Cracked Open II, or: Ghosts

uchiLast night I met a bunch of beautiful women, some of my dear friends, for what turned out to be a raucous dinner, sushi and sake and wine. There is a very well-known but pretty expensive sushi restaurant here, beyond the bounds of my budget for sure, but they offer a happy hour. All kinds of sushi half-price, sake and wine half-price, etc. On the way there, battling the atrocity that is Austin traffic, I was listening to music and thinking about whatever the song made me think of. So many of the songs come with bodily states, where I feel in the cells of my muscles the way I felt at the time. The first song cracked me open and then there I was, crying all the way down the highway.

American Pie, memories of dancing like lunatics with my kids in the living room of our home in Huntsville, Alabama – the twist, the monkey, the swim, the pony, dances we could all manage. Such a sweet, sweet memory, nearly unbearable. I can see their sweaty little faces, I can hear us laughing, see us falling down on the floor. It was even fun at the time, it’s not just something precious in retrospect, but in retrospect it’s everything there is.

And then I remember living with them, the feeling of being with young kids. Carving a pencil eraser into a little foot shape and dipping it in powder with a bit of sparkle, then stamping the wood floors outside Marnie’s bedroom, and up to her bed, for the magic of the Tooth Fairy. A few more stamps on the window sill, a little tooth pillow with money tucked under her pillow. The extraordinary privilege of getting to make a child’s life magic, for just a little while. Walking the kids to the bus stop in Virginia, watching the girls get on the bus and then pushing the stroller with Will back home.

Goodnight, The Beatles — oh, spasm of love that song produced in my heart, remembering the years when they were very young and I’d spend so long tucking each child in bed. I’d bring my guitar with me and after we talked about the day, I’d play and sing Goodnight softly, and each one would drift off to sleep. Katie was the oldest so she was always last because she could stay up later. She always tried so hard to stay awake but even she eventually drifted off. I remember kissing their little foreheads, breathing them into me.

The Look of Love, Dusty Springfield — the new dress I wore on the first day of second grade, that song playing throughout the house that morning. Making my lunch and putting a little box of gingersnaps in the sack. Excited and scared to meet my new teacher. Seven years old, I remember how it felt to be that little girl. I remember it so well, my little hopes and dreams.

ghostsAnd then I drive through the big intersection where my dad shoved me out of the truck and turned around to run over me. And I pass the street where we lived when he put a loaded pistol to my head and cocked it, and I remember. Ghosts. Then I drive past a place that has changed, it’s not what it was but I still see it there, I still see the ghost of that apartment building where I lived with him for a scary month. No one else can see that building there, but it’s there for me. I pass another street, the one with the sad little apartment my dad lived in right after he and my mother divorced. That apartment building is gone too, but I still see it there. Ghosts. I don’t really go to the part of town where the sushi restaurant is because I have so very much history all around it, but it wasn’t at all painful. It was all just a bunch of ghosts.

I was crying the whole way, crying through the music, crying seeing all the ghosts, but crying because I am so incredibly grateful for every tiny little bit of my life, every bit of it. The good the bad the boring the scared the lost the hopeless the hopeful the brilliant the dark. It’s all so precious, even though I have regrets about this and that, about not being able to be a lighthearted mother. I was trying so hard. It’s all been so precious, every single bit of it. The ghosts are precious too because I survived and this place has so many layers that only I am aware of. When my life ends I will be so grateful for it all. It has been so magnificent.

* * *

On the way home I was sitting in traffic and saw a concrete pillar with a really beautiful image someone painted on it. Then I looked at the words around the image and they said “Fair sailing, tall boy.” In another spot it said, “Don’t drink and drive, you might kill somebody’s kid.” In another spot was a span of years I quickly calculated: 18 years. Tall boy was 18 years old, and someone who loved him terribly had the grace and incredible strength to wish their tall boy fair sailing. I almost couldn’t bear it. I almost can’t bear it even typing these words.

* * *

We all age differently; I have what I call my “Concentration Theory” of aging, which is that we simply become a concentrated version of ourselves as we age.  Cranky people become intensely more cranky. Gentle people become gentler. Sensitive people become more sensitive. I think about Maurice Sendak’s last interview with Terri Gross on Fresh Air. Here are the extraordinary last five minutes of that talk:

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And here are some of the best snippets:

  • “Somehow I’m finding out as I’m aging – I am in love with the world.”
  • “I don’t know if I will do another book or not. It doesn’t matter. I am a happy old man.
  • “I have nothing but praise for my life. I’m not unhappy. I cry a lot because I miss people. They die and I can’t stop loving them. They leave me and I love them more.”
  • “There are so many beautiful things in the world which I will have to leave when I die, but I’m ready, I’m ready, I’m ready.”
  • “It is a blessing to get old. It is a blessing to find the time to do the things, to read the books, to listen to the music. You know, I don’t think I’m rationalizing. I really don’t. This is all inevitable and I have no control over it.”
  • “I wish you all good things. Live your life, live your life, live your life.”

And I say the very same things. I have nothing but praise for my life. There are so many beautiful things in the world. It is a blessing to get old. Life your life, live your life, live your life.

unexpected hazards

hazardWhen I first started living alone mid-November, 2012 — for the very first time in my life — I thought I know where the hazards, the potholes, the pitfalls would be. I thought one hazard was isolation, and it was, briefly. (Now I struggle to keep quiet time at home for myself, but I can do it.) I thought another hazard would be too much crazy talk. There for a bit, when I was first alone, I started talking out loud all the time just to hear a voice. OK, that’s not such a problem, but it was the things I’d say that worried me. “Oh, aren’t you so smart to think of putting that fork there! And how about a plate? Great idea!” Crazy talk.

Turns out those were transient issues that were quickly resolved. The ongoing hazards, I never saw them coming:

  • Somehow I never remember to zip my pants when I leave the bathroom. I do the button, but the zipper just slips my mind every single time. Now it’s happening even when I’m out.
  • Too many beans. There’s a lot I could say here, but I’ll leave it to your imagination. Clue: living alone is an important detail.
  • A bit of ADD. “I’ll play my banjo!” one minute later “I know! I’ll read that new book on writing subtext!” one minute later “I wonder if there’s a good movie on TV?” one minute later “I’m in the mood for beans.” Because there’s no one here to see my nuttiness, no one to say, “Crap, can’t you just settle down? You’re kind of driving me crazy.”
  • Also: now I never watch one thing straight through. I watch a bit of this then hop over there then check this out then go back to the first this then wonder about that and oh I can also put something on my laptop, a Louis C.K. video or something. Others do not find this amusing.
  • Increased impatience with interruption. Because no one ever interrupts me here.
  • Indulged food obsessions. There is no one here to say, “NO, we are not having eggs again. We have had them for every meal the past two weeks. Enough eggs.” (Because there are never enough eggs. Or beans.)
  • Books stacked everywhere. Frankly, I don’t see this as a hazard but there are a couple of spots where it might become one if the stacks fall on my foot.
  • I require the whole bed. Just for myself. Sorry. After a whole life of sleeping on one side and sticking there, now I must sleep right in the middle. And I must be able to flip and flop whenever and however often I need or want. Sorry, and tough.
that's a catbird seat I'd happily sit in! I'd eat those chocolate treats first, of course
that’s a catbird seat I’d happily sit in! I’d eat those chocolate treats first, of course

I’m so surprised to find that I adore living alone. Adore it. Of course I have more friends and loved ones than time to see them, so I am not really “alone,” and of course I am married and have someone to travel with, have fun with, add to a shared history. I am frankly sitting in the catbird seat. (Do you wonder about that saying as I did? I use it all the time and had a sense of what it meant, I could use it correctly, but read this for a very interesting story about the origin of the phrase. One word: Thurber.)

So basically, if you see me and my pants aren’t zipped, please tell me. If I get snippy when you interrupt, I am so sorry. And don’t let me order beans.

xo

Queen’s Quirks for $200, Alex

quirksYou probably have some sense of me, of how I am in the world, of what I think about. Who I am. Hell, there’s a whole menu above (About the Queen) that tells you who I am, including a list of 25 things. But like everyone in the world, I have my quirks oh yes I do. I always love hearing about others’ little quirks of personality and history because they can be so funny and strange. So, mine:

  • I can’t bear to look at pictures of nebulae in the universe if they look like a giant eye. It terrifies me and freaks me out. Marnie had a poster of one of those in her bedroom when she was a girl and I had to put a Post-It note over the eye part. I am not joking.
  • Until I was ~40 years old I thought it was spelled wierd. Spelling rules, man, don’t they apply? And apparently it’s one of my frequently used words, too. After getting another email from me with the misspelled word, a friend gently wrote, “You do know that it’s spelled weird, right?” NO I DID NOT.
  • Another thing I can’t bear to look at: pictures of things at the bottom of the ocean. Ships, for instance. Oh no I will not be looking. I kind of hyperventilate. I would rather watch sharks. Which I do not like to watch.
  • I am s-u-p-e-r lazy.
  • Secretly (until now!) I think I have the most beautiful feet in the world. And I’m not kidding.
  • Zero ambition here. Nope. I work just because I need money, that’s it. Left to my own independently wealthy devices I would spend my life reading, writing, traveling, making things, and hanging out with people I love. I would be genius at that.
  • If I close my eyes in the shower I fall down.
  • I don’t understand girly stuff. Never thought being pretty was the thing, never daydreamed about clothes and shoes, never played with make-up, don’t squee over shoes. I think I am not a very feminine woman. (Though I do enjoy buying jewelry wherever we travel, but that’s more as a memento of the place and time.) This one might not be a surprise to people who know me and see me always in jeans and Converse.
  • Rich people scare me. Also: powerful people. (I have no desire to be powerful, but I wouldn’t say no to independent wealth, see above.)
  • In kindergarten I could do 5th grade work. There was no question of moving me up, and no such thing as “gifted” programs back then so twice a week I sat in the principal’s office after school and read to him. (??? Whose idea was that I wonder?) I remember teaching him something about salamanders.
  • If for some reason I have to walk through my dark house with a flashlight, I become terrified by it. Or really, anywhere in the dark with a flashlight. It feels like one of those horror movies in some way.
  • My stupid body trick: I can make my tongue thick and thin. Fat and skinny.

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Yeah.  So now you know. xo

mind and body

In graduate school I took a course called Psychosomatic Processes. The way the mind and body influence each other. I learned that cultures differ in psychosomatic illnesses; for instance, few people in Germany suffer with allergies, but they are high in instances of psoriasis. I thought it was interesting that cultures express psychologically-influenced illnesses differently. Before, I’d thought that allergies probably occurred at the same rate in countries with allergens, ditto psoriasis. Nope.

heartYou probably have your characteristic places where trouble, stress, upset, anxiety show up. For my husband, it’s his stomach. For me it’s my heart, and it always has been. That kind of chokes me up — my broken heart really does hurt. Sometimes it hurts so badly that I cannot stand up straight.

When my dad killed himself, I instantly felt like I’d been impaled through the chest. I was impaled through the chest, like a bug on a taxonomist’s pin, still alive and wriggling but stuck, forever. I couldn’t uncurl; even when I tried to stand up my chest was curled around my fist, trying to absorb the blow, and I was bent at the waist.

Do you know about takotsubo cardiomyopathy? It’s also called broken heart syndrome. It’s a temporary heart condition that’s often brought on by stressful situations, such as the death of a loved one. People with broken heart syndrome may have sudden chest pain or think they’re having a heart attack. In broken heart syndrome, there’s a temporary disruption of your heart’s normal pumping function, while the remainder of the heart functions normally or with even more forceful contractions. The apex of the left ventricle balloons out. I imagine that’s what happened to me when my dad died. It was absolutely physical, not at all “just in my head,” and it was such a profound representation of my emotional state.

Throughout the years, intense stress manifests itself in me as chest pain, heart pain. I press my right fist into my sternum, imagining that will bring relief. The funny thing is that I think my dad must have had the same response. When he was very upset, he’d have his hand on his chest in a funny way that always made me think he had probably cut his wrist. I think he was just pressing on his sternum in the same way I do.

In New York, during a prolonged period of intense chest pain I found a wonderful physician who specialized in gender-specific health (and this is an enormous concern where the heart is concerned, and that was her specific specialty). I kept saying over and over to my husband and then to her that it was nothing, it was just pain. I’d said that my whole life — “don’t worry, it’s just pain.” They both said over and over in response that “just pain” can still cause damage. “Just pain” can kill you in so many different ways. She told me about takotsubo cardiomyopathy, that it’s named after an octopus trap of all things because the ballooning ventricle looks like an octopus trap. That it occurs most often in women, whose hearts, I suppose, are more susceptible to breaking.

To me there is something so deeply poetic and perfect about that, and it’s not an accident that we talk the way we do — broken heart, heartache, fear in the pit of my stomach, etc. Emotions really do dwell in our bodies and in certain places, and that’s why we talk in that way. It can’t be a coincidence that women who were raped or molested as children are more likely to suffer with IBS, are more likely to get cancers of the organs in the pelvic region. That may be poetic injustice, but it is still poetic. You suffer where the hurt is.

Stress also tightens my jaw and shrugs my shoulders, fear hits me in my gut, but deep emotion punches me in the heart. I imagine you have your own characteristic place where trouble lives in your body.

No octopus trap for me today, or yesterday, and I hope not tomorrow. But I know it will return. My heart is distributed among so many people so it’s vulnerable to breaking.

xo

being a knot

What a couple of days it’s been for people I love. A simple procedure for one friend unexpectedly revealed tentacles and now the world is very different for him and his wife, and for all of us who love them. An easy Sunday morning for another friend suddenly went blank and now there are tests and uncertainty. A third friend was preparing an Easter dinner to share with friends and family and the knife slipped pretty badly. The world turns on a dime.

Of course this is the downside of loving people. When you overlap with people, when your hearts mingle, your life can be cracked and even shattered when something happens to them. It’s no longer just yourself, just your family. It’s a wider world, more opportunities to have the rug pulled out. That’s the inherent risk in love and we all know it and we go along happily, we all do, expecting this little thing to go that way and be done, Sunday morning to lead seamlessly into Sunday afternoon, preparation to end with a meal shared by loved ones around the table. We all expect to see that friend at the party next week, to hear about the grand adventures of that couple we love, to relish hearing his stories and laugh, her adorable accent, again and again. Of course we will. But there is no of course.

And so again it’s time to relearn the old lesson. Cherish the invisible things, the things you don’t think twice about. Hey, my legs work! Both of them! Wow, I can see anything I want, how amazing — and hear whatever I want, too! What stunning gifts. I can go to the bathroom all by myself, what a luxury. I’m reasonably sure that the next couple months of my life are not going to be spent in the misery of a caustic treatment. Remember how great it is that your hands work. Be thankful every single time you remember something, even if you’re kind of forgetful in an ordinary way. Cherish the very real treasure of your memories — your own, and the ones you share with others. CHERISH THEM! They are treasures, never to be taken for granted. And how amazing it is that I’m bored lying here so I can just get up and go do anything I want. I can walk into the other room. I can get in my car and go wherever I want. I can cook myself a meal, I can read a book or watch a movie.

I’ve mentioned my daily gratitude email thing before. Like everyone, I have some really low days, days when everything seems all wrong, either kind of shitty or maybe SUPER shitty. When I lose track of things, when my perspective gets all wonky. On those days my little email arrives and I sit, staring at the screen, unable to think of a damn thing to be grateful for. (Most days my struggle is to just pick a few out of the ocean of things I am grateful for.) Now it’s time to re-remember this lesson, and on those low days I can easily say that I am grateful that my legs work, and not feel like I’ve just written something dumb so I don’t miss a day. I can write with deep gratitude that I am so very grateful I have eyes. All these things that are invisible to us until we lose them and we suddenly realize how precious they are.

And that’s just looking at the universe of my own working body. I have a grocery store nearby with so much food, so many kinds of food, I forget to be dazzled by it. (And I have enough money to buy food, also dazzling.) I have a television and the Internet and so I know what’s happening in places I will never see — and I know what those places look like. I’m so very extraordinarily lucky to have seen much of the world, so all those places belong to me now. Myanmar is mine, what a mind-blowing wonder is that. I know about the water cycle and can look at the clouds and see how part of the world is working. I know about chlorophyll and so I can look at trees and understand how that part of the world works. How incredible is that? I live in a place where the ground blooms with gorgeous wildflowers, as if by magic, to make us all happy for a while — fields of blue, hillsides that are coral and orange, sides of the highway shining yellow and pink. What a world, and I rarely give it a second thought.

Of course I’ll forget all this again, this insight will be like the wildflowers, blooming now while it’s raining but the sun will come out and life will keep going and this knowledge will go into hiding again, ready to bloom when people I love are at risk.

netI’ve written before about my idea of the net. As I said then, look at that image, see all the blank spaces? The net is mostly open air, mostly empty space. What holds it together, what holds you up and catches you when you fall, are the tiny, tiny, tiny little knobs, the tiniest little things, but there are lots of them and they connect. A net, a network, enough to save you if necessary. I am just one of the little knots in the net underneath my friends, nothing more, but how grateful I am to get to be one of those knots. How fine a thing it is to have the chance to help someone when you can. I think it’s probably the finest thing we do as people, submit our own selves and hearts to care for others. To be willing to suffer alongside them, to be willing and glad to not know what’s next with them, so they don’t have to not-know all alone.

For the first six months of 2012, my husband was undergoing such harrowing treatment, pure hell. There was some question of whether he would survive the treatment itself. Not everybody does. I hope never to go through that again, but I am so deeply glad that I had the privilege to do that with and for him. I say this without any kind of patting myself on the back, because I think it’s just a glory of being human, but helping him through that is without a doubt one of the finest things I have ever done in my life. In that case I was almost all the knots in the net, and the parts connecting the knots too. I hope with all my heart that my friends are going to prevail and come out on the other side with stories to tell, with brand new ways to empathize with people. I feel such enormous gratitude that I get to be a knot.

hope

Yesterday my friend Cyndi posted this quote by the Dalai Lama:

The very purpose of our life is happiness, which is sustained by hope. We have no guarantee about the future, but we exist in the hope of something better. Hope means keeping going, thinking, ‘I can do this.’ It brings inner strength, self-confidence, the ability to do what you do honestly, truthfully and transparently.

I could not agree more (easy to agree with HHDL). As I said to her, hope is everything. Without hope people die. Of my three suicidal depressions, one was profoundly about having no hope. No hope of release from pain, no hope for today, no hope for tomorrow, no hope for anything at all. You see that in the eyes of profoundly depressed people, and when I see it I feel a kind of panic because that is the bottom of the hole where there is no light.

hopeThroughout my life, I believed that I was not a person who had hope. Except for that depression, my ordinary experience of it was that I was just kind of flat inside. I expected bad things to happen, I expected my efforts to be thwarted, I expected nothing. One of the two longstanding arguments I had with Sherlock in graduate school was about this subject. I’d say, “No, I don’t have hope, they killed it in me but it’s OK.” And he’d argue with me, and we’d go back and forth. One day he thought he finally trumped me with this: “But you do have hope! You are in graduate school, you hope to finish!”

“A-HA!” I gloated miserably in response. “I do not have hope. In fact, I expect every single day that something will happen and I’ll have to quit. I’m here pure and simply because of endurance. I just endure. Today I will endure. Tomorrow I will endure. I am the standing ox.” He just shook his head, as he often did in the face of my unyielding and inaccurate certainty about myself.

Years later I was driving from Manhattan to my job in northern NJ — a miserable commute, I’m telling you — and the song Somewhere Over the Rainbow came on, the version by Israel Kamakawiwo’ole. I was singing along but not really paying attention when I had one of those terrible and enormous insights: Hope is what saw me through. Hope is the reason I was there to drive up Rte 17. Hope is the reason I was still alive. When I was a little girl and read books and stories about different kinds of lives than mine, I’d think Someone was able to imagine that, so maybe I can make it happen someday. I thought it was all fictional, that no one really got to have those kinds of lives without violence and danger, but maybe I could figure out how to do it, since someone was able to think of it. What is that but hope?

Unlike the other tattoos on my spine, which are black, HOPE is red. Red is an auspicious color in China.
Unlike the other tattoos on my spine, which are black, HOPE is red. Red is an auspicious color in China.

And Sherlock was right — yes, I may have been enduring, but if I was enduring in the full belief that it would be taken away from me, every single day, hope was driving that effort. A couple of weeks later I found a tattoo artist in the Village and filled the last, empty spot on my spine. I’d left a space at the bottom and for years tried to see how I’d fill it. Obvious. Hope. Hope is at the bottom of my spine, the thing on which all the rest exist. The foundation. I cannot tell this story without tears in my eyes. How could I have been so wrong?

I’d had the wrong idea about hope. I’d always imagined hope to be little yellow unicorns sliding down rainbows in a fluffy pink landscape. Kind of like the My Little Ponies that Marnie loved to collect as a young girl. There was nothing unicorn-ey and rainbowey and fluffy pink inside me. But that’s not what hope is! Hope is something else. Emily Dickinson said, “Hope is that thing with feathers that perches in your soul.”

ravenMy image of that line is a fierce bird, dark, maybe black, with enormous talons. Ragged feathers, a large beak. A raven or crow, maybe. To me that is so clear in her line of poetry. I was surprised to hear that others imagine it as a small fluffy bird, a songbird maybe. That feels inadequate for the ferocity of hope, the power of hope, the tenacity. Or rather that feels inadequate for my hope.

how it ends

not sure what Marc's grandpa name will be. He is a Russian Jew, but Russians call their grandfathers Dedushka, which seems a stretch here.
not sure what Marc’s grandpa name will be. Maybe Saba, which is a Jewish ‘cool grandfather’ name.

When Marc was here a couple of weekends ago, we were talking about him as Oliver’s grandfather. He talked about Katie’s dad as the grandfather, and said he can’t compete with him. I laughed, of course, and said there is no competition, that Oliver is just blessed with six grandparents, a modern family. So Marc said, “Well, maybe I can be the one who talks to him about death and impermanence.” That is SO MARC. It made me laugh, and I said yes, you can be the one who does that. He said someone needs to.

Marc is Jewish, but he’s Buddhist (aka JewBu). He meditates a lot on impermanence, after a lifetime of thinking about and fearing death. He remembers being a very little boy sitting in his closet being terrified about death, and believing, therefore, that nothing has any meaning. Like me, he read a little too much Camus as a kid.

I think about death too, not at all in the same way he does. Unlike Marc (though he may have changed his views by now), I think it’s death that gives our life a way to have meaning. Two days ago I had two pretty intense experiences thinking about death, which is unusual for me:

  1. You know how I like to think about the way everything is seamlessly connected to everything, that there are events on the road ahead of me, already on their way to me, and I am unaware of them. Some are inevitable and some may easily change course. I am on someone’s road heading toward them in the same way. The day before yesterday I was driving on the highway and suddenly wondered if I would be doing anything differently if I knew I was going to die later in the day. It felt absolutely true in that moment, not just an idle thought. Well hell yeah, of course! I’d be spending those hours with my family, telling them how much I have loved them and how much they have meant to me. But you know, I also have to make a living. I’d rather not have spent most of my last hours reading a crappy manuscript, but there are things we just have to do. I was thinking about the trite thing people say, the very thing I thought, “If you knew you were going to die tomorrow….” but it isn’t that simple. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep in mind that tomorrow might be our last day so we shouldn’t waste today.
  2. That night I woke up in the middle of the night, like I always do, and started reading. Like I always do. I wasn’t feeling upset about anything, worried, unhappy, and I didn’t feel bad physically like I sometimes do in the middle of the night. My tummy often hurts when I wake up. But that night I was just reading the book for my book club, and all of a sudden I became gripped with a fear of dying. Just caught in the clutches of existential terror. All I could think was that I love my life so very much, I have so much to love, so much joy, so much to do, each day I love it so much and I don’t want it to end. I think that’s happened to me only two other times in my life.
Pete and Oliver
Pete and Oliver

It probably won’t happen, but I might die today. Odds are seriously against it, and thank heavens for that. I’m just going to be at home all day and night, not going anywhere, and I’m in good health as far as I know. But just in case, know that I loved my whole life. Every little bit of it, the beautiful and horrible and sublime and ugly. I’ve loved so many people and have cherished the love from people in my life. I’ve noticed sunrises and sunsets. I’ve laughed myself into tears as I drove into the desert. I’ve dearly loved books and poetry. I got to wake up. I’ve launched three people into this world who are making it a better place, and now there is another member of my family in this world. I started as Pete and I will end as Pete.

I’ve seen so much of this beautiful world and it often made me cry with happiness.

  • With an overfull heart, I stood in front of Notre Dame, in Paris. I drove through yellow fields to see the cathedral at Chartres. I took the train through the Chunnel, and another train to Edinburgh and Glasgow.
  • I drank beer in a pub called ‘Jude the Obscure’ in Oxford, England.
  • I slept on a boat in the middle of Halong Bay, in northern Vietnam, amid the karst pillars. They were eerily beautiful at dusk and dawn.
  • I sat in a little boat in the middle of the Ganges in Varanasi and watched the nighttime ceremony to put the Ganges to sleep, I watched cremations, and then I watched the morning puja.
  • Standing atop Macchu Picchu, I saw a sudden and enormous flock of green parrots appear and fly right in front of me, and a heart-shaped hole open up in the clouds behind them. I panted in the thin air of Colca Canyon and watched condors glide on the air currents, and I rode a boat across Lake Titicaca.
  • I fell off a bicycle in Amsterdam and was stared at by a stern Dutch man.
  • I ate an amazing waffle with chocolate and strawberries in the Grande Place in Brussels.
  • I’ve snorkeled off the Yucatan so many times, and off Honduras a couple of times.
  • I saw Ireland with Katie, my pretty green-eyed Irish girl. We seriously underestimated how long it would take us to drive from Derry to Belfast — on July 12.
  • In Dubrovnik, I learned how to see where the war destroyed the buildings by understanding the various colors of the tile roofs. I was surprised by Zagreb.
  • I rode a boat down the Mekong River in Vietnam and drifted among the floating market boats, guided by a man who fought as a soldier for the south — “on your side,” he told us. A very small Hmong woman held my hand and led me over rocks in Sapa, in northern Vietnam near the Chinese border.
  • So many wonderful Lao people greeted me with Sabaidee, and I learned that I love BeerLao. I fed monks in Luang Prabang, and ate enormous feasts in an alley lined with food vendors, $2 for a huge plate and a giant BeerLao.
  • One Thanksgiving I stood in front of Angkor Wat waiting for the sun to come up.
  • I saw proboscis monkeys on Borneo, and a naughty macaque stole Marc’s drink.
  • Standing in the great hall of the Hagia Sophia, in Istanbul, I cried because I never thought I’d see it. I stared up at the brilliant mosaics I’d studied in an Art History class in Alabama.
  • I rode in a very quiet boat on very still water in Inle Lake among the stilted houses of Burmese people.
  • In Oaxaca I got food poisoning.
  • I bathed a pregnant elephant in a river in Sri Lanka, and chased a sperm whale in the Indian Ocean.
  • I drank some java on Java, and fought off monkeys in the Sacred Monkey Forest in Ubud, in Bali.

My beautiful life has been a creative act and I rarely took it for granted. I have felt like the luckiest person in the world. I hope the very same thing is true for you, in whatever form your life has taken.