Tuesday
Jan202015

How to Get a Little Happier

For Christmas, I gave my niece a book called The Blessings Jar.

The book tells the story of a little girl, Punky Grace, who wakes up one morning in a grumpy mood. She was truly a cranky pants—until her grandmother suggested they make a blessings jar. They would start with a big, empty canning jar, go on some adventures, and every time they came across something that reminded her of some blessings she had in her life, she would put a memento in the jar to help her remember.

They added a flower from the garden, her ballet slipper after she did some twirling, and a shell from a trip to the beach. They stopped to have ice cream with her grandpa—and she put a napkin from the ice cream stand in the jar.

When I read to my niece that Punky Grace’s favorite ice cream was bubble gum, I said, “Oh my! That was Menga’s favorite ice cream!”

My mother used to tell stories of having ice cream from the shop on the corner in downtown Sonoma, California. She would always get bubble gum ice cream—vanilla with colored gumballs inside.

My niece, who is almost six, never knew Menga personally—but she has learned about her from stories we tell. She actually looks a lot like my mother did when she was her age. My niece wears a pink leotard sometimes and twirls around in circles—and my mother once had a pair of red pointe shoes.

Earlier that day, one of those times when my niece was spinning in circles, she said, “I’m so beautiful I can see the birds!”

I stopped what I was doing, and said, “What?”

She laughed, and said, “I can see right inside the bird’s nest!”

That’s what I thought she had said—it didn’t make any sense. We were inside. We weren’t anywhere near a window or near birds. 

But her comment reminded me of a book I am reading, 10% Happier, by Dan Harris. Harris, an ABC news correspondent who was struggling with cocaine drug addiction and anxiety, recounts his efforts to practice meditation to get his life in order. He shares the pain of battling it every step of the way, mostly being irritated by meditation teachers and the overall experience.

But finally, on day five at his first silent retreat, he was sitting outside on his dormitory balcony, meditating, when something finally “clicked.” He described it as finally finding a radio frequency he had been trying to tune into. He was suddenly completely present in the moment, in choice-less awareness, opening up with ease and clarity to everything that was there. After sitting with this for some time, he opened his eyes. And there was a hummingbird, hovering right in front of him.

Dan was so beautiful in that moment that he could see the birds too.

I’d put moments like that in my blessings jar. Moments when that hummingbird, or that turtle, or swan shows up when you need it most. I’d put in a picture of my son D. A piece of my yoga mat. A cotton ball, to remind me of days when the clouds are indescribable. Some paper, and a pen. A tennis ball from the Y. A sand dollar from Stinson Beach. A photo of my mom and dad.

What would you put in yours?

Saturday
Jan102015

Getting Old Is Awesome

I drive a lot in my job as a consultant, and after almost three years of 1000 miles a week, I’m feeling it. My stomach and glute muscles are weakening, my hip flexors are on revolt, my SI joints are inflamed, and there’s no air pillow puffy enough from Amazon to solve the problem.

It’s partly age, but also partly my body telling me that I’m out of balance. I first felt lower back pain about a year ago, but just kept thinking it was muscle tightness, maybe from too much tennis or not enough yoga. But after months of futilely rolling out my IT bands on high-density foam and trying to solve the problem on my own, I finally went to a chiropractor in October and he told me I was all out of whack.

Those weren’t his exact words—he said something about my Atlas, my T12, and my L5, and maybe a few other things in between. But I felt better after I left—at least until I got back into the car again.

So I started amping up my number of visits. I also started increasing use of other modalities to ease inflammation and pain—more acupuncture and massage. I started seeing a rolfer, who does very specialized deep tissue work. The rolfer spotted the misalignment right away, as I was standing there. He said, “I can see your hips are turned to one side,” and I pointed to the right. “That way?” I asked, and he said, “Yes.” All the muscles and bands on one side of my back were locked together, kind of stuck, rather than moving more independently as my ribs move.

It’s going to take more than just a few sessions on special tables to remedy this. So I’m doing everything a physical human can do. I now do a series of PT exercises at least twice a day, strengthening my core and my glutes. I use an exercise ball, two different foam rollers, multiple exercise bands, and The Runner’s Stick. Of course, for good measure, I periodically use the arm roller and the Therabar I got a year ago for tennis elbow. I also am trying to learn not to sleep on my stomach.

My boyfriend D. said to me, “Wow, it’s taking a lot to help you with this.” Was he commenting on my ridiculous series of appointments? Or maybe he said this when I was on the floor watching TV while doing hip flexor stretches and pelvic tilts. Hey, I’m like Oprah addressing her weight issues. I just don’t have the billions to pay for it and the in-house trainer and chef. These things take a small army.

Sometimes I think I’m working too hard on it, however. One of my chiropractors said, “you don’t want to think about it too much, you know, because you can attract too much energy to that.” The quote of the day that later showed up in my email box from Abraham-Hicks said: “When you give vibration to something, that vibration becomes activated and comes to the forefront. And the more often you focus upon it, and cause it to come to the forefront, the more dominant it becomes.”

I do believe that. It’s the Law of Attraction. So now when I am doing PT exercises morning and night, I try not to think about the fact that I while away hours in this way. Instead, I send good healing energy to my back. As I’m in a spine twist that is stretching every part of my being, I practice relaxing into it, breathing. And when I am on a massage table or signing yet another check to my chiropractor, I think to myself, “How lucky am I that I have this kind of support when I am ailing?” Part of why I have this trouble is I have a great job that takes me places, and I am very physically active, playing tennis several times a week. My muscles just aren’t in perfect balance.

I think of a cab driver who recently gave me a ride in St. Louis. He had a pillow, slipped inside a light blue case, behind his lower back. As he got into his cab, he adjusted the pillow behind him. I am sure that pillow would never be thick enough to deal with his pain, driving a cab all day long, probably six days a week. I thought at the time, “I know just how you feel.” I felt connected to this guy. He and I suffered from the same thing.

But I don’t drive a cab over 40 hours a week. I have a special pillow I sit on in my car like the ones they get for people in wheelchairs, so it take pressure off my tailbone (that’s the getting old part). I lean against an air pillow to support my lower back when I’m sitting. There’s an exercise ball in my office so I can do flexibility exercises as I work. I have a stand-up desk now as well, so I’m not sitting too much. I go to appointments every week with people who help me feel better. And I am feeling better all the time. So really, I just have to stop being a big baby. Shut up about my back, and all will be well.

 

Sunday
Jan042015

One Mi-Tie Rack and a Collection of Cravats

After my father passed away, as my sister and I were cleaning out his closet at the nursing home, we found his wooden Mi-Tie rack, still full of ties, and wondered what to do with it.

I could imagine my mother buying this tie rack for my father—it was probably a 10th anniversary present, the perfect thing as he worked his way into middle management. She probably found it at Brookstone, or Sharper Image. He was an engineer and appreciated gadgets, and she found him impossible to buy for, so a wooden tie rack with tiny gold hangers was perfect.

Even at the end of his life, the rack was still full of ties. There were striped Van Heusens from Macy’s; ties from Wallachs (remember Wallachs?); a red paisley Liberty of London; some Christian Dior. As I ran my fingers through the ties, I could picture him circling them neatly around his neck, all those days at Fairchild Semiconductor, New Hampshire Ball Bearing, Pneumo Precision.

He probably had one of these ties on his last day of work, when he was a purchasing manager at Burndy and was encouraged to retire at 63.

Of his collection, my favorites are the Endangered Species ties—one with a menacing-looking crocodile—why would one have a crocodile on his tie? Probably another gift from my mother, to celebrate that trip they took to Australia.

So what would do with all of these ties?

“Do the boys need any ties?” I asked my sister that day, referring to my nephews, who were 17 and 19.

“No,” she said. “I think they’re pretty good.”

“Hmmm,” I said. “Well, I can give this to D. I’ll see if he wants them. He only has maybe two ties for school.”

My son D. has to dress up every Wednesday in a school blazer and tie (love Catholic school!), and I’ve only bought him a tie or two a year. So even as a senior, it’s slim pickins, especially because some of them have come to a terrible end crumpled up in the bottom of his locker. D. certainly doesn’t own a tie rack. I had no idea whether he would want them or not, but it was worth a shot. 

When I got home later that night, I said, “Hey, D., do you have any interest in this?” and I held up the tie rack for him to see. “It was Bapop’s.”

“Sure!” he said, enthusiastically, nodding his head.

“Really?” I was surprised.

D. is a guy whose essential uniform is Adidas sweats and Dri-fit Nike shirts—that is, when he isn’t wearing his required polo and khakis or blazer on Wednesdays for school.

 “You might want to get rid of some of them,” I said, as he flipped through all of the ties. “Some of them are kinda old.” 

“Nah, I like them,” he insisted. He found one of two of his own ties and added them to a few empty hangers.

“Do you want to put this downstairs in your closet?” I asked. D. doesn’t have a closet in his room, so all of his school clothes are in my office.

“No, I’ll keep it here in my room,” he said.

For another six months, the tie rack hung on his doorknob. I’m not sure why he liked having it there, but he said he just liked looking at them. After about six months, I moved it to his closet.

As I looked at the tie rack every week, I always thought of my dad—he and Jack Daniels. Once, my father saw a commercial for Tennessee Whiskey on television, and the commercial showed men hard at work in a factory. But the men weren’t just in an office, they were working over machines, their ties getting eerily close to the moving parts. My father was a manufacturing engineer—he would have none of that. So he wrote a letter to the Jack Daniel Distillery in Lynchburg, Tennessee, pointing out that their commercials depicted very unsafe manufacturing practices and they should take the commercials off the air.

My father actually received a response back—and not only did he get a letter acknowledging his very reasonable and excellent point, but they also made him a Tennessee Squire. This association was created to honor and recognize the company’s most loyal and responsible consumers. Although my dad was not a big whiskey drinker, I suppose he might have saved them a lawsuit. For years to come, Dad received humorous letters periodically from the company, telling him about the crazy activities on his plot of land in Tennessee.

My sister still has his scrapbook with all the letters. Today, if you’re a Tennessee Squire, you can log into a special section on their web site.

I’m thinking once D. turns 21, I’ll ask if he can join in. He is now the proud owner of that tie collection, after all.

 

P.S. There’s one tie that I hope D. always keeps, the one homemade one in the collection. A navy blue Laura Ashley-like print, with tiny pink flowers. It’s the one my mother made for my dad to wear at my wedding. It matches the four bridesmaid dresses she made and the groomsmen’s ties. That was 20 years ago this spring. The tie is narrow—so it’s coming back in style, right?

Sunday
Dec282014

Thinking About Slowing Down in the New Year

I was zipping down our curvy back road the other day, happily going about 9 miles over the speed limit (as I am wont to do, because there are places to go and things to see and never enough time. And yet in these rural parts, I also don’t know when I will see a fox or a deer or a possum or maybe a person jogging).

That day, as I rounded a corner, I saw a large dark spot near the double yellow lines that appeared to be moving slowly. This was not roadkill—this was road-alive.

Aaargh, I won’t get to tennis on time! I thought. But I slowed down, pulled my car over to the side, put on the hazards, and got out.

The dark spot was a turtle, and he was moving slowly. So slowly that he only moved about an inch every 15 seconds, and paused a long time in between. As I approached him, he turned his head slightly and started angling off in the other direction—back toward the center line.

“No, no, no,” I said. I moved around him, and put my feet in his path. This made him turn his head again, and he started slowly moving his body the other way.

He was a snapping turtle—I could tell by his rough black shell, his sawtooth back, and long tail.

“We don’t have time for this, Mr. Snapper,” I said out loud, as he was meandering. I picked up a long stick and nudged the back of his shell. At my touch, he flinched, and then I felt bad.

“I’m trying to save your life, little buddy,” I said.

The turtle didn’t seem to care. He had no sense of urgency, which to me, made him seem so vulnerable. It wouldn’t take much for him to be crushed by the many cars like mine that speed along this road. But he didn’t seem to know that. Snappers have fierce dispositions—reportedly having evolved that way because they are too large to hide in their shell when challenged. But this little guy did not seem concerned.

So the two of us just kept up the nudging and flinching and slow meandering until he was safely in the brush at the side of the road.

As I got back into the car, feeling quite accomplished, I asked myself, “So what was that about?”

Years ago, an Abenaki medicine man friend taught me to pay attention to animal medicine whenever it shows up. Animals signs often have some apt meaning or wisdom that might be worth considering, if you notice them, and pay attention.

So that night, I looked up ”Turtle” in Animal Speak by Ted Andrews. The text said, “The turtle is one of the oldest reptiles and thus has one of the most ancient mythologies…it has been a symbol for Mother Earth, for longevity, and for the awakening to heightened sensibilities.”

Nice!

Andrews also says that “Long life and groundedness within life is part of what is associated with the turtle. It does not move fast. It is as if, on some level, turtle knows that it has all the time in the world. Turtle medicine can teach new perceptions about time and our relationship within it.”

Me? Issues with time? Seriously? My favorite phrase to my son when he was growing up was “Quick like a bunny.” I was forever saying to him, “We can play if we have time when I am finished my work,” and “We only have ten minutes, so let’s get going.”

I am driven by my Outlook calendar. I have workweeks with literally 27 meetings, which can take me late into the night or can require early mornings to prepare for. So every 15 minutes of time, whether it’s for work or for play with family or friends, is very precious.

These days, I am that much more aware of time as my father just passed away last spring, and my mother died eight years ago at age 67. When you are only 45 and you have already had to face your parents’ mortality, it certainly does make you think about your own and how time can tick away mercilessly in the background of life.

I’ve been thinking about time lately, so it’s not surprising I saw the turtle. Just yesterday, I came across some notes that I had taken during a Quantum Think workshop 15 or 20 years ago. I remember really being impacted by this workshop at the time because it challenged my very notions of time. One of the questions the leader had asked us to consider was “What would be possible if you were centered and calm and less frenzied?”

He had pointed out that when you create a conscious intent to experience life in the moment, time slows down, and in fact, doesn’t exist. When you slow down enough to study a bird, and not leap on the bird’s back, you move to a new level of conscious awareness. That is when we start to see chronological time as a tool, rather than to be run by it.

All that is easy to say and not easy to do. As he said in that workshop that day, it’s not always easy to change our thoughts about time, because the thought usually gets there before we do. But we don’t necessarily have to change our thoughts, we just have to become more conscious of them, so we can create a different intent.

So what is my intent in this coming new year? To study my friend the turtle, and learn from him. I want to learn about the certainty that he experiences by just taking one step at a time. I want to live more in this moment, rather than focusing on moments in the past, or future moments that are still to come.

Ted Andrews writes, “Turtles have amazing survival skills and strategies…this can be a strong reminder [for us]. Is our life becoming too hectic? Are we not taking time for ourselves? Are we so busy that we can’t really see what is going on? Are we going too slow and need to pick up the pace a little? Turtle can help you decide.”

It’s a good thing the turtle showed up for me that day, because I have so much to learn.

I suppose it’s possible there might have been a hare too that day, but that darn hare moved too quickly for me to see him.

Sunday
Nov302014

Story of Scars

I have a jagged checkmark on my forehead, from hitting my head on our wooden coffee table when I was three. Six months later, I walked into a wall. Both required stitches.

These days, my parents would be questioned in the emergency room. The doctor would carefully look into their eyes to see if they are hiding something. But really, it happened that way. I’ve always been more about speed than grace.

There’s an inch-long mark on my right shin, from Cristobal, our Saint Bernard. We have pictures of him—he had long hair. I must have cried when he bit me. We still lived in California at the time, so I was young. My mother later insisted the scar was not from the dog but from a bike accident. But I don’t remember it that way, I see the scar and I think about the dog. I don’t remember a bike. Afterwards, my parents sent Cristobal away to a farm.

In fifth grade, one sweaty summer afternoon when the neighborhood kids were all standing around, Gary L’s reflector broke on his bike. He threw the jagged piece into the woods, but it hit me first. Tiny, tiny dent above my right brow.

Two more faint scars on my knees after skinny dipping in Norway Pond. It was dark, my mother had come out to find me in the car—I took the turn on my bike at the bottom of the driveway too fast. She never bandaged me up, she was so mad. Not about the skinny dipping, she didn’t know about that—she was just angry about me being on my bike after dark.

Everyone should have a few good pencil-lead marks—I have two. One just above my belly button, from a fight my brother M. and I had doing crossword puzzles, arguing over something. Another mark in the web between my thumb and pointer finger on my left hand. I was getting dressed for cheerleading at an away basketball game in seventh grade, and reached into my bag for my monogrammed sweater. Stuck my hand into a pencil instead.

Those are from the early years. The later scars are deeper, more prominent: Time has not had a chance to fade them. A jagged scar on my back from a mole removed three times. They tried to cut out the abnormal, find the clean edges. The doctor admired that scar, says it healed nicely. Diagnosis for that day: skin benign.

A spot in my breast where they took a lump—also benign.

One from when my son D. was the last kid at day care one night, and seeing my car speed into the parking lot at 5:58 pm, he ducked down to hide, and cut above his own eye on the window frame.

Now that D. is 17, afternoons are long when he is gone, out working, or with his girlfriend, or at football practice. There’s quiet in the house. He’s no longer tugging at my pants leg asking me to to shoot pucks on him, or play baseball, or dinosaurs. 

I have a long, thin scar on my right knee from when my sister and I moved my dad from one nursing home to another. Somehow, I tore my jeans on a light post when lifting him into the car from his wheelchair. Eventually, we couldn’t transfer him anymore.

You feel some of these scars more at the holidays.

Even if you’re surrounded by family, laughing over raspberry Jell-O salad with mini marshmallows that your mother always made. You make it every holiday, no matter what, even though no one truly knows if it is a salad or a dessert. Suddenly, you have become the great aunt, or the grandmother, with new toddlers running around the legs of the table.

You believe that raspberry salad, or the sweet yams in orange cups, or your mother’s stuffing, will fill that emptiness in the heart chakra. That void in the solar plexus.

I’m told that those scars will fade over time. I’m still waiting for that. 

 

This picture is of me and Cristobal at Lake Camanche, 1972. The shadow is my mom.

Sunday
Nov092014

What I Want to Do When I Grow Up

Senior year in high school is so stressful. Everyone asking about the future, mornings ripe with anxiety about what next year will bring, that sick feeling in your stomach. Every week some new “last.” Last time ordering high school textbooks, last time buying school supplies picked out by teachers, last pasta dinner cooked for the football team.

And that’s just me. I can’t even imagine what my son D. is going through. 

It’s even worse for him than for most, because he’s a boy, and he’s an only. So all of my hyper-vigilant, laser-eye focused, type-A-trained attention is zeroed in on his every move (or sometimes, lack thereof).

But to be fair, I’m not the only crazy parent out there on the edge. On a flight home from Chicago last week, I heard someone in the seat behind me talking about her teenage daughter’s plans, and she said, “I don’t want her to go far away….and yet I also don’t want my fears to be driving what she does.”

My fears drive what he does? That’s ridiculous.

But, when I ask other moms in my boat what their senior is doing next year, they sometimes say, “We have no idea…” or even worse, they respond, “We’re applying to ten colleges. We like BU and UVM best.” And I want to ask, “What are you majoring in?” and “Have you told him what student activities you plan to join?”

I only ask my son D. 6.8 times a week what he thinks he wants to do, all the while knowing it’s a completely ridiculous question of most 17-year-old males. So, I try to restrain myself and offer ideas and suggestions only half of those times.

After we came home from a college open house recently, we were discussing some options he could add to his list (or at least I was discussing them), and as he was looking up one school on the iPad, I was standing over his shoulder, looking at the touchscreen.

“Mom,” he said, “You are so being a helicopter parent right now.”

Helicopter parent? Where did that come from? Where did he even learn that term?

But I have to help him with direction, right? He has so much going on already between school and football, and deadlines are looming, and he doesn’t completely understand the real world yet. Does he?

On the other hand, I do know that it’s his path, his journey, and he has to be the steward of it. He has always been very good about knowing what he needs, and following his inner guidance. I was talking to a friend the other day about the different things he might do, and finally, I heard myself say, “I do know that as soon as I get out of the way, he will find his way.

I don’t know where that came from. But I heard myself saying those words, and I knew they were true.

Dr. Wendy Mogel, psychologist and author of several books about raising adolescents, once said, “It’s our job to prepare our children for the road, not to prepare the road for our children.”

Argh, just another small knife in my motherly back. I’m only trying to map out the whole darn sky. I’m like the FAA. It’s my job.

Thursday
Sep182014

When We Fly in Predictable Lines

The other night, I was giving a presentation at a meeting, sharing with a camp board how I could help them with an upcoming strategic plan. In the middle of my engaging and emotional PowerPoint, we heard what sounded like fireworks outside.

It was autumn, the camp season was over, so generally, the property was deserted.

I kept talking for a minute or two more, but then the board chair stopped me.

“What is that”? he asked the executive director of the camp.

“Oh, that’s Howard going after the geese,” the director responded. “There are nine of them—they are ruining the place.”

I must have looked a little shocked. I don’t normally hear such things when I am talking about strategic plans. Normally, we talk about competitive advantages, financial challenges, impact statements, and opportunities. Not so much about geese pooping on the lawn.

“We are trying to scare them away,” he said, and he winked at me.

Howard, the guy somewhere outside, was the maintenance man, always working on something—repairing cabin screens, painting trim, turning off the water for the season. Clearly, he also managed wildlife.

People nodded about the geese. A flock of geese can be pretty destructive. Forget what turkeys can do to your lawn—geese will destroy it. And they love nicely trimmed fields near large bodies of water—the very definition of most camps. The director might as well put out a giant “STOP HERE ON YOUR WAY SOUTH” billboard.

“Where is the sound coming from?” asked the board chair.

The seven or eight of us at the table pointed to the sound, but we all pointed in completely different directions.

We all laughed. It was clear we had no idea where Howard and the geese were—only that they were somewhere outside.

Such is life in rural new England. My own neighbor target shoots next to our backyard, and even though we are on a 6-acre parcel, it feels like he is right in my ear. On Saturdays, we will often hear him going on and on for an hour, “BANG BANG BANG pop BANG pop BANG!”

But do I know exactly where my neighbor is? No, I never go look. And just as funny about Howard and these camp geese was that we had no clue where the sounds were coming from. We pointed where we thought they were, all in different directions, but most of us had to be wrong.

It was just like in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy says to Toto at the forking yellow brick road, “Now which way do we go?”

And the scarecrow jumps in, “Pardon me….that way is a very nice way, “and when Dorothy looks down that path, he then points the other way and says “”It’s pleasant down that way too!”

Finally, just as Dorothy is starting to realize that a scarecrow is talking to her, Ray Bolger crosses his arms and points in both directions and says, “Of course, people do go both ways!”

This is how life is, isn’t it? We have many paths we can go down, a thousand different yellow brick roads through life. But which one do we follow?

I once heard someone say, “It doesn’t matter so much which way you go, which decision you make, but that you align with the direction you choose.”

So whenever friends ask me about “Should I take this job or that, should I go to Alaska or Jamaica, should I do X or do Y?” Or, should we put this goal in our strategic plan, or that one? I always tell them, it doesn’t really matter which you do out of a few good choices, just that you align with your decision and feel good about it. All will flow from there.

Just like the geese will eventually line up and fly away decisively south (or at least most of them will), just as they fly away in their distinctive V, so must we make our choices and align with those paths that we choose. That’s the very gift of grace, and the lines within it.

Sunday
Sep142014

Another Kind of Birthday--with My Dad

I just turned 45 in August. It’s a great age to be—distantly approaching the round-up year of 47 where I might as well be 50, but not there yet. I’m beyond the poor twenties, out of the tired thirties, safely in my fun forties.

A year ago, on my 44th birthday, I remember my cell phone ringing.

I could see by the caller ID that it my sister.

We don’t call each other much—we usually text or email because we never seem to be free at the same time. We did a lot of texting over the last six years, usually to communicate about my dad’s care, his medications, when his next care review meeting was.

But this was my birthday, so I knew that was why she was calling.

“Hi!” I said, enthusiastically.

“Happy birthday!” A gruff, gravely male voice responded.

I paused. Who was this? It was supposed to be my sister.

It only took me a minute to realize it was my father.

My dad, who was 84 at the time and in a nursing home, hadn’t called me in years. Not only did he not have a cell phone any longer, but he didn’t have the capacity to follow through on the multiple steps. He’d have to think, “I want to call one of my kids,” then ask a nurse for help, find the number, and then say hello and actually talk when I answered. Sometimes he would just be quiet on the other end, distracted by what someone else was doing in the hallway or by something on T.V.

Even calling him was a production—I had to dial the switchboard, get put through to his floor, have a nurse available to answer, transfer it to another line, who would bring a cordless phone to him, and he’d have to be awake in the first place to even take the call. In the last year of his life, I stopped trying to call him at all because it was easier just to go visit him once a week.

So on that day last year, I started to cry. Just because he was on the phone, and because he called to wish me a happy birthday.

My sister was there visiting, having dinner with him.

When I asked what they were eating, he said, “We’re having mushrooms.”

Never mind that they were actually having lobster rolls. Never mind that his words were a bit slurred due to multiple strokes and TIAs. Never mind that he didn’t even know it was my birthday until my sister told him. It was my dad, and he was calling me.

I asked him how old I was, and he guessed 45. He was close.

“Remember, Dad? You were 40 when I was born, so my birthday is always your age minus 40? Remember how when I was 40, you were 80, and that was the only time you’d ever be twice my age?”

That math was way more complicated than he could handle, even though he was an engineer and had always been good at math. In the last years of his life, he never remembered how old he was, so the comparison wasn’t useful. 

“Are you having a good time”? I asked.

“Yes,” he said. “We are having a lot of good food and merriment.”

That made me smile. I don’t remember him ever saying “merriment” before in his life. He was not a guy that would typically talk about merriment.

Forget cake, forget presents, forget that shot of tequila that a friend brought me when he found out it was my birthday. I will always remember that call. Especially now that my dad has gone, a simple mention of merriment is worth celebrating. 

Sunday
Aug242014

How It Looks When It Tapers

My son is starting his senior year in high school on Monday. Whenever anyone asks, “How old is D. now?” and I tell them he’s in his last year, they always say, “Wow! So you must be looking at colleges?” And I say, “We’re starting the process, but he is thinking about doing a gap year.” 

And the whole time, I’m thinking, “Damn straight! Put it off as long as possible!”

I’m ready to keep D. around as long as he wants—within reason. I do tell him if he wants to take a year before going away to college, that’s fine, but no matter what, he has to be a productive member of society.

D. is on the young side—his birthday is August 31, so he’s still 16—most of the boys in his class are a year older than he is. So it’s not surprising that he’s considering community college or working for a year before launching that life of sleeping through 8:05 am classes and pulling all-nighters for mid-terms (thank goodness).

D. is my only, so I am a bit overprotective. My ex and I separated when D. was only five, so for many years, it was just D. and me against the world. Of course, now it’s D. against the world—not in a rebellious kind of way, but in an I’m-almost-a-man-I know-how-the world-works-and-don’t-tell-me-differently kind of way.

This week, D. and I went together to get our hair cut—sometimes he’ll get a quick trim while my color is processing (all those years raising him have taken the pigment right out for some reason). My hairdresser M. has been cutting his hair since he was born—literally, when D. was still in a bouncy chair, his dad used to bring him to the salon and he’d race around in his walker while his dad got a haircut.

A few weeks ago, D. told me he was thinking about getting his hair buzzed. His girlfriend and I were horrified—not because buzz cuts are bad, but because he has such nice hair. It’s light brown, blond highlights in the summer, a bit of wave to it year round, and it falls right no matter how long it is. We tried to dissuade him—I even asked him how he would feel if his girlfriend got her hair buzzed (and he didn’t seem to like that idea at all for some reason).

His hair had gotten very long—he hadn’t had it cut in several months, and his Catholic high school has a strict rule that boys’ hair can’t go past the bottom of their ears or cover the nape of their necks. So he had a firm deadline of needing a cut this weekend.

D. sat in the stylist’s chair, and she fastened a cape on him, pumping her foot to raise him up to the height of the mirror. She asked him what he wanted. He said he was thinking about a buzz cut, and she and I both gasped, “Really?” at the same time. I was hoping he had dropped the idea. D. said he was considering it because of football, and the less hair he had the cooler he’d be. But he wasn’t completely convinced he wanted to go for it, so she said she’d start by cutting it short and then see what he thought.

There ended up being so much hair on the floor after the first round that he almost could have made a donation to Locks of Love. As M. cut, the three of us talked more about to buzz or not to buzz, and he even asked me, “What do you think?”. I just kept saying, “It’s your head, it’s your hair, do what you want.” I even heard myself say, “It will look good no matter what you do,” and “What about you shave it all off?”. Secretly, I was thinking, “please don’t buzz it!”

Once M. finished what she fondly called “Haircut Number One,” he looked carefully at it, and said, “I’m going to do it!”

I shruggled, and M. said, “Okay! Haircut Number Two!”. She pulled out her different clipper attachments, and told us that Zac Efron was wearing his hair that way now anyway, and she always thought D. looked like Zac Efron. We laughed about that—she once saved a People magazine to show me a picture of Zac when he was in High School Musical and said all the ladies in the salon were talking about how D. looked like a young Zac.

M. started buzzing over the top, and partway through, threatened to leave a pseudo-mullet. But when she began working on the back, with D.’s chair turned so his profile was in the mirror, I felt myself start to cry. I knew that hairline, that profile. Only this time it wasn’t blond, and it wasn’t on a six-year-old boy, but it was brown, and the face under it was not my little kid, but a young man.

Because D. was turned sideways, he could see me—he studied me carefully. When he saw the tears running down my cheeks, he said, “What?”

I’m sure he was thinking, “There goes my crazy mother.”

But I hadn’t seen that his forehead, that hairline since he was six or seven. It caught me off guard. That buzz cut was shaped the same, looked the same at the edges, only this time it was on a man, not on a little boy.

It was on this young man that I sort of know. I know him, and yet not really. I don’t know who he is becoming or where he is going or what he will look like when he gets there. And I don’t know how all of that will affect he and I—who we are together. Andy by the way, there really isn’t as much of an “us together” anyway. Now, it’s he and his girlfriend, he and his path, he and whatever his vision quest is going to be. And I’m just on the sidelines, sitting there with color in my hair, pretending I’m younger than I am, pretending that not everything is going to change in the next year or two. Pretending, just for now, that everything will be how it always was.

And yet D. somehow knows it’s different—that big changes are coming. He probably thinks about it far more than I even know. Maybe that’s why he wanted to get a buzz cut. It’s the beginning of a new era—and sometimes, one must dramatically mark such an occasion.

 

Note: The picture above is of D. on his first day of school of first grade. I told him I will have to take a picture tomorrow so I can compare. I think he’ll humor me.

Sunday
Aug032014

The Regular and Predictable Sounds of Whales

I just returned from a week-long poetry workshop at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown on Cape Cod. At this magical place, you study with leading-edge poets and writers, painters, or other fine artists, spending half the day in a workshop with ten or so other students, and then the other half exploring the craziness of P-town, hanging out at Long Point, or pursuing your art.

I worked with Terrence Hayes, who is an amazing poet with four published collections—he has won a National Book Award, a Pushcart Prize, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation.

Plus, he’s brilliant, and says things like, “Where’s the heat in this poem? How can you move that heat upstairs?” Or “Where are the images decorative, versus functional? You need to make sure the poem is not too pre-determined.”

Terrence is only 42—younger than me. Made me feel like a slacker.

There were cool people in my class—my BFF, another writer friend, a guy from Michigan who is getting his MFA in Texas, and about seven other women, including one named Wilderness.

How cool is that, to be a poet named Wilderness? Maybe that’s my problem—my name, Kellie, means “Warrior Woman.” That’s why I am typically out digging in the trenches of management rather than crafting poems in between glasses of white wine.

On the last night at the FAWC, they had an open mike for student writers. They read a brief bio of who you are, and then you share a page, and everyone claps politely, even if what you share is terrible. All the instructors are there, smiling. It’s very encouraging.

When it was my turn to read, I shared “Ode to Eruption,” a new poem I wrote in response to a prompt Terrence gave us, to write an Ode.

My poem is about a 30-ton female humpback whale. One of the first things I did while on the Cape was go on a whale watch. And I was pleasantly surprised with dozens of sightings—we saw seven humpbacks, including Eruption.

The cool thing about baleen whales is that they sleep by shutting down one half of their brain. While they rest one side, the other half keeps them alive, assuring they surface regularly in order to breathe. Whales are not involuntary breathers as we are—they have to remember to do it. So they can’t just sleep, or they would drown.

I would love to be able to do that—when I am stuck in my left-brain, analytical, driving, warrior woman self, I’d love to be able to turn that off in order to open up my more creative poet side. (By the way, this actually happened to Jill Bolte Taylor when she had a stroke—she wrote about it in a great book, My Stroke of Insight.)

So there I was, at a poetry workshop all week, trying not to think about my day job, trying to live in my right brain. It was an amazing, open-heart space to be.

When I was in the middle of reading “Ode to Eruption” in the Stanley Kunitz Common Room, I suddenly noticed something odd: My dad’s shirt was sitting in the front row. A gentleman about my father’s age, who happened to be a host of one of the writers, was wearing it—one of the last shirts my mother bought my father. It was a classic “grandpa” shirt, with a bold Cliff Huxtable-like pattern, and sophisticated undertones of gold, rust, and burgundy. Just the kind of shirt my father loved.

Near the end of my dad’s life, he wasn’t really able to wear button-downs anymore—they were very difficult to put on while he was in his wheelchair, so the nursing home staff resorted to long-sleeve tees and polos. So this shirt, along with some select other dressy clothes, hung quietly in his closet for the last year or so.

At the end of June, I went on a trip to Alaska. My father loved Alaska. He first went there when he was in the Air Force, and longed to go back. He loved the majesty of the glaciers, the untamed wildness of it, the moose and grizzly bears. He always threatened my mother with the idea that they might explore it by RV. She didn’t think they would both survive such a trip—and not because of the grizzly bears.

In the end, they did go to Alaska before my mother passed away—but on a cruise, the same way I went there.

While I was in Alaska, I looked desperately for whales almost every chance I got. The other thing that I love about whales is that according to Native American lore, whales are the keepers of the story. It is believed that through their song, they pass stories from one generation to the next.

I only saw one whale in Alaska—and not much of it, just a piece of its disappearing dark body as it went for a deep dive below the ship. But between that whale and my dad’s shirt at my poetry reading, I am comforted that our stories are somehow being serendipitously passed along.

 

P.S. Yes, that is a picture of a whale’s tail that I took on the whale watch. I have no idea if it’s Eruption or not—I couldn’t tell them apart by their tail flukes even though the naturalist on board could!