Helen

cotardIn November 2008 I put myself in the hospital in New York, Weill Cornell/ Payne Whitney, because I was very, very sick. It went beyond wanting to die — I quite literally thought I was already dead. It’s a kind of psychosis that can accompany severe clinical depression, and though it’s not at all common, it’s known. It’s called the Cotard Delusion, and one day I’ll write about it. I’ve had it twice in my life.

But while I was in the hospital, I wrote a LOT. A lot. Luckily I dumped it all in a private blog and I just came across it. This story is chilling, as you’ll see at the end.

* * *

My first morning at breakfast, a very tall blind woman was escorted into the dining room for breakfast. Her blue eyes were strange: one was milky, and the other had a very sharp circle cut out of the blue iris, just outside the pupil. She didn’t wear dark glasses. She had a very strong accent, which I initially thought was German, a very deep and rich voice, and she was beautiful. Her messy hair was piled up on the back of her head into what must have been a twist of some kind, several days before. It was gray, but with reddish-colored ends, so she used to color it. Her skin was translucent, and her features were fine and beautiful. Her lips were full. Though she had a stick, as she called it, she didn’t use it as blind people do, tapping in front of themselves left and right. She just held it upright like a scepter, and held the arm of anyone who escorted her.

She sat at the breakfast table and announced, “Derek. I vant vaffles. And hot cho-co-lat.” None of the staff responded, though it seemed they were preparing her food. Of course she was blind and couldn’t see that, so a minute later she’d repeat, “Derek. Can I please have some vaffles and hot cho-co-lat.” No response, request repeated a minute later, exactly the same. Finally the staff became irritated with her and snapped at her – “Helen, you have to wait and be patient.”

So she’d pick up her vaffle with her fingers and eat it, no butter or syrup: a bite of vaffle then a drink of her hot chocolate. A bite of waffle, a drink of hot chocolate. When she finished, staff would escort her back to her room and she wouldn’t be seen until the next meal. Lunch was always baked eggplant. Dinner was always baked eggplant. And breakfast was always vaffles and hot cho-co-lat. It wasn’t that they only served those things to her – it’s that those were the foods she always asked for. Demanded. The rest of us had to eat whatever was being served, but Helen ate only these things. If she was not eating, she was left in her room.

One evening she appeared in the doorway of her room and said, “Would someone help me make a call?” None of the patients moved, and few people even looked up. The staff didn’t respond in any way at all. So finally, I stood up and went to her, offering to help. We walked over to the phone, I dialed the number and waited while she completed her call, then escorted her back to her room.

I don’t remember how it began, but it became our evening habit that I would walk her around the unit until she tired. She asked my name, and though I said Lori she called me Lora. With her accent, the r sounded like a d. She would come to her door and bellow, “Lora! Lora!” The unit was very small, so our walk was just a square – a short hallway, a small sitting area in the back, overlooking the East River and the FDR, then back up the opposite short hallway, and then across the front sitting area. While we walked, we talked. The insane girl would race past us, up and down with manic speed, and as we rounded the corner the tiny, fat Jewish man who had a 24-hour guard would blow his shofar.

I learned that Helen was from Russia, and she believed that was why the staff hated her. I asked her where in Russia and she snapped at me, she didn’t want to talk about that because she’s an American. I apologized, and said that I’m from Texas, and then she started talking about her childhood in Russia. Her mother was an actress in Russia, I remember that. She was curious about me, and asked me why I was there, which led to long conversations. She scolded me for wanting to be dead. She asked me how I came to NY. She never smiled, but she was very friendly and warm. She said she was there because she’d just become blind, a year before, due to cataracts and glaucoma and something else, and all surgical options were exhausted. She said she was stagnant, warehoused. I couldn’t disagree with her, which broke my heart.

The last couple of nights she opened up more to me, and wanted to lie on the couch in the back sitting area with her head in my lap. She didn’t want me to stroke her head – she said it made her feel like a pet. But she seemed to want to be touched, and to have real contact. So I sat at the end of the couch and allowed her to put her head in my lap, and I lay my hand on her shoulder. The last night, she lay on her side with her head in my lap, curled up in a loose ball, and she pulled my hand into her chest and held it there the whole time.

She asked me what I look like, so I tried to describe myself. Then I also told her the story of my tattoos, and this absolutely gorgeous smile spread across her face. She said, “Lora, you are so silly. This is a silly thing you have done, vy did you do this silly thing.” She teased me, and it was wonderful, a light and touching moment.

She said the staff was going to transfer her to the state hospital and she said, with her deep-voiced Russian drama, “Lora, I vill perish. Lora, I vill perish.” I looked into her eyes and had no response. What could I say?

blindFinally I asked her the obvious question: “Helen, why are you here, on the psych ward, instead of in a hospital for blind people where you could learn how to navigate the world?” She said it was her punishment, because when she lived in France she made her living telling fortunes and reading cards. She was very religious, and believed that this part of her life was as it should be, given by God, as punishment. Then she said, almost in passing, “They said I poured bleach into my eyes, can you imagine such a thing?”

funky little heart/sweet little heart

It makes so much sense for our bodies to hold our hurts and experiences. How could it not — there’s no separation, even though some people talk as if mind and body are different things. My body has been through all the moments and events of my life, and my emotions have been felt by my body as physical, visceral things. I also know that experiences can be associated with specific physical consequences in a heartbreakingly (I’ll come back to that) metaphorical way. Women who have experienced sexual trauma are significantly more likely to experience IBS and cancers of the pelvic region. (Be careful: that doesn’t mean that someone who has IBS was necessarily sexually traumatized.) How profoundly apt and sad that a woman who already had to endure trauma in that part of her body then also has to experience something else terrible in a linked way. If I were Queen of the Universe, instead of just Queen of the Pillbugs, this whole deal would run very differently. As the benevolent queen I’ve always been, I would issue an edict: You were already hurt there, you don’t have to be hurt there ever again.

heartAnd so to me, the author of this blog. I can never talk about this without crying, but it is such a part of my life and has been since I was a little girl. My heart hurts, a lot. It gives me crushing pain, searing pain, penetrating pain. I have felt like I was impaled through my heart, for weeks after my father’s suicide. Surprisingly, I have had no trouble in my pelvic region, though the association would suggest I should; instead, I have these heart troubles.

A friend of mine had a heart transplant after his otherwise-perfectly healthy heart was attacked by a virus, so he has thought a lot about the metaphor of illness and heart, and he and I talked about it for so many hours when we were both in graduate school. It’s so poignant and evocative, and after talking about it with my friend, I realized that getting a donor’s heart is orders of magnitude different from getting a donor’s kidney or corneas, and not just because the donor always must die first. Always. Every time. That’s likely true with corneas too, but I’m unaware of any deep association with corneas, as fabulous and desirable as they are.

But a change of heart, wow. And heartache, not just a word or idea, literal heart ache. Pain, real pain in the chest where the heart is. And broken heart, how that hurts. Some broken hearts feel like you truly might not survive. Sometimes it really mimics a full-blown heart attack (Takotsuba cardiomyopathy, “broken-heart syndrome;” with immediate treatment, most people survive with no long-term damage). (If you, like me, enjoy this kind of thing, you may enjoy this academic article analyzing cross-cultural heart metaphors.)

And so my heart hurts, a lot. And frequently. I have a slightly insufficient aorta (not enough to be worried about, just monitored, and it doesn’t hurt at all; the only problem is that I feel insulted by being insufficient 😉 ). I also have this thing called paroxysmal tachycardia, diagnosed for me in Manhattan, and while it’s horrible to experience, it’s perfectly harmless. It doesn’t even have a long-term effect on the heart. Basically, I will just be doing something ordinary (sitting my chair, for example, or cooking) and all of a sudden my heart jumps to an extremely fast rate — it can go up to 220, but mine usually jumps to 160-180. It stops as suddenly as it starts, and can last from minutes to hours. There are different types, as a function of where it originates, but here’s the wiki page for the ventricular type. There’s a way to stop it (you hold your breath and bear down), but it leaves me feeling terrible, with a headache, with exhaustion, with a feeling of breathlessness. It seems to happen to me in big clumps, and I’m in one now so that sucks. SUCKS. When the first person arrived at poetry group Tuesday night, she looked at me and gasped, and asked what was wrong and said I looked pale and drawn. I’m telling you, it sucks.

Aside from the physical consequences, it also makes me feel like my heart is broken. It leaves me feeling the same pain I felt so many times when I was growing up, and those times were always while something terrible was happening, or had happened, so the feeling drags those associations along, even though I know that’s all old news and don’t even have to remind myself of that. So I’m left with a headache, a slightly elevated heart rate, and a reminder of old feelings. Sucks. Not good at all.

Of course I could be wrong, but I think if all this stuff was going on with my knee, it would be a very different experience. It’s definitely something about the heart, and all that signifies and carries. In New York I had one of the most wonderful doctors I’ve ever had, and once while I was lying on the table during an exam, after a bunch of cardiac tests, she looked down at me with soft eyes and stroked a clump of hair off my forehead and said, gently, “You have a broken heart, I know.” It was the most loving and maternal action that I’ve ever experienced. After palpating my abdomen, she stopped and did it more carefully and then turned to me with moist eyes: “You were kicked in the stomach a lot, weren’t you.” She was truly extraordinary, and I still can’t believe that I got to have her for my doctor.

I will be so glad when all this stops, which it will. Each instance stops, and the run of it will stop. And I am fine, and will be fine, and in my life I have had a terribly broken heart, even if it’s not broken now. Funky little heart, sweet and beautiful little heart, holder of so much.

xo

bearing witness

In my own life, which has had an abundance of pain and trauma, I’ve had people very close to me tell me they couldn’t bear to hear a story, or perhaps they just withdrew in the midst of things and said they couldn’t bear it. As if I could! I couldn’t either, but I didn’t have a choice. And by telling me that they’re sorry, they couldn’t bear it, they are putting me outside humanity, in a way, though I doubt they realize that.

There is a photo in the media of a small dead boy in the surf, a refugee child, and many people are upset because the picture is there. Because they have to see it, because it’s too upsetting. IT IS! When I look at it I literally become unable to breathe. I have to turn my head for a moment so the hard lump gets out of my chest and throat, so I can take a breath eventually. That little boy, face down in the surf, could be Oliver in a different world. It’s excruciating. And people make all kinds of sophisticated arguments about the picture — it’s voyeurism, it’s unethical, it’s not doing anything but upsetting people, etc.

Does looking at the picture accomplish anything? What is served by my looking at it and getting so upset that I can’t breathe? It doesn’t put money in the hands of organizations and people who are able to help, that’s for sure. So what is the point?

I can bear witness. I can know what’s happening in the world, I can see that people are dying left and right in an effort to get their families to safety. By not turning my head, or turning the page, I can bear witness. It may be all I can do, but I can bear witness. I can know. The knowledge hurts. Since we have a little boy in our family it’s not a theoretical hurt, it’s specific. The little boy that we have seen in the surf is just one of hundreds, maybe thousands of people who have died. Adult men and women, young people, children, babies. And that doesn’t even count the people being murdered, the reason all these people are fleeing.

Why the picture? You could just read all the articles and learn what’s happening. I don’t know about you, but I have not read all the articles. I have not read many articles. I’ve had a vague awareness based on headlines only. But that picture forced me to know.

What does it mean if I turn away and refuse to look, refuse to know? Doing that means I privilege my own delicate sensibilities and put my fingers in my ears and say la la la la la!! I say, “Well, I know enough.” And maybe you do know enough! I’m just talking about me, and thinking this through. I’m sharing it here in case it’s something you hadn’t thought about, and perhaps you want to think about it, too. To ME, refusing to look is like living in the smoke shadow of a concentration camp and turning your head away, stuffing rags in the cracks of the windows so you don’t have to see it, smell it, know it.

My bearing witness means those people’s suffering is seen. They’d much rather have a home, food, safety, but not having those things and having the world turn away because it’s too hard to see, how AWFUL that is. Bearing witness feels like the absolute least I can do.

OandP090215The father of the little dead boy is the only surviving member of his family, and he has said that “the world has nothing for me now. I just want to bury my children and sit beside them until I die.” Me, I get to see Oliver whenever I like, I get to hold him and laugh, watch him toddle away to chase a dog, carefully pick up bites of cheese quesadilla or watermelon. Me, I get to see Katie whenever I like, be in the presence of my daughter, talk to her, hug her. I get to talk to Marnie whenever I like, and see her when I can. If something happens, I get to go help them. If they need something, I ache if I can’t help them because they are everything to me. And if I lost all of them, I imagine I would feel just like that poor father. How can I decide it’s just too hard to look, and just hold my kids and grandson as if that’s the whole world?

It’s very hard to look. It really is. It’s so hard it makes me hurt, physically. It makes my chest hurt. I can’t catch a breath. My eyes fill with tears. My whole body aches. I can’t stay sitting in my comfortable chair, I tear my eyes away and stand up and pace, not seeing anything as I wander around my comfortable home. And eventually I can breathe again, and when the story comes up in the news, or the picture — and others — present themselves, I take a deep breath and prepare myself and bear witness. It’s the least I can do.

loss and suffering

heartTalking about a mother’s heart is a schizophrenic experience for me. There I’ll be, talking about how full mine is, or how broken – because I am a mother to these people – and then I’ll remember so pointedly that it’s not true “because” I am a mother, because my own mother and plenty like her do not have these feelings.

I have 953 pictures of just him, and only 3 of those are from the past 9 years. I always loved this one, he is so beautiful.
I have 953 pictures of just him, and only 3 of those are from the past 9 years. I always loved this one, he is so beautiful.

My son is estranged from our family. He disappeared from us entirely in 2005, into New York City. I was living there too, and not knowing where or how we was doing made me feel, every single day, like I would die from it. From the fear, from the heartache, from the worry. I emailed him every single day, without fail, never knowing if he got them. For a brief period I discovered where he worked and would stand on the opposite corner, where he wouldn’t see me, and just watch. “Ah, he looks OK. Today he looks OK.” He held all the cards and all the power, and my fear was that if he saw me he would quit that job and then I wouldn’t even know that much about him. And so I’d watch from a distance because knowing that he was alive mattered more than the rest.

Thanks to my oldest daughter’s efforts, he rejoined our family, tentatively, for about a year, and we said some of the things to each other that we needed and wanted to say, and then he disappeared again and simply will not respond to any of us. The last time I saw him was August of last year (he lives a few blocks from me in NYC) and he doesn’t answer our calls, never responds to our texts or emails, he just stays away. When will I see him again? Will I? Will I hear from him ever again?

It’s a very hard thing to talk about for so many reasons. Too many parents respond with judgment and cold assumptions, they make thoughtless remarks. I do not need anyone to remind me—ever—that I have made mistakes in every avenue of my life, including parenting. I imagine some parents respond in judgment because it lets them feel safe: she must have done something so bad to deserve this and I know I haven’t, so it won’t happen to me. I hope it doesn’t, it’s excruciating. But I don’t and never will regret the thing I did that precipitated his leaving nine years ago, even if I never see him again. I felt that way then and I feel that way now. He was in a bad place and I tried to save his life, knowing very well that he might never forgive me. But he would be alive in the world and I decided I would live with that.

What is wrong with me – all the other mothers talk about their kids, complain about this little thing or that little thing, oh those kids – and I have this one who chooses to be gone. My heart is broken every single day, missing a chamber, dead in spots from lack of blood there. I feel shame and sorrow and impossible loss, and exquisite pain that every single day he makes the decision not to be in our family. I have a friend who understands personally what this feels like, and just having that little spot of true understanding has been such an experience of grace. And I got a note from one of my daughters with an expression of compassion that was so profound I’m bleaching out the pixels in her email from reading it over and over and over. There is such a balm from compassion and empathy from your adult children, I’m telling you. You wait a long, long time, hoping that someday they understand things, and sometimes they do.

Once in a blue moon I remember that my own mother and I have no connection – I haven’t seen or spoken to her since spring of 1987, and I won’t see or speak to her ever, for any reason. I won’t go to her funeral, if I even get the news that she dies. Is my son’s absence about the universe coming around to smack me down? How can my estrangement from my mother and my son’s estrangement from me have anything at all to do with each other, the situations could not be more different, and yet I am the common point to both. Pain ripples out a very long time from old boulders thrown into deep lakes, and maybe Will’s estrangement is a long slow ripple.

I have absolutely no idea what the pain of a child’s death is like. I watched my grandmother deal with my father’s death, and I watched my daughter deal with her daughter’s death. That’s a place I hope I never learn personally, I cannot even imagine. I’ve heard widowed and divorced women talk about which is worse – “At least yours died and didn’t leave you!” “At least yours could always come back!” – and there’s just more than enough sad truth in both losses. I am so glad my son is alive, and there is a cutting horrible pain in his choosing this.

Life is a mess and so are we as we try to live it. We fuck up out of ignorance, out of shortsightedness, out of our own brokenness, out of being human, and things are not always neat — maybe they never are neat. I try to extend that same understanding to my son, that he is perhaps fucking up out of his ignorance, his shortsightedness, his own brokenness, his humanity, and his life is not neat. Unlike my mother with me, my love for my son endures and will be echoing inside me to my last breath, whatever happens with him in the interim. And I am every day filled to the brim with love and appreciation for my beautiful daughters, I cannot neglect to say that.

dads

When he was a late-stage drunk, my dad’s stomach hurt all the time. How could it not, when he opened his eyes and started pouring vodka down his throat to get out of bed, and kept it up until he passed out at night? I remember telling him he should go to the doctor and he said, “But they’d cut me open and everything would be black, and they’d just sew me up and send me home to die.”  Although he probably consciously meant it in a literal sense, he believed it in a metaphorical sense too.

my very young dad. i think he was 18 here, the year before i was born
my very young dad. i think he was 18 here, the year before i was born

My poor dad. He’d been a sensitive little boy, the second child (first boy) of a really mean, vicious drunk father and a strong, bitter, hateful mother. He was sickly, with bad kidneys, and he grew up in such crushing poverty. They could only afford pinto beans, but he was unable to eat beans, which enraged his jerk of a father. My dad loved to hide behind the couch and read, and play silently with his little cars. If only he’d been born into a different family.

that's me, about 6 weeks old i guess. he apparently hadn't figured out how to support my neck. :)
that’s me, about 6 weeks old i guess. he apparently hadn’t figured out how to support my neck. 🙂

It’s nearly his birthday — December 20 of this year he’d have been 75, had he lived. Since he killed himself before his 44th birthday, I cannot even begin to imagine him as an old man. For most of my adult life, two specific days of the year knocked me back on my heels: his birthday, and the anniversary of his suicide, in March. I’d be laid low for days and days, unable to be in the present. Over the years, I have moved through so many different attitudes toward my dad — furious, and devastated, and bewildered, and furious again, and lost, and tender. I’ve kind of landed at compassion for him, although I suffered mightily at his hands. A couple of Octobers ago, Katie and I went to his grave in Taylor and I found my way to a different place with him. But however I have felt about him over the years, it is true that I got so much from him. I have his hands, exactly, although mine were never cruel. I share his long upper lip and his height. I definitely shared a love of books with him, and suffered with him about that; my mother hated that we both read, hated it with a vengeance. I shared a love of old movies with him. I got his tender heart and soft spirit and sentimental soul. Like him, I have a fondness for corny humor and wordplay. He was the only one who cooked for us, and I smile remembering him standing at the stove, scrambling eggs for our dinner when mother was out with her boyfriend.

He did a lot of things badly, out of his own suffering, and then he’d suffer more for having made us suffer. He never once escaped from the eddy of self-loathing. Childhood is not destiny, that’s the message of my own life, but he was not strong enough to move beyond the pain of his own. He just wasn’t. I was, but he wasn’t.

I was very lucky to find a few other dads in my life who were good to me in a way he was unable to be, other dads whose hands were gentle, whose words were kind, whose care was constant. But no one else, obviously, could be my real dad. That could only be him, Melvin Frank Peters. His mother and siblings called him Butch, for some reason, and I grew up calling him Frank, to appease my mother, so calling him “dad” always sticks in my throat, gets stuck on my teeth coming out of my mouth, sounds weird.  I can call him “my dad” but not Dad.

my dad, seeming happy, with his bitter old mother holding me, and his stepfather, who loved me
my dad, seeming happy, with his bitter old mother holding me, and his stepfather, who loved me

Just thinking about him a lot right now with a tender heart. My poor old daddy. It’s strange to cry for him, but it is awfully nice to find my way to compassion for him. Anger and rage eat you up inside, but you have to get there, and I am grateful to have this kind of tears in my eyes.

If you had a wonderful dad, you’re so lucky. If you didn’t, I hope you find your way to something that nourishes you and enlarges you.  xo

the last of those anniversaries

There was a 17-day period last year that was the worst of my whole life, and I cannot imagine such a thing will ever happen to me again. Nearly my whole life crumbled under my feet, and very little was the same at the end of it; mercifully — an enormous mercy — I still had my precious children and I was still alive, but everything else was gone. My granddaughter. My daughter’s desperate longing to be a mother. My marriage. Where and how I lived. My dreams. Poof.

this was me then, a year ago yesterday. makes me cry to see all the sorrow in my exhausted face.
this was me then, a year ago yesterday. makes me cry to see all the sorrow in my exhausted face.

One year ago yesterday I boarded an airplane with three giant suitcases filled with clothes. I didn’t have a key to anything or any place. I flew away from New York, believing I’d never live there again. I left friends, hoping to stay in touch. I left a small number of books, planning to return to pack and ship them. And that’s it. Me plus clothing in bags. Been there before, never thought I’d be there again. (But I survived.)

One enormous loss was the belief that finally I’d never have to move again. I’d lived at the same address for six years, longer than I had ever lived at one address my whole life. Three times as long as I’d ever lived at one address, actually. My 80th move took me there, and I believed — finally, I believed — that I wouldn’t ever move again until I was dead. I fought my way to that belief, resisting allowing myself to believe it out of fear, fearing that becoming comfortable about that would make the pain unendurable if I lost it. But finally I did come to believe it. And the pain was in fact almost unendurable when I lost it. (But I survived.)

One year ago yesterday he drove me to the airport and spoke sharply to me on the way, making me cry even harder. He helped me get my three enormous bags into the airport and then turned and walked away, and I stood there in shock. (But I survived.) Here’s what I said about it last year:

Yesterday was machine gun fire, a giant rollercoaster, take your pick of metaphor. After getting an hour’s sleep, we left for the airport and wrestled my three giant suitcases to the airline check-in desk. Southwest Airlines agents are perky and seem to assume that everyone they encounter is a  happy person, going to a happy place (!) oh-so-happy! She kept apologizing for having to charge me for a third bag, and was insistently pressing on me about the trip while in my head I was screaming, I’m moving, these are all my clothes. This is my husband — we are leaving each other, I am moving, please stop. I sat alone at the gate for a very long time, stunned and blank.

Remembering all this brings the terrible pain back into my chest, the blankness back into my mind, the tears back into my eyes. Waiting for me in Austin was my beautiful and devastated daughter Katie, reeling and blank from her daughter’s funeral just a couple of weeks earlier. My solid and loving son-in-law Trey, reeling too. And they opened their arms, their home to me. They absorbed me with love, put their aching arms around me. There was so much to do — I didn’t have a fork, even. I landed at the airport around 1pm on a Saturday, and by 3pm that same day I’d rented my place and bought a couch. The next Monday Katie and I drove to San Antonio to pick up the car I’d bought.

Somehow, Katie and I bought all the things I’d need to make myself a home. Somehow she found it in herself to press me not to shortchange myself and just get junk, knowing it would eventually make me feel terrible to be surrounded by plastic, temporary things when I felt so temporary myself. Somehow she and Trey helped me make the transition two weeks after I arrived, leaving me to grieve alone in my new home, and leaving them to return to their own lives alone together to continue their grief. (And we all survived.)

A year ago yesterday I stood on scorched earth, a place I’d stood many times, a place I feared ever standing again, a place I believed I could never endure standing again. A year ago yesterday I and my life were saturated by loss and devastation. (But I survived.)

A year ago yesterday, one of those extraordinary serendipitous moments happened to me, as they frequently do. On the flight to Austin, I turned a page in the book I was reading and came upon this poem, the most perfect thing I ever could have read:

The Layers
by Stanley Kunitz

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.

The poem gave me strength and courage, as did knowing that Katie and Trey were waiting for me, and boy the poem was the truest thing ever. I was not done with my changes; I will not be, until I draw my last breath. I had so much pain waiting for me, when I thought I’d already endured more than I could. I had so much heartbreak waiting, when I thought my heart was already shattered completely. I had so much growth ahead of me, when I thought the root was dead, finally, killed by too much suffering at the end of a life of too much suffering.

What I didn’t know, a year ago yesterday, was everything. I didn’t know the pain still to come (so glad for that); I didn’t know the harshness January and February would bring me (so glad for that); I didn’t know I’d find such beautiful things in myself, I didn’t know how strong I am even though I thought I did; I didn’t know my life would become better than it has ever been, filled with so many people who would just open their arms to me and take me in. I didn’t know I’d build a home for myself. I didn’t know I’d be surrounded by people. I didn’t know I’d thrive. And I certainly didn’t know I’d find my way back in New York City regularly, I certainly didn’t know I’d find some way to stay connected to my husband, I certainly didn’t know (and in fact would’ve bet everything against it) that he would change so much, so deeply, and in the ways I most needed. I assume I’ve made similar changes. I didn’t know I would in fact get to travel — didn’t know I’d go to Java and Bali, didn’t know Sri Lanka would be in my future, a year ago. I didn’t know that from my place of such tremendous want, I’d end up with such enormous surplus.

Just goes to show you. It ain’t over til it’s over, no matter how it looks in the dark. Katie, Trey, thank you for the ways you gave ME a home and a safety net, and all your love. Marnie, Tom, thank you for your optimism and support, assuring me I would be better than I dreamed. All that isn’t limited to a year ago yesterday, of course — it came before and it continues after that anniversary, but when I was at my greatest need, you held me. For such an unlucky person I am the luckiest person in the whole world.

I’m 55. 55 years old.

my last day as a 54-year-old.
my last day as a 54-year-old.

Today — my 55th birthday — I am again in the air, flying away. And so I will miss your Facebook birthday greetings until late in the evening, and I will miss your notes and emails but when I see them, they will make me feel loved. I’m ridiculously silly about my birthday; when I used to work in an office, if the UPS guy showed up on that day I’d suddenly demand that he sing happy birthday to me and he usually did, in shock. (Who does that?! Seriously.)

So many people who read this blog are new to it — my Austin friends, for example. For those of you who have been around for a few years, you may remember this and if so, I’m sorry for repeating. This is the post I wrote when I turned 53, modified and updated to fit. Happy birthday to me!

* * *

I’m mid-century modern. I know that most people think of architecture and furniture and decorations when they hear that phrase, like these:

midcenturymodern

 

I was born in the small north Texas town of Graham, on November 6, 1958 — mid-century….mid-last-century, which is pretty weird. That year Dwight Eisenhower was the President, hula hoops the rage, NASA was created, Sir Edmund Hillary reached the South Pole, and Elvis was inducted into the army. There was a crazy economic recession that year; the average price for a new house was $12,570; monthly rent was $92; average annual salary was $4,600, and gas cost 25 cents/gallon. Volare and Tequila were popular songs; popular movies were Vertigo, Gigi, and The Bridge on the River Kwai. On the tube, people watched Candid Camera, The Ed Sullivan Show, The Jack Benny Show, and Alfred Hitchcock Presents (in black and white, of course).

I was the first-born child of an 18-year-old girl and a 19-year-old boy, both high school dropouts. One dear grandfather was an oilfield roughneck until he retired, at which point he was the janitor at the hospital; I’m not sure he made it to 8th grade. One grandmother was Comanche; she preferred to live alone in the woods.

Everyone’s lives are far too complex to summarize…..certainly in a silly little public blog post. But here, as I turn 55 years old, I can say these things with certainty:

  • My life has been much, much better than it had any right to be, given its start.
  • Becoming a mother redeemed and saved me.
  • For most of my adult life, I’ve felt like I was 27. I think I feel like I’m 28 now.
  • I’ve gone places I didn’t even know to dream about when I was growing up:
    • physical places like Hanoi (Vietnam) and Varanasi (India) and Arequipa (Peru) and Enkuisen (The Netherlands) and Istanbul (Turkey) and Phnom Penh (Cambodia) and Bagan (Myanmar) and Raab (Croatia) and Luang Prabang (Laos) and  Yogyakarta (Java) and Ubud (Bali); the Ganges and the Mekong Rivers;
    • emotional places like so far gone in love with my children;
    • intellectual places, like getting a PhD (I thought grad school was just like 17th grade, and if you wanted to just stay on after you got a bachelor’s you just kind of kept hanging around);
    • life places, like working on Madison Ave for a big-ass publisher and living in Manhattan.
  • You probably do get to have everything, just not all at once, or when it would be most convenient for you.
  • The trick: get up at least one more time than you fall down.
  • Literature and poetry can save you.
  • Art too.
  • You’re stronger than you imagine.
  • Laughing helps.
  • Love is gold.
  • Hope isn’t about pink ponies and rainbows and sunny happy feelings; hope is that thing with feathers that perches in your soul, and you need it.

Since my last birthday, my life has changed so dramatically I hardly recognize it. On my last birthday, I was in such deep grief from our losing Gracie and from having to leave Katie I was reeling. We re-elected Obama on my birthday two days after I got home. And the next day, my marriage apparently ended, poof. I packed my clothes in my suitcases, left New York City, a place I loved so much, and flew to Austin, to start over from scorched earth. Since my last birthday, I learned how very strong my kids and I are. I learned that somehow I made an extraordinary family even though I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I learned that I am strong enough to clutch the bedsheets and bear being right in the middle of the pain without looking away. I found such beautiful, beautiful, beautiful friends in Austin, and kept my connections to equally beautiful friends in New York, so my life got so much bigger. I made my poetry group, a monthly source of deep pleasure. I created a beautiful little home that looks like me, and is comfortable. I took a solitary trip to the desert, to Marfa, to do what people have always gone to the desert to do — to reflect, study my heart, shift. My husband and I decided to see if we could find our way together somehow and we went to Java and Bali in the spring. I flew back and forth to New York City several times, to Chicago once to see Marnie and Tom. A client flew me to Beverly Hills for a week and put me up in a sweet little B&B. Sherlock and Peggy flew down to spend a long weekend with me. I got to see Neko Case performing for a taping of Austin City Limits. I learned that a terrible crazy person is suing me and so I hired my first-ever lawyer. I got to meet Nick Flynn and spend time with him. I read a lot of good books and poems, ate so many delicious meals, laughed for hours and hours and hours, cried for that many too.  I learned that I enjoy my own company, and that I can do this. I learned my very own life, my very own self, and I wouldn’t have done that without the bomb blast to my life. In a life with a lot of competition for this title, this past year definitely wins “The Most Dramatic Year of My Life” award.

The coming year will bring more of the same (but not the bomb blast please): flying back and forth to New York, a trip to the Catskills in a couple of days, a trip to Sri Lanka in a couple of weeks and a spring trip to Greece. Hours and hours of laughing with my children and my friends, my dearly loved people, all of you. At least one giant surprise. Shared meals, shared afternoons and lunches and walks. Shared quiet times, shared private conversations, shared group fun. Lots and lots of reading and writing, two of my favorite things to do. Time spent with myself in the deep pleasure of solitude. And this Christmas, Marnie and Tom come from Chicago, so all we’d need would be Will, and my sweet little family would all be together. The five of us will celebrate the holiday with great joy and wonderful food.

So happy birthday to me, to another fine though difficult year behind, and another one to come.  If you haven’t made it to the 50s yet, I heartily recommend it as an excellent decade of life.

how beautifully leaves grow old
how full of light and color
are their last days
~john burroughs

love xo
Lori

the motherless we

Last night I saw Neko Case perform at Austin City Limits. I first fell in love with her when I heard I Wish I Was the Moon, which I played over and over when Marc and I were falling in love, so it also has those emotional connections for me. It’s a gorgeous song even without all that.

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Something about her music has always resonated for me — her style, her powerful but so sweet voice, her lyrics.  In promoting her new album (“The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You”), she did an interview in which she talked about a deep depression she just came through after the loss of both her parents and other people in her family. In the course of the interview she said that she was very close to her grandmother but she didn’t like her parents. Something about the way she said that, the absolute finality of it, struck me. She said she’d been an orphan her whole life and that’s when I knew why I recognized her. I wrote a short story once that included a sentence that said, essentially, my parents gave me up but kept me with them. My own long, roundabout way of saying that I was an orphan (although I think actually being an orphan might’ve been much better).

There are so many ways to be an orphan, and it’s a mistake to compare suffering, it can’t be done. But if your mother dies and you are an orphan, it’s simply different from if your mother hates you from birth. Having your mother hate you from birth is different from having your mother give you up for adoption; in some way, there is love there—a mother who gives up her child is probably hoping someone can give her child what she is unable to give for whatever reason. It still probably feels like an abandonment to the child, and that’s surely awful. But there are plenty of kids born to mothers who simply hate them. I was. 

There’s something about those of us whose mothers hated us from birth, and always hated us thereafter. There’s a certain wariness to us, a certain kind of unfillable hole. But it’s so big, the hole is almost more than what’s left around it. As poet Matt Rasmussen said in his beautiful poem After Suicide, “a hole is nothing but what remains around it. While I was watching Neko Case perform, another motherless woman, I was thinking about what it means to be hated from birth, when the one who gives birth to you hates your very existence, when you are a curse, a ruination of her life. You have ruined the life of the one who gave you life, so what does that mean for you? There are so many ways to feel worthless, but being hated by your mother is so very deep and old it’s just invisible. You don’t feel worthless, you are worthless. For some of us, it’s not theoretical, it’s not a conjecture, it’s not a temporary state or a phase you pass through during adolescence. For some of us, it just is.

Of all the various family members I’ve adopted over the course of my adult life, I have never found a mother. My first mother-in-law Ruth was very good to me — very good — and she loved me and I loved her. But whether it was something in her or something in me, she never felt like my own mother. I am forever grateful for how good she was to me, and for the love she gave me, but she wasn’t my mother.

I have no idea what a mother’s love feels like. No idea. I try to imagine the inverse with my kids; I know how terribly much I love them, how my own life is a kind of tent over all of them, encompassing them, giving my life all its meaning. I hope they feel how very much they’re loved, and I believe they do, but I can’t figure out how it feels to have that. I’ve had adopted fathers and felt like they were fathers to me, but it doesn’t cross-filter into letting me know what a mother’s love feels like. It’s so funny how absolute it is; I can do things to give me the vaguest sense of what it might feel like to be in space, for god’s sake. I can get into deep tanks, I could go to Space Camp in Huntsville and do some kind of simulation thing to really help me know what it might feel like to be in space. Outer space, since I’m an old-timer. But I do not know what it feels like to be loved by a mother.

Luckily, though, I have my children. Some motherless children do not have their own children, and I can’t imagine what that feels like. The space reference makes sense to me here, because there is surely nothing holding that woman down, nothing anchoring her. I don’t have a tether holding me from my back to behind me, but I do have one holding me from my front outwards, to my children. Those connections give me my real life.

So many of the songs in the concert last night had lyrics that got at the motherlessness. There were lines about mother and poison, about needing but there being no mother’s hands. She didn’t perform this song last night, and I’ve posted it here before, but this song could only have been written by a motherless person.

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Lyrics here. It’s a part of that song — no one will believe you, you won’t believe it, but it really happened.  Of all the difficulties I suffered through, being a motherless child is the pain that lingers after all these years, the gaping hole around which I exist. If you have a mother, even a difficult one, I don’t think you can begin to comprehend, just as I can’t comprehend what it’s like to have one.

Ah, such a sad subject, one that is always with me.  Even when I am happy, I can touch that hole so very easily. I’ve talked in my blog before about my tribes (with two follow-up tribe posts), and most of those are tribes I claim with pride or identity. But the tribe of the motherless is a heavy-hearted tribe, a sad and empty tribe, and we cannot provide each other comfort or understanding, because being motherless is a singular experience. We’ve taken too much into ourselves, we’ve turned inward too much. It’s too personal.

I hope you have/had a mother, and I hope you felt her love. If you didn’t, like me, I hope you have children. But if you didn’t have a mother and you don’t have children, I hope you can transform that sorrow into art like Neko Case does, so brilliantly. Here’s a link to her new album on Amazon, $11.75, and here it is on iTunes, $10.99. There’s not a bum song on the whole album. Click this link to hear the rocking rocking song I’m a Man, on YouTube. As I write this a couple of hours after the concert, I think the song is still making my blood vibrate.

xo

who IS that guy?

here we are in Ubud
here we are in Ubud

Understandably, many of my Facebook friends were puzzled by pictures from my Indonesia trip that included a man — especially since he was clearly not a stranger to me. Many photos show us with our heads touching, or smiling at each other. It wasn’t a secret; when I quickly replied that the man is my husband most people simply said they hoped I am happy, or that they want the best for me, and one dear friend wrote me back channel to express her care and concern. I’ve got to tell you, that was pretty cool. (But then, this friend is pretty cool so I shouldn’t be surprised.)

So here is the deal — again, not a secret. If you’ve read this blog and stuck with me through the last fall and this winter, you know one of the huge shatterings of my heart (and only one, there were a few simultaneously) was that my husband and I decided to get a divorce. It was excruciatingly painful, and quite confusing because we have always still loved each other. Our relationship is hard, has always been hard, and there are ways we’re terribly hard on each other. And yet something in him answers something deep in me, and vice versa. I’d give anything to understand it or be able to explain it, but I can’t. There were lots of days I’d have given anything just to hate him, because that would at least be a clear feeling. Still, even though we both have these deep feelings of love, it had become clear to us both that our relationship was too difficult and we needed to end it. And so I gathered my few little belongings and left New York, and him, and started again from zero. My daughter Katie and her husband Trey took me in at an extraordinarily difficult time for them, and Katie helped me start over, get everything I needed. I was so depressed and struggling she had to push me and encourage me, at a time she needed so much — but she did it. For me.

And so months passed, and I found my way. I love my home and I will never again give it (or myself) up. I will never again abandon my life, let everything go, start over again. I’ve found friends, a real life that makes me so happy. My beautiful home makes me happy every single day. One thing I knew was that I didn’t want another relationship — I really didn’t. I was content with myself and looked forward to the next few decades of life filled with family and friends, and lots of new experiences. Lots of happiness. Just no other relationship. There are some things I know about myself, and that’s one of them.

My husband realized he didn’t want anyone else either. And so, a bit of a dilemma. I am here, he is there. I am not moving, and neither is he. Can we find a little stream of our own, something that might work within these constraints? And so we are trying something. We alternate visiting each other — him in Austin one month for a long weekend, me in NYC the following month for a week. His work doesn’t allow the same kind of flexibility as mine, so my visits will be longer which also gives me the chance to see my NYC friends, go to shows and museums and all the places I love. And we’ll take trips together, which somehow we always did extremely well, even if our daily life was difficult and sometimes even quite terrible.

afternoon tea at Alam Jiwa in Ubud: chocolate cake with ginger tea
afternoon tea at Alam Jiwa in Ubud: chocolate cake with ginger tea

Our trip to Indonesia was beautiful, and we relaxed and just enjoyed being together. Do I now wonder if things could be different? Do I now think hmm….maybe…..? Nope. Or rather, even if I do I am sticking by ME. When this possibility first emerged, I told someone that my life now is a beautiful, wonderful chocolate cake. It’s rich and yummy, it makes me so happy. Lots of layers, lots of deep ganache filling, beautiful frosting. And hoo boy do I love chocolate cake. I could live on it. My husband is a scoop of the best vanilla ice cream. Maybe I can have cake and ice cream! If I can, that’s pretty great. But if not, I still have my gorgeous chocolate cake, and I am so good with that. Because you know I can live on chocolate cake. With ginger tea.

If this does not work—and it may not—I’ll probably suffer again, from more heartbreak, but that is the price we all pay, isn’t it. Suffering doesn’t kill us, even though it feels like it might. I learned and gained so much from the last fall and winter, and while I sure don’t want to run into pain so I can have an FGO (because nobody likes the FGOs as a friend once told me [fucking growth opportunity]), hiding away and closing up shop to avoid future pain and heartbreak is not living. And if it doesn’t work, and if I suffer again, I’ll be a very different person going through it this time because I’ll already have my beautiful home, and I’ll already know that I have a rich and wonderful life, and that I can survive and be happy all by myself. I’ll already know and have all that. I know some people (my daughters included) are uneasy and worry about me out of their love for me, and others may feel judgmental in a number of ways. I appreciate the care and concern, but any judgment . . . well, I don’t really care too much. Or at all. But I — like everyone else — am making my way through my life trying to figure things out, trying to learn and grow, trying to risk [but not too much], trying to do the best I can for myself. Just like you do. Life is neat for some people, and I wish I were one of those; it’s never really been neat for me, but that’s OK. All that matters is that it’s mine, and I’m grateful for every last bit of it.

that damn middleground

clingingThere’s a good reason people behave and react in the extremes, black or white. They’re clear! They’re easy! Fine-I-won’t-say-a-word or Let-me-say-everything. But walking the line in the gray zone is really hard, at least for me.

I’ve written before about the reason I am not a Buddhist (the images in that post are all screwed up because of the transfer from squarespace) — the idea of not attaching to the world misses the entire point for me. There may be all kinds of peace and good things to be found there, but it’s not for me. I want to attach to people, I want to attach to experiences. That’s life, that’s being part of the world, and of course that also means you’re going to hurt, as I know extremely well. But if the alternative is not to attach in order not to hurt, why bother. That’s my opinion, nothing more. Good on ya if you feel otherwise, honestly.

Still, it’s a mistake to throw the baby out with the bathwater, because there is a lot of pain in clinging. So the trick is to learn when to cling (and for how long) and when to open your hand. Damn it. Let me cling cling cling or never cling! Doing all this figuring out is hard. But all these middle-of-the-night hours awake have given me a couple of insights that seem to have helped me in some good way.

I was clinging to the pain of my marriage breaking up as a signifier of how very much I loved my husband. If I hurt this much, for this long, it really shows how much and deeply I loved him, see? It wasn’t a casual thing, see? But that clinging ignored the complexity of my love for him, which was indeed deep and great, even though our relationship was extraordinarily difficult, always was, and I very rarely got the emotional support I desperately needed. The lack of support I got around Gracie’s death was appalling, but typical. As soon as I can let go of clinging to all that pain to prove something to myself, I’m able to remember the complexity and both quit keeping myself in pain but also feel much better about the relationship ending, even though I did and do love him. But it is much better for me (and for him) for our relationship to end, love notwithstanding. That happens.

I’ve also been clinging to old clinging; since Gracie died, I’ve felt like I’ve had to do things I wasn’t ready to do, so I was clinging to the door frame even as I was being ushered out. No no no. My precious daughter was ready for me to go back to New York much more quickly than I felt ready to go, and the timing was quite abrupt. Of course the part that mattered the most to me was honoring whatever she needed, so whether I was ready or not was my own little thing but not part of that decision. So off I went, really not ready to leave her, clinging to that. No no no, I’m not ready. I no sooner got home than my husband and I decided to divorce, even though I really wasn’t ready. He’s been so plain and clear for so very long that it was over for him, and I kept clinging to the maybes. That’s on me. He was always clear, but I was clinging to the maybes. No no no. Not ready. I’ve always said my spirit animal is the ostrich. So I have the residue of all that ‘no no no I’m not ready’ staining me and coloring how I feel right now. But it’s old stuff.

What I’ve realized is the power and strength of the clinging and how it’s hurting me, and also that this isn’t about not attaching. It’s about letting go of old stuff, that’s all. I still attach to the world, I attach to my people, I attach to my little birds, I attach to my beautiful home, even though all those things could (and will) end some day. I’m not deciding not to attach, I’m just opening my hands and letting go of old stuff.

I have deep grooves in my palms from my fingernails, from all that tight clinging. It feels a lot better to open my hands. It doesn’t mean I’m purely happy now, it doesn’t mean whew that’s all over, it just means I kind of see something differently and it makes me feel better. I’ll take that.

good thing of the day: time with family, it’s the best thing there is.

meet me

If you were a follower of my other blog, you read the story of my spine full of tattoos. Briefly, when I was 36, a freshman in college, I read Maxine Hong Kingston’s beautiful memoir, Woman Warrior and I was so inspired by the story of Fa Mu Lan, the woman warrior, whose parents carved their family’s story on her back. It was a story to inspire vengeance, a story of loss and terrible, terrible things. I didn’t want to do that, because I already felt like I carried all those stories on my back. So I thought about it for 4 years and decided to instead carve the things I got from my difficult childhood, or, at least, the things I’ve had to think hard about. To maintain my connection to the woman warrior, I chose the concepts and found the Chinese characters for them.

I had an idea once to use the long string of tattoos as an organizing principle for my memoir, allowing each chapter to focus on one of the tattoos, telling the stories that led me to choose it, and what I’ve come to think after so many years of living through the consequences. One problem was that so many stories from my past would fit multiple tattoos; does homelessness fit endurance or courage? It fits both, of course. I bailed on that idea for my memoir and took a different approach.

But I still want to tell those stories. And I want them to link to my tattoos, which mean everything to me. Somehow I feel them there, and I mean that literally. I feel them there, on my spine, holding me up. There are 12 of them; the top 5 are composed of two characters and the rest are single characters. I got them all at once, when I was in graduate school, except for the bottom one. That’s a story of its own, getting the tattoos; perhaps I’ll tell it when I finish this series. I got the bottom one in New York, after I met my husband. To me, it’s a quite powerful story and I look forward to telling it.

So today I’m going to start telling the stories. As I said, it’ll be kind of arbitrary, which stories I link to which tattoos, but that’s OK. Instead of showing the whole length, which is kind of provocative even though it’s just a spine, I’m going to snip out the individual tattoos.

beautiful womanI start at the top today, with a pair of characters that mean ‘beautiful woman.’ Actually, it’s something more like beautiful human, but since it’s in the context of me, it’s beautiful woman. When I got the tattoos, my hair was extremely short, so unless I wore a tall collar these two tattoos always showed — and I put them visibly at the top on purpose, as a kind of dare.

My mother used to be quite beautiful, with long, coal black hair, light blue eyes, high cheekbones. Her birth mother was full Comanche, and my mother had something of that look — mainly showing up in the color of her skin, kind of ruddy, and the shape of her nose. But she was striking, and when I was very little I thought she was the most beautiful woman in the world. She was 18 when she had me, so I used to ask other kids in first grade, “how old is your mother” so I could reveal that mine was just 24. That would’ve been 1964, and remember how great the styles were then? And my mother wore them all. Hot pants and boots. Mini-skirts. Long straight hair. I was so proud of my beautiful, beautiful mother. I wanted nothing more than to be just like her.

Mine was one of those families where the kids belonged to different parents. I belonged to my dad—I was “just like him”—and my little sister was our mother’s. No one claimed my poor little brother except me. I was not in the close circle of mother and my sister, and I remember aching, wanting to be with them. Mother always said that every man wanted her, and every woman was jealous of her. But worse, Mother always said my sister was so pretty, and she called me fat cow. The whole family got in on that; I remember a little essay my baby brother wrote in first grade that said, “my big sister is very fat but we love her anyway.” And I came to see myself that way. Of course. In fact, it wasn’t until I was nearly 30 that I thought, “hey, wait a minute. I have a couple of pictures. I wasn’t fat.” But that still didn’t make sense.

So I’ve had to think very hard about what it means to be beautiful. I never wanted my picture taken, ever. Once I lost 50 pounds after having a baby and shot a little video to send a friend, and my narration was, “Well, I’m skinny but I’m still so ugly.” Until recently I couldn’t really see myself when I looked in the mirror, as strange as that sounds. I kind of went blank or something. I went through a period of defiance, saying stuff like, “oh yeah? well, beauty comes from the inside and that’s all that matters.” At the time I chose my tattoos, I was in that phase, but I believed I was quite ugly. Putting it right at the top, where it was always visible and often prompted people to ask me what it meant was also an act of defiance, like “I AM TOO A BEAUTIFUL WOMAN.” There was a lot of fuck you in it, but with a quavery, heartbroken voice.

It took me an extraordinarily long time to grow into myself, to even know my own skin, and I’m only just learning how to be comfortable in it. And I do still believe, with all my heart, that beauty is an inside job, like happiness. Beauty shines out of eyes, and that comes from an open heart. Beauty is in a happy smile, and that comes from joy and openness. Beauty is in an open face, born of a willingness to participate in the world, and with others. By those measures, I finally think I am a beautiful woman. Since I’ve moved to Austin, you may have noticed (especially if you’re my facebook friend) that I’ve taken a lot of pictures of myself. And one of them I saved with the filename “beautiful me.jpg.”

meAnd kind of secretly, I also finally think I’m physically beautiful. I think I look better now than I ever did, and my sense is that it comes from everything inside me, plus my open smile, my lovely hair, and those cheekbones. Beauty isn’t just about thighs (thank god) or any one little body part.

My daughter Marnie helped me with this, so much, a couple of years ago. I’ve never been able to belittle my appearance since then.

So that’s the story behind my top tattoo. Once, in Chinatown in New York, an old Chinese man passed me and turned and said, “beautiful woman.” I smiled and said, “Thank you!” and then realized he was reading my tattoo. 🙂

good thing of the day: life

a how-to guide

I am a strong person, I believe that. I’ve been trying to be honest here (and in the rest of my life) about what it’s like to be going through the devastation of the past two and a half months. I think a few people mistake that honesty, misinterpret it, to mean something else—weakness, even—but that’s their deal, not mine. To me, a big part of being strong is being able and willing to feel whatever there is to feel, not to pretend it’s not there, not to hide from it, not to ignore it, but instead to stand there, with as much strength as possible, and face it.  When I was in college, and had three young kids at home and no help, I had to get it while I was sitting in class; I didn’t have the luxury of time to let my mind wander during lecture and then get it later. I had to get it right then, be present, pay attention. And I think of this period of difficulty in a similar way; whatever is happening to me now, I want to go ahead and experience it and face it and deal with it while it’s happening so I don’t have to handle it showing up later, or over the next however long it might reappear.

So it’s terrifying at times, and I feel terrified. It’s so sad sometimes that I have to lie down and clutch the furniture to bear the sorrow, but I do that, and then it eases. It’s lonely, so I sit with the loneliness and try to understand it. It’s empty, and so I absorb the emptiness and try to feel that, and think carefully about how to fill it in the most meaningful way. The losses feel like a tsunami, and so I try to anchor my feet and absorb the wave and still be standing when it washes away. When happiness, or even joy, appears, I try to open my hands and arms and soak it up and get as much restoration from it as I can. When I feel the truth of there being no one here to take care of me, no one to pet me or give me a hug when I’m having a hard time, no one to rub my back, I try to face that feeling and then take good care of myself. It’s hard. It’s exhausting, on top of the exhaustion from grief.

Some people have been very good to/for/with me, good at helping, being there, doing what they can. And other people have pointedly not. I haven’t been surprised by who falls into which group, especially the not-helpful group, though some of the helpers have been a little surprising — not that they helped, but that they were particularly thoughtful in a specific way, usually born of having experienced hard times themselves.

I don’t know how useful this how-to guide will be, because it may be so idiosyncratic to me that it won’t apply to others. That’s probably true of a couple of items, but I’ll bet it’s generally good. If you have a friend or acquaintance who gets blasted by life, here is my advice:

What to do or say:

  • Just say you’re thinking about her! That’s helpful. If it occurs to you to drop a little note of some kind, even a text or an email, you might be surprised just how much it can help. You might send it at just the right time without knowing it (because for someone facing a lot of stuff, it’s actually always just the right time).
  • Listen. That’s always good.
  • Real mail! Man alive, I can’t tell you what that did for me, the several times someone went out of their way and sent me something in the mail. I got the boost when they asked for my address (a real boost that day), and then a surprise second boost the day the mail arrived. It can just be a small thing — you know how great it is to get real mail.
  • If you’re nearby, propose meeting for a drink, or coffee, or a walk, or a movie. Be specific! She’s probably glad to do something you suggest, and unable to suggest something herself. People in sorrow and trouble welcome distraction, even when they are trying so hard to be strong. You can let your friend set the pace of whether to talk about the trouble or not, and just follow her lead.
  • Periodic short encouraging notes. And really, brief is just fine, it does the trick.
  • Be patient.

What NOT to do or say:

  • Just for a while, handle your own little problems, or turn to other friends. Just for a while, don’t make demands on your overburdened friend. If you hear her say that she’s feeling fragile and her resources are low, take that information as a cue not to ask her to handle your life too.  (And p.s., it doesn’t count if you make a demand but say, “I probably shouldn’t be asking you.”) And then, especially, do not be critical of her for not helping you. Of course, if something big happens to you, good or bad, share it with your friend anyway.
  • Don’t comment on the “drama.” No one but an actress likes to be told that, in the first place, but in the second place who would ask to have a string of terrible things happen, who wouldn’t be so overwhelmed by it without it being labeled “drama!” There’s something kind of blaming in that, or at least it’s so often used that way that it carries the connotation, whether you mean it or not.
  • Even if you think her grief is dragging on too long, keep that thought to yourself. If you just have to talk about that, talk to other people, though who likes to be gossiped about behind their backs. (But if it’s really getting worrisome and you are scared for your friend and her well-being, you might eventually ask, in a loving way, how she feels she’s getting through the grief, to open a conversation.) If you’re feeling this way, instead take the opportunity to quit thinking about your own irritation or annoyance and think about helping her.
  • Don’t simply say, “If you need anything — anything at all — just call! I’m serious!” Or if you do, don’t sit by the phone waiting, because that call isn’t going to come. Really, you’re just saying that to make yourself feel better so you can believe you helped (and we all know that, because we’ve all said it, and we’ve all heard it). So don’t do that — there are very very easy things to do that really will help, and won’t demand too much of you. Like a quick email or a note.
  • Do not be impatient. If that’s too hard for you, then do what you have to do for yourself, of course, but don’t take it out on her. She’s got all she can do trying to be patient with herself, I’m pretty sure.

And one between here and there: If you are the primary support to someone who is in need, be sure to rely on your own support network! As my friend reminded me (and I know very well from the first 6 months of last year), it’s draining and exhausting being the primary support to a suffering person, and if you get plenty of your own support, it’ll help keep you from doing things on the “don’t do that” list. But more importantly, it’ll help you keep going, too. We’re all so connected to each other.

So that’s today’s how-to guide, born of a particularly hard day.

good thing of the day: thoughtful friends and family, blue skies, and inner strength.

bearing it

One thing I’ve never really understood is why people use drugs or alcohol to escape. It’s been mysterious to me always; whatever you’re escaping from will be there when you straighten up. And in fact, it’ll be even worse because time has passed and you ignored it. I’ve known people who took that approach and I’ve asked them about it, but I seem to miss some essential thing. I just don’t get it, no matter how eloquently it’s explained to me, no matter how well I understand the person otherwise.

I know that people fear pain, fear discomfort, avoid it in all sorts of ways — I do too OF COURSE. My pet approach is to pretend things aren’t happening. Earlier in my life I had so little money for so long, it was always a question of what wasn’t going to get paid so I could tend to other things. How long could I put off paying the electric bill, the credit card bill(s), the rent, because this month I needed to pay the orthodontist, this month the kids needed school supplies, this month the tires had to be replaced or the car wouldn’t pass inspection. I developed the terrible habit of simply not opening the mail, of ducking the phone. There was never anything good in the mail, it was just so stressful, so I quit looking. NOT a good habit, not a way to deal with trouble, but it’s the way I dealt with it when I felt I had no options. I might argue that, since I couldn’t pay the bills anyway, why look at them? Of course it caused me so much stress, it kept me awake at night, that stack of mail I never opened. It felt so frightening and overwhelming; would it have been better if I’d looked at it? 

One good thing about having all this difficulty happen to me now is that I know the pain isn’t going to do me in. It’s not going to kill me. And even thinking of it as “bad” misses some boat, though I worry I’m starting to sound like a masochist or something. I love feeling happy, peaceful, content, excited, exuberant, all those kinds of feelings. Love, that’s a good one too. But the other ones — anger, sorrow, depression, heaviness, ache, longing for something that doesn’t exist, pain that makes you cry — why run away from them? Thank heavens I’m in the midst of this period of terrible stuff or you might think, hmph, easy for you to say.  It isn’t easy to say, that last set isn’t easy to feel, but don’t those feelings come to us all? And aren’t they associated with experiences that deepen us, and tenderize us?

Lately I’ve been thinking about walking into fire. There are you, just walking along, and up ahead is a raging fire — and the only way is through. So you prepare yourself as best you can, you squinch up your shoulders, make yourself as small and hard as you can, and you run. No matter what happens (assuming you survive), you are not the same when you get out of the fire. You cannot be the same. People look at you and comment on your having survived the fire, isn’t it amazing. They may marvel at your strength, or your courage. They may respond with envy about your eyes, the way they look now . . . but you got those eyes because they saw you through the fire. They saw the fire, they looked hard ahead for the clear light. When you come out, you are not the same, you have something now that you didn’t have before, couldn’t have before.

But I’m ready for sunny skies now, please. And thank you. My eyes are fire-burnished enough, my skin glows beautifully already, my hair is singed. Here’s to a December full of those other kinds of feelings — and my heart, which is ready for them.

notes from the mother in the middle of the night

In a few hours I will take my suitcase in hand, and Katie and Trey will drive me to the airport. Usually, when it’s time to go, I feel a twinge and an ache to leave my daughter but I’m also looking forward to getting back to New York, to my own life, knowing that Katie and I will be in regular touch with each other, and that I’ll see her as soon as I can.

This time, though, it feels unbearable to leave. It feels impossible, really, and without being maudlin about it, I’ve been crying for so long I’m feeling like I’d better get a glass of water or I’ll dehydrate. It’s that kind of feeling where your chest literally aches, where you feel a giant hole in your middle, an emptiness, something is gone and you don’t know what to do. Where the hole feels like you might fall in and everything around you will fall in too, the world will get pulled into the hole because it’s so deep and black and filled with gravity.

It occurs to me that my sweet daughter is feeling a much worse version of this, for her own sweet daughter. And I’m indulging my pain and grief like a baby — wah wah wah, poor me — when I have the opportunity to come back and see my daughter again, I can call my daughter on the phone, send her emails, read hers back to me, hear her laugh and cry. She doesn’t have that possibility with her precious daughter.

And yet my pain is quite terrible, for my dear daughter. See, she’s this very sweet girl, quiet in a particular way, with the sweetest little smile, and a deep deep kindness and love for her family. She’s eloquent but she doesn’t know it, and she’s solid as a rock. I recently learned that my blood grandmother’s last name was Steele; I never knew that, I only knew that her name was Clara. My last name is Stone, it was my grandfather’s name too. I am of Stone and Steele, and I’m pretty strong but Katie’s strength makes me pale. She has the strength not to look away, the strength to get out of bed and to laugh, every once in a while. The strength to let that sweet smile come to her lips now and then, and to let tears roll down her cheeks.

I know I’m not really leaving her all alone here. She’s with Trey, and they’re so good together, and helping each other. But I’m the mama, and even though she’s 30 years old, and married, and settled in her life, she’s still my sweet little girl and she’s hurting more than she’s ever hurt before.

Life is so difficult at times, and the pain is deep. In the quiet of 2am, it’s so easy to touch all the losses of life, to remember the pain that finally eased off and became bearable, that wound its way into ordinariness. Even though this song is about a different kind of loss, the tone of it, the feeling, feels just right to me in my heavyhearted night. It’s Bob Schneider singing the acoustic version of Losing You:

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God almighty. I am grateful to be here, I am grateful for all the experiences of life, I accept them and want them, and this pain now, this grief, this watching my beloved girl suffer so much, it’s hard going. It’s hard. It hurts, it fills me up and takes away my words and leaves me dumb.

I’ve always loved this picture of Katie, because it’s characteristic of her. She’ll sit like this, listening to people talk, filled with her thoughts. I’ve looked into those green eyes so many times over 30 years, I’ve brushed and braided that thick pretty hair, I’ve dried her tears and kissed her cheeks. And now there’s not a damn thing I can do, and it’s excruciating, mothers, it is.

It’s a crying night, I suppose. I imagine that before she went to sleep tonight, in the bedroom right underneath the one I’m in, Katie cried a lot too. Two mothers crying for their daughters, so much love and pain in two big hearts.

it all can change in a single moment

​My little granddaughter Grace has died. She was just 8 days away from her due date, and for as-yet unknown reasons, she simply died. Yesterday morning I received the unimaginable call from my poor sweet daughter, for whom this is unimaginable-er still. I am flying to Austin, leaving for the airport in less than an hour, and will arrive during my daughter’s labor. My other children are coming too — Marnie arrives half an hour before me and we’ll go to the hospital together, a blessing, and Will arrives tomorrow morning. At least we will all be together for the next stunning days.

I tried to get a few hours of sleep but I just lay in the dark, listening to people laughing on the street — so hollow for me — and my husband snoring, and finally I just got up. While I feel utterly alone, I know I am not. Friends rushed to me yesterday, words of love and comfort have surrounded me, phone calls and emails and texts and messages, all from people who love us and who tried to find words even though there are none.​

Love Sorrow
Love sorrow. She is yours now, and you must
take care of what has been
given. Brush her hair, help her
into her little coat, hold her hand,
especially when crossing a street. For, think,
what if you should lose her? Then you would be
sorrow yourself; her drawn face, her sleeplessness
would be yours. Take care, touch
her forehead that she feel herself not so
utterly alone. And smile, that she does not
altogether forget the world before the lesson.
Have patience in abundance. And do not
ever lie or ever leave her even for a moment
by herself, which is to say, possibly, again,
abandoned. She is strange, mute, difficult,
sometimes unmanageable but, remember, she is a child.
And amazing things can happen. And you may see,
as the two of you go
walking together in the morning light, how
little by little she relaxes; she looks about her;
she begins to grow.
~Mary Oliver

The next days will be among the hardest in my life, and I’m so grateful for all the love around me, and for all the love my family has for each other. Grateful for having had the opportunity to love this little girl with all my heart for almost 9 months, grateful for the hours I got to spend thinking about her while stitching her quilt, and knitting her stocking. Grateful for the little peeks I got at her beautiful profile, from the ultrasound pictures. I hope I get to hold her, and I hope Katie does, for her sake, though it will feel impossible in a way I cannot imagine.