A Summer Sunday Morning

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I love the light of a Summer morning, remarkable through the greens and yellows of the trees. And the sounds, different on a Sunday. While not visible from here, the noise from I-95  is constant at this hour, just a hum from a stream of mostly cars with rare moments of quiet when no one seems to be passing. So much anonymous humanity passing.  Going or leaving home? So many imagined stories vibrating through the trees.

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A cool breeze blows and for a moment, feels almost Autumnal. As if on cue, a Mourning Dove coos – a sing-song call of melancholy as Summer days disappear, the sun shifting closer towards the opposite end of earth. I used to feel desperate when the warmth and light began this slip away but have grown to appreciate the change. I don’t like being cold and prefer the light to dark – but savor the warmth of my home, the fireplace and longer hours to read and reflect. There’s something about the warmer months that makes me feel like I must DO. And I like DOing nothing quite a bit. Well, not exactly nothing – but sedentary things like reading and writing. Winter is good for that.

Summer is a time to get things done outside and we’ve been productive around here recently. Four trips to the dump last weekend, taking away piles of rotting wood and leaves that sat in corners of our yard for too long. It’s been dry, so there’s always watering to be done – a task I enjoy. And my Zinnias are lovely.

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From where I sit now, I look past cluttered table (remember – it’s a good time for outside tasks!) to 3 windows. To my left I look out at a new Hydrangea planted last weekend. Straight ahead, onto our little porch and the laundry line. A perfect day for drying clothes in the sun – the air dry and fresh. I’ll get a load in soon. We’re just high enough to catch a breeze and so many trees surround us that we have our own little microclimate a few degrees cooler than anywhere else in the neighborhood. To the right, out the living room window I see a branch of the Butterfly bush that could use a good session of deadheading and through the canopy of leaves, a patch of still Summer sky.

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About Sorry

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“I’m sorry” Molly said as the LOWES cashier flipped the large box she’d just plopped down at the register, UPC code facing down. Only moments earlier my daughter said sorry to a guy in Appliances when they almost bumped into each other. He was coming at her as fast as she was him so no ‘fault’ was involved. Molly’s not a pushover, just polite. But hearing her say ‘sorry’ twice within 5 minutes set off an alarm bell in my head so I said, to her “Please don’t be a woman who apologizes for everything.” The cashier, a young woman about Molly’s age, piped in that she also says sorry too much. We laughed and joked how of course men don’t do this, not like we do.

According to this study  “…it’s not that men are reluctant to admit wrongdoing, the study shows. It’s just that they have a higher threshold for what they think warrants reparation.”

Eh. I don’t know about that. I think it’s deeper and not about ‘thresholds’ and reparations, more like a reflex. Where the hell does this come from? Why are we ‘sorry’? If anything, us gals have some apologies due us for a litany of insults and injustices, don’t you think? (Donald??)

In a fantastic, funny-but-true Amy Schumer skit of a few months ago, a panel of extraordinarily accomplished women apologize non-stop. (Watch _’Inside Amy Schumer’_ I’m Sorry_ at New York Magazine) In June there was this piece on the Opinion Pages of the New York Times. Do a search of “Women apologizing” and you’ll turn up plenty more.

I’ve been paying attention to when I’m apt to say ‘sorry’ and to whether I am indeed sorry. I’m afraid I often use it passive aggressively. ‘Sorry, but I just can’t…’ while flouncing around and washing dishes someone else’s dishes. That sort of not very nice thing. (I can be such a bitch)

As Sloane Croasley wrote in the New York Times piece linked above, “It’s not what we’re saying that’s the problem, it’s what we’re not saying. The sorrys are taking up airtime that should be used for making logical, declarative statements, expressing opinions and relaying accurate impressions of what we want.”

But what about when we actually want to ask someone’s forgiveness?

When we fuck up, there’s a right way and a wrong way to apologize. And I’m not talking about putting the box down so the UPC is hard to reach or because we are about to collide with someone or because we need to complain about service or our food or someone else’s mistake. I mean when we’ve been unkind, rude or said something we shouldn’t. When we’ve done wrong.

When apologizing for real, don’t say sorry and then try and expand and explain ABC because of XYZ (i.e. the Brian Williams apology) That doesn’t count. Sorry-not-sorry sucks. Rather than owning lousy behavior this says: I’m really right.

Of course there’s not guarantee we’ll be forgiven but just asking for it can make us feel better as long as we do it sincerely. For me, this requires letting go of my righteousness, stepping into the shoes of the person I’ve hurt. From this place, it’s easier to move on from the anger of conflict to peace. Hopefully, (if you have a sweet child like I do) the aggrieved can do the same. Molly had to call me on my XYZing a few times (you know us Mothers are always right) before I realized how lame an apology I was delivering. It doesn’t work.

And sometimes, the best apology and most beautiful flowers in the world won’t work either. Just because someone asks us to forgive them does not mean that we must. Anyone who has lived with a drug or alcohol abuser knows the hollowness of a too often repeated apology. Proof is sometimes the only way towards healing and forgiveness. Sorry.

How many times a day do you say sorry?

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If You Know What’s Good For You…

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I get up at 5:30 on weekdays and about 7:00 on weekends. I’ve been doing this for the past few years so I can write for about an hour before taking care of required life business. Too often, instead of writing I do the following:

  • Water the garden
  • Pick blueberries from the yard (okay, this is lovely, right?)
  • Check emails – mostly from Talbots, Lord & Taylor, J. Jill, Real Beauty (??) – I never shop at any of these places
  • Look at Facebook posts
  • Read other people’s blog posts
  • Clean the kitchen
  • Grocery shop before the weekend hordes descend
  • Read the newspaper
  • Cook
  • Laundry

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Yes, a few of these are necessary, constructive and nourishing things to do. But this is supposed to be my writing time. Why don’t I honor that? Why am I distracted by nonsense?

If I write at the very beginning of the day, I get to walk around all day with a happy secret practically humming inside of me. It’s beautiful. I can physically locate that good feeling right below my ribs. Yes, as I sit here I feel like I’m charging my Solar Plexus – like I’ve got a little Sun in there glowing brighter as I put words to page.

Only in writing this today did I realize the physicality of what happens to me when I write, that I can actually locate a place in my body (besides my stiff shoulders) where I feel this. Of course I had to step away for a minute for a little (distraction??) online research and found this on balancechakra.com:

Solar Plexus Chakra – Manipura

The Solar Plexus Chakra is a center of personal strength, learning and comprehension. It guides you through life by creating a strong sense of self, setting personal boundaries and building self esteem and willpower. The ability to bring change into your life and to the world is born within this Chakra.

No wonder starting the day by writing feels good! I’m feeling my Solar Plexus, baby!

So why do I procrastinate rather than head directly to a beautiful accessible place? Do I need to look at those pictures of Amal and George Clooney instead? Really?

Yes, I do shit like that. Do you?

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Beside the Ohio River: A Kentucky Retreat

 

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The stillness of the water, steady as socks around the tree trunks is deceptive. Simmering through the leaves, the sun makes a green sauna of where I stand searching the water for a hint of lapping tide against the sloping banks.  Stepping carefully across the slippery mud, I dodge the poison ivy thriving even in these flood waters. Swollen by this summer’s rains, the Ohio River looks benign from where I stand. But 20 feet out, huge logs and unidentifiable debris speed by, the only indication that this is no lake. The current is treacherous enough to swallow the strongest swimmer. In fact, in recent days entire homes have been washed away by these waters.

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A massive engine rumble and I know before I see, a loaded barge passing – long, flat beds piled high with construction materials. This one dirt, the next, huge cement blocks. A tugboat at the end, merrily pushing the load. It stirs my heart, this timeless glimpse of industry and I watch it pass like a parade.

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I love a river – the stories they carry, the sense of coming and going, both a force of life and destruction. Growing up, the Hudson was my river. I sent my adolescent angst against the tides of immigrant history, imagining relief and romance with the promise of the ocean and a world beyond my Bronx Streets. The Ohio is a different beast – an American river connecting and sustaining working communities. I stand in Kentucky looking across at Ohio. West Virginia, Indiana, meeting the Mississippi in Illinois leading through – not just an exit and entry – as much a life-line as an artery.

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Up at the house are friends who also traveled here from other states. But this river holds our history from decades ago. We studied with a sculptor here in Kentucky, sharing art and our lives. When we can, the women of our group, (we christened ourselves Studio 70 Sisters) meet in summer for what we call, our retreat. We began these gatherings more than 5 years ago when our kids were old enough that leaving them for a week inspired minimal guilt. We reconnect with the ease of family, sharing wine and food, delighting in catching up on each other’s lives.

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By the second day, a spot is sussed out, easels set up, paints and pastels arranged and a magical quiet descends. These gatherings are not just for gabbing – there is work to be done! Like alchemy, there is a sweet understanding and common language creating best circumstances for creative working, thinking, being. Quiet, of course and a sensitivity to space that is remarkable and rare. Any of us can peek into a room and quickly sense whether someone wants to be left alone.

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This year we are at Paula’s – a stunning spread of fields bordered by river and railroad tracks. At night, the rattle of trains rush by, so close to this grand old farmhouse that our beds shake. Like barges on the river, I find this romantic and easily go back to sleep imagining the lives whooshing past this dear spot. I feel simultaneously a sense of being in the center of things and in the middle of nowhere.

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It is good to be back here after so many years even in this sweltering humidity. The barge has passed and the rumble fades as the load heads towards Cincinnati. Within minutes, a lone Tug chugs into view heading in the opposite direction, relieved of its load, it is pushing easily upriver. I think of us gals – especially with kids, how we forded our way through the currents of our lives, keeping precious cargo steady on course for the more than twenty years until we could (almost) let go. And here we are again. As I watch the tug chug back from where it came, unencumbered and light, I navigate my way carefully up the muddy banks for dinner with my friends.

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I Went Nowhere

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I’ve been on vacation this week and spent it getting reacquainted with my old friend, solitude. After making breakfast and packing lunches and smoothies for my loved ones, I sent them off with a kiss to their jobs and my pup and I stayed home.

I love my gal and my guy but I cherish solitude. I love my job requiring me to talk to people but going a whole day without speaking to a soul is bliss. I’m overdue for visits with many beloved friends but I made no plans for lunch or coffee. This week, I indulged my neglected introvert.

Just for fun I took one of those goofy online tests to see whether I am an introvert or extrovert. I’m both. I love meeting new people, talk easily and with pleasure with anyone — but my need for solitude is important enough for me to get out of bed ridiculously early so I have some time alone. I’m grateful my loved ones are big sleepers more inclined to stay in bed till noon than worry about getting any worms. Mornings belong to Tetley and me and even he usually goes back for a nap after his quick morning outing.

During this week’s abundance of alone time, I did experience some pangs. I remembered the other side of the coin: the loneliness of being alone. It’s a fine line. In my pre-family past, when I lived alone, I often felt an ache of longing – to have someone in my life, wanting love, to be wanted, needed. Rarely did I own up to this, sure it was a sign of weakness, of being a loser, of not fitting my self-image – or at least the one I hoped to cultivate. I’d take lovers anyone else could spot would not be right for me, sure they’d fill the spot I’d reserved. With varying degrees of drama, these affairs crashed and burned. I marveled at my mated friends – envied their sense of being a unit even when they squabbled. Okay, then maybe not so much – I know how lonely it can be even when someone is sleeping next to you.

I used to hate the feeling of loneliness. Now I recognize the pangs of desolation as first steps on the road to where I like to be, as a sign I’m going in the right direction on the way to get somewhere interesting. It may be tough to climb the mountain, but how great the view is. I understand better how to dive into this place of alone.

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Being good at solitude is a little like a muscle and if you don’t use it, you lose it. For me, it’s the same group of muscles I use to create. My best work grows from a quiet place deep within me – a whole different terrain than the day to day business of being in the world, going to my job, being an extrovert. Like all of my muscles, I want to keep this one limber, the one that gets me to a quiet place where I can best hear what’s really going on.

It was a good week. I went nowhere.

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A Tale of Two Chairs on a Thursday

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My dental hygienist alerted me to erosion in my one remaining upper wisdom tooth, way back where I could barely fit my toothbrush. Ever since, I regularly squirmed my tongue around it to feel the roughness, the beginnings of a cavity sure to cause me pain sooner of later. If I there’s pain ahead, I try and dodge it. Wouldn’t you? Out with the tooth, I decided.

My willingness to get a tooth yanked was based on previous experience. My left top one was removed a few years ago with little fanfare thanks to nitrous oxide. I recalled the experience as almost fun, me acting like a bad drunk, cracking stupid jokes through a mouthful of gauze. This time I was determined to keep silent and enjoy the other worldly experience of laughing gas without the follow-up embarrassment.

Calling me ‘honey’, the lovely assistant who was young enough to be my kid, held my hand as the oral surgeon shot me with novocaine, a little nose mask of gas blissfully distracting me from the needle as it pierced the roof of my mouth. After a dreamy pause while the numbing took effect, they both returned and after a snap! snap! snap! of rubber gloves, the surgeon came down towards me humming only a few notes of a tune I vaguely recognized. Usually I keep my eyes tightly shut while in a dentist chair, not wanting to see drills, needles or blood – and mostly I did today too – but for some reason, I peeked and caught a blur of two sets of hands – a tug and then a shadow as a tongs passed my tooth to lovely assistant. Next a push of gauze to staunch bleeding and a few more tugs of stitching. In and out and delivered in less than 30 minutes, to Molly, my chauffeur for the day. As pleasant as something like that can be.

I kicked myself a little when I went to pay the bill and discovered everything but the laughing gas was covered by my insurance.  I’d dropped $150 on a quick high to make the yank a little more bearable when really, the numbing would have done the job fine. What a wimp.

“Let’s go for a pedicure.” I suggested, thinking I deserved some pampering after my mini-non-ordeal and knowing Molly would appreciate the perk. Perhaps, as I suspect my daughter imagined, I was still high. I almost never venture into any of these ubiquitous salons. I can’t bear to have my fingernails scraped and filed nor the suffocating feeling of the polish on my fingers. Toenails are another matter and recently, looking down at my bare feet in a public place, I noticed they could use a little grooming.  We flip-flopped our way into a nail salon.

I chose red polish and sat down in one of the chairs and immediately remembered this disturbing expose in the New York Times in May. “Paul” and “Jane” greeted us and went to work. Did they, like the people profiled in Sarah Maslin Nir’s article, live in overcrowded rooms in Queens? Were they also woefully underpaid? Maybe abused? (read that fine article, please) What the hell was I doing sitting here being pummeled by an electronic massage chair with my feet in a plastic bin? In that tiny salon, at least 30 people were bent over hands and feet – mostly Chinese with a few Latina women (even more underpaid if the article holds true for this shop) cleaning up and offering massages. I hated it.  And I really hate emory boards – the sound, sight and especially feel of one being sawed across my toes made me wish I’d had a dose of novocain beforehand.

I overtipped and hurried out, the tissue still twirled between my crimson toes. This had not felt like pampering to me. I found it hard relaxing when… when – what? When paying someone to mess with my feet? Yes, having someone I cannot converse with, whose story I cannot know but only imagine as including dreams unlikely to be achieved by hunkering over my feet. Knowing they’re probably getting paid shit, makes me uncomfortable. I feel like I’m participating in something unjust. I am.

So my toes look great, my rotting tooth is gone and I barely felt a thing.

 

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Aging with Vinegar & Honey

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What does it say about me that I love the ornery, razor tongued Olive Kitteridge? I loved her in Elizabeth Strout’s engaging book by the same title and I love her as played by the superb Frances McDormand in the HBO series. Olive, lives in a gorgeous, small seaside town in Maine. The rocky, rough setting is the perfect backdrop for Olive who is kind of awful. No, wait: she’s really awful. She’s mean to her sweet husband, to her kid, to everybody. But I love her even as she makes me flinch. I don’t really know what to say about that except maybe she reminds me a tad of me — were I not to self-censure. And she definitely reminds me of how my own mother could be.

The other day ran into someone who worked with my mother in the real estate business more than 30 years ago. She said, “Cathy was a nice woman.” this former colleague said. I responded incredulously, “Really?” And she answered, “Well, you know…”

Don’t get me wrong, the woman clearly appreciated Cathy, probably got a kick out of her since she was smart as a whip, had integrity and wit and I know for a fact, shared the same leftist social consciousness as this former colleague. But nice? Not an adjective I would use to describe my mother. Nor myself.

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But, I’m trying. I’ve learned to curb my tongue in order to keep jobs, avoid fisticuffs in the subway, road rage incidents on the highway and just because – life is better without meanness. Our’s is not a home of fights – we are mostly kind to each other and when we’re not, we call each other out on it and quickly make amends. I am proud of how kind and empathetic my daughter is and she always help keep my nasty, devil-side in check. And frankly, it’s just easier to go to sleep at night without the guilt and regret of some verbal dagger thoughtlessly delivered during the day.

Olive has a soft spot for the broken ones – the drug addicted mother and her son. And she grows, eventually recognizing – at least within herself, the mistakes she’s made, the time she’s squandered. And in the end, she learns to love a little better (though still in her prickly Olive way). Now that’s inspiring. As we age, it seems we just become more of what we are. Late-life transformations, even slight, are rare. So there’s the challenge to pay attention to who we are now, decide if that’s who we want to be, and if not — get on with the work of changing.

Have you read Olive Kitteridge or watched the HBO series? Do you hate or love her?

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Shared Notes of Love in the Public Schools

 

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Molly and I pulled into a mostly empty lot at her old middle school 15 minutes before the start of a retirement send-off of her former Strings teacher. After 42 years of teaching, Barbara is hanging up her baton. I suggested to Molly we walk because it might be hard to park, imagining the lot overflowing as it often does when there are special events at the school. A little dismayed, I reminded myself Barbara was an orchestra teacher not a football coach. The arts in this struggling city get short shrift unlike the nearby wealthier and homogenous suburbs where near-infants are enrolled in Suzuki school.

Norwalk is more of a sports town. The soccer team is great, usually composed of children of newer immigrants from places where soccer is the real football.  The football team isn’t too bad either and the heavily supported band performing at all the football games always wins awards. Strings are trickier. Unable to march in the parade on Memorial Day with no pretty girls in leotards twirling flags and wooden guns over their heads, Classical music – orchestras have less mass appeal. After all, there’s no spectacle! You must sit and listen – quietly – no hotdog eating, no cheering.

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Barbara ignited a love of music in countless children in our urban community, including Molly who joined the elementary school’s orchestra program in third grade. Like many an arts teacher in struggling urban communities, Barbara juggled the elementary school strings program along with the middle school – traveling from school to school because the budget didn’t allow for a teacher in each.

On Stage

I needn’t have worried about a turnout at Barbara’s send-off. In no time at all, the stage filled with former students — kids sitting next to adults — some in their early 50s themselves — hard to believe when you look at their ageless mentor. Generations of students – some now teachers themselves – with cellos, violas, violins – even two bass players showed up, hauling their gigantic instruments like old friends.

I confess, I dreaded, especially in the early days, Molly’s school concerts – screechy selections of cheesy music grinding on for hours, but over the years, they got better and yesterday, I grinned through the whole jolly celebration of love. Love of music, of the shared bonds of the orchestra, of the woman who stood before them as quick with a hug and a stellar smile as with a stern word for her players to pay attention punctuated with appropriate baton tapping.

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I sat right up front (more were on stage than in the audience) so I could watch my girl – who sings (like an angel) now but hasn’t picked up her violin in ages. Here she was again, paired like the old days with her dear friend Darius who I have watched grow up into a lovely man. How easily they slid into an easy rapport, sharing smiles and wise cracks behind their music stand. A lovely throwback to a sweet time not so long past but now, perhaps gone forever. United for last songs, with generations of one woman’s students, making gloriously, imperfect music together.

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Clearing the Way

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We’ve been busy in our garden. Molly helped me yank the fence out, pulling and tearing at the wire gauge buried in the earth for more than a decade. For a few years, it actually worked – keeping critters away from lettuce, broccoli, tomatoes. Eventually a greedy groundhog boldly moved in, digging his doorway smack into the middle of my sunny patch. He spared my leeks, asparagus and an unruly horseradish plant neither of us were much interested in eating – but that’s it. For the past few years, I’ve abandoned the space to him, letting the patch grow wild with mint, weeds and the odd volunteer Maple tree.

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Taking down the fence entailed cutting away insidious vines woven through the links dense as a basket. Molly attacked the job ferociously, snipping away at metal and yanking the hairy roots out of the ground until triumphantly pulling the wire completely away from the earth. Our plan is to clear this sunny place so perfect for growing things and planting fruit trees. Peaches. We want to have our own peaches to pluck from the trees. And maybe an apple tree or two.

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For years, my stubborn determination to reclaim my vegetable garden, trying (organic) remedies to keep the old creature at bay, failed again and again. Despondent, I ignored this slice of precious acreage allowing ground cover and ivy to grow thick as branches. I can rarely resist a life metaphor when working in my garden and surely there are plenty here. No longer just surrendering to the bastard groundhog but letting go of the notion of what this plot of land should be and thinking more about what it can become. Clearing it away felt a Herculean job but was necessary to do – and how sweet to have my girl beside me in the task. I would not have managed as well alone — sometimes dreams become more accessible when shared.

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How much easier it will be to take care of this reclaimed space, how lovely it feels without the ugly and long-useless fence. And how delicious our own peaches will be — as long as that groundhog can’t climb trees.

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Sparks of Joy, Embers of Sadness

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo is a wildly popular little book that has been sitting on the bestseller list for a few weeks. It’s a bit wacky and wonderful, and somehow, incredibly motivating. Basically, the author suggests that you get rid of anything that does not spark joy in you. I confess, I’d read only a few chapters before launching full speed ahead into sorting out the joy from no-joy in my closet. Doing this with Winter clothing was easy — especially after this year’s grueling season. I was all too happy to give a heave-ho to my woolies and packed up 3 garbage bags.

Hidden in the behind my clothes was also something I’d been ignoring for 11 years – since my husband’s death. An oversized blue duffle bag full of papers documenting symptoms of his demise including collection letters, bank notices, recovery books and saddest of all, his return plane ticket to England for May 5, 2004.  He never got on that flight, instead, in the early hours of May 1st, he chose to end his life.

I’d held onto this bag of sadness for more than a decade. Why? To remind myself of what a lost cause our marriage had become? Proof I had done what I could? I don’t need that kind of reminder any more. As the years have passed, it’s gotten easier to remember the wonderful things about the father of my daughter, the man I’d once been wild about. The funny, warm, generous guy he was before addiction swallowed our marriage and eventually, him. Time has delivered healing, allowing me to better remember the laughter, adventure and love we shared. On a recent balmy night – too warm for a fire, I sat in front of the fireplace feeding the flames with sad history, sparks flying up the chimney into the night sky.

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