Tuesday, October 18, 2016

How to enter

“Imagination is the highest form of research.” 

― Albert Einstein

The problem with high stakes is that they keep me too firmly wedded to the idea of objective truth. They hamper my willingness to take liberties with what is known, to weigh in imagination what is yet unspoken and unseen—it, too, might be true. 

I was the kid who, while in school, always did better on a test if I studied less. Because then I could allow imagination to fill in the gaps in what I knew, and the result was always more inspired that the painstaking regurgitation of conventional wisdom or passively received truth.

As I sit here, trying to find the first good sentence that will help me enter this feels-like-high-stakes project, I need to remember that nothing flows without play. I need to give myself permission to make up the truth, to imagine it anew, even in the face of grim facts, I need to mentally play. 

Monday, October 17, 2016

The Continuity of Hope

Saturday was the annual Farm Festival at the little progressive school that my youngest and her so called lifer-friends attended from age 4 to 14. The festival takes over the entire city block where the school is located, with farm produce stands and children's games and hayrides and a pop-up thrift shop, plus a silent auction.

The annual fundraiser is put on every year by the first grade parents, who solicit all the donations and food, rent the tables and chairs, book the bands and street performers, and set up and break down all the rides and stations. I remember when it was our class's turn to do it, how utterly exhausted we were at the end of the day. I ran the farm produce stand that year, selling five kinds of apples, pumpkins, apple pies, cider and jars of homemade preserves, most of it originating from the school farm upstate. I took such pride in making the stand attractive, and felt a healthy competition to outdo the amount raised in previous years. Every group of first grade parents drinks that Kool Aid—it's why the fundraising aspect works so well. All want to be the class that raised the most, and put on the Farm Festival where the absolute most fun was had.

I remember that day was the first time that for several hours I had not a clue where my 6-year-old girl and 8-year-old boy were. I just trusted they were on the street somewhere with their friends. At the end of the day, we broke down the stalls, restored the school to order, counted the money, located our children and limped home. We locked the front door of our apartment, left the kids to their own devices, and slept for most of the next day. We felt tremendously accomplished, but every part of our bodies ached, which is why I have sympathy every year for the harried parents who are up at bat and running the show.

The kids, of course, always have a great time, which is why young alums, and older ones too, find their way back to Farm Festival every year. It almost has the feel of a pilgrimage. I got there late this year, toward to end of the festivities, when the alumni after party had already begun. This was a landmark year in that it was the first time the Farm Festival was being held at the school's new home, a much larger renovated building on the Upper West Side. Now it is home to the experiment in social, cultural and economic diversity that began in a rather elegant townhouse on the Upper East Side during the 1960s. This year, I arrived to find my daughter and her friends sitting on the stage of the main auditorium, sipping wine, finally old enough to do such a thing in front of their former teachers. I greeted our kids with all the happiness I usually feel when I see their familiarity and comfort together, and then I went off with my friend Leslie to look at the rest of the school, six floors in all, with a central courtyard. The architects of the new space retained the feel of the old one, especially the grand staircase leading from the first floor, and the beautiful wall of lead-glass windows. Our young alums had earlier toured the school on their own, and pronounced it an acceptable successor to their own favored place.

Saturday was also my son's gf's birthday. He and she are both born in early October, and they planned a joint party at a club downtown with their multiple groups of friends. But first there was cake at our house. My son said, "Make a wish first!" right as S got ready to cut the cake. She took this very seriously, pausing, closing her eyes, and then taking a deep breath before continuing. It was a moment. I found myself wishing that her wish comes true, because she seemed to make it with a whole heart. And then they were off to celebrate somewhere out there in the city. My daughter joined them later. Such a good time was had, I heard, that my son's gf and my daughter proposed to one another and pledged to be sisters no matter what. I am surrounded by beautiful young people. With them as the heirs to our world, I'm tempted to believe that the future might not be so dire as the 2016 election season would suggest.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Books and Bliss: Reading to Gary's first graders

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about feeling adrift, as if I had no real purpose. "Come and read a book to my first graders," my friend Gary responded in the comments. "Their lives are not always easy but those kids wear emotions and find their way back to happiness. You have so much to offer and so do they. I think it is a win-win situation." Gary teaches at the American Sign Language and English School in the city, and we met years ago through his wonderful blog, Follow Your Bliss. Gary's been a reader of my blog long enough to know about my natural introvert tendencies, but against everything that was telling me to avoid center stage, I said yes!

Oh, I am so glad I did. Gary had explained that some of his kids were non-hearing and some were the hearing children of deaf parents. Most are bilingual in ASL and English. Because some of the kids are deaf, I'd have an interpreter signing alongside me. We agreed I'd read one of my favorite books ever, Thank You, Mr. Falker, a picture book about an insightful educator who teaches a lonely, isolated student to read. The word dyslexic is never mentioned in the book. I often read the story to my own kids when they were growing up, and I never failed to tear up at the moment when all the words on the page suddenly make sense to the girl and she reads and understands whole sentences for the first time. The girl is Patricia Palacco, the author of the book. Despite once feeling dumb because all the kids teased her about not being able to read, she grew up to be a writer and illustrator of books for children. Mr. Falker changed her life. Gary thought the book would be perfect because it offered an opening for me to talk about loving books and getting your own stories down without stifling them.

When I walked in the kids lively faces immediately put me at ease. There were twenty-one of them, all sitting in a semi circle around me and the interpreter. Their faces were eager, curious, expectant. They each introduced themselves to me by signing their names. First we talked a bit about what it meant to be " a writer," and how writing is really just getting your thoughts out of your head. Then I read the book. The kids were the most generous audience, hanging on every word. The interpreter signed what I was reading "gorgeously," Gary said after. I imagine the story was that much richer, arriving in the children's' imaginations by both sight and sound.

Afterward, the kids asked me questions they'd prepared, and we had a rollicking good exchange. Some moved from siting cross legged to lying on their stomachs, chins in their palms. I loved it. I loved them. They were so open-hearted. One girl observed that the girl in the book had been bullied by the kids who called her dumb. She named it. Then she shared that she had been bullied at her previous school, which is why her mother moved her to this one. I wanted to hug that little girl. I was glad that she was now in a place where she felt safe enough and embraced enough to share so freely. I always knew my friend Gary was a special kind of teacher, but being with his first graders, I realized just how gifted and committed he is. That's Gary in the black-and-white plaid shirt below. His first graders are lucky to have their own Mr. Falker.

In the photo, I adore how one girl's hand reaches around her classmate to rest on my shoulder. After the group pictures, the kids crowded around. One said, "I want to hug you," and she did. The rest followed her lead and soon I was the beaming guest at the center of a first grader hug fest. Gary texted me later that the kids had made me thank you cards, and he wanted to send them to me. He snapped photos of some of the cards.

"One of the kids wrote, Books are great. I like books too," Gary messaged me. "Our work here is done." Thank you, Gary Wellbrock, for making this wonderful experience available to me. You're right. Your kids can lead any soul right back to joy.

(Note: The students' parents granted permission to post their kids' pictures.)

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Regulation blues

Things are swirling so fast I can't process it all. By the time I sit down here to write, events have moved several stages beyond. And the presidential race, with the deplorable Donald Trump bragging about committing sexual assault, is just the most surreal part of that. On a much brighter note, I should report that last Friday my son passed his clinical scenarios with flying colors, and will graduate from the FDNY EMT Academy at the end of the month. I'm so proud of him, my heart is so full. I bought him a silver medallion with the likeness of St. Michael, the patron saint of firefighters and people in uniform, and their protector. I gave it to him when he came home and told me he'd passed. I knew he would. Official pictures will be taken at the graduation ceremony. In the meantime, I snapped this unofficial one of our son warming up leftovers last night because he just looks so cool in his regulation blues.

Friday, October 7, 2016

When I was a bohemian

My two are beginning to talk about moving into their own places come the new year. My daughter is salivating at the thought of making her space exactly as she wants it. She has Pinterest boards full of design ideas and color schemes. All of this makes me remember my own first apartment in New York City, a railroad flat on 120th Street with great light, and an endless hallway and two tiny rooms stacked one on top of the other. I moved in there the week before starting my first job as a reporter for a magazine. It was my first time living alone. The refrigerator was in the living room. The kitchen sink and stove were tucked into a dip in one wall. I put shelves above them to store my few mismatched plates and glasses, and the crystal lemonade pitcher my mother had given me. My cutlery lived in painted cup. Somehow, I made the place bohemian adorable.

I obsess so much about my children's safety, yet I hardly worried about my own when I was their age. The building had long corridors with alcoves in which two doors were tucked at right angles, leading to two small apartments that had previously been one spacious one. I always thought those alcoves offered perfect cover for a person with nefarious intent. But there were no such incidents. The basement laundry room was down a long narrow cobwebby hallway with dusty low hanging water and heating pipes. I only went down there when I had to, sure the place was haunted or else I'd meet some intruder and no one would ever find me. And right next door to me, so close that our front doors almost touched, lived a drug dealer. We said hello cordially as we came and went, and I pretended not to notice his clientele banging on his door at all hours of the day and night. I never told my mother.

That apartment was where my husband and I lived when we were first married, until we moved to a larger place. If the walls of that little railroad flat could talk, I'd ask them to be quiet and keep my secrets. So much happened in those rooms. There were years I was so lonely and desperate there, and yet here I am, still standing. And this is what I want to tell my children: Gather all of life in your arms, cherish the joys and don't be afraid of the hard passages, because you will come out the other side. That's what we do. We survive.

That's me with a dear friend in my first apartment. We were footloose reporters in our twenties, traveling for weeks at a time. And when we were in town, we worked till all hours and then stayed up even later in each other's homes. Oh, the stories we could tell.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

My firstborn is 25 today


Happy birthday my darling boy. I'm so proud and happy to be your mom. I wish you the world, always. I love you so.

Photos by Ozier M.

Friday, September 30, 2016


They gave my son a bullet proof vest with his name embroidered on it today. Also winter outerwear, again with his name embroidered over the heart, and FDNY EMT in huge letters on the back. He won't let me take a picture of him in any of the gear, because his clinical scenarios are next week, and that's the last hurdle. Then, he says, I can take all the pictures I want.

Tomorrow, he and all the probies are attending the funeral of the firefighter who died earlier this week when flying debris from a gas explosion in the Bronx hit him in the head. It was the saddest thing; a husband and father of three who won't be coming home. Naturally, this feels more personal to me now than it ever has. It also sent me down the rabbit hole, researching how many firefighters have died in the line of duty since 2000. Apart from that horrific year, 2001, the numbers are one or two or none a year, and most often not from fires, but from freak accidents like the one this week, or else from heart attacks on the job, usually in older veterans, the ones in their fifties who might not be in such great shape anymore. It's a tough, physical job. But even one loss feels like too many.

At the other end of the spectrum, my husband and I saw a bunch of firefighters in the supermarket today, picking up groceries for their fire house, and my heart swelled with giddy pride when I thought that my boy was now one of their tribe. Same big, steel toed boots. Same swagger. Same dream.

My girl meanwhile had an insanely busy week, as one of the big annual fundraisers for the nonprofit she works for is being held next week. It's a fancy affair, the cheapest tickets are $750, and top chefs and dignitaries from all over will be sponsoring and hosting. She was practically hyperventilating when she got home tonight: Some of her friends wanted her to come out with them, and she just wanted to curl up on the couch with a blanket. "I had such a long hard week," she wailed, because you can get sympathy for such declarations from mothers. "Poor baby," I played along. "How did you do?" "I did well," she said readily. "My boss was really happy. But," she began wailing again, dramatically raising a hand to her brow, "it was at such great personal expense." I went to hug her, and we burst out laughing.

As for me, I closed the deal on a new project this week, and will be meeting with the subject next week to begin interviewing. As always, I don't know how I will do this, I am completely at a loss, but I keep reminding myself that I always feel this way in the beginning. One foot in front of the other. One breath, one thought, one idea at a time. I have work, y'all. This brings its own kind of stress, but I vastly prefer it to the alternative.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Noisy brain syndrome, part whatever

I'm feeling unsettled because I asked someone I love to do something, a small thing, and to be honest I was a little irritated that I had to ask this thing that should have already been done, but now that person is probably feeling irritated with me (I don't even know this for sure), and that unsettles me, because I have no tolerance for people I love being annoyed with me. I turn it into a huge thing in my mind, and I can think of nothing else, and I want to pour oil on ruffled water, even when I know I wasn't being unreasonable. This probably makes no sense at all. I'm just trying to set it down here so I don't keep worrying the situation.

Last Saturday night, when my daughter was out with friends in the city in the wee hours after midnight, I was texting her obsessively because she wasn't responding, and I knew she would at some point be traveling home alone, and my imagination was going haywire because why hadn't she respond to a single one of my texts? She told me the next day, "Mom, I'm not stupid. I can take care of myself and assess my surroundings. And I had texted you just an hour before. There was no reason to think anything was wrong. So the next time you're in a panic about my safety for no good reason, I really need you to manage your anxieties and not make me responsible for them. Because I'm managing enough anxiety of my own."

Well, okay then, I thought. But I got what she was saying and rather admired her forthright clarity in expressing herself. I hate that I gave her a brain that is as noisy as mine, though. It's hard for a noisy brain to handle randomized fear decorously. I am glad sometimes (only sometimes) that when things get complicated my husband seems able to shut down his thoughts and not pick at an uncontrollable, unresolvable, and sometimes very minor thing until it becomes all consuming and heart stopping.

My loved one just texted me and isn't irritated at all: "lolol," she said, "love you."

Here's a photo circa 1997 that gentles me right down.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

In the wind

I hesitate to write here. How many days in a row is it okay to say I'm struggling? My mind is a lonely maze and I can't find my way out.

Yes, I miss my mother. I am dealing with the continuing absurdity of documents requested by the New York City courts in order to probate her will. It all just keeps reminding me that she's not here. But I don't miss just her. I miss my aunts who are also gone, I miss the way everything used to be when any of those six sisters got together, I miss being with them as they laughed and fussed and loved, I miss the way they smelled, the softness of them as I rested against them. I miss me with them. I miss me.

Here's something from Story People. It's good advice.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

The why

Woke up cranky. My husband, bless him, refused to get sucked in. But why am I feeling like this? I don't have good enough reasons, not even chemistry, so what is it? Last night, at dinner with two dear women friends, I thought I'd figured it out: I feel rudderless. Purposeless. My children are doing well, they're launched, as they say, and I'm happy for that, but the great and beloved work of the past two and a half decades of my life—raising them—is largely complete, and what do I do now? My next book project is taking a while to come on line, and I am at such a loose end. The project still looks promising, and the subject matter is important, so fingers crossed that it actually happens, but in the meantime, I don't know what to do with myself. I suppose I should volunteer somewhere, make myself useful, but where? Doing what? Definitely I should attend to my health, which means a round of doctors appointments, and I'm doing that finally. But what will my next great purpose be? Sure, I can get busy with work and distract myself for a while, but then the lull comes, and I find myself asking: Why am I here?

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