Posted in A Day In the Life, Thoughts on Writing

The Summer of Belonging: Strippers, Poets and Omar’s Restaurant

My writing journey has been both long and short. By long, I mean I wrote here and there while marriage and a mortgage interrupted my dreams. I wrote stories from time to time that no one read, and on three different occasions, I surprised myself by getting published—once in a magazine about quilting and twice in newspapers. I started a blog and experimented with style and voice, eventually accumulating a hundred or so followers. But rarely during that time, did I consider myself a writer—even though I wanted to.

Coming into my sixties awakened me with an urgent fear. The years had caught up. If I didn’t dedicate myself to writing now, I never would, and it would become the great, sorrowful regret of my life. So I proclaimed to a small and select group of friends that I was going to write novels. I was sixty-three.

 In a year and a half, I wrote and finished three novels, and they were all rambling narratives with pretty prose and some exquisite descriptions that never got near a real story. In that same year and a half, I studied my ass off, apologizing for myself all the way. I didn’t know where to place a comma or how I was supposed to use a semicolon. I’d been a horrible student in school, a dropout in fact, who managed to pick up the pieces in midlife and finally earn a high school diploma as well as a college degree in my late thirties. Real writers, I thought, were good students, nerds who’d attended good colleges and loved the English language.

In the summer of my sixty-fifth year, all the pieces came together. I finished my fourth novel, and it was good, a real story that hung together. My blog accumulated three thousand followers that year, and I achieved the rookie writer’s holy grail: a contract with a New York City literary agent. In that same heady summer, I got my first paid job as a writer.

The Rogue Valley Messenger is a small newspaper, a freebie found on street corners and in grocery stores in and around Ashland, Oregon. Like so many times in my scrappy life, I faked knowing what I was doing. And it was the best fake-out ever. Interviewing folks for the lifestyle section of the paper, I quickly learned from my beyond-patient editor what was expected of me. And each month, I banged out a thousand or so words, receiving a check for twenty to thirty-five dollars for each article.

In the middle of the experience, I learned about the writing craft, yes, but more importantly, I began to see my own condition mirrored back to me in the people I interviewed and whose stories I then told. They would touch upon the my long-held beliefs of fears and self-doubt, and hearing their stories helped me reclaim a wild, completely imperfect part of myself. Writing for The Messenger was an act of realizing all the possibility and potential that I’d pushed aside in the name of unworthiness.

There were lots of articles, some of them better than others, but three stand out. The first was an interview with a burlesque performer who’d named herself Kat Wondergloom. She said she wanted a name that was part whimsy and part darkness.

I loved her story. I loved learning that burlesque is more than just a tassel-twirling bump and grind where women shed their clothing. During the interview, Kat told me the thing that helped her the most on her quest to become a burlesque artist was being adopted by a group of drag queens who schooled her in everything from makeup to just where to place those rhinestones.

And when I asked her how burlesque dancing was different from being a stripper, she laughed. “A lot more glitter and a lot less money,” she said. I understood that. So much of what I experienced in the world was just glitter.

Kat Wondergloom and I weren’t that very different from each other. She was a proud, independent woman, making her way in a world that wasn’t always kind, but she was doing it without apology. Kat would never get a formal invite to the #metoo movement, but in many ways, her proud sense of sexuality and her determination, I found, was every bit as liberating.

When I finished writing the article, I decided that maybe it was time for me to stop apologizing for my past and begin to fiercely embrace my present. Workshops and writing books brought me a long way toward becoming a writer, but Kat Wondergloom gave me the missing piece—you gotta believe in yourself and own what you do.

The second article that stands out was an interview with a poet who would soon be visiting the small university in my town. Richard Blanco had been Barak Obama’s second inaugural poet—the first Latino and the first gay man to hold such a prestigious honor. I was intimidated by his writing credentials and thrilled that I got to interview him.

I worked very hard on the questions I was going to ask him. I read two of his books before the phone interview and prepared for days. We had a good, lively conversation about the ordinary within the extraordinary, and I wrote it up. After my article was published, and Richard was in Ashland teaching, he surprised me by inviting me to coffee. We spent an hour talking about writers and writing in a local coffee shop. I learned that his work had always been influenced by the themes of belonging and asking the question of what and where home is.

I’ve lived most of my adult life with the sense that I must have gotten off the bus at the wrong stop. What I learned from Richard is that it’s human nature to want to explore the question of home and belonging. It’s not a flaw or a failure.

I only wrote for The Messenger for a year, and then my husband and I left our home in Ashland, moving to Austin, Texas. One of the last pieces I wrote for the publication wasn’t about a person, but about a place: Omar’s.

Omar’s was an old steakhouse built in the 1940s that hadn’t changed much since. It was the only piece I’ve ever written where I hated how the editors chopped it up. Honestly, I didn’t really write a solid newspaper piece about a restaurant—about the steak and the fish that they served, about the wait and bar staff, some of whom had been there a couple of decades or more. I couldn’t get out of my own way and be a professional, objective journalist.

Instead I let Omar’s inspire me as a storyteller. Across the street from Southern Oregon University, the place was frequented by writers, professors, and diehard locals who could recite the history of the restaurant which hadn’t changed its menu since the 1940s. When I sat down in the bar, I halfway expected Raymond Chandler to sit down next to me and buy me a drink. I got lost in the red, cracked, leather booths and the dark haze of the cocktail lounge with its bar carved with initials from patrons who didn’t want to be forgotten.

The steakhouse invaded my imagination, pinning me up against the wall by my throat. Because of that, I knew that a dolled-up dame had written the name “Omar’s” on the sky with one red fingernail. That became the neon sign illuminating the darkness under a blue moon, just above a post that says “To Klamath Falls.” I loved the dark, seedy feeling of it all, and instead of writing the newspaper article on steak, I wrote about how the grittiness of the place reminded me of a Raymond Chandler novel with hard-boiled detectives and blonde bombshells. And I have to wonder how many writers had sat in those booths and construed stories that fit perfectly against the backdrop of its lit noir images.

To say that the article about Omar’s received a major editing and a requested set of revisions by my managing editor is not the half of it. I had written, or rather pieced together, something that was part noir wannabe and part restaurant review. Still, it’s worth noting that I could see how everybody needs an Omar’s, a place that knows you and welcomes you when you need to eat or rest, a place where the filters are off. Omar’s underscored a truth about me: I love a good story.

As my husband and I got on the road for our move to Texas, I looked for the ghostly outline of the dolled-up dame who had drawn the sign with her fingernail against the sky. I hoped she’d be standing by the doorway of Omar’s as we drove by for the last time. I didn’t see her, but I heard her whisper this to me, Own it!

That steakhouse was the place that put the exclamation point on the best summer ever—strippers, poets, and Omar’s. And damn, if I hadn’t become a real writer, traipsing around in search of my material. Real stories. Imagined stories.  And the comfortable familiarity of being lost and looking for where I belonged.

Posted in A Day In the Life, Comedy, Tragedy and What the F...?, Storytelling

The Tale of How the Governor Came to Be

In the mid-1960’s in South Denver, a short distance from the apartment where my mother and I lived, was a hotel on Colorado Boulevard. I think it was called Writer’s Manor. Or maybe it was Riter’s Manor. “A fancy place,” my mom called it. They had a large dining room in which all the tables were covered in white tablecloths, each graced by a small vase of fresh flowers. At one end of the room, a wall of windows overlooked an inviting swimming pool. The first time that I went there, I couldn’t stop looking at the pool. I longed to be in that water in the hot afternoon sun. The pool was, disappointingly, only for hotel guests.

Two glasses with iced tea with lemon and ice on the wooden table

On this day, my mom created an outing for us: we got dressed up and went to the hotel dining room where we were going to order banana splits. My mom was creative in the ways in which she entertained me. She worked during the week, and weekends were the times I got to see her the most. We didn’t have a car to go places, just the bus. There were no trips to the mountains or lakes like my other friends, but she tried hard to come up with things that were not just fun, but affordable. This is one of the reasons I still love summer so much: it feels like time for fun.

            Mom had insisted that I wear gloves. She was a woman who had watched one too many Joan Crawford movies. I didn’t think that gloves were cool, but I put them on anyway, and we walked to the hotel on that hot summer day. I can’t remember the dress I wore, but during those times, almost everything I owned was an A-line cut, and I was partial to little flowers, so I imagine myself in a sleeveless flowered dress, wearing uncomfortable patent leather flats, inappropriate for walking, but perfect for a formal dining room, and those stupid little white gloves.

            I was sweating by the time we got to the hotel. Still, I remember being excited about getting to see the swimming pool again, and I was excited about ordering a banana split in the hotel dining room. Years later, I realized my mother probably couldn’t afford to buy us lunch there, but at twelve, I was very enthusiastic about banana splits — not having lunch made no difference to me. We were led to one of the tables, and I told her I was thirsty.

            A waiter came by and poured water into what I observed to be grown-up glasses. The glasses had stems, not like the glasses at home that were short and squat.

            “May I bring you ladies an Arnold Palmer?” the waiter asked.

My mother nodded. “Would you like one?” she asked me.

Yes, please,” I answered. And then as soon as the waiter was gone, I asked, “What’s an Arnold Palmer?”

            “Half iced tea and half lemonade,” she said, and smiled.

            I felt grown-up and proud to be with my mom. I felt special sitting in the beautiful dining room all dressed up with her. And I loved her for her making me feel that way.

            Disappointingly, the Arnold Palmers didn’t come in the kind of grown-up glasses I’d hoped for. There was no stem. Still, I felt very grown up drinking one. As with all things I remember, it’s not so much the thing itself, as it is the feeling tone that lingers in the heart and mind. Sitting in that fancy dining room with my mom, wearing those stupid white gloves—it was all just kind of perfect.

            After the Arnold Palmer came the banana splits, and I ate mine slowly and carefully, as a grown-up would, careful not to let any ice cream or topping spill on my A-line dress or the white linen tablecloth.

            Years go by, and I’m middle-aged, married, and sitting in a lounge chair on my deck next to a girlfriend. We’re recalling summer stories from childhood, and I tell her about the hotel, the Arnold Palmers, and the banana splits.

            “Arnold Palmers,” she says. “Those sound so good right now. We could make some.”

            “I have lemonade, but I only have green tea.”

            We look at each other.

            “What the hell . . .” I say. I get up and mix them—half green tea and half Knudsen’s lemonade. I pour the mixture over ice and stick in a couple of paper straws.

            “Ta-da, Arnold Palmers,” I say, holding out the glasses to my friend.

            She takes a sip. “They’re good,” she says. “What’d you make these with, again?”

            “Lemonade and green tea.”

            “I guess they’re not really Arnold Palmers,” she says.

            “No, but close enough.”

            “Who else do we know named Arnold,” she asks.

            “Schwartzenager?”

            “The governor of California?”

“That’s it. I dub this drink ‘The Governor,’” I say.

And that’s how The Governor, made with green tea, came to be. Gone are my banana spilt days, but I often enjoy like a grown-up glass into which I can pour The Governor on a hot afternoon.

The Governor:

Steep 3 Tzao Zen Green Tea bags in a 2-quart pitcher. This is best if you steep this in the sun all day, instead of boiling water and pouring it over the tea bags. The tea will turn a light greenish-gold color after about 6 hours. Refrigerate it overnight. The next day pour ½ glass of green tea over ice. Fill the rest of the glass with Knudsen’s lemonade, which is sweetened with fruit juice rather than white sugar. You won’t need any additional sweetener. This is the perfect tea for any summer afternoon.

Posted in A Day In the Life

We Put Our Dog Down Today

Jeter 2008 – 2020

We put our dog Jeter down today.  A cancer had snuck into his life and Dean and I vowed that we wouldn’t let him suffer.  So, we kept track of meds, missed meals, and limps that developed, reaching a point where we knew it was time.  I hate that point.  Like everyone who loves their dog, I wanted ours to live forever.

A compassionate young vet who does nothing but at-home euthanasia, came to our house. As a result, we got to hold Jeter and stroke him while he fell asleep.  She administered the first of two shots, and in a few minutes he had fallen into a twilight kind of sleep. As we talked to him, he wagged his tail, still able to hear our voices. Then came the second dose, the one that would mark the end. My husband continued telling him how much we loved him and what a good boy he was. At the very end, when I could feel the life force leaving him, I thanked him for being our dog. And then Jeter sighed. . . a long deep sigh with a bass tone sound to it, like the one he’d make at night when he was letting go of the day and surrendering to sleep. Except this time, he wasn’t surrendering to sleep, he was letting go of life.

I watched Dean and the vet put him on a stretcher and carry him to the van that she’d parked in the driveway. We had a couple more minutes with him. The body that wasn’t him anymore lay tucked in by blankets on the stretcher and I reached out and petted his head one last time before turning away and walking back inside.

Now the house is too damn quiet and it feels like a betrayal to vacuum up the dog hair on the carpet and the floors. I think I’ll wait a few days.  An absence fills the space where our dog once lived and we miss him beyond what either of us ever thought missing could be.

Dean and I have cried and wailed.  Wept and hung on to each other tight.  We’ve gone through the pictures on our phones and talked about him, remembered days on the trail or at a lake. Each photograph reminds me of what good attitude, joy, playfulness, and loyalty looks like. 

The bottom line is that our dog, the world’s best dog, loved us unconditionally, without judgement There’s not a dog lover out there who hasn’t entertained the idea for just a moment that in the overall scheme of things, dogs know more about how to be good people than we do.

My heart is broken, but time and the sweetness of memories will mend it. I will always carry Jeter in the perfect little place into which he burrowed when we met. You’re still with me, buddy. And the goofy yellow lab that Dean and I adopted so many years ago turned out to be such a smart choice, one of the best that we ever made. Rest in peace dear Jeter, most faithful of companions, most loyal of friends.  You will forever be in our hearts.

Posted in A Day In the Life

Spring Hopes Eternal

My neighbors’ friendliness is a soothing welcome. It staves off the loneliness of living in a world that is too fast and too overwhelming.

Shedding the winter wool and sweaters reveals that I grew a little softer in the darker, colder months. Afternoons when rain prevented me from walking, created a couple extra pounds. Well, that and getting lost in a new book and a batch of fresh-baked muffins.

Now the onset of spring changes everything. I can wear my baseball hats and tees, definitely not dressing my age. And the lengthening of my stride, the quickening of my step, adds miles to the walks in the warm spring temperatures.

It’s an adventure to walk my neighborhood. When hubby and I set out for this afternoon’s walk, we see the eight-year-old who lives near us. He has a Labrador retriever that looks a lot like my dog, Jeter. It’s not fair to say that the kid walks his dog. He runs the dog. It’s an image we’ve come to anticipate: the dog running next to the boy, who is pumping his arms and legs as hard and fast as he can, as they fly down the sidewalk, both of them with big smiles on their faces in pure joy.

Further up the street, Penny, the neighborhood queen, has pulled her chair out onto the lawn to hold court. Lucky, her old black dog, sits by her side, holding court too. Everyone stops by, a respectable six feet apart, of course. When Penny is sitting outside in her lawn chair, and she waves, it’s like there’s a magnetic pull. We cross the street, and she gets up to greet us. “Lucky is so glad that you came to visit,” she says in her sweet Texas way. A conversation about the dogs or the weather ensues, often with Penny telling us what Lucky thinks or feels about a certain situation.

When we first met her, she was a little scary. Knowing that we’d just moved here, she wanted to tell us all about the rattlesnakes and how to “kill ’em with a garden hoe.” She told us about the fire ants that can make your horribly sick with their painful sting. Hubby and I walked away from those visit with our hearts beating rapidly and a question on our lips: “Where the hell have we moved to?”

After we got the snakes and the deadly fire ants out of the way though, most of our talks with Penny have been about the dogs or some bit of news about the work being done on Highway 620. “Lucky is just so happy that you’re here,” she tells us with a smile. “You take care now, you hear,” she adds as she waves good-bye. Out of the corner of my eye, I see someone else crossing the street to pay homage.

We pass a house where a large brown-and-black something of a dog lives. Mastiff? Labrador on steroids? It’s hard to tell. He just looks like a dog that shouldn’t be messed with. We don’t stop at that house, even though the owner is in the front yard, planting impatiens around the oaks. The dog’s name is Rock Star. Devil Dog would have been more appropriate. He raises his head and watches us go by. Each time I pass him, I swear I hear a low, rumbling growl. “That’s a serious effin’ dog,” hubby says as we pick up our step.

Jeter, hubby, and I make it past the park and up to River Bend Elementary, and I say that I want to go a little bit further. I’m going for perky bootie, which means another mile, at least. In my younger days, my bootie used to sit higher up; now it takes a lot more work. Why should I care at my age? I’m embarrassed to say that I’m shallow enough to cling to a little bit of physical vanity to motivate myself. At a certain point, it will all get pulled down to my knees by gravity. One day everything will sag. It will all be loose. Bones in loose skin, face turned toward the sun, eyes closed and smiling in the light while it lasts. But I’m not ready for sunsets yet, so on to one more mile.

Later, as we’re coming back, we’re happy to note that Rock Star has been taken inside. Penny is still on the lawn, but she is talking with another neighbor. And the little boy with the yellow Lab like ours has now started up a ball game in the cul-de-sac. I love seeing the characters in my neighborhood, but most especially Penny.

She is the best part of the adventure. I depend upon her for the news of our community. In the last neighborhood where I lived, there was someone who knew everything that was going on too, but she sounded gossipy. Penny, on the other hand is regal, the grande dame of our neighborhood. She never shares people’s private business, but more of what amounts to public service announcements, like the bit about killing snakes or how the water on Quinlan Park Road, near the Randall’s supermarket, still isn’t draining well.

This is all part of the spring ritual. Losing those winter pounds, hanging out with Penny for a few minutes and listening to the neighborhood news, spoken in that soft southern drawl of hers. I’m waking up from the gray, and feeling the joy and excitement of nature reinventing herself, and plotting the reinvention of my own self through more activity in these strange new times.

Posted in A Day In the Life, memories

Suitable for Re-framing

My mom: Cleopha Marie Tylenda

There aren’t a lot of photos of my mother as a little girl. Personal photography was not a common thing when she was growing up. Rather, it was the work of a hired professional. For an ordinary family, it was a big deal to memorialize a moment of life in a photograph. Yet a handful of images from my mother’s young life exist.

A framed photograph on my living room bookshelf shows mom when she was about two years old. Holding onto her small toddler frame is her father, my grandpa, Paul. They’re sitting on the floor of the back porch, his arms around her, holding up a holster that he’s wrapped around her simple cotton dress. While her face is serious, my grandpa’s face reflects a mischievous grin.

The year would have been 1921.  My grandparents were farmers with a few cows. They lived in Elbert, Colorado and were raising three daughters. So, who took the picture, the casual pose, with mom, grandpa and holster?  My grandparents wouldn’t have owned a camera. Did they have a friend that was a photographer?

It’s an imaginative musing to see my grandparents as young people.  To think that they may have sat in their living room when the kids had gone to bed and talked with a friend who had a camera — that the friend would have offered to take some pictures of them. 

Later in life when I knew them, mom had a Brownie Camera. She took pictures of my brother, sister and I standing in front of the giant lilac bushes in our grandmother’s yard; and pictures of my grandparents standing in the dirt driveway of their home, a grandchild balanced on my grandma’s hip as she smiles for the camera, the look of pride on her face.

Recently, my nephew Dan found a picture of my mom in a moving box as he was getting settled into his new home in Oregon. He emailed it to me.  Eventually I will print it, frame it and place it next to the other photo on the bookshelf. 

It’s not the framing of the photo that feels important; it’s the reframing of what those photos mean to me:  a way to see my mother as an innocent; an appreciation of my grandpa’s quirky sense of humor divorced in memory from the man who drank too much.  It’s the act of reframing that helps me to see that we all do the very best we can do to love each other and ourselves and yet fall terribly short.  To put it in perspective, these photographs of my mom are from 100 years ago.  They represent the passage of time, mortality, innocence, ancestry and the most basic of human longings, that of love. 

In the photo sent by my nephew, mom is seven years. She’s wearing a white dress meant as a First Communion dress. It had probably been worn by her sister Anne and would be worn again by her younger sister, Mary.  The photograph is staged.  In one hand she holds a missal and a rosary. In the other she holds a candle. Again I wonder who the photographer is.  Did each child at my mother’s Catholic School get a picture like this at the occasion of their First Communion? 

I imagine the picture being taken at the church her family attended. I saw that church once.  My brother and I visited it when she died, but it had been turned into an antique store.  The day that we were there, it was closed and I was sorry about that. I had wanted to go inside, to walk around in a place where she had walked, where my grandmother and my great grandmother had gone to worship.

It’s easy to forget that my parents and my grandparents lived long, full lives before I was born. That they were filled with dreams and ideals like all young people, dreams that took a beating when life intervened. It’s the story that we all live out.

When I look at my mother’s little face in the picture of her First Communion, I don’t see the woman I fought with as a teenager. I see a child that I didn’t know, but eked out in our relationship nonetheless with stories that she made up and shared with me at bedtime about the little town of Elbert Colorado, her horse Duke, and a Catholic family with three girls living in a cabin on the hill

Paul Simon sang in the song, Old Friends: Long ago, it must be, I have a photograph. Preserve your memories; they’re all that’s left you. Now living closer to the edge of my life, I’m grateful for the memory, for the image of a little girl whose life I can only imagine, but imagine in sweetness and love’s longing, nonetheless.

Posted in A Day In the Life, Storytelling

Welcome to Podcasting

A little coffee to go with Coffee Table Wisdom

Launching my podcast, Coffee Table Wisdom, reminds me of when I first launched a blog.  Although my first blog wasn’t really launched; it was more like a shy tiptoe into a world where stories and essays became public and could be read by anyone. I have to admit, it’s still thrilling to click on “publish” and see my work come up on a colorful page that has pictures and headings. 

Podcasting is just another way to tell a story. It’s a new take on what radio used to be when we’d gather round and listen to programs and public figures.  In today’s world though, people can put in their ear buds, and listen to a podcast just about anywhere.

My podcast is about positive aging.  I advocate for embracing the years as a noble passage.  All of us fear getting older to some degree. That fear is un-necessarily exacerbated by toxic myths in the culture that have all of us sitting around in Depends after the age of 60, just waiting to get sick or die.  And that’s why it’s time for a revolution in positive aging!

My experience of the accumulating years is that there is a tremendous potential for aging well and finding joy in the process, stereotypes be damned.  I’ve invited guests from the worlds of health, psychology, spirituality and the arts to be on my podcast and share their perspective on the grace and gratitude of growing older in spite of any challenges that we may face.

Podcasting has given me an opportunity to fall in love with the ordinary people that I interview, all of who reveal the extraordinary in their lives.  Every time I meet a new guest and record a new show, I marvel at how much magic there is in each of us.  Podcasting has truly become my labor of love and learning.

So, I’m inviting you to take a listen and enjoy the power of story in this format. You can find Coffee Table Wisdom wherever you get your podcasts.  On my web site you can click on the Podcast Tab to discover Season One.

We live in the most literate time in human history. We have so many writers and so many stories that can be told in virtually unlimited ways and formats.  My great hope is that all of this will help to remind us of how we are connected by our stories; and that it will demonstrate how none of us is ever as alone as we think we are.  Isn’t our human family just amazing?  Happy listening from this grateful granny!

Posted in A Day In the Life

Living Out This Idea of Love

It seems to me that the universe is bound together by dancing molecules of love.

I’ve had a couple of rough weeks.  Free floating anxiety. Restless sleep. Self doubt.  It was as if my psyche developed little cracks and all of that seeped in. I didn’t immediately recognize that I was in distress.  Then, this morning, I was awake at 4:00am, swimming in worry and anxiety that wasn’t attached to anything real: would I lose my wallet in the airport when I travel next week?  Is my book any good? Am I any good? Such moments of suffering are wake up calls. There’s no outside solace to heal one’s heart; I have to begin at the core. What do I need?  What do I want? How can I help myself?

From time to time, we all feel like imposters in the world.  We stumble and fall into a hole of despair and then wonder how we got there.  Visiting the wounds of childhood past doesn’t seem to provide anything but an excuse. Finding ways to psychologically and spiritually hug myself, does.  A lifetime of dealing with depression and anxiety has taught me that if I get too angry or too afraid of too many things, I’m bound to fall.

All love must begin with the act of self-love. That’s easy to state and more difficult to do.  What does it mean to love your self? I know that I’m not alone in wondering this. Here are some steps toward self-love that I used this morning. May they be helpful to others. Self-love is like going to the gym.  The best results come from continued and consistent practice. 

Step One: Meditation is a practice that can relax, comfort and soothe the beast of anxiety.  It seems surprising that such a practice can be so easily forgotten in the face of emails, texts, social media, deadlines, and the seduction of creating self-importance through our digital life.  Liberation lies in deliberate breath, deliberate mindfulness, deliberate letting go and surrendering into the vastness and awe of the miracle that we are.

Step Two:  Tears. Holding back the tears of life creates anxiety and strife.  Right now, our world seems likes its come off the rails.  In witnessing the fallout from gun violence, the suffering of children, the divisions that have turned into an “us and them” mentality, then surely there are tears waiting to be set free.  I cried this morning.  I cried for our country. I cried for myself.  I cried for the people I know who are facing struggles.  The act of tears, softened my heart and brought me home to myself a little bit.  The list of too angry and too afraid began to dissolve.

Step Three: I’m a sixty-seven year old woman and one might think that all things from childhood have certainly been worked out and healed forever by now. But the wisdom of age has taught me that the wounds of childhood inform throughout one’s life.  They are part of our spiritual and psychological work.  This morning, I closed my eyes and remembered the child I’d been.  In my imagination, I got down on one knee so that I could meet her face to face, and then I wrapped my arms around her and said, “You are so precious to me. I love you so much.”  More tears and a sweet feeling of release begins to set me free.

Step Four:  Listing the things I’m grateful for. I take a walk every day.  My dog and I went up to the park and along the way, I counted the things that I’m grateful for: legs strong enough to carry me a couple of miles, neighbors that wave hello and call out greetings, a belly that’s full, and cooling temperatures that made today’s walk in the middle of Texas very pleasant.  Practicing gratitude helps me to shift my mind-set and ease the torments of self-doubt.

Step Five:  Give this reclaimed love away.  Wave back at the neighbors.  Call out my own greetings of good morning.  Silently bless the gaggle of teenagers waiting for the school bus — they’re our future. They deserve my goodwill.  Plan to cook a special breakfast for my husband.

Step Six:  Bow my head and say thank you. Thank you for my life. Thank you for this day.  Thank you for jogging my memory and helping me make it to the toolbox, thus bringing relief and a way home. Thank you.

In a perfect world, I would wake up every day and practice all of this. However, I’ve come to see that the imperfection of slipping into the darkness is the invitation and the opportunity to re-engage with my heart. The imperfection and errors that come with being human is the path to humility, appreciation and thankfulness. Today was a reminder to stay the course even though I know that I will stumble and fall again. My heart is all about practice and imperfection. This is the work of living out this idea of love.

Posted in A Day In the Life

The Body Beautiful

While older women counsel young women to love their bodies, we often fail to have that conversation with ourselves.

As a young woman I starved myself to stay thin.  My relationship with food was not a healthy one. My relationship with my body was worse.  The angst about body image came from two places.  One was cultural. In my generation, men often commented on women’s bodies in disparaging ways, leaving us to question if our worth was somehow related to the size of our thighs.  The message about thinness also came from my dance studio where I spent most of my teenaged years.  We were constantly told by our instructors that no extra weight was allowed.  By fourteen-years-old, I knew to order the burger without the bun, no fries and a side salad without dressing.  I was always hungry.

As the 1970’s dawned, the feminist movement was taking on the cultural narrative about body image.  Women were encouraged to love their bodies as they were. The new message was a needed one, because trying to sculpt your body to fit a man’s idea of what he thought you were supposed to be, was right up there with sculpting your mind to fit his image of you, too.

The decade of the 70’s and 80’s pushed women to know themselves. Changes came about as more women entered the work force, aspiring to be the CEO and not the secretary. Women demanded equal access to higher education.  The patriarchy was met with a rising matriarchy that would usher us into a new cultural paradigm.

By the time I was middle-aged, I was eating again and I did gain some weight, healthy weight that made me look like a woman instead of a starving waif. All around me the world was changing and now women have become much more comfortable with their bodies than they were in my generation. Plus, they’re much more comfortable with their smarts and their ambition.  

Yesterday, I walked into the salon where I get my hair trimmed, and my stylist came to greet me in a form fitting, rose-colored dress.  She’s seven months pregnant. She looked beautiful. It’s such a pleasure to see women showing off their baby bellies.  Not that long ago pregnant women were expected to hide their bellies.  I celebrate the change. I celebrate that a woman’s body takes on so many different forms in the course of a lifetime.

Even though women are feeling good about who they are and we’re mentoring younger women to do the same, there is one group that still suffers a poor body image. Too often I hear women my age talk about their bodies in mean and unloving ways. They lament the loss of muscle tone, curse sagging skin, and try to cover arms and legs that used to turn golden in the summer months — an attempt to hide what they think has grown unattractive. They criticize a natural process that is part of the cycle of life.  

I’m the first to admit that I too mourned the loss of my younger years. That’s just part of the process. I understand the grief of losing one’s youth. And I understand not wanting to succumb to the inevitable. Part of that is a fear of mortality and part of it is that we lose our way in loving ourselves, because there still exists a false standard of what beauty is.

Beauty for an older woman is a truly natural state.  It is health. It’s joy. It’s the happiness of living long enough to tell the tale. Wisdom is beautiful and earning the title of elder is beautiful.  Those definitions must be what we strive for in these silver years. 

I recently joined a Facebook page made up of a couple of thousand women who are letting their hair go grey.  I’ve tried, but I keep adding streaks.  But after scrolling through the posts on that page, I was inspired by the self-acceptance and self-love that these women possessed.  I made another appointment with my stylist in a couple of weeks and I’m going to ask her to help me transition to grey.

I want young women to understand that their value in life has nothing to do with the size or shape of their body.  “Ignore the advertising industry standards,” I tell them. They’re toxic and unrealistic.  This morning though, I realized that the conversation I’m having with the younger generation is a conversation that I need to be having with myself.  My value and my significance does not rest in how toned my muscles are, or whether or not I sag in places that I didn’t used to. Or my weight.  And regardless of softer arms that have lost most of their definition, I want to wear sleeveless tops and shorts in the summer months.

I believe in health and in supporting each other to be healthy. I believe in the power of self-love.  And I know that self-love not only heals our own selves, it shines as a light to others.

How do you feel about your body as you grow older? Please share your precious thoughts with me in the comment section.

Posted in A Day In the Life

Does Aging Really Suck?

I was talking to a woman the other day who told me that she and all of her friends think that getting older sucks. Her mind set was the opposite of my own. We all deal with this phase of life differently.  Some people go into it with a smile on their face and a heart full of gratitude and others dig in their heels, incensed that they are losing their physical beauty as well as flexibility and strength in their bodies.  They may be taking care of an older parent, whose physical and mental changes seem daunting and frightening to them, and that can certainly color the way that we view getting older.

My close friends and I are all still planning hikes and trips, bike rides and book groups.  But I don’t want to sugar coat it.  Even though we are living full and robust lives, aging is set against a backdrop of loss. Connective tissue grows brittle. Physical beauty wanes.  Friends, siblings and parents pass away. People we know and love get sick and succumb to a greater vulnerability.  Loss takes up a home, right next to the love in our hearts.

Still, this is the best time in history to grow old:  In our parent’s generation, if you broke your hip, you were consigned to a wheel chair.  Today we can replace body parts like car parts.  Seniors are living active, vibrant lives due to new knees or new hips.  My neighbor across the street had a stroke a couple of months ago.  Within 40 minutes of that stroke, the emergency room gave her a drug that reversed most of the stroke’s effects and prevented worse damage.  The outcome?  She had six weeks of physical therapy and some exhaustion to deal with from the trauma. Now, it’s like she never had a stroke.  Medical advancements contribute greatly to the quality of an older life.

What you think and how you talk to yourself determines how you feel:  We know that what we eat determines how our body feels.  Food creates certain chemicals in our body.  You won’t feel very good if you’re drinking sodas all day and eating sugar and carbs with nary a vegetable in site. 

Similarly, what we feed our minds also creates chemicals in our body. Self-talk that berates age and the aging process, will not help us to feel good about life.  Attitude counts.

Physical Activity:  My husband’s favorite advice about aging is to “keep moving.”  Walking everyday, yoga, Pilates, biking, dancing, anything that gets us out into our community to move helps us to feel good.  Exercise increases blood flow, gets our heart rate up and strengthens our lungs.  We benefit from the endorphins released during exercise that helps to stave off depression.

Meditation and Prayer:  As I grow older, I notice that my prayers tend to be more about “thank you,” than asking for things. Maybe I’ve finally learned that God is not a cosmic bellhop. Whether it’s prayer, meditation or conscious breathing practices, some form of deep stillness everyday contributes to an overall sense of well-being.

Letting go: Letting go is the antidote to the sense of loss that youth has abandon us. And, letting go is the encouragement we give to a younger generation with whom the hope of the future rests. The shedding of thoughts and attitudes that don’t nourish our heads and hearts can unburden our creativity and our sense of wonder.

Curiosity and Engagement:  The world is an interesting place, but we need to be involved. Women’s and men’s groups, book groups, film groups, church groups and classes are readily available. We can learn a foreign language if we want to.  The library provides any book on any topic and also has an array of free classes.  We can knit or garden or walk the dog. Aging with a positive outlook depends upon the lens through which we see the world, and curiosity offers a beautiful overview.

We cannot change the events in our life.  Things happen. We might get sick or injured in older age. But sickness and injury can happen when you’re younger too.  Regardless of how we face the years, we have control over our attitudes.  We can make gratitude and kindness a daily practice. We can engage with our real and digital communities and our families in ways that inspire us to keep trying to be better people.

Life is so precious in this third chapter precisely because we are vulnerable; because of the expiration date stamped upon our souls.  But I find comfort in the fact that I can can change and grow spiritually and psychologically until the day I die.

Knowing that we are in the last chapter, shouldn’t we come to peace with our selves and the world by nourishing gratitude, kindness and love in our lives? Shouldn’t we go out like shooting stars, having lived as fully as we could, until we’ve wrung every last bit of joy from our lives? That’s one choice. The other is, that getting older sucks.

Posted in A Day In the Life

In Praise of the Healthy Kitchen

Cooking is a sacred art to me.  It’s an act of love.  It’s a gratitude and awareness practice, that requires thoughtfulness and care in order to be done well.  I’m not looking for convenience in my kitchen as much as I’m looking for ways to celebrate the earth’s bounty and the gift of health.  That requires a little bit of slowing down so that I can enjoy the experience and process of creating a good meal.

Eating food is the single biggest chemical reaction that happens in your body in the course of the day.  If you want to demonstrate cause and effect to your self, nothing is more profound than the correlation between what you eat and how you feel.  Eat carbs smothered in cheese with nary a vegetable in sight and chances are you are going to feel sluggish and achy.  Eat fresh food, prepared sanely (i.e. no deep fat frying or over cooking innocent vegetables), and you’re probably going to feel more alert and healthy.

The other day I was shopping at Central Market in Austin, and there was a table of fresh, local, organic tomatoes that made me realize that I don’t eat many raw veggies in the winter months.  I always feel more energized and focused when I’m eating a wide variety of veggies, especially raw ones.  So, I was inspired to buy ingredients for gazpacho. Gazpacho is a cold soup, usually eaten in the summer months.

Even though it’s February, I decided that the gazpacho would be a super-healthy breakfast for the coming week.  If you serve it with a half of an avocado and a hard-boiled egg, it’s the ultimate way to start a healthy day.  And here’s the magic of this soup with Spanish origins:  It’s a low-calorie, nutrition dense food, filled with fiber, minerals and anti-oxidants. No wonder I feel so great when I eat it.

Here’s how to make it:

Wash the following veggies and cut them into chunks:

2 sweet tomatoes                              2 carrots (don’t peel em)

1-2 green scallion                             3-4 stalks of celery

a cup or so of jicama                       7-8 mini-peppers in assorted colors

a handful of fresh parsley               1 unpeeled cucumber

In batches, pulverize everything in a food processor and transfer the pulverized veggies to a bowl. I use a Tupperware bowl with a lid because I’ll store it this way in the fridge.

When you have pulverized all the veggies, squeeze in ½ lime. The lime adds some flavor, but will also keep the gazpacho fresh tasting.

The final step is to pour a quart bottle of Knudsen’s Very Veggie over the pulverized vegetable mix and stir. I like the low sodium Very Veggie because vegetables naturally contain sodium, and you get a cleaner and more distinct flavor if you don’t over-salt.

Chunk up a half of an avocado and put it in a bowl. Ladle the soup over the avocado.  I have friends that like to add a dash of Tabasco.

For breakfast, I love to eat a bowl of this along with a hard-boiled egg on the side. It’s the complete meal – veggies, protein and a good fat.

The soup is best served chilled, but when I make a fresh batch, I just eat it at room temperature and it’s great.

Refrigerate the leftover gazpacho in a covered container.

When you cook for yourself, it’s an act of self-love.  When you cook for others it’s a celebration of life. 

Posted in A Day In the Life

2019!

            Happy 2019!

New Year’s Day: Even if you don’t make resolutions, which I don’t, there’s a feeling of freshness and excitement about starting a new year that makes us want to be better people.  I like having New Year’s Day as a holiday. It’s a good day to prioritize and set up a pattern for the coming year.

Priorities: Recently I read a post by my favorite psychologist, Benjamin Hardy (if you don’t know who he is, look him up). He wrote about the concept of prioritizing. I’m paraphrasing him when I share: “If you have more than three priorities, you’re not really prioritizing.”  That keeps it simple, doesn’t it? For me, priorities really have to do with lifestyle.  My three priorities for this year are the same as they were for last year:  I write every morning. I walk or do Pilates every afternoon. And I prepare one great, healthy meal a day for my husband and I.  That’s it and it won’t trip me up by being out of reach.

 Goals and the Magic of Consistency:  Goals are a different animal. They’re like New Year’s resolutions in that they can become unmanageable. If they get too big, too many, too fast, after a couple of days I can’t meet any of them, so I abandon them. I learned a long time ago that goals are best done in bite size chunks, because it’s easier to experience success with a small goal that takes just a day or a few weeks to accomplish.

For example, I work on a novel length manuscript every year, but I only set monthly goals for it.  This January, one of my goals is to complete research and preparation on the next novel so that I can start writing prose in February.  The goal of pounding out a novel in a month or writing an article every day aren’t in my program, because too often I’ve experienced failure with goals like that.  The consistency of one step at a time, one page, one good article will get me to where I’m going. When I attain priorities and meet little goals, it builds confidence, and confidence has far-reaching, positive effects on everything.

Dreams:  I like to dream big. I dream about publishing houses that want my work and an agent who gets me and wants to help me. I dream about having all the energy I need to complete novels and articles for the time ahead. I dream about writing for Texas Monthly. I dream about long and healthy years with my husband. And I dream about the success of my 2020 release of A Delightful Little Book On Aging.  Dreams are not goals, but surrender to their largesse and vision is crucial to prioritizing and setting attainable milestones.

Balance: I’m at a time of life where I want to focus less on accomplishment and more on the gratitude of experience, but that doesn’t mean that accomplishment isn’t important to me.  In addition to priorities, goals and dreams, I take note of what feels nourishing and creates balance in my life. 

As a writer, I spend a lot of time in my head. So balance means being in life.  Again, it’s real simple: I take walks with my husband. We enjoy sitting on the front porch with our dog and watching our neighborhood.  Side by side, with our hands wrapped around cups of tea, we take in our world. Just being in the experience of sunshine or gray, kids who are throwing a ball and laughing in the cul-de-sac, making note of who is pruning roses or cleaning a garage. . . I relish “being” in this world, on this little block, in this community, watching life happen. This is my balance and it fills me with appreciation.

I always start the New Year by affirming that this is going to be a great year. This is going to be a healing year. In spite of the infection that nibbles away at Washington and the world, there are good things happening too. I can’t forget that. None of us should. There are things and people to get enthusiastic about. Humanity has not lost its way. I know, because I’ve seen the best of humanity from my front porch.

I’m excited about living another year. I’m excited about being in life. I’m grateful. I’m excited about witnessing the neighborhood kids grow another inch. And I’m excited about priorities and goals that I’ve set forth, balanced by a nourished and loving heart. Life is good.

            May 2019 be a great year for us all.  HAPPY NEW YEAR, everyone!

Posted in A Day In the Life

Looking for Kinky Friedman

top of wood table and party light of bokeh in bar at night backgroundMy decision was really a whim. I didn’t think it through — I just knew that I wanted it. “I’m on a quest,” I told my husband and my friends, “to meet Kinky Friedman.”

It seemed like a good goal, given that we were moving to Austin, Texas. This was the place where Kinky had once made his stand. As I started to put things into boxes, Kinky bumped against something in my brain and I became obsessed with him. This was more than just a quest, it was an invitation from my psyche.

When we decided to make the move, it was because of the smoke that clogged our little valley in the summer months. For the past weeks, I couldn’t see, couldn’t breath for all that smoke. I became sick and sluggish. I felt trapped and stuck, but not just physically. I felt that way about my writing. And I felt that way about the unrelenting scandal, corruption and wreckage that filled the national news. I think the whole country was experiencing idiot fatigue, the kind of weariness that comes from so many grown-up men giving away their nuts. The result was a sickening lack of courage to stand up for anything, let alone the “right thing.” The move to Austin was a yet unformed promise of liberation from all thing blocking my view. It gave me hope, and a reason to unplug from the news. I’d pack up the television and lose myself in the whimsy of finding Kinky Friedman.

People asked me over and over again, “Why Austin?” I didn’t have much of an answer. I said things like, “They have a great music scene. I like the rolling hills. Warm weather is appealing to these old bones.” But I didn’t really know why Austin. Was it because I might possibly find Kinky Friedman? Could I be drawn to Austin because of a greater rising that was beginning to happen in the Lone Star state — a new nation being birthed, while I again, was experiencing a rebirth, too?

Once, a long time ago, when I was a 20-something, I’d met Kinky. He brushed by me in the hallway at NBC studios. I worked for a television show called The Midnight Special. It was on at 11:30 on Friday nights, hosted by Wolfman Jack, who started out each show with a deep, booming declaration: “Let the midnight special shine its ever lovin’ light on you.”

Armed with a hit record, Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jew Boys were guests on The Midnight Special. They sang irreverent songs with political overtones. All messages are made more palatable through the activism of laughter. His popular anthem, They Ain’t Makin’ Jews Like Jesus Anymore, was a memorable sing-along ode to anti-racism. That was long before any of us could imagine MTV, cable television or the likes of a Stephen Colbert. I’d thought that Kinky was hysterically funny. But he was also brilliant, a Mark Twain of the times, dressed up in the 1970’s. He said and sang what was on his mind, without worry about what others thought. He was genuine. And I wanted to possess that same kind of smart, funny, edge that made him so interesting. There was a time when I had it, when I felt it.

In that part of my life, I drank hard and stayed up all night listening to music. I wrote poetry and lyrics. I wrote my first short stories with a sharp wit that wasn’t afraid to make fun of things in the word that seemed hypocritical or otherwise disingenuous. There was in me a sense of wild mischief and quirk. But as the years went by, I started to care too much about what other people thought of me, how I was seen. I tried harder than anyone I’d ever met to “get my act together.” The result was that I broke off that wild and quirky piece of myself and buried along the road somewhere. I developed a sense of pride that I’d worked my ass off to become a responsible, upstanding citizen and contributing member of the community. So I forgot about Kinky, except to note he was still making music, and had also became a novelist who cranked out a lot of murder mysteries.

Life happens on more than one level at a time. Moving to Austin was now part of a search for the edgy kid of my 20’s. It was also a bold statement of my 60’s. Hubby and I saw this as a great adventure — doing a huge interstate move at a time when most people are downsizing, simplifying and slowing. I’ve taken risks before and the risks were always worth it, even when I seemingly failed. It wasn’t that I wanted to relive that earlier time, but I knew it was crucial for me to pull it forward to where I was now. Kinky Friedman became my symbol for that, a light that would help me rediscover that sense of wild again.

So where to look for this 74-year-old Texas icon? A bar in Austin? His animal preserve in San Antonio? To start, I bought his book, Armadillos and Old Lace. That might give me a clue. Then, I started to think about what I would say to him if I actually found him.

I pictured myself sitting in a bar in Austin, ordering a soda water and lime, and pretending that it was vodka on the rocks. I imagined leaning forward and asking the bartender if he knew who Kinky Friedman was. I’d tell him that I was on a quest to meet the musician, writer, and political activist. The bartender would nod toward a stage, where outlined in the smoky haze would be a guy tuning a guitar with a cigar in one hand.

I’d walk up to the stage. “Do you remember being on The Midnight Special in the 1970’s?” I’d ask. “Do you remember the young secretary on the show back then, the kind of funny one?”

He’d shake his head no and look perplexed.

“I guess it doesn’t matter if you remember her or not, I’m just looking for her, is all . . .”

“You might check somewhere down that road between happiness and despair,” he’d say, quoting one of his novels.

Then again, the bartender might just shrug at my question and say, “Everyone knows who Kinky Friedman is.” When pressed, he’d answer that he’d “never met the guy personally.” And I’d walk away remembering that I had met him personally, once when I was of a quicker wit, a faster step, and sharper edge. It was back in the days when the vodka in my glass would have been real and irreverent poetry was the prayer on my lips.

Posted in A Day In the Life

The Changing Summer

The smoky skies of Ashland have cleared enough that I can go for a walk with the dog without coming home and coughing. Nothing like reacting negatively to environmental smoke to get you to appreciate breathing! The past couple of months have been challenging. I’ve been blessed to experience most of my life in fitness and in health, but the smoke  from surrounding forest fires that lingers in the valley over the summer months attacked me this year, putting health and well-being out of reach.

For the past six weeks, I’ve been trapped inside. . . a lot. And the thing I missed the most was spending time on the deck hammock, looking up into the oak tree and getting lost in the patches of sun and sky that filtered through the leaves. Whereas summer used to mean home-made popsicles on the front porch and harvesting herbs, now it means staying inside and changing the air filter.

This summer tale is not just mine. It’s becoming all too familiar a story. The climate is changing and when temperatures rise, ideal conditions for forest fires rise too. I fear that this is the new normal for the west. What’s equally as sad is that there are things we could be doing to help the situation. But it will take government and organization and a willingness to listen to scientists who’ve been studying the problem. My greatest hope is that we find the courage to take action. Action number one: Vote out any idiot who doesn’t think that Climate Change is real! That’s at least a start.

Posted in A Day In the Life

You Can Be Super Without Having to Be Superwoman!

One of the things that I remember from the 1980’s about being a strong, independent woman was this phrase: “you can have it all.” Turns out you really couldn’t have it all. What the phrase honestly meant was, “you can do it all.” You can raise kids, have a career, take care of a home, volunteer and have the time and energy to bake Martha Stewart cookies on the weekend .

My life looked more like this: work a 65 hour week, collapse on Friday night. Be grateful that I don’t have kids. Drag my yaya to the grocery store on Saturday morning. Sleep all day Sunday, then get up and do it again. Screw homemade cookies. And what was amazing was that around me were lots of women who did have kids and managed far better than I could without them. Most of the women I knew back then were always on the edge of burnout. Because, we wanted to have it all.

Fast forward to present time and another insidious phrase is clawing its way into the psyche of the culture and it’s STILL about “You can do it all.” It refers to superwoman and their superpowers. Seems like everyone has a breast-plate and a friggin’ super power. I think women today have it only slightly better than my generation did — if they’re with a partner, chances are the division of labor is more equitable than it was in the 1980’s. Except that you have to allow for a wave of women raising kids on their own without any physical or emotional support from the outside. We can call these women superwomen with super powers, but sometimes I fear that saying is just a way to make women feel bad that they can’t do everything and have any energy or balance left at all.

Could it be as simple as redefining the words and phrases that we use? Does strength and courage have to mean bad-ass? Or can it mean standing up when you get kicked down, even if your knees are skinned? Can independence mean saying “no” to some of the stuff you didn’t want to take on in the first place?

I’m retired now, but I haven’t let that stop me from grasping at the same kind of drive that I had in my thirties — the one that told me I could have it all. Though I now have the time to write, read and study, I do so with a ferocious discipline that puts me back in a time and a place where I believed that I was supposed to WANT it all, let alone, have it all.

Recently I’ve begun to think that if I really could have it all; if one day I was awarded it all, would I know what to do with it? That thought gives me pause and makes me consider my Labrador retriever: if you catch the squirrel buddy, what are you going to do with it?

I have to remind myself . . . a lot . . . that life is never meant to be one giant “To Do’ list. It’s meant to be an experience of the senses and an enlivening of the heart — if I could remember that, I think that the rest would probably just fall into place. Maybe that’s what courage really is.

Posted in A Day In the Life

A Birthday Selfie – Reflections on 66!

IMG_1852Today I’m 66 years old. The number seems wrong. It can’t possibly be true that the group of people with grayer hair and deeper lines are the same ones who walked with me out of childhood. Wasn’t it just last week that we were in Topanga Canyon? Last week that we were listening to The Eagles new album and drinking margaritas?

My friends are precious to me, some known for 40 and 50 years. They’re the source of birthday cards and calls, emails and birthday lunches. Gestures of love scatter like almond blossoms across a well-worn path, and I feel blessed that it’s the small, heart-felt things that have come to mark the years.

The past and the future colloid: I’m rooted in the longhaired, idealistic girl with bare feet and poetry on her lips; now the serious writer, with wool socks and messy pages, trying to tell “the” story, because honestly, I’ve only ever written one story. My life has grown out of that place where idealism and reality crash into each other, and the current takes you.  Marriage, career, divorce, marriage again happened in a kind of planned chaos, but let me live to tell the tale.

I’m 66 years old and keenly aware of how life recedes as the numbers increase, aware of wavering significance and limited hours. So many things fall away, and what remains is the fullness of the experience; the gratitude alive in the heart, the old friends from a certain time and place who remind me of where I’ve been.

Today my true companion, my one great love, will sing to me. We’ll wander the aisles of the gardening center and gather flowering plants for the empty containers on our deck. We’ll hold hands. We are that older couple that makes young people sigh, envying the kind of love that survives the journey.

This morning, as I drink my tea and muse about the years, I reach an easy conclusion: I love my life. I love my friends. I’m grateful for each turning of the wheel, for each memory, for each deep line etched into the map on my face, telling a story of so much joy, so much pain, so much living . . . I’m blessed to able to say, “this is a very happy birthday, indeed.”

Posted in A Day In the Life

What We Say and How We Say It, Matters

The courage to speak out is not reserved for leaders and warriors, business people or celebrity. Sometimes the message comes from a common individual, who is willing to push back against the norm to shed light on what is wrong and troubling.

At least, that’s the pep talk I’ve been giving myself. Recently, I summoned the courage to confront someone about their hateful words. I believe in free speech, but I also believe that we should be vigilant in our businesses and organizations to encourage kind speech, and discourage hateful speech. Words can be used to communicate and uplift, or they can be used to hurt and destroy.

You don’t have to look too far in this country to see the creeping normalcy of name-calling and insults used to describe fellow humans. Worse, you don’t have to look too far to see that people will condone this kind of behavior with excuses like “he’s just passionate” or she’s just being authentic.” And what of silence and inaction? Isn’t that condoning too?

We live in coarse times where “please” and “thank you” are little remembered relics of a distant past. And what about “I’m sorry?” Does anyone pause anymore to reflect upon his or her own behavior, reconsider and apologize? It seems like doubling down is more the order of the day and that it comes with no regard for conscience. I don’t know how I would have celebrated 30 years of marriage without an apology readied on my lips, but I digress. . .

This short piece could be about our political climate, but really it’s about a microcosm of that climate in my personal life.  Harsh and hateful language caused me  to call out someone I worked with in a volunteer organization. The words were not directed at me. They were used to describe and elderly couple who had volunteered for our organization. The couple hadn’t committed any crime other than being at the low-end of the economic ladder. What they were called and how they were described would cause me embarrassment to write.

In speaking up I realized that I was not going to be able to rise to the occasion of the organization’s mission being more important to me than basic human decency, so I left. I quit. And it’s in the aftermath of my decision of doing what I believed was the right thing, that I now grieve the loss that comes with such a choice.

Courage is not born of emotional or physical strength. It’s often demonstrated in the throes of fear. It includes the element of loss, because speaking out for what you believe sometimes leaves little choice but to separate yourself from the offender.  I believe that words have power and that how we speak to each other determines the quality of our society. I am not without a stain in my interaction with the person who used such hateful language. In a moment of shock, I told him that he should be ashamed of himself. There was undoubtedly a better way that I could have handled it, and for that I am sorry. When I look back, however, I wonder if any word choice would have caused him to pause, or if he would have doubled down anyway.

When did we become so inept at general kindness? When did we become so harsh in our rhetoric? Are “please” and “thank you” really dead? Do we waste our time and our breath in calling out vitriolic, hateful speech or should we simply be living by example? When are our silences about such things a wise choice and when are they complicit? And most of all, how do we nurture the collective heart of human kindness so that we stop talking like school yard bullies and start talking as if life and love mattered?

Posted in A Day In the Life

A Morning From A Child’s Page

It is 1957. My grandmother, Julia, sits at the kitchen table. She has filled the pot-belly with a bucket of coal and let me make a “house” on a quilt and pillows that I’ve set up in front of the stove, pulling the warmth into myself. I don’t know if today is the day that my mother will come back from wherever it is she goes. She always tells me that it’s work. I don’t believe her, and I still miss her in the aching place that owns my heart.

The morning is black and the days are slow to gather light. Winter hovers over us with piercing silence and the language of snow. A chipped ceramic statue of Mary lives on the dining room table and watches me play. I pray to her, asking her to bring my mother back.

The sound of a chair scrapping against the worn linoleum, and the creak of the floor against Julia’s shoes break the spell. I can smell biscuits and coffee and I get up from my warm place by the stove and sit down at the table, where I’m given a biscuit that steams when it is pulled apart. Julia’s shaking hands adds butter to the smooth open surface, along with a tablespoon of preserves made from summer berries. She pours me a cup of coffee, half of it milk. For a moment, I don’t think about being dropped off here again, content with the tastes of her winter kitchen.

Years later, when I remember her, her love still speaks to me in the small gestures of melting butter and coffee that is half milk, and in fires that are kept going so we won’t be cold. She was never someone who cuddled me or talked to me, but she smiled when she carefully stepped over the house I’d made in front of the pot-bellied stove and softly said “yes, yes, yes,” as if I’d somehow delighted her.

I dig and rut through these memory places sometimes, embracing the sorrow and its meaning; savoring the sweetness of love in her yes’s and my grief. I used to fear these recollections, but now I count them as blessings. All that changed was an understanding of what it took for cold hands to roll out dough on a floured sink board in the early, dark of day. Life has always been this good.

The shadow that invited me back here loosens its grip on the ghost of confusing emotions:  a small child left in farmhouse that sits in the vastness of prairie and sky. I taste again the feeling tone of the time, so grateful to have remembered. Rip it right from the heart of the matter, and keep it close by. This, I tell myself, is the light and darkness, which define you.

When the plates and cups sat empty upon her table, I saw through the window, light creeping into the day. Snow fell gently on fence posts and dried grasses and I jumped when I heard the sound of a car crunching gravel under its tires as it slowly made its way up to the farmhouse.

Posted in A Day In the Life, Comedy, Tragedy and What the F...?

The Year of Convictions

iStock_000005017548XSmall

I like the “new” in front of New Year. Other than that, there’s not really anything that I celebrate. New Year’s eve is my least favorite night of the year to be out and about. People are drinking and they are driving. Restaurants over charge for big meals and staying up until midnight to yell “Happy New Year,” holds absolutely no appeal. So, like most New Year’s, I was in bed and asleep by ten.

There are no New Year resolutions for me, because every time I make a resolution, I break it. Gym memberships and diets are the worst kinds of resolutions, followed by eschewing all negative thoughts and not cursing. I exercise enough. I eat well enough and I keep my curse words close at hand and don’t judge myself for it.

But this year, I want stuff. I want certain things to happen and I know that the old phrase: become the change you wish to see, applies. If I have made one resolution, it is this: to stand in the light of my truth.

I stand in the light of my truth. I am not afraid to identify bad behavior and rhetoric when I see it. If it looks like racism, misogyny and bigotry, then I will call it what it is. I will not support any leader or any human being that defiles another with slurs and policy. I advocate for a world of inclusiveness and civility. I hold these things as personal values and I intend to nurture my character by practicing them.

I stand in the light of my truth. I will not accept the white washing of divisive language by dressing it up and calling it “strong” language, locker room talk, or bar talk. As a writer, I know that words matter and they have power.

I stand in the light of my truth. I fully reject anyone who participates in racist, bigoted behavior or anyone who bears witness to racist, bigoted behavior by stating that they “do not recall.” Experience and age have taught me that we all know when we or someone else is behaving badly, and we do recall.

I stand in the light of my truth. You who bear witness and do nothing; you who participate in the slander of groups based on skin color, religion or sexual orientation; you who try to lie to yourself and to me by telling me that these things don’t matter, but making America great again does matter. I will not be swayed by your weak argument and I will let myself feel disgust and heartbreak so that I fight against you with my vote and my advocacy.

I stand in the light of my truth. I won’t be cowed. I will not waiver. I am not interested in supporting dysfunctional politics. I am interested in doing what I know in my heart is right. And I know the disparagement of targeted groups for the reasons I have stated is wrong. I am going to fight for what is right.

2018 – look out! This is the action that I take: I will not stick my head in the sand and ignore what is going on. And I am not alone. There are many of us. And we stand in the light of our truth, and the power of our convictions.

Happy New Year.

Posted in A Day In the Life

Joy To The Choir

This is an older post, but one that I had a lot of fun remembering and writing.  I’m sharing it here again in the spirit of the season.  Happy Holidays, friends. Thanks for being a part of my world. All good wishes and good will for the new year!

It wasn’t fair! For two years in a row, Cheryl McAdams got to be Mary and wear the blue veil and hold the baby Jesus doll in the Christmas Pageant. Cheryl McAdams stepped on my feet whenever she could, leaving black marks on my white socks and scuffs on my Mary Janes. When we were lined up, waiting to go into assembly, she would turn around stomp on my one of my feet, laugh, and then turn to the front of the line again like she hadn’t done anything. No way she should have been Mary two years in a row!

I sang in the choir, directed by Mrs. Luella Pearson. Mrs. Pearson had bluish grey hair that she sprayed into a helmet on her head. Her face was heavily powdered. “Like a porcelain doll” my mother said, but I thought she looked more like a powdered donut.

Each year our school, which was a private school, a fact that my mother liked to share with relatives in a way that didn’t make it private at all, put on a Christmas Pageant. The local television station invited the school to the studio and filmed the entire thing. It was the big event leading up to our winter break.

In parkas and scarves, boots and mittens we marched off of the school bus by grade, so bundled against the snow and cold that we looked like a little troop of Michelin men. Volunteer parents and teachers took us to dressing rooms where we were greeted by rows of freshly pressed, neatly hung choir robes. Sizes were found, parkas and boots were stashed and soon each kid had on a black robe with a white collar and a big red bow that tied under the collar.

Mrs. Pearson inspected us, standing in lines just that way that we would when we sang. She walked up and down, heels clicking on the concrete floor and gave us instruction.

“Be like angels,” she said. “Look directly into the camera and smile your best smiles while you are singing. Remember that smiling helps to raise the note so that you do not sing flat.”

Hearing these instructions, I vowed to hold them dear in the hopes that Mrs. Pearson might notice and cast me as Mary next year.

It cannot be easy for mere mortals to deal with 70 first through sixth graders. Our excitement was ramped up by the robust supply of cookies and candy, supplied by the television station. Like fat little puppies at the trough, we practically licked the floor when the sugary treats were gone.

The thing about so much sugar is that it makes kids think of doing things that they normally wouldn’t do. Leonard, a boy from my class, had already eaten several cookies and quite a bit of candy. He regularly got in trouble at school. Leonard could bring class to a raucous stand still. He liked to put his hand in his armpit and then flap it like a wing in such a way as to make loud farting noises, bringing bouts of laughter. Girls were not supposed to laugh, but secretly I thought Leonard was a very funny kid.

Leonard was running around the television studio with the baby Jesus doll that he’d taken from the manger, and using it as a machine gun.

“Leonard, I told you last week, none of this nonsense! Stop all this fussing now. Do you want to do sit in the dressing room by yourself? Do you,” she repeated, bending down and placing her hands on his shoulders. She straightened the large white collar on his choir robe, and fluffed the big red bow.

I was standing right next to them, so I saw all of it happen. Leonard listened to Mrs. Pearson with an intense look on his face and then a little smile. Mrs. Pearson straightened up and smiled back just as Leonard let rip a real fart. Loud, rolling and fragrant. Leonard started to laugh. All of the kids around him started to laugh. Mrs. Pearson turned whiter than the powder on her face and grabbed a handful of her helmet hair so hard that you could hear it crunch in her grip. For the rest of the day she had a dent on one side of her head.

Now Mrs. Pearson had to avoid Leonard because whenever he saw her, he started to laugh uncontrollably which brought on more laughter from other kids, except from the group of girls that included Cheryl McAdams, in her stupid looking blue Mary veil. They stood in their little pod and glared at Leonard.

“He is so rude,” I heard one of them say.

“My mother would never let me play with him,” said another

“Why would you want to?” chimed in Cheryl McAdams.

Finally it was time for the choir to line up and sing. The adults herded us to our places and we stood in two neat rows, kids in the back on risers so that everyone could be seen. Excitement bubbled over as bright lights shined down and a big camera focused on us. Mrs. Pearson stood behind the camera and raised her arms to direct our singing. I remembered what she had said about looking right into the camera and singing with a smile on your face.

We sang the Reader’s Digest condensed version of the Hallelujah Chorus first. Then we sang Away in a Manger. Each time the camera went by I looked right into the lens, and without really meaning to, leaned slightly forward, as I smiled my best smile. What I didn’t know at the time is that none of the other kids followed Mrs. Pearson’s instructions, so they didn’t look right into the camera. They didn’t smile and none of them leaned forward as the camera went by.

As we came to the end of Silent Night, Holy Night, I leaned forward a little too far and fell onto my face taking three other kids out with me. It is to the cameraman’s credit that he did not follow my descent with his lens– and to Mrs. Pearson’s credit that she didn’t put another dent in her helmet hair. As I went down I could hear Leonard laughing uncontrollably.

On Christmas Eve my mother, my aunts, some cousins sat in our living room and watched the Christmas Pageant on television. My aunts were laughing and calling me a little ham. I scowled my best eight-year-old scowl and said, “I did exactly what Mrs. Pearson told us to do and I was the only one.”

“You were definitely the only one sweetheart,” said one of the aunts. With arms folded across my chest I continued to watch as I tumbled over the three kids that became part of the great Silent Night fall. Leonard could be heard laughing in the background.   The screen faded to black and then to our principal, with a sick look on her face wished everyone a “Very Merry Christmas and a Good Night.”

Somewhere in another part of the city, a powdered Luella Pearson, replete with helmet hair was watching the Christmas Pageant too, and she was on her third martini.

Posted in A Day In the Life

The Transformative Force of Grief

FullSizeRender-6

Is it uniquely American to pick and choose emotional states, as if from a menu? Be happy. Don’t be angry. Choose joy, not sorrow. Aim for bliss. A positive attitude can be a strength in our lives, but what happens when it’s at the expense of authenticity?

There’s A Time and a Place: Ecclesiastes reminds us that to every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven… So doesn’t that mean that there is a time to celebrate and a time to grieve?

The Lotus Grows From the Mud: Nature is rich with metaphors. The lotus plant roots itself in dark mud. Beauty and compassion are born from grief. Why then do we seem to hold it back, especially when it shows up as the unfinished business of healing?

Permission to Grieve: No one in this world escapes grief. Yes, it’s present in death, but grief is also the little losses that pile up over time. In these instances grief can reveal itself as melancholy, angst, or unexplainable tears. If we run from what is asking to be felt, is it any wonder why we are a nation preoccupied with psych meds? So, is grief a negative emotion? I don’t think so. Mostly, we turn our face from grief, because we are not well versed with being in its presence. It requires us to sit still with suffering and be its witness.

Winter’s Descent: For me, winter is the great descent. I’m prone toward the disconcerting rumble of low-grade depression this time of year. I’m also more likely to be quiet and reflective, figuring out things about my writing, my life, and myself. It’s the Persephone myth, playing itself out, and each year since I realized that, I weather the assault of the dark a little bit more easily. I’ve come to respect the place where emotions are just under the surface of my skin bringing me closer to the vocabulary of my heart.

Everyone Keeps Secrets: You don’t need a Ph.D. to see that the personas we craft for social media are all rainbows and unicorns. It’s as though the struggles of our lives are shameful and must be kept secret. We need places (probably not social media) to give air to what it means to be human. Too much energy convincing everyone of how positive you are while holding sorrow in abeyance, can turn a person numb.

No Apologies for Grief: The deep psychic dive into what hurts is liberating. We should all take a little more time to cry and wail, allowing tears to baptize us into fresh starts and new beginnings. No apologies for doing your personal work in the dark. Hang a Do Not Disturb sign on your door and know that nurturing a deeper understanding of grief grows us into better, more compassionate human beings.

Advocate for the Authentic: I am more interested in keeping it real than I am in any preconceived notion of what it means to be positive. In fact, I’d like to kick the whole “positive only” movement in its little ass, and shout to the world, that we are connected by our shared experiences of sorrow and longing.

Human beings tend to most deeply bond over shared stories of broken hearts and retrieved pieces. Each time that I sit with my grief, it teaches me something. And that is the transformative force that pushes this messy, awkward, wonderful life toward greater love and fullness.