that time before really effective treatment, but new diagnoses were coming thick and fast, and the stigma of a positive status was still damaging. Not quite the death sentence of the early days of the AIDS epidemic, but one had to be so aggressively proactive to obtain good treatment. Under the New Mexico stars, we sat out in the soft night by the fire, talking, me holding your warm hand. Loving you. Telling you. Not wanting to leave you. We were your family, and we were glad to be with you. Together is what we do best. Your sisters, by then, had pushed the rantings of your parents to the background, and rallied to your side. I was so happy for you. When we had to leave, they were arriving to help you. To join hands and solder that circle of strength for the murky future. You and your three sisters.

Your second oldest sister is a veterinarian and made of tough rural stock, and once performed minor surgery on herself. She gets things done and has managed to build a loving family of her own despite her parents’ parenting. Not satisfied with the treatment you were getting in Santa Fe, your kidneys failing, she got you an appointment at Johns Hopkins. You and your three beloved dogs flew to Baltimore on your friend’s private plane. And it was there that your aggressive lymphoma was diagnosed and where we gradually came to terms with your almost certain death. We visited you. So did your father and his new meekly poisonous wife. He told you you were going to hell, and why, so you’d know and it wouldn’t be a surprise when you got there. While he talked to his son this way, his wife nodded and smiled her support of his cruelty. After they felt they’d scared you enough to reawaken the self-hatred you’d spent years trying to sweep from your life, they produced a handful of religious pamphlets for you to read that would save you. Ignoring his wife completely, you found the strength to tell your father to leave and not to come back. That was good for you. You went to live with your sister and her husband in her big sunny house with your dogs snuggled in around you, and we could visit you while you grappled with chemotherapy and radiation and the brutal effects of antiretrovirals begun too late. It was a gift for me and for my parents to have you close. To be together.

There were a few weeks over Christmas that year, your favorite holiday, where the doctors told you you were free of cancer. You gained weight and felt good and played with your dogs and we began to hope that this was permanent. You missed your piano and Santa Fe. You missed the house you were building there, and the fireplace carved into the adobe, painted pale green and dusted with chips of mica that reflected the light of the flames so the whole thing sparkled like an enchanted corner. You and the dogs flew home. But by early January, you were weak and confused. Your sisters all went to be with you as the cancer roared back, peppering your brain and your spine, your hip, and your lungs. It was over long before you finally gave up, with the three of them holding you close in your big bed, along with the dogs who refused to leave your side. Looking out at the snow topped mountains in the distance, they read aloud our many messages of love and caring to you as you slipped into days of twilight sleep and finally died. You were only 31 years old and it was far far too soon.

I cried every day for months. Missing you. Not daring to admit or wanting to know I would never see you or hug you again. I hoped with a bone deep fury I rarely feel that your mother and father would forever be tormented with grief and guilt for how they had treated you, and for making the brief life you had so largely miserable. My parents were gutted by your death, you fully their son, but bore it stoically. They spoke often of you and laughed at the many good memories they had. You were the godfather to my sweet middle boy, and my children’s vision of you was the fun uncle who brought them books about a family of slugs afraid of salt, and books about pooping, and who loved Edward Gorey. When your sister had a baby boy, she named him Matthew, after you.

A year and a half later, we all flew to San Francisco for your memorial service with your sisters and their families. Your parents “couldn’t make it,” and I was glad they weren’t there. They didn’t deserve this last chance to be with you and to see you off. I went with my parents, my sister and her husband, my three children, and my husband. We stayed in Stinson Beach, a cozy town tucked in on the coast north of the city. It was my first view of the PDSCF0025acific Ocean, and my eyes filled with tears when I saw it. I knew you loved this place, and I wondered if you also stood here the first time, looking with tears in your eyes as you saw something so huge and so far away from where you grew up. From how you grew up. Did you ever believe then that you, a sensitive young gay pianist born in a rural wasteland that treasured nothing of what you were, would be in this place looking at this ocean with a family that loved you for exactly who you were? I wept to know that I would never stand there looking at it with you, holding your hand, we two country born Pennsylvania children, growing up so differently, but coming together into one life, in this place together.

We have no official permits. There are no funeral directors involved. You told your sisters to scatter your ashes on the westernmost point of land in Point Reyes National Seashore. All we have for this task is our love for you, some poems, some songs you liked, and you in your small wooden box, carved by your brother-in-law John, sanded and smoothed with love. We drove north from our houses on the foggy roads at sunrise to arrive at Chimney Rock before 7 am. What we are doing is illegal, and I know you’d have liked that. On the way there, we had to stop, as a herd of black and white dairy cattle crossed the rutted road. One stopped in front of our car and gazed at us with a deep black liquid look as her herd walked past her across the muddy road and disappeared into the fog lingering on the pasture. She looked at us for a long time. Still. Watching. Then she moved on. It was important and we were quiet in the car. You always liked cows, and liked the Point Reyes cattle as they wandered where they wanted, and people had to make way for them. We park our cars and walk a mile or so through the wind-beaten beach grass on a trail that leads out to the rocky point far above the ocean. The gray sky weighs on us, and I’m afraid, and dreading the deep wound of grief this morning is going to scrape open again. The wind blows off the ocean, cool and damp, but the fresh salt smell is exciting to me, so used to being landlocked. I think this is probably how you felt too when the smell of ocean filled your nose and blew your hair straight back, and it was clean and damp and scoured your heart of the stains left there from your struggles. I needed some scouring myself. I dared to hope that maybe I could find something in that wind from you to soothe that weeping wound in my core that doggedly refused to heal.

DSCF0084_1024We sat all together on the grass. A sea bird circled up above us, gray and white against the soft rolling gray of the sky and the fog, occasionally calling, soaring, diving down, way down, to touch the water, then winging back up, high over us again. Staying there with us. Your brother-in-law Jim, who always loved you, speaks to us, and we remember some of the good times. Times when you made us laugh. When we did things together; picnics, swimming, camping, city visits, your love of nature, the wilder the better. We remember Matthew who was strong and healthy, and free of pain and confusion. Matthew, who loved to tease and could always make us laugh. Matthew, who played the piano with passion and tenderness, pulling magnificent volume and gorgeous soaring music from the instrument with just his two hands and his big heart. And then we listened to music, the Indigo Girls, and that was when I started crying, and felt your absence most keenly. I knew for certain then, that this was our goodbye, our release of you. We truly never would see you again and now we’d have to keep you inside us, each on our own, to remember you. Such a fragile tenuous tie to you. Memories can be lost so easily, and are weak comfort when loneliness for you weighs me down. And while I desperately want freedom from this sadness that seems to have set up permanent housekeeping in my heart, I also never want to forget you.

The wooden box holding your ashes sat on the ground in front of us. Your sister brought a rock from home for your resting place. Your name was etched onto it, and the dates of your birth and of your death. We were each invited to gather up a handful of you, and take it to a place on that great jutting point of land high above the Pacific. A place we each felt was beautiful enough to hold you forever. I hesitated to touch you. I never had seen human ashes before, and wasn’t sure what they felt like. Dry and grainy, the coarse gray white dust with some larger ivory colored shards lay leveled in the box. I will never forget how you felt in my hand when I gathered you up. As I held you, and walked to the rocky edge to choose the right place for you, I thought to touch my finger to my tongue, to put a few grains of you into my mouth so you would be with me and in me forever, but I didn’t. Now I wish I had. I walked the edge of the cliff alone, my husband helping my children handle the emotions of this day. My parents standing together as they always have in everything. I was traveling my own path. I looked down at the heavy surf and saw a single sea lion rolling and diving in the blue gray water that glittered and shifted dully like a piece of polished labradorite. She stayed there by the rocks, looking up at us, maybe curious. Maybe knowing. I knew this was the place for me to put you. We each did this, choosing a place for our own reasons, on our own impulse, and parts of you were sprinkled everywhere in that big beautiful wild place. 

We stayed there with the quiet whooshing of the wind and the tide for a while, and then I knew it was time for me to leave and start down the path to the new life without you in it. I walked into the wind, salty, and eucalyptus scented, and it shushed past my ears with a quiet soothing sound. My footsteps were muffled by the cushioning grass. My tears dried and I took a shuddering breath. And then I heard my name. I turned, thinking my husband had caught up to me, but there was no one there. My heart began beating in my ears and all my senses were pinpointed on that sound, on my name in the wind. I looked around me. No one. I held my breath, knowing it happened, willing it to happen again. Above me, that gray gull was still circling, watching us leave this now sacred place, spread out, filing back to the car. All of us alone in our grief. I felt some comfort in my pain.

That day was now almost 15 years ago. And despite my fear, my memory of that moment hasn’t faded. I still miss you. I will miss you for the rest of my life. Every year, on August 13th, I send you a birthday thought, and every year, on January 29th, I remember the devastating pain the news of your death brought. I don’t think of you constantly anymore. Not even weekly. But there are times when something happens, something funny or ridiculous, or if I’m hiking, and the cedar-scented air is filling my nose, I think, “Matthew would have liked this.” When I’m with my family and we’re laughing, as we always are, we remember you and say to each other, “Matt would like this.” My middle son, your godson, is getting married in a couple of weeks, and I will surely think of you on that day, and wish you were there to celebrate with us. And sometimes when I’m running, my muscles loose and warm on a chilly misty day, when my mind is emptied out and relaxed and my music is turned down low, my breathing easy and rhythmic, I’ll feel you with me. And I’ll suddenly miss you with a sweeping wave of palpable awareness of you. And that moment is just for me, from you. You calling my name as the wind blows on my ears and a bird languidly circles in the sky over my head.

Matt 2.jpg

 

 

Facing It. All Of It.

Her 6-yr old daughter assigns her super power to her as they play together at home: “Mommy, your super power is laundry!”  My friend tells me, “I knew then it was time for me to get a job. I had to show her I could do more than laundry.”

What is power in our day to day life, and why do many women who have it not realize it? Why do they discount it? Why do they wholly surrender it? And where in life do some of us become afraid of our power and bury it or neuter it? When does it become more important to get along by hiding the strength and command in our personae as thinking and feeling women than to shine comfortably, assertively? And how do we reclaim it when it’s been lost or seems beyond our reach? And is it weakness, and a betrayal of strength or the efforts of other women to gain it, if we choose to relinquish it ourselves?

Mothering is power, but in contrast to power in the business world, mothering power is silent, often unacknowledged, taken for granted, and sometimes is the phoenix rising from fear. When your child is sick or injured, using the adrenaline of the moment to overcome the panic, you use that surge of power to do anything to help your child. You ride that wave of empowerment to question, warn, and advocate. But when the crisis is past, does empowerment remain? Sometimes. But sometimes it is just what is needed at the moment, and then things return to how they were before the crisis. I watch my white-skinned, blonde-haired, blue-eyed sister parent from a place of security and celebration, raising her two little brown daughters to own their difference, their beautiful warm dark skin, their glossy coiled hair, their black eyes, their strength. I see now that I parented sometimes fearful of my children’s enormous power and strong personalities. Sometimes, in place of helping them embrace it, mold it, teaching them to use it wisely, I tried to tamp it down, to get it under control because, frankly, their primitive strength frightened me.

I couldn’t see the turmoil their strength and determination raised in me for what it was: my fear of their power, and my fear of my own strength to meet it, because owning it might mean I’d be called upon to use it. And that meant even more conflict than usual. Then, it was easier to push it back and work at making my children conform. Strong children are resilient, however, and my strong children seem to have landed on their feet with commitment and good work ethic, and common sense. But I suffered. Agonizing uncertainty, shackled by fears of what other people would think, kept me from advocating for my children and celebrating them when I should have, despite the prevailing standards for appropriate behavior. And in parenting, there is little reinforcement from the children you’re trying to tame. They continue to push the envelope, to try to negotiate and bully their way to unlimited vistas of self-absorbed behavior, and you are never enough. That is what they’re meant to do. My strength was secondary, and I was often afraid to reach, to challenge, to speak out for myself, so how could I encourage my children to do that? And as they challenged me, I doubted myself and felt inadequate.

Part of the problem is that the acknowledgement that counts in modern society is monetary pay commensurate with power. And there is no pay in mothering that pays the bills. Mothers have no retirement accounts. Mothers don’t get raises, and can’t look forward to paid vacation. And I, and probably many other women, can’t fully believe in the power they have as mothers if there is no concrete validation from society. It can become a lonely place and the future is ill-defined and certainly terminal. Children grow up, and leave home, and the nest is empty. And then what? There’s no pension. There’s no retirement party.

Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with cranking out a great load of clean warm laundry, especially if that tattered blankie comes out warm and soft and smelling like love and home. But when your daughter thinks the apex of your power is laundry, well then, maybe it’s time for some adjustment. Mothering power, used wisely, produces strong, compassionate daughters and sons who know their strengths and can figure out how to use them. Mothering power empowers children to be proud and sure individuals. How you love your children, how you navigate obstacles in your life in front of your children, how you discipline and talk and laugh with your children (or don’t) teaches lessons. And often the lessons learned from those unconscious moments are far different than the words that come after “Now listen to me….” The potential for growth in those countless moments is unquantifiable. Little eyes and little ears soak it all in and true power is in realizing that and using it in love.

My niece, Lidiya, is a glorious 5-yr old girl. She glows with strength and command as proudly and unconsciously as she wears the vivid clothing she chooses for herself every day; as beautiful and wild as the thick twisty hair that she likes to feel flying back and forth when imageshe shakes her head. For her, power is a fact of life and it is completely and organically meshed with who she is. She uses it to be kind to others. To hug her friend, assuring her she will be back soon, and will play with her then. She uses it to accomplish things for herself, from scooping out her own forbidden ice cream cone late at night, to managing two big dogs like they are toys. And her command of them is so confident and self-assured, they both listen, even though they could knock her over and drag her around the yard. She uses it for determined tug-of-war with her sister, and negotiations with her parents. She uses it without hesitation to stand up for herself in a conflict. She uses it to wade in and stand up for her older sister in a conflict. She uses it to make her world as close to exactly how she likes it as possible every second of every day. It is potent and fierce, and she only has it about half under control. It propels her through life like a water slide, and shoots her out the bottom at the end of the day when she finally drops abruptly into sleep, exhausted. And how she loves every minute of that wild ride. Anyone who lives with Lidiya can only try to climb on and keep up, maybe providing a little parental tweaking along the way. Maybe she’ll even listen, and consider, but compliance is always up in the air, and entirely up to her. I admire her and her molten core of determination, and I think she’s taught me a lot. “Face your fears,” she advised me when she was 3. And now I repeat her wisdom to myself often.

I’ve had some power for the last 15 years; power attributed to me by virtue of my title of Director. Power granted to me by parents of the children in my preschool, power accepted by those parents as governing them as well. Most of the time. My position gives me the opportunity to formulate programming and curriculum. I am trusted to make changes as I see fit. I advise and alert according to my experience as a teacher. I laugh and reassure according to my experience as the parent of children grown up and gone. It still surprises me that adults listen to me about their children, and that they seek my advice. When I realize that parents are nervous to talk with me, I haven’t worn it comfortably; sure I haven’t earned it. But now I give myself a mental shake, and my rightful due. I’ve worked hard for decades, and listened. I’ve made many mistakes, learned from them, and been through enough trial and error that I am finally becoming comfortable in acknowledging success. It wasn’t until I embraced the knowledge that I am good at my job because I work hard at it, and care deeply about the outcome that I felt comfortable wearing that confidence on the outside, and really feeling it in my daily navigation. This is a confident assertion I can hear my Lutheran upbringing tsk-tsk-tsk-ing in the background: Never admit you got this. Never assume you’ve nailed it. Once you do that, your pride and Karma will sucker punch you in the gut and an epic failure is your certain and entirely deserved fate. The thing is, I don’t think I believe that anymore. I also know I couldn’t have made this assertion at any other time in my life, and that awareness came just in time. After a lifetime of self-deprecating denial, I think I’ve accepted the mantle of the power I have earned. And then, recently, it became time to use it. And that is a different exercise entirely.

Before my eyes, a good woman’s life and family were irrevocably changed by a freight train of power fueled by fear and incompetence. Rumors about her and her job were fabricated, whispered, and exaggerated. People in the church, once her family and her foundation, turned inquisitors. One issue rectified and corrected, another would slither in to take its IMG_5596
place. She saw no escape, and her fate was a foregone conclusion from the beginning, despite the hoops through which she obediently tried to jump to keep her job. Once you’re on the radar of a person who fears and must control, you never are free, and her every move was scrutinized and curtailed. So you are told where you may go to the bathroom. You are told what you will wear. You are told how you will spend your time outside of work. And in my fear for her, frustrated with my inability to relieve her pain, and disbelief that this could even be happening, I listened to Lidiya’s voice and faced my fears. Struggling to steady my shaking voice, I spoke out for her. I questioned the way she was being treated, and why, and it built and built, and then there began to be whispers about me. About my teaching. About my intentions. About my character. And that same power slowly began to pile up and rotate in another direction, toward me, and
 I couldn’t get out of its way when it touched down. It’s fingers reached into my home, my sleep, pressing me hard under the weight of its size and anger, while smiling at me on the face of it, and offering thoughts and prayers as a thin veneer of pious sop.

I wonder at the coincidence of this happening just as I am making peace with, and embracing my own strength. And what I saw and experienced bears out what I have always suspected. Power wielded from a place of fear and weakness is the most oppressive of all. It took several years of self-protection, looking over my shoulder, scrutinizing each communication and request for a meeting for the hidden message, the code. I was always wondering how it would certainly impact me down the road, revealed as finished and sealed and my compliance an assumption, regardless of the effect on me or what was entrusted to me. It took many months to outlast the hope that things might just work themselves out, and finally, at the breaking point, I knew some action was necessary. And as I began to push back, to disagree, and to question, not to acquiesce to pats on the head and being told I didn’t really understand, the pressure became more intense.

It was a time of long nights of lost sleep, grinding worry, what to say and what to leave unsaid. There was the risk to my job, my security, my happiness to consider. It was difficult meetings at which supremely difficult things had to be brought out and examined. It was anger turned on me, and frustration exploding, and feelings unavoidably affronted. But make no mistake. I don’t regret drawing the attention of that freight train of a tornado. There was no choice. It was my time to speak. And now, after some time passes, there is no muddy sediment on that resolve, and it still glitters; pristine, brilliant, and diamond hard.

The resolve of women who are determined, organized, and supportive of each other is an inspiring thing to see, and it’s even more inspiring to be part of it. Women, at their best, are strong and kind. They remember who their friends are, and when necessary, remember who their enemies are. Good secure women don’t hold grudges, but they do remember facts, and then act carefully and deliberately on those facts. They bring dark mucky packets of IMG_5115resentment and manipulation out into the light of day, air them out, and dry them, revealing what was kept hidden. And while it is exhilarating and satisfying to finally be acting instead of watchfully waiting, it is also searingly painful, and we have to acknowledge and manage the collateral damage. I can finally celebrate that strength. I can finally say yes, it is mine and I’ve earned it. I’ve used it to help people. I have used it for an unpopular cause that I knew was right and true, even though it was certainly the difficult way. I have made enemies that I know can’t, and probably won’t, forgive me for the first time in my life. The flip side of that, interestingly, is that for the first time in my life, the idea of having enemies doesn’t make my stomach churn. I am comfortable with the necessity for what we had to do. We all were. We rectified the situation without hysteria or drama. We faced our fears down, and discussed our concerns openly and thoroughly.

When the dust settled, people rearranged themselves into new alliances, decisive action was taken, and a theatrical martyrdom was assumed like a heavy velvet cloak to deflect and obscure the real unowned ugliness. Even though the outcome was the only thing that could happen, what we hoped would happen, we each suffered regret and sadness along with the extreme relief, the exhilaration of new possibilities, and the sudden absence of scheming antagonism. And in the quieted aftermath, I discovered I no longer wanted that power. It drained me. It changed the landscape so completely, it could never be repaired. My limits for that turmoil were far exceeded, and there was no regrouping possible. For the first time I knew with clarity that it was my time to leave. I decided to voluntarily give up the power I so recently embraced, and I resigned.

But it wasn’t a relief. It was a swirled bittersweet candy I sucked on for weeks, moving it around with my tongue from spot to spot. Does it taste good here? Or here? How about here? There were isolated moments when I felt calm freedom and certainty. At those times, relieved and at peace, as I settled in to finally enjoy that sweet layer, thinking surely that was what there was at the center of all of this, I could still taste the sadness creeping in. And fear. And finally, depression. 

I ran.

With the blessing of my husband, I flew to South America with a friend who’s been through tough times and who loves me. Who has a good grasp on a solid reality that retains its magic and is sprinkled with serendipity. He’s a friend who challenges the assumptions of others and makes his life wholly and fearlessly his own. I needed that. We rented a car and drove away from Buenos Aires on a 2500 mile search for the Andes, dark purple wine pressed from spicy high altitude grapes, and cabrito, juicy salty crispy baby goat grilled over the hot IMG_6487embers of a wood fire. We laughed and took photos, and we talked about everything. We teetered at the edge of canyons, dizzy from the altitude, with our mouths open in awe. We drove 100mph on two lane roads, zipping around and past the pedestrian fearful slowpokes that plodded along, in the way and dulling the edge of our adventure. We spent a day content in silence, thinking our thoughts and shedding them like old skins, one by one as the miles peeled away under the tires of our car. We stopped by the road to photograph a cemetery made of carefully tended mausoleums and graves carved right into the side of the mountain that had its roots in the Inca tribes that occupied this land. The week before we got there, a raging river, flooding over its banks with Andean runoff had carried away half the town. We arrived as the Carnaval celebration, delayed for only a week because of the tragedy, took place.

In the dark dusty streets of the pueblo, lit only by the moon, lined with adobe houses made from the mud and grass of the ground we stand on, these people face their fear square in the face. They wave enormous rippling silk banners back and forth, beat drums and play IMG_5340trumpets in hypnotic rhythms that echo the centuries of ceremony and ritual that stretch back beyond recorded time. Their costumes are dark, and small mirrors are affixed to them, reflecting bits of light that happen to shine from open doorways. There are no street lights, and this Carnaval feels menacing and primal; all blood and bone, and thoroughly tragically human. Their dancing is frantic and aggressive in the dusty warm dark. Their dancing is a talisman against the death that stalked those narrow streets a week ago, as it has time and time before, as it rained and rained and water poured off the mountains and into their homes. This dancing is reclamation of their fragile hold on the land. They are injured, but they are not vanquished. We wonder to each other how much time these people spend worrying about their future, about their health, about their jobs. We begin to sense the value in being part of a Nature so overpowering there is no way to escape her. Nature always will find her way, and this humanity must keep dancing to survive; dancing quickly out of her way, or directly in front of her in defiance of her fury. They care for the graves of their ancestors as they know the only permanence in this huge land is death.

These mountains, the Andes, are massive. Their palpable looming power indescribable. They are breathing things, coiled up in the darkness and in the daylight, not caring whether we come or go, or even if we survive the trip. They planted themselves here eons ago, thrusting up out of the crust of a young Earth in a catastrophic birth of fire and lava, draining an ocean and exposing shells and sea life to an upheaval so violent the ancient sea floor is thrown up above the clouds where we now stand upon it. It is impossible to imagine. The chaos of primordial creation gouges out scars everywhere, and I, finally, am nothing. Stunningly insignificant. Utterly inconsequential to this huge harsh world. I am a speck. I am dust. And it is such a relief. In the heat of this high desert, with no one on the road except ourselves, and no houses to be seen, only the abandoned ruins of roofless adobe walls, life comes down to these four things: Water. Muscle. Grit. Luck. We stand in silent submission to the magnitude of these mountains because we have no choice. She will have it no other way. I finally feel my depression lift. I understand, I accept, and now I embrace my desire to give up the trappings of my small power, and in that I find the strength of real peace. I am enough as I am. The taste in my mouth is finally the ancient elemental sweetness of ground maize and dark purple Tannat, and my heart opens and flies. And I am free.

IMG_5727

 

 

 

The Relay

I hope I don’t throw up.
I’m afraid I’m going to throw up.
I think I’m going to throw up.
I wish I could just throw up.

It’s hot, and I’m not used to hot runs yet in this spring, chilly and damp until today, and I can’t take off any more clothes. This road, this Goddamn dirt road, stretches straight off as far as I can see. No curves. No change. Except that hill that’s coming. It’s too early in the spring for leaves. The trees are bare, and the afternoon sun is unrelenting. My hip hurts. My shoulders and neck ache. My tongue is dry and thick in my mouth and my water is warm and running low. An angry self-pitying tear grudgingly escapes my burning eye and runs down my hot dusty cheek and joins the sweat that is already puddling in my ears. Why didn’t I train harder? I wish I had trained harder. I condemn my laziness, my busy job, myself, as if this is a moral failing. Mostly myself. I would give anything to just lay down in the grass and the soft fragrant pine needles beside this dirty road. But if I stop and sit down now, I know I won’t get up. For the first time ever I allow myself to think about not finishing a race. I’m a failure.
I still have 6 miles to go.

❧ ❧ ❧ ❧ ❧

IMG_0959

We are 4 women; friends who have something to prove. Not to the world, but certainly to each other, and mostly to ourselves. We prove our determination. We prove our physical and mental toughness. We prove our resolve, individually and collectively. For the last two years, we have gathered along with our support crew – our partners – in upstate New York’s Hudson Valley to run the Rock the Ridge 50-Mile Endurance Challenge in the Shawangunk Mountains as a 4-woman relay. Each leg has its own challenges, some posed by the topography, some by our own limitations. We all have trained as well as we can around demanding jobs, full schedules, family commitments. One of us had a knee replaced just 10 months ago. I am hoping an old ankle injury doesn’t flare up, and that my determination will compensate for what I know is less than adequate training. Publicly, I say I just want to finish healthy. I privately want to go faster and harder and beat last year’s time as I run the third leg for the second year in a row.

We get up at 4:30 in the morning to see Carol off at the start of the first leg. The race starts at 6:30, and we all have committed to being present for the start and finish of each leg, to encourage our teammates. Something that women, at their finest, do very well. The hotel where we’re staying has said they will have coffee and snacks ready for us, but even though we are awake and up, the dour desk attendant is not, and we wait for our coffee, getting nervous. Any interruption in routine or planning means stress, and late coffee is serious. Most races begin at 7 or 8 AM. It’s easy to gauge when to eat and what to eat for breakfast. If you’ve run a couple of races you probably have a routine, of both food and timing, that becomes a good luck charm for your race’s favorable outcome. It’s less simple when your race, your leg, starts around 2:30 PM, as mine should. Eat too much, too close to your start, or eat the wrong things, and you’ll feel awful, ending up with digestive problems. Eat too early or too little, and your body will give out, lacking the fuel reserves needed to keep you from burning out as you ask your body to do more and more, leading to weakness and exhaustion as you push hard. I try to err on the side of caution and forego dairy, stoking my body instead with protein and some carbs. I eat hard-boiled eggs, bagels and peanut butter, some granola with dried cranberries and raisins. A banana or two. I drink a lot of water and some Gatorade. And a big cup of afternoon coffee. My caffeine addiction is an issue which requires some advance planning, and today is no day to cut back.

We leave the hotel to meet Carol as she comes in, and send Terri off on the second leg, and return to the hotel to await my turn. I start to lay out my clothes, and the supplies I’ll need during the race, checking and double checking, sure I’ve left something behind, even though I know I haven’t. Aid stations are few and far between, and while their placement makes sense for those runners taking on the full 50 miles, they are not always in the best places for the relay legs. There is also no guarantee they won’t run out of what I need, so I carry my own. Two hand-held water bottles that strap tight to my hand; one big, one small. I fill the big one with water and the smaller one with orange Gatorade. Always orange. I pack along a Clif bar and three GU gels. I’ll probably only need two, but I fear being caught with empty energy reserves and distance still to go. I pin these to the waistband of my running tights. I take three tissues and pack 4 Band Aids as a talisman against blisters. I pack one migraine pill. Dehydration sometimes triggers my migraines, and that is a very real possibility during a race. I jam it all, except the water bottles, in my Spi Belt, a super expandable waist pack that weighs nothing and actually stays put and doesn’t bounce at all. My race number, the timing chip that fits around my ankle that records my start, splits, and finish time, socks, running shoes, insoles. I debate whether to wear my ankle brace or not. Decide not, fearing it’s bad juju and asking for trouble.

Finally, it’s time to get dressed. And tying my shoes seems like the most important task of the day, and I’m having trouble getting it right. I tie and re-tie. Re-tie again. Too loose. Too tight. One too tight, the other not tight enough. Realize I’m being ridiculous, but can’t seem to help it. Jesus Christ Andrea, how many times have you done this? I’m way too conscious that for the next 4 hours or so, my feet are the most important variable in my life. I charge my iPhone. It has my running playlist on it and that is my biggest motivator when I’m out alone and calling on energy I might not feel. It also has an app on it that we have all downloaded. It allows us to communicate with each other, and track each other’s progress, and notifies us of our pace and distance since not all miles are marked with signage. This is how we know when to get to the finish and start lines for our individual legs. I check my headphones and re-tie my shoes one more time. I start my lengthy stretching and foam rolling routine, working out the tension and the kinks with the familiarity of rote movement. My leg is 13 miles or so. To my Running Self, now, at this moment, it seems impossible, and I’m not just nervous, I’m scared and nauseous. And I have to pee. Again.

IMG_0863Even though I know we’ll be in plenty of time, we finally start out for the third leg starting line and Running Self is sure we’ll be late, that there will be a lag in time because of me. I know there’s no way we will be, but still I worry, tense and silent. Rational Self recognizes this feeling and knows what’s going on. This is the way I’ve felt in the waiting period before all 3 of my marathons and my half marathon. When there is nothing left to do but wait, until I can finally hit “start” on my watch, and head out to do what I’ve been training for, planning for, saving for, traveling for, anxiously dreaming about for months. And it’s a huge relief to see Terri finally coming in to finish up the second leg and I cheer for her and wait for her to cross the timing mat. We hug each other, and then finally I’m off, crossing back over the mat to start my part of this race. Up a hill, across the road, David there to cheer me out, and onto the trail and up into the woods. Finally draining off this pent-up nervousness is a relief, and I consciously slow myself down, knowing I tend to go out way too fast at a pace I can’t hope to sustain. And the first 6 miles of this race are tough.

Early in my leg, after a relaxed, gentle uphill run past a nice waterfall, it abruptly changes to a steep climb. 400 vertical feet gained in the space of one mile, on a trail that winds with switchbacks and feels, in places, more like a ladder or stairs than a trail. There’s a little bit of a downward dip, I run down again briefly, breathing hard, and know for sure that I’ve overdressed. I take off my top layer and tie it around my waist, and turn my attention to the next 4 miles where I gain another 500 feet in elevation. The voice in my ear dims my music and tells me my pace is 19 minutes and 24 seconds per mile. Just this side of standing still and perilously close to sliding backwards. I feel out of breath and discouraged. Give myself a mental shake and remind myself that this is the worst part of the leg and damn-it-you-can-do-this-you’ve-done-it-before. I turn up my music. I switch to a different song. Do the body inventory: unclench my jaw, drop my shoulders, relax my arms, shake out my hands, roll my head, relax my back, push from my glutes, ankle feels good, and look at the scenery around me. It’s good this leg is beautiful. I’m anticipating getting to the top of this awful climb because the vista is spectacular. So spectacular it truly makes this pain worthwhile.

IMG_0985

When I’m out there for hours, my mind wanders. I plan home projects. I outline blog pieces. I think about people I love. When my legs are hurting and I’m breathing at capacity and it’s still not enough, I think of my daughter and her gritty determination. Her coming back from knee surgery. Working hard at therapy, excusing herself to throw up from the pain, and then going back to finish the session. I think of all the times my husband has told me that it’s fine I go out to run, and no, he doesn’t mind oatmeal for dinner at all. I think of all the times he’s rubbed my feet after a long run, and tells me it’s no trouble. He’s given up his weekend to do this thing that is all about waiting for me and not at all about him and what he wants to do. I think of the magic of finding out that I’m on the same trails my best friend hiked years ago, before I knew him, when he lived just a few miles from here with his 2-yr old son. The son who now loves my daughter. We have shared our mutual awe at the view from the top, unchanged decades apart, and that unexpected, unknowing sharing has given me a tingling energy that is hard to explain. I think of my middle child, my son, veteran of long-distance races himself, and a devoted runner, who generously ran a half-marathon with me at my pace, and coached me through it to a personal best time. I take his wise words then, and apply them now: “This is it, Mom. There’s no reason to hold anything back – this is what all the work was for. Give it all now.” I hear that my other son has posted a comment to me via my running app. The mechanical voice reads it to me, and I feel invigorated at the encouragement and I feel less alone in my effort. And I push ahead.

I finally crest that hill, and my body aches with the change in mechanics required as I descend the other side. Finally I can run again and I feel like I’m flying and the cooling breeze is wonderful. I’m conscious of trying not to go too fast. I’m tired, and know I need to be cautious not to slip and fall with fatigue on the loose stones, but damn, this release of sudden speed and momentum feels so good. I’m surprised to see Carol, who ran the first leg, and her husband waving to me from beside the trail. They’ve hiked up to meet me at the aid station I’m approaching. They help me fill my water bottles as I’m too breathless, hands trembling and weak, to be very efficient myself. They tell me I’m doing great. They say I look strong. it’s enough to fool me into thinking it’s true, and so, I can pretend it’s so. Carol takes the shirt I’ve tied around my waist for me so I don’t have to carry it. She says, “I’ll run with you a while.” I’m so grateful. I usually like to run by myself, for me it’s absolutely a solitary meditation, but I welcome this distraction from my pain and the sound of my gasping breath roaring in my ears. We chat, and she paces me so I’m not going too fast out of the gate of the aid station. The brief rest has done me good. After two miles, I tell her I’ll be fine now. I recognize this part of the trail from last year, and know that I will shortly be coming out on the top of the mountain, and from there, it’s mostly level, and then downhill. There is a detour somewhere ahead, where they’re working on the trail, but how bad can it be? I’m still circling around to the same line I started from (my leg is a circular route) and downhill is downhill, right? Carol tells me goodbye and good luck and tells me once again I’m doing great and I look strong. I like hearing that, but right now I feel like I’m home free. Vista views and downhill all the way to my finish line. Bring it on!

I reach the top, working hard, head down, arms driving my body ahead, even though my legs don’t want to follow. It’s worth it. I stop, breathing hard, and just look…and look. I use my phone and take some pictures. I’ve promised photos of the vista to my fundraising contributors. And it lets me rest. It’s hot. I drink the last of my Gatorade and a little of my water. I squeeze out a GU into my mouth. Thick, gluey gel. Like eating icing, but it sticks in my throat more. It has a pretty good mocha flavor though, and it’s the caffeine I’m after. I chase it down with more water. It makes me shiver a little. It makes me feel a little sick. I know from experience though, that I’ll feel a burst of energy in about 15 minutes when those carbs hit my bloodstream, and I need it. I jog on for another mile or so of gentle ups and downs, now mostly downs, and forgetting about the detour, think that soon I’ll be hitting the steeper downhill portion of the race and I can run most of the way and make up valuable time. I’m confident I’ll be finishing strong. The worst is over.

I take a minute to rest. I sit down on the edge of the cliff, my tired legs dangling over the edge. I should be making up time, but instead, I swing my feet. I sit, quiet, my music paused and silent, and just look, scanning left to right. It’s a nearly cloudless day, with bright sun and a brilliant bluebird sky. I’m looking at three states from my aerie. I feel privileged to have the strength to see this for myself, and to bring a piece of it to others. The universe laid out before me at my feet. I like being alone on this trail, at this moment. It’s all for me and my pounding heart and my aching body and my effort. My own grit. Perhaps my daughter has gotten a small part of her strong self from me after all, and that makes me proud. I think about that for a minute or two and close my eyes and feel the breeze and the yawning drop beneath me. So much nothing below me, and yet it’s everything.

IMG_0975

Time is ticking away and I know I have to get going. I roll back from the edge of the cliff and stand up. Go through the physical inventory again. I counsel myself to relax now and stay loose. Downhill feels easier, but in some ways is harder on your body than uphill. I know I have to be careful if I’m to finish running. I’m feeling good, but it’s deceptive. I’m more tired than I realize and those 1,000 vertical feet have taken a lot out of me. I just don’t know it yet. And it’s hot up here where trees are small and there are only scrubby bushes and dried grass. The limestone rock I’m running on is hard on tired legs. I’m trying to save my water. My Gatorade is gone. I’m hoping the next aid station comes up soon and I’ve lost track of where I am in the mileage. I drink some more. In a mile or two I suck down another GU gel and feel a little bit sicker. I take another sip of water. My bottle’s half full. I refuse to think of it as half empty. That awakens an anxiety uncomfortably close to panic. Soon the trail angles away from the cliff’s edge and I’m really heading downhill. A true decline that feels so good, so optimistic, I can’t help but cheer up and think that yeah, I’ve got this. I don’t know yet how tenuous my grasp is.

Soon, I think, I should get to the steepest downhill where it’s so steep you can’t run it, but you sort of hop down the mountain. It kills any strength you have left in your quads, but I’m looking forward to it. It will at least be different pain. But then the trail turns left, and I’m running through a construction area that is decidedly not beautiful, and I remember the detour. Now I’m in unfamiliar territory, and it throws off my concentration and I’m lost in the mileage. My confidence evaporates and I start to doubt myself. The road levels out, and stretches on and I’m not feeling well. I’m so tired. I know I still have a long way to go. I hope I don’t throw up….

I will myself forward. But I’m feeling like I don’t have much will left. I think again about my kids, about my friend, I wait for that push of magic, but it’s gone. I just want them to be proud of me. I want to be proud of myself. I feel the sweat soaking my shirt and the crust of dried salt on my face when I wipe sweat away from my stinging eyes, and I wish I had on a sleeveless shirt. Cursing my stupidity for not believing the weather reports I examined over and over the week prior to the race. It didn’t seem possible that the temperature could climb to the mid-70s when it was in the 40s at home. Now it’s closer to 80º and I’m woefully unprepared for it. I know now that it’s a while to the next aid station – I judge at least 3.5 miles – and I’m struggling. I trudge on. Walking. Occasionally making myself run, but soon slowing again. I just can’t. I feel like I’ve got nothing left. Nausea overwhelms me and I really don’t want to throw up. Then walking along, my vision starts to weirdly distort, to sparkle and shimmer, the trail undulating, and this worries me. I realize I haven’t eaten anything at all since my hard-boiled egg at the hotel. GU doesn’t bring lasting nutrition, just bursts of quick energy. I’ve made a mistake here that might be pretty costly. Even though the thought of eating anything makes my skin crawl and my stomach roll I fumble my Clif bar out of my waist pack and make myself eat half of. It has some protein in it. I know I need that, but I sure don’t want it. I chew and chew and try to concentrate on my music to give me a cadence to walk to, but it just irritates me. I ache to sit down. To lay down. To stop. I swallow and take another bite, and the road just goes on and on. People are passing me. They look fresh and are talking and laughing and I feel humiliated. I feel like they’re taunting me and I hate them. I’ve always motivated myself during races by picking someone out and pursuing them and then passing them, then picking out someone else, notching myself along with a hunter’s mentality. Instead, I can barely keep myself going. I take another bite of my bar and chew and chew and I wish it tasted better to me. I swallow some water and then make myself drink some more. I know I’m dehydrated. But what if it runs out? Feeling this bad I don’t see how I can finish.

My Rational Self is striding along beside me saying Use this to learn something. Next time you’ll wear a hydration pack.

I tell Rational Self, Next time? I’m never doing this again.

Rational Self isn’t listening. Rational Self says, This is like transition in childbirth when you’re so far gone you really do think you can just quit and get up and leave and finish this all on another day. A cooler day. A cloudy day. A rainy day. You think you can’t go on. But you can. And every time you reach this point in a race you know what it is, but you don’t know what it is and you struggle all over again.

I tell Rational Self,  Fuck You! You don’t know what you’re talking about. I think I might die out here.

I start to think that if I could throw up I would probably feel a lot better. But I can’t. And I’m actually disappointed. That’s a cruel kind of turnabout. But no crueller than the hill I see ahead of me. And then here’s where the grit kicks in. My mother says to me in her no-nonsense way, Stop complaining and do it. I put my head down, I make myself move my arms, I tell myself I’ve come this far, I’m finishing this damn thing and I think of David waiting for me at the finish line. And I force myself along. As I crest that last dusty gravelly hill I see a wonderful long downhill spread out ahead of me and the angle of the sun has made real shade over the trail. Best of all is the sign that tells me that the next aid station is in a mile. I’ve come farther than I thought, and suddenly it all seems doable. I can do a mile. I can crawl a mile if I have to, and knowing that ensures I won’t have to. I start to run again. It’s a long way from feeling good, and every muscle in my body hurts, but it’s a run, and it does a lot for my self-respect that I can muster that resolve. And I know now that I will finish.

I fill my water bottles with clumsy hands, and sympathetic volunteers see I’m having trouble and take over for me. They offer me a handful of pretzels and knowing I need the salt, I gratefully accept them. I’m in awe of those runners doing the whole 50 miles. Serious awe. And I am honored to be in their company. I’ve missed the last several updates from my running app. Just so much white noise in the midst of my distracted misery. I have no idea where I am, so I just go forward. I realize how elemental this has become for me. Water is everything. I take another long swallow and then another. I can afford it now and it’s what I’ve needed all along. Rational Self merges with Running Self and I’m so relieved to feel mentally ok again. I cross a parking lot and go down into the trees where thousands of branches arc over the trail, filtering the sun. I cross a road, trusting that cars will just stop for me because if I stop to wait for them I may never get started again, and suddenly I realize where I am with tremendous relief. I’m only a few miles from my finish line.

I push on, and the gravel disappears and now I’m running on a bed of soft pine needles, and that small cushion feels so good. My steps are quiet and my breathing quiets, and I can hear my music again. I see people out for a short walk now and know that means that I am close to the access road where everyone is waiting for me. I run on and now I’m thinking about after the finish when I can take a long hot shower and lay down on my back on the floor with my eyes closed, blessedly still, just floating in the good ache of a great effort with nothing more required of me than to smoke a cigar and drink champagne around an outdoor fire. I see a white tent through the trees even sooner than I expected. My breath catches in my throat in a little sob of gratitude and release. I see David and my friends clapping, and yelling encouragement and I gather myself for the last half mile. I’ve done it. I’ve done it. AndIMG_0871 I can’t believe it, even while I think I should never have doubted myself. I wave to them with both arms to say I’m here and I’m done and I’m so glad you’re here to call me in. I push up the little hill to the road and volunteers are clapping and encouraging me. I see my friend Kendra waiting to pick up the relay to walk the last leg and I run over that mat and finally, finally can legitimately stop and rest. Carol brings me water. Terri hugs me with tears in her eyes. David grabs me in a hug and holds me tight and he knows how much this has taken out of me for months, and finally I unclench my teeth and cry with relief and happiness and bone deep tiredness. And he’s crying too.

I look around at this group of women I love. It’s so much more than a race and a weekend away. It’s affirmation. It’s pride in meeting a challenge and besting it. It’s about the considerable strength of committed women. It’s shared history. It’s collective work toward a goal. It’s for that cheap medal we all wear at the end of this long day. We all have had our moments. We all know how deep we’ve had to dig to get to this finish line; to get to all the finish lines we face every day of our lives in everything we do. And one weekend a year we gather to cheer each other on to a common goal that tests us and drains us dry, celebrating, valuing and honoring that in each other. We are a team. And I’ll do it again in a minute.

IMG_0876

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Safe Passage

WindowI had a front row seat when they began to dismember her. Chunk by chunk, they dissected her and spread her out and scrutinized her. They scooped and sawed and chipped at her until there was nothing left inside; until eventually the wire she was made to walk became so narrow, tight, and sharp, no one could have walked it without bloodying themselves in the inevitable fall. With no recourse left to her, she fled. Her paychecks, every single one vitally necessary, ceased, and for weeks she lived by her wits and her faith in God and in the loving arms of her friends. Her children watched, angry and confused, to see how their mother, loved by so many and loving so many herself, suffered. They struggled with adolescent embarrassment and childish fear for the parent who had always been their touchstone, which she continued to be despite her shattered world. Swirled into this thick soup of pain was their fierce loyalty for the mother who loved them equally fiercely. Ultimately, they stood beside her. On the side of the right. As she taught them. They inspired her with words she used to inspire them, and in the end, they comforted each other and held each other up above the mess. She, so hurt and damaged by people she respected, trying to keep the love that was the focus and the force of her life, the impetus for all she did and all she was, in the forefront of her new reality, gritted her teeth, screamed inside over and over, shed frustrated grieving tears, pacing through those long quiet nights, and when the sun came up, just slogged on through the mud, as she had many times before. I have never respected anyone as much as I respected her in those desperate days.

One day after she had moved and was gone, I received a call from our friend who was at her empty house. “There are some things here that I don’t know what to do with. Can you help?” And I, of course, can. And do. It was clear she had endured all she could before just shattering and disappearing into the abyss. Her home was no longer her refuge. The army had arrived, banging on the door with hard fists. They ransacked her tired defenses and left her life in ruins. Desperate, she gathered her children and fled. I’d have done the same, but much sooner. We sorted through possessions and loaded a truck with things to save for her, and put some things on the curb and some other things to donate and we, silent and sad, locked the door behind us, and felt so empty and drained on that starry fall night. We said quiet goodbyes to each other, friends who get together often, but it had the feeling of forever in it. The way we were was done, and we were as hollow and bereft as the house we’d just emptied.

I couldn’t go home to my own home that night. It felt too greedy and self-satisfied; that to take refuge there in that place where I always find my peace would be mocking the searing tragedy I’d just left. I walked a long way in the dark, trying to forget. And trying to remember so I wouldn’t ever forget. I looked in the windows of the houses as I walked, and wondered about homes and houses and what defines the difference.

I pass the “green” house of an ardently eco-conscious young family. The florescent bottles 2ceiling lights give off a cold blue light, as if they’re living in the butcher shop my grandmother and I walked to in the dark on Saturday nights to pick up the Sunday roast. There are no curtains or blinds on the windows. They hold dust and tempt allergies to set up lodging in this pure house. This sterile house. I see the children working on a project at the table by the window. Brown cardboard. White glue. Cotton string. There are no markers, glitter, paint. There is no art on any of the white walls to inspire them. This is not a house where I’d want to live. The serious mother reads in a chair under yet another cold blue light. Her eyes will be saved. The photographs in her book will appear as intended in the correct lighting. Would she know what to do with warmth if it should appear and bathe her and her children in a golden glow? Are they missing it? Do they know they don’t have it? She’s saving the earth, but for what?

There’s a spectacular house on this street with candles in every window. It is filled with antique furniture and has big brick chimneys that puff out smoke from multiple fireplaces that spread delicious warmth on the cold nights of winter. It is beautifully landscaped. It is a showplace. It is perfect. It is all hollow show. Inside there are petty fights and slammed doors. There are tears and angry phone calls. There are ultimatums and threats and little deceptions and mistrust and long silences. It is a house that masquerades as a home.

Whole HouseI pass a house where inside I know a grandfather is dying. His children won’t make him take those last steps alone and they sit by his bed and hold his hands and he smiles as he comes and goes, and comes and goes. After it is done, they rest awhile with him and with each other, sharing memories, shedding tears, and yes, laughing, before making the call that sets that express train of EMTs, ambulances, and funeral directors in motion and he no longer belongs to them. They wash him. They pray. They tend to him for the last time as he did for his parents; as the love and duty in their family assumes. This is a home.

I stand in the dark on the sidewalk across the street from that sad loving home. The smoke from my cigar, cedar-scented and peppery on my tongue, like this beautiful woman now gone from my life, rises past my eyes and up into the black sky, and tears roll down my cheeks. And I’m grateful to have had the chance to finally really help her. And help myself.

Her house was a home. Always scrubbed clean, it was warm and fragrant with candles and cooking. Laughter filled it up and spilled out the door and down the steps. Her quiet patience permeated every corner. There was discipline for her children that framed their world and contained it; that gave them something to count on. When I got that call and saw her house, still filled with things, filled with her, I felt my heart gripped and twisted. I felt her desperation, her fear, her urgency. And even though her new job is good, her new home is nice, and her children are happy in their new town, I finally sensed what she never betrayed as she struggled to stay strong for those in her life who counted on her for everything. I finally understood the depth of her despair, and her terror as that misguided power forced its way into her home, held her prisoner, and wouldn’t leave no matter what she did until she was wounded and worn out with the struggle.

We three friends sorted and carried things to the curb. We recycled and boxed and bagged and saved and discarded and shed tears and sweat. An exorcism of anger and worry and finally, finally a physical manifestation of our love for her to wear us out and dispel some of our grief. Here finally was the help we’d been longing to give. Here finally was something we could do for her. The people who loved her boxed up the pain and the fear, swept the desperation into a dusty pile on the floor and threw it out once and for all. We tidied up the tattered debris of years of anger and confusion and betrayal for her, and finally cleaned that slate. We keep her things for her, tending them, until she comes back to reclaim them. Until she comes back to reclaim us. To see us, to laugh with us, to hold us in hugs that we never want to end.

I stub my cigar out in the grass at my feet. I wipe the tears off my face. I walk home.

Last Pic

A Death In The Family

Window1On the last day of August my church died. This was the place where I grew up beside my parents and grandparents, my sisters and brother. Beside great-aunts and -uncles who watched me misbehave and gently corrected me, surrounding me with love in our family pew. And when I was young, church was a hushed mystical place where I took for granted that at some point I would have a revelation of some kind;  would hear voices from beyond the grave, or the voice of God Himself calling me to tell me that I was chosen and special and that I had something to give that He wanted and needed. I was ready and I waited for it for years. During church Family Night dinners I would slip out into the quiet velvet dark of the sanctuary and sit at the altar, the only illumination the small light on the brass cross. Alone in the dark, I waited patiently for God to whisper His wisdom into my ear.

I was certain the pastor was God’s mouthpiece, his voice booming out to the congregation during the sermon at vespers, the lights dimmed, only the pulpit light lit and the candles on the altar. In that quiet I paged through the red hymnal with the tissue paper pages, reading the old words, the “thous” and “thees” with “dost” and “verily” peppered through. The voice of antiquity and tradition, and echoes of the angels themselves. I had no doubts and no questions. It was all true and good. All I had to do to be reassured of that was watch my grandfather, a big sturdy man with an unshakably vibrant faith and carpenter’s hands, booming out the hymns, his deep voice rumbling the prayers, the creeds, the words of the holy eucharist. He believed with all his heart and soul and so, I did too. I went to the altar for communion with him, to receive the sign of the cross on my little worried forehead, and I watched him and my sweet tiny grandmother, cradling the bread in their hands. They closed their eyes and took the body of Christ into their mouths, and then their wrinkled hands delicately holding the glass communion cups like transparent shells for their sip of the blood. Believing. And I believed too. God’s promise of love and forgiveness for all eternity was reassuring to me and echoed what I felt from my family, securing my whole world from harm. The words of the Nunc Dimittis resonated in my heart from a very early age:

“Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace; according to thy word; For mine eyes have seen thy salvation: which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; A light to lighten the Gentiles: and the glory of thy people Israel. Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost; As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.”

I was baptized in my church, confirmed in my church, married there, one warm sunny day in August 32 years ago, and then our own three children were baptized at the same altar. My beloved grandparents and all those great-aunts and -uncles died and were buried from that altar along with a river of my tears. There is a strong rope of faith tying me to that small brick church that sits on the only street of the crossroads town in which my grandparents and my father grew up. I know every inch of the stained glass windows, liquid color in the early morning sunshine. I know the coffered plaster and pressed tin ceiling, painted yellow and white, all cool butter on warm summer Sundays, and the golden walls, hand stenciled, that I thought looked like my grandmother’s dried corn that would be on the table at the family dinner afterward. For me, my church wasn’t just about faith and the triune God. It was inextricably woven together with the family I love.

“….Faith of our fathers! we will love
Both friend and foe in all our strife;
And preach thee, too, as love knows how,
By kindly words and virtuous life:

Faith of our fathers, holy faith,
We will be true to thee till death….”

My grandfather was a stalwart church elder, president of church council, leader of work parties, member of the infrequent call committee, friend of pastors and member of interfaith councils. He taught the adult Sunday School class forever. His Bible was well-thumbed and often read. He was a man filled with open-minded love and purpose, fueled by faith and deep love for what God created. My grandmother waWindow2s his helpmate in every sense of the word. They raised my father during the Great Depression, she kept the house and tended the garden, made sure Ruggy Snyder, the elderly bachelor living across the street in shabby squalor, had Sunday dinner delivered in a tin pie pan. In return, he gave us apples which she made us wash with soap before eating. She rolled bandages with the ladies of the Altar Guild for the wounded soldiers of the Vietnam War. She served as Sunday School Superintendent and taught my Sunday School class for as long as I could remember. She collected soap, tissues, and combs for Christmas gifts for residents of the State Hospital For The Mentally Retarded. Privately, I had my doubts about the value of tissues and combs as Christmas presents, but one didn’t question the wisdom of the women of the Altar Guild. She made browned chicken for church dinners, and elderberry and rhubarb pies for the dessert table, and a lemon Jell-O salad with chopped walnuts, raisins, raw apples, and celery for which I still get hungry.  She always had cookies waiting for us in the cookie tin, Avon cosmetics samples for us to play with, and teaberry chewing gum in the cup cupboard. We were allowed half a stick so we wouldn’t ruin our teeth. We ran back and forth from their house to the church. A path that perfectly parallelled my childhood.

I have a memory of standing in our pew during a Sunday night vespers service in the darkened church. I was very young; tall enough to just look over the back of the pew in front of me. In the dark I listened to my father play the piano. Everyone was quiet, listening as he played the prelude. It was something special. Young as I was, I realized that, and I was proud that was my father. A son of the congregation, my father was the pianist there for 60 years. Before him, his aunts and an uncle also served as pianists. Strengthening and enriching all those years of church and family, woven deep into the fabric is the music that was part of all of it. Truthfully, my worship experience was, and continues to be, more attuned to the music of worship than theological doctrine. Music is tremendously evocative for me and I have deep appreciation and not a little awe for the inspiration that moves composers, artists, architects, and writers to glorify God through their work. I have sung in choirs all my life, privileged to sing the great sacred music of the centuries. I have stood in silent wonderment in soaring cathedrals all over the world, moved to tears by beauty that is the expression of the depth of the architect’s faith, the stonemason’s faith, the sculptor’s faith, the painter’s faith. In those places, I have been occasionally indelibly transformed.

“….A thousand ages in Thy sight
Are like an evening gone
Short as the watch that ends the night
Before the rising sun.
Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
Soon bears us all away;
We fly, forgotten as a dream
Dies at the opening day….”

As an adult, however, things have gotten sticky and complicated. In the last 10 years, my faith flagging, faltering, unraveling, changing, now I question it all for the first time. Allowing myself to walk the unfamiliar territory of daring to doubt. I pray, but it feels like I’m being greedy and opportunistic. I wonder if I have the right to pray to a God whose existence I question, even if it’s for direction and guidance on that very question. And I have no answers andAisle don’t expect to have them anytime soon. I have seen too much of Church used as a weapon of judgement, a hammer of oppression. It has deeply hurt people I love by excluding them, wounding them, forcing them to the periphery, even out of their families, with hatred and fear masquerading as righteousness. Loving the sinner, but hating the sin, is a poor brittle substitute for real solid love. For several years, I listened to a pastor decry modern society from the pulpit over and over – the society in which I make my daily way, and the society in which my children have grown up. Too much reminiscing about the good old days, when men wore suits and women wore hats to church, pining for Sundays when no one played soccer, and not enough of how to navigate the chaos of the here and now, and how to find and keep God in there somewhere. I watch a nearly-dead church come back to life, growing and adding members, where the joy of revitalization and renewed community gradually gives way to preoccupation with vision of the Church as Bank, the Church as Corporate Committees, and the Church as Renovated Showplace, rather than a spiritual home for the beating heart of its members. Especially the quiet members, who aren’t wealthy or influential. The ones who struggle. The ones who sometimes have deep desperate need of a shepherd, even if it conflicts with a pastor’s vacation and the timing is inconvenient. I admire those who serve silently and in their own way, doing for others, not for recognition or “credit,” but because they believe they are God’s messengers of love on Earth and it is what they are called to do. Those are the truly faithful who have my respect, and the ones I try to emulate.

I stopped going to church every week after sitting in the pew one Sunday, waiting to go to the altar for communion, and a voice made itself heard like a bell in my bowed head, behind my closed eyes. It said, “I don’t belong here anymore.” Our church struggled for years. Membership was always small. The yearly winter oil bill was a hardship. Maintaining the sanctuary with its historic architectural integrity intact was expensive. My family worked hard to keep it going. As the congregation dwindled, there were battles for control that flared up, then subsided, but always simmered just below the boil. Stakes were high. Everyone felt their way was the best way to ensure our survival. Words were harsh and unguarded, words wounded, lectures were delivered, and I tired of being scolded for forgetting to do things, when I, one of the “youngsters” in our aging congregation, was working full-time, raising 3 busy children, barely keeping my head above the rising water. It was a relief to stop making the drive every Sunday morning. Not, however, a relief without guilt. I tried not to think about what my grandparents would think of my abandonment of my church family. Over time, it became apparent that we could no longer afford to sustain ourselves and the date was set for the final service.

CommunionMy father rightly decided to make it a celebration. He enlisted the help of musician friends and prepared solo pieces to play on the 1930 Mason & Hamlin piano, whose purchase and refurbishment he had arranged for the church years before. He determined that St. John’s would “go out with a bang” and not fade away with a whimper or drown in a sea of maudlin sentiment; that our church’s reputation of helping others would be the focus of this painfully joyful day. My brother, an ordained Lutheran minister, asked to be allowed to preach the final service. My father asked my sisters, my brother and I which hymns we would like to sing and we chose our favorites. The big iron bell was rung to begin the service. It is the bell I used to help my grandfather ring. He’d pull down the fat rope with the gigantic knot at the end, and then let us hang on to it as it pulled us up off our feet into the air. We rang that bell with him the day the Vietnam War ended. He rang it the day World War II ended. The congregation rose as the clergy procession made its way down the aisle and to the altar, the brass processional cross, given by my parents in memory of my grandfather, leading the way. My father played the hymns sure and strong, the way he always plays them, and it was wonderful and fitting to hear so many voices singing the beloved old words.

“But lo! there breaks a yet more glorious day:
The saints triumphant rise in bright array;
The King of glory passes on his way.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast,
Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
Singing to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost:
Alleluia! Alleluia!”

My vibrant colorful family filled two pews. The music my father played rolled over me and through me, and I sat side by side with my mother, with my husband, with my now-grown children and their partners. I sat there in our pew in that little brick country church for the last time with my sister and her wife, my other sister, her husband, and her two little Ethiopian daughters, with my brother guiding our prayers, with my two best friends, one a gay atheist designer, one a deeply faithful black woman with a heart as beautiful as her face. And gathered around us, I know, were the souls of Grandma and Grandpa, of Aunt Mamie, Aunt Minerva, Aunt Mary and Uncle Clarence, and of Uncle Grant. I wish I could say I resolved all my doubts and questions about God and faith in this last journey, but I didn’t. I may never have answers. I may never attend another church. But in those last moments, in the tolling of the old bell, in the singing of the last hymn, surrounded and sustained by the love of my family, even in my grief, perhaps there was the whisper I’ve been waiting so long to hear. I think I’ve been hearing it all along.

FullSizeRender

Big Weather

I’m washing dishes in the kitchen in July, and sweating. Brahms’ 3rd Symphony is in the speakers, and while a nice distraction, I pause to wipe the drop of sweat off my eyebrow with the back of my arm, and my mind isn’t on the music. My thick humid days roll on and over to close damp nights and the sun struggles to push up into the sky again in the morning, and it’s been a week now. The sky is hazy and flat and the white glare of the light outside the window dulls my eyes and my thoughts. I can feel the ice pick jab of a migraine taunting me in my left temple, the sharp ache behind my left eye reminding me that I am definitely not in charge here, and warning me more surely than the special weather bulletin that something’s coming. Just not soon enough.

I long for some big weather right now. No slow rains. No gentle breezes, or bright sunny days like saturated molten gold. I want ominous clouds gathering on the horizon. Huge nimbus ships, boiling and blowing and rolling in on themselves, towering higher, getting grayer, bluer, then blacker, then greener with the coming storm. I want the hair on my arms to stand straight up with the electricity in the air. I look back out the window and I wait. Another drop of sweat runs down the side of my face. My hair is damp and separated on my neck.

The air and the light begins to change. There is now brilliant sun dazzling the green leaves of the trees across the street. Shimmering shifting emeralds when the wind begins to blow.  The sky is pale washed blue behind the trees, then slowly morphs to charcoal black, but the sun is still shining on those glorious leaves. The best light in the world. Fleeting. Then dimmed. Then gone. The wind picks up and a breath blows through the screen onto my face. The maple leaves turn their silver backs to the sky, inviting the rain that is now surely coming, and the wind makes them dance and twist on their stems. The deadest of the branches begin to fall down onto the grass, and that glorious sky goes darker still. The street lights flicker on in the middle of the afternoon. Now there’s a yellowish tinge to the light, giving the air a weird sepia tint. A sinister daguerreotype of a day with deep dark smudges at the horizon and the fabric of the sky cracking apart at the edges. The air is a cascade of booming and rumbling, rolling in in an incremental but surefooted scale. I plunge my hands through the hot soapy water and lay them on the bottom of the steel sink. I think I can feel it vibrating up my arms. It’s building.

I have to be outside on the porch for this, to feel the wind through my hot damp hair and on my neck, and hear the splintering of the dead branches snapping off and falling out of the old damaged trees around my house. I step outside, but the wind wants me in, and pushes the door back on me, and I have to muscle it open. I won’t miss this. On my street, people on bikes pedal by furiously, heads down, anxious to get home and safe from the storm before it lets loose. Using newspapers and book bags to cover their heads, some run by. And now the sky is heavy black and the wind is deep and wild. The rain begins, drops at a time, and the hot pavement smells metallic. Faster, gusting, soon it falls in sheets, driving into the gasping ground, and some of the spray blows on me, sheltered on the porch. The storm drains are overwhelmed and the hot street steams as walls of water wash over it. The air is thick with the smells of dark soil and ozone and earthworms caught by surprise, at once wet, evil, and fresh. And then, a ripping crack and a brilliant flash and an explosion louder than anything I’ve heard before. It shakes the windows and the storm door, aptly named, but a feeble joke against this. It shoves me backwards against the walls of the porch into a sudden violent blank separation from myself that seems to last for minutes, whether from the charge of the lightning or the visceral jerking shock of the sound.

Brahms and all sound is gone in a primordial silence. The lights are out. I gather my shaking self back in and back together. I look at the window that is incredibly still whole. And in the space of that keen infant quiet, the roaring congestion is purged, gone in a blazing moment, along with the huge old tulip tree that stood across the street. The shredded stump, 3 feet across, blown apart by a holy bomb, is all that is left. The grassy lawn is littered with missiles of wood, driven into the ground, hundreds of feet away from the center of the blast. The rain falls steadily, and as if the absolute destruction of this old tree was what it came to do, the storm now reluctantly retreats, the thunder grumbling and complaining into the distance, and finally away. The rain slows to a stop. Now people come out one at a time to see if it’s safe, to marvel at the destruction, to laugh with relief, control regained, and take pictures. They pose their children on the fallen giant like a sad pathetic conquest. They reclaim their fragile possession.  Me, I am sorry that it’s over. And I send this sacrificial tree a prayer of thanks for that brief violent slap with all my senses on fire. And this peaceful denouement is a poor faded substitute for feeling so alive for those few exquisite moments.

photo

The Unfriending

I’ve been unfriended. Not in an offhand virtual click of a button way, the result of a web-based housecleaning that goes unnoticed for weeks, but in a bloody cut it out with a knife never speak to me again unfriending. Oh, I brought it on, I fully admit that, and I deserved his anger at the moment of that badly misdirected text. Maybe I deserved the Fuck You texted back to me with exclamation points attached, but I’m not convinced of that, even knowing and feeling every bit of my guilt. Those two words, the most concise and undeniable expression of utter rage and cutting dismissal, never came my way from anyone until they came from him. I shared a confidence with other friends, which I so regret, and I apologized, but the demanded and offered apology went unacknowledged. This was a friendship that lived in my heart for three years. Three years of laughter and confiding conversations, of taking his side and hugs, wicked fun and love yous. And in one nauseating evening it was all undone and forgiveness has never come my way and I never got to say goodbye. My friend didn’t see my tears, my remorse, my pain, my anger. And giving that knife a good hard twist, three days later the reason for his rage was moot. Casually nullified when the relationship with his partner, that was on the rocks, was repaired over a shared lunch of crêpes, and they were back together again. Apparently, there is no similar reconciliation for us. And now it has been months.

photo 2I love my friends, and I love my family. And my good friends become my family. My family is big and loud and loving and we’re in each other’s business, and we talk about problems and they go away, and sometimes we ignore problems, and they go away. And if they don’t go away, we learn to live with them. We have a sensible Lutheran approach to life and its complicated relationships. We eschew drama, and we move forward, always forward, with practicality, forgiveness, and laughter. And wine and coffee. And sometimes cake. And Jell-O with Cool Whip. And the natural extension of that love is that I tend to expect my friends to then behave like my family as well. Which probably isn’t fair. When they don’t, it feels like a betrayal of the trust that I’ve invested in them. Trust that we will just go on forever and even though, yes, things change, that “thing” that is our friendship, that nugget of pure truth at the heart of it, will not. And usually that’s right. Until it’s wrong.

I try to be a strong and caring friend. I’m a good listener, and I like to listen. I think I have an open heart. I try to be forgiving. I like people and I like to really know them, the deep inside them, and I like to laugh. Sometimes, when meeting someone, I feel a zing, a physical pull, a need to get to know that person. I trust that gut instinct, and it has served me well. One of my best, deepest, most honest friendships is the result of paying attention to that cosmic pinprick and reaching out, revealing pieces of myself unasked like an offering. The reward, when the reaching out is met halfway or less than halfway with a warm hand or a warmer hug, with a flow of easy or difficult but trusting confidences, laughter, flowing hours or even days of talk, and serendipitous connections noted and collected, ties strengthened – there’s nothing else like it. That’s a deep and precious bond that I protect and won’t easily or willingly discard. I don’t understand how others can throw that away, and do it with such finality.

photo 4I’m a pleaser by nature. A near-pathological avoidance of confrontation has been the hallmark of my life. I’ve swallowed my own wants and needs on a regular basis, overlooking conflict so there are no waves and it makes a smooth way for others. It has taken me 53 years to start to see that while easier in the short run, this isn’t necessarily the best way to navigate through life. I’ve begun to pay more attention to my own voice, and to speak up when I have to, but I don’t yet wear it comfortably or unconsciously, and it takes thought and effort for me to stand firm for myself. Often it’s accomplished with a heart thudding with anxiety. Conflict with a friend doesn’t come easy to me, nor is it easy for me to live with. I lost weeks of sleep over the unfriending. I deleted the texts from my phone so I wouldn’t see them, obsessively reread them, and make myself sick with those hard tight knots of sad regret. And I’m left to wonder if we were real friends after all, because I seem to have been easy to throw away. Was the friendship I treasured really just a casual way to spend some time, to have some laughs, to have someone to drink with? Was I wrong about the depth and timbre of what we shared? And in my new consciousness, this standing firm in myself and valuing my own voice, I have to conclude that yes, I think I was wrong about it. Rarely has that trusting connection been thrown back at me, and never so violently or decisively. I think it was a masquerade of friendship, and while happy to be there for the party of the good stuff – the laughs, the sympathetic shoulder – when the road got rocky, a mistake made, and angry words exchanged, he packed up his bags of fun and left, slamming the door after him. And that part – the slamming? – that’s easy. The hard part is then turning around, knocking on that door, coming back through, and navigating a new repaired path through the minefield of hurt and anger. I mull it over again and again and wonder what I should do, and worry my part in the drama like a dog with a greasy bone, obsessively chewing on my guilt.

I watch a nest of baby flickers tended tirelessly by their mother, doing what she knows she has to do. One day, she flies back and forth between the dead dry maple, and the hole in the tree next to it where her babies sleep and grow in the nest she built, waiting for her, demanding food. On this day, however, she doesn’t have anything for them. It’s time for them to come out of the nest, to fly and find their own food. How she knows that this is the day, the right day for this passage is miraculous and beautiful. One by one, the three little fledglings stick their heads out, mouths wide open, but instead of breakfast find fluttering calling encouragement. The boldest puts a foot on the edge of the nest, wobbles a little, retreats, and then suddenly struggles out and Flickrsclumsily flaps and flies to the little tree beside our porch, a struggling mess of feathers and blinking black eyes. The nest gets quiet, and now two heads look out and continue to call while the mother repeats the dance. Half a day later, the second baby flutters out of the nest with the sudden gathered nerve of a child stepping off the high dive at the pool, pinching her nose tightly with her thumb and forefinger and plummeting into the water. There is one baby left. And she doesn’t leave. She stays in the nest, calling, calling, and calling. Mama flies back and forth, agitated and encouraging. Starlings, anxious to move in to investigate get  chased away, but they are becoming persistent and raucous, perhaps sensing a weakness and looking to do harm. They squabble shrilly with each other as the day ends and the little one is still in the nest, calling. And the mother is gone. Tough love for a tough world.

The next morning, I take my coffee and my sleepy eyes to the porch to see how they’re doing. The baby is still there, head looking out, calling to mama. Nothing. The starlings become bolder, trying to get into the nest. I go through my day with the windows open, hearing this shrill persistent baby. At first frequently and loudly, then less and less, but not giving up. She is hoping she’ll be noticed in her distress, and that rescue will come with a nice fat bug, and she’ll be able to go on as before, and this push to grow up will just have been a momentary confusion. It’s so far down to the ground and to fail and fall would be devastating. I watch and send a thought to that dark little hole in the tree, “Leave your nest little one. Risk it. If you don’t, you die.”  And finally, just before evening, she’s out of the nest and in our Japanese Maple, struggling to cling to the smooth bark, sliding and slipping, but doing it, and doing it on her own. Pushed out of the nest to a new life by a force she doesn’t understand, but she knows she must, and now she accepts it. Fly or die. Friendships die too, and one heart calling out over and over does not make a friendship. Watching this determined little bird, I finally make my peace with myself, in its own way miraculous and beautiful, and somehow I know that this is the day to fly, and leave the regret and the guilt behind me. I will fly away, however clumsily, because I must, and leave the dark empty nest to the quarreling starlings.