GFAF, a Complaint

One of the reasons I love cooking is because I’m good at it. It’s easy for me, another language like writing and music through which I communicate to people I love. I’ve long had recipes memorized like sheet music to favorite songs, selections to whip up when a child is sick and needs a hot bowl of soup, or a pot luck requires a tray of brownies, or I have an unquenchable thirst for shortbread.

Tim has long been my biggest culinary fan, encouraging both volume and diversity in our kitchen. One of our kids has a peanut allergy, and Tim’s allergic to seafood, so I became adept at managing around those foods that could kill them (yay me!), and we developed an arsenal of dishes almost everyone likes.

Only Sophia likes Brussels sprouts with me, but I am glad I don’t have to share those with anyone else.

Tim’s recent switch to a gluten-and-dairy-free diet has resulted in serious changes in the household. His mood is visibly and consistently different. I’ve gone gluten-free with him, as it’s ridiculously more economical to manage our food budget on one set of rules. My dairy diet was already limited, and Tim doesn’t like Greek yogurt or extra sharp cheddar anyway, so I proceed happily dairy-adjacent as before. But nary a crumb or a slice or a cracker has passed my lips in over six weeks, and that suits me just fine.

But Thanksgiving has been stalking me like a shadow this year, peering out around the corner weeks ago, with its gluten-centric traditional dishes passed down on my family line; Yum Yum (pecan) Coffeecake in the morning, and white-bread dense sausage/sage stuffing, sweet-potato casserole, mashed potatoes with plenty of heavy cream, pecan or pumpkin/praline or apple pie and cookies for dessert. I’ve long complained of the lack of chocolate at Thanksgiving (unless you’re Moonstruck, and you create this awesome/terrifying poultry centerpiece).

But Thanksgiving has gluten-a-plenty, gluten-a-extra, gluten-a-overboard, and I found myself at a loss as to how to prepare for this feast.

Yes, I know there are PA-LENTY of gluten-free options, but I was on auto-pilot for creating reliably spectacular food. And the layer of dairy-free on top of gluten-free is, not surprisingly, way more complicated than JUST avoiding wheat. Now I have to THINK. Now I have to PLAN. 

And, if you’re a follower of this blog, you know I’m conflicted about the whole “cooking for the family” business now. It was my job. My task. My responsibility. My identity for alllll those years, and I’m kinda done.

Just when I’m about to retire, to hang up my cleats, now I have to become a switch-hitter? Not only do I have the responsibility of creating the food in the house because otherwise, we would eat Tim’s gluten-free morning oatmeal at every meal; I ALSO have to figure out a day-long feast of alternatives to some of our favorite food on the planet.

I mean, sure, we could skip the Thanksgiving food. We could skip it and just have other stuff we like. But for the last couple of days, amid the inundation of holiday info on social media, I’ve found some fun dinner hacks I’m using on the family. I’ll “spatchcock” the turkey (lay it flat) and cook it that way–which doesn’t affect gluten or dairy, but it’s fun to say. Spatchcock. And I’ll be making mashed potatoes with chicken stock and Ghee (also fun to say.) Our stuffing will be wild rice (LOVE) and all the other stuffingy stuff we already stuff stuffing with.

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I still don’t know where to look when someone’s taking my picture. I used to be so good at that. I look like I’m tracking a fly ball in center field.

And we’re going to put the stuffing in THIS PUMPKIN that I grew in my garden this summer. It’s the only pumpkin that survived. It’s the gourd that lived.

In the oven right now is an apple pie on crust made from a mix (A MIX I TELL YOU. THE HORROR) from Bob’s Red Mill, who has a huge assortment of GF (look at me being hip with the lingo) options.

But yes, I am conflicted. I was the chef supreme, the reigning queen of my family’s tastebuds, and now I’m just another mix-using near-food approximater of the taste of Thanksgiving. I’m one of THOSE people.

Healthy. Food conscious. Dietary restrictions. Shopping in the vegan refrigerated section for some semblance of cheese for my husband. Spending twice as much on gluten-free flours.

This is, I know–I KNOW, stop nagging–the best course of action. I enjoy Tim’s renewed Timness so much, I never want him to revert to Gluten Tim, the Fun Sucker. And he’s lost weight without trying, and I’ve lost weight without measuring. Our energy is good and we enjoy finding work-arounds. This is a puzzle for us, and we do enjoy a puzzle. We’re good at working together on solutions.

It’s this one day. This super-gluteny-day of culinary debauchery that makes me kick rocks. Christmas is way easier; we do a crown roast with Hasslebeck potatoes and whatever major vegetable we feel like doing, plus homemade marshmallows and hard candy. *I* can still have chocolate. It doesn’t seem quite so onerous. Thanksgiving, I am finding out the hard way, is glutenous AF.

I will miss my flawless pie crusts, the ones I can mix up in 10 minutes, press into the pan without rolling, and have come out flaky and buttery and divine. I will miss the sweet potato casserole so full of butter and cream and sugar that it might as well be dessert. I will miss–oh how I will miss–the McArdle stuffing, my grandfather’s recipe, sturdy and hearty, like him, that Mack truck of a Chicagoan.

But it’s one day. It’s one day on which my husband and I will enjoy a peaceful morning wandering in the misty woods, talking about plans and news and ideas. And it will be sweet and close, like all of our days are now, and that’s so much better than pie. Way better.

That’s a pretty great trade off.

Ducks

I get migraines.

For years, I’ve had debilitating headaches that require a specific set of treatments; wrap my head in ice packs, lie down in a dark room, stay away from scents and odors, take caffeine and pain killers. If I do those things, the headache goes away in a couple of hours.

These are common treatments for migraines in people who don’t require prescriptions. I’ve been following these protocols for twenty years, and so far, I’ve avoided vomiting out the car window the way I did when the headaches first started two decades ago.

From what I have read, I don’t actually have migraines per se; I’ve never experienced some of the classic symptoms like tunnel or narrowed field of vision, the “aura”–which  includes irritability, lightheadedness, seeing flashes of light, speech problems–that presages the headache itself. I’ve seen friends go through these symptoms, and it’s unmistakable. But I’ve never had those symptoms.

It’s likely that what I have are cluster headaches; they come on suddenly, they are localized on one side of my head–usually behind or around one eye–and they happen almost always at the same time of day, in the morning for me.

Whatever they’re called, the ice pack/pain killer/low light treatment/no odors or sounds works. Every time. Because they can ruin my plans for a day, including work and other appointments, I have found it’s easier to tell people I have a migraine than I have a “cluster headache.” It doesn’t matter what I call it if the treatment is the same.

Since writing about Tim’s recent diagnosis, I’ve noticed some incredulity among people who have known us a while. What? Tim has Aspberger’s? How can that be? He seems so NORMAL.

A couple of things come into play here. First, high-functioning people with Aspberger’s develop coping skills over their lifetimes. These skills are known as “masking.” They see that there are rules of functioning in society, and strive to follow those rules, so when they’re out in the world, they seem just like all the other people in the world. Typical. Nothing stands out.

It’s when they’re at home that the mask comes off, and all the stress that’s built up from keeping that mask on all day gets released–that’s when the symptoms become evident. Social-function deficiencies aside, Aspbergians will become explosive over minor stimuli, an inability to empathize, difficulty understanding gestures or facial expressions, strict adherence to routine, inability to express or understand feelings.

And secondly, when you consider these symptoms, you’ll realize that these are the types of behaviors not readily observed in relationships with acquaintances. These are the kind of behaviors or gaps that are observable at home, and in the context of a close relationship, like your family of origin or a marriage.

Tim and I have discussed these symptoms in one form or another our whole marriage.  During the child-rearing years, the discussion focused on his difficulty getting close to the kids and providing emotional support during some difficult stretches. Going through his divorce/custody battle presented multiple occasions during which our youngest child required extra emotional support; our daughter’s medical challenges served up a host of other opportunities requiring emotional connection. Those were our first clues about Tim’s neurological differences. He didn’t even have an intellectual framework for the emotional demands of parenting.

I am the main reporter of Tim’s behaviors in the intimate setting of the home, so on some level, you have to trust my observations.  Marriage reveals behaviors not known to outsiders. Any marriage is the best mirror for examining an individual’s behavior; through the particular dyad of the two people, you discover your own deficiencies.

For instance, when I was first married to my first husband, our very first grocery shopping trips revealed some notable issues for me. When we got home, I waited until he was out of the room, then I proceeded to hide certain foods, squirreling away pretzels or cans of favorite soup. When he found the stash by accident and asked me about it, I realized that I was hiding food because I had learned as a child that if you don’t hide food from your three ravenous older brothers, it disappeared. My male siblings set upon grocery bags like locusts on a ripe crop of wheat.

My first husband was stunned that I had developed such habits. Although he was raised in a poor country in a family of eight siblings, he had never experienced such competition for food.

This particular behavior is not something anyone outside my marriage would have observed. No one besides my first husband–and then Tim, when I told him about it when we started grocery shopping together–would ever know that I did this. Occasionally, I will still hide things, only to happen upon them months later. Oh, right. Pretzels from July.

In the Aspberger’s diagnosis, we’ve discovered the best explanation for Tim’s particular set of behaviors. Other possible diagnoses–and their treatments–matched some symptoms but left others untouched. After 20 years of trying to force his very square peg into a tiny circular hole, we *finally* see things clearly.

But here’s the thing; nobody outside our household knows what we’re dealing with. That’s true for my marriage and for everyone else’s. Whether my husband seems “normal” or your husband seems like a real asshole, there’s no way either of us knows what we’re truly dealing with.  Sometimes, like when I was first married at 20, we don’t even know ourselves; it takes being in those naked spaces where we can’t hide anymore to find out what we’re made of, who we are, and how we behave toward the people we choose to live with.

For the faction of people skeptical about Aspberger’s diagnoses in general, and Tim’s in particular, besides the fact that your skepticism doesn’t change the facts, I can offer only this; if the treatment plan we follow helps the symptoms, does it MATTER what we call the diagnosis?

My cluster headaches don’t give two shits what they’re called, as long as you lay some ice packs on them and put me in a dark room. Tim’s diagnosis and our function as a couple are helped by techniques developed for people with Aspberger’s.

It walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, looks like a duck. It’s a damned duck.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Skeptical

Have you met my husband? He’s the tall one with Max Headroom hair and the quiet public demeanor, always Canadian-polite, gentle with animals. If you have had any kind of discussion with him, you know he’s a skeptic. Almost a cynic. On most subjects.

I could cite examples, but I (cynically) expect some readers would easily dismiss them as applying universally, so you’re going to have to trust me on this one. I’ve known Tim since he was 13, we’ve been together 20 years, he’s a skeptic.

He sure as hell ain’t the guy who will “try anything”, or who does stuff just for fun, or who experiments with crystals and essential oils. He took a six-week meditation class, complaining the whole way that he “didn’t think this would do ANYTHING, but I guess I’ll try…” (it did help) He thinks yoga is a joke perpetrated by limber people to make the stiff-jointed look bad. And yes, he thinks it’s personal.

So when the doctor who diagnosed him with Aspberger’s recommended looking into dietary adjustments for helping manage some of the symptoms, he literally dismissed her out of hand. Sitting in her office, I watched his face go from curious (oh, there might be a treatment for this?) to “ppppppppppppffffffffffttttttttttttttttt” in a nanosecond. Diet? Why would he give up his favorite foods on the off chance something MIGHT change?

It is because of this response, dear reader, that I hardly recommend that Tim try things. When a MEDICAL DOCTOR recommends something and he scoffs, I know I don’t have a chance.

When Tim met Dr. Dan–who isn’t a doctor, but we call “Dr.” to differentiate this Dan from his brother Dan, who is also not a doctor. But this one’s closer to a doctor, so Dr. Dan it is–everything changed. After the first meeting, Tim was trying techniques recommended by Dr. Dan for handling his responsiveness. First meeting.

After the second meeting, Tim was–seriously, brace yourselves–considering a gluten-free diet. Some Asperger’s patients metabolize gluten in a different way. Once the body adjusts past the phase of stomach problems and minor physical health issues, gluten is metabolized into opioids. The constant stream of gluten acts as a constant stream of naturally generated drugs. 

After the third meeting, Tim decided he didn’t want to be thus under the influence, has now gone gluten AND DAIRY free.

Again, I will ask–have you met my husband?

He loves pizza.

He laughs at vegans.

When he lived in New York state, he subsisted on pasta and toast. Not even whole-wheat toast, just plain ol’ white bread toast. Occasionally, he’d score some kind of greens to go with his gluten, but mostly it was just gluten. And cheese. Dairy on top of gluten is one of his favorite things. See also: Chicago pizza.

 

Lou Malnati’s, a Chicago specialty. If this doesn’t appeal to you, I don’t know what to tell you.

 

As of today, Tim has gone more than a week without gluten or dairy. To his surprise, many of our favorite recipes are already gluten-free, and dairy-free, when we skip the queso on black beans and cilantro lime rice, or sour cream with mujaddara. His wife (that’s me!) has been moving this direction for years, not purposely anti-gluten, just wanting healthier choices. This adjustment hasn’t been too bad, all things considered.

After four days off the stuff, we had dinner at a friend’s house over the weekend and didn’t mention the gluten/dairy factor. Tim wanted to just ride it out, not be That Guy. Dr. Dan had mentioned that Tim might start feeling better in a couple of days post-gluten, but aside from a more peaceful demeanor at home, Tim didn’t notice anything specific.

Not until after our spaghetti dinner with garlic bread.

About 30 minutes after dinner, he started getting the shakes, like an adrenaline rush. His stomach started “flipping out”, and by the time we got home, he spent some quality time in the bathroom. And that night, he had trouble sleeping.

The next morning, he was a reactionary mess. Once again, little things–dropping the coffee scoop–blew into a massive explosion. He grumped around the house for hours, knowing full well where his symptoms originated, but unable to stop them from taking shape in the physical world.

He felt so unpleasant in his gut and in his feelings, he isn’t interested in having gluten again any time soon. He is skeptical no more about the effects of gluten on his system. And this is a man who previously gave up smoking completely without assistance, no patch, no hypnosis, just cold turkey. Same thing with alcohol many years ago. He just quits, no big deal. He really does have a concrete emotional and intellectual constitution.

I’m proud of the work he is putting in on himself. I feel more free to tend to my needs, to pursue what’s important to me, when he is the one in charge of himself. My
well-developed co-dependence has maintained our dynamic a certain way for years–to avoid Tim being upset, Meg is in charge of the long list of things that might make him explode–but that’s starting to change.

Gluten-and-dairy-free is easy in Portland. He has choices on every street corner, in every coffee shop and grocery store. He will not want for delicious food–he’s already discovered Bob’s Red Mill GF oatmeal cookies.

I’m joining him on the gluten diet. I mean, why not. It’s just easier for our grocery budget and for cooking. Sophia can–and does–make her own food. I get to be creative in the kitchen again, flexing a muscle I’d allowed to atrophy when the kids left the nest. I’m not giving up dairy, however. My non-fat Greek yogurt breakfasts and pears with Gouda are not going anywhere.

My skeptical man has made progress down the road of taking care of himself. I see light. This tunnel has windows and fresh air. Our dynamic is a’changin’.

Look out world.

 

Some hockey writing

You all know I love hockey. I’ve started writing for a Seattle(‘s Gonna Get an NHL Team) fan site. Here’s my latest for them.

https://jetcityice.com/2019/09/18/ron-francis-cipher/

Oh, yeah, Tim’s the editor/main instigator of the project, so I had an in. But I love having the chance to do some sports writing, which I’ve always wanted to do. Some of my main writing influences were sports writers–Rick Reilly, Bob Verdi, Irv Kupcinet, Dave Bidini–so I feel comfortable in these words.

Follow Jet City Ice for more hockey content than you could ever imagine wanting.

 

No, We’re not Getting a Divorce

Tim and I have been together 20 years. I’ve known him since we were 13. We’ve been through most of life’s major moments together. We have a good understanding of each other, and align on most parenting and basic life decisions.

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my current favorite picture of Tim

By his own admission, I know him better than anyone else ever has. But I have struggled to make sense of parts of his personality that have caused us such grief; his cool, detached emotional distance, and his fiery, scorching rages. These extremes have framed our lives together, dictating our relationship in ways both simple and profound.

As I have said repeatedly, Tim’s best quality by far is his willingness to seek a solution when he recognizes there’s a problem. For the last six years, we’ve been examining this particular polarity, sussing out what underpins this stressful dynamic. Our working thesis for many years was a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, delivered to Tim when he was in his mid-20s. Carefully monitored medications have helped to a certain extent, preventing some symptoms, not touching others.

But no medication improved his temper. His practice of meditation helped, but changing circumstances got him off that habit. And while meditation helped his reactive outbursts, it didn’t affect his detachment.

Adding to our friction is my native tenderness, a sensitivity that led me to music and writing, my emotions bleeding through everything I do. I don’t much like the word “empath,” but the description is appropriate. According to Dr. Judy Orloff, who wrote several books on the subject, “Empaths are highly sensitive, finely tuned instruments when it comes to emotions. They feel everything, sometimes to an extreme . . . Intuition is the filter through which they experience the world. they’re . . . world-class nurturers.”

The number of times I was told I’m “too sensitive” makes me uncomfortable with this description. I have trouble seeing the good in being sensitive, because it’s been used as an insult so many times. But sensitive is what I am. I have worked diligently to separate myself from situations that are not my responsibility, to avoid letting emotional situations control my decisions socially or professionally. That is not an easy task for me, but I’ve learned some techniques.

With me being an exposed nerve, and Tim being a downed power line sparking all over our world, life has rarely been calm. I have the hardest time detaching to a safe distance with Tim, because I love him and want to be around him. But if you’ll recall, his emotional detachment is the other fragment of necessary information; I can only attach to him to a certain point, beyond which he is unreachable.

These are the characters, Portland’s “know thyself” ethos is the setting, now here’s the plot; After years of therapy separately and together, we finally have a concrete reason for this isolating schizm; Tim has been diagnosed with Asperger’s.

The roots of his detachment and his rage are the same; he has trouble processing sensory input, and so he avoids it by detaching; when he can’t avoid it and it overwhelms him, he lashes out in a rage.

Several therapists have gotten us to this point. Individual counselors for him and for me, a couples therapist for us together, and now, finally, an autism specialist, who placed Tim on the spectrum.

Because he holds a steady job and manages real-world functions, he has High Functioning Autism, or Aspberger’s. I’m not completely clear on what terminology to use yet.

I’m relieved to have an explanation for what we’ve been through. I spent many years blaming myself for not being _________ enough to make him happy; quiet/tidy/passive/polite/you name it, I felt guilty for not being it. But as with all issues relating to another person’s happiness, it has nothing to do with me. He has completely different stuff going on that he has to deal with.

So here we are, now 50 years old, living in a mostly empty nest, trying to incorporate a brand-new diagnosis of a developmental disorder. Some scholars suggest there is comorbidity with Aspberger’s (ASD) and bipolar disorder (BP). Tim’s had a clinical diagnosis of central auditory processing disorder, a neurological disorder, since college. We may find these are all part of the same issue.

This has always been our reality; now we understand the reasons why, the facts behind the behavior. Now we know what’s changeable and what isn’t.

Now we figure out how to make a life around this diagnosis. Because this isn’t something we can wish away or medicate away or pray away or ignore; this is fact.

Tim’s strength–seeking out a solution when he realizes there’s a problem–will serve him well in this phase of his life. He’s auditioning autism-spectrum-disorder (ASD) therapists over the next few weeks, and getting back to regular meditation. I’ll have to lean more heavily on my own self-care tactics to help myself through this transition. With everything else we’ve managed in 20 years together, we will manage this too, I am certain. I have no idea what that will look like, but maybe I’ll drop a line here if things get interesting.

I’m willing to bet that things will, indeed, get interesting.

 

 

 

 

Horror Eyes

If you have ever watched a recent horror film, you are familiar with a common special effect used to signify that a person has been possessed by or has become an evil spirit; the entire eye, including the white part, becomes pitch black.

Image result for horror eyes

This happened to me this morning, sans evil spirit.

I blame my age.

When my 25 year old daughter showed up one day with beautiful and simple eyeliner, I asked her to show me how to do it.

“It’s called tightline, or waterline,” she said. She then showed me how to pull my upper eyelid slightly more open, so I could draw on the edge of skin beneath the lashes, the part that touches the eyeball.

It’s subtle but effective, the way I believe makeup should be. The only drawback is that the pencil line becomes liquified by the moisture in my eyes, and within minutes of application, I have smudges beneath my eyes that make it look like I’ve been crying.

And no, I have not been crying. One of the best parts of menopause, for me, has been reduction of tears. By and large, the things that used to make me cry now simply annoy and irritate me.

So this morning, as I was getting ready for work, I’m at my makeup mirror. I also check my email, waiting for an important banking notification that should arrive any minute. I’ve got my contacts in, and I’ve decided to try tightlining with my waterproof liquid eyeliner. Worth a shot, right? I’ve got 10 extra minutes to play around.

My mirror is as close as I can get it without my eyes being forcibly crossed.

I pull my eyelid up and aim for the corner. But my hand is in the way, and I can’t see up close without my reading glasses—a new development—so my aim is approximate, not precise. You kind of have to be precise around the eye.

I tilt my head, looking for a new angle of approach. The computer pings with an email arrival. The important bank stuff! I can get this done before I go to work. Easy peasy.

I turn my attention back to makeup. I really need to take out my contacts—or put on my reading glasses. This is nuts. I am a vague beige and brown shape with a blue target in the middle. The tip of the liquid eyeliner applicator, which is a soft paintbrush shape, hits right between my eyelid and eyeball. My eye is flooded with black liquid.

I look like I’ve been possessed. I whisper into the mirror, “THAT’S how they do it!” and race to the bathroom to wash out my eye. My contact. My eye again.

It doesn’t hurt or sting, I just can’t see. I wait for the pain, but nothing comes. That’s a relief.

My ten extra minutes have evaporated. I rush back to my desk. Because I think I can multitask, I’ve also been trying to enter data into the banking app. With one eye and a ticking clock.

“Please enter your bank’s routing number.”

Well, crap. I haven’t used checks for years. Where the fuck am I going to find my routing number? With an assist from my husband (thank god for him), I find the damned routing number.

“Please enter either your email or your phone number for verification.”

Okayokayokayokayokayokay comeoncomeoncomeoncomeon. Yes. Verify. Yes. Okay.

Now I’m late. Is it because of the eyeliner? Or the bank? Multitasking?

The bank’s email doesn’t come. I’ve reverted to my regular eyeliner programming, the kind that makes me look like a droopy Charro, and figure it can’t be any worse than it’s been the last four years. I’ll figure out how to be like my 25 year old another day.

Where is that damned email?

My bags are packed and I can leave as soon as the email arrives with the confirmation number.

“Here is your confirmation number. Copy and paste–”

Yeah yeah, let’s go.

“Your email has been confirmed. Please also confirm your phone number”

SHIT. Where is my phone?

Where the hell is my phone?

I’ve been on it this morning, right after I got up. I sent my husband a funny headline. I think I did. Or was that last night? He left for work already. I email him.

Have you seen my phone?

“Confirm your phone number within 5 minutes, or your account information will be refused.”

I’m pretty consistent with my phone. When I’m headed out the door, it’s either on my purse or on the table near the door. It’s neither place. Not in the bathroom. Not in the freezer. In the dog food bucket? Nope. In the cushions of the couch next to my purse—no. On the floor? Did I leave it outside when I took the dog out? Did I take the dog out? SHIT. DOES THE DOG NEED TO SHIT? I am going to be so freaking late.

I am so screwed.

Not in the bathroom, or the freezer. Maybe it’s in the fridge. Nope. Is it IN my purse? No. My lunchbox? No. My robe pocket? NO. Washer? Dryer? Linen closet?

FUCK.

“Confirm your phone number within 1 minute…”

I start throwing bedding off my nicely made bed. Not under the throw, or the top blanket. My husband’s pillow, my pillow—shit. THERE it is!

How many times have I lost something because I cleaned? You’d think I’d learn.

I confirm the phone number for the bank. I plausibly remake the bed and dart for the door.

On my way across town, I reason that the only explanation for this whole sordid story is that, at 50, my eyesight has become so complex—contacts for distance vision, reading glasses for up close, and screw the in between—that things I used to take for granted, like putting on eye makeup, now require techniques and devices I haven’t yet embraced. A magnifying mirror. A professional makeup artist. Eyeliner tattoo. Something.

Now that I’m this age, I can’t see to put on makeup without reading glasses, which get in the way of putting on makeup. I’ve graduated from the ridiculously difficult-to-open PMS medication packaging—seriously, who put THAT much plastic between a woman with PMS and the medication that will ease her pain?—to eyesight that won’t let me put on eyeliner, the one thing that makes me feel slightly less middle-aged and homely.

All I know for sure is that I can’t do tightlining anymore until I find a smudge-proof, non-liquid eyeliner, that I cannot multitask like I used to, and that if I ever need to pretend I’m possessed, I have everything I need in my makeup bag.

You never know when information like that is going to come in handy.

Heaving with Fat

I just got in from the garden. Heat’s going to hit 95 this week, and today’s clear sky and shimmering warmth are leading the way. I’m sweaty from my scalp to the soles of my feet, but I’m pleasantly exhausted, carved out by physical exertion, able to breathe again after clearing out the emotional and intellectual cobwebs.

Being physical is part of how I function. Once an athlete in high school, I have continued to be physically active; three times a week, since I was 19, I’ve done some kind of workout. Except for those times I’m sick or injured, I’m a worker-outer; at university, it was swimming or aerobics; raising my kids in the suburbs, I walk/ran up to five times a week. For 15 years now, in addition to the workout-workouts, I also garden, which sounds sedentary, but I use the opportunity to shovel/swing a small axe-like weeding tool/build beds/haul bags of dirt and buckets of water until I’m three-hours deep into an elevated cardiac state and filthy up to my waist.

Two years ago, after a knee injury, I started working with a personal trainer, Natalie. She has taught me how to take care of my joints while pushing myself to gain strength and endurance. At her urging, I’ve done things I never thought I could do, and I am proud of that work.

Also at Natalie’s behest, I have upgraded my workout clothes. She said it might help me get in the right mood to work out on days I don’t feel like it. And there are days *everybody* doesn’t feel like it, even my gorgeous trainer (who once trained to be a fitness model.) So I went on a hunt for “athlesiurewear.”

Back when I was running in the suburbs, trying to outfit myself for exercise was demoralizing. Workout clothes capped out at size XL, which will not work for my bottom half. Wandering around stores, I’d see all the cute patterns and colors in workout wear that I would *love* to wear, but all of it sized for smaller people than me. I did find yoga pants that worked, but only in black, and only in one style. I bought three pairs.

I began to resent shopping for workout clothes. I found large t-shirts and some castoff items from my dad from when he used to run 8 miles a day and just made do. I had one pair of pants that didn’t give me a chafing rash where my thighs meet.

Isn’t it funny that women are simultaneously expected to have space between their thighs AND ALSO keep their legs together for modesty?

Anyway, by the time I started working with Natalie, because she is good and kind and understands that in order to GET more fit, you have to want to WORK OUT and not feel like you just rolled off the couch in the same sweats and torn t-shirt you fell asleep wearing in sophomore year of college while you studied for your freaking botany exam that you shouldn’t have to take anyway. She pointed me toward places online that carry larger sizes, where I found cute tops that come in bright colors and fit comfortably. Technology has advanced to produce fabrics that wick away moisture, so you don’t feel like you’re being suffocated by your clothing anymore.

And! AND! I found workout PANTS! Pants that fit my ass! My thighs! My tree-trunk thighs that defy expectations for lower limbs, and yet there they are! I HAVE PANTS PEOPLE! It took me several very disappointing tries, but I found them.

And some of them even have pockets. Granted, the ones with pockets don’t quite fit me in the rise (because you can be fat AND have long legs–like me!) so I still battle chafing, but it’s a goddamned start.

But guys. People. Fellow humans. My teammates in workouts and in life. Listen, Linda.

There are some people in this world who do NOT APPROVE of fat people having access to well-made, attractive, functional, appropriately sized workout wear. Some people who work for huge media corporations heartily disapprove of clothing companies including larger consumers in their target customer base.

Specifically, though not exclusively, Tanya Gold of The Telegraph UK, took issue with Nike’s use of a plus-size mannequin in their London store.

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Here she is, heaving with fat, the obese mannequin of my dreams. Isn’t she lovely?

“The new Nike mannequin is not a size 12, which is healthy, or even 16–a hefty weight, yes, but not one to kill a woman…

(here comes my favorite part.)

“She is immense, gargantuan, vast. She heaves with fat. She is, in every measure, obese, and she is not readying herself for a run in her shiny Nike gear. She cannot run. She is, more likely, pre-diabetic and on her way to a hip replacement.”

I know she’s just one person, but I have met so many Tanya Golds in my life that this quote just pissed me off. I can’t read the article because it’s behind a paywall, and I’ll be goddamned if I’ll give her employer any money. But Tanya Gold was in the voice of one potential hair stylist, who urged me not to cut my hair short because my head would then be too small for my body, or the man at my sister’s art opening who told me I shouldn’t be wearing the kitten-heeled shoes I had on because I looked like I was going to just fall over, and the voice of my mother in law who told me that I shouldn’t use her treadmill because it was “not rated” for my weight.

Their faux concern for my well-being only vaguely shrouds their loathing of anyone who isn’t skinny. That loathing blinds them to the reality that 1) they have no right to opine about another person’s body, because 2) they have NO CLUE what another person’s reality is.

I found this absurd quote on the Instagram account of one of my favorite fat athletes, Mirna Valerio (@themirnavator)  a runner and author. Valerio posted the quote with a video of her running swiftly downhill in a forest very much like my beloved Washington Park, tree roots and boulders in her path, unbothered by the twists and turns and knee-challenging drops from step to step.

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Valerio said “Tanya Gold…can you do this?” And added a quote from her book “A Beautiful Work in Progress”

“This body isn’t meant to stagnate or cease moving . . . This body is fierce, beautiful and unapologetic. It’s meant to move through the world as it wishes: lifting, walking, and running, rolls and all. Love handles, bouncy boobs, curves, tummy, butt, back fat, and all. I honor her by continuing to move along the spectrum of health and wellness, and in turn she honors me by living vibrantly.”

Valerio is such a palate cleanser for me. When I feel shitty about not looking like I think I should, I read her posts and see her pictures and feel energized to keep going. That’s all any of us can really do, skinny or fat; just keep going.

People like Tanya Gold, for whatever reason, don’t want fat people to keep going. Never having been skinny, I can’t say what’s behind this viciousness, but it’s real. A slender segment of the skinny population expends effort toward stopping fat people–from going to concerts and parties to buying clothes to trying to work out for whatever reason moves them. These hateful skinnies can’t stand it, and they can’t shut up about it.

Let’s just put this out there; whether a person wants workout clothes for working out or just because they like them, it’s none of Ms. Gold’s business. Fat people buy whatever clothes they want; their money works exactly like skinny people’s money, and Nike has finally realized that.

So this is for you, Ms. Gold; take your narrow (ha!), small (HA!), ignorant and petty beliefs about my fat body and shove them. My gargantuan thighs would rather run to the beat of Mirna Valerio’s joyous activity; her hard-won sweat and self-satisfied smile defeat your ugly lack of humanity every single time.

I have long suspected that mean skinny people are being eating alive from the inside by something, just withering away their abundance and joy. I don’t want that to be me. I needed to say these things here so other people could see them, so other people might feel less alone in their hurt over these comments. So I could feel less alone.

My life is full of magic and wonder and the more-than-occasional homemade chili/chocolate chip cookie. And when I lift myself into a plank and beads of sweat run off my face and I push past the one minute mark, or I go 15 minutes longer on the exercise bike, or I climb further up the trail than I got last time, I will bask in the expansion of my spirit and completely forget the circumference of my thighs.

And I will forget completely one Tanya Gold, who has to live with herself long after the words she wrote vanish from the public discussion. Sucks to be you, Tanya.

I’ve never been a Nike fan, but maybe it’s time to look at their plus-size workout gear.

Other accounts I follow for super motivation:

Martinus Evans @300poundsandrunning
Louise Green @louisegreen_bigfitgirl 

 

 

Parks and Recreation

Over the years, I’ve worked at a number of companies as they go through buyouts, takeovers, restructuring, downsizing. Because many of my jobs have come through temp agencies and creative staffing agencies–temp agencies for people in creative fields–I’ve seen a fair bit of this. Temps are brought in when the company doesn’t want to hire full-time permanent staff. Some companies exist on “temporary” staff for years. I worked as a “temp” at one job for almost four years. There were lots of us there in the same position.

During the buyout of one large company–the brand is found everywhere from hospitals to manufacturing to aeronautics–the layoffs were announced in stages. When the first round of administrative layoffs occurred, you could hear weeping in the hallways, and everyone walked around in a fearful hush, like it was a sick ward and we were all worried about catching it next.

The same feeling has descended upon the staff of Portland Parks and Recreation. When I left one community center in March, the $7 million budget shortfall had just been announced, and rumbles of staff cuts followed like thunder announcing a storm. Budget meetings were held all over the city, to packed houses. People asked questions that got noncommittal answers. Bucks were passed. Brows were furrowed. Managers held serious meetings. Cuts were coming, and it would happen before the beginning of the fiscal year (July 1), but they didn’t know exactly who would be cut. The list was narrowed down to a certain range of classifications, and there was a long-shot appeal launched through the city commissioners.

Valiant efforts by the union representatives to sway the vote did not succeed. The city budget was passed last week, with only one commissioner, Jo Ann Hardesty, voting against the budget. She is quoted frequently saying “a budget is a moral document.” This is true in city governments and in businesses and in households. What you choose to spend money on reflects and expresses your morals, shows what you place value on.

And now there are nearly 70 people out of a job in Portland. Seventy people with a specific skillset–serving the community in recreation and arts education–who now have to figure out how to support themselves. Seventy people whose paychecks were already meager, who were already working in jobs that paid less than they needed because they believed in what Parks and Recreation stands for, what it provides to the community.

This is a more painful round of layoffs than I have seen before. Maybe because I know three of the people getting cut, and I’m watching this from the sidelines. But Parks and Recreation is a different kind of place to work. It’s not like companies, places where you can earn a decent living, or like that mega-company in which the layoff virus spread unabated until every corner was singed.

At Parks and Recreation, you interact with people off the street every single day. You help them find the right music class for their seven year old, or give an elderly person directions to the right bus line. Sometimes, you have to chase teenagers out of a practice room where they’re drawing baffling graffiti because they don’t have anything else to do.

There’s the woman from the Ukraine who learned how to sculpt in a Parks and Rec class
–and discovered she has a real gift for three-dimensional art. Parks employees get to witness that revelation, to be part of that woman’s joy, and part of her pursuit of a new thrilling part of herself.

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Jo Ann Hardesty, the only person at the city who fought for Parks.

That never happened at MegaCorp. I spent my days processing accounts receivable/deliverable for selling widgets overseas.

Parks and Recreation is a connection between the community and the city. The city has chosen to spend their money somewhere else, somewhere that’s not the community.

They’ve taken the money away from the 70 people who handed a basketball to the kids from down the street who need a place to shoot hoops. They took money away from 70 people who, instead of working in an office or in retail or some reliable job that pays well, found the one employer who would pay them to work in their art form–music or dance or literature–and still make an okay living. They sacrificed better wages to help the community access the same art that gave them so much joy.

And the city just said that doesn’t matter. The people who screwed up this budget aren’t the ones who are getting laid off, but that doesn’t matter either. These 70 people who worked long past their shifts and cleaned up disgusting messes and know every nook and cranny of their facilities get to hit the bricks.

I’m pretty disappointed in this city right now. Their morals are on full display, and it’s so defeating. I don’t know how the city will maintain any connection with the community after this; with fewer people to staff positions, programs will be cut, and people will wander away from the emaciated community centers across town. Economists and educational psychologists can tell you the inevitable conclusion of that story: rising truancy, drug use, gang involvement, crime, incarceration. One man, who works with incarcerated youth, pointed out that the government pays for these kids one way or the other; either with programs to help develop them into responsible human beings, or when they’re locked up.

Of those 70 people, I’m thinking of my three friends, intelligent and funny and talented and committed people who just lost their jobs. The city has lost dozens of hard-working, community-focused employees who tried like hell to spread their light around the world, like we’re all told to do every damned day. Lot of good it did them. Lot of good it did the city.

Thanks, Mayor Ted “Bean Counter” Wheeler and the rest of the accountants running the city. You’re losing the heart and soul of this place, and you’re so blinded by dollar signs you have no idea what you’ve lost.

PS–If you’re a Portlander who’s hiring creative, committed people, let me know. Let’s get these people employed again!

Whitman

I took a class on Whitman, Dickinson, Keats and Longfellow in college. It was team-taught by two department stars, Dr. Kiefer and Rodney Jones, one a natty dresser with a gorgeous head of curly hair, the other an acclaimed poet, a stereotypical professor in appearance, wry sense of humor and laconic delivery.

While I vividly recall my music department classes and classmates, I don’t remember much about my English classes. I was nominally an English major, but spent all of my free time in the music department, a holdover from high school’s music wing, where one could lounge for hours outside the band room, ostensibly studying or eating lunch.

In college, I had few friends in my major. I met Robby in my Whitman class. We were both just starting to take classes in our major, and excited to be out of gen-ed classes. He was quiet and so was I, both reluctant at first to speak up too much during this three-hour bi-weekly class. At the break, we would compare notes, discuss the poems we were studying, and found ourselves fast friends.

In that way youthful relationships do, we bonded quickly, spending mealtimes and study hours together, sometimes in my dorm room, sometimes in his. He was a transplant to southern Illinois from Florida, living with his beloved grandmother in the summers. He was smart in a way I hadn’t experienced yet, because I had spent so much time with musicians. He was insightful and philosophical, grasping big ideas in a short time, making connections I could not conceive. He was fascinating and funny.

And he was gay.

At least, I think he was. He never told me, but neither had the other gay friends I had. And being in music and theatre, I had a lot, dating back into high school. One of my college friends who was gay would sit and admire men’s butts with me in the music department lobby. We each had our top three. Mine, strangely enough, included the man who would eventually be my first husband.

But Robby never said anything about that part of his life. He talked about poetry and the power of language. We’d talk excitedly about the punctuation and spacing of Dickinson’s poetry, and the florid language in Longfellow. We were both gripped by Whitman, whose language rose like a gentle wind off the page and swept both of us in Romantic Era fervor.

When we exchanged letters over the summer, nature was our favored theme; he was moved by the endless fields of wheat in Illinois, the dry openness of the summer sky, rolling rivers hemmed by trees. They were the most breathtaking non-romantic letters I have ever gotten. I keep them in a box to this day, his blue-inked return address at his grandmother’s house a beacon on the envelope. “This is where Robby lived.”

The next year, my junior year, I got pregnant and my whole life shifted. I was consumed with “what now,” with little time for wheat fields and Whitman. I struggled through a whole entire class on Faulkner, whose themes of broken families and unplanned pregnancy choked my brain as I was faced with a family who turned their back on me because of my unplanned pregnancy.

I lost a lot of friends when I got pregnant. I don’t remember specifically how I lost track of Robby. Maybe it was not having classes together. Maybe it was our vastly different lives. I saw him occasionally on campus. He visited briefly after I had the baby. And once, I ran into him at the grocery store, after I had my second child. He was friendly and my heart ached for the distance my life had traveled from the friends I once had. I was head-over-heels in love with my children, but I had no one to share that fervor with. 

A few months ago, I found out from another alumni of our university that Robby had died a few years ago. Very young, not yet 50. He had a brain tumor, which hurts doubly so because of his intense intellect and humor and kindness. Not the brain–don’t take the things that made him so marvelous. But all of it is taken now, and I never had the chance to tell him how much I missed those elegaic conversations we had, the chiding affection in our late-night meanderings, and those wild and passionate letters about wheat fields.

There’s an upcoming film being shown locally about Whitman. The poetry will be accompanied by some animation. I could just visit my copy of Leaves of Grass, and find Robby in the margin notes. But I think I will go to this film and hear what other people have to say about Whitman, to hear someone else’s intelligent observations of this great, gentle man of words. I suspect I’ll see Robby there, just on the edge of my vision, like he’s sitting next to me in that long poetry seminar, tapping his pen on his notebook pensively. Someone will say something brilliant, and for a moment, it will be Robby again, a dagger in the heart of the matter, bright and clean and smiling as he always was.

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Grab Bag

I’ve been spending a lot of time with my subconscious lately. There’s lots of time to spare, now that Tim’s back to work and my daughter is nearly full-time at her job. Freelance gigs come and go, but I have more quiet in my brain now. And I’m tugged in the direction of the edges of thought that surface.

Like just now, in the kitchen, I was struck by the difference between my husband and me. I was clearing away last night’s cooking mess, a pan I left soaking with baking soda and dish detergent. By this afternoon, the caramelized blueberry muffin overspill had melted back to liquid, and I sprayed it off with the faucet. My cleaning method is a gentle nudge, discouraging stains from staying permanently. I fill pots and pans with water and wait them out. It’s an effective strategy.

 

Tim, on the other hand, sees every thing he encounters as a battle to be won. Not people–just things. He attacks (his word) the dishes with vigor, setting every item gleaming and pristine into the dishwasher, where they will only become sanitized.  Pots and pans are scrubbed, SOS pads exhausted, and the clean and shining pile of pans displayed upside-down on the counter, twinkling as they dry. He faces his laundry with military precision, sorting colors and heat settings diligently, putting clothing right-side out and stacking them tidily on-deck, waiting to be washed. This is, to me, a little silly, because all of his clothes fit into the “beige/gray/bluish/greenish” category, and none run the risk of infecting the others with their bold color. But sort he does, and then washes in appropriate sequence, and then folds and puts away. By the time he’s done, he is exhausted.

That’s true for the dishes, too. Doing the same amount of dishes, he will emerge from the kitchen in need of a nap, or at least a good sit down, while I will have completed the dishes, dinner prep, putting away errant pantry items, and wiping down the counters. He’ll do one thing full-bore and do the hell out of it; I do six things kinda half-assed and meander through while I think about tomorrow’s dinner or making baby blankets or a plot consideration for a story in the works.

I admire my husband’s drive. I love how he can go in one direction persistently, and not be pulled off to the things that trace across his intellectual field of vision. In the middle of that last sentence, I remembered that I want to use the leftover buttermilk from the blueberry muffins to make cornbread to go with tonight’s chicken, so I looked up a homemade cornbread recipe.

That kind of interruption would drive Tim nuts. His method of focus would, for me, result in things that don’t get done. Today, even while I’m feeling like dogshit because of a respiratory infection, I’ve cleaned the kitchen, washed the sheets, cleaned the toilet and the sink, planned a potluck for the community garden and made flyers to advertise it, and planned tonight’s dinner. I should be sleeping, but because I’m going at half speed and doing multiple things at once, I got a few things done.

Tim and I are talking a lot about our neurological differences. It took him a long time to figure out my “grab bag” of a brain, but he did so without judgement. He recognizes my rambling ways as different from his; I see his task-oriented brain as different from mine. And this is the really beautiful thing about long-term relationships that work; we see each other’s quirks and oddities, shrug our shoulders and move along with our days. We’re compatible not because we’re alike, but because it doesn’t matter how we’re different, we still just want to be with each other.

We’re figuring it out, it appears. I can’t help but think of all those people–some friends, but mostly family–who told me I was making a huge mistake getting involved with Tim. He wasn’t right for me, I wasn’t right for him.  Like they knew.

Marriage is so much more than being “right” for each other at a given time and place. It’s more structural, more modular than I ever knew. Tim has the necessary structure for a long-term relationship. It’s just how he’s built; solid, over-engineered, every beam and board measured twice or more. And that’s how he thinks. I suspect the people who warned me off him didn’t really know him at all.

I will never be like Tim, even though sometimes I wish I could; the die on my personality is cast. But I respect his particular, peculiar makeup, and admire how he tolerates mine.

My subconscious wanted to say all that just now.

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Country Music

Growing up in suburban Chicago, I didn’t listen to country music. It was either my father’s symphonic music on WFMT, or my mother’s bobby-soxer/50s crooners, or local pop radio on the radio in my room. Occasionally, we’d click past HeeHaw on TV, but we never stayed to watch. I learned early that that wasn’t *our* kind of entertainment.

Neither was Soul Train, but if I was too sick for mass on Sunday, I reveled in the chance to see people dance to funky music on the UHF channel. Reception was fuzzy but I didn’t care.

My father sang one Mac Davis song, “It’s Hard to be Humble”, when he was in a good mood. Country music was for satire, for humor, for mocking ignorance and lack of sophistication. It wasn’t, from what I could tell as a child, “real” music. Plus, country music was from the south, and people in the south did horrible things to black people. They couldn’t be trusted.

When I went to school in southern Illinois, I found myself plunged into a completely different culture. While still strictly part of Illinois, and therefore the North, southern Illinois has a heavily Deep South-influenced culture, from the accent to the food to the music. The southern tip of the state, from Effingham on down, is physically south of the Mason/Dixon line, and also, oddly enough, the linguistic “greasy/greazy” line. Above this line, the word “greasy” is pronounced with an “s”, below it, with a “z.”

I learned a lot in college that had nothing to do with my major.

Instead of multiple radio channels dedicated to 80s pop hits, the dial in Carbondale was peppered with country music, and I resisted every note. My primary motivation when I went to university was to go out with a lot of boys, but introversion is a terrible thing for a girl with such ambitions, so I let my prospective dates’ music choices be my guide. Guys who liked country music would never be caught dead with a big girl like me; they wanted someone who looked like Daisy Duke. They were the ones who had the “no fat chicks” sign in their dorm windows. I wasn’t safe around them.

My worries about country music were not unfounded; a Mississippi State University sociologist analyzed country chart-toppers from the 1980s through the 2010s, and has found that “country hits increasingly objectify women and glorify whiteness,”

In recent years, Leap reports, country hits have “increasingly depicted women as sexual objects instead of employed equals.” In addition, “whiteness is celebrated far more often than it was in the 1980s and 1990s”—a trend that dovetails with the rise of white identity politics, particularly in the rural areas where the genre is most popular.

…beginning in the 1990s, more hit songs contained “allusions to idyllic pasts.” That sort of nostalgia has obvious racial undertones, made overt in 2003’s “Beer for My Horses,” in which Toby Keith and Willie Nelson “reminisce about when public lynchings were commonplace,” as Leap puts it.

Willie Nelson? Come on, man!

My wariness of country music resulted in lots of music-department boyfriends–brass players, drummers, and later, a husband who was a professional jazz bass player. No country music fans in the lot. Find me a chart-topping country hit with trumpet, I dare you.

Somewhere along the line, Shania Twain appeared. And Faith Hill.  I edged toward country music as cautiously as I could, making sure the lyrics didn’t cross the line into the “bad” kind of country music, the stuff about missing the confederacy and women knowing their place. These performers were women exerting their independence with a twang, accompanied by steel guitar and sometimes mandolin. I could get past my Pavlovian response to the instrumentation and sing along with their lyrics about seeking their own paths.

There’s something outdoors-y about country music, and for that reason, I wished I could like it. It’s playful, like splashing in the swimming hole, drink lemonade in the sun, roll in the hay, all things I enjoy.  I do not enjoy propping up mediocre white men, marginalizing people of color, longing for the “ante-bellum” days (read “slavery”), or praising the Confederacy. With most of country music, I just couldn’t get past that.

And then the Dixie Chicks happened, and suddenly, country music was fun. I mean, “Goodbye, Earl” completely turns country music tropes on their head. (Fun fact: Dennis Franz, who plays “Earl” in the video, went to school at Southern Illinois University. Just like me.) I flung the windows open and played their music at the highest volume. Songs like Cowboy Take me Away, Wide Open Spaces, and Sin Wagon were a joy, and to this day, speak of hot summer nights driving with the windows down.

Then I moved back to the Chicago area, and put away my country music to listen to on my own. I really only had those three artists, but it just felt out of place in the suburbs. Coming to Oregon moved me farther away from any country music, and listening to it here seems doubly insulting to black people, with Oregon’s history as an all-white state.  My listening to traditional country here might signal to accidental eavesdroppers some allegiance with white supremacy, and I won’t allow that lie to spread, even just outside my car.

A few years ago, someone suggested I listen to Kacey Musgraves, saying she was “different” from other country acts. I refused. Then I started listening to Brandi Carlile, whose powerful voice exudes the longing and passion articulated in her lyrics.

All of these lines across my face
Tell you the story of who I am
So many stories of where I’ve been
And how I got to where I am
But these stories don’t mean anything
When you’ve got no one to tell them to
It’s true, I was made for you
I climbed across the mountain tops
Swam all across the ocean blue
I crossed all the lines, and I broke all the rules
But, baby, I broke them all for you
Oh because even when I was flat broke
You made me feel like a million bucks
You do
I was made for you
For you

 

One of my friends said Brandi sounds like she’s going to bust a vocal cord. Turns out, I kinda like that. Her songs are about finding forgiveness, about boldly being an individual in a world of conformity, about learning how to love her daughter when it didn’t come naturally, and her love for her wife.

Her experience as a gay performer immediately set her apart from many artists I was listening to, and put me at ease about her message and background. There’s not a single country trope in her lyrics. She’s raw, unhinged, intense.

And purposeful.

Brandi Carlile started her career as a little girl outside Seattle singing country music on stage with her parents in bars and markets. She grew up dirt poor, living in a trailer. Her first love is country music, and now after this great success–six Grammy nominations last year, three wins–as an “Americana” artist (WTH is that, anyway?), she has started working in country music again. This year, she will be touring with a group called The Highwomen, a nod to 1980s country super group The Highwaymen, built of  Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson.

The Highwomen comprise Carlile, Maren Morris, and Amanda Shires  among others who will rotate in. I know only Carlile of those names, but I’m willing to give the group a shot if only to hear her sing music she loves. She has an easy, warm vibrato that veers into yodeling in the higher registers, and she sounds so joyful when she bursts into those moments, I just want to sing with her. And so I do.

She and her Highwomen bandmates have struck out on this path with the intention of bringing more female voices to country music, and to spread a more inclusive message among the fans. I hope they’re successful. I saw a bumper sticker the other day that said “God, save me from your followers.” I feel like that could apply to country music, too.

And I finally did discover Kacey Musgraves. Last summer, like millions of other people, I stumbled upon her album “Golden Hour,” and fell head over heels in love with her trim vocal pattern, almost vibrato-free tone, and lyrics that defy all KINDS of country tropes.

It takes a lot to woo me musically, but she’s got it; unexpected lyrics, intriguing and simple harmonies and melodic lines, and defiant uniqueness. Her voice gives me shivers. She won the same Grammy that Carlile was up for, and I wasn’t even mad; “Golden Hour” is a thing of beauty.

Here’s one of my favorites; trippy, hypnotic, and full of joy and love. And steel guitar!

It’s summer in Oregon, and I am ready to throw open the windows and blast some summertime music. Here’s Brandi Carlile with her whole family, including some superheroes, on stage last summer in Bend. Tim and I were about 10 feet to the left of the person who shot this video. Best show I’ve seen in a while. Get yourself a little new country music, if you have a chance.

But stick to the women; they’re getting good.

 

Calm Sea

It will come as a surprise only to people who don’t know him, but my husband Tim was hired shortly after putting out his resume. He found an employer that matches his conscientious work ethic, substantially increased Tim’s annual salary, and is near enough to our home for Tim to ride his bike.

Plus, Tim has started working doggedly on the launch of a new hockey-fan site (details to come when the site is ready), so he’s been busy. His active brain has been put to its fullest and best use, and he couldn’t be happier.

I’m down to one workday a week at the music center, plus the freelance work I do from home. Now that garden season is upon us, I spend 3-4 hours every couple of days out in the sunshine.

I picked up a volunteer role as the community garden manager, and it’s giving me a sample of the kind of “more” that I was looking for; using my organizational and communication skills, connecting with people, and in this case, building community in a space that’s lost some sense of common purpose. Plus, it’s given me an excuse to be at the garden every day, puttering here, weeding there, talking to people I have never met.

I am a natural introvert, but when it’s my job to talk to people, I do just fine, thank you. Plus, gardeners are the nicest people on the planet, and we have a built-in topic of conversation literally at our feet. Over the weekend I attended a workshop on inclusion and outreach, and I’m like a kid coming back from a church retreat: fired up with the spirit of togetherness and understanding!

Without all the “god” stuff.

We have–for the time being–stabilized.

I made the right decision to leave my job at the arts center. I do miss the people, but when I visited a couple of weeks ago, I felt the same weight descend upon me–borne of frustration, of inchoate rage at the inept management, a closing-in of the box in which I was allowed to function–that I had felt for months before I left. Loss of morale might better be described as a suffocation, a containment until asphyxiation of the best impulses of  employees.

I am free of the strictures. Thanks to my husband, I have the financial stability to do what comes next. It’s a calm sea for a prosperous voyage.

If it Doesn’t Open, it’s Not Your Door

This is a story I’m not supposed to write until it’s happy.

Two weeks ago, I worked my final day at the place I loved–Multnomah Arts Center–to go in search of something where I can use my skills beyond answering the phone and being nice to customers.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved working with customers. I loved the people I worked with. But unlike every job I’ve ever had, there was no room for me to do anything other than answer the phone and be nice to customers. I tried. For four years I tried. I offered and submitted ideas and updated old policy manuals (“DRAFT ONLY”), organizing file drawers for optimum usage, anything other than answering phones and being nice to people, just to demonstrate my expressed eagerness to move up.

But bureaucrats gonna bureaucrat.

So I tendered my resignation, held my head high through the last 14 days of my employment, and on day 13, my husband lost his job.

It was a similar situation, actually. Tim’s got super-linear-do-it-right-the-first-time brain, and his boss . . . um . . . didn’t. So, in a small office, when there are two forces pushing against the same object, the guy who owns the place wins by default. Tim’s native ability to make a rock-solid program that works flawlessly in perpetuity was not a good fit for a business run by someone who does things slapdash. So Tim was out on his ear.

We were both knocking on doors that would not open.

I’ve had lots of time to ponder the decision to leave my job. There have been moments of regret, a flash across my memory of faces I grew to love, a call from my beloved “work husband” whose continued contact means more than he knows. What the hell did I do, walking away from a steady job? Am I insane?

So no, I don’t have a happy ending to this story. I have some freelance leads, and Tim’s being submitted for a number of spots. This is certainly not our first time down the path of the unemployed; years ago, we both lost our jobs within hours of each other. Tim’s an assiduous job-seeker, and is connected to others in his industry across the country. That’s why he spent 18 months working for and in the state of New York.

I did have to turn down a job possibility at a hot springs center deep in the mountains. That one broke my heart. But I can’t be completely out of touch for more than a day or two, and the location had no cell service or internet. No, sorry. Not with a medically fragile family. Ugh.

On some level, I know we’ll be okay. History is on our side. A period of unemployment  and job search is what brought us out to Portland

But I also know things change. What if the people making decisions see us as too old to take on as employees now? What if the universe views my departure from a steady job as a sign of hubris, and decides to punish me?

Right now, the story isn’t happy. People have been so kind and encouraging and concerned, and that’s been lovely. Thank you in advance, if that’s your thought while reading this. I felt very loved at MAC by the customers and my fellow reception warriors, and I take a sip from that whole-heart-full daily. I have *no* idea what’s next for me, or for Tim.

The sunny side of employment stories for us is our daughter’s employment situation. She isn’t keen on me writing about her (because I made a life out of writing about her when she was a kid), but let’s leave it at this; she is a bold, determined, and hard working. Not afraid to ask for what she wants, not afraid to take it when it’s offered. She blows me away.

I just have to draw from her example and be more bold than I have ever been. And while I wait, I have a garden to tend to, a dog to walk, writing to revise and create, and a husband to snuggle. And I do still have a very part-time position at a music center, which I also love. There have been worse unemployed periods than this.

Just gotta keep knocking on doors.

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Watching “Shrill”

As I sat down to write this, an article showed up on my screen. It was titled “Help! I think my coworker’s weight is impeding her career!” The headline featured a photo of a smiling white woman with two white men standing at a distance behind her, arms folded, looking at her with a critical expression on their faces.

“Great,” I thought. “Men determining what’s best for a woman’s health AND career. Perfect.”

I did not read the article. I don’t care what it’s really about. It’s enough of an insult to read the headline, to know that the pervasive attitude about women is that their bodies belong to the world around them, that coworkers have some inherent right to make any judgement about a woman’s career. The headline reinforces the belief that weight is inherently bad, and the only factor in determining a person’s success.

The paternalism makes me ill.

Aidy Bryant is starring in a six-episode show on Hulu show called “Shrill.” It was based on a book of essays written by Lindy West, a writer, comedian and activist from Seattle.

The show, set in Portland, centers Annie, a writer with a local newspaper, a la Portland Mercury or Willamette Week. She has been on calendar duty, longing for a more substantial role in the paper. To be a “real” writer.

I went to a fat-positive watch party to take in these three hours of TV. As I was preparing for the gathering, I found myself filled with an eager anticipation I have never felt when preparing for any other outing. This group of complete strangers is arranged around the single identifying feature of being fat/plump/stout/overweight/large/solid/Falstaffian, doing activities together, sharing the experience of being outsiders among typical-sized people.

The thought of watching the show with other women who experience being fat in our culture was exciting. Finally, I could hang out with people and not pretend to be something else–to be hip or fashionable, or comfortable in a rickety chair, or  pretend not to be hungry while surveying the potluck spread. I could skip the step of looking around the room and wonder if I’m the biggest person there. It wouldn’t matter.

I wouldn’t have to see that look in the eye of that person–and there’s always at least one–who sees only the size of your thighs or the spread of your waist, and telegraphs their slender superiority. It happens less in Portland–god love ya–than in suburban Chicago, but it still happens. I’ve been judged on many things, but I can see that fat-phobe look from a mile away.

The group went to great lengths to accommodate people of size, arranging the meeting at the house of a member who has ample, comfortable seating for a dozen people, ensuring that the entry was navigable by people with mobility issues.

Just the planning phase relieved some of my typical anxiety. Imagine a gathering where you are judged solely on your personality! The day of the gathering, I was positively jubilant.

This is not normal for me. Typically, on the day of any social gathering, I have created three or four reasons I can’t go. Some are legitimate, but I could probably overcome them. The combined paralysis of some minor inconvenience with being large in a skinny world often keeps me at home.

But Saturday. Saturday, I bounced around all day with the excitement of a shaken can of soda. My family noticed. This anticipation revealed to me just how much my body, with its menopause-enhanced curvature and lifestyle-induced expansion, factored into my social anxiety. Preparing to go out is a practice of expecting judgement–explicit or implicit–about my person. Once past the initial introduction, I am powerfully charming, capably playful, and intellectually stimulating. But the judgement phase comes first, and withstanding that onslaught while maintaining my natural effervescence is emotionally draining.

Not surprisingly, “Shrill” is couched in just such an anxious mindset, its protagonist timidly asking for more out of life. While its stated objective was to show a fat woman who “was happy”, I saw a fat woman who accepted less in nearly every aspect of her life–less than a woman of intellect and drive deserves. Setting aside for a moment the convenient fiction of her job, in which she works 1) for a newspaper, 2) that maintains an actual, physical newsroom 3) on “calendar beat” she has an actual cubicle, 4) such work–and ONLY that work– financially sustains her, “Shrill” has Annie in multiple sub-par situations that she continues to just TAKE.

When we meet her, Annie is “celebrating” six months of “fucking” a guy. He texts “Fuck?” to her in the middle of a workday, she leaves her job and ends up in a nasty-ass apartment with a seedy, overgrown, paunchy, aging nerd–“norm-core Ted Kaczynski”–and she lets him fuck her. And it didn’t look like much fun for her.

Our room full of women who knew better collectively groaned in disappointment to see her getting “raw-dogged” (sex without a condom) by this clunker.

The show’s creator definitely showed a fat woman who has sex, but geez–with THIS guy? She leaves work for that shipwreck?

When his roommates (!) come home unexpectedly, he has her leave by the back door, so they won’t know who he was fucking. She tiptoes (in wooden clogs, no less) down the back steps and has to climb over a fence overgrown with bramble–except for the small portion where she has repeatedly been asked to climb to save her fuck-buddy’s reputation.

And she was just taking it?

Annie has multiple relationships that reinforce her stance of taking what she’s allowed and liking it. Her editor is brusque and insulting, though not ever directly about weight, and dismisses Annie’s requests for increased responsibility without even a glancing consideration. This egomaniacism, I have found, is typical of editors, so while abrasive, I understood it as part of the culture of the newsroom.

Put a pin in that one.

Her mother, played by Julia Sweeney in all her mincing glory, loves Annie but constantly circles back to Annie’s diet and exercise, dragging Annie into conversations that are just fat-shaming candy-coated with health concerns.

Annie encounters street-shaming as well, when she is approached by a fitness trainer who sees Annie taking a sardonic look at an ad for fitness training. The trainer assumes Annie is looking to “lose weight”, and tells her how pretty she could be. A second encounter with the same trainer later in the show reinforced the “fat people are all unhappy because they are fat and only becoming skinny will make them happy” message all of us fat people receive. Realism.

What Annie has in spades is good, enriching friendship with her roommate Fran. With the unbridled support of a female friend who gives zero fucks, Annie relaxes into the certainty of unconditional love. Fran doesn’t expect Annie to look/be/act anything other than Annie, and that relationship makes the show for me. She holds a celebration party for Annie’s first published piece. Fran and Annie together depict how women hold each other together with reciprocal emotional labor. Fran encourages Annie to pursue those things that light her up, including the body-positive pool party that is the center of the show.

Annie pursues the pool party ostensibly as a calendar item for the newspaper. Such an event actually happens in Portland every summer; The Chunky Dunk  is “a fat, QTPOC & (a)gender affirmative non-profit organization that focuses on providing safer shame-free swimming for every BODY!” When Annie and Fran arrive, the party is in full swing, its gorgeous host lounging on deck furniture so alluringly, Fran must go introduce herself. The two eventually become girlfriends, a brilliant example of Fran’s assertive natural attraction. Annie dips her toes in the water, then lounges with Fran and her future girlfriend, and eventually strips to her swimsuit and plunges into the water to perform the handstand she’s been longing to do since she was a self-conscious, pudgy child.

Reveling in the pool has made Annie late for a work bike outing mandated by her editor. When she arrives, soaked to the skin, at the joyless looping cyclists, her boss excoriates her for not being a team player, not trying hard enough, not stepping up to do her job.

Except she WAS doing her job.

His diatribe was laced with implicit fat shaming, accusing Annie of laziness for not participating in an exercise outing that had nothing to do with her work ethic. He ignored all the times she went beyond her job description to deliver something truly remarkable–like her review of the breakfast buffet at a strip club that highlighted the lives and words of the dancers–and punished her for a mistake that inadvertently insulted his values.

Annie’s discussion with the strippers provided one of the best lines of the show. When Annie asks how the women can stand doing what men tell them to do all day, one of the strippers says “Men don’t tell me what to do. I got a fat ass and big titties. I tell men what to do.” Annie later seizes on this power with her fuck-buddy, asserting her will at long last over his half-assedness.

Why she wastes her power on such trash was a source of frustration to our watch-party group, whose joy at the revelatory pool party was dashed the moment Annie reconnected with fuckboy Ryan. The whole roomful of us shouted at the screen “DON’T DO IT” when she knocked on his door again, particularly after she had spent a night with someone who really cared about her–and didn’t make her crawl out undetected the next morning.

I’m still disgusted that she went BACK to a guy who made her do that. You really think your fat ass and big titties are gonna make him a better person?

Much of my response to “Shrill” was tied up in my view of women’s power, and how we give away our lives to other people in the name of being “nice”, or inoffensive, or polite. We teach people how to treat us with what we are willing to accept; every time we say “yes” to some crappy thing someone wants to hand us, we’re saying “no” to ourselves. We’re saying we don’t deserve anything more than this crappy thing.

All women have been told to be less; to be less loud, less large, less demanding, less intelligent and articulate. For centuries, women have been fighting to get out of the shell of the limitations placed on us. Millions of women have fought their way out and are living on their own terms, an example for the rest of us.

“Shrill” demonstrates the vestigial tendency toward smallness to which many of us still aspire, both in size and in pursuing our lives. Annie is clearly more capable than just being the “calendar” person at the newspaper, and any boss worth his salt will see that and foster that ability because it makes the whole newspaper look good. But she asks for more only tentatively, with an abashed hope that the editor pounces on as weakness–because males in our society see that politeness as a vulnerability, and see only that vulnerability, and stab at that tender spot until we bleed.

Strangely enough, the show “Shrill” makes no mention of the trope of women’s voices being harsh or offensive. Aidy Bryant’s delivery is decidedly deferential at all times, even when she is asserting her will. (Bryant is, by the way, delicious in this show.) While it’s the name of the book, the title of the show has little to do with what happens in the show.

“Shrill” has funny moments, and we hollered and cheered at the pool party. It was a beautiful scene of women jiggling their thighs as they danced and joyously cannonball-ing into a pool full of women. Not a single side eye was cast, not a sneer from a skinny onlooker, no tsks or eyerolls; just women in bathing suits playing in the sun.

You know, like “regular” people get to do when they go to the pool.

Our group agreed that this pool party was better than any party we’ve ever been to; there was music, and dancing, and a bar with a live bartender (Hey there, Ayanna Berkshire! I see you!), a photo booth, that freaking deck SOFA that everyone was lounging on, and kickass inflatables everywhere. That is a fucking POOL PARTY!

Episode 104

Pool

 

The rest of the show, however, was downhill from there. Sure, Annie reunited with the deadbeat (whose mom washes and folds and puts away his clothes every week. COME ON ANNIE) on “her terms”, and she confronted her mother about her fat shaming.

But we could not get over the fact that, right when Annie is starting to build her backbone, her friends and family complain that she’s going through a “selfish phase.”

Um, what?

How could a show that purports to be about self-acceptance put a character through these shitty relationships and situations, and then just when she is starting to stand up and say “no, this isn’t acceptable,” call her “selfish”?

Way to go, creators of Shrill. You just undercut your whole message.

Annie wasn’t being selfish. When she stood up to her mother, she wasn’t being selfish. When she chose to have sex with someone other than DoucheCanoe, she wasn’t being selfish. When she didn’t tell her roommate she’d had sex with the roommate’s brother, she wasn’t being selfish.

Maybe she was awkward, and maybe she didn’t get through those moments without stepping on some toes, but to label her “selfish” just when she’s starting to stand on her own two feet–that was just too much for me.

The show has gotten a lot of attention for highlighting a fat woman. And that’s great. She’s a woman who has a job and has sex and has friends. Great.

That’s true of most of us, by the way. Fat women have jobs and sex and friends. We do. It’s true. Take a moment to absorb that, if you need to.

What we *don’t* have–and the show doesn’t address at all–is good-looking, well-fitting clothes that we could afford on a calendar-person’s salary. Much has been made about the clothes on the show, which are super cute–but had to be created for Aidy because (ahem) NONE OF THE CLOTHES SHE WORE were available in stores.

Shrill Rainbow dress

Here she is confronting the douche. See the inviting, adult living space he inhabits?

Annie, however, never struggles with finding an adorable rainbow-sequined mini-dress to wear to an office party, or fidgets with sleeves that are too tight, or has to roll her pant legs because she had to buy pants two sizes too big so she could accommodate her mid-section. That would have been a realistic thing to put in the show, and not hide behind the camera.

But the show far too easily slips back into shaming Annie for growing, for becoming more than she was, for no longer being small enough for “regulars” to accept. Despite the exuberance of the pool party, the rest of the show left me and my fellow watch-party-goers deflated and discouraged. We wanted more than a single moment in sunshine, thighs bared to the public; we wanted Annie to claim the space she needed to become more than just the calendar person, more than just some loafer’s comfort object.

She deserves more. And we deserve more. Showing a fat woman on screen, in cute clothes, at a job in a funky city, and (GASP) having sex NAKED is a start.

It didn’t go nearly far enough.

 

To Make Small

I watched awards season this year with mixed feelings. I’m thrilled that “BlackkKlansman” got the attention and awards it so deserved (though I was bummed it didn’t get Oscar Best Picture), and happy, also, that a movie about a capable, powerful woman in the shadows of her husband’s success (The Wife) got so many eyeballs and kudos.

But watching Lady Gaga’s progression from wildcat/outlier/demolisher of stereotypes/embracer of oddlings to the precise silhouette of the Image of a Leading Woman was disturbing to me.

Gaga Weird Teeth.jpgGagaOscar.jpg

I’m a fan of Gaga’s voice. I’m a fan of her message. I don’t love all of her music (like, I *love* Brandi Carlile and every single thing she does. And also Janelle Monae), but I admire what she does and how she does it. She’s clearly an advocate for people who feel rejected, for people whose lives are lived in shadow. She stands tall and beckons the “misfits” to her, and shares with them her courage in the face of exclusion. Bullied as a child and as a college student (come on, young adults; what are you doing?), she identifies as a fellow outcast, and has found her strength in being unique, being her wild, wacky, incredible self.

And then she does this movie. Which is fantastic–I’m sure she’s great in it. I haven’t seen it because I think Bradley Cooper looks like the raccoon he plays in Guardians of the Galaxy

Raccoon.jpg

and I can’t get the image out of my head. I’m sure he’s great in it. Anyway. Gaga gets the movie and writes some songs and gets an Oscar for one of them. Those are all wonderful and I’m glad she’s got that success.

But during awards season, she was doing these weird, obsequious answers to questions about her success. It’s the “There can be 100 people in the room, and 99 don’t believe in you . . . But I had this one [as she points to Cooper] incredible talent with me” thing she said over and over, to the point where she was mocked about it at the Golden Globes. She took the jab gracefully.

I watched her give the same kind of answer about how she came to this place, and I’m thinking “Wait a minute. YOU are Lady Gaga. You really think 99 people in a room of 100 don’t ‘believe’ in you?

“I’m pretty sure about 80 of the people in a room of 100 would BEG you to be in their movie.

“I bet at least 75 people in the room would give their left arm for a little of your reflected glory.

“You have given hope to people who felt alone and unwanted. You have inspired an entire generation of young people to seek and be who they really are. In being unapologetically bizarre, you give people the courage to embrace and express their own weirdness. You wore a meat dress to an awards show less than 10 years ago.

“YOU ARE AN ICON.

“And yet it was Bradley Cooper who had the courage to believe . . . in YOU?”

I get that there was some performance to these interviews. That the character owes her success in part to his belief in her.

The character.

I am sure she admires Cooper, and by all accounts, he is responsible for all the major bits of the movie; some songwriting, directing, and acting. This was his baby, and he is due some credit. And it appears that his part in the creation of this popular movie is getting forgotten. I could see how a costar might have the urge to move the spotlight his direction. He worked hard, it was a success, and he should get credit for that.

But not for HER.

Her behavior makes my skin crawl, because it smacks of the thing women have done for eons; they make themselves small for other people. I see her trying to close those gorgeous, shimmering wings back up, wrap everything into a ball so it takes up less space just so the focus can be put on Cooper.

Lady, you wore a MEAT DRESS and got away with it. You made THIS VIDEO and became a STAR. You are an enormous, terrifying dragon of purpose and creativity whose words and voice and talent give strength and hope to complete strangers. Why are you making yourself small for someone–ANYONE else?

As much as I’m annoyed by this awards-season performance by Gaga, it has spurred me to action of my own. Merely by coincidence of timing, I came to a crossroads at my workplace. I was confronted with the realization that, in continuing to work in a part-time, entry-level position, in which all hope for advancement was smashed to smithereens at the news of an organizational budgetary crisis and resulting full-time hiring freeze, I was also confining myself to a small work situation when I want much more.

I’ve been asking for more for years, have been trying to do what I’ve done in other jobs–show your ability to do more, to learn jobs outside your narrow duties, to demonstrate your capacity to grow into more responsibility–but management has been singularly unreceptive. For four years.

So I tendered my resignation.

In this respect, I owe Lady Gaga an enormous thank you. I didn’t really see what I was doing until I saw her do it.

I have occasionally been a terrifying dragon of purpose, mostly on behalf of my daughter’s educational needs, so I know what possibilities I contain. And while there’s no meat dress in my future, I believe I can contribute more to a team than what I’m currently allowed to do.

I hope Lady Gaga is happy, whatever form she chooses for herself. I’m grateful for the reminder that I can choose my own direction. I’m grateful for my husband’s emotional and financial support. I’m secure in the knowledge that I’ve worked almost continuously since I was 14, and I’m confident I will find another position.

I just need one that will let me spread my wings.

Golden Dragon.jpg

 

Twenty Years

Twenty years ago yesterday, Tim and I went on a date.

We’d gone on dates before, awkward, blushing dates where holding hands is terrifying and you’re sure all your friends are watching. In high school, we dated for six months, and went beyond those innocent hand-holding dates, but in the beginning, it was Norman Rockwell, varsity jock dates nerdy musician. It ended like many teenage relationships end, with romantic tunnel vision and a broken heart.

But in 1999, Tim drove 350 miles from Chicago to Carbondale to take me on a date. He took a day off of work, put gas in his car, stopped to buy me flowers, introduced himself to my kids, played chess with my son and giggled with my daughter, and the next night, dressed up in a jacket and tie took me on a date.

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These are 2019 flowers. Don’t be fooled.

That night changed our lives permanently, setting events in motion that we spent the better part of two decades handling/managing/overcoming. Two weeks after that date, after my ex-husband staged a terrifying freak out, I left Carbondale for good. At the university, I’d had a good job in my chosen field, I was using my degree, I was supporting myself and my kids, had great benefits, my kids were in the best school in town, and I was slowly building a support network that could take the place of my absent family of origin, but the situation with my ex became untenable.

We haven’t looked back much on that pivotal time, what with the raising and launching of three kids and moving to Oregon. Lots to look at right here in our daily lives. But that moment was a fulcrum, the balance of my past outweighed by the heft of the future. We were launched into the phase of being a blended family almost overnight. Tim proposed (in his way) on February 20 of that year. Three weeks later. We didn’t live together until a couple of years later, but we did everything together; meals and shopping and weekend outings and family gatherings. It was a lot, and it was fast.

Both of our families told us we were making bad decisions. Tim was told he going from the “frying pan into the fire,” (his ex-wife was the frying pan, and I was *much* worse), I had sinister motives ; Tim wasn’t suitable because he wasn’t Catholic, he wasn’t a Christian, he wasn’t, he wasn’t, he wasn’t. We’d never last, we were wrong for each other, it was a bad match.

And then it was 20 years.

Whatever it was that compelled Tim to look for me, send me a letter, start a long-distance conversation with me and then make that effort for a date with a woman he hadn’t seen since high school was powerful stuff. Maybe he knew something in his gut I didn’t know yet. Maybe that’s just the guy he is, a locomotive chugging along to the destination at the end of the tracks.

Very little stops this guy. He’s all planning and purpose, focused on making stability happen.

That forward energy has carried us a long way from that first date. The life I had built over the last nine years was demolished in two weeks, and nothing was ever the same. It was better, fuller, richer, more challenging and, in some ways, more painful. Being woven to another person with whom you navigate a family’s route to adulthood is complex and demanding.

But I have never been alone in that struggle. I’ve always had a partner for the work of growing children into adults, and making a life with contentment.

I wasn’t content in Carbondale. I was succeeding, but I was not content. Destroying that life may have been the only way I would leave that discontent.

Twenty years ago, I went on a date with a man who was all wrong for me.

It was the best date of my life.

 

Tim sent me a mixtape (!) with this song on it when we were pen pals. It’s the first Bruce Cockburn song I ever heard, and I fell madly and permanently in love with it, and with him. It matched precisely my circumstances of that departure.

In front of a newborn moon
Pushing up its glistening dome
I kiss these departing companion
Take the next step alone
I just said goodnight to the closest thing I have to home
Oh, and the night grows sharp and hollow
As a junkie’s craving vein
And I don’t feel your touch, again

To be held in the heart of a friend is to be a king
But, the magic of a lover’s touch is what makes my spirit sing
When you’re caught up in this longing
All the beauties of the Earth don’t mean a thing
Oh, and the night grows clear and empty
As a lake of acid rain
And I don’t feel your touch, again
The last light of day crept away like a drunkard after gin
A hint of chanted prayer now whispers from the fresh night wind
To this shattered heart and soul held together by habit and skin
And this half-gnawed bone of apprehension
Buried in my brain
As I don’t feel your touch, again
                      Don’t Feel Your Touch
Bruce Cockburn

 

 

 

Grit

I just finished watching the second season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, which I enjoyed very much. It’s a pleasing fantasy, entertaining and kicky, a bopping tune with gorgeous sets and costumes in saturated, period-reminiscent colors. It’s fun to imagine my mother in those scenes, a woman of the same age as Midge, not yet married, living in Chicago with her roommate, Bunny, and working at the Chicago Daily News.

Midge’s family is wealthy. Like, wealthy-wealthy. The father is a tenured professor at Columbia University and also works at Bell Labs. Mom doesn’t work, just shops and frets about what the maid will make for dinner. Midge’s husband is the son of a wealthy-ish man who owns a clothing company, and she herself works at a fancy department store, though it’s clear she doesn’t *have* to work. For those of you who haven’t seen the show, the central premise is that, upon discovering that her husband had an affair with his secretary, Midge launches an improbable–but doggedly successful–career in stand-up comedy. Much of the show is funny, but frankly, not much of the stand-up. It’s a vehicle, baby.

In fact, she has two small children she leaves with her parents while she works. There’s no discussion about it, no wringing of hands or arguments, just “leave them with Mom and Dad.” At one point, all of the adults walk out of the apartment in a rush, returning a few minutes later when they realize they left the kids in the apartment alone.

The childcare issue crossed my mind, but it wasn’t until I read a critical review of the show that I realized the thing that bothered me about it: these people have money to do whatever they want to do, whenever they want to do it. The review cited several unrealistic points about which to be skeptical, but the one that struck me the hardest is money. Midge’s mother moves to Paris–and the family doesn’t even notice until she’s been gone two weeks. There was money enough to buy a trip to Paris, for a prolonged stay, for the mother to buy herself food and household supplies and a DOG in Paris,  *and* for the household to continue as normal in her absence, a convenience purchased by employing the maid.

There was no lost income from the mother’s absence, and no one noticed that a primary caregiver had vanished. The maid, sole bearer of the truth of the mother’s absence, carried on with her duties as assigned, which clearly–however tacitly agreed upon–included caring for Midge’s children. And Midge didn’t even notice that her childcare provider was just gone.

This show is a charming petit-four, a perfectly packaged sweet morsel of conversational humor, an opportunity for the sharp-dialogue writers from Gilmore Girls to pull out their best stuff, wisecracks and side-eyes, a modern Groucho Marx without the cigar. That this is a woman trying to break into a male-dominated field is an afterthought, not central to the premise of the show. The show sails along on the pretty, crinoline swirling, charismatic Midge, whose wit and charm get her through every situation she faces, including the one incident of misogyny delivered by three boorish comics who heckle her as she takes the stage at the end of a long night–and KILLS, of course.

But what would this show look like without the wealthy family? Without all the money in the world to do whatever she wanted? Without parents with the leisure and accommodating environment to take the children all day while she works?

Without the hats and shoes and brooches and apartments in Paris?

Yes, much of entertainment is escapism. This is surely an example of a place and time into which it’s easy and delightful to fall half-asleep for a couple of hours, allowing the pointy-shoes and patriarchy to wash over you like Valium. But there’s a nagging thought that pricks at the edge of this fantasy that presents itself as almost-real; while this show is ostensibly about a woman comedian, it’s really about one thing: money. Upper East Side apartments and entire summers in the Catskills for a family of eight and that lonely, romantic apartment in Paris with the furry dachshund and childcare on demand? That only happens with money.

Midge takes risks without a single thought to the consequences for her livelihood and for her children, because she knows there will always be money available to take care of her if she fails.

The only show I’ve seen that focuses on a character who actually takes risks based on what she can afford is Jane the Virgin–and even *that* show features a wealthy boyfriend and a wealthy father, who both throw money at problems that come up in the show. Jane does have to make decisions like faking an address to get her son into a better preschool, managing transportation without a car, and losing money when she can’t work a shift as a waitress. Jane relies on her family in explicit, difficult conversations, and leans on her faith when life gets difficult, even when her rich relatives help out.

Jane the Virgin

Jane the Virgin and her son Mateo. I think they’re actually on a bus here!

I’ve seen a couple of episodes of Speechless, the Minnie Driver show with the first actual, honest-to-God person with a disability, her teenage son who uses a communication device, hence the title “Speechless.” The show seems to accurately portray what it’s like to manage a family who has a member with a disability. Showtime’s “The Chi,” is reportedly a realistic, gritty look at life on the South Side of Chicago. I couldn’t watch after the first episode, when the character I was most drawn to was killed on a street corner. I knew that kind of heartbreak wasn’t sustainable for me.

Abundant money is the grease that makes many plots run without a squeak, but I look at this from a writer’s perspective. What would it look like to see realistic plots, like “my oldest child had to drop out of college because we couldn’t afford to pay for it anymore, and now he’s working as a delivery guy and living at home,” or “We both work full time and can only afford one car, how do we get to work on time and still get the kids ready for school?” or “It’s the Tuesday before payday, so it’s time to roll pennies so we can buy gas”, or “my kids have no school on Monday for Kasmir Pulaski day, but I have to work–who’s going to watch them? And can I afford to pay that person?”

Somehow, those aren’t as entertaining as a well-dressed comedian who wears one of her many hats that match every outfit as she walks smartly down Fifth Avenue on her way to a gig.

And maybe that’s because when you’re trying to figure out how to put actual food on the table (not just trying to figure out what the maid will cook for you), life isn’t that kind of entertaining. There are moments of wry humor–of COURSE there’s a traffic jam on your way to the gas station when you’re running on fumes and you have to put your last two dollars in your tank to make it to work–but maybe that’s too much for people to bear. Maybe too close to home is painful.

But life when you’re poor, while the absence of money creates obstacles wealthy people don’t even know exist, isn’t solely about money. Toughness becomes more important, perseverance, pursuit of knowledge and strategy. These qualities are explored in dramas about rich people, but only to the extent that they expand a character’s power and dominance, not as survival skills.

The ability to navigate the world without the support of a wealthy family is hard-won, something to be proud of, and stories about people who have accomplished goals in those circumstances are far more interesting to me than yet another tale spun from worsted wool private school uniforms and glittering crystal chandeliers.

I’d like to think there’s a middle ground, a place in story for wild flights of fantastical plot lines still anchored in gritty reality. Ugh, how I loathe the word “gritty”, as if poverty is solely made of dirt floors and unwashed counter tops. But the word grit has power; strength, resilience, refusal to quit.

In this day of increased representation, I look forward to more stories–in print and on film–about people getting by with determination and gumption, holding their life together with bailing wire and string. Those are people I know, people whose successes and failures resonate for me.

Maybe sharing stories like these–stories most people I know have lived at one time or another–will help narrow the gap widened in the divisive last few years.

 

 

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.

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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.

Mt. Hood

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.

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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?