Over the Years of Writing it Down

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Almost sunset so only a few more hours before kissing goodbye to December and another decade. I’m determined, by the skin of my teeth and a few hours, to maintain my record of not yet missing a month of posting at least something here.

I would have written more but for: computer problems, lack of discipline, lack of inspiration, laziness, existential questions about ‘what’s the point?’. You know – the usual. But I pay to maintain this blog – domain name, anti-hack security – enough that I don’t want to waste the $200 plus I just spent for another 2 year whirl around the dance floor. It’s a bit like taking a class so I feel compelled to periodically write.

The other day I ran into another blogger who lives locally and we discussed inactivity on our respective blogs. We agreed that we do enjoy it – the cyber community and the process of writing. Like right this very second — I feel good! The activity of ‘writing’ is mostly pleasurable for me and at the least, compelling. In parting, she and I committed to stepping it up and writing. (I can’t remember the timeline – but here I am, Susan – I look forward to yours!)

Recently I was speaking with my beloved sister. We speak often about everything and anything. She’s a great listener and asks thoughtful questions that land like stones in my often dull lake-mind, leaving ripples of insight long after we’ve hung up. Both of us have boxes of journals – the only place one might read what I’m sure is her stunning writing. Like I said, we talk about everything – including our inevitable demise. I asked her the other day what should be done with her journals when her number is up? Burn them – she said, somewhat to my disappointment. Too bad. I bet she’s got some great books in there.

It’s been a long time since I regularly kept a journal. Sometimes I might write down a dream but that’s about it. Sometimes I’ll randomly look at one. Here, I’ll do it now… (I walked to a shelf and randomly selected) a journal from 2001. Again, I randomly flipped open to something written while Neil and I were on an AA/Al-Anon recovery retreat for couples somewhere up the coast run by an inspiring priest – Father Mike C. (Oh, we did try hard for so many years!) What seems uncanny is how much the pages relate to my current ramble. From all the journals and all the pages I could have opened to, here’s where I landed:

“Julia Cameron, author of The Artists’ Way” was at the store the other day – and although I didn’t find her earth-shattering, her message is definitely a good one. And some simple exercises like writing 3 pages every morning and making an “artist’s date” with one’s self…. I have moved so far away from doing my work instead, chasing Neil and his addiction. And this was a choice. And one I no longer choose. It is that simple. I need to be on my own road now – back to finding that peace and joy and discovery I feel when I create. This is my prayer.”

Thank you Julia Cameron –  I guess you are ‘earth-shattering’ enough in the end! I confess to never really reading her – but I will now and get to those 3 pages. Here’s to closing out this decade and entering a new one with love and indeed, a prayer for a road of peace, joy and discovery for us all. Happy New Year! xxx

Cleaning Closets

It’s easier to get up early now that the weather is warming up and the light starts breaking by 5:45. That’s when I woke this morning, limiting myself to only one hit of the snooze button. The winter cold disappeared last week so when I sit up in bed I don’t have to pull blankets up around my neck and can’t see my breath.

I used to get up and out of bed to sit downstairs and write, settling in at my desk with a cup of tea, then hammering away at the computer keyboard. I didn’t want to disturb Rob by writing in the room. I am happy to stay put in bed now, fluffing up the pillows behind me and even turning on the light if I need to.

I sometimes miss having a man I love beside me in life – but not so much when I wake up in the morning. Certainly I miss the good times, when the guys I loved were healthy and their breathing or sleep-twitching didn’t seem suspect. While it would be nice one day to fall so in love again that I want to share my bed, it’s hard to imagine actually liking someone so much I’d want them in my queen snoring beside me every morning.

And share my closet? How did I do that for 20 years? Especially with Neil. He loved and had more clothes than me. I spent part of the weekend purging and organizing my closet. I have before and after photos but they’re not loading so you’ll have to believe me that I had a lot of stuff plus more in there. It’d been years – or forever, I can’t remember which, since I pulled everything out. Then I washed the crevices and even vacuumed the ceiling. If I really had my act together, I would have painted but I decided not to get crazy. Why did I think I had to keep plastic bins of tax papers in my closet? That shit’s now in the basement! Get moldy, I don’t care. Twenty-two years of sharing my limited closet space with tax returns and supporting documents. Marie Kondo, I need you! Did you read her book? I didn’t find it compelling enough to get beyond a few chapters but the gist of it is helpful and I still swear by her folding techniques.

What got me into the closet was the need to swap out seasons. I always prefer the winter to summer swap. I have way too many of both seasons’ clothes even after purging the no-spark-joy pieces. Maybe I need to read another chapter or two. Yes, I still have the book years later even though it doesn’t particularly spark anything for me except maybe guilt. It’s a book I may want to look at again so I kept it. Along with the other hundreds I have all over this tiny house. That might be where Kondo-san lost me.

I did purge some clothes channeling the Queer Guys. Have you watched that? I’m a fan. I want them to remake my life. Although I don’t think I’m that much of a mess, I did add my capri length pants to the Goodwill pile because I heard their voices in my head chastising all of us older women who still wear them, not too. They’re right: it’s not a good look. Be-gone! Besides, they were a little tight. The thing about all the clothes hanging in my closet now is that they all need ironing. Cotton and linen. The need to iron is the only downside to what is otherwise for me, the preferred seasonal wardrobe change. I have to now allow for ten extra get-ready minutes required in the morning but I’ll take it over woolies and cords.

What do you keep in your closet?

Marking the Years Together

Last week I celebrated a decade birthday. Yes, Medicare sign-up is just around the corner for me. I’m good with that. And because I have no (knocking wood) aches and pains, I am not moaning about aging.

Birthdays give us an opportunity to be seen in the spotlight just briefly enough to be fun. When complete strangers find out it’s your birthday they acknowledge you. They take a second look, maybe give you a piece of cake, a pat on the back, buy you a drink. Even if only for a moment, there’s a fuss over you. It’s your day. I wager most of us like that.

Personally, I appreciate these milestones – a launch into what’s next in this adventure? Yes, yes, I know death is hovering even closer now, but we don’t know when we’re going to croak anyway – and as the inevitable approaches, I worry about it less. Maybe when my number comes up I’ll be clinging like a parachutist to the edge of the plane changing my mind about the leap, but for now I’m okay with imagining the end. That too is part of the great mystery of nature and spirit. Certainly another, ‘what’s next’? Don’t get me wrong, I love life. Even through the shit times, I have loved life. Now things are good for me so I’m very glad to hang around sharing the joys and more reluctantly, the sorrows of this planet. I’m happy to mark my birthday and I love how my community, past and present, rallies round to cheer.

Facebook sucks in many ways but I enjoy the cyber-celebration. No buying booze or making food or cleaning the house before or after and nobody feels like they have to buy you a present. Friends from across the decades and oceans reaching out with a wave to say – hey! I see you! I remember you! I love you! Who doesn’t like hearing people tell you that they care about you, that they miss you, that you’re important to them? It’s like a little mini version of a memorial service except we get to hear it all. Every message and greeting I received made me remember time spent with each of you, wherever and whenever that was. All precious memories and connections.

Of course I wish we could beam up into each others lives to share a cup or a glass and a proper catch-up. When this is possible and happens, I cherish such celebratory meet-ups more than I love a party. To really talk rather than the too-short chat possible at a party. I like parties too but prefer the one-on-one where it’s quiet enough to really look at and listen to each other. To hear about joys and sorrows, share memories, to remember why we decided to stay in touch in the first place. To spark, for an hour or two, that fire again.

Truth is, there is more of an urgency because with the passing years, days seem to disappear and losses come faster. It shouldn’t be so hard to see the ones we care about but distance and schedules and inertia get in the way. I am grateful for what seems an incredible and rich abundance of people I love and feel loved by. Here’s to all our birthdays – to celebrate that we were delivered into this world and then, remarkably, connected, came to like and maybe love each other. What magic!

Thank you for reminding me on my birthday about all this love – for the gift of our connection somewhere in this incredible journey we’re on. At the end of the day, at the end of the night, it’s all about that connection, all about shared love don’t you think?  I’m grateful for and nurtured by yours! XO

The Window Closes

He moved out two years ago this month. After more chances than I can count, I gave up. He already had. I’d been slow to accept defeat but when I did, I prepared myself that things wouldn’t end well for him. When his sister called to tell me she’d found him it was some version of what I was expecting. What surprised me is the wave of terrible sadness I am flailing in. I thought he could no longer break my heart. I thought we were done.

Yesterday, his friend Ian and I went to his house to salvage what we could of music and his instruments – an effort to lessen the sense of waste and for me, to search for clues. I asked Ian if he ever spoke about me and was it with anger. He said, never anger – only regret.

We’d known each other a long time – had tried and failed at romance 20 years earlier so when we reconnected again, it was magical. His smile always made me weak in the knees – but there was more: his long, graceful limbs, beautiful face, that jawline. Even aging, his enviable head of hair turned perfect salt and pepper. And he was funny. So damn funny and a mischievous prankster. And so smart – patiently trying to explain string theory and black holes to me as my eyes glazed over. He understood and actually loved Charles Ives and Stravinsky – but most of all, Zappa who inspired his own complex, quirky music that he worked on constantly. He was a brilliant musician – as in everything, going for the difficult, mastering complicated drum riffs. When he moved in here, he built a studio in the basement and Molly and I always loved hearing him play the drums.

My friends became his friends, our home – his. He couldn’t believe his luck. But none of it was enough. A story I’d already lived through before. And again, I chose to save myself and Molly.

A few months after he’d moved out, he came over for a cup of coffee and asked me if maybe, maybe if  he could get healthy, maybe when he’s seventy — we could get back together. I told him yes, of course there’d be a chance –  he was a great love of my life. We both knew our story would not really end that way, but in a flash of fantasy, a window opened for a breath of hope.

Just last month, he turned 62. I’d watched his painful disappearing act over these last years and thought I had already braced myself – but his final exit – breaks my heart. Goodbye my sweet love.

Carving a Life

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The other day I was visiting a friend with enviable wood piles stacked around her house. One stack in particular caught my eye. I took a few photos of the wood and asked my artist friends to help identify it. Sure looks like cherry (most agreed) although the bark is birch-like. See how it curls away like paper? For the first time in forever I had an impulse to get my chisels out and start carving again.

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I used to identify as a sculptor. To pay the bills, I waitressed and in Japan, taught English, working as little as possible so I might have time to hack at some piece of wood or stone. Mostly wood. After I left Japan, I moved to NYC and by necessity, worked in less noisy mediums like painting and collage. Then I went on mission with the United Nations, got married, had a baby, worked like a dog to hang onto my house and clothe and feed my daughter as (virtually) a single parent. I still count my pennies to hang onto our beloved home but Molly is a Senior in college now and starting to feed and cloth herself. We’re both at the cusp of something. And that beautiful wood stacked for burning, called to me.

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I still have my incredible tools given to me 30 years ago by a remarkable Sensei in Kyoto – that’s another post entirely – a beautiful story. I have space in the basement and nobody would be disturbed by the repetitive thwonk-thwonk-thwonk of my mallet hitting my chisel into the wood. Even if I just get a piece and set it up and sharpen my tools and then — sit… just sit. That’s a lot of what carving entails for me: sitting and staring at the wood or stone. It can take days, weeks, before I want to touch it, before something comes over me, like a spirit – a weird force and I go at. The thing is to wait for that moment. It’s magical.  At least that’s what I remember.

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Behind my house in Kyoto – with bad hair and worse shoes.

I have this feeling of being on the brink. Of what, I don’t know how but it feels exciting and mysterious. Maybe this is just what I need now — to go back to that mystical contemplation until I recognize something and can excavate – that’s the experience I remember from carving. And the sheer physical, emotional joy of that spirit moving me.

I thought I wouldn’t sculpt anymore – I have enough big wooden things collecting dust around my house (shipped all the way from Japan – oy!) and I discovered how much I love writing and that when it’s going well, I also can reach a kind of ‘zone’. And honestly, I don’t want more stuff and that’s what you end up with. But that wood caught my eye – like a chance at love and I don’t ever want to say no to love.

Out of Shape: A Ramble

My writing muscles have atrophied from lack of use. Here’s what happened today when I decided to sit down to blog:

I’ll wash the dishes first. Is that a cloud? I better take the laundry off the line. Phew, it’s hot! I need a cold drink. I better refill the ice tray. Now I have to pee. I’ll text Molly and see when she’s heading back from her weekend jaunt out of town. I’ll just read the first section of the newspaper…

You get the idea. In the end it took me nearly an hour to finally hunker down. This is typical these days as is using the delete key like crazy, backspacing out as many words as I write, sometimes clearing away full paragraphs so I’m facing the same blank page I began with. Left to ferment, my perpetual inner-critic has grown bigger than ever.

From lack of use, I struggle to find my voice again. And then there’s the existential part. Why do it? This is what I’ve been wrangling with.

Last autumn I experienced a big change – I felt like a rock at low tide – upended to reveal things I never imagined beneath me. I’ve yet to process it all and will not do it here except to say I ended things with the man I’d lived with for 10 years. Elizabeth Gilbert wrote a brief statement about the break-up of her marriage that resonated with me. “…I trust that you understand how this is a story that I am living—not a story that I am telling.” I can write about my late husband because he’s dead and because my daughter’s okay with it. Thanks to the gift of time, I do so from a loving place. But this new chapter in my life, put my writing life on pause.

Did you see Everything is Copy the excellent documentary about Nora Ephron by her son? I flinched more than once at how meanly, even if brilliantly, she wrote about people in her life that she’d once cared for. I don’t have the stomach for inflicting pain with my writing. My blog once went ‘viral’ read by thousands a day for a few days. Part of the blog was critical about someone I didn’t know, who I never imagined would read it since I usually had only a few dozen followers. My thrill at having so many hits was eclipsed by a sick feeling when the person (not identifiable except to her) read it and let me know. I was mortified, deleted the reference and still feel badly. I could never be a critic! And where does that leave me as a writer, period? Am I brave enough to write without restraint? I grapple with that.

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Then there are safer subjects – my meanders through the world, observing nature through the seasons. Without the sweet ritual of morning walks with Tetley who died in early Spring, I have floundered. My quiet time out on the street at the beginning, the end of the day, to look at the sky, smell the change of seasons, search for the songbird in the wood, feel the grit or slip under my feet. This discipline put me in a good place to write from – all senses alert. I miss that, but no I’m not ready for another dog. For one, it’s not fair to leave a dog alone all day and I haven’t won the lottery yet and must keep my day job.

Why write? Why blog? Even an inkling of those questions will halt my presses and the less I wrote these last months, the more I questioned.

I started this blog years ago on the advice of someone in publishing who said I should ‘establish an internet presence’. Initially I was reluctant thinking it self-indulgent. I hesitated to reveal myself to complete strangers – or even friends. Ironic since I’m also flogging my very personal memoir.

But in blogging I discovered the joy of being read. And of reading other blogs. And the tremendous benefit in regularly excavating, spewing and honing and finally letting go of something, surrendering it to the world.

Ultimately I know getting in shape is like any exercise: it’s about discipline. I also know it’s worth it. When I am in the flow of writing a piece, even if only for 30 minutes before going to work, I get to carry it with me as I go about my day, incubating my piece. It almost feels physical – a sense of well being, excitement.

That’s it, I guess – why I write at all. I feel better for living a creative life. In examining the unexpected world beneath that rock at low tide, I learn things about myself. Writing helps me figure out where I am, where I to go. Sometimes I think you, my dear readers, find it interesting too. I cherish that and frankly – wouldn’t do it without you.

Building Fences

garden fence

Some lessons have come to me late in life including the importance of a good fence. My daughter and I recently replaced our vegetable garden fence – formerly a patchwork of flopping metal. It had no gate which meant leaping over the prickly wire, sometimes catching clothes or skin. Fixing that fence had long been on my endless home improvement wish-list.

I hesitated to spend money on materials when there is so much else that needs to get done – but Molly said, “You love gardening, it makes you happy – let’s do this.” And so we did. We bought posts and a few rolls of small-mesh wire fencing and borrowed our neighbor’s electric staple gun. We took turns hammering in the posts. I love swinging a hammer. Remembering my days as a sculptor, letting the weight of the head do most of the work, watching and feeling the nail settle into the wood, and finally, the satisfaction of making something strong. Molly was better than me at handling the staple gun, shooting them in with a pop as I held the fencing taut. I’m particularly proud of the gate. We don’t have a drill so I twisted the screws into the hinges by hand then hung it by myself after leveling the base just-so.

Now, my tomatoes, lettuce, herbs and flowers will be protected from ravenous rabbits and the resident bully of a groundhog.

I look at our handiwork and realize another reason I wanted to fix that fence. The process and completion of this simple, imperfect structure affirms what feels like a new stage of my life – clear, strong boundaries built with love – and a gate that easily opens when needed.

beach fence

 

This House, This Home

 

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Armed with addresses of houses within our budget, I’d drive-by properties to take a look on my own. Pulling up to this sweet place for the first time, the atmosphere seemed to change and I felt like I’d gone back in time. It was late summer and the white cape dwarfed by trees with a hedge setting the property apart from the quiet street, called to me. This one, I told Mary Lou, I want to see this one.

An old woman named Mrs. Henderson lived here before us. Her only son lived down south and somewhat reluctantly, she was moving to be closer to him. She’d lived in the house for 45 years. We quizzed her about the yard – Azalea shrubs, a Dogwood (that has long since died) Forsythia and a long bank of Peonies. She and I sat on the porch together. With every breeze, the leaves seemed to applaud. It’s been a happy house, she told me as she watched Neil lead Molly across the lawn. I knew she liked us and wouldn’t dicker about our lower bid. Charming Neil and earnest me with our darling daughter, almost two. They will be happy too, she must have thought.

living room

This 1938 Cape with charming glass doorknobs and a fireplace, hardwood floors badly in need of refinishing and a water tank barely able to accommodate one of Neil’s hot baths became ours. The place needed a lot of work but our budget was limited so we did little to improve it. The year Neil died, I somehow managed to put a new roof on.

When I fantasize about winning the lottery, I don’t imagine buying some fancy joint, I’d finally fix up this one. I would put in a new bathtub, finally refinish the floors, replace the drafty old windows, maybe add second bathroom on the first floor. And I’d definitely tear down the garage of such sad history and replace it with a sweet live-able studio.

house in snow

At times, I wonder about remaining here – mostly because of money, doubts about whether I can do it all myself, but also, because unlike Mrs. Henderson’s years, on our watch, this house has seen great sadness. Within a only few months of moving in, money began disappearing, Neil started sleeping all day, losing jobs and ignoring home responsibilities including his wife and daughter. Finally, I learned of his addiction. Years of struggle followed – cycles of hope and despair until he ended it all here at our home. Someone else might have moved away but I never blamed this house and memories fade with time. Somehow, we always come back to joy here because, there is our love, Molly’s and mine. One I dreamed of.

chair window

My journals written in my twenties and early thirties are full of longing for a home, a craving for a place, for love. And even with sadness, old and new, this place has been that. Next year Molly and I will have been here 20 years. Our home, this house, remains rich with the most profound love I have ever experienced – for my daughter who I have raised within these old walls. And this is her home as well as mine, this house where the floors have never been refinished, where the old pipes leak and that cast iron boiler just better hang on for at least another winter.

I have spent these last snowy days inside this shabby, beloved house watching the light change through the hours, sitting in the warmth of sun pouring in the windows. Later, I will light a fire and finally, climb the creaky stairs to bed and with sweet old Tetley curled at my feet, I will sleep. And I think, this is a house of happiness. In fact, sheer joy. And when Spring comes and the leaves come out, I know they will applaud again.

Wondering About Belief

 

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As people flock to catch even a glimpse of Pope Francis during his visit to the United States, I wonder about faith. The lackadaisical religious training of my upbringing (4 years of Catholic School) is long gone but I love this remarkable spiritual leader as he rejuvenates the conscience of the church, of all of us, demanding we pay attention and act against injustice, poverty. How can we not be moved? He gives me belief in humanity – a good place to start.

Because of too many recent deaths, I have been in different churches celebrating and grieving lives of those gone. It’s good there are places to do this. I flailed after my husband’s death – not knowing where or even how to hold a service but thought it important to have one for my daughter, for me. I remain ever grateful to the Unitarian Minister who guided me with poetry in his beautiful church. But it was mostly him that drew me – the congregation was too white and wealthy to become my community.

To some extent, I envy the assurance of my wise friends of faith. They know where to turn to make sense of the world, they find comfort believing their loved ones are welcomed by a benevolent God after death. It’s a beautiful story but I don’t feel that belief. During prayers, I bow my head in quiet reverence and appreciate the hum, the music, the silences of the faithful I stand with and envy the ready community to be found in a church of shared faith. But I don’t share it.

And I wonder – how others feel so sure in their belief and why I don’t. I joke about being a recovering Catholic and that recovery takes a lifetime. But even that gives more weight to the impact my early childhood religion had on me. I was done early. I went to Catholic school until 3rd grade and in 4th or 5th, had the misfortune of encountering a mean priest in confession. Other than funerals and weddings, my family no longer went to church nor did we ever pray or discuss faith. It didn’t stick.

Even as I join with others in church, knowing I am welcome, sure my questions would be embraced, I feel a foreigner who doesn’t quite understand the language. I’m glad for the visit, sometimes, even exhilarated by the energy, the force of many voices raised together, the easy support they give each other, the love offered. I listen carefully and sometimes join the prayers waiting to be moved, for them to feel like anything more than a recitation and –  am not. So there you have it.

Yet, walking home from a love filled memorial service in a beautiful old church yesterday evening, the moon appeared huge and bright on the horizon. My heart filled and I felt the wonder of the earth beneath my feet spinning through the universe.

Aging with Vinegar & Honey

Olive kitteridge

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

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

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

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

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

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