aftershocks

I can’t speak for everyone who did not want the orange monster to win our presidential election, but I can report about thousands of people. There are a number of huge groups that organized during the campaign, to provide a safe place for us to talk about our support for Hillary (or simply our fears about the orange monster) without fear of being attacked by the trolls. In honor of Hillary’s clothing choices on the campaign trail, the groups are called Pantsuit Nation. There is a national group, and state groups, and city groups. I belong to them all, and for both states and cities I live in. It’s a LOT. During the campaign, it was a haven, a wonderful place to share and support each other so we could get back out there and have the tougher skin to endure the nastiness and vicious threats.

But then. Then last Tuesday happened, and the groups became places to share our horror, our very real pain, the trauma that many of us are feeling. Those of us who have experienced sexual assaults, those of us who are women, those of us who are black or brown, or gay or trans, or who are (or even just “look”) Muslim, we’re all shaking. It’s not really getting better. We cycle through waves of numbness; days we can’t get out of bed; days we are afraid to leave the house because while we are white, our children are brown and we are scared for them; days of rage; days of feeling like we have to start fighting…but it’s everything, where do we start; days of feeling so hurt by the ‘winners’ who gloat and tell us to stop our whining; moments of real fear when the orange monster threatens people who protest. It’s really horrible. I personally know two people who have been attacked since the election — one very specifically in the name of the orange monster, but the other was clearly within the context.

Yesterday I attended a meeting of people from the Austin Pantsuit Nation, a huge crowd of people who are mobilizing to fight back, and to fight hard. We are mounting an opposition candidate to Ted Cruz in the next election. We are working on redistricting, and education (which is particularly terrible in Texas; as the biggest state in terms of textbook purchases, Texas has the most influence over what goes in our country’s textbooks and it’s creationism that goes in and evolution that goes out; it’s a rewriting of history to favor white people and denigrate black people and Mexicans); we are working on the various social justice concerns. We are organizing and it feels a little bit better than crying in my bed. And last night I marched in a protest through downtown Austin, thrilling to be in a crowd of people shouting and welcoming others to walk with us. It definitely feels better to act, but then I come home and wonder if the act was just a moment’s balm and nothing more.

But there have been some remarkable moments, too. Lots of friends on Facebook did not feel comfortable expressing their politics, for many reasons. But in this group, they can come out — the groups are secret, so whatever we share there does not show up anywhere else. I’ve learned that so many people I wondered about are actually as opposed to the orange monster as I am, so the circles around me are growing and I feel less alone. I’ve met so many people in those groups who really help me feel like no matter what the outcome, we are definitely going to be fighting loud and hard, and if we fail it won’t be because we didn’t try.

Mrs Worley
Mrs Worley

And then I was contacted by a woman with the last name of my third grade teacher, who I especially loved. In 1966, Mrs. Worley made me feel OK, and even special. Some of the kids were bullying me one day, and she put her arms around me and made the class apologize to me, one at a time, because those who weren’t bullying me had witnessed it and not stood up for me. She talked to the class a long time about it and I felt cared for, seen, and supported — and I’ve remembered her all these years. I also loved her classroom; she let me read whatever I wanted, and since I was so ahead of the class, she arranged for me to go to the principal’s office after school every day and read with him and talk about the things I was interested in. We didn’t have gifted programs back then, but she did what she could for me. I still remember talking to him about salamanders, for some reason. My life was pretty hellish, but going to school, seeing Mrs. Worley (who I thought was beautiful; I’ve since learned that she was a very well-regarded art teacher, winning art education awards again and again), and just getting to learn things from her was my beautiful escape. I asked the woman who contacted me if she had a relative who taught elementary school at Lucy B Read, and she said it was her mother, who died this past April. When I moved back to Austin in 2012, I actually looked for Mrs. Worley, but I didn’t remember her first name, so while I was sorry to hear that she’d died, it was so wonderful getting to tell her daughter what I would’ve told her — that a 58-year-old woman remembers her still, and has been grateful for her for 50 years.

And so things move the way they move. The world falls apart, we cling to each other, we find strength in each other, and in some ways that’s a lot and in others we don’t win despite all this. My own mood swings from despair and fear into quick glances of strength and action and then back again. I can’t turn the television on except to watch Netflix, for fear of having to see the monster’s face or hear his voice, but that’s OK.

Tomorrow I leave for NY, and a couple of days after that we’re off to Southeast Asia again. I hope I am able to relax, there, and enjoy being in the places I love so much. I hope I am able to recover my creative mind a bit. I hope we all survive.

Another happy birthday for me

Where I started. Graham Texas, Thursday, 11/6/58. Someone really should've put a blanket over me!
Where I started. Graham, TX, Thursday, 11/6/58. Someone really should’ve put a blanket over me!

 

This was such a spectacular year in my life, it boggles my mind. How can my life just keep getting better and better? And yet it does. These aren’t the best pictures from my year, or of each place, but they’re the ones I labeled “happy Lori” when I filed them away; this year,

 

We went back to Vietnam, and to a tiny fishing village on the coast of Thailand.

happy me, in Tam Coc
happy me, in Tam Coc Vietnam, in one of my favorite places: on a little boat in a gorgeous landscape

We went to southern China.

happy me, in the countryside around Yangshuo
happy me, in the countryside around Yangshuo — I was drunk on those karst mountains, man.

We went to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

happy, flying around Manistique Lake
happy, flying around Manistique Lake, getting to be part of a place that was important in Marc’s life.

Next week we’re off to Laos again, and back to that same tiny fishing village in Thailand.….so only the happy anticipation of that trip properly belongs with this year of my life.

My family grew so much this year!

Last Christmas, with my daughters and their families. We already knew Ilan was coming (obviously, look at Marnie!), but we didn't know Lucy would be coming, too.
Last Christmas, with my daughters and their families. We already knew Ilan was coming (obviously, look at Marnie!), but we didn’t know Lucy would be coming, too.

My grandson Ilan was born in March, and I got to be with Marnie and Tom in Chicago for a month, to welcome him to the world and to take care of their sweet family. Tom reached out to me this year in a way I will never, ever, ever forget (my eyes instantly fill with the hottest tears every time I think about it), and Marnie’s regular weekly phone calls to me are an ongoing treasure, more than she knows.

happy Pete, during a very quiet morning in the first couple of days of Ilan's life
happy Pete, during a very quiet morning in the first couple of days of Ilan’s life
And I got to go back and see him again when he was a few months old. ADORE.
And I got to go back and see him again when he was a few months old. ADORE.

My granddaughter Lucy was born in Austin in September, and I got to stay with sweet Oliver so Katie and Trey didn’t have to worry about any of that, and then I got to welcome Lucy home. The easy chances I have to see Katie, opportunities to spend time with her (which I love, she’s so sweet and funny and smart), opportunities to help out a little and be their regular old Pete, those moments are the real stuff of life and are a big glory in my heart.

so happy to hold my sweet little Lucy girl
so happy to hold my sweet little Lucy girl, applet of my eye
so happy dancing with Oliver, and swimming, and walking our very slow walks together
so happy dancing with Oliver, and swimming, and walking our very slow walks together, and listening to him call me Pete.

The BEST Halloween costumes — their mamas are so creative.

I got to cast my vote for a woman, for president. Two heroes entered my psychological world this year: Hillary, for the way she just keeps moving forward, she never gives up EVER, you knock her down and she gets right back up, ready to work as she has for at least 30 years; and John Lewis for his quiet persistence for 40 years. When I feel like giving up, I always think of them both, now. This year they joined Mister Rogers in my own personal pantheon.

happy and crying, my steady companion combo
happy and crying, my steady companion combo, but especially present as I voted.

I read so many wonderful books this year; especially, I found Vivian Gornick, Lidia Yuknavitch, Irene Nemirovsky, and Lucia Berlin, new favorites; Nemirovsky died in the Holocaust and Berlin is also gone, so I can only cherish the books they left behind — but Gornick and Yuknavitch (the latter most especially) are still writing, and on my forever watch list, now. My beloved poetry group continued meeting at my place throughout the year, and they shared so much extraordinary poetry with me, and taught me so many things I can never repay them. Our monthly meetings focused simply on reading and talking about poetry, all of us hyper-thrilled about that, what a pinch-me gift, man.

I spent time with so many beautiful friends in Austin and New York — and made new friends, too, an ongoing source of joy, to make new friends at this stage of my life. I’m so lucky to have friends who take me as I am. And I’m also lucky to have friends all over the world (shouting out especially to my antipodean beloveds, whose love I feel this far away, but also to friends in England and France and Canada. I fear this makes me seem like an extremely old person going on and on about these new-fangled devices called telephones, but I was once again blown away by Laura, calling me from Perth to sing Happy Birthday to me).

I’m always shy about getting a picture of us together, and I don’t know why — I so love having your pictures.

cindy
getting mehndi with my Cindy; I thought about using the photo of us celebrating my birthday together, but I liked the rhyme of “mehndi with my Cindy.”
don
my darling, precious friend Don, who calls himself (and is, in my life) my Jewish father.
girls
A subset of the “book club” women, my dear friends. Some are missing from this picture, (Anne, Diane, Jen….) but always with me otherwise.
nancy
Nancy, my boon companion and quirt-wielder and I don’t know what I’d do without her.
sherlock
Sherlock, one of my oldest, dearest friends. I wish I had a picture with Peggy.

This year I tried oysters and now cannot get enough. If I had a million dollars I would eat a million oysters. Thanks, Sherlock, for showing me how to eat them. And thanks, Nancy, for eating them with me too.

from the first batch, eaten with Sherlock
the first dozen, eaten with Sherlock
Also, I kept eating donuts. Because OBVIOUSLY.
Also, I kept eating donuts. Because OBVIOUSLY.
Marc's surprise for my early birthday celebration. He knows me. :)
Marc’s surprise for my early birthday celebration. 🙂
I got to make lots of delicious food for loved ones throughout the year, and even when the cake stuck, it was still MIGHTY GOOD.
I got to make lots of delicious food for loved ones throughout the year, and even when the cake stuck, it was still MIGHTY GOOD.

I went back and forth to New York City, and while that’s also quite hard and wearing, I never fail to also feel so lucky, like I get the best of two very different worlds. Marc and I continue to find our way to make things work for us, and I’m so grateful for that. When I’m in Austin, his morning texts start my day off with great joy (and usually mystery), and when I’m in NYC I delight in his delight in making food for me, and in the way he always takes my hand. We both grew this year in ways that were good for us individually, and definitely that were good for us together. Would I have dreamed any of this was possible in late 2012? NO. Even though I love every gritty, urban street and curb and subway platform (well, almost), I never get tired of walking in Riverside Park, ever.

park-snow
my beautiful park during the epic snowstorm
parksummer
and on any day in the spring, summer, or fall
Marc and I walk in the park every day, at least once
Marc and I walk in the park every day, at least once

I survived a few very hard things — in largest part because of my own strength, forged and honed over my 58 years of sometimes-difficult life, and in critical part because I have the best friends, who check on me all the time, like Dixie inevitably does and always at the right moment; who say my name to me over and over when I’m lost, like Nancy did when I was despairing one night; who call me darling, like Anne does when I’m in deep need; who sit next to me at parties or anywhere else when I’m barely there and help me through, like Lynn did at a big happy birthday party; who reach their hands out to me in ways immediate and virtual (oh gosh, all of you), and who also laugh with me, and share themselves, which is my favorite thing. The violent reappearance of my brother, after decades, and with scary threats, was probably my worst trouble this year, in ways most people can’t understand. That one nearly done the old girl in…..but I’m still here, blowing and going. And speaking of that, a book was dedicated to me this year:

I cry no matter how many times I read it.
I cry no matter how many times I read it.

I didn’t have nearly enough work all year; another year has passed without my son, an ongoing pain I’m not always sure I can bear; I caught the flu a couple of times, the worst on our terribly long travel day from Can Tho to Ho Chi Minh City to Bangkok to Trat to Mairood; the Republican candidate for president has left me feeling terrorized all year and I am praying so hard that goodness prevails; and as stressful as those things might be in moments, they pale in comparison to all the rest. Yep, being 57 was amazing. I’m the luckiest person in the whole world, with the best life, far better than I ever dreamed it could be, it would be.

Fifty-eight. Amazing.
Fifty-eight. Amazing.

Let me tell you this. It’s really a privilege getting to be 58. I’m proud of it! It’s a privilege to have lived so many years, to have seen the wonders and survived the pain; it’s a privilege to learn and grow; it’s a privilege to soften and open. My hair has more bright silver in it — so beautiful! Why would I want to pretend that isn’t true? When I smile, now, you can see the evidence of all the years I’ve smiled. My skin is changing, my memory isn’t the same, and that’s OK because it’s part of it, and I’m grateful to have the chance to have every part of it, every last bit.

Thank you for being in my life with me, in whatever form you’re here. Thank you for the words, the touches, the drinks and breakfasts and lunches and dinners, the happy hours, the notes, the calls, the many, many ways you hold our connection. Your presence, your words, your friendship, and your faithfulness mean the world to me, and I count myself so lucky to you know. Happy birthday to me, and now on to the next! oxoxoxoxox

my own pink cardigan

My mother was the black hole of maternal care. We kids made our own dinner (“fix-your-own,” which meant cereal every single night…which, to be honest, we didn’t mind); we made our own school lunches even when we were too little to do that, using whatever we could find (bits of old food wrapped in aluminum foil and gathered in an empty plastic bread bag); and we were on our own if we were sick (and woe be on to us if we were sick enough to warrant a visit to the doctor, because we’d better be really sick or we had just wasted her time and money and there would be a price to pay).

One of my painful childhood memories happened when I was in second grade, at lunch. I was sitting in the cafeteria eating my miserable little lunch, and an outcast already because I had the wrong kind of lunch, when I noticed a girl from my class sitting at a nearby table. Her lunch, as always, was in the proper brown bag, and her sandwich was wrapped in plastic, not foil. She had an apple and a cookie — all A+ according to the code of normal. But that day she also had a thermos filled with hot soup, and she was wearing a new pink cardigan.

I turned to my friend, the other outcast, and said, “Hey, Pamela, why does Jennifer have that thermos today?”

“She’s been sick,” scabby Pamela said, “so her mom made her some soup and got her a new sweater.”

I was instantly sick with envy. What makes her so special, I thought with such bitterness it hurt me. What makes HER so special. I just wanted to die, I really did, and even writing this post has filled my eyes with tears.

It was really all wrapped up in that pink cardigan. It felt to me like the loudest emblem of love and care — a new, soft bit of pinkness wrapped around the girl, keeping her warm and loved, reminding her of her mother’s care. And who had hot soup?! No one. No one but Jennifer, that day, food to help her feel better and get well. The cardigan made me imagine that while Jennifer was sick at home, her mother had tucked a blanket around her, stroked her head, fed her.

I used to recall this memory once in a while and the envy still felt present, but mercifully the bitterness faded a long time ago. This morning I recalled it again, unbidden, when I realized that I had metaphorically wrapped my own pink cardigan around myself. That same tender care, that same love, that same desire to comfort and tend, I figured it out. I’ve got this covered.

abecedarian

What are the things from your childhood that brought you such great delight, and that still bring you that same kind and degree of delight? And not just in a nostalgic way, like a sweet memory—ah, I really used to love playing with Lincoln Logs and TinkerToys (I did)—but the same delight now? Mine, quite reliably, are

  • pillbugs
  • trilobytes
  • dinosaur eggs
  • the ABCs

The whole pillbug thing is obvious, given where you’re reading this. I just love them so much, and I do sincerely have this little pretending that I’m their queen, but only [still] in the most benevolent way. People always send me news stories they read about pillbugs. 🙂

trilobyteAnd trilobytes! They deserve that exclamation point! It’s not shown on the cover, but that book actually has an exclamation point after the word trilobyte in the title. (If you want to read it but don’t want to spring for the book, here’s the full text, for free.) Trilobytes are cool, man. So cool. And I don’t know why, but my copy, received as a gift the year the book published, spells the word correctly, with a y, and does have the exclamation point. Hmmm.

eggsDinosaur eggs, my dearest, fondest, most intense dream for myself when I was five was to grow up to be a paleontologist and discover dinosaur eggs in the Gobi Desert. Oh how I longed to do that. I think a big cache had been found in those years and it just dazzled me. The idea that dinosaurs came out of eggs was just so mind-blowing, and I longed to whisper away the sand to see the long curve of one of those eggs. Also: Mongolia? I want to go there so so badly. Ugh. Still do, probably never will get to go.

And it’s not that I like to sing the ABC song, nor is it an appreciation for the alphabet because it makes words and I love words and sentences and paragraphs and books oh books(!), it’s a thrill about the letters themselves, how they evolved, how they came to be, how we use them, how we change them, the way these little squiggles get bent along the way. When I was a kid we had a set of World Book Encyclopedias at home, just like these:

wb

I read every word of every entry in every volume, beginning at A and ending in Z. Examined every chart — and they were clever, like the one that showed cotton production rates in cotton states used a little cartoon boll, one boll represented however many tons or bales or whatever the unit of measurement, so I’d count the bolls for each state and multiply and just have such fun with that. Cow heads for beef production. (Clearly the ones I remember most easily related to Texas.) I studied every picture, read every footnote, every reference citation. Beginning to end, repeat. In between I’d read the dictionary, a never-ending source of joy, a rabbit hole I’d love to get lost in.

But the reason the World Book is relevant here is that each volume opened with an entry about the letter itself. There were drawings of the various ways the letter had been written, by such mysterious people as the Phoenicians and the Sumarians and the Romans and the Greeks, the way each group changed it, how it was pronounced and from what it was derived. Although I loved almost all the entries in the whole encyclopedia (but not the one with the lamprey, I still remember hating that one), it was the ones about the letters of the alphabet that made me feel so excited I almost couldn’t hold it. Literally. I felt filled with electricity and wonder. Phoenicians! They were sea-going people, wow, Phoenicians. Their version of the letter reflected their culture, wow. All that excitement is filling my body just writing these words, it is so compressed in my chest I feel like maybe I need to get up and run in a little circle for a bit.

I follow The House that Lars Built on Instagram, always so inspirational, and it turns out that she does a book club! (Follow here, it’s amazing.) The last book they read was Drew Barrymore’s memoir, and when she announced the next one…. ALPHABETICAL! A book about the alphabet!! It’s a whole book, an expanded version exactly of those little entries in the World Book. Obviously I had to get it. It’s so rare that I buy a physical book, but come on. The alphabet.

abcHow every letter tells a story, the subtitle. I’m just in the A so far, but it’s been thrilling. I meet my old friends the Phoenicians. There is a luxury of time and space, so the information about the letters is much more involved, and he is as twitterpated by the alphabet as I am, so he writes with such wonder about this system we have created.

Want to know about A?

‘A’ starts its life in around 1800 BCE. Turn our modern ‘A’ upside down and you can see something of its original shape. Can you see an ox’s head with its horns sticking up in the air? If so, you can see the remains of that letter’s original name, ‘ox,’ or ‘aleph’ in the ancient Semitic languages. By the time the Phoenicians are using it in around 1000 BCE it is lying on its side and looks more like a ‘K’. Speed-writing seems to have taken the diagonals through the upright, making it more like a horizontal form of our modern ‘A’ with the point on the left-hand side. The ancient Greeks called it ‘alpha’ and reversed it, with the point on the right-hand side, probably because, eventually, they decided to write from left to right. Between around 750 BCE and 500 BCE the Greeks rotated it to what we would think of as its upright position. The Romans added the serifs which you can see on inscriptions like Trajan’s Column in Rome.

I wish there were more drawings, I’d like to see that A on its side, first to the left then to the right (the World Book showed all the variations), but that’s OK. His own delight in the material is happy-making.

And of course he speaks more broadly about these issues. I loved this line: “It seems odd to think that the reason why I say a ‘j’ sound and that there is a letter for that sound is because, nearly a thousand years ago, in the wars between the tribal warlords of northern Europe, a French-speaking group got the upper hand in the part of the world where I happen to live.”

I don’t know why my tiny-girl delight still lives in me so purely at the age of 57, but isn’t that a gift? You probably don’t have this thing with the alphabet, but I’m sure you have your own things like this. Of course as always I’d love to hear about them. I think these things, especially, are tremendous gifts to us, and they tell us something about each other. I can also see that my childhood delights are indicators of the grown-up I would someday become. Add in donuts and I am complete. 🙂

songs and echoes

I was 21 here, and during all these years I always had my guitar with me
I was 21 here, and during all these years I always had my guitar with me

When I was a young mother, one of my favorite routines centered on my kids’ bedtimes. With three kids and just one of me, time alone with them individually felt so precious. We had regular dates, but I especially loved the tucking-in time — so much that I spent a long time with them, one-on-one. Most nights I took my guitar with me, and after we’d talked about their days and whatever else they wanted to talk about, after we read together, I’d play my guitar and sing to them. I loved it when they’d drift off to sleep while I sang (least often it happened to Katie, who was older and not falling for that). I’d sing softly and watch their little eyes get heavy, watch them resist but see their bodies relaxing, and I’d keep singing long after they seemed asleep. The only thing that helped me get up and leave the room was that the next child was waiting. It was every bit as important to me as I hoped it was to them. But you know, you do all these things with/for your kids and you don’t know, you’re just doing the best you can.

When they were teenagers the tucking-in routine changed, since they didn’t have a ‘bedtime’ exactly, and singing to them dropped away. You know how you wonder if they remember the things you did for them when they were little, and you see so often that they don’t? But it’s OK, because you did it for them, and the memories are in your heart anyway. Even today, when I remember all those hours singing to them, my eyes fill with tears and I get soaked with such deep happiness. Those were some of my best hours of mothering.

Marnie sings to Ilan — who is currently a huge, giggly fan of the ABC song — and said she keeps trying to sing one of the songs I always sang but she can’t do it because she cries. (“Song of Wyoming,” John Denver, which is one of my very favorites and lovely as a lullaby. I can’t play and sing it without crying now either, it’s so tinged with those sweet memories.) I get to hear Marnie’s soft, sweet voice singing to Ilan on the little videos she sends of his delight. Her voice is like mine was, with a soft, feathered edge.

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Katie sings to Oliver, I knew this and have listened to her sing from the very beginning. She has an extraordinary voice, strong but gentle at the same time, and she’s really good. Katie’s specialty is songs from the 60s, music she dearly loves. Oliver has become conditioned to falling asleep to Goodnight Sweetheart (well, it’s time to go / goodnight sweetheart, well, it’s time to go / I hate to leave you but I really must say, oh, goodnight sweetheart, goodnight). Gosh I love hearing her sing that song to him.

And then a couple of nights ago I was at her house, helping with Oliver so she could get some packing done for a week-long road trip they were taking, and I stayed through Oliver’s bedtime. They have the sweetest routine as a family. Katie sits in the chair, Trey lies on the floor, and Oliver plays and wrestles with Trey and climbs into Katie’s lap for some reading, and sometimes he runs in circles to make everyone laugh. And then Katie starts singing — and Oliver dashes over to his bed and crawls up to his pillow and lies down to listen. After the song ends, Katie and Trey kneel by his bed for goodnight kisses. It’s extraordinary.

But I lay on the floor, listening to my beautiful daughter’s exquisite voice singing “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” that great old Mamas and the Papas song, and just broke down crying. It’s a hard song to sing, an often complex melody line, and then a leap up to a higher range, and some soft scatting at the end, and Katie just flowed through it with all the love she felt, and I felt it too. Trey has a gorgeous voice too, deep and rich, and he joined in, threading harmonies alongside Katie’s melody. What a lucky little boy Oliver is. What lucky boys my grandsons are. Here’s Mama Cass singing — quite a gorgeous song, and she is wonderful — but Katie’s version is even better.

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I sang to my children, and now they sing to theirs. Mamas often do, that wasn’t something original to me obviously, but I’ll take this next-generation singing personally, as a gift I gave them that meant something to them, something they want to give their children, too. Good mamas, love echoes.

a little tenderness

As we continue to wait for Marnie and Tom’s boy to arrive, I’ve been feeling cracked open with tenderness for her, and for Tom too. My primary focus is on my daughter, if only because of my own experiences of labor and knowing that she will be going through her own version of it and I can’t ease any of it for her.

Every time something generational happens — a birth into our family, obviously, but also celebrations of birthdays and anniversaries — I feel myself in the wheel of time. I experience where I am in that river, on that wheel, in that chain, whatever metaphor makes sense to you. For me, it’s always a wheel for some reason.

Lately, in witnessing the changes happening to my body, such as my hair getting grayer, the underlying muscles softening on my chin and jaw, and the subtler changes that show aging, like changes to teeth, skin, and fingernails, I’ve been seeing my grandmother in me. I’ve always favored her, my father’s mother; I’ve looked like her in the face, my hands are hers exactly, I was always told my legs are like hers. I don’t have pictures of her (but I remember her face and hands SO clearly), except for this one and unfortunately her face is turned away:

L to R: my dad, his mother holding me, and his stepfather
L to R: my dad, his mother holding me, and his stepfather

I love this picture so much because my dad looks uncharacteristically happy, and I feel like I see the person he might have been if his life had been otherwise. It’s no accident his mother was turned with her back to him, but rather a perfect representation of how she treated him, always. I called her Mamo (for non-US southerners, that’s pronounced Mah-maw), but her name was Delma Faye.  And that’s Papo there on the far right — even though he was my dad’s stepfather, I only knew him as my grandfather because he married my grandmother the very same day my parents got married, unbeknownst to either couple. I loved Papo so much; I really lucked out in the grandfather department. He adored me, and always brought me doughnuts, which he called “goldfish” for some unknown and never-asked reason. (Perhaps the origin of my childish passion for doughnuts. 🙂 )

Anyway. I can easily remember Mamo’s hands making biscuits, which were her specialty. Our fingers are long and thin, and our fingernail beds are very short, out on the tips of our fingers. My dad’s hands were the same, he had her hands too, but as I age, and my fingernails get thinner and develop ridges, they look SO much like hers it’s often shocking when I see them. I’ll be making something and my eyes fall on them and I literally feel a shock of both recognition and disbelief.

Her cheekbones, for sure. Her mouth, her teeth, her jawline, her chin. And all mine, too.
Her high cheekbones, for sure. Her mouth, her teeth, her jawline, her chin. And all mine, too.

And as my face softens with age, I look so much more like her, especially in the mouth and jaw, and it frequently takes me back. I’m turning into her, physically, and it really does take me by surprise even though it shouldn’t, since I’ve always favored her.

But maybe it’s striking me harder because my role as a grandmother is becoming fuller, and a bigger part of my life. Soon another little boy will call me Pete, the name that links me back to my own grandfather Big Daddy, and I’m looking more and more like my grandmother. And so I feel the wheel turning, and I feel deep tenderness for myself. I hope when my grandsons remember my face and hands, they remember them with tenderness too.

so amazed I want to fly

flowering teaA couple of days ago I wrote about this stunning insight I had that probably sounds dumb to anyone else, the way insights are. Yeah, I knew that all along about you, obvious. And? But an insight changes everything, so it’s not just the mustard seed of the thing itself, it’s the way the world changes as a result. That insight just keeps unfolding, like flowering tea. It does feel like a flower is blooming inside me and it just keeps blooming.

Over the years I’ve come to believe that we are born with a temperament, we’re born who we are. I used to think differently, that we’re born kind of a blob and we become who we are, but that’s just not right. And fundamentally, we are who we are throughout our lives. I look at sweet little Oliver, such a happy, even-keeled boy, curious and self-contained, busy and a little cautious and laughing so easily. He was born that way, it’s who he is. I imagine it’ll ebb and flow as life happens to him but it’s fundamentally who he is, and he’ll return to that even if he wobbles. This is supported by a body of research; people who are in devastating accidents and become paralyzed and people who win the lottery have an immediate response, becoming devastated or overjoyed, but with time they return to whatever level of happiness they had before. So temperamentally happy people will adjust to paralysis and find their way back to themselves, to their ordinary happiness. A curmudgeon will adjust to having money and after the initial thrill, will return to being a curmudgeon. We are who we are, and we are born with ourselves. That’s not to say, of course, that it’s a fated full-on deterministic thing, but it’s a temperament, and I do believe that. I don’t know why I knew and believed this about everyone else and just didn’t see it about myself. Maybe, like others who hear about my younger life, I was just blinded by the circumstances.

So more unfolding in two tectonic directions:

My mother, age 16, right before she ran away with my father and immediately got pregnant with me.
My mother, age 16, right before she ran away with my father and immediately got pregnant with me.
  • I never could really understand why my mother hated me as much as she did. I knew that I ruined her life, she said that over and over. And I can even get that; she ran away from home just before she turned 17 and married my dad, who was 18 and also running away from home, and she probably imagined she was now going to have the life she wanted…..and BAM. Pregnant. So that part I could get. I understood what she meant when she said I ruined her life. But she hated me, viciously and frighteningly. I always thought, but I was a sweet little kid…. and that left me so confused. But that’s exactly why! How obvious! She hated me and I had the nerve to be happy anyway. She would be so cruel and vicious it would take your breath away, and then a little later I’d be happy about some little something. No matter what she did, no matter how hard she tried, I could still be happy. I’d still dance around the coffee table. Each time I was happy, it must have made her just double down, it must have been so galling, so enraging. I totally get that! Not from my own experience, but as a dynamic. I think it’s very common — like someone we think is unworthy, maybe a bad writer, wins a prize for writing, and they’re a much worse writer than you! Much worse! So you hate their writing and them even more. The world is unfair, why do they get the rewards? I think it’s that dynamic.

So she hated me because no matter what she did, I could still be happy. I can’t tell you what a relief it is to understand that, and her. She is a psychopath, but that’s just a diagnosis. I always said she was a black box, completely impossible to understand, but it was just a small, mean thing all along. After 57 years, I finally understand her. Unlike with my dad’s suicide, I never thought it was my fault she hated me, because I didn’t choose to be born, but it was so bewildering, and finally I have an answer.

  • And the other thing — gosh, how could I not have seen this before? — relates to an explanation I always gave for my survival. “It was just a failure of imagination,” I’d always say with a wry smile. Why didn’t I become a prostitute as a way to get money? Why didn’t I turn to drugs or alcohol to escape? “Failure of imagination. All I could think of was to find some place to do my homework and sleep and then go to school the next day. Failure of imagination.” One thing I did, and I’d tell this story, was to go to the disco in our small town (this was the late 70s) when it was bitterly cold, or when I was filled with despair. I’d take my one dress and change in the bathroom, and then go out on the floor and dance and dance, spinning around until I got out of myself and into a kind of bliss. Hours would pass and I’d be warm, and I’d be out of my real life. But that wasn’t a failure of imagination, or a “gee I’m so clever” tactic, I was just being myself. That’s all. No more, no less, no failure, no admiration. I was just being myself, that’s all. I am so grateful that I was born like that.

You cannot imagine how earthshaking this is — and I’m not being dramatic, that’s not hyperbole. The ground has shaken and I see myself there, I understand myself then, my life then, my mother, my father, my family. Finally, I understand. Finally. I understand. I was there all along. Do you remember these little handheld games?

dexterity
these are called dexterity games, for some reason

You had to roll it, tilt it, try to get ALL the little BBs into the small holes. Aaah, you’d get 2 in, but when you’re trying to get the 3rd in the others roll out! So frustrating for a little kid! But this is how my early life is now. My mother is in her little hole. My father is in his. I am in mine. And the game is done — and I win. 🙂