I’m 59. Fifty-nine years old.

No matter how old I get — or maybe it’s just true the older I get — I don’t think I’ll ever understand why people are unwilling to say their real age. (Or why they dye their hair to hide grays, for that matter, though dyeing your hair for a cool color really is loads of fun.) FOR ME, every day that I get to keep living is a wonder.

I’m 59 today: thirteen years older than my dad ever got to be; decades older than I ever imagined I’d see, since I never thought I would make it out of my teens alive; decades of life I got to live despite a couple of suicide attempts (thank God for guns that misfire and for other saviors); and today celebrating in a place I never could have imagined even if I’d tried.

Last year on my birthday, I thought we’d have our first female president a couple of days later so I was filled with excitement and hope for that. And then two days later — while I was still celebrating my birthday fortnight — the world crashed and burned around me and this past year has been its own kind of hell, that all of us around the world know, and we in this country are suffering through. It ruined my birthday joy last year, although that was certainly the least significant aspect of it that one could possibly imagine. It has been a brutal year. I’ve gained 22 pounds from stress eating, even though I’ve been essentially hiding in the mountains for the last few months and I have not watched anything on television since the election because there doesn’t seem to be any program that doesn’t include clips of him speaking.

SO, to happier perspectives. I’m 59 today. I have three glorious, glorious grandchildren, and my daughters are the light of my life. My son is still hiding from us all, and it hurts as much today as it did from the beginning, but he is alive and so there remains hope. My husband and I are enjoying our lives together, in this way we’ve fashioned that works so well for us both. I live in this glorious place — never would’ve imagined such a thing! — with my beloved creeks and bench, and mountains and forests all around, and beautiful solitude. I can also live in Manhattan whenever I wish or need, with my beloved Riverside Park just right over there, and people and buildings all around, and beautiful noise.

My mind still works, and as long as this sleep remedy works, my mind is working a little better every day, I feel the sharpness starting to be visible in the distance, at least. My body still works, and if I can just re-establish my yoga practice it will return to its strength and flexibility that it had before the election. My health is fantastic, not just in terms of the absence of illness, but in the robustness of life. I’m extremely lucky, and I thank whatever combination of genes and good fortune for it, and promise to try to help keep that going. I want to be around a very long time, until I’m just a dusty little bag of bones that hardly makes an indentation in the bed, where I hope to die peacefully in my sleep….decades from now. (I’m now only 5’8″!!!! I was 5’11” so this is startling, but I guess I’m on the path to the dusty little bag of bones. 😉 )

The state of my inner life is perhaps the best it has ever been. Getting older really does do wonders for you — at least, it has for me. It’s kind of hard to parse this, since the trauma of this Republican nightmare is an ongoing source of stress and awfulness for me, but if I pause and let that sit off to the side (as if you can do such a thing), I am more at peace with myself than I’ve been yet in my life. I’m at peace with my dad, I got to ‘thank’ my darling Big Daddy for what he gave me, I’m comfortable with my physical self, I can accept the good things I recognize about myself, and the bad things about me feel less stabby and hateful. Maybe this is an aging kind of laziness; when I become aware of my weaknesses and my flaws, I just kind of shrug — ah, well, maybe next time. And it’s hard to figure out why I’ve spent my life trying to act like I’m not an intelligent and serious person, but I have and I don’t feel the need to do that any more.

In my last year of life, we traveled to Indonesia, and we bought this house. We drove the 16′ truck from Austin to Heaventree, and I started an entirely new way of living. I visited my wonderful Marnie-family in Chicago three times (once in March, once in July en route to Heaventree with my car, and once in October), and I went back to Austin to see my marvelous Katie-family once in October. I had countless drinks and dinners with friends who keep my life filled with laughter and connection and our shared hearts. Lynn came to Heaventree, our very first visitor. I read a bunch of great books (the best being Her Body and Other Parts, by Carmen Maria Machado; Antigonick, by Anne Carson, Human Acts, by Han Kang; and House of Names, by Colm Toibin). For the very first time in our lives together, Marc and I didn’t take a fall vacation and I grieve that a little bit, but we bought the house and sank a lot of money into it so that’s the balance.

Here is my year in people-pictures, and seeing each one makes my heart swell to nine times its size. I’m not even going to try to put them in chronological order, and they don’t represent everyone I was lucky enough to see, but scanning through them shows me how very lucky I’ve been. (hover over a photo to see its caption, or you can click to see them as a slideshow if you’re interested.)

I also started doing my little daily “creekside chats” on Facebook and that has been an unexpected joy and growth experience for me. I’ve become so much easier with myself, as a result. I feel differently about my mouth, as a result, and those decades of shame seem to have crumbled and fallen away into dust. I have the deep feeling of having started my day with people I love, seeing your faces and saying good morning, and sharing my view of the world around me.

Thank you for your friendship, your comments, your presence here and in my larger life. Thank you for your well wishes, and for your care. Thank you for the various kinds of help you’ve given me over the last year, and most especially for the way you share your lives with me, however that may be. You definitely help make my life the full joy that it is.

So here’s to 59! May I gather myself together and lose the dreaded T-weight that signifies my trauma. May I continue to have good health, and may my children and grandchildren do the same. May you stay healthy and happy, and in my life. May I read good books. May I relish my solitude at Heaventree, and my noisy happiness in Manhattan. Happy birthday to me.

(And looking ahead to my next birthday, I put in my gift wish list now, so you can prepare. I turn 60 ON ELECTION DAY, the mid-term elections. I just want one thing, and for once I’ll ask everyone for a gift. Just vote blue. Just vote blue and that’s all the gift I need.) (Think about it, I’ll ask again a couple of days before the date.) <3

What is it I need?

If you are my Facebook friend, you’re probably at least aware that I’ve been doing little “creekside chat” videos every morning, whether you watch them or not. I started making the little videos for a few reasons:

See what I mean? This is the view from my kitchen window. WOW.
  • My new home is so very beautiful and most of the time I’m here alone and really just want to share it! I sit on my little bench and look around, wishing I could say to someone, “Look at that! Isn’t that amazing!”
  • My friend in NZ, Kirsten Duncan, said something to me that hit me right in the most vulnerable spot I might have — and I mean that she hit me with love, and started the process of changing something for me. My whole life I’ve been so ashamed of my mouth and teeth and she said, in passing, that she loved to watch my mouth move, and friends in Oz and NZ always say they love my accent — so that’s a twosome that wrapped love around the things I feel most vulnerable about. I first just made a tiny video sitting in the car waiting for Marc one Saturday, and their comments were so loving and encouraging that I got the idea to do more of them. They began as an exercise in courage and vulnerability and forcing myself out of that little shame prison.
  • Starting my day saying hi to the people I have in mind when I’m talking has just been the best gift. Whether they watch (happen to watch a specific day, or watch at all) isn’t even really the point. The point for me is that I’m seeing their faces when I talk to my phone, even though the literal face on the screen is my own, and so I get to speak directly to people I love, and share my place with them.
my humble little bench, where I sit by Hatchery Hollow Creek and record the chats

I generally keep the videos at five minutes or less, because it feels silly and self-indulgent to just ramble on and on and on – and since I’m just talking extemporaneously, talking for longer than that doesn’t even really feel possible! Most days I don’t have the first clue what I’ll say, when I’m approaching my bench — I know I’ll start with good morning, but then the rest is a mystery to me.

SO what has surprised me so much is how deeply those brief chats have satisfied my need to talk. I think this is why I haven’t been writing here — I already said what I had to say, and after that I’m content to be here in silence, happily alone with my thoughts. Who’d have thought? Who’d have thought that talking to myself out loud — with an assumed Other — for such a short time is really all I need?

My first husband, Jerry, was/is an almost completely silent man, and not emotionally expressive (at all) and also not very affectionate or connecting. I know I’ve told this story before but it’s so heart-breaking; I told him once that I knew he could be affectionate, I’d seen him do that with the dog. He told me that the dog didn’t demand it, and then later that he could be that way with the kids because they did demand it. It was so lonely living with him. Another time he said there was no point in trying to be that way with me because I was just a bottomless pit, and however much he might give would never be enough anyway. I still wince at the cruelty of that comment. But it turned out that my needs really aren’t that big — maybe I learned to thrive on just a little — and this talking thing is another one like that.

I have the most loving, generous, encouraging people in my life. Dear Mudd has suggested that I create a YouTube channel for the chats, and that’s on my list — in that case I could add them here. At the moment I have plenty of work, and as a starving freelancer, work takes precedence over everything else when it’s available. If you follow this blog and are on FB, but aren’t yet my FB friend, click this link and then send me a friend request! At this point, my feed is generally photography, poetry, stuff about books, stuff about my grandkids, and these little daily chats. I had to stop posting about politics (though I slip once in a while, increasingly rare though) because it was keeping me too angry. So I hope my feed is mostly about beauty, and my little daily visits with my friends.

I’m not saying I’m abandoning this blog — perhaps I’m just in a fallow period, as happens to all of us who blog. This is just a little note of explanation, and a waving to you. <3

on civil discourse

How do we do this thing? We have been this far apart from each other twice, in our country’s history:

  • The Civil War, during which one half of us thought owning human beings was just fine, and the other half disagreed.
  • The period around the Vietnam War, the 1960s and 1970s, when our country was bald-faced lying to us and happily sacrificing thousands of our boys for a fight that wasn’t ours at ALL, and when black people and gay people and women were simply trying to be treated like actual human beings and not substandard crap to be swept aside by mainstream white man America.

Here we are again. Let me immediately confess and agree that I am as unyielding as any Republican, and I have no idea at all how we can ever move forward. I look back at our history and I see/guess that we have moved forward from those two terrible periods, but at the same time I have to wonder that we keep finding ourselves in this same bi-polarized place, so did we really move forward? Or did we just tire of the fight, and agree to shut the fuck up for a while?

I read arguments noting that we have to be able to come to the table, talk to each other, but this is always what stops me. It’s not like we’re talking about arcane issues like how exactly to approach the debt ceiling. I am unwilling to “negotiate” on such issues as these:

  • Black people and all people of color have the same human rights as white people, and the country has been set up quite exactly to ensure the privilege of the white people.
  • Women, as “human beings,” have the right to decide what happens to themselves.
  • All of us should pay our share, including the rich people and businesses.
  • Gun control needs to happen immediately, as it has in all civilized countries.
  • One critical function of the federal government is to provide a safety net for the less-strong among us. The federal government does not exist solely to fund the military and give everything else to the rich people.
  • All of us, even the impoverished, should have access to healthcare — which means affordable healthcare. We should be able to make the same decisions for our lives regardless of our wealth status, and we should not be having to organize gofundme accounts to help save our lives. That is so outrageous. At this very moment, I know two people fighting cancer who are begging for help with gofundme accounts. If that doesn’t give you pause, get the fucking hell away from me immediately.
  • Religion has no place in government and laws. We are not a theocracy.

[I HATE FUCKING REPUBLICANS SORRY I JUST HAD TO SCREAM THAT FOR A SECOND.] [AND YES, THAT MEANS YOU IF YOU ARE ONE.] [NOT SORRY.]

If we were able to meet on some crazy idea of common ground, accepting the same general principles that characterize the most basic humanity, then it would be a debate about how best to accomplish these goals. But it isn’t. I don’t want to unnecessarily play the Hitler card, but I’ll do that here. How could we sit down and say:

“OK, so you think it’s OK to eliminate a whole people systematically and I don’t, so let’s find a way forward.”

FUCK THAT. Fuck the hell out of that, and I mean that with an almost violent passion. I no longer have the time or energy to give to silent ‘friends’ who won’t take even the silliest of public stands….Facebook. If, at this point, I don’t know where you stand, I am not your friend. Being vaguely “against hate” while watching Fox News does not cut it, at all. I know who you are. You have shown me exactly who you are. I no longer have the time or energy to give to ‘friends’ who see the world so profoundly differently. To friends who were temporarily broke while putting their husbands through med school and then say they understand and talk about people “pulling themselves up by their bootstraps.” Perhaps it’s terrible of me. I leave a lot of space for that to be true. But this is me, and I just can’t do it anymore. So let me say all this as plainly as I can. And yes, this refers to you.

If you’re silent, you are not my friend. If I don’t know where you stand, you are not my friend. You are simply someone I ‘know.’

Friend has a different meaning to me now. If you hold a position that could get someone I love killed, I cannot be your friend. If you think women don’t have a right to self-determination, I cannot be your friend. (Believe whatever you want for yourself, I would never argue with you as long as you believe all women have that same right as you do, even if you disagree with what they choose and believe. I would never hold that your personal beliefs are wrong, as they apply to you. I would defend your right to believe them.) If you think there isn’t a systemic anti-POC stance, I cannot be your friend, because I have no sense of your intelligence. If you think your religion should determine my rights, I cannot be your friend. (If your beliefs apply only to you, I would never argue with you, and I would defend your right to your own beliefs for yourself.) If you think non-violent protestors have no right to protest, I cannot be your friend. If you think there should be no gun control laws, I cannot be your friend. If you are so silent that I have no idea what you believe, I cannot be your friend, even if occasionally you send me — privately — a note that contradicts your public claims, and claims you have made to my face. You are a threat to my life, and to the lives of those I love.

I’m drawing a line. It may make me small, it may make me no-better-than-them, but I have to live with myself. These are bleak times. It’s us against them, and my heart and soul are against them. I will defend Lucy’s humanity as a some-day woman with my very life. I will defend my grandchildren’s futures with my life. I will defend my gay son’s rights with my life. I mean that literally, and I would prefer to live to be a dusty old woman, a bag of brittle old bones, but their futures matter more to me than my own, at this point, so if you’re on the other side, you are against me. Also, I do not give even one shit if you used to protest for the good side, if you’ve since moved to the other side. Quit bragging. You are a hideous hypocrite. And yes. I mean you.

And I am against you. You are not on my side, and I will fight to my last breath to oppose you. Nothing has ever mattered more to me. I’m old[er] and wise[r] and know what matters to me, and I just do not have a second to waste.

And yes. I am furious.

Notice! Notice!

In graduate school, I studied the immune system for a couple of semesters because the work being done in our lab had been shown to have an effect on it. Writing about a traumatic experience gives your immune system a boost in all kinds of ways, lots of evidence about it even though there is no explanation for why, since we can’t randomly assign people to have a traumatic experience — so no causality in an explanation, but it’s a reliable relationship, and a significant one.

I remember my surprise at learning the “immune system” isn’t really a “system.” Not like the circulatory system — it’s more this loose amalgamation of processes and organs that kind of hang around together, but not like the heart/lung/arterial-venous collection. And I also remember my surprise when I learned that the way I’d been thinking about it had been kind of bassackwards. Like everyone else, I had the experience of getting sick after a prolonged period of stress, and my take on it had been that my immune system crashed, had failed, had let me down. But actually it had been brilliant! It had been soldiering on throughout the stress, and when finally the stress ended, and it had done its job to keep me going when I needed it most, like me it could collapse a bit. I felt kind of bad for having dissed it all those years. 🙂

Do you have the same experience I have, of hearing yourself say something and suddenly you know the absolute truth of it — and you didn’t know you knew it until you heard yourself say it? I’m sure you do. This happens all the time when I’m writing, but in recording my little daily creekside chats, I’ve surprised myself by those kinds of tiny but not-tiny truths that slip out, and I hadn’t known that I knew such a true thing. A week ago, more or less, in preparing to talk about two war documentaries I’d watched (WWII and Vietnam), I opened by saying hello to all of us, so full of life. I guess that came from a moment of gratitude that we are alive, when so many have died in the awfulness of war, but that’s not what I meant, and I knew it in the moment I said it. I meant something much more electric than that, and it was a similar kind of misunderstanding to the one I had about the immune system. I got this bassackwards, too.

At the moment, there are several people I care about a WHOLE LOT who are dealing with life-edge situations of illness and real grinding hardship. I haven’t yet been on the illness life-edge, but I’ve had so many experiences where my life might not have continued, whether because of a gun to my head, literally by my father’s or my own hand, or by the extreme difficulty of a life situation, and in those times I have felt not very much alive. I’ve felt like the life inside me was nearly gone.

But I have had it all wrong.  Bassackwards. In those dread and dire moments, my life was pounding in me. Friends who are being poisoned by chemotherapy to save their lives, friends who are grappling with the remnants of a brain scavenged by stroke, friends who are battling organs that have given up the ghost — life is screaming in them, too. Friends whose lives are in a crisis that feels impossible and overwhelming, life is screaming in them. In fact, life, the force of life, is screaming so loud it’s almost deafening. It’s a force, an electric charge, a phenomenon. It’s in us, pulsing blue, when we’re doing boring tasks like grocery shopping and putting away clean dishes. It’s in us, pulsing blue, when we are feeling despair, or loneliness, or emptiness. It’s easily recognizable in us, pulsing blue, when we are enjoying our lives, but what a mistake it is not to recognize the aliveness that’s always there. On July 29, 2013, I had a strange dream that was like a slideshow, and each slide was a very loud color. One tiny part was that the two scars on my arm from an earlier surgery were glowing with a brilliant blue LED light, and the blue light was all inside me, leaking out through my pores. For some reason I don’t know, this has always been blue, to me. What color is it for you?

Right there — in those old scars where the fixator had been screwed into my bones, blue light was shining out.

This is such a little gift some deep part of myself gave me. Ever since I said that, an unprepared sentence that emerged from my mouth, I have felt differently, thought differently, as I move around in my quiet little life. I walk to the creek, filled with electric blue life. I sit in my chair reading a manuscript, literally vibrating with blue life. I lock up the house at night to head upstairs in the silence, electric blue life shimmering all around me for any with eyes to see. Like me, for instance.

If it’s hard for you, if you’re fighting for your life, life is fighting for you too. None of us are going to win, ultimately, but it’s the only fight that matters, and we fight it every single day — some days it feels like a fight, some days it feels like a mountaintop joy, but it’s always there. Always. It’s the biggest gift, this awareness, and of course I can’t say anything with absolute certainty in this regard, as a person who has 8-year cycles of suicidality, but I hope this truth from deep inside me helps see me through. Hello you, so full of life. I see you there. I see that force of the universe animating you, vibrating you, affecting everything around you. How dearly I love you.

the Just World Hypothesis

I’m here to offer yet another plug for aging. Getting older can be so marvelous, because you start to see with clarity. (Not everyone; I’ve known some bitter, small, mean old people who became concentrated nuggets of ignorance.) But if you’re lucky — or whatever, however this works — you understand more and more. And the funniest thing is that your understanding gets simpler and simpler:

 

  • It’s all one thing.
  • You are who you are.
  • Life happens to everyone, and we all die.

I think it all boils down to that. Just because it’s so simple, however, doesn’t mean it’s simple to talk about. And just because it’s so simple, that doesn’t mean you can just tell other people, younger people, what you have learned and suddenly they have the same complexity of understanding. For me, anyway, it has taken living my years to be able finally to see this.

Simple complexity, impossible to say clearly, but I’ll try, and I’ll start with a social psych principle called the Just World Hypothesis. It’s a more elaborated idea than this thumbnail, but basically it’s a deep belief that we get what we deserve. That if we’re good, good things will come to us. Bad people get what they deserve. Etc. It unfolds into a whole ethical landscape of implications, but at the center that’s what it is. Like me, I’m sure you’ve frequently heard people wail, “Why me???” And then they provide the list of explanations for why X shouldn’t have happened to them. If it’s a health thing, the list includes their health-related behaviors. If it’s an accident, the list includes the ways they are always so careful. If it’s about their child, the list includes the ways their child was innocent and they were watchful parents.

Undoubtedly because of my childhood, the fact that I was born to a couple who wanted to destroy everyone and everything, I was disabused of the belief in the just world. And one freezing night, in an alley on the wrong side of town in Wichita Falls, I thought through it very carefully and solidified my understanding: shit just happens. Life happens to everyone. In a larger way, it’s all random.

And it’s all one thing: Life happens to everyone. Why would we ever think, even for a second, that only “good” things will happen to us? (And yet we do: Shelley Taylor’s work showed that people don’t believe things like house fires, bad car wrecks, serious illness, etc., will happen to them in their futures; that we all believe we’re above average (leading another psychologist to dub this ‘the Lake Wobegone effect,’ when the law of averages alone proves that we cannot ALL be above average.)) We must believe that because of some deep, unexamined reliance on this just world hypothesis.

And so once again I have to leave space for the possibility that I was luckier than most people to have the childhood I had. That’s not Monday morning quarterbacking, or brave, chin-quivering denial, it’s an understanding of the way it’s all one thing. My life is a whole, the experiences I’ve had all along the way are so woven into the cloth of who I am that it’s impossible to pull out a warp thread, a weft thread. It’s impossible to sit here, in my chair at Heaventree, and even begin to entertain some fantasy of what it would’ve been like to have had a loving mother, a father who didn’t try to kill me. A safe home. Security. It’s impossible to do that, the entire cloth of me disintegrates and there could be no “me” sitting here to ponder that question.

Whenever I hear someone ask, “Why me?” my only thought is, “Why not you?” Of course I never ever say that, because at that moment the person asking the question needs compassion and help, and this fact of “why not you” is completely irrelevant. There may come a time in their process when it makes sense to gently talk about it, if it helps them realize that they aren’t being punished, or whatever they are thinking, but never at that first wailing.

But really. Why not you? Why not me? Life is just happening, and often we are just in the wrong place. A knot forms in an umbilical cord. A car veers into the oncoming lane. Cells take a left turn and start dividing wildly. Myelin disappears, plaques form, bones honeycomb. Unexamined parts of ourselves commit an act of sabotage or treason and we won’t recognize it for years. And as impossible as it is to grasp in the thick of it, it’s all of a piece and the landscape of your life, and yourself, are bigger and more vast and complex, and this is one warp or weft thread in your tapestry. When I was a child, of course I had no perspective to understand this, and I mean that literally: those experiences did not have the context of life that followed them, they were my endpoints at that time, and they represented the bulk of my life. Assuming we survive the terrible thing that happens, and have the good luck of living to put it in perspective, there are good things to be drawn from it; we are changed by it, and to some degree it’s up to us how we are changed by it (emotionally and psychologically, at least) (and I mean to some degree it’s up to us).

When my life fell apart at the end of 2012, I was coincidentally reading a book about trauma survivors (one of my favorite topics) called When You’re Falling, DiveI really recommend the book to everyone, because if you are a magical unicorn and nothing bad ever happens to you, then at least you are going to know all the rest of us to whom bad things will happen because we are not magical unicorns — so you can learn a few things to be present with us. I highlighted dozens of passages in the book, but I share these two with this post, and encourage you to click that link and get the book:

“Survival doesn’t really mean anything without acceptance,” John explains. “That’s the paradoxical part. You have to take the thing that’s wrong and own it. Make it into something that has meaning for you. If you try to hide or negate it, it will just eat you up,” he says. “If you’re hoping for things to be other than they are—constantly wondering how or why something happened, or how to fix it—you’re lost. You’ll completely miss out on the graceful time you have.

“When people are in need, you must be present. When people suffer, you must let them know you’re suffering with them.” “The good side of bad acts?” I say. “I would not say that from horror comes goodness. That would be giving horror too much credit. But goodness prevails in spite of horror.

I’m not in the midst of trials in my own life, at the moment, so I acknowledge that it can feel like “easy for her to say.” But if you’ve known me long, you know that I say this even when trials do come my way, and this is part of the clarity of understanding I’ve gained as I’ve gotten older. It’s all one thing — the “good” and the “bad,” who we are, how we live, and that we are who we are with that entire context in place. We came into the world exactly who we are and we live the life we live and it’s all one thing.

It’s fascinating to me how utterly complex simplicity is, but that it can still be simple. Something to ponder on a beautiful Friday, the first day of autumn. xoxoxoxo

We just ARE who we ARE

When I was younger, I thought we made ourselves into who we are, but the older I’ve gotten, the more I realize that we come into the world exactly who we are, and the world does what it will do to us — but who we are was there from the beginning. And so I peer intently into my grandchildrens’ eyes…..Oliver, there from the start, exactly who he is. Ilan, there he is, I will know him always. Lucy, our delight and laughing glory, present from the get-go. And funny little mannerisms, I notice those too — physical examples of the same inner self that’s present. (And for that matter, my own children are who they’ve always been. It’s the most remarkable thing to realize. They were always there, right from the beginning, and I didn’t quite realize this yet.)

And I have always been who I am. Of course. I could be nothing else. I didn’t choose these things, we don’t choose these things, they just are. We just are. I’ve been reading Anne Carson every morning (Plainwater, at the moment, lingering with my morning coffee), and as she is trained as a classicist, there are references to Sokrates [her spelling], and Sappho, and in other works, Autobiography of Red, Herakles and Geryon. I have to regularly read The Odyssey, and I cannot wait to read An Odyssey. If you want to talk about Dante, I have a fondness for the John Ciardi translation, since it was the first one I read when Katie was a baby, but the newer translation by the Hollanders is so remarkable it’s my favorite.

When I was eight years old (-ish), I saw a commercial on television for a set of records that I wanted SO BADLY. I wanted to claw out my thigh muscles, I wanted them so badly. So I begged my dad to order them for me, with a promise to pay him back out of my allowance — which I did, and it took me a couple of years. When they arrived in the mail I was beside myself with excitement. I ran downstairs to my bedroom and played them on my junkie little record player (not a Fisher Price, but not much more than that) and 51 years later I still remember how that music made me feel. How huge. How outside-of-language. I didn’t know why, I didn’t know what it was, I didn’t know anything about it except how it made me feel.

Somehow, I have NO idea how, I still have the set.

Looks pretty good for 51 years old!
the selections

When I look at the records themselves, I see that I had clear favorites: Beethoven’s Symphony in C; Swan Lake; Peer Gynt (which I would go on to introduce my children to, with a fun game); Die Fledermaus (which I would go on to play in orchestra, on my flute, such a fun little part to play). Those tracks are worn down, and I can close my eyes and remember exactly how they made me feel. I was eight, I didn’t have any understanding of them AT ALL, didn’t know what they were, didn’t know the composers (or that there were “composers”), but they made me feel something big that I couldn’t put in words, and I needed them. I needed them badly enough to endure the cost.

My mother hated me for it, and told me over and over that I was just pretending to like it. That I was just “being that way,” which was so confusing to me because I had no idea what way I was “being” except for myself . . . but it was clearly shameful, and showing off, and acting as if I was something I wasn’t. My love of books was also a shameful thing, and among other reasons she shamed me for it, one terrible thing was that I chose reading over being with her and what pathetic priorities I had. So I became as tiny as I could. I hid my books and crawled underneath my bed with them, pulling myself as far back into the corner as I could, tucking pillows along the edge so I’d have warning if she came into my room so I could hide the book before she found me. Every year I won the school award for having read the most books, and I burned with the shame of that, and was grateful that she never came to the school for those ceremonies. I waited until she left the house to listen to my records, and I felt so much shame. Why did I need such shameful things?

She did her job very well, because it’s something I still, to this day, have to resist. The tug is very small at this point, but it’s always there. When I want to share my love of the kind of books I love, for example, I flinch a little bit at her shaming of me. And then, since I’m fifty-fucking-eight years old and have done a lot of work, of course I talk about them anyway. I don’t care, or judge you, if you don’t like Sophocles and Antigone and Homer. I don’t care if you’ve never read Dante, or Melville. I don’t care if you don’t have favorite passages of poetry, if you don’t have an impulse to name your home after a little phrase from a book by James Joyce. I don’t care! YOU BE YOU!! I just have to be me, too.

I was mindful of this when my kids were little, and tried to encourage whatever they were interested in, but this is a privilege of being a grandmother: I’m that much further down the road with it and now I stare into them and HAVE to encourage them to be exactly who they are, whoever that will be. I want to help them more than anything else in this world. They will be who they are, and that’s the most important thing in this whole world to me. I need them to be exactly who they are. They need to be exactly who they are. It’s not like I’ll be fighting their moms and dads — my kids are absolutely wonderful parents, encouraging their children — and whoo boy do they have an ally in their Pete. The kids are very little right now, all under the age of four, but when they start needing to be themselves more loudly, they’re going to find me grinning at them, begging them to come out and play.

Lucky me. Lucky, lucky, lucky me.

Letters as a Meditation

If we are friends on Facebook you might be aware of my daily “Creekside Chat” videos. I’m really enjoying making them — just a few minutes of conversation about something, and a reading on Sundays — because they give me a feeling of conversation with friends. This morning I talked about something that I thought I’d mention here, because I had a lot more thought about it than I mentioned in that short video. (I do try to keep those short, three minutes or so, but sometimes they stretch to five and I don’t want to push that.)

I’ve mentioned this here before, too, so I’ll just briefly mention it and move forward. Several years ago in the context of a personal restoration project, for 40 days I wrote an email to a different person in my life, telling them what they meant to me. It turned out to be a much bigger gift to me than to the 40 people who received surprise emails, although their responses showed me what a gift it was to them, to hear what they meant to someone . . . and that’s a gift I know too, from the times it has happened to me.

But you know, there are all kinds of people in our lives. When I was talking, in my Creekside Chat, I started thinking about my dad when I talked about the importance of knowing what we mean to others. For the briefest moment I had the automatic cliched thought we have about suicides — oh, if only he’d known what he meant to us maybe he wouldn’t have killed himself. But so quickly on the heels of that thought came the truth: he was a nightmare in my life. I was pregnant with my first child and knew that I couldn’t allow him to be alone with her, ever, and that was going to be awful, handling that. He wore me out, calling me drunk in the middle of nights ready to kill himself, me dancing as fast as I could trying once again to talk him out of it. His not-at-all contained rage and fury, terrorizing all of us. He broke his wife’s arm in their last fight. He spent his entire adult life trying to die, and it often felt like he wanted to take out as many people as he could in the effort. I very barely survived him, and it took me more than 30 years after his death to recover from the 23 years he was in my life.

As we drove the five hours from Austin to Tyler, the day he killed himself, his sister and I were complaining bitterly about him because we knew he was going to ruin their mother’s birthday (and of course he did — he killed himself on her birthday, a second act of cruelty to go along with the note he left blaming me). We said we wished he’d just go ahead and do it. We meant that. I meant that.

And of course he is the most extreme example of what I’m getting at, but the fact is that I couldn’t possibly write a letter to him that would feel good to him, and be honest. It would be a kind of ‘damning with faint praise’ thing. When my stepfather was dying, in prison, I was able to write a letter to him, a very brief one, and I thanked him for sneaking a milkshake to me once when Mother forbid me to have any food because I was a fat cow. He did that at great personal risk. Since he had written me a note asking forgiveness for the years of rape, and he gave me a small gift he’d made in prison, I found it (shockingly) simple enough to forgive, and to write that letter. It felt like quite a thing, that out of the 20+ years of knowing him, I had only one very small thing to say thanks for, but it was very heartfelt, my gratitude for that milkshake. I had remembered it for decades.

In a much more ordinary way, there are people in our lives whose friendship is fraught in ways that would make it harder to write an email of gratitude — like the no-longer-friend who relished my trouble and resented my happiness. Because, you know, we all have friendships of varying depth, or varying closeness. We have friends we count on in times of trouble, friends who really see us, friends who are just light and somewhere between acquaintance and friend, friends who we just expect to listen to because they have no interest in listening to us, friends whose gifts come with such very long strings that you want to refuse them. I’m thinking about taking up my daily email project again, and thinking about this more difficult category of friend, in particular — thinking about how hard it would be to find enough of substance to say in an email. But maybe there is greatest value in writing those emails, in particular. Maybe for me, having to really dig deep and look, and think; having to search a little harder; maybe that will help me value those friendships more. (Or maybe the effort will help me let go of the relationships!) And maybe for those individuals, receiving an email that came from a deeper search — that will locate those core gifts — will be more meaningful than the easier emails that relish the loud, visible gifts. I don’t know, but I’m thinking about it.

Dixie (and her mother) calls this “giving flowers to the living,” which is the whole idea in five simple words — why I’m not a poet, I need hundreds when five do the job so beautifully. That’s a great aim for today. You don’t have to do the deep hard work of finding words for the more difficult person today. Just today, just with an easy person, maybe, tell them what they mean to you. Tell them the gift they are to your life. Tell them in writing, so they can keep it. I’m still glowing from the note I found waiting for me when I woke up, and I will glow all day long. When my memory fades, as it’s guaranteed to do because ME-NOW, I can open it and read it again.

Yep. I think I’m going to start writing those letters again. I’d love to have your email address. If you don’t have mine, there’s an envelope icon in the right sidebar (in the “Find me elsewhere!” section) you can click on to email me.

xoxoxo