New to the Neighborhood

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Dawn and dusk have drawn closer and shorter days means that on the 5 days a week I work, there’s less light for long walks with dear Rufus. Morning outings are always short – just quick forays down the block with just enough time to sniff around and lift a leg a few times before heading back inside so I can get ready for work. When there’s enough daylight left on my return home, I like to take him either to the dog park where he trips over his own little legs running so hard and fast, or for a 2 mile jaunt I call the river walk. Either way, it’s a welcome outing for both of us. And even more fun when Molly joins us, her and I gabbing as we trade off on holding the leash of our tugging pooch. (we are lax on training)

The dawn walks are just me and Rufus. And lately: a fox. The first morning I saw him from a distance – a creature sitting in the middle of the road. I didn’t have my glasses on and couldn’t quite make out what it was but certainly it was bigger than one of our known-residents – neither rabbit nor groundhog. It sat very still with it’s back to us, smack in the middle of the street. I squinted to try and make out – was it a dog weirdly sitting there so still? Then it stood up and leapt into the woods. hmmm.

A few mornings later, we met fox face-to-face. It wasn’t frightened and in fact, stepped towards us even as I stamped the ground and cried ‘scat!’. It seemed more curious than threatening but it’s bigger than Rufus, who didn’t make a peep. I scooped up our wee dog and dashed back home. Fox did not follow. At first I wasn’t sure if it was fox or coyote – but it’s tail is very bushy and body slender. A beautiful creature! But I was shaken, imagining it attacking our beloved little dog.

Rufus and I have encountered fox 3 more times, sometimes days in a row. Fox is fearless, stepping towards us – never aggressively – perhaps wondering about Rufus’s fox-like ears. Maybe this youngish-kit thinks he’s a cousin. He probably wants to sniff him to find out – or to see if he wants to eat him for breakfast. I called animal control to ask their advice, whether I should be alarmed. They said it might be a young cub, alone and indeed curious – although fox will eat a cat so if our dog is that size (yes, he’s smaller) then I should carry a stick and make sure Rufus had had his rabies shot – just in case. I’ve taken to carrying an umbrella or rake during the low-light hours. I’m sure the neighbors think I’m nuts.

Interestingly, Molly has yet to encounter fox and teased me that I was imagining it but now is spooked about taking him out when it’s dark. My sister suggested the fox is my spirit animal and in fact, these encounters have begun to feel a little magical. I went down the internet search foxhole of what fox encounters might mean – and of course choose the positive interpretations — especially seizing on the Japanese symbolism of longevity and protection from evil. Just please, dear fox, do not eat Rufus.

PS: My neighbor shared this great photo of said fox.

A beauty, no?

On the Water Again

Freckled legs, thrift-shop crocs and my new ride.

I arrived at the beach just after 9:30 AM, determined to get out on the water before the holiday weekend boaters took over. Ten minutes after leaving the house, I pulled into a spot close to the boat launch — rolled my kayak down off the car, slung it over my shoulder by the seat strap and teetered down to the water. High tide was around 7 so the water was still close enough that I didn’t have to navigate too many slippery rocks. Wading into the water with my boat beside me, I slid aboard, scooted against the back rest and began paddling towards the Norwalk islands, grinning.

Twenty minutes from my door: heaven.

It’s been 2 summers since I’ve been out paddling and I refused to make this a 3rd. Fairly priced kayaks are the first thing to go at tag sales and last year, I never scored one. It didn’t help that I wanted something very specific. I am not a confident water person and had gotten used to the impossible-to-tip-over ocean kayak I’d paddled with my ex. Last year I searched tag sales, Craig’s List and asked friends – to no avail. This year, riding the wave of excitement and satisfaction and yes, financial freedom of Molly being done with college, I went to Dick’s Sporting Goods. For just over $300 for kayak, oar, jacket and straps to tie the thing down on top of my Subaru. David, our salesperson, was a prince – guiding me towards the right boat, attaching foam to the rack on the top of my car and showing me how to attach it tight.

My present to myself for Molly’s graduation.

The first few times out, I loaded up with Molly who thoughtfully stood by trying not to help. I wanted to know I could wrestle the thing myself. Finally, she couldn’t bear to see me struggle and with a flip of an arm, threw the boat up on my car. While she’s around, I’ll welcome that help. But this morning, I did it myself from start to finish. I doubt it looked pretty, but damn it, I did it.

I swam here. Briefly. The water is cold.

And this is where I went. I floated, I paddled, I watched the birds, telling them how lovely they were. It’s cooler out there with a sweet breeze easing the heat of the sun. Pulling up to a spit of land that disappears at high tide, I pulled the kayak up and swam, marveling that this sweet beach was all mine. I wonder how I let 2 years pass without this dreamy experience so close to home!

A spit of beach that disappears and appears with the tides.

On my first solo venture out, I alternately felt thrilled and terrified. Nervous that no one was behind me navigating, paddling when I got tired. If I go under, it’s only me and my fierce whistle! But even as huge motorboats bore down on me, I smiled like a buddha. On my own, blissful with the birds skimming across the rolling waves, the odd splash of a fish and yes, the roaring motors of boats. In fact, once I think they see me and will probably not mow me down, I love rolling in the heaving wakes they leave. And I wave, imagining they must envy me – moving so sleekly along, quietly moving towards the egrets in the tall grass, so very happy in my solitude. I would.

This Mother’s Journey

Kamogawa at dusk

I was 28 and living in Kyoto, Japan when the letter arrived. An ex-boyfriend wanted to let me know he had tested positive for HIV. The year was 1988 – early days of the disease when a positive diagnosis was still thought to be a death sentence. For a week I waited for results of my test and stared my mortality in the eye. Up until then, my life in Japan felt almost ideal – I could spend only a few days teaching English with plenty of free time to sculpt and paint and explore one of the most fascinating, inspiring cities in the world. I loved my life there, living primarily as an artist in a remarkable community.

That letter changed everything. I did not mourn I might never visit Morocco or make some piece of art. During that week of waiting, I walked up into the mountains  around Kyoto, biked along the river and felt lonely in that beautiful place. I discovered what I’d regret: the chance to be a mother. For the first time in my life, I not only thought about but wanted a baby.

When my test came back negative, I decided to return to the States. I’d had a Japanese boyfriend and imagined how beautiful a child would be – but I worried that for me, the differences between a man and woman were hurdle enough without adding cultural and language challenges to the mix. I returned to the USA with my new dream and hopes of finding my mate.

My years in NYC, working at the United Nations were punctuated by a few adventures but no man who was right. In 1992 I joined a UN Peacekeeping mission to the Former Yugoslavia – still determined to find a way to start a family even as I went off to a war zone. (I know, I know!) There I met Neil – the charismatic, handsome, funny and loving – but troubled Englishman I would marry. He too was keen to have a baby and we got right on it.

Premie Molly with proud parents at the beach in Ostuni, Italy.

At 36, I gave birth to Molly in Italy. (Another adventure I wrote about here.) I was right about the man-part of creating a family being a challenge – it turned out to be even more impossible than I imagined. Neil’s demons got the better of him and he ended his life a month before Molly turned 9. Being a single mom was never part of my dream and I know both of us have had flashes of feeling sorry for ourselves. Certainly there has always been the financial stress, but I have also worried about being the only one to cheer her on in life.

Except – I haven’t been and I am not. Together we learned to find love and support beyond the boundaries of home. This neighborhood has become family for us, pitching in to lend a hand on the turn of a dime, showing up — well, you can see in the photo below taken just before her high school graduation. Living in this community helped me to be a better mother. And my girl has learned what it means to create a ‘family’ of support and love.

A week ago, Molly picked up tickets for her college graduation. She was allowed 10 but needed only 1 ticket – for me. She felt embarrassed to just ask for a single ticket so took 3. As always, I fretted about how she’d feel when all her friends would have a cheering section for this momentous event.  And she would have ME. In fact, two of  her adorable friends joined me – cheering and tearing up beside me.

Over the years, there has always been noise for my girl when she has taken a bow or crossed the stage for an award. I clap until my hands sting, and hoot and whistle. But beyond my racket, there is always more of a roar from a circle that knows and loves her – though they may not share her blood. Molly has created friendships that run as deep as family. And like her two friends that sat beside me (and there was another row besides!) they show up and they make lots of noise so she will have no doubt that she is loved.

We did it!

We are a devoted duo – proud of each other. “We did it!” she captioned her graduation Facebook picture of the two of us. And it’s true. We did do it. She has graduated with pretty minimal debt and that, these days, feels big. For the last 20 plus years my primary, heartfelt focus and drive has been to nurture and launch my daughter in every way. And it is the best thing I ever did.

That glimpse of mortality delivered to a Japanese mailbox in 1988 clarified my dream and it came true. I write this on Mother’s Day – a holiday I mostly dismiss as a ‘Hallmark Holiday’ – but for the record on this day and everyday – I am indeed a happy mother!

PS  – While the HIV positive ex and I do not stay in contact, I know that thanks to remarkable advances in medicine, he is still alive and well.

Hawks and a Star

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Driving through the hills of Northeast Connecticut on Wednesday with my windows open, I inhale the delicious scent of country. My sadness at leaving my daughter for her Junior year at college is dwarfed by the comfort of knowing she is safe and happy. This world feels right for her, she thrives here – so my ache is sweet. As the road turns into a highway, I step on the gas and a huge bird swoops toward and then alongside my car, keeping pace with for a few seconds. I struggle to keep my eyes on the road while watching this incredible creature. I think with a loaded heart: this is Molly’s father checking in with me as our beautiful girl begins another chapter. I smile through a blur of tears.

Friday morning, I arbitrarily decide to take the highway to work. This is a crazy stretch of I-95 but I go in the opposite direction of most commuters so the drive is usually a breeze, shaving a few minutes off my easy 15 minute trip. I speed up on the entrance ramp, behind the car ahead of me ready to join the river of heavier-than-usual traffic. A car crazily brakes to almost a full stop on the highway – blocking us in. With a screech and a groan a tractor trailer slams on its brakes as does the car on the ramp ahead of me. I pull over to the right  and for a moment, we are all stopped, stunned there is no crash of metal. Hearts pounding, through a cloud of burnt rubber from the truck’s brakes, we all move again, continuing our journey. Trembling as I picked up speed, I see a hawk sitting on a post beside me and let out a sob.

Last night I met up with a friend of more than 40 years. A rare visit because tonight, it is just J and her dear mother. As a teenager, this house and family provided comfort and warmth from my own angst filled home. Later, J and I drive to the beach to look at the full moon, to watch the light of it dance across the Long Island Sound. I shared with J, like me – a widow too young – how 11 years after his death, I sometimes miss my husband. The fury I long felt about the torment caused by his addiction, his suicide have faded. J responded how this is a beautiful sign of healing. Driving away from the beach, my eyes on the road with the horizon dark beyond the trees, I tell her about my hawk encounters and as I do, a shooting star drops like a huge firework above the tree line.

This morning, I sat outside in the early sun, legs tucked beneath me, phone to my ear sharing with my beloved sister these mysterious moments and JUST as I am am telling her, a hawk (yes, really) flew low through the branches, flapping wings audible as it passed over. Okay — I get it! I am not alone.

I’ve been thinking about faith recently, marveling how many people stick with the beliefs of their childhoods, or perhaps they have a faith renewed or maybe they discover it for the first time. I claim none of that. I wonder a lot. I was moved recently, by the certainty of believers I witnessed in a church last week, their belief such comfort to them, so huge it burst through song – in wails of grief, shouts of joy belted out in full confidence and better pipes than I’ll ever have. I am silent when prayers are recited by rote on cue, not moved to join in, the words sounding hollow to me.

I feel something bigger than me in this universe but I can’t name it. I search for and sometimes find my own words, my own prayers – or no words at all spoken to…? Maybe it is these spirits of the dead who have loved me, who I have loved. Molly’s father keeping an eye on my daughter, on me? My Grandfather – perhaps the dearest man I ever knew? There is certainly mystery, wonder – and I am reminded this week by a hawk, a star. Alert to and grateful for all signs of comfort, of love, of reassurance that I am not alone.

Moving Forward

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Why aren’t we terrified to get out of bed in the morning? How is it that we can send our beloved children to venture out into the world on their own? Where do we find the courage when, like this past week in Boston, our world erupts in violence and a fog of fear descends? How is it that even when it is our own disaster, when we are at the epicenter of the storm, we carry on, eventually, finding at least a modicum of joy again?

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That light can eventually penetrate the darkest night of the spirit, fascinates and inspires me. Religion is the key for many, but I find no comfort nor convincing explanation there.  I’ve seen up close, soldiers wearing the icons of their religions, pumping their AK47s in the air as they sped towards the front line, off to kill and maim under the guise of the superiority of their own belief.  The righteousness that religion inspires feels divisive and dangerous to me and personally, I find no comfort in it.

No, what fascinates and moves me is the grace to be found in uncertainty. The ability we have to move on in our not-knowing. To just keep moving. It seems that this is what survivors do – (and we are all eventually survivors) as dark as our individual night might be, instinctually, as long as we might cling to sleep, wish for our own oblivion, eventually, a crack of light breaks through.

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It is this transcendence of the human spirit that touches me. Passing through the darkest siege, even with awful losses, violent memories, we continue. Time — terrible, wonderful, time keeps us shifting forward through the bleakest winters, through the insanities of war. And one day, we meet the spring – more beautiful than we remember – we go on, stepping forward, into and beyond the fear. A force of nature, of spirit, of love. A beautiful mystery.

“What Saves Us All Is Love”

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Shadowed by the deaths of little children and their teachers, the holiday season in Connecticut passed heavy with sadness. Thoughts of grieving neighbors tempered every day. As I moved through my days at the bookstore, acknowledgement was shared in the minutes spent with strangers while finding or bagging their books. These usually frantic exchanges before Christmas, slowed slightly by a connection of shared sorrow. The season, while bleak, had a poignancy. Customers were kinder. As if feeling the rawness and wonder: how do we go on after these unbearable losses?

Healing seems impossible. How will those parents ever again smile, feel any joy? Yet look: here is the face of the mother that last Christmas of 2011, who woke to a house in flames that killed her three beautiful girls and her parents. In these photos she looks beautiful, smiling, surrounded by her friends who all draw close to her, loving her. Yes, there she is, a year later, living life. In pain, of course — but surely glimpsing a light. For these past 365 days she has carried on with that unbearable weight of her horrible loss — as others have before her. How has she done this? How will the others?

Love, Madonna Badger, the grieving Stamford mother says, saves us all. When we are in the dark night of grief, it seems that light might be smothered, but somehow – lit it stays. This remarkable essence, this life, makes us extraordinary. Inevitably, we all will experience deaths of our loved ones. While quietly we are grateful that this time, this terrible story is not ours, that it is not our beloved, we glimpse the truth that it might have been. And so, a very little bit at least — it is. Helpless to make anything better, we still want to take action, to comfort. Even knowing there are no words, we reach out to our friends and strangers alike, sending messages – because in this world of grieving, no one is really a complete stranger, not for long.

Out of this longing to do something we shower the Newtown community, with toys for their children. Chances are, those families did not need more under their trees but the rest of us needed to do something. To show our love. We drive through blizzards to gather around parents mourning the death of their child. No words can comfort, but we can fill a room, our faces glowing with tears, we can acknowledge and share the one thing that we hope may keep our friends, our fellow humans going forward: love. It is what saves us all.

Going On


I find myself still looking at the stories and images of the mother who lost her parents and her beautiful children in a fire on Christmas morning. I study them as if I might identify what enables her to survive such loss.  Photos from the funeral captured the bewildered, distraught faces of mother and father watching the coffins of their daughters being carried into the church. Her face crumpled in grief, his raw with pain. How will they go on? How do us humans do it?  What is it that keeps us going, through those horrible minutes, hours, days, weeks, months? Perhaps only years will make the ache sear less.

Heartbreaking stories like this one can be found in some community, every day. This one haunts me because it happened only minutes from where I live.  They did not live in a war zone or a blighted ghetto – she had everything and still lost it all. If it can happen to her…

And yet I look at her and marvel: she bravely comforts the father of her children, sharing stories of her beautiful girls and making plans for their remembrance. Making plans. Carrying on. She will carry on with this business of living even as, (I can’t help imagining) she wishes she were dead. The human spirit is magnificent.

We lose the ones we love most in the world — and yet, continue to live. Most of us still find a way. Such losses can seem  impossible from the outside. Part of me wants to turn away from this terrible story, it feels wrong and voyeuristic to want to know more. But I cannot help wanting to, even as I observe with dread. As if I might see how to arm myself against comparable experiences. This same thing is unlikely to happen to me, but there is no escape from what life doles out to us and something else as terrible might again. How would I go on?

We all eventually lose what may seem to be the source of all love — a lover, a spouse loses their soulmate, a child loses a parent, and most horrible of all – a mother loses her children, and still find the will to live. Slowly, slowly finding moments of laughter, once again discovering the beauty in light and recognizing  the myriad of feelings beyond the numbing punch of grief that once threatened to end it all. How? Many have the comfort of their faith guiding them through. But even those of us without the clarity of belief in the wisdom or  master plan of a God, there is something greater than the fear of death that keeps most of us going.

I see around these parents, a beauty glimmering like a haze softening the curtain of anguish. Somehow, in the darkness of mourning we must sense something, some light of hope.  Or perhaps we see it reflected in those who gather to comfort us. In a New York Times article on the funeral a man who only shared the same church with the family called out to the children’s father as he passed by “Brother, I love you,” and according to the man the father reached over and said “I love you, too.” Perhaps that’s it – what drives us forward from our loss, just love.

Studio 70 Artists’ Retreat 2011

For the third year in a row, I am back in the Catskills with my “Studio 70 Sisters” for our own mini-artist’s retreat.  Studio 70 refers to the place where we all met as art students of Mike Skop when we were all in our 20s. Many years have passed but we all still remember how to give each other time and space — lessons Mike taught well on so many levels.

Right now I am sitting by the window in a patch of morning sun. With eyes closed, one might think it is raining, the rushing river across the way is so loud.

Yesterday, the four or us caught up on the year, gabbing on the porch, while making and eating dinner, drinking wine. We agreed this is one of our favorite things about this time: our dinners.  Last night’s meal was a salad of greens I picked from my garden before leaving Connecticut, and CSA farm cucumbers and onions, garlicky dressing and feta cheese. Diane sauteed Portabella mushrooms Cathy spotted at the farm stand down the road.

This morning, the house is quiet, each of us doing exactly what we want to be doing. (and that may include thinking about what to make for dinner!)

Bliss.

 

Beach Morning

I pushed aside the curtain to the yoga class and knew I was too late. Chock-a-block sticky mats only inches apart from each other, guarded by their owners in various twists or (my favorite) corpse pose, waiting for the teacher to start. With so many bodies packed together, the room already smelled. I left. Maybe later I will pick up another class to shake out kinks from a week of too much sitting. Instead, I headed to the beach.

Parking near our kayak launch spot, I zipped my jacket and pulled up my hood. A cloudless sky but a decent wind made for brisk walking and I headed over to the sandy beach, deserted but for a distant man with a fishing rod stuck in beside him.  It was still early – not even the gulls were out to explore the morning’s pickings. This beautiful spot is only minutes from our home. During the summer, we get down here whenever we can to paddle away from shore in our yellow kayak.  We rarely step on to this sandy stretch – the beach where swimmers and sunbathers crowd. I am drawn here only when I know it will be deserted – early or late or during a storm. This morning, the water like glass barely lapping against the tightly packed sand. No waves today, at least, not yet.  Looking out at the islands we kayak around, I was tempted to rush home and pull Rob out of bed to join me in yet one more outing on the water.  But we get wet in our flat ocean-kayak and the thought of sitting damp in a boat with a stiff wind blowing was enough to keep me on my sandy trek up, and then down again, the length of the beach.

At one point, with a nod to the yoga class I was missing, I stretched. Hanging over, my arms heavy, releasing my back and gradually loosening until my fingertips barely touched the sand, the moving tide seemed also to be trying to reach my toes.  Breathing in and out of my nose, filling my lungs with sweet air and releasing again while marveling at the beauty on my doorstep. As a child growing up in NYC, I longed for such access to nature. Just to go outside, I needed to ride the creaky elevator and although magnificent VanCortlandt park was just across the street, I could not venture into the woods for fear of scary men. Remembering this, I feel grateful for my world and the morning’s too crowded yoga class.

A Book to Read

I finished reading Let’s Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell two days ago and like a good book will, thoughts of it linger in my consciousness. Yesterday, as I walked by a stack of them in the bookstore, a woman about my age browsed nearby.

This is wonderful.” I held the book up.

“Hmm. I thought it sounded depressing,” she answered.

I paused, surprised. Depressing. Yes, of course a book about the loss of your best-friend might sound like a downer.  Why was I surprised at her reaction?

“Oh, no,” I said. “Poignant, yes – but very beautiful – not depressing.” I wonder if she picked it up after I left.

Earlier in the day, a woman looking for a new parenting book called Little Girls Can Be Mean and I agreed how puzzling it is that girls are indeed, so often mean to each other -much more so than little boys.  Yet later in life, women’s friendships are so rich and loving – more than what most men get to experience. Boyfriends may come and go but our girlfriends remain anchors and our loyalty, fierce. Years have sometimes passed without contact with some friends but when we reconnected, it was as if no time or space ever separated us. My friends are now tightly woven into my life. During bitter times, they held me together, letting me cry, reminding me to laugh.

One dear one is as far away as Tasmania and another is  across the street.  Most precious of all is the friendship with my sister, Anne. We have the bonus connection of genetic understanding as additional cement. We get each other immediately and on every level. This is what Caldwell and Knapp had.

Let’s Take the Long Way Home is a loving glimpse into Gail Caldwell’s enviable relationship with fellow writer and dog-lover, Caroline Knapp (Drinking: A Love Story and Pack of Two)  who died while still in her forties, of cancer.  This gem of a book was borne out of Caldwell’s loss. Affecting, (I made the mistake of reading the last chapter during a lunch break at work) but not depressing.

I am fascinated by grief – or maybe not really grief itself, but rather, how us humans process profound sadness, the inevitable and dread part of the emotional spectrum of life. Gail Caldwell opens a door to this dark room and amidst the shadows of sadness you feel grateful for the experience – all of it: the pain, the love, life.