The Chicago Way

When Barack (HUSSEIN!) Obama was running for president, a number of naysayers complained that he was part of the Chicago Machine, the enormous gears of power churning within the City of Big Shoulders.

I always marveled at that assessment, because from what I could see, Mr. Obama was an outsider to Chicago politics, an unconnected nube in the University of Chicago intellectual circles who wasn’t an alderman, wasn’t a councilman, wasn’t a city attorney or even a distant relative to the Daley family. I’d lived in the reign of Richard Daley, Michael Bilandic, THE FIRST WOMAN MAYOR (who my parents hated) Jane Byrne, Harold Washington, then eventually another Richard Daley (My parents called him Richie).

Although we were suburbanites, our news came from the Chicago stations, and my mother was a native South Sider, so watching Chicago politics was a family tradition. As much as following Da Bears and the Bulls and the Cubs, we watched politics closely. You could count on three subjects being discussed at dinner; sports, religion, and politics.

I found out as an adult how corrupt politics was in the state of Illinois, the full breadth of infestation of graft and greed among the elected officials. When I saw how entrenched it was at the state level, I was working at a state university, and discussions of trials of our elected officials were mundane. Regular. Part of the every day.

Obama, however, was an outsider from Kansas, a professor, not a teamster or the owner of a trucking company or some kind of businessman who got in on the action. He seemed unconnected. I watched cautiously to see threads connecting him to traditional Chicago corruption, and I never saw anything.

When Rod Blagojevich went to prison for trying to sell off Obama’s senate seat to the highest bidder, he was just the latest Illinois governor in a string of corrupt fellas who got caught at the game Chicago had mastered. Do a Google search with the words “Illinois Governors” and the first thing that pops up is “Illinois governors in prison”.

Government officials being corrupt, being caught being corrupt, and going for jail for being corrupt, while not a proud Illinois tradition, is certainly something to which Illinois natives are accustomed. We’d (they’d, since I’m now an Oregonian) like that tradition to end, and would like some common sense to take over the beleaguered state, but we have no shock at elected officials being greedy bastards who cheat the people out of true representation.

Again, while some questionable characters (Penny Pritzker? come on, man. Was she really qualified to be Secretary of Commerce? really? Or was she just a super-wealthy donor?) showed up in Mr. Obama’s administration, his time in office was scandal-free, clean as a whistle. And it had to be that way, for the first black president in this harrowingly racist country; black people historically have to be twice as good at everything to get half as far as white people.

But here we are as a country facing our most daunting task to date; what to do about the disgusting bag of sewage running the country right now. The current presidential administration has more corruption per capita than the Philippines under Marcos, the kleptocrat who set a high bar for our Cheeto in Chief to meet. I hear a lot of hand-wringing about how we should proceed, now that we are getting daily doses of indictments and sentencing to digest with our dinners. The bombshells keep going off on the west coast right about 6 p.m., and we are riveted to the news of the shitgibbon’s unraveling schemes every damned weeknight, and often twice on Fridays.

But what will we DO? They ask. We can’t INDICT him! We can’t IMPEACH him! However will we manage? So many people are claiming that impeaching or indicting him would cause too much division in the country, and we’d be rudderless in an unstable sea.

Good grief, we don’t exactly have a rudder NOW. And this asshole’s throwing chum in shark-infested waters because he’s entertained by all the sharp teeth.

Maybe this is naive. I know I’m naive about a lot of things. But listen; Illinois has been dealing with this shit for several decades. By the looks of it, Rahm Emmanuel has brought corruption back to Chicago in a big way, albeit in a better-looking package than either of the Richard Daleys. But we could learn a thing or two about carrying on after a sitting elected official is indicted and sent to prison by looking to Illinois. Did they crumble? Did they start an internecine war? Have they ceased to function altogether?

No, man. They sent that shitbag to prison, dusted off their hands and said “next!”

I believe it’s possible to get rid of the philistine in the Oval before his term is up and deal with the political fall out as a country. All legal arguments about his removal aside, and they are plenty, I think we should leverage the decades of knowledge developed by Illinoisans in handling post-indictment and imprisonment governance. Let’s give Michael Madigan a call–he’s probably the most corrupt of all Illinois politicians, but he might have some tips on how to right the ship after some greedy peckerwood takes it out for a joyride.

I have confidence that we can get through this. No more pussyfooting around, let’s get this done. Take a cue from Chicago, the City that Works, and decide we’re going to make it happen. We just need to put our shoulders to the wheel together and push, and get up tomorrow and do it all again.

Sean Connery and Kevin Costner in "The Untouchables"

one of my mom’s favorite movies because it showed “her” Chicago. For you pedants, yes, I know the quote is “he pulls a knife, you pull a gun. That’s the Chicago way.” I’m using it slightly differently. Poetic license.

 

Babies

A couple of weeks ago, I got to hang out with a four year old when I went to his house for dinner. I was purportedly there to hang out with his parents, but secretly, my plan was to play with him. I even brought my own toys.

And play we did, with his brand-new Superman toy, trying to work a puzzle, and a rousing game of Candyland, which he won handily–twice. He showed me how he lights the Menorah, and then whispered in my hear that we should buy a Christmas tree. He played physically, doing cartwheels when he was happy, climbing on the couch and onto me while we were talking, then nestled warmly into the crook of my arm while we read a Richard Scarry book just before bed. We even sang a song. It was heaven.

His parents are great–smart and funny and great company and good conversation. I really like them. I may hang out with them again sometime, even if they don’t bring their son. But the sheer pleasure of being with that boy, with his unrestrained joy and curiosity, his growing awareness of the world and his fresh view of life, cannot be matched.

So far removed now from raising my own children, I had forgotten the sensory experience of being around kids, and the Candyland playdate reminded me of the submersion of parenting, the child-bubble of the early years. I know sometimes I desperately wanted out, but because of my daughter’s fraught medical condition, I purposely reveled in the physicality of child rearing, knowing how fleeting that time can be.

Teaching piano allowed me to spend time with young minds for a while, and it was exciting to be part of them learning something completely new and challenging. But the teacher role isn’t like the playmate role, as I was reminded during Candyland. With this kid, I could just be a kid myself, and it was such fun.

My role as a baby cuddler at the hospital has been one method of getting a baby fix while waiting for my own kids to be old enoughThomasMattSophia to contemplate becoming parents. It’s not fair to put pressure on them for something *I* want, so I go up to the hospital and wrap my arms around little beings for a couple of hours.

About a month ago, I ran into a friend I used to work with, who has just moved into my neighborhood–and is pregnant with twins. And today, a close friend, who also lives three minutes away, just found out SHE is having twins.

My cup seriously runneth over.

While they will never be as important to me as my children, the idea of getting to be part of a passel of new lives is thrilling. I’m imagining the blankets I might sew for them, and spending time with the babies under the guise of giving the parents a break, and the toys, when they’re old enough, and books we’ll read, songs and games. Who knows, maybe a little piano here and there.

 

 

To a Favorite Performer

My affection for Merideth Kaye Clark is well documented; her performance of Joni Mitchell’s album “Blue,” in its precise instrumentation and note-for-note interpretation that somehow flies on its own wings was an absolute joy to behold. I had the good fortune of interviewing her a couple of years ago, and found her warmth and enthusiasm infectious.

She is playing Portland Center Stage this winter, for the second time, in a creation suited to her native abilities and personality. “A Christmas Memory/Winter Song” is custom-fitted to Clark’s voice and dynamic performance, her radiating charm and lofting soprano.

It’s time, however, for more than a few brief lines for her co-star, Leif Norby.

Norby first crept across my radar in “The Vibrator Play,” a show about a late 19th century doctor who used an electronic device to help women release tension. Yes, it’s exactly what you think. Norby’s character was a stern, austere man, with a rigid (oh please) carriage and little humor. He believed his work to be medicinal, and the play, situated firmly in the mores of the era, addressed only women’s sexuality as something to be “treated”, not celebrated or, you know, normal. I was struck then by his physical appropriateness for the role, with his sharp features and dignified comportment. He looked every bit the 19th century physician.

He popped up again in other productions, each time sliding in and out of focus as his character commandeered his appearance; he disappeared into a pioneer in “The Oregon Trail,” a shuffling drug dealer in “Wild and Reckless,” and John Astor in the two-season epic “Astoria.”

It was usually his voice that gave him away, that tenor, clear like a stream, breaking through whatever was happening onstage. In this production, his voice is used in multiple modes; in the deep South reminiscence of Truman Capote’s childhood friend and their holiday traditions (“A Christmas Memory”), in the personal wintertime stories he tells, and as a soloist on some of the songs, harmony on others.

Again, his voice cuts through like light. Clark’s voice, clear and light in its own right, is made for Broadway, for cabaret singing, for faithfully and beautifully bringing to life familiar songs. Norby, as my husband said, is an actor who sings; despite his role as attendant to the music portion, he is, rather, the star of the show.

As he reads the Capote story, he turns into Capote, sometimes as the boy in the story, sometimes as the adult looking back on the boy in the story. Norby infuses the story with a winsome gentleness, longing for the simplicity of pecan gathering and making fruitcakes for far-flung friends. His best friend in the story, a middle-aged cousin who lived in the same house as he did for a while. The purity of their love for each other, the sheer enjoyment of being together and planning their secret treat making, are the losses Capote feels so keenly. Norby brings out that vein of sorrow with his frank performance, and the result is 30-plus minutes of audience members both lost in the story and gathering around their own childhood memories with wistful affection.

It is a brilliant move to have Norby transition from storyteller to singer in the second half, because his voice has brought such feeling to the surface, the listener tracks the sound like stitches of thread. The whole night is a story of trying to revisit lost loved ones, straining to recall the once-felt loving warmth of being with family. It’s an ache, this show, a wish for comfort on a cold and lonely winter’s night.

And it’s that longing that Norby conveys so succinctly with the timbre of his voice, his wry smile and humble demeanor. Whatever character he plays, he brings a genuineness, a frankness, and in this intimate setting with personal stories about Christmas, it’s especially affecting.

The clip below shows Norby’s tremulous tenor, but it is his performance of Gordon Lightfoot’s “Song for a Winter’s Night” that melted hearts, and this clip gives hints as to why. Despite having a higher register than Lightfoot, Norby gives the song a sweet candor, as if he’s singing directly to the one he loves, sitting in their living room.

I’m glad to have had so many opportunities to see Leif Norby onstage, and to see the range of people he is capable of becoming. But I’ll always hold this performance dear, as it shows the quality Norby brings to his work, the candor and compassion that rings through every character.

And if you have the chance, do go see this show.

Socks and Sandals, or Things I Would Never Have Done When I Lived in the Midwest

My acrylic socks make my feet snug and happy inside my Keen sandals. When it rains later today, I’ll change into waterproof shoes, but right now I’m enjoying the delicious embrace of webbed shoes.

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There’s a bunch of stuff I have done in Oregon that I would never even have considered while living in the Midwest. Setting aside the coastal-state things I’ve done, all of which were not an option living in the land-locked state of Illinois (do you REALLY consider Great Lakes states to be coastal?), and living near actual mountains (as opposed to landfill hills onto which industrious skiers have pumped manufactured snow) I’ve enjoyed an array of Oregon-centric behaviors.

Let’s go.

–Ugly shoes. I gave up heels the moment I set foot in Oregon, because there were so many examples of ugly shoes on every corner, I felt released from expectations of stylishness. Keen sandals are popular, as are Bierkenstocks and Naots. I honestly thought Bierkenstocks were only worn by hippies, but maybe that’s right after all. I can’t think of a city with a more vibrant, self-sustaining hippy lifestyle. To be fair, I had trended toward ugly shoes before, but on many occasions, I really *tried* to wear stylish shoes. Shoes with heels. Now, I only wear shoes that are seriously comfortable.

–Socks with sandals. It just feels so damned good.

–Wearing a jacket–not a coat–in December. I’m not sure I even have a coat anymore. It’s only layers here, thin layers of acrylic and wool. A cute knit cap and a scarf are all I need to stay warm. It’s amazing what the world is like without significant wind chill. I no longer live in a place where the air hurts my face. I mean, we actually had a weather alert about stagnant air; no wind. Some people were greatly affected.

I’m not joking.

–Putting on tire chains. It may seem backwards that I never used tire chains while living in the snowy Midwest, but I’ve covered this before; it’s about hills and salt here. Oh, and curves. Curves while you’re driving downhill changing lanes to find your badly marked exit.

–Dancing. Many, many times. With Tim, by myself, in groups and in classes. I am sure this was available in Chicago, but not in the suburbs where I lived. I would never have felt free enough to go dancing in the suburbs; “going dancing” was about pickup bars, mating rituals, activities that constrain a person’s movements for a specific purpose. Dancing in Portland has made me free.

–Drinking with friends. For the same reasons that dancing was off limits in suburban Chicago for an plus-sized middle-aged married mother of three, so too was going out drinking. The presumption in bars always seemed to be that people went there to find someone to hook up with. Granted, my sample size is small, given that I didn’t frequent bars because even incidental visits felt so creepy and uncomfortable that I was wont to repeat the experience. But the mood in Portland bars is decidedly different. Most of the ones I’ve been to are simply a place for friends to hang out and talk and drink. That’s it. Kinda what I’d imagine pubs are like in Ireland. This kind of going out drinking I really enjoy. In fact, I’m going out for drinks this weekend with one of my closest friends, who drove to our last meeting barefoot. But that’s a different story.

–Yoga. Yes, there was yoga in Chicagoland, but I still never tried it until I came here. It’s difficult to explain to people who have not experienced life in the suburbs, but the culture is so controlled, so unnaturally conformist that it’s difficult to explore proscribed interests. Deviation from the norm was punished. Know the restraining bolt that kept R2D2 from wandering off? Like that, only with heavily imposed social cues; cold shoulders, gossip, laughter concealed behind judgmental glances, isolation. In Portland, yoga has been a necessary component of self-calming, of loosening my own emotional strictures through muscular release. Getting into your body and out of your brain is a theme of my Portland experiences.

–Getting lost. I’ve got a strong sense of direction, but . . . wow. Portland has some fucked up streets. They curve and become suddenly one way and change names, then the name changes back two miles later. One-way streets are plentiful and unpredictable. There is one road that’s reliably straight, and the rest present myriad challenges. I have actually gotten lost here due to the weirdo, accidental street layout, and lack of sun by which to navigate. Hard to know which way is north at any given time.

–Compassionate driving. Used to be I’d get annoyed with other drivers’ bad behavior, as I saw them as aggressive and selfish. But in Portland, partly because of the whack-ass streets, I’ve been much more forgiving. The other component, however, is that I’ve received such compassion from other Portland drivers. Chicagoans, it’s the weirdest thing: you know those stop lights at ramps onto highways, the ones designed to pace out the merging traffic? People in Oregon actually STOP at those! They take turns! And stop signs, too. Plus! Drivers in Oregon stop for pedestrians! Can you believe it? It’s like the life of a person walking into the street actually matters. I’m stunned every time I see it. And so, so grateful. This kind of experience is not 100% perfect, because dicks exist in every state, but take my word for it; it’s way better here than Chicago.

–Talk to strangers. Yeah, it’s part of my job, so I can switch into and out of community-center mode, but I like talking to strangers here. I’ve learned so much from people I just happen to strike up conversations with. More accurately, people who have struck up conversations with me. Some have become close friends. I’m still as introverty as ever, but I am open to the option of talking to people on the street. At the coffee shop. In the produce market. At the bookstore.

–Hiking in the rain. I used to exercise in bad weather before, but it was a badge of honor to go out in 7F temps for a workout. Rain in the Midwest is different from the rain we get here; these raindrops aren’t potentially deadly. In Chicago, rain comes down in sheets or buckets or pellets, or sometimes all three. It hurt. Here, rain is mostly gentle drips from an over-soaked sponge. I do miss thunderstorms, and the wild tempests that would rip through hot summer days, but I have learned that not all rain is equal.

–Leaving my house without makeup or a bra. I would not have contemplated such action in Chicago, but here, I do it regularly. I mean, I still “dress up” for work out of some residual habit, but there is absolutely no panic or shame involved when I don’t. I’m just a person doing my thing, encountering all the other people doing their things, and if the way I look causes someone distress, they’re going to have to deal with it. On their own. Maybe try yoga or something.

Portland isn’t perfect and Chicagoland wasn’t evil, but these differences have led to a change in how I interact with my fellow people.

Not long after I moved here, someone I encountered in passing said she was leaving Portland because it was too “cliquish.” I’ve watched carefully for that behavior, afraid I was too smitten to see the city clearly. In my experience, Portland isn’t so much cliquish as it is a city made of individuals pursuing the things that make them happy, and pursuing those things with extreme focus. Those individuals get together with other individuals focusing on the same happy-making things, and the rest of the world disappears. It’s the same for the makers of music that I’ve met, and the woodworkers, farmers and writers; for them, all that exists is this thing they are doing and the like-thinkers they know.

Maybe that was her definition of a clique, I don’t know. I see cliques are existing simply as a societal structure in which you get to tell other people they’re inferior. That was the whole currency of the Chicago suburbs; groups of people who felt superior and got together to exclude others. Golf clubs and sports fans, PTAs and Rotary Clubs. The specificity of the exclusion was sewn into the fabric of the culture.

I have found Portland’s mishmashed fabric to have been sewn from threads found dangling from trees or woven lovingly from alpaca wool or recycled plastic, different colors and textures and lengths. It’s a whack-a-doodle piece of fabric, to be sure, but it’s made out of pure earnestness and passion. And it’s a lot easier here to feel like myself, to explore what pieces I want to take into myself and what I want to leave out. It’s easier to see me without being surrounded by mannequins.

Better put my nerdy duck shoes on; looks pretty damp out there.

She was a Free Spirit

My mom’s on my mind today. Probably like a lot of people who’ve lost their parents. Thanksgiving is especially reminiscent of her because it was often her birthday, which is November 25. The smell of onions and celery and pepper sauteing at 8 a.m. brings to mind my mom, in her floor-length purple “dashiki” robe, standing at the stove singing along to whatever torch song was playing on the radio and prepping the enormous feast. God, how she loved saying “dashiki.” Really, it was just a robe.

My mother was an emotional person. I realize now that she wasn’t fully mature, that there were parts of her development that hadn’t finished yet. The definition of depressive narcissist seems to fit, but I’m loathe to lock her into a category, to dehumanize her. She loved drama, and veered toward self-pity in her arguments with my father. Holidays started with my mom preparing some feast, Dad coming home from his run and panicking that the house wasn’t clean enough for guests yet, and dragging buckets out of closets and kids out of bed to clean the floors and baseboards.

For Grandma, who was partially blind.

Dad was rough, a former Marine, son of a woman who made a living managing a staff of hotel maids, and he KNEW how to clean. It was his mission. The caustic hot, green water filled with SpicNSpan burned our skin, but that didn’t matter. Those fingerprints and scuff marks were ours, and we were going to scrub them off.

The flurry around Dad’s cleaning panic disturbed Mom’s bubble of harmonious creative cooking, and she would invariably throw up her hands and wail “Thank you for a WONDERFUL (fill in the blank holiday name)” and tromp back to bed.

I’d look around the kitchen, now evacuated by the cleaning bucket, which made its way to the entry hall, and work on what she’d started. I learned a lot about cooking this way, and have locked my mother’s recipes in memory as a result.

My parents were ill-suited. Their marriage was a failed divorce. Even as a kid, I wished they’d just split up, it would be easier. Not easy for Catholics, but easier for me, fearful of raised voices and my father’s slammed fists.

I work with artists now, and I see my mother in all of them. The colored pencil teacher has my mother’s eyes, her nose. A kids art instructor has my mother’s brightness, her joy at making messes and helping kids do the same. The art center where I work smells like her, acrylic paints and canvas and gouache and oil paints. My mother had a studio (south-facing, to her permanent disappointment) in which she painted long hours into the morning. She was a night owl, creative when the people who needed her had gone to sleep.

She was in some ways an absent mother, in failing health and lacking energy and will to attend to our needs. But she was also a marvelous mother, holding circuses for us and our neighbor friends in the back yard, piling art supplies on the picnic table and showing us how to create a picture in lentil beans and macaroni. We ironed autumn leaves between wax paper and hung them on the windows. We cut intricate snowflakes in paper and hung them on the tree. Her hands could make anything, and I longed to be able to create like her.

She sang. She also played piano, and she was very good, but had lost some skill by the time I came along, and her playing staggered along, left hand out of sync with the right, jagged melodies that still fed her heart with romance and longing. But her singing was absolute glory, rising to the rafters in church, emanating from her sad face as she worshiped in the way that suited her best, with guilt and penance.

I shrank from the attention she gathered to her with her voice, afraid of any eyes that saw me in public. But she fed on it, rising higher in her shoes, beating her chest with her rosary-clasped hand, outshining the choir and the organist and every other voice in the church.

She was a creative, my mother. She called herself a “free spirit,” but she had the soul of an artist. She flew in the moments of drawing and painting and singing, her heart light and lithe. My father tethered her, his fury and demands pulling her earthward. She should have been in her studio, or at the piano, or singing, my God, singing, and leave my father to his demons. She may have protected us in that way, or told herself she was protecting us.

I did not have enough of my mother before she died. My first thoughts on hearing she was gone were “I’m not done yet!” because I didn’t know her. I only knew what my child-self knew of her, and that’s an imperfect view. I still don’t know her, but I understand some parts better now.

This morning, I’m making her YumYum Coffeecake, a name I’m sure my mother, in her gorgeous playfulness, assigned. While the cinnamon wafts through the house, I’ll start sauteing onions and peppers and celery for her stuffing recipe. My home will be filled with the most tangible reminder of her, and I’ll sit in my own floppy robe, blow steam off my coffee, and sing some torch songs for her.

palette

Necklace

I don’t generally wear necklaces that rest near my collarbone, but I recently bought one that was so pretty I couldn’t resist. It follows the curve of the hollow of my throat, just low enough to keep me from feeling constricted. I’ve added extenders to it, but I’m still not completely comfortable in it; I’m always checking to make sure it’s not touching my throat. I’ll probably add more.img_20181008_125055426

Long necklaces aren’t a style preference for me. I think short necklaces look lovely, and go with many necklines. Long necklaces draw attention to the bust, a focus that annoys me. But I can’t tolerate anything on my neck, because I was once choked by a romantic partner.

We were arguing, and he grew irate at something I said, and shoved me against a wall and choked me.

Earlier in that relationship, the first time we had sex was non-consensual. I told him no, I told him to get off me, I tried to push him off me, but he held me down and did his thing. I don’t even know how to talk about it accurately . . . I have had a deep pit of sick feeling about that night for years, a nausea and revulsion. I didn’t acknowledge it as a rape until discussions around the Kavanaugh hearing brought up similar circumstances. Other women described situations just like mine, and put a name to it: sexual assault. “Oh,” I thought. “Oh, I see. That’s what happened. I was assaulted.”

According to the Department of Justice, sexual assault is “any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient.”

I explicitly said “no.” I explicitly refused.

I was on a date, so I thought it didn’t count. I thought I was just an idiot. I thought I’d just made a bad choice letting this guy into my home, into my bedroom.

Later, I let him into my life.

Years later, he got angry and tried to choke me.

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My sister and I are very close. No one knows more about me and my life than she does. She has known about every relationship I’ve had, in detail I don’t share with anyone else.

Until a couple of weeks ago, she didn’t know about this sexual assault. It happened more than two decades ago.

I doubted my own perception of the night. I must have been wrong. It couldn’t have been as bad as I thought. Did I really fight him off? Did I really not want to have sex? Hadn’t I agreed to go out with him? Hadn’t I kissed him? Hadn’t I worn an outfit to attract his attention? Didn’t I drink with him? Didn’t I go ahead and have a relationship with him? Didn’t I have sex with him again later? How could I have done that?

I had to be wrong. It wasn’t some gross stranger in a dark alley. It was someone I knew. Someone I was attracted to. Someone I went out with.

Before the Kavanaugh hearings, if I remembered that night at all, it would flit through my head like a storm cloud, and I’d shake it out. Go right past it. The last few weeks have me visiting that night in my memory more often. I remember being held down. I remember saying “no”. I remember jumping up when he rolled off me, locking myself in the bathroom and curling into a ball on the floor.

I wasn’t a virgin. I wasn’t ashamed about having sex.

I had said “no” and he ignored me and took what he wanted.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Millions of women are talking about their assaults now. They’re telling in detail about how their bodies were used without permission for someone else’s pleasure. My story isn’t unusual or notable in any way. It’s just another example of a man ignoring what a woman says and doing what he wants.

This is the heart of #MeToo, of mansplaining, of rape culture, of patriarchy. Men take what they want by force–by assault, by intimidation, blacklisting people, or just by raising their voices and talking over them. I’m sure I’ve lost some of you because I used those words. Hell, if those words bother you, I bet you didn’t even read this far.

I didn’t talk about my assault. I didn’t tell anyone. I wasn’t bruised or cut or broken, but I was damaged. My self-determination was ruined. I wasn’t in charge of my body, how could I be in charge of my life? If I don’t have the authority to stop someone from having access to my most private of body parts, the most intimate act, how could I claim the authority to choose anything?

After my daughter was born, I started building up the strength to make decisions for my self. She needed more of me than I had had to give for my son. I found more of me than I knew existed.

I’m strong enough now to handle these memories and the feelings they’ve stirred up with control and calm. I’m not the person I was 20+ years ago; I have tools and resources for dealing with the panic that arises when I remember that assault, and the feeling of his hands on my neck.

That romantic partner is long gone. I ended it after he choked me, another decision that helped build my stamina, my will. I can move on. I am not stuck with whatever he decides I am allowed.

I fold the memory of who I was into the knowledge of who I have become; a loudmouth, observant, compassionate, fearless, with a pulsing sense of humor. I wear long necklaces.

And be glad in it

On the way into the hospital for a routine visit, I saw a perfect depiction of the entirety of life; an older man and woman pushing someone in a wheelchair who appeared to be the woman’s mother chatting as they passed a young woman heavily pregnant, waiting for her partner so they could take the elevator together.

It was so tidy a picture of humanity — caring for loved ones at the end of life, anticipating the beginning of life — I wanted to remember it. Three days now I’ve been in hospitals, one as a volunteer, two as a patient for annual exams. I love hospitals; the staff is always intelligent and dedicated, by and large, and patients are being cared for by nurses and doctors and families. The reason for a hospital visit may be quotidian, like mine, but are often more pressing, an illness or injury requiring attention. Those more grave reasons seem to remind people of what’s important, of the ticking past of the very few minutes we are given. The hospital is a place where the dearness of life, the connection or disconnection in each of our lives is realized.

That dawning realization and the care poured out upon loved individuals makes me at ease in hospitals. The whole building is staffed by carers who also have the intelligence to learn the human body in minute detail and have studied the science of helping those bodies thrive.

I know my comfort in hospitals stems from raising my daughter, so many days and weeks getting treatment or surgery or going to clinic. She was treated like a regular person at our hospital, Chicago Shriners, not like a person with a problem or someone to be pitied or diminished. At Shriners, she got to be just a kid for the first — and sometimes only — time in her life. That experience colored hospitals for me permanently, though I realize non-children’s hospitals may not be quite so charming and balloon filled.

Maybe all-ages hospitals could do with more balloons.

There’s great quiet in hospitals, too, the private rooms, the purposeful striding of residents in their very important snow-white coats, no time to talk or make eye contact. The air vents always give a pleasant — if antiseptic-odored — white noise, and people tend to leave visitors alone. It’s a great place to write, with its halls full of human drama, plenty of caffeine available at all hours, and uninterrupted quiet in empty cafeterias.

I go through my regular day so blithely, expecting the next 24 hours to be served to me on a platter of golden sunlight. So often, too often, I spend that 24 hours sad or anxious. Being at the hospital grounds me in a way no other setting does. By the sounds and smells, the blue scrubs and clacking name badges, tight smiles and tighter ponytails, and obscenely large clusters of balloons, I am reminded of the days I came to the edge, the brink of losing the only precious thing in this world, one of my children, and I am flooded with gratitude for the gift of her continued presence in my life, and for my sons. And I know in my bones–my sturdy, unbroken bones–that my life is equally fragile, if for different reasons, and I am grateful anew for the chance I am given repeatedly, every morning, to live in this day and be glad in it.

I wrote this entire piece in an exam gown with a paper drape on my lap, waiting for my doctor to give me a pelvic exam. Tell me this isn’t a great place to write. Now I’m going to read a six-month old magazine with Melissa McCarthy, who looks like my mom did, and think about twinkling Irish women and their dimpled smiles.

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What do you think of this light for my living room?

Maybe I’ll write about that too. Fingers crossed, the doctor will continue to be “a little behind” today.

Gossips

“If I thought she’d get the story right, I would have told her everything.”

I found that line on a piece of paper in a random box I was cleaning out, and I’m not sure if I wrote it or someone else did. It resonates for me now, alongside the phrase “if they’ll talk with you about someone else’s business, they’ll talk about your business with someone else.”

These words are surfacing for me now, coincidentally, burbling to a central thought. My joy at finding women who show me the way forward is tempered by the realization that I’ve also found people showing me the way not to go. And I’m grateful for them too. As my sister says, everybody has a purpose, even if only to serve as a horrible example.

The lesson about gossips, about taking care with your choices, is easy to forget when you’ve spent years as an outsider, when you’re finally included in the circle, when you find yourself on the grown-up version of the prom committee. It’s easy to get caught up in the giggles and snark in the back of the room, laughter at the expense of another person.

But it won’t be long before that laughter is at your expense. It won’t be long before the prom committee aims its cruelty missile your direction, because it must always have a target or it won’t exist.

The realization that you’re the subject of insider discussion is unsettling. I spent years fighting the culture of gossip, which was easier to spot in cliquish suburban Chicago, where clique members wore the uniform of acceptable suburban hair color (honey blonde) and drove acceptable suburban vehicles (Lexus) and had acceptable family units (blond husband, two kids). It’s harder to spot in Portland, where people revel in their differences and celebrate being weird.

But it exists here too. No matter where it’s found, gossips show themselves. They’re easier to spot, if you remind yourself what to look for.

I needed a refresher on this lesson before it kicked my ass. I’m glad I found that piece of paper, and this poem, to remind me to take care in my associations.

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Emily Dickinson provided similar observations;

The Soul selects her own Society
Then–shuts the Door

 

I’m glad to remember these lessons before I need them, even in this place of wonder and acceptance. I’ve gotten better at seeing the signs now, avoiding entanglements with people who demonstrate with their actions that they should not be trusted. And that’s the hardest part, really; choosing not to trust someone, keeping them at bay, staying untangled.

The lure of acceptance is enticing to an introvert. But it is possible to consider carefully who to choose, which people to select for your own society without losing the joy of creating community. And in this, I’ve gained trustworthy friends too, people who have gently reminded me to look at the signals, who have shared their difficult paths and pointed out pitfalls before I went so far down a road that I couldn’t find my way back.

I have been lucky at last in learning this lesson the easy way. I’ll fly headlong into adventure on my own, take professional risks that lead me into unfamiliar territory, but I take longer now to gauge the depth and breadth of a person’s character, and trust my instincts when the warning lights flash.

This is another facet of the aging process for which I am so grateful; the wisdom of discernment.

 

 

Good Day Sunshine

I’ve had an exceptional summer. Probably the best since becoming an adult. I’ve gotten to see my daughter graduate, have all my kids together for a celebration, and now my daughter is staying with us while she job hunts.

It’s been a great garden year, with plentiful roses and calla lilies, a surprising raspberry crop, the discovery of new tomato variants that added color and sweetness to my salads, two new raised cedar beds and the addition of longed-for blueberry and–be still my heart–huckleberry bushes.

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In among my blissful garden days, Tim and I have taken hikes on the Coast and in the Gorge, discovered birds and trees we’ve never seen before, and cooked hot dogs on the beach under the watchful eye of a local bald eagle on the  Fourth of July.

We’ve picked berries and flowers, worked in the garden and the community orchard, watched a go-cart race down an ancient cinder cone in town, and gone to estate sales in beautiful old homes overlooking the city just so we could see inside.

Our daily routine gives us time for a nightly visit with Rachel Maddow, whose detailed and factual coverage of the daily shitstorm from President Capslock helps us understand what’s going on in a greater context. After the show, we sit on the deck beneath our twinkle lights and enjoy the quiet of the meadow behind our home.

The summer was divided into smaller seasons based on what was ripe and fresh: strawberry and pea season, then raspberries and asparagus, roses and snapdragons and callas, blackberries and watermelon, tomatoes peppers and onions. I’m clipping the ends off green beans right now, a couple of pounds from Sauvie Island, because rabbits ate all my bean plant leaves before they could fruit. Such a loss is usury, but I consider it the cost of planting seeds in the place where rabbits live. They can have the bean leaves this year; next year I’ll offer some other delectable for their thievery.

At least I have an excuse to go to Sauvie Island.img_20180829_152203728

Such reasons haven’t been necessary this summer, when I’ve managed day trips to Opal Creek Wilderness, a three-hour float on the Clackamas, and some toe-dipping in the Columbia on the beach on Sauvie Island just as the hot spell ended. If I can be outside in the sunshine, I am happy. If it’s hot, I’m giddy. If I’m in the water, it’s nirvana. This summer has had it all.

And what a respite it’s been to have the distraction of nature amid the national horrors. I am aware of how lucky I am to have such luxuries, and grateful that my combined part-time work has amounted to enough of a household contribution as to stave off seeking full-time employment. And as one part-time gig meets its finish line, another literally begins tonight, my luck uninterrupted.

And now I begin a new season of my own, one that promises more growth and progress and intellectual expansion. I join a class in late September that will help me build the skills to develop a curriculum I’ve dreamed of creating, I’m signed up for my first writing retreat, and I am studying in earnest to take the LSAT. It may seem like many directions at once, but it all pushes forward, onward, no time to dally. It is all connected in me, to me, the purpose of collecting unto myself the tools for building the things I want to see in the world; bringing balance by ending male dominance over our society, working toward fairness for people with disabilities, and writing about the beauty and pain and humanity I witness along the way.

At the end of this wondrous summer, I go back to school again, in my own way. I’ll end this perfect season making peach jam and snacking on crisp, fresh green beans from a bowl on my counter. I have a life crowded with challenge and passion and energy, and I can’t wait to see what happens this fall.

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He had his Lessons, He had his Virtues

It’s been an active year of learning for me, a powerful span of intellectual and social growth I haven’t experienced since college. This is due in part to the magic of menopause and my release from the schedule of hormone fluctuation, but also to the increasing number of women in my sphere.

In the past, I’ve maintained closer and easier friendships with men, by and large, probably from having older brothers. So keen was I to play with The Boys that I strove to do what they did at all times, which led me to sports and sports fandom, which led, in adulthood, to easy conversations with most men, who can talk for hours about sports with little or no provocation.

Mentally add the phrase “not all men,” if that makes you feel better.

And, obviously, I have some amazing friendships with women that span decades. They’re just rare, compared to the number of men who are friends.

But it seems that the last few years, I’ve been accumulating friendships with women at a rapid clip, women whose humor and knowledge and energy make me want to do more and be more than I’ve ever imagined. Many are older than I am, some are younger. Many ethnicities are represented, and religions. There’s a variety of professions as well, from manager to artist to teacher to doctor to executive.

But they’re all women. And oh, what I’m learning.

Forbearance comes to mind. Patient self-control. Humor, my god the humor. Laughing at life, at the silliness of so much of what caused me angst not so long ago. Perspective and irony. Ironic perspective, maybe. Persistence and perseverance in my career, in my goals, which is vastly different from the perseverance I used in the role as primary caregiver in our family of five. My feelings and thoughts become clearer, easier to interpret, the more time I spend with other women, and I have become more outspoken.

I know. That one surprised me too. I didn’t know it was possible.

Today, I learned the phrase “he had his lessons, he had his virtues,” from a friend whose gift to me has been her directness. And yet she still showed me how to be kind, even when she was being blunt; the man of whom she spoke was difficult, but he taught her lessons she treasured. So many times, what I learn from these women is the “how;” From one, I learned how to balance my linear mind with my creative spirit; from another, I learned how to push forward with my goals while still serving the needs of an organization; from another, I learned how to discern intentional insult from awkward missteps. So many lessons shared right in front of me, to my marveling eyes, to my clear and persistent revelation “oh THAT’S how you do that!” And I am eager to learn more. book

I continue to enjoy male friends, still like talking sports with the informed individual. My husband has tightened his seatbelt and is hanging on for dear life, but acknowledges that turnabout is fair play, that I held our lives together during our wild ride of childrearing/family bullshit/custody battles. He could use a spare encouraging word, if you’ve got one, because change is not his forte. But he’s hanging in there, God love him.

But I’m so glad I’ve opened myself to these deepening relationships with women, because they’re showing me how to navigate a part of life I didn’t know existed, a time of boldness and purpose, intention and focus. There is no more time for trifling, nor for shame or pettiness. There’s just not enough time already for the things I’m burning to do, so the things that held me in check just don’t matter anymore.

And I have so much energy now, so much more than I’ve had in years. I’m learning how to create my own energy, to spend it wisely, to maintain healthy energy with my self-sustaining engine.

These are vagaries, I know, but I don’t have time or inclination to elaborate; you’ll have to trust me. My purpose here is to acknowledge this well of wisdom I’ve found in my women friends, who have taught me with words and actions, laughter and their
open-hearted tears, what’s important in life, what’s important to me, and how to serve that necessity with fervor, with everything I’ve got left.

All the love and devotion I had for my family was right and appropriate, because they needed that part of me so they could grow. And now, all that energy has a different path; through me.

Worried about Tim? Don’t be. He’s right here, next to me.

It’s 9:30, and I must sleep; I have a big day of new adventures tomorrow.

White Pants

I bought white pants for the first time in my life.

The last time I could safely wear white pants, I was 10 years old, and wasn’t in a position to buy my own clothes.

Now, forty years of periods later, I am finished with the threat of ruining a pair of pants with surprise bleeding, so I treated myself to a (second-hand) pair of white pants.

I haven’t been this excited about outfit possibilities in a while! I can pair them with a long denim shirt for a resort look, or with a red shirt for a resort look, or with a white shirt for a resort look.

I might even put a flannel shirt or sweater on top for a winter resort look.

What’s been missing from my wardrobe has clearly been the resort look.

I did wear white pants with my softball uniform, an outfit I dreaded putting on for fear it coincide with my period. I have never understood the tradition of white pants with kids’ baseball/softball uniforms; what a laundry nightmare. There is no way to keep those clean, periods or no. But the tragedy of bleeding on white polyester uniform pants struck many girls, one who needed to borrow my pants during a game because hers were ruined. That was the day of the JV team picture; I am the one wearing shorts.

There’s no way to explain to a man the giddiness of being free to wear white pants. They’re not exactly flattering on a figure like mine–the eye is drawn to the lightest part of the outfit, and when you’re built like hearty peasant stock, the thighs are not the area to which you relish eyes being drawn. Body positivity is changing that metric, and I’m happy about that.

And perhaps that’s part of it; body positivity is releasing a whole generation of women from the constraints of wardrobe choices based on the male gaze. Long, lean legs and a tiny rear end are part of the formula for luring a man. My three brothers were disgustingly clear about which bodies were acceptable, and they were explicit that mine was not. Through their crass language, I learned to hate my thunder thighs, the body that would never attract a man, a body no one would ever want to touch.

Most fashionable clothes were out of reach for me, and I was certainly not going to make myself more of a target in white pants.

Over the past five years, I’ve come to love my body for its strength, for its endurance and surprising health, and for the shape that has resulted from a life lived heartily and with great curiosity and excitement. This body belongs to me and my life in every decision I’ve made.

Part of me will always be that eleven year old girl in middle school leaving a stain on her seat in English class because she wasn’t yet attuned to her body’s cycle. The shame of that streak on the seat, the red-brown stain creeping toward the back of the pants, sometimes toward the front, barely covered by a sweater tied around my waist, lives in me still. I can still touch it, if I reach back in my memory.

But now, at the end of my glorious days of The Change, that fear is over. I can finally dress like I’m headed to a resort, like it will be summer forever, like I can skip through a grassy field like women in those lying tampon commercials, unstained by fear.

The only thing I have to worry about now is marring my beautiful, clean white pants with my permanent liquid of choice; coffee.

 

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Dear White Trash

“Racism is man’s gravest threat to man – the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason.” –Abraham Joshua Heschel

Dear White Trash,

You came to an event I attended in my liberal city, an event whose title expressly defined our purpose of exalting diversity, and proceeded to demand that the other people attending the event stop talking about things you disagreed with.

Specifically, you demanded–yes, DEMANDED–that the people around you “stopped being political”, which you and I both know is utter bullshit. What you really mean is that someone combined the word “Tr*mp” with a criticism or expression of disgust, and that made you angry. Or pout. Or feel left out. Or whatever self-pitying feelings that came up when you realized you were the minority in a big crowd of people.

Huh. Well, THAT’S weird.

You can’t stand to hear the truth about the vile, unqualified and childish person you support. You don’t want to hear it because you agree with what he says.

After 18 months of this hellscape, there is no avoiding the facts about the tangerine wankmaggot.  It is impossible to interpret his actions any way except racist, xenophobic, greedy, selfish and cruel. The ceaseless march of damaging decisions is impossible to ignore, and the only way that you would continue to defend his acts is if you agree with them. People are literally dying because of that lunatic. Children are being stolen from their parents, abused and molested, and you still support him?

That’s not politics, sister. That’s life and death. We should keep silent about the horror and terror we feel at the rushing descent of humanity because it makes you uncomfortable? You can go straight to hell.

I mean, you listened to a beautiful speech by an intelligent, thoughtful, talented black woman who spoke of the pain of having to stay quiet to get along in her majority-white workplace, and you wanted her to shut up. You heard someone who was saying “life has been difficult for me as a black woman in white society, and here’s why,” and YOU became offended. And you wanted her to stop talking.

I cannot even fathom a more base, feckless attitude.

Let me get to my point: you are not welcome here. Your ignorance coupled with your hatred has created a monster that shits and pukes on everything in its path, and the rest of the world — the world that has chosen to learn and grow and listen to people who don’t look like us — are sick of cleaning up your mess. Go away and let the rest of us — the ones who know how to play with others, who understand compassion, who take seriously the lessons we learned in our faith–just let us take over running the world.

Because our world is changing, and it is that change that’s pissing you off. The fact that black people are no longer silent about the horrible treatment they’ve received at the hands of white people is a huge change. That’s gotta hurt.  Black and Latinx and trans and disabled people and women — mostly black women —  have won hard-fought battles in court and on the street to be heard, to be understood–and we’re listening. Those of us with the ability and willingness to hear are listening, and we’re not interested in your lies about their inferiority anymore.

So go away. Go back to whatever philistine, archaic way of life you have rooted yourself in and keep to yourself. Hide away. Close your doors and windows, so you don’t see the approach of the cultural sea swell as it swallows your hamlet and resigns it to relics of history. Because it’s coming. It’s inevitable and it’s coming. There are too many of us and too few of you–however vocal–and the change is already in motion. Since you have chosen not to learn and grow and reach outside your narrow understanding of the world, you will be subsumed.

And let’s face it, it was a choice. The evidence is clear and you decided it wasn’t true, because choosing not to believe facts is suddenly possible, thanks to the wizened intellect of the sociopathic narcissist you so admire.

You are not welcome here. You’re not welcome across most of this country. You’re certainly not welcome in most of Europe, or Asia, or Latin America, or … pretty much anywhere.

If you can judge a person by the company they keep, then you need to look around, sister. Look at the people who agree with you. Look at the other Hitler Simpson supporters–Nazis, mostly, and grifters who realize that a rare morality portal has been opened to allow them to stuff their pockets–and you might just realize you backed the wrong dotard.

But probably not, because you are happy in your ignorance.

So have your tantrum about the inevitable changes that are happening in our progressively connected and compassionate world. But just like a toddler, you’re going to have to do it over in the corner, with your nose pressed against the wall, because the rest of us have work to do fixing the mess created by your ignorance.

Just get out of the way; we have shit to do.

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PS — I’ve never had to find so many synonyms for “hateful” and “ignorant.”

“As you grow older, you’ll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don’t you forget it—whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash.” –To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

UPDATE: The organization I was working for at the time I published this told me to take it down, despite lack of identifying language or any connection to the organization. Soon after I complied, they ended my employment, using an unrelated rationale for the parting. I suspect this article was a contributing reason for the separation. 

I am proud to stand by what I wrote.

 

I’m sorry this is how I think. And I’m sorry, this is how I think.

A military father. Parents who worked at a big Chicago newspaper. A family of readers. A father who was a writer. Parents educated by Jesuits. An aunt and a brother who are lawyers.

My life as a child was built with words, with the right words, with people being persnickety about words. Language was the structure in which everything else happened. My world was filled with music, but that was the air, the atmosphere; words were the building. Books and newspapers and National Geographic magazines, whole collections of classic book series and my father’s stack of Michener books on his bed table. I was read to and I was asked about what I was reading. My mother reviewed my papers for school with her fine-point precise pen.

And so I defaulted to English as a major, when piano major study proved too performance-intensive for my introvert heart. The stability of English, the structure and possibility of words are a comfort after the exposure of being on the stage. Whole cities are built on words alone, words used to define and describe what the city will look like, who will buy what property, how tall their buildings can be, who can live where. For good or for bad, this structure is predictable. Reliable. The law uses words to conscribe our behavior. It changes over time, but we use words to decide how it changes. That’s why this current period of lexical changes is so exciting; we are making choices about how we want our world to be.

There is no excuse of “it’s just a word” in my vocabulary. I am clear and direct because if you’re not precise, you’ll be surprised. I’ve learned to use vernacular, to employ humor, to relax the structure in a heightened situation, to connect with people in kindness and warmth when the structure is too intimidating.

My work has taken me to strict places, to copy editing and proof reading and spreadsheets whose command language is coding-exact, more predictable to me than math. Spreadsheets are my math, because they require no belief system; how they operate is clear.

My husband is a programmer, a coder, a straight-line-drawer. His workplace loaned me the line “be precise or be surprised.” It’s brilliant in his work, and in mine.

When you’re working with other people, and when you’re answering to the instructions of an organization, if you don’t communicate clearly, you’re going to spend twice as much time sorting out the confusion than you would completing the task. Words matter. They matter particularly when you’re working on a project, a goal, moving toward a destination. No detours, no stopping to discuss feelings about the last billboard you just passed. This is when words matter the most. Do the job, do it efficiently, follow the words you’re given.

But people don’t like this. People don’t like how my soft and cuddly demeanor gives way to the rigidity of structured language. People don’t like finding the concrete backstop to my dimpled smile. It’s a shock. A betrayal of their expectations. How could someone so grandmotherly talk like a drill sergeant?

Because this is how I think. And this is how I talk.

Is there room in this world for me, too? There’s space for the noisy, the bright colorful unicorns, for sparkle wearers, for the dancers in the street. There’s plenty of room for whirling dervishes. But will this inclusive world make space for the pinstripe, the buttoned-up, the cotton-woven, grandmother types whose extreme joy lies in quiet moments in the forest?

I’m sorry, this is how I am.img_20180715_180551526

Lady Day

The first time I heard Billie Holiday was in college, sitting on the floor of my friend’s apartment. Her voice matched the scratchy quality of the vinyl album, warped and uneven, plaintive and faded. I was deep in Ella Fitzgerald at the time, whose robust and athletic singing captured my musical imagination. Billie’s voice was strangely sad, full of more than just romantic longing, as I’d come to expect from torch singers.

I saw the key to Billie’s voice at the Portland Center Stage production of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill. This show–specifically this performance–reveals a world beyond Billie’s music career, a world that continues to stalk our society.

Billie Holiday, who recorded more than 100 songs before the age of 25, was famously drug addicted, a decline that defined her career. “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” reveals the lifetime of horrors that were stacked upon Holiday from her childhood; rape, prostitution, physical and emotional abuse, and the unrelenting insult lashed upon people of color by white people. Indeed, when she took her opportunity to push beyond the injuries of her childhood and young adulthood, she was forced back again and again by white people telling her she was not welcome.

She and other black singers were not allowed–read that line again, “not allowed”–to sing popular songs; they had to sing unknown music. In pre-Spotify/Pandora/Tidal days, that’s a significant hit to an artist’s reach.

Her toughness and determination were a surprise to me; I had heard only of the tragic drug use, as if that kind of thing occurs in a vacuum, independent of other forces. Drugs were the equal and opposite reaction to a life of physical abuse.

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Her escape into the anesthesia of drugs makes perfect sense, more sense than the people of a “polite” society continually beating her back. “Lady Day” exposes not just the difficulties of this singer, but the culture that breeds and elevates the sickness of what we white people have done to people of color.

Reviews of Audra McDonald’s Tony-winning performance originating the role describe the unsettling, voyeuristic feeling of watching such destruction onstage, calling it ghoulish.

It may be the astounding embodiment of Holiday by Deidrie Henry, or the profound communication of the experiences and cultural circumstances leading to this point, but this performance transcends the tragedy of a single person. In this show, with this actress, a compelling through-line is drawn, correlation if not necessarily causation, tracking abandonment and abuse and the assault of racism through to abusive relationships and escape into drugs. When the only joy or contentment a person feels is in singing, and the path to that stage marches directly and irrevocably through dehumanization, how does an artist continue to perform? To create?

This production answers that question this way: any artist forced on an unrelenting walk through this kind and volume of feculence will–quite appropriately–respond with fury. In a culture that requires sweetness and compliance from people of color, particularly from women of color, that rage is not allowed, so it turns into contempt contained delicately beneath a wry smile.

This is unmistakably a tragedy, but in “Lady Day,” Billie is a lens through which we can, if we take the time, see ourselves and our history more clearly. Like Billie’s sad life, it’s not pretty. What our culture, wrought by centuries of structural racism and patriarchy, has done to people of color has horrifying results.

When Billie told the story about being told she could not use the bathroom at one venue in the Deep South–a venue where she was not allowed to be a patron, a venue where she had to enter through the back door–her defiance made many in the audience laugh. It feels good to know that “those people” (the bad whites) were told off by one of our musical icons. But what showed on Billie’s face–on the face of this magnificent actor who revealed so much in her voice and in her eyes–is that barely contained rage at having to deal with this shit in the first place.

That she had to pee on the floor to get her point across isn’t funny to her. It’s degrading. Demoralizing.

Billie fought to be seen as more than what she was treated as. She clawed and scraped and got lost in the tarpit of loving the wrong man. She took pleasure the only place she could find it, and was ultimately unable to pull herself out of the trap that had been laid for her by the circumstances she did not create.

Yes, “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” is beautiful art; a stunning performer backed by a jazz trio that takes flight effortlessly off the stage into the throes of improv. Because the components are so perfectly crafted, this play becomes, in these talented hands, a searing voice raised in revolt, a necessary reminder of the effects of man’s inhumanity to man.

Billie Holiday, for whom “Singing is how you feel,” told of her anguished life in every raw, drenched note she sang. We would be well advised to listen carefully to what she had to say.

 

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Grace

I’ve been thinking lately about the idea of “grace,” something I first heard about in Christian circles, when I traveled in them. The grace of God. Saying grace. Hail Mary, full of Grace. An ambiguous idea that, as a Catholic, I had trouble grasping. In my understanding, God loved us–as long as we were good. When we were bad, we had to beat our chests and kneel for hours and recite words without thinking.

As I’ve gotten older, though, the idea of grace has become more three dimensional. Tangible. Active. There are lexical references too; the “grace period,” a little space in which punishment is delayed if a deadline is past. Grace notes in music are little quick notes in a space that’s otherwise empty, delicate flourishes intended to color the silence.

In my work dealing with the public, mostly strangers whose day-to-day troubles are a mystery to me, I’ve come to understand grace as a cushion softening our interactions. I’m in a stable position in my life; emotionally and financially balanced, in a healthy marriage to a wonderful guy, with work that I enjoy that puts good food on the table. It feels like I have extra good stuff to share, to reach out in warmth and welcome to people who might be having a hard time. This feels like grace, to me.

There’s a bigger grace I think we’re all discovering now, as a society. I think that the last 18 months or so has shown us how tattered and neglected that cushion between us all had become. There’s a lot of bristly anger from white people who feel like they’re losing something. Particularly grating to many white people is the idea that they enjoy a privilege of any kind.

Seems to me that the key to understanding the idea of white privilege comes down to this; we white people can’t possibly understand what it’s like to live as a black person in this country, so we have a duty to make a little extra space for that experience to be different from ours. We need to give people the grace of believing that they have day-to-day troubles we don’t understand.

I don’t retain much from my days in Christianity; my belief system is wholly shifted away from any deity. But the idea that we should give each other a little leeway for being human, and being flawed, and for having troubles that we can’t possibly grasp, well, that makes sense. So when I’ve got a “square to spare,” in this period when I’ve got balance and a full life, I’m going to carve out a little grace for the other flawed and troubled humans I encounter.

There isn’t much I can give to the people around me to make their lives better, to ease the painful experience of being human, but I think I can do this.

Mountains

Just a pretty picture.

 

Graduation

My daughter graduates with her bachelor’s degree next month. It’s a little over a month away. She agreed to let me use my vast craft supplies to make graduation announcements, so I’ve been busily puttering away with colors that will make her happy.

I’ve mentioned the upcoming date to coworkers and friends as we try to make plans for the summer. “I can’t do that weekend, because it’s Sophia’s graduation.” Immediately, they respond with compassion, “Oh, that’s going to be a big day for you, huh?”

My answer has always been “Not really. Why would it be?”

Maybe it’s because she’s been on her own working on this degree outside my world, and I’m not involved in her day-to-day struggle for this accomplishment. Maybe I did all my crying over her growing up the night before I dropped her off at university so many years ago.

It could also be that I’m ignoring a huge wrecking ball of emotions that’s about to hit me.

My daughter was born to me the Sunday before exam week 24 years ago. I call her my exam week baby. My pregnancy spanned half the spring semester, all of summer and all of fall, and during that time, I made straight As. Either the hormones of that particular pregnancy made me suddenly brilliant, or I finally learned how to study, but something clicked and my academic career bloomed. Unlike my pregnancy with my son, when I was 20 and alone and rejected by my family, this pregnancy came at a time when I was confident in my parenting skills and saw the completion of my degree on the horizon.

When she was born, the neonatologist mentioned a list of possible issues we might face with a child with severe osteogenesis imperfecta. He said some children are too weak to even hold a pencil. I took her home on a pillow, certain she’d require round-the-clock care well into adulthood. I took every dire prediction as fact, but her early childhood play therapist gave her toys to strengthen her hands, and her occupational therapist in school helped her learn how to write (using both hands and, at first, her chin), and the physical therapist helped her strengthen her core so she could sit up for a whole school day.

Those first years of school were almost unbearable for me. The adage about having a child being the equivalent of having your heart walk outside your body was doubly true for me, with this child who needed protection. Those early days of toddlerhood, when my son had raced from my arms the moment he could walk on his own, never came for her, so I didn’t see her independence grow like I saw his. I felt she needed me more, that I should be her protective bubble every moment of the day. The horrible, hard and painful world was not ready for my crystalline daughter.

Into middle school, though, she showed signs of becoming who she was always destined to be; tough, outspoken, irreverent, bold, and very independent. Those years were physically painful for her, with several surgeries over that three-year period. She had a home-based tutor for part of the time, learning complex information while she laid on her stomach on the floor of her bedroom after a surgery that left both of her legs splinted from waist to toe for nearly four months.

If I remember correctly, she got straight As for that semester. I should have recognized right then that this child thrived in difficult situations. She’s forged in fire, this child.

In high school, she marched through her day with her chin up, her “come at me, bro” attitude stepping into the spotlight. She says she doesn’t remember this story, but I do: during one class, the room became especially hot. A friend of Sophia’s started to feel sick. Sophia, using the one privilege she had as a person with a disability, asked the teacher to open the window. The teacher refused, saying the administration would not allow them to open the windows until a certain date in the spring.

Sophia left class and went straight to the principal’s office, where she instructed the principal to allow the windows to be opened so her classmates didn’t feel sick in the heat.

They opened the windows.

When it came time for Sophia to choose a university, she was clear about one thing: she wanted to be as far away from home as possible. She knew it was imperative both for her development as an individual and for me to learn to let go. Her one demand was to go out of state.

And so I dropped her off at Iowa six years ago. She moved into a dorm with a stranger, and her old Girl Scouts friend lived in the same building, and she could get food in the cafeteria on the same floor as her room, and every sidewalk was paved and had a nice even ramp, and she had friends and professors she admired and she became this person that I admire and adore. She walked away from me at Iowa as quickly as her brother had when he was 9 months old, seeking her own life and adventure and joys and sorrows without me holding her back.

And now she graduates college. But this isn’t my baby anymore. I’m no less proud of her, now that she’s a person in her own right; perhaps I’m even more proud because of what she’s done to get here. But this isn’t a piece of me moving into a new phase of life, like it was when I held her as we both cried ourselves to sleep the night before she went to Iowa. This is my adult child accomplishing a major life goal.

My daughter wants to become an activist when she finishes school. I don’t know anything about taking that professional route. But what I do know is that my daughter, this fierce and brave soul who isn’t afraid to stand up to anyone, is going to blaze her path directly wherever she wants to go. She’s so much more than I was at that age, and so much more than I ever, to my shame, expected her to become, and I am in awe.

I will cry at her graduation, these tears of joy. She’ hasn’t been my little girl for a long time. She is not a piece of me walking around outside my body; she’s a full-grown person I am proud to know. I am overjoyed to be a part of her life, and have her in mine.

We will celebrate with cake and dancing before she goes out to set the world on fire.

Sophia

 

 

 

 

Flares

My paying gig as front-desk customer service at a community arts center means I get to talk to a lot of people. Some people are signing up for classes with Portland Parks, some are visiting our art gallery, some are looking for something else altogether. What I do every day is sorting out what people need and trying to help them find it. People seem to like to talk to me. This is true wherever I go; my mom said I just have that “face.” Hard to reconcile with being an introvert.

I spoke to a woman yesterday who came to the arts center for the first time after moving here from Alaska. She said she needed to get her hands in some clay, and asked about our ceramics classes–and about a job. From what I could tell, she was maybe 10 years older than me, with a crisp efficiency I recognized from my parenting days; reciting questions prepared in advance, mentally ticking off items on a list, on to the next thing.

“I need SOMETHING,” she said, rattling off the jobs she’d held in multiple locations around the country while raising her kids, one of whom had medical conditions. “We’re vagabonds. We had to go where the doctors were. It was my whole life. I did whatever work I could find wherever we were. Now the kids are grown, and I need something. Anything.”

I perked up. Kids are grown? One has medical needs? Working any job you could fit into your weirdo medical schedule just so you could have some money coming in? I have my own fractured resume from the last 20+ years, itinerant by accident of childbearing, by marital circumstance, by proximity to specialized medical care and an attempt at stability.

I mentioned my similar circumstance, gestured at my workplace, an admittedly odd choice of job for someone my age.

Like that moment when you meet someone wearing a vintage jersey of your favorite sports team, or another graduate of your high school thousands of miles away, or a fellow former Catholic school student, we recognized our bitter kinship in this exclusive club; parents of grown children with medical needs.

We talked about our very specific skill set, one that you can’t put on a resume, but informs everything we do. To her way of thinking (and I agree), it made us capable of doing *anything*, but the attendant complexity of pursing medical care for our children meant our schedules were uneven, unpredictable, commitment-phobic. “Can you work 40 hours a week?” Sometimes, but not always. It depends on my child’s medical needs. “Can you work late nights and weekends?” No, and I have to leave work early to pick up my child from school. “Can you travel for work?” No, and I have to work ten minutes or less from my child’s school, in case there’s an emergency.

She worked multiple jobs in multiple fields. Office, accounting, emergency management (how ironic), substitute teaching, moving across the country several times for medical care and having to start the whole networking process over again. That’s a pitfall of moving to a new city; proving your worth all over again to a new audience. She did it in multiple cities; I managed by working freelance gigs and signing up with temp agencies, which reduced employers’ inherent suspicion, but also limited my career expectations. Some companies treat temps like staplers; sometimes you need more of them, so you get more, but when you don’t need staplers anymore, you just get rid of them. No big deal. Doesn’t matter how well they did the job. I lowered my expectations to stapler-level.

So there she was, another woman with a brain and strong problem-solving skills and no coherent resume to speak of looking for a job (any job!) like the one I have, like the one I got by walking into a community music center and saying “I like this place. I’d like to work here.” Only now, increased bureaucracy has closed the path I took to this cherry position to people like her, people like me, who want something–ANYTHING–to do to occupy these brains that are accustomed to managing multiple task lists and life-changing stress and carrying children into adulthood through shark-infested waters.

But what do you do when you’re done doing that job? What happens to the resume you’ve built around working with medical professionals and school principals? What about the hours spent pacing in waiting rooms and sitting next to hospital beds waiting for your child to wake up from surgery? What about the transformation from Emotional Mom to Detached Educational Advocate representing your child in hours-long IEP meetings? The hours of research into education law and IDEA and 504 plans? The hours searching for a DIY solution to your child’s discomfort or positioning need? The time figuring out how to meet the needs of the non-medically involved siblings? Tracking down the right specialist who can meet with you some day *after* school hours, because your kid has missed enough school as it is?

And the emotional management; kids who miss a lot of school end up not having very many–or very loyal–friends. Helping the siblings maintain some kind of normalcy in families like ours is a particular challenge. There’s a lot of pretending that everything’s fine. There’s a lot of breaking down behind closed doors.

You can add psychologist, social worker and event planner to this resume that no one will ever see.

These are the skills no employer ever recognizes. If it’s not verifiable by a former boss or manager, it doesn’t exist. It’s simply lumped in with “parenting”, as if THAT is a wholly dismiss-able category.

I could see this woman’s brain needed something to do. I saw myself in her. At this age, employers want you to have *something* to show for yourself, some work-related success you can point to to prove your worth.

I wanted to talk to this woman for hours. I wanted to go to lunch with her, to listen to her stories of hospitals and isolation, and tell her my own stories. I wanted to talk to someone who would know–without offering pity or canonization–the places I’ve been and the things I’ve seen. I wanted to be able to talk about how weird it is to suddenly not have that job anymore–to have those responsibilities just vanish, as if they never existed, leaving me grasping for something–anything–for my active brain to hang on to.

I wanted to witness her invisible resume, to verify that what she did was fucking hard, to acknowledge that what she learned, what she became from her parenting experience is singularly durable, endlessly adaptable, and superior to the career path she might have taken. I wanted to hear those things myself. But she was gone and I had to answer an incoming call before we could exchange numbers.

There is no resolution to this discomfort. My current workplace maintains a firm hierarchy that leaves me stationed exactly where I am. I’ve been warned blithely not to try to find fulfillment at this job (at an art center where nearly everyone is seeking ways to be fulfilled); I’ve also been asked why I don’t find my dead-end reception job fulfilling.

Using endless job applications, I keep trying to launch myself into another workplace. I maintain some brain use with freelance gigs writing and copy editing, still too irregular to function as a method of advancement. I have long-term goals of attending law school, and so I study for the LSAT and dream of one day using my whole brain, or at least my whole skill set.

When I write, I shoot my flare into the sky. Yesterday, talking to that woman, I saw another person’s flare. I know I’m not alone out there. For a few minutes, we were each fully visible, not just middle-aged women with spotty work histories, but intelligent, clever, powerful people who can intellectually MacGyver any situation for maximum survival.

I hope she comes back someday so I can tell her: I see her.

flare

Born Free

There hasn’t been an update about my daughter for a while, because she’s been off at school being a student. That’s unremarkable except in the sense that there were doctors who didn’t think she’d be strong enough to hold a pencil, and she’s about to finish her Bachelor’s, but whatever. She’s a person who’s in school and, unless you’re one of her roommates who doesn’t like how my kid folds her t-shirts, there isn’t much to say.

Except.

There’s this one thing she’s doing that most other college students get to do that isn’t remarkable except that IT TOTALLY IS. In addition to graduating, I mean.

She and her friends are going on a trip for spring break.

They’ve made arrangements for a place to stay, they’ve got meals etc. planned out, they’re leaving the Monday of spring break and they’re getting out of town. OUT OF STATE! They’re going to San Francisco for a week. My kid–my fragile little girl who missed out on so many rites of passage simply because of her physical disability–is going to San Francisco with her friends for a week.

It shouldn’t be a big deal. In the scheme of things, it isn’t a big deal. I know. I should calm down. But I can’t. I know what it took for me–her mother, who is admittedly slightly overprotective–to plan a trip with her, and I am accustomed to handling all of her accessibility issues. Calling ahead, using my serious voice to impart the gravity of my daughter’s circumstances, the possibility for injury to her if the access they claim to have in place isn’t as wonderful as they say it is, asking politely but firmly for photos of bathrooms and doorways. Then arriving at a location to find there’s a twelve-inch step just to get in the place, or the elevator is broken, or there is no elevator (honest to God, that happened) and they put us on the second floor. The path to the restaurant “next door” is unpaved. The restaurant only has bar-height tables, and she has to be lifted out of her chair to sit precariously on a bar stool with no back.

Sorry, I started hyperventilating there.

But she’s going. On her own. With her friends–because she also HAS FRIENDS, something my mother heart was afraid might not happen because people are sometimes so dimwitted they only see how different she is physically and not how magnificent she is emotionally and intellectually. She has friends from all over the world–literally–and they are going on a trip with her.

And she is TRAVELING. When she told me about her plans, she mentioned that this was likely to be her last spring break ever (how sad is THAT to know your kid is about to enter the super depressing world of no spring break until you’re a parent and THEN it’s misery trying to figure out how to entertain your kids for seven straight days?) and she figured it was about time.

My God, at her age, the biggest trip I had taken was from Carbondale to St. Louis, about 120 miles, because HELLO! I was also an introverted, anxious young person who didn’t get out much, over-(self)-protective even then. She’s leaving the STATE. With her young-people friends. Like young people DO. I saw my friends doing it, so I know what it looks like, I just never did it myself.

And at her age, let’s face it, I was the mother of two.

She is going on spring break, people! Without her mom! Without her dad! Without a safety net!

I would say I’m nervous, but if I’m honest, my strongest emotion is jealousy! How COOL would it be to go on this trip at her age? I’m stoked. Thrilled. Yes, jealous. But SO FREAKING EXCITED.

giphy-tumblr

born free

Dear Ava DuVernay

Dear Ms. DuVernay,

I’m writing thank you for bringing to life one Meg Murry, a person so alive for me I hesitate to call her a “character.” Ever since I learned you were making a movie based on A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle, I’ve watched with eager anticipation every step along the way, each one amplifying my thrill at the approach of the book that meant so much to me as a child.

It’s important that you know my name is Meg, and that you know that I was like Meg; an awkward, out-of-step-with-her-peers child. That I had brown hair, like her. That I didn’t do so well in the friend department. That I was fiercely protective of my brother, who got bullied constantly. That I lived through Meg and her adventures battling the darkness.

The world made sense for me when I was reading L’Engle’s books. She gave me clear lines where so much of life is blurry, where having feelings sometimes seems like you’re seeing everything through a veil. But L’Engle put everything into focus through her characters. Finding Meg in those books led to finding Mr. Jenkins, the horrible principal who learns and grows through the course of the book, showing me that even adults can change and evolve. Finding Meg led to the magical Proginoskes, the “dragons” in “A Wind in the Door,” and the idea that there will be entities in my life whose presence, although sometimes terrifying, is meant to teach me something.

Finding Meg led me to all of L’Engle’s other books, which I read voraciously, as if it were the only nutrition my brain could absorb; all the Murry family stories, then the O’Keefe family, and the Austin family, and Katherine Forrester Vigneras. The Small Rain and A Severed Wasp are books I frequently revisit even today because of L’Engle’s powerful writing about music, about playing the piano, a thread through her books that holds me in thrall. I was a serious piano student, and L’Engle wrote about playing piano as if she were inside my head; the hours in the practice room, the meditative state of working through all the scales in the circle of fifths, the ability to express with your hands the feelings for which you haven’t yet found words.

Even more than feeling connected to a character, I realized I felt connected to the writer. It was this connection that led me to becoming a writer; the ability to articulate something deep in the human experience and reach out to other people who feel the same way.

I’m clinging to L’Engle more closely than ever these days. For the last year, I’ve been angry, discouraged, disappointed in people I once held in high regard. Since the election, I’ve learned things about my country and my friends that I didn’t know were true, things I resisted admitting. To find out people I love and respected don’t believe that our society is unequal, that our country was built on a fundamental injustice on the backs of people of color, was devastating. Their failure of compassion has dismantled my confidence in my fellow man.

L’Engle’s writing–even her books for children–speaks directly to my sorrow. Her clarity without bombast, her joy in diversity and inclusion, her embrace of community as a means of defeating evil, her example of forgiveness and mutual respect give me hope.

And in a similar way, Ms. DuVernay, so do you. When you were announced as the director of this movie, I was excited to know a woman would be in charge, but I knew little about you. So I read about you, and I watched. Selma is a beautiful, powerful movie. 13th changed the way I think about the criminal justice system. Interviews with you show a gracious, gentle, intelligent woman whose insight and curiosity drive you to reveal truth.

But it was seeing “Queen Sugar,” and hearing you talk about the project, that made me realize that you speak the same language as L’Engle. You’re cut from the same cloth. Your movies and shows lift up ordinary people who find themselves in extraordinary circumstances, and demonstrate what happens when those people rise to meet those circumstances with determination. Just like Meg. Only you did it with characters who didn’t look like me, so you opened a world of understanding in my once-narrow field of vision.

You went one step farther; you speak of opening opportunities for other women to direct episodes of “Queen Sugar,” women who were passed over for other chances. But you recognized the need for reaching a hand back to help the next ones coming along, and now there are two whole seasons of this gorgeous show that were directed all by women directors. You made a decision not just to better yourself, but to help others, to broaden the field of experienced women in a male-dominated field, to make it possible for real change to happen, even if it’s only one TV show at a time.Ava

Watching your work gives me hope. Hearing you speak with such joy and purpose about your work and the people you work with energizes me for my own work. You’re a model of professional determination and cheer, an example of a creative woman in hot pursuit of her goals; now that I see how it’s done, I can try doing it myself.

Where L’Engle showed me someone who seemed just like me, you’ve shown me the kind of woman I want to be; someone who is dogged in her professional pursuits, and reaches a hand out to show other women the way forward.

There’s a line in the trailer  where Mrs. Which entreats Meg to “be a warrior.” Meg is fighting the encroaching darkness, and it feels every day like we’re being consumed in darkness too. What you and L’Engle do for me, however, is help me to see the light. Instead of focusing on the putrescence in our decaying moral world, you and L’Engle are dual lights guiding the way back to mutual respect, dignity and understanding. As the very visible face of this massive project, you ARE a warrior, and many of us have never seen before how exactly that’s done.

There are warriors who go directly to the battle, weapon drawn, ready to eviscerate the enemy. But there’s another kind, the kind that works diligently to wash their immediate circle in light and warmth, inviting people who’ve been shoved to the side to join them, making space for everyone at the table. It’s an insistence on pushing the circle ever wider, to include more, to encourage more people to create their own expanding circle of light. By persisting in the work of augmenting the good, welcoming in voices other than your own, you are creating the powerful light that overwhelms the dark. It’s work that repeats upon itself, taking root in the lives of everyone you touch.

Your intellect and drive and perseverance are a beacon for me. The way you work, the choices you make, the intention with which you put work into the world represent the light that will beat back this darkness. For what you’ve done so far, for bringing Meg into this light, and for illuminating so much more than just a movie screen, I wanted to thank you.

From the bottom of my Meg heart.

 

 

Next Chapter-Eve

I’m more excited today than I was the day of my wedding.

Sure, wedding days are stressful. I walked through that day focused on setup and my kids and trying to stay warm at an outdoor wedding in April in Chicago, wearing sleeveless dress over long underwear bottoms. There’s the inevitable anxiety over family and extended family, seeing guests you haven’t seen in years, and those vows you labored over, vows I’m embarrassed to admit I have long forgotten.

That day was everything to me, the realization of a dream I first had at 14, when Tim held my hand and walked with me along a river bank and we went steady for six months. One of the last times we were together as a couple in high school, I had a vision of us as adults; I looked at teenage Tim and saw adult Tim looking back at me, with graying hair and mature face, and there were children. It was just a flash, but I saw it so clearly; in our adult lives, we would be a family.

It took 20 years for that dream to come true. I had given up on the dream along the way, and for good reason; we’d both married other people, had kids, lived in different states, hundreds of miles apart. We were on separate paths, and it appeared permanent. What I saw must have been an adolescent fantasy. That’s all.

Our wedding day, then, was the culmination of years of longing and heartbreak and heart mending. It was an achievement, overcoming some discouraging hurdles and roadblocks and determined adversaries. It was The Day, despite the stress of the wedding and families.

But today is different.

Today, Tim comes home on an 11 p.m. flight from Albany, New York. Today, Tim brings home his winter clothes and summer clothes and the blue casserole dish he’s been using to make mac and cheese and pasta bake, the dish he bought because he knew I’d like it. Today, he packs up the inflata-bed on which he’s been sleeping for 18 months, stuffs it into the last available space in his overused luggage, and gets on a plane. Six hours later, he will be home. In our bed.

What we will do from this point forward isn’t clear. We don’t have all the pieces in place. The ground is shifting under our feet in many directions, but we’ve decided that, whatever comes, we’ll take it on together. It may be the job he’s being considered for, or a different job. It may be a new job for me, or a different path altogether.

But we’re finished with the long-distance portion of our marriage. Tonight, we start the next chapter.

The last two years have been trying, but not impossible. Tim’s job loss, my father’s death, Tim’s move to NY, our second cat dying, the election and subsequent turmoil, the snow and ice of last winter here in Portland, moving out of Landslide Central, upheaval at work, all heightened by the stretched out time between us. Dudley Holding Hands

But our distance helped us focus energy on our relationship in ways we never had before. Even though we had lived apart twice before for long stretches, this time was different. Now, our kids are grown, and our individual differences are more apparent. There’s no longer heft to the idea of staying together “for the kids”. Long before he left, we had reached that time in many marriages when people look at each other and say “Now what do we do?” We answered that question with some pretty intense discussions, a deep dive into couples’ counseling, and bareknuckle fights with our own individual demons.

When he left, we made some conscious decisions about how we would interact, how to connect and stay connected. Much of it involved sacrifice on his part; flying home once every six weeks, sleeping on the godforsaken floor in a godforsaken state across the godforsaken country (my words, not his). Some of it was just good fun, like watching movies or going on a Netflix binge together, chatting online with each other. Tim found a platform on which we can privately share conversations with no distractions; no Facebook interference, no other chat buddies tapping your screen for attention, just US, and our goofy thoughts and pictures and links. We stayed in contact all our waking hours, and during the times one or the other of us was asleep, we’d send material for the other person to see when they got up.

He became my constant companion in a wholly different way. In person, his presence is magnetic, intense and irresistible, and I have often been overwhelmed. This distance forced us into parity, our physical presence removed, our connection reliant instead on my native talent; words. By leaving my side, Tim was able to enter my realm of language, to meet me in the place where I have power equal to his. He listens in a whole new way, and I have discovered my Tim-specific verbal potential. This eighteen months has been a potent equalizer.

When he comes home tonight, we will come together as very different people; closer, mentally entwined, and practiced in the art of seeing each others’ emotional needs. Distance gave us that perspective, and I see and feel him differently now. And I’m even more protective than before.

When he walks off that plane, I’ll melt into a puddle of relief and joy. I’m sure we’ll embarrass the people around us with our effusive greeting. And we’ll walk out of the familiar airport that’s become the scene of far too many of our tearful goodbyes, and we’ll head into the plans and dreams and goals we have rearranged in our imagined potential space.

We’ve been kids playing with a big empty dollhouse, planning each room, discussing how we want the life within to look and feel. Our lives before had so many immovable pieces; kids, family, jobs, commitments. Now, we get to choose what goes into our life. The only two certainties are him and me. Well, three, including the dog.

Tonight, we start living in the next chapter.

Only 13 hours to go.

 

Sisters

My sister comes to visit in two days.

I can hardly sleep, I’m so excited. So many ideas of things to do, things I want to show her, things I want to talk about. When I drive around the city, I see all the places I want to show her, all the hidden corners I’ve found, the places I’ve made memories. I want to pore over every minute of history I have from the last four years here, the discoveries and adventures and flares of joy that built my life.

She knows a lot of it already. We talk often, several times a week usually, sometimes less. We have been close like this most of our adult lives, though not really as kids. She was more my favorite babysitter than my sister when we were kids.

She’s coming out to the West Coast to teach a figure drawing class in Seattle this weekend. First, she’ll spend a day in Portland with me, then we’ll drive up through the rain to Seattle for the weekend. I’ve got Friday all mapped out, which naturally means we will do all different things I haven’t even thought of, because that’s how life is with my sister. Unpredictable. A whirlwind. Time with her is an exciting adventure.

In truth, however, I feel like she’s been here all along. Certainly in the arts center where I work, I feel her presence down every hallway. The smell of oil paints and acrylics, the figure drawing class with the live models, the gallery full of art where I keep envisioning her work. I imagine her in the print studio, up to her elbows in ink, cuts on her fingers from carving linoleum or wood, glasses sliding down her nose as she concentrates on making the image perfect.

Then there are the artists who surround me every day, the energetic and energizing creative thinkers who rush in and out of my work space every day, their minds churning with the projects they’re working on, or the class they’re about to teach. They are a version of the absent-minded professor, hands caked in clay or nicked by metalworking tools, clothes informal and intended for grimy work. While I fell into this job through working at the music center, it feels some days like I’m only there so I can be closer to her.

We’re different in some essential ways. She’s a crazy talented professional artist, and I can’t draw a straight line with a ruler. That’s not an exaggeration; ask my kids. Ask my coworkers. But this is not a skill I mourn, because I got music and writing, so my artistic dance card is full.

At this point, my sister would say “Straight lines are overrated.” Easy to say when your crooked lines create such moving works of art.

She has worked as a professional carpenter, literally built with her own two hands the addition to her Victorian house, including the studio in which she works.

I have not.

She has earned a living with her art; I have largely held full-time jobs and done piano and writing on the side. She has six kids, I have three. She is comfortable living in noise and chaos. I need quiet and seclusion. She comes alive in a group of people, smiling and talking and laughing. I watch from the fringe, listening and absorbing.

She jumps in with both feet, throwing herself at whatever task has set her on fire. I weigh my options, plotting out how and when and where I’m going to do something, taking stock and making spreadsheets.

But when we get together, we are our own entity, a matched set. Snow White and Rose Red, as our mother called us, from the old storybook. We have the same laugh, the same voice, the same eyes. She knows everything there is to know about me. I know (I think) all there is to know about her. In that space of openness and trust, I’m free and happy. We talk and laugh until our jaws quake. We cry a fair bit too.

We drive each other crazy, but we’ve figured out how to move past the irritants and back to closeness. It’s another revelation of the last few years; figuring out the “how” of maintaining and improving imperfect relationships.

She’s been by my side through almost every difficult moment I have had since becoming an adult. For the next four days, we come together just for fun, and just us two, no kids, no family event to fret and attend, no interruptions or commitments except her weekend class.

We have a day to play in my new city, a road trip to talk and sing and play “would you rather,” and another city to explore.

It’s the best play date I could imagine.

 

 

Leoda’s Jam

I just made a batch of raspberry jam. I used the freezer method, which uses two fewer cups of sugar and one additional cup of fruit, but my choice was based on convenience, not just marginal health benefits.

Raspberry freezer jam was a delicacy in my childhood. We brought small margarine tubs of it back from Michigan, where my great-aunt’s housekeeper Leoda made it every year. My great-aunt was my mother’s favorite relative, her father’s brother; Mom and Aunt Lil were close friends due partly to the mere 18 year age gap and partly to their similar personalities. And they both loved raspberry jam.

They were both musicians, both rejected by my mother’s father, who thought music was frivolous, a waste of time and money. Lillian had made a life for herself as a lounge singer, traveling all over the world to play piano and sing in boozy high-end joints. My mother was a brilliant singer whose gift became buried in motherhood and quotidian concerns.

Aunt Lil had lived an exciting life, from what I could tell. My childhood understanding of adult lives was limited, so I only report what I thought I knew. She was married four times, having four children among the marriages, had told of her thrilling adventures around the globe, and rubbed elbows with famous Chicagoans like Mike Royko. She and one (or more?) husband built a house with their own two hands in a beach community on the Michigan side of Lake Michigan. She and my mother in suburban Chicago talked on the phone frequently, and we went to Lil’s house in Michigan often, not quite every summer, but enough that it felt like a reliable escape from the suburbs.

Because I was a pianist, I felt some belonging with Lillian. One summer, she had me up at the beach house for a long stretch; it could have been a month, it could have been two weeks. I like to think it was a month. I thought of it as my own personal Interlochen, the music camp that we could not afford. She gave me daily piano lessons, and listened as I practiced. I slept on the bed out on her sleeping porch, listening to the wind and the birds calling across the ravine in the early hours. Every day, we went to The Sands restaurant in town, where she was friendly with the owners Oli and his wife, and we ate grilled cheese sandwiches and I played PacMan. We went to farmer’s markets and thrift stores, the vinyl seats of her enormous white car hot on the backs of my legs.  And we went to the beach, where I grew brown swimming and reading books on her yellow and white striped towels.

Aunt Lil was a stunning woman, even in her later years. Think Dixie Carter as a peroxide blonde. Lil had great legs that she was constantly showing off, which I don’t have, and the McArdle dimples, which I do. She had a great barking laugh, joyous and wicked, and she never made herself quiet or small for anyone. She ruled the room wherever she went. And I adored her.

I kept in touch over the years, not as faithfully as I should have. I gave my daughter her name as a middle name, and I took the kids to visit her a couple of times. She took a special shine to Tim, telling me “You can bring him by anytime!” with her flirtatious twinkle. She was 88 at the time.

When she died, I sat on her porch and cried bitter tears. I took a cutting from one of her landscaping plants and put it in my home garden. She was my last real connection to my mother, the piece that linked me to her in a way that made sense. We were all musicians, pianists, dimpled singers with a great barking laugh.

In one of those strange coincidences, I ran into her granddaughter, my second cousin, on a bus in New York a few years ago. This was the granddaughter that Lillian talked about the most; the famous actress, beautiful and talented, she was doing wonderful things in New York. We’d met as children, but weren’t close. I wasn’t trained in “close.” On the bus, I approached her, who actually recognized me, maybe it was the dimples. We spoke briefly about Lillian. My second-cousin admitted that Lillian had been cruel to her her whole life, and she grew up resenting this woman who had meant so much to my mother. Given what she told me, it made sense; I remembered my aunt’s cutting humor at the expense of other people, and her impatience with my children when we visited. The idea of Lil being cruel was disappointing, but it wasn’t a stretch.

I’ve tried to make these two impressions of Lillian fit together, a difficult task for someone who tends to put people on a pedestal. As I’ve worked my way through my own family questions, I’ve learned that there are no two identical experiences in family relationships. My three brothers each had vastly different relationships with my dad, for instance. My sister and I got different things from our mom, from both parents.

It’s gotten easier to forgive Lillian for not being perfect as I have come into my own complicated adulthood. I’ve integrated the information about her relationship with her granddaughter into the overall picture, matured my understanding of her. She was nothing like the adult I wanted to become; she had a housekeeper, and she sent her children away to boarding school, and she loved martinis. But I loved her anyway.

I still visit the memory of those days at her beach house on Blueberry Hill, learning to play bridge with her friends on the sleeping porch, running through the hot sand to the bed of towels laid out next to where she sat in her floppy hat and enormous white sunglasses, always white. Lillian had her way of doing things, vibrant and defiant and ballsy. She was my Aunt Mame, the center of attention, the wandering performer. I never wanted to become her, but I embrace the thrill I got from knowing her, and revel in the genetic material we share.

Her life was a messy adventure. At her memorial service, one of her neighbors told of the last homeowner’s association meeting, when Lillian, nearly 93, showed up in heels and one of her trademark flippy skirts, which she always played with with so her legs were on display. Ostentatious flirt, independent and adventurous, an honest-to-goodness dame, a broad.

What she gave me I’ve already made mine; a lust for adventure, the belief that I can make my own life, and a love for parties and raspberry jam. And when I smile at a man with a twinkle in my eye, that’s pure Lillian.

Lillian's Memorial
Champagne toast on the beach at sunset

champagne toast on the beach at sunset

Home

Tim and I are busily chatting on our personal webpage, sharing anecdotes about our coworkers and local elections and recipes. We sustain contact throughout the day, touching base whenever we have a moment. On days when I’m not working, he’s my companion, only a few keystrokes away.

He comes home late tonight, the first time I’ll see him in more than eight weeks. On Friday, movers are coming to haul large furniture and boxes to our new apartment, and Tim will be here for the move. This has been a hard stretch of time without him, and I can’t even find words to tell you how excited I am that he will be here for a few days.

We’ve talked a lot lately about what “home” means, and going through the process to select a place to live has pushed us to consider our changing needs as individuals and as a couple. Our current apartment has always felt like a vacation condo in an exciting but wholly unknown city. We didn’t need full functionality of a house while we were exploring the city.

But things change, like jobs and kids’ circumstances, and our plans to find a permanent place to move to next were scuttled. Tim’s job took him to New York, and while my daughter lives in Eugene, when she visits, I can’t manage lifting her wheelchair into this apartment by myself. So we found a smaller place that’s on flat ground and we’re moving to our new home this weekend.

15 hours, Tim tells me, until I see him again.

The new place, while smaller, gives us some advantages we never had before; it’s less than 10 minutes from my workplace, 15 minutes from a place I volunteer, and walking distance to two grocery stores. Up the street a few blocks there’s a coffeehouse, a little farther there’s a community center with a pool. A few blocks in a different direction, there’s another community center with a library, a bike path that wanders for miles, and a Dairy Queen. We’ve never lived within walking distance to any of those kinds of places before, although we have always dreamed of it. I have a sweet basket on my bike for all the library books I never got to take home.

Wandering around the neighborhood the other day, I stumbled across a dairy. On summer Sundays, they open their ice cream parlor for a few hours. I think I’ll be taking Tim there when he moves back.

The idea of “home” has been a challenge for me. The university town felt like home, but circumstances became untenable and I had to leave. St. Charles never felt like home, despite my growing up there, meeting Tim there, raising my children there. In Oregon, I have known moments of feeling like I belonged, like I wasn’t the odd duck in a sea of swans. I’m afraid to call it true belonging, for fear that it might be taken away as suddenly as other moments of rightness have been. I’m afraid to jinx it.

A few days ago, Sophia and I were in the car and the song “Home” by Phillip Phillips came on. She said “Aw, remember when we were moving out here? and that was the first song we heard on the radio?” In spite of his ridiculous name, I like this song, and his 18 others that sound just like it. I turned it up, remembering the day we pulled out of the driveway in St. Charles and headed west into the brutal late-summer heat. I cried most of that seven-day drive partly in relief that the last few months of work of sorting and packing and storing our belongings in the POD were finished. But there was also great excitement and anticipation, joy that we were headed into our new life, away from the stifling conformity, from the concrete suppression of nature.

As we roll down this unfamiliar road, as the Phillips song goes, just know you’re not alone. It’s always been Tim and me, moving through this life together, at times at odds, but more and more lately, we’re united, even in distance. And that is the biggest surprise that I’ve had since moving here; not that the rain is truly endless or that everyone in Portland is friendly or that the grass stays green even in January. The biggest surprise has been the growth and maturing of my marriage through and because of the tremendous upheaval of our lives. I didn’t know this could happen in a marriage that had so much stacked against it, from family opposition to crippling stress. After holding on by the skin of our teeth for so long, I didn’t know that it could get better. I didn’t know how much better it could get.

Tim has, as so many songs and poems have said, become my home; the place of strength and sanctuary, of joy and contentment. I know I’m not alone — ever.

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He’s midway over the country now, set to arrive in PDX just before midnight. Tomorrow I’ll go to work and he’ll haul some boxes to the new place. In a few months, he’ll come back here to live for good, no more consulting gigs across the country. We’ll settle into this tiny two-bedroom and ride our bikes on the weekend to the library and the coffeehouse and settle into a life we’ve gobbled together from the remnants of the best parts of our lives. And we’re going to make this place our home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bud Vase

Packing is interrupted by the discovery — once again — of things from my life, or my kids’ lives. We’ve only lived in this location five years, and our belongings are dotted with pieces of history.

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This vase was given to me when one of my children was born. The doctor who delivered my babies always had a single rose delivered to his new moms, so I had two of these vases. One broke over the years. It was a sweet gesture by that doctor, simple and elegant, a nod of welcome to a new phase in the mother’s life. I wonder if he gave two roses to mothers of twins.

This bud vase has stayed intact in my life for 27 years, assuming it came with the delivery of my oldest child. It’s a piece of delicate glass that’s traveled through several moves, too many to count, and has been used every summer for lily-of-the-valley bouquets and single daisies on shortened stems. It’s useful, yes, but it also serves as a meditation object for me on my life as a mother. This slender vase reminds me of the tentative beginning of my motherhood, fragile and vulnerable and scared. That moment of my own birth into my new self, the glass occluded then but clear now.

Were I to design a vase now to represent my life as a mother from this vantage point, it would look different. There would be room for more than one bloom, its base would be rounder and more stable, and the glass might well be rose-colored. Perhaps the side would be stamped with an emblem reflecting our family, a five-headed bouquet of vastly different flowers, a tiger lily for Matt and sweetheart roses for Sophia and a sunflower for Thomas, some yucca for Tim and my own peony, surrounded by a thick circle. It would be a wild, ill-matched bouquet, like us. Perhaps there would be a band running along the bottom with the names of my children, and must include the child to whom I didn’t give birth and so I did not receive a flower. But being a mother to Thomas — that motherhood came hard-fought and joyfully won.

And at the bottom of the vase, in the sturdiest, most stable part would be my Tim, whose unflagging dependability and support made that motherhood flourish. We have a good family, the five of us, and I’d want everyone together if only in spirit, in symbol.

There will be more added to the family, I’m sure. Spouses and partners, children and grandchildren. Friends and in-laws. And we’ll make room. These lives will expand and embrace more love. And should that love lead to new babies, maybe I’ll offer each new parent their own bud vase, a way to remember their brief moment of perfect joy.

 

Piano

I’ve got Eine Kleine Nachtmusik playing tonight, as I often do in the evening. My dog Dudley is curled up in the armchair, fast asleep. When the music becomes more energetic, Dudley whines. Some composers, like Rachmaninoff and Chopin, make Dudley throw back his head and howl. Tim thinks he’s singing along. I think it’s complaint.

When we lived with my piano, Dudley liked to lie beneath the baby grand. When I’d start practicing, the sound would get too much for him and he’d crawl out. He’d only howl for minor keys, looking at me as if I’d offended his musical sensibilities. Major keys only. Got it.

I was surprised when he started howling along with music coming from the speakers, but realized he was only singing along with piano music, not guitar or symphonic or vocal. In his way, I guess, he misses the piano too.

We’re moving right now. By the end of the month, we will have left our hillside perch for a lower elevation, a quiet two-bedroom situated next to a creek. I’m relieved to be away from the danger of landslides, though I will miss this view. I’ve been so lucky for the past four years to get to see mountains every morning when I get up. What a wonderful introduction to living in Oregon.

This apartment was never meant to be our permanent home. It was the place Tim found in our price range on short notice, a choice between this wheelchair-inconvenient place on a bus line and a wheelchair-inconvenient place half this size also on the bus line. We have loved living here, except for theft of my daughter’s independence, and the decision to leave has been difficult.

Our new view is less impressive, but there is the sound of peeper frogs in the evening, and the whole apartment — from entrance to bathroom — is on the same level as the parking lot, which will allow my daughter to visit without needing to be carried up and down two flights of stairs. That’s a big relief for me. Perfect timing too; she’s just about living on her own now, and hardly ever comes to Portland anymore.

The best part came the other day, when Tim said, looking at our budget, that we might be able to get the piano out here this year. By Christmas. We’re saving money with this move, and our car will be paid off next month. By Christmas I might have my piano. It’s still only a possibility, but it’s a possibility that makes my heart race. To be able to live with my piano again would put that missing piece back in place.

The lack of a piano took me to the Community Music Center in search of a place to practice. Finding CMC led me to a job at CMC, which led me to a job at Multnomah Arts Center, which has led me to more world-expanding introductions. If I’d had my piano with me, I would never have met any of those people, so I’m glad for what its absence has given me.

But I will be glad when I have the Estey under my hands once more, its old frame holding all those hours of practice time, the discovery of Gershwin and Brahms, the exploration of my singing voice among my mother’s Broadway music books. My mother played this piano too; she bought it when I was small, and as my use and interest in it waxed, hers waned. She was a better singer than pianist, which is saying something, because she was quite a pianist. Familiar as she was with the repertoire, she’d critique my practice sessions, yelling from the kitchen, “Slow down! It’s not a race!” I still hear her when I rush a piece, fumbling over my own fingers.

I had the piano in my house for ten years before having to leave it behind in Chicagoland. In those ten years, I taught piano to neighborhood kids, an occupation that brought me such joy. I miss those kids, and the conversations we’d have between primer pages. They’re almost all in or finished with high school now, time marching as it does.

Those tiny hands left their mark on the piano too. Echoes of “Twinkle Twinkle” and “Turkey in the Straw” and “Iron Man” live in the wood. I want those reverberations close to me again. I want my hands on those keys, my keys, where I could go when words failed me, and count on the notes to say what I couldn’t figure out.

Today I have a piano teacher of my own, another someone I discovered at the Community Music Center. My playing is demonstrably better than it was the last time I lived with the piano, though it’s still not where I want it to be. Later this year, perhaps, I’ll be sitting at those keys again, that piece of my life back in place where it belongs, my hands touching where my mothers hands have been, and my students’ and the loving hands of my gracious friend who has watched over the instrument since I left.

When I play that piano again, like Dudley, I will howl.

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At my teacher’s piano.

Ode to Joy

 

Since the election, my mood has trended downward, unable to lift higher than “okay”, just enough to get out of bed in the morning. A pall was cast on the world that night, and I can’t find a way to poke through to let light in.

Tim coming home at Thanksgiving helped, and having him here now for an extended stay has raised my baseline, but life feels like a trudge now, the effort of optimism a burden.

But for a few hours on New Years Eve, I experienced joy again. We went to Oregon Symphony’s year-end performance, which featured a first half of perfectly acceptable music (a tribute to a dedicated former conductor and his lifetime’s work of arrangements) and finished with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9.

Last year on New Year’s Eve, I drove out to dark-sky country and listened to the top 10 classical hits of all time, which ended, of course, with Symphony No. 9. I never gave that symphony a second thought before, because I wasn’t much for “choral symphonies”; I want choirs and symphonies to stay separate. But listening to No. 9, sitting in the car on the edge of a field on a frigid, starry night, I heard it totally differently. No. 9 is a remarkable piece of work, abundant in its instrumentation and voicings, as if inviting everyone who’s ever sung or played a note to participate in lifting up this single thought: joy.

Symphony no. 9 begins with chaos of tuning, then  strikes a bold two-note stance; here I am. Here we go. To me, Symphony no. 9 is about the individual attempt to create one’s life, and it starts with the very first phrase. Here, says Beethoven, is where we will plant our foundation. The second movement, with its racing sixteenths in overlapping voices, trots past onlookers, all action and movement, its goal the momentum building to the crescendo, punctuated by tectonic bass drum blasts, until the rapid finish devolves again into chaos. The third movement is a placid interlude, its opening bars a balm after the burning purpose of movement two. The fourth movement, however, is unmistakably given to chaos and darkness from the first notes. Some interplay occurs between the sweetness of the melody of creation and the brash destruction of the bass drum, and they fight upward into a chaotic swirl. Like taxiing on a runway, the momentum starts and stops, waiting for something to happen.

Beethoven is such a tease: the terraced dynamics bring you to the brink of fulfillment, and then he lays off the gas, and you’re left reaching.

Enters the voice of the baritone, with the statement of the opening lines of the poem from which the symphony gets its title. “Enough dallying!” he says, “enough quarreling! Let’s go!” and sings one of the most beautiful words in German: Götterfunken. It means “lovely divine spark” or (my favorite) “thou beauteous Godly lightning”.

And with that lightning, the music lifts off. In that moment, this ponderous chaos of a symphony rises, an ecstatic shooting skyward of human endeavor. This is fireworks in music.

What makes Beethoven so powerful is his embrace of the messiness of life, his willingness to descend into chaos in harmony and instrumentation, all while celebrating the exuberance of creation and connection. Through the vivid and striking violin melody, the bass drum crashes, a reminder that light does not exist without dark, that chaos precedes order, and order is fleeting.

Beethoven’s insistent dancing through bedlam, the hallmark of his marriage of classical and romantic periods, is what makes his music so intoxicating to me. There is order, he says, at the loss of beauty. We give ourselves over to apathy and death when we allow orderliness to be the guiding thought; here, he says, is joy. HERE is unfettered creation and life. I feel him straining at the bonds of classicism throughout No. 9, particularly in the cascading melodic lines that simulate destruction.

In its outrageous size, No. 9 has space for all of that messiness of life, and gave me hope in our ability to get through this unbearably dark time together. From the allegretto, the sound of the fear gripping us, now that the worst has happened, how do we face what comes next? But we can face it, but only with all of our voices pushing and straining against the conformity required of order.

Beethoven famously renamed his Symphony No. 3 from “Buonaparte”, for Napoleon Bonaparte, who he initially supported, to “Eroica” after finding out Napoleon named himself “Emperor of the French”. Beethoven refused to honor a tyrant with his music.

I like to think we could use music–Beethoven’s and others’–to express our collective will to fight the darkness, to refuse to give in to our own tyrant; we have been mourning the destruction of our society, however fragile our peace, and while we carry with us that frustration, together we will move forward, our collective, intentional joy shutting out the darkness of this new tyranny.

Looking at the stars on a dark, cold night, it isn’t the black sky that causes us to marvel; it’s the millions of pinpricks of light piercing the darkness that keep us enthralled. The infinite void is broken by the light of thousands of suns and planets. In holding high our lights for justice, equality, goodness and kindness, we are the stars in this darkness.

stars

 

 

Bloom

Driving around town this morning, I was struck with a thought I’ve never had before: I love my life.

One of my favorite bosses once said to me “bloom where you’re planted.” She was hoping to encourage me to see the positive aspects of my life, to recognize that I didn’t have to have a perfect structure in order to survive. But it’s always bothered me, the idea that chance should wholly dictate who we become. To follow the plant analogy, there are plants that can adapt to any environment, but there are plenty that have very specific needs in order to thrive. The sequoia comes to mind; I can’t send sequoia seeds to my sister in Illinois and expect that she can grow this incredible tree in her backyard. It needs a certain constant temperature range, a certain amount of moisture in the air, and a specific kind of footing into which it can take root. Sequoias

Then there are plants that *can* survive in a variety of environments, but an optimal setting allows them to reach their full potential. Far more than “blooming”, they can become something spectacular.

All my adult life, I’ve struggled to find a place for myself in the world. When I lived in southern Illinois,  I hoped to make a home for my kids and myself in the university environment, where I enjoyed a fair amount of cultural activities and employment opportunities, but felt the impact of the transient population inherent in higher education. It’s hard to form lasting bonds with peers when people come in for a year or two and then move on to the next step in their education or career. I was guilty of the same behavior, moving around campus for promotions three times in one year, and eventually leaving the university altogether.

Moving to Chicagoland brought more economic and social stability, but the people in my peer group — and that particular time in my life, when I was in the midst of heavy-duty parenting — were not supportive or conducive to my creative side. I was a good mom, very stable and involved, but I wasn’t the best *me*. I could provide structure to those around me, but I couldn’t even start looking for my own potential. That wasn’t part of the deal, and I accepted that.

When I left Chicagoland, my father said “you can move, but you won’t leave behind your problems.” What he — and all the other naysayers — didn’t realize was that I wasn’t trying to leave behind my problems. I was trying to find the best place for *me* to live, the place in which my distinct personality and tendencies could breathe freely, where there was space and energy for me to explore the parameters of who I wanted to be. It is a mistake to assume that once you have become an adult — or once you have children, which happened for me before I was really an adult — you stop growing and becoming. I knew I wasn’t finished yet, and that the pain I felt at not belonging anywhere was telling me something.

And I was right.

Once I had a sense of the kind of things I wanted in my life, seeking the right place to be became much easier. I take credit for knowing myself well enough to understand that I had to be near natural beauty every day, that I needed trees and dirt and the view of mountains. And despite its reputation as the whitest city in the U.S., I am surrounded by diversity on a scale that makes my hometown look like a white supremacists’ meeting.

Think about *that* for a moment.

But I’ve always been much more comfortable in a diverse crowd than I ever was in St. Charles.

The city of Portland, and in a broader sense, the whole state of Oregon, has given me a healthy planting bed into which I have sunk my roots. Part of my freedom comes from being finished with the heavy-duty parenting, but that’s not all of it. If I were simply an empty-nester back in Illinois, I would be miserable: what would I have to explore? How far could I push my own limits in a society that allows little deviation from what they consider normal? Where would I go to escape the unmitigated pressure of beigeness?

In Oregon, I have my necessary wilderness. In Portland, I have the necessary diversity of personage, of activities, of interests and enthusiasm for the un-normal. There is no need for me to be like anyone else. I mean, there are hipsters here, whose dour demeanor trends toward their own conformity. I blame their unhappiness on hunger; in order to fit into those skinny jeans that tuck so neatly into their Han Solo boots, and wear those baggy baggy shirts that look like they were made for Hagrid, they aren’t allowed to eat much, so they’re terribly hungry.

But at my age, it’s totally okay — even encouraged — for me to avoid becoming a hipster. They can have their baggy baggy shirts and sad expressions: I choose to frolic among the forest creatures, celebrating the trees and ferns, then spend my days at the beehives of artistic activity where I work.

There is space for me here. For all of me, not just the parts that are palatable to other people. I’m able to reach into myself and discover long-lost loves like singing in the choir, or undiscovered loves like dangling my feet in a mountain brook or kayaking in one of the many rivers. No longer bound by a society tied up in appearances or expectations, I am free to reach out my tendrils in all directions, to do and be the many parts of who I am. Where I was once confined to a small planting box, held tight on all sides by a barricade, I am now free to grow naturally, the way I was intended to grow.

With the right mixture of sunlight and nutrients, who knows what I will grow up to be?