Around the Corner

I’m sitting in front of my glowing wood stove grateful for this gloomy, rainy day. Sunny would have been fine too but on days like this, I feel license to do inside things. If it were more beautiful outside I’d berate myself for not going for a walk or at least pretend to clean my messy garden. But there’s a chill and keeping an eye on the log situation becomes an important task. Not that it’s really very cold – but there’s my excuse for sitting here on a Saturday afternoon.

Ruminating is valuable and lately I feel pressed to do more of it and to pay closer attention to what’s going on both in and around me. Besides, tomorrow’s my birthday and certainly a significant reason for reflection, as if I need one. Mind you, I don’t bemoan any additional years on my downward, post-50 slope. As far as I know, it’s better than the alternative. I love life and am very curious about what the future might hold – even as I reflect on the past.

This year is full of personal landmarks. Twenty years in the same job, twenty years since I bought my house, and twenty years since my mother died (when she was only 6 years older than I am now). And this May, Molly graduates from college. All of this feels momentous, rich and significant. For these twenty years I’ve maintained this sometimes challenging balancing act of stability through some significant insanity. And here we are, pretty rock-steady, my kiddo and me, both wondering about what the future holds.

As I listen to Molly ponder her next steps, I wonder the same. Sometimes I’ve felt paralyzed by the challenge but lately, I’m inspired and feel almost giddy with a sense of possibility. All I need to do is just carry on to the next corner to see what’s there, right?

And plan the party.

Days at the Beach

Although the calendar reads February the weather has been mild and when I leave work, the sky is still bright. Aching to move and fill my lungs with fresh air, I have been walking at the beach. Following the sidewalk along the sand on these winter days that feel like Spring, I thrill at the chorus of languages from the chatting couples and families I pass. Spanish, Greek, Urdu, Hindi, Portuguese, Chinese. These are my neighbors and a reason why 20 years ago, my husband and I, fresh from our life overseas, fell in love with this city on the Connecticut coast.

And this beach. Today I walked by the playground and for a moment, I remember myself spending hours on that bench watching little Molly slide down the fireman pole, climb up ladders, slip down slides. And my heart aches with the memory and I wish I could go back in time and be who I am now, watching my beautiful girl at play, completely attuned to joy, absolutely at peace. Instead, all those years ago, for too many seasons, I was lost in a cloud of worry, anger, hurt and terror.

My husband would be home sleeping – no matter the hour. Instead of sitting beside me watching our daughter, catching up on the week, planning our next meal – even just quarreling about things I imagine normal families do, he would still be sprawled across our bed in a drug induced sleep. Often, he would not wake until dinner, ignoring my tears, my pleas and harassment, stuck in the web of addiction that would eventually kill him. On those days at the beach, ever hopeful for the miracle that never came, I watched the cars enter the beach, hoping with some kind of magical thinking, that I might conjure him driving in next. There he would be – the man I’d married, waving and calling out the window, so happy to join us. Instead, Molly and I eventually returned home, the pit in my stomach deeper than ever and Molly not bothering to ask where Daddy was as he still slept upstairs.

Enough time has passed that I mostly remember the things I loved about Neil, a remarkable, beautiful, tortured man. But sometimes dark memories are ignited – like today on a beautiful day as I pass a bench in front of the playground.

Dark Season

Just a week ago we set the clocks back an hour. I’m not crazy about this time switching. Sometimes I pass  all my hours in a windowless office with barely a glimpse of nature’s light. Those are sad days. The beat of my heart is connected to the sight of clouds, birds, the changing light. I need to see the sun, to feel even the wannest of warmth from winter rays on my face. I don’t do well in the dark.

But I will learn to function in the new reality of this season, to embrace this chance to shift inward, to reflect. I’ll make it work. When necessary, I will rage against the night, plan for the future. Spring will come. I will gather what I need to enrich the soil in my garden. I’ll gather friends and fill my house with laughter, ply them with good food and drink to sustain us through these dark days and take comfort and strength in our solidarity. And tonight – there’s a promise of an extraordinary moon to light the way through the dark. I’ll take that as an offering of hope.

If You Know What’s Good For You…

blueberries

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

laundry

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?

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.

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.

window

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.

desk

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.

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.

Conjuring Mothballs

umbrella

I prefer ushering summer in, more than I do out.  Packing away shorts, and cotton shirts is a melancholy activity – unlike the joy of pulling all these garments out after a long winter. It seems I wore only half of my summer dresses this cooler-than-usual summer, and now I am folding them up for another year.  From the basement, I haul up the heavier load of winter clothing – darker tones and heavier weaves.

I learned this ritual of switching my wardrobe, from my mother. I remember the smell of mothballs permeating our apartment as she pulled out our stored clothing from the massive suitcases wedged into the top of the coat-closet. I laugh thinking about oh! my dread of my older sister’s hand-me-downs and how now, she and I relish each other’s rejects.

I survey each piece of clothing: to keep or not. This is a good time to purge the barely worn frock with the velvet bits. And certainly the linen pants I’ve been hanging onto with the illusion my waist line will ever be that size again. Times up on that one! I pile my has-beens on the bed, trying to embrace advice from the anti-hoarder experts — something like if you haven’t worn it X amount of time in the last season, it’s time to let it go.

Although I took a good load to Goodwill today, it should really have been bigger. I still cannot part with my faded cotton bathrobe – now ripping in places. It would be a good rag, or if I were crafty, maybe I could turn pieces into a quilt. But I’m not, so it gets packed away so next year, I can find it again and remember when my husband brought it to me, then lovely crisp and too-expensive, the day after I landed in the hospital on a sweltering June in Italy when I delivered Molly 2 months early. That was 19 years ago and I still can’t part with this now tattered robe.

There’s also a very pretty dress, although not really me, that I wore to N’s memorial service.  He’d bought it for me one day for no reason I knew of, about a year earlier. I’d barely worn it even then, because it’s a little too dressy and not the nicest fabric – but I can’t get rid of it. I like to think of him shopping for me, looking for something that I might like, that would suit me. He liked to shop and had expensive taste he indulged, even when he had no money and that was most of our marriage. But, I imagine him lovingly thinking about me — not trying to make up to me or distract me from maybe being coked up.

Anyway, I focused on him that day at the Unitarian Church – remembering him and his life and death on another day in June. It was the first day since his suicide a month earlier, that I was able to move past my fury and shock and begin to think of him with love and to mourn him.

The anti-hoarders would have me get rid of it perhaps, because all summer this dress has hung in my closet unworn. But instead, I’ve packed it away for another year.

The closet and drawers are emptier. I’ve yet to unpack any sweaters, the wooly socks, the corduroy pants. Not yet. It’s still warm enough and for now, I enjoy the space that lies between.

snow tree

Vertigo: Slow Down You Move Too Fast

images

My default speed out in the world is FAST. Customers marvel at how quickly I answer their emails and process quotes and orders. Out on the book floor, I’m zippy at the cash register and wrap gifts in a flash. If I perceive a customer is not inclined or able to trot after me, I offer to retrieve what they need while they wait. I walk at a clipped pace through the store and sometimes lose customers who have tried to follow me. I’ll apologize saying I’m a New Yorker and still walk like one.

When things get busy, I may get annoyed by colleagues who don’t seem to know how to move more quickly and cut their conversations short. As if they are tourists from Boise and lumbering down 42nd Street, I want them to step up the pace. But the fact is, some of them are our best salespeople, engaging customers, taking their time as if that person is the only one. They do not rush through their transactions, they make contact.

When I get home after work, I try to slow down. I attempt to recover myself. Not my high functioning, efficient employee, A-type personality, self — rather, the self I aspire to become all the time. I get better practice on the weekends – taking my time, doing my best to pay attention to each moment, to the world around and within me.

Last week, a bout of vertigo required I shift gears. In the wee hours of the morning I turned in bed and felt something in my head become unhinged, a weird little shifting in my ears. The world began to spin from my pillow. By morning this sensation had passed enough so I was able to get up and go to work but I’ve yet to completely shake a slight vertigo. I have had to slow down. Rather than barreling on at my usual breakneck speed, I’ve been moving more consciously, carefully stepping through the day, lest I start the spinning again. I feel as if I’m carefully balancing something inside of me.

And I am: life. I am balancing my life. And what’s the rush? Where do I hope to get to? I am here now and if you are here with me too, for whatever our transaction or pleasure, I will try and be completely present. I have to because otherwise I may spiral off. Don’t worry, I will still answer my emails efficiently, I’ll just walk a little slower through the book stacks. Along the way, I may recommend my favorite reads and learn what yours are. I will remember, as I keep my head steady and avoid jerky movements, that our time together, like the end of the day, will come fast enough without me rushing towards it.

A Rock and a Dive

SAM_08301.jpg There’s a spot about 20 minutes paddle from shore, where the Sound pushes into and out-of the natural harbor between two islands. Depending on the tide, we sometimes get buffeted in a crash of waves. Pulling our paddles in, we gleefully surrender to the splashing. If the tide is low, we yank the boat across the crunch of shell and stones to the other side. We like to pause here and stare alternately at the horizon and into the surf. Sometimes we pick up treasures. On Sunday, this rock caught my eye.

photo-43 Doesn’t it look like it’s part of something much bigger, like a chunk of a cliff or something? I reached down and lifted it away from the round stones surrounding it and said to R, “I wonder if anyone has ever touched this before – and will anyone again?” I held it a moment longer, thinking about time and wondering how it ended up where the waves meet, then let it go torpedoing in slow motion down to the bottom. I waded on, thinking I might swim.

I’m not a big swimmer. Last summer I barely got wet. But the place and moment seemed magical, the water crystal-clear, inviting. Wading up to my torso, I flinched as the water lapped against my belly – so cold. I closed my eyes and tilted my head back to the sky enjoying the warmth of the sun cooled by a breeze. I didn’t really want to get wet – this felt too good. But I imagined myself floating-in rather than just looking at the water and the part of my body already submerged, felt invigorated. I opened my eyes. Looking at the surface of the water, I willed myself to dive in – and didn’t.

Why? I wondered at my reluctance. Why not duck in for a swim? Because I felt comfortable and warm and safe, my hair was dry and I didn’t have a towel. I hesitated because I knew I’d be shocked by the cold. Even though my discomfort would quickly pass into pleasure, I did not move.

Have I become a hobbled by comfort? I wasn’t always this way – I have lived on the edge — traveled alone, moving to other countries, a war zone, marrying an addict. Okay, I didn’t really know I was doing that last one. And perhaps that’s what happened. Maybe I lost trust in my judgement about risk, became hyper-aware of the repercussions of launching willy-nilly into adventures. Perhaps the years of hanging onto the roller coaster of my life took its toll, making me staid. Or is this just an expected symptom of getting older like grey hair and wrinkles? I know, I should, I want to – resist.

My mental chatter grew noisier than the churning of water until I stepped deeper and, feeling like I was being gently pushed, dove beneath the surface. A frozen blanket of silence enveloped me as I pushed myself through the current, finally coming up for air with a gasp. Laying back into the gentle waves, I floated.

The next morning, the stone was atop my computer. R had retrieved it from where I’d dropped it back into the sea. There it was, a reminder of time, of going beneath the surface and something bigger than itself.