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.

fence pulled

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.

other side cleared

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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If You Can Read…

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The walk to Kingsbridge Library meant passing a ferocious dog. I dreaded that stretch of sidewalk. Running as fast as I could, heart pounding, I kept my eyes on the corner ahead, willing the dog not to leap from the second floor terrace from where he snarled. But on the day I went to sign up for my first library card, my heart beat with anticipation so I barely noticed the barking canine. The requirement was you needed to be able to write your name and after practicing like mad, I was ready to sign on the dotted line. I can still conjure that moment when I received the manila piece of cardboard, my name typed on it, a ticket to borrow books for free. The first and most precious document I’d ever signed up for and I was 5.  Through the library and reading I entered a world beyond any walls or city streets I knew.

A few years later we moved to our new neighborhood on Broadway across from VanCortlandt Park and Riverdale Library became my new destination. According to my memory, walking to either library took about half an hour but a quick Mapquest search of my old addresses indicates that they’re both less than 15 minutes on foot from where we lived, the distance greater because of the always heavy load of books I carried each way.

In elementary school, I tore through books about dogs and especially Collies, obsessed by Lad and the Sunnybank Collie series by Albert Payson Terhune. By 6th grade and through Junior High School, I haunted the Nature section particularly loving memoirs by naturalists and accounts and guides about surviving in nature. A country girl trapped in the city, I became a Euell Gibbons devotee, stalking mostly park dandelions and my favorite – fragrant Black Locust Blossoms delicious because of the sugar and batter they were fried in.

When adolescence hit, I discovered May Sarton and coveted a life like hers, observing nature, befriending the animals. Now, as an adult, I recognize a loneliness in her pronounced solitude and realize that probably resonated with me too. I read travel books and dreamed of living in Australia with all that weird wildlife. From a library in the Bronx I learned about tracking animals and when my parents bought a weekend house in the Berkshires, I wandered the forest searching mud and snow for prints and once, came upon a deer walking ahead of me on the quiet path – the ultimate prize for my solitary walks.

Reading was a common thread in my otherwise fractured family. Our faces were in books the way today’s kids are in their phones. The day my father moved out he told me he wanted to pursue his dream of writing, (not that he’d fallen in love with another woman) and that reading was his excuse for not writing. Within an hour of his reveal, he began packing his books, removing familiar titles I’d grown up with, leaving empty, dusty shelves.

My mother devoured The New Yorker, novels, and religiously, The New York Times. When she gave a sharp shake of her paper, I knew that meant she was about to read a passage that incensed or amused her, wanting to share her outrage or joy with me. If I also had a section of the paper, I’d do my best to snap my own pages to communicate my annoyance, on the ridiculous chance that she might understand my code and be quiet. I confess, now a mother myself, I do this — wanting to read something with my daughter who of course, also hates it but tells me so and I stop.

My sister and I are crazy about each other and in our weekly phone gabs, drill each other about our lives. What are you making for dinner tonight? (We wish we were at each other’s tables …) How’s work? What are you doing this weekend? And of course, what are you reading? Inevitably, we both have a few titles to recommend and so my daunting tower of books-to-be read grows.

Family Christmas presents are easy – we all love books. Kevin is an omnivorous reader with eclectic, far ranging interests. My other brother always has something specific and often obscure – a literary title or the latest guide to wild mushrooms.

When Molly was little, our Saturday morning of errands always included a stop at the Westport library – not our town but a far better endowed one than the one I live in with  a beautiful space and key: lots of parking.  We’d go through the shelves together, picking out picture books to add to the vast choice she already owned, for our nightly 5 books-a-bed reading. We lingered in the play area, her scouting out new friends over the wooden toy collection while I scanned the new book section. Did I tell you I work in a bookstore? My librarian friends who knew me from the store teased me about my ‘bus-man’s holiday’ – and of course, I knew them too. We’re like that, us book people, we just can’t get enough.

I cannot imagine my life without reading, without the crazy towers of books around me and it astounds me that not everyone shares this pleasure. During the years I gave tours at the United Nations, when I had groups of children, I always paused in front of the beautiful photo above, taken by former UN photographer and  dear friend John Isaac, to talk about literacy. I’d ask them, “What can you do if you can read?” The children piped up and I’d add “Cook!” (because I believe anyone can) and we’d go on endlessly with our list concluding, that if you can read, you can do ANYTHING.

IF YOU CAN READ YOU CAN DO ANYTHING! Sorry to yell but I just want to shout that from the rooftops.

PS: Conversely, if you can’t read… well, you’re screwed. Here’s some depressing information about the unnecessary illiteracy rate in the United States:  http://literacyprojectfoundation.org/community/statistics/ 

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Whatever I Want: Birthday Inspired Ruminations

My birthday was last week. I always try and celebrate by taking the day off work and doing whatever I feel like. But for dodging icy rain drops on the way to a morning yoga class and later, delicious dinner out, I stayed inside, sitting here, in the little room off of Molly’s bedroom, that in her absence, I claim as mine. I wrote, I read, I napped and spent way too much time reading Facebook posts and other people’s blogs. I made myself tea and took Tetley out when he wanted to go – although my handsome old guy is mostly content to sleep by my side. Bliss.

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Is this what I would do if by some miracle, I can, one day, I can not work – you know: retire? Maybe. But I’ve also been thinking a lot about traveling. Not the 10-day visits to 15 places kind of travel. More of the life-changing, where else might I live kind of travel. Partly this is financial – there are so many other places that cost so much less than here. It’s crazy how much money we need to even live ‘simply’. The car no sooner is paid off and it needs big repairs. The house always needs fixing or just requires constant ‘juice’ and electricity, oil, water bills are daunting, especially during these long, frigid winters. Add to that the cost of being hooked-up to society – telephone, internet, television. I have a good life but lived fairly close the bone and without a solid job, I would not be able to sustain all this for long.

Now that my daughter edges closer to independence – meaning half-way through college, I have started to imagine what I might, like on my birthday, want to do every day. Having a kid means turning that spot of what “I want to do” over to what you need to do for your kid. I did so willingly, wanting nothing more than to make her my joyful priority. But the deal is, the kid grows up and goes out into the world and figure all this stuff out themselves. Mine will be ready soon, I’ve no doubt. So time for me to re-evaluate, to ask the question I haven’t seriously considered for 20 years: what do I want?

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Happy mom-me in Dubrovnik 1995.

When I was the age my daughter is now, all I thought I wanted to do was travel, to see the world, live other places and so, I did some of that. After hopping on a Freddie Laker special ($100? something crazy like that!) I traveled through Europe for 4 months – from Ireland as far as Greece. I think I had barely $1,000 with me – all in traveler’s checks. I wrote letters and if anyone wanted to write to me, they did so c/o American Express. I think I picked up a letter or 2 in Athens. I never called. Can you imagine? No email never mind Facebook or messaging! I remember many adventures, wonderful connections – and an almost constant ache of loneliness. First of all, I’d made the mistake of falling hard for Gerry Clancy who I met in a pub in Limerick on the first day of my trip – and after an extraordinarily romantic interlude with him, continued on. I might have stayed were he not still spinning from a recent breakup. That story deserves to be told on it’s own another time, but for now, let’s just say, I spent many Europass miles for the rest of the trip, pining. And lonely. Would have things been different if I’d been able to connect through cyber space with family, friends, lover(s)? Absolutely!

Kyoto, 1985? Me and my Honda Cub - I felt so cool and looked so dorky!

Kyoto in 1985? Me and my Honda Cub. I felt so cool – looked so dorky!

While I look back and marvel at the richness of those days, the months of living an interior life out in the world, on my own. Really on my own with no loved ones ever really knowing where I was for long, what I was doing, hell – if I was alive – all of us just trusting in the universe. I think this set the foundation for the rest of my life – to believe I was okay in the world – anywhere.

But I do think the ability to reach out and connect and sustain relationships and share images, stories, joys, sorrows, and most of all – meals, while traveling, has changed the game, the experience, to one I would enjoy even more today. I love my solitude but I love connection. I like to have hours to myself to read, walk, contemplate – but I love company, sharing my experiences with like-souls, something not always so easy to find in a strange place.

Contemplating the Grand Canyon. One of the best trips of my life - drive-away car across country with Paula & Jane, 1981.

Contemplating the Grand Canyon. One of the best trips of my life – drive-away car across country with Paula & Jane, 1981.

I get inspiration from many traveler’s blogs – a few of them (like this and this one) are kids not so much older than my daughter so I follow them with a dual traveler interest and maternal concern. Some are young couples, some are a little older – a dreamy idea. Some have settled in one spot for awhile so are less traveler and more expat now, living for a time in a place – probably more my speed these days. But I devour their news, thrill at their adventures. And I start to imagine my own. These days, I’m thinking about Burma/Myanmar – a place that’s always appealed to me. Maybe they need English teachers? Or Cuba? Something about these places that seem locked in time appeal to me. (I’ll pass on North Korea, thank you, especially after reading this book.)

For now, I relish my life here, in almost-Spring Connecticut with a little room looking out at the oak, my dog beside me, my man in the next room both enjoying their sleep on this Sunday morning. Oh – and the New York Times delivered to my drive. I’m thinking about dinner – crockpot pulled out from a cupboard. So much stuff under there! Juicer, rice cookers, food processer, pots, pans, serving trays pulled out once a year. I’m still a long way from hitting the road. For now – I’ll dream, longingly gaze at friends photos of the cherry blossoms now in bloom in Kyoto, and check on the croci in my own garden, bravely torpedoing their way out of the frozen earth.

Posted in Seasonal Musings | Tagged , , , | 19 Comments

What Would You Say to the HONY Guy?

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Let’s say you were walking in Grand Central or relaxing on a bench in Central Park, and the guy from Humans of New York sauntered over and asked if he could take your photo? Would you agree?

In case you aren’t familiar with Brandon Stanton’s work here’s a link to his website or you can follow his HONY site on Facebook. These vignettes – a photo and a few sentences, capture a flash of someone’s life. Usually, people look straight at the camera and within minutes of meeting, tell this stranger intimate things, sometimes sharing secrets — and in doing so, expose themselves to the world. The results are moving, transformative or sometimes, like his kid and dog shots, simply delightful. They are snaps of life, a compelling, random smattering of who we are, what we do, what happens to us, us humans in New York, on this planet.

What would you say? Presuming you don’t say fuck off, I don’t want you to take my picture and it’s none of your B-I-bizness? How would you answer his query: What’s your biggest struggle? What was the happiest moment of your life? What was the saddest moment of your life? Could you answer these questions on the fly without wracking your brain? (I can’t) If you could, would you reach down into your heart and reveal to Brandon and the world, your deepest wishes, desires, regrets, dreams? Your pain or joy? Would you be honest like so many hundreds have been with him, with us?

I’m not sure. I surprise myself, for how can I blog and write memoir yet feel private?  In this unguarded cyber-space and in my memoir, I share intimate details of my life, past and present, the struggle of my marriage to my late husband, living with his addiction, after his suicide, I write about dashed and now, renewed hopes and dreams. I write to better understand myself. I am private in that I have no longing for fame, only for connection. It’s this feeling of connecting that is so moving in Brandon’s work, we feel it because he made it, he won that trust from his subjects. So why would I shy away from his camera and his question? Because I don’t know what I would say.

‘What would you say to HONY’ could be the new party question to replace ‘what do you want to have on your epitaph’. What sound-bite would I want to sum up my life for the world to see?

‘In spite of some terrible shit in my past, I’m joyfully ready for the next adventure and most of all, determined not to live in fear.’

That might work.

What would you say? Or would you (nicely) say fuck off?

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The Challenges and Pleasures of Paying Attention

10:00 AM Thawing! Yes, the end of winter is in sight. And sounds! Can you hear the birds’ new songs?

I have tried to avoid chiming in on winter complaints and not just because whining about the snow and cold has become such tedious conversation but because, I have been trying to embrace winter, to seize even the snowiest, most frigid day rather than hurry the passage of time. Is this a challenge for you? It is for me, no matter the season.

Today is Sunday and I already anticipate Monday with a falling heart. Back to work. Although I enjoy my job, I bemoan the end of time to myself – whole blissful days to make choices based more on desire than need, time to be at home. Similarly, by Wednesday, I think, “almost there – another weekend!” And thus goes the days, the weeks, the months… you get the idea.

This is not how I want my life to pass. I like my work, full of creativity, interactions with people who I feel kin spirit with, focusing mostly around books, books, books! Still, I can’t resist looking forward. I look forward to time to myself, I look forward to warm days, to spending time with those I love, to sitting on the porch, getting my hands dirty in the garden – yes, like all of us here in the Northeast: I look forward to Spring!

Yet I love to be really in the present, to live in the moment, relishing the time I have, keenly aware, we cannot know how much we get.

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I am looking out at the old Oak tree twisting, craggy branches almost touching the house. My window covered in clear plastic sheeting holds back the winds but allows the light to shimmer through onto the grey wall beside the writing desk I rescued from the street on a summer’s night many years ago.

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Sweet, isn’t it? Sometimes the radiator under the window bangs with the promise of a warmth that is never delivered. Luckily, this room is little more than a closet in size so I’m easily warmed by an electric heater and blankets around my shoulders and knees. Tetley sleeps on the futon folded beside me. Why would I hurry this moment?

Tet

Hunger distracts me. I begin to think about eating, and that becomes what I might cook and that may lead to what I need to buy. And there I am, drawn away from the ‘now’ by my growling stomach.

2:00 PM I’m back to this spot again after doing laundry, drinking coffee and eating a clementine. Consciously, I focus on bringing myself back from distractions back to this NOW. The light’s changed a little since I left the room, clouds are greying the day. It’s warm  today – almost 40 – a veritable heat wave! My friend and I have plans to walk. A demand I admit feels mostly tedious to me: exercise! I wonder what time we will do this or even if we really will push ourselves to leave our cozy homes to tromp besides the melting snow banks lining the streets, blocking the sidewalks. See? Again, I am away from ‘now’ wondering about the future.

Why is being present so difficult? As long as I’m not in the dentist chair or enduring some other misery, it feels good. It gives me joy to pay attention to the moment’s light, sound, taste, breath. Breathing is the anchor in meditation – to focus, pay attention to each breath – I try to remember this throughout my day.

Attention. “Pay attention” teachers tell their students. As if that is easy for any of us. And yet, for me it’s one of the most beautiful things to observe in others. To watch someone really, really, paying attention gives me an almost peculiar pleasure. I first realized this at my desk in Second Grade when one of my classmates stood on a chair next to the gigantic windows of Saint Gabriel’s Elementary school, watering the plants lined up along the sill. I can’t remember who, whether a boy or a girl, only the palpable, dreamy pleasure I felt as I watched them do this task with care and concentration. I remember shivers starting from the back of my head and spreading over my shoulders to my spine.

Apparently, this is a thing  called Autonomous Sensory Meridian response. There are even YouTube videos created to trigger these tingles, mostly of whispering women with Eastern European accents touching their hair. They don’t work for me. The whispering thing is weird. Now if you wanted to come sweep my floor or dust my house, I’d probably get tingly watching you. (and boy does my house need cleaning) Sounds kinky, doesn’t it? It’s really pretty benign almost primitive, the pleasure compared in the Wikipedia description to being like that of primates grooming each other. ASMR effect is “…related to the perception of non-threat and altruistic attention.” I didn’t realize until describing this to some friends, that not everyone experiences this. Do you or do you think it’s weird?

Woefully, I can’t remember the last time I felt these tingles because I rarely observe anyone paying complete, devoted “altruistic” attention to anything. We have become such chronic multi-taskers. Even driving doesn’t get our full attention. If we’re not talking on a telephone, or worse – texting, chances are we’re listening to music or the news. I’ve become acutely aware of how distracting the radio is and must turn it off when the weather makes driving dicey or maneuvering through a crowded parking lot.

4:00 PM  The earlier grey has lifted and the sky is blue. I did the laundry and walked around the neighborhood with my dear friend. We talked and walked and turned our faces to the much-missed sun and now I’m back in my spot by the window, trying to look neither back nor forward. But I think about dinner and the evening. I’ll likely end up in my usual spot at the end of the couch with a book. My phone will be beside me in case my daughter calls or texts me. Now that Downton Abby is over, I may not bother to turn the television on. Good. More time to make my way through the tower of books waiting to be read. I’ll do that until my eyelids droop impossibly.

Tomorrow morning will come and this day, (a good one) will be in the past. But now, now the sun is on the other side of the house from my East facing window. Instead of dancing light, there are encroaching shadows on the gray walls. Sunday afternoon is becoming evening and despite all my efforts, I think about Monday and what needs to be done at work.

But stop!  I again reel my monkey-mind in by paying attention to the shifting light of this late winter day, the squirrel scampering through the branches now gently swaying with a warmer wind than we’re used to. Doing this, paying attention to the light, my breath, even to my back – achey from sitting in this damn chair too long today – all feels good. And now, that is enough.

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A Reason to Go is to Come Home Again

pansies and palms

This week, I escaped the crazy-cold of Connecticut. Yes, those are pansies now in bloom in Florida. Although mostly my hours were spent in a windowless conference room, between meetings I practically skipped around the artificial lake outside the hotel. Giddily, I marveled at the bold birds, the flowers, being in shirt sleeves, feeling warm. For 3 days, I went sock-less!

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Beyond the thrill of feeling like a prairie dog popping my head out of this veritable tunnel of winter, this was an exercise in stepping out of my comfort zone. I live my life mostly within a 30 mile radius. Driving to work takes me less than 15 minutes. This trip reminded me that if we get out of practice we can lose important life navigating skills and risk becoming timid, even fearful.

I hadn’t been on a plane since taking Molly to England almost 10 years ago. After smiling back at the flight attendants, I rounded the corner to see that mine was a little plane with only 4 seats across. My heart started beating double time. This narrow tube of metal would be flying up into the clouds and taking me to Florida? I disappeared into my book rather than peer out the window at the disappearing winter-scape, rather than think of the increasing distance between me and land. I wondered to myself, since when am I afraid of flying?

streetlight and sun

Once, I considered myself a traveler but for many years, I’ve lived closely within my routine. I love my routine, my family, my bed! After too many years of living in chaos, I appreciate the predictability of it all – cherish the feeling of being relatively safe. But this little get-away – even just to a distant hotel room on an all-expense paid work trip, refreshed me and reminded me of the joys of stepping away.

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Winter paralyzes me and this one has been particularly brutal here in the Northeast. Some weekends, I’ll only leave the house to walk the dog around the block. At least now I have the excuse of winter, but honestly, I rarely venture far anymore, even when the weather is fine. It’s pitiful how infrequently I take the train into New York City – a regular commute for much of this community. Even if it’s just to realize that I want to BE in the place I AM, I need to do this more often.

boats on sound winter

Look at this frigid landscape. This is where we launch our kayak from in summer. In winter I rarely  make the 5 minute drive down here to gaze out at the horizon, to watch the boats. The same boats that headed out to work yesterday, fishing or clamming on the Sound. This is their routine.

It’s good to be home again – and that alone is reason to go somewhere: to fall in love again, with where I am – winter and all.

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The Focus Turns From Death to Life

On the front page of last Saturday’s New York Times, the headline read “As Ebola Ebbs, Focus Turns From Death to Life”. Norimitsu Onishi’s article is about life returning to normal in Liberia, featuring wonderful images of people on the beach, a newborn, a wedding. Smiling faces, normal life. So different from the heartbreaking photos of the disease ravaged scenes we’ve become accustomed to seeing out of West Africa.

The focus turns from death to life. A simple line that strikes me as being a key to healing after loss. Of course this will have a hollow ring to the newly grieving. Moving beyond heartbreak when we are deep in the trenches of sadness feels impossible. We cannot imagine we will ever be able to do anything but focus on the pain of our loss. We wonder if a feeling of normal will ever be ours again. Forget about joy, ever feeling normal again seems inconceivable.

But with time, the focus does turn. I know this to be true. If you’ve tangled with grief but some time has passed hopefully, you do too. I think it’s less a ‘getting over’  but rather, with time, allowing ourselves to look elsewhere. Away from sadness. The thing that happened remains with us forever but the grip on our psyche, our heart, can loosen. Pleasure and even joy are indeed possible. I have experienced this and witnessed it in others. Perhaps it’s this focus shifting from death to life that’s necessary to continue on with our own.

For close to a decade my life was dominated by my husband’s addiction and then, his suicide. Loss felt long and drawn out, even while he was alive but fading away from us. After the violence of his death, my grieving was complicated. Since then, ten years have passed again and now this is mostly a story. Mine (and my daughters because we lived it together) but a story. When I think for long about the painful times I can evoke some tough emotions. I rarely do.

Over the years, many people reacted by saying “I can’t imagine.” but as many have their own tales as terrible or worse than mine. Like the loss of a child. I cannot imagine this – and hate to even write it as if doing so might make the possibility more real. And yet, loving parents lose their children and go on living their lives.They find a way. WE find a way. Us remarkable humans. How the hell do we do that? How do we go on to choose life?

Inspiring stories abound of generosity and purpose born out of loss and grief. Parents who vowed to remember their children by reaching out to others, lending support to others, creating scholarships, foundations. Like the incredible human spirits, rising from the ashes to create something new and good out of  loss: the families of Sandy Hook whose children were killed on that hideous day in December 2012.

Our focus turns to life. Maybe it’s as simple as that for those of us without some structure or core of belief. Our losses will only increase with age. What are we to do we do as we lose more and more people (and pets!) we love? How do we continue moving on with our lives even as we know there will be more losses ahead? We turn our focus to life, remember love and continue to love. Love. It’s a start and if we’re lucky, it will be our finish too.

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Favorite Things and Cultivating Detachment

Thirty-five years later, I can still hear my roommate’s tragic voice and pronouncement: “That was my favorite bowl.” Linda enjoyed eating her salads and soup from the over-sized blue-glazed, handmade piece of pottery I had just accidentally shattered to bits. Apologizing profusely, I guiltily attempted to match the largest shards together. There was nothing to be done. While saying she forgave me, her big sad doe-eyes told me otherwise. I felt terrible. I also hated her a little for making me feel so awful. Perhaps it’s my guilt about being angry with her that keeps this memory so fresh in my mind.

Since then I have suffered similar losses of ‘favorite’ mugs, books, bits of clothing – ruined or lost by others. I always remind myself to try and let the thing go and not to amp up the guilt the way Linda did. Accidents happen. I live where it’s easy enough to shop for a new ‘favorite’ to fall in love with, to infuse with new memories and tea stains.

These musings were brought on by hair-line cracks I recently discovered in my favorite tea pot. My attachment to this thrift-shop find is merely that it is beautiful and made in Italy near where Molly was born. See how lovely it is?

teapot 1

It’s so easy to infuse meaning and sentiment into anything. While this is a nice pot, I have a back-up, Less charming but certainly as functional for my morning brew.

teapot 2

I remind myself not to get too attached and yet, surrounded as I am by so many things, sometimes that’s a challenge. But definitely not as hard as it once was.

According to Buddhism, the origin of suffering is attachment. I railed against this non-attachment stuff as a twenty-something woman living in Kyoto and longing for love. I associated this way of being with lack of passion. Of course it didn’t help that I had an unrequited crush on a strapping, young, handsome American man who had just emerged from a year of living in a monastery. I really wanted to crack his detachment…

Decades later, I get it. After a while, accumulated losses gave me a new appreciation for non-attachment. Eventually, these kind of scars turn into well-worn tracks of the heart, weirdly making it easier to navigate the next time. And there will always be a next time – be it large or small. Broken bowls? Cracked tea-pots? Eh.

The beautiful teapot does not seem to leak – not yet – but I’ve stopped using it since discovering the cracks. But why should I? Without use, it will become invisible to me, it’s importance will fade. I know I could put a plant in it, turn it into something else. I never really do those things – it would sit and gather dust and be forgotten.

I think I’ll just keep using it until one day, the boiling water seeps through and floods the counter. It won’t surprise me – not really. Until then, I’ll work on letting go and have another cup of tea. And if it cracks on R or Molly’s watch, I won’t blame them.

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Embracing Doubt

During this terrible week of murders in Paris, massacre in Nigeria – more chapters added to the growing tome of senseless killings by extremists around the world, I’ve thought about how embers of belief can be fanned into flames of terror. Even traditionally peaceful Buddhists are not immune to extremism as we’ve seen with the violence perpetrated by monks and their followers in Myanmar and Sri Lanka. How does this happen?

How can religious ideology become warped into motivation for such horrible behavior? How can faith turn into terrifying righteousness?  How can an individual ever be so sure that the way they have chosen, is the right way? I don’t get it.

The seeds of doubt were sown early in my childhood and continued to be fertilized throughout my life.

I attended Catholic School through the 3rd grade. When we moved to a different Bronx neighborhood I entered the glorious freedom of the NYC public school system. Preferring to sleep late rather than shlep to the new parish church for mass, everyone else in my family abandoned Sunday rituals. But loathe to have a mortal sin (as opposed to venial – think felony vs misdemeanor) on my soul lest I die and immediately be sent to hell, I continued going to this new church by myself. Imagine a 4th grader sitting self-consciously alone in the back pew, bored stiff.  By the time Easter rolled around, my routine had lapsed and I needed my tainted soul to be absolved in order to receive communion again.

When I admitted to my missed masses, the priest behind the screen in the coffin-like confessional box, barraged me with questions including the rather invasive (since confession is supposed to be anonymous) “Where do you go to school?”  I slunk out of the box up to the altar to recite my long penance. With knees pressed into velvet, hands clenched together against the polished wood bannister, I peered up at Jesus on the cross and completely blanked on the words of the prayers I’d been assigned to recite multiple times. I’d forgotten how to say an Our Father or Hail Mary so abandoned my post. To this day, I don’t really remember.

Instead, I cleansed my own soul on that walk home from St. Margaret’s Church, leaving my belief further behind with every block between me and that 1960s edifice. And over the years, nothing, including this new, admirable Pope, has enticed me back to the Church. Yes, you might argue, that was an unfortunate experience with just one asshole priest. But what clicked for me at that tender age, was a conviction that I needed no intermediaries in my spiritual life. And that is where I stand today. Not even the Dalai Lama – as much as I think he’s a very cool, enlightened guy gets to stand between me and my not-knowing.

More so than ever, as contradictory as it sounds, I trust my doubt. I am less righteous than I have ever felt before and that feels right. I have lived too close to the destruction caused by those convinced that, in the name of their religion, their ethnicity, destruction, murder – war – was acceptable. Four years of living in what used to be Yugoslavia where cousins killed each other mercilessly was all I needed to feel clearer about my uncertainty.

To some extent, I understood how hatred came to combust in hamlets, villages, towns and cities across the Croatia, Bosnia. I experienced the power of oral history growing up in very Irish-American home. Repeated tales of injustice left me with no love for the British. My animosity was further fed in the dark years of the Troubles and the death of Bobby Sands and other hunger strikers of the Maze prison in the early 1980s. A decade later, I met and fell in love with my husband, a Brit who’d been a soldier in Northern Ireland during those years I was hating his people. His perspective, his stories and experience including shame, anger, compassion, laid my righteousness to rest. We loved traveling together between the torn communities of the Balkans, happily flashing our Irish and English passports at checkpoints, like some poster-children of reconciliation. We married during the siege of Sarajevo – our personal gesture of putting ancient ethnic hatreds to rest.

This same feeling extends to patriotism. I do not have it. I do not believe the United States is the number one country in the world and that we are better than other places. Yes, it’s my home and a beautiful, lovely country full of wonderful opportunities and benefits but so are other places I have also called home. I do not fly the flag outside my home and though I will stand respectfully for any anthem, you will not find me with my hand on my heart pledging any allegiance.  Rituals like this were banned in other places because of the atrocious destruction caused by nationalism. I do not participate in any kind of chauvinism.

When I lived in Japan in the 1980s, I rarely saw the Japanese flag – certainly not in classrooms, never outside a private home or flapping from cars like the ubiquitous display of the American flag here in the States. Nationalism was a prime ingredient used to inspire the Japanese to commit atrocities during World War II. The Japanese haven’t forgotten that shame and a commitment to never repeat history.

Don’t get me wrong – I respect others beliefs, pride in their country.  But personally, I am at peace with my not-knowing. I am at home in this corner in the country of my birth where I landed but remember well, and still long for, other lands where I was also home. If a label is necessary, I pick – agnostic citizen of the world with allegiance only to love and justice for all. Anything else feels dangerous.

Posted in Seasonal Musings | Tagged , , , | 14 Comments